Category Archives: News

Technology and political news from a global perspective.

Meteor Over Russia

Just as we were waiting for close pass of a large meteor today, another unexpected meteor exploded over Siberia, with a sonic boom that lead to breaking glass and injuries of close to a 1,000 people including 34 that had to be hospitalized. Given the love of dashboard-mounted cameras in Russia, there’s plenty of video out there showing the remarkable meteor trail, the explosion, and some of the damage. A good write-up with many of the videos can be found in the Atlantic Wire.

All of this is just a small – and very humbling – reminder that we live in a world much larger than just the Earth, that we are part of an incredibly dynamic universe. We’re struck by objects from space every day but our atmosphere protects us. What you often see (if you don’t live in a large brightly lit urban area) and what we refer to as “Shooting Stars” are really nothing more than pebble-sized rocks burning up in the upper atmosphere. So we walk around in our protective cocoon, consumed with our own agendas and challenges, taking for granted that all is well with the world.

But every now and then the universe gently reminds us with just the smallest whisper in our ear that our little world is not so little after all, that our protective bubble is really quite porus, nothing more than a thin veil between us and a cataclysmic event like the dinosaurs experienced. Of the many videos out there this morning, this is one of the best:

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Pope Resigns and Lightning Strikes St. Peter’s Basilica

Okay, just a bizarre coincidence, I know, but it is kind of incredible that a Pope resigns – the first in almost 700 years – and within hours, a bolt of lightning strikes St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. From Gawker:

Alessandro Di Meo, one of two photographers who captured the ominous event on camera, told the BBC he was met with much skepticism after his photo went public.

“I understand that the picture may be incredible,” he said. “Photos of lightning have always been done, but the only difference, in this case, is that it is the right place and at the right time.”

But the cries of “fake” persisted, until video footage of the lightning strike finally emerged (see below). 

But you have to wonder what people would have thought 700 years back – today it is a cry of “It’s Photoshopped!” Back then, it would have meant something entirely different. But the last Pope to step down resulted in much deadlier drama – he was hunted down by his successor and died in prison. So a bolt of lightning is on the tame side.

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It’s Cold in New York

If you live in New York or much of the United States, you’ve noticed the weather this week – temperatures (in Fahrenheit) down near single digits at night. Having to sleep in the living room of my small West Village apartment with its leaky windows (I’m having issues with the ceiling in my bedroom – long story) it’s been one of those pile-every-blanket-you-have-on-the-bed kind of weeks.

But temperatures now pale in comparison to what people endured in the 19th century. Ice regularly blocked the rivers, and ice bridges formed (or were built) by enterprising New Yorkers on a regular basis. It seems that a few individuals were even able to skate to work from Brooklyn. The Gothamist has some great images and accounts of the cold weather and its impact on a very different New York. There are stories of people getting stuck on ice floes as the ice bridges broke up and having to rescued by tug boats, and young boys who charged for use of their ladders to get down to river and back up on the other side (perhaps like the umbrella sellers of our own era that appear every time it rains).

But the absolute best story is the enterprising soul that built a tavern on the North River one winter and dispensed food and drink to those walking across. Honestly, if it’s so cold that you can walk across the Hudson River to Hoboken, you do need a place to stop for a bite to eat. With ferries not running and the tunnels to a yet-to-be-built Penn Station still a few decades away, you can visualize people having to drag their luggage across the ice to catch a train from the New Jersey side down to Philadelphia or beyond. I’m trying to imagine how a modern day 1010 Wins radio station with it’s every ten minute traffic and transit news would have described this.

But (local) weather and (global) climate are not the same so we still seem to be in an era of massive global warming. Yesterday, the news pointed to a new study that concluded that glaciers in the Andes have melted at an unprecedented rate since the 1970′s, receding from 30% to 50%. Regardless what you see as the cause, global warming is a reality. So don’t despair,  we’ll soon be back up to our  seasonal temperatures (if not warmer) and New York will seem downright balmy.

New York City Ice Bridge in 1871

New York City Ice Bridge in 1871

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The Flood of Tributes for Aaron Swartz

NOAH BERGER/REUTERS -  Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008

NOAH BERGER/REUTERS – Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008

Even if you didn’t who Aaron Swartz was before his suicide the other day, you probably do now. A tech prodigy (co-developer of RSS code and the website Reddit) and thoughtful young activist who fought to fulfill the real potential of our communications revolution – who Lawrence Lessig called an “incredible soul” – Swartz was facing up to 35 years in jail and millions in fines for taking documents via MIT’s network from the non-profit JSTOR repository. JSTOR was willing to settle; it seems that MIT was not. Clearly the Department of Justice was determined to prosecute this case to the bitter end.

I didn’t know Aaron but have followed his work for years. Some of the tributes by those who knew him can be found at the Guardian site.

Whether or not Aaron’s suicide is directly attributable to the legal case against him is hard to say – I tend to think that it is is but we never truly know the source of the inner demons in someone else’s mind. The family feels strongly that the court case is to blame.

What is truly frightening in all of this is the disproportionality of our intellectual property and copyright law. Mind you, Aaron was facing far more time in jail than if he had gone out and shot someone, robbed a bank, trafficked slaves, or threatened the President. Think Progress has a summary of the time you face for these crimes – if we learn anything from Aaron’s tragic death, it should be that the fear (largely from the corporate world) of the incredible ability to share ideas and resources in the digital age has spurred to a profound overreaction to protect intellectual property. Whatever Aaron did – even if one does draw the conclusion that it was outright theft – it does not measure up to the following.

Here is some of the list from Think Progress:

To put these charges in perspective, here are ten examples of federal crimes that carry lesser prison sentences than Swartz’ alleged crime of downloading academic articles in an effort to make knowledge widely available to the public:

  • Manslaughter: Federal law provides that someone who kills another human being “[u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if subject to federal jurisdiction. The lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of only six years.
  • Bank Robbery: A person who “by force and violence, or by intimidation” robs a bank faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. If the criminal “assaults any person, or puts in jeopardy the life of any person by the use of a dangerous weapon or device,” this sentence is upped to a maximum of 25 years.
  • Selling Child Pornography: The maximum prison sentence for a first-time offender who “knowingly sells or possesses with intent to sell” child pornography in interstate commerce is 20 years. Significantly, the only way to produce child porn is to sexually molest a child, which means that such a criminal is literally profiting off of child rape or sexual abuse.
  • Knowingly Spreading AIDS: A person who “after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and receiving actual notice of that fact, knowingly donates or sells, or knowingly attempts to donate or sell, blood, semen, tissues, organs, or other bodily fluids for use by another, except as determined necessary for medical research or testing” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
  • Selling Slaves: Under federal law, a person who willfully sells another person “into any condition of involuntary servitude” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, although the penalty can be much higher if the slaver’s actions involve kidnapping, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.
  • Genocidal Eugenics: A person who “imposes measures intended to prevent births” within a particular racial, ethnic or religious group or who “subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part” faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, provided their actions did not result in a death.
  • Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: A person who “willfully participates in or knowingly provides material support or resources . . . to a nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction program of a foreign terrorist power, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.”
  • Violence At International Airports: Someone who uses a weapon to “perform[] an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if their actions do not result in a death. . . .

