‘The story goes so far back’: new film attempts to untangle Russiagate

‘The story goes so far back’: new film attempts to untangle Russiagate
Active Measures, a documentary featuring Hillary Clinton and John McCain, is a comprehensive and at times frenetic analysis of Trump’s relationship with Russia
By Jake Nevins
Aug 31 2018

The defining paradox of what’s come to be known as the “Trump-Russia scandal” is that it’s both the most-covered story of the Trump presidency and the one that, broadly speaking, seems to interest voters least. Either its gravity is lost on us, or we struggle to unfurl the complex web of financial ties, or it’s given so much airtime on cable news, often at the expense of a litany of other cruel and corrupt acts, that “Russiagate” amounts to less than the sum of its parts. That’s a shame since, as the film-maker Jack Bryan sees it, we’ve come upon one of the wildest and most comprehensively orchestrated scandals in political history.

His new film Active Measures is the first of what will surely become its own cottage industry: the Trump-Russia doc (to say nothing of the unavoidable Donald and Melania melodramas, the Trump cabinet screwball comedies and the Woodward and Bernstein-esque political thrillers). While a host of other shoes will inevitably drop after it is released, this film is intent on giving context to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election by tracing a history of its government’s shrewd geopolitical machinations – hence the doc’s title, a kind of shorthand for Soviet political warfare. The “active measure” here is the Kremlin’s cultivation of a useful American asset in Trump, an operation which the film suggests far predates the 2016 election.

“When we started this project in March of 2017, there had been a lot of good reporting on Trump-Russia stuff. But we felt nobody was really getting it because the story goes so far back that you needed context,” says the 33-year-old Bryan, whose credits include two low-budget indie features, The Living and Struck. “If you think this operation started in 2015, it all seems very strange. But when you realize these were several ongoing operations, some of which have been going on for decades and were then turned toward the 2016 election, it all makes more sense.”

Inasmuch as knowing its contours and chronology helps our understanding of Russiagate, the film is a useful addition to the torrent of primers and explainers seen in the Times, the Rachel Maddow Show, and this very publication. But connecting the dots between a rogue’s gallery of Russian oligarchs, various money laundering schemes disguised as luxury condominiums, a Russian petroleum company, an especially compromised American presidential candidate, and a string of extrajudicial, Kremlin-sanctioned killings is, well, easier said than done. It also requires some foreknowledge: of Vladimir Putin, specifically, and how easily he’s gamed domestic politics in a post-Soviet Russia overrun by oligarchs and organized crime.

Which is why Bryan recruited some heavy-hitters for the documentary, most of whom speak with relative candor. The biggest names, of course, are Hillary Clintonand the late John McCain, Russia hardliners for whom Putin reserves special contempt. “One of the reasons we’re so proud to have John McCain in the film,” Bryan says, “is because he’s one of the few people that saw exactly who Putin was from day one.”

More helpful, though, at least for our purposes, are the intelligence experts, government officials and thinktank types schooled in Russian geopolitics, like Alina Polyakova, a fellow at the Brookings Institution; Jonathan Winer, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement; Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia; Jeremy Bash, former CIA and Pentagon chief of staff; Steven Hall, former CIA chief of Russia operations; and John Dean, best known as Richard Nixon’s White House counsel and, later, one of the first nails in Nixon’s coffin.

For all its credibility and breadth, Active Measures can get too ambitious for its own good. Whole documentaries could be made from the film’s 10-minute dips into various subsets of the Trump-Russia affair, such as Vladimir Putin’s journey from KGB spy to all-but permanently installed autocrat, which is used as a framing device. There are also brief forays into Trump’s shady pre-presidential business dealings, the persecution of journalists in Russia, the 2004 orange revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s war with Georgia. All of this, and a lot more, is included in Active Measures, which still manages to clock in at under two hours. Though the director’s initial plan was to paint a full picture of Trump’s connection to Putin and his henchmen, the research process found him going farther and farther into the annals of Russian-American relations.


Climate change could render many of Earth’s ecosystems unrecognizable

Climate change could render many of Earth’s ecosystems unrecognizable
By Sarah Kaplan
Aug 30 2018

After the end of the last ice age — as sea levels rose, glaciers receded and global average temperatures soared as much as seven degrees Celsius — the Earth’s ecosystems were utterly transformed.

Forests grew up out of what was once barren, ice-covered ground. Dark, cool stands of pine were replaced by thickets of hickory and oak. Woodlands gave way to scrub, and savanna turned to desert. The more temperatures increased in a particular landscape, the more dramatic the ecological shifts.

It’s about to happen again, researchers are reporting Thursday in the journal Science. A sweeping survey of global fossil and temperature records from the past 20,000 years suggests that Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems are at risk of another, even faster transformation unless aggressive action is taken against climate change.

“Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about,” said ecologist Stephen Jackson, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center and the lead author of the new study.

“It is concerning to me to think about how much change and how rapidly the change is likely to happen, and how little capacity we have to predict the exact course,” he said, “which creates very large challenges for all of us out there who are trying to manage wildfire, fish, water, soil, endangered species — all those different ways in which natural ecosystems affect us.”

Jackson has spent most of the past four decades studying ecological changes as the Earth transitioned from an ice age to the current “interglacial” period between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago. His experience suggested that no corner of the planet made it through that upheaval unchanged, but being a scientist, he wanted actual evidence.

So Jackson brought together a group of more than three dozen ecology experts from around the globe to assess how vegetation in various regions had been altered after the last ice age. The scientists analyzed preserved bits of plant pollen from nearly 600 sites on every continent except Antarctica. For each metric, they ranked the change at their site as “low,” “moderate” or “large.”

Quickly, “a clear relationship appeared,” said Connor Nolan, the University of Arizona graduate student who led the analysis. Regions that experienced large temperature increases — especially North America and Europe — invariably underwent large vegetation shifts. Where the temperature changes were more moderate, around the equator, some ecosystems had a chance of coming through relatively unscathed.

Next the researchers applied that relationship to four possible scenarios for human-driven climate change in the next century. In the most optimistic scenario — in which people act aggressively to cut carbon emissions, limiting the global average temperature increase to about one degree Celsius — the probability of large changes in the composition and structure of most ecosystems was low.

But in every other situation — particularly the “business as usual” high-emissions scenario, which predicts temperature increases of four degrees Celsius by 2100 — transformation will be unavoidable.

That high-emissions scenario represents roughly the same magnitude of temperature increase as the historic shifts documented in the Science paper, Nolan noted. “But now instead of going from cold to warm,” he said, “we’re going from warm to way warmer and on time scales that are way faster than anything experienced in the past.”


FCC can define markets with only one ISP as “competitive,” court rules

[Note:  This item comes from friend Ed DeWath.  DLH]

FCC can define markets with only one ISP as “competitive,” court rules
The FCC can “choose which evidence to believe,” court says.
By Jon Brodkin
Aug 29 2018

An appeals court has upheld a Federal Communications Commission ruling that broadband markets can be competitive even when there is only one Internet provider.

The FCC can “rationally choose which evidence to believe among conflicting evidence,” the court ruling said.

The FCC voted last year to eliminate price caps imposed on some business broadband providers such as AT&T and Verizon. The FCC decision eliminated caps in any given county if 50 percent of potential customers “are within a half mile of a location served by a competitive provider.”

This is known as the “competitive market test.” Because of this, broadband-using businesses might not benefit from price controls even if they have just one choice of ISP.

The FCC decision was challenged in court by Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs) and purchasers of business broadband, including Sprint and Windstream. But the FCC order was mostly upheld yesterday in a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

The court said that the FCC provided adequate notice to the public before making most of the changes in the deregulation order. The court also rejected challenges to the economic theory and merits of the FCC’s competitive market test.

The FCC’s decision to lift price caps affected Business Data Services (BDS), which are dedicated, point-to-point broadband links delivered over copper-based TDM networks by incumbent phone companies like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink. The decision affects prices paid by customers including businesses, government agencies, schools, libraries, hospitals, and wireless carriers.

The FCC and petitioners disagreed over whether it’s generally economically viable for CLECs to expand their networks to locations within a half-mile.

“The dispute here is whether the evidence shows that the CLEC [Competitive Local Exchange Carrier] Petitioners cannot economically build out to low-bandwidth customers in areas deemed competitive by the Competitive Market Test,” judges wrote. “The FCC did not believe the CLEC Petitioners’ evidence, and the CLEC Petitioners protest that the evidence compels a finding in their favor.”

The FCC “cited evidence that some competitors will build as far as a mile out,” and said that “most of the buildings at issue are far closer to competitive fiber than half a mile,” the court ruling noted.

While petitioners presented data suggesting that it isn’t generally economically feasible to expand networks, the FCC argued that “the CLEC Petitioners’ studies inflate costs by selecting the most expensive build (entirely underground lines), presuming a separate lateral line for each individual low-bandwidth customer, and treating the main fiber ring as part of the cost of reaching new customers rather than as an existing ‘sunk’ cost near a potential new customer,” judges wrote.

Judges concluded that the evidence in support of both arguments is credible and that the FCC can decide which one it wants to believe:


Crop losses to pests will soar as climate warms, study warns

Crop losses to pests will soar as climate warms, study warns
Rising temperatures make insects eat and breed more, leading to food losses growing world population cannot afford, say scientists
By Damian Carrington
Aug 30 2018

Rising global temperatures mean pests will devour far more of the world’s crops, according to the first global analysis of the subject, even if climate change is restricted to the international target of 2C.

Increasing heat boosts both the number and appetite of insects, and researchers project they will destroy almost 50% more wheat than they do today with a 2C rise, and 30% more maize. Rice, the third key staple, is less affected as it is grown in the tropics, which are already near the optimal temperature for insects – although bugs will still eat 20% more.

Rising heat stress on crops is already expected to cut cereal yields by about 10% for 2C of warming, but the new research indicates rising pest damage will cause at least another 4-8% to be lost. With 800 million people chronically hungry today and the global population rising towards 10bn, increasing pest destruction will worsen food security.

“For many, many people in the world there is already a shortage of food, so it is not like we can afford to spare [more],” said Prof Curtis Deutsch at the University of Washington, US, who led the work. “A lot of people in the world, the most vulnerable, can’t afford to give up anything.”

The UK is the worst affected of significant wheat producers, with pest losses expected to more than double from 5% to 11%, and Canada will suffer the biggest increase in maize losses, from 6% to 10%. The world’s biggest growers will also see a major impact, with China’s wheat losses rising 50% and and US corn losses going up by a third.

The losses are likely to be underestimates as the scientists did not consider factors such as increased transmission of crop diseases carried by insects, or losses after harvest when the grain is stored. The research also did not assess the risk of population explosions of insects that can wipe out crops, due to the complexity of such events.

Action by farmers to try to avoid new pest losses is unlikely to be successful, said Prof Rosamond Naylor at Stanford University, US, and one of the research team. “Increased pesticide applications, the use of [resistant] genetically modified crops and practices such as crop rotations will help control losses from insects. But it still appears that under virtually all climate change scenarios, pest populations will be the winners.”

The research, published in the journal Science, started with well-established knowledge about how rising temperature affects insects. “Warmer temperatures increase insect metabolic rates exponentially [and] increase the reproductive rates,” said Deutsch. “You have more insects, and they’re eating more.” The team then added data on today’s pest losses and used a range of climate change models to estimate future losses – all showed significant damage.

Overall, losses were found to increase by 20-50% for 2C of warming above pre-industrial levels and 40%-100% for 4C. The latter will be reached this century if carbon emissions are not cut soon. “The overall picture is, if you’re growing a lot of food in a temperate region, you’re going to be hit hardest,” said Scott Merrill at the University of Vermont, another member of the team.

Europe’s breadbasket is among the hardest hit, with 11 nations predicted to see a rise in pest losses of 75% or more. “France will get a double whammy,” said Merrill, as it is a top five producer of both wheat and maize. Another big wheat producer, Russia, will see losses rