Friday, December 6, 2013

3D Printed Organs and Batteries in the Not-too Distant Future

Kyle Maxey | November  2013

Surveys conducted by the German Organ Transplantation Foundation (DSO) say the number of organ transplant donors has plummeted 18 percent in the past year. With the demand for organ transplants increasingly overtaking supply, physicians are hopeful that new technologies (such as 3D printing) could one day fill in these gaps.

As a first big step, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology (IGB) in Stuttgart recently announced that they’ve created a bio-ink suitable for printing a number of tissue types.

The key to the new ink’s versatility is its gelatin base. Gelatin, a derivative of collagen, is one of the main constituents of human tissues. While gelatin is normally in a gelatinous state at room temperature, the IGB researchers have created a way to keep the material in a liquid form. This makes it easier for the 3D printer to manipulate the material, depositing it onto a sterile sheet where it can then be cured with a UV light and rendered solid.

According to the IGB, “researchers can control the chemical modification of the biological molecules so that the resulting gels have differing strengths and swelling characteristics. The properties of natural tissue can therefore be imitated – from solid cartilage to soft adipose tissue.”

While 3D printed organs are still a long way off, IGB’s material is an important step forward in this burgeoning medical field. “Only once we are successful in producing tissue that can be nourished through a system of blood vessels can printing larger tissue structures become feasible,” says IGB researcher Dr. Kirsten Borcher.

In the coming decades, the population of elderly people will dramatically rise around the world, increasing the demand for advanced biotechnology. If 3D printing technology can mature in time to meet these growing demands, it will find a huge market and be able to contribute to a higher quality of life.

By Mike Orcutt | November 2013
MIT Technology Review

By making the basic building blocks of batteries out of ink, Harvard materials scientist Jennifer Lewis is laying the groundwork for lithium-ion batteries and other high-performing electronics that can be produced with 3-D printers.

Although the technology is still at an early stage, the ability to print batteries and other electronics could make it possible to manufacture new kinds of devices. Think of self-powered biomedical sensors, affixed to the skin, that would continuously transmit vital signs to a smartphone. Or existing products could be made more simply and efficiently.

For example, the plastic shell of a hearing aid is already 3-D printed for a custom fit inside a wearer’s ear. But the electronics are manufactured separately, and the batteries are often the type that must be replaced frequently. If the electronics and a rechargeable battery were printed together, the final product could be made more rapidly and seamlessly.

Lewis has taken two important steps toward printing electronic devices. First, she has invented an arsenal of what she calls functional inks that can solidify into batteries and simple components, including electrodes, wires, and antennas. Second, she has developed nozzles and high-pressure extruders that squeeze out the batteries and other components from an industrial-grade 3-D printer. Lewis’s inks use suspended nanoparticles of the desired materials, such as compounds of lithium for batteries and silver for wires. These materials are mixed into a variety of solutions, and the resulting inks are nearly solid when unperturbed but flow when a certain amount of pressure is applied. Once printed, the materials return to solid form. Printing a battery from a single nozzle can take minutes, but Lewis’s custom 3-D printing technology can deposit inks from hundreds of nozzles at the same time.

The printing technology works at room temperature, not the high temperatures normally required to work with high-performing electronics. That makes it possible to print the materials on plastic without causing damage. The battery materials themselves aren’t revolutionary, she says; “this is really more a revolution in the way things are manufactured.”

Her printed lithium-ion batteries are as tiny as one millimeter square but perform as well as commercial batteries, because Lewis can render microscale architectures, and position structures with 100-nanometer accuracy, to mirror the structures of much bigger batteries.

Lewis’s group holds eight patents for its inks and is working on licensing and commercializing the technology in the next few years. Although she says the initial plan is to provide tools for manufacturers, she may eventually produce a low-end printer for hobbyists.

Facebook's Future Plans for Data Collection Beyond Imagination

Facebook's dark plans for the future are given away in its patent applications.
December 4, 2013 | Alternet (via Counterpunch)

“No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development, entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the fast stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.’”
—Max Weber, 1905

On November 12,  Facebook, Inc. filed its 178th patent application for a consumer profiling technique the company calls “inferring household income for users of a social networking system.”

“The amount of information gathered from users,” explain Facebook programmers Justin Voskuhl and Ramesh Vyaghrapuri in their patent application, “is staggering — information describing recent moves to a new city, graduations, births, engagements, marriages, and the like.” Facebook and other so-called tech companies have been warehousing all of this information since their respective inceptions. In Facebook’s case, its data vault includes information posted as early as 2004, when the site first went live. Now in a single month the amount of information forever recorded by Facebook —dinner plans, vacation destinations, emotional states, sexual activity, political views, etc.— far surpasses what was recorded during the company’s first several years of operation. And while no one outside of the company knows for certain, it is believed that Facebook has amassed one of the widest and deepest databases in history. Facebook has over 1,189,000,000 “monthly active users” around the world as of October 2013, providing considerable width of data. And Facebook has stored away trillions and trillions of missives and images, and logged other data about the lives of this billion plus statistical sample of humanity. Adjusting for bogus or duplicate accounts it all adds up to about 1/7th of humanity from which some kind of data has been recorded.

