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Archive for October 25th, 2018

Here’s what Trump should worry about

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Jenniifer Rubin is on a roll:

President Trump surely is agitated about the prospect of a Democratic majority in at least one house of Congress. Even a partial list of possible subjects for investigation — in addition to the Russia probe itself — should unnerve him and his lawyers:

  • Mishandling of national security secrets and security clearances
  • Emoluments and conflicts of interest (including the release of his tax returns)
  • Misrepresentation and mishandling of the family separation policy
  • Corruption and misuse of taxpayer money by various Cabinet-level officials
  • Partisan interference with the Justice Department
  • Hush money to former Trump paramours such as Stormy Daniels
  • Jared Kushner’s financial conflicts and amended security clearance application
  • Response to Hurricane Maria
  • Misuse of power to violate Americans’ First Amendment rights
  • Voter suppression efforts
  • Trump’s mental state and temperament
  • The translator’s notes from Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that investigations are Trump’s worst problems. Trump will need to grapple with failure to deliver on promises to his base — e.g. no wall, no super-duper replacement for Obamacare, no improved trade deals (NAFTA 2.0 isn’t one, according to conservative economists). Moreover, he is now facing the consequences of his own policy choices.

For starters, Trump’s Middle East policy is chaotic, to put it mildly. While he tries to provide cover to his Saudi friends, events are outpacing and revealing his duplicity. The Saudi story has gone from “left the consulate” to “fistfight” to “premeditated murder.” (“Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in a planned operation,” reports The Post.) Given that CIA director Gina Haspel reportedly has listened to the audio recording of Khashoggi’s horrific murder, Trump’s suspension of disbelief increasingly looks daft. Is he really that gullible — or something worse? Congress surely will move forward with severe sanctions, perhaps cutting off support for the Saudis’ Yemen war, leaving Trump scrambling to repair a relationship that he excessively relied upon. Meanwhile, having taken the United States out of the Iran deal, it’s not clear how — if at all — he is going to repair the breach with our European allies, who are busy devising a workaround to avoid new U.S. sanctions. Judging from Trump’s handling of the Khashoggi murder, we have little to no confidence he could manage an even bigger Middle East crisis.

Then there’s the potential disaster for Trump and the GOP of an economic downturn. He inherited a growing economy, rising stock market, groundwork for new trade deals (e.g. the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and solid corporate profits. While there is no immediate cause for alarm, there are a number of warning signs Trump tries to ignore.

Trump tries to deny that he has put in place tariffs, but those tariffs, essentially a tax on consumers, are already taking a toll on agriculture and some manufacturers, which pass on higher prices to business and individual customers. And there is no relief in sight. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The U.S. is refusing to resume trade negotiations with China until Beijing comes up with a concrete proposal to address Washington’s complaints about forced technology transfers and other economic issues, said officials on both sides of the Pacific.

The impasse threatens to undermine a meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping scheduled for the end of November at the Group of 20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires. Both sides had hoped the gathering would ease the trade tensions. U.S. businesses have been counting on sufficient progress at the meeting for the Trump administration to suspend its plan to increase tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports to 25% on Jan. 1, from the current 10%. Such a move would be a blow to U.S. importers and consumers.

Fear that the trade war with China will aggravate China’s problem of declining growth has already spooked some investors and experts.

And there’s a bigger worry than China. Trump is squawking about interest rates for a reason: As the Fed begins to raise rates and the housing marketsoftens, the recovery is endangered. He’s wrong to blame the Fed, though, which is doing its job to return to semi-normal interest rates and keep inflation at bay. The fault lies elsewhere. Inflationary trade policies and an unnecessary, massive tax cut have backfired. Right now the housing market looks rocky. “New home sales plunged in September, falling 5.5 percent to an almost two-year low amid pressures from rising interest rates that have hammered the real estate market,” CNBC reports. “The Commerce Department reported that sales for the month came in at 553,000 on seasonally adjusted basis. That’s 5.5 percent below the downward revised August rate of 585,000 and a 13.2 percent tumble from the 637,000 reported for the same period a year ago. September represented the worst month since December 2016. The number also was well below the estimate from economists polled by Reuters who were looking for a 1.4 percent drop to 625,000.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 4:14 pm

The midterms are already hacked. You just don’t know it yet.

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Benjamin Wofford reports in Vox:

One evening last May in Knoxville, Tennessee, during the night of the local primary election, Dave Ball, the assistant IT director for Knox County, settled into the Naugahyde chair of his dusty home office and punched away at his desktop computer. Ball’s IT staff had finished a 14-hour day, running dress rehearsals to prepare for the ritual chaos of election night.

In a few minutes, at exactly 8 pm, the county’s incoming precinct results would become visible to the public online. Curious, Ball typed in the address for the Knox County election website.

At 7:53, the website abruptly crashed. Staring back at Ball was a proxy error notice, a gray message plastered against a screen of purgatorial white. It read simply, “Service Unavailable.” Across East Tennessee, thousands of Knox County residents who eagerly awaited the results saw the same error message — including at the late-night election parties for various county candidates, where supporters gathered around computers at Knoxville’s Crowne Plaza Hotel and the nearby Clarion Inn and Suites.

Ball was scowling at the screen when the phone on his table buzzed. It was a message from a staffer, still on duty at the IT department: “We’ve got a problem here,” it read. “Looks like a DDOS.” Ball still remembers his next, involuntary exclamation: “Oh, shit.”

Technicians recognized the attack: a distributed denial of service, or DDOS, in which a server is overwhelmed by a crushing wave of requests, slowing it to a halt. Over at the county’s IT center, “the error logs were coming so fast that you couldn’t even see what anything said,” recalled Ball.

