Category Archives: Media

Headline of the day: Say adieu to public television


Along with art and humanities programs. . .

From the New York Times:

Trump Budget Hit List Has Programs Long in G.O.P. Sights

  • The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities could all be eliminated under President Trump.
  • Most of the programs cost under $500 million annually, a pittance for a government that is projected to spend about $4 trillion this year.

Alt-reality: Paper is Trumped by Alec Baldwin


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Sometimes, when a story seems too good to be true, it really is true.

Consider the case of the hapless newspaper editors who were fooled by their own mistake, an alt-reality, as it were.

From BBC News:

Actor Alec Baldwin’s impression on Saturday Night Live of Donald Trump tricked a national newspaper into thinking he was the real thing.

El Nacional in the Dominican Republic has now apologised for accidentally publishing a still of Alec Baldwin, captioned as the US president, next to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

The image accompanied an article about Israeli settlements.

The paper has said sorry to readers and “anyone affected”.

The picture was sent to the newspaper along with information about Saturday Night Live, the long-running US satirical programme.

No-one spotted the mistake, says El Nacional.

The correction proved to be a masterpiece, the result of a frantic image search that almost makes for a bulletproof alibi,as well as a testament to Baldwin’s impersonation chops:

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The billionaire who gave Trump millions, Bannon


And so much more.

Two journalists look at Robert Mercer, a late-arriving big money donor to the Trump campaign, a billionaire who had bankrolled Ted “The Grand Inquisitor” Cruz before the convention, then came to Trump’s rescue just as things were falling apart, contributing both millions in cash and a cast of personnel, including Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.

Mercer, who made his pile running a hedge fund, holds nightmarish beliefs and considerable cunning. And he’s succeeded in creating a powerful, covert institution designed to create a dystopian world, run by the best crew money can by.

In this report from The Real News Network, reporters Thomas Hedges of the Center for Study of Responsive Law, where his beat is the role of money in politics, and Carrie Levine, who covers the same beat for the Center for Public Integrity, take a close look at Mercer and his agenda:

The Bizarre Far-Right Billionaire Behind Bannon and Trump’s Presidency


From the transcript:

THOMAS HEDGES: The fuel behind Mercer’s influence are the absurd sums of money he approves at the investment company he runs, Renaissance Technologies, based on Long Island. Its famed Medallion Fund is one of the most successful hedge funds in investing history. Averaging 72% returns before fees, over more than 20 years. A statistic that baffles analysts, and outranks the profitability of other competing funds, like the ones George Soros and Warren Buffet run.

In 2015, Mercer had single-handedly catapulted Cruz to the front of the Republican field. Throwing more than $13 million into a super PAC he created for the now failed candidate. But with the Trump campaign faltering, and struggling for support, there’s a second chance for the Mercers to make a big bet.

The Trump campaign is well aware of this, in fact, sources within Mercer’s super PAC would later tell Bloomberg News that shortly after Cruz drops out of the race, Ivanka Trump and her wealthy developer husband Jared Kushner, approach the Mercers, asking if they’d be willing to shift their support behind Trump. The answer is an eventual, but resounding yes.

In the months leading up to Trump’s presidential win, the Mercers would prove a formidable force. Beginning after the disastrous Republican Convention in July, they would furnish the Trump campaign with millions of dollars, and new leadership, but they would also furnish it with something more — a vast network of non-profits, strategists, media companies, research institutions and super PACs that they themselves funded and largely controlled.

CARRIE LEVINE: I think what you’ve seen is a lot of these organizations in this network come out to play a role in the 2016 elections.

HEDGES: With the Mercer family in the picture, the post-convention shake-up starts to make sense. Take Steve Bannon. He and Robert Mercer have been close for years, and Mercer is a top investor at Breitbart News, where Bannon was Chief Editor.

Kellyanne Conway also comes out of this network. Before becoming co-manager of Trump’s campaign, she headed up operations for Robert Mercer’s super PAC when it was still supporting Ted Cruz. And as for Deputy Campaign Manager, David Bossie, he was president of Citizens United, an organization Mercer has heavily funded since at least 2010.

Cambridge Analytica, the mysterious data-mining firm that received grudging praise after predicting the race’s outcome more accurately than any other polling company, is also heavily funded by Robert Mercer, and was employed by the Cruz campaign before Mercer switched over to Trump. In fact, the Mercers’ political infrastructure is so entrenched, that Rebecca Mercer herself sits on the 16-person executive committee of Trump’s transition team.

Mercer’s foray into the White House may seem to have been born partly out of luck, especially with Trump, instead of Cruz, as a stalking horse. But his rise to power was systematic, and it was years in the making.

The web of connections Mercer’s built over the last decade is vast and complex. It includes efforts to dismantle tax law, and weaken the IRS.

It’s about funding quack scientists and conspiracy theorists, who blame the government for, among other things, playing a role in the San Bernardino Massacre. Or of colluding with the United Nations, and using climate change as an excuse to implement environmental laws meant to depopulate America’s Midwest. It’s about pouring money into the neo-conservative John Bolton super PAC, which props up candidates who ascribe to Bolton’s hawkish foreign policy.

But one of Mercer’s earliest activist ventures was financing a slew of fringe documentary projects that have helped raise the profiles of people like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and most notably, the director of those films, Steve Bannon.

Bannon, who was previously a naval officer and Goldman Sachs investment banker, made his first documentary in 2004 about Ronald Reagan. It retold his biography, using washed out black and white archival footage of the Hollywood actor. Painting him as a brave protector of Western democracy from the threat of Communism.

Charts of the day: How we get, act on online news


Two charts from How Americans Encounter, Recall and Act Upon Digital News, a new report from the Pew Research Center.

The first chart reveals how we get to online news sources:

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And the second chart shows which of those avenues are more likely to lead us to act, and on which topics:

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Petition drive seeks an end to Roundup in Europe


We’ve written lots about the widespread use of glyphosate, the herbicide used in Monsanto’s GMO crops, engineered to tolerate the chemical and ensure big profits, since both the seeds and the poison are manufactured by the same company.

First marketed as a drain cleaner in 1964, the chemical’s use as a pesticide was discovered and patented a decade later by Monsanto.

While Monsanto insists the chemical is safe, an exhaustive 2016 scientific review of the glyphosate-based herbicides {GBHs] published in Environmental Health [open access] concluded:

  1. GBHs are the most heavily applied herbicide in the world and usage continues to rise;
  2. Worldwide, GBHs often contaminate drinking water sources, precipitation, and air, especially in agricultural regions;
  3. The half-life of glyphosate in water and soil is longer than previously recognized;
  4. Glyphosate and its metabolites are widely present in the global soybean supply;
  5. Human exposures to GBHs are rising;
  6. Glyphosate is now authoritatively classified as a probable human carcinogen;
  7. Regulatory estimates of tolerable daily intakes for glyphosate in the United States and European Union are based on outdated science.

Glyphosate” Unsafe on Any Plate, a 17 November 2016 from Food Democracy Now! looked at glyphosate levels in breakfast foods and snacks,m comparing to the number from recent scientific studies on the chemicals harm to animals.

The report notes “With the widespread increase in glyphosate use over the past 20 years and the fact that independent science has confirmed low level exposure to Roundup causes liver and kidney damage at only 0.05 ppb glyphosate equivalent, as reflected by changes in function of over 4000 genes, the American public should be concerned about glyphosate residues on their food. Additional research points to harmful impacts at levels between 10 ppb and 700 ppb.”

And here are the numbers:

Glyphosate/Roundup Damage by the Numbers (ppb)

0.1 ppb: Roundup (0.05 ppb glyphosate) altered the gene function of over 4,000 genes in the livers and kidneys of rats.

0.1 ppb: Roundup (0.05 ppb glyphosate) severe organ damage in rats.

0.1 ppb: Permitted level for glyphosate and all other herbicides in EU tap water.

10 ppb: Toxic effects  on the livers of fish.

700 ppb: Alterations of kidneys and livers in rats.

