When the gods dance...

Wednesday, October 31, 2012



The creepy, dangerous ideology behind Silicon Valley’s Cult of Disruption

Travis Shrugged: The creepy, dangerous ideology behind Silicon Valley’s Cult of Disruption


When Uber was forced to shut down its yellow cab hailing service in New York last week, founder Travis Kalanick threw a fit that PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott described as “downright adolescent… just short of [Kalanick] stamping his feet.”

In fact, as Mott explains (and as sources close to the negotiations have independently confirmed), there was precisely one reason why UberTaxi failed to take Manhattan: Travis Kalanick himself. For one thing, the TLC is bound by contracts with existing vendors not to allow any other credit card processing in NY cabs until next February. Likewise, changing laws on handheld devices and pre-booked pickups cannot happen overnight. But unlike in Washington and Boston, where the company has also fought with regulators, New York was more than amenable to the idea of innovation. A compromise was on the horizon.

Uber, however, does not profit from compromise. Kalanick is a proud adherent to the Cult of Disruption: the faddish Silicon Valley concept which essentially boils down to “let us do whatever we want, otherwise we’ll bully you on the Internet until you do.” To proponents of Disruption, the free market is king, and regulation is always the enemy.

The pro-Disruption argument goes like this: In a digitally connected age, there’s absolutely no need for public carriage laws (or hotel laws, or food safety laws, or… or…) because the market will quickly move to drive out bad actors. If an Uber driver behaves badly, his low star rating will soon push him out of business.

It’s a compelling message but also one with dire potential consequences for public safety, particularly for those who can’t afford to take a $50 cab ride to Whole Foods.

Laws don’t exist merely to frustrate the business ambitions of coastal hipsters: They also exist to protect the more vulnerable members of society. Back home in London (where such statistics are available), 11 women a month are attacked in unlicensed cabs, and unlicensed drivers are responsible for a horrifying 80 percent of all stranger rapes. If Uber doesn’t have to follow licensing laws, then neither does any Tom, Dick, or Harry who chooses to paint the word “TAXI” on the side of his car, and start offering rides via the Internet. A disruptive CEO will shrug (and there’s a foreshadowing word) and insist that it’s not his fault that such criminals exist. “Just because there are people who want to rape, murder, or rob you shouldn’t prevent me from making another million dollars,” he’ll argue.

Remarkably, a large part of the Internet community — by which I mean that tiny number of social media fanatics who spend their days on Twitter, looking for the next cause to rally behind or the next bad guy to boycott — will agree with him.

Sure enough, when I Retweeted Mott’s PandoDaily post, I was immediately inundated with @replies accusing me of being “anti-free market” and insisting that the only thing the government should do for technology companies is “get out of the way.” What was curious about those most loudly defending Kalanick — apart from the fact that they all were idiots — was that almost all of them directly or obliquely referenced the same author in their Twitter bio

Ayn fucking Rand.

I’m actually embarrassed that it took me until then to make the connection, particularly given I used to host the startup competition at a technology conference called “TechCrunch Disrupt.” The original Silicon Valley meaning of a disruptive company was one that used its small size to shake up a bigger industry or bloated competitor. Increasingly, though, the conference stage was filled with brash, Millennial entrepreneurs vowing to “Disrupt” real-world laws and regulations in the same way that me stealing your dog is Disrupting the idea of pet ownership. On more than one occasion a judge would ask an entrepreneur “Is this legal?” to which the reply would inevitably come: “Not yet.” The audience would laugh and applaud. What chutzpah! So Disruptive!

The truth is, what Silicon Valley still calls “Disruption” has evolved into something very sinister indeed. Or perhaps “evolved” is the wrong word: The underlying ideology — that all government intervention is bad, that the free market is the only protection the public needs, and that if weaker people get trampled underfoot in the process then, well, fuck ‘em — increasingly recalls one that has been around for decades. Almost seven decades in fact, since Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” first put her on the radar of every spoiled trust fund brat looking for an excuse to embrace his or her inner asshole. (For a delightful essay on that subject, I recommend Jason Heller’s “I Was A Teenage Randroid.”)

Consider the following quote…

The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.

Or this one…

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.

Either of those lines could have come from the mouth of Travis Kalanick, or any of his Disruptive ilk. The first is frighteningly close to the line you’ve heard from every entrepreneur you’ve ever wanted to punch: “It’s easier to seek forgiveness than ask permission.” The latter is just a really great excuse for breaking whatever silly law is frustrating your ambitions. Of course, both quotes are Rand.

But Rand’s worldview isn’t confined to breaking laws and risking public safety. It’s when she moves on to human relationships that she really gets into her stride. Courtesy of The New Republic (hardly the most liberal of publications), here’s a handy guide to some other things that Rand and her followers believe….

Greed good; altruism evil
It’s rational to be self-interested, selfishness is thus a mark of high ethics. Q.E.D. Winners deserve to be winners because they are winners.

The rich are being exploited by the poor
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s hero John Galt grows tired of the leeching workers that live off the business acumen of others, so he leads an upper-class strike that leaves industry decimated. Rand’s point is that without economic supermen, the country would collapse. She of course ignores the fact that the same outcome would result if every working stiff in the country up and quit too.

No social services
Rand compared Medicare, which she reportedly received, to “a ‘hoodlum’ who robs and kills to acquire a yacht and champagne.”

Male chauvinism
Rand was a self-professed “male chauvinist” who believed women should engage in male hero-worship. For this reason, she rejected the idea of a female president. [Specifically she said: "For a woman to seek or desire the presidency is, in fact, so terrible a prospect of spiritual self-immolation that the woman who would seek it is psychologically unworthy of the job"]

Now hold on, Paul. You’re making quite a leap there. Just because both Rand and Kalanick believe in laissez faire capitalism, and just because the principles of Disruption sound an awful lot like the plot of “Atlas Shrugged,” doesn’t make Kalanick a Randian.