One county technician, dumbfounded by the whoosh of code rocketing across the screen, somberly took out his phone and began to film it. The assault was being launched from 65 countries, a legion of zombie computers pressed into service by the attack’s architects. Finally, the barrage intensified so much that after 15 minutes, the server succumbed and crashed.

Ball was now besieged by callers — local politicos, voters, county staff. One of them was Cliff Rodgers, the Knox County administrator of elections, who was deliberating what he should tell the local media. “I’ve got three TV crews filming me. I’ve never had three TV crews at one time,” Rodgers said, recounting how the chaos unspooled.

Rodgers would later explain to the media that the online precinct tally is unofficial: Attacking it can’t change the vote count, any more than hacking basketball scores on can change the actual winner of the NBA finals. But it was natural for voters to wonder if the integrity of the vote itself had come under threat: “It’s the first question they asked me,” Rodgers said.

After an hour, Ball’s team managed to bring the server back to life; finally, the results became visible. But then the attack came roaring back; throughout the night, Ball’s team would battle it to the hilt. It wasn’t until next morning, as IT staff began combing through server logs, that they discovered the true purpose of the attack: The DDOS, and the all-hands effort required to fight it, had been a diversion.

Long before election night, attackers had uncovered a vulnerability in Knox’s website — “loosely written code,” Ball called it — and they timed the onslaught perfectly so they could exploit it during the scramble.

Like burglars who pull the fire alarm and, in the ensuing chaos, ransack the cash register, the hackers entered through a hole of their own creation, and briefly probed the county’s internal database.

Within days, Knox hired a third-party security consultant, called Sword and Shield, to conduct a forensic analysis. Their report, which was shared with Vox and reviewed by cybersecurity experts, confirmed that no data was stolen during the attack. But among the various data sets on offer that night, one had controlled the website that ran the precinct tally. That software presented the attackers, whoever they were, with a chance to meddle with the preliminary results or, worse, to announce a false winner, at least temporarily.

Such a tactic has been attempted at least once before, by a Kremlin-affiliated hacking group in 2014. Sword and Shield’s report found that the DDOS attacks came from 65 countries. But it traced the malicious probe to just two: the United Kingdom and Ukraine. The latter has been a redoubt of Russian-affiliated hackers-for-hire, what the New York Times’s David Sanger has called “Putin’s petri dish and Radio Free Europe calls “ground zero on the front lines of the global cyberwar.”

A staffer confirmed to Vox that the episode is currently under investigation by the FBI. “It’s no longer theoretical,” Rodgers said. “And if they can do this in little old Knox County, they can do it anywhere.”

“It’s every county versus the FSB”

What happened in Knox County last spring provided apparent confirmation of what leaders in the intelligence community have warned for months: that the successful interference campaign in the 2016 elections — an event that the Senate Intelligence Committee this year called “an unprecedented, coordinated cyber campaign against state election infrastructure” — is being reprised in the 2018 midterms, and will continue for the foreseeable future.

“2016 certainly could have been a lot worse,” warns former CIA Director John Brennan, who played a leading role in identifying and thwarting Russian meddling efforts in the last presidential election. “It should be seen as a wake-up call,” he went on. “We are really flirting with disaster if we don’t come to terms with this.”

With the midterms two weeks away, news of electoral cyberattacks has begun to appear with growing frequency. In 2018, at least a dozen races for the House and Senate, mostly Democrats, have been the public targets of malicious cyber campaigns, in a variety of attacks that suggests the breadth of the threat: Campaigns have been besieged by network penetration attempts, spearphishing campaigns, dummy websites, email hacking, and at least one near-miss attempt to rob a Senate campaign of untold thousands of dollars.

“The Russians will attempt, with cyberattacks and with information operations, to go after us again,” said Eric Rosenbach, the former Pentagon chief of staff and so-called cyber czar, now at the Harvard Belfer Center, when I talked to him this summer. In fact, he added, “They’re doing it right now.”

Last week, the Department of Justice unsealed a criminal charge against a Russian national in St. Petersburg for interfering in the 2018 midterms. The charges detail an ongoing Russian-backed information operations campaign, called Project Lakhta, with a budget of around $12 million in 2017 and, this year, around $10 million from January through June alone. Lakhta was detailed in an earlier indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for its activity in 2016. “This case serves as a stark reminder to all Americans: Our foreign adversaries continue their efforts to interfere in our democracy,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray as he announced the charges.

Intelligence officials, cyber experts, and political campaigns have long been bracing for the possibility that these attacks could escalate through November 6. Election offices and campaigns are far from the only targets: On social media, the country’s largest tech titans have beaten back disinformation efforts. This includes Twitter — which this summer quietly began to delete millions of bot accounts — and Facebook, which this year has deactivatedmore than 650 accounts related to disinformation efforts backed by Russia and Iran (and recently announced news of a major data breach affecting 50 million users).

In August, Microsoft announced that it had detected sophisticated spearphishing campaigns orchestrated against two conservative American think tanks critical of the Kremlin and, later, against three congressional candidates that included at least one US senator. In late September, Google informed an unknown number of senators and Senate staff that their personal email accounts had been targeted by foreign hackers.

Even the more banal rituals of US politics have come into the crosshairs. In May, a live debate in a California House primary race ended in embarrassment when unidentified hackers brought down the live stream and began to air video porn.

Are we better prepared now than in 2016?

With the midterm election weeks away, the central question is how much better-prepared the country’s election infrastructure is to repel these attacks than it was in 2016. Vox spent six months speaking with more than 100 people in the world of elections — officials in the federal government, the intelligence community, election advocacy, state and local election offices, private vendors, academic researchers, and campaigns. Their verdict is sobering: Since 2016, the country’s election infrastructure has improved, but not by much, and things are going to get worse before they get better.

More importantly, the people who safeguard our elections want Americans to reconcile with a harder truth: The way we experience electoral politics is undergoing a sea change, from the ballots we cast to the outcomes we read about to the way we process our most personal decisions.