700 ppb: Permitted level for glyphosate in U.S. tap water.

1,125.3 ppb (1.1253 mg/kg): Level found in General Mills’ Cheerios.

The report also features two illuminating maps showing the spread of the chemical’s use on America’s farmlands:

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And now a coalition of European environmental groups is calling for an end of glyphosate used on the continent.

From the Health and Environment Alliance [HEAL]:

Campaigners and activists met in Brussels and other European cities (Madrid, Rome, Berlin and Paris) today to launch a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) to ban glyphosate, reform the EU pesticide approval process, and set mandatory targets to reduce pesticide use in the EU. The goal is to collect at least one million signatures from Europeans and submit the petition before the Commission’s next move to renew, withdraw or extend the EU licence of glyphosate.

Glyphosate – the most widely used weedkiller in Europe – is also known as Roundup, a Monsanto brandname. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) linked glyphosate to cancer. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) is currently working on a safety assessment.

Génon K. Jensen, Executive Director at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) said: “Thousands of tonnes of glyphosate are sprayed each year on our fields, in our countryside and our neighbourhoods. It is defined as a ‘probable carcinogen’ by IARC, the international agency recognised as the gold standard in carcinogen identification. We should not be using any weedkiller linked to cancer. If we are serious about protecting people’s health, and giving our wildlife a chance to recover, then our governments must step in to ban the most toxic pesticides, and reduce the overall amount that is used.”

Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace EU food policy director said: “We are told that pesticides are strictly regulated to prevent harm. Yet they continue to be approved in secret meetings, based on unpublished industry studies. This kind of secrecy panders to industry and prevents proper scrutiny of EU food safety decisions. Regulators – not industry – should be responsible for ensuring public safety based on published scientific evidence.”

Oliver Moldenhauer, Executive Director at WeMove.EU said: “This year we have a real opportunity to finally get glyphosate out of our fields and off our plates. Our politicians need to hear this message loud and clear: they must protect citizens and the environment by banning this dangerous weedkiller and put us on the path towards a pesticide-free future.”

The ECI is backed by a broad, pan-European coalition of 38 organisations from 15 countries, including Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), Greenpeace, the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN-E), and WeMove.EU.

More information is available on www.stopglyphosate.org

Chart of the day: The potent impacts of algorithms


Click on the image to enlarge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

From Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age, a new report from the Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and based on responses from “ technology experts, scholars, corporate practitioners and government leaders” who were asked this question: “Will the net overall effect of algorithms be positive for individuals and society or negative for individuals and society?.”

Algorithms are programs designed to identify and respond to inputs, and are the basis for all machine learning and so-called artificial intelligence. As Merriam-Webster notes, the word “was formed from algorism ‘the system of Arabic numerals,’ a word that goes back to Middle English and ultimately stems from the name of a 9th-century Persian mathematician, abu-Jafar Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khuwarizmi, who did important work in the fields of algebra and numeric systems.”

Algorithms are ubiquitous in a wired world, used to track us and sell us on products and ideas, yet they themselves remain hidden from view as they harvest data about our likes and dislikes, habits, hobbies, driving patterns, and much, much more.

Here are some of the responses we think are particularly telling:

Chris Showell, an independent health informatics researcher based in Australia, said, “The organisation developing the algorithm has significant capacity to influence or moderate the behaviour of those who rely on the algorithm’s output. Two current examples: manipulation of the process displayed in online marketplaces, and use of ‘secret’ algorithms in evaluating social welfare recipients. There will be many others in years to come. It will be challenging for even well-educated users to understand how an algorithm might assess them, or manipulate their behaviour. Disadvantaged and poorly educated users are likely to be left completely unprotected.”

Writer James Hinton commented, “The fact the internet can, through algorithms, be used to almost read our minds, means those who have access to the algorithms and their databases have a vast opportunity to manipulate large population groups. The much-talked-about ‘experiment’ conducted by Facebook to determine if it could manipulate people emotionally through deliberate tampering with news feeds is but one example of both the power, and the lack of ethics, that can be displayed.”

An anonymous president of a consulting firm said, “LinkedIn tries to manipulate me to benefit from my contacts’ contacts and much more. If everyone is intentionally using or manipulating each other, is it acceptable? We need to see more-honest, trust-building innovations and fewer snarky corporate manipulative design tricks. Someone told me that someday only rich people will not have smartphones, suggesting that buying back the time in our day will soon become the key to quality lifestyles in our age of information overload. At what cost, and with what ‘best practices’ for the use of our recovered time per day? The overall question is whether good or bad behaviors will predominate globally.”

This consultant suggested: “Once people understand which algorithms manipulate them to build corporate revenues without benefiting users, they will be looking for more-honest algorithm systems that share the benefits as fairly as possible. When everyone globally is online, another 4 billion young and poor learners will be coming online. A system could go viral to win trillions in annual revenues based on micropayments due to sheer volume.

Example: The Facebook denumerator app removes the manipulative aspects of Facebook, allowing users to return to more typically social behavior.”

Several respondents expressed concerns about a particular industry – insurers. An anonymous respondent commented, “The increasing migration of health data into the realm of ‘big data’ has potential for the nightmare scenario of Gattaca writ real.”

An executive director for an open source software organization commented, “Most people will simply lose agency as they don’t understand how choices are being made for them.”

One respondent said, “Everything will be ‘custom’-tailored based on the groupthink of the algorithms; the destruction of free thought and critical thinking will ensure the best generation is totally subordinate to the ruling class.”

Another respondent wrote, “Current systems are designed to emphasize the collection, concentration and use of data and algorithms by relatively few large institutions that are not accountable to anyone, and/or if they are theoretically accountable are so hard to hold accountable that they are practically unaccountable to anyone. This concentration of data and knowledge creates a new form of surveillance and oppression (writ large). It is antithetical to and undermines the entire underlying fabric of the erstwhile social form enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and our current political-economic-legal system. Just because people don’t see it happening doesn’t mean that it’s not, or that it’s not undermining our social structures. It is. It will only get worse because there’s no ‘crisis’ to respond to, and hence, not only no motivation to change, but every reason to keep it going – especially by the powerful interests involved. We are heading for a nightmare.”

A scientific editor observed, “The system will win; people will lose. Call it ‘The Selfish Algorithm’; algorithms will naturally find and exploit our built-in behavioral compulsions for their own purposes. We’re not even consumers anymore. As if that wasn’t already degrading enough, it’s commonplace to observe that these days people are the product. The increasing use of ‘algorithms’ will only – very rapidly – accelerate that trend. Web 1.0 was actually pretty exciting. Web 2.0 provides more convenience for citizens who need to get a ride home, but at the same time – and it’s naive to think this is a coincidence – it’s also a monetized, corporatized, disempowering, cannibalizing harbinger of the End Times. (I exaggerate for effect. But not by much.)”

Japan launches extreme vetting: For smart phones


Targets of the new measures will be folks who use “burner phones” whilst doing nefarious deeds, a scenario familiar to anyone who watches cop shows.

From the Yomiuri Shimbun:

The communications ministry has asked an industry organization to thoroughly verify the identities of budget smartphone users when they form a contract, it has been learned.

It is often possible to complete subscription procedures on the internet for budget smartphones, which offer lower communication charges than ordinary smartphones, and there is a rapidly growing number of cases in which smartphones are acquired with forged ID documents and then misused for crimes such as bank transfer scams.

To address this situation, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry will strengthen countermeasures such as implementing administrative measures against malicious smartphone providers that shirk efforts to prevent fraud, according to informed sources.

The ministry has reportedly sent a written request to the Telecom Services Association, which comprises about 50 companies selling budget smartphones, including Rakuten Inc. and Line Corp. It called on the association to enhance training for staff in charge of user subscriptions, make sure to report to the police and other relevant authorities when possible frauds are discovered, and share information about fraud methods, the sources said.

In many cases, budget smartphone subscribers verify their identities by entering their name, address and other information on a subscription website, taking a picture of their driver’s license or health insurance card with a mobile phone camera and sending the photo through the website.