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Text messages show Boeing employees knew in 2016 of problems that turned deadly on the 737 Max

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Michael Laris reports a clear case of corporate nonfeasance in the Washington Post:

Text messages between Boeing employees in 2016 indicate that the company was aware of major problems with an automated feature on the 737 Max jet that made the aircraft difficult to control, the messages show.

Safety investigators say the system, known as MCAS, had repeatedly pushed the noses of planes down in Indonesia and Ethi­o­pia, contributing to crashes that killed 346 people in the past year.

One text message with a misspelling said the feature was engaging “itself like craxy.” Another termed the problem “egregious.”

Another indicated that the Boeing employees misled the Federal Aviation Administration. “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly),” read one message.

“It wasnt a lie, no one told us that was the case,” came the response.

Boeing did not turn the messages over to the FAA until Thursday, federal officials said Friday.

The FAA said in a statement that it “finds the substance of the document concerning. The FAA is also disappointed that Boeing did not bring this document to our attention immediately upon its discovery.”

Long before the Max disasters, Boeing had a history of failing to fix safety problems

FAA administrator Steve Dickson said in a letter to Boeing Friday: “I expect your explanation immediately.”

Boeing said in a statement that it had provided Congress a document “containing statements by a former Boeing employee.” The company said it “will continue to cooperate” with an investigation by the House Transportation Committee and “we will continue to follow the direction of the FAA and other global regulators, as we work to safely return the 737 MAX to service.”

The existence of the text messages was first reported by Reuters. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

18 October 2019 at 11:56 am

U.S. Procurement Won the Civil War, Today It Would Lose A War to China

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Today’s issue is written by two government procurement experts (and readers of BIG). One is an anonymous currently practicing government contracting officer who has been doing acquisitions for ten years. The other is Lane Becker, who was formerly with the Technology Transformation Services at GSA, where he started and ran the 10x investment program (https://10x.gsa.gov). Before that Lane started a couple of companies in Silicon Valley. These folks are really smart, you are in for a treat.

Their piece is on innovation and war in the 19th century and today, which as it turns out, are conceptually the same. What do the Confederacy, Union procurement, and Chinese development of their air force have in common? More than you think…

But first, my book is out today! Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. Buy it, read it, and tell me what you think. The first excerpt is out in the American Prospect on one of the great villains of American history, Andrew Mellon. . .

U.S. Procurement Won the Civil War, It Would Lose A War to China

If it were not for a single unorthodox approach to contracting by the U.S. Navy in early 1861, the Confederate States of America would very likely have won the Civil War.

The story of how the Union kept Washington from falling into the hands of the Confederates by buying smarter is illuminating — as is the reason that such a purchase would be almost impossible to make in the United States today, given the level of dysfunction in our present-day defense contracting system.

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union was able to successfully establish a naval blockade because the Southern states had few ships of their own. A blockade was critical to prevent cotton from flowing to Europe, allowing the South to strengthen its financial, military, and foreign policy position. But the Union’s blockade was tenuous. The U.S. Navy at the time was, according to the assessment of U.S. naval secretary Gideon Welles, “feeble, and in no condition for belligerent operations. Most of the vessels in commission were on foreign service; only three or four, and they were of inferior class, were available for active duty.”

The Confederacy’s naval secretary, Stephen Mallory, sought to take advantage of the Union’s naval weakness, and crafted a superior fighting ship to defeat the Union on the water. When the South took the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, in April of 1861, the confederates salvaged the hull of the U.S.S. Merrimack, and Mallory ordered his men to rebuild the top half of the scuttled wooden ship with iron — a first for its time. As one historian noted, “Mallory understood that innovation and creativity would be his primary hope in the face of an overwhelming conventional force he could not match.”

Union spies inside the Confederacy sent a steady stream of information about the building of the “ironclad” northward. Union leaders realized that to maintain the blockade, they needed better ships. The Navy issued open advertisements and gave respondents 25 days to submit plans, but, “still hanging on to what they knew best,” the request was laden with requirements that severely limited the range of what could be offered in response while also ensuring the build cost would remain high (a situation that will sound strikingly familiar to anyone involved in government acquisitions today.)

