Friday, May 20, 2016

militarized masonic militia doubles-down but there's been not one iota of criminal justice reform...,

thenation |  Keep in mind that this article barely scratches the surface when it comes to the increasing numbers of ways in which the police’s use of technology has infiltrated our everyday lives. 

In states and cities across America, some public bus and train systems have begun to add to video surveillance, the surreptitious recording of the conversations of passengers, a potential body blow to the concept of a private conversation in public space. And whether or not the earliest versions of predictive policing actually work, the law-enforcement community is already moving to technology that will try to predict who will commit crimes in the future. In Chicago, the police are using social-networking analysis and prediction technology to draw up “heat lists” of those who might perpetuate violent crimes someday and pay them visits now. You won’t be shocked to learn which side of the tracks such future perpetrators live on. The rationale behind all this, as always, is “public safety.” 

Nor can anyone begin to predict how law enforcement will avail itself of science-fiction-like technology in the decade to come, much less decades from now, though cops on patrol may very soon know a lot about you and your past. They will be able to cull such information from a multitude of databases at their fingertips, while you will know little or nothing about them—a striking power imbalance in a situation in which one person can deprive the other of liberty or even life itself. 

With little public debate, often in almost total secrecy, increasing numbers of police departments are wielding technology to empower themselves rather than the communities they protect and serve. At a time when trust in law enforcement is dangerously low, police departments should be embracing technology’s democratizing potential rather than its ability to give them almost superhuman powers at the expense of the public trust.

Unfortunately, power loves the dark.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

human nature and the bad actors problem...,

declineoftheempire |  The phrase "bad actors" is not a reference to Ashton Kutcher, Adam Sandler, etc. 

Instead, the phrase refers to those who use nominally value-neutral "technologies" (like the internet or mortgage-backed securities) to exploit others. Basically, we're talking about predators here.

Those discussing the subject all sought to counter simplistic reductionist statements like "it's all in the genes" or "the selfish gene." We've all heard these kind of reductionist arguments. Instead, the researchers in the video cited environmental factors like upbringing and biological factors like epigenetics during development to explain the astonishing individual variation we see within the human population. One can then argue further that human nature is a mirage because of there's so much individual variation, as expressed behaviorally.

My own view is that individual variation may appear to be large, but it is clearly bounded (finite), and that variation can therefore be categorized in useful ways. As a result, there is an identifiable suite of human behaviors at the level of large populations, or at the species level. And that is where you need to look if you want to understand human nature.

There is also the statistical argument which I used in the first Flatland essay—the fact that .01% of the human population is actively trying to preserve other species merely implies that 99.99% are either killing them off, even if it is not their "intention" to do so, or doing nothing to prevent it. We are interested in the vast majority, not the tiny minority which expresses some rare individual variation. These arguments complement one another.

Which brings me to bad actors.

A government study released a few days ago found that people are becoming leery about using the internet for various purposes. And why is that? Here's the Christian Science Monitor report on the study.

um.., shouldn't there be some LOTS OF orange jump suits for fraud on this epic scale?

Fortune |  Theranos’ board of directors was assembled for its government connections, not for its understanding of the company or its technology.

“With three former cabinet secretaries, two former senators, and retired military brass, it’s a board like no other.”

So begins Fortune Editor-at-Large Roger Parloff’s 2014 piece on the board of directors at Theranos, the blood-testing company that was the subject of a deeply reported story in The Wall Street Journal this morning questioning the reliability of its drug tests. Theranos disputes the story, calling it “factually and scientifically erroneous and grounded in baseless assertions by inexperienced and disgruntled former employees and industry incumbents.”

Without taking a position one way or the other, I think it’s worth noting that this “board like no other” was assembled for its regulatory and governmental connections, not for its understanding of the company or its technology. That raises significant governance issues at a moment like this one, issues that may bedevil the company in the days and months to come.

Let’s take a look at Theranos’ 12-person board (which is an 11-man team if you don’t include CEO and Chairwoman Elizabeth Holmes—interesting given her stated commitment to women in STEM). We have former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Senators Sam Nunn and Bill Frist (who, it should be noted, is a surgeon), former Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, former Marine Corps General James Mattis, and former CEOs Dick Kovacevich of Wells Fargo and Riley Bechtel of Bechtel. There is also one former epidemiologist—William Foege, and, in addition to Holmes, one current executive, Sunny Balwani, who is Theranos’ president and CEO.