According to Facebook’s programmers like Voskuhl and Vyaghrapuri, of all the clever uses they have already applied this pile of data toward, Facebook has so far “lacked tools to synthesize this information about users for targeting advertisements based on their perceived income.” Now they have such a tool thanks to the retention and analysis of variable the company’s positivist specialists believe are correlated with income levels.

They’ll have many more tools within the next year to run similar predictions. Indeed, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and the hundreds of smaller tech lesser-known tech firms that now control the main portals of social, economic, and political life on the web (which is now to say everywhere as all economic and much social activity is made cyber) are only getting started. The Big Data analytics revolution has barely begun, and these firms are just beginning to tinker with rational-instrumental methods of predicting and manipulating human behavior.

There are few, if any, government regulations restricting their imaginations at this point. Indeed, the U.S. President himself is a true believer in Big Data; the brain of Obama’s election team was a now famous “cave” filled with young Ivy League men (and a few women) sucking up electioneering information and crunching demographic and consumer data to target individual voters with appeals timed to maximize the probability of a vote for the new Big Blue, not IBM, but the Democratic Party’s candidate of “Hope” and “Change.” The halls of power are enraptured by the potential of rational-instrumental methods paired with unprecedented access to data that describes the social lives of hundreds of millions.

Facebook’s intellectual property portfolio reads like cliff notes summarizing the aspirations of all corporations in capitalist modernity; to optimize efficiency in order to maximize profits and reduce or externalize risk. Unlike most other corporations, and unlike previous phases in the development of rational bureaucracies, Facebook and its tech peers have accumulated never before seen quantities of information about individuals and groups. Recent breakthroughs in networked computing make analysis of these gigantic data sets fast and cheap. Facebook’s patent holdings are just a taste of what’s arriving here and now.

The way you type, the rate, common mistakes, intervals between certain characters, is all unique, like your fingerprint, and there are already cyber robots that can identify you as you peck away at keys. Facebook has even patented methods of individual identification with obviously cybernetic overtones, where the machine becomes an appendage of the person. U.S. Patents 8,306,256, 8,472,662, and 8,503,718, all filed within the last year, allow Facebook’s web robots to identify a user based on the unique pixelation and other characteristics of their smartphone’s camera. Identification of the subject is the first step toward building a useful data set to file among the billion or so other user logs. Then comes analysis, then prediction, then efforts to influence a parting of money.
The way you type, the rate, common mistakes, intervals between certain characters, is all unique, like your fingerprint, and there are already cyber robots that can identify you as you peck away at keys.

Many Facebook patents pertain to advertising techniques that are designed and targeted, and continuously redesigned with ever-finer calibrations by robot programs, to be absorbed by the gazes of individuals as they scroll and swipe across their Facebook feeds, or on third party web sites.

Speaking of feeds, U.S. Patent 8,352,859, Facebook’s system for “Dynamically providing a feed of stories about a user of a social networking system” is used by the company to organize the constantly updated posts and activities inputted by a user’s “friends.” Of course embedded in this system are means of inserting advertisements. According to Facebook’s programmers, a user’s feeds are frequently injected with “a depiction of a product, a depiction of a logo, a display of a trademark, an inducement to buy a product, an inducement to buy a service, an inducement to invest, an offer for sale, a product description, trade promotion, a survey, a political message, an opinion, a public service announcement, news, a religious message, educational information, a coupon, entertainment, a file of data, an article, a book, a picture, travel information, and the like.” That’s a long list for sure, but what gets injected is more often than not whatever will boost revenues for Facebook.

The advantage here, according to Facebook, is that “rather than having to initiate calls or emails to learn news of another user, a user of a social networking website may passively receive alerts to new postings by other users.” The web robot knows best. Sit back and relax and let sociality wash over you, passively. This is merely one of Facebook’s many “systems for tailoring connections between various users” so that these connections ripple with ads uncannily resonant with desires and needs revealed in the quietly observed flow of e-mails, texts, images, and clicks captured forever in dark inaccessible servers of Facebook, Google and the like. These communications services are free in order to control the freedom of data that might otherwise crash about randomly, generating few opportunities for sales.

Where this fails Facebook ratchets up the probability of influencing the user to behave as a predictable consumer. “Targeted advertisements often fail to earn a user’s trust in the advertised product,” explain Facebook’s programmers in U.S. Patent 8,527,344, filed in September of this year. “For example, the user may be skeptical of the claims made by the advertisement. Thus, targeted advertisements may not be very effective in selling an advertised product.” Facebook’s computer programmers who now profess mastery over sociological forces add that even celebrity endorsements are viewed with skepticism by the savvy citizen of the modulated Internet. They’re probably right.

Facebook’s solution is to mobilize its users as trusted advertisers in their own right. “Unlike advertisements, most users seek and read content generated by their friends within the social networking system; thus,” concludes Facebook’s mathematicians of human inducement, “advertisements generated by a friend of the user are more likely to catch the attention of the user, increasing the effectiveness of the advertisement.” That Facebook’s current So-And-So-likes-BrandX ads are often so clumsy and ineffective does not negate the qualitative shift in this model of advertising and the possibilities of un-freedom it evokes.

Forget iPhones and applications, the tech industry’s core consumer product is now advertising. Their essential practice is mass surveillance conducted in real time through continuous and multiple sensors that pass, for most people, entirely unnoticed. The autonomy and unpredictability of the individual —in Facebook’s language the individual is the “user”— is their fundamental business problem. Reducing autonomy via surveillance and predictive algorithms that can placate existing desires, and even stimulate and mold new desires is the tech industry’s reason for being. Selling their capacious surveillance and consumer stimulus capabilities to the highest bidder is the ultimate end.

Sounds too dystopian? Perhaps, and this is by no means the world we live in, not yet. It is, however, a tendency rooted in the tech economy. The advent of mobile, hand-held, wirelessly networked computers, called “smartphones,” is still so new that the technology, and its services feel like a parallel universe, a new layer of existence added upon our existing social relationships, business activities, and political affiliations. In many ways it feels liberating and often playful. Our devices can map geographic routes, identify places and things, provide information about almost anything in real time, respond to our voices, and replace our wallets. Who hasn’t consulted “Dr. Google” to answer a pressing question? Everyone and everything is seemingly within reach and there is a kind of freedom to this utility.

Most of Facebook’s “users” have only been registered on the web site since 2010, and so the quintessential social network feels new and fun, and although perhaps fraught with some privacy concerns, it does not altogether feel like a threat to the autonomy of the individual. To say it is, is a cliche sci-fi nightmare narrative of tech-bureaucracy, and we all tell one another that the reality is more complex.

Privacy continues, however, too be too narrowly conceptualized as a liberal right against incursions of government, and while the tech companies have certainly been involved in a good deal of old-fashioned mass surveillance for the sake of our federal Big Brother, there’s another means of dissolving privacy that is more fundamental to the goals of the tech companies and more threatening to social creativity and political freedom.

Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen notes that pervasive surveillance is inimical to the spaces of privacy that are required for liberal democracy, but she adds importantly, that the surveillance and advertising strategies of the tech industry goes further.

“A society that permits the unchecked ascendancy of surveillance infrastructures, which dampen and modulate behavioral variability, cannot hope to maintain a vibrant tradition of cultural and technical innovation,” writes Cohen in a forthcoming Harvard Law Review article:
“Modulation” is Cohen’s term for the tech industry’s practice of using algorithms and other logical machine operations to mine an individual’s data so as to continuously personalize information streams. Facebook’s patents are largely techniques of modulation, as are Google’s and the rest of the industry leaders. Facebook conducts meticulous surveillance on users, collects their data, tracks their movements on the web, and feeds the individual specific content that is determined to best resonate with their desires, behaviors, and predicted future movements. The point is to perfect the form and function of the rational-instrumental bureaucracy as defined by Max Weber: to constantly ratchet up efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. If they succeed in their own terms, the tech companies stand to create a feedback loop made perfectly to fit each an every one of us, an increasingly closed systems of personal development in which the great algorithms in the cloud endlessly tailor the psychological and social inputs of humans who lose the gift of randomness and irrationality.

“It is modulation, not privacy, that poses the greater threat to innovative practice. Regimes of pervasively distributed surveillance and modulation seek to mold individual preferences and behavior in ways that reduce the serendipity and the freedom to tinker on which innovation thrives.” 
Cohen has pointed out the obvious irony here, not that it’s easy to miss; the tech industry is uncritically labeled America’s hothouse of innovation, but it may in fact be killing innovation by disenchanting the world and locking inspiration in an cage.

If there were limits to the reach of the tech industry’s surveillance and stimuli strategies it would indeed be less worrisome. Only parts of our lives would be subject to this modulation, and it could therefore benefit us. But the industry aspires to totalitarian visions in which universal data sets are constantly mobilized to transform an individual’s interface with society, family, the economy, and other institutions. The tech industry’s luminaries are clear in their desire to observe and log everything, and use every “data point” to establish optimum efficiency in life as the pursuit of consumer happiness. Consumer happiness is, in turn, a step toward the rational pursuit of maximum corporate profit. We are told that the “Internet of things” is arriving, that soon every object will have embedded within it a computer that is networked to the sublime cloud, and that the physical environment will be made “smart” through the same strategy of modulation so that we might be made free not just in cyberspace, but also in the meatspace.

