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31 Aug 18:52

Reformas para superar o ‘pibinho’

Alexa Salomão - O Estado de S. Paulo

O Brasil teve dois trimestres consecutivos de retração no Produto Interno Bruto (PIB), indicador que mede a geração de riqueza das nações. Na teoria acadêmica, tal situação indica que o País encolheu e sofre recessão técnica. Alguns analistas dizem que não é para tanto e que há estagnação. O governo alega que o problema é momentâneo por causa da Copa, da seca e da crise internacional. Semântica à parte, o fato é que o Brasil crescia pouco e agora anda para trás, com efeitos sobre o emprego e a renda. 

No grupo alinhado com o governo está o professor Fernando Nogueira da Costa, da Unicamp, que lecionou para a presidente Dilma Rousseff quando ela estava no doutorado. Para Costa, foram eventos momentâneos, como a Copa, que frearam o crescimento. 

Boa parte dos economistas que estudam os altos e baixos do PIB discordam. Um deles é Marcos Lisboa, ex-secretário de Política Econômica no governo de Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva e hoje vice-presidente do Insper. Para Lisboa, o potencial de crescimento do Brasil caiu. A queda aparece nos números que medem a produtividade. 

Há uma perda de produtividade que reduziu o potencial de crescimento do Brasil.

De maneira simplista, ter produtividade significa fazer mais e melhor com o mesmo. Exemplo: elevar a produção de 100 para 150 carros com o mesmo número de trabalhadores, de máquinas e de dinheiro. Essa mágica é possível graças a avanços paralelos: trabalhadores com uma educação mais sofisticada e o uso de equipamentos mais modernos. Segundo Lisboa, de 2003 a 2010, a produtividade cresceu, em média, 1,6% ao ano. De lá para cá, estagnou. “Há uma perda de produtividade que reduziu o potencial de crescimento do Brasil.” 

Na avaliação de Vinícius Carrasco, professor da PUC-Rio, esse declínio não foi acidental e a recuperação não virá de uma reação espontânea da economia. Carrasco tem essa convicção porque é um dos autores do estudo “A Década Perdida - 2003 a 2012”, que compara indicadores brasileiros com um conjunto de outros países. A conclusão: o avanço foi menor do que poderia. “Não foram criadas condições para se ter uma produção mais eficiente”, diz. 

É melhor ele ter um celular e pegar três serviços por dia do que empregar e atender dez clientes - é perda de produtividade na veia.

Reverter o “pibinho” não é fácil. O primeiro passo, segundo Monica de Bolle, diretora da consultoria Galanto, é reconhecer o erro. Só isso abre espaço para a mudança. Bernard Appy, ex-secretário executivo do Ministério da Fazenda, acredita que as mudanças dependem de microrreformas, como a tributária. O sistema de cobrança de impostos é distorcivo e incentiva que as empresas não cresçam. “Se um eletricista ganhar R$ 3 mil por mês e for microempreendedor individual, paga 1,3% da receita em tributos. Se for dono de empresa do Simples, 10,5%”, diz Appy. “É melhor ele ter um celular e pegar três serviços por dia do que empregar e atender dez clientes - é perda de produtividade na veia.”

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31 Aug 20:57

The Replication Crisis: Response to Lieberman

by Neuroskeptic

In a long and interesting article over at Edge, social neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman discusses (amongst other things) the ‘replication crisis’ in his field. Much of what he says will be of interest to regular readers of this blog.

Lieberman notes that there has been a lot of controversy over ‘embodied cognition‘ and social priming research. For instance,

There are studies suggesting that washing your hands can affect your sense of being moral or immoral, and so on. These studies are very interesting. They’re very counter-intuitive, which I think leads lots of people to wonder whether or not they’re legitimate.

Lately there was a particular, well-publicized case of a non-replication of one of these counter-intuitive effects, and Lieberman discusses this, but I think the issue is a general one. Here’s what Lieberman says (emphasis mine) about the effort to try and replicate these findings:

I do have some issues with the process of selecting who’s going to do the replications — what their qualifications are for doing those things, have they done successful work in that area previously — because if they haven’t shown that they can successfully get other priming effects, or other embodied cognition effects, how do I know that they can do this? I wouldn’t go and try to do chemistry. I don’t know anything about doing chemistry. There are issues like that.

This argument – which Lieberman is by no means alone in making – might be called the Harry Potter Theory of social psychology. On this model, some effects are real but are difficult to get to work in an experiment (‘spells’). Some people (‘wizards’) have the knack of getting spells to work. Other researchers (‘muggles’) just can’t do it. So if a muggle fails to cast a spell, that’s not evidence against the spell working. What else would you expect? They’re a muggle!

Only if a wizard fails to replicate a spell, should we be worried about the reliability of that particular piece of magic. Accordingly, muggles should not even be trying to test whether any spells work. Wizards can safely ignore muggles.

potter_psychologyLieberman would probably object at this point that he’s not saying that some researchers should be banned from the replication process. Rather, he might say, he is only emphasizing the fact that some scientists are more qualified than others for particular tasks.

If so, fair enough, but all I’m saying is that there’s something odd about the idea that ones qualifications should include a track record in finding positive results in the field in question. That seems to be putting the cart before the horse. I agree that replicators should have the necessary technical skills, but I question whether generating positive (as opposed to negative) results can be used as a proxy for being skilled.

That would make sense if we assume that our basic psychological theory (e.g. of social priming) is valid, and therefore that at least some of our effects are real and replicable. If we grant that, then yes, we could assume that people who fail to find effects, must be doing it wrong. (If magic exists, then non-wizards are muggles.)

But can we assume that? Isn’t that, in fact, the issue under debate in many cases?

The post The Replication Crisis: Response to Lieberman appeared first on Neuroskeptic.

31 Aug 22:34

What your 1st-grade life says about the rest of it


Dante Washington is employed, has a degree and his own home in Baltimore. He defied the statistics of a 25-year-long research project that was turned into a book "The Long Shadow" which centers on children growing up in poverty -stricken areas of Baltimore. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

BALTIMORE — In the beginning, when they knew just where to find everyone, they pulled the children out of their classrooms.

They sat in any quiet corner of the schools they could claim: the sociologists from Johns Hopkins and, one at a time, the excitable first-graders. Monica Jaundoo, whose parents never made it past the eighth grade. Danté Washington, a boy with a temper and a dad who drank too much. Ed Klein, who came from a poor white part of town where his mother sold cocaine.

They talked with the sociologists about teachers and report cards, about growing up to become rock stars or police officers. For many of the children, this seldom happened in raucous classrooms or overwhelmed homes: a quiet, one-on-one conversation with an adult eager to hear just about them. “I have this special friend,” Jaundoo thought as a 6-year-old, “who’s only talking to me.”

Later, as the children grew and dispersed, some falling out of the school system and others leaving the city behind, the conversations took place in McDonald’s, in public libraries, in living rooms or lock-ups. The children — 790 of them, representative of the Baltimore public school system’s first-grade class in 1982 — grew harder to track as the patterns among them became clearer.

Over time, their lives were constrained — or cushioned — by the circumstances they were born into, by the employment and education prospects of their parents, by the addictions or job contacts that would become their economic inheritance. Johns Hopkins researchers Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle watched as less than half of the group graduated high school on time. Before they turned 18, 40 percent of the black girls from low-income homes had given birth to their own babies. At the time of the final interviews, when the children were now adults of 28, more than 10 percent of the black men in the study were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the children, among those they could find at last count, were no longer living.

A mere 4 percent of the first-graders Alexander and Entwisle had classified as the “urban disadvantaged” had by the end of the study completed the college degree that’s become more valuable than ever in the modern economy. A related reality: Just 33 of 314 had left the low-income socioeconomic status of their parents for the middle class by age 28.

Today, the “kids” — as Alexander still calls them — are 37 or 38. Alexander, now 68, retired from Johns Hopkins this summer just as the final, encompassing book from the 25-year study was published. Entwisle, then 89, died of lung cancer last November shortly after the final revisions on the book. Its sober title, “The Long Shadow,” names the thread running through all those numbers and conversations: The families and neighborhoods these children were born into cast a heavy influence over the rest of their lives, from how they fared in the first grade to what they became as grownups.

Some of them — children largely from the middle-class and blue-collar white families still in Baltimore’s public school system in 1982 — grew up to managerial jobs and marriages and their own stable homes. But where success occurred, it was often passed down, through family resources or networks simply out of reach of most of the disadvantaged.

Collectively, the study of their lives, and the outliers among them, tells an unusually detailed story — both empirical and intimate — of the forces that surround and steer children growing up in a post-industrial city like Baltimore.

“The kids they followed grew up in the worst era for big cities in the U.S. at any point in our history,” says Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University familiar with the research. Their childhood spanned the crack epidemic, the decline of urban industry, the waning national interest in inner cities and the war on poverty.

In that sense, this study is also about Baltimore itself — how it appeared to researchers and their subjects, to children and the adults they would later become. In the East Baltimore neighborhoods where Monica Jaundoo lived as a child, she told of the lots she was warned away from where junkies lingered, scattering their empty capsules and syringes. She did not realize until she returned as an adult, with her own children, that those places were playgrounds.


Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander shown in an East Baltimore neighborhood. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

‘We saw these kids grow up’

Alexander and Entwisle did not set out to follow these children for what would become whole careers and lives.

“You’d have to be crazy at the outset to say ‘we’re going to do this for a quarter-century,’ ” Alexander says. He is tall — no doubt even more so from the vantage point of a first-grader — with wire-rimmed glasses and a neatly trimmed white beard. On a Friday this summer, he was packing up his office on Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus in Baltimore for the smaller quarters of a retired researcher.

When he arrived in the sociology department in 1972, Entwisle was a fixture there. Together, they planned to study how children navigate one of life’s first major transitions, from home to school. They wanted to follow them from first grade into second, and at the time, that idea was novel. Child psychologists were then studying children this young. And sociologists were then interested in teenagers. But few researchers believed then that the context of these early years was crucial for everything that comes next — or that you could learn much about it by asking children themselves.

Entwisle and Alexander identified children from 20 of the city’s public elementary schools for what they called the Beginning School Study. Once the project was underway, they realized some of the hardest parts were behind them: identifying the random sample, securing the consent of parents and the cooperation of schools. Why not keep going For one year more? Then another?

By the fifth grade, the children had scattered into the city’s 105 public elementary schools. The conversation topics evolved over time, from report cards and dream jobs to drug use and job prospects. The longer the study went on, with semiannual and then yearly interviews through high school, the more remarkable its two foundations became: The researchers managed to find the children again and again — and then get them to talk about the very things that made them hard to find.

“We saw these kids grow up,” Alexander says. “They weren’t just anonymous numbers. In a typical survey project, you knock on doors, you make calls, you ask questions, you get your answers, and you go away. This wasn’t like that. We were with these kids a long, long time.”

They sent each child a birthday card every year, signed by everyone who worked on the Beginning School Study (its name stuck even as its subjects moved on). It was a small gesture with an added benefit. When the cards bounced back undelivered, they knew they had to work to find the child the next year.

The findings, meanwhile, accumulated in dozens of journal articles. Alexander and Entwisle helped establish that young children make valuable subjects, that their first-grade foundations predict their later success, that more privileged families are better able to leverage the promise of education. Also, disadvantaged children often fall even further back over the summer, without the aid of activities and summer camps.

“When I got to Hopkins,” says Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist in the department, “I realized the things I knew about education inequality I knew because my colleagues had published it.”

We like to think that education is an equalizer — that through it, children may receive the tools to become entrepreneurs when their parents were unemployed, lawyers when their single moms had 10th-grade educations. But Alexander and Entwisle kept coming back to one data point: the 4 percent of disadvantaged children who earned college degrees by age 28.

“We hold that out to them as what they should work toward,” Alexander says. Yet in their data, education did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off.

The story is different for children from upper-income families, who supplement classroom learning with homework help, museum trips and college expectations. Alexander and Entwisle found one exception: Low-income white boys attained some of the lowest levels of education. But they earned the highest incomes among the urban disadvantaged.

They were able, Alexander and Entwisle realized, to tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore. These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks. And these are the two paths to success in the Beginning School Study.

“One works well for the middle class,” Alexander says. “The other works well for white men.”

The Beginning School Study amasses a devastating time-lapse of the layers of disadvantage that burden children as they move through life, as teen mothers are born of teen mothers, as parents without degrees struggle to help their children obtain them. It’s tempting to conclude that not much can be done about a problem so deeply rooted. And yet, outliers rise from the study as well.

“You knew they were tracking people and figuring out what you were doing with your life,” says John Houser, who, like Jaundoo and Washington, emerges as an outlier to the study’s broadly discouraging findings. “When I was older,” he says, “I felt good saying, ‘Hey, I went to college. I’m not stuck in that shitty . . . neighborhood that I grew up in.’ ”

Rough sledding

Danté Washington points to the alley behind his boyhood home, the four-story East Baltimore rowhouse where his mother still lives. He played basketball there using a makeshift crate. The brother of his childhood best friend was also killed there by a man trying to rob him. “In this area,” he says, “hearing a gunshot is like hearing a truck down the street.”

The brick homes here, with their high ceilings and classic stone stoops, could exist in an upper-income Baltimore enclave. But the home next to his mother’s is boarded up, as is the next one. A balloon tied up in the park across the street marks a site of mourning. On a Friday afternoon, stoops are full of men, not home early from work, but because they had nowhere to go.

Most of the children Washington grew up with are still here. “When you grow up in an environment where there’s not a traditional next step after high school, the kid is stuck with a question mark,” he says. “ ‘Okay, what should I do now? Should I work? Should I sell drugs?’ ”

Washington was raised here by a single mother. His father died of liver problems when he was 12. He graduated on time, a mediocre student in and out of modest trouble. His childhood temper is hard to conjure from his kind manner.

Washington had a son when he was 17, and he has worked nearly every day since. He worked at Au Bon Pain, then MCI, and for many years since, at a publishing company in sales and business development. When the Johns Hopkins researchers last interviewed him, he only had a high school degree. But in 2013, he finished a bachelor’s in business, earned at night at Strayer University. He owns his own home and, notably as he drives through his old neighborhood, a Lexus.


Dante Washington is seen in the backyard of his home. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

He wants to become a financial adviser, so that he can talk with people in communities such as this one about the things no one discusses here: retirement, equity, savings.

Looking back at the forces that nudged him on this path, a few seem significant. His mother was always employed, in an administrative job with the school district. Leaving school was never an option. He was put in a series of high school programs for students interested in business, including one where he spent his summers — that crucial time — on the campus of Morgan State University.

Houser grew up in a parallel low-income but white neighborhood. His parents were married, his father a sprinkler fitter. Neither had more than a high school degree, but they were persistent about schoolwork. “It’s funny,” he says, “because you think about this later on in life — that’s the deciding factor.”

Among about 30 friends in his childhood circle, he is the only one who went to college. He has a bachelor’s of fine arts from Frostburg State University and a longtime job as a graphic designer. He laughs now at the early photography he tried in high school, artsy photos of drug needles from the neighborhood.

It’s harder to pinpoint what directed their lives of other outliers away from the broad findings of the Beginning School Study. Jaundoo, who was expelled from a series of schools for fighting, had her first child at 20, not 17. Those few years can make a vast difference between finishing high school and not, between earning work experience and having none.

Today, she has a certification to run sleep studies in a medical lab, and she raises her two children in Baltimore County outside of “the city.” She describes herself as a girl who dreamed of having the money to take a cab everywhere. “I never mentioned having my own car,” she says. “My expectations were just so low.”

Ed Klein’s path is perhaps less instructive. He grew up in a poor white neighborhood and was selling drugs with his mother by age 12. After dropping out of high school and spending five years in prison, he picked up the other work he had done as a kid, tinkering on game consoles and computers.

“I don’t like saying this, but it was like I substituted the dope dealing for computers,” he says now, “because it was the only thing in my position — no high school diploma, no work experience — that would give me pretty much the same income as a dope dealer.”

Today he has a computer repair shop and a business handling IT for local companies. He earned his high school degree and eventually a college one, too. Each of these lives suggests an alternative to the long shadow, along lines that another generation of sociologists will understand even better.

“It’s real. It happens,” DeLuca says. “That’s not random.”

A study in intervention

By this summer, all of the names and identifying details had been painstakingly redacted from the hundreds of files in the Beginning School Study offices. Each child had one, containing the handwritten interview forms and school notes going back to the first grade.

In July, these paper records were boxed up too, shipped to a library at Harvard, where they will be scanned for future researchers, the physical copies shredded. With the identities of the children gone, no one will be able to reopen the study, to interview Jaundoo and Washington again at 45 or 60 (the subjects quoted here agreed to speak by name through the university). But other researchers will no doubt think to pose different questions of the data collected from their lives.

“There’s a sense in which this could have gone on forever,” Alexander says. “Except it couldn’t. We were wearing down.”

As he retires, Alexander feels that they followed the children long enough to learn something meaningful about their lives as independent adults. Occasionally, people ask him whether the study itself became an intervention. Did the presence of these curious researchers alter the course of any child’s life?

Alexander suspects that the forces they documented — the family backgrounds, the problem behaviors and the economic prospects — were much more powerful than any annual conversation.

“If it were that easy to reroute peoples’ life paths,” he says, “we should be doing it all the time for everyone.”

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02 Sep 11:31

Letting Students Hit The Snooze Button

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

A new report indicates that science agrees with teenagers everywhere – school should start later:

Seeing the mounting evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics [last week] released a new policy statement recommending that middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30 a.m. or later. Doing so will align school schedules to the biological sleep rhythms of adolescents, whose sleep-wake cycles begin to shift up to two hours later at the start of puberty, the policy statement says. The conclusions are backed by a technical report [pdf] the academy also released yesterday, “Insufficient Sleep in Adolescents and Young Adults: An Update on Causes and Consequences,” which is published in the September 2014 issue of Pediatrics.

