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06 Dec 20:49

I dig through archives to unearth hidden stories from African-American history

by Jane Landers, Professor of History, Vanderbilt University
Team member Felix Knight looks through archives at the Church of Espiritu Santo in Havana, Cuba. David LaFevor, CC BY-SA

Many years ago, as a graduate student searching in the archives of Spanish Florida, I discovered the first “underground railroad” of enslaved Africans escaping from Protestant Carolina to find religious sanctuary in Catholic Florida. In 1738, these runaways formed Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first free black settlement in what became the U.S.

The excitement of that discovery encouraged me to keep digging. After doing additional research in Spain, I followed the trail of the Mose villagers to Cuba, where they had emigrated when Great Britain acquired Florida. I found many of them in 18th-century church records in Havana, Matanzas, Regla, Guanabacoa and San Miguel del Padrón.

Today, those records and others live on in the Slave Societies Digital Archive. This archive, which I launched in 2003, now holds approximately 600,000 images dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since its creation, the archive has led to new insights into African populations in the Americas.

An archivist works with a document from Paraiba, Brazil. David Lafevor, CC BY-SA

What we’ve found

The Slave Societies Digital Archive documents the lives of approximately 6 million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European and Asian people with whom they interacted.

When searching for and preserving archives, our researchers must race against time. These fast-vanishing records are threatened daily by tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability and neglect.

The work is usually challenging and sometimes risky. Our equipment has been stolen in several locations. Soon after we left the remote community of Quibdó, Colombia, a gun battle erupted in the surrounding jungles between the government military forces and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as FARC. It’s no wonder that one of our team members called what we do “guerrilla preservation.”

This hard work has allowed us to discover more about the lives of slaves in the Americas. For example, the Catholic Church mandated the baptism of enslaved Africans in the 15th century. The baptismal records now preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for African-American history.

The cover sheet of Baptisms for St. Augustine, dating from 1716. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

These unique documents also offer detailed information regarding the diverse ethnic origins of Africans in the Atlantic world. Once baptized, Africans and their descendants were eligible for the sacraments of Christian marriage and burial, adding to their historical record. Through membership in the Catholic Church, families also generated a host of other religious documentation, such as confirmations, petitions to wed, wills and even annulments.

In addition, Africans and their descendants joined church brotherhoods organized along ethnic lines. These groups recorded not only ceremonial and religious aspects of their members’ lives, but also their social, political and economic networks.

A page of burials of unbaptized ‘Asiaticos’ from the Cathedral of San Carlos de Borromeo in Matanzas, Cuba. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

Previously unknown church records for Havana’s black Brotherhood of St. Joseph the Carpenter document the membership of Jose Antonio Aponte, executed by Spanish officials in 1812 for leading an alleged slave conspiracy. Our records similarly document the marriage and death of another famed “conspirator” – the mulatto poet Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdes, better known as Placido.

Africans and their descendants also left a documentary trail in municipal and provincial archives, including petitions, property registries and disputes, bills of sale, dowries and letters from owners granting slaves their freedom.

Sharing our discoveries

My work in the rich records in Florida, Spain and Cuba taught me how to track early African history elsewhere. Additional grants have allowed our archival teams to expand to new sites in Brazil, Cuba and Colombia and, finally, to digitize the church records for Spanish Florida.

Thanks to those records, and the excavations of archaeologist Kathleen Deagan, Mose, the settlement that I first studied as a graduate student, is today a National Historical Landmark. It boasts a new museum where the Fort Mose Historical Society organizes historical reenactments and community events.

Documents are sometimes found in damaged condition – like these record shards from Matanzas, Cuba. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

Each of the modern nations whose African history we are tracking still struggles with the legacy of slavery. Both scholars and the public who are interested in African heritage can look at these materials to help define national identities in multicultural societies. For example, the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 granted land rights to self-identified quilombolas, or runaway slaves. One group was able to find their ancestors in church records we preserved for the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Since the archive’s inception, we have worked to ensure that these precious materials are freely available to the interested public. Our teams also provide copies of all digitized records to our host churches and archives, as well as donate cameras and other necessary equipment to allow local teams to continue preserving their own endangered history.

Next, we hope to begin a new project in the Dominican Republic, Spain’s first colony in the New World and my childhood home. It boasts many of Europe’s “firsts” in the Western Hemisphere. The capital of Santo Domingo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Spaniards established the first monastery, the first hospital, the first court of appeals, the first university, the first cathedral in the Americas – and a free black town that predates Mose, the site where all this work first started.

Credit: Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA

The Conversation

Jane Landers has received funding from The Black Caucus of the Florida Legislature, Latin American Materials Project, National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Research Grant, British Library Endangered Archives Programme, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Diocese of St. Augustine, the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Vanderbilt University's Jane and Alexander Heard Library.

06 Dec 20:47

White nationalist groups are really street gangs, and law enforcement needs to treat them that way

by Matthew Valasik, Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University

Law enforcement has a classification problem, and it’s making America more dangerous.

For the last two decades, local police and the FBI have categorized the criminal activities of white power groups as isolated incidents or hate-related.

We believe that’s wrong and leads to a lack of understanding of the power of these groups and the direction they are taking. It also leads to the under-policing of these groups.

As criminologists, our research is based on the rationale that “alt-right” groups are no different from conventional street gangs.

A uniform definition for a “gang” does not exist among scholars or law enforcement. However, criminal codes usually define a street gang as an ongoing group, club or association composed of five or more individuals that participate in either a felony, simple assault or destruction of property.

Categorizing alt-right groups as gangs would increase the attention they get from law enforcement and likely stem their violence. When police use traditional crowd control techniques to corral alt-right gangs at public demonstrations, it only reduces the chances of violence and does not address the root cause of white supremacy.

Unless law enforcement changes their approach accordingly, these groups will likely continue to grow and contribute to increases in extremist violence, particularly anti-Semitic attacks.

From tweets to the streets

In spite of public perception, scholars point out that the alt-right is not composed of “lone wolves” or a bunch of “Internet trolls.”

Nor is it a monolith with a unified ideology.

Instead, the alt-right is composed of a variety of factions that oppose multiculturalism, feminism, political correctness, globalism, establishment politics and immigration, and support President Donald Trump. The group’s core, however, is a racist movement revolving around beliefs of white nationalism including anti-Semitism and fear of “white racial genocide.”

Over the last two decades, the white power movement has adapted to thrive with the growth of the internet and social media. Digital communication platforms such as message boards, blogs and social media have provided an cheap way to promote white supremacy ideology, recruit members and maintain social ties between members.

Richard Spencer, a leader in the ‘alt-right’ that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Even though the alt-right evolved in the digital world, it has manifested in the real world. Alt-right gangs are regularly seen demonstrating and rallying in public, as in Charlottesville, Berkeley and Portland, Oregon. All of those events ended in violence. Recently, in New York alt-right gangs have abandoned the pretense of peaceful gatherings and are now openly participating in street brawls.

Since 2017, the nonprofit Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League, has documented 54 far-right extremist protests and demonstrations, particularly in more progressive urban centers across the United States.

In the past year, the ADL has also documented more than 900 incidents of white power propaganda on or near college campuses.

Over the last two years, alt-right groups have also engaged in murder, stockpiled firearms and explosives, and plotted terrorist attacks.

The alt-right’s other activities include assault and harassment and hate-related crimes.

Proud Boys: An alt-right gang

Proud Boys is a self-described “Western chauvinist” men’s club that was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes. Like conventional street gangs, many of the characteristics used by scholars and law enforcement to identify a member of Proud Boys are used to identify members of a street gang.

Members are initiated with violent rituals. They routinely gather to socialize in spaces guarded from outsiders. Members are encouraged to engage in criminal acts of violence. Finally, McInnes has publicly called the group a gang – a documented predictor of gang membership.

McInnes claims that Proud Boys have chapters sprouting up all over the globe. There are, however, only about 30 chapters documented in the United States. A half dozen exist in Canada. Even fewer exist across Europe, and McInnes has promised that chapters are “coming soon” to the rest of the globe.

Proud Boys are just one example of three known right-wing groups that are emerging as alt-right gangs.

Rise Above Movement and Atomwaffen Division are two other groups whose members, like Proud Boys, celebrates anti-Semitic violence, stockpiles weapons and regularly participates in violence against counterprotesters.

Responding

Policymakers, law enforcement and analysts have the opportunity to change course and start addressing the lapse in policing of these domestic far-right extremists.

Education and exposure are effective remedies at limiting the racist message of the alt-right. But law enforcement could be more proactive.

A good starting point would be to begin systematically monitoring members of alt-right gangs, particularly individuals that are regularly engaging in street violence. The consistent and responsible collection of information for a gang database can be a tool to effectively target violent crime while also protecting individual civil liberties.

It is equally important for police agencies to be able to easily share such intelligence amongst themselves. This would greatly help police agencies identify those alt-right gang members that are participating in street violence across various jurisdictions.

Next, police agencies could utilize a “focused deterrence” approach that targets problematic groups engaging in violence. Such a strategy concentrates on chronic offenders and sends the message that violence will be met swiftly with enhanced sanctions. It also involves offering opportunities and resources to these individuals, such as vocational training, housing and substance abuse treatment to help end their criminal behavior.

Such approaches have consistently produced significant reductions in gang violence and can be part of the process to limit street violence of alt-right gangs.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

05 Dec 14:43

Understanding Common Knowledge

by Jonathan Bailey
Editing image

When students ask me about plagiarism and citation issues, two questions inevitably come up:

  1. “How do I have to change to not be accused of plagiarism?” (A question I addressed here
  2. “Do I have to cite X?”

Since failure to cite information is not seen as serious as failure to cite text, the first question gets the lion’s share of attention. However, it’s actually the second question that’s often more difficult answer.