The selection board received proposals for 16 designs and settled on two, but, worried that neither would actually float, asked the finalists to provide mathematical evidence of their ships’ viability. This request stumped the submitter of a design for the U.S.S. Galena, Cornelius Bushnell, until a chance encounter at The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. with the owner of a major ironworks plant led him to a Swedish born engineer named John Ericsson. Ericsson did the calculations in a night, and then, offhandedly, proceeded to show Bushnell an entirely new design for an ironclad ship he had designed 10 years earlier.

Bushnell later said listening to Ericsson talk about building his ironclad “awoke [him] to the fact that salvation was in store for our Government and country.” Ericsson’s design had no masts, rigging, or sails whatsoever,  and was much smaller than similar fighting ships, more like a modern day submarine. Most importantly, it was made entirely of iron, not wood with iron plating, which meant it would be able to withstand a significantly greater attack.

Bushnell took the model directly to Secretary Welles. Impressed, Welles and Bushnell attempted to convince the more conservative naval officers on the selection board to approve this new design despite its deviations from their list of required features, ultimately enlisting President Lincoln to join them for their presentation.

Even with Lincoln’s endorsement, the design was rejected by the board as too radical. Undeterred, Bushnell convinced Ericsson to come to Washington to present to the board himself. After much debate, the board relented and allowed Ericsson to proceed, convinced by the fact that his $275,000 submission was by far the cheapest, and that he could build his ship in 100 days — the only proposal that would be finished by the time the Merrimack’s conversion into the C.S.S. Virginia would be completed.

On March 8th, 1862, the Confederate ironclad left port, headed to the northern side of Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the James River meets the Chesapeake Bay, and where the U.S. Army was stationed at Fortress Monroe with several wooden ships enforcing Lincoln’s blockade.

Panic set in. Should the blockade fall, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said to Lincoln, “it was not unlikely we shall have a shell or cannon-ball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.” Fortunately, Ericsson had finished his ship, the U.S.S. Monitor, two weeks earlier. The crew of the Monitor sailed 51 hours straight to get to Hampton Roads, arriving six hours after the fighting had begun and several Union ships had already been lost.

The two ships were evenly matched and battled for several hours, but in the end, the Monitor prevailed, entirely because of Ericsson’s design. The classically ironclad design of the Virginia — the top half of the old Merrimack now covered in iron plating but the bottom still exposed wood — meant that, as the battle wore on, the Virginia used up so much ammunition that the ship began to lighten, eventually rising high enough in the water that it was about to expose its wooden underbelly to the all-iron Monitor. The Virginia steamed off before that could happen. The Union had won.

War without Competition

It is as true today as it was during the Civil War that bringing new ideas into old institutions is a daunting task. But whereas in 1861 it was difficult for someone like John Ericsson to get his idea for a new kind of ship into the hands of the U.S. Navy — requiring a combination of talent, connections, persistence, and sheer luck, all very American traits  — today it would be impossible.

That’s not to say that similar threats desperately in need of inventive responses don’t exist. They’re everywhere, whether it’s the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noting that every major weapons system is riddled with cybersecurity vulnerabilities that could neutralize them entirely, warnings from top level commanders that the military needs to adapt, or experts outright declaring that as things currently stand America will likely lose a war against “near-peer” rivals Russia or China. But we’ve professionalized and obfuscated the practice of government contracting to such a degree that it’s become nearly impossible to penetrate by normal industry, let alone dogged patriots like Ericsson. Eisenhower’s warnings about the military industrial complex 50 years ago have truly come to fruition.

Healthy competition encouraging new entrants and smaller players are critical to the successful development of any new technology. This is especially true for military technology, where historically it has been outsiders who bring the biggest changes, like Patrick Blackett essentially creating modern day operations research during World War II. The ironclad board in 1861 got 16 bids and awarded to three different companies, but that level of competition is unheard of for today’s major weapons systems, where 67% of major government defense contracts are now awarded to companies without any form of competition. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2019 at 10:59 am

Inside TurboTax’s 20-Year Fight to Stop Americans From Filing Their Taxes for Free

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Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel report in ProPublica:

Last fall, Intuit’s longtime CEO Brad Smith embarked on a farewell tour of the company’s offices around the world. Smith had presided over 11 years of explosive growth, a period when Intuit had secured its place in the Silicon Valley pantheon, and the tour was like a long party.

