The rise of data and the death of politics

Tech pioneers in the US are advocating a new data-based approach to governance – ‘algorithmic regulation’. But if technology provides the answers to society’s problems, what happens to governments?

US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

Government by social network? US president Barack Obama with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

On 24 August 1965 Gloria Placente, a 34-year-old resident of Queens, New York, was driving to Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Clad in shorts and sunglasses, the housewife was looking forward to quiet time at the beach. But the moment she crossed the Willis Avenue bridge in her Chevrolet Corvair, Placente was surrounded by a dozen patrolmen. There were also 125 reporters, eager to witness the launch of New York police department’s Operation Corral – an acronym for Computer Oriented Retrieval of Auto Larcenists.

Fifteen months earlier, Placente had driven through a red light and neglected to answer the summons, an offence that Corral was going to punish with a heavy dose of techno-Kafkaesque. It worked as follows: a police car stationed at one end of the bridge radioed the licence plates of oncoming cars to a teletypist miles away, who fed them to a Univac 490 computer, an expensive $500,000 toy ($3.5m in today’s dollars) on loan from the Sperry Rand Corporation. The computer checked the numbers against a database of 110,000 cars that were either stolen or belonged to known offenders. In case of a match the teletypist would alert a second patrol car at the bridge’s other exit. It took, on average, just seven seconds.

Compared with the impressive police gear of today – automatic number plate recognition, CCTV cameras, GPS trackers – Operation Corral looks quaint. And the possibilities for control will only expand. European officials have considered requiring all cars entering the European market to feature a built-in mechanism that allows the police to stop vehicles remotely. Speaking earlier this year, Jim Farley, a senior Ford executive, acknowledged that “we know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.” That last bit didn’t sound very reassuring and Farley retracted his remarks.

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

The car is emblematic of transformations in many other domains, from smart environments for “ambient assisted living” where carpets and walls detect that someone has fallen, to various masterplans for the smart city, where municipal services dispatch resources only to those areas that need them. Thanks to sensors and internet connectivity, the most banal everyday objects have acquired tremendous power to regulate behaviour. Even public toilets are ripe for sensor-based optimisation: the Safeguard Germ Alarm, a smart soap dispenser developed by Procter & Gamble and used in some public WCs in the Philippines, has sensors monitoring the doors of each stall. Once you leave the stall, the alarm starts ringing – and can only be stopped by a push of the soap-dispensing button.

In this context, Google’s latest plan to push its Android operating system on to smart watches, smart cars, smart thermostats and, one suspects, smart everything, looks rather ominous. In the near future, Google will be the middleman standing between you and your fridge, you and your car, you and your rubbish bin, allowing the National Security Agency to satisfy its data addiction in bulk and via a single window.

This “smartification” of everyday life follows a familiar pattern: there’s primary data – a list of what’s in your smart fridge and your bin – and metadata – a log of how often you open either of these things or when they communicate with one another. Both produce interesting insights: cue smart mattresses – one recent model promises to track respiration and heart rates and how much you move during the night – and smart utensils that provide nutritional advice.

In addition to making our lives more efficient, this smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms? If policy interventions are to be – to use the buzzwords of the day – “evidence-based” and “results-oriented,” technology is here to help.

This new type of governance has a name: algorithmic regulation. In as much as Silicon Valley has a political programme, this is it. Tim O’Reilly, an influential technology publisher, venture capitalist and ideas man (he is to blame for popularising the term “web 2.0″) has been its most enthusiastic promoter. In a recent essay that lays out his reasoning, O’Reilly makes an intriguing case for the virtues of algorithmic regulation – a case that deserves close scrutiny both for what it promises policymakers and the simplistic assumptions it makes about politics, democracy and power.

To see algorithmic regulation at work, look no further than the spam filter in your email. Instead of confining itself to a narrow definition of spam, the email filter has its users teach it. Even Google can’t write rules to cover all the ingenious innovations of professional spammers. What it can do, though, is teach the system what makes a good rule and spot when it’s time to find another rule for finding a good rule – and so on. An algorithm can do this, but it’s the constant real-time feedback from its users that allows the system to counter threats never envisioned by its designers. And it’s not just spam: your bank uses similar methods to spot credit-card fraud.

In his essay, O’Reilly draws broader philosophical lessons from such technologies, arguing that they work because they rely on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome” (spam is bad!) and periodically check if the algorithms are actually working as expected (are too many legitimate emails ending up marked as spam?).

O’Reilly presents such technologies as novel and unique – we are living through a digital revolution after all – but the principle behind “algorithmic regulation” would be familiar to the founders of cybernetics – a discipline that, even in its name (it means “the science of governance”) hints at its great regulatory ambitions. This principle, which allows the system to maintain its stability by constantly learning and adapting itself to the changing circumstances, is what the British psychiatrist Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, called “ultrastability”.

To illustrate it, Ashby designed the homeostat. This clever device consisted of four interconnected RAF bomb control units – mysterious looking black boxes with lots of knobs and switches – that were sensitive to voltage fluctuations. If one unit stopped working properly – say, because of an unexpected external disturbance – the other three would rewire and regroup themselves, compensating for its malfunction and keeping the system’s overall output stable.

Ashby’s homeostat achieved “ultrastability” by always monitoring its internal state and cleverly redeploying its spare resources.

Like the spam filter, it didn’t have to specify all the possible disturbances – only the conditions for how and when it must be updated and redesigned. This is no trivial departure from how the usual technical systems, with their rigid, if-then rules, operate: suddenly, there’s no need to develop procedures for governing every contingency, for – or so one hopes – algorithms and real-time, immediate feedback can do a better job than inflexible rules out of touch with reality.

Algorithmic regulation could certainly make the administration of existing laws more efficient. If it can fight credit-card fraud, why not tax fraud? Italian bureaucrats have experimented with the redditometro, or income meter, a tool for comparing people’s spending patterns – recorded thanks to an arcane Italian law – with their declared income, so that authorities know when you spend more than you earn. Spain has expressed interest in a similar tool.

Such systems, however, are toothless against the real culprits of tax evasion – the super-rich families who profit from various offshoring schemes or simply write outrageous tax exemptions into the law. Algorithmic regulation is perfect for enforcing the austerity agenda while leaving those responsible for the fiscal crisis off the hook. To understand whether such systems are working as expected, we need to modify O’Reilly’s question: for whom are they working? If it’s just the tax-evading plutocrats, the global financial institutions interested in balanced national budgets and the companies developing income-tracking software, then it’s hardly a democratic success.

With his belief that algorithmic regulation is based on “a deep understanding of the desired outcome”, O’Reilly cunningly disconnects the means of doing politics from its ends. But the how of politics is as important as the what of politics – in fact, the former often shapes the latter. Everybody agrees that education, health, and security are all “desired outcomes”, but how do we achieve them? In the past, when we faced the stark political choice of delivering them through the market or the state, the lines of the ideological debate were clear. Today, when the presumed choice is between the digital and the analog or between the dynamic feedback and the static law, that ideological clarity is gone – as if the very choice of how to achieve those “desired outcomes” was apolitical and didn’t force us to choose between different and often incompatible visions of communal living.

By assuming that the utopian world of infinite feedback loops is so efficient that it transcends politics, the proponents of algorithmic regulation fall into the same trap as the technocrats of the past. Yes, these systems are terrifyingly efficient – in the same way that Singapore is terrifyingly efficient (O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, praises Singapore for its embrace of algorithmic regulation). And while Singapore’s leaders might believe that they, too, have transcended politics, it doesn’t mean that their regime cannot be assessed outside the linguistic swamp of efficiency and innovation – by using political, not economic benchmarks.

As Silicon Valley keeps corrupting our language with its endless glorification of disruption and efficiency – concepts at odds with the vocabulary of democracy – our ability to question the “how” of politics is weakened. Silicon Valley’s default answer to the how of politics is what I call solutionism: problems are to be dealt with via apps, sensors, and feedback loops – all provided by startups. Earlier this year Google’s Eric Schmidt even promised that startups would provide the solution to the problem of economic inequality: the latter, it seems, can also be “disrupted”. And where the innovators and the disruptors lead, the bureaucrats follow.

The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies. Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance. They urged citizens to accept that instability is part of the game, that its root causes are neither traceable nor reparable, that the threat can only be pre-empted by out-innovating and out-surveilling the enemy with better communications.

Speaking in Athens last November, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben discussed an epochal transformation in the idea of government, “whereby the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects is inverted, so that, instead of governing the causes – a difficult and expensive undertaking – governments simply try to govern the effects”.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman

Governments’ current favourite pyschologist, Daniel Kahneman. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
For Agamben, this shift is emblematic of modernity. It also explains why the liberalisation of the economy can co-exist with the growing proliferation of control – by means of soap dispensers and remotely managed cars – into everyday life. “If government aims for the effects and not the causes, it will be obliged to extend and multiply control. Causes demand to be known, while effects can only be checked and controlled.” Algorithmic regulation is an enactment of this political programme in technological form.The true politics of algorithmic regulation become visible once its logic is applied to the social nets of the welfare state. There are no calls to dismantle them, but citizens are nonetheless encouraged to take responsibility for their own health. Consider how Fred Wilson, an influential US venture capitalist, frames the subject. “Health… is the opposite side of healthcare,” he said at a conference in Paris last December. “It’s what keeps you out of the healthcare system in the first place.” Thus, we are invited to start using self-tracking apps and data-sharing platforms and monitor our vital indicators, symptoms and discrepancies on our own.This goes nicely with recent policy proposals to save troubled public services by encouraging healthier lifestyles. Consider a 2013 report by Westminster council and the Local Government Information Unit, a thinktank, calling for the linking of housing and council benefits to claimants’ visits to the gym – with the help of smartcards. They might not be needed: many smartphones are already tracking how many steps we take every day (Google Now, the company’s virtual assistant, keeps score of such data automatically and periodically presents it to users, nudging them to walk more).

The numerous possibilities that tracking devices offer to health and insurance industries are not lost on O’Reilly. “You know the way that advertising turned out to be the native business model for the internet?” he wondered at a recent conference. “I think that insurance is going to be the native business model for the internet of things.” Things do seem to be heading that way: in June, Microsoft struck a deal with American Family Insurance, the eighth-largest home insurer in the US, in which both companies will fund startups that want to put sensors into smart homes and smart cars for the purposes of “proactive protection”.

An insurance company would gladly subsidise the costs of installing yet another sensor in your house – as long as it can automatically alert the fire department or make front porch lights flash in case your smoke detector goes off. For now, accepting such tracking systems is framed as an extra benefit that can save us some money. But when do we reach a point where not using them is seen as a deviation – or, worse, an act of concealment – that ought to be punished with higher premiums?

Or consider a May 2014 report from 2020health, another thinktank, proposing to extend tax rebates to Britons who give up smoking, stay slim or drink less. “We propose ‘payment by results’, a financial reward for people who become active partners in their health, whereby if you, for example, keep your blood sugar levels down, quit smoking, keep weight off, [or] take on more self-care, there will be a tax rebate or an end-of-year bonus,” they state. Smart gadgets are the natural allies of such schemes: they document the results and can even help achieve them – by constantly nagging us to do what’s expected.

The unstated assumption of most such reports is that the unhealthy are not only a burden to society but that they deserve to be punished (fiscally for now) for failing to be responsible. For what else could possibly explain their health problems but their personal failings? It’s certainly not the power of food companies or class-based differences or various political and economic injustices. One can wear a dozen powerful sensors, own a smart mattress and even do a close daily reading of one’s poop – as some self-tracking aficionados are wont to do – but those injustices would still be nowhere to be seen, for they are not the kind of stuff that can be measured with a sensor. The devil doesn’t wear data. Social injustices are much harder to track than the everyday lives of the individuals whose lives they affect.

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

The nudging state is enamoured of feedback technology, for its key founding principle is that while we behave irrationally, our irrationality can be corrected – if only the environment acts upon us, nudging us towards the right option. Unsurprisingly, one of the three lonely references at the end of O’Reilly’s essay is to a 2012 speech entitled “Regulation: Looking Backward, Looking Forward” by Cass Sunstein, the prominent American legal scholar who is the chief theorist of the nudging state.

And while the nudgers have already captured the state by making behavioural psychology the favourite idiom of government bureaucracy –Daniel Kahneman is in, Machiavelli is out – the algorithmic regulation lobby advances in more clandestine ways. They create innocuous non-profit organisations like Code for America which then co-opt the state – under the guise of encouraging talented hackers to tackle civic problems.

Airbnb's homepage.

Airbnb: part of the reputation-driven economy.
Such initiatives aim to reprogramme the state and make it feedback-friendly, crowding out other means of doing politics. For all those tracking apps, algorithms and sensors to work, databases need interoperability – which is what such pseudo-humanitarian organisations, with their ardent belief in open data, demand. And when the government is too slow to move at Silicon Valley’s speed, they simply move inside the government. Thus, Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and a protege of O’Reilly, became the deputy chief technology officer of the US government – while pursuing a one-year “innovation fellowship” from the White House.Cash-strapped governments welcome such colonisation by technologists – especially if it helps to identify and clean up datasets that can be profitably sold to companies who need such data for advertising purposes. Recent clashes over the sale of student and health data in the UK are just a precursor of battles to come: after all state assets have been privatised, data is the next target. For O’Reilly, open data is “a key enabler of the measurement revolution”.This “measurement revolution” seeks to quantify the efficiency of various social programmes, as if the rationale behind the social nets that some of them provide was to achieve perfection of delivery. The actual rationale, of course, was to enable a fulfilling life by suppressing certain anxieties, so that citizens can pursue their life projects relatively undisturbed. This vision did spawn a vast bureaucratic apparatus and the critics of the welfare state from the left – most prominently Michel Foucault – were right to question its disciplining inclinations. Nonetheless, neither perfection nor efficiency were the “desired outcome” of this system. Thus, to compare the welfare state with the algorithmic state on those grounds is misleading.

But we can compare their respective visions for human fulfilment – and the role they assign to markets and the state. Silicon Valley’s offer is clear: thanks to ubiquitous feedback loops, we can all become entrepreneurs and take care of our own affairs! As Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, told the Atlantic last year, “What happens when everybody is a brand? When everybody has a reputation? Every person can become an entrepreneur.”

Under this vision, we will all code (for America!) in the morning, drive Uber cars in the afternoon, and rent out our kitchens as restaurants – courtesy of Airbnb – in the evening. As O’Reilly writes of Uber and similar companies, “these services ask every passenger to rate their driver (and drivers to rate their passenger). Drivers who provide poor service are eliminated. Reputation does a better job of ensuring a superb customer experience than any amount of government regulation.”

The state behind the “sharing economy” does not wither away; it might be needed to ensure that the reputation accumulated on Uber, Airbnb and other platforms of the “sharing economy” is fully liquid and transferable, creating a world where our every social interaction is recorded and assessed, erasing whatever differences exist between social domains. Someone, somewhere will eventually rate you as a passenger, a house guest, a student, a patient, a customer. Whether this ranking infrastructure will be decentralised, provided by a giant like Google or rest with the state is not yet clear but the overarching objective is: to make reputation into a feedback-friendly social net that could protect the truly responsible citizens from the vicissitudes of deregulation.

Admiring the reputation models of Uber and Airbnb, O’Reilly wants governments to be “adopting them where there are no demonstrable ill effects”. But what counts as an “ill effect” and how to demonstrate it is a key question that belongs to the how of politics that algorithmic regulation wants to suppress. It’s easy to demonstrate “ill effects” if the goal of regulation is efficiency but what if it is something else? Surely, there are some benefits – fewer visits to the psychoanalyst, perhaps – in not having your every social interaction ranked?