That’s because determining what facts and information need citation is not a straightforward one and, very often, the information given to students on the issue isn’t helpful.

The reason is because of one very vague term “Common knowledge.” Though most students and authors know they don’t have to cite common knowledge, there’s little guidance on what exactly what information can be considered “common”

The reason for that is simple: There is no easy answer. Determining what is and is not common knowledge requires looking not just at the information itself, but also the audience it’s intended for. 

The Basics of Common Knowledge

Most students and authors understand that you don’t need to cite work that you created, including ideas and text, and that you don’t need to cite facts and information that are common knowledge.

According to the academic integrity department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), common knowledge can be defined as “information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up.”

This means that, for a piece of information to be considered common knowledge, it must be two things at the same time:

  1. Understood and known by your average reader
  2. Not controversial, meaning that it is simply accepted as fact

As such, a statement such as “1 Miles = 1.6 Kilometers” is likely to be fine without citation. It is broadly understood and there’s no controversy around it. 

However, once you leave behind the most basic information, it gets more and more difficult to determine what is and is not common knowledge. The date of an obscure battle would likely require citation, unless the work is directed at experts in that time period. Likewise a statement such as “Humans have five senses” would require citation because there is significant controversy as to what does and does not constitute a sense.

This creates a real problem, the author, when determining what is and is not “common knowledge” has to anticipate both their audience’s understanding of the topic and their acceptance of the information being conveyed.

This, unfortunately, changes drastically from classroom to classroom. What is common knowledge in a graduate level history class will not always be as such in an eighth grade history class. Likewise, what’s common knowledge in an English class may not be in a physics class later that day.

There are also cultural, national and regional differences in what is and is not common knowledge. For example. parts of US history that are common knowledge in the states wouldn’t be in the UK and vice versa. 

However, since authors aren’t psychic, they aren’t going to be able to perfectly predict what is and is not common knowledge to the reader. As such, mistakes are going to happen, including information that’s not cited when it should have been and information that is needless attributed.

Of those two, the latter is far less hazardous to one’s work but both can be avoided if possible.

Deciding What is Common Knowledge

When determining what is and is not common knowledge, MIT proposes a three questions to ask yourself:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What can I assume they already know?
  • Will I be asked where I obtained my information?

The first question is the easiest. It’s simply asking ” Who is this paper for?” The answer could be as simple as a teacher, the general public or an audience of relative experts in a field. One doesn’t have to anticipate every possible reader of a work, just the general audience it is for.

The second and third questions, however, are the more difficult. Anticipating what your audience knows and accepts is inherently difficult. However, it’s generally best to assume that your audience is, as MIT put it, educated has a reasonable amount of understanding, if not expertise, on the subject.

As a general rule, you should always cite facts, figures and information that you obtained solely through your research in the paper. Even if it is common knowledge to the person reading it, it wasn’t common knowledge to you when you started work.

Similarly, you generally do not need to cite information that was taught in the classroom you’re presenting the paper. If the instructor taught it, it’s safe to assume that they know it and accept it as fact, as with the other students.

In the end, if you’re unsure about what is or is not common knowledge, the best thing to do is either ask your instructor or, if that isn’t possible, cite the content.

Though excessive and needless citation can hurt a paper, it harms it far less than leaving out citations that should have been included.

Bottom Line

When it comes to missing plagiarism, missing a citation on a piece of information or an idea is generally considered less egregious than plagiarized text. Where one is viewed as a mistake, the other is viewed as cheating. One hurts a grade, one hurts academic careers.

Still, it is best to take make sure you understand the rules that surround citing facts and information. It not only prevents accusations of plagiarism but, if done well, it bolsters your arguments and makes your work much stronger.

To that end, following the rules above can help greatly in determining what is and is not common knowledge though. However, if you still find yourself stuck, your best bet is to either speak with your instructor/editor or, if that’s not possible, cite the source.

When it comes to a choice between over-citing and under-citing, it’s clear which one is preferred.

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The post Understanding Common Knowledge appeared first on Plagiarism Today.

04 Dec 12:59

CC Certificate Changes and Improvements for 2019

by Jennryn Wetzler

 

12/6/18 UPDATE: January 2019 courses have only seven tickets left! 

Background: The CC Certificate provides an-in depth study of Creative Commons licenses and open practices, developing participants’ open licensing proficiency and understanding of the broader context for open advocacy. The course content targets copyright law, CC legal tools, values and recommended practices of working in a global commons. The CC Certificate is a 10-week online course for educators and academic librarians.

CC Certificates2018 was a big year for the Creative Commons Certificate program! We beta-tested the first two CC Certificate courses for educators and academic librarians, updated our course content, licensed it CC BY, and shared it with the world; we launched nine official courses for 225 participants, and have since iterated on almost every aspect of the Certificate based on feedback from the global community. As we approach 2019, we are taking stock of 2018’s learnings and now proudly announce updates for the new year.

Our approach to the CC Certificate is one of iteration based on community needs. Each year, we will evaluate what works and what can be improved, based on participant, instructor, and broader community feedback. Thanks to your input and our own lessons learned in 2018, we are making the following changes and improvements:

1) We’re updating our pricing. Why? First, because this program has to be sustainable – our new price will ensure we cover 100% of CC’s cost of delivery, including paying all community instructors who teach, technology and content maintenance, and program expansion and updates, including reaching new audiences and new languages. CC is a non-profit, and we want this program to thrive.

Second, from our initial launch, we knew that there would be some who couldn’t afford to pay full price for the program. As promised, we are creating a scholarship program so the Certificate can be more inclusive of colleagues with less ability to pay, especially CC’s vibrant communities in the Global South. Our new price allows us to build and replenish an annual scholarship fund, offering subsidized CC Certificates to as many participants as possible. Those who pay full price for the course subsidize those who are less able to do so. We will offer at least 15 scholarships in 2019, and hope to provide more as the program grows.

In 2019 and in years to come we will continue to make the CC Certificate both self-sufficient and financially accessible for our global audience.

2) There is more community demand for the Certificate training than CC can currently accommodate. To address this, we have built and will beta-test a CC Certificate Facilitator Training starting in January 2019. Ensuring there are more well-trained and knowledgeable facilitators will allow us offer more CC Certificate courses in the future.

3) While the Certificate program has hosted participants from every global region, we have drawn more participation from the U.S. and Canada. Because the Certificate program is global, we will continue to engage a more global, diverse community by:

  • Developing a scholarship program to support community members’ enrollment, particularly community members from the Global South (as mentioned above).
  • Supporting translations of Certificate content. Community members have already volunteered to translate the Certificate in multiple languages, from Bahasa to Italian to Arabic. We will support translations in a responsible way, ensuring languages are aligned with course developments and annual updates.
  • Developing more local case studies about copyright law and open licensing in different countries. Thanks to participants’ help, we have several case studies drafted.
  • Launching in-person Certificate trainings, or “bootcamps” specialized for select groups that need CC Certification in a short time-frame.
  • Assisting participants with new ways to learn and share with each other, since there is not one platform that works for everyone. For example, we learned a participant in China could only access our epub OER content (available here) rather than content on our main learning platform, Canvas. While we explore new avenues for learning and collaboration, we celebrate the ways participants are already doing this: hosting workshops and conference sessions, developing OER courses, and creating informational flyers for their institutions.
  • Revising the CC Certificate must balance a global, inclusive, and iterative approach with focused, specialized expertise. While we continue to gather participant recommendations and feedback from the global community, we will also launch a CC Certificate Advisory Board of legal and instructional design experts. The Advisory Board will provide input for annual content updates and engage with participants in online course webinars throughout the year.

We are proud of the Certificate we’ve built together so far. We accept anyone interested in taking the Certificate course; our costs are as low as possible, while still offering a scholarship program and maintaining quality content and services; and the course is supporting learners beyond the certification program — several other programs are freely remixing portions of our CC BY licensed Certificate OER for their own audiences. We couldn’t have done it without the contributions of dozens of experts, CC community leaders, and over 100 beta testers from all over the world. Thank you.

We will continue offering the CC Certificate with the greatest flexibility, openness and affordability we can. As such, it is important to us to keep improving the CC Certificate course with community input.

Opportunities for your engagement

In addition to the developments mentioned above, we will explore other improvements to the program in 2019 — making the CC Certificate more inclusive and globally accessible, while ensuring self-sustainability. Have ideas for us?

  • Share your ideas with #cccert on Twitter.
  • Continue to make notes and recommendations via Hypothes.is.
  • Use our CC BY licensed, downloadable and editable CC Certificate content, then let us know what is most useful to you.
  • Sign up to take a Certificate course and engage with the growing Certificate community of participants, alumni, mentors, facilitators, and content experts. Registration for courses in 2019 is open here.
  • Join us for an online Certificate overview and brainstorm session on January 8, exploring how to better deliver the Certificate and support open communities: 18:00 EST/ 23:00 UTC on https://www.uberconference.com/creativecommons

If you cannot join, please share questions in advance. We look forward to working with you!

The post CC Certificate Changes and Improvements for 2019 appeared first on Creative Commons.

04 Dec 12:57

Tell the Senate Not to Put the Register of Copyrights in the Hands of the President

by Katharine Trendacosta

Update 12/03/2018: The December 4 hearing has been postponed, but it could be rescheduled. Keep telling the Senate to vote "no."

With just a week left for this Congress, one of the weirdest bad copyright bills is back on the calendar. The “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act” would make the Register of Copyrights a presidential appointee, politicizing a role that should not be made a presidential pawn.

On Tuesday, December 4, the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration is scheduled to vote on S. 1010, the Senate version of the “Register of Copyrights Selection and Accountability Act” already passed by the House of Representatives as H.R. 1695. If it passes out of the committee, the whole Senate will be able to vote on it with only days left in the 2018 session.