After all, in addition to all that weirdness above, Ayn Rand idolized child-murderer William Hickman, praising his “wonderful, free, light consciousness — [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling.” Worse still, Rand inspired Paul Ryan, The Tea Party and the Koch Brothers. You’d better be damn sure of your facts before you go accusing the founder of Uber of being a Randian.

Okey dokey!

From an interview with the Washington Post:

WP: I noticed your Twitter avatar is the cover of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

Kalanack: I don’t know what you’re talking about. [Laughs.] It’s less of a political statement. It’s just personally one of my favorite books. I’m a fan of architecture.

See. Not a political statement. He’s just a fan of architecture. And one can only assume, then, that it was a completely different Travis Kalanick who responded to the Mahalo question “How would Ayn Rand react to the current policies and realities in the USA?” thusly…

One of the interesting stats I came across was that 50% of all California taxes are paid by 141,000 people (a state with 30mm inhabitants). This hit home as I had recently finished Atlas Shrugged. If 141,000 affluent people in CA went “on strike”, CA would be done for… another reason you can’t keep increasing taxes to pay for unaccountable gov’t programs that offer poor services.

Okay, okay, so maybe Kalanick is a fan of Ayn Rand, and maybe what used to be called Objectivism is now called Disruption. But is it not possible to agree, intellectually, with the tenets of Disruption Objectivism and still not act like a raging asshole?

Well, I dunno. Let’s consider how Kalanick treated his Uber taxi drivers in New York. When he was trying to convince them to break the law to boost Uber’s footprint in the city, Kalanick offered yellow cab drivers free iPhones and promised to “take care of” any legal problems they encountered with the TLC. A few short months later, when the service was forced to close, those same drivers received a message to come to Uber HQ. Reports the Verge

Multiple drivers said Uber called them into headquarters, claiming they needed to come by in order to get paid and would get a cash bonus for showing up. When the cabbies came in, Uber surprised them by asking for the device back, informing them that taxi service was no longer available in New York.

That’s classic Rand right there. The more replaceable the worker, the more they can be treated like total shit. After all, if they’re so damn special, they can always leave and find another job.

And indeed several members of the Uber’s New York team did leave, having grown tired of Uber’s schtick. Here’s The Verge again

Matt Kochman… served as Uber’s founding general manager in New York before he left last year. Kochman left Uber to do consulting for transportation brands and startups, fed up with Uber’s irreverent attitude toward regulators. “Discounting the rules and regulations as a whole, just because you want to launch a product and you have a certain vision for things, that’s just irresponsible,” Kochman said. Community manager James Aviaz left at the same time, leaving just one Uber employee in New York.

You can tell a lot about how a company will treat its customers by how it treats its workers, just as you can tell a lot about a CEO by his or her mentors.

If Rand was hypocritical in her attacks on Medicare, so too does Kalanick enjoy an uneasy relationship with consistency. During his fight with the DC taxi commission, Kalanick repeatedly denounced the “backroom deals” made between corrupt city officials and taxi operators and denied that Uber was trying to make similar deals:

“The notion that there some sort of deal or arrangement or whatever was just not the case,” said Kalanick in an interview with the Washington Post. How embarrassing, then, when the Post uncovered documents proving that Uber had indeed tried to make under the table arrangements to operate in DC. Or as the Post’s Mike DeBonist put it: “If you’re going to be dismissive of backroom deals, it behooves you to stay out of backrooms.”

And there’s the rub. Given their Randian origins, we kid ourselves if we think most Disruptive businesses are fighting government bureaucracy to bring us a better deal. A Disruptive company might very well succeed in exposing government crooks lining their pockets exploiting outdated laws, but that’s only so the Disruptor can line his own pockets through the absence of those same laws. A Disruptive company may give you free candy in your 50-dollar cab but, again, that’s only because doing so is good business. If poisoning that same candy suddenly becomes better business (like encouraging New York cab drivers to be distracted by their phones, or putting vulnerable people at risk of attack is better business)… well maybe that’s an option worth exploring too. After all, food safety legislation is just another attempt by the government to drive Disruptive businesses off the road.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider how that other poster child for disruption, Airbnb, reacted when the first (of several) homeowners had her house trashed by renters. The victim’s complaints were ignored for a full 14 hours, in line with Airbnb’s “use our service at your own risk” policy. Only when investors started getting cold feet about a cacophony of negative press did the company finally offer any assistance or compensation.

Luckily for the homeowner, Airbnb’s investors were not Rand followers, nor thankfully are all of Kalanick’s backers. And yet… we may ultimately look back on these days with misty eyes. If the current crop of Disruptive entrepreneurs continues to grow rich — Kalanick already invests up to $1 million per year in startups — the next generation of Disruption will likely by founded by Randroids, funded by other Randroids. (May John Galt have mercy on our souls.)

A final word on hypocrisy: specifically my own. I am an Uber user. Not of UberTaxi, but of their town cars, which on my visits to San Francisco are frequently more reliable than the city’s godawful taxicabs. My self-justification for continuing to do so would make Rand grin in her grave: I’m not directly hurting anyone by using the service, nor will I protect anyone by making my life harder. It’s not like Travis Kalanick will alter his behaviour one jot as a result of my one-man boycott.

But none of that is an excuse. Ayn Rand once wrote on altruism that “the issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence.” No, it isn’t the first mortgage, but it is one of them.

