Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hijacking The Internet

Jonathan Freeland writes that the Cambridge Analytica story reveals that the rich and the powerful have hijacked the internet. It was not supposed to be this way:

In its infancy, the internet was hailed as a harbinger of equality and liberty. The new gospel held that “information wants to be free” – free from censorship and free of charge. A new techno-utopia seemed at hand. Or as Zuckerberg defined his company’s purpose: “Facebook gives people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."
Thanks to social media, the internet had apparently decentralised power. In the old days, information was passed down from the mountain top – by a government, say, or a news organisation – to the crowd below. Now the crowd could speak to each other and to the world. At least one aspect of the techno-utopians’ early hopes seemed to have materialised.

But recent revelations have shown us what has really been going on. Instead of upending the pyramid, social media have firmly entrenched the pyramid:

For what we now understand is that those at the top, the political parties or governments that could afford it, have been engaged in a radical act of recentralising power. They saw the way social media was working, empowering individuals and networks of individuals, and they decided to grab those same weapons for themselves.
What Cambridge Analytica promised its clients was a return to the old form of media distribution, with those at the top sending their message to the crowd below. Except this time, that message would be disguised as if it were the organic word of the crowd itself, spread virally from one person to another, with no traces or fingerprints left by those at the top. As a Cambridge Analytica executive said, unwittingly caught on film: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow … it’s unattributable, untrackable.”

What's to be done? Freeland writes that there are several options:

It could be regulation; it could be anti-trust legislation to break up those tech giants that act as virtual monopolies. I like Derakhshan’s idea of obliging Facebook and others to open up a marketplace of algorithms: if you don’t like the current social media preference for popularity (retweets) and novelty (“latest”), you should be free to choose a different algorithm that acts on different values.

Unfettered algorithims -- like an unfettered market -- cause disasters.


Friday, March 23, 2018

When Stupidity Marries Insanity

Yesterday, Donald Trump announced $60 billion dollars of tariffs against China. Today, China announced its own tariffs on American goods. Paul Krugman writes that, when it comes to trade, China is a bad actor:

When it comes to the global economic order, China is in fact a bad citizen. In particular, it plays fast and loose on intellectual property, in effect ripping off technologies and ideas developed elsewhere. It also subsidizes some industries, including steel, contributing to world excess capacity.

But Trump's "solution" is no solution at all -- because he doesn't understand how China fits into the global trading structure:

China is, as some put it, the Great Assembler: Many Chinese exports are actually put together from parts produced elsewhere, especially South Korea and Japan. The classic example is the iPhone, which is “made in China” but in which Chinese labor and capital account for only a few percent of the final price.

When Trump starts a trade war with China, he also starts one with Japan and South Korea -- not to mention American companies like Apple. And,

by bumbling into a trade war, Trump undermines our ability to do anything about the real issues. If you want to pressure China into respecting intellectual property, you need to assemble a coalition of nations hurt by Chinese ripoffs — that is, other advanced countries, like Japan, South Korea and European nations. Yet Trump is systematically alienating those countries, with things like his on-again-off-again steel tariff and his threat to put tariffs on goods that, while assembled in China, are mainly produced elsewhere.

As is always the case, Trump's policies are rooted in appalling ignorance. Vanity Fair reports that Trump has told associates,"Now I'm fucking doing it my way." When Stupidity marries Insanity, their offspring will be Explosions. The only questions are:  How many and how big will they be? Now that John Bolton has been hired as Trump's National Security Advisor, there should be several big ones.

Image: Disability Arts Online

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Lesson To Keep In Mind

Martin Regg Cohn has just returned from a trip to the United States. And, as Ontario heads into an election -- with Doug Ford leading the parade -- he asked for advice from fellow journalists about how to cover a populist:

I asked an old friend, New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, what lessons he has learned from reporting on Trump’s ascendancy. How do you cover a candidate while uncovering the contradictions?
“The only course for journalists is to keep our heads down, keep reporting, keep trying to separate policy from pronouncements and not be intimidated by either Trump’s defenders or those who attack us,” Landler told me. Public figures remain accountable, so their outlandish statements can hardly be ignored, but they can surely be parsed for context and accuracy.
I also asked an old colleague, the Toronto Star’s Washington bureau chief, Daniel Dale, for his unique perspective after first covering the Ford brothers from city hall, and then pioneering a new story structure that deconstructs Trump’s tall tales.
He cautioned against the media’s temptation to give wildly disproportionate space in mid-campaign to the loudest voices. Balanced coverage means not just fair reporting but equal time for the major players, so that those who are most controversial don’t get all the air time.
“One of the biggest failures of the media with Trump was letting him dominate the coverage … it got ratings,” Dale says. “You can’t let his tone and bluster suck up all the oxygen ... You have to be conscious of the balance.”