It’s quite an impressive group, isn’t it? But here’s what it’s not: an appropriate board of directors for a company that is valued at $9 billion. There are no sitting chief executives at other companies—a basic tenet of board best practices.

discoveriesinhealthpolicy | "Biotech Theranos Offers a Cautionary Tale for Silicon Valley."
NPR.  All Tech Considered.  By Laura Sydell.  Here.
"Here's What Warren Buffett Thinks of Theranos and its Star Studded Board."   By Daniel Roberts.  Here.

May 4, 2016
"Everything You Need to Know About the Theranos Saga So Far."
Wired.  By Nicholas Stockton.  Here.

"FDA Looks to Clamp Down on Laboratory-Developed Tests and Put an End to ‘Wild West of Medicine’: Might CLIA Problems at Theranos Support FDA’s Position?"
Dark Daily. By Andrea Downing Peck. Here.
[Answer to the title question: Yes.]

May 5, 2016
"The Fall of Theranos and the Future of Silicon Valley."
TIME.  By Lev Grossman.  Here.

May 9, 2016
"Bleeding Out: Theranos Oozes with Corporate Governance Lessons."
Compliance Week.  By Jaclyn Jaeger.  Here.

May 11, 2016
"Theranos Executive Sunny Balwani to Depart Amid Regulatory Probes."
WSJ.  By John Carreyou.  Here.

Wikipedia. Company,  Here.  Elizabeth Holmes, Here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dystopian Now: the future is here - just not evenly distributed

CSMonitor | Dr. Church told The Washington Post that the meeting wasn’t open to the public or to media because its theme overlapped with a paper written by many scientists that’s pending publication in a major scientific journal. The organizers didn’t want to be accused of "science by press release," reported the Post, so decided not to share their project publicly until they had a peer-reviewed article validating their research.

"It wasn't secret. There was nothing secret or private about it," said Church, who told the Post that the video of the event will be released when the scientific paper is published, likely soon.

Church also said that the project is not aimed at creating people, only cells, and not just for human genomes, despite that an invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years,” as the Times reports.

There has been tremendous progress in genomics since scientists finished sequencing the entire human genome in 2003. As the Times reports:
Scientists and companies can now change the DNA in cells, for example, by adding foreign genes or changing the letters in the existing genes. This technique is routinely used to make drugs, such as insulin for diabetes, inside genetically modified cells, as well as to make genetically modified crops. And scientists are now debating the ethics of new technology that might allow genetic changes to be made in embryos. But synthesizing a gene, or an entire genome, would provide the opportunity to make even more extensive changes in DNA.
A team headed by genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter first synthesized the chromosome of one bacterium in 2010 and inserted it into another species, thereby replacing the host species's DNA. The result, named Syn 1.0, was a microbial cell that was able to replicate and make a new set of proteins, powered by its synthetic genome, as the Monitor has reported.

Dystopian Now: managing the decline of the Left Behind so it doesn't produce revolt

libertyblitzkrieg |  I write a lot about the middle class. It’s been one of the core themes here at Liberty Blitzkrieg since inception, yet my posts tend to be filled with statistics and sarcasm, and often lack the crucial element of heart. In order to truly connect with the public and shift their sentiments from apathy to action, it’s imperative to create a deep emotional connection. I admittedly have not done a great job in this regard. Fortunately for all of us, Eli Saslow of the Washington Post has done just that.

I read a lot of articles, and I can’t remember anything that hit me as hard as what he published this past weekend. It tells the tale of the spirit-crushing decimation of the American middle class through the lens of eternal optimist, Chris Setser. Chris is a man who always went above and beyond in order to provide a good life for himself and his family. Working the graveyard shift at an Indiana United Technologies plant so that he could be home when his kids came home from school, Mr. Setser lived his entire life living by the mantra: “Things have a way of working in the end.” Until they didn’t.

Chris’ transformation from an optimistic Democrat, to a pissed off, jaded Trump supporter, is a microcosm for what’s happening all across the country. Through his eyes, you witness a justified desperation, and a painful recognition that working hard and staying positive simply aren’t good enough in America’s current hollowed out, oligarch-owned, shell company of an economy.

Below, I provide some excerpts from the article, but these select passages don’t do it justice. I think this piece is so important, it’s imperative you read it in full and share it with everyone you know. The future of America rests upon reversing this pernicious trend.