I’ve written before that to be truly disruptive (small ‘d’) the startups must have a moral dimension, even when that jars with the pursuit of profit. It’s just hypocritical for me to argue that on one hand while sidestepping those same ethical choices myself. And so, as of about ten minutes ago, the Uber app has taken its place in the dustbin of services I’ll just have to live without, at least while the company’s founder continues to celebrate the ugliest face of capitalism.

My decision might not affect Travis Kalanick’s sleep one jot, but it’ll sure as hell will do wonders for mine.

“On bad days, I look at our revenue graph.”
- Travis Kalanick

This article was originally published on NSFWCORP. Subscribe now.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]



Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy

Global Warming Systemically Caused Hurricane Sandy

Global warming is real, and it is here. It is causing -- yes, causing -- death, destruction, and vast economic loss.

Sailboats rest on the ground after being blow over by Hurricane Sandy on City Island, New York.
Photo Credit: AFP

Yes, global warming systemically caused Hurricane Sandy -- and the Midwest droughts and the fires in Colorado and Texas, as well as other extreme weather disasters around the world. Let's say it out loud, it was causation, systemic causation.

Systemic causation is familiar. Smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer. HIV is a systemic cause of AIDS. Working in coal mines is a systemic cause of black lung disease. Driving while drunk is a systemic cause of auto accidents. Sex without contraception is a systemic cause of unwanted pregnancies.

There is a difference between systemic and direct causation. Punching someone in the nose is direct causation. Throwing a rock through a window is direct causation. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation. Any application of force to something or someone that always produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation. When causation is direct, the word cause is unproblematic.

Systemic causation, because it is less obvious, is more important to understand. A systemic cause may be one of a number of multiple causes. It may require some special conditions. It may be indirect, working through a network of more direct causes. It may be probabilistic, occurring with a significantly high probability. It may require a feedback mechanism. In general, causation in ecosystems, biological systems, economic systems, and social systems tends not to be direct, but is no less causal. And because it is not direct causation, it requires all the greater attention if it is to be understood and its negative effects controlled.

Above all, it requires a name: systemic causation.

Global warming systemically caused the huge and ferocious Hurricane Sandy. And consequently, it systemically caused all the loss of life, material damage, and economic loss of Hurricane Sandy. Global warming heated the water of the Gulf and Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, resulting in greatly increased energy and water vapor in the air above the water. When that happens, extremely energetic and wet storms occur more frequently and ferociously. These systemic effects of global warming came together to produce the ferocity and magnitude of Hurricane Sandy.

The precise details of Hurricane Sandy cannot be predicted in advance, any more than when, or whether, a smoker develops lung cancer, or sex without contraception yields an unwanted pregnancy, or a drunk driver has an accident. But systemic causation is nonetheless causal.

Semantics matters. Because the word cause is commonly taken to mean direct cause, climate scientists, trying to be precise, have too often shied away from attributing causation of a particular hurricane, drought, or fire to global warming. Lacking a concept and language for systemic causation, climate scientists have made the dreadful communicative mistake of retreating to weasel words. Consider this quote from "Perception of climate change," by James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

...we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.

The crucial words here are high degree of confidence, anomalies, consequence, likelihood, absence, and exceedingly small. Scientific weasel words! The power of the bald truth, namely causation, is lost.

This no small matter because the fate of the earth is at stake. The science is excellent. The scientists' ability to communicate is lacking. Without the words, the idea cannot even be expressed. And without an understanding of systemic causation, we cannot understand what is hitting us.

Global warming is real, and it is here. It is causing -- yes, causing -- death, destruction, and vast economic loss. And the causal effects are getting greater with time. We cannot merely adapt to it. The costs are incalculable. What we are facing is huge. Each day, the amount of extra energy accumulating via the heating of the earth is the equivalent of 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Each day!

Because the earth itself is so huge, this energy is distributed over the earth in a way that is not immediately perceptible by our bodies -- only a fraction of a degree each day. But the accumulation of total heat energy over the earth is increasing at an astronomical rate, even though the temperature numbers look small locally -- 0.8 degrees Celsius so far. If we hit 2.0 degrees Celsius, as we may before long, the earth -- and the living things on it -- will not recover. Because of ice melt, the level of the oceans will rise 45 feet, while huge storms, fires, and droughts get worse each year.

The international consensus is that by 2.0 degrees Celsius, all civilization would be threatened if not destroyed.

What would it take to reach a 2.0 degrees Celsius increase over the whole earth? Much less than you might think. Consider the amount of oil already drilled and stored by Exxon Mobil alone. If that oil were burned, the temperature of the earth would pass 2.0 degree Celsius, and those horrific disasters would come to pass.

The value of Exxon Mobil -- its stock price -- resides in its major asset, its stored oil. Because the weather disasters arising from burning that oil would be so great that we would have to stop burning. That's just Exxon Mobil's oil. The oil stored by all the oil companies everywhere would, if burned, destroy civilization many times over.

Another way to comprehend this, as Bill McKibben has observed, is that most of the oil stored all over the earth is worthless. The value of oil company stock, if Wall St. were rational, would drop precipitously. Moreover, there is no point in drilling for more oil. Most of what we have already stored cannot be burned. More drilling is pointless.

Are Bill McKibben's and James Hansen's numbers right? We had better have the science community double-check the numbers, and fast.

Where do we start? With language. Add systemic causation to your vocabulary. Communicate the concept. Explain to others why global warming systemically caused the enormous energy and size of Hurricane Sandy, as well as the major droughts and fires. Email your media whenever you see reporting on extreme weather that doesn't ask scientists if it was systemically caused by global warming.

Next, enact fee and dividend, originally proposed by Peter Barnes at Sky Trust and introduced as Senate legislation as the KLEAR Act by Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins. More recently, legislation called fee and dividend has been proposed by James Hansen and introduced in the House by representatives John B, Larson and Bob Inglis.