Whereas the Internet of the late 1990s matured as an archipelago of innumerable disjointed and disconnected web sites and databases, today’s Internet is gripped by a handful of giant companies that observe much of the traffic and communications, and which deliver much of the information from an Android phone or laptop computer, to distant servers, and back. The future Internet being built by the tech giants —putting aside the Internet of things for the moment— is already well into its beta testing phase. It’s a seamlessly integrated quilt of web sites and apps that all absorb “user” data, everything from clicks and keywords to biometric voice identification and geolocation.

United States Patent 8,572,174, another of Facebook’s recent inventions, allows the company to personalize a web page outside of Facebook’s own system with content from Facebook’s databases. Facebook is selling what the company calls its “rich set of social information” to third party web sites in order to “provide personalized content for their users based on social information about those users that is maintained by, or otherwise accessible to, the social networking system.” Facebook’s users generated this rich social information, worth many billions of dollars as recent quarterly earnings of the company attest.

In this way the entire Internet becomes Facebook.
The totalitarian ambition here is obvious, and it can be read in the securities filings, patent applications, and other non-sanitized business documents crafted by the tech industry for the financial analysts who supply the capital for further so-called innovation. Everywhere you go on the web, with your phone or tablet, you’re a “user,” and your social network data will be mined every second by every application, site, and service to “enhance your experience,” as Facebook and others say. The tech industry’s leaders aim to expand this into the physical world, creating modulated advertising and environmental experiences as cameras and sensors track our movements.

Facebook and the rest of the tech industry fear autonomy and unpredictability.
The ultimate expression of these irrational variables that cannot be mined with algorithmic methods is absence from the networks of surveillance in which data is collected.

One of Facebook’s preventative measures is United States Patent 8,560,962, “promoting participation of low-activity users in social networking system.” This novel invention devised by programmers in Facebook’s Palo Alto and San Francisco offices involves a “process of inducing interactions,” that are meant to maximize the amount of “user-generated content” on Facebook by getting lapsed users to return, and stimulating all users to produce more and more data. User generated content is, after all, worth billions. Think twice before you hit “like” next time, or tap that conspicuously placed “share” button; a machine likely put that content and interaction before your eyes after a logical operation determined it to have the highest probability of tempting you to add to the data stream, thereby increasing corporate revenues.

Facebook’s patents on techniques of modulating “user” behavior are few compared to the real giants of the tech industry’s surveillance and influence agenda. Amazon, Microsoft, and of course Google hold some of the most fundamental patents using personal data to attempt to shape an individual’s behavior into predictable consumptive patterns. Smaller specialized firms like Choicestream and Gist Communications have filed dozens more applications for modulation techniques. The rate of this so-called innovation is rapidly telescoping.

Perhaps we do know who will live in the iron cage. It might very well be a cage made of our own user generated content, paradoxically ushering in a new era of possibilities in shopping convenience and the delivery of satisfactory experiences even while it eradicates many degrees of chance, and pain, and struggle (the motive forces of human progress) in a robot-powered quest to have us construct identities and relationships that yield to prediction and computer-generated suggestion. Defense of individual privacy and autonomy today is rightly motivated by the reach of an Orwellian security state (the NSA, FBI, CIA). This surveillance changes our behavior by chilling us, by telling us we are always being watched by authority. Authority thereby represses in us whatever might happen to be defined as “crime,” or any anti-social behavior at the moment. But what about the surveillance that does not seek to repress us, the watching computer eyes and ears that instead hope to stimulate a particular set of monetized behaviors in us with the intimate knowledge gained from our every online utterance, even our facial expressions and finger movements?

Dallas Police Rule Change Gives Officers 72 Hours To Get Their Stories Straight After Shooting Citizens

from the "Accountability-is-for-bullet-riddled-civilians dept"

The Dallas Police Department can't seem to get its officers' statements on shootings to agree with recordings of the incidents. So, it's doing what any forward thinking law enforcement agency would do -- changing the rules.
Any Dallas officer involved in a police shooting — whether the officer fired a weapon or witnessed the gunfire — will now have the right to remain silent for 72 hours under a new department policy.

And even before they give a statement about the shooting, the officers can watch any available video before they give a statement.
Very convenient. This policy change, which was ushered in under the cover of the Thanksgiving holiday, will help ensure that DPD officers don't find their statements directly contradicted by the inconveniently unblinking eye of the camera, as happened just recently.

On October 14th, Dallas police officer Cardan Spencer shot a mentally ill man four times in the stomach. According to Spencer's partner, Christopher Watson (who wrote the report), the man (Bobby Gerald Bennett) moved "in a threatening manner" towards him and the other officer. Watson's statement even went so far as to say Bennett "lunged" at them. A statement released by the DPD a few hours after the shooting claimed the situation "escalated."

A surveillance camera caught the entire confrontation on tape. Less than 20 seconds pass before Spencer opens fire. See if you can catch a glimpse of the "lunge" or the "escalation."