From now on, these officials say, each aspect of elections is a national security target — and they will be for the next few decades, so we’d better get used to it now. “This is the challenge for the 21st century,” said Brennan. “And how we’re going to deal with it is going to make the difference between some smooth sailing or some very, very stormy seas.”

The country’s election vulnerability falls into three broad camps: 1) the targeting of individual campaigns, which are susceptible to email theft and other meddling; 2) the hacking of our national discourse, or “information operations,” which are the propaganda efforts designed to sow discord; and perhaps most dangerously, 3) the technology itself that underlies the country’s election infrastructure.

In the past two years, federal and state officials have scrambled to harden a system that is almost perfectly vulnerable to the kinds of meddling and mischief on offer from Russian (or other) adversaries. One reason for this vulnerability: The basic configuration of American elections dates to 1890 — a chaotic ritual designed, literally, for another century. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 11:57 am

How Google Protected Andy Rubin, the ‘Father of Android’

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Whatever happened to “Don’t be evil”? .. Oh, yeah: they dropped that.

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Katie Benner report in the NY Times:

Google gave Andy Rubin, the creator of Android mobile software, a hero’s farewell when he left the company in October 2014.

“I want to wish Andy all the best with what’s next,” Larry Page, Google’s chief executive then, said in a public statement. “With Android he created something truly remarkable — with a billion-plus happy users.”

What Google did not make public was that an employee had accused Mr. Rubin of sexual misconduct. The woman, with whom Mr. Rubin had been having an extramarital relationship, said he coerced her into performing oral sex in a hotel room in 2013, according to two company executives with knowledge of the episode. Google investigated and concluded her claim was credible, said the people, who spoke on the condition that they not be named, citing confidentiality agreements. Mr. Rubin was notified, they said, and Mr. Page asked for his resignation.

Google could have fired Mr. Rubin and paid him little to nothing on the way out. Instead, the company handed him a $90 million exit package, paid in installments of about $2 million a month for four years, said two people with knowledge of the terms. The last payment is scheduled for next month.

Mr. Rubin was one of three executives that Google protected over the past decade after they were accused of sexual misconduct. In two instances, it ousted senior executives, but softened the blow by paying them millions of dollars as they departed, even though it had no legal obligation to do so. In a third, the executive remained in a highly compensated post at the company. Each time Google stayed silent about the accusations against the men.

The New York Times obtained corporate and court documents and spoke to more than three dozen current and former Google executives and employees about the episodes, including some people directly involved in handling them. Most asked to remain anonymous because they were bound by confidentiality agreements or feared retribution for speaking out.

The transgressions varied in severity. Mr. Rubin’s case stood out for how much Google paid him and its silence on the circumstances of his departure. After Mr. Rubin left, the company invested millions of dollars in his next venture.

Sam Singer, a spokesman for Mr. Rubin, disputed that the technologist had been told of any misconduct at Google and said he left the company of his own accord. Mr. Singer said that Mr. Rubin did not engage in misconduct and that “any relationship that Mr. Rubin had while at Google was consensual and did not involve any person who reported directly to him.”

While Mr. Rubin’s exit from Google after an inappropriate relationship was previously reported, the nature of the accusation and the financial terms have not been disclosed.

In settling on terms favorable to two of the men, Google protected its own interests. The company avoided messy and costly legal fights, and kept them from working for rivals as part of the separation agreements.

When asked about Mr. Rubin and the other cases, Eileen Naughton, Google’s vice president for people operations, said in a statement that the company takes harassment seriously and reviews every complaint.

“We investigate and take action, including termination,” she said. “In recent years, we’ve taken a particularly hard line on inappropriate conduct by people in positions of authority. We’re working hard to keep improving how we handle this type of behavior.”

Some within Google said that was not enough.

“When Google covers up harassment and passes the trash, it contributes to an environment where people don’t feel safe reporting misconduct,” said Liz Fong-Jones, a Google engineer for more than a decade and an activist on workplace issues. “They suspect that nothing will happen or, worse, that the men will be paid and the women will be pushed aside.”

Google, founded in 1998 by Mr. Page and Sergey Brin when they were Stanford University graduate students, fostered a permissive workplace culture from the start.

In Silicon Valley, it is widely known that Mr. Page had dated Marissa Mayer, one of the company’s first engineers who later became chief executive of Yahoo. (Both were single.) Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive, once retained a mistress to work as a company consultant, according to four people with knowledge of the relationship. And Mr. Brin, who along with Mr. Page owns the majority of voting shares in Google’s parent, Alphabet, had a consensual extramarital affair with an employee in 2014, said three employees with knowledge of the relationship.

David C. Drummond, who joined as general counsel in 2002, had an extramarital relationship with Jennifer Blakely, a senior contract manager in the legal department who reported to one of his deputies, she and other Google employees said. They began dating in 2004, discussed having children and had a son in 2007, after which Mr. Drummond disclosed their relationship to the company, she said.

Google then took action. Ms. Blakely said Stacy Sullivan, then the head of human resources and now chief culture officer, told her that Google discouraged managers from having relationships with subordinates.

“One of us would have to leave the legal department,” Ms. Blakely said. “It was clear it would not be David.”

Since the affair, Mr. Drummond’s career has flourished. He is now Alphabet’s chief legal officer and chairman of CapitalG, Google’s venture capital fund. He has reaped about $190 million from stock options and awards since 2011 and could make more than $200 million on other options and equity awards, according to company filings.

Ms. Blakely was transferred to sales in 2007 and left Google a year later. The company asked her to sign paperwork saying she had departed voluntarily. She said she “signed waivers, releases and whatever else they wanted.”

In late 2008, she said, Mr. Drummond left her. They later fought a custody battle for their son, she said, which she won.

How Mr. Drummond was treated “amplifies the message that for a select few, there are no consequences,” said Ms. Blakely, 54. “Google felt like I was the liability.”

Google’s sexual harassment policy states that violators may be terminated — but it was flexible in how it enforced the rules.

In 2013, Richard DeVaul, a director at Google X, the company’s research and development arm, interviewed Star Simpson, a hardware engineer. During the job interview, she said he told her that he and his wife were “polyamorous,” a word often used to describe an open marriage. She said he invited her to Burning Man, an annual festival in the Nevada desert, the following week.

Ms. Simpson went with her mother and said she thought it was an opportunity to talk to Mr. DeVaul about the job. She said she brought conservative clothes suitable for a professional meeting.

At Mr. DeVaul’s encampment, Ms. Simpson said, he asked her to remove her shirt and offered a back rub. She said she refused. When he insisted, she said she relented to a neck rub.

“I didn’t have enough spine or backbone to shut that down as a 24-year-old,” said Ms. Simpson, now 30.

A few weeks later, Google told her she did not get the job, without explaining why. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 10:30 am

Drop in adult flu vaccinations may be a factor in last season’s record-breaking deaths, illnesses

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Lena Sun reports in the Washington Post:

Fewer than 4 out of 10 adults in the United States got flu shots last winter, the lowest rate in seven seasons and one likely reason why the 2017-2018 season was the deadliest in decades.

Reports released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide new details outlining the severity of the past flu season during which more people were killed than any seasonal influenza since the 1970s.

Flu vaccination is the main way to prevent sickness and death caused by flu. But last season, vaccination coverage among adults was 37.1 percent, a decrease of 6.2 percentage points from the previous season. That’s the lowest rate for adults 18 and older since 2010-2011.

“That’s huge. It’s a striking inflection down from the previous year,” said William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases expert at Vanderbilt University and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Data released Thursday also provide a comprehensive picture of the impact of last season’s deadly respiratory virus. Some data about deaths and hospitalizations were released last month, but new details show the scope of last season’s harshness. The CDC estimates that:

  • 49 million people were sickened by flu, roughly the combined population of Texas and Florida.
  • 960,000 people were hospitalized, more than the total number of staffed hospital beds in the United States.
  • 79,000 people died, the average number of people who attend the Superbowl. The previous high for a regular flu season, based on analyses dating back more than three decades, was 56,000 deaths.

Last winter’s flu season was so devastating for several reasons. It was dominated by an especially fierce virus strain. Seasons where H3N2 is dominant typically result in the most complications, especially for the very young and the old, experts say. Vaccines are also less effective against H3N2. The virus changes rapidly, requiring more updates to the seasonal vaccine, and making it that much harder for the body’s immune system to generate a good response.

The drop in vaccine coverage could also have contributed to last season’s severity, said Alicia Fry, chief of epidemiology and prevention in CDC’s influenza division. Flu vaccine, while far from perfect, reduces illness and serious complications, such as hospitalizations and admission to intensive-care units. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 10:20 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical

Trump’s grossly negligent approach to national security

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Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post:

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” That was the conclusion that then-FBI director James B. Comey reached regarding Clinton’s home email server. Her conduct fell short of a criminal violation, according to Comey, but the FBI’s report soon became fodder for President Trump and his supporters. Their saner argument was that her demonstrated lack of care with the nation’s secrets disqualified her from office. The less sane version posited that she should be “locked up,” apparently without trial and without any finding that she committed a crime.

Fast forward to Wednesday. The New York Times reported:

When President Trump calls old friends on one of his iPhones to gossip, gripe or solicit their latest take on how he is doing, American intelligence reports indicate that Chinese spies are often listening — and putting to use invaluable insights into how to best work the president and affect administration policy, current and former American officials said.

Mr. Trump’s aides have repeatedly warned him that his cellphone calls are not secure, and they have told him that Russian spies are routinely eavesdropping on the calls, as well. But aides say the voluble president, who has been pressured into using his secure White House landline more often these days, has still refused to give up his iPhones. White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them.

Several aspects of this deserve emphasis.

First, unlike with the Clinton situation, we know the Chinese and Russian are hacking in — and using the information against the United States. Trump’s refusal to stop constitutes willful neglect of his duties as commander in chief.

Second, we have no idea what he’s sharing with friends, and we shouldn’t rely on his utter lack of interest (!) in classified briefings to reassure us that no harm is being done.

Third, Trump doesn’t have to be revealing secret sources of information to be putting national security at risk. Matters as mundane as the president’s location or his travel plans are classified. There is a universe of information that could harm the United States if obtained by our enemies. (“China is seeking to use what it is learning from the calls — how Mr. Trump thinks, what arguments tend to sway him and to whom he is inclined to listen — to keep a trade war with the United States from escalating further. In what amounts to a marriage of lobbying and espionage, the Chinese have pieced together a list of the people with whom Mr. Trump regularly speaks in hopes of using them to influence the president, the officials said.”)

Former Navy intelligence official Malcolm Nance tells me that Trump’s “exposure on a personal, unauthorized non-secure communications device” is a “worse national security breach by far” than anything alleged against Clinton. Trump’s phone not only can transmit his location, Nance says, but also “classified information he may discuss.” “Revealing his true temper or mindset at any given time” is the kind of intelligence collection worth its “weight in gold.” Trump’s non-secure calls also give our enemies access to critical sources of espionage. “Trump’s communications with advisers, friends, family or even any mistresses can reveal embarrassing information that could lead to blackmail,” Nance stresses. “Most importantly the actual location of Donald Trump physically is in itself a closely held secret except for public events. … His devil-may-care attitude essentially puts a locator beacon on the president. So any secret meetings or private liaisons he wishes to hide are there for any foreign intelligence agency to see and exploit.”

