Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 2nd, 2020

How Police Secretly Took Over Global Phone Network Used by Organized Crime

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Joseph Cox writes at Vice Motherboard:

Something wasn’t right. Starting earlier this year, police kept arresting associates of Mark, a UK-based alleged drug dealer. Mark took the security of his operation seriously, with the gang using code names to discuss business on custom, encrypted phones made by a company called Encrochat. For legal reasons, Motherboard is referring to Mark using a pseudonym.

Because the messages were encrypted on the devices themselves, police couldn’t tap the group’s phones or intercept messages as authorities normally would. On Encrochat, criminals spoke openly and negotiated their deals in granular detail, with price lists, names of customers, and explicit references to the large quantities of drugs they sold, according to documents obtained by Motherboard from sources in and around the criminal world.

Maybe it was a coincidence, but in the same time frame, police across the UK and Europe busted a wide range of criminals. In mid-June, authorities picked up an alleged member of another drug gang. A few days later, law enforcement seized millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs in Amsterdam. It was as if the police were detaining people from completely unrelated gangs simultaneously.

“[The police] all over it aren’t they,” the dealer wrote in one of the messages obtained by Motherboard. “My heads still baffled how they got on all my guys.”

Unbeknownst to Mark, or the tens of thousands of other alleged Encrochat users, their messages weren’t really secure. French authorities had penetrated the Encrochat network, leveraged that access to install a technical tool in what appears to be a mass hacking operation, and had been quietly reading the users’ communications for months. Investigators then shared those messages with agencies around Europe.

Only now is the astonishing scale of the operation coming into focus: It represents one of the largest law enforcement infiltrations of a communications network predominantly used by criminals ever, with Encrochat users spreading beyond Europe to the Middle East and elsewhere. French, Dutch, and other European agencies monitored and investigated “more than a hundred million encrypted messages” sent between Encrochat users in real time, leading to arrests in the UK, Norway, Sweden, France, and the Netherlands, a team of international law enforcement agencies announced Thursday.

As dealers planned trades, money launderers washed their proceeds, and even criminals discussed their next murder, officers read their messages and started taking suspects off the street.

The messages “have given insight in an unprecedented large number of serious crimes, including large, international drug shipments and drug labs, murders, thrashing robberies, extortions, robberies, grave assaults and hostage takings. International drug and money laundering corridors have become crystal clear,” Dutch law enforcement said. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 4:22 pm

Science by press release: When the story gets ahead of the science

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Dr. Sanjay Gupta writes at CNN:

A little more than three months after the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, it has become evident that both the research cycle and the news cycle have accelerated to levels never seen before in our lifetime.

According to the Milken Institute, there are at least 254 treatments and 172 vaccines currently in development to fight Covid-19. I’ve reported on many of them. Some of them are just being developed, like PAC-MAN, a new anti-viral treatment that uses the gene therapy technology CRISPR. Others are drugs finding a new life, like remdesivir, which initially showed effectiveness in treating animals with SARS and MERS, and was even trialed unsuccessfully for Ebola.

The media’s coverage of these developments has also been at “breakneck speed” — because finding any way to stall the spread of this disease is so imperative. For example, several scientists recently called me both on and off the record to relay their optimism that a vaccine could be available by the beginning of next year. It would be a remarkably fast process, given that vaccine development is typically measured in years or decades, not months. So this past week, I took a step back to dig deeper into the studies and look into the source of this optimism. I was surprised at how thin the available data actually is in peer-reviewed medical journals.

Truth is, most of what we have seen so far has come in the form of press releases or pre-print reports that have not undergone the scientific scrutiny of independent review. In fact, despite all the enthusiasm around vaccines, there is only one published study of a vaccine trialed in humans — from the Chinese company CanSino Biologics.

There is no question that in this environment, speed is of the essence. Scientists are scrambling to learn about the virus, the disease and how to keep people from dying. Health officials are working hard to put sound public health measures in place that don’t overburden society or shut down the economy. And journalists are running ragged trying to cover it all.

But there are also growing concerns — on the part of scientists and journalists — that the studies being offered up and showcased are not ready for “prime time.” In fact, many are not studies at all, but subjective conclusions based on data, and methods that remain hidden and thus difficult to validate. Never before has full and immediate transparency been so important, and never before has the scientific picture around Covid-19 been so opaque.

What difference does the source make?

Press releases, pre-print papers and published papers all serve different purposes, and carry different weight for both scientists and journalists.

A press release “is there to make your institution, your client, your big name researcher, your product, your drug company and its products, look as good as can be, hoping that that press release will convince journalists to write about it,” Gary Schwitzer explained to CNN. Schwitzer is a longtime health journalist and publisher, and the founder of HealthNewsReview.org. Because it’s written by whoever is promoting the product, it’s almost never negative, Schwitzer said.

