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Archive for August 13th, 2019

The Case That Made an Ex-ICE Attorney Realize the Government Was Relying on False “Evidence” Against Migrants

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Melissa del Bosque reports in ProPublica:

Laura Peña could see that her 36-year-old client was wasting away. Gaunt and haggard after nearly two months in jail, he ran his fingers through his hair and opened his hands to show her the clumps that were falling out. He was so distraught that his two young children had been taken from him at the border, he could barely speak without weeping.

After Carlos requested political asylum, border and immigration agents had accused him of being a member of the notorious MS-13 gang in El Salvador — a criminal not fit to enter the United States. But as Peña looked at him, she saw none of the typical hallmarks of gang membership: the garish MS-13 tattoos or a criminal record back home. He was the sole caregiver for his 7-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. He’d even brought an official letter from El Salvador’s Justice Ministry certifying that he’d never been in jail. Something else about his case bothered her, too: She’d been peppering the government’s lawyers with phone calls and emails for weeks and they’d yet to reveal any evidence to back up their accusation.

Unlike most attorneys working pro bono to reunite families, Peña was familiar with MS-13, because she’d pursued the deportation of gang members as a trial attorney for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She understood how the system worked, because she’d been a part of it. Her long tumble of curly hair, which makes her look younger than her 37 years, is paired with a forthright-bordering-on-blunt manner of speaking forged from her years as a prosecutor on the front line of the immigration debate. She was empathetic toward the plight of clients like Carlos, whose last name is not being used for his protection. But she was also unwilling to give any of them false hope. If Carlos was a gang member, his chance for asylum was zero.

“There has to be a mistake,” Carlos insisted that December day from behind the scratched plexiglass wall in the visitor’s room at the jail. “Please help me.” Looking at him, Peña wanted to help. But the system she’d once known, as flawed as it was, had turned into a black box she no longer understood, with an ever-shifting array of rules and policies that granted untold discretion to the government. She couldn’t even get ICE attorneys to comply with a fundamental tenet of a fair system: providing proof of their case, evidence they could fight against.

To Peña and her colleagues, cases like Carlos’ signaled a troubling new era. Years of legal precedent had been swept away by Trump administration efforts to push through evermore harsh immigration policies like family separation. Then, when the courts pushed back and the policies were publicly rescinded, the administration discovered new ways to quietly continue them. She and her colleagues were counting hundreds of new cases of family separation along the border that occurred after the “zero tolerance” policy supposedly ended in June 2018. But no one could track what the government was doing with every case.

Now here was Carlos, who simply looked like a grief-stricken dad. Peña had been skeptical of him at first. When they’d met in November 2018, all she knew was that he was considered such a threat that ICE and Customs and Border Protection had put him in the wing of the Laredo, Texas, jail designated for violent offenders. She’d used her ICE training to poke at his story, searching for inconsistencies, signs he was lying. “Trust but verify” was her guiding principle. She’d gone over his background with him multiple times, his story about why he’d fled El Salvador and his former life as a warehouse manager for an architectural design company. She’d made him retrace his story over and over until she was satisfied.

As a pro bono attorney working for the nonprofit legal group Texas Civil Rights Project, Peña had a growing stack of cases on her desk. She’d spent the last six months monitoring “zero tolerance” prosecutions at the courthouse, searching for unlawful separations. Her mandate was simply to reunify Carlos with his children. He was luckier than most; he had her asking questions on his behalf. The majority of migrants who are arrested at the border never see a lawyer, let alone understand how to fight the allegations against them. Carlos was one drop in a river of cases.

But something about his case made her want to dig deeper. What wasn’t the government telling them?

Raised in Harlingen, Texas, just a short drive from Mexico, Peña went to school with friends who were undocumented and friends whose parents worked for the Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Services. She grew up steeped in the culture from both sides of the border. As soon as she graduated from high school, she left the border, earning a place at the prestigious Wellesley College and then landing a job in the State Department, where she focused on security and human rights in Central America.

But Peña longed to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a lawyer, so she took night classes at Georgetown Law. After graduating, desperate for courtroom experience, she learned that ICE was looking for trial attorneys. Peña wasn’t sure she was up to the task of deporting people. Most of her family and the few friends she told were appalled at the notion. And she kept her plans secret from friends in the immigrant advocacy world, fearing they would never speak to her again. But her father, who had also been a struggling new attorney once, understood her dilemma better than most. “Do what you need to do,” he counseled her. “Don’t worry about what others think.” A mentor, who was also an immigration attorney, encouraged her to take the job and try to make ICE a more humane agency from within. “We need people of your mindset working on the government’s side,” she told Peña.

Peña was hired in 2014 and moved to Los Angeles. It was the start of President Barack Obama’s mandate that ICE attorneys exercise their prosecutorial discretion in the courtroom. This meant that Peña could look at each case on its own merit and focus on deporting criminals while giving families who qualified for asylum or legal residency an option to stay. She says she tried to wield the incredible power she’d been granted with fairness and careful consideration, which made her proud. But her idealism was short-lived. Case by case, she said, she gradually lost her sense that she could be a positive force in an immigration system already in free fall. One day in court, she was asked to handle the case of a 6-month-old baby who was scheduled for deportation. Somewhere in the overwhelmed system, the baby’s case had been separated from that of his mother’s, who sat in the courtroom weeping. Furious, the judge said such a slip up could result in a 6-month-old being deported without his mother. Peña was horrified and embarrassed. She tied the two case folders together with a rubber band and wrote “family unit” at the top in red pen — it wasn’t the first time that ICE’s computer system had failed her — and assured the judge they wouldn’t be separated again.

Then there was one particularly devastating court hearing, at which she found herself arguing that an African woman who had been brutally raped and attacked by a militia in her home country should not be granted asylum because she had a fraudulent identification paper. As the judge ordered her deportation, the woman had a full-blown panic attack, falling to the ground, beating her chest and wailing, “No! No!” Peña knew she would never forget how the woman had looked up at her with pleading eyes and begged, “Please help me.”

There were other cases, too, each taking a toll, until it just got to be too much. On her worst days, she said, she felt that nothing she’d done, or could do, made a difference. Everything was stacked against the immigrants. Most couldn’t afford to hire an attorney. Few would ever win their cases. She was participating in a system that refused to provide due process. Sometimes she wondered if she’d helped send the African woman to her death. The guilt lingered in the back of her mind.

So she quit. She took a well-paying corporate job in California as a business immigration lawyer, helping companies hire foreign workers. But when family separations made headlines in the summer of 2018, she felt the pull to dive back in, to try and level the odds. She left her lucrative corporate job and, at age 35, moved back in with her parents in South Texas. She took a job as a modestly paid visiting attorney for TCRP, which had an office near the federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas.

She’d been away from the border for nearly 20 years. What she found on her return was chaos: overwhelmed federal public defenders anxiously searching for the children of their clients, who were being prosecuted in criminal court under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. Peña and her colleagues at the nonprofit got to work interviewing parents and trying to track down their children who’d been shipped off without paperwork connecting them to their families. She remembered the 6-month-old she’d represented in removal proceedings. Back then, family separations were relatively rare. Now it was official policy with no plan in place to reunify the families.

It had taken her more than a week to locate Carlos’ children. She found them in a government shelter outside Corpus Christi, Texas, a two-hour drive from Laredo. She spent an additional two weeks negotiating with officials from ICE and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the children’s shelters, to allow a phone call between Carlos and his kids. The phone call had alleviated some of his anxiety, but it had also been agonizing. His 11-year-old daughter had cried throughout and begged him to come and get them. His estranged wife, who is also undocumented and lives in Washington state, had applied for custody. But ICE needed to conduct a background check and take her fingerprints before the children could be released.

Carlos’ wife had emailed Peña a photo of Carlos with his two children, all sporting big grins. They looked so happy together. Maybe it was the photograph, or the rapport she’d developed with him, or the gang accusation based on some mysterious (and she believed false) evidence, but Peña believed he deserved another chance.

Without the accusation, Carlos and his children would likely have been processed like other asylum-seekers and released with a court date before a judge or would have been detained together at a family shelter. Now ICE could quickly deport him.

She would have to take on his asylum case herself, but she couldn’t do it alone. She’d need to persuade other attorneys — from firms with deep pockets — to volunteer to join the case. It also meant putting her reputation at risk if she was wrong about Carlos. Luckily, a number of such firms had stepped forward that summer to offer assistance to the small nonprofits on the front lines fighting family separation.

Christmas was drawing near by the time of her visit with Carlos when he, emaciated in his red prison jumpsuit, showed her the clumps of hair that were falling out. The four-hour drive from her parents’ home in Brownsville to the Laredo jail was starting to become routine. Every time her mother’s old Nissan pickup truck, which had already surpassed 150,000 miles, sputtered and rattled on the highway, she’d turn up Spanish pop music to drown out the noise.

That day Carlos was a bundle of fears: of never seeing his children again, of the wrath of the gang members back in El Salvador who’d threatened to kill his family when he couldn’t meet their extortion demands. In their eyes, he told her, he had disobeyed their authority by fleeing the country, which was punishable by death.

“We only came to this country because we had no other choice,” she said Carlos told her, shouting to be heard through the plexiglass barrier because the jail phones were out of order again. “They threatened to kill my kids.”

“I believe you,” Peña told him, pressing her hand firmly against the plexiglass. “What’s been done to you is a grave injustice. And I’m here, and I’m going to help you.”

Her colleagues at TCRP quickly agreed that Carlos’ case was egregious enough to warrant their limited time and resources if she could persuade a larger firm to help. They’d heard of other families separated at the border because of vague gang allegations and wanted answers just as badly as she did. That night, she sent out an SOS to a handful of firms more accustomed to representing Fortune 500 companies and politicians than penniless fathers in immigration detention. Attached to her email was the photo of Carlos with his kids. Peña was direct in her plea for help. “Let’s reunify this family before Christmas,” she wrote. “Who’s going to join me?”