Fourth, the story is noteworthy because aides are so frustrated that they feel compelled to go to the media. (“The officials said they were doing so not to undermine Mr. Trump, but out of frustration with what they considered the president’s casual approach to electronic security,” the Times reported.) Trump’s stubborn refusal to accept pleadings of responsible advisers should dispel the notion that aides (like the anonymous author of the New York Times op-ed) are successfully protecting the country from Trump. They’d do far more good for the country if they quit and testified publicly as to the ongoing threat to national security posed by Trump.

This would not be the only time Trump jeopardized national security. Recall that in the Oval Office he disclosed to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador highly classified information obtained from Israel. As Lawfare blog’s Ben Wittes remarked at the time: “The central governance issue is that American intelligence professionals put their lives on the line every day to protect information, to protect intelligence relationships with foreign services. And those foreign services give us information on the clear understanding that it will not be disclosed beyond the parameters of their permission.” He added that “when the president blithely gives away such information to a hostile foreign power — apparently without realizing he was doing it — the consequences of that to the intelligence collection apparatus of the United States are swift.”

In addition, in pushing the false narrative that a spy had been planted on his campaign, Trump and his cohorts in the House outed a confidential source. Trump’s willingness to see a source outed and to order (thankfully reversed) release of an array of classified information concerning the Russia probe (over the objections of the intelligence community), along with his sanctioning of a misleading cut-and-paste memo from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) revealing information in a warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, all demonstrate egregious lapses in judgment and a complete inability to fulfill the awesome responsibilities of his office.

Once more, we are confronted with the ugly reality that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 9:42 am

Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science

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Interesting article that clarified for me the nature of the social constructionist view of reality. If I understand it correctly, a social constructionist would agree in the abstract statement that there is an objective physical reality and science works to discover what it is, but the social construction of theories and their acceptance evolves in the context of human culture, at one remove from physical reality, and thus the socially accepted “facts” may or may not correspond to physical reality (which is why good science is important). Ava Kofman reports in the NY Times Magazine:

In the summer of 1996, during an international anthropology conference in southeastern Brazil, Bruno Latour, France’s most famous and misunderstood philosopher, was approached by an anxious-looking developmental psychologist. The psychologist had a delicate question, and for this reason he requested that Latour meet him in a secluded spot — beside a lake at the Swiss-style resort where they were staying. Removing from his pocket a piece of paper on which he’d scribbled some notes, the psychologist hesitated before asking, “Do you believe in reality?”

For a moment, Latour thought he was being set up for a joke. His early work, it was true, had done more than that of any other living thinker to unsettle the traditional understanding of how we acquire knowledge of what’s real. It had long been taken for granted, for example, that scientific facts and entities, like cells and quarks and prions, existed “out there” in the world before they were discovered by scientists. Latour turned this notion on its head. In a series of controversial books in the 1970s and 1980s, he argued that scientific facts should instead be seen as a product of scientific inquiry. Facts, Latour said, were “networked”; they stood or fell not on the strength of their inherent veracity but on the strength of the institutions and practices that produced them and made them intelligible. If this network broke down, the facts would go with them.

Still, Latour had never seen himself as doing anything so radical, or absurd, as calling into question the existence of reality. As a founder of the new academic discipline of science and technology studies, or S.T.S., Latour regarded himself and his colleagues as allies of science. Of course he believed in reality, he told the psychologist, convinced that the conversation was in jest. From the look of relief on the man’s face, however, Latour realized that the question had been posed in earnest. “I had to switch interpretations fast enough to comprehend both the monster he was seeing me as,” he later wrote of the encounter, “and his touching openness of mind in daring to address such a monster privately. It must have taken courage for him to meet with one of these creatures that threatened, in his view, the whole establishment of science.”

Latour’s interlocutor was not the only person who felt that the establishment of science was under attack. The mid-1990s were the years of the so-called science wars, a series of heated public debates between “realists,” who held that facts were objective and free-standing, and “social constructionists,” like Latour, who believed that such facts were created by scientific research. To hint at any of the contention and compromise that went on behind the scenes, the realists feared, would give succor to the enemies of progress: creationists, anti‐vaxxers, flat‐earthers and cranks of all stripes. If scientific knowledge was socially produced — and thus partial, fallible, contingent — how could that not weaken its claims on reality? At the height of the conflict, the physicist Alan Sokal, who was under the impression that Latour and his S.T.S. colleagues thought that “the laws of physics are mere social conventions,” invited them to jump out the window of his 21st-floor apartment.

At the time, the science wars struck most people outside the academy, if they noticed them at all, as an overheated scholastic squabble. Lately, however, these debates have begun to look more like a prelude to the post-truth era in which society as a whole is presently condemned to live. The past decade has seen a precipitous rise not just in anti-scientific thinking — last year, only 37 percent of conservative Republicans believed in the occurrence of global warning, down from 50 percent in 2008 — but in all manner of reactionary obscurantism, from online conspiracy theories to the much-discussed death of expertise. The election of Donald Trump, a president who invents the facts to suit his mood and goes after the credibility of anyone who contradicts him, would seem to represent the culmination of this epistemic rot. “Do you believe in reality?” is now the question that half of America wants to ask the president and his legion of supporters.

“I think we were so happy to develop all this critique because we were so sure of the authority of science,” Latour reflected this spring. “And that the authority of science would be shared because there was a common world.” We were seated at the dining-room table of his daughter’s apartment in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris, where Latour, who is 71, was babysitting for his 8-year-old grandson, Ulysse. The apartment, he told me proudly, was purchased with the money that came with the award of the 2013 Holberg Prize, known as the Nobel of the humanities, for what the jury heralded as his “reinterpretation of modernity.” He was wearing a purple turtleneck sweater, his favorite burgundy slacks and sensible black walking shoes. He has a full head of dark, disheveled hair, and his vigorously overgrown eyebrows sweep several unsettling centimeters up beyond the rim of his round spectacles, like a nun’s cornette. “Even this notion of a common world we didn’t have to articulate, because it was obvious,” he continued. “Now we have people who no longer share the idea that there is a common world. And that of course changes everything.”

Those who worried that Latour’s early work was opening a Pandora’s box may feel that their fears have been more than borne out. Indeed, commentators on the left and the right, possibly overstating the reach of French theory, have recently leveled blame for our current state of affairs at “postmodernists” like Latour. By showing that scientific facts are the product of all-too-human procedures, these critics charge, Latour — whether he intended to or not — gave license to a pernicious anything-goes relativism that cynical conservatives were only too happy to appropriate for their own ends. Latour himself has sometimes worried about the same thing. As early as 2004 he publicly expressed the fear that his critical “weapons,” or at least a grotesque caricature of them, were being “smuggled” to the other side, as corporate-funded climate skeptics used arguments about the constructed nature of knowledge to sow doubt around the scientific consensus on climate change.

But Latour believes that if the climate skeptics and other junk scientists have made anything clear, it’s that the traditional image of facts was never sustainable to begin with. “The way I see it, I was doing the same thing and saying the same thing,” he told me, removing his glasses. “Then the situation changed.” If anything, our current post-truth moment is less a product of Latour’s ideas than a validation of them. In the way that a person notices her body only once something goes wrong with it, we are becoming conscious of the role that Latourian networks play in producing and sustaining knowledge only now that those networks are under assault.

This, in essence, is the premise of Latour’s latest book, “Down to Earth,” an illuminating and counterintuitive analysis of the present post-truth moment, which will be published in the United States next month. What journalists, scientists and other experts fail to grasp, Latour argues, is that “facts remain robust only when they are supported by a common culture, by institutions that can be trusted, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media.” With the rise of alternative facts, it has become clear that whether or not a statement is believed depends far less on its veracity than on the conditions of its “construction” — that is, who is making it, to whom it’s being addressed and from which institutions it emerges and is made visible. A greater understanding of the circumstances out of which misinformation arises and the communities in which it takes root, Latour contends, will better equip us to combat it.

[Emphasis added—and I’ve recently experienced this in an on-line exchange with a conservative. I quoted a list of facts (which could easily be fact-checked), but the list was dismissed altogether because a) the facts put conservatives in a bad light, and b) the facts were published in a liberal publication. My interlocutor didn’t bother to check whether the facts I cited were true or not, but simply dismissed them because of the publication in which they appeared. I did point out that these facts (which exposed some of the idiocy of conservative positions) would never appear in a conservative publication (for obvious reasons), so their appearance in a liberal publication was natural enough. The important point—which my interlocutor was unable to grasp—was whether the facts reported were true or not. He had moved to a plane in which the “truth” of facts depended solely on who spoke them. – LG]

Philosophers have traditionally recognized a division between facts and values — between, say, scientific knowledge on one hand and human judgments on the other. Latour believes that this is specious. Many of his books are attempts to illuminate, as he has written, “both the history of humans’ involvement in the making of scientific facts and the sciences’ involvement in the making of human history.” In a formulation that was galling to both sociologists and scientists, he once argued that Louis Pasteur did not just, as is commonly accepted, discover microbes; rather, he collaborated with them.

Latour likes to say that he has been attuned from an early age to the ways in which human beings influence their natural environment. His affluent family, proprietors of the prominent winemaking business Maison Louis Latour, had been cultivating the same Burgundy vineyards for more than 150 years when Bruno, the youngest of eight children, was born there in 1947. An older brother was already being groomed to run the family firm, so Latour was encouraged to pursue a classical education. At 17, he was sent to Saint-Louis de Gonzague, one of the most prestigious schools in Paris, where he mingled with other young members of the French elite. Although he was a wealthy and well-read Catholic, he found himself completely unprepared for the virulent snobbery of the capital. He was made to feel like the proud, provincial hero of a Balzac novel who arrives in Paris and soon discovers how little he knows about the ways of the world. It was at Saint-Louis de Gonzague that he began to study philosophy, a compulsory subject in the final year of French high school. The first text he was assigned was Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy”; unlike “all the confusion of mathematics,” it immediately struck him as clear and perfectly rational. [! – LG]

In 1966, he began his undergraduate study at the University of Dijon, where he developed an interest in epistemology — the branch of philosophy concerned with how knowledge is made — but even then he had started to suspect that most of what he was learning was “probably wrong.” Philosophers talked about science as though it were a purely cognitive enterprise, a matter of sheer intellectual virtuosity, and about scientists (when they talked about them at all) as logical, objective, heroic.

These suspicions only deepened over the following years, which Latour spent in the Ivory Coast, under the auspices of a sort of French Peace Corps to avoid military service. As he wrote his doctoral dissertation, he taught philosophy at a technical school in Abidjan and volunteered to work on a study commissioned by the French government. His task was to find out why French companies, which still owned and operated many of the factories in postcolonial Abidjan, were having such difficulty recruiting “competent” black executives. It took less than a day for Latour to realize that the premise was flawed. “The question was absurd because they did everything not to have black executives,” he told me. In the French-run engineering schools, black students were taught abstract theories without receiving any practical exposure to the actual machinery they were expected to use. When they were subsequently unable to understand technical drawings, they were accused of having “premodern,” “African” minds. “It was clearly a racist situation,” he said, “which was hidden behind cognitive, pseudohistorical and cultural explanations.”

In Abidjan, Latour began to wonder what it would look like to study scientific knowledge not as a cognitive process but as an embodied cultural practice enabled by instruments, machinery and specific historical conditions. Would the mind of a scientist or an engineer from, say, California seem any more “modern” or “rational” than that of one from the Ivory Coast if it were studied independent of the education, the laboratory and the tools that shaped it and made its work possible?