Cohn reminds his readers that Trump and Ford owe a lot to P.T. Barnum. There is a portrait of Barnum in the National Portrait Gallery. The inscription underneath the picture reads: "The greatest impresario of the 19th Century, P. T. Barnum was a shrewd judge of popular taste and an intuitive master of the art of publicity who tickled the public's imagination and gleefully exploited its credulity for more than 50 years."

Gleefully exploiting the public's credulity is what Donald Trump and Doug Ford are all about.

Image: Daily Mail

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Mad King

Robert Reich is a little guy who speaks with a big voice. He wrote two days ago that Donald Trump has become a mad king:

Before, he was constrained by a few “adults” – Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly – whom he appointed because he thought they had some expertise he lacked.
Now he’s either fired or is in the process of removing the adults. He’s replacing them with a Star Wars cantina of toadies and sycophants who will reflect back at him his own glorious view of himself, and help sell it on TV.

He's more than a narcissist. He's also a megalomaniac:

The man who once said he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and still be elected president now openly boasts of lying to the Canadian Prime Minister, deciding on his own to negotiate mano a mano with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, unilaterally slapping tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, and demanding the death penalty for drug dealers.
For weeks, Trump has been pulling big policy pronouncements out of his derriere and then leaving it up to the White House to improvise explanations and implementation plans.

For the moment, Congress and the world seem to be ignoring him:

The Republican tax bill bore almost no resemblance to anything Trump had pushed for. Trump’s big infrastructure plan was dead on arrival in Congress. His surprise spending deal with “Chuck and Nancy” went nowhere. His momentary embrace of gun control measures in the wake of a Florida school shooting quickly evaporated.

But Trump Unbound is far from benign:

Trump could become so enraged at anyone who seriously takes him on that he lashes out, with terrible consequences.
Furious that special counsel Robert Mueller has expanded his investigation, an unbridled Trump could fire him – precipitating a constitutional crisis and in effect a civil war between Trump supporters and the rest of America.

As I recall, the American Revolution was all about getting rid of a Mad King.

Image:The Smirking Chimp

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Conspiracy, Not Collusion

Donald Trump  keeps claiming that there has been no collusion with Russia. But Robert Mueller isn't investigating collusion. He's investigating conspiracy. Christian Farias writes:

Rick Gates, Trump’s deputy campaign manager and a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, became the first person in Mueller’s crosshairs to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. This curious, catchall offense also appeared in the February indictment of 13 Russian trolls, all of whom were charged with “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

And, the more Mueller interviews individuals, the more conspiracy charges appear to be on the horizon:

Which brings us to this past weekend’s revelations about the role Cambridge Analytica, the data-analytics firm closely associated with Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign, played during the presidential election. Twin reports in the New York Times and The Guardian shed light on a staggering data-mining operation that resulted in the firm improperly obtaining tens of millions of Facebook profiles, which it then exploited for political micro-targeting. Or as Christopher Wylie, the whistle-blower who leaked this information put it, the technology he helped create with Cambridge Analytica was “Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare mindfuck tool.”
There’s nothing criminal about swaying voters, and neither the Times nor the Guardian account is conclusive as to how Cambridge Analytica may have aided Russia’s election meddling, if at all. But this bit in the paper of record suggests the special counsel is already on to something: “While the substance of Mr. Mueller’s interest is a closely guarded secret, documents viewed by the Times indicate that the firm’s British affiliate claims to have worked in Russia and Ukraine.” Mueller, for his part, has already asked the firm for the emails of any employees who did work on behalf of the Trump campaign. And even Julian Assange has accused Cambridge Analytica’s CEO of attempting to obtain from WikiLeaks damaging emails belonging to Hillary Clinton.
Based on the precedent Mueller has already set, it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect his office to bring a fresh round of federal conspiracy charges against actors — whether that be Assange, executives at Cambridge Analytica, or other intermediaries — who attempted to impair the lawful functions of the government by concealing activities that they should’ve disclosed to, say, the Federal Election Commission or the Justice Department. “A method that makes uses of innocent individuals or businesses to reach and defraud the United States is not, for that reason, beyond the scope” of the law of conspiracy, the Supreme Court said some 30 years ago.

