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Facebook Enabled Advertisers to Reach ‘Jew Haters’

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Julia Angwin, Madeleine Varner, and Ariana Tobin report in ProPublica:

Want to market Nazi memorabilia, or recruit marchers for a far-right rally? Facebook’s self-service ad-buying platform had the right audience for you.

Until this week, when we asked Facebook about it, the world’s largest social network enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of “Jew hater,” “How to burn jews,” or, “History of ‘why jews ruin the world.’”

To test if these ad categories were real, we paid $30 to target those groups with three “promoted posts” — in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook approved all three ads within 15 minutes.

After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories — which were created by an algorithm rather than by people — and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers.

“There are times where content is surfaced on our platform that violates our standards,” said Rob Leathern, product management director at Facebook. “In this case, we’ve removed the associated targeting fields in question. We know we have more work to do, so we’re also building new guardrails in our product and review processes to prevent other issues like this from happening in the future.”

Facebook’s advertising has become a focus of national attention since it disclosed last week that it had discovered $100,000 worth of ads placed during the 2016 presidential election season by “inauthentic” accounts that appeared to be affiliated with Russia.

Like many tech companies, Facebook has long taken a hands off approach to its advertising business. Unlike traditional media companies that select the audiences they offer advertisers, Facebook generates its ad categories automatically based both on what users explicitly share with Facebook and what they implicitly convey through their online activity.

Traditionally, tech companies have contended that it’s not their role to censor the Internet or to discourage legitimate political expression. In the wake of the violent protests in Charlottesville by right-wing groups that included self-described Nazis, Facebook and other tech companies vowed to strengthen their monitoring of hate speech.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote at the time that “there is no place for hate in our community,” and pledged to keep a closer eye on hateful posts and threats of violence on Facebook. “It’s a disgrace that we still need to say that neo-Nazis and white supremacists are wrong — as if this is somehow not obvious,” he wrote.

But Facebook apparently did not intensify its scrutiny of its ad buying platform. In all likelihood, the ad categories that we spotted were automatically generated because people had listed those anti-Semitic themes on their Facebook profiles as an interest, an employer or a “field of study.” Facebook’s algorithm automatically transforms people’s declared interests into advertising categories.

Here is a screenshot of our ad buying process on the company’s advertising portal: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 2:40 pm

Can American soil be brought back to life?

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Jenny Hopkinson writes in Politico:

Four generations of Jonathan Cobb’s family tended the same farm in Rogers, Texas, growing row upon row of corn and cotton on 3,000 acres. But by 2011, Cobb wasn’t feeling nostalgic. Farming was becoming rote and joyless; the main change from one year to the next was intensively planting more and more acres of corn and soy, churning up the soil and using ever more chemical fertilizers and herbicides to try and turn a profit.

“I’d already had the difficult conversation with my dad that he would be the last generation on the farm,” Cobb said.

While looking for a new job, Cobb stopped into a local office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pick up some paperwork. That day, the staff was doing a training session on soil health. He stayed to watch and was struck by a demonstration showing a side-by-side comparison of healthy and unhealthy soils.

A clump of soil from a heavily tilled and cropped field was dropped into a wire mesh basket at the top of a glass cylinder filled with water. At the same time, a clump of soil from a pasture that grew a variety of plants and grasses and hadn’t been disturbed for years was dropped into another wire mesh basket in an identical glass cylinder. The tilled soil–similar to the dry, brown soil on Cobb’s farm—dissolved in water like dust. The soil from the pasture stayed together in a clump, keeping its structure and soaking up the water like a sponge. Cobb realized he wasn’t just seeing an agricultural scientist show off a chunk of soil: He was seeing a potential new philosophy of farming.

“By the end of that day I knew that I was supposed to stay on the farm and be part of that paradigm shift,” Cobb said. “It was that quick.”

The shift he’s talking about is a new trend in agriculture, one with implications from farm productivity to the environment to human health. For generations, soil has been treated almost as a backdrop — not much more than a medium for holding plants while fertilizer and herbicides help them grow. The result, over the years, has been poorer and drier topsoil that doesn’t hold on to nutrients or water. The impact of this degradation isn’t just on farmers, but extends to Americans’ health. Dust blowing off degraded fields leads to respiratory illness in rural areas; thousands of people are exposed to drinking water with levels of pesticides at levels that the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed to be of concern. The drinking water of more than 210 million Americans is polluted with nitrate, a key fertilizer chemical that has been linked to developmental problems in children and poses cancer risks in adults. And thanks to some modern farming techniques, soil degradation is releasing carbon—which becomes carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas—instead of holding on to it. In fact, the United Nations considers soil degradation one of the central threats to human health in the coming decades for those very reasons.

Now, some farmers and soil scientists are realizing that for the health of both people and farms, the most important thing you can do is look at soil differently—seeing topsoil as a living thing itself, which can be tended and even improved. Good soil is alive with a host of delicate organisms, many of them microscopic, producing structure and nutrients. As long as they’re thriving, soil can better absorb and retain water and feed plants and control pests. But when they die off, because they’ve been churned up and exposed to the sun and air or smothered with chemicals, the soil gradually becomes little more than powdered minerals.

Science and farming techniques have been evolving—in part thanks to the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, where Cobb saw that demonstration in 2011 that changed his worldview. But the change isn’t coming easily. Even as some farmers move toward more holistic soil management, they’re running into friction–from the culture of farming, from the business of agriculture and—ironically—from some federal policies that encourage them to stick to the same old farming approach that got them here.

AMERICA USED TO be famed for its rich and fertile topsoil. Prairie and forests were virtually untouched when settlers first started dividing land into fields across the Southeast and Midwest, making for rich dark soil in which to grow food and fiber.

Since the invention of the plow, farming has focused on disrupting the soil to make it productive. Most farming methods, whether conventional or organic, are based on “tillage” – the premise that to plant crops and control weeds and other pests, the soil must be broken up and turned over, then amended with chemical fertilizers or organic compost to boost fertility. And it worked for a long time.

But tilling, it turns out, kills off many of the microorganisms that build the soil. It churns up their habitat and exposes them to air; it also makes it easier for soil to be washed off the land by rain and wind. Over time, the damage has built up: More than 50 percent America’s topsoil has eroded away. In areas of the Southeast, the country’s original breadbasket, it’s almost all gone.

Soil, at its base, is 50 percent gas and water, and roughly 45 percent minerals such as sand, silt and clay. The remainder is organic matter—decomposing plants and animals. For being such a small portion of dirt, organic matter plays a huge role. It serves as food for microorganisms that do everything from store water to provide nutrients for plants and control pests. Researchers are learning more and more about the exchange between plants and fungi, bacteria and other organisms in the soil, said Robert Myers, a professor of soil sciences at the University of Missouri. . .

Continue reading.

Do read the article. Some fascinating photos included with it.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2017 at 10:51 am

A set of articles on the heroin crisis. Read about it. It’s worse than you think.

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From David Pell’s newsletter NextDraft:

“Once a bustling industrial town, Huntington, West Virginia has become the epicenter of America’s modern opioid epidemic, with an overdose rate 10 times the national average. This flood of heroin now threatens this Appalachian city with a cycle of generational addiction, lawlessness, and poverty.” The new Netflix documentary Heroin(e) (produced in collaboration with my friends at the excellent Center for Investigative Journalism) tells the story of three women on the front lines of the battle to save small towns from the perfect storm of America’s opioid/heroin disaster. It’s only thirty minutes. Take the time to watch it. Below, I’ve shared a collection of articles to frame this pressing story.

+ Cincinnati Enquirer: Seven days of heroin: This is what an epidemic looks like.

+ “Often omitted from the conversation about the epidemic is the fact that it is also inflicting harm on the American economy, and on a scale not seen in any previous drug crisis.” Even if politicians are not moved by the moral issue, they should be moved by the economic factors. The New Yorker on the cost of the opioid crisis.

+ “Distributors have fed their greed on human frailties and to criminal effect. There is no excuse and should be no forgiveness.” From the Charleston Gazette-Mail: Drug firms poured 780M painkillers into WV amid rise of overdoses.

+ What can a company like Purdue Pharma do to make ends meet when the domestic market finally gets hit with regulations? The family behind the company decided to follow in the deadly footsteps of big tobacco. From the LA Times: OxyContin goes global.