The imperative to evaluate and demonstrate “results” and “effects” already presupposes that the goal of policy is the optimisation of efficiency. However, as long as democracy is irreducible to a formula, its composite values will always lose this battle: they are much harder to quantify.

For Silicon Valley, though, the reputation-obsessed algorithmic state of the sharing economy is the new welfare state. If you are honest and hardworking, your online reputation would reflect this, producing a highly personalised social net. It is “ultrastable” in Ashby’s sense: while the welfare state assumes the existence of specific social evils it tries to fight, the algorithmic state makes no such assumptions. The future threats can remain fully unknowable and fully addressable – on the individual level.

Silicon Valley, of course, is not alone in touting such ultrastable individual solutions. Nassim Taleb, in his best-selling 2012 book Antifragile, makes a similar, if more philosophical, plea for maximising our individual resourcefulness and resilience: don’t get one job but many, don’t take on debt, count on your own expertise. It’s all about resilience, risk-taking and, as Taleb puts it, “having skin in the game”. As Julian Reid and Brad Evans write in their new book, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously, this growing cult of resilience masks a tacit acknowledgement that no collective project could even aspire to tame the proliferating threats to human existence – we can only hope to equip ourselves to tackle them individually. “When policy-makers engage in the discourse of resilience,” write Reid and Evans, “they do so in terms which aim explicitly at preventing humans from conceiving of danger as a phenomenon from which they might seek freedom and even, in contrast, as that to which they must now expose themselves.”

What, then, is the progressive alternative? “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” doesn’t work here: just because Silicon Valley is attacking the welfare state doesn’t mean that progressives should defend it to the very last bullet (or tweet). First, even leftist governments have limited space for fiscal manoeuvres, as the kind of discretionary spending required to modernise the welfare state would never be approved by the global financial markets. And it’s the ratings agencies and bond markets – not the voters – who are in charge today.

Second, the leftist critique of the welfare state has become only more relevant today when the exact borderlines between welfare and security are so blurry. When Google’s Android powers so much of our everyday life, the government’s temptation to govern us through remotely controlled cars and alarm-operated soap dispensers will be all too great. This will expand government’s hold over areas of life previously free from regulation.

With so much data, the government’s favourite argument in fighting terror – if only the citizens knew as much as we do, they too would impose all these legal exceptions – easily extends to other domains, from health to climate change. Consider a recent academic paper that used Google search data to study obesity patterns in the US, finding significant correlation between search keywords and body mass index levels. “Results suggest great promise of the idea of obesity monitoring through real-time Google Trends data”, note the authors, which would be “particularly attractive for government health institutions and private businesses such as insurance companies.”

If Google senses a flu epidemic somewhere, it’s hard to challenge its hunch – we simply lack the infrastructure to process so much data at this scale. Google can be proven wrong after the fact – as has recently been the case with its flu trends data, which was shown to overestimate the number of infections, possibly because of its failure to account for the intense media coverage of flu – but so is the case with most terrorist alerts. It’s the immediate, real-time nature of computer systems that makes them perfect allies of an infinitely expanding and pre-emption‑obsessed state.

Perhaps, the case of Gloria Placente and her failed trip to the beach was not just a historical oddity but an early omen of how real-time computing, combined with ubiquitous communication technologies, would transform the state. One of the few people to have heeded that omen was a little-known American advertising executive called Robert MacBride, who pushed the logic behind Operation Corral to its ultimate conclusions in his unjustly neglected 1967 book, The Automated State.

At the time, America was debating the merits of establishing a national data centre to aggregate various national statistics and make it available to government agencies. MacBride attacked his contemporaries’ inability to see how the state would exploit the metadata accrued as everything was being computerised. Instead of “a large scale, up-to-date Austro-Hungarian empire”, modern computer systems would produce “a bureaucracy of almost celestial capacity” that can “discern and define relationships in a manner which no human bureaucracy could ever hope to do”.

“Whether one bowls on a Sunday or visits a library instead is [of] no consequence since no one checks those things,” he wrote. Not so when computer systems can aggregate data from different domains and spot correlations. “Our individual behaviour in buying and selling an automobile, a house, or a security, in paying our debts and acquiring new ones, and in earning money and being paid, will be noted meticulously and studied exhaustively,” warned MacBride. Thus, a citizen will soon discover that “his choice of magazine subscriptions… can be found to indicate accurately the probability of his maintaining his property or his interest in the education of his children.” This sounds eerily similar to the recent case of a hapless father who found that his daughter was pregnant from a coupon that Target, a retailer, sent to their house. Target’s hunch was based on its analysis of products – for example, unscented lotion – usually bought by other pregnant women.

For MacBride the conclusion was obvious. “Political rights won’t be violated but will resemble those of a small stockholder in a giant enterprise,” he wrote. “The mark of sophistication and savoir-faire in this future will be the grace and flexibility with which one accepts one’s role and makes the most of what it offers.” In other words, since we are all entrepreneurs first – and citizens second, we might as well make the most of it.

What, then, is to be done? Technophobia is no solution. Progressives need technologies that would stick with the spirit, if not the institutional form, of the welfare state, preserving its commitment to creating ideal conditions for human flourishing. Even some ultrastability is welcome. Stability was a laudable goal of the welfare state before it had encountered a trap: in specifying the exact protections that the state was to offer against the excesses of capitalism, it could not easily deflect new, previously unspecified forms of exploitation.

How do we build welfarism that is both decentralised and ultrastable? A form of guaranteed basic income – whereby some welfare services are replaced by direct cash transfers to citizens – fits the two criteria.

Creating the right conditions for the emergence of political communities around causes and issues they deem relevant would be another good step. Full compliance with the principle of ultrastability dictates that such issues cannot be anticipated or dictated from above – by political parties or trade unions – and must be left unspecified.

What can be specified is the kind of communications infrastructure needed to abet this cause: it should be free to use, hard to track, and open to new, subversive uses. Silicon Valley’s existing infrastructure is great for fulfilling the needs of the state, not of self-organising citizens. It can, of course, be redeployed for activist causes – and it often is – but there’s no reason to accept the status quo as either ideal or inevitable.

Why, after all, appropriate what should belong to the people in the first place? While many of the creators of the internet bemoan how low their creature has fallen, their anger is misdirected. The fault is not with that amorphous entity but, first of all, with the absence of robust technology policy on the left – a policy that can counter the pro-innovation, pro-disruption, pro-privatisation agenda of Silicon Valley. In its absence, all these emerging political communities will operate with their wings clipped. Whether the next Occupy Wall Street would be able to occupy anything in a truly smart city remains to be seen: most likely, they would be out-censored and out-droned.

To his credit, MacBride understood all of this in 1967. “Given the resources of modern technology and planning techniques,” he warned, “it is really no great trick to transform even a country like ours into a smoothly running corporation where every detail of life is a mechanical function to be taken care of.” MacBride’s fear is O’Reilly’s master plan: the government, he writes, ought to be modelled on the “lean startup” approach of Silicon Valley, which is “using data to constantly revise and tune its approach to the market”. It’s this very approach that Facebook has recently deployed to maximise user engagement on the site: if showing users more happy stories does the trick, so be it.

Algorithmic regulation, whatever its immediate benefits, will give us a political regime where technology corporations and government bureaucrats call all the shots. The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, in a pointed critique of cybernetics published, as it happens, roughly at the same time as The Automated State, put it best: “Society cannot give up the burden of having to decide about its own fate by sacrificing this freedom for the sake of the cybernetic regulator.”