Christmas passed, then New Year’s. During the day, Peña strategized on Carlos’ case and others at TCRP. At night, she worked in her father’s home office on a report documenting the hundreds of family separations she and her colleagues had uncovered. Many of the separations were, like Carlos’, based on vague allegations of gang membership or an alleged criminal past. A rambunctious blue heeler, which she’d adopted and named Dulce after the dog showed up on her parents’ doorstep, was her only distraction. She missed baby showers and birthdays and ducked out of dinner invitations from a friend who complained that she might as well have stayed in California.

Peña was growing increasingly outraged that Carlos was still in jail, without evidence. To make matters worse, a government shutdown loomed, which meant the attorneys in charge of Carlos’ case were no longer getting back to her. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 1:13 pm

Families Affected By Mississippi ICE Raids Scramble To Find Support

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What the Trump administration is doing to families, and the traumas it is causing in children, is terrible, and yet it seems that little is being done to stop it. The US has turned a very bad corner. Debbie Elliott reports for NPR:

The Mississippi ICE raids swept up nearly 700 undocumented workers from several food processing plants last week. Among those stripped away from their jobs and arrested was Angel Lopez’s father.

“These past few days have just been hard because I’ve had to stay strong for my family,” Angel Lopez says.

The 15-year-old and his two younger brothers were all born in the U.S. Their parents entered the country illegally from Guatemala 18 years ago and settled in Mississippi.

Since their father’s arrest, the Lopez family has not been able to get in contact with him. The only information received are vague whereabouts, such as he’s in Louisiana.

“I’ve just been mad about the whole thing really,” Lopez says. “Cause the El Paso shooting had just happened a week ago and then why would you give an order like that for the raids that just happened like that? When people are still grieving?”

Federal authorities say these arrests shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Department of Homeland Security says the operation had been anticipated for months; the timing is just unfortunate.

Mike Hurst, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi., says the raids are meant to enforce law and order.

“While we do welcome folks from other countries, they have to follow our laws,” he says. “They have to abide by our rules. They have to come here legally or they shouldn’t come here at all.”

He warns that employers who “use illegal aliens for a competitive advantage or to make a quick buck — if we find that you have violated federal criminal law, we are coming after you.”

In light of the number of families affected by the raids, St. Anne Catholic Church in Carthage has opened its doors to people in need of legal advice, hot meals or counseling led by a social worker or child psychologist. Lopez’s family, fearing their father’s deportation, has looked to the church for guidance and support.

“My mom doesn’t know what to do at this point because my dad was the one bringing in everything for us,” Lopez says. “And seeing the way things are now, she’s confused of what to do. Because she has to take care of her autistic son. And she has to provide for me and my brother.”

Inside, the church is noticeably emptier than usual.

The Rev. Odel Medina estimates that at least 100 families from the 800-person parish are being affected. Some members are back after being released; others, however, still have not been heard from. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 10:32 am

How Monopolies Broke the Federal Reserve

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Another excellent column by Matt Stoller in BIG:

Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen, just before the 2016 election, gave an important speech about how economists don’t really know much about how finance and the economy intersect. Here’s what she said.

Extreme economic events have often challenged existing views of how the economy works and exposed shortcomings in the collective knowledge of economists. To give two well-known examples, both the Great Depression and the stagflation of the 1970s motivated new ways of thinking about economic phenomena. More recently, the financial crisis and its aftermath might well prove to be a similar sort of turning point.

Her thesis is that the crisis revealed an intellectual gap at the heart of economic thinking. Yellen was correct in her observation. And there’s a signal that the blind central banking establishment has failed to to maintain any semblance of productive finance. All over the world, we’re starting to see negative interest rates.

Negative interest rates are a signal something is very wrong with finance, and the broader economy. Normally when you put money into a bank account, you get paid some interest on your savings. This is because a bank account is essentially a bank borrowing your money and using it to finance other loans that go into productive purposes like building factories. In return for your deposit, the bank gives you a cut of the action, usually a minimal interest rate. A government bond works the same way as a bank account, but it finances government spending and mostly bonds help finance savings for really large corporations and funds. Like a bank account, buying government bonds is a safe way to store assets, and get a little bit of a return.

But today, many bonds are paying negative or near-negative interest rates, which means that when you put money into government bonds, you lose money over time. Joe Weisenthal wrote up what is happening, using an agricultural metaphor of too much grain seeking too little storage.

In other words, to store money at a bank requires the existence of some other borrower who will pay the bank.  As such, just as you’ll pay more to store grain when grain is abundant and warehouse space is scarce, you have to pay more to hold money when savings are abundant but demand for borrowing is scarce.

This is the world we have today. Thanks to ever-increasing wealth concentration and meager growth across the developed world, you have some people sitting on incredible piles of cash and a shortage of people with robust opportunities to borrow and use that cash.

I’ll continue this metaphor to describe the job of the Federal Reserve. Let’s say we are an economy with only corn. Every year we eat 95% of the corn we grow and keep 5% of it as seed to plant. The Fed’s job is to make sure that the seed corn gets planted in a fairly reasonable manner. Zoom out to a more complex economy. That 95% is all the stuff we make and use, and that 5% is all the factories and whatnot we build so we can have more the next year. The Fed oversees getting our savings put into productive investment, and it uses the banking system/capital markets to do the planting (aka financing).