May his passing help us rethink our priorities and ensure that the Internet is a place of freedom.

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New Year’s 2013

So we come to New Year’s 2013, surviving the (pseudo) Maya Apocalypse, going to the brink with the fiscal cliff in the United States and now lurching into a another year. I’ve been busy with friends and family (finally getting my brother to leave his live-aboard life on a boat in Key West for once and visit New York). Whatever you are doing this evening, I wish you peace and happiness in 2013.

A couple of things from around the Web on this New Year’s 2013 . . . .

Unusual Celebrations

The world abounds in unusual New Year’s celebrations – no, it isn’t all fireworks in Sydney or ball dropping in Times Square – and here’s a list of some of the stranger things that people do. From celebrating in a cemetery (Chile), torching scarecrows, a completely bizarre TV show in Germany (Dinner for One), wearing polka dots in the Philippines, to leaving mistletoe under pillows in Ireland, there’s bound to be something you haven’t done here. Details at smashinglists.

New Year's Eve Cemetery Celebrations in Chilie

New Year’s Eve Cemetery Celebrations in Chile

New Year’s 2013 in Times Square

The Atlantic magazine has an interesting piece on why we watch an 11,875 pound ball drop on New Year’s Eve in New York. Originally celebrations took place at Trinity Church downtown but moved up to the newly renamed Times Square once the New York Times built its headquarters there. Yes, it’s a media event that has its roots in one of the most venerable of media institutions. Historically, newspapers did much more than simply report the news (hint to management as they enter yet another year with dim prospects).

New York Times Building in the New Times Square

New York Times Building in the New Times Square

We Could Do better

Finally, a riff on New Year’s celebrations also from the Atlantic and via Andrew Sullivan in the Daily Dish. Yes, if there is one thing about New Year’s in America, it’s that we could do so much better. For a country that draws people from cultures all over the world, a world rich in different forms of celebration, our New Year’s seems to be one of the lamest of holidays:

On December 31, mediocre restaurants throughout America string absurd velvet ropes outside their doors, inflate black and white balloons as decoration, and charge three times the usual price for the same old fare plus bad champagne. Is it any wonder that our elders, as they grow older and wiser, opt to stay home and turn in before midnight? America’s most iconic New Year’s Eve celebration, the one that captures the attention of the whole country, has massive crowds gathering in New York City’s most garish neighborhood, where they watch a large ball drop as C-list celebrities narrate on TV. The typical NYC dweller can’t be lured to Times Square for dinner on an ordinary evening, so I can’t imagine how pre-New Year’s conversations go for those who attend. “Would you like to stand out in the freezing cold for hours with no place to sit or use the bathroom and drunks pressed against you on all sides?” 

So my wish for New Year’s 2013 – that we have a more global perspective. Technology is surely pushing us this way, but we could do our part to move it along instead of waiting to be pushed another step forward.

So think outside your national and cultural borders this year – they become ever more porous as technology transforms the way we communicate, share and interact with each other. If you do, we’ll all benefit.

Peace.

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New York Blackout – an Eerie Beauty After Hurricane Sandy

Christophe Jarcot photograph of New York City during the Blackout Created by Hurricane Sandy

Christophe Jarcot photograph of New York City during the Blackout from Hurricane Sandy

There was a haunting beauty to New York during the loss of power from Hurricane Sandy, a way of seeing the City in a different light. Yes, it was frustrating and by the end of the week, I felt like I would lose my mind if not for the realization that there were so many people in much, much more dire circumstances than I ever experienced. I didn’t have the presence of mind to take that many photos during the week nor could I have taken any as beautiful as the ones by Christophe Jarcot.

Jarcot was first working in the film industry, but returned to photography, his true passion. He started off photographing rain and his work is fascinating. But I find these images of New York especially compelling. The full set is available on his website at Christophe Jarcot and there is information about his work at Artemiss:

“I had an order for a travel book about Paris, and sun was a pre-requisite for all the photos! But the weather was desperately rotten, and that is how I had the idea of starting the Paris in the rain series. It was a sort of contradiction…”

After realizing “Paris Under the Rain”, Christophe was looking for a very different city to shoot, but also very urban. Hong Kong quickly become his number one choice because of its raining season and its crazy urban life. New York, London and many others followed quickly after ! He is fascinated by the confrontation between two massive forces: weather and towns. 

This is by no means to minimize the horrible conditions that people endure every night both in NYC and in New Jersey as we now move through the second week after Hurricane Sandy. Even worse that we now have a covering of snow on the ground.

I have power, heat and Internet again so I am very fortunate. But we still have a flooded building where we used to have a campus and many of our students still lack power. Outside my office door are piles of clothes, food and supplies collected and on their way to the Rockaways tomorrow. Across the street, the endless hum of generators as most of the neighborhood around the college still lacks electricity.

The City and surrounding area are still reeling from the devastating blow of a freakish storm.

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Hurricane Sandy Aftermath

Hudson River Flooding - Water Coming into the West VIllage

Hurricane Sandy: Hudson River Flooding – Water Pouring into the West Village

I’m finally resurfacing after dealing with Hurricane Sandy over the past week. My apartment is okay but it was a wild ride – water coming up the streets of the West Village, four days with no power, heat or Internet access. On the other hand, these are hardly serious issues compared to what people on Staten Island, parts of Brooklyn and the New Jersey Shore are going through. People have been generous in helping those deeply affected by the storm but so much more help is needed.

Five observations on Hurricane Sandy and it’s aftermath:

  • Of all the blackouts I’ve been through, this was the most well-handled. Traffic cops on nearly every corner, police everywhere; Lower Manhattan seemed to function as best it could under the circumstances.
  • Clearly our subway system is not designed to handle floods and heavy rains. Not sure what can be done, but there must be ways to mitigate some of the damage from storms. Densely populated areas like NYC need reliable public transportation (many of us are still having to walk downtown).
  • Some New Yorkers are entirely oblivious to nature. I was struck by the number of people I saw on late Tuesday and Wednesday trying to go to their gym. If you don’t have power, do you really think your neighborhood health club will be open? This is topped only by the people that left their cars in underground garages one block from the river when there was a predicted 8-11 foot storm surge (it was actually 13.88 feet). Just where did they think all that water was going when it got to the Hudson?
  • Internet access is as important as power these days. No doubt there will be hearings on Con Edison and the loss of power in NYC and the surrounding areas. But there will be no hearings on how Verizon and AT&T handled the storm. They didn’t do well at all.
  • A note to future restaurant designers and owners: please put a power outlet near every table. However much you’re a food service establishment, there may come a day when you’re also – literally – a refuge from the storm. And providing people with electrical power lets them stay connected with friends, relatives and the news. A restaurant is not just about food, but ambiance and setting. It may also be a place to maintain connections – in a digital world, you may not just be talking to the person sitting across the table from you.