Currently, the Register of Copyrights is appointed by the Librarian of Congress, as the Copyright Office is part of the Library. This bill would take the appointment out of the hands of the Librarian and put it in the hands of the President.

The Register of Copyrights does a number of important, nonpartisan, non-political jobs. As the name implies, they register copyrightable material. But they are also charged with providing advice to Congress and “information and assistance” to others in the federal government on copyright. It’s important to note that, except in rare, narrow circumstances, the Register of Copyrights does not make copyright policy. Congress does.

The Register of Copyrights does not do the same things the heads of executive departments and judges do. Picking someone for that job the same way those are picked—appointed by the President and a confirmation process in the Senate—does not make sense for it.

Because the Register is charged with providing advice and information and not with making policy, making the job as apolitical as possible is a good thing. A Presidential appointee, chosen for adherence to the beliefs of the President, is more politicized, not less. A Presidential appointment also means more avenues of influence by special interests, including the major media and entertainment companies that continually seek to expand the scope of copyright for their own benefit, not for individual creators or users. The unusual (and possibly unconstitutional) procedure set out in the bill compounds this problem: the Register would be chosen by the President from a list of people compiled by the leaders of the House and Senate, who themselves may be beholden to the entertainment industry and other special interests.

Copyright affects how we interact with so many things, from the obvious—movies, books, and music—to the less obvious—tractors, cars, and phones. And the Copyright Office has a hand in deciding, for example, what kind of research security experts can do. Why? Because Section 1201 of the DMCA makes it illegal to break access controls on copyrighted material without an exemption from the Copyright Office, and security researchers often need to do just that to determine how safe the devices in our homes really are.

When the Copyright Office wades into policy, we get things like its support of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its allowance of MPAA lobbying to undermine the FCC’s plan to bring competition to the cable box market. An appointee charged with an agenda from the President and nominated by politicians who depend on big-money corporate donors for their re-election can only be worse. The Copyright Office has gotten more political over time, but the solution is not to help it along.

We don’t need a Register that is a Presidential pawn. We don’t need this bill. Tell your Senators to vote against it.

Take Action

Tell the Senate not to make the register of copyrights a presidential pawn

03 Dec 18:12

Trump OKs seismic tests in Atlantic that can harm thousands of dolphins & whales

by Xeni Jardin

Trump's about to make a bunch of whales, turtles, and dolphins go deaf.

The Trump administration is about to take a preliminary step toward oil and natural gas drilling off the Atlantic shore, by approving requests from energy companies to conduct “deafening seismic tests that could harm tens of thousands of dolphins, whales and other marine animals,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

The information was revealed in a NOAA call with reporters.

“The Trump administration is ignoring threats to whales, dolphins and other marine life to further its ongoing quest for energy dominance,” says the National Parks Conservation Association:

The Trump Administration today advanced plans related to offshore drilling exploration in the Atlantic Ocean, threatening whales, turtles, fish and marine life near 33 coastal national parks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Fisheries Service issued Incidental Harassment Authorizations, allowing companies to disturb federally protected marine mammals through seismic airgun testing. Such testing would take place along the coast from Delaware to central Florida, with far-reaching threats to marine life up and down the eastern seaboard.

Five companies applied last year to search for oil and gas deposits beneath the Atlantic seafloor using seismic airgun technology. The technology involves shooting loud blasts of compressed air down into the seafloor to locate underground deposits of fossil fuels. Today’s approval serves as a final procedural step before approving permits for five companies.

Scientists have warned that this practice threatens whales, dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life, and may force these animals from their feeding, breeding or calving habitats. Seismic airgun use has been linked to the stranding deaths of whales, dolphins and porpoises, and can cause deafness and other impairment in animals.

From Whales.org:

November 30, 2018-Today, the Trump Administration announced it will authorize five permit requests to conduct seismic testing along the US East coast, a year-round habitat for endangered North Atlantic right whales. Seismic surveys are used to search for deposits of fossil fuels by emitting loud pulsing sounds every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day. These pulses are known to harass, harm, and even kill whales and dolphins.

Once abundant in the eastern and western North Atlantic, only an estimated 411 North Atlantic right whales survive in a reduced habitat range along the East Coast of the United States and Atlantic Canada. Since April of 2017, an unprecedented loss of 20 right whales from human impacts has drastically reduced the population, putting them at risk of extinction. Both visual and acoustical data confirm that right whales use the mid-Atlantic region of the US year round to feed, socialize, and nurse calves. Furthermore, research shows that man-made noise increases stress hormones in right whales which can impact their ability to reproduce and lower their immune systems.

“North Atlantic right whales, a species already imperiled by humans, are now being pushed closer to extinction, not only from loud and stressful seismic testing, but from the long term risk of future oil spills” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The risk of oil spills has been an ongoing concern for east coast communities, more than 200 of which have openly opposed offshore drilling.

Emerging research underscores the critical role North Atlantic right whales play in the ecosystem by supplying nutrients to phytoplankton, which produces most of the world’s oxygen, is the base on which fish stocks depend, and is a major pathway for carbon sequestration. Furthermore, the long term impacts from potential oil spills are significant. Research after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill estimated that the true death toll to whales and dolphins could be 50 times greater than the number of animals found.

WDC is fighting to save North Atlantic Right Whales. You can DONATE AND HELP.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The planned Friday announcement by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the Commerce Department, to issue "incidental take" permits allowing companies to harm wildlife is likely to further antagonize a dozen governors in states on the Eastern Seaboard who strongly oppose the administration's proposal to expand federal oil and gas leases to the Atlantic. Federal leases could lead to exploratory drilling for the first time in more than half a century.

In addition to harming sea life, acoustic tests — in which boats tugging rods pressurized for sound emit jet-engine-like booms 10 to 12 seconds apart for days and sometimes months — can disrupt thriving commercial fisheries. Governors, state lawmakers and attorneys general along the Atlantic coast say drilling threatens beach tourism that has flourished on the coast in the absence of oil production.

Seismic testing maps the ocean floor and estimates the whereabouts of oil and gas, but only exploratory drilling can confirm their presence. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill that soiled the Gulf of Mexico resulted from an exploratory drill. Another gulf disaster that looms almost as large has spewed oil for more than 14 years. The Taylor Energy Co. spill of up to an estimated 700 barrels a day started when a hurricane ripped up production wells, and could continue for the rest of the century, according to the Interior Department

The fisheries service announcement comes just a week after the Trump administration released a new report by the U.S. Geological Survey showing that excavating and burning fossil fuels from federal land comprised nearly a fourth of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States over a decade ending in 2014.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the administration published a much larger report by 13 federal agencies projecting the severe economic costs of climate change as coastal flooding and wildfires worsen, and hurricanes become more severe. After the administration's critics accused it of trying to bury the report with a release on Black Friday, President Trump dismissed it out of hand.

This is important and awful. Read the whole story, reported by Darryl Fears: “Trump administration OKs seismic tests that could harm thousands of dolphins and whales.”

29 Nov 21:00

Florida police chief gets 3 years in prison for framing 3 innocent Black men

by Xeni Jardin

For framing innocent black men, a police chief in Florida will go to prison for three years. Impunity is the norm in America for cases like this, so the conviction is a big deal.

Raimundo Atesiano, the former police chief of Biscayne Park, Florida, stands convicted of directing his officers to frame innocent men in a series of unsolved burglaries. He now admits he was trying to please white community leaders, and manipulate property crimes statistics in the town of 3,000 residents.

From the Miami Herald:

“When I took the job, I was not prepared,” Atesiano told a federal judge on Tuesday. “I made some very, very bad decisions.”

His apologies did not sway U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, who on Tuesday sentenced the 53-year-old former cop to three years in prison. He allowed Atesiano to remain free for two weeks before surrendering so he can care for his mother, who is dying of leukemia.

In September, Atesiano pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge of depriving the three suspects of their civil rights because he and the officers charged them without a legal basis. Atesiano’s conspiracy conviction carried up to 10 years in prison.

What about the three men who were falsely arrested in the criminal cops' conspiracy? Not much detail there, but hopefully they'll receive some form of restitution.

29 Nov 20:51

Bohemian Chanukah: 'Is this the eighth night, we light with family?'

by Rusty Blazenhoff

Jewish a cappella group Six13 spun their own adaptation of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in their delightful "Bohemian Chanukah.":

Is this the eighth night
We light with family?
Recall with great pride
Our escape from Greek tyranny?

Kindle the lights
Remember the Maccabees
How did those five boys
Lead us to victory?

Thanks, Jake!

29 Nov 20:39

Watch: Scientist discovers type of spider that nurses its babies with high-protein milk

by Carla Sinclair

Last year, scientist Chen Zhanqi from China noticed a baby jumping spider behaving in a way that baby mammals do: it attached itself to its mother the way baby animals do when suckling milk.

Zhangi decided to closely study jumping spiders along with a colleague, and discovered that their babies actually do suckle milk from their mother's epigastric furrow, which is found on her abdomen. The milk was found to have four times the amount of protein as that of a cow, and the baby spiders suckled until they were considered "sub-adults" at 40 days old. But when the scientists painted over the epigastric furrow to block the flow of milk, the babies died after 10 days.

"Providing milk and long-term care together is virtually unheard of in insects and other invertebrates. And with the exception of mammals, it’s not even that common among vertebrates," according to ScienceMag.org, which makes this discovery all the more fascinating.

27 Nov 17:41

Video: What fascism is...and isn't

by Seamus Bellamy

Fascism is a word we've been hearing a lot of over these past few years, but are the mouths it's falling out of using it correctly? Some times, yeah. Many times, not so much.