I suspect that Mueller has a strong case about Trump's money laundering. But when it comes to Russia, the big word is conspiracy.


Monday, March 19, 2018

The Wrong Side Of History

Things are starting to get nasty out in British Columbia. Michael Harris writes:

In the last few days, approximately 30 Canadian citizens have been arrested for opposing Kinder Morgan’s pipeline extension in British Columbia.
Last week, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck granted the U.S. oil company a permanent injunction to keep protesters away from the construction zone.
A day after that, the Mounties moved in and arrested an unlikely group of villains — Indigenous leaders and “water protectors.” These are middle-aged moms and housewives worried about native rights and the environment, and the odd university student.

The painful truth -- and it is painful -- is that Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley are on the wrong side of history. They are "a little like the mayor of Asbestos, Quebec before the Jeffrey mine closed — desperately trying to market a product headed for the ash heaps of history."

As someone who used to live half an hour away from Asbestos, and whose job depended on a student population which partially came from there, I can testify that what hit Asbestos was an earthquake. Asbestos is now known for its huge empty hole in the ground -- and we no longer live there.

Either way, an earthquake is coming.  But it will be bigger if Kinder Morgan goes through. The danger to BC's coastline cannot be overstated -- not if you pay attention to the science:

In fact, the science is not on anyone’s side, as internationally acclaimed Canadian scientist David Schindler wrote last week in the Vancouver Sun.
This is how complete the government’s ignorance is on the question of the impact of a major spill of diluted bitumen on the B.C. coast. According to Schindler, no one really knows if the stuff would sink or float. No one knows the actual effect on marine life. No one knows how long it would hang around in the event of a major spill. There is a reason. No one has conducted the ocean research.

Trudeau and Notley are caught between a rock and a hard place. When that happens, history shows it's wise to err on the side of caution. And, as Harris says, the prime minister and the premier are on the wrong side of history.

Image: The Council Of Canadians

Sunday, March 18, 2018

What Goes Around

Max Boot is no liberal wingnut. He was on the conservative side of the political spectrum long before Donald Trump got there. Boot writes that Trump is perfecting the Big Lie:

The Post reports that he began his presidency by making an average of 4.9 false or misleading statements a day. Lately, like a Stakhanovite, he has ramped up production to an average of six falsehoods a day.

He refers to the lie Trump told Justin Trudeau, then he moves on to other lies:

Like Trump’s claims that Gen. John J. Pershing slaughtered Muslims, or that his inauguration drew record crowds, or that he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal immigrants had not voted, this is another example of a would-be dictator’s desire not just to sneak lies by us but to shove them down our throats. Trump is signaling that he doesn’t care what the truth is. From now on the truth will be whatever he says, and he expects every loyal follower to faithfully parrot the official party line.

There was the lie about Rex Tillerson's firing:

The White House initially claimed that Tillerson had been notified the previous Friday that he was being let go, but on Tuesday Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, contradicted that spin by telling reporters that Tillerson was “unaware of the reason” for his firing and had just found out about it. Goldstein was immediately canned and, in a significant bit of symbolism, replaced with a former host of “Fox & Friends,” Trump’s favorite TV show. 

And, on Friday, Trump fired Andrew McCabe:

The same vindictiveness was apparent in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision Friday night to fire former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe after 21 years of service, just more than 24 hours before he was due to receive his pension. The excuse apparently was McCabe’s supposedly unauthorized communications with the media about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation, followed by alleged attempts to mislead investigators. But Trump’s gloating tweet makes it obvious this was punishment for telling the truth about the Maximum Leader’s attempts to obstruct justice and end an investigation into his links to the Kremlin.

Apparently, Mr. Trump has never learned one of life's first maxims: What goes around comes around. Rest assured it will.

Image: You Tube