Traditionally, pre-print papers have been articles that researchers and academics put out on pre-print servers to get feedback from their peers before they submit their study to a journal. During this pandemic, the profiles of at least two of them — medRxiv (pronounced med-archive), for health sciences, and bioRxiv (pronounced bio-archive), for biology — have been greatly elevated. “Pre-print servers are much, much more important than they ever have been in Covid-related areas — in other words, in life sciences, in clinical medicine. They just weren’t a player before this,” Dr. Ivan Oransky told us. Oransky is the co-founder of RetractionWatch.org, Vice President of Editorial at Medscape, and a medical journalism professor at New York University.<

A study published in a credible scientific journal is — in theory — the final, complete version. To get published here, a study has to undergo a process called peer review. Kate Grabowski, an assistant professor in the department of pathology at Johns Hopkins University, calls the peer-review process “multiple, independent sets of eyes” on a paper. While peer review is by no means fool-proof, it typically reflects the expertise of many people in a particular field who don’t necessarily have a “dog in the race.”

“I think it’s just so valuable to picking up potential errors that are largely unintentional, and also just making the science better. Usually when we submit papers, they’re like rough drafts, and then may get refined [several times] until they’re much better,” Grabowski said. She described the process, to us, as “iterative.”

But the past few months have highlighted that the road to solid science can be full of potholes, speed bumps, blind spots and hairpin turns. If you are not careful, sometimes that road can lead you straight off a cliff.

Here are several recent examples of the story getting ahead of the science: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 12:45 pm

A thought on when changes are too big for people to accept (or see)

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In watching The Big Short, I was struck by how resolutely people — most people — ignored all the obvious warning signs of the impending collapse of the housing market, to the extent of disbelieving and even attacking those who pointed out the signs. People just didn’t want to see what was evident because it was (a) too big and scary if it was true, and (b) a lot of people they knew were also ignoring it so they felt safe in going along.

That seems to happen not with just the general economic collapse of 2008 (and I do highly recommend the movie, which treats a fairly abstruse subject in an entertaining and informative way), but also with other calamities that are so big that people really, really do not want to believe they are true because, if they are true, then things will (a) get very bad and (b) change a lot (and for many people “changing a lot” is bad in itself and to be resisted and/or ignored).

Climate change comes to mind, for example. The scale of the catastrophe slowly unfolding (but more rapidly now) is so great people want to ignore it and pretend not to see it.

The pandemic was resolutely ignored by many and continues to be ignored by a substantial minority, who deny that it’s all that bad.

And, it occurs to me, that many have trouble seeing the direction the US has taken. They keep hoping that things will be straightened out, or that President Trump will be defeated. What they do not want to recognize is how weak and broken US institutions are. The Senate did not oppose him because it is controlled by Republicans, and they have used their chance to fill courts with judges of like mind. The police and sheriff departments have in many places taken off their gloves and revealed their own priorities. Most people continue not to vote, and that problem is exacerbated by ever more determined (and overt) efforts by the GOP to prevent people from voting. And many US agencies have been broken and can no longer do their jobs effectively: IRS, CDC, USDA, FEC, FDA, SEC, NLRB, and many others: not working as they should, for the benefit of the public and to promote the general welfare.

For the US to become an autocratic, authoritarian, fascistic state is something very large and very bad, and many people seem still to deny that the US is moving strongly in that direction. They feel that it cannot be true because it would be too big a change that would be too damaging — like the housing bubble of 2008 and climate change and the pandemic. It’s too big for many to get their head around.

But look at the signs: the slow and steady destruction of the rule of law, the breaking apart of civic bonds and the dissolution of a feeling of national unity, the every-increasing income/wealth inequality. Add to that the stresses that climate change and pandemics place on the nation, and some sort of breakdown seems not so unlikely and perhaps already well underway.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Daily life

“Jen Nia Mondo”: excellent free audio-oriented Esperanto course

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Jen Nia Mondo is an excellent course, offered free of charge by Esperanto Association of Britain. This set (audio files and two books) is a superb way to learn the language.

You can download the set of 50 audio files (MP3 format) and the two supporting books at no cost. You  learn directly from listening to the MP3 files and repeating phrases, which will develop listening and speaking skills. The book states that it’s best to listen to the audio version of the lesson first, reading the lesson in the book only after you’ve heard it. Specifically, the recommendation is to listen to the audio repeatedly, until you know it by heart, before reading the lesson in the book.