The Fed works through interest rates, which is to say, the price of money in markets where lenders and borrowers meet each other. Often you hear that the Fed raised or lowered ‘interest rates,’ but that’s not precisely accurate. There are many markets for interest rates, everything from credit cards to mortgages to junk bonds to an endless variety of swaps. The Fed changes interest rates in one particular market for money wholesalers (aka big banks). Most other money markets, like mortgages, credit cards, business lending, and so forth, are supposed to be referenced to the market in which the Fed operates, which is why the shorthand on the news is the Fed raised/lowered rates.

That’s the theory anyway. But the Fed’s tools, and those of most central banks, aren’t working like they should.

Very low or negative interest rates mean that investors can’t find any place to place their savings. Investors perceive there are no more factories to build, no distribution centers to create, no new energy systems to research, no more products to create. You can only stuff money under a mattress, and the price of mattresses is going up. Our financial system, in other words, is acting like we have no more social problems to profitably solve.

In a world with a looming climate crisis and endless poverty, it is extraordinarily weird to act like there is no way to profitably use capital. There is in fact an entire ideology behind this bizarre view; Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang wants to cut every American a thousand dollar automatic monthly dividend, because automation has solved everything, created too much production. When asked about climate change in a debate, he actually said it’s too late and we must move to higher ground. Yet he also seems to believe that all problems he can identify have been solved by automation. Yang is a fringe candidate, but negative interest rates are the entire financial system agreeing with Yang’s view.

This problem, what economists sometimes call a ‘savings glut,’ has been with us in one form or another for decades. After the financial crisis, the problem of a lack of productive outlets for capital investment got so bad that important academics like Robert Gordon began arguing that we’ve simply invented everything important. His argument caught on in important circles. . .

Other thinkers, led by former Obama officials Jason Furman and Peter Orszag, argued that a small group of superstar firms have detached from the rest of the economy. Orszag and Furman do not conclude whether those firms have either managed to capture market power or figured out a special sauce whereby they are just more productive than everyone else in the economy. Perhaps Google is a monopolist, or perhaps Google search really was that much better than AltaVista, Yahoo!, Bing and so forth. In this framework, Orszag and Furman essentially agree with the Thomas Friedman-esque argument that globalization and technology has driven more productive companies to capture more power, and erode the share of output going to labor. McKinsey is even selling superstar firm gibberish to its clients.

So maybe that’s the problem. There’s nowhere to put money because either everything’s been invented, or because some firms are just better than everyone else.

Sorry, but I don’t buy it. If you give three billion people supercomputers in their pockets and connect those supercomputers into a massive real-time information grid, a few of them are going to think of useful things to do. Combined with advances in material sciences, biotechnology, genetics, optics, and just, well, more educated people than ever before, there are still amazing businesses to create. The argument against human capacity to innovate doesn’t make any sense, unless the people debating want to avoid discussing the key problem, which is power.

What is actually going on?

The most likely explanation for negative interest rates is far simpler. The economy has become a giant kill zone. In venture capital circles, the term “kill zone” has become quite popular to describe the phenomenon of having no places to profitably invest.

O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly talks of big tech companies “eating the ecosystem.” Others are talking about a “kill zone,” where new and innovative upstarts are throttled. For some startup founders, acquisition by a big company is the dream — they’re happy to walk away with a small fortune and move on to the next stage of their careers. But there’s a danger that big companies, being less emotionally invested in the companies they acquire, will leave them to wither on the vine.

And even more importantly, a kill zone can result not from acquisition, but from the threat of overwhelming competition. If founders believe that big companies will copy their innovations cheaply and compete them out of the market, they’ll never spend the time and effort to create those innovations in the first place.

Maybe what’s happening is that we can’t invest profitably, because there are monopolies everywhere you try to put money to work in the real economy.

Economists Simcha Barkai got to this dynamic in a paper he wrote in 2017. Barkai was interested in the decline in the amount of corporate output going to labor. He concluded this decline is not occurring because capital is getting a large share of income. Capital investment is going down even faster than labor share. There’s less spent on workers, and less than that spent on robots. So if labor share is down and capital share is down, what is up? Profits. The driver, Barkai found, is firm concentration is up across the American economy since 1985. This trend is more pronounced in higher concentration sectors, and less pronounced in lower concentration sectors.

Barkai doesn’t conclude that this change is policy driven, and doesn’t argue it’s a result of lax antitrust enforcement. But what his argument does imply is that large profits that cannot go into productive capital investment or to workers will instead go into government bonds, pushing interest rates for ‘safe assets’ down quite low, or even into negative territory. There’s just nothing to invest in, because you can’t put money into monopolistic markets and expect a return. The kill zone, in other words, is everywhere.

Investment in a Low Interest World

But this works from the other side as well. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 10:27 am

The Best Source of Resistant Starch

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Dr. Michael Greger writes:

Resistant starch wasn’t discovered until 1982. Before that, we thought all starch could be digested by the digestive enzymes in our small intestine. Subsequent studies confirmed that there are indeed starches that resist digestion and end up in our large intestine, where they can feed our good bacteria, just like fiber does. Resistant starch is found naturally in many common foods, including grains, vegetables, beans, seeds, and some nuts, but in small quantities, just a few percent of the total. As I discuss in my video Getting Starch to Take the Path of Most Resistance, there are a few ways, though, to get some of the rest of the starch to join the resistance.

When regular starches are cooked and then cooled, some of the starch recrystallizes into resistant starch. For this reason, pasta salad can be healthier than hot pasta and potato salad can be healthier than a baked potato, but the effect isn’t huge. The resistant starch goes from about 3 percent up to 4 percent. The best source of resistant starch is not from eating cold starches, but from eating beans, which start at 4 or 5 percent and go up from there.

If you mix cooked black beans with a “fresh fecal” sample, there’s so much fiber and resistant starch in the beans that the pH drops as good bacteria churn out beneficial short-chain fatty acids, which are associated both directly and indirectly with lower colon cancer risk. (See Stool pH and Colon Cancer.) The more of this poopy black bean mixture you smear on human colon cancer, the fewer cancer cells survive.

Better yet, we can eat berries with our meals that act as starch blockers. Raspberries, for example, completely inhibit the enzyme that we use to digest starch, leaving more for our friendly flora. So, putting raspberry jam on your toast, strawberries on your corn flakes, or making blueberry pancakes may allow your good bacteria to share in some of the breakfast bounty.

Another way to feed our good bacteria is to eat intact grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. In one study, researchers split people into two groups and had them eat the same food, but in one group, the seeds, grains, beans, and chickpeas were eaten more or less in a whole form, while they were ground up for the other group. For example, for breakfast, the whole-grain group got muesli, and the ground-grain group had the same muesli, but it was blended into a porridge. Similarly, beans were added to salads for the whole-grain group, whereas they were blended into hummus for the ground-grain group. Note that both groups were eating whole grains—not refined—that is, they were eating whole foods. In the ground-grain group, though, those whole grains, beans, and seeds were made into flour or blended up.

What happened? Those on the intact whole-grain diet “resulted in a doubling of the amount excreted compared to the usual diet and produced an additional and statistically significant increase in stool mass” compared with those on the ground whole-grain diet, even though they were eating the same food and the same amount of food. Why? On the whole-grain diet, there was so much more for our good bacteria to eat that they grew so well and appeared to bulk up the stool. Even though people chewed their food, “[l]arge amounts of apparently whole seeds were recovered from stools,” but on closer inspection, they weren’t whole at all. Our bacteria were having a smorgasbord. The little bits and pieces left after chewing transport all this wonderful starch straight down to our good bacteria. As a result, stool pH dropped as our bacteria were able to churn out so many of those short-chain fatty acids. Whole grains are great, but intact whole grains may be even better, allowing us to feed our good gut bacteria with the leftovers.

Once in our colon, resistant starches have been found to have the same benefits as fiber: softening and bulking stools, reducing colon cancer risk by decreasing pH, increasing short-chain fatty acid production, reducing products of protein fermentation (also known as products of putrefaction), and decreasing secondary bile products.

Well, if resistant starch is so great, why not just take resistant starch pills? It should come as no surprise that commercial preparations of resistant starch are now available and “food scientists have developed a number of RS-enriched products.” After all, some find it “difficult to recommenda high-fiber diet to the general public.” Wouldn’t be easier to just enrich some junk food? And, indeed, you now can buy pop tarts bragging they contain “resistant corn starch.”

Just taking resistant starch supplements does not work, however. There have been two trials so far trying to prevent cancer in people with genetic disorders that put them at extremely high risk, with virtually a 100-percent chance of getting cancer, and resistant starch supplements didn’t help. A similar result was found in another study. So, we’re either barking up the wrong tree, the development of hereditary colon cancer is somehow different than regular colon cancer, or you simply can’t emulate the effects of naturally occurring dietary fiber in plant-rich diets just by giving people some resistant starch supplements.

For resistant starch to work, it has to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 9:38 am

CK-6 again, with another Doppelgänger and the RazoRock Old Type

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Another superb lather, just a different fragrance. The Solar Flare, a very handsome brush IMO, did a fine job, and the Old Type is a marvelous razor. A very satisfactory shave. I do love CK-6 soaps.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 8:22 am

Posted in Shaving

Three Years of Misery Inside Google, the Happiest Company in Tech

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Nitasha Tiku writes in Wired:

ON A BRIGHT Monday in January 2017, at 2:30 in the afternoon, about a thousand Google employees—horrified, alarmed, and a little giddy—began pouring out of the company’s offices in Mountain View, California. They packed themselves into a cheerful courtyard outside the main campus café, a parklike area dotted with picnic tables and a shade structure that resembles a giant game of pickup sticks. Many of them held up handmade signs: “Proud Iranian-American Googler,” “Even Introverts Are Here,” and of course, “Don’t Be Evil!” written in the same kindergarten colors as the Google logo.