 

Fukushima: Bad and Getting Worse

Global Physicians Issue Scathing Critique of UN Report on Fukushima

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/photos/nuclear/2011/fukushima-reactor4-tepco.jpg

by JOHN LaFORGE

There is broad disagreement over the amounts and effects of radiation exposure due to the triple reactor meltdowns after the 2011 Great East-Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) joined the controversy June 4, with a 27-page “Critical Analysis of the UNSCEAR Report ‘Levels and effects of radiation exposures due to the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East-Japan Earthquake and tsunami.’”

IPPNW is the Nobel Peace Prize winning global federation of doctors working for “a healthier, safer and more peaceful world.” The group has adopted a highly critical view of nuclear power because as it says, “A world without nuclear weapons will only be possible if we also phase out nuclear energy.”

UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, published its deeply flawed report April 2. Its accompanying press release summed up its findings this way: “No discernible changes in future cancer rates and hereditary diseases are expected due to exposure to radiation as a result of the Fukushima nuclear accident.” The word “discernable” is a crucial disclaimer here.

Cancer, and the inexorable increase in cancer cases in Japan and around the world, is mostly caused by toxic pollution, including radiation exposure according to the National Cancer Institute.[1] But distinguishing a particular cancer case as having been caused by Fukushima rather than by other toxins, or combination of them, may be impossible – leading to UNSCEAR’s deceptive summation. As the IPPNW report says, “A cancer does not carry a label of origin…”

UNSCEAR’s use of the phrase “are expected” is also heavily nuanced. The increase in childhood leukemia cases near Germany’s operating nuclear reactors, compared to elsewhere, was not “expected,” but was proved in 1997. The findings, along with Chernobyl’s lingering consequences, led to the country’s federally mandated reactor phase-out. The plummeting of official childhood mortality rates around five US nuclear reactors after they were shut down was also “unexpected,” but shown by Joe Mangano and the Project on Radiation and Human Health.

The International Physicians’ analysis is severely critical of UNSCEAR’s current report which echoes its 2013 Fukushima review and press release that said, “It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.”

“No justification for optimistic presumptions”

The IPPNW’s report says flatly, “Publications and current research give no justification for such apparently optimistic presumptions.” UNSCEAR, the physicians complain, “draws mainly on data from the nuclear industry’s publications rather than from independent sources and omits or misinterprets crucial aspects of radiation exposure”, and “does not reveal the true extent of the consequences” of the disaster. As a result, the doctors say the UN report is “over-optimistic and misleading.” The UN’s “systematic underestimations and questionable interpretations,” the physicians warn, “will be used by the nuclear industry to downplay the expected health effects of the catastrophe” and will likely but mistakenly be considered by public authorities as reliable and scientifically sound. Dozens of independent experts report that radiation attributable health effects are highly likely.

Points of agreement: Fukushima is worse than reported and worsening still

Before detailing the multiple inaccuracies in the UNSCEAR report, the doctors list four major points of agreement. First, UNSCEAR improved on the World Health Organization’s health assessment of the disaster’s on-going radioactive contamination. UNSCEAR also professionally “rejects the use of a threshold for radiation effects of 100 mSv [millisieverts], used by the International Atomic Energy Agency in the past.” Like most health physicists, both groups agree that there is no radiation dose so small that it can’t cause negative health effects. There are exposures allowed by governments, but none of them are safe.

Second, the UN and the physicians agree that  areas of Japan that were not evacuated were seriously contaminated with iodine-132, iodine-131 and tellurium-132, the worst reported instance being Iwaki City which had 52 times the annual absorbed dose to infants’ thyroid than from natural background radiation. UNSCEAR also admitted that “people all over Japan” were affected by radioactive fallout (not just in Fukushima Prefecture) through contact with airborne or ingested radioactive materials. And while the UNSCEAR acknowledged that “contaminated rice, beef, seafood, milk, milk powder, green tea, vegetables, fruits and tap water were found all over mainland Japan”, it neglected “estimating doses for Tokyo …  which also received a significant fallout both on March 15 and 21, 2011.”

Third, UNSCEAR agrees that the nuclear industry’s and the government’s estimates of the total radioactive contamination of the Pacific Ocean are “far too low.” Still, the IPPNW reports shows, UNSCEAR’s use of totally unreliable assumptions results in a grossly understated final estimate. For example, the UN report ignores all radioactive discharges to the ocean after April 30, 2011, even though roughly 300 tons of highly contaminated water has been pouring into the Pacific every day for 3-and-1/2 years, about 346,500 tons in the first 38 months.

Fourth, the Fukushima catastrophe is understood by both groups as an ongoing disaster, not the singular event portrayed by industry and commercial media. UNSCEAR even warns that ongoing radioactive pollution of the Pacific “may warrant further follow-up of exposures in the coming years,” and “further releases could not be excluded in the future,” from forests and fields during rainy and typhoon seasons when winds spread long-lived radioactive particles – a and from waste management plans that now include incineration.

As the global doctors say, in their unhappy agreement with UNSCAR, “In the long run, this may lead to an increase in internal exposure in the general population through radioactive isotopes from ground water supplies and the food chain.”

Physicians find ten grave failures in UN report

The majority of the IPPNW’s report details 10 major errors, flaws or discrepancies in the UNSCEAR paper and explains study’s omissions, underestimates, inept comparisons, misinterpretations and unwarranted conclusions.

1. The total amount of radioactivity released by the disaster was underestimated by UNSCEAR and its estimate was based on disreputable sources of information. UNSCEAR ignored 3.5 years of nonstop emissions of radioactive materials “that continue unabated,” and only dealt with releases during the first weeks of the disaster. UNSCEAR relied on a study by the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) which, the IPPNW points out, “was severely criticized by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission … for its collusion with the nuclear industry.” The independent Norwegian Institute for Air Research’s estimate of cesium-137 released (available to UNSCEAR) was four times higher than the JAEA/UNSCEAR figure (37 PBq instead of 9 PBq). Even Tokyo Electric Power Co. itself estimated that iodine-131 releases were over four times higher than what JAEA/UNSCEAR) reported (500 PBq vs. 120 BPq). The UNSCEAR inexplicably chose to ignore large releases of strontium isotopes and 24 other radionuclides when estimating radiation doses to the public. (A PBq or petabecquerel is a quadrillion or 1015 Becquerels. Put another way, a PBq equals 27,000 curies, and one curie makes 37 billion atomic disintegrations per second.)

2. Internal radiation taken up with food and drink “significantly influences the total radiation dose an individual is exposed to,” the doctors note, and their critique warns pointedly, “UNSCEAR uses as its one and only source, the still unpublished database of the International Atomic Energy Association and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The IAEA was founded … to ‘accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world.’ It therefore has a profound conflict of interest.” Food sample data from the IAEA should not be relied on, “as it discredits the assessment of internal radiation doses and makes the findings vulnerable to claims of manipulation.” As with its radiation release estimates, IAEA/UNSCEAR ignored the presence of strontium in food and water. Internal radiation dose estimates made by the Japanese Ministry for Science and Technology were 20, 40 and even 60 times higher than the highest numbers used in the IAEA/UNSCEAR reports.

 

3. To gauge radiation doses endured by over 24,000 workers on site at Fukushima, UNSCEAR relied solely on figures from Tokyo Electric Power Co., the severely compromised owners of the destroyed reactors. The IPPNW report dismisses all the conclusions drawn from Tepco, saying, “There is no meaningful control or oversight of the nuclear industry in Japan and data from Tepco has in the past frequently been found to be tampered with and falsified.”

4. The UNSCEAR report disregards current scientific fieldwork on actual radiation effects on plant and animal populations. Peer reviewed ecological and genetic studies from Chernobyl and Fukushima find evidence that low dose radiation exposures cause, the doctors point out, “genetic damage such as increased mutation rates, as well as developmental abnormalities, cataracts, tumors, smaller brain sizes in birds and mammals and further injuries to populations, biological communities and ecosystems.” Ignoring these studies, IPPNW says “gives [UNSCEAR] the appearance of bias or lack of rigor.”