In Ontario, employees wore T-shirts with Smith’s quasi-spiritual sayings: “Do whatever makes your heart beat fastest” and “Repetition doesn’t ruin the prayer.” In Bangalore, India, workers put on Smith face masks as they posed for selfies with the man himself. Fittingly, the tour culminated in San Diego, the home of TurboTax, the software that transformed the company’s fortunes. There, Smith arrived at his party in a DeLorean, and as he walked a red carpet, cheering employees waved “Brad is Rad” signs. To Smith’s delight, his favorite rock star, Gene Simmons of Kiss, emerged. The two posed for pictures, Simmons clad in black and the beaming CEO flashing the “rock on” hand sign.

Intuit began in the 1980s as an accounting software company focused on helping people with their bookkeeping. Over time, the company, like the other giants of Big Tech, cultivated an image of being not just good at what it did, but good, period. In a recent Super Bowl ad, Intuit portrayed itself as a gentle robot that liberates small-business owners from paperwork. The company stresses values above all, urging employees to “deliver awesome” and pursue “integrity without compromise.”

Intuit’s QuickBooks accounting product remains a steady moneymaker, but in the past two decades TurboTax, its tax preparation product, has driven the company’s steadily growing profits and made it a Wall Street phenom. When Smith took over in 2008, TurboTax was a market leader, but only a small portion of Americans filed their taxes online. By 2019, nearly 40% of U.S. taxpayers filed online and some 40 million of them did so with TurboTax, far more than with any other product.

But the success of TurboTax rests on a shaky foundation, one that could collapse overnight if the U.S. government did what most wealthy countries did long ago and made tax filing simple and free for most citizens.

For more than 20 years, Intuit has waged a sophisticated, sometimes covert war to prevent the government from doing just that, according to internal company and IRS documents and interviews with insiders. The company unleashed a battalion of lobbyists and hired top officials from the agency that regulates it. From the beginning, Intuit recognized that its success depended on two parallel missions: stoking innovation in Silicon Valley while stifling it in Washington. Indeed, employees ruefully joke that the company’s motto should actually be “compromise without integrity.”

Internal presentations lay out company tactics for fighting “encroachment,” Intuit’s catchall term for any government initiative to make filing taxes easier — such as creating a free government filing system or pre-filling people’s returns with payroll or other data the IRS already has. “For a decade proposals have sought to create IRS tax software or a ReturnFree Tax System; All were stopped,” reads a confidential 2007 PowerPoint presentation from an Intuit board of directors meeting. The company’s 2014-15 plan included manufacturing “3rd-party grass roots” support. “Buy ads for op-eds/editorials/stories in African American and Latino media,” one internal PowerPoint slide states.

The centerpiece of Intuit’s anti-encroachment strategy has been the Free File program, hatched 17 years ago in a moment of crisis for the company. Under the terms of an agreement with the federal government, Intuit and other commercial tax prep companies promised to provide free online filing to tens of millions of lower-income taxpayers. In exchange, the IRS pledged not to create a government-run system.

Since Free File’s launch, Intuit has done everything it could to limit the program’s reach while making sure the government stuck to its end of the deal. As ProPublica has reported, Intuit added code to the Free File landing page of TurboTax that hid it from search engines like Google, making it harder for would-be users to find.

Twelve years ago, Intuit launched its own “free” product: the similarly named “Free Edition” of TurboTax. But unlike the government program, this one comes with traps that can push customers lured with the promise of “free” into paying, some more than $200. Free Edition was a smash hit for Intuit and its pitch for “free” prep remains core to the company’s growth. Recently, it launched a “free, free free free” ad campaign for the Free Edition, including a crossword puzzle in The New York Times in which the answer to every clue was “f-r-e-e.”

Intuit knows it’s deceiving its customers, internal company documents obtained by ProPublica show. “The website lists Free, Free, Free and the customers are assuming their return will be free,” said a company PowerPoint presentation that reported the results of an analysis of customer calls this year. “Customers are getting upset.”

Intuit also continues to use “dark patterns” — design tricks to get users of its website to do things they don’t necessarily mean to do — to ensure that as many customers as possible pay, former employees say. A marketing concept frequently invoked at Intuit, which goes by the acronym “FUD,” seeks to tap into Americans’ fear, uncertainty and doubt about the tax filing process.

An Intuit spokesman declined to answer ProPublica’s detailed questions about its efforts to fend off a government filing system, but he provided a statement.