Next. Do all we can to move to alternative energy worldwide as soon as possible.

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of The California Democracy Act, a grassroots California ballot initiative now organizing public support at camajorityrule.com. He is also the co-author (with Elisabeth Wehling)  of The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic

Golden Dawn and the deafening silence of Europe

Golden Dawn and the deafening silence of Europe

 30 Oct 2012 05:19 PM PDT

With a neo-Nazi party on the rise in Greece, it seems that even a Weimar-like scenario might be tolerable for EU leaders insisting on further austerity.

“For Peace, Freedom and Democracy. Never Again Fascism. Millions of Dead Remind Us”. Those are the words carved into a memorial stone underneath the Austrian house where Adolf Hitler was born in 1889. “Never Again”. Thus was the uniform slogan resounding across Europe after the full scale of Nazi horror became known in the wake of WWII. The cosmopolitan project of European integration was founded upon this promise. Never again would fascists and warmongers be allowed to tear the Old Continent and its people apart.

One day it may therefore be considered one of history’s greatest ironies that, as EU leaders were busy deciding who would collect its Nobel Prize for “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights,” those same leaders remained woefully silent when a recent survey indicated that the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party now polls third in Greece, at 14 percent — a showing comparable to that of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party in 1930, three years before rising to power and setting the world on course for WWII.

Image: Golden Dawn members with party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos (front left)

For clarity’s sake: the comparison made between National Socialism and Golden Dawn is by no means an exaggeration. We are talking about an extreme-right organization whose emblemdeliberately resembles a swastika; whose leader publicly gave the Nazi salute upon his election to Parliament; whose magazine regularly features articles and pictures of the Führer himself; whose spokesman recently assaulted two female rivals on a live TV show; whose manifesto pledges toraid all immigrants out of hospitals and all non-Greek children out of kindergartens; and whose MPs actively participate in racist pogroms against Greece’s immigrant population. (Oh, and by the way, Golden Dawn’s favourite band is called Pogrom, known for such hits as “Auschwitz” and “Speak Greek Or Die”. Incidentally, its former bassist is now one of Golden Dawn’s 18 MPs.)

No surprise, then, that even the mild-mannered BBC is now making eerie comparisons with the early days of the austerity-stricken Weimar Republic. It is happening again. Fascism is once again on the rise in Europe. And what do EU leaders have to say about this? Nothing, it seems. As neo-Nazi militia run amok in the streets of Athens, Brussels and Berlin remain forever shrouded in a deafening silence. The only thing European leaders seem to care about is that Greece repays its debts. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law have all been relegated to secondary concerns — to serve financial interests, even a strong flavor of fascism now appears to be tolerable.

On Monday, a spokesman for the German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists that the cancellation of Greece’s debt would be “in violation” of German budget laws. But when The Guardianpublished a terrifying report on forty anti-fascist activists who had been tortured by police in prison — with some beaten up to the point of severe bruising and broken bones and others forced to strip naked, bend over and spread their buttcheeks while reciting fascist slogans to their comrades — no European official seemed to care enough to declare these acts to be “in violation” of the Third Article of the European Convention of Human Rights prohibiting torture.

In fact, European leaders couldn’t care less. Back in May, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, publicly questioned the neo-Nazi label of Golden Dawn, conveniently declining any form of responsibility by vaguely stating that “we have to define what a neo-Nazi party is, which can only be done at national level.” When a senior Greek police officer confirmed this weekend that the Greek government wilfully allowed “pockets of fascism” to infiltrate the police force so it could “use them for its own purposes”, Barroso — and with him the entire European establishment — preferred to play dumb and keep his head firmly in the sand.

Image: two covers of Golden Dawn’s official party magazine. Still, the President of the European Commission refuses to define Golden Dawn as a ‘neo-Nazi’ party.

So far, the only person who has pledged to investigate Golden Dawn is the Commissioner of Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, but his commission is part of the Council of Europe, an independent Strasbourg-based paper tiger that is entirely separate from the EU. What’s more, the commission’s concern was entirely discredited when, on October 1, Golden Dawn MP Eleni Zaroulia joined the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. A few weeks later, on October 18, Zaroulia made a declaration in Greek Parliament stating that “immigrants are subhuman”. So much for equality and non-discrimination.

But Golden Dawn’s sudden rise in the institutions is perhaps the least of Greece’s troubles. It’s its presence in the streets and its infiltration of the police force that is the greatest cause of concern. In August, following the racist murder of a 19-year-old Iraqi, the Migrant Workers Association reportedover 500 hate attacks in the previous six months alone. A report last week confirmed that more than half of these attacks were perpetrated by gangs of men in paramilitary uniforms — one of the trademarks of Golden Dawn’s Sturmabteilung. The numbers are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg, as many victims are simply too terrified to report abuse and violence.

Earlier this month, Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panayiotaros was caught on video during a mob attack on a theatre, hurling homophobic abuse at the director of a critical play, beating up anti-fascist protesters trying to protect the theatre and a journalist trying to do his job, and finally freeing an arrested fellow fascist from a police van. All this time, police officers stood by and did nothing. No wonder: Golden Dawn proudly claims “60 percent support” among the police force. Not only do officers deliberately ignore criminal complaints and emergency calls by immigrants and activists; it is now commonly known that they actively refer Greeks who have “problems” with immigrants to Golden Dawn. As the Greek state crumbles under the weight of its debt repayments, Golden Dawn has stepped in to fill the void.