5. The special vulnerability of the embryo and fetus to radiation was completely discounted by the UNSCEAR, the physicians note. UNSCEAR shockingly said that doses to the fetus or breast-fed infants “would have been similar to those of other age groups,” a claim that, the IPPNW says, “goes against basic principles of neonatal physiology and radiobiology.”  By dismissing the differences between an unborn and an infant, the UNSCEAR “underestimates the health risks of this particularly vulnerable population.” The doctors quote a 2010 report from American Family Physician that, “in utero exposure can be teratogenic, carcinogenic or mutagenic.”

6. Non-cancerous diseases associated with radiation doses — such as cardiovascular diseases, endocrinological and gastrointestinal disorders, infertility, genetic mutations in offspring and miscarriages — have been documented in medical journals, but ate totally dismissed by the UNSCEAR. The physicians remind us that large epidemiological studies have shown undeniable associations of low dose ionizing radiation to non-cancer health effects and “have not been scientifically challenged.”

7. The UNSCEAR report downplays the health impact of low-doses of radiation by misleadingly comparing radioactive fallout to “annual background exposure.” The IPPNW scolds the UNSCEAR saying it is, “not scientific to argue that natural background radiation is safe or that excess radiation from nuclear fallout that stays within the dose range of natural background radiation is harmless.” In particular, ingested or inhaled radioactive materials, “deliver their radioactive dose directly and continuously to the surrounding tissue” — in the thyroid, bone or muscles, etc. — “and therefore pose a much larger danger to internal organs than external background radiation.”

8. Although UNSCEAR’s April 2 Press Release and Executive Summary give the direct and mistaken impression that there will be no radiation health effects from Fukushima, the report itself states that the Committee “does not rule out the possibility of future excess cases or disregard the suffering associated…” Indeed, UNSCEAR admits to “incomplete knowledge about the release rates of radionuclides over time and the weather conditions during the releases.” UNSCEAR concedes that “there were insufficient measurements of gamma dose rate…” and that, “relatively few measurements of foodstuff were made in the first months.” IPPNW warns that these glaring uncertainties completely negate the level of certainty implied in UNSCEAR’s Exec. Summary.

9. UNSCEAR often praises the protective measures taken by Japanese authorities, but the IPPNW finds it “odd that a scientific body like UNSCEAR would turn a blind eye to the many grave mistakes of the Japanese disaster management…” The central government was slow to inform local governments and “failed to convey the severity of the accident,” according to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. “Crisis management ‘did not function correctly,’ the Commission said, and its failure to distribute stable iodine, “caused thousands of children to become irradiated with iodine-131,” IPPNW reports.

10. The UNSCEAR report lists “collective” radiation doses “but does not explain the expected cancer cases that would result from these doses.” This long chapter of IPPNW’s report can’t be summarized easily. The doctors offer conservative estimates, “keeping in mind that these most probably represent underestimations for the reasons listed above.” The IPPNW estimates that 4,300 to 16,800 excess cases of cancer due to the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan in the coming decades. Cancer deaths will range between 2,400 and 9,100. UNSCEAR may call these numbers insignificant, the doctors archly point out, but individual cancers are debilitating and terrifying and they “represent preventable and man-made diseases” and fatalities.

IPPNW concludes that Fukushima’s radiation disaster is “far from over”: the destroyed reactors are still unstable; radioactive liquids and gases continuously leak from the complex wreckage; melted fuel and used fuel in quake-damaged cooling pools hold enormous quantities of radioactivity “and are highly vulnerable to further earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and human error.” Catastrophic releases of radioactivity “could occur at any time and eliminating this risk will take many decades.”

IPPNW finally recommends urgent actions that governments should take, because the UNSCEAR report, “does not adhere to scientific standards of neutrality,” “represents a systematic underestimation,” “conjures up an illusion of scientific certainty that obscures the true impact of the nuclear catastrophe on health and the environment,” and its conclusion is phrased “in such a way that would most likely be misunderstood by most people…”

John LaForge works for Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog and anti-war group in Wisconsin, and edits its Quarterly.

Notes.


[1] Nancy Wilson, National Cancer Institute, “The Majority of Cancers Are Linked to the Environment, NCI Benchmarks, Vol. 4, Issue 3, June 17, 2004

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/18/fukushima-bad-and-getting-worse/

 

Nestlé is bottling water straight from the heart of California’s drought

The company is exporting a seriously limited resource with no oversight

 

Nestlé is bottling water straight from the heart of California's drought

As residents of California are urged to conserve water and the state considers placing a mandatory restriction on outdoor water usage, Nestlé is trucking away undisclosed amounts of the precious resource in the form of bottled water.

The Desert Sun has an in-depth report of controversy brewing around the company’s bottling plant, which draws water from a drought-stricken area for its Arrowhead and Pure Life brand water. Because the plant is located on the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation, it’s exempt from oversight by local water agencies and is able to keep confidential information — such as the amount of groundwater it’s pumping and water levels in its wells — that other plants would be required to disclose. As a result, critics contend, it’s impossible to know just how much of the limited resource the plant is extracting to send elsewhere.

Here’s more from the Desert Sun:

“They’re entitled to use the groundwater basin, too. Everyone is. But it’s just a shame that this water is not being used locally. It’s being exported,” said David Luker, general manager of the Desert Water Agency. He said DWA’s position has been that the Morongo tribe should have to report its water use just like other entities.

“I don’t believe there’s any way to force them to fork over groundwater pumping information unless there’s discovery in a lawsuit,” Luker said. But he said the level of concern about the bottling plant in the area doesn’t seem to have grown to a degree that leads to such action.

Other concerns are raised by people who live in a neighborhood of mobile homes near the bottling factory. Some say they wish the plant would provide more jobs because many are unemployed. Others say despite living next to the Arrowhead plant, their local water service is poor, with sputtering faucets and frequent breaks in water lines.



“The reason this particular plant is of special concern is precisely because water is so scarce in the basin,” Peter Gleick, who wrote the book on bottled water, told the Desert Sun. “If you had the same bottling plant in a water-rich area, then the amount of water bottled and diverted would be a small fraction of the total water available. But this is a desert ecosystem. Surface water in the desert is exceedingly rare and has a much higher environmental value than the same amount of water somewhere else.”

Nestlé refused to let the Desert Sun tour the Morongo facilities or release any data about water levels in its wells, but in an emailed statement stood by its operations. “We proudly conduct our business in an environmentally responsible manner that focuses on water and energy conservation,” the company said. “Our sustainable operations are specifically designed and managed to prevent adverse impacts to local area groundwater resources, particularly in light of California’s drought conditions over the past three years.” What that ignores, however, is the basic fact that bottled water is anathema to the concept of environmental responsibility: we’re talking about a process that uses multiple times the amount of water bottled just to produce its packaging. Drought aside, the controversy highlights some of the basic contradictions of the $12.2 billion industry — and if there’s anything that’s going to open our eyes to its wastefulness, this should be it.