“We empower our customers to take control of their financial lives, which includes being in charge of their own tax preparation,” he said, adding that a “government-run pre-filled tax preparation system that makes the tax collector (who is also the investigator, auditor and enforcer) the tax preparer is fraught with conflicts of interest.”

The IRS is seemingly the biggest threat to Intuit and other commercial tax prep businesses, but it has more frequently acted as the industry’s ally, defending the Free File program even in the face of critical internal reviews. The IRS declined to comment for this article.

The consequences of Intuit’s efforts affect a huge proportion of the taxpaying public. Americans spend an estimated 1.7 billion hours and $31 billion doing their taxes each year. Just 2.8 million participated in the Free File program this year, down from 5.1 million at the program’s peak in 2005.

Intuit’s success has made the men who run the company rich. Smith, the CEO who stepped down last year and is now executive board chair, had a stake worth $20 million when he became chief executive. It ballooned to $220 million by last year. Co-founder Scott Cook is now among the country’s wealthiest people, his fortune soaring to $3.3 billion.

This year, Intuit was close to realizing a long-held goal: enshrining the Free File program in law, effectively closing the door on the IRS ever creating a free tax filing system. But an outcry followed ProPublica’s reporting on the matter and Intuit’s treatment of its customers, prompting the provision to be dropped and state and federal investigations into Intuit’s practices.

Yet even after this setback, the company remained steadfastly confident that its clout in Washington would win the day.

“What we’re not gonna do is fight this publicly because that is exactly what they want us to do,” said Sasan Goodarzi, the new CEO, in a video released to staff this May and obtained by ProPublica. “We are actually working with the IRS and members of the Congress to ensure that the facts are very clear.”

Intuit has dominated the tax software market since 1993, when for $225 million, it bought Chipsoft, the San Diego-based company that had created TurboTax. Even then, TurboTax was the most popular option, but Intuit pursued a plan of aggressive growth. The product necessarily came on a disk, and by the end of the 1990s TurboTax boxes were nearly ubiquitous, on shelves in office supply stores across America.

As internet speeds increased and dot-com mania took hold, it became apparent that Intuit’s future was not in a box on a shelf. It was online.

The prospect of TurboTax’s growth was vast for another reason. As late as 2001, around 45 million Americans still filled out their tax forms on paper. For Intuit, those were all potential customers.

But Intuit wasn’t alone in seeing possibilities in the spread of high-speed internet. In Washington, lawmakers began pushing the IRS to modernize and get more taxpayers to file electronically. It was a no-brainer: Filing taxes online would be easier, and the IRS would save staff costs on processing paper returns.

The danger to Intuit’s growing business was obvious. If the government succeeded in creating a system that allowed the vast majority of taxpayers to file online for free, TurboTax profits would plummet. Intuit recognized that the notion of “return-free filing” was not going away on its own.

And so in 1998, the company hired Bernie McKay, a onetime Carter administration aide and a senior lobbyist at AT&T, to be its vice president for corporate affairs. Intuit executives like to talk about having a “customer obsession” in developing their products. McKay’s obsession is stopping government encroachment. Known to physically bang the table to drive home a point, McKay’s style is “aggressive to the point of offense,” said one fellow tax prep lobbyist. An Intuit spokesman said, “This mischaracterization of Mr. McKay is pure fiction.”

McKay, for his part, when asked at a recent tax industry conference which Star Wars character he is, responded, “Darth Vader.”

The year McKay was hired, Congress passed a major overhaul of the IRS. The bill, reflecting Intuit’s lobbying, said that the IRS “should cooperate with and encourage the private sector” to increase electronic filing.

While McKay came through in his first big test, in 2002, the company found itself up against an unexpected foe, the George W. Bush administration. The threat came from a broad administration initiative to upgrade government technology. One of the proposals called for the IRS to develop “an easy, no-cost option for taxpayers to file their tax return online.”

Without such an option, taxpayers were stuck either filing on paper or, to file electronically, paying a tax professional or software company like TurboTax. Providing an alternative would be an obvious improvement, said Mark Forman, an official at the Office of Management and Budget who led the “e-government” program. The technology wasn’t all that complicated, and creating a free, automated filing system would help tens of millions of Americans. “This was seen as a low-cost, high-payoff initiative,” Forman recalled in a recent interview with ProPublica. Standing in the way, he said, was an industry “that lives off the complexity of the tax code.”