Bennett never lunges. He doesn't do anything more threatening than stand up from the chair he was sitting in. Four bullets later, Bennett is on the ground. Somehow, being shot four times by a DPD officer is "aggravated assault," a charge the DPD pressed (it was later dropped) while Bennett was still in critical condition.

As a result of this, Spencer was fired and Watson suspended for making false statements. But this was only after Bennett's mother took the video to the media. Before she did this, DPD Chief David Brown watched the video and claimed his own officer's statement trumped his lying eyes.
"The unfortunate thing here is that Officer Watson's statement really overrode what the video showed," Brown said. "We had not at that point determined if the video captured the entire incident, or if the video had not been altered in any way. We put a lot of credibility on officer's statements until we have other evidence to prove otherwise."
Not so much anymore. Former DPD officer Cardan Spencer may be facing assault charges for shooting Bennett. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole debacle is the fact that Bennett's mother called the police because she was afraid her son (who has mental issues and was off his medication) might hurt himself.

As this has caused the DPD considerable embarrassment (not the least of which is the chief claiming a recording of the shooting is less trustworthy than statements given by an officer later suspended for making false statements), the only solution was (apparently) to buy time for officers to fix their narratives should inconvenient recordings surface.

Supposedly, this 72-hour waiting period is better for memory. Chief Brown refers to research by Alexis Artwohl which indicates recall of traumatic events increases over time. Immediate statements may be less accurate. That may be, but this report has been available since 2002 and there hasn't been a large shift in policies regarding police shootings across the nation. This looks like nothing more than someone finding the justification they need to install an insular policy that will allow bad cops to be even worse. This gives shelter to liars by allowing them to craft a plausible narrative that can't be undone by a single surveillance video.

This also doesn't explain why police insist on questioning suspects and eyewitnesses immediately after a criminal incident. But Artwohl has an explanation.
Artwohl, the memory expert, said officers treat civilian witnesses differently because officers won’t always be able to find the person again. That usually isn’t true of officers, she said.
Unsurprisingly, attorneys for the Dallas Police Association "applauded" Chief Brown's application of an additional layer of paint to the thin blue line. Anything that makes it easier to defend cops who are threatened by people standing motionless is a win for the PD's lawyers.

Defense attorney Mark Bennett flips the scenario to show just how outrageous this policy would be if it was applied to anyone else.
As a result of this incident, the Dallas Police Department changed its policy regarding gang-related shootings. Instead of pressing gang members for statements immediately after shootings, police officers will advise them that they have seventy-two hours to get together and make up a story, and will provide them, during that time, with any video the police can find, so that they can conform their stories to the video.

It makes no sense, does it, that police policy should not just permit but encourage members of a criminal street gang who witness a gang-related shooting to take three days to talk to each other and their lawyers and review the facts that are beyond dispute before making a statement?

It makes sense only if the police want the perpetrators of such shootings to walk free. The idea would be farcical if the criminal street gang were anything other than the police.
It's a farce, alright. The DPD has just ensured no one will trust the narratives constructed by its officers. And every citizen who's been paying attention will know to hang onto their recordings for at least 72 hours, rather than see it twisted into "evidence" that keeps bad cops employed.

TEPCO to Dump Fukushima Radiation Into the Pacific Ocean

by WashingtonsBlog

TEPCO is planning on dumping all of the radioactive water stored at Fukushima into the ocean.

The industry-controlled nuclear regulators are pushing for dumping the radiation, as well.

As EneNews reports:
Juan Carlos Lentijo, head of IAEA’s mission to Fukushima Daiichi, Dec. 4, 2013: “Controlled discharge is a regular practice in all the nuclear facilities in the world. And what we are trying to say here is to consider this as one of the options to contribute to a good balance of risks and to stabilize the facility for the long term.”

Shunichi Tanaka, chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, Dec. 4, 2013: “You cannot keep storing the water forever. We have to make choice comparing all risks involved.”

Xinhua, Dec. 4, 2013: Lentijo said that TEPCO should weigh the possible damaging effects of discharging toxic water against the total risks involved in the overall decommissioning work process. [...] Tanaka highlighted the fact that while highly radioactive water could be decontaminated in around seven years, the amount of water containing tritium will keep rising, topping 700,000 tons in two years. [...] nuclear experts have repeatedly pointed out that [tritium] is still a significant radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin. [...] fisherman, industries and fisheries bodies in the Fukushima area and beyond in Japan’s northeast, have collectively baulked at the idea of releasing toxic water into the sea [...] TEPCO will be duty-bound to submit assessments of the safety and environmental impact [...]

NHK, Dec. 4, 2013: IAEA team leader Juan Carlos Lentijo [...] said it is necessary and indispensable to assess the impact the tritium discharge might have on human health and the environment, and to get government approval as well as consent from concerned people.

Japan Times, Dec. 4, 2013: “Of course . . . public acceptance for this purpose is necessary,” said Lentijo, adding strict monitoring of the impact of the discharge would also be essential.