This brief video delves into the history of the word "fascism" and explains that, while we're collectively barreling towards a particular flavor of this unsavory state of being, there's plenty of ways, with left and right-wing leanings, to be a fascist.

27 Nov 17:28

Using information security to explain why disinformation makes autocracies stronger and democracies weaker

by Cory Doctorow

The same disinformation campaigns that epitomize the divisions in US society -- beliefs in voter fraud, vaccine conspiracies, and racist conspiracies about migrants, George Soros and Black Lives Matter, to name a few -- are a source of strength for autocracies like Russia, where the lack of a consensus on which groups and views are real and which are manufactured by the state strengthens the hand of Putin and his clutch of oligarchs.

In a new Harvard Berkman Center paper, Common -Knowledge Attacks on Democracy, political scientist Henry Farrell (previously and security expert Bruce Schneier (previously) team up to explore this subject by using information security techniques, and come to a very plausible-seeming explanation and a set of policy recommendations to address the issue.

Farrell and Schneier start by exploring the failures of both national security and information security paradigms to come to grips with the issue: Cold War-style national security is oriented around Cold War ideas like "offense–defense balance, conventional deterrence theory, and deterrence by denial," none of which are very useful for thinking about disinformation attacks; meanwhile, information security limits itself to thinking about "servers and individual networks" and not "the consequences of attacks for the broader fabric of democratic societies."

Despite these limits, the authors say that there is a way to use the tools of information security to unpick these kinds of "information attacks" on democracies: treat "the entire polity as an information system with associated attack surfaces and threat models" -- that is, to think about the democracy itself as the thing to be defended, rather than networks or computers.

From there, they revisit the different disinformation styles of various autocracies and autocratic movements, particularly the Russian style of sowing doubt about what truth is and where it can be found (infamously, Russia's leading political strategist admits that he secretly funds some opposition groups, but won't say which ones, leaving everyone to wonder whether a given group is genuine or manufactured -- there's some excellent scholarship contrasting this with the style used by the Chinese state and also with techniques used by authoritarian insurgents inside of democracies, like Milo Yiannopoulos).

In the paper's framework, the stability of autocrats' power requires that the public not know how other people feel -- for there to be constant confusion about which institutions, groups and views are genuine and which ones are conspiracies, frauds, or power-grabs. Once members of the public discover how many of their neighbors agree that the ruling autocracy is garbage, they are emboldened to rise up against it. Tunisia's dictatorship was stable so long as the law banning dissent could be enforced, but the lack of enforcement on Facebook allowed Tunisians to gain insight into their neighbors' discontent, leading to the collapse of the regime.

By contrast, democracies rely on good knowledge about the views of other people, most notably embodied by things like free and fair elections, where citizens get a sense of their neighbors' views, and are thus motivated to find solutions that they know will be widely viewed as legitimate and will therefore be sustainable.

So when information attacks against democracies sow doubt about the genuineness of movements and views -- when Soros is accused of funding left-wing movements, when Koch Industries' name is all over the funding sources of right-wing think-tanks, when politicians depend on big money, and when Facebook ads and its engagement algorithm pushes people to hoaxes and conspiracies -- it weakens democracy in exactly the same way that it strengthens autocracy. Without a sense of which political views are genuine and which are disinformation, all debate degenerates into people calling each other shills or bots, and never arriving at compromises with the stamp of broad legitimacy.

It's not a coincidence that the right's political playbook is so intertwined with this kind of disinformation and weakening of democracy. A widely held belief on the political right is that the most important "freedom" is private property rights, and since rich people are always outnumbered by poor people, subscribers to this ideology hold that "freedom is incompatible with democracy," because in a fair vote, the majority 99% will vote to redistribute the fortunes of the minority 1%. In this conception, the rich are the only "oppressed minority" who can't be defended by democracy.

This gives rise to the right's belief in natural hierarchies, which are sorted out by markets, with the best people rising to the top (Boris Johnson: "As many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.").

The right's position, fundamentally, is that the "best" people should boss everyone else around for their own good: kings should boss around commoners (monarchists); slavers should boss around enslaved people (white nationalists); husbands should boss around wives and kids (Dominionists); America should boss around the world (imperialists); and rich people should boss around workers (capitalists).

So when Reagan started cracking wise about "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help,'" he was kicking off a long project to discredit the US and its institutions in favor of autocrats, the mythological heroes of Ayn Rand novels whose singular vision was so true and right that it didn't need peer review, checks and balances, or anyone who might speak truth to power. He was initiating the process that led the Trump administration's army of think-tankies to dismantle the US government's multibillion-dollar institutions charged with defending us from food poisoning, plutonium spills, unsafe workplaces, tornadoes and starvation: in the autocrat's view of the world, these institutions' word cannot be taken at face value, because every institution is just a pawn for its bosses' and workers' personal ambitions, featherbedding and pocket-lining.

Unsurprisingly then, Farrell and Schneier's recommended countermeasures for disinformation campaigns cut directly against the right's most cherished policies: get rid of Citizens United and the idea that secret money can fund US political campaigns; limit financial secrecy and make it harder for anyone to claim that US political movements are the inauthentic expression of manipulative foreign disinformation campaigns.

Alongside financial transparency, the authors suggest that vigorous antitrust enforcement, possibly with reclassification of online services as public utilities, would help curb the deployment of ranking algorithms that elevate "engagement" over all else, leading to spirals that drive users to ever-more-extreme and unfounded views and communities (weirdly, this is the one highly selective instance in which the right is calling for a return to pre-Reagan antitrust fundamentals).

For example, before the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian government had extensive control over common knowledge. It required everyone to publicly support the regime, making it hard for citizens to know how many other people hated it, and it prevented potential anti-regime coalitions from organizing. However, it didn’t pay attention in time to Facebook, which allowed citizens to talk more easily about how much they detested their rulers, and, when an initial incident sparked a protest, to rapidly organize mass demonstrations against the regime. The Arab Spring faltered in many countries, but it is no surprise that countries like Russia see the Internet openness agenda as a knife at their throats.

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsevdescribe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair.

This difference explains how the same policy measure can increase the stability of one form of regime and decrease the stability of the other. We have already seen that open information flows have benefited democracies while at the same time threatening autocracies. In our language, they transform regime-supporting contested political knowledge into regime-undermining common political knowledge. And much more recently, we have seen other uses of the same information flows undermining democracies by turning regime-supported common political knowledge into regime-undermining contested political knowledge.

In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

Common-Knowledge Attacks on Democracy [Henry Farrell and Bruce Schneier/ Berkman Klein Center Research Publication No. 2018-7]

Democracy as an information system [Henry Farrell/Crooked Timber]

26 Nov 20:13

Kathleen Petyarre: a brilliant artist whose life was rudely interrupted by colonisers

by Christine Judith Nicholls, Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies, Flinders University
Kathleen Petyarre looking across Atnangker country, Northern Territory, December 2000. Photograph Ian North; courtesy Wakefield Press

The artist Kwementyaye (Kathleen) Petyarre (c. 1938 – 24 November 2018) has died in Alice Springs, surrounded by family and loved ones, at about the age of 80. Alhwarrpe.

“About” that age, because Petyarre was born out bush, delivered by Anmatyerr midwives at Atnangker on Anmatyerr country in Australia’s northeast Central Desert. Petyarre’s birth was not recorded in any official birth register, although it is believed to have taken place between the late 1930s or early ’40s.

Earliest days

Known in childhood as Kweyetemp Petyarre, she and her extended family group moved around their vast desert estate in Anmatyerr country. Their base was Atnangker, a site over which they exerted proprietary rights through the male line. According to principles of systematic rotational navigation they hunted and gathered food and water on the basis of seasonal availability. Their daily cuisine could include emu, kangaroo, perentie, goanna, blue tongue lizard, witchetty grubs, yams, bush plums, bush tomatoes and bush honey.

Kathleen Petyarre and Myrtle Petyarre, Kathleen’s eldest sister, nursing Josie Anne Petyarre, walk up the sandhill or ‘mountain’ as Kathleen describes it, towards the ceremonial site on Atnangker, December 2000. Photograph Ian North; courtesy Wakefield Press.

Anmatyerr women would grind seeds and cook delicious cakes on open fires. Later, the “bush seeds” that flourished on her country would become a signature theme in Petyarre’s oeuvre. Delicately represented by abundant tiny dots that she originally applied with a tyepal, fashioned from a twig and also used by women in body painting, later Petyarre turned to miniature saté sticks, sourced from Indonesia.

Arnkerrth, the Mountain or Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus). Photograph Hans Boessem, Todd Camera Store, Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

During her early years, under the instruction of her paternal grandmother, little Kweyetemp embarked on a highly disciplined classical Eastern Anmatyerr education. This was how she acquired foundational knowledge relating to her principal Dreaming Ancestor, Arnkerrth, the Mountain or Thorny Devil.

A small lizard that looks like a bonsai dinosaur, arnkerrth avoids predators by changing colour to camouflage itself to merge with the surrounding environment, also needing only minimal water to survive. Underpinned by Anmatyerr Law, this small creature would become Petyarre’s greatest and most significant artistic subject.

Kathleen Petyarre, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming (Sandstorm), 2000, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 122 x 122 cm. Private Collection Adelaide.

Meeting a white man for the first time

In the late 1940s, after the second world war, Kweyetemp first encountered a white man. The man was crossing Anmatyerr country with a camel. From behind small shrubs, the children peeked nervously at the strangely hued man and his equally bizarre animal companion. Eventually their father revealed himself and addressed the stranger, offering him food and water, which the interloper desperately needed.

With no rancour, Petyarre informed me that the man, who remained there for some time, insisted that the family cover their nakedness. In turn, he supplied “garments”.

Chuckling, Petyarre reflected on this to me in the following words:

We girls had to wear sacks, flour bags with cut-out hole (sic), for neck and arms. Really itchy one!