Never again, we used to say. Never again. How much more blatant does the situation need to get for Europe to at least express its concern and admit that the problem exists? How is it possible that a Nobel Peace laureate simply ignores the rise of violent neo-Nazi elements in its midst? Perhaps the answer is simply that European leaders realize how deeply implicated they are in the rise of Golden Dawn. Perhaps they prefer to stay silent because they know that admitting the resurgence of fascism on the continent could greatly complicate the austerity agenda they are pushing unto the European periphery. Perhaps, then, even a strong flavor of fascism might be tolerable — as long as Greece continues to service its debt…

American democracy and the “disposition matrix”

American democracy and the “disposition matrix”

31 October 2012

The media and political establishment have responded with near total silence to the Washington Post’s revelation last week that the Obama administration has transformed extra-judicial assassination into a permanent practice of the US government.

What should be immediate grounds for the impeachment of the president has been met with indifference, most notably from liberal and “left” supporters of Obama’s re-election. If the initial Post article has something of the character of a trial balloon—to see to what extent the revelation of such measures would be met with official opposition—the results are conclusive: there is no significant commitment to democratic rights in the media and political establishment.

By any objective account, the Post’s revelations are extraordinary. “Targeted killing”—a euphemism for assassination—“is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes to sustain it.” The administration has transformed “ad hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining permanent war.”

Kill lists “that were regarded as finite emergency measures after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are now fixtures of the national security apparatus.” At the same time, it is “a policy so secret that it impossible for outsiders to judge whether it complies with the laws of war or US values—or even determine the total number of people killed.”

In other words, the administration has systematized a process by which the executive branch, with no judicial oversight, kills people—including US citizens—routinely all over the world. From a “state of exception,” the administration has transformed these powers, without any public discussion, into a state of permanence.

The language used by government officials to justify such measures is chilling. The list of potential targets has been dubbed a “disposition matrix.” One former administration official noted that they faced a “disposition problem”—i.e., the government faced the challenge of disposing of targets. Wary of a potentially messy legal process, whether in civilian courts or before military tribunals, the Obama administration has elected more and more to simply kill people.

Writing in the Council of Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko cites one military official involved in the targeted killing program: “To emphasize how easy targeted killings by special operations forces or drones has become, this official flicked his hand back over and over, stating, ‘It really is like swatting flies. We can do it forever easily and you feel nothing. But how often do you really think about killing a fly?’”

Employing a somewhat different analogy, former CIA analyst and Obama adviser Bruce Riedel, told the Post, “The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower. You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”

Thousands have been slaughtered in this way, including many entirely innocent civilians. Among those assassinated by the American government were US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of propagating Islamic fundamentalist ideas. Obama has declared that ordering the killing of al-Awlaki was “an easy one.” Robert Gibbs, a top Obama adviser, declared in relationship to the killing of al-Awlaki’s 16-year old son, also a US citizen, who was accused of nothing, that “he should have had a more responsible father.”

It is impossible to speak of the “erosion” of American democracy any longer. The situation is far more advanced. Such language reflects a political establishment for which the most basic democratic conceptions are entirely foreign. It is language befitting a police state.

The implications go far beyond the use of drones. In seeking to justify its program of state killings, the Obama administration has in effect obliterated the legal basis for all constraints on executive power. The core concept of due process is inscribed in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which declares that “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

The concept of due process traces its roots to the very origins of constitutional monarchy and the limitations on arbitrary power in Britain—the Magna Carta. In brief: a person cannot be deprived of his rights, including his right to life, without a legal and judicial process. According to the Obama administration, however, this due process requirement is satisfied by the internal deliberations of the executive—by the president and his closest advisers.

And if the president can kill anyone, including US citizens, without judicial review, what power does he not have? Any but the most formal distinction between democracy and presidential dictatorship is swept away.

Such measures will ultimately be used within the United States. Particularly since the September 11 attacks, the American government has constructed a huge spying apparatus, an apparatus currently overseen by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)—the same body that is at the center of the assassination program.

In March, the Justice Department modified guidelines to allow the NCTC to collect and “continually assess” information on American citizens for up to five years, from 180 days as established under Bush. In July, the American Civil Liberties Union remarked that the changes amounted to “a reboot of the Total Information Awareness Program” which Bush was forced to formally abandon in 2003 after intense public opposition, though it was continued in different forms.

The terminal crisis of American democracy is deeply rooted in the structure of American capitalism, and in particular the vast growth of social inequality. Over the past several decades, a tiny financial aristocracy has monopolized enormous resources on the basis of speculation and increasingly criminal operations. After creating the economic and financial crisis that erupted in 2008, this same social layer is determined to pursue unpopular policies at home and abroad.

It is worth noting in this context a column by prominent political commentator George Will, appearing in the Washington Post earlier this month. Under the headline, “Seeds of Our Dysfunction,” Will complains that “America’s public-policy dysfunction exists not because democracy isn’t working but because it is.” People are not being sufficiently “reasonable,” Will complains, particularly because they do not recognize the need for massive cuts in social programs. “People flinch from confronting difficult problems until driven by necessity’s lash.”

Will is simply giving voice to conceptions more broadly felt in the ruling class. The political system, even under its current anti-democratic form, is seen as a hinderance to implementing policies that are determined to be “necessary.”

In fact, the two political parties are as united in their commitment to a wholesale attack on the working class as they are in supporting the policy of extra-judicial assassination abroad. In the aftermath of the election, whether Obama or Romney wins, the ruling class is planning immediate measures to slash social program upon which millions of people depend.

Unending war, social reaction, and the repudiation of legality—this is the program of the American ruling class. Democracy is incompatible with the continued rule of the financial aristocracy, and the continued existence of the social system, capitalism, upon which it rests.