AFP, Dec. 4, 2013: [L]ocal fishermen, neighbouring countries and environmental groups all oppose the idea.

See also: Gundersen: They want to dump all Fukushima’s radioactive water in Pacific — Tepco: It will be diluted, then released — Professor suggests pumping it out in deep ocean (VIDEOS)

In the real world, there is no safe level of radiation.

And there are alternatives.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani – a recognized expert on nuclear power, who has testified before Congress, served as an expert witness in Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceedings, and has been interviewed by many of the largest news organizations – told PBS in March:
We actually sent a proposal to Japan two years ago, some colleagues of mine and I, saying you should park a supertanker or a large tanker offshore, and put the water in it, and send it off someplace else so that the water treatment and the water management is not such a huge, constant issue. But [the Japanese declined].

TEPCO – with no financial incentive to actually fix things – has been  irresponsible and has only been pretending to contain Fukushima. And see this.

Instead of doing something to contain the radiation, they’re going to dump it.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Facebook isn’t Your Friend

The Unvarnished Truth

A few days ago, I was told by the organisers of a “social media” festival that the hashtag was my “new best friend“. As I’ve never hugged a hashtag or cried on the shoulders of one, I felt it was important to question this “wisdom”.

Like millions of others, I’m addicted to Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter. I check these websites so frequently that I often forget they are owned by vast corporations.

Some of these firms’ activities are inherently anti-democratic.

Facebook’s Brussels office is headed by Erika Mann, a former German member of the European Parliament. She has long fought to enable the interests of big business triumph over those of ordinary people.

During her 15 years as an MEP, Mann continuously advocated that the European Union should liberalise its trade with the United States.

At one point, it seemed that her calls were being ignored by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. All that changed in February this year, when Barack Obama expressed his support for such an agreement during his State of the Union address. Talks aimed at reaching a very broad trade and investment deal were formally launched in July.

Now wearing her Facebook hat, Erika Mann is still extolling the apparent virtues of “free” trade at every available opportunity.

In April, she spoke at a conference in Dublin, where Facebook’s international headquarters are located. Mann argued that it would be “extremely important” for an eventual deal to make the standards faced by internet companies in the EU and US “more coherent”.

While Mann claimed that she did not wish to see standards becoming “identical”, it is highly improbable that she will be pushing for more robust rules. Facebook recently submitted detailed recommendations to MEPs about how to weaken a new data protection law.
Information leaked by the courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrated that Facebook has been helping the National Security Agency to undertake espionage on a massive scale.

Before those revelations were made, Erika Mann claimed that Facebook was “leading the way” both in protecting privacy and in helping the digital sector to flourish. Her assurances now appear risible.

Facebook isn’t alone in hoping that the trade agreement will lead to “regulatory convergence” on different sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has drawn up a paper for the talks, which indicates its willingness to copy and paste demands made by the car industry. The paper suggests that whenever either the EU or the US feels the need to have new rules on the amount of pollution vehicles may cause, they will consult each other with a view to finding a common approach.

In practice, this is a recipe for preventing Europe from having tougher emissions standards than the US.

Few qualms

Mann has few, if any, qualms about lobbying her former colleagues. She has spoken at events within the European Parliament’s buildings on a number of dossiers.

Last year, she addressed a conference on data protection organised by one of the assembly’s committees. She also spoke at a reception sponsored by the beer industry, during which she voiced support for “voluntary initiatives” undertaken by those behemoths of booze eager to portray themselves as responsible.

That wasn’t simply a case of Mann meeting some old pals for a knees-up. Facebook had clinched a huge advertising contract with Diageo – owner of Guinness and Smirnoff – a few months earlier.

Her participation in the beer-fuelled reception involved sending a signal to law-makers that they should abandon any plans they may have to ban or restrict the marketing of alcohol. The idea that the drinks industry can be expected to behave responsibly is, of course, daft. The only objective of corporations is to amass as much money as they can.

Following a scandal in 2011 in which a few MEPs were recorded stating they would be happy to receive bribes from journalists posing as lobbyists, the European Parliament drew up a code of conduct. In theory, the code applies to both sitting and former MEPs.

And yet a Parliament spokeswoman told me: “from what I gather of your description of Mrs Mann’s activities, it doesn’t seem that she has breached the code of conduct”.

The code states that former MEPs should not benefit from the Parliament’s “facilities” if they wish to engage in lobbying “directly linked” to EU law-making. According to the spokeswoman, this clause did not relate merely to accessing the Parliament’s buildings but to such perks as use of its car-parks and libraries.

If Mann is undertaking lobbying on the Parliament’s premises, there is strong prima facie evidence that she is not playing by the rules. But it seems that the Parliament’s administration is happy to overlook how former MEPs are usurping democracy by cajoling their old colleagues into tweaking laws to placate certain vested interests.

A leaked internal paper from the European Commission indicated that it plans to make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook to sell the so-called benefits of a trans-Atlantic trade deal.