Photos and more to follow . . .

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Pussy Riot Interview

Pussy Riot - Nadya Tolokonnikova enters the courtroom vowing resistance.

Pussy Riot – Nadya Tolokonnikova enters the courtroom vowing resistance. (GQ Magazine)

GQ magazine has a fascinating interview with two of the three jailed members of Pussy Riot, the feminist punk collective in Russia. Charged with ”hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”  - an absurd charge – for a guerrilla performance in a cathedral, a sham trial resulted in a two year jail sentence despite international protests.

Michael Idov was able to get questions to Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova, Maria “Masha” Alyokhina, and Yekaterina “Katya” Samutsevich through their lawyers. Katya’s responses were discovered but the answers of Nadya and Masha were smuggled out and they talk about the challenges of daily life in a Russian prison and the influence they have now that they are behind bars.

Just a small segment here – it’s worth reading the full interview:

GQ: This is perhaps an insensitive question, but what’s more useful for the progressive movement in Russia right now: Pussy Riot at large or Pussy Riot in jail?
Nadya: 
We will know the answer only after the next wave of protests. I would love to see that, even imprisoned, we can still be useful and inspiring. In any case, I’m happy I got two years. For every person with a functioning brain, this verdict is so dumb and cruel that it removes any lingering illusions about Putin’s system. It’s a verdict on the system.

Masha: At large, of course. That’s why the authorities don’t want to let us out. But we still have things to say, and we still want to say them. And even locked up, we’re not doing too bad of a job.

“We couldn’t even imagine that the authorities would be so dumb that they would actually legitimize our influence by arresting us. Sure, they tried to intimidate us constantly. But unlike Putin, we’re not chickenshit.” 

Back on February 21st, they stepped into an area outside the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and sang an anti-Putin protest song. The lyrics included:

“Holy Mother, Virgin, drive Putin away
The KGB head, their (the Orthodox Church priests’) chief saint
Takes protesters to prison under convoy
Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit
Patriarch Gundyai (Kirill Gundyaev) believes in Putin
The bitch had better believe in God.”

It was less than two weeks before the elections of March 4, held during massive street protests, where Putin was returned to power. It was a provocative performance, an expression of a younger generation and growing middle class increasingly connected through the digital revolution and wanting change. Russia is not much in the news this month, but the undercurrents of change are still swirling through the country.

They should not be forgotten.

 

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TSA Theft – Caught with the Find My iPad App

TSA Theft of iPadHere’s some great (if basic) TV investigative journalism of TSA theft of an iPad from an ABC News investigation of the Transportation Security Administration. This sting operation involved “accidentally” leaving iPads behind at airport security areas and seeing if they were returned. It was easy to execute as ABC News used nothing more than the Find My iPad App.

It’s pretty funny when the audible alert goes off inside the TSA agent’s home.

Really no surprise here given that in less that ten years some 381 TSA agents have been fired for theft – which makes you wonder how many are getting away with it. Here’s more detail from Gothamist.com (and link to the ABC News video) if you’re interested.

Just don’t dare leave anything behind, especially electronics.

ABC News did an investigative report wherein reporters “accidentally” left behind iPads at ten major airports with a history of theft by government screeners. And they got some poor slob to take the bait: Security camera footage shows TSA screener Andy Ramirez with the iPad after it had gone through the screening process at Orlando airport. Using a tracking device in the gadget, ABC confronted Ramirez at his home, where he proceeded to blame his wife.

First Ramirez denied knowing anything about any stupid iPad, but then ABC set off an audio alarm feature in the iPad, and it could be heard beeping inside his home. At that point, Ramirez had no choice but to admit the iPad was in his possession, but he blamed it on his wife. “I’m so embarrassed,” Ramirez told ABC News. ”My wife says she got the iPad and brought it home.” He then shut the door. And then he got fired. Eat your heart out, Arnold Diaz.

381 TSA officers have been fired for stealing since 2003, 11 of them this year. ABC’s investigation turned up “case after case” of TSA theft, and one former TSA screener—who did three years in prison for airport theft—tells the network no one is checked for stolen goods. “I played in with the rest of them with ‘I don’t care’ and ‘they’re not paying us right.’… It was so easy one day I walked out with a Nintendo Wii in my hand. Nobody said a word.”

 

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Truck Crash – Driver Goes Through Windshield – and Walks Away

I usually don’t post crash videos like this of a truck crash (they’re everywhere on the Web) but this particular one is remarkable. From Russia, a near head-on collision that sends the driver of one truck through his windshield with his blanket. And he’s thrown out, well, not gracefully, but almost like a practicing gymnast stepping off the pummel horse at the end of a routine. And yes, he walks away from the incident, a little dazed but completely intact.

The accident was caught by a dashboard cam, which is starting to appear more frequently as it can resolve insurance claims for accidents. With all of the technology being added to motor vehicles (including rear-facing cameras and seats that provide warning alerts), one might anticipate that the days of freewheeling driving will become a thing of the past.

If Google cofounder Sergey Brin’s prediction is right, within five years Google will have self-driving cars available for the public. Google has already driven over 300,000 miles with the vehicles. But with greater power and flexibility will come demands for increased accountability – it won’t do for a driver to say, “I didn’t cause that accident, my car did it on its own.”

Welcome to a world of dashboard cams and route and driver sensors.

Anyway, back to Russia. One lucky person, in a country where for now luck is still an essential commodity for a career as a truck driver. (from kottke.org)

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Romney Campaign Reels from Secretly Recorded Video

Romney video and quote

Whatever your political view, the Romney campaign is not in good shape this week. With rumors of a dysfunctional campaign staff and the too-quick remark on foreign policy, the secretly recorded video may prove to be one of those classic campaign moments, the kind that remain in the public’s consciousness for years to come.

A few have rushed to Romney’s defense, including Herman Cain, Erick Erickson of redstate.com, and conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. But you know things are in turmoil when major figures criticize their party’s candidate; Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said that Romney’s remarks were “stupid and arrogant” and David Brooks argued that:

It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney . . . He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. 

The Victims

What is so strange about the remarks – putting aside for a moment the question of what Romney actually believes – is that it reveals a deeply flawed political assessment of the voting public. A significant portion of the 47 percent who do not pay income taxes are in the military, working lower income people and those on social security – and probably a majority are inclined to vote Republican.  To speak of them as an entitlement group, or as Andrew Sullivan notes in his devastating analysis (recommended reading), to use the word “victim” with this group is astonishing.

Yes, there are people in this group with a victim mentality, just as – we should note – there are apparently a number of millionaires with a victim mentality. It’s hard to describe it as anything else when you think you’re entitled to something and that others are out to get you.