The “research is clear that adolescents who get enough sleep have a reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in automobile accidents, and have better grades, higher standardized test scores and an overall better quality of life,” said pediatrician Judith Owens, lead author of the policy statement, titled “School Start Times for Adolescents.”

The debate over whether to start school later has run for years, but a host of new studies have basically put it to rest. For one thing, biological research shows clearly that circadian rhythms shift during the teen years. Boys and girls naturally stay up later and sleep in later. The trend begins around age 13 or 14 and peaks between 17 and 19. The teens also need more sleep in general, so forcing them to be up early for school cuts into their sleep time as well as their sleep rhythm, making them less ready to learn during those first-period classes.

01 Sep 08:54

Selling Your Soul

by DOGHOUSE DIARIES
31 Aug 22:10

Notes on bookmarks from 1997

Notes on bookmarks from 1997

On August 30, 2014, I imported 264 bookmarks into Pinboard. The source was a file named "bookmark.htm" with a last modified date of October 12, 1997.

  • 264 bookmarks according to Pinboard's import status
  • 260 bookmarks according to Pinboard's count of tags

These bookmarks date between January 1995 and October 1997.

  • 2 were from January 1995
  • 14 were from September-December 1996
  • The rest were from 1997

Upon import, Pinboard reported 163 (63%) of the URLs as being unavailable, with 403 Forbidden, 404 Not Found, 410 Gone, or 500 Server Error. Less than 2/3 link rot over ~17 years doesn't sound so bad.

However, despite reporting 200 on the rest, many URLs weren't the original content. As one example, "serve.com" was a web host named DataRealm, and is now an American Express prepaid card. As another, a VRML tutorial is now a video about birth control. Some of these 200s are only so because of repeated 3xx redirections to ultimately unrelated content, or because of domain name hoarders serving ads.

  • 12 bookmarks were for FTP sites, all of which Pinboard reported as 500 Server Error. These were not tested with an FTP client.
  • 22 bookmarks were for local resources, all of which Pinboard reported as 404 Not Found.
  • 226 bookmarks were left for testing

Of the 226:

  • 1 was 410 Gone
  • 2 were 403 Forbidden
  • 49 were 500 Server Error
  • 76 were 404 Not Found

That's 57%, which sounds even better than the original figure. But then I looked at those ninety-eight 200 OK URLs, too.

  • 77 reported 200 OK, but were parked domains, advertising landing pages, or otherwise completely different content. This is link rot, too, just harder for an automated system to detect. I marked these as 210 OK But Gone.

That's 205 failures, an actual link rot figure of 91%, not 57%.

That leaves only 21 URLs as 200 OK and containing effectively the same content.

In an attempt to confirm and/or recover as much of the original content as possible, I checked the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine for every URL.

  • 1 of the two 403 Forbidden URLs had an old enough copy in the Wayback Machine.
  • 23, or 47%, of the forty-nine 500 Server Error URLs had copies.
  • 45, or 59%, of the seventy-six 404 Not Found URLs had copies.
  • 35, or 45%, of the seventy-seven 210 OK But Gone URLs had copies.

That's 104 failures beaten back by the Internet Archive at some level of fidelity, reducing effective link rot over ~17 years to 45%.

In addition, 9 of the twenty-one 200 OK URLs had old enough copies in the Wayback Machine, which I selected simply to provide a more accurate representation of the content.

There are a couple things you can do to help combat link rot for your own bookmarks moving forward.

First, donate to the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/donate/

Second, if you use a bookmark storage service like Pinboard or others, ask them to support adding submitted URLs to the Wayback Machine. Their bookmarklets or plugins could also submit to the Wayback Machine's "Save Page Now" endpoint. Or that could be done by the service on the back-end. For services that provide full page archives, they could capture a full WARC (network headers plus content), so every successfully cached page could be donated to the Internet Archive and integrated into the Wayback Machine. Or all of the above.

Every URL saved in more than one place increases the likelihood that their content will survive as domains change owners.

I've a lot more bookmarks to import, and doing this processing by hand is tedious.

Any 4xx or 5xx URL could be checked against the Wayback Machine, with the option to link to that instead.

It also seems like some heuristics could be developed to flag URLs as likely being 210 OK But Gone. Parked domains have common content on every URL. Advertising landers have a common format. The Wayback Machine could be checked, and content could be extracted from both and compared. URLs aren't supposed to change, and they're supposed to point to a persistent resource, but companies and domain squatters aren't playing nice. If we want our bookmarks to represent the content we saved as it was when we saved it, we have to be proactive about grooming them.

Vitorio

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01 Sep 07:01

Turtles

by Doug

Turtles

A happy belated birthday to Caitlin! Hope you had a great bday yesterday! :)

Here is another heroic turtle.

30 Aug 22:19

The abject failure of weak typing

More discussion on Hacker News, and the Clojure, Haskell, Rust and Programming subs on Reddit.

Over the last few years of maintaining code old and new at REA, it has become abundantly clear that the neglect and misuse of type-systems has had a sharply negative impact on our codebases. Here we address the concrete causes and consequences, and propose concrete and achievable solutions.

Types at REA

REA’s codebases vary between statically typed languages such as Java and Scala on one hand, and “dynamic” languages such as Ruby, Javascript, and Perl on the other. I’ll mostly leave the dynamic ones alone — while the same arguments obviously apply, they are what they are. However, if we are paying for the conceptual overhead of a static type system, we need to be sure we are using it effectively; otherwise we are simply writing the same old Ruby play-dough but with long build-times and cumbersome syntax. Used properly, the tradeoff of static types is overwhelmingly beneficial.

What’s in a type?

A type is some logical proposition about a codebase, where an implementation is its proof. They are distinct from runtime tags, which are what people mostly mean when they talk about dynamic “types”. Terminology can vary, but I’ll stick to this usage. For example:

  • Haskell has a spectacularly rich static type system, with no runtime-accessible metadata, apart from pattern matching on tagged unions.
  • Dynamic languages such as Ruby are not really untyped, but rather unityped; statically, we know that everything inhabits a single message-receiving type. At runtime, of course, they employ tags to differentiate numbers from strings, arrays, maps, and user-defined structures.
  • Java has both a type system applied by its compiler, and a tag system at runtime that allows reflection, casting, RTTI, and various dynamic features. Neither is a compelling specimen.

Types as design

Even if the language we use doesn’t have a notion of types, you’d better believe they exist — how can we even write code without statically reasoning about it first? A maintainer must construct a model in their heads: what keys do we assume are in this map? Might this thing be null? What are the allowed values of this symbol? Can this string be empty? What messages will this object respond to?

Many dynamic-typing advocates have a curiously limited view of what a “type” is – in fact, almost any proposition we can statically make about the code can be represented as a type. Language choice notwithstanding, there is an enormous amount of information that fits into this category; by proving it up-front we can drastically reduce the number of incorrect programs that are even expressible. As the saying goes, don’t write software that isn’t broken; write software that can’t be broken.

Types are a powerful tool for clarifying thoughts, and designing correct software, arguably far more so than popular test-driven methodologies.

Types done wrong

Essentially anything that can be cleanly and obviously known about the code up-front belongs in a type. The most egregious failures here often stem from using the most common everyday concepts — strings, exceptions, primitives, maps, nulls, typecasts and so forth. Many readers of this post will, like its author, find something to feel guilty about here. Let’s take a tour:

Nulls

The harm represented by nulls is hopefully widely understood by now, but bears repeating.

Any value that we know could be null cannot be directly accessed by correct software; we must either surround usages in an if-guard, or employ some kind of harmless Null Object that can hopefully respond in a sensible way. It is a bald-faced lie told by the type-system in Java, C# and Scala, and to the developer’s mental model in Ruby. If a variable claims to be a Banana, surely you can feel justified in peel()-ing it? If it is null, then it is no banana at all, but a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, potentially at an unrelated line of code far away. Well-written code cannot tolerate even the possibility.

The proliferation of duplicated defensive code at numerous locations is a further burden, which bloats both code and tests, while reducing quality.

Solution:

  • Never permit nulls in code you control, and firmly regulate the contact points of systems and frameworks you don’t.
  • If a type has a sensible “empty” or default value that can fulfil the contract of your type, then initialise variables to this, or employ a Null Object.
  • Avoid mutable entities that need to be initialised piecemeal after creation. Write immutable objects that are immediately and fully initialised from constructor input.
  • If a particular variable might or might not be present, then this should be encoded in the type system using an option type, like Scala’s Option, Function Java’s Option, Java 8′s Optional, or Haskell’s Maybe. This correctly represents the uncertainty in the type system, so that any access is safe, simply by the fact that it compiled.

Exceptions

Exceptions are the primary error-handling mechanism employed by many widely-used languages. They are also a side-effect that makes a liar of the type system, and makes local reasoning about code far more difficult. They represent an undeclared method result smuggled through a back-channel separate from its declared return type. Furthermore, they transitively become an undeclared result of anything that calls that method, and anything that calls that, and so on. Trying to reason about the correct behaviour of code becomes very difficult, since the return type can no longer give you enough information. Exceptions kill modularity and inhibit composition.

Java awkwardly attempts to mitigate this with checked exceptions; they become a fully-fledged, type-checked part of a method signature. While this is better from a type-safety point of view, they still use an exotic second channel for returning results totally incompatible with the first, require an insufferable amount of handling code, and have far poorer tools for abstraction and reuse. Checked exceptions are widely despised by Java programmers, and frequently ignored by library authors.

Solution:

  • Don’t throw exceptions in code you control, except in the most irretrievably broken circumstances.
  • When dealing with code you don’t control, catch their exceptions as soon as possible and lift the various results into your return type.  In Scala, the easiest way to do this is the Try type, which directly lifts the result into an ADT of Success(yourValue) or Failure(thrownException).
  • Exclusively encode possible function results in the return type. Don’t throw that AuthenticationException for a totally plausible and normal outcome! Here’s some alternatives:
    • When there is a main result alongside a possible failure result, use an existing Either or Validation type.
    • Define your own Algebraic Data Type (ADT) that describes the possible alternatives. For instance, in Scala or Java, this can take the form of a closed mini-class hierarchy.

Primitives

Primitive values such as integers and strings are often the first tools we reach for, but are woefully unsuited to most use-cases they are press-ganged into. This is because they have an astronomical number of possible values, and most use-cases do not.

Integers

Consider this function:

def blah(b: Boolean): Boolean

A function A -> B has BA possible implementations, by the number of inhabitants in A and B. So this function has 22 = 4 possible implementations. Perhaps we could write a test case for each one.

Now consider this function:

def compare(a: Int, b: Int): Int

This one has not only 232 possible results, but an incalculable (232)264 possible implementations. Even if we are generous and only allow the inputs to be 0 or 1, we still have 2128 implementations. If the only meaningful return values are -1, 0 and 1, indicating “less than”, “equal” or “greater than”, then why would we embed them like specks of dust in a big desert of undefined behaviour?

If we encode the return value as an ADT representing the 3 possible results, as Haskell does, then we have a positively civilised 34 = 81 possible mappings from input to output. Even in such a simple case, a more precise return type pruned 340 undecillion incorrect programs from the sphere of existence.

Remember, that was an utterly trivial example. So what happens when you have complex/composite/nested data structures, exceptions and even side-effects? How many of the possibilities are even remotely meaningful in your domain? Without precise types, how many were you hoping to reach with your TDD and “100% code coverage”?

Strings

String are perhaps the most commonly used data type, due to their immense versatility; however, they are rarely appropriate. Strings consist of a sequence of characters. This is the perfect representation for unstructured free text, and nothing else. Any restriction, structure or constraint in the format of the string means you don’t have a string at all; you have a URL, a Date, a Name, an Email, a Document, an ID, a Warning, or whatever else that might tempt you to deploy this amazing swiss-army-type.

Not only does “stringly typed” code result in a catastrophic expansion in the number of expressible incorrect programs, it inevitably results in duplication, as the validation, destructuring and restructuring code is repeated in every spot where the string format is supposed to be in use.

Solution:

  • If there are a finite number of possibilities, use an ADT to represent them. This internally prevents a vast number of incorrect implementations, and externally prevents a vast number of incorrect usages.
  • Use a wrapper type to encapsulate the desired structure; make it impossible to create invalid instances. This will also cull incalculable absurdities inside and outside of the function. This costs one line of code in Scala.
  • Wrapper types can sometimes normalise errant input in their constructors, seamlessly eliminating redundant or invalid states.
  • As a last resort, throw exceptions inside constructors to prevent any remaining possibility of an invalid instance.

Records vs Domain modelling

A couple of years ago, we were keen to avoid over-specific domain modelling, and took care to build our services as dealing in the domain of “records” or “attribute-maps”, rather than specifically tie our logic to Listings, Agents, Dogs, Cats, Aeroplanes or what-have-you. This was to prevent the loss of generality, and to keep the application focused on web and infrastructural concerns. So following the famous Alan Perlis line “It is better to have 100 functions operate on one data structure than 10 functions on 10 data structures”, we decided on a unityped representation of domain data.

In an absolute sense, I can’t say whether this is a good idea or not. It’s potentially a totally valid point of view — perhaps the detail and structure of the record data is of no relevance to the code that provisions, streams, encodes, stores, secures and displays it — as long as it stays that way. In practice, however, it has left our codebase with serious flaws.

Firstly, the approach of using unityped records is totally predicated on the application not needing to know anything about their structure, beyond the obvious tree-shape. When the application suddenly needs to, say, differentiate “floorplan” from “main” images, or know if a “logo” was included, then the concept is doomed. This knowledge, completely understood at compile time, must be expressed in clumsy string-based map retrieval, faith-based typecasting and a total absence of any way to reason about the correctness, or even the intended behaviour of the code.

Either business logic has to be strictly forbidden from this unityped pipeline, or we need the types of of the data to truly reflect the knowledge we have, and need, at compile time.

Secondly, even if the unityped record approach was correctly chosen, using, as we did, Map<String, Object> was a clear blunder. The verbosity and repetition are appalling; every single access, construction, iteration, de-reference has to be laboriously performed by hand at myriad locations around the codebase. Even if all we need to know is “it’s a map with certain behaviours and constraints”, then we should have encoded that in the types, and created some sort of Record class. In this case, it was also compounded by the use of Java (pre-8), which has extremely poor facilities for abstracting over collections and maps.

Solution:

  • The static knowledge we have, or require about our domain objects should be captured in types.  If there is a clear case that we don’t need to differentiate between this-or-that domain object, then that should be captured in the types.
  • Quickly translate interchange formats into data structures that reflect the knowledge we require, and can only hold meaningful and valid states. There are mapping tools in Java and Scala that can safely map between JSON and typed objects.

Names are overrated

Let’s look at a function:

def findAddress(userId: String): String

What does it do? Are you sure?

Now lets look at another:

def blah(foo: UserId): Address

Which one tells you more about its purpose — the one with the businessy names, or the one with the types?

Naming has role to play, but consider what it really does. It is a mnemonic, a reference that helps you uniquely recall a concept. While this is fine as far as it goes, names are totally useless for reasoning about software. For documentation, they are as poor as comments, or Word docs. Implementing a precise type signature proves that the software does what it says on the tin. If the types in question have been carefully designed to prevent invalid states, then often there will be only be a handful of possible implementations, or even one — not a number you’ve never heard before, ending in -illion.

Solution:

  • Treat your types as the only real documentation.
  • Constrain argument and return types to a named alternative, that limits possible states. This is all maintainers should need to know about your functions.
  • Wrapper types start from one line of code in Scala.

The way forward

While I’ve listed a variety of different problems, you’ll notice a lot of repetition in the proposed solutions. In fact, we can solve these problems very simply, using only a few techniques — especially if we continue our adoption of Scala in place of Java and weakly-typed languages.

Algebraic Data Types (ADTs)

ADTs are a powerful tool for us here, because they allow us to encode limited possibilities in the type system, so that invalid combinations are inexpressible in a well-typed program.

They are called “algebraic” because they are sums and products of other types. (Sums are like OR, and products are like AND).

For instance, a List in Scala is defined as an ADT — it is a Cons of a value AND another List, OR an empty List. In Haskell, this could be written simply as:

data List a = Cons a (List a) | Empty

In Scala, at the cost of some more characters, we could encode this as a mini-class hierarchy:

sealed trait List[+A]
case class Cons[A](a: A, rest: List[A]) extends List[A]
case object Empty extends List[Nothing]

This is almost a straightforward Java-style class hierarchy, but notice the sealed keyword: unlike normal OO classes, List cannot be extended, except by the classes below it. Without this feature, the number of possible outcomes would still be totally unbounded. In Java, we can still benefit from using this style, but the code required to manually write accessors, constructors, threading through arguments, correct hashcode/equals implementations and unit tests is significant, and error prone.

OO lore has it that pattern matching is evil, and that subtype-polymorphism is the answer to all questions. This is false; there are complementary pros and cons to subtype polymorphism and pattern matching. Since there are only a few fixed cases, it is perfectly idiomatic and sensible to pattern match on ADTs; the Scala compiler will even complain if we haven’t matched every possible eventuality.

myList match {
  case Cons(a, rest) => println(s"the head is $a, the rest is $rest")
  case Empty => println("Nothing to see here")
}

ADTs are a handy weapon in our war against buggy code!

Wrapper types

Wrapper types are one of the best ways to avoid the buggy swamplands of code written with bare strings and primitives. In Scala, this starts at almost no effort:

case class Angle(radians: Double) extends AnyVal

“Case classes” in Scala are (mostly) like any other class, except that the compiler will generate useful functionality. Scala will automatically bind the constructor parameter to an immutable field exposed through accessor methods, generate correct equals and hashCode, a default toString, and a pattern matching extractor. Hugely useful.

Value Classes: eliminating runtime overhead

Explicitly saying extends AnyVal makes our class a Value Class. This class won’t even exist at runtime — it provides type safety in the compiler, then vanishes!