I’ve added these lessons to my regimen.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 10:39 am

Posted in Books, Education, Esperanto

Plant-based steaks from a 3D printer

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Interesting technology reported in Fast Company by Adele Peters:

Inside a lab in Rehovot, Israel, a 3D printer the size of an industrial refrigerator is busy printing plant-based steaks. Redefine Meat, the startup that developed the technology, sees it as the next step for the world of alternative protein: If companies like Impossible Foods have created plant-based burgers that are meaty enough to tempt omnivores, now the industry wants options for realistic whole cuts of faux meat.

The startup, launched by cofounders who met while developing digital printers at HP, created custom 3D printers that aim to replicate meat by printing layers of what they call “alt-muscle,” “alt-fat,” and “alt-blood,” forming a complex 3D model. “Real meat is an extremely complicated product, where much of the sensory experience comes from the matrix,” says cofounder and CEO Eshchar Ben-Shitrit. “Meat is not just proteins, fats, and water. . . . Beef, especially, is a product that has been ‘built’ for years by the cow.” (Other startups are also working on the challenge of making realistic cuts of meat, some through the use of mycelium, the root-like fibers in mushrooms.)

The company will be selling the printers to restaurants, which can tailor the digital recipe so “changes in the product come at zero cost or complexity,” he says. “We can use a 3D model of an entirely different meat product with the same machine, process, and ingredients, whereas traditional food production technologies have to change entire formulations. We can also iterate a steak to be softer, harder, juicier with less fat, and much more—all with a simple click of a button.” While the costs will come down as the company grows, they say that their “Alt-Steak” is already competitive with high-end steaks. Ultimately, it should be more affordable, converting plants into food more efficiently than a cow.

The team, which closed a seed round last year led by CPT Capital, an early investor in Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, has been working with chefs, butchers, food technologists, and taste experts to try to recreate the texture and mouthfeel of steak. “We are working on recreating the entire range of meat products coming from animals,” says Ben-Shitrit. “However, steak is the strongest and most meaningful symbol of what is ‘meat.’ It’s also the most challenging product from a technical perspective. Not only does it have a very unique structure, texture, and flavor, but from a culinary perspective, it doesn’t have a bun or lots of covering elements to mask the sensory experience—it’s usually cooked very simply.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 9:57 am

“The Cursed Platoon”

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One of the many horrific acts of Donald Trump was to pardon a convicted war criminal. The way the US no longer heeds the rule of law is another sign of decline. Greg Jaffe has a feature report in the Washington Post:

Only a few hours had passed since President Trump pardoned 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and the men of 1st Platoon were still trying to make sense of how it was even possible.

How could a man they blamed for ruining their lives, an officer the Army convicted of second-degree murder and other charges, be forgiven so easily? How could their president allow him to just walk free?

“I feel like I’m in a nightmare,” Lucas Gray, a former specialist from the unit, texted his old squad leader, who was out of the Army and living in Fayetteville, N.C.

“I haven’t been handling it well either,” replied Mike McGuinness on Nov. 15, the day Lorance was pardoned.

“There’s literally no point in anything we did or said,” Gray continued. “Now he gets to be the hero . . .”

“And we’re left to deal with it,” McGuinness concluded.

Lorance had been in command of 1st Platoon for only three days in Afghanistan but in that short span of time had averaged a war crime a day, a military jury found. On his last day before he was dismissed, he ordered his troops to open fire on three Afghan men standing by a motorcycle on the side of the road who he said posed a threat. His actions led to a 19-year prison sentence.

He had served six years when Trump, spurred to action by relentless Fox News coverage and Lorance’s insistence that he had made a split-second decision to protect his men, set him free.

The president’s opponents described the pardon as another instance of Trump subverting the rule of law to reward allies and reap political benefits. Military officials worried that the decision to overturn a case that had already been adjudicated in the military courts sent a signal that war crimes were not worthy of severe punishment.

For the men of 1st platoon, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, the costs of the war and the fallout from the case have been profound and sometimes deadly.

Traumatized by battle, they have also been brutalized by the politicization of their service and made to feel as if the truth of what they lived in Afghanistan — already a violent and harrowing tour before Lorance assumed command — had been so demeaned that it no longer existed.

Since returning home in 2013, five of the platoon’s three dozen soldiers have died. At least four others have been hospitalized following suicide attempts or struggles with drugs or alcohol.

The last fatality came a few weeks before Lorance was pardoned when James O. Twist, 27, a Michigan state trooper and father of three, died of suicide. As the White House was preparing the official order for Trump’s signature, the men of 1st Platoon gathered in Grand Rapids, Mich., for the funeral, where they remembered Twist as a good soldier who had bravely rushed through smoke and fire to pull a friend from a bomb crater and place a tourniquet on his right leg where it had been sheared off by the blast.