Before leaving Dijon for Abidjan, Latour met Roger Guillemin, a biologist who would soon go on to win the Nobel Prize for his work on hormone production in the brain. Guillemin later invited him to study his laboratory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, and so beginning in 1975, Latour spent two years there as a sort of participant-observer, following scientists around as they went about their daily work. Part of Latour’s immersion in the lab involved conducting actual experiments, and his co-workers would often gather around to watch. They couldn’t believe that someone could be, as he put it, “so bad and clumsy.” He found pipetting especially difficult. Anytime the slightest thought crossed his mind, he would forget where he placed the instrument and have to start all over again. He later realized that it was precisely his lack of aptitude for lab work that led him to pay such close attention to the intricate, mundane labor involved in the manufacture of objectivity.

When he presented his early findings at the first meeting of the newly established Society for Social Studies of Science, in 1976, many of his colleagues were taken aback by a series of black-and-white photographic slides depicting scientists on the job, as though they were chimpanzees. It was felt that scientists were the only ones who could speak with authority on behalf of science; there was something blasphemous about subjecting the discipline, supposedly the apex of modern society, to the kind of cold scrutiny that anthropologists traditionally reserved for “premodern” peoples. Not everyone felt the same way, however. The previous year, in California, Latour met Steve Woolgar, a British sociologist, who was intrigued by his unorthodox approach. Woolgar turned Latour on to the work of other sociologists and anthropologists, like Michael Lynch, Sharon Traweek and Harold Garfinkel, who had also begun to study science as a social practice. Latour, in turn, invited Woolgar to spend a few weeks with him studying his primates at the Salk Institute.

The two men collaborated on “Laboratory Life,” which after its publication in 1979 became a founding text in the nascent field of science and technology studies and, by academic standards, a breakthrough success. The book continues to challenge some of our most deeply held notions about how knowledge is made. No one had ever contested that scientists were human beings, but most people believed that by following the scientific method, scientists were able to arrive at objective facts that transcended their human origins. A decade and a half earlier, in his best seller, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” the physicist-turned-philosopher Thomas Kuhn had done much to weaken the Whig interpretation of science by showing how historical advances were governed by contingency and debate. What Latour observed firsthand in Guillemin’s lab made the traditional view of science look like little more than a self-serving fiction.

Day-to-day research — what he termed science in the making — appeared not so much as a stepwise progression toward rational truth as a disorderly mass of stray observations, inconclusive results and fledgling explanations. Far from simply discovering facts, scientists seemed to be, as Latour and Woolgar wrote in “Laboratory Life,” “in the business of being convinced and convincing others.” During the process of arguing over uncertain data, scientists foregrounded the reality that they were, in some essential sense, always speaking for the facts; and yet, as soon as their propositions were turned into indisputable statements and peer-reviewed papers — what Latour called ready-made science — they claimed that such facts had always spoken for themselves. That is, only once the scientific community accepted something as true were the all-too-human processes behind it effectively erased or, as Latour put it, black-boxed.

In the 1980s, Latour helped to develop and advocate for a new approach to sociological research called Actor-Network Theory. While controversial at the time, it has since been adopted as a methodological tool not just in sociology but also in a range of disciplines, like urban design and public health. From his studies of laboratories, Latour had seen how an apparently weak and isolated item — a scientific instrument, a scrap of paper, a photograph, a bacterial culture — could acquire enormous power because of the complicated network of other items, known as actors, that were mobilized around it. The more socially “networked” a fact was (the more people and things involved in its production), the more effectively it could refute its less-plausible alternatives. The medical revolution commonly attributed to the genius of Pasteur, he argued, should instead be seen as a result of an association between not just doctors, nurses and hygienists but also worms, milk, sputum, parasites, cows and farms. Science was “social,” then, not merely because it was performed by people (this, he thought, was a reductive misunderstanding of the word “social”); rather, science was social because it brought together a multitude of human and nonhuman entities and harnessed their collective power to act on and transform the world.

In the fall of 2016, the hottest year on record, Latour took a plane from Paris to Calgary, Canada, where he was due to deliver a lecture on “the now-obsolete notion of nature.” Several hours into the flight, above the Baffin ice sheets to the west of Greenland, he peered out the window. What he saw startled him. That year the North Pole was melting at an accelerated pace. The tundra below, rent with fissures, reminded him of the agonized face from Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

“It was as though the ice was sending me a message,” Latour recalled in March. Dressed in a striking suit (straw-colored tie, blue waistcoat), he was speaking to a sold-out theater of some 200 people in Strasbourg as part of the city’s biennial puppetry festival. Although Latour is a figure of international renown on the academic circuit, his lecture — a sort of anti-TED Talk on climate change featuring an array of surreal images and acoustical effects — was anything but a traditional conference paper. Throughout the performance, Latour’s looming figure was hidden behind images projected onto a screen, so that it seemed as though he were being swallowed by his own PowerPoint presentation. The effect was a bit like watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” if Al Gore had been a coltish French philosopher who said things like “Scientists, artists, and social scientists like myself are beginning to propose what we call — and maybe it’s too exaggerated — a new cosmology.”

The idea that we can stand back and behold nature at a distance, as something discrete from our actions, is an illusion, Latour says. This was the message that the melting ice sheets were sending him. “My activity in this plane going to Canada was actually having an effect on the very spectacle of nature that I was seeing,” he told his Strasbourg audience. “In that sense, there is no outside anymore.” Appropriately enough, the show, which he has performed in several cities across Europe and will bring to New York this week, is called “Inside.” In our current environmental crisis, he continued, a new image of the earth is needed — one that recognizes that there is no such thing as a view from nowhere and that we are always implicated in the creation of our view. With the advent of the Anthropocene, a word proposed by scientists around the turn of the century to designate a new epoch in which humanity has become tantamount to a geological force, Latour’s idea that humans and nonhumans are acting together — and that the earth reacts to those actions — now sounds a lot like common sense. “He is really the thinker of the Anthropocene,” Philippe Pignarre, Latour’s French publisher of 40 years, told me. “A lot of scientists in France didn’t like him originally because he treated them like other workers, and they believed in having a special relationship to the truth. But now they are using his work. He is at the center of people who want to think about the world.”