The task of defending and extending democracy, therefore, lies with the working class—through its independent political mobilization in the fight for socialism.

Joseph Kishore

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

GMOs, Seed Wars, and Knowledge Wars

GMOs, Seed Wars, and Knowledge Wars

October 31, 2012 By Vandana Shiva


Vandana Shiva's ZSpace Page / ZSpace

The only reason crops have been genetically engineered is to take patents on seeds, and collect royalties. If during colonialism the concept of Terra Nullius, empty land, allowed the takeover of land and territories by the colonizer, a new concept of Bio Nullius, empty life, is being used to claim “intellectual property rights” on seeds, biodiversity and life forms. But life is not empty. Seeds are not an invention. They embody millions of years of biological evolution, and thousands of years  of cultural evolution and farmers breeding. When corporations claim patents, they basically “pirate” traits that nature and farmers have evolved. They pirate and patent the aroma of basmati, the low gluten qualities of our native wheat, the salt tolerant, drought tolerant, flood tolerant traits of climate resilience our farmers have bred. This is not innovation and invention, it is Biopiracy. The only traits that the corporations have introduced into plants through genetic engineering are the toxic traits of Bt toxin and herbicide resistance. Besides being toxic, these traits have not reduced chemical use as has been repeatedly claimed. Our studies in Vidharba show a 13-fold increase in pesticide use since Bt cotton was introduced.

A report, published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, shows that genetically engineered crops have led to a 404 million pound increase in overall pesticide use from the time they were introduced in 1996 through 2011. This equates to an increase of about seven percent over the last 16 years.

 The data on increased chemical use shows that the claim that Bt toxin crops will reduce pesticide use and herbicide resistant crops will reduce herbicide use, is false.

As the Navdanya report, “The GMO Emperor has no Clothes “shows, genetically  modified crops have led to resistance, both in weeds and pests, demanding higher use of pesticides and herbicides. More than two dozen weed species are now resistant to glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Monsanto's broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup and farmers are being asked to spray Agent Orange, that was used in the Vietnam War. 

The only way corporations can push GMO seeds on farmers is by destroying alternatives. They do this by blocking public breeding. India’s premier cotton research institute in Nagpur has not released a single variety in Vidharba since Monsanto entered the cotton seed market. The second strategy is to lock local companies into licensing arrangements. 60 Indian Seed companies only sell Monsanto’s Bt cotton. The third strategy is to make local seeds illegal through compulsory licensing and registration laws. This was attempted in 2004 with the Seed Act. It took a seed Satyagraha organized by us across the country, and a parliamentary committee to prevent it from coming into force. But in Europe Seed laws are already criminalizing biodiversity and farmers breeding. This is why we have joined tog ether as a Global Citizen’s Alliance for Seed Freedom, to call for No Patents on Seeds, and No to Seed laws that promote industrial seeds and make local, open pollinated varieties illegal. The Global Citizens report on Seed Freedom (www.seedfreedom.in) written jointly by more than 120 groups and individuals was released on 1st October in Delhi. A fortnight of actions for Seed Freedom was across the world undertaken from! Gandhi’s birth anniversary 2nd October, to World Food Day 16th October.

Seed is the first link in the food chain. And Seed Wars are leading to Food Wars. The California ballot initiative on labeling of GMO foods is the most current contest between citizen’s Right to Know and Choose and Corporate Rights to force feed GMOs.
As Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director for the Organic Consumers Association, pointed out at an Occupy Wall Street teach-in in Washington DC in early April: “The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act ballot initiative is a perfect example of how the grassroots 99% can mobilize to take back American democracy from the corporate bullies, the 1%.”

Seed Wars and Food wars are becoming knowledge wars. Just before the California initiative, an article was planted in the media across the world arguing that Organic Foods have no Health Benefit. It turns out that the so-called scientists from Stanford had done similar work for Big Tobacco during the debate on smoking.

While fraud science is used to promoting GMOs, independent public scientists who do high quality research on the Biosafety and health and environmental impact of GMOs, which is a legally binding obligation under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, are attacked by an organized mafia working for industry parading as scientists. Dr Arpad Putzai of the UK was driven out of his job when the results of his study commissioned by the UK Government showed that the brains of the rats in his feeding study had shrunk, the pancreas had expanded, and the immunity had collapsed. More recently a study published by Dr. Seralini in Food and Chemical Toxicology showed that:

·         Death rates in rats fed the Roundup-Ready GM maize were 2-5 times that of the control group. 
·         Female rats had a shockingly high incidence of mammary tumours (80% by the time that they died)
·         Male rats suffered significant levels of liver and kidney damage.
·         Tumours were huge - and many animals had 3 tumours by the time they died. 

The Indian Supreme Court set up a Technical Expert Committee to advise it on the gaps in the scientific Biosafety assessment of GMOs. The committee recommended a moratoriun on field trials of all GMO Bt crops, an assessment of the special problems of Herbicide tolerant crops, and a ban on all trials of GMO crops of which India is the Centre of Diversity. These include:

·         Cereals and Legumes: ricechickpeapigeon peaurd beanmung beanrice bean,cowpea,
·         Vegetables and Tubers: eggplantcucumberradishtaroyam
·         Fruits: mangoorangetangerinecitrontamarind
·         Sugar, Oil, and Fiber Plants: sugar canecoconut palm, sesame, safflowertree cotton, oriental cotton, jutecrotalariakenaf

·         Spices, Stimulants, Dyes, and Miscellaneous: hempblack peppergum arabic,sandalwoodindigo, cinnamon tree, crotonbamboo.


The Supreme Court is supposed to ensure that the executive, the gov functions constitutionally. The GMO lobby has written to the Prime Minister to try and undo the work of the Supreme Court and its Technical committee. This is a subversion of our constitution.


report, “Cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops – Prospects and Effects”, was tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in August in Lok Sabha.