AFTER A FEW rounds of call-and-response chanting and testimonials from individual staffers, someone adjusted the rally’s microphone for the next speaker’s tall, lanky frame. Sundar Pichai, Google’s soft-spoken CEO of 15 months, stood in the small clearing in the dense crowd that served as a makeshift stage. “Over the last 24 to 48 hours, we’ve all been working very hard,” he said, “and every step of the way I’ve felt the support of 60,000 people behind me.”

It was, to be precise, January 30; Donald Trump’s presidency was 10 days old. And Executive Order 13769—a federal travel ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, and a wholesale suspension of US refugee admissions—had been in effect for 73 hours, trapping hundreds of travelers in limbo at the nation’s airports. For the moment, the company’s trademark admonition against evil was being directed at a clear, unmistakably external target: the White House.

To all the world it looked as if Google—one of the most powerful, pro-immigrant, and ostensibly progressive corporations in the United States—was taking a unified stand. But that appearance of unanimity masked a welter of executive-level indecision and anxiety. It probably would have been more apt if Pichai had said that, over the previous 48 hours, he had been backed into a corner by thousands of his employees.

In those first days of the Trump era, Google’s leaders were desperate to avoid confrontation with the new regime. The company’s history of close ties to the Obama administration left executives feeling especially vulnerable to the reactionary movement—incubated partly on Google’s own video platform, YouTube—that had memed, rallied, and voted Trump into office. (It didn’t help that Eric Schmidt, then executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had been an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that some 90 percent of political donations by Google employees had gone to Democrats in 2016.) Kent Walker, Google’s risk-averse vice president of public policy, had been advising staffers not to do anything that might upset Steve Bannon or Breitbart. So when the travel ban was announced on the afternoon of Friday, January 27, Google executives initially hoped to “just keep [their] heads down and allow it to blow over,” according to an employee who was close to those early calculations.

But the tribal dictates of Google’s own workforce made lying low pretty much impossible. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the former Montessori kids who founded Google as Stanford grad students in the late ’90s, had designed their company’s famously open culture to facilitate free thinking. Employees were “obligated to dissent” if they saw something they disagreed with, and they were encouraged to “bring their whole selves” to work rather than check their politics and personal lives at the door. And the wild thing about Google was that so many employees complied. They weighed in on thousands of online mailing lists, including IndustryInfo, a mega forum with more than 30,000 members; Coffee Beans, a forum for discussing diversity; and Poly-Discuss, a list for polyamorous Googlers. They posted incessantly on an employee-only version of Google+ and on Memegen, an internal tool for creating and upvoting memes. On Thursdays, Google would host a company-wide meeting called TGIF, known for its no-holds-barred Q&As where employees could, and did, aggressively challenge executives.

All that oversharing and debate was made possible by another element of Google’s social contract. Like other corporations, Google enforces strict policies requiring employees to keep company business confidential. But for Google employees, nondisclosure wasn’t just a rule, it was a sacred bargain—one that earned them candor from leadership and a safe space to speak freely about their kinks, grievances, and disagreements on internal forums.

Finally, to a remarkable extent, Google’s workers really do take “Don’t Be Evil” to heart. C-suite meetings have been known to grind to a halt if someone asks, “Wait, is this evil?” To many employees, it’s axiomatic: Facebook is craven, Amazon is aggro, Apple is secretive, and Microsoft is staid, but Google genuinely wants to do good.

All of those precepts sent Google’s workforce into full tilt after the travel ban was announced. Memegen went flush with images bearing captions like “We stand with you” and “We are you.” Jewglers and HOLA, affinity groups for Jewish and Latinx employees, quickly pledged their support for Google’s Muslim group. According to The Wall Street Journal, members of one mailing list brainstormed whether there might be ways to “leverage” Google’s search results to surface ways of helping immigrants; some proposed that the company should intervene in searches for terms like “Islam,” “Muslim,” or “Iran” that were showing “Islamophobic, algorithmically biased results.” (Google says none of those ideas were taken up.) At around 2 pm that Saturday, an employee on a mailing list for Iranian Googlers floated the possibility of staging a walkout in Mountain View. “I wanted to check first whether anyone thinks this is a bad idea,” the employee wrote. Within 48 hours, a time had been locked down and an internal website set up.

Employees also spent the weekend protesting as private citizens, out in the open. At San Francisco International Airport, a handful of Google lawyers showed up to offer emergency representation to immigrants; many more staffers joined a demonstration outside the international terminal. But one Googler in particular made national newscasts. On Saturday night, without informing anyone at Google, Sergey Brin showed up at the airport to join the crowds. He offered no other comment to the press except to tell Forbes, “I’m here because I’m a refugee,” and to make clear that he was there in a personal capacity.

Between pressure from employees and Brin’s trip to the airport—which had effectively committed the company to sticking its neck out—Google’s own official calculations began to shift. Over the course of the weekend, the company matched $2 million in donations raised by employees for crisis funds for immigrants’ rights. And then on Monday, at the last minute, Pichai decided to speak at the employees’ demonstration.