It’s hard to say what the ultimate fallout of the video will be, but you don’t elections by writing off the people already on your side. If you want a detailed analysis of who pays what in taxes, and who the 47% are, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a good place to start.

The Video

The video was done in Boca Raton, Florida at the home of Marc Leder, a private equity executive. More details are coming out and it seems the video was leaked by James Carter IV, former President Carter’s grandson. Is it legal? That’s not clear given that it was done in the State of Florida which stipulates that all parties must consent. On the other hand, it was (more or less) a public campaign event so it may very well be considered within the bounds of the law.

One can almost guarantee that more more details will come out on the making of the video and quite possibly some legal moves down the road.

The “YouTube Era”

In 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen singled out a man videotaping his talk and called him "Macaca," the video went viral and Allen's campaign for re-election collapsed.

In 2006, when then-Sen. George Allen singled out a man videotaping his talk and called him “Macaca,” the video went viral and Allen’s campaign for re-election collapsed. http://www.wjla.com

I’m using Romney’s own words here. Seriously. This is not (was not?) a man like Anthony Weiner who had no understanding of technology except how to click the “Send” button. No, Romney himself has been quite aware that something like this can happen in our age of increasingly miniaturized electronics and the fact that every moment has the potential to be a public event. Listen to Romney talk about this possibility five long years ago:

Running for president in the YouTube era, you realize you have to be very judicious in what you say . . . . You have to be careful with your humor. You have to recognize that anytime you’re running for the presidency of the United States, you’re on.  (Daily Beast)

Well, Mitt, you were definitely on, and the “YouTube era” is much more pervasive now than it was in 2007 (when it was only two years old, though already popular).

But at least Marc Leder and his guests kept their clothes on for this event – now THAT is about the only thing that could top the video as it is – but they haven’t always been so modest.

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Muhammad Video – Public Drama and Hidden Drama

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is escorted in a Los Angeles County Sheriff's vehicle from his home by officers in Cerritos, California

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is escorted in a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s vehicle from his home by officers in Cerritos, California. September 15, 2012. REUTERS/Bret Hartman

As protests and demonstrations continue throughout the Arab world in reaction to the Muhammad video (I still will not dignify it with the term “film” or “movie” as some do), a number of developments and articles are worth noting. But most striking – outside of the scenes of the violence in the streets – are two unfolding dramas: the questioning of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who may be the individual behind the video and the hidden drama of the Egyptian government as it negiotiates the complexities of creating a democracy.

The Mystery Man – Nakoula Basseley Nakoula

From Reuters: Nakoula Basseley Nakoula voluntarily went with officers to a meeting in a sheriff’s station in Cerritos, Los Angeles County. This was not an arrest but an “interview” – and he continues to deny involvement in the video. Officials are looking into possible parole violations – Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison (with five years of probation) for bank fraud. His release was contingent on not using aliases or accessing the Internet, both of which appear to have been done if he is the producer of the Muhammad video.

Nakoula will never end up back in jail for the video with the free speech rights in the United States, but he could for parole violations. Regardless, his name will go down as a waypoint in the history of the Internet for the havoc, destruction and death that could be brought about by a single video clip.

The Egyptian Government’s Drama Behind the Scenes

Egyptian Protestor Runs from Burning Car

Everyone is understandably focusing on the street protests in Egypt and rest of the Arab world, but there is another drama – a fundamental struggle going on behind the scenes as the Egyptian government comes to terms with a functioning democracy.

For decades,  the country lived under the iron fist of a dictatorship with protests and arrests at periodic intervals. But Mubarak could pretty much do what he wanted, with the ongoing calculation that he could only push his people to a certain point. He was a master of knowing where that (somewhat fluid boundary was).

Now that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi leads the country, it’s not so simple. For days, he has scored points with supporters and opposition parties (particularly with the radical Islamist party Salafi Al-Nour) by keeping security low and letting the protesters have the upper hand. But the very technology that keeps the video in front of peoples eyes – and helped support the overthrow of Mubarak – backfired on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi who were saying one thing to the West and issuing statements with a radically different tone for domestic consumption.

Sometimes it seems like everything in the digital revolution is a boomerang - no matter how far it gets thrown, you’ll soon be ducking as it comes back at you. From the Wall Street Journal:

Until today, Mr. Morsi’s presidency had appeared less than contrite about the security lapse that allowed protesters to invade the fortress-like U.S. mission. On Thursday, the Brotherhood went so far as to call for nationwide “vigils” in front of “major mosques” throughout the country on Friday—a day in which protests in Egypt have become a ritual.

Though the call for demonstrations smacked of intentional escalation, Brotherhood leaders portrayed the call as a kind of contained catharsis that would move the focus of popular rage away from the volatile flashpoint that is the U.S. embassy.

Essam El Erian, the head of the FJP, said the Brotherhood firmly rejected any attacks on foreign missions and insisted that the continuing violence in downtown Cairo includes “mainly young men” and no politicians.

The Brotherhood’s mixed message was encapsulated by a Twitter exchange between the group and the U.S. Embassy. Just as the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter account made earnest inquiries about the safety of U.S. diplomats in Cairo, its Arabic-language Twitter account praised Egyptian protesters for “rising to the defense of the Prophet.”

The @USEmbassyCairo Twitter handle replied: “By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”

“I hope you know we read those too” – diplomacy these days gets carried out on Twitter.

Leading a democratically elected government is no simple task in a deeply interconnected world. Especially when what you say domestically (to an electorate with a widespread anti-American bias) is the opposite of what you say to people abroad. We can trip up on this ourselves – just witness how some campaign statements play differently here and overseas – but it’s even more difficult when a democracy is just getting underway. Just as the video has a viral quality about it in the Arab world, so do domestic statements for support of the protesters in the rest of the world. It’s a classic lose-lose situation, and yet, for Morsi to be a legitimate leader in the global community and the government an effective democracy at home, he will have to turn it into a win-win.

I don’t envy the challenge.

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The Inflammatory Muhammad Video – A Story that Gets Even Stranger

Who is sam bacile?

The story behind the inflammatory Muhammad video, Muslim Innocence, gets stranger and stranger after the awful events in Libya and the demonstrations in Cairo which are now spreading to Yemen, Sudan and Tunisia. People are trying to uncover the identity of  the mysterious pseudonymous writer-director, Sam Bacile, who may or may not be an Israeli real estate mogul (whoever he is, he is now in hiding). An analysis of the video reveals that the controversial parts were dubbed in during post-production and now the actors are speaking out against the project.

Muhammad Video – A Question of Access

First, let’s note that what has plunged areas of the Middle East into turmoil is not the entire film (I’m not even sure it warrants that term), but a 14 minute trailer which has been translated into Arabic and is getting significant airplay, especially in Egypt. If you like, you can watch the trailer which has put Google into an incredibly difficult position. After the death of the Ambassador, they blocked access to it in Egypt and Libya, but it is still available elsewhere on YouTube. Blocking videos is not a road one goes down lightly – Google regularly gets take-down requests for videos for political reasons. On the other hand, once American lives have been lost, Google had to make an effort to limit access.