Intuit revved its new lobbying machine. Even before the OMB report was publicly released, a group of Republican lawmakers, led by TurboTax’s hometown congressman, wrote to the agency arguing that there was no reason for the government to “compete” with the “well-established” private tax prep companies. Intuit’s lobbyists also went above the OMB and pressed their case directly to the White House, Forman recalled.

At the IRS, “all hell broke loose,” remembered Terry Lutes, who was then the head of electronic filing at the agency. Intuit’s clout on the Hill meant that lawmakers were soon accusing the IRS of making “secret plans to undercut the industry,” Lutes said. The agency ran the risk of seeing its funding cut if it were to pursue the Bush plan.

The IRS commissioner at the time, Charles Rossotti, also opposed the idea. The IRS’ customer service staff, already too thin to respond adequately to Americans’ questions about the tax code, would have to grow substantially to handle millions of software queries. Congress “will never give you sufficient funding,” Rossotti told ProPublica.

So the IRS felt caught in the middle. The question became, Lutes said, “Is there some way to come out of this with something for taxpayers that addresses the administration’s objective and at the same time is acceptable to industry?”

Intuit, it turned out, did have a way. Since 1999, as part of the company’s strategy to head off encroachment, TurboTax had been offering free tax prep to the poorest filers.It was a program that served to bolster the company’s arguments that government intervention was unnecessary.

This became the basis for a deal. The industry would offer free tax prep to a larger portion of taxpayers. In exchange, the IRS would promise not to develop its own system.

Intuit organized a coalition of tax prep companies under the name the Free File Alliance, and after negotiations with the IRS, the group agreed to provide free federal filing to 60% of taxpayers, or about 78 million people at the time. Government officials touted the solution as a marvel of public and private cooperation. Americans would get free tax prep, and it would cost the government almost nothing.

For Intuit, it was the culmination of years of lobbying. The IRS had signed a contract that said it “will not compete with the [Free File Alliance] in providing free, online tax return preparation and filing services to taxpayers.”

What’s more, “free” wasn’t as unprofitable as it sounded. The alliance, guided by a lawyer who was also an Intuit lobbyist, won a series of concessions that made the program palatable to industry. Free File only required the companies to offer free federal returns. They could charge for other products. The state return was the most common, but they could also pitch loans, “audit defense” or even products that had nothing to do with taxes.

Free File had another bright side: The companies could tailor their Free File offers so that they didn’t cut into their base of paying customers. The agreement said the industry had to offer free federal services to at least 60% of taxpayers, but each company individually only had to cover 10% of taxpayers. Intuit and the others were free to limit their offers of free tax prep by age, income or state.

There was little incentive for the companies to publicize a free alternative to their paid products, and the IRS agreed that the Free File offers need only be listed on a special page of the agency’s website.

For Intuit, it was a major victory in the war against encroachment. The company could now focus on turning whatever new customers it acquired through the program into paying users, both that year and in the future.

The first year of Free File was 2003, and for Intuit, things went well. On paper, the Free File Alliance was a collection of 17 companies, all of them vying to serve the American taxpayer. But in reality, it was a group made up of two giants and a bunch of gnats. Intuit’s only significant competitor was H&R Block, and even it was a distant second. The rest of the alliance consisted mostly of tiny companies with names like Free1040TaxReturns.com. As a result, Intuit could tailor its Free File offer just the way it wanted.

But the next year, Intuit began to lose control of its creation. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 October 2019 at 9:35 am

Facebook needs some regulation. It is out of control.

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From my morning newsletter from Popular Information:

On Wednesday, Popular Information reported that Facebook was punishing a small Alaskan public radio station for publishing “clickbait.” The “clickbait” was actually a detailed report on a complex local ballot initiative. The station appealed Facebook’s decision, but its appeal was rejected.

But after Popular Information’s report, Facebook reexamined the decision, acknowledged it made “errors” in the application of its policy and rescinded the punishment.

Popular Information’s recent reporting has also spurred a national discussion on Facebook’s political advertising policies. You can read about it in this New York Times column, which credits Popular Information’s work.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2019 at 9:55 am

The complex unseen network that underlies modern society

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Yesterday I posted an article that describes the intricacies of bringing a new and better wheat to commercial production: The article described the various stakeholders who had to learn about it and buy into it: the agronomist researcher, the farmers, the grain mills, and the bakers.

It’s easy to see how the Dunning-Kruger effect is common: modern society is so complex that, other than few areas we know, there are vast regions of knowledge and practice of which we are totally ignorant.