Fortunately, the Commission’s officials aren’t the only people who know to tweet, share and “like”.

Given that Facebook’s Brussels office wants a trade deal to be concluded, it behoves those of us opposing the deal to flood the pages of Facebook with the unvarnished truth. We should spare no effort in calling out the lobbyists seeking to destroy the last vestiges of our democracy.

The Stock Market Bubble

Back to the Future on Wall Street

Wall Street is buzzing, and it’s all about bubbles.

In fact, according to Google Trends, interest in the term “stock bubble” was higher in November 2013 than anytime since October 2008.

And that should be expected given that the Dow Jones just broke through the 16,000-mark while the NASDAQ sailed-past the 4,000 milestone for the first time in 13 years. And did I mention that S&P 500 just closed above 1,800 for an all-time high?

While surging stocks are not proof of a bubble, they do draw attention to the condition of the underlying economy which is still in deep distress 5 years after the recession "ended." With "official" unemployment at 7.2% (and real unemployment twice that figure), GDP barley growing, droopy personal consumption, flagging durable goods, shrinking revenues, flatlining wages, falling incomes, widening inequality, plunging consumer sentiment, 47 million Americans on food stamps, and myriad other signs of persistent economic stagnation; the so called “recovery” is anything but robust. So where are stocks getting the oomph to keep rising?

That’s not a question that bothers the bubble deniers who have started popping up on the business channels like they did prior to the housing and the busts. These so called “experts” assure the public that all the bubble talk is just scaremongering by disgruntled Cassandras who don’t understand that current valuations are reasonable. They say that soaring prices reflect “strong fundamentals.

Uh huh.

Last week, serial bubblemaker, Alan Greenspan, made an appearance on Bloomberg TV where he scoffed at the idea of a stock bubble saying, “It’s a little on the upside, (But) “This does not have the characteristics, as far as I’m concerned, of a stock market bubble.”

There you have it from Maestro himself. No bubble here. Move along now.

Others, however, are not as confident as Greenspan. They think stock prices have less to do with fundamentals than they do with the Fed’s uber-accommodative policy which has kept short-term rates set below the rate of inflation for 5 years straight, providing a subsidy for risk taking. They also point to Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s $85 billion per month asset purchase program, called QE, which has expanded the Fed’s balance sheet by $3 trillion lifting stock and bond prices across the board. Stock prices are based on Central Bank intervention. Fundamentals have nothing to do with it, nothing at all.

As for the bubble; judge for yourself:

Margin debt on the New York Stock Exchange is currently at its highest level ever. It’s even higher than before the crash in 2007. When investors borrow a lot of dough to buy stocks, you’re in a bubble, right? Because that’s what a bubble is, tons of credit pushing up prices. And when something bad happens, like the Lehman Brothers default, then all the over-extended borrowers have to dump their stocks pronto, which causes firesales, panics and financial meltdowns. Been there, done that.

So why is there so much margin debt now, you ask?

Because of zero rates. Because of QE. Because speculators think the Fed will keep prices high by pumping more liquidity into the system. It’s called the Bernanke Put, the belief that the Fed will prevent stocks from falling too fast, too far. Margin debt is a reasonable reaction to the Fed’s policy, which is why the Fed is ultimately responsible for the risky behavior.

Now check this out from the New York Times:
“Since the dark days of 2008, the Nasdaq has risen more than 150 percent, twice as much as the old-school Dow industrials. Money has been pouring into social media stocks. As of Friday, Twitter had risen nearly 60 percent since it went public only a few weeks earlier.

Once again, new “metrics” are being applied to justify stratospheric valuations. Twitter is losing money. A price-to-earnings ratio? There is no E in the P/E. But its stock is trading at 20-odd times the company’s annual sales. Good enough….

Eight months ago, Snapchat was valued at $70 million. Today, it is valued at $4 billion, even though it has zero revenue. Six months ago, Pinterest was valued at $2.5 billion. Today, it is valued at $3.8 billion — and no revenue there, either. And last week news broke that Dropbox was said to be seeking a new round of funding that would value the company at $8 billion, up from $4 billion a year ago.” (“Disruptions: If It Looks Like a Bubble and Floats Like a Bubble”, New York Times)

Did you catch that? A company with zero revenue is worth $3 billion more today than it was 8 months ago. So we’re back to the bad old days of the bust. This is the result of low rates and QE. It has nothing to do with fundamentals. We’re not talking earnings here. We’re talking manipulation, intervention, and central planning.
Then there’s this from the Wall Street Journal:
“Investment funds aimed at individual investors are barreling into collateralized loan obligations, a complex and volatile type of security that was shaken by the financial crisis.

Lured by annual returns of as high as 20%, some mutual-fund managers are buying CLOs through investment funds that purchase stakes in loans to companies with low credit ratings…. …

The biggest buyers of these securities usually are hedge funds, insurers and banks. But mutual funds and business-development companies, which pitch themselves to individual, or retail, investors, have collected more than $60 billion in money from clients this year, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc. and fund-data provider Lipper.