From the Washington Post:

Dystopian Now: shall we pretend or not-see the purpose of these policies and activities?

NYTimes |  In Indiana, Mark Dobson, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County, said that when he went to national conferences, the topic was “such a common thread of conversation — whether it’s in an area like ours that’s really enjoying very low unemployment levels or even areas with more moderate employment bases.”

In Colorado, “to find a roofer or a painter that can pass a drug test is unheard-of,” said Jesse Russow, owner of Avalanche Roofing & Exteriors, in Colorado Springs. That was true even before Colorado, like a few other states, legalized recreational use of marijuana.

In a sector where employers like himself tend to rely on Latino workers, Mr. Russow tried to diversify three years ago by recruiting white workers, vetting about 80 people. But, he said, “As soon as I say ‘criminal background check,’ ‘drug test,’ they’re out the door.”

A much broader data trove, the federal government’s annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reported in September that one in 10 Americans ages 12 and older reported in 2014 that they had used illicit drugs within the last month — the largest share since 2001.

Taken together, Dr. Sample said, his data and the government’s indicate higher drug use among those who work for employers without a drug-testing program than workers who are tested, though use by the latter increased as well in 2013 and 2014.

Testing dates to the Reagan administration. The 1988 Drug-Free Workplace Act required most employers with federal contracts or grants to test workers. In 1991, Congress responded to a deadly 1987 train crash in which two operators tested positive for marijuana by requiring testing for all “safety sensitive” jobs regulated by the Transportation Department. Those laws became the model for other employers. Some states give businesses a break on workers’ compensation insurance if they are certified as drug-free.

the present is dystopian, transhumanists are looking for a way out...,

WaPo |  This week, we’re talking about transhumanism. Need a primer? Catch up here.
Charles T. Rubin is author of “Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress.” He teaches political philosophy at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

For its proponents, transhumanism — the idea of using technology to redesign humans beyond our biology — is just common sense. Who doesn’t want to live a healthier, happier and wealthier life? And wouldn’t it be great to live such an “enhanced” life indefinitely? For nearly as long as we have written record, humans have rebelled at the limits of the human condition, but with the development of modern science and technology we have become increasingly able to overcome what once seemed like absolute limits. Advances in fields such as genetics, synthetic biology, neuropsychology, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology are putting us on the verge of even more radical breakthroughs, allowing us to imagine that we can ultimately rebuild completely the flawed human product that evolution has bequeathed us.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Church Lab "Secret" Artificial Genome Meeting

thescientist |  Harvard Medical School’s George Church and his collaborators invited some 130 scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and government officials to Boston last week (May 10) to discuss the feasibility and implementation of a project to synthesize entire large genomes in vitro. According to a statement Church provided to STAT News, such an endeavor could represent “the next chapter in our understanding of the blueprint of life.”

While the subject is an exciting one—on a smaller scale, Craig Venter’s group has synthesized the 1-million-base-pair genome of Mycoplasma mycoides—critics immediately took issue with the fact that this meeting was not open to the press. “This idea is an enormous step for the human species, and it shouldn’t be discussed only behind closed doors,” Northwestern University’s Laurie Zoloth told STAT News. She and Stanford University bioengineer Drew Endy published an article in Cosmos documenting their disapproval of the private nature of the meeting.

Church told STAT News that the original intention was to make the meeting open, but in anticipation of an imminent, high-profile publication on this project, he and his collaborators had to respect the journal’s embargo. However, Endy tweeted a photo of what appeared to be a message from the meeting organizers stating that they chose not to invite media “because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted.”

Übermensch smile as you humans have that conversation...,

techcrunch |  A species-wide conversation on our future has never before been carried out. We didn’t do it at the dawn of the industrial or nuclear ages for understandable reasons, even though we might have avoided some terrible outcomes if we had.

With a growing percentage of the world population connected to the information grid in one way or another, we now have a limited opportunity to avoid making the same mistake and begin laying a foundation for decisions we will need to collectively make in the future. Given the political divisiveness of this issue, the window will not stay open long.

Such a conversation would involve connecting individuals and communities around the world with different backgrounds and perspectives and varying degrees of education in an interconnected web of dialogue.

It would link people adamantly opposed to human genetic enhancement, those who may see it as a panacea, and the vast majority of everyone else who has no idea this transformation is already underway. It would highlight the almost unimaginable potential of these technologies but also raise the danger that opponents could mobilize their efforts and undermine the most promising work to cure cancers and eliminate disease.