In his short, off-the-cuff remarks to the packed courtyard, Pichai called immigration “core to the founding of this company.” He tried to inject a dose of moderation, stressing how important it was “to reach out and communicate to people from across the country.” But when he mentioned Brin’s appearance at the airport, his employees erupted in chants of “Ser-gey! Ser-gey! Ser-gey!” Brin finally extricated himself from the crowd and shuffled up to the mic, windbreaker in hand. He, too, echoed the protesters’ concerns but tried to bring the heat down. “We need to be smart,” he said, “and that means bringing in folks who have some different viewpoints.” As he spoke, a news chopper flew overhead.

And that was pretty much the last time Google’s executives and workers presented such a united front about anything.

As the Trump era wore on, Google continued to brace itself for all manner of external assaults, and not just from the right. The 2016 election and its aftermath set off a backlash against Silicon Valley that seemed to come from all sides. Lawmakers and the media were waking up to the extractive nature of Big Tech’s free services. And Google—the company that had casually introduced the internet to consumer surveillance, orderer of the world’s information, owner of eight products with more than a billion users each—knew that it would be an inevitable target.

But in many respects, Google’s most vexing threats during that period came from inside the company itself. Over the next two and a half years, the company would find itself in the same position over and over again: a nearly $800 billion planetary force seemingly powerless against groups of employees—on the left and the right alike—who could hold the company hostage to its own public image.

In a larger sense, Google found itself and its culture deeply maladapted to a new set of political, social, and business imperatives. To invent products like Gmail, Earth, and Translate, you need coddled geniuses free to let their minds run wild. But to lock down lucrative government contracts or expand into coveted foreign markets, as Google increasingly needed to do, you need to be able to issue orders and give clients what they want.

For this article, WIRED spoke with 47 current and former Google employees. Most of them requested anonymity. Together, they described a period of growing distrust and disillusionment inside Google that echoed the fury roaring outside the company’s walls. And in all that time, Google could never quite anticipate the right incoming collision. After the travel ban walkout, for example, the company’s leaders expected the worst—and that it would come from Washington. “I knew we were snowballing toward something,” a former executive says. “I thought it was going to be Trump calling us out in the press. I didn’t think it was gonna be some guy writing a memo.”


IN MANY WAYS, Google’s internal social networks are like a microcosm of the internet itself. They have their filter bubbles, their trolls, their edgelords. And contrary to popular perception, those networks are not all populated by liberals. Just as the reactionary right was rising on YouTube, it was also finding ways to amplify itself inside Google’s rationalist culture of debate.

For some time, for instance, one of the moderators of the company’s Conservatives email list was a Chrome engineer named Kevin Cernekee. Over the years, Google employees have described Cernekee fairly consistently: as a shrewd far-right provocateur who made his presence felt across Google’s social network, trolling both liberals and conservatives.

In August 2015, the giant IndustryInfo mailing list broke into a roiling debate over why there were so few women in tech. The previous year, Google had become the first Silicon Valley giant to release data on the demographics of its workforce—and revealed that 82 percent of its technical workers were male. To many inside the IndustryInfo thread, the number constituted clear and galling evidence that Google had to change. When the conversation devolved into a brawl over the merits of diversity—one that Cernekee joined—a senior vice president at Google attempted to shut it down. Cernekee proceeded to bombard the executive’s Google+ page with posts about his right to critique the pro-diversity “Social Justice political agenda.” “Can we add a clear statement of banned opinions to the employee handbook,” he wrote, “so that everybody knows what the ground rules are?” In response, Google HR issued Cernekee a written warning for “disrespectful, disruptive, disorderly, and insubordinate” comments.

Google also took action against employees on the opposite side of the debate for their conduct in the same thread; but disciplining Cernekee had more lasting consequences. In November 2015, Cernekee filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that Google’s warning constituted retaliation for his political views. He also alleged that the reprimand interfered with his right to engage in “protected concerted activity”—essentially, his right to freely discuss workplace conditions—as defined under the National Labor Relations Act.

As Cernekee entered into a years-long legal battle with Google, he stayed active on internal channels. In 2016, when members of a white nationalist group called the Golden State Skinheads clashed with antifa counterprotesters in a Sacramento park, Cernekee spoke up for the former on Google’s Free Speech mailing list. Though he said he was “the farthest thing possible from a Nazi,” Cernekee argued that the skinheads “stood up for free speech and free association.” And in January 2017, when the prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched in the head by a masked protester after Trump’s inauguration, Cernekee told his fellow list members that “the battle over free speech is escalating.” He asked them to donate to a WeSearchr campaign that was raising a bounty for anyone who could track down the identity of the assailant. When mailing list members said that WeSearchr—a far-right answer to GoFundMe founded by the agitators Charles C. Johnson and Pax Dickinson—seemed shady, Cernekee wrote, “It is completely on the up-and-up. Please don’t slander my friends. :-(.”