The older boys were made to wear army supply shorts. This was in the desert summer heat in excess of 50℃ in the shade. The uninvited interloper simply would not abide with the family’s nakedness.

Becoming ‘Kathleen’

Kathleen Petyarre and relatives at Ilyentye (Mosquito Bore) Utopia, Northern Territory, 6 December 2000. From left: Gracie Ngale, Maggie Pwerle (Kathleen’s mother), Josie-Anne Petyarre, Roseanne Petyarre (Gracie’s daughter), Josiah Kemarre (nicknamed ‘Jo-Jay’), Gracie’s granddaughter Pwerle, Kathleen Petyarre, Sabrina Pwerle. Photograph Ian North courtesy Wakefield Press.

Not far from Atnangker, a pastoral property on Anmatyerr country had been established by whitefellas some years earlier. The latter group named that large stretch of country – bitterly tongue in cheek – “Utopia”.

This led to Petyarre’s family working for the new “owners” of the pastoral lease. In return the family received rations of flour, sugar and tea, but no pay. Unrelenting assimilatory pressure ensued. English names were imposed on all Eastern Anmatyerr people, and Kweyetemp became “Kathleen”.

A school was set up in a silver bullet caravan and Kathleen began working there as the teacher’s aide, insisting that she instruct the children in their natal language, Eastern Anmatyerr. Her close sister Violet worked in the school as a laundress. Older Anmatyerr ladies were charged to sew uniforms with the words “Utopia School” stitched on.

Kathleen Petyarre, Mountain Devil Lizard Dreaming, 1997, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 122 x 122 cm. Thomas Vroom Collection, The Netherlands.

But apropos of the uniforms, there was a catch. Anmatyerr children were permitted to wear the uniforms during school hours only, and were obliged to remove them before returning home in the afternoon. So they left in the same way they’d arrived at school on the same morning – naked.

Violet would wash their uniforms daily, hanging them out to dry overnight so that in the morning, at school, the children would don clean uniforms. Ironic, given that the small settlements that comprised Utopia had very little running water.

“Utopia” is an umbrella term encompassing a cluster of widely dispersed small homelands, once known as “outstations”. In 1977 Jenny Green arrived in Utopia to work as an adult educator, organising workshops in batik method. For kinship-related reasons, 99% of those who attended those workshops were women. These included Emily Kngwarrey (Kathleen’s aunt), Kathleen, Violet and Gloria and the other four Petyarre sisters.

Rodney Gooch at Utopia

In 1987, Rodney Gooch (1949-2002), a flamboyantly “out” gay man, who had been working for the Central Australia Aboriginal Media Association in Alice Springs, was asked to take over the management of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Kathleen wasn’t alone in recollecting that the Eastern Anmatyerr women adored “Ronnie” as they called him.

During his tenure, Gooch introduced acrylic painting on canvas and other media. This was a movement that had started in Papunya in the early ‘70s and took off like wildfire across the arid desert regions.

Kathleen Petyarre, My Country - Bush Seeds (Sandstorm),1999. Private Collection, Adelaide.

Kathleen, whose chronic asthmatic condition arose from an allergic reaction to the fumes generated in batik production, took to the new media like a duck to water.

By the mid-1990s Petyarre had become involved with Adelaide’s Gallerie Australis in Adelaide, which represented her exclusively. Exhibitions of her astonishing artworks were mounted – with art lovers attending in droves.

The Telstra prize

This culminated in 1996 when Petyarre won the coveted major prize: the Telstra Art Award.

But this success was relatively short-lived when Petyarre’s non-Indigenous partner Ray Beamish, a former Darwin “long-grasser”, came forward with a claim that he had painted parts of Petyarre’s artworks, including the prizewinning work. A visual art writer working for The Australian newspaper took up this allegation with gusto, which served to amplify the issue. It became national and even international news.

The protracted period of time that it took to resolve this took an enormous toll on Kathleen’s health: she began shaking with fear, for months barely speaking and not painting at all. The source of Petyarre’s malaise was what she understood to be the theft of the Mountain Devil Dreaming, passed down to her by generations of Ancestors who held sacred copyright over that Dreaming.

Kathleen Petyarre, Thorny Devil Lizard Dreaming (watercourses and rock holes) 1997, synthetic polymer paint on Belgian linen, 122 x 183 cm. Thomas Vroom Collection, The Netherlands.

In 1997-1998, the Board of the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT conducted an enquiry into these allegations. After strenuous investigations and interviews with relevant parties, Board Chair Colin McDonald announced that:

The Board found the allegations of Mr Beamish regarding the authorship of the painting were not proved. Accordingly, there is not basis for interfering with the decision of the judges awarding the 1996 Telstra Prize to Kathleen Petyarre. (24 April 1998).

Fortunately Petyarre eventually returned to painting, and since then her work has been exhibited worldwide – including France, Scotland, Indonesia and the United States. In many instances she travelled to those destinations. Like her Ancestor Arnkerrth, the Old Woman Mountain Devil, Petyarre became a seasoned journeywoman.

Wicked humour

In relation to her personal qualities Kathleen could be imperious, but the attribute I best remember is her marvellous, often wicked, sense of humour. When in 1998 I travelled to the US with Kathleen and her sister Violet, this came to the fore. There was an international conference for Indigenous people worldwide that we attended. The three of us stayed in the same hotel room.

Violet Petyarre (left) and Kathleen Petyarre in Disneyland, California, 1998. Photograph Agnes Love, courtesy Wakefield Press.

One example will suffice. The background to this is that while Kathleen’s understanding of English was very good, her spoken English was so inflected with Anmatyerr language that 99% of English speakers found it unintelligible. It also practically stopped Kathleen and Violet from trying to communicate verbally, although neither is shy.

As a result, all the other conference attendees addressed me as the conduit to the two Anmatyerr women. A very earnest, middle-aged American lady in hippy attire approached me in the presence of the sisters, asking me, “Is it true that they only communicate by telepathy”?

Kathleen remained silent, but using only her hands she gestured towards her mouth in mock-sign language. Hence I responded to the lady by saying, “No, that isn’t true. Of course they talk.” When we returned to our hotel room that evening, all three of us acted out this scenario over and over again, shrieking and screaming with laughter. It must be admitted that our outbreak of unstoppable hilarity was underpropped by a teeny modicum of schadenfreude.

The Old Mountain Devil Woman

The thorny devil is unable to cover country in a straight line – she always takes a semi-circular route across her vast, arid country. This seems an apt metaphor for Kweyetemp Petyarre’s life, which hasn’t followed the trajectory that her younger self had foreseen, perforce veering off and rounding corners that she had never dreamed of in her childhood. That life, so rudely interrupted by the colonisers, was largely held together by her love of her family, and their love for her.

Petyarre also enjoyed being feted as a successful artist, and the travel that involved – arnkerrth is a great traveller.

On the occasion that I interviewed Petyarre on the subject of death, she had this to say:

If I could make wish I like to move straight back into them old days out in spinifex country—good. Life good then — all the time.

Moloch horridus, the Mountain or Thorny Devil, tracks in the sand. Photograph Eric R. Pianka, School of Biological Sciences, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, U.S.A.

The author has received permission from the family to use Kathleen Petyarre’s full name and images of her in this article.

The Conversation

Christine Judith Nicholls does not currently receive any relevant funding, but received a small amount of funding from the then ARTSA as the principal author of the following South Australian Living Artists publication 2000-2001: Nicholls, Christine and Ian North, 2001, Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, Australia, which will soon be republished for the third time. In addition she received modest funding as co-curator of Kathleen Petyarre: Genius of Place, an exhibition that took place at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, opening in 2001.

26 Nov 19:45

Archive of 15,000+ Golden Age Comics

by Mark Frauenfelder

The Digital Comics Museum has over 15,000 Golden Age comic books (all in the public domain). It's a treasure trove of clip art and inspiration for designers and artists.

[via Open Culture]

26 Nov 19:36

'P Is for Pterodactyl' alphabet book teaches kids some anomalies of the English language

by Rusty Blazenhoff

P Is for Pterodactyl: The Worst Alphabet Book Ever is a fun new alphabet book written by rapper Lushlife that shows kids just how nutty the English language really is (rules schmules!):

Turning the traditional idea of an alphabet book on its head, P is for Pterodactyl is perfect for anyone who has ever been stumped by silent letters or confused by absurd homophones. This whimsical, unique book takes silent letter entries like “K is for Knight” a step further with “The noble knight’s knife nicked the knave’s knee.” Lively illustrations provide context clues, and alliterative words help readers navigate text like “a bright white gnat is gnawing on my gnocchi” with ease. Everyone from early learners to grown-up grammarians will love this wacky book where “A is for Aisle” but “Y is definitely not for Why.”

(Blame it on the Voices)

26 Nov 19:35

Without social organizations, social technologies will eat us alive

by Marina Gorbis

The bane of the futurist's existence is that almost daily you see, hear, or read something and want to scream, "I told you so." Sometimes, it's a cause for exhilaration—we got it right—and other times, it makes you angry—why didn't we do something about it earlier, why did we not heed the warning signs?

Right now, I am in the latter state. As stories of Facebook's deflection and manipulation of public opinion dominate the news cycle, I am harking back to things I and others wrote almost ten years ago, in the early days of social media. In 2010, while seeing the great promise of social production (work that involves micro-contributions from large networks of people who often receive "payment" in the form of fun, peer recognition, and a sense of belonging, i.e. social rather than monetary currencies), I started worrying about its shadow side. It seemed that many social media platforms had the potential to re-create the manor economies of the past in the digital world.