+ Bloomberg: Big Pharma’s Tobacco Moment as Star Lawyers Push Opioid Suits.

+ When American states started to legalize marijuana, drug cartels saw the writing on the wall. They knew they’d need a new source of income, and the opioid crisis provided them with a market of addicts suddenly facing a legal crackdown on pain pill mills. From the great Don Winslow: El Chapo and The Secret History of the Heroin Crisis.

+ And for a look at the rise of pill mills (a hurricane that hit Florida long before Irma), check out the book American Pain, by John Temple.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 September 2017 at 2:00 pm

Trump says his tax break will get companies to hire more workers. Companies say it won’t.

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So who would you trust? (Hint: check out the NY Times list of lies Trump has told since becoming president.) For those who read the news, Trump has negative credibility.

Heather Long reports in the Washington Post:

 

American companies such as Apple and Microsoft have huge cash reserves sitting overseas. President Trump keeps saying it’s as much as $5 trillion. But no one else seems to think it’s that high. Most on Wall Street say those overseas reserves total more like $2 trillion to $3 trillion. Whatever the exact figure is, it’s substantial.

Trump wants to bring that money back to the United States to spur jobs and growth, and he’s been aggressively pitching a plan to offer companies a large tax break if they bring all those dollars back to America soon. Under Trump’s proposal, companies would only have to pay a 10 percent tax on money they bring back — a process often called “repatriation” — rather than the usual 35 percent. (Trump offered that 10 percent figure during his campaign. More recent White House documents don’t specify an exact tax rate.)

“We must bring back trillions of dollars in wealth that’s parked overseas and just can’t come back,” Trump said last week in North Dakota during a speech intended to rally support for tax cuts. “We’re going to get it done.”

Trump says middle-class Americans should not fret about giant corporations getting a steep discount on their tax bills. Once that money is on U.S. soil, Trump argues, companies will use it to build new factories and research centers and create more American jobs.

But there are a lot of reasons to be highly skeptical of Trump’s repatriation plan. Chief among them is that U.S. companies have already told the world what they would do if they were granted a cheaper way to bring back trillions from overseas — and it wouldn’t be hiring workers or making more investments in America.

When Bank of America Merrill Lynch surveyed more than 300 top U.S. companies this summer about their plans for Trump’s “tax holiday” on overseas cash, 65 percent said they would bring the money back to the United States and use it to pay down debt. The next most popular plan was to spend the money on stock buybacks — when companies purchase their own stock, driving up the price.

“Companies want to get their money back to buy stock and goose the stock price because their senior executives derive so much of their compensation from the stock prices,” said Edward Kleinbard, a tax law professor at the University of Southern California and former chief of staff for Congress’s nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation. “Their motives are completely suspect.”

These actions would make rich executives and shareholders wealthier by boosting the company stock price. They would not deliver a boon to workers — or the economy as a whole — as Trump is promising.

The White House tried this once before, and the results were grim. Trump frequently bashes former president George W. Bush, but this tax holiday for foreign profits is straight out of the Bush playbook. In 2004, Congress and Bush dropped the tax rate on foreign earnings to 5.25 percent for a short window in 2004-05. It resulted in a great payday for CEOs and Wall Street shareholders but did almost nothing to help workers.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 September 2017 at 10:17 am

Josh Marshall: “The Growing Backlash Against Big Tech”

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Worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2017 at 4:50 pm

Jennifer Rubin asks an important question: “What about the Russia lies?”

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Jennifer Rubin writes in the Washington Post:

Jack Goldsmith’s assessment in the Atlantic of President Trump’s damage to our democratic institutions includes this:

Donald Trump is a norm-busting president without parallel in American history. He has told scores of easily disprovable public lies; he has shifted back and forth and back again on his policies, often contradicting Cabinet officials along the way; he has attacked the courts, the press, his predecessor, his former electoral opponent, members of his party, the intelligence community, and even his own attorney general; he has failed to release his tax returns or to fill senior political positions in many agencies; he has shown indifference to ethics concerns; he has regularly interjected a self-regarding political element into apolitical events; he has monetized the presidency by linking it to his personal business interests; and he has engaged in cruel public behavior. The list goes on and on.