Badly Done – and then Dubbed

As for the movie itself, as Sarah Abdurrahman has noted in On the Media, the production values are film-student quality at best and show no evidence of a supposedly $5 million budget. The Prophet Muhammad is portrayed as essentially a dim-witted character and a pedophile, and it includes scene after scene of amateurish staging, lighting and camerawork with teenage-level insults directed at Muslims.

Now it turns out that key lines of the movies dialogue were dubbed in after the filming. Abdurrahman does a close analysis of the trailer and uncovers the following instances of dubbing:

1:25: The Islamic Egyptian police arrested 1400 christians.

2:30: His name is Mohammad. And we can call him “the father unknown.”

3:03: Mohammad! Mohammad the bastard! Your lady summons you!

5:14: I’ll help you, Khadija. I’ll make a book for him. It will be a mix of some version from the Torah, and some versions from the New Testament, and mix them into false verses.

6:30: Mohammad is Allah [sic] messenger, and the Koran is our constitution!

8:25: [not dubbed] It is not enough to believe in one God. [dubbed] You must say “God and Mohammad, his messenger.” Now, go read the Koran.

9:04: Is your Mohammad a child molester?

10:27: …[not dubbed] And in all my young life [dubbed] I have not seen such a murderous thug as Mohammad.

Angry Actors

With events spiraling out of control, now the actors are speaking up. Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress from Bakersfield, Calif. has said all of them were deceived about the project. Apparently much of the shooting was done in Los Angeles and green screened so that backgrounds could be added later. According to Garcia, there were no references to Muhammad in the script – he was called “Master George” and the working title was “Desert Warriors.”

The 80-member cast and crew have released a statement deploring the violence sparked by the video:

The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer. We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred. (from CNN)

You can see the original casting call which was posted on craigslist in July 2011 for an “historical desert drama set in Middle East” - there is no mention of Islam at all.

What Happens Next

The scary aspect of the Muhammad video is that the same digital environment that fosters greater connectivity and helped support an Arab Spring can also inflame false accusations and misunderstanding. The ideals of free speech in the United States are neither widely understood or supported in much of the world. Many of the protesters want the U.S. to “take down” the video – not something we can do. We are in the midst of a cultural/political dialogue – one that we have enough trouble dealing with at home – that is now spreading globally. One has to have a certain Jeffersonian faith that the truth and reason will triumph in the end, but this particular moment seems far removed from that ideal. According to Abdurrahman, Ambassador Stevens was ”. . . kind, warm and welcoming. . . genuinely excited to be working in Libya at such a historic moment.” His death is profoundly disturbing. Sadly, it may not be the last consequence of this video.

When we talk about the openness of the Internet, we seldom consider all of the implications of what that concept actually means. We tend to look at the ideal through our own rose-colored glasses, not realizing that openness can serve the purpose of deeply closed minds on all sides.

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A Death this Morning – NYC Subway

NYC Subway accidentThis morning, at the NYC subway 14th Street station, a woman died.

I missed seeing it directly as I was a few seconds too early and further along the platform. But close enough, and too close for the aftermath – a disfigured, crumpled body underneath one of the subway cars toward the rear of the train.

I stayed for some minutes, pointed out the body to the crew and cops who just arrived. I realized – curiously they did not – that it would be easier to find by crossing over to the downtown platform where it was easily visible. The crowds came. I called work to say I needed some time, went for a walk through Chelsea and finally up to Grand Central for my usual commute.

Within minutes of the accident, the smartphones came out but now that I think about it, I was there first and didn’t take a photo even though I had the clearest view. Eventually I took a couple but I couldn’t focus myself. I turned and walked away. Cameras are easy, feelings a world unto themselves.

I understand the need to record death in Syria and other countries where publicizing it may build support to bring down a tyrannical regime. In parts of the world, ghastly atrocities go undocumented. In some cases, I almost wish for images of death, images that would show the world what some people live through every day of their lives. But I do not understand it here, on a subway platform, when it serves no purpose.

I’ve seen death before, but never so vividly, this close to home. On a route that I’ll use tomorrow and in the days to come. As I walked through the city, the flood of questions, thoughts and emotions was difficult to handle. Did she intentionally kill herself? Was she pushed? Did she stumble? The latest report is that she was despondent. I’m sure we’ll have answer,  though in the end, it only touches the surface.

Standing there a few hours ago, it was hard to think that someone woke up this morning, did whatever they do to be part of the world that day, and ended the morning as a bloody heap of flesh and bone underneath a subway car.

It also makes you think about the ebb and flow of life in a densely populated urban environment. How close one can be to death and completely miss it. By seconds, literally. And the crowd that quickly formed . . . . some visibly shaken and others pushing just to get a look. The frustration of people outside the station, and up and down the Seventh Ave. line. No trains, disrupted schedules and plans that are all important.  Until it is someone they know.

And then you wonder about the other lives affected. How her friends and family are dealing with the loss.

It makes you cherish the moments we take for granted, moments of just being alive. As I walked through the city, I was struck by the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze of an almost fall morning, even the firmness of the concrete under my feet. This began as a difficult day, listening to the names being read on the radio for the 9/11 memorial service as I got ready for work. It got worse once I left the house.

I know it will be better.

Volcanoes Poking Through (Borobudur temple with Merapi volcano in the background, Java, Indonesia. Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Volcanoes Poking Through (Borobudur temple with Merapi volcano in the background, Java, Indonesia. Photo by Trey Ratcliff

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Facebook a Nightmare as a Public Company

Facebook is hitting the skids again and according to CNNMoney, its life as a public company has been a nightmare. As with most public IPOs, Facebook’s initial stock offering included a “lockup” agreement which requires early investors to hold their shares for a set period. That prevents the initial market from having shares dumped, driving down the price. But one of the lock-up periods ended Thursday and whether or not investors sell, it has made others skittish that they might. Some 271 million additional shares can now be sold, though many early stakeholders (for example, Microsoft) will probably hold their shares.

Facebook Stock Chart - Year-to-Date

Facebook Stock Chart – Year-to-Date (Fox Business News)

But this is only the first of many rounds Facebook will have to endure in this:

The big Facebook stock dump could come in mid-November. That’s when Facebook will convert the special form of restricted stock units, or RSUs, held by most of its staff into actual shares of its stock. 

Obviously, employees may have a much larger incentive to sell – prompted by a “let me take my investment while I can” attitude. All total, some 1.8 billion shares will be potentially released over the next nine months – today’s action boosted the available shares on the market by 60%, but it’s only 14% of what will become available in the future. Of course, the lower a stock goes, the more attractive it becomes – Netflix CEO Reed Hastings just bought a million shares of Facebook but he is a member of the board. I doubt many others will follow up on his move.