But the alternative is far worse. If a relatively small number of even very well intentioned people unleash a human genetic revolution that will ultimately touch most everyone and alter our species’ evolutionary trajectory without informed, meaningful, and early input from others, the backlash against the genetic revolution will overwhelm its monumental potential for good.
Homo Sapiens of the world, let us begin this conversation.

brainjacking: the future of security for neural implants

boingboing |  In a new scientific review paper published in World Neurosurgery, a group of Oxford neurosurgeons and scientists round up a set of dire, terrifying warnings about the way that neural implants are vulnerable to networked attacks. 

Most of the article turns on deep brain stimulation devices, which can be used to stimulate or suppress activity in different parts of the brain, already used to treat some forms of mental illness, chronic pain and other disorders. The researchers round up a whole dystopia's worth of potential attacks on these implants, including tampering with the victim's reward system "to exert substantial control over a patient's behaviour"; pain attacks that induce "severe pain in these patients"; and attacks on impulse control that could induce "Mania, hypersexuality, and pathological gambling." 

The researchers discuss some of the ways in which the (dismal) state of medical implant security could be improved. I recently co-authored a set of comments to the FDA asking them to require manufacturers to promise not to use the DMCA to intimidate and silence security researchers who come forward with warnings about dangerous defects in their products. 

The paper has a delightful bibliography, which cites books like Neuromancer, anime like Ghost in the Shell, as well as papers in Nature, Brain, The Journal of Neurosurgery, and Brain Stimulation.

more material than materialism...,

NYTimes |  Those who make the Very Large Mistake (of thinking they know enough about the nature of the physical to know that consciousness can’t be physical) tend to split into two groups. Members of the first group remain unshaken in their belief that consciousness exists, and conclude that there must be some sort of nonphysical stuff: They tend to become “dualists.” Members of the second group, passionately committed to the idea that everything is physical, make the most extraordinary move that has ever been made in the history of human thought. They deny the existence of consciousness: They become “eliminativists.”

This amazing phenomenon (the denial of the existence of consciousness) is a subject for another time. The present point — it’s worth repeating many times — is that no one has to react in either of these ways. All they have to do is grasp the fundamental respect in which we don’t know the intrinsic nature of physical stuff in spite of all that physics tells us. In particular, we don’t know anything about the physical that gives us good reason to think that consciousness can’t be wholly physical. It’s worth adding that one can fully accept this even if one is unwilling to agree with Russell that in having conscious experience we thereby know something about the intrinsic nature of physical reality.

So the hard problem is the problem of matter (physical stuff in general). If physics made any claim that couldn’t be squared with the fact that our conscious experience is brain activity, then I believe that claim would be false. But physics doesn’t do any such thing. It’s not the physics picture of matter that’s the problem; it’s the ordinary everyday picture of matter. It’s ironic that the people who are most likely to doubt or deny the existence of consciousness (on the ground that everything is physical, and that consciousness can’t possibly be physical) are also those who are most insistent on the primacy of science, because it is precisely science that makes the key point shine most brightly: the point that there is a fundamental respect in which ultimate intrinsic nature of the stuff of the universe is unknown to us — except insofar as it is consciousness.

Monday, May 16, 2016

the malthusian killer-ape crew moves to back Chomsky into a corner

declineofempire |  Chomsky's views on all the subjects he's talked about for decades—power politics, elite repression of The People, elite-controlled media, socioeconomic arrangements, and, recently, climate change—are vacuous unless he has based those views on some theory (or partial theory) of how humans work at a fundamental level (human nature).

And that's not true of Chomsky only; that's generally true. If this vaunted "intellectual" is so damn smart, why hasn't he realized this? Why hasn't he worked on the Human Nature problem as it pertains to, for example, the human response to climate change, instead of lecturing us over and over again about elite-controlled media or unreported, U.S.-supported genocides?

Aren't genocides and elite-controlled media manifestations of aspects of Human Nature? And what about the human response to climate change? If these are not manifestations of human nature, then what the fuck are we talking about? Here's my view.

For example, you can't talk about free market (albeit corrupt) capitalism versus anti-hierarchical anarcho-syndicalist blah blah blah (Chomsky's preferred arrangement) unless your views are based on how humans work, on what is possible for humans to achieve. Otherwise, you're talking out your ass. I discussed this foundational point at the very beginning of the first Flatland essay.

What I also explained in the beginning of that first Flatland essay goes as follows: in order talk out your ass, you're forced to assume a "blank slate" view of Human Nature which implicitly posits that humans are infinitely malleable (our behavior is completely determined by our social and physical environment).

The "blank slate"' in effect says that "anything goes" as far as human socioeconomic arrangements go, to pick just one example. Now, we might ask a simple question here: why is the world dominated by market-based (though inevitably corrupt) capitalist systems instead of anarcho-syndicalist blah blah blah? Is all this some kind of mistake?

Well, if you ask Chomsky, he would argue, at least implicitly, that the world-as-it-is is indeed some kind of mistake, and humans can fix it (though not easily) by inventing some kind of new sociopolitical system which would be better in some undefined way. Chomsky has dedicated his life to this viewpoint, despite clear and overwhelming evidence that humans do not have the capacity for change that he imagines.

At this point you might ask Chomsky why those malevolent elites (hierarchical kleptocracies) he goes on and on about have always existed (and still do) in all large, complex human societies. Apparently, this is a "mistake" humans have made over and over again for the last 6000 years or so, ever since large complex human societies first appeared.

organic competency development: can occupy, resist, produce actually work?

topdocumentaryfilms |  We heard rumors of a new kind of economy emerging in Argentina. With hundreds of factories closing, waves of workers were locking themselves inside and running the workplaces on their own, with no bosses. Where we come from, a closed factory is just an inevitable effect of a model, the end of a story. In Argentina today, it's just the beginning. In suburban Buenos Aires, thirty unemployed auto-parts workers walk into their idle factory, roll out sleeping mats and refuse to leave.

All they want is to re-start the silent machines. But this simple act - The Take - has the power to turn the globalization debate on its head. In the wake of Argentina's dramatic economic collapse in 2001, Latin America's most prosperous middle class finds itself in a ghost town of abandoned factories and mass unemployment. The Forja auto plant lies dormant until its former employees take action.

They're part of a daring new movement of workers who are occupying bankrupt businesses and creating jobs in the ruins of the failed system. But Freddy, the president of the new worker's co-operative, and Lalo, the political powerhouse from the Movement of Recovered Companies, know that their success is far from secure. Like every workplace occupation, they have to run the gauntlet of courts, cops and politicians who can either give their project legal protection or violently evict them from the factory.

The story of the workers' struggle is set against the dramatic backdrop of a crucial presidential election in Argentina, in which the architect of the economic collapse, Carlos Menem, is the front-runner. His cronies, the former owners, are circling: if he wins, they'll take back the companies that the movement has worked so hard to revive. Armed only with slingshots and an abiding faith in shop-floor democracy, the workers face off against the bosses, bankers and a whole system that sees their beloved factories as nothing more than scrap metal for sale.

venezuela - lack of organic community competency development or victim of economic hitmen?

zerohedge |  As we reported yesterday, Maduro on Friday night declared a 60-day state of emergency due to what he called plots from Venezuela and the United States to subvert him. He did not provide specifics. 

As Reuters adds today, "the measure shows Maduro is panicking as a push for a recall referendum against him gains traction with tired, frustrated Venezuelans, opposition leaders said during a protest in Caracas."

"We're talking about a desperate president who is putting himself on the margin of legality and constitutionality," said Democratic Unity coalition leader Jesus Torrealba, adding Maduro was losing support within his own bloc

"If this state of emergency is issued without consulting the National Assembly, we would technically be talking about a self-coup," he told hundreds of supporters who waved Venezuelan flags and chanted "he's going to fall." 

The people's will was already made clear late last year when the opposition won control of the National Assembly in a December election, propelled by voter anger over product shortages, raging inflation that has annihilated salaries, and rampant violent crime, but the legislature has been routinely undercut by the Supreme Court. The lit fuse is therefore entirely in the hands of the increasingly more desperate people. Protests are on the rise and a key poll shows nearly 70% of Venezuelans now say Maduro must go this year. 

Maduro has vowed to see his term through, however, blasting opposition politicians as coup-mongering elitists seeking to emulate the impeachment of fellow leftist Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. 