He has also lied. A lot. The sheer volume of the lies — 1,145, by Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler’s count — has been breathtaking. But it is the gravity of some of them — the self-serving lies on which he ran and on which he governs — that should not go unnoticed by the public or by Congress.

The biggest lie of the campaign, one on which some would say he turned his campaign into a fraud, was his declaration that he had “nothing to do with Russia.” He repeated that line during the campaign and continued to tweet and tell the same lie during his presidency. “I have had dealings over the years where I sold a house to a very wealthy Russian many years ago. I had the Miss Universe pageant — which I owned for quite a while — I had it in Moscow a long time ago,” he told NBC’s Lester Holt in May. “But other than that, I have nothing to do with Russia.” We now know that Trump was pursuing a gigantic deal for Trump Tower as he ran for president, refusing to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And he helped his son lie about the June meeting with Russian officials, according to news reports. The Post reported:

The extent of the president’s personal intervention in his son’s response, the details of which have not previously been reported, adds to a series of actions that Trump has taken that some advisers fear could place him and some members of his inner circle in legal jeopardy.

As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III looks into potential obstruction of justice as part of his broader investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, these advisers worry that the president’s direct involvement leaves him needlessly vulnerable to allegations of a coverup.

“This was … unnecessary,” said one of the president’s advisers, who like most other people interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”

During the campaign, Trump denied he had pursued a moneymaking venture with America’s most formidable international foe. When evidence of contact with his son emerged, during an investigation into his Russian connections, he helped draft a false cover story. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2017 at 4:36 pm

The media gets the opioid crisis wrong. Here is the truth.

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Anne Case, the Alexander Stewart 1886 professor of economics and public affairs emeritus at Princeton University, and Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower professor of economics and international affairs emeritus at Princeton University and the 2015 Nobel laureate in economics, write in the Washington Post:

Lawmakers and the media have devoted much of their attention recently to deaths from opioid overdoses, as well as to the broader “deaths of despair” that include suicides and deaths from alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis. But despite the intense focus on the topic, misinformation about the epidemic runs rampant.

By conventional wisdom, tackling this crisis would require extending Medicaid and improving how it functions, cracking down on prescription painkillers and getting more health-care resources into rural communities.

But that’s not exactly right. To correct the record, here are four points to bear in mind:

Medicaid isn’t the problem (and isn’t the solution). Critics of Medicaid argue that the program enables the epidemic by paying for prescription opioids. In fact, Princeton University researchers Janet Currie and Molly Schnell calculate that only 8 percent of all opioid prescriptions from January 2006 to March 2015 were paid for by Medicaid, based on data from QuintilesIMS, a leading health-care information company.

Medicaid can help addicts by providing a range of evidence-based therapies. This is correct and, like many others, we think treatment is a good idea. As such, we are also concerned about the effects that reductions in Medicaid could have on the epidemic. But Medicaid proponents often greatly overstate what can be expected from treatment in general, and Medicaid in particular. Many addicts deny their addiction and either do not seek or do not adhere to treatment once started. “Evidence-based” typically means there has been a randomized, controlled trial that has demonstrated effectiveness. But trials include only those who seek treatment — and say nothing about those who avoid it. A trial is deemed successful when the treatment is proved better than nothing (or at least a placebo) — even if only a few people end up benefiting from it.

It is not all about opioids. Policymakers often speak as if the epidemic will be over as soon as we tackle both legal and illegal opioids. Better control of opioids is essential, but, even without opioid deaths, there would still be as many or more deaths from suicide and liver diseases. Opioids are like guns handed out in a suicide ward; they have certainly made the total epidemic much worse, but they are not the cause of the underlying depression. We suspect that deaths of despair among those without a university degree are primarily the result of a 40-year stagnation of median real wages and a long-term decline in the number of well-paying jobs for those without a bachelor’s degree. Falling labor force participation, sluggish wage growth, and associated dysfunctional marriage and child-rearing patterns have undermined the meaning of working people’s lives as well.

The crisis has hit men and women about equally.  . .

Continue reading.

Also note: “Here’s How Big Pharma Helped Set New Pain Guidelines,” by Kevin Drum, on the origins of the crisis we now face.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2017 at 3:44 pm

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