They thought of the calls and texts from him that they didn’t answer because they were too busy with their own lives — and Twist, who had a caring wife, a good job and a nice house — seemed like he was doing far better than most. They didn’t know that behind closed doors he was at times verbally abusive, ashamed of his inner torment and, like so many of them, unable to articulate his pain.

By November 2019, Twist, a man the soldiers of 1st Platoon loved, was gone and Lorance was free from prison and headed for New York City, a new life and a star turn on Fox News.

This story is based on a transcript of Lorance’s 2013 court-martial at Fort Bragg, N.C., and on-the-record interviews with 15 members of 1st Platoon, as well as family members of the soldiers, including Twist’s father and wife. The soldiers also shared texts and emails they exchanged over the past several years. Twist’s family provided his journal entries from his time in the Army. Lorance declined to be interviewed.

In New York, Sean Hannity, Lorance’s biggest champion and the man most responsible for persuading Trump to pardon him, asked Lorance about the shooting and soldiers under his command.

Lorance had traded in his Army uniform for a blazer and red tie. He leaned in to the microphone. “I don’t know any of these guys. None of them know me,” Lorance said of his former troops. “To be honest with you, I can’t even remember most of their names.”

The 1st Platoon soldiers came to the Army and the war from all over the country: Maryland, California, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Indiana and Texas to name just a few. They joined for all the usual reasons: “To keep my parents off my a–,” said one soldier.

“I just needed a change,” said another.

A few had tried college but quit because they were bored or failing their classes. “I didn’t know how to handle it,” Gray said of college. “I was really immature.”

Others joined right out of high school propelled by romantic notions, inherited from veteran fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, of service and duty. Twist’s father served in Vietnam as a clerk in an air-conditioned office before coming back to Michigan and opening a garage. In his spare time Twist Sr. was a military history buff, a passion that rubbed off on his son, who visited World War II battle sites in Europe with his dad. Twist was just 16 when he started badgering his parents to sign his enlistment papers and barely 18 when he left for basic training. His mother had died of cancer only a few months earlier.

“I got pictures of him the day we dropped him off, and he didn’t even wave goodbye,” his father recalled. “He was in pig heaven.”

Several of the 1st Platoon soldiers enlisted in search of a steady paycheck and the promise of health insurance and a middle-class life. “I needed to get out of northeast Ohio,” McGuinness said. “There wasn’t anything there.”

In 1999, he was set to pay his first union dues and go to work alongside his steelworker grandfather when the plant closed. So he became a paratrooper instead, eventually deploying three times to Afghanistan.

McGuinness didn’t look much like a paratrooper with his thick, squat body. But he liked being a soldier, jumping out of planes, firing weapons and drinking with his Army buddies. After a while the war didn’t make much sense, but he took pride in knowing that his soldiers trusted him and that he was good at his job.

Nine months before 1st Platoon landed in rural southern Afghanistan, a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.

Samuel Walley, the badly wounded soldier Twist pulled from the blast crater, wondered if they might be spared combat. “Wasn’t that the goal to kill bin Laden?” he recalled thinking. “Isn’t that checkmate?”

Around the same time, Twist was trying to make sense of what was to come. “I feel like the Army was a good decision, but also in my mind is a lot of dark thoughts,” he wrote in a spiral notebook. “I could die. I could come back with PTSD. I could be massively injured.”

“Maybe,” he hoped, “it will start winding down soon.”

But the decade-long war continued, driven by new, largely unattainable goals. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more and many photos.

I wonder when President Trump will take notice of the fact that Russia has placed (and has paid) a bounty for the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump doesn’t seem to care.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 9:54 am

“The Big Short”: see it (again, if you’ve seen it before) on Netflix

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The Big Short tells, in a highly entertaining way, one chapter in America’s decline which, to all appearances, continues unchecked. It’s an entertainly move with solid substance.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 9:44 am

Posted in Business, Movies & TV

Phoenix Solstice and the Baby Smooth

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I missed the Solstice this year — I was in the middle of the Meßner Tremonia run — but it’s never too late to enjoy a great shaving soap. This is not the CK-6 formula, but it’s damned good, and I do love the fragrance.

For the coarse brush I have my wonderful Plisson European Grey badger. Although the bristles are coarse, they are blunt, so (unlike brushes where the bristles have been cut in a way that leaves the end sharp), they feel good on the skin, like a light scrub. And the lather was very, very nice.

The Baby Smooth is an amazing razor. Three passes to perfect smoothness with ease and without problems, then a splash of Phoenix Solstice aftershave, and the day begins.

Written by LeisureGuy

2 July 2020 at 9:41 am

Posted in Shaving

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