“Inside” draws heavily on “Down to Earth,” his new book, which has been highly praised in France since its release there last fall. Scientists, he writes, have largely looked at the problem of climate-change denial through the lens of rational empiricism that has governed their profession for centuries; many limit their domain to science, thinking it inappropriate to weigh in on political questions or to speak in an emotional register to communicate urgency. Even though the evidence in support of global warming has long been overwhelming, some scientists continue to believe that the problem of denialism can be solved through ever more data and greater public education. Political scientists, meanwhile, have shown that so-called “irrational” individuals, especially those who are highly educated, in some cases actually hold onto their opinions more strongly when faced with facts that contradict them. Instead of accusing Trump supporters and climate denialists of irrationality, Latour argues that it is untenable to talk about scientific facts as though their rightness alone will be persuasive. In this respect, “Down to Earth” extends the sociological analysis that he brought to bear on factory workers in Abidjan and scientists in California to the minds of anti-scientific voters, looking at the ways in which the reception of seemingly universal knowledge is shaped by the values and local circumstances of those to whom it is being communicated.

Latour believes that if scientists were transparent about how science really functions — as a process in which people, politics, institutions, peer review and so forth all play their parts — they would be in a stronger position to convince people of their claims. Climatologists, he says, must recognize that, as nature’s designated representatives, they have always been political actors, and that they are now combatants in a war whose outcome will have planetary ramifications. We would be in a much better situation, he has told scientists, if they stopped pretending that “the others” — the climate-change deniers — “are the ones engaged in politics and that you are engaged ‘only in science.’ ” In certain respects, new efforts like the March for Science, which has sought to underscore the indispensable role that science plays (or ought to play) in policy decisions, and groups like 314 Action, which are supporting the campaigns of scientists and engineers running for public office, represent an important if belated acknowledgment from today’s scientists that they need, as one of the March’s slogans put it, to step out of the lab and into the streets. (To this Latour might add that the lab has never been truly separate from the streets; that it seems to be is merely a result of scientific culture’s attempt to pass itself off as above the fray.)

Of course, the risk inherent in this embrace of politics is that climate deniers will seize on any acknowledgment of the social factors involved in science to discredit it even further. In a New York Times Op-Ed, a coastal geologist argued that the March for Science would “reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.” [This is exactly parallel to my on-line encounter with the conservative who denied any facts reported in a liberal publication. – LG] This was what happened in the infamous 2009 incident now known as Climategate, when emails to and from scientists at the University of East Anglia, a leading center for climate research in Britain, were hacked, revealing exactly the kinds of messy debates that Latour documented in “Laboratory Life.” Climate skeptics cited this as proof that the scientists weren’t really discovering climate change but simply massaging the data to fit their preconceptions. Certainly the incident did not, as scholars of science and technology studies might have hoped, lead the public to a deeper understanding of the controversy and negotiation that govern all good science in the making.

Some might see this discouraging episode as a reason to back away from a more openly pugnacious approach on the part of scientists. Latour does not. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

At a meeting between French industrialists and a climatologist a few years ago, Latour was struck when he heard the scientist defend his results not on the basis of the unimpeachable authority of science but by laying out to his audience his manufacturing secrets: “the large number of researchers involved in climate analysis, the complex system for verifying data, the articles and reports, the principle of peer evaluation, the vast network of weather stations, floating weather buoys, satellites and computers that ensure the flow of information.” The climate denialists, by contrast, the scientist said, had none of this institutional architecture. Latour realized he was witnessing the beginnings a seismic rhetorical shift: from scientists appealing to transcendent, capital-T Truth to touting the robust networks through which truth is, and has always been, established.

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 8:15 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Politics

Tagged with

Orange-label Doppelgänger

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I couldn’t resist getting another of the CK6 shaving soaps, and this orange-label version has a fragrance profile modeled on Chaps:
On the whole, I like this fragrance somewhat better than the Oxblood Doppelgänger (modeled on a Penhaligon fragrance)—and the lather is still wonderful, worked up today with my Omega 20102 boar brush, now fully broken in.

I used my RazoRock Game Changer razor and since I used my Fine Marvel just yesterday, I can easily compare them. For me the Game Changer is a noticeably better razor (and also $15 more expensive), but of course YMMV. This is not to say the Marvel is a bad razor, but of the two, I find for me the Game Changer is better.

I finished with Phoenix Artisan’s “star jelly” aftershave balm. The ingredients include alcohol, unusual to find in a balm, and (fairly thick) balm goes on easily and dries readily—no post-application “greasy” feel. It takes only a small dot to do the job. The ingredients that Phoenix Artisan draws attention to:

Allantoin: a naturally occurring nitrogenous compound used as a skin conditioning agent. It can be derived from animals, however the allantoin we use is derived from plants.

Caprylic/Capric Triglycerides: from coconut oil and glycerin, it’s considered an excellent emollient. It’s included in cosmetics due to its mix of fatty acids that skin can use to resist moisture loss. This ingredient’s value for skin is made greater by the fact that it’s considered gentle.

Vegetable Glycerine: is derived from soy and is used in cosmetics and body care products to assist in retaining moisture. It is invaluable as a natural source ingredient with emollient like properties which can soften the skin.

Not bad at all. I think I still prefer a splash, but this is a nice change of pace and would probably be preferable in cold, windy weather (which don’t yet have here).

Written by Leisureguy

25 October 2018 at 7:43 am

Posted in Shaving

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