Normalising and validating input

We can get all the benefits of classes here – we can define our own operations, and normalise or validate the constructor input. Here are some examples of this technique applied to Angles and Percentages.  Note they are correct-by-construction; any instance of this type is guaranteed to represent a valid and normalised value.

We should make far wider use of wrapper classes:

case class Email(email: String)
case class Password(password: String)
case class SecurityToken(token: String)
case class ConsumerId(id: String)
case class AgentId(id: String)
case class Price(cents: BigInt)

Types are low hanging fruit

While there are no silver bullets, there’s an awful lot of low-hanging fruit just lying around. Let’s pluck it! We can make major improvements in our software quality, even with minor adjustments to our coding style. Code can be easier to reason about, with vastly less ways to fail, at a very low cost.

Types, kindly bestowed upon us by some languages, are a magnificent tool to improve quality. They prove desirable properties of our code; we should make it our business to put as much code in their reach as we can! There will always be a point where types have no more to say, and must pass the quality baton to tests. Consider though, how much less work tests must do, and how much less code they must expend, when entire universes of nonsense have been prohibited from existence.

In particular, by eschewing exceptions, using Algebraic Data Types to model the precise shape of our data, and wrapper types to constrain crude Strings and primitives, we can make immediate gains before we even get to more advanced abstractions like typeclasses and higher-kinded types.

In Java, much of this has been known for a long time, but the language’s lack of support for value-based classes, ADTs and pattern-matching has meant that good practices are often discarded as prohibitively cumbersome or expensive. Regrettably, despite the welcome addition of lambdas, Java 8 provides little respite.

In languages like Haskell and Scala, these methods are so cheap as to be no-brainers; in new projects you have no excuse for passing up these delights!

Either way, I hope that I’ve convinced you of the good news — there are plentiful green fields of easy code-improvement ahead, before we even get close to tough tradeoffs.

Bookmarked at brandizzi Delicious' sharing tag and expanded by Delicious sharing tag expander.
29 Aug 16:00

fer1972: Illustrations by Lange

27 Aug 20:23

Socialismo ou O que posso esperar?

by Manoel Galdino
Adam Victor Brandizzi

Eu assinaria embaixo de uma versão liberal disso.

Eu participei, no começo da semana, de uma série de inquisições no twitter sobre porque ainda falar em socialismo. A premissa dos meus inquisidores era algo como: “Socialismo a essa hora, zero dois?”.

E ontem, em conversa com amigos, retomávamos a questão do que podemos esperar em termos de transformação do capitalismo.

Eu pensei em fazer uma espécie de FAQ para explicar o que penso sobre esses assuntos. Mas lembrei de um texto do Cosma Shalizi e que, creio, pode explicar como vejo essas questões, se colocado no contexto apropriado. Vamos então ao contexto.

O Francis Spufford publicou um dos melhores livros de ficção que li nos últimos anos, chamado Red Plenty. Eu já falei sobre o livo aqui no blog, E o The Crooked Timber fez um seminário sobre o livro lá no blog deles. O Cosma Shalizi participou do seminário com um texto. E a certa altura, o Cosma diz:

There is a passage in Red Plenty which is central to describing both the nightmare from which we are trying to awake, and vision we are trying to awake into. Henry has quoted it already, but it bears repeating.

Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. … And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

There is a fundamental level at which Marx’s nightmare vision is right: capitalism, the market system, whatever you want to call it, is a product of humanity, but each and every one of us confronts it as an autonomous and deeply alien force. Its ends, to the limited and debatable extent that it can even be understood as having them, are simply inhuman. The ideology of the market tell us that we face not something inhuman but superhuman, tells us to embrace our inner zombie cyborg and loose ourselves in the dance. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or running screaming.

But, and this is I think something Marx did not sufficiently appreciate, human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths. Sometimes this will mean more use of market mechanisms, sometimes it will mean removing some goods and services from market allocation, either through public provision or through other institutional arrangements. Sometimes it will mean expanding the scope of democratic decision-making (for instance, into the insides of firms), and sometimes it will mean narrowing its scope (for instance, not allowing the demos to censor speech it finds objectionable). Sometimes it will mean leaving some tasks to experts, deferring to the internal norms of their professions, and sometimes it will mean recognizing claims of expertise to be mere assertions of authority, to be resisted or countered.

These are all going to be complex problems, full of messy compromises. Attaining even second best solutions is going to demand “bold, persistent experimentation”, coupled with a frank recognition that many experiments will just fail, and that even long-settled compromises can, with the passage of time, become confining obstacles. We will not be able to turn everything over to the wise academicians, or even to their computers, but we may, if we are lucky and smart, be able, bit by bit, make a world fit for human beings to live in.

O Cosma está, em primeiro lugar, retomando a crítica de Marx segundo a qual a lógica do sistema capitalista é subsumir tudo à valorização do lucro. Que muitos tenham entendido essa lógica como algo determinista diz mais sobre quem leu Marx do que sobre o próprio Marx. Afinal, a lógica aí não passa de uma tendência, de uma das principais forças do sistema, mas obviamente não é a única. Mas divago. O ponto é que a tendência é real. Os melhores apologistas do sistema, como Hayek, reconheceram que o sistema é alienante. O que ele e outros argumentam é que não é possível fugir da alienação e o capitalismo é o melhor que podemos esperar.

O que as pessoas de esquerda, especialmente da tradição socialista, defendem é que não precisamos aceitar o argumento conservador do Hayek. Mas, e aqui concordo com o Cosma, é preciso reconhecer que

human beings confront all the structures which emerge from our massed interactions in this way. A bureaucracy, or even a thoroughly democratic polity of which one is a citizen, can feel, can be, just as much of a cold monster as the market. We have no choice but to live among these alien powers which we create, and to try to direct them to human ends. It is beyond us, it is even beyond all of us, to find “a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all”, which says how everyone should go. What we can do is try to find the specific ways in which these powers we have conjured up are hurting us, and use them to check each other, or deflect them into better paths

Em outras palavras, buscar o socialismo, hoje, não pode e não deve significar construir (ou achar?) uma sociedade gloriosa em que viveremos num mundo transparente e não-alienado. Mas significa tentar, com cuidado, experimentações para reduzir a alienação e também conduzir as estruturas emergentes como algo que satisfaçam fins humanos. Significa jamais aceitar o capitalismo como uma fatalidade.

É preciso portanto ao mesmo tempo ter mais humildade e ousadia nas tentativas de luta contra o capitalismo. Humildade para aceitar que o mercado e mesmo a lógica do lucro são a forma menos pior de funcionamento em certos arranjos sociais. A ousadia para rejeitar em outros arranjos esse mesmo mercado e a lógica do lucro.

Para finalizar. Quando eu digo que o socialismo é sobre liberdade, o sentido preciso é justamente aquele de libertar nós humanos, o máximo possível, dos arranjos sociais que nos aprisionam. Que a nossa liberdade será sempre limitada é a conclusão lógica de quem aceita o diagnóstico acima sobre as estruturas emergentes.


Arquivado em:internet, Manoel Galdino, Política e Economia Tagged: capitalismo, Cosma Shalizi, esquerda, internet, Marx, Red Plenty, socialismo, Twitter
28 Aug 18:00

Conversations That Servers in Portugal Might Have Had After Dealing With Me and My Mother

by Leila Sales

13972092214685_big-night
OUR WAITRESS: Thanks for meeting me for a drink, babe. Wow, do I need it after the crazy time I had at the restaurant tonight.

OUR WAITRESS’S BOYFRIEND: What happened?

WAITRESS: These two American women came in to be seated. Mother and daughter, they looked like. I tried to seat them in the nice part of the restaurant, but a guy was smoking a cigarette at the table next to them, so they flat-out refused.

BOYFRIEND: That’s dumb. It’s not like they were going to get lung cancer over the course of dinner.

WAITRESS: I know! But I didn’t want to say anything because I was hoping they’d tip me if I was polite. You know how Americans love to tip. Anyway, I finally get them seated, and then the daughter has a million questions about every item on the menu. Like, what kind of vegetables are in the vegetable soup? Is the chicken dark meat or light meat? Is the rice brown or white?

BOYFRIEND: Why does she need to know any of that?

WAITRESS: I have no earthly idea. After I answer all her questions, she proceeds to order the one menu item that she didn’t ask anything about. Her mom orders the California rolls, only—get this—without the shrimp.

BOYFRIEND: That is crazy! The shrimp is the best part.

WAITRESS: Totally. So I bring over the daughter’s order, which she immediately tries to send back, claiming it’s not what she ordered.

BOYFRIEND: Was it what she ordered?

WAITRESS: Of course. And I bring the mother’s shrimp-free California rolls. When I come back, she has systematically picked out all the raw salmon from them.

BOYFRIEND: No shrimp or raw salmon? What the heck was left in the California rolls?

WAITRESS: Rice. And mango. I would almost think they don’t have California rolls in America, but of course that is silly, because California is in America.

BOYFRIEND: Was that the end of it, at least?

WAITRESS: Yes. Oh, except for one other thing: they kept pouring out their water glasses into these plastic bottles that they were carrying in their bags.

BOYFRIEND: Wait. What?

WAITRESS: Like, multiple times. When they thought I wasn’t looking, they actually grabbed the big water bottle from my station and emptied it into their bottles. I was totally looking, though.

BOYFRIEND: You can’t be serious.

WAITRESS: Oh, and then they tipped me three euros.

HUSBAND: That wouldn’t even cover the cost of the stolen water!

WAITRESS: I know. Ugh. Let’s do another round of shots.

***

OUR WAITER: What do you know about Americans?

OUR WAITER’S WIFE: They often seem to wear gym shoes, even when they are not going to the gym. Why?

WAITER: I had a baffling experience with those two American women who just left the restaurant. They ordered the bacalhau.

WIFE: Ah, yes. Bacahlau, the traditional Portuguese salted codfish that our people have been cooking for generations, since the days of Vasco de Gama. The fish which I myself have been making for our customers for nearly my entire life, using the recipe passed down to me by my mother, God rest her soul.

WAITER: Yes, that bacahlau. The Americans ordered it all confident-like, like some seafood experts. But after I brought it over to her, they tried to send it back!

WIFE: My codfish?

WAITER: They said they couldn’t swallow it! The younger woman pointed to all these masticated white chunks that she’d hidden under the rim of her plate, like as “proof” that the fish was unchewable.

WIFE: My codfish?!

WAITER: Don’t worry, honey. I ate a bite of it myself, in front of her, to prove that it was edible.

WIFE: You are truly a supportive husband.

WAITER: And then I brought out all the frozen cod from our fridge so she could understand our process.

WIFE: I bet that showed her.

WAITER: It should have. But even then she didn’t eat another bite of the bacalhau, no matter how long I stood over her, chanting, “Eat, eat.”

WIFE: Do you think she will write a bad TripAdvisor review of our restaurant? I live in fear of that.

WAITER: I don’t think so. She seemed to really like our bottled water, so I’m sure that made up for her lack of chewing skills.

***

OUR WAITRESS: Seeing that homeless man outside the train station just now reminds me of these two American ladies who ordered the chocolate bread at the café today.

OUR WAITRESS’S GIRLFRIEND: The chocolate bread is AMAZING!

WAITRESS: I know, but somehow they couldn’t finish it, even though there were two of them. They only had a little bit left, but they spent ten minutes trying to figure out how to take it away with them. The younger one went through like fifteen paper napkins, trying to wrap it up. The older one tried shoving it inside an umbrella bag.

GIRLFRIEND: Whoa.

WAITRESS: Eventually I offered them a paper bag. They were super-grateful. It was weird, because the whole piece of chocolate bread only costs seventy-five cents. It’s like they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

GIRLFRIEND: That is so sad.

***

OUR WAITER: What do you think of those roasted red peppers I make?

OUR WAITER’S BOYFRIEND: I don’t know, they’re pretty good. Nothing like your bacalhau, of course, but yeah. Why?

WAITER: At the restaurant these two American chicks were almost crying over how good my roasted red peppers were. It was as if they had won the lottery. “These are the first vegetables we have had in a week,” they said to me. (In English, of course.) “We had nearly forgotten what vegetables taste like. You have saved us.”

BOYFRIEND: Oh, come on. They did not say all that. You are such an exaggerator.

WAITER: They did!

BOYFRIEND: Bullshit.

***

OUR WAITRESS’S HUSBAND: Hey, hon, how was work today?

WAITRESS: Seriously fucked-up. The women staying in Room 242 kept going back to the breakfast buffet.

HUSBAND: So? It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet; everyone goes back multiple times.

WAITRESS: But they weren’t going back for more of those mini-sausages, like everyone else does. They kept going up and refilling their glasses with water. Then they’d return to their table, empty their glasses into bottles from their purses, and then they’d go back up to refill their glasses again.

HUSBAND: What?

WAITRESS: They did this four times in a row.

HUSBAND: I suddenly don’t understand how their nation holds such a strong geopolitical position. They’re on the U.N. Security Council and everything.

WAITRESS: It’s all so hard to wrap my head around. I feel like I have watched a great deal of American TV in my life, but somehow two hundred episodes of Friends did nothing to prepare me for the encounter I had today.

HUSBAND: I hope they made it back to their home country without dying of dehydration.

WAITRESS: I guess we will never know.

Read more Conversations That Servers in Portugal Might Have Had After Dealing With Me and My Mother at The Toast.

29 Aug 04:00

August 29, 2014


POW
30 Aug 05:00

Comic for August 30, 2014

30 Aug 06:47

Small Business

by Greg Ross

To help interest young students in chemistry, James Tour of Rice University devised “NanoPutians,” organic molecules that take the form of stick figures. The body is a series of carbon atoms that join two benzene rings; the arms and legs are acetylene units, each terminating in an alkyl group; and the head is a 1,3-dioxolane ring.

This gets even better — by using microwave irradiation, Tour found a way to vary the heads, creating a range of NanoProfessionals:

The synthesis is detailed on the Wikipedia page.

30 Aug 18:01

Here Today, Gone Forever?

by Sue Halpern
by Sue Halpern

dish_bitcoins2

Buried – sorry – in Biz Carson’s fascinating obituary of Hal Finney, who died this week from ALS, is a small aside with large implications. Finney, who was 58, was the first owner of bitcoins besides developer Satoshi Nakamoto (not his real name). This was in 2008, in a somewhat serendipitous turn of events, which Finney chronicled last year, typing via an eye tracker.

When Satoshi announced the first release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test. I carried on an email conversation with Satoshi over the next few days, mostly me reporting bugs and him fixing them. After a few days, bitcoin was running pretty stably, so I left it running… I mined several blocks over the next days. But I turned it off because it made my computer run hot, and the fan noise bothered me.

So the question is, now that he has died, what happens to Finney’s virtual currency?

It’s the same question any one of us can ask, looking ahead, about our virtual “possessions,” whether they are documents stored on Dropbox, or passwords to our email accounts, or game characters.

Finney, who has been cryogenically preserved, was clearly a forward-looking guy. Before he died, he secured his bitcoins in a safe deposit box. But will it be enough to ensure that his son and daughter inherit them? And what about our stuff, stored “up there,” somewhere, “in the cloud,” where there is no safe deposit box?

Last month, in an unprecedented move, Delaware became the first state to enact a digital inheritance law. The Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act is meant to give authorized individuals brief, “peek and copy” access to third-party accounts. Apparently, the tech companies are not pleased and have formed the “State Privacy and Security Coalition” to fight it. They will be even less pleased when some version of the law is adopted in other states, as it is expected to be:

Jim Halpert of DLA Piper, a law firm that represents the coalition, told the Wall Street Journal that the group opposes the laws because accounts may contain information the deceased do not want to disclose, and because they may “conflict with a 1986 federal law forbidding consumer electronic-communications companies from disclosing digital content without its owner’s consent.”

But Jeff John Roberts thinks this is weak:

Neither of these explanations are particularly convincing, however. Despite the companies’ profession of privacy concerns for their late users, the reality is that people have been dying — and leaving behind artifacts for relatives and others to find — for a very long time. The digital dimensions of our personal lives don’t change that.

[Note to self: do not leave will on iCloud.]

(Photo of bitcoins by Steve Garfield)

30 Aug 16:00

thefrogman: [video]

29 Aug 20:00

fer1972: Illustrations by Adam Oehlers











fer1972:

Illustrations by Adam Oehlers

08 Aug 17:02

Tracking Down the Most Ambitious Operation in CIA History

“We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.”—@CIA, entering the Twitterverse on June 6, 2014

I tiptoe onto the old woman’s lawn, just like every other morning, and switch the two newspapers: her copy of the Washington Post for mine. We have a routine down by now, me and her, and I know within a few seconds there’ll be a signal (or not) telling me whether the mission was a success.

Some agents go for an upside-down flag in a window, others for a chalk mark on a bench—tradecraft, we call it—but I’m dealing with a particularly old-school spook. For a few seconds, nothing. Then in a flash, almost imperceptible to someone not in our line of work, it appears. The curtains sway ever so slightly. She has seen.

Failure. Every day a failure! Let me tell you something—when your six-month-old puppy rips up the newspaper of your elderly neighbor, and I mean rips it to smithereens, and you’re trying to do the right thing by replacing that shredded copy with an intact one of your own, take it from me: Make sure the house isn’t owned by retired spies. ’Cause they don’t miss a thing.

Welcome to my neighborhood. My street is a five-minute drive to the main gate of the CIA. For 16 years, I’ve craned my neck driving by that entrance, each time hoping to see something other than a disappearing road. All of us knew that both Mr. and Mrs. Carlson spent their lives working for the Agency. Around here, it’s more of a question of who isn’t retired CIA. I mean, I’m not—but I do love a good story.

Rod and Pat Carlson had stories by the boatload but never told them. They moved onto the block in 1967 and rarely chitchatted with us newcomers. Rod had a gaunt, Amish look about him—I always expected to see him swinging an ax. Pat was a wisp, so frail that I worried she’d get blown over on windy days. I’d be in line at Safeway and she’d suddenly appear behind me, very ghosty but always very sweet, too.