CLO returns are higher than on corporate bonds and other loans, but CLO prices could plunge if the risk rises that companies will run into trouble repaying their loans. That happened in 2011, and some fund managers say retail investors are mostly unaware that the firms they invest in are buying CLOs…” (“Volatile Loan Securities Are Luring Fund Managers Again”, Wall Street Journal)
So the big boys are climbing further out the risk curve to scratch out a higher rate of return on their investments; investments which–by the way– will eventually cost ”retail investors” (you and me) a bundle. 
And the reason these financial institutions are engaging in such risky behavior is because rates have been stuck at zero for 5 years, forcing them to look for higher yield wherever they can find it. It’s all part of the Fed’s Pavlovian conditioning. First you turn the interest rate dial to zero, then you juice stock’s prices with QE. And then you wait for the suckers (Mom and Pop) to reenter the market so you can cut them down like corn stalks in a combine. Works every time, just take a look:
“One development that has experts concerned is the return of individual investors, who are known for getting into the stock market near peaks…One way to measure their activity is to look at net inflows into stock mutual funds (excluding exchange-traded funds). When investors put more into stock funds than they take out, it’s called a net inflow. When they withdraw more than they invest, it’s a net outflow.

This year, net inflows totaled $176 billion through Nov. 20, according to Lipper…Most of that money is coming from bank accounts and money market funds…”

So the sheeple are about to get sheared again, right? Just like Bernanke and his Wall Street buddies planned from the get go. But, guess what? Just as Mom and Pop are getting back into stocks again, the big boys are getting out. Take a look at this report from BofAML from the Macronomics blogsite:

”BofAML clients were net sellers of US stocks for the fifth consecutive week, in the amount of $2.3bn. Net sales were led by institutional clients, who returned to net selling following a week of muted buying.

Institutional clients remain the biggest net sellers year-to-date, with cumulative net sales of over $23bn—larger than in either 2008 or 2010. …..Hedge funds were also net sellers for the second consecutive week, while private clients returned to net buying after a week of selling. This group has been a net buyer for 23 of the past 26 weeks.” (“Credit: All that glitters, ain’t gold”, Macronomics)

How do you like that? So once the chickens get lured back into the henhouse, the door slams shut and the fox fires up the stove for another big feed. Isn’t this how it always works out?

Now check this out in Forbes about ”cov lite” loans:

“Covenant-lite loan activity in 2013 is smashing all records, and appears to be picking up speed. Through Aug. 8 there has been $162 billion of covenant-lite loan issuance in the U.S., more than five times the amount seen at this point in 2012, and easily topping the $86 billion of cov-lite deals logged all of last year.” (“Cov lites” soar to new record”, Forbes)

Unfortunately, cov lites are a particularly lethal form of lending which strips “typical lender protections” from credit agreements. Here’s the scoop from the New York Times:

“Leveraged loans became popular before the 2008 collapse but nearly disappeared afterward, regarded as a symbol of unbridled lending. But they started to return in 2010 and are now back in force, with volumes of $548.4 billion this year through Nov. 14, already exceeding the precrisis level of $535.2 billion in 2007.

The type of leveraged loans that Learfield took out are known as covenant-lite, financial lingo for loans that lack the tripwires that could alert investors to any potential financial troubles at the company that could affect repayment. More than half of all leveraged loans issued this year have been the so-called cov-lite types, double the level seen in 2007 on the eve of the credit crash.” (“New Boom in Subprime Loans, for Smaller Businesses”, New York Times)

So, let’s recap: The Fed has managed to spark another surge in risky lending (that “exceeds precrisis levels”) that threatens to blow up in investors faces leaving them less prepared for retirement than they are today.


And there’s more. Take a look at the recent stock buyback frenzy, which is where companies buy their own stock to goose the price instead of investing in plants, equipment, hiring, or any other type of useful, productive activity. This is from Bloomberg:
“Multiple expansion through share buybacks have been driving indeed the stock market higher greater than earnings have. …. Buybacks rose by 18% Quarter-over-quarter to $118 billion in 2013, up 11% year-over-year to $218 billion.”  (Bloomberg)

Even so, Greenspan sees no bubble. Stock prices are based on good old fundamentals, like earnings. What could be more fundamental than earnings, right?

Take a look at this from the Testosterone Pit:
“Corporate earnings will grow this year at their lowest level since 2009. Revenue growth at public companies is almost non-existent. Companies are buying back stock at a record pace to boost per-share earnings.”  (“What Really Bothers Me About this Stock Market”,  Michael Lombardi, Testosterone Pit)
Huh? So earnings aren’t so hot either?

Apparently not. And that means the fundamentals are actually weak, which makes sense since the economy is in the crapper.

Then we ARE in a bubble, after all?

Yep. And when it bursts it’s going to cost a lot of people a lot of money.  Just like last time.

Funnies for the Holidays