There’s enough talk on the Web that this means the “end” of the social network bubble. Everyone in the arena is trying to figure out ways to bring in revenue especially on mobile platforms and a few such as Zillio and LinkedIn have done well. While it may not be something like the dot.com bust back in 2000, investor expectations clearly got ahead of themselves. From the Huffington Post (July 27th):

With a few exceptions, the first wave of social media firms to trade on the public markets has delivered a disastrous performance that conjures memories of the dot-com bust of 2000.

“Farmville” publisher Zynga, which went public in December at a valuation of $7 billion, is trading around $3.15 a share, more than 68 percent off its $10 IPO price.

Daily deals site Groupon, touted as the firm that could reinvent local commerce, has fallen from its $20 IPO price to about $7.15 in nearly nine months. Music service Pandora Media has dropped from $16 at its June 2011 IPO to around $10 on Friday.

For now, let’s just leave it where Bloomberg News does: Facebook goes down as the worst large IPO on record. Zuckerberg, time to do some more of those serious all-night marathon coding sessions.

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NYC Police Domain Awareness System – The All-Seeing Eye

NYC Domain Awareness System
I understand the threat of terrorism – god knows, I live in Manhattan. But the announcement that the NYC Police Department has gone live with their Domain Awareness System still sends chills down my spine. Basically, the system collates 3,000 live camera feeds with license plate scanners, arrest records and other data. Facial recognition technology will be incorporated in the near future. From Gothamist:

This afternoon the NYPD debuted their “all-seeing” Domain Awareness System, which syncs the city’s 3,000 closed circuit camera feeds in Lower Manhattan, Midtown, and near bridges and tunnels with arrest records, 911 calls, license plate recognition technology, and even radiation detectors. Mayor Bloomberg dismissed concerns that this represented the most glaring example of Big Brother-style policing. “What you’re seeing is what the private sector has used for a long time,” Bloomberg said. “If you walk around with a cell phone, the cell phone company knows where you are…We’re not your mom and pop’s police department anymore.

The system, which was designed by Microsoft and the NYPD, cost $30 – $40 million to develop and will be sold to other cities and countries – for its part, NYC will be getting a 30% cut of the profits. The argument that this is what the private sector has been doing all along isn’t a particularly compelling reason to accept this. Except of course that this seems to be our only role model for how to run government these days – oh, and I forgot, corporations are people, too!

And I suspect that even if the prevention of terrorism is the stated goal, we’ll soon see the system used again Occupy Wall Street protesters or other groups. Once you’re in the candy shop with your hand in the jar, I just don’t see the police department not walking away with the goodies. In the end, it seems we’ll all be under the same system of surveillance no mater what country we are in. Welcome to the future but you may want to bring a hoodie.

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Suicide in Court – The Strange Case of Michael Marin


You may recall the very unusual case of the financier Michael Marin, who was charged with burning down his own palatial home to get out the mortgage payments. It was a bizarre scene a few years back when firefighters rushed to his house only to find him climbing down from the second floor in scuba gear.

Yes, scuba gear.

And now it takes an even stranger twist when his trial wrapped up in Phoenix the other day with a guilty verdict. As the jury’s verdict was read, he appears to reach down into his bag, then place his hands over his mouth and swallow something. A drink from a sports bottle and possibly another pill leads to a flushed face as he turns to face the audience in the court room. Within minutes, he goes into convulsions as his lawyers call for help. Medics work on him as he is rushed to the hospital where he is declared dead.

Of course, investigators are waiting for toxicology reports but from all indications, the video suggests he committed suicide upon hearing the guilty verdict. Perhaps looking at 15 years in prison was just too much to bear.

The financier, art collector, adventurer and former millionaire ends up in court, receives a guilty verdict, and then opts for suicide – ah, the life of a Wall Street banker.

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George Soros Speech on Europe and the EU Goes Viral

George Soros

George Soros

It’s not often that one thinks of George Soros going viral but his speech the other day on Europe and the EU has become the talk of more than just the business community. The full speech is on Soros’ website and runs through a broad range of concepts from the scientific method to social behavior. In it, Soros argues that the European Union was designed as:

  • a fantastical object – unreal but immensely attractive
  • a product of piecemeal social engineering
  • deliberately inadequate so as to require further steps
  • When those steps didn’t happen, the bottom began to fall out
Soros gives the European Union three months to work everything out or collapse as a failed experiment. Probably an accurate a deadline as any.
If you don’t want to work through Soros’ speech, Business Insider helpfully reprints the core section which is definitely worth reading:

I contend that the European Union itself is like a bubble. In the boom phase the EU was what the psychoanalyst David Tuckett calls a “fantastic object” – unreal but immensely attractive. The EU was the embodiment of an open society –an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in which no nation or nationality would have a dominant position. 

The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble. That is how the Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the European Union, step by step.

Germany used to be in the forefront of the effort. When the Soviet empire started to disintegrate, Germany’s leaders realized that reunification was possible only in the context of a more united Europe and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to achieve it.  When it came to bargaining they were willing to contribute a little more and take a little less than the others, thereby facilitating agreement.  At that time, German statesmen used to assert that Germany has no independent foreign policy, only a European one.

The process culminated with the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro. It was followed by a period of stagnation which, after the crash of 2008, turned into a process of disintegration. The first step was taken by Germany when, after the bankruptcy of Lehman BrothersAngela Merkel declared that the virtual guarantee extended to other financial institutions should come from each country acting separately, not by Europe acting jointly. It took financial markets more than a year to realize the implication of that declaration, showing that they are not perfect.

In effect, Europe got a financial union without a political union and as Soros goes on to argue, the founders thought that the that “. . . when the need arose the political will could be generated to take the necessary steps towards a political union.” Obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way.

This is not a pretty picture and the next few months will be decisive not only for the EU but for nations around the globe. Spain is teetering on the brink, Greece is headed toward elections that will lead them out of the EU and into financial default or continue within it and suffer greater economic deprivation (in other words, basically the same no matter which way they vote for the person on the street). European leaders are looking at proposals for greater monetary integration but the political will may not be there. And in effect, they are still focusing on the monetary side and not the political side.

As of this morning, the markets are plunging in Asia and it will be a turbulent week in the European and U.S. financial markets.

Buckle up and hold tight.

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Greed Triumphs as Facebook IPO Stalls in Debut

Don't like sign for FacebookWhat a day in the market for the highly anticipated Facebook IPO.

Facebook struggled to move above its $38 per share opening price and while it opened at $40.05 and briefly made it to $42 a share, it sunk back down to $38. It might have gone lower in the final 20 minutes of trading and it appears that the underwriters were forced to purchase shares to keep the price above $38 (see the brief analysis in Business Insider).  So, a lot of hype, a small increase, a near embarrassment, and we end up right where we began at the opening.