Releasing the report at a press conference, the chairperson of the committee, Mr Basudeb Acharia said, “The committee has come to the conclusion that since concerns on the potential and actual impacts of GM crops to our food, farming, health and environment are valid, GM crops are just not the right solution for our country.”

Again the GMO lobby writes to the Prime Minister to undo the recommendations of the Parliamentary committee.

Since GMOs can only spread through seed monopolies, the destruction of our democracy and the integrity of science and knowledge, we are better off without them. 



Freedom of speech suspended “until further notice”

Freedom of speech suspended “until further notice”

Posted: 29 Oct 2012 06:36 PM PDT

In Greece, the attack on press freedoms and the collusion with Golden Dawn are indicative of a government in panic and a crumbling hegemonic order.

Image: photojournalist Tatiana Bolari is slapped in the face by a policeman while covering a protest in Athens in October 2011.

You may have heard the story. A couple of days ago an arrest warrant was issued by a Greek prosecutor for Kostas Vaxevanis, a Greek investigative journalist. His crime? HOTDoc, the magazine he edits, published a list of 1,991 Greeks who made $1.95 billion in deposits in the Geneva branch of HSBC bank in Switzerland.

It’s a list that was stolen by former HSBC employee Herve Falciani in 2007, and that former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde submitted to former Greek Finance Minister Georgios Papakonstantinou. While other countries (including France, Germany, and the UK) made use of their respective lists to investigate potential tax evasion, though, the Greek list just “disappeared” somewhere between the offices of Georgios Papakonstantinou and his successor, Evangelos Venizelos — now President of PASOK — for two whole years. Yet, it took the Greek government only a few hours to arrest the journalist who discovered and published it.

The case put into question not only the independence of the judiciary in Greece, but also the state of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the country. And what makes things worse is that Vaxevanis’ case was by no means an isolated one.

Around a month earlier, an MP of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party called for the intervention of the Minister of Justice into the case of a 27-year-old who had created a Facebook group satirizing a well-known monk, paraphrasing his name from Elder Paisios, to Elder Pastitsios (referring to “Pastitsio”, a greek famous dish with pasta and minced meat). Again the Greek state showed excellent reflexes! Within a few hours, the 27-year-old was arrested on charges of blasphemy (!) and insulting religion, while the police entered his house and seized his computer and Facebook account.

The Greek state’s reflexes improved even more, though, in the case of the dismissal of journalists Kostas Arvanitis and Marilena Katsimi from the Greek state broadcaster NET/ERT for criticizing Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias over the torture report of the 15 anti-fascist activists that the Guardian (and not the Greek media) published, which led the Minister to accuse the British newspaper of “spreading lies”, also threatening it with legal action. Apparently, professional forensic examination of the 15 anti-fascists showed that torture had indeed taken place, and the journalists made the following comments on their Morning-magazino today:

Ms. Katsimi: … and here are the forensic findings for the 15 arrestees, published in the Guardian and for which case Mr. Dendias wanted to sue the Guardian.

Mr. Arvanitis: Didn’t he sue it?

Ms. Katsimi: He didn’t because the findings show that it is indeed a felony.

Mr. Arvanitis: And now, is he going to resign?

Ms. Katsimi: I do not think that he would resign. But it was strange what Mr. Dendias said — as if he knew the findings, which is not normally done… on the one hand is good that he didn’t know the findings, but on the other hand, how can you say such a thing?

Mr. Arvanitis: And now what? Would he apologize?

Ms. Katsimi: I don’t know…

Mr. Arvanitis: Wow… that’s difficult for Mr. Dendias. And he is from the same place as you, from Corfu.

Ms. Katsimi: And he is a serious man, I have to say.”

In a matter of minutes, Aimilios Liatsos, the General Director of the State Broadcaster, announced to the journalists that they would be “cut off” from the news magazine “until further notice”, with the following statement:

“The General Directorate of ERT fully respects the rules of the free press and it proves in daily practice the broadcast of all views. However, it can not accept the violation of the minimum standards of journalistic ethics.

“The presenters of the daily magazine ‘Morning Information’ on NET, Mr. Kostas Arvanitis and Mrs. Marilena Katsimi, made unacceptable insinuations against the Minister of Citizen Protection, Mr. Nikos Dendias, and this without giving him the right to express his own opinion, while with their comments they appeared to prejudge the outcome of the judicial decision.”

Of course the incident was met with outrage by the Greek public, which characterized it as “junta-style censorship”.

As if this was not enough, the journalist union POESY announced today that another journalist of the state broadcaster ET3 was also fired on October 26, 2012, because she noticed a “strong military presence” outside Agios Dimitrios Church in Thessaloniki during the festivities for the city’s liberation — and she dared to say it on air! Later on, on the same day, a young man was arrested because on his Facebook page he had uploaded photographs showing Greek policemen together with members of Golden Dawn, during the national holiday. The official accusation: violation of private data law, and spreading false rumors that may harm the country’s image abroad.

All these incidents are indicative of a government (and a political system in general) in panic; one that does not hesitate to censor freedom of speech in order to protect the hegemonic political, cultural, and economic elites it is serving. While it is now soon to announce further austerity measures of 13.5 billion euros, which will again disproportionately hit the middle and lower classes of the country, it has been protecting for two years the 1.991 “possible” tax evaders, all the while pampering the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party by responding immediately to every ridiculous little prompt of theirs. At the same time, it is secretly torturing anti-fascists in the Golden Dawn headq… excuse me, police stations — and is ready to silence within hours anyone who may express an opinion critical to the government’s.