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon, focusing on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

http://www.salon.com/2014/07/14/nestle_is_bottling_water_straight_from_the_heart_of_californias_drought/?source=newsletter

How Modern Houses Can Watch You

http://homedesignlover.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/best-modern-house-design.jpg
Presto Vivace (882157) links to a critical look in Time Magazine at the creepy side of connected household technology. An excerpt:
A modern surveillance state isn’t so much being forced on us, as it is sold to us device by device, with the idea that it is for our benefit. … … Nest sucks up data on how warm your home is. As Mocana CEO James Isaacs explained to me in early May, a detailed footprint of your comings and goings can be inferred from this information. Nest just bought Dropcam, a company that markets itself as a security tool allowing you to put cameras in your home and view them remotely, but brings with it a raft of disquieting implications about surveillance. Automatic wants you to monitor how far you drive and do things for you like talk to your your house when you’re on your way home from work and turn on lights when you pull into your garage. Tied into the new SmartThings platform, a Jawbone UP band becomes a tool for remotely monitoring someone else’s activity. The SmartThings hubs and sensors themselves put any switch or door in play. Companies like AT&T want to build a digital home that monitors your security and energy use. … … Withings Smart Body Analyzer monitors your weight and pulse. Teddy the Guardian is a soft toy for children that spies on their vital signs. Parrot Flower Power looks at the moisture in your home under the guise of helping you grow plants. The Beam Brush checks up on your teeth-brushing technique.
Presto Vivaci adds, “Enough to make the Stasi blush. What I cannot understand is how politicians fail to understand what a future Kenneth Starr is going to do with data like this.”
~Slashdot~

Food Labelled ‘Organic’ Is No Guarantee of Safety

—Shocking Levels of Heavy Metals in Imported Food Highlight the Danger

We have a lot to learn.

Photo Credit: Nitr / Shutterstock.com

Heavy metal pollution makes no distinction between how crops are grown. Irrespective of whether farming practices are organic or conventional practices are used, if the likes of cadmium, arsenic, lead, nickel and mercury are in the soil, water or air they can contaminate food and poison the people who consume it. With enough exposure, heavy metals can build up in the body, causing chronic problems in the skin, intestine, nervous system, kidneys, liver, and brain. Some heavy metals occur naturally in soil, but rarely at toxic levels, while human activities like mining, manufacturing and the use of synthetic materials like paint, and even some agricultural chemicals, can release heavy metals into the air and water, and from there they find their way to the soil. And once in the soil, heavy metals are virtually impossible to remove.

China acknowledged last April that a staggering one-fifth of its arable land is seriously polluted with heavy metals, thanks to decades of aggressive industrial development. China’s Environmental Protection Ministry looked at data sampled between 2006 and 2013 and described the situation as “not optimistic.” The most commonly found heavy metals were cadmium, nickel and arsenic. The revelation came after months of speculation about the report, which at one point was not going to be released as the results were considered to be a “State Secret.”

Cadmium, one of the metals found in high concentrations in Chinese soil, is one of the most toxic heavy metal pollutants. It moves through soil layers with ease, and is taken up by a variety of plants, including leafy vegetables, root crops, cereals and grains. Last year it was discovered that nearly half of the rice for sale in the southern China city of Guangzhou was tainted with cadmium, which caused a major uproar.

Nickel and arsenic, the other two pollutants found in greatest amounts, aren’t so great either.

In the U.S., arsenic in apple juice has been on the popular radar since September 2011, when Mehmet Oz reported high arsenic levels in multiple samples of apple juice that were independently tested for his television show. More than half of the apple juice consumed in the U.S. comes from China.

Oz was taken to the woodshed for being alarmist by a number of experts and authorities, including the FDA, which disputed the results with its own data. ABC News’ senior health medical editor, Richard Besser, called Oz’s claims “extremely irresponsible,” comparing it to yelling fire in a crowded theater.

A few weeks later, FDA admitted it had withheld many test results which did, in fact, support Oz’s claim. Besser apologized to Oz on national television, and soon after the FDA collected about 90 retail samples of apple juice for a new round of analysis. According to FDA documents now available, the levels reported by Oz are in fact consistent with those detected by the agency in samples from China and Turkey.

Last year the agency set a limit, also known as an “action level,” on arsenic in juice, at 10 parts per billion, the same level that’s enforced in drinking water. Currently, FDA has import alerts set for four firms, two each in China and Turkey. The products of these companies, while regularly tested for arsenic because of previous violations of the action level, continue to be imported.

While China is not the only polluted region from which we import food, with a combination of aggressive industrial development and legendarily lax enforcement, it’s become a poster child for scary food imports. But any region with rapid industrial development and suspect environmental regulations could be a candidate for producing food contaminated with heavy metals.

While we don’t import a huge amount of food from China overall, we do consume large amounts of certain things in addition to apple juice, like garlic and farmed seafood—including 80 percent of the tilapia we eat. Much of China’s surface water, including water used for aquaculture, is polluted, not only with industrial toxins but also with agricultural fertilizers, which fuel the growth of algae. Algae can accumulate heavy metals, as will the fish that eat it.

“Foods offered for import into the U.S. are required to meet the same U.S. food safety standards as domestic products,” explained FDA spokesperson Lauren Sucher, via email. “If the FDA encounters information that indicates that a particular product could pose a public health concern, the FDA can target that product for increased testing.”

When asked if the revelation that 20 percent of China’s farmland is polluted with heavy metals would spur increased testing on Chinese imports, Sucher replied, “The FDA doesn’t announce its actions in advance. If our surveillance sampling indicated a problem with a particular commodity, the agency would take steps to protect the public.”

Wary consumers who aren’t interested in waiting for FDA to ramp up its testing of Chinese food imports can take their own measures to minimize the possibility of contamination. Local, as in American-grown produce, will trump labels such as “organic,” if the food in question was grown in a potentially polluted place.

In fact, if it’s grown in a polluted place, organic produce could contain more heavy metals than conventionally grown food. Organic agriculture practices include the use of manure, which could add heavy metals to the soil if the cattle were eating contaminated feed, such as hay grown in a contaminated field, according to Michael Schmitt, a soil scientist at the University of Minnesota. “Once you put metals in a field,” he said, “they don’t go away.”

Thus, organic food from a polluted area of China could carry significantly more heavy metals than nonorganic food from the U.S. This puts a new spin on the idea of eating locally. In this case it could mean from anywhere in this vast continent—Canada and Mexico don’t seem to have heavy metal problems. But in a way, the reasons are similar to why many people prefer buying from the local farm stand: you have more information about how something is grown.

Not all food is required by law to be labeled with a country of origin. Foods purchased abroad and processed in the U.S., for example, are exempt, as are foods containing multiple ingredients. The safest way to confirm a food item didn’t come from China is to look for labels that announce where it is from. If no information is given, avoid it.

Dietary supplements can pose even more of a risk of heavy metal contamination than food because they are so highly concentrated. If the materials from which they are made are contaminated, the contaminants will be concentrated. In 2010 the New York Times reportedthat many supplement manufacturers have set up shop in China in recent years, and that Chinese supplement factories are notoriously under-regulated.

FDA does not test supplements. Rather, it sets up guidelines and leaves the testing to the manufacturers. This self-policing is notoriously inadequate. According to testimony given to a congressional committee by Tod Cooperman, president of ConsumerLab.com, about one in four supplements his lab tested had issues. The two most common problems were lack of the appropriate quantities of the ingredients indicated on the label, and presence of excessive heavy metals.

Michael Pollan and others have advised keeping your diet simple, using locally grown, minimally processed food, and getting most of your nutrition from whole plants rather than supplements. Pollan may not have been thinking about heavy metals when he penned that guidance, but given what we are learning today, it makes his advice all the more worth following.

Everything you need to know about UFOs

On July 2nd avid watchers of the skies celebrate World UFO day—the anniversary of the supposed crash of a flying saucer near Roswell in 1947. Helpfully, the National UFO Reporting Centre, a non-profit, has catalogued almost 90,000 reported sightings of UFOs, mostly in America, since 1974. It turns out that aliens are considerate. They seldom disturb earthlings during working or sleeping hours. Rather, they tend to arrive in the evening, especially on Fridays, when folks are sitting on the front porch nursing their fourth beer, the better to appreciate flashing lights in the heavens (see chart). The state aliens like best is Washington—a finding that pre-dates the legalisation of pot there. Other popular destinations are also near the Canadian border, where the Northern lights are sometimes visible. UFOs tend to shun big cities, where there are lots of other lights, and daylight hours, when people might think they were just aeroplanes.

http://www.economist.com/node/21605918?fsrc=nlw|hig|27-06-2014|5356c2cf899249e1ccaef231|

5 Facts To Know About The First Day Of Summer

Summer Solstice 2014

on June 19 2014 2:58 PM

Summer Solstice

A couple celebrates summer solstice at a stone carved marker at the Kokino megalithic observatory June 20, 2012. The 3,800-year-old observatory was discovered in 2001 in the northwestern town of Kumanovo, 70 km (43 miles) north of Skopje, Macedonia, and is ranked the fourth-oldest observatory in the world, according to NASA.  Reuters

Break out your swimsuits, fire up the barbeque, and put on the sunglasses, because summer is almost here.