But as conspicuous as Cernekee was inside Google, he was all but invisible on the open internet. Consequently, it wasn’t Cernekee who would become Google’s most famous heretic. That distinction would fall to a comparatively reticent Google Search engineer named James Damore.

In late June 2017, Damore attended a company event about promoting diversity at Google, hosted at the Mountain View headquarters. There, he claims, he heard organizers discuss providing extra job interviews and more welcoming environments for women and underrepresented minorities. (Google says it does not provide additional interviews for people belonging to specific demographics.) To Damore, this all sounded like a violation of Google’s meritocratic hiring process, a finely tuned system built to identify objectively qualified engineers.

Soon after, on the plane ride back from a work trip to China, Damore wrote a 10-page memo arguing that biological differences could help explain why there were fewer female engineers at Google, and therefore the company’s attempts to reach gender parity were misguided and discriminatory toward men. On average, he wrote, women are more interested in people than things, more empathetic, more neurotic, and less assertive. To support these claims about personality differences, Damore cited two studies, three Wikipedia pages, and an article from Quillette, a contrarian online magazine that often covers free speech on campus and alleged links between genetics and IQ. In the memo, Damore wrote that hiring practices aimed to increase diversity “can effectively lower the bar” at Google.

All through July, Damore tried to get Google’s management to pay attention to his concerns. He sent his memo to the diversity summit’s organizers; he sent it to Google’s human resources department; at the suggestion of a coworker, he posted it in Coffee Beans, the internal listserv for discussions about diversity. He made the same points in person at one of Google’s “Bias Busting” workshops, where employees role-play how to identify unconscious bias against minorities. (There, he later claimed, his coworkers laughed at him.)

Damore framed his memo as an appeal for intellectual diversity, identifying his reasoning as a conservative political position silenced by Google’s “ideological echo chamber.” “It’s a perspective that desperately needs to be told at Google,” Damore wrote.

Plenty of Damore’s colleagues, however, had heard this perspective before. Ad nauseam. “People would write stuff like that every month,” says one former Google executive. When the subject of diversifying Google’s workforce comes up in big meetings and internal forums, one black female employee says, “you pretty much need to wait about 10 seconds before someone jumps in and says we’re lowering the bar.” (After one diversity town hall in April 2015, an employee wrote in an internal Google+ post that Google was “lowering the hiring bar for minorities, or arranging events where white men feel excluded.”) What’s more, the debate kept coming up in a repetitive loop because of the constant influx of young graduates who were engaging in these discussions for the first time. Google was hiring at a breakneck pace at the time. Between 2015 and 2017, it added some 20,000 full-time employees, about the same number as Facebook’s entire workforce. (And even after all that hiring, Google’s technical workforce was 80 percent male, 56 percent white, and 41 percent Asian.)

Damore’s memo might have faded into obscurity if a colleague hadn’t suggested that he share it with some more receptive audiences inside Google. On Wednesday, August 2, Damore posted his memo to an internal mailing list called Skeptics. The next day he shared it with Liberty, an internal list for libertarians—one Damore hadn’t known existed. By Friday, the tech blog Motherboard was reporting that an “anti-diversity manifesto” had gone viral inside Google.

Pichai was on vacation when his deputies told him that Google had better deal with the Damore situation quickly. Pichai agreed and asked to corral his full management team for a meeting. By Saturday, a full copy of Damore’s document had leaked to Gizmodo. While Googlers waited for an official response from the top, managers who wanted to signal their support for women loudly condemned the memo’s ideas on internal Google+ posts.

To Liz Fong-Jones, a site reliability engineer at Google, the memo’s arguments were especially familiar. Google’s engineers are not unionized, but inside Google, Fong-Jones essentially performed the function of a union rep, translating employee concerns to managers on everything from product decisions to inclusion practices. She had acquired this informal role around the time the company released Google+ to the public in 2011; before launch, she warned executives against requiring people to use their real names on the platform, arguing that anonymity was important for vulnerable groups. When public uproar played out much as Fong-Jones had predicted, she sat across from executives to negotiate a new policy—then explained the necessary compromises to irate employees. After that, managers and employees started coming to her to mediate internal tensions of all sorts.

As part of this internal advocacy work, Fong-Jones had become attuned to the way discussions about diversity on internal forums were beset by men like Cernekee, Damore, and other coworkers who were “just asking questions.” To her mind, Google’s management had allowed these dynamics to fester for too long, and now it was time for executives to take a stand. In an internal Google+ post, she wrote that “the only way to deal with all the heads of the medusa is to no-platform all of them.”

A few hours later, Google’s internal networks received a shock to the system. A screenshot of Fong-Jones’ “Medusa” comment appeared on Vox Popoli, a blog run by the alt-right instigator Theodore Beale, along with her full name and profile photo. The comments section quickly filled with racial and sexual slurs fixated personally on Fong-Jones, who is trans. “They should pitch all those sexual freaks off of rooftops,” one anonymous Vox Popoli commenter wrote.

On Monday morning, Google’s top management finally met to discuss what to do about Damore. The . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2019 at 8:16 am

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