Saying trouble-makers were fomenting violence to justify a foreign invasion, Maduro on Saturday hinted that a violent crackdown on enemies, both foreign and domestic, may be imminent when he ordered military exercises for next weekend

"We're going to tell imperialism and the international right that the people are present, with their farm instruments in one hand and a gun in the other... to defend this sacred land," he boomed at a rally. He added the government would take over idled factories, and in the process "radicalize the revolution:"
"Comrades, I am ready to hand over to communal power the factories that some conservative big wigs in this country have stopped. An idled factory is a factory handed over to the people. We are going to do it, fuck it!"
Critics of Maduro, a former union leader and bus driver, say he should instead focus on people's urgent needs. 

"There will be a social explosion if Maduro doesn't let the recall referendum happen," said protester Marisol Dos Santos, 34, an office worker at a supermarket where she says some 800 people queue up daily.But the opposition fear authorities are trying to delay a referendum until 2017, when the presidency would fall to the vice president, a post currently held by Socialist Party loyalist Aristobulo Isturiz. 

"If you block this democratic path we don't know what might happen in this country," two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles said at the demonstration. 

"Venezuela is a time bomb that can explode at any given moment." 

no chip too foul to use in the political-economic game for control of the world's largest oil reserves..,

NYTimes |  This nation has the largest oil reserves in the world, yet the government saved little money for hard times when oil prices were high. Now that prices have collapsed — they are around a third what they were in 2014 the consequences are casting a destructive shadow across the country. Lines for food, long a feature of life in Venezuela, now erupt into looting. The bolívar, the country’s currency, is nearly worthless.

The crisis is aggravated by a political feud between Venezuela’s leftists, who control the presidency, and their rivals in congress. The president’s opponents declared a humanitarian crisis in January, and this month passed a law that would allow Venezuela to accept international aid to prop up the health care system.

“This is criminal that we can sit in a country with this much oil, and people are dying for lack of antibiotics,” says Oneida Guaipe, a lawmaker and former hospital union leader.

But Mr. Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez, went on television and rejected the effort, describing the move as a bid to undermine him and privatize the hospital system.

“I doubt that anywhere in the world, except in Cuba, there exists a better health system than this one,” Mr. Maduro said.

Late last fall, the aging pumps that supplied water to the University of the Andes Hospital exploded. They were not repaired for months.

So without water, gloves, soap or antibiotics, a group of surgeons prepared to remove an appendix that was about to burst, even though the operating room was still covered in another patient’s blood.

Even in the capital, only two of nine operating rooms are functioning at the J. M. de los Ríos Children’s Hospital.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

venezuela's profitable elite-engineered collapse and anarchy...,

telesur |  In 2004 and 2005, after winning the recall referendum against him, Chavez launched an offensive to boost local production. “Endogenous development” went hand in hand with declaring that the Bolivarian revolution was heading toward socialism. Land reform began in earnest. Mission Vuelvan Caras began to train the urban poor in agricultural and other skills. Tens of thousands of cooperatives were set up. Almost all of these failed.

The reasons were many, but one of the most potent was that oil prices began to rise sharply. It was just so much easier to import everything, than to build a whole new system of production. And with more people consuming much more, there was a lot that needed to be imported.

This presented Venezuela's traditional elite with an unexpected opportunity. For they still owned most of the companies that did the importing. Since losing control over the state oil company, they had been desperate to claw back their share of its income.

They set about developing one of the greatest scams of all time. It was based on acquiring cheap dollars from the Central Bank for false or manipulated imports, and then speculating on the growing gap in exchange rates.

This is how it worked. Private importer Mr. A applies for US$ 1,000 to import 100 cases of groceries. This costs him 6,300 bolivars (at the government's main preferential rate of US$ 1.00 = Bs. 6.30, in place until earlier this year). Mr. A then has several options. He could decide actually to import all 100 cases. But instead of selling them to his wholesalers at a price based on what he paid, US$ 10 or Bs. 63 per case, he sells them at a price based on the illegal, parallel exchange rate (US$ 1.00 = Bs. 500.00, early last year), that is Bs. 5,000 per case. In other words, he makes a killing in bolivars. But it is much more likely that Mr. A imports only 50 cases, or less, which he sells in the same way and still makes a handsome profit. With the rest of the dollars he was given, 500 or more, he can do several things. He can change them back into bolivars at the parallel rate, but he'd probably rather keep them for a while offshore until the rate goes up even further. Or invest them in something else abroad. Or keep them in his own private dollar account for a rainy day. In other cases, Mr A didn't import anything at all. He basically stole all of the dollars.