Saturday, June 21, marks the first official day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, when the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky.

But did you know that the summer solstice, as it’s called, is the longest day of the year? Here are five facts to know about the first day of summer.

When does the summer solstice begin, exactly?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the summer solstice begins at 6:51 a.m. EDT on June 21, according to Almanac.com, officially ringing in summer. The date brings the year’s longest stretch of daylight. Though the hours of sunlight depend on location, many areas will see 16 hours’ worth of light on Saturday.

Why does the solstice occur?

The word solstice is from the Latin solstitium from sol (sun) and stitium (to stop), because it appears the sun stops at the solstice. The solstice happens twice annually due to the Earth’s axis of rotation. Depending on the calendar year, the summer solstice happens annually in December for the Southern Hemisphere and on June 20 or 21 in the northern half of the world.

For science aficionados, the summer solstice occurs precisely when the Earth’s axial tilt is most inclined toward the sun, at the degree of 23° 26′, its most extreme. In June, the tilt is toward the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, while the second yearly solstice, the winter solstice, in December, the tilt is away from the sun in the Southern Hemisphere.

Stonehenge

People attend the annual summer solstice at the Stonehenge monument on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, southern England June 21, 2010. Druids and revellers visited Stonehenge during an annual pilgrimage to the site to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  Reuters

How is the solstice celebrated?

The solstice marks the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means flip-flops, beach trips and barbecues. In southern England, thousands flock to Stonehenge to see the sun rise from the vantage point of the 4,000-year-old solar monument.

The summer solstice is also a time of celebration for Christians and Pagans. In Christianity, the first day of summer marks the festival of St. John the Baptist, and in Paganism followers celebrate what they call “midsummer” with bonfires and feasts.

Is it the longest day of the year?

The summer solstice has the longest hours of daylight for the Northern Hemisphere, Time And Date reported. The sun, which usually rises directly in the east, rises north of east and sets north of west. This means the sun is in the sky for a longer period of time, yielding more daylight.

Why do the warmest days of summer generally come long after the solstice?

According to Space.com, it takes a month or two for some geographic areas to see their warmest days simply because it takes the Earth time to warm up. In fact, solstices do not mark the start of winter or summer at all; they are actually the midpoint of each season.

Almanac.com calls this phenomenon, when the land and oceans release stored heat back into the atmosphere much later than the first day of summer, the “seasonal temperature lag.”

http://www.ibtimes.com/summer-solstice-2014-5-facts-know-about-first-day-summer-1606440?ft=3aj78&utm_content=apollohelios@sonic.net&utm_medium=Jun_20_2014_0650_195437&utm_source=TailoredMail&utm_term=5+Things+To+Know+About+The+First+Day+Of+Summer&utm_campaign=Jun_20_2014_0650

The New Brazil: the continuation of imperialism by other means

by Levi Gahman on June 18, 2014

Post image for The New Brazil: the continuation of imperialism by other means

Zibechi’s new book forcefully exhibits how the insatiable drive for capital accumulation continues to dispossess and repress Brazil’s marginalized poor.

Raúl Zibechi, The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy (translated by Ramor Ryan), Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014.

Brazil is bleeding, and in his book, The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy, author Raúl Zibechi demonstrates how neoliberalism is responsible for inflicting the wounds. The latest offering from the Uruguayan journalist, militant and political theorist is a perceptive and incisive dressing-down of the capitalist world system, the multinational corporate cartels that drive it, and the ongoing colonial domination that is currently plaguing the masses of Brazil. The book forcefully exhibits how the insatiable drive for capital accumulation continues to dispossess, exploit, and repress the disempowered and voiceless. Zibechi also demonstrates how the historical trajectories of imperialism continue to operate within Brazil during contemporary times, thereby preserving privilege and power for a select minority elite at the expense of both the environment and the majority of Brazilian society.

Rocinha, the largest hill favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo: Chensiyuan – CC-BY-3.0-br).

To be more precise, this work thoroughly deconstructs the social, economic and environmental problems found within Brazil by linking its colonial past to the contemporary practices it employs in expanding its economy, exercising power across local, regional and global scales, as well as bolstering its ability to surveil and police its own population. Zibechi states this situation has resulted in the plundering of natural resources and has also resulted in severe escalations of actions that marginalize the poor and landless. The book also notes that these imperial strategies are not without resistance, but that such resistances do undergo their own complications, stagnations and problems. Despite this, Zibechi notes that the battle for space wages on and that struggles for justice continue across local, regional and international levels. Such battles are not without repercussion, however, as many have resulted in the disappearance, assault and death of countless peasants, indigenous people, racialized minorities, and women — all whilst benefiting state officials, private businesses and the armed forces.

Zibechi continues his narrative by flawlessly lacing together the elements of systemic violence, government corruption, income disparity and forced land removal that have coincided with the rise of neoliberal policies in Brazil. He describes how the proliferation of expansionist propaganda has prospered among the highest echelons of the state, thereby resulting in massive profit accumulation for the well-connected, the suppression of the lower classes, and the widespread degradation of the environment. The book emphasizes that in practice, the neoliberal Brazilian state defends and protects the role of capital whilst diverting as much responsibility away from civil society as possible. It provides numerous examples of how neoliberal doctrine is applied to the country’s economic and environmental policies in order to empower and enrich the internationalized Brazilian bourgeoisie, while simultaneously ignoring and neglecting indigenous people, the urban working class and rural peasants through reductions in social spending and the evisceration of services that provide for public health and safety.

The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) (Photo: Wilson Dias – CC-BY-3.0-br).

Zibechi furthermore spells out how Brazil’s rise to the status of a major player in the contemporary world economy is nothing more than a recapitulation of the imperial mindsets and abusively hierarchical tendencies that arrived during conquest, and were carried out during the colonial era. The book underscores how power, control and dominance are all threads that have been woven into Brazil’s historical tapestry dating back to the violent arrival of the Spanish and the Portuguese, followed by the coerced imposition of US hegemony under the restructuring edicts of the Washington Consensus, up until the present-day situation in which multinational extractivist corporations, speculative finance brokers, and militarized sub-imperial economic policies rule the day. He aptly illustrates such dynamics when he states:

Five decades after the creation of the economic class that led Brazil from building its industrial base in the 1950s to the military coup of 1964, a new economic elite has emerged during the first decade of the century. These are state managers and unionists from state enterprises who have embedded themselves in positions where economic decisions are made. They have forged relationships of trust with the old elites, the business class, and the military. I do not think we are witnessing the creation of a new class in power but the gradual expansion of the old elite, one that feels revitalized with a strong injection of fresh capital and mega-projects that revive the old dream of the military caste to turn Brazil into a global power.

Zibechi also strongly argues that the harsh social realities that Brazil now faces are due to the fact that a managerial elite backed by a military industrial complex is reaping profits, prestige and power from a societal foundation built upon the pillars of slavery, dispossession and enclosure. Pillars that have promoted genocide against indigenous people, repressive acts of subordination against the urban poor, working class and underprivileged, and that rely upon exploitative practices of infrastructure development and agro-industrial export that destroy and ravage ecosystems, the natural environment, as well as the traditionally held lands of indigenous people. The book shows us that what is produced by neoliberalism’s unholy trinity of privatization, deregulation and economic liberalization is a matrix of oppression that aggressively slashes labor rights, privatizes public assets, cuts public services, steals land, commodifies the natural environment, incarcerates the impoverished, and rapidly amplifies the amount of policing, surveillance and criminalization that indiscriminately targets favelas and the rural poor.