Here’s another piece on breads and flours from the blog Fraine. Consider this passage:

All agricultural machinery used by the farmers who work with Les Moulins is equipped with a chip that constantly analyzes data during sowing, hoeing, fertilizing, and harvesting. That chip makes it possible to determine the quality of the protein in each part of each field so that overfertilizing is never an issue. Every element is measured and controlled at every stage. The origin of each grain delivery can be pinpointed not only to the individual farm but almost to the individual furrow. Blends are made on the basis of the percentage of gluten (which is not necessarily the same as the percentage of protein) and the aptitude of the flour to produce the desired dough characteristics. What’s more, by managing changes in wheat characteristics, it is now possible to develop a wide range of aromas from floral to coffee. The baker can choose the ones that will become his or signature once he/she applies to the flour his or her knowledge of the fermentation process by varying acidity and temperatures levels. He/she can pick different blends for different breads.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 October 2019 at 8:39 am

Flour power: meet the bread heads baking a better loaf

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Why on the whole it’s been easy to give up bread. Wendell Stevenson writes in the Guardian:

The best thing since sliced bread turns out not to be sliced bread. Our supermarket loaf, which accounts for 80% of all the bread bought in the UK, is sweetish, soft and pappy. The ingredients listed on the plastic sleeve include added E-numbers, enzyme “improvers”, extra gluten, protein powders, fats, emulsifiers and preservatives. It is baked according to the Chorleywood process (named after the location of the lab where it was invented) developed in the 1960s for speed, from grain that has been milled between steel rollers, removing the germ where the oils and nutrients reside, and the bran husk where the fibre is, leaving only the endosperm, a pure starch so nutritionally void that by UK law vitamins must be added back into white flour.

Mechanised food factories demand ingredients that are standard, stable and easy to transport, and make products that are standard, stable and easy to transport. New wheats have been bred for high yields and high protein content that require inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. To increase efficiency, hedgerows and copses have been eliminated and farmland agglomerated into increasingly larger tracts of monoculture.

From soil to plastic-packaged loaf, industrialised breads are the end product of 100 years of innovation in agriculture, manufacturing and transport, all of which prioritises efficiency and cost over nutrition and taste. Bread is the most-bought food item in the UK, but the supermarket loaf is just part of a basket of highly processed foods that we are now beginning to understand is making us fat, sick and allergic.

While the big bakeries may market brown loaves under homely monikers such as farmhouse, wholegrain and multiseed, these are often distinctions without much meaning. The basic ingredient of highly processed flour is the same, even if bran or other sources of fibre are added back into the mix. More research is needed, but there is increasing evidence to suggest that gluten intolerance (not to be confused with coeliac disease, which means people cannot process gluten at all) could be caused by the extra gluten that is often added to mass-produced wholewheat products, and that the old-fashioned longer proving time – the resting time that allows yeasts to ferment the dough and make it rise – is a key factor in rendering wholegrains more digestible.

Good bread needs no more than four ingredients: flour, yeast, water and salt. Wheats were once regional and adapted to the land; grain was milled locally and often baked as wholegrain flour into dense loaves. In Britain and the US, most of us have not eaten this kind of bread in so many generations there is no longer even a folk memory of what it tasted like. The desire for lighter and whiter bread is steeped in history: finer, paler, sifted flour was more expensive and the province of the rich, and as such has been a enduring trend, even as flour became a bland and cheap commodity, often bleached to make it even whiter.

But in the past couple of decades, new movements have begun to challenge the prevailing food culture. In the early 2000s, activist and journalist Michael Pollan wrote about how what we eat had lost its link with the land and the farmer. Leading the revolt against processed food, in 2010, Pollan came up with the line that became a catchphrase: “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.” Dan Barber, a chef on a mission to bring back the links between sustainable farming and taste and nutrition, delivered a Ted Talk in 2008 in which he described modern industrial agriculture as “an insult to the basic laws of nature”. He and others have popularised the farm-to-table movement that is changing people’s eating habits, encouraging farmers to grow varieties for deliciousness over yield, efficiency of transport and shelf life.