Reflecting on the lawsuit brought by bloggers who contributed free content to Huffington Post but didn't get any financial returns when the site was sold for $315 million to AOL, I saw similarities between the medieval and emerging digital manor economies:

Just like digital manor economies today, the manorialism of feudal society in medieval Europe integrated many elements of commons production. In most manors, peasants and tenants were assigned rights to use the commons—pastures, forests, fisheries, soil—within each manor's boundaries…The dark side of manor economics, however, lay in the fact that it perpetuated huge inherited disparities in incomes. So while most of the population in these Middle Age pastoral settings survived at subsistence levels, the lords of the manor were able to live lavishly off the rent, taxes, and free labor the tenants were obligated to supply them with, as well as various fees tenants had to pay for the use of resources such as mills, bakeries, or wine-presses.

Here's looking at you, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Uber, and myriads of other platforms increasingly fueling our media and work environments as well as rapidly rising rates of wealth inequality. Seeing something worrisome ahead, however, is not enough. A responsible futurist has to come up with workable solutions, actions for us to take to shape a more desirable future. This is why I suggested principles for governing and running platforms based on social production in this 2010 essay:

If we are to truly fulfill the promise of technology tools we have created, we urgently need to design new governance models and new ways of creating value. In the least, organizations whose value derives from communities they create should incorporate the governance principles of successful commons organizations and use the same technology platforms that are at the core of their operations for governance purposes. Here are some principles I believe they need to put into practice:

  1. Clearly articulate the promise of the platform to the participants, with all the ensuing rights and responsibilities for members
  2. Create or elect a community governance board (without direct financial incentives to the project) to guide and review major policy and strategy decisions.
  3. Crowdsource major decisions guiding development and evolution of such platforms.
  4. Ensure radical transparency around key decisions and financial metrics.
  5. Create reward structures for management and employees more akin to those of non-profits or coops rather than for-profit entities."

I applaud Facebook's attempts to create an independent body, a kind of a Supreme Court for Facebook, to oversee some of its decisions. However, it's not enough. I think the other principles still stand, and we will probably need to include new ones about ownership and governance of data.

The big question is whether it's too late for Facebook, and other platforms whose business models have been built against commons-based governance and ownership principles, to really change. Here's the dilemma (from the same 2010 essay):

Our technology tools and platforms are highly participatory and social. They take advantage of intrinsic human motivations to contribute in order to be noticed, to share opinions, to be a part of something greater than ourselves. Otherwise how would one explain remarkable success of Wikipedia and many other crowdsourced sites that rely on contributions of volunteers? Our business models, by contrast, are based primarily on monetary rewards. They are mostly hierarchical and non-participatory…And they operate without the kind of transparency of information when applied to their own operations that is at the core of communities they enable.

As many social scientists understand, it is nearly impossible to mix social and monetary rewards and interactions. Once we introduce money, it totally changes the context and the nature of how we interact with each other and with our communities. Unfortunately, our existing social media platforms have used social, commons-based technologies and fit them into money-driven organizational structures. My hope is that either today's social media platforms will evolve organizational structures to fit the promise of these technologies, or that they will be simply washed away to be followed by the next generation of platforms structured and governed to realize the promise of social technologies they are built on.

Marina Gorbis is Executive Director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 50-year old non-profit research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley.

21 Nov 20:43

A most incredible NASA promotional video

by David Pescovitz

"We Are NASA" thrills me more than any science fiction movie trailer, and it's real.

21 Nov 20:37

Finns to Trump: We don't rake our forests

by Cory Doctorow

Donald Trump says that the reason California's forests are on fire is that Californians don't rake their forest floors to clear potential fuel, the way the Finns do.

There are a lot of things wrong with this statement, including the fact that ground cover is key to maintaining wildlife habitats.

But perhaps more importantly, people in Finland don't rake their forests. The Finnish President Sauli Niinisto denies telling Trump that Finns rake their forest floors (Trump claims he learned about Finnish forest-raking from Niinisto).

Finns are posting memes of themselves raking the forest floor, calling the whole thing "rake news" and "raking America great again."

"I was with the president of Finland, and he said: 'We have a much different [sic]..., we're a forest nation.' And they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don't have any problem," he added.

But Sauli Niinisto told the Ilta-Sanomat newspaper raking had not come up when they talked.

"I mentioned [to] him that Finland is a land covered by forests and we also have a good monitoring system and network," he said.

The forestry director of the Finnish Forest Association, Heikki Savolainen, told the newspaper that raking was not usually a forest-management measure.

California wildfires: Finland bemused by Trump raking comment [BBC]

(Image: @aspfors)

21 Nov 20:35

Watch Hackers (1995) for free

by Rob Beschizza

YouTube is (legally) hosting a full-HD copy of Hackers, the seminal 1995 movie introducing mainstream America to the world of amateur logging and hack-and-drag tree poaching in the old Yukon.

21 Nov 20:31

Copyright and the "male gaze": a feminist critique of copyright law

by Cory Doctorow

Film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term "male gaze" to describe the "masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer": in a paper for the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Southwestern Law School professor John Tehranian applies Mulvey's idea to the complex and often nonsensical way that copyright determines who is an "author" of a work and thus entitled to control it, and shows how the notion of authorship reflects and amplifies the power imbalances already present in the world.

Copyright law presumes the existence of an "author" in whom copyright can be vested, but the concept of an author is complicated, especially as media have become more bound up in the cooperation of multiple parties (photographers and subjects, actors and directors, etc).

The actual rules of copyright tend to follow industry practices: that is, the industry arrives at a certain way of doing things, and then there's a dispute, and the courts usually look at how the industry is doing things, and declares that to be the law (or sometimes Congress enshrines into law the existing practices of industry). In industry, there are always power imbalances that reflect underlying social conditions: the person who owns a movie studio has more power than the actors they hire, the record label usually has more power than the musicians it records.

So as courts were asked to develop a theory of authorship, they arrived at the idea that the "author" is the person who commits the work to some tangible medium: the photographer, not the model; and where there are complex processes involved in that tangible fixation, the "master mind" orchestrating the production becomes the author (the director, not the camera operator).

It's no coincidence that the legal concept of authorship disproportionately elevates the parties with the most power to the position of author. The Black musicians who created delta blues didn't write the music down, so they can't be authors -- but the white entertainment industry figures who recorded their music do get to be authors (similarly, when we were deciding which part of the underlying compositions are copyrightable, we decided that the complex polyrhythms of African and Afro-Caribbean music didn't rise to the level of copyrightability, while the melodic elements that European composers concerned themselves with did -- which meant The Beatles could appropriate R&B, but that Black hip-hop artists couldn't sample The Beatles).

This isn't just manifested on the racial lines: it's also very gendered, and increasingly so. Tehranian points to revenge-porn victims who discovered that the compromising hidden camera footage their tormentors had recorded was copyrighted by the peeping tom (who "fixed" the video in tangible form), leaving them with no claim to the work.

This is an incisive and wide-ranging critique and it's saying some important things, but I think that Tehranian comes to a difficult conclusion I can't support: to give the author's interest to more parties, models as well as photographers, camera-people as well as directors, actors as well as studios, etc.

While this sounds like a fair notion, it ignores the existing problem of "rights thickets," where getting permission from all parties to make normal creative uses/re-uses requires tracking down many different entities, any of whom can exercise a veto. Some of Tehranian's examples involve men who use copyright to stifle the artistic expression of women, and increasing the number of parties who get a copyright veto over creative endeavor will not make this problem better.

I'm not sure how to fix all the problems Tehranian raises, but here are a few possible fixes:

* Tighten up the rules about which activities copyright covers. Copyright was designed to be the ruleset for regulating industrial activity within the entertainment sector. There is no set of rules that can serve that purpose well if it also supposed to regulate every time we copy anything -- rather than rejigging copyright so that the victims of voyeurs can control the footage, let's take peeping tom videos out of copyright (because they are not entertainment product, they are evidence of crime), and then let's create rules suitable for letting those peeping tom survivors control the use of the footage on the basis that it is nonconsensual and immoral, not on the basis that it infringes copyright.

* Help actors and musicians get a better say in their works by giving them inalienable rights (the right to a share of the compensation from the use of their works, the right to demand reversion after a relatively short period) and by encouraging and strengthening their performers' unions.

* Stop allowing mergers among media companies (and other companies in highly concentrated sectors). Break up the existing conglomerates. Reduce the bargaining power of the entertainment industry's monopolists.

Most of this is outside of the scope of copyright. The problems Tehranian identifies are problems of fundamental societal imbalances, reflected in copyright (just as they are reflected in other domains). Just because we know where to find a lever labeled "copyright" it doesn't follow that we can fix all our problems by yanking on it.

When Erin Andrews found out that intimate footage of her had leaked online, the authorship-as-fixation doctrine told her that the felon who illicitly captured the recording owned the copyright to the work, not her. She remained powerless for over two years as the law reduced her to a passive subject, deprived of control over representations of her own body. Copyright’s male gaze, empowered by its authorial vesting regime, stripped An- drews of agency, allowing her to exist purely for the visual pleasure of those who watched the video online.

When Lynn Thomson’s creative partner, Jonathan Larson, died tragically just hours after the final dress rehearsal for the musical Rent, joint authorship’s mutual-intent requirement told her that she had no copyright interest at all in the Broadway hit. Regardless of the extent of Thomson’s contributions to the final version of the musical, the so-called “dominant” author—Larson—did not share in her desire to be co-authors, and, therefore, Rent could not be a work of joint authorship. Based on the collaborative and non-hierarchical approach she took towards artistic endeavor, the mutual-intent requirement deprived Thomson of agency over her creative output. She suffered a loss of both economic participation in and control over her work, even though she never signed away any rights by contract. In short, copyright law’s mutual-intent requirement achieved what private contracting, with its already broad deference to bargaining power, could not. Rent became the exclusive product of the Larson Estate’s gaze, not hers.

When Fearless Girl took on Charging Bull and challenged its unabashedly masculine celebration of American capitalism by calling attention to the underrepresentation of women on Wall Street, copyright law told her that she might constitute an unauthorized derivative work, lacking in copyright protection (i.e., lacking cognizable authorship) and facing potential destruction. The viability of her narrative of resistance and her subversion of a dominant, patriarchal epistemology rested in the hands of the derivative-works doctrine, which patrols the lines designating where authorship by one person ends and authorship by another begins. The heuristics of authorship therefore determined the authority of the Bull to control just what can and cannot lie in its male gaze.

Copyright's Male Gaze: Authorship and Inequality in a Panoptic World [John Tehranian/Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 41, 2018]

(Image: Daniel Norton, CC-BY-ND)

21 Nov 20:26

CDC: don't eat romaine lettuce

by Seamus Bellamy

If you're planning on taking a salad to your Thanksgiving potluck this year, be wicked careful of what you throw into it: The Centers for Disease Control is currently warning everyone, frigging everywhere to avoid romaine lettuce as if eating it could dose you with E Coli... because there's a pretty decent chance that it will. According to the CDC's Twitter feed for the time being we none of us should be eating "...any romaine lettuce, including whole heads and hearts, chopped, organic and salad mixes with romaine" until they figure out what the source of E Coli is and how much of the romaine supply chain has been contaminated by it. For the complete lowdown on what the CDC knows so far, you'll want to check out their E coli alert page.

For those unfamiliar with it, E coli (Escherichia coli,) bacteria can be found in the guts of healthy folks and many animals. It's fine, for the most part! Some strains of the bug, however, are not so fine. Should one of these strains of E coli get into our systems, typically via the ingestion of contaminated water or food, those stricken by the bug can suffer symptoms ranging fa quick bout of the trots to serious issues with symptoms including severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

So, maybe serve up a kale, iceberg or coleslaw salad this year, instead. It'll give everyone gathered around your table one more reason to be thankful.

Image via Wikipedia Commons

21 Nov 12:30

The Police of the Future Were Going to Soar Over Traffic to Save Lives

by Matt Novak

In the 1950s and 60s, Americans were fascinated by the idea of flying cars and jetpacks that would let people soar above the traffic. But it wasn’t just the average commuter who was supposed to benefit from these space-age technologies. Emergency responders like police and ambulances were going to take to the skies to…

Read more...

16 Nov 19:52

The Florida of ballot-design mistakes is...

by Cory Doctorow

Florida.

Andrew Appel takes us on a tour of the selectively bizarre design decisions that have plagued Florida voters since 2000, when the infamous butterfly ballots allowed GW Bush to steal the presidency from Al Gore, all the way up to this month's election, when Broward County's standards-noncompliant ballots caused 26,000 voters to fail to cast a ballot for a contested Senate race where the current margin of victory is 12,562 votes.

Amazingly, though Florida's ballots are consistently terrible design catastrophes, they are also consistently design catastrophes that penalize Democratic candidates, which is the most amazing coincidence, ever.

By the way, if you’re not sure which party those 26,000 voters might have intended to vote for in the Senate race, look again at Broward ballot. In the race right below the Senate race, one party didn’t even nominate a candidate to run in that Congressional district.

Florida is the Florida of ballot-design mistakes [Andrew Appel/Freedom to Tinker]

16 Nov 19:50

If you're an American of European descent, your stupid cousins have probably put you in vast commercial genomic databases

by Cory Doctorow

Remember when they caught the Golden State Killer by comparing DNA crime-scene evidence to big commercial genomic databases (like those maintained by Ancestry.com, 23 and Me, etc) to find his family members and then track him down?

It's not just him.

If you're an American of European descent, there's a 60% chance that you can be identified from genomic database searches, because even if you've never signed up for one of these junk science services, your stupid cousins have.

That's the conclusion of a group of computer science, computational biology, genomics, and public health researchers from Columbia, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who published their findings in the journal Science: Identity inference of genomic data using long-range familial searches (Sci-Hub mirror).

They also predict that in the "near future," "nearly any US individual of European descent" will be identifiable from commercial genomic databases.

The researchers propose a mitigation technique for avoiding nonconsensual genetic profiling: "DTC providers should cryptographically sign the text file containing the raw data available to customers (fig. S6). Third-party services will be able to authenticate that a raw genotyping file was created by a valid DTC provider and not further modified. If adopted, our approach has the potential to prevent the exploitation of long-range familial searches to identify research subjects from genomic data. Moreover, it will complicate the ability to conduct unilaterally long-range familial searches from DNA evidence.

Consumer genomics databases have reached the scale of millions of individuals. Recently, law enforcement authorities have exploited some of these databases to identify suspects via distant familial relatives. Using genomic data of 1.28 million individuals tested with consumer genomics, we investigated the power of this technique. We project that about 60% of the searches for individuals of European-descent will result in a third cousin or closer match, which can allow their identification using demographic identifiers. Moreover, the technique could implicate nearly any US-individual of European-descent in the near future. We demonstrate that the technique can also identify research participants of a public sequencing project. Based on these results, we propose a potential mitigation strategy and policy implications to human subject research.

Identity inference of genomic data using long-range familial searches [Yaniv Erlich, Tal Shor, Itsik Pe’er and Shai Carmi/Science] (Sci-Hub mirror)

(via Schneier)

16 Nov 19:37

Our homes are designed for stuff, making them unsuitable for people

by Cory Doctorow

Kate "McMansion Hell" Wagner continues her unbroken streak of excellent and incisive architectural criticism with a new piece that riffs on Stewart Brand's classic "How Buildings Learn" to discuss how McMansions have gone awry: they represent a break from the tradition of designing stuff to fit in spaces, and instead, they are spaces designed for status-displaying stuff.

Ironically, these design priorities make spaces less flexible (what the fuck do you do with a three-storey "great room" when you want to change up its use?) and less suitable for human habitation.

Of course, the premier example of a house designed for stuff is the McMansion, which, as I have argued at length elsewhere, is designed from the inside out. The reason it looks the way it does is because of the increasingly long laundry list of amenities (movie theaters, game rooms) needed to accumulate the highest selling value and an over-preparedness for the maximum possible accumulation of both people (grand parties) and stuff (grand pianos). This comes at the expense of structure, skin, and services. The structure becomes wildly convoluted, having to accommodate both ceilings of towering heights and others half that size, often within the same volume. Because of this, the rooflines are particularly complex, featuring several different pitches and shapes, and the walls are peppered with large great-room windows (a selling feature!), and other windows on any given elevation consist of many different sizes and shapes.

The skin—which often features many different types of cladding—and the roof are, due to their complexity, more prone to vulnerabilities, such as leaks. Because of the equally complex internal space plan, often following the trend of more and more open floorplans and large internal volumes, services like heating and cooling have to combat irregular volumes and energy leakage through features like massive picture windows. Rooms are programmed for specific activities: craft rooms, man caves, movie theaters. This is a kind of architectural stockpiling, devoting space to hobbies that could easily be performed in other parts of the house, out of a strange fear of not having enough space.

Building houses that grow with us [Kate Wagner/Curbed]

(via Kottke)

16 Nov 19:08

Resist

by M. S. Corley

New cover out now on Amazon
13 Nov 20:31

Trump is bailing out a Chinese owned pork producer to compensate it for retaliatory Chinese tariffs

by Cory Doctorow

Smithfield is a Chinese-owned pork producer based in the USA that exports a lot of pork back to China; when Trump touched off a trade-war with China, he committed to compensating US-based companies that faced retaliatory sanctions at the Chinese border.

You see where this is going, right?

The US government is buying $240,000 worth of pork from Smithfield to compensate it for its lost Chinese sales. Smithfield's Chinese shareholders will get US tax-dollars from Donald J Trump.

#MAGA

The Agriculture Department said last month that Smithfield qualified for the bailout money, noting that the agency would be purchasing only goods produced in the United States. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a farmer and member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has expressed alarm that a Chinese-owned firm could benefit from bailout money intended to help American farmers survive a trade war with China.

The timing of Wednesday’s announcement raised some eyebrows.

"It is highly suspicious that this announcement came a day after the midterm elections," said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food and Water Watch, which tracks federal agriculture programs. "Congress needs to exercise oversight of this program. This is an example of corporate welfare at its worst."

Chinese-owned pork producer is getting U.S. bailout money to protect it from China's tariffs [Jeff Stein/Washington Post]

09 Nov 12:26

ACS v. ResearchGate – 3,143 articles and a few lessons about their authors  

by David Hansen, JD

In October, Elsevier and ACS filed a new US copyright infringement lawsuit against ResearchGate [complaint]. Like the German ResearchGate lawsuit I wrote about last year, the basic premise of the suit is the same. This is how Elsevier and ACS describe ResearchGate’s activities in the American lawsuit:

In egregious violation of copyright law, ResearchGate provides anyone connected to the Internet with a free trove of infringing digital copies of peer-reviewed published journal articles [PJAs]. ResearchGate has consciously designed and actively maintains the RG Website as a hub for obtaining infringing copies of those PJAs. ResearchGate is not a passive host of a forum where infringement just happens to occur. Rather, ResearchGate actively participates in the ongoing infringement, in which it directly engages by duplicating, displaying, and distributing unauthorized copies of PJAs. ResearchGate also intentionally facilitates, supports, and lures users into uploading and downloading unauthorized copies of PJAs.

Big, if true. I have some doubts that I will write about later.

As far as what this suit and the publishers’ assertions mean for authors, I suggest reading this detailed post by Brandon Butler at UVA on the subject. It’s the best explanation I’ve read yet on copyright, open access and publisher-author sharing policies.  The “tl;dr” for that post is sad but accurate: “You probably can’t share your research as widely as you thought, and this is a problem endemic to academic publishing.”

The Authors of the ResearchGate Articles

One thing I found so interesting about the complaint in the most recent lawsuit was that it had very little discussion of the authors of the articles involved, or about the research itself (to be fair, if I were writing the complaint for the publishers, I’d try to leave the authors out of it too). Discussion of the authors and their articles is important context, though, for understanding how these articles were created, who posted them to ResearchGate in the first place, and what rights those users might have. Were any authors U.S. government employees who had no rights to be transferred to the publishers? Were any subject to university open access policies that reserve rights to universities or authors? Were any subject to funder OA mandates? Or did authors pay for open access for any of these articles? 

Thankfully, to bring a copyright infringement suit, one must actually identify the content alleged to have been infringed, even if you don’t talk much about it in the complaint. In this case, ACS and Elsevier provided a list in “Exhibit A” to the complaint of the 3,143 articles that they claim were infringed. I haven’t had time to fully explore those articles (these is a spreadsheet with information for all 3,143, if you’d like to do your own research). But thanks to some advice from some fantastic colleagues here at Duke, I was able to extract that data and run some searches for information about the articles and authors. I searched those article 3,143 DOIs in Web of Science, which returned 3,082 records. Here’s some of what I learned from those records:

Author Organizations

  • Most authors of these articles are affiliated with non-US institutions. From among the 3,082 records, the top ten author organizational affiliations are:
    • Chinese Academy Of Science (176 articles, 5.7%)
    • Centre National De La Recherche Scientifique Cnr (128 articles, 4.1%)
    • Universite Cote D Azur Comue (100 articles, 3.2%)
    • University Of Chinese Academy Of Sciences Cas (68 articles, 2.2%)
    • University Of California System (60 articles, 1.9%)
    • Russian Academy Of Sciences (49 articles 1.6%)
    • Indian Institute Of Technology System IIT System (45 articles, 1.5%)
    • State University System Of Florida (37 articles, 1.2%)
    • Nanyang Technological University (36 articles, 1.2%)
    • Nanyang Technological University National Institute Of Education Nie Singapore (36 articles, 1.2%)

I think there is a whole other blog post to be written about publishers going after articles authored in large part by non-Western authors. But I’ll not touch that for now and focus on the license situation.  I can’t speak about all of those institutions, but at least one (the University of California System) has an open access policy. I’m not sure how that policy/license factors into the posting of the articles to a site like ResearchGate, but it’s worth exploring. Two of the authors are Duke authors, and I know we have an OA policy that affects whether posting the articles to ResearchGate is permissible.

Article Funders

  • Unsurprisingly, given the authorship, most articles with identified funders are not based in the US. The top 10 funders are mostly Chinese.
  • NSF funded 38 of the articles, and NIH funded 24.

Again, unclear how funder OA policies may factor into the posting of these articles, but worth further exploration.

“Open Access” Articles

These articles raise some important questions about what rights the authors thought they were getting when they paid the OA fees for their articles. Did they understand that posting to ResearchGate would be disallowed? It also raises a question about how Elsevier is interpreting the “non-commercial” clause of the CreativeCommons license (is an author posting to ResearchGate “commercial” use?) and how that matches up to, e.g, the interpretation of that language by Creative Commons and by courts such as in Great Minds v. FedEx.

I haven’t had as much time as I would like to fully explore these articles and their authors. I should say that I’m not particularly sympathetic to ResearchGate or its business practices, but I do sympathize with authors who are trying to share their research in the best way they know how. From them, I would be particularly interested in hearing what they think about this lawsuit — were they consulted before the suit was filed? Are they aware that it was even filed? Do they agree with it? Did they understand their publication contract and its effect on posting to sites like ResearchGate? I’m hopeful that someone out there will take up the important work of developing better information about authors views on lawsuits like this.

The post ACS v. ResearchGate – 3,143 articles and a few lessons about their authors   appeared first on Scholarly Communications @ Duke.

08 Nov 18:42

Wells Fargo cuts 26,500 jobs, shutters branches, declares "excess capital" and drops $40.6 billion on stock buybacks

by Cory Doctorow

Wells Fargo is America's most scandal-haunted bank, which is quite an accomplishment in a heavily competitive field; now the bank has started closing its branches and cutting jobs (after pressuring employees to commit mass fraud on pain of being fired and blacklisted from the industry).

The company has also declared itself to have an "excess of capital" and has committed to spending $40.6 billion on stock buybacks -- a form of financial engineering that drives up stock prices without improving the company's underlying financials or business. Some of Wells Fargo's largest individual shareholders are its executives, who've effectively just voted to give themselves massive, multi-million-dollar raises.

The buybacks come on the heels of Trump's latest round of tax-cuts, which he said would boost jobs and wages, despite the fact that they encourage financial engineering of the sort that leads to business units shutting down, their workers being fired, and the responsible execs pocketing tax-free fortunes.

Wells Fargo has laid off 26,500 employees since the Trump tax-bill passed.

It is notable that Wells Fargo’s CEO describes the company as having an “excess of capital,” despite the fact that it is laying off workers, outsourcing jobs, and continuing to pay its employees nearly poverty-level wages. A fair wage for front-line bank workers is a critical part of the improved working conditions required to create an accountable financial institution that Wells Fargo has committed to being. Fair pay for workers helps companies attract and retain a qualified, committed workforce. It also provides economic security and autonomy, preventing workers from living paycheck to paycheck and being forced into a dependent work relationship that keeps them from speaking out when executives, like those at Wells Fargo, push them to commit fraud.

Wells Fargo can certainly afford the level of commitment that their motto, building a better bank, requires. Using data from the S&P Global Compustat database and Wells Fargo’s quarterly filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), we calculated that if Wells Fargo divided the $40.6 billion that it has authorized the company to spend on stock buybacks between its 262,700 employees, each employee could have received an astounding $154,000.

What Wells Fargo’s $40.6 Billion in Stock Buybacks Could Have Meant for Its Employees and Customers [Lenore Palladino/Roosevelt Institute]

07 Nov 19:34

Poll worker charged with assaulting black voter, shouting racist remarks

by Rob Beschizza

A Texas poll worker was charged with assault today after yelling racist remarks at a black voter who she didn't think should be voting, then shoulder-checking her.

"The lady questioned my residency," Rolanda Anthony wrote on Facebook. "When I explained that the address was completely correct, she told them to check it again because it couldn't be. When I finally challenged her she declared 'maybe if I wore my black face make up today you'd be able to understand me.'"

The Houston Chronicle reports that Barnes' fellow poll workers tried to get her to back off, and that one of them walked out in disgust.

Barnes walked up to her and shoulder bumped her and said, "I'm white. Have you seen the news?"

"If you call the police, they're going to take you to jail and do something to you, because I'm white," Barnes told her in front of several witnesses.

Barnes told Anthony she was loitering and she was going to call the police on Anthony.

Things are going to get worse before they don't get better.

Photo: Gabrielle Banks/Houston Chronicle (crop)

07 Nov 19:33

AT&T disconnects whole families from the internet because someone in their house is accused of copyright infringement

by Cory Doctorow

It's been five years since America's super-concentrated telcoms sector announced their "voluntary Copyright Alert system" (AKA Six Strikes), a system that said that if your someone in your household was accused of six acts of copyright infringement, everyone in your house would get the internet death penalty, having your net connection terminated.

The years of inaction after the policy was enacted, lulled a lot of us into thinking that the telcos and cable companies had thought better of playing judge, jury and executioner for people's internet access, but as the years ticked by, the sector has become even more concentrated, and what was once unthinkable is now reality.

This year, AT&T was allowed to buy Time-Warner, creating a second Big Telco/Big Media chimera (the other being Comcast/Universal), whose priorities are now split between providing access and taking it away (compare with what happened when Sony bought Columbia and went from being a company that provided new ways to listen to music to a company whose mission was to restrict how you listened to music).

AT&T has now begun to disconnect customers accused of infringement -- that is, accused of watching TV or listening to music in ways that are suboptimal for media companies' shareholders.

The customers who are being disconnected have never been able to face their accusers or have a day in court. The people they live with are not accused of any wrongdoing. The internet they are losing is likely the only option they have for broadband -- or one of two options, with the other one likely being a cable company like Comcast who may now join AT&T in a race to the bottom.

The internet is not a video-on-demand service, it's the nervous system of the 21st century. Terminating someone from the internet terminates their access to family, education, employment, civic and political engagement, health care information, and virtually everything else we use to measure whether a society is functioning well for its citizens.

Telcoms concentration is a disaster for an information society: from price-gouging to slow fiber rollouts to censorship to Net Neutrality violations and now disconnection, the creation of a concentrated, monopolized market in the most foundational part of our lives in the 21st century is a terrible, awful idea.

When we turn the tide, we need to not just regulate the telcos, we need to break them up. Cut them into pieces so small they can no longer lobby to ban municipal broadband, so small they can't spy on whole populations, so small that they can't afford to disconnect their customers on behalf of unaccountable, unnamed rightsholders who face no penalty for false accusations or sloppy bookkeeping.

In a statement to Axios, AT&T says content owners — which could be TV networks, music rights groups, or another group involved in production — notified AT&T when they believed they had evidence that an internet connection controlled by the telecom company was sharing copyrighted material unlawfully.

"Based on the notices we received, we identified the customer on the account and shared with them the information we received. We also reached out to the customer to educate them about copyright infringement and offer assistance to help prevent the activity from continuing," said an AT&T spokesperson.

"A small number of customers who continue to receive additional copyright infringement notifications from content owners despite our efforts to educate them, will have their service discontinued.”

Scoop: AT&T to cut off some customers' service in piracy crackdown [Sara Fischer and David McCabe/Axios]