Agricultural fire in the Brazilian countryside (Photo: Antonio Cruz – CC-BY-3.0-br).

Despite these oppressive results, Zibechi also notes that the architects of this state-sanctioned cruelty are being met with resistance — and that the resistance is being led by a variety of groups yearning for the most basic of human rights including affordable education, decent healthcare, protection of the environment, shelter and housing, fair wages, access to transportation, and the return of land that has been appropriated and stolen. However, even though the desires of those being oppressed by neoliberalism are reasonable and socially just, the bureaucratic capitalists who have engineered the repressive status quo remain backed by influential corporate money and have the armed forces at their disposal. Consequently, the administrators of Brazil’s neo-colonial administration repeatedly choose to meet the disempowered who confront their abuses with canisters of tear gas, the discharge of rubber bullets, and the swinging of police truncheons.

PMERJ riot police in Niterói (Photo: Fernando Frazão CC-BY-3.0-br).

And even though halting the violent impacts that neoliberalism gives rise to is a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Zibechi suggests that not all hope is lost. He points out that progress in the way of justice and liberation can be made and that possibilities remain alive and well within movements of collective, anti-systemic resistance. Zibechi points out that it is critical for the social mobilizations among Brazil’s exploited populations to seek autonomy, find common cause, and remain steadfast against selling out to state tactics that attempt to divide them. He also succinctly notes that the battle for justice occurs across space, and that the potential for transformative change will be made all the stronger when urban and rural sectors of Brazil’s population (as well as international civil society) coalesce and unite against the managerial bourgeoisie who continue to bask in the comforts, benefits and privileges they have acquired at the expense of the poor.

Campesinas of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) (Photo: Unknown – CC-BY-3.0-br).

In sum, The New Brazil is diligently researched and lucidly articulated. Zibechi offers accessible and clear understandings of the complex and multifaceted historico-spatial issues at hand that have led to the militarization of Brazil’s bureaucratic state apparatus. His writing offers readers pointed insight into the specific intricacies enmeshed in the structural dynamics of Brazil’s political economy, while at the same time seamlessly shedding light upon a host of injustices that will penetrate their hearts. The book underscores, in meticulous detail, the ways in which veiled and covert policies of border imperialism, corporate financialization and transnational extractivism are operationalized and contribute to abusive crackdowns on labor, violence against indigenous communities, as well as rampant and widespread practices of ecological destruction.

Zibechi’s book is an acute tour de force of Brazil’s history, political economy and social geography. It is a piece work that also exposes the ideology of neoliberalism for what it is — a colonial, racist, and violent system of domination and oppression ran by the hostile practices of imperial political elites. In his examination of these realities, Zibechi takes the reader on a journey into Brazil and explains the underlying structural injustices that function within and around the country through substantive research, clear prose, and a sophisticated comprehension of the complex intricacies surrounding the country’s past and present. Readers who decide to take the time to venture into The New Brazil will undoubtedly find themselves on an inspired path — a path to education, a path to outrage, and hopefully, a path to collective resistance that will stop the bleeding.

Levi Gahman studies geography, feminism, and decolonial praxis at The Center for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice in the unceded Syilx Territory of the Okanagan Valley (British Columbia, Canada). He has contributed to RAMA (Red de Apoyo para Migrantes Agrícolas), and is currently living in the Highlands of Chiapas while working for the open access journal ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies. He can be reached at: levi.gahman[at]ubc.ca.

Our Phone Obsession Is Turning Us Into Zombies

  Culture  

Yes, the Zombie Apocalypse has materialized and we are it.

Photo Credit: CREATISTA / Shutterstock.com

You see them staggering down our streets, heads bowed as if in prayer making the occasional grunting noise. Mindless drooling de-animated human husks walking blindly into fountains, crosswalks and lamp posts. Wake up People. We are in the middle of a science fiction movie here. Welcome to the Invasion of the Phone Zombies.
Yes, the Zombie Apocalypse has materialized and we are it. Everywhere you look you find the deathlike trance- frozen faces of we necromantic slaves with twitching fingers. Spending endless empty hours mesmerized by our tiny screens. An entire society that can’t remember its own phone number, much less that of any significant other. Of course, compared to our magical phones, there are no significant others.
Our smart phones are being manipulated by some very dumb people. Sure, amazing things can be accomplished: check the weather patterns in Outer Mongolia. Translate French past participles into Farsi. Order a chess set made out of imitation crab meat in the shape of the characters from 12 Years a Slave and have it delivered to our house before getting back from work. But in the meantime, we are developing the attention span of high- speed lint. And the personalities.
The contagion has spread everywhere. Stall zombies in public rest rooms that hog the enclosed sanctum to play a quick round of Fruit Ninja. Or two. Nightlife zombies who ignore the jokes onstage so they can respond with multiple LOLs on their electronic leash. Tangentially ambulatory zombies who get into their car but refuse to leave parking spots until checking in with High Command. Vacation zombies who spend thousands of dollars to stare at their phones in distant exotic lands.
And we zombies have proved desperate to swell our ranks. Zombifying others via slide presentations of cute cats cavorting. Even attempting to recruit potential zombie converts through such subhuman treatment as incessant shame and humiliation. “Seriously. That’s your phone? Who made it: Daewoo? Is that the fabled rotary cell phone? Must be neat to have Teddy Roosevelt on your speed dial. Bet your roaming charges are huge. Play much ‘snake’ lately?”
While our forefingers develop biceps and our thumbs evolve to the size of zucchini, society continues its deep deterioration. Groups of friends who have lost the will to converse, huddling together solely for warmth and light. Drivers staring into their laps, their faces reflecting an eerie glow. Entire families walking past each other hypnotized by their devices, going days without engaging in any major argument.
Dealing with the chronically anesthetized is exhausting. Who hasn’t tired of politely turning after being addressed only to find it’s some zombie in a suit on a Bluetooth talking to himself? But the worst are the suited Bluetoothed elevator zombies. Shut your piehole dirtwipe. Nobody here cares to know how many units need to be transferred to Topeka byWednesday; we would pay good money to see some Topeka stuffed up your unit today.
In order to contain this pandemic, the CDC should issue a directive that encourages the unzombified to punch Bluetoothed elevator zombies right in their ear. Hard. Multiple times. And when the stupefied ones wake from their narcoleptic slumber and turn with confused expressions, inform them that it was all in the interest of the greater good. A blow for the sake of civilization itself.
 
Will Durst is an award- winning, nationally acclaimed political comic. Go to  willdurst.com to find about more about his new one- man show “BoomeRaging: From LSD to OMG,” info about the documentary film “3 Still Standing,” and a calendar guide to personal appearances including June 13 & 14 in Arcata & Redway.

 

Counter-power as common power: beyond horizontalism

by Not An Alternative on June 6, 2014

Post image for Counter-power as common power: beyond horizontalism

Occupy was powerful not because of its consensus decision-making processes but because of its participants’ collective commitment to a shared idea.

Barcelona

May 2012, Barcelona General Assembly, Hand Gestures. Video stills from Global Uprisings.

Portugal

November 2012, Pulling up bricks in the streets of Portugal. Video stills from Global Uprisings.

Turkey

August 2013, passing brick from person to person, Occupy Gezi, Turkey. Video stills from Global Uprisings.

Not An Alternative is a hybrid arts collective and non-profit organization with a mission to affect popular understandings of events, symbols and history.

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Not An Alternative presenting a talk on the Media, Communication, Outreach panel at the Global Uprisings Conference in Amsterdam, (November 2013):

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