Big private companies in Venezuela did the same thing on a much larger scale. In 2013, the then head of the Venezuelan Central Bank, Edmee Betancourt, said that the country had lost between $15 and $20 billion dollars the previous year through such fraudulent import deals. The Central Bank's own figures show that between 2003 and 2013, the Venezuelan private sector increased its holdings in foreign bank accounts by over US$ 122 billion, or almost 230 percent. In 2014, Chavistas campaigning for an audit of the public debt estimated the total amount lost over the same period through fake imports and similar mechanisms amounted to an incredible US$ 259 billion.

It is likely that many of the 750 offshore companies linked to Venezuela in the database released from the Panama Papers have been used to recycle this money.

Venezuela's largest food manufacturer, Polar, has interrupted production several times in recent weeks because, it says, the government hasn't given it the dollars it needs to import its raw materials. But over the years, Polar has been one of the very biggest recipients of preferential dollars for imports. And from somewhere it has found enough dollars to develop new production facilities in the United States and Colombia.

Ukraine 2014 - Brazil 2016: CIA Keeps Sock Puppets Molesting Community Valuables

zerohedge |  As it turns out, the Temer presidency may be nothing more than the latest manifestation of the US state department's implementation of yet another puppet government. We know this because earlier today, Wikileaks released evidence via a declassified cable that Brazil's new interim president was an embassy informant for US intelligence and military.

Wikileaks brought attention to two cables, one dated January 11, 2006, the other June 21, 2006. One shows a document sent from Sao Paolo, Brazil, to - among other recipients - the US Southern Command in Miami. In it, Temer discusses the political situation in Brazil during the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Regarding the 2006 elections, when Lula was re-elected, Temer shared scenarios in which his party (PMDB) would win the elections.  He declined to predict the race, however, but said there would be a run-off and that "anything could happen." 

Temer said the PMDB would elect between 10 and 15 governors that year, and that the party would have the most representatives in the Senate and thus the House of Representatives. This would mean that the elected president would have to report to PMDB rule.  "Whoever wins the presidential election will have to come to us to do anything," Temer reportedly said.

As a reminder, the last time the US instituted a puppet government, was in 2014 when in yet another "bloodless coup", the president of Ukraine was overthrown and replaced with a billionaire oligarch, a scenario comparable to the one in Brazil.

We don't have to remind readers that as a result of the Ukraine coup, relations between the US and Russia are multi-decade lows, the cold war is back and - as of yesterday, so is the nuclear arms race. We are curious what the consequence of yet another US state coup will be, this time in Latin America's largest country.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

abolishing democracy in the world's fifth largest country...,

theintercept |  So if you’re a plutocrat with ownership of the nation’s largest and most influential media outlets, what do you do? You dispense with democracy altogether – after all, it keeps empowering candidates and policies you dislike – by exploiting your media outlets to incite unrest and then install a candidate who could never get elected on his own, yet will faithfully serve your political agenda and ideology.

That’s exactly what Brazil is going to do today. The Brazilian Senate will vote later today to agree to a trial on the lower House’s impeachment charges, which will automatically result in Dilma’s suspension from the presidency pending the end of the trial.

Her successor will be Vice President Michel Temer of the PMDB party (pictured, above). So unlike impeachment in most other countries with a presidential system, impeachment here will empower a person from a different party than that of the elected President. In this particular case, the person to be installed is awash in corruption: accused by informants of involvement in an illegal ethanol-purchasing scheme, he was just found guilty of, and fined for, election spending violations and faces an 8-year-ban on running for any office. He’s deeply unpopular: only 2% would support him for President and almost 60% want him impeached (the same number that favors Dilma’s impeachment). But he will faithfully serve the interests of Brazil’s richest: he’s planning to appoint Goldman, Sachs and IMF officials to run the economy and otherwise install a totally unrepresentative, neoliberal team (composed in part of the same party – PSDB – that has lost 4 straight elections to the PT).

None of this is a defense of PT. That party – as even Lula acknowledged to me in my interview of him – is filled with serious corruption. Dilma, in many critical ways, has been a failed president, and is deeply unpopular. They have often aligned with and served the country’s elite at the expense of their base of poor supporters. The country is suffering economically and in almost every other way.