In 2011, the geneticist Stephen Jones founded the Bread Lab in Washington, bringing farmers, millers, brewers and bakers together to develop new grains that emphasised taste. In 2014, Jones suggested the supermarket loaf should be called “American” or “processed bread”, to distinguish its mass-produced identity and nutritional characteristics. He told me he does not like to be in the same room as white flour. Meanwhile, a sourdough movement bubbled up in San Francisco, championing the resurgence of the traditional method of leavening bread using natural starters that harness a complex web of ambient bacteria and fungi, rather than strong modern yeasts bred to inject air into almost anything.

The great food writer Julia Child once said British white bread tasted “like Kleenex”. Maybe that is why we load our white sliced toast with so much jam and chocolate spread and peanut butter. Wholegrain, sourdough bread is a very different beast; crunchy, crusty, chewy, with a complex taste that is rich, nutty and tangy. Quite often, I find a couple of thick slices, spread with a generous swathe of butter, a satisfying lunch.

The revival of ancient varieties of wheat is inspiring a new movement of agronomists, farmers, millers and bakers in the UK. They are coming together to develop and grow new kinds of wheat that do not need dousing with chemicals, to mill the grain in such a way as to keep taste and nutrition intact, and to bake loaves that are delicious and healthy. In the process, these artisans want to challenge the dominance of chemical agriculture and the supermarket loaf, to establish a new kind of supply chain that links our diet to nature and creates healthy communities.

Bread is a basic foodstuff. It is our land and our kitchen table, family tradition and religious celebration. Our daily bread is our daily life; it is economics – breadwinner, breadbaskets, breadlines; it is politics – upper crust, bread and circuses, grist for the mill. As this group of growers, millers and bakers are demonstrating, bread can be revolution, too.


In the 1960s, while we were falling for the abundance of postwar produce and the convenience of the supermarket, one British plant pathologist was battling with mould. As a young researcher in East Anglia, Martin Wolfe specialised in barley mildew. At the time, the prevailing view was that science could improve on nature’s design; agronomy focused on breeding grains that would produce the highest yields, and developing fertilisers and pesticides to encourage and protect them.

Wolfe began to see that as soon as a new variety of barley was introduced, pathogens adapted to find a way to attack it; as soon as a new fungicide was formulated, the pathogen reacted by developing resistance to it. He realised that nature was always going to win the race.

He was single-minded, driven, almost obsessive; his family complained that he was difficult to call away from his desk for dinner. He understood earlier than most that adding more chemicals was not a sustainable answer, and looked for different ways to grow healthy crops. He experimented with breeding varieties carrying different resistance genes. When he planted out his new varieties and mixtures, he found that infection levels fell.

In the 70s, Wolfe worked with East German scientists who wanted to reduce their use of expensive foreign pesticides. By the end of the 80s, almost all their spring barley (an important crop, because the East exported malted barley to the West German brewing industry for hard currency) was being grown according to Wolfe’s techniques. But when the Berlin Wall came down, they were encouraged, like other farmers in western Europe, via subsidies and promises of high yields, to use chemical fertilisers.

“I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider,” Wolfe admitted in an interview. He was a scientist, and at first sceptical of the organic movement that emerged in the 80s, which he felt was turning back the clock. His priority was breeding new crops to tackle the environmental challenges of the future. Over the decades, Wolfe became convinced that diversity – the very thing that modern agriculture was eliminating with its herbicides and monoculture – was the key to resistance. When a pathogen attacked a genetically homogenous crop, it could wipe out a whole field.

As he approached retirement, Wolfe wanted to put some of the new ideas about mixed farming practices into use. Agroforestry had begun to gain ground in the 70s when Phil Rutter, an American plant breeder, asked a big question: if nature’s dominant agriculture was trees – perennials – why had man spent 10,000 years developing annual crops? Rutter was convinced that trees such as hazel and chestnut could provide as much nutrition as cereals without having to be resown every year. His motto was: “The future of the world is nuts.”

In 1994, Wolfe bought two meadows and a low-ceilinged long house in Suffolk called Wakelyns, which had a been a pig farm, then a dog-breeding site. Wolfe drew up elaborate plans for avenues of hazel, willow and a mixture of fruit, nut and timber trees. In the lanes in between the trees, he would grow annual crops: vegetables, cereals, legumes. Wakelyns was always imagined as an experimental agroforestry farm, “a rather expensive personal hobby”, as his son, David, put it, not a going concern. It soon became a centre for real research.