It’s funny—for years the Carlsons lived a hundred feet from me and I never asked what they did at the Agency. He died in 2004, and for the next eight years she was on her own. I always did my best to shovel her walk after a snowstorm. She’d rarely come out, but the drapes would sway ever so slightly and I knew she had appreciated it. That was her way. Only after she died did I begin to realize what our block had lost.

I couldn’t attend the memorial service, though everyone said it was nice. “Her children were all there,” our neighbor Kasey said. “In fact, one of them said something funny.”

“Oh, crap,” I said. “Don’t tell me it had anything to do with Cooper ripping up her mom’s newspapers. I apologized years ago, I swear!”

“Nah,” said Kasey laughing. “What she said was ‘Well, now that Mom and Dad are both dead, there go the last two people who could have told you who killed JFK.’ ”

Photograph by Black Star/Newscom.

Every block has a couple of homes where the sounds of crying babies subsided decades ago and the lights go out earlier. Old neighbors. The odds say that at least some led clandestine lives. Washington is a town full of spies—they’re everywhere and nowhere—and decades from now their top-secret stories, which could never be told when they were young and vibrant, will start to disappear.

Years ago, I remember, it was summer and a few of us were sitting around on the lawn trading stories. One neighbor told a tale about his days in the Coast Guard. I followed with the time I made three cross-country flights in a single day, one of them in a tanker accompanying a squadron of F-117 stealth fighters. It was 1990, the Gulf War was looming, and I was a wire-service photographer. For someone who hates to fly, it was a good day. Then an older neighbor spoke.

“Back when I was at the Agency . . . .”

Boom. My stealth story was DOA. Whatever the next words out of his mouth, they would certainly be better than mine.

“Back when I was at the Agency,” he said, “we once pulled a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”

You did what? A submarine?? From where?!? I didn’t want to be the guy in the movie theater who asks a million questions before the title sequence has finished, but . . . he had me from “Agency.”

My neighbor launched into one of the greatest CIA stories barely told, a tale of high-seas espionage on a ship named the Hughes Glomar Explorer and audaciousness to rival the moon shot. It’s a story that’s celebrated inside the Agency as one of the greatest missions ever undertaken but that today, exactly 40 years later, is still shrouded in secrecy and, sadly, obscurity.

That night on the lawn years ago, I got the broad outlines of the tale. It stayed with me for years, and after the Carlsons died I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I poked around for the full version.

Here goes.

Dawn is still a few hours away on February 25, 1968, when the ballistic-missile submarine K-129 skims out of its berth in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. With a crew of 98, a Ukrainian commander (yes, hard to fathom these days), and three one-megaton nuclear warheads, her mission is a routine patrol. Then, on March 11, as the story goes, catastrophe: There’s an explosion.

K-129 loses propulsion, can’t blow ballast. And in a matter of minutes, just like that, 2,820 tons of metal capable of launching a nuclear attack on America tumbles three miles to the ocean floor.

For six long years, while K-129 slumbered, the Russians agonized and searched. Not us. In secret briefings at the Pentagon and Langley, we just schemed. Wrapped inside the sub’s fire-ravaged hull lay the sailors—men with names like Motovolov and Tokarevskiy—but also her codes and code books, those missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes. K-129 was a gold mine of intelligence. We wanted it, we found it. And Russia didn’t have a clue.

Of course, that wasn’t any consolation to the American spy apparatus in those first months. Sure, we had located K-129, but now what? No one had ever thought about recovering something from that depth—certainly not an enemy sub, in a raging Cold War, and with the specter of a very real war should the Russians find out.

Perspective? The Titanic lay at only 12,500 feet, almost a mile shallower. Malaysia Airlines flight 370 is presumed to be at around 15,000. There’s still hope of locating its data recorder, but you don’t hear anyone discussing bringing up the fuselage. K-129 was deeper still. Almost 17,000 feet down, in an era before modern computing. (Your iPhone has more processing speed than anyone in the 1960s did.) It seemed hopeless.

Or was it?

What if Argo was the easy one? What if, with all due respect, getting some embassy staff through the Iranian airport wasn’t the most ambitious accomplishment in the long history of the CIA, no matter what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says?

Because you can’t build a 63,300-ton ship in secret, the CIA got a billionaire to pretend he wanted the Glomar (below) for ocean mining. Thousands of workers had to keep its real mission—pulling up a wrecked Russian sub—a secret. The day it sailed to pick up special equipment for the lift (above), the crew had to shoo away boaters on the California coast who wanted a look. Photograph of beach courtesy of David Sharp Private Collection; Photograph of Glomar by Bettmann/AP.

“Are subs okay?” Dave Sharp e-mails before our first meeting. He’s asking about lunch, but the irony isn’t lost. A few days later, we’re sitting in his home on the shore of the South River near Annapolis. Trim, with a head of white hair, Sharp is 80 now, and age has cleaned him up nicely. Back in the 1970s, his daughter used to joke that he looked like Wolfman Jack, long hair covering what he calls his “markers” (“your ears are just like a fingerprint”) and an alias, Dave Schoals, covering his tracks.

You never know what CIA folks are supposed to look like—they’re just out mowing the grass like my neighbor Rod Carlson used to do—and Sharp doesn’t seem particularly Mission: Impossible to me. Mostly just soft-spoken. But he occupies some rarefied territory: He was on the ground floor of Project AZORIAN, the code name the Agency bestowed upon its plan to recover K-129, and he’s the only CIA employee ever given a green light to write a book about it.

The US Navy had first crack at the sub. For a year, it kicked around plans that mostly involved floating the sub to the surface, but nothing stuck. So the problem got handed off to the CIA. “If we had any marine engineering experience,” Sharp says, “we would have never dared to take on the job.”

The CIA decided to turn to experts at Global Marine, a California drilling company. It wasn’t exactly an auspicious start. The first time two of its executives came to Langley, Sharp writes in his book, The CIA’s Greatest Covert Operation, they were explicitly told to sign their hotel register as the bogus firm “Graham Pharmaceuticals,” which would have been fine if either man could spell “pharmaceuticals.”

But there was, at least, a plan. Global Marine could build the CIA a ship. A ship with 17,910 feet of steel pipe, pieced together in pairs of 30-foot sections—“doubles,” they were called—that would extend from above deck all the way to the ocean bottom. At the end of the pipe, there’d be a mammoth claw—known as the capture vehicle, or “Clementine”—that would scoop the Russian sub and cradle it on its journey up.

If you think spy stories involve miniature cameras and trench coats, try a 63,300-ton ship on for size. You can’t exactly build something that big without people noticing. So the folks at Global Marine proposed the cover of all covers: that the ship, the Glomar Explorer, pose as a vanity project of one of the world’s most eccentric billionaires, Howard Hughes (the Elon Musk of his day, you might say). Glomar would pretend to be a mining ship looking for untapped and potentially profitable mineral deposits.

The plan still makes Ray Feldman, an 81-year-old former Lockheed engineer who worked aboard Glomar, giddy. “That was the icing on the cake, getting Howard Hughes involved, ’cause he was known to do all sorts of wild stuff and he owned his company outright. Didn’t have to answer to stockholders. And he was weird. Everyone knew he was weird!”

The Navy was dubious. Sharp says one official put it like this: “They must be smoking something to even believe they can do that.”

A few months after my neighbor Pat passed away in 2012, her children put the house up for sale and we did what neighbors do at open houses: We snooped.

My wife and I walk down the block and enter the home, now empty, save for a piano the movers haven’t gotten out yet. A real-estate agent asks us to sign in. “Maybe we should make up Russian-sounding names like Olga and Boris,” my wife, Maya, jokes.

She goes upstairs, and I wander into the den, where a few straggler books linger on the shelves—some gardening titles, nothing much else of note. That’s when I see it, in a bronze dust jacket, sticking out like a sore thumb: The Secret History of the CIA by Joseph J. Trento.

As others stroll by, I peruse the index for Rod’s name. After his daughter’s who-killed-JFK remark, I found myself suddenly curious about what my neighbor had actually done at the CIA. Was he a desk guy? A field agent? Did he ever kill someone with an exploding pen?

The index lists a “Rodney Carlton,” with a “t,” on page 247. Mildly dejected about the misspelling, I skip back a couple hundred pages, expecting to find a sentence or two about the man I only knew when I saw him cleaning his gutters. Instead, I stumble head first into the mother lode. Rod is there all right, but not just in the author’s printed words. No—he has scribbled notes all over the pages. In a book about spies, my neighbor the spy took the time to correct the record. Repeatedly!

“Maya,” I whisper. “Come here, quick.”

“What is it?”

“Um, look at this. Act nonchalant.” We both start reading on page 246.

“Penkovsky passed more film in Moscow at the Queen’s Birthday reception at the British Embassy and at a Fourth of July celebration at the American Embassy.” I have no clue who Penkovsky is, but already I’m liking the Queen part. And Moscow, too! Then I see what Rod has written in the margin: “Wrong. No pass then.”

Hmmm.

I skim farther down: “At this point, the British turned the operation over to the CIA out of fear of its being further compromised.” Rod underlined that sentence. “Wrong.”

Down again: “Penkovsky’s last attempt to deliver film at a U.S. Embassy reception on September 5 failed because he did not recognize Aybidian in the crowd.” This time Rod goes ballistic. “Totally wrong! Aybidian was long gone. P and I met but decided not to try a pass.”

He calls him “P”! I flip back a page or two so I can see what year we’re talking—1962. I flip back again, still trying to get the larger picture, and find this: “Penkovsky’s photographs caused hearts to swoon at the CIA. The pictures delivered across-the-board intelligence that meant Penkovsky had access to all sorts of Soviet military secrets.”

Here I am, surrounded by folks looking for Corian countertops and hardwood floors, reading furiously about spies in Moscow in ’62. The big picture finally emerges. It’s not all that difficult to grasp, especially when one sentence contains the phrase “Penkovsky’s sentence was death by firing squad” and the next chapter begins on an island south of Florida: My neighbor Rod was at the genesis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Passing film with one of the most infamous double agents in history!

My mind is racing in the best, most excited way. I want to get home and Google all this stuff, but there’s a more pressing issue. “Maya, um, how do you steal a book about spies from a dead spy’s house?”

She laughs. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious. This is going to be thrown out with the trash on Monday. We need to liberate it. Now!”

“You’re the chattiest Long Island Jew I know. You couldn’t steal anything! They’d torture you and you’d spill the beans in all of three seconds.”

Well, she has a point there but I’m not going to let Mr. Trento’s history with all of Rod’s annotations get tossed into a landfill. “Look,” she says, “you stay here. I’ll go distract the Realtor with some questions about the asking price, and then you can just put it under your sweater.”

Five minutes later, she returns and I’m still there. She’s right. I’d make a terrible spy.

The Glomar’s claws lift part of the sub in a painting by Gareth Hector called “We Are Limited Only by Our Imagination.” The sole way to see it until now was to get inside CIA headquarters, where it hangs in a corridor near a Starbucks. Painting courtesy of the CIA.

By the end of march 1974, the Glomar was ready to go. She had taken two years to complete—pretty quick, all things considered. “We’ve had houses in this neighborhood take longer than that,” Dave Sharp says, laughing.

But not everyone was entirely optimistic. “When we were getting ready to go to sea, I think at best we thought 50-50,” Ray Feldman says. The sea trials didn’t all go smoothly, Sharp explains, and prompted a couple of key personnel to quit “because of safety concerns.”

What kind of concerns?

“That the ship was gonna sink,” Sharp says.

See, there was a massive “moon pool” in the belly of the Glomar, and we’re not talking the cruise-ship variety. Sealed off from the rest of the ship, it was designed to open and welcome in the sub, then get drained once she was safely inside.

Before the sea trials, “we hadn’t thought that much about the dynamics of what happens when all that water is in there,” Sharp tells me. “We had 30-foot waves going up and down crashing into one end of the well.”

Like a tide within the ship? “More like a storm,” he says.

The men aboard Glomar were worried that any malfunction with the 17,910-foot-long pipe could send it rocketing back up past the moon pool and through the top of the boat. “The ship,” Sharp says, “would break in half.”

During the trials, Glomar had gone to Catalina Island to meet up with Clementine, the claw, which was built separately inside a barge. They were sunk in shallow water, in plain view of sunbathers. “It was a job to keep the boaters away,” Sharp says. “We had little powerboats with security warning people, ‘Don’t get close! Danger!’ We didn’t want anybody diving under the ship and seeing what was really being put into it.”

After dark, Glomar had positioned itself over the submerged barge. Retractable covers and doors on both were opened, and in one very secret coupling maneuver, the Glomar Explorer went from a “white” mining vessel to a “black” spy ship with a mission.

All of this was in Sharp’s book, though the first time he submitted his manuscript to the CIA’s publication review board, it came back with every single word redacted. “It was hostile. There were some suggestions that what I was doing was treasonous,” he recalls. “One of my good friends, a security officer on the mission, was adamant that nothing should be published.” He smiles. “Although he bought about 40 copies to give to his friends.”

He’s convinced larger issues are at work: “I’ve always speculated that perhaps the Agency has this feeling like they want to have one program that is never declassified. And they want AZORIAN to be that one.”

Illustration by Tod Detwiler.

On June 20, 1974, Glomar left her berth in Long Beach. By the Fourth of July, she was in place, floating over the target, about 1,500 miles off Hawaii. And she had company. For two weeks, the Soviet salvage ship SB-10 sat nearby and watched.

To the Russians, Glomar probably didn’t appear to be doing anything out of the ordinary. More likely, the sight of her was just a welcome distraction from the otherwise monotonous horizon. Above deck, every half hour or so, her crane would pick up another “double” of steel pipe and add it to the ever-lengthening extension. “Like a giant praying mantis,” Ray Feldman says.

Below deck was where the real action was. From Glomar’s underside, the pipe was extending farther and farther, its claw descending toward the sea floor, preparing for a feat unlike anything ever attempted—and you can take that all the way back to the Phoenicians.

The mangled sub, after all, wasn’t wrapped in a neat and tidy package. “It’s like trying to pick up a piece of Jell-O,” retired Global Marine engineer Sherman Wetmore says. “You go down with a fork, and maybe if it’s cold enough the Jell-O will stay together. Maybe.”

Global Marine had convinced the CIA there was only one way to do it: a “grunt lift.” Think of it like a dead lift at the gym. You reach down toward the floor, grab a barbell loaded with, say, 275 pounds, and in one smooth motion stand up. That’s it.

But put that same barbell aboard a rowboat in a choppy lake and try to do the same thing. Your balance is instantly challenged. Now attach millions of pounds of steel pipe and claw and, of course, a submarine, all while the seas of the Pacific Ocean swell.

Rock the boat, don’t rock the boat, baby.

Turkey had just invaded Cyprus, President Nixon was inching closer to resignation, and the Cold War was still icy. Everyone’s wearing bell-bottoms, all the guys have mustaches, and transistor radios crackle out the hits of the day. Rock the boat, don’t tip the boat over.

There were some mechanical hiccups that first month, but the pipe continued to make its way down, and by the beginning of August the tines of the capture vehicle were being forced into the soil around K-129. Her legs, designed to remain at the bottom—like the lower portion of the lunar module did on the moon—gave the initial stabilization she needed to break free of the sand, and Sherman Wetmore announced, “We have liftoff.”

Altogether, 17 million pounds, six years, and $500 million (more than $2 billion today) worth of unparalleled espionage by the Central Intelligence Agency hanging in the balance—the whole awkward configuration stretched like a rubber band.

Yet it worked. For the first time since March 1968, K-129 began to move.

Then, trouble.

Early on August 1, 1974, there was an issue with the heave compensator, the part of Glomar’s pipe-lifting system that made adjustments for the swells of the sea. As the crew worked to repair it, the capture vehicle and the sub were temporarily lowered back onto the ocean bottom.

Twenty hours later, the lifting resumed. By August 4, Clementine was up some 7,000 feet when the crew of Glomar suddenly felt a shudder. “I went up to the control center, and everything looked normal there,” Sharp says. “They’re all still looking at the submarine and the claws, and I said, ‘You know, you sure you got all the targets there?’ ”

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” came the response.

And then: “Oh, wait a minute—we haven’t refreshed the closed-circuit TV.”

“They were looking at old images,” Sharp says. “They refreshed the closed-circuit images and . . . gone.”

In an instant, a big chunk of K-129, six years in the taking, tumbled back to the ocean floor. After all that, Sharp says, “it fell away.”

The CIA is in a cheery mood one spring morning this year, which is a bit off-putting. I dialed the main switchboard to ask if the Agency was planning any special AZORIAN commemoration this summer and was connected to a woman named Lisa in the media department.

“I’m so glad you called!” she says, which is about the last thing you expect to hear when you phone the CIA. Truth be told, I was kind of hoping for a Glomar Response.

Photograph courtesy of The New York Times.

When the first snippets about the mission leaked in 1975, a media feeding frenzy ensued. One journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking facts about CIA contracts during Glomar’s construction. She was rebuffed, needless to say, but it’s how she was rebuffed that still resonates.

The Agency responded by saying—wait for it—that it “could neither confirm nor deny” the existence of such materials.

There’s a first time for everything, and in a way, Glomar was it for that choice bit of Washington-speak. A court fight between the media and the CIA catapulted the phrase into the vernacular. Since then, the phrase has become standard operating procedure for Agency lawyers, politicians playing defense, and teens trying to avoid Mom and Dad’s prying. So much so, it was even the first thing @CIA wrote when it joined Twitter this June.

The response worked just as well with the Russians as with reporters. Denying that the mission existed “would tell the Soviets that we didn’t recover any missiles,” Sharp says. “On the other hand, they can’t say we did get missiles.” The Glomar Response left the Russians in a sort of no man’s land, keeping them guessing about what was recovered.