What happened? A couple of things conspired to weaken the demand in the open market including the following:

  •  Everyone is still talking about GM pulling its advertising on Facebook even though there is no broader move to do the same by major advertisers – just bad timing
  • The market is generally weak with fears that Greece may leave the Euro this summer
  • The 25% increase in shares offered took care of the demand that there was
  • Some of the “smart money” seemed to be selling – never a good sign when investors are getting ready to buy
The last two are probably the most significant factors and despite the public’s fascination with social media, the demand for the stock had already dried up. As the LA Times put it:

But perhaps the biggest blunders came in recent days as the company and its largest shareholders moved to maximize their profits at the expense of new investors.On Monday, Facebook raised the stock’s projected price to a range of $34 to $38 from the initial $28 to $35, and priced it at the peak of $38 on Thursday. That made Facebook far more expensive than established competitors such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc. based on the companies’ earnings.On Wednesday, the company announced that longtime investors led by Goldman Sachs planned to sell big chunks of their holdings in the IPO. That struck some investors as greedy and a sign that Wall Street insiders were getting out while they could.

In short, greed got the better of everyone involved. While many employees and early investors became millionaires many times over, the broader market decided to wait it out. The market can do anything and Facebook’s share price could easily move up over the coming weeks. But this is no Linkedin with a 49% surge on the first day. The wisdom of the crowd prevailed.
 We’ll see what happens next week.
NASDAQ Welcomes Facebook in Times Square

NASDAQ Welcomes Facebook in Times Square

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Anti-austerity Shockwaves in the European Elections

Pedestrians are reflected in a poster advertising the Greek national elections, on the day of voting in Athens.  -Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Pedestrians are reflected in a poster advertising the Greek national elections, on the day of voting in Athens. -Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The election of Socialist Party leader François Hollande and serious loses in the coalition parties (New Democracy and Pasok) in the current Greek government are sending shockwaves throughout  Europe. Whatever challenges the Euro has faced up to this point, they pale in comparison to what the future holds.

The Telegraph has a good initial take on the events:

The economic doctrine of austerity, to cut the burden of state spending to free up the economy, has ruled supreme with the support all of Europe’s leaders, the European Union and financial markets.

But political leaders were on Sunday night conceding the consensus had been shattered beyond repair.

With Europe’s economies plunging further into recession and as unemployment in the eurozone breaks record levels, voters demands for a new approach had finally become to great to ignore.

The popular backlash to EU imposed austerity to the centrist New Democracy and Socialist parties in Greece threatens the existence of the euro itself. 

Greece is potentially ungovernable as a minority government must try and pass a new raft of austerity measures next month which are a condition of an EU-IMF bailout and Greek membership of the euro.

In France, while Hollande, the Socialist President-elect is a centrist, he is sitting on a powder keg of resentment at measures that his government will have to pass if it is not spark a meltdown of financial markets.

He has refused to ratify the treaty unless the eurozone and EU also sign up to a “growth pact”.

And as a footnote, despite Chancellor’s Merkel’s popularity in Germany, it appears that her coalition government suffered a lose in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.

France may muddle through - François Mitterrand came to power in 1981 and after a brief move to the left (inviting the Communist Party into his government) was forced by pressures from the international markets and domestic politics to move to the right. But Greece is in a fundamentally different situation with a negotiated $171 billion dollar agreement with the EU that ostensibly cannot be revoked by the new post-election government.

Problem is – the current coalition parties, New Democracy and Pasok, may have received no more than 34% of the total votes and Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left party – which is pushing for an end to the austerity measures – may get as much as 17%. Syriza is looking to form it’s own coalition based on an end to the austerity measures and if the current coalition collapses, the shockwaves will hit the global financial markets. As the Washington Post remarked:

The vote was a stunning repudiation of the two political parties that have ruled Greece since the end of dictatorship here nearly 40 years ago. The pro-business New Democracy Party and the Socialists have traded power for decades. Now, a cacophony of new, skeptical voices will crowd the halls of parliament — including a far-right party called Golden Dawn, whose supporters celebrated Sunday night with flaming torches and the Nazi salute.

Yes, you read that right – Nazi salutes. And Golden Dawn will enter Parliament for the first time.

Members of the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party celebrate in Thessaloniki on Sunday.

Members of the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party celebrate in Thessaloniki on Sunday.

A scary development, but in all honesty, while the press here – elsewhere – speaks of a “downturn” or a “recession” in Greece, Spain, Portugal, etc., the unemployment numbers and business statistics indicate that this is essentially an economic depression (in Greece, unemployment has reached 21 percent and GDP has declined by 20 percent in just two years). People are tired of sacrifice that seems to only call for more of the same, and the result will be a resurgence of radical parties on both the left and the right. With all the debate about bailout packages, deadlines and who should pay, the leaders at the center of the crisis have forgotten that people need hope. The austerity measures are clearly not providing it, which will lead people into the arms of those with much more radical solutions.

Greece has reached a breaking point. And the political decisions ahead may well reverberate throughout Europe.

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CitJo – Citizen Journalism Portal in the Middle East

CitJoCitizen journalism was critical in the Arab Spring over the past year as ordinary people used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and other social media to push new ideas, organize protests, and document the atrocities of long entrenched dictatorships. Now they’re getting a more formal outlet with the start up of CitJo, a portal that will connect bloggers and videographers with official media agencies around the world. While this hasn’t gotten much notice outside the Middle East, it is an innovative approach to a question that remains unresolved in the West (try asking the New York City Police Department who is a journalist). The portal will allow citizen journalists to sell their work under a variety of copyright licenses, giving some of them a potential revenue stream.

According to Mahamad El Tanahy, Managing Director of CitJo,

Our aim is to provide an easy way for citizen journalists to get their word out and generate revenue. We’re looking to provide all the features necessary to make citizen journalists’ lives easier, starting with a migration of the service to Arabic, launching an online payment service, and much more to come.

It will be interesting to see how this develops, especially if some of the participants begin to be noticed for their work. And there are challenges to be resolved – are news agencies going to accept submissions that are not edited, fact-checked, or screened? Will they be willing to pay for videos if other people are making videos of the same events freely available on YouTube? And there may be competition from existing citizen journalism sites – AlJazeera’s Your Media, for example – that take submissions but do not offer payment.

It’s a fascinating experiment. Check out the CitJo website – it’s nicely done and will give you a glimpse of an innovative journalism experiment in action.

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Burning Food Carts in NYC

Burning Food Cart - NYC

Burning Food Cart - NYC

Well, just one yesterday, but anything can happen in New York. Generally, speaking the food cart /  food truck situation has gotten much better over the past few years – they’re cleaner, safer, and there’s much more variety (including a lobster truck that took to the streets recently).  Photo and details from the Gothamist.

There was a much more serious accident last year when a “Frites and Meats” truck got into an accident on the West Side Highway. That resulted in a propane explosion and sent two people to the hospital.