At first, the saplings, planted in mud with protective plastic rabbit-proof sleeves, looked thin, vulnerable and unimpressive. Visiting farmers shook their heads, wondering why land was being wasted by planting trees on it. “No experiment ever fails,” Wolfe liked to say. As the trees grew and projects proceeded, visitors were drawn to Wakelyns to see for themselves one of the best examples of agroforestry in Europe. Wolfe walked them through his lanes of crops, his white hair glowing like a nimbus, backlit by the sun, explaining the how the trees, with their long roots, were able to draw nutrients from deep in the soil, which the annual crops also benefited from, via fungal networks in the soil. “There is an idea that crops suffer from competition with trees,” he told one interviewer, “but it is not true – they are sheltered and protected by trees.”

In 2000, Wolfe created a very special crop. With the help of plant breeders and the scientists from the Organic Research Centre, Wolfe took 20 varieties of wheat that had been doing well under low-input conditions in the UK, half chosen for their quality – their high protein and gluten contents – half for their high yield, and cross-bred them every which way, resulting in 190 new crosses. Normally, a breeder would look at these plants and select for the traits they wanted. But this time seeds from all 190 were thrown together in a field, grown, harvested and reseeded together for several years. Wolfe called it YQ, for “yield” and “quality”.

Whereas selection ordinarily narrowed the genetic pool, as with inbreeding dogs, this method maintained it. The genetic diversity in this crop meant the wheat was not only resistant to pathogens, but also tolerant of varying growing conditions. The yield of YQ was never going to match that of high-yield wheat in a good year, but over time, Wolfe showed, its yields through wet or dry or pestilential years, when whole fields of homogenous wheat could be wiped out, were compellingly consistent.

Wolfe milled his YQ grain into flour in a small electric stone mill in his barn. His wife, Ann, made cakes and pastry with it, and everyone loved its rich, nutty taste. But Wolfe had not yet found a baker who would turn it into bread.


Last February, I drove north to meet one of the foremost of a new generation of British artisanal bakers – Kim Bell, who started The Small Food Bakery in Nottingham five years ago and, in 2018, won a prestigious BBC Food and Farming award. I found Bell cleaning up at the end of the day. Hale, with floury hands, and her hair tied up in a cloth bandana, she gave me a bottle of house-made rhubarb kefir as she finished vacuuming the ovens. She is a proper baker – a mix of passion . . .

Continue reading. And do read the the whole thing. There’s a lot more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 October 2019 at 9:06 am

Russia picked Donald Trump for US president and worked to get him elected, according to a former Israeli intelligence official

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Cristina Maza reports in Newsweek:

Russia chose Donald Trump as the U.S. presidential candidate who would be most advantageous to Moscow, and used online tactics to win him the presidency, according to a former agent of the Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad.

“Officials in Moscow looked at the 2016 U.S. presidential race and asked, ‘Which candidate would we like to have sitting in the White House? Who will help us achieve our goals?’ And they chose him. From that moment, they deployed a system [of bots] for the length of the elections, and ran him for president,” former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo told the audience at the Marker’s digital conference in Israel on Monday, where experts gathered to discuss online disinformation campaigns and bots.

“What we’ve seen so far with respect to bots and the distortion of information is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the greatest threat of recent years, and it threatens the basic values that we share—democracy and the world order created since World War Two,” Pardo noted, according to Haaretz.

Earlier this month, two Senate-commissioned reports determined that Russia had used every social media tool available to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential election in favor of Trump. One of the reports, completed by the company New Knowledge, detailed the wide reach of the Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

“Run like a sophisticated marketing agency in a centralized office environment, the IRA employed and trained over a thousand people to engage in round-the-clock influence operations, first targeting Ukrainian and Russian citizens, and then, well before the 2016 US election, Americans. The scale of their operation was unprecedented—they reached 126 million people on Facebook, at least 20 million users on Instagram, 1.4 million users on Twitter, and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube,” the New Knowledge report stated.

Indictments from the Department of Justice recently revealed that the Internet Research Agency had a budget of over $25 million and continued to operate well into 2018.

The second report, authored by Oxford University and the company Graphika, noted that Russian influence operations attempted to sow divisions in U.S. society and promote Trump’s candidacy.

“On Facebook, the five most shared and the five most liked posts focused on . . .

Continue reading.

And Facebook still refuses to remove posts that are false and deceptive. Facebook should face a reckoning.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2019 at 9:16 am

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