“I have a feeling—just a feeling and no evidence—that it was kind of against international law to go poking around some other navy’s remains,” Sherman Wetmore tells me. “I’ll bet it had to have been a big embarrassment to the Russians—the Russian Navy and the Russian intelligence.”

I think of these things a few weeks after my chat with Lisa. I’m meeting with David Robarge, the CIA’s chief historian, and Toni Hiley, its museum director, and we’re all staring at a beautiful 38-by-48-inch canvas in a corridor at the Agency. (Finally I get to go inside the CIA, and instead of exploding pens I’m looking at art.)

Drawn in deep-blue hues, the eerily beautiful painting shows a crumpled submarine resting inside a huge claw. “We had very little in the way of resource material that we could give the artist,” Hiley says. “I had maybe seven or eight line drawings.”

You quickly realize this might be as good as it ever gets for Glomar. There are no existing photographs of this moment in history, just this one canvas hanging on a wall in a hall most Americans will never get to see. An hour earlier, Robarge, the historian, was explaining the Agency’s historical perspective in words that now seem ironic as we all gaze upon the secret artwork.

“The more the American public appreciate our successes and our failures, the challenges that we face, the complexities of the world as we address it throughout our history, they’ll have a much better appreciation for the work we do,” he said. “Maybe in the long term it will have a beneficial effect on the public perception of us. That we’re not a bunch of evil geniuses or incompetent dolts. . . . And that it’s not a mix of the two, either, because both are wrong. It’s something else in the middle, just a lot of hard-working intelligence people trying to approach complicated problems like ‘What about this submarine?’ in innovative and creative ways.”

After part of the sub fell away, and after some initial (highly unrealistic) demands from Langley that they try to pick it up again—Dave Sharp had the unenviable job of telling his bosses that was not in the cards—the Glomar crew continued pulling up pipe. Two-thirds of their haul might have fallen away, but the men aboard Glomar knew they still had something on the line.

As if this crisis weren’t stressful enough, that ragtag crew aboard the Soviet tugboat was only 150 feet away. The closer the remains (of the remains) of K-129 got to the underside of Glomar, the more she began to burp up bits and pieces of debris.

Were the Russians seeing this?

Nope. On August 6, 1974, with their lost submarine literally right under its nose, the Soviet boat decided it had seen enough of all this “deep ocean mining,” and left for home. As the tugboat passed Glomar for the final time, the Russians rendered an unexpected salute: They dropped their pants and mooned.

“The Soviets cheered and blew their whistle and took off across the horizon,” Sharp says. “We never saw ’em again.”

A month later, it was all over.

Even with the loss, we had managed to do the impossible, an effort so ambitious that the American Society of Mechanical Engineers cites AZORIAN as one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time.

And yet, 40 years later, the biggest question about Glomar lingers: What did we get?

Officially, that part of the tale is still top-secret.

There were the bodies of six Soviet sailors, buried at sea, but mostly, at least according to the old spies and contractors I know, the answer is always some version of “I’m not going to get into that too much.” They seem to hint that we didn’t hit a payload of intelligence. “The key thing we wanted to keep secret,” Sharp says coyly, “is how much did we learn. Or didn’t learn. Equally important.”

I ask Sharp if he got a slap on the back when he returned. “No, not that I recall,” he says. “It was an operational failure.” Wetmore puts a better spin on it: “Magnificent failure.”

“That’s the better story for AZORIAN,” says Robarge, the CIA historian. “It’s not that something happened to one of the claws and we lost a portion of it and we didn’t get out of it what we wanted. It’s that we even got there at all, to the point that we were already a third of a mile up and then catastrophe hit.”

Two weeks after the Glomar pulled up the piece of K-129, Sharp received a package aboard the ship. In it were the cremated remains of John Graham, the ship’s designer from Global Marine, who had died on shore while the mission was ongoing. “Just a plastic bag of ashes,” Sharp says. “He decided he wanted to be buried from that ship, that it was the finest thing he felt he’d ever done in his career.”

Ten years after my neighbor Rod Carlson passed away and three years after Pat followed, I finally had a chance to speak with their daughter. Ingrid Carlson is 52 and still lives in Arlington. She’s an accountant.

We laugh about my inability to “steal” the CIA history book from her parents’ empty home. “You just walk out with it,” Ingrid says over the phone without hesitation, and I can see she’s got her father’s genes.

I ask her when she discovered what her parents did for a living.

“I guess Dad told us when I was in high school. But I have to say that it went over my shoulders. When you’re that age, you’re only worried about what’s going on in your own life. It just seemed so normal. I didn’t think anything about it until I was much older.” She pauses for a second and then adds, “Until you go out into the real world and realize how boring your job is.”

Her mother and father met on a blind date at the Agency, she tells me, and Dad would dress up as Abe Lincoln for Halloween when she was little. Ingrid also tells a funny story—or maybe not so funny—about the family’s time in Moscow when she was just a year old and her sister, Karen, was born.

“Mom was supposed to fly to Copenhagen to have the baby, because who would want to have a baby in a Moscow hospital back then?” But her mother went into labor early and that’s exactly what happened. So the spy who was secretly meeting with a soon-to-be-executed Russian double agent was now dependent on a Soviet hospital to deliver his daughter. “I remember my dad saying they were leaving the hospital in the middle of the night and cars started following them.”

You always want to know more before it’s too late. I was just a neighbor, and I wanted to know more. Ingrid was his daughter.

“I wanted to ask him a lot more questions, but he died so suddenly,” she says. “Why didn’t I ask those?” She knows the answer. All the spy stories, all the danger, her entire youth—“It was just a blur to me. He was just my dad.”

Ray Feldman knows this feeling, too. He’s very close with his daughter. “Maybe a month or two ago,” he tells me, “she said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve ever told you, but I’ve always considered you my hero.’ She said that. That was kind of nice.”

Dave Sharp, who didn’t even own a dinghy before he became involved in AZORIAN, now can’t get away from the water. He still holds out hope that a movie studio will do for Glomar what it did for Argo. “We have had some interest from a company called Mainline Pictures, which had a big hit in January called Texas Chainsaw 3D. But I don’t think they’re . . . .” His voice trails off.

With a promise to get together sometime, I hang up with Ingrid and get ready to walk my dog past the house where her mom and dad once lived. I wonder if the curtains will still sway.


Matt Mendelsohn (info@mattmendelsohn.com) is a writer and photographer in Northern Virginia. This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Washingtonian.

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29 Aug 04:15

Libertários deveriam aceitar mais repressão às drogas em troca de menos impostos e privatizações?

by Valdenor Júnior

Por Valdenor Júnior

O candidato Batista é um conservador ou um libertário muito pragmático? A questão foi muito debatida recentemente em seguida ao meu texto “Contra o conservadorismo travestido de liberalismo nas eleições e na mídia“, em fóruns de discussão nas redes sociais compostos por liberais e libertários.

O programa dele, de fato, é muito mais parecido com um programa do Partido Republicano do que do Partido Libertário, se compararmos com o cenário dos Estados Unidos. A ênfase na privatização e no corte de impostos, associado com a proposta de alterar a atual política da prefeitura de São Paulo de redução de danos em relação às drogas (especificamente, o problema social relativo à dependência do crack na chamada “cracolândia”) para uma política de tolerância zero com o usuário e o traficante, portanto, uma política mais repressiva, usando como exemplo o que foi aplicado em Nova York.

 paulo(Como já mostrado no texto anterior, isso faz parte da campanha oficial dele, grifos nosso)

Então, isso sinalizaria que ele seria um candidato conservador. Mas várias pessoas reclamaram que isso não era verdade, e disseram que ele se considera um libertário, que em alguns momentos ele teria dito que era um, etc. Para tentar solucionar esta controvérsia, algumas pessoas fizeram perguntas a ele mais explícitas sobre as drogas, e em geral as respostas foram evasivas, nenhuma na qual afirmasse ser a favor da legalização. Mas, na última quarta-feira (26/08/2014), finalmente obtiveram uma resposta direta, a partir da postagem de um mene que sugeria uma maior abragência ao “raio privatizador”:

 10527751_10152154209212574_4992024586716880677_n

Após isso, outra pessoa pediu uma resposta direta sobre a “tolerância zero” contida em seu programa oficial, ao que Batista respondeu:

“Olá caro amigo,

1) Sou contra o incentivo do Estado, conhecido como bolsa crack, e com a apropriação de uma região da cidade por usuários da droga e por traficantes, considero isso uma violação ao PNA ferindo dois princípios fundamentais, a liberdade e a propriedade, sendo direitos fundamentais eles precedem a discussão da “guerra das drogas” (deixando claro que eu como um Libertário respeito a liberdade individual do individuo em usar entorpecentes). Quando gravei o vídeo da minha campanha na região conhecida como crackôlandia, fui recebido com pedaços de paus e pedradas dos viciados, pude ouvir da população várias reclamações sobre assaltos e roubos nas redondezas que fazem com que os moradores evitem tal área, além disso, as propriedades próximas a região sofreram forte desvalorização.

2) Eu como candidato a deputado estadual não legislo sobre a política de drogas, ficando a cargo dos deputados federais.

Espero ter respondido seus questionamentos, obrigado pela visita.”

Foi questionado novamente, nesse mesmo post,  para falar diretamente da tolerância zero, e esclarecê-la, mas nenhuma resposta mais foi fornecida até a publicação deste texto.

Vamos resumir essas respostas mais seu programa, para entender o que Batista propõe: 1) É favorável à legalização do consumo de drogas (não falou diretamente sobre o comércio, mas acho que ficou implícito); 2) É contra o bolsa-crack (apelido pejorativo atribuído ao programa social Braços Abertos) porque este seria uma forma de financiar o consumo com dinheiro dos impostos; 3) É contra a continuação da existência da “cracolândia”, porque esta consistiria em uma apropriação de uma região da cidade por usuários de drogas e traficantes, com assaltos, roubos, e desvalorização de propriedade; 4) Defende a tolerância zero com o usuário e com o traficante (repressão); 5) Irá falar na Assembléia Legislativa em defesa da legalização das drogas; 6) Propõe tratamento sério ao dependente, acompanhamento psicológico e reintegração social; 7) Governo estadual deverá recuperar áreas degradadas, “estabelecendo políticas habitacionais e incentivos fiscais para cidadãos e empresas que venham a ocupar tais espaços – locais hoje tomados por traficantes, prostitutas e usuários de crack“.

A questão é: como tudo isso pode ser satisfeito simultaneamente? Como um candidato pode defender a legalização das drogas no longo prazo, mas fortalecer a repressão no curto? Como a “cracolândia” irá desaparecer por intermédio de suas propostas de tolerância zero + tratamento de dependentes +políticas habitacionais e incentivos fiscais para cidadãos e empresas ocuparem os espaços, sem ferir ainda mais a liberdade? Algumas opções: prendendo traficantes e usuários; internando compulsoriamente todos os usuários, de modo que os traficantes irão embora; usando da política pública (habitacional e fiscal) e da polícia para “higienizar” a área, expulsando habitantes marginalizados. Mas isso realmente seria um ganho de liberdades individuais em relação ao “bolsa crack”?

A política de tolerância zero mencionada como exemplo (Nova York) baseava-se na “teoria das janelas quebradas”, onde punir pequenos delitos automaticamente, com detenções e/ou detenções seguidas de obrigação de comparecer em juízo (cujo não comparecimento pode resultar em prisão), poderia desestimular o crime mais grave, ao estabelecer a ordem pública necessária para que os cidadãos tenham uma sensação de segurança e controle sobre as ruas.

Exemplos de pequenos delitos: vadiagem, embriaguez pública (ou simplesmente beber em público), urinar em público, prostituição de rua, mendicância agressiva, senhorios que alugam a baixo custo em bairros mais pobres que aceitam pequenos traficantes de drogas como inquilinos, pichação, delitos menores relacionados às drogas, etc.

De fato, em termos mais gerais de Estados Unidos, a tolerância zero em matéria de drogas significa ter como alvo os usuários de drogas, ao invés dos transportadores ou vendedores, sob o pressuposto de que sentenças duras e a imposição estrita da lei quanto ao uso pessoal reduziria a demanda, e, portanto, a causa do tráfico de drogas. Portanto, tolerância zero significa uma imposição mais rígida da proibição das drogas, com um policiamento mais agressivo cujo alvo são pessoas que cometem delitos não tão graves assim.

Batista afirma ser contra a apropriação de parte da cidade por traficantes e usuários, porque esta seria uma violação ao princípio de não (iniciação da) agressão por parte deles. A agressão consistiria nos relatos de assaltos nas redondezas e na desvalorização das propriedades. Queria entender bem também o que se entende por “apropriação de parte da cidade”. Um morador de rua apropria-se de parte do espaço público ao dormir ou vagar por ali? Ou um conjunto de moradores de rua apropriam-se indevidamente de um espaço público ao dormirem ou vagarem por ali? Ele também não deixa bem claro o que entenderia por isso, mas afirma que esta seria a causa de assaltos e desvalorização de imóveis na região, o que feriria o direito à propriedade.

Ou seja, trocando em miúdos: Batista quer que os moradores de rua (parte deles ao menos) saíam dali, porque aí deixaria de existir apropriação do espaço público. Como? Se seguirmos ao pé da letra, ele estaria defendendo uma política baseada na detenção pelo uso de drogas, mas, mesmo que queira argumentar futuramente que quer apenas prender aqueles que roubarem, fica a pergunta: como isso cessaria a desvalorização das propriedades e a “apropriação de parte do espaço urbano pelo fato das pessoas morarem e vagarem por ali”?

Para que Batista cumpra sua promessa, é preciso remoção de um contingente significativo de pessoas, e isso, no mínimo, demandaria ou detenção de usuários ou sua internação compulsória, e, acessoriamente, o uso da política pública (habitacional e fiscal) e da polícia para que outras pessoas ocupem os espaços com a saída dos habitantes marginalizados, inviabilizando o retorno destes nas mesmas proporções (o que ele de fato defendeu, inclusive, mencionando pejorativamente as prostitutas ).

Usar uma política de tolerância zero para com o uso de crack para acabar com a “cracolândia” (por intermédio de alguns dos ou todos os instrumentos supracitados) significa tornar essa população um alvo ainda mais vulnerável da repressão policial, como o neurocientista Carl Hart comentou, em entrevista, que o mesmo ocorreu nos Estados Unidos:

“Vendo a experiência brasileira, acho que vocês vão reviver o pesadelo que vivemos nos anos 80. E o pesadelo não é o crack em si, mas as políticas públicas que surgem como resultado do seu uso. Quando o crack fica fora de controle e quando a população tem a noção disto, o governo dá permissão à polícia para que ela faça o que for preciso. Algumas das medidas serão pessoas mortas, presas e daí por diante. E isto terá a aprovação da sociedade.”

Não consigo entender, portanto, como reprimir usuários por meio da coerção estatal seja ferir menos a liberdade do que a desvalorização de imóveis. O que nos leva a outro ponto.

Batista propõe a tolerância zero como substituto ao “bolsa crack”, que ele deseja abolir. Mas o programa “Braços Abertos” (denominado pejorativamente de bolsa crack) é um exemplo de política de drogas que nós chamamos de “redução de danos”, que é muito menos repressiva, coercitiva e violenta que a política de tolerância zero!

Segundo a International Harm Reduction Association,

“Redução de danos refere-se às políticas, programas e práticas que buscam reduzir os danos associados com o uso de drogas psicoativas em pessoas incapazes ou indispostas a parar. As características-chave são o foco na prevenção do dano, ao invés da prevenção no uso da droga por si só, e o foco sobre pessoas que continuam a usar drogas.” (tradução livre)

A redução de danos coloca-se, portanto, entre a total legalização e a total repressão às drogas, uma vez que retira o fardo da repressão e do encarceramento que seria imposto ao usuário em um regime de tolerância zero.

A prefeitura Haddad, independente de críticas que possam ser dirigidas ao formato do programa Braços Abertos, adotou a política de redução de danos, reduzindo a repressão e coerção sofridas pelos dependentes de crack em situação de marginalização. Esse tipo de política é mais liberal do que propor mais repressão e coerção como faz Batista.

Então, resta demonstrado que a proposta de Batista, no que se refere às drogas, é mais coerção, mais repressão, mais restrição à liberdade de um grupo relativamente marginalizado. Ou, pelo menos, se ele pretender de fato cumpri-la, não tem como evitar tal resultado.

Mas alguns defendem que o combate ao crack é uma troca menor que libertários deveriam estar dispostos a fazer para ter mais privatizações e cortes de impostos.

Em fóruns de discussão nas redes sociais, vi autodeclarados anarcocapitalistas defendendo que falar contra o programa Braços Abertos dá voto, e devemos ceder, pragmaticamente, neste ponto, já que, assim, poderíamos eleger um candidato liberal.

O que esses libertários estão dizendo é: deveríamos aceitar uma política de drogas mais repressiva em troca de mais privatizações e cortes de impostos.

E isso é um absurdo, um grave equívoco.

A legalização das drogas é uma das pautas mais urgentes de nosso tempo. O sofrimento, o encarceramento, a violência homicida, as limitações sobre as liberdades civis, os pretextos para brutalidade policial, e a fonte de financiamento rápido para o crime organizado que a guerra às drogas gerou são muito maiores do que qualquer dano que o consumo de drogas causaria aos seus usuários, e o benefício da legalização em reduzir privações de direitos básicos como vida e liberdade é maior do que o de realizar privatizações e corte de impostos para reduzir restrições ao exercício da propriedade privada (onde, inclusive, ainda há o risco de focar-se na privatização ao invés da liberalização, esta última sim o mais importante, e de privatizar-se de maneiras que nem economistas liberais como Milton Friedman concordariam).

Falando em Milton Friedman, os liberais brasileiros deveriam se inspirar nele, ao invés de adotar um pragmatismo que não compreende ou entende superficialmente a grande agressão que a guerra às drogas causa a todos nós, em especial aos menos favorecidos. Em entrevista à Folha, assim se pronunciou:

“Folha – “Legalize já”?

Milton Friedman – Sim. É imoral que os Estados Unidos proíbam as chamadas drogas ilegais. Sou a favor da legalização de todas as drogas, não apenas da maconha. O atual estado das coisas é uma desgraça social e econômica. Veja o que acontece todos os anos neste país: colocamos milhares de jovens na prisão, jovens que deveriam estar se preparando para o seu futuro, não sendo afastados da sociedade. Além disso, matamos milhares de pessoas todos os anos na América Latina, principalmente na Colômbia, na tal “Guerra contra as Drogas”.
Nós proibimos o uso das drogas, mas não podemos garantir que elas não sejam de fato consumidas. Isso só leva à corrupção, à violação de direitos civis. Acho que o programa contra as drogas dos EUA é uma monstruosidade e ele é que devia ser eliminado. A maconha é apenas um pequeno pedaço desse problema, mas essa equação pode ser aplicada a qualquer droga hoje em dia ilegal.”

Acreditar que assistência social a dependentes de crack paga por meio de impostos seja tão ruim quanto a repressão a eles por meio da polícia e do aparato punitivo estatal é uma postura que fere todo bom senso e rejeita a tradição liberal de reduzir os danos que o Estado causa aos menos favorecidos.

Isso desconsidera como a própria guerra às drogas estatal tem contribuído para cenários de marginalização como os que vemos na cidade de São Paulo, e que o problema social gerado pela proibição das drogas precisa ser lidado de forma criativa e sensível por liberais comprometidos com o maior bem-estar aos menos favorecidos. Se o Estado causou estas injustiças, há um dever de retificação, que, inclusive, justificaria programas de assistência no curto prazo (aplicando-se um argumento mais geral e abstrato usado por Robert Nozick), independente se o Braços Abertos é a melhor forma de fazê-lo ou não.

Contudo, perceba: mesmo que você rejeite qualquer programa de assistência no curto prazo (e, por exemplo, apoia programas de assistência voluntários), equivaler o equívoco do governo gastar impostos na reabilitação de dependentes de crack aos custos humanos da repressão total às drogas é afirmar que menos “x” reais no bolso dos pagadores de impostos seja tão ruim quanto vidas arruinadas pelo encarceramento em massa por crimes sem vítima ou pela violência gerada desnecessariamente.

Aceitar uma guerra às drogas mais repressiva, mesmo que temporariamente, para obter em troca privatizações e cortes de impostos, é coadunar com a intensificação de uma das formas mais brutas de injustiça estatal, internalizar a lógica do poder, e abertamente promover uma política estatal que promove mais marginalização e exclusão e privação de direitos civis dessas pessoas à margem da sociedade.

Em suma, esse liberalismo fora de contexto, que aceita tal pragmatismo (ao ponto de adotar uma agenda conservadora estranha ao pensamento liberal), acaba resultando em pretexto à injustiça social e econômica, ao aceitar o fortalecimento de uma política que arruína vidas e liberdades civis em troca de uma leve diminuição da carga tributária.

junior

Valdenor Júnior é advogado. Editor no site Mercado Popular. Escreve também para o site internacional Centro por uma Sociedade sem Estado (C4SS) e para o site brasileiro Liberzone, e mantém o blog pessoal Tabula (não) Rasa & Libertarianismo Bleeding Heart. Seus principais interesses são filosofia política liberal, economia mainstream e institucional, ciência evolucionária, naturalismo filosófico, teoria naturalizada do Direito, direito internacional dos direitos humanos e psicologia cognitiva.

29 Aug 06:46

Who’s Serving Who?

by Greg Ross

This summer has brought us one step closer to the technological apocalypse — a robot just successfully hitchhiked all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia.

Created to study how people interact with robots, hitchBOT was outfitted with speech recognition software and equipped with legs and arms, one of which was permanently fixed in a hitchhike position. Links to Wikipedia and social media enabled it to make small talk with the humans who drove it westward.

On the 3,700-mile journey, the gregarious robot fished, camped, and attended a wedding, where it interrupted the bride’s speech by saying, “I like to make friends.”

“This project turns our fear of technology on its head and asks, ‘Can robots trust humans?’,” said Frauke Zeller, a computational philologist at Ryerson University. “Our aim is to further discussion in society about our relationship with technology and robots.”

28 Aug 18:36

Death Valley's sailing stones mystery solved - Unexplained Mysteries


One of Death Valley's mysterious sailing stones. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 Pirate Scott

A team of researchers has finally managed to explain how such large boulders can move all by themselves.

The phenomenon, which was discovered in the 1940s, pertains to the inexplicable movement of extremely heavy boulders across a dry lake bed situated in Death Valley National Park.

Nobody has ever seen the boulders move directly but long trails left behind them in the sand seem to suggest that they have somehow traversed significant distances all by themselves. Some of the rocks that have shifted even weigh upwards of 320kg.

In an effort to solve the mystery once and for all a team of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography visited the site in 2011 and set up a high-resolution weather station and 15 rocks fitted with GPS devices to measure even the slightest movements with impeccable accuracy.

It would take a further two years for anything to happen, but eventually during a visit to the site in December 2013 the team discovered that the area had been submerged in 3 inches of water.

As it turned out the movement of the rocks occurs under a very specific set of circumstances that requires there to be just enough water to cover the ground but not enough to submerge the rocks. The actual movement occurs due to a combination of strong winds, the freezing of the water during the night and the thawing of the ice by the hot sun during the day.

"It's possible that tourists have actually seen this happening without realising it," said co-author Jim Norris. "It is really tough to gauge that a rock is in motion if all the rocks around it are also moving."

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04 Aug 02:42

Short-eared dog? Uncovering the secrets of one of the Amazon's most mysterious mammals

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Bichinho legal.

Meet Oso: how a 'pet' short-eared dog helped scientists shed light on this cryptic carnivore

Oso, the short-eared dog that revealed the secrets of his species, at age four. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Oso, the short-eared dog that revealed the secrets of his species, at age four. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

Fifteen years ago, scientists knew next to nothing about one of the Amazon's most mysterious residents: the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis). Although the species was first described in 1883 and is considered the sole representative of the Atelocynus genus, biologists spent over a century largely in the dark about an animal that seemed almost a myth. But all this changed when veterinarian and researcher, Renata Leite Pitman, embarked on a long-term study of these enigmatic carnivores, even having the good fortune of being guided by a semi-wild short-eared dog named Oso.

"My first thought when I heard about this ghost-like animal was that people must have been mistaking it for a similar-looking species, like a tayra or a jaguarundi," Leite Pitman told mongabay.com. "So I looked into the literature on the short-eared dog and found it was full of contradictions. One book had it occurring in this region, the other didn't. One said the species was diurnal, and the other nocturnal. This mismatching information made me very curious,"

In fact, here was a good-sized mammal—a carnivore nonetheless—that was totally unheard of outside the Amazon and even little-known by locals there.

Although Leite Pitman first heard of the short-eared dog in 2000, it's taken the dauntless scientist over a decade to begin to piece together some of the basic behaviors of this enigmatic canine. For one thing, Leite Pitman has discovered that while the short-eared dog prefers meat when it can get it, it's actually a major fruit-eater. The species even plays a vital role in the Amazon ecosystem by dispersing the seeds of many key plants. Leite Pitman and her team also discovered the short-eared dog depends a lot on another cryptic mammal, the giant armadillo, for its burrows, which the short-eared dog squats in once the armadillo has done the hard work of digging them out.

Before releasing Oso into the wild in 2010, Renata Leite Pitman (left) and Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia (right) do one last check-up. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Before releasing Oso into the wild in 2010, Renata Leite Pitman (left) and Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia (right) do one last check-up. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Finally, although a capable predator—tackling small mammals and large birds—the short-eared dog is just as often prey: Leite Pitman and her team have recorded short-eared dogs being killed by boa constrictors and jaguars, not to mention human hunters as well. In one case, Leite Pitman lost a short-eared dog she was tracking via radio signal to a big snake.

"We got there and found the signal going straight to a four-meter long, 40-kilogram boa constrictor. This was one kilometer from the house were I lived with my husband and two kids. So while we were measuring the boa it started to regurgitate the dog. Unfortunately this is not the Little Red Riding Hood story, and the dog was dead," Leite Pitman noted.

While Leite Pitman has succeeded in radio-collaring several wild short-eared dogs and tracking their movements, her most important subject has been a dog named Oso.

"In December 2006, a logger found a [short-eared dog] puppy in the woods near Puerto Maldonado and took him to the Puerto Maldonado market. The puppy was bought by a local for 50 soles, and taken to his farm near the border with Brazil, where he was raised with domestic dogs," explained Leite Pitman.

Eventually, Leite Pitman obtained Oso and the permits required to study this semi-wild short-eared dog. Taking Oso on structured walks, Leite Pitman and her team were able to monitor what foods he preferred, how he behaved around other species, and, most importantly, how he related to other short-eared dogs, including interested females. One of the most important discoveries was that male short-eared dogs don't hit sexual maturity until three years of age, when their testicles descend (before this Leite Pitman thought about renaming the dog the "small-balled dog") and they start making weird sounds.

The handsome Oso at age two. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
The handsome Oso at age two. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
"[Oso] started to make complex calls, similar to some species of owl calls. We recorded these sounds and played them in an area where we know a female lives, and the female came right away. Sexual maturity at three years is kind of late for a dog, and very important data for a species action plan," said Leite Pitman.

The team released Oso into the wild in 2010—and was able to track him for the next three years—before his collar ran down.

The short-eared dog is only found in the Amazon Rainforest, distinguishing it from many other Amazon mammals—such as jaguars, tapirs, bushdogs, anteaters, and armadillos—which are also found in a variety of other ecosystems. This means the short-eared dog depends wholly on the health and survival of the world's largest tropical forest, which is imperiled by deforestation, mining, road-building, fossil fuel exploitation, and climate change.

But Leite Pitman says the other big threat to the short-eared dog in particular is its distant relative: the domestic dog.

"Domestic dogs are everywhere, and hunters take them into the forest 10, 20 kilometers away from towns. Since most dogs carry distemper and parvo viruses, hunting dogs inoculate powerful and deadly viruses deep in the forest. Parvovirus is active in any secretion of a contaminated animal, and can survive in the environment for up to one year," Leite Pitman explained.

In a 2014 interview with mongabay.com, Renata Leite Pitman talks about how the short-eared dog first came to her attention, how she's managed to track and catch so many individuals, and the rocky future for this still little-known mammal.

INTERVIEW WITH RENATA LEITE PITMAN

Flying over the seemingly endless forest of the West Amazon, while searching for short-eared dogs. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Flying over the seemingly endless forest of the West Amazon, while searching for short-eared dogs. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Mongabay: What's your background? Renata Leite Pitman: I am a Brazilian Wildlife Veterinary Doctor with a Masters in forest sciences. During vet school I worked at a local zoo as a lab technician for six years, and after getting my degree 22 years ago I started to work with wild animals in nature. I worked first with capybaras on an island off the Atlantic coast of Brazil, and since then have worked with jaguars and pumas in Brazil, carnivores in northern India, swallow-tailed kites in the U.S., and endangered mammals in Peru.

I took a course in wildlife conservation and management at the Wildlife Institute of India, where my grandfather is from, and a course in Amazonian forest ecology at the National Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil. In 2003, after working in one of the most remote areas in the Peruvian Amazon, the Alto Purus region, my husband and I edited a book as part of a campaign to create a national park there. The wind blew in our favor, and one year after our book was published the 2.5 million-hectare Alto Purus National Park was created in the area, the largest park in Peru. Assuring the protection of places is my ultimate goal, and I am also glad to have worked towards creating a State Park next to my house in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Serra da Baitaca State Park) and an Ecological Station on the island where I studied capybaras (Ilha do Mel Ecological Station).

Mongabay: Considering that the short-eared dog is one of the least known large mammals in the Amazon, how did you first find out about it? Renata Leite Pitman: It was March 2000. I had just arrived in North Carolina at the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University to help Dr. John Terborgh analyze 5,000 canopy photographs from Peru. One day Dr. Terborgh mentioned that during the first 20 years he worked in Cocha Cashu Biological Station the short-eared dog was never seen despite intensive mammal surveys, but that since 1990 it had been sighted at least once a year.

Short-eared dog, Lacy, at one of her dens in 2005. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Short-eared dog, Lacy, at one of her dens in 2005. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

My first thought when I heard about this ghost-like animal was that people must have been mistaking it for a similar-looking species, like a tayra or a jaguarundi. So I looked into the literature on the short-eared dog and found it was full of contradictions. One book had it occurring in this region, the other didn't. One said the species was diurnal, and the other nocturnal. This mismatching information made me very curious. So I decided to interview the people who claimed to have seen the short-eared dog at Cocha Cashu. And I got very surprised to see that their description matched perfectly with the short-eared dog. At that point I had started on a trip with no return.

Mongabay: What draws you to this species? Renata Leite Pitman: Basically curiosity and fate. I marveled at John Terborgh's stories about Cocha Cashu The way he spoke about the place, and about this ghost animal, was so emphatic that it still echoes in my mind. Working every day with thousands of hemispherical photos of Cashu's trees and thinking about the 10 sightings of the short-eared dog left me no doubt that I should be there. That is when he offered me an opportunity to go to Cocha Cashu to help manage the station and conduct a basic search for the species. I headed to Cocha Cashu for three months, not imagining that I would spend the next 14 years in Peru working with the species. The bait was set, and I was trapped.

Mongabay: This animal has its own genus. What do researchers think that it's most related to? Renata Leite Pitman: I think most researchers agree that the species is most related to another forest dog, the bush-dog (Speothos venaticus). The two coexist in the Amazon, and at the same sites. However, the bush dog can be found in other ecosystems, like savannas, wetlands, and dry forest, while, as far as I can tell, the short-eared dog is an Amazonian endemic. Its distribution overlaps a little with that of the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) and some individuals of Cerdocyon have been confused as Atelocynus. In some camera trap pictures, the two species look really similar.

DISCOVERING THE SHORT-EARED DOG

Pitman with the first-ever tagged short-eared dog in 2002. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Pitman with the first-ever tagged short-eared dog in 2002. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Mongabay: You've managed to capture five short-eared dogs and collar them to track their movements. How did you manage to find and capture such a rare and elusive animal? Renata Leite Pitman: By being persistent. By learning from scratch, dedicating lots of time to observations and tests, and hiring field assistants as persistent as I am. No one had any experience trapping this species. Trapping them was very time-consuming, and it required 14 years working in the Amazon, five of them living full-time in a biological station. I tested several kinds of traps and baits for the species.

Mongabay: What have you learned from radio-collaring these dogs?

A wild short-eared dog caring a fruit in the Pouteria species. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
A wild short-eared dog caring a fruit in the Pouteria species. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Renata Leite Pitman: Tracking animals in the Amazon isn't easy, because the dense forest makes it difficult to spot them and hard to transmit signals (VHF and GPS). This means animals have to be tracked from a very short distance. Short-eared dogs are very suspicious animals, and not at all easy to observe.

With camera traps we have recorded more than 100 photos of the species under different situations, and the time those pictures were taken show us that they are partly diurnal, partly nocturnal, with peaks of activity around dawn and dusk. Through captures and radio-collaring, we learned that a female gave birth right at the peak of fruiting season, and concentrated her movements around some species of fruits she preferred. We learned that the dogs have a sort of daily routine, spending about two hours resting in shelters (mostly burrows made by giant armadillos) and two hours walking. We learned that males are very territorial and do not accept other males in their areas. We learned that they eat several species of fruit, that they hunt and kill large birds and small mammals, and that they can eat carcasses of large animals, around which they spend several days. We observed a mother leave its territory to its six month-old baby and establish a new home range several miles away. We have learned about their predators, their diet, their shelters, and the areas they use to live.

Mongabay: You've discovered that these dogs eat a lot of fruit—was this surprising? Does this mean the dog may play an important role as seed disperser? Renata Leite Pitman: I suspected they ate fruit, but I was surprised to see how many different kinds of fruit they eat and how often they eat it. And yes, the dog does play an important role as a seed disperser.

Mongabay: One of your study dogs was eaten by a boa constrictor. Will you tell us about this and what other species prey on them?

Measuring the four-meter long boa that ate one of the tagged females, Lacy. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Measuring the four-meter long boa that ate one of the tagged females, Lacy. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: This was a young male dog that was establishing his home-range. He basically repeated the same movement every day, from his den to a place a mile away and back. But one day he stopped in the middle and stayed there. His collar had an activity signal, so we could see he was moving, but within a very small area. We got there and found the signal going straight to a four-meter long, 40-kilogram boa constrictor. This was 1 kilometer from the house were I lived with my husband and two kids. So while we were measuring the boa it started to regurgitate the dog. Unfortunately this is not the Little Red Riding Hood story, and the dog was dead.

Another dog that we were monitoring spent part of the night inside a giant armadillo burrow, which he left at 2 AM (recorded by camera trap). At 6 AM we found him killed by a jaguar, and we found his hair in the jaguar's scat a few days later.

A man killed one short-eared dog in Alto Purus, saying he had confused it with an agouti. Also in Alto Purus, a baby was found and raised on a manioc mush diet, and died a short while later.

Mongabay: You've also discovered that short-eared dogs depend on giant armadillos. What's the relationship here? Renata Leite Pitman: Short-eared dogs are very subtle and delicate animals. They need to hide from jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and the large herds of peccaries in the region. Giant armadillo burrows offer them a great refuge, and we have documented one dog using up to 13 different burrows in one day, and several other species using those same burrows on the same day.

OSO: THE SHORT-EARED DOG AMBASSADOR

Oso on his leash at age three. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.
Oso on his leash at age three. Photo courtesy of: Renata Leite Pitman.

Renata Leite Pitman: Tracking animals in the Amazon isn't easy, because the dense forest makes it difficult to spot them and hard to transmit signals (VHF and GPS). This means animals have to be tracked from a very short distance. Short-eared dogs are very suspicious animals, and not at all easy to observe.

Mongabay: Will you tell us about Oso? Renata Leite Pitman: In December 2006, a logger found a puppy in the woods near Puerto Maldonado and took him to the Puerto Maldonado market. The puppy was bought by a local for 50 soles, and taken to his farm near the border with Brazil, where he was raised with domestic dogs. At this time, Oso (the name given to the puppy by his first owner) was around three months old. It didn't take long for this story to reach me, and in January 2007 a friend gave me the picture below. Knowing what a rare event this was, and thinking it might be a great opportunity to learn more about the ecology of the species, I immediately got in touch with INRENA (Peru's National Environmental Agency) to understand the legal requirements to conduct field research with the animal.

Oso as a puppy. This photo alerted Pitman to the captive short-eared dog pup. Photo by: JJ Escudero.
Oso as a puppy in December 2006. This photo alerted Pitman to the captive short-eared dog pup. Photo by: JJ Escudero.

In February 2008, when Oso was a year and a half old, INRENA endorsed our study and ACCA approved our research at the Los Amigos Biological Station, where we have been studying the short-eared dog population since 2003. After quarantining at the Amazon Shelter in Puerto Maldonado and vaccinating to prevent any transmission of disease to wildlife, I took Oso to Los Amigos. My goal was to take Oso on structured walks through an area of forest that approximated the range size of adult short-eared dogs (about seven square kilometers), and record his behavior towards other species and maybe other individuals of the same species. These walks included documenting foraging behavior in the field and testing whether Oso was an effective disperser of the fruits he consumed.

Key to the success of the study was Emeterio Nuñonca Sencia, an excellent local field assistant. Emeterio, like many others in the local community, came to Madre de Dios from the Cusco region 20 years ago dreaming about gold. Like other miners, he made some money and hunted in the region until 2004, when I hired him to open up some trails. As soon as I met him I knew he was made for much bigger things and time proved me right: Emeterio turns out to be one of the brightest people I have ever met.

With his natural talent, he quickly made Oso comfortable on the trail system at CICRA, took video footage of Oso's behavior towards several species of predators and prey, and even more exciting, documented (with video, pictures, and very good written descriptions) encounters with wild short-eared dogs. On February11th 2009, while Emeterio was walking Oso on the leash in the woods, a wild male followed them for 15 minutes. On May 18th 2009, while Emeterio was walking with Oso, a female approached them and followed them for one hour. Emeterio documented their mating behavior, the first ever recorded in the wild, although copulation wasn't possible because Oso was on the leash.

During one of the walks with Oso on a leash to accustom him to the forest, he was followed by a wild female in heat for an hour. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
During one of the walks with Oso on a leash to accustom him to the forest, he was followed by a wild female in heat for an hour. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

As soon as I saw the opportunity to film the species' mating behavior, I started to search for the technology that would do the trick. That is when I found the crittercam, a Nat Geo device to capture images from an animal's point of view. So I wrote a proposal and got the crittercam team interested. I wrote a proposal for the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program, and got their support to deploy a crittercam on Oso to film his mating behavior with the female, and then release him with a GPS/VHF devices.

So everything was set. We had a permit from INRENA, equipment from NGS/Waitt, the field team on site (including a biologist and engineer from NGS), Oso ready to go, and a female short-eared dog in heat spotted at 6 AM. At 9 AM we released Oso just where the female was spotted a few hours before. We expect him to romance her, get images for us, and return to sleep in the cage where he had slept for the past 2.5 years. But we were wrong. It took him 10 days to return, and when he came back he didn't have the crittercam. He had lost it somewhere, and although it was equipped with a tiny radio transmitter and we made an incredible effort to find it from the ground and from 60-meter towers, we didn't find it. So we decided to postpone Oso's release, in order to have another crittercam sent to us. Then something happened that we really didn't expect: a wild male came after Oso, walking into the middle of the station, and stopping to pee at the places where Oso liked to pee.

Wild male in the station. On releasing Oso, the team expected to take videos of him meeting with the female in the forest, but instead got several photos and video of a wild male coming after him, showing very territorial behavior. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Wild male in the station. On releasing Oso, the team expected to take videos of him meeting with the female in the forest, but instead got several photos and video of a wild male coming after him, showing very territorial behavior. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

Mongabay: Tell us how Oso has contributed to your research? Renata Leite Pitman: He contributed enormously to what we know about the ecology of the species. We have done several food preference studies, indicating that whenever he had meat and fruit available, he chose meat. With so many competitors in the forest, this might be the most critical item in their diet. To learn what attracts the species to a certain place in the forest (which is important to know for trapping), I hid all kinds of baits in the forest while my assistant walked with him and filmed his reaction towards specific baits. We also set audio recordings of predators and prey to see how he reacted. When we exposed him to old jaguar scat he didn't react, but when we exposed him to fresh jaguar scat or played a recorded jaguar sound, he got crazy and ran away. Since he was removed from nature at a very young age, he probably didn't learn this from his mother, meaning it is an innate behavior.

During these walks we also recorded any natural item that Oso chose to eat in the forest, and any encounter with wildlife. We recorded his encounter with a saki monkey group, with a curassow that he tried to hunt, with a tapir, and with several other species. But our biggest delight was to record his behavior towards other short-eared dogs, and their behavior towards him. On one walk a wild female showed sexual interest in him and followed him for an hour, and when we released him after her he went in her direction. This says a lot, because if we reintroduced him we didn't know whether he would reproduce and if a female would be interested in him, considering he was raised in captivity. And we learned that wild males did not accept him in his area.

Mongabay: What secrets has Oso shown? Renata Leite Pitman: One is that the males don't all have small balls. For years I was surprised to see how small the dogs' balls appeared in camera trap pictures—so surprised that I was thinking to propose changing the common name to "small-balled dog," since its ears aren't that small (bush dogs have proportionally smaller ears). But when Oso turned three years old, his balls descended and he became a big-ball guy. At the same time, he started to vocalize. Until this moment, he was mostly silent, only making whining noises or roaring at the presence of people he didn't like.

Yes, roaring, you can see Oso roaring at the video below!

But at the same time his balls descended he started to make complex calls, similar to some species of owl calls. We recorded these sounds and played them in an area where we know a female lives, and the female came right away. Sexual maturity at three years is kind of late for a dog, and very important data for a species action plan.

Mongabay: Is Oso still 'working' for you? Where is he now? Renata Leite Pitman: Oso was released in October 2010. We did a very fine tracking of him using a GPS system with an accelerometer for three months. He also had a VHF device that allowed us to follow him for three years. During these three years, he moved 50 kilometers towards the northeast, into an area that is often visited by indigenous groups in voluntary isolation. Out of respect for their wish for no contact with outsiders, for security reasons (they usually shoot arrows at people they see), and out of respect for local policies, I didn't recapture him to change the collar. But considering that he survived for three years after being released, it is easy to conclude that he made it, and that is our biggest prize in this story.

CONSERVATION

Mongabay: What is threatening this species? Renata Leite Pitman: I think the biggest threats are domestic dogs and the loss of pristine habitats. Domestic dogs are everywhere, and hunters take them into the forest 10, 20 kilometers away from towns. Since most dogs carry distemper and parvo viruses, hunting dogs inoculate powerful and deadly viruses deep in the forest. Parvovirus is active in any secretion of a contaminated animal, and can survive in the environment for up to one year.

Mongabay: Do people ever hunt short-eared dog?

Pitman with her first tagged female short-eared dog, Dominga in 2004. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Pitman with her first tagged female short-eared dog, Dominga in 2004. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Renata Leite Pitman: Unfortunately, yes. Many hunters kill anything that moves. But luckily hunters have no particular interest in short-eared dogs.

Mongabay: The animal is currently listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List. Do you think this is accurate? Renata Leite Pitman: A team of experts reviewed the species' status in Brazil recently. The short-eared dog is now considered Vulnerable in that country, which is the biggest part of its distribution. The IUCN should be updating their evaluation soon.

Mongabay: Any guess on population estimates for the animal? Renata Leite Pitman: Based on its patchy distributional range I would say roughly fewer than 10,000 individuals, but there is no science behind that estimate. We don't know yet how females overlap territories, and the Amazon is so large that is hard to estimate where the species is and where it is not. With the popularization of camera trap studies, especially in the Amazon, we can do a better job of figuring out where the species is never recorded and where it is.

Mongabay: Why should people care about the short-eared dog? Renata Leite Pitman: Because it is a fragile species facing so many threats that it could easily go extinct soon. In the forest, it faces so many predators and competitors. The impact of domestic dogs is almost invisible, but short-eared dogs are probably getting sick in the forest and dying in remote places where people can't see them. This is happening before we even know the species well. And because they are known to inhabit mostly pristine places, or little-impacted areas, their presence can indicate whether a habitat is healthy or not.

Renata Leite Pitman is member of the Species Survival Commission-SSC / IUCN Canid Specialist Group since 2000. She is Research Associate at the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University and at the Frankfurt Zoological Society - Avisa/Peru. She is the Director of the Center for Atlantic Forest Conservation in Brazil, and Volunteer at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA. She spends her time in between U.S,, Peru and Brazil, where she owns a four-acre reserve in one of the most threatened forests: the Araucaria Forest, entangled in the middle of the also threatened Atlantic Forest, where she and her husband are recovering its natural vegetation since 1998.

Her research wouldn't be possible without the help of DGFFS (Direccion General de Fauna e Flora Silvestre)—SERFOR/Peru, Wildlife Materials, Ideawild, Disney Conservation Fund, CI-Conservation International, Word Wildlife Fund, Amazon Conservation Association, The Conservation, Food and Health Foundation and National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants, and the effort of over 40 volunteers who gave the best fuel to this project.

This is what it looks like when a four meter long boa constrictor regurgitates a short-eared dog. This was Lacy's unfortunate fate. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
This is what it looks like when a four meter long boa constrictor regurgitates a short-eared dog. This was Lacy's unfortunate fate. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

Lacy eating a fruit from the species, Onychopetalum krukovii. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.
Lacy eating a fruit from the species, Onychopetalum krukovii. Photo courtesy of Renata Leite Pitman.

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book. Google+

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28 Aug 22:41

Dominica Will Become First Country in the World to Adopt Bitcoin

Bit Drop Stadium in Dominica.

Bit Drop Stadium in Dominica. (@TheBitDrop)

EspañolFor the first time in history, a country will officially adopt bitcoin as its currency: Dominica, an island republic in the middle of the Caribbean. An event to mark the occasion will be held in March 2015, thanks to an agreement between local authorities and representatives of Coinapult, Aspen Assurance, Bitcoin Beauties, and the College Cryptocurrency Network (CCN).

The initiative, known as “Let the Bit Drop,” will send a small of amount of bitcoin to every island resident via text message. This effort will turn Dominica, and its more than 70,000 residents, into the most densely concentrated bitcoin community in the world.

“The objective is simply to increase bitcoin adoption. We are going to create tens of thousands of new bitcoin users overnight. Of course, we hope that these people enjoy and continue to use bitcoin, and that the project provides proof of concept to similar communities all around the world. We want a thousand Bit Drops,” said Ira Miller, CEO of Coinapult, in an exclusive interview with the PanAm Post.

Enigmatic Release Date a Tribute to Mathematics

The launch date chosen by organizers, March 15, 2015, at 9:26 a.m., coincides with Pi Day, a global celebration of the mathematical constant.

“Pi is an objective, mathematical truth, not a human creation. Everyone can understand, use, and be empowered by Pi. Bitcoin applies the same objectivity and openness to financial transactions,” says Miller, referring to the underlying mathematical principles of bitcoin that he believes allows the currency to provide security and transparency.

“Also, Pi Day is conveniently right after Carnival, one of the most glorious of all imperfect, human creations,” he added.

The day of the “Bit Drop,” organizers will celebrate the currency launch with a nationwide party with various musicians and celebrities in attendance. They plan to hold raffles and host informational booths with introductory and educational material related to the cryptocurrency.

Another project partner, the Cryptocurrency College Network (CCN) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), will be in charge of distributing educational material throughout the island and explaining bitcoin’s various uses and advantages. They will also work to educate local Dominican retailers on the benefits of accepting bitcoin as payment.

Coinapult CEO, Ira Miller, and Kenneth Darroux, Dominican Minister of Environment and Planning.

Coinapult CEO, Ira Miller, and Kenneth Darroux, Dominican Minister of Environment and Planning. (Coinapult)

Funding for the purchase of bitcoins that will be distributed for free to the general public will come from donations and sponsors wishing to participate in the project.

As for the connection between organizational partners and the authorities of the island, Miller says his relationship with local officials is primarily for educational purposes.

According to the CEO of Coinapult, the officials he has spoken with are open to the initiative because they believe in the economic potential that bitcoin can offer the Caribbean island.

Those interested in donating to help the project see a successful launch can visit letthebitdrop.com. Sarah Blincoe, the leader of the project, told the PanAm Post that those who donate 0.1 bitcoins or more will be entered into a drawing to win an all-inclusive trip to join the celebration.

Dominica’s Bitcoin Opportunity

Geographically, Dominica is located in the Caribbean, north of Venezuela and southeast of the Dominican Republic. Dominica is a republic that forms part of the British Commonwealth, with an unemployment rate of 23 percent and a low annual rate of inflation of 2.1 percent.

According to data from the Heritage Foundation, Dominica is above the world average in terms of its economic liberalization, but has high levels of internal corruption.

In 2008, Dominica joined ALBA, the regional commercial alliance led by Hugo Chávez, which maintains a socialist economic view.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

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29 Aug 00:00

Writing Skills

I'd like to find a corpus of writing from children in a non-self-selected sample (e.g. handwritten letters to the president from everyone in the same teacher's 7th grade class every year)--and score the kids today versus the kids 20 years ago on various objective measures of writing quality. I've heard the idea that exposure to all this amateur peer practice is hurting us, but I'd bet on the generation that conducts the bulk of their social lives via the written word over the generation that occasionally wrote book reports and letters to grandma once a year, any day.
28 Aug 21:44

Teaching A Fish To Walk

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

Carl Zimmer unpacks a fascinating new study on bichirs (a type fish that “mostly live in lakes and rivers” but “will sometimes crawl across dry land with their fins”):

McGill scientists wondered what would happen if they forced the fish to grow up out of the water. To find out, they reared eight bichirs in a terrarium with a pebble-strewn floor. To prevent the bichirs from drying out, the scientists installed a mister to keep their skin moist. The fish grew for eight months, clambering around their terrarium instead of swimming.

Then the scientists examined these fish out of water. They found that eight months on dry land (or at least moist land) had wreaked profound changes to the bichirs.

For one thing, they now walked differently. Overall, they were more efficient. In each step, they planted their fins on the ground for less time, and they took shorter strides. Instead of flapping their fins out to each side, they placed their fins under their bodies. Their fins slipped less when they pushed off of them. They made smaller movements with their tails to go the same distance as a bichir raised underwater. Aquatic bichirs walk on land with an irregular gait. The terrestrial bichirs, on the other hand, walked more gracefully, planting their fins in the same spot relative to their bodies time after time.

Noah Baker adds that, beyond the fishes’ new walking style. “their bone structure and musculature changed to be more suited to a walking lifestyle”:

The results provide evidence for developmental plasticity, in which organisms alter their anatomy and behaviour in response to environmental change. The team suggests that this process, as demonstrated by the bichir, could have given the earliest tetrapod ancestors the ability to venture onto land. In doing so, claims [lead author Emily] Standen, they would have become exposed to the selective pressures of a terrestrial environment, thereby speeding up the evolutionary transformation from fins for swimming into limbs for walking.

04 Aug 02:41

Chip-based credit cards are a decade old; why doesn’t the US rely on them yet?

Adam Victor Brandizzi

Interessante artigo, mas me surpreendo com a leveza com que fulano reclama de melhoras possíveis pedindo para esperar algo que não existe.

Earlier this week, mobile payments company Square announced that it had developed a credit card reader that will verify purchases from an embedded chip on the card. Currently, US consumers primarily rely on swipe-and-sign credit cards, which give card details to a merchant through the magnetic stripe on the back. But because the swipe-and-sign system became overburdened with instances of fraud, MasterCard, Visa, and other financial groups decided in 2012 that they would transition their systems to a chip-based setup called EMV (eponymous for EuroPay, MasterCard, and Visa, the three primary developers of the standard) by October 2015.

Square is hoping to capitalize on this transition by being one of the first companies out of the gate in the US to offer small and medium-sized business owners a smaller, less-expensive alternative to buying a whole new set of credit card terminals.

The EMV standard works using a chip that's embedded in a credit card, which effectively acts as a mini-computer. Instead of swiping quickly and having your card give its details to a merchant's point of sale (POS) system, an EMV card creates a unique code for each transaction and (ideally) requires the consumer to enter a PIN associated with the card instead of relying on a signature. Because of this, EMV is often called chip-and-PIN. Making a purchase with an EMV card also requires the card to be present in the card reader throughout the transaction.

But this technology is not new. The EMV standard was first developed in 1994 as a way to reduce magnetic stripe credit card fraud. Most of Europe, as well as Australia, Brazil, and other major countries, have been using EMV for years. So what's taken the US so long? And now that the standard is decades-old, do we even want it anymore?

The inevitable

Although moving to a chip-and-PIN system in the US had been in the works for years, the end of 2013 was a particularly bad year for high-profile credit card fraud—Target specifically saw breaches that lead to the loss of 40 million credit card numbers as well as information belonging to 70 million customers. Similar scams were soon uncovered at Neiman Marcus, Michaels, and a host of other big-name retailers. Regulators, banks, and retailers themselves were in a position to push hard for a transition to chip-and-PIN. Even if the system wouldn't necessarily have prevented the credit card breaches, it was still an alternative that could reduce fraud in general. In February, Target's CEO, as well as some payments experts, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to promise that big-name banks and merchants alike would adopt EMV by late 2015.

As Ars reported in January, Target's breach was likely the result of malware on the retailer's POS systems that watched the systems' memory, searching for “credit card data before it has been encrypted and sent to remote payment processors.” Julie Conroy, research director for Aite Group’s Retail Banking practice, wrote in a June paper that “While EMV would not have stopped the [Target] breach, it certainly would have impeded the criminals' ability to monetize it,” because EMV makes it more difficult to counterfeit cards after the cards' information has been stolen.

What were we waiting for?

The United Kingdom was one of the first places EMV was rolled out. In the early 2000's "the authorization environment was a key driver for the UK's high card fraud figures," a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta attests. In a conversation with Ars, Conroy explained that before EMV was first made available in the early 2000's, telecommunications infrastructure in places like the UK was relatively expensive to use constantly, “so when you went to make a purchase at that time, when the credit card got scanned through, you had an offline authorization process where the credit card would get swiped, and the merchant would store up all of the transactions for the day.” At the end of the day, the merchant would send the credit card details back to the issuer for verification, but that lag meant that criminals had more time to commit fraud.

That telecom cost was not as prevalent in the US, where merchants didn't need to batch up transactions to send back to the issuer. Instead, merchants sent off credit card information as they received it, and merchants could be alerted more quickly to the use of a stolen card. According to Conroy, in 2004, 0.14 percent of total credit card transactions were fraudulent in the UK, whereas 0.05 percent were fraud-based in the US where card information was not kept in batches.

So in the early 2000's, it was cost-effective to move to chip-and-PIN for UK merchants and banks, but not as necessary for US banks. Indeed, according to Aite Group's research, after the move to chip-and-PIN, counterfeit card fraud losses in the UK decreased almost 66 percent from 2005 to 2013, and fraud losses from lost or stolen cards decreased almost 44 percent.

Beth Kitchener, a MasterCard representative, explained the US's lagging transition to the EMV standard to Ars in more colorful terms. “Keep in mind that it’s no small feat to migrate an entire payments system,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It is comparable to declaring that US drivers will now drive on the left-hand side of the road and changing all the road signs and highway entrance and exit ramps and reprogramming all the GPS systems.”

Surely that metaphor is a little hyperbolic, but without a monetary incentive it's difficult to convince merchants that they need to buy new terminals, even if credit card companies are already issuing cards with embedded chips to customers. Square is pioneering a product for small-scale businesses to equip themselves for the October 2015 transition, and it thinks it will make quite a bit of money off that. “Let’s just say, we’re a five-year-old company that’s spent more than a year anticipating a shift that’s more than a year away,” a spokesperson at Square told Ars in an e-mail. Even at that, the Square EMV reader isn't a true chip-and-PIN solution yet, because at launch it won't be able to accept a PIN from the card holder—the reader is currently only set up to accept a signature to verify the card details.

Enlarge / Square's new EMV reader.

A decades-old standard is not a solution

For all the benefits that the EMV system apparently offers, there are a few problems with it as well. Of course, EMV doesn't eradicate credit card fraud. It only reduces it. Since the UK implemented chip-and-PIN, criminals hardly sat back and accepted defeat; instead they've looked for ways to break the standard, with some success. The Aite report says, “The organized crime rings behind the attacks on the financial services value chain ... adjusted their tactics and found ways to skim and capture the PIN, and as a result, the UK's lost/stolen fraud increased 2011 through 2013, while counterfeit card fraud increased slightly in 2012 and 2013.”

Furthermore, oft-cited research from the Computer Laboratory of the University of Cambridge has showed that it is possible to hack card-reader terminals so that the terminal will accept any PIN the criminal inputs. “EMV is a toolkit with which you can produce fairly secure systems or totally rubbish ones,” Professor Ross Anderson, one of the researchers who contributed to the Cambridge research, told Ars in an e-mail. “It all depends on implementation, as we've shown in a series of papers over the years. Not all US banks will get it right—you can bet on that!”

Square says that in building its EMV reader, the company “worked closely with EMVco for certification and you can find Square listed on their official site.”

“For the Square Reader for chip cards, we wrote everything from scratch,” Square added.

Another concern is the liability shift that will happen when EMV becomes the standard. Today in the US, law dictates that the card issuer will bear the responsibility for fraud. During the transition, that liability will shift to the merchants until the transition is complete, at which point liability will go back to the card issuer. Conway explained: "If there is counterfeit card fraud at the point of sale, issuers bear that liability. In a post-EMV enviroment, if the card itself was EMV capable, but the terminal at the merchant was not, the merchant is laibale. If both sides of the equation are EMV capable, the issuer will still bear liability for fraud."

But not everyone thinks the liability shift will be as simple as that. Credit card companies notoriously charge high fees to merchants for transactions, as insurance for having to cover fraud liability. Anderson urged caution in thinking that everything would go back to normal after the liability shift: “Once merchants use EMV, the fraud risk passes to the bank—which will look for ways to blame the customer.”

If EMV has all these issues, why should the US move over to the new, old standard in the first place? Some suggest that we should wait for a newer and more secure standard before expending resources shifting systems. According to a study by The Nilson Report, in 2012 the US accounted for less than a quarter of the world’s payment card volume, but it incurred almost half of the fraud losses. And instances of fraud increased by 14.6 percent from 2011. Numbers like that have the credit card industry, the US government, and many major retailers itching to do something, even if the solution is not quite perfect. Their sentiment may be best summed up by Conway, who told Ars, “Chip-and-PIN is proven, if we were try try and wait for something to leapfrog chip-and-PIN, we would see increases in fraud go to the 20 or 30 percent range, and lose basic interoperability [with other countries]. Taking this incremental step is the right thing to do."

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28 Aug 17:23

An Actual Exit from Climate Hell

by Bill McKibben
by Bill McKibben

Earlier today I went after libertarians for their troubles with climate change. But it’s conservatives in general that have been the real hypocrites here, given that the least conservative thing you can possibly imagine would be running the temperature of the earth way out of the range where human civilization has previously thrived. And the irony is, some of the most obvious ways out are… kinda conservative. Or at least should appeal to conservatives who are not, in reality, shills for the fossil fuel industry. Yes, given that we’ve delayed as long as we have we need a big government effort to put in renewable energy, and yes we need wholesale shifts in who holds power (the key new text on climate change will be Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, due for release next month). We also need to provide massive aid for the countries we’ve endangered by our unchecked carbon emissions. But one of the big changes we require is remarkably conservative in nature.

It’s called Cap and Dividend, long proposed in one form or another by the great climate scientist James Hansen and by an excellent advocacy group called the Citizens Climate Lobby. It derives from the work of Peter Barnes, who has a fine new book called With Liberty and Dividends for All. Let today’s Washington Post editorial page explain:

A prominent member of Congress has proposed a comprehensive national climate-change plan. It’s only 28 pages long, it’s market-based, and it would put money into the pockets of most Americans.

His proposal would put a limit on the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, a cap that would decline each year. Beneath that cap, companies would have to buy permits for the emissions their fuels produce. The buying and selling of permits would set a market price for carbon dioxide. The government would rebate all of the revenue from selling permits back to anyone with a Social Security number,more than offsetting any rise in consumer prices for 80 percent of Americans. Most upper-income people, who use more energy, and government, which would get no rebate, would pay more under the plan.

Every time you ratcheted down the cap on carbon (in order to keep the planet from being wrecked, which would be… expensive) the dividend check would rise; therefore there’d be far less political opposition to doing the right thing. And this plan posits a different understanding of the world: if anyone owns the atmosphere, it’s us, not Exxon. Since the fossil fuel industry currently gets to use the atmosphere as a free dump, there will doubtless be opposition from the likes of the Kochs. But this is a sensible, straightforward plan.

28 Aug 12:32

The Working Class Have Little Room For Error

by Dish Staff
by Dish Staff

David Sheff was struck by that fact during a recent visit to the impound lot:

I took a cab and entered a single-story brick building where a few dozen people were crowded together in a scene that evoked Kafka; weariness, frustration and anger were palpable. Some stood in line, some paced and some sat hunched on the floor. A family huddled in a corner, an infant asleep on the father’s shoulder. A woman on a pay phone wept as she begged whomever was on the line to find money so she could get her car back–she said she needed $875. “I’m gonna lose my job if I’m not there at 5.”

Clerks sat on stools behind Plexiglas. At a window, a man pleaded with an agent, “I have to pick up my kids in less than an hour. What am I supposed to do?” At the next window, another man railed loudly and furiously, yelling, “How the hell am I supposed to get my goddam money if I can’t get to goddam work?” The clerk said, “If you can’t get cash, you can pay by credit card or cashier’s check.” The man shouted, “And if I had a goddam limousine, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

25 Aug 11:00

O que aprendi sobre a Alemanha

by Drunkeynesian
Algumas surpresas que descobri numa curta temporada na terra do lado certo dos 7 a 1 (saque-as naquela discussão de boteco em que alguém solta o inevitável "essas baixarias só acontecem no Brasil"):

—Brandenburg, o novo aeroporto de Berlim, vem sendo construído desde 2006. Inicialmente, a inauguração era prevista para novembro de 2011; depois, foi adiada para junho de 2012. Semanas antes do início das operações, o órgão supervisor anunciou um novo adiamento (de nove meses) por causa de falhas no sistema anti-incêndio. A promessa mais recente de inauguração é 2016, mas os jornais dizem que a estimativa mais realista é 2018. O orçamento inicial, de 2,8 bilhões de euros, foi aumentado em junho para 5,4 bilhões;

—O Hertha, maior time de futebol da capital, é patrocinado pela Deutsche Bahnhof, quase monopolista controlada pelo estado (mas de capital misto, tal qual a Petrobras) responsável pelas ferrovias alemãs;

—Annette Schavan, ministra da educação até fevereiro do ano passado, perdeu o título de doutorado (e o cargo) depois de uma acusação de plágio em sua dissertação;

—O governo de Gerhard Schröder concedeu um empréstimo de um bilhão de euros à petrolífera russa Gazprom semanas antes do fim da liderança dele, em 2005. Logo depois, Schröder foi contratado pela Gazprom para um cargo executivo (esses últimos dois itens estão num texto recente do Perry Anderson que apareceu traduzido em uma edição recente da piauí);

—Bônus, Espanha (também do texto do Anderson): Luis Bárcenas, tesoureiro do partido do primeiro ministro por 20 anos, está preso por ter acumulado 48 milhões de euros em uma conta não-declarada na Suíça. Quando o escândalo estourou, Rajoy mandou uma mensagem de texto a Barcenas dizendo: "Luis, eu entendo. Fique forte. Ligo para você amanhã. Um abraço."
27 Aug 19:39

Xeque Boustani e rabino Schlesinger debatem em São Paulo Paz e Jihad

27 Ago 2014 | 15:35
Imprimir

Com lotação mais que total, o Teatro Eva Herz, da Livraria Cultura, em São Paulo, recebeu na noite desta terça, 26 de agosto, muçulmanos e judeus para um debate entre Michel Schlesinger, rabino da Congregação Israelita Paulista (CIP) e representante da Conib para o diálogo inter-religioso, e o xeque Houssam Ahmad El Boustani, que ensina no Brasil islamismo e língua árabe, sob os auspícios do Movimento Futuro, do Líbano. O evento, promovido pela CIP e pela Conib, teve mediação do sociólogo Demetrio Magnoli.

O tema central, “Ensinamentos de islamismo e judaísmo para a paz”, evoluiu para a discussão de questões políticas e históricas, com grande participação do público e visível entusiasmo do xeque, por poder falar também para os judeus.

Boustani iniciou lembrando a “qualidade e o caráter” de todos os profetas, com Maomé sendo o último mensageiro na corrente. Ele notou que no Corão a paz é a regra; a guerra, exceção. “A paz aparece 42 vezes; a guerra, apenas duas. O mais honrado perante Deus é o mais piedoso”.

Schlesinger observou que a palavra mais conhecida da língua hebraica é “Shalom” [Paz], dita quando se chega e quando se sai. E lembrou que no Tratado de Shabat, no Talmud, Deus é chamado de paz.

Para ele, há uma evolução, no Tanach [Velho Testamento], no sentido da paz. “A relação entre irmãos, desde Caim e Abel, é complicada em todo o Tanach, mas o Deus ‘militar’ do Gênesis vai se transformando no Deus do diálogo. Para os profetas, a paz é o principal objetivo de Deus. A conclusão: a paz é construção, conquista”.

Magnoli perguntou a ambos se há algum obstáculo legítimo para a paz no Oriente Médio situado no campo da religião.

Schlesinger respondeu que os fanáticos fazem “uma leitura possível” dos textos sagrados, mas não há barreiras religiosas para a paz. Para Boustani, o Corão é dogmático apenas para os “interesseiros”: “a paz é para pessoas sinceras, sem sinceridade, não há paz”. Ele ressaltou: o problema é o uso “partidário” da religião.

Em pergunta específica a Schlesinger, Magnoli citou o escritor israelense David Grossman, para quem a ocupação dos territórios é um veneno para a sociedade israelense. Michel disse que entende a colocação, mas lembrou que Israel desocupou Gaza em 2005, e teve grande decepção com os resultados.

Para Boustani, a pergunta simétrica: “O antissemitismo no mundo islâmico é um veneno?”. Magnoli lembrou da negação do Holocausto, por Ahmadinejad, a e venda livre do panfleto antissemita “Protocolos dos Sábios de Sião”. O xeque disse que há duas correntes no mundo árabe: uma reconhece o Holocausto; outra não reconhece o número de mortos. “Mas basta ser neutro; Ahmadinejad fazia provocação”.

Magnoli referiu-se ao livro “Secret Landscape”, de Meron Benvenisti, que aborda a mudança de nomes de localidades árabes em Israel, após a Guerra de 1948, denotando o uso da linguagem como “exercício de poder”. Schlesinger respondeu que as narrativas dos dois lados têm verdades e “não é relevante saber quem chegou lá primeiro, mas sim o que fazer hoje”.

Para Boustani, nova pergunta: “O Islã é hoje associado à Jihad, ao atraso. O que o Islã moderno tem a dizer sobre liberdades políticas, individuais, das mulheres, etc?”. O xeque respondeu com outras perguntas: “Quem está por trás disso? Quem quer a guerra? Por que a comunidade internacional não reagiu ai crescimento do ISIS?” Ele acrescentou que Al-Qaeda e Talibã são partidos que usam o nome do Islã e levam a um mau entendimento da palavra Jihad.

O público perguntou sobre a “falta de direitos das mulheres, em ambas as religiões”. O xeque disse que há governos, mas não há um Estado islâmico. “Os governos religiosos não entendem o respeito ao outro. Eu sou favorável a um Estado laico. O Corão tem capítulos específicos dedicados às mulheres, mas os direitos delas são ignorados por muçulmanos ignorantes”. Ele se referiu à Arábia Saudita, onde as mulheres são impedidas de dirigir: “Nos tempos de Maomé, as mulheres andavam a cavalo! A proibição não tem qualquer base, o governo saudita está errado!”.

Schlesinger observou que a maior parte das linhas do judaísmo é igualitária, incluindo correntes dentro da ortodoxia.

Uma questão política vinda do público causou a maior oposição entre xeque e rabino: Schlesinger é a favor da solução de dois Estados para a paz; Boustani prefere um Estado binacional.

Perguntado sobre a posição de partidos religiosos em Israel que defendem a ocupação de territórios pela “antiguidade judaica” na região – um cemitério judaico de 3.000 anos foi citado -, Schlesinger foi taxativo: “Para os fanáticos, a expansão é mais importante que a vida humana.  Não podemos nos preocupar com os cemitérios e sim com aqueles que estão vivos”.

O público pediu a Boustani que abordasse o caso da Turquia, país muçulmano de Estado laico. O xeque comparou-a com a Arábia Saudita. Na primeira, há modernidade; na segunda, tradições e costumes. É o primeiro modelo que o agrada – ele citou também Malásia e Indonésia como exemplos.

Uma pergunta simples levou à resposta mais longa da noite: “O que significa Jihad?”. Boustani veio preparado. Ele abriu uma pasta especial e tirou suas anotações.

“Há um grande engano! Jihad significa ‘esforço’. Não é luta, não é guerra. A palavra é citada quatro vezes no Corão, com dois significados: debate e caminho de Deus”.

Com relação ao primeiro: “O esforço é mental, de estudo, para combater adversários no campo das ideias, mostrando a riqueza na divergência”.

“E o caminho de Deus? Será a luta armada? Há uma Jihad menor, que é o esforço no campo de batalha, e uma Jihad maior, que é a luta espiritual contra os inimigos invisíveis (ganância, inveja, ódio, etc) e pela conciliação. Rabino, fazemos Jihad agora!”.

Magnoli fez a última pergunta: “Nas redes sociais, notamos que os dois lados querem a paz e ato contínuo, criticam o outro. Não poderiam também criticar a si mesmos?”.

Schlesinger afirmou que somos muito eloquentes com relação ao outro; e pouco, com relação a nós mesmos. “As mídias sociais demonizam o outro. Eu mesmo recebi mensagens pouco simpáticas em minha página pessoal, por promover este debate”.

Magnoli resumiu o espírito da noite: “Na guerra, os covardes ficam nas trincheiras. Os corajosos saem e podem tanto levar tiros do inimigo como vaias dos seus. Rabino e xeque são pessoas de coragem”.

Houssam comemorou: “Parabéns, Michel. Nossos filhos nos estão vendo aqui!”.


Rabino e xeque. Foto: Tahia Macluf.


Michel Schlesinger, Demetrio Magnoli e Hassam Boustani. Foto: Tahia Macluf.


Público no Teatro Eva Herz. Foto: Tahia Macluf.




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