Welcome to the Greece of the Memorandum.

Here, freedom of speech has been suspended, until the next loan-instalment is released.

Good night.


Monday, October 29, 2012

5 Old School Hackers: Where Are They Now

 Breaking Research Boundaries

Wikibon Blog

5 Old School Hackers: Where Are They Now


Sometimes hackers are so impressive that the “work” they do inspires books and movies to be written about them.  They obtain loyal followers who are intrigued by the amount of security they can get through.  However, what happens to them after their hacking days are disrupted by law enforcement and their hacks are no longer making headlines?  Listed below are five well known hackers, what they became known for, and where they are now.

1. Kevin Mitnick


In 1975, at the age of 12, Kevin Mitnick began his hacking career by using social engineering to bypass the punchcard system in the Los Angeles bus system.  By 1979 he broke into his first network.  He found his way into Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) computer network to steal software and was ultimately caught and arrested for it.  In 1988 he was convicted for the crime and sentenced to 12 months in prison with three years of supervision afterwards.  During his supervision, he hacked into Pacific Bell and, again, a warrant went out for his arrest.  After fleeing for a few years, he was apprehended in 1995 and sentenced to a total of 68 months in prison for violating his original supervision terms and committing several federal offenses while he was a fugitive.  Released in 2000, he was initially forbidden to use anything but a landline.  He fought the ruling in court and was eventually given permission to use the Internet.  Nowadays, Mitnick uses his skills for good instead of evil.  He owns Mitnick Security Consulting, gives security presentations to businesses, and is the author of the upcoming book Ghost in the Wires.

2. Jonathan James


At just 16 years old, Jonathan James was the first juvenile to be sentenced to prison for hacking.  His early hacking included the BellSouth Corporation and the Miami-Dade school system in southern Florida.  But his hacking into the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), a division of the US Department of Defense, is what brought him to the attention of federal authorities.  He created a backdoor to the DTRA, which allowed him to view sensitive emails and gather the usernames and passwords of employees.  James’s hacking of this system led to him obtaining NASA information that controlled the physical environment of the International Space Station, including temperature and humidity of the living space.  NASA spent $41,000 and three weeks checking and fixing their computer systems.  James’s house was raided in January of 2000 and he was formally indicted six months later.  After violating his initial parole, he spent six months in a federal correctional facility.  Unfortunately James suffered from depression and, after believing he would be wrongfully convicted of a crime, committed suicide in May 2008.  His suicide note wrote, “I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control.”

3. Robert Morris


Robert Tappan Morris created the first computer worm to be unleashed on the Internet.  He released the worm in 1988 from MIT, to conceal his actual attendance to Cornell University.  The worm’s intent was to count how many machines were connected to the Internet.  It did this by testing if the worm was already present on the machine and, if false, copied itself to the system.  To combat possible false positives, Morris instructed the bug to copy itself 14% of the time regardless of the test’s outcome.  The worm resulted in copying itself an excessive amount, which resulted in computers being slown down to the point of being unusable.  An estimated 6,000 machines were impacted, a large number for a time when computers weren’t in every home.  Though he served no jail time, Morris was sentenced to three years probation, community service, and a fine of $10,000.  Today, Morris is a professor at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He primarily researches computer network architectures, including distributed hash tables such as Chord and wireless mesh networks such as Roofnet.

4. Kevin Poulsen


In the 1980’s, Kevin Poulsen was a notorious hacker known to many by his handle, Dark Dante.  He worked at SRI International during the day, and would turn to hacking at night.  He taught himself lock picking, and engrossed in a brash spree of high-tech stunts that made him one of America’s best-known cyber-criminals.  One of the many criminal acts he accomplished was reactivating old Yellow Page escort telephone numbers for an acquaintance that then ran a virtual escort agency.  He also hacked into a Los Angeles radio station and took over all of their phone lines, guaranteeing he would be the certain caller who would win a Porsche.  He was arrested in 1991 and pleaded guilty in 1994 to several accounts of mail, wire, and computer fraud.  He was sentenced to 51 months in prison and ordered to pay $56,000 in damages.  At the time of the ruling, this was the longest sentence to ever be given out for hacking.  When Poulsen was released from prison, he became a journalist and left his criminal past behind him.  He became a writer at the security research firm SecurityFocus until 2005 when he left to become a senior editor at Wired News, where he still is today.

5. John Draper


John Draper is a legend in the hacker community.  Known as Captain Crunch, he received the nickname after using a toy whistle that came in a box of cereal.  The whistle’s frequency happened to match the frequency that was used by AT&T long lines, the same frequency used to indicate that a trunk line was ready and available to route a new call.  Knowing this, he could disconnect one end of a call and enter the other end into an operator mode.  After experimenting with this, he used it to create blue boxes that could reproduce other tones used by the phone company.  Attention was brought to him in 1971 after an article was published that told the world about phone phreaking.  He was arrested on toll fraud and sentenced to five years probation.  Also due to the article, he was contacted by Steve Wozniak and briefly worked at Apple, helping create an interface board for the Apple II personal computer.  Draper claimed his reasons for phone phreaking were to learn about a system and not to use it for negative purposes.  Today, Draper writes computer security software, is a senior developer for a VoIP client, and is a host for an Internet TV show, Crunch TV.

Growth Opportunity for Hackers Today?
While Wikibon doesn’t advocate creating worms and viruses, the skill of hacking can be put to good use.  Everyone can’t end up an MIT professor, but hacking is also a necessary skill for data scientists.  Many hackers find it thrilling and love the challenge, but end up where they don’t want to be.  Be smart and put your valuable skills to good use, not evil.

COMMENT:  I first met Captain Crunch in the Bay Area rave community.