But the solution to that is to defeat them at the ballot box, not simply remove them and replace them with someone more suitable to the nation’s richest. Whatever damage PT is doing to Brazil, the plutocrats and their journalist-propagandists and the band of thieves in Brasilia engineering this travesty are far more dangerous. They are literally dismantling – crushing – democracy in the world’s fifth-largest country. Even The Economist – which is hostile to even the most moderate left-wing parties, hates PT and wants Dilma to resign – has denounced impeachment as “a pretext for ousting an unpopular president” and just two weeks ago warned that “what is alarming is that those who are working for her removal are in many ways worse.” Before he became an active plotter in his own empowerment, Temer himself said last year that “impeachment is unthinkable, would create an institutional crisis. There is no judicial or political basis for it.”

the new president of brazil

NYTimes |  The new Brazilian president’s first pick for science minister was a creationist. He chose a soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest to be his agriculture minister. And he is the first leader in decades to have no women in his cabinet at all.

The government of President Michel Temer — the 75-year-old lawyer who took the helm of Brazil on Thursday after Dilma Rousseff was suspended by the Senate to face an impeachment trial — could cause a significant shift to the political right in Latin America’s largest country.

“Temer’s government is starting out well,” Silas Malafaia, a television evangelist and author of best-selling books like “How to Defeat Satan’s Strategies,” wrote on Twitter.

“He’ll be able to sweep away the ideology of pathological leftists,” Mr. Malafaia added of a conservative lawmaker whom Mr. Temer chose as education minister.

For more than a decade, Brazil has been an anchor of leftist politics in the region, less strident than the governments in countries like Venezuela and Cuba, but openly supportive of them and committed to its own platform of reducing inequality.

But parts of Latin America are now drifting away from the left after elections in neighboring countries like Argentina and Paraguay. Mr. Temer seems to be embracing a more conservative disposition for his government as well, with the country’s business establishment pressuring him to privatize state-controlled companies and cut public spending.

Friday, May 13, 2016

when bartenders and short-order cooks can't support the shopping malls we provided for them...,

dailyimpact |  It’s a picture that’s worth a thousand choruses of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Here in the Seventh Straight Successful Year of the Recovery from the Great Recession, tucked into a corner of the Arizona Desert, is a line of parked Union Pacific locomotives. It was discovered on Google Earth, so it is, as they say, visible from space. There are 292 of them, baking in the sun like so many dinosaur skeletons, in a line stretching almost five miles. They, and the people who used to run them, are now “excess capacity” for one of the country’s largest freight haulers. In this, the Seventh Straight Successful Year of the Great Recovery.

No one should be surprised. But even when you know that trade — the buying and selling of stuff — has been slowing down all over the world for years, it is startling to see such stark, graphic evidence that we are all in deep trouble.

billingsgazette | GILLETTE — Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad officials say they are keeping about 150 locomotives and rail engines stored near Gillette because of decreased demand.

BNSF spokesman Matt Jones said the rail engines and two sets of box cars remain at the railroad's yard in the Donkey Creek area because of a downturn in rail shipping.
The problems can be attributed to the decline in the coal sector. The passage of the federal Clean Power Plan has pushed power plants away from coal and toward natural gas.
The impact can be seen in the Powder River Basin, as nearby coal companies Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal have filed for bankruptcy.
Jones said the declining demand for transportation has hit several sectors, not just coal.

inforum |  FARGO - An economic downturn involving a variety of commodities across various parts of the United States has resulted in BNSF Railway parking about 45 of its train locomotives at the railroad’s train yard just off 12th Avenue North west of the North Dakota State University campus.

“Customers’ volumes across a broad spectrum of commodities have come down somewhat from their prior estimates,” said Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF. “As a result, we are strategically storing locomotives in some yard locations across our network.”

McBeth said the locomotives will remain stored until traffic volumes warrant returning them to service.

Quarterly profits for Forth Worth-based BNSF, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, fell 25 percent in the first quarter of 2016.

The railroad has been cutting staff in the wake of a changing economic environment that includes low energy prices, the strong dollar and other factors, McBeth said.

“Nationwide, while petroleum products volumes are down, coal is down, too, as are a number of other commodities,” she added.

newsok |  BNSF Railway has parked dozens of its locomotives at a storage yard north of downtown Oklahoma City over the past several weeks as slowing traffic demand has left the units idle.

The engines parked along the east side of Interstate 235 north of NW 23 are from BNSF trains throughout the country, company spokesman Joe Sloan said.

"We have a reduced amount of freight traffic now, and that storage point was available," he said.
Sloan said there is no timeline as to when the locomotives are expected back on the rails.