This particular food cart – Rafiqi’s Delicious Food – gets mostly all good reviews over on Yelp for it’s Middle Eastern dishes. It’s a tough town. Hopefully they’ll be back soon.

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The Digital and the Military – Photos of Afghan Corpses

It’s happened before and now it surfaces again – U.S. soldiers circulating photographs of corpses or taking other actions that are deeply offensive to much of the world. As the AP noted, it has not been a good year for the military:

The U.S. military image in Afghanistan has taken a beating in recent months. In January, U.S. Marines were found to have made a video of themselves urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, what the military said was the accidental burning of Qurans triggered violent protests and revenge killings of six Americans. And last month, a U.S. soldier left his base and allegedly killed 17 civilians, mainly women and children.

In the latest incident, it’s photographs of body parts of Afghan members of the opposition taken by troops from the 82nd Airborne Division back in 2010. One photo shows a hand propped up on a smiling paratrooper’s shoulder; the other has grinning soldiers displaying the disembodied legs of a suicide bomber. The images are gruesome and have inevitably lead to TV pundits yelling at one another and shouting matches in online commentaries. But the dialogue here – if one can call it that –  misses a critical point.

First, the U.S. rushed to distance itself from the photographs, two of which were published by the LA Times.

Secretary of DefenseLeon E. Panetta apologized for the photographs, saying the behavior depicted in the photos “absolutely violates both our regulations and, more importantly, our core values. This is not who we are…. If rules and regulations were found to have been violated, then those individuals will be held accountable 

For it’s part, the Times exercised reserve and carefully selected the photos and gave serious thought to justifying their actions:

LA Times Publishes Photos on Front pageDavan Maharaj, editor of The Times, said the newspaper considered a Pentagon appeal to delay publication, and decided to hold off for more than 72 hours until military officials said they had taken security precautions against any retaliation.

“At the end of the day, our job is to publish information that our readers need to make informed decisions,” Maharaj said in an online discussion Wednesday. “We have a particular duty to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan . . . .

. . . . After the newspaper provided several photos to military officials last month, theU.S. Armybegan an investigation, saying the soldiers’ actions violated Army standards. The photos were among 18 images of soldiers posing with corpses or body parts. They were provided to The Times by a soldier who served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division in 2010.

The soldier who provided the photos said he and others in an 82nd Airborne brigade were concerned about a lack of discipline, leadership and security that he said compromised soldiers’ safety — and he cited the photos as one example. 

However horrifying, photographs and incidents like this happen in war, particularly in units lacking discipline. But put aside the moral debate for just a moment. There is an astonishing level of ignorance in the military on how the digital environment has revolutionized the distribution of information and hte production of news. The Pentagon may excel at technological advances in DARPA and other projects, but the average military person is no more tech-savvy than anyone else.

Bear with me on this for a moment.

In the days of film photography, if you shared an image of soldiers with corpses, you were passing around a physical artifact that probably went no further than the unit (more likely it ended up in some old veteran’s shoebox of mementos decades later). But in a post-analog society, sharing a digital photograph is in effect an act of releasing it the world. A third of us are now getting our information and news through social media – and digital images become primary material for this. Without realizing it, the soldiers were in effect doing an incredibly amateurish form of journalistic production by taking the photos and passing them around. They were undertaking an act of publishing, and while they undoubtedly never expected to see the images move beyond their own circle, caught up as it were in their own bravado, it was only a matter of time before someone would use them for something other than an astonishingly gruesome souvenir.

Obviously, the LA Times is the journalistic organization here, but members of the 82nd Airborne might as well have posted the images to a blog. As it was, it just took a little longer for the photos to surface. Anything recorded digitally has media implications and from the looks on these young men’s grinning faces, they clearly had not given this a second’s thought. Sadly, their actions may have profound implications not only for their own future careers, but for the perception of the military in Afghanistan and the future conduct of the war.

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Manning Prosecution Falls Victim to Military’s Spam Filters

The military is so intent on preventing another WikiLeaks incident – or even having anyone talk about Wikileaks – that they have created problems for prosecutors in the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Essentially they have banned use of the word, setup email filters to catch messages that even included the term WikiLeaks, only to have important emails between the Judge and the defense never get to the prosecutors in the case. Instead, they ended up in the spam bin.  From Daily Dot:

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning departs a courthouse in Fort Meade, Md., Thursday, Mar. 15, 2012

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, Fort Meade, Md., Mar. 15, 2012

The US government is serious about not allowing its military personnel to work with, or even talk about, WikiLeaks, the international nonprofit organization whose whole purpose is to publicize documents from whistleblowers. Private Bradley Manning has been in custody without trail for 662 days, facing charges that he leaked a huge cache of classified and restricted material to Wikileaks.

Thursday at his trial, the already paranoid and strange world of international spies and military prisons got a little stranger when it was discovered that the email filters the military uses were sending all emails containing the term “WikiLeaks” to spam.

The missing emails had puzzled both sides of the case for the past month, and slowed the proceedings considerably, but Captain Ashden Fein, chief prosecutor, announced that the cause had been discovered: not hacktivists, as feared, but Big Brother, in the form of an extra-aggressive spam filter. Defense attorney David Coombs dryly informed the press that “WikiLeaks” was the specific trigger word. Fein could not be reached for comment today. 

The government has offered a solution to the problem – start checking their spam bins prior to court proceedings as the filters aren’t being taken down.

The current situation with Manning is the next court hearing will be from April 24 – 26. A trial date has yet to be set. It appears that defense lawyers are planning to argue that he was a troubled soldier who should not have had access to classified information.


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Privacy Goodbye! IKEA may have Purchased Police Records in France

Le Canard Enchaine

Le Canard Enchaine

A breaking scandal in France as the Swedish furniture giant IKEA may have purchased access to police records to check on both employees and customers. Perhaps its not surprising that in a world awash in data, it’s almost too tempting for a company to undermine privacy for the sake of certainty and profit. Details emerged in Le Canard Enchaine, the satirical weekly that uncovered a number of scandals last year (Der Spiegel said they were the only French newspaper feared by the political establishment). Here are the allegations:

Le Canard published what it said were email exchanges between the head of the company’s risk management department, Jean-Francois Paris, and Yann Messian of Surete International about getting access to the police force’s STIC files.

The controversial STIC file system has been criticised for being an unreliable database of millions of names and personal information about crime perpetrators, victims and even witnesses.

The newspaper said that Surete International offered access to the files for 80 euros ($A100.33) a time, as well as to a database of vehicle owners.

The report quoted emails requesting information on employees, including union members, on the names associated with a list of mobile phone numbers and asking to know who were the owners of certain car registrations.

IKEA France allegedly asked for police files on a customer who was suing the company for 4,000 euros ($A5,016.30) and for the name of the owner of a car that approached the site of a future shop. 

Scary to think about the status of our rights in the future as personal data online and in government databases grows exponentially and may be illegally accessed for what is nothing more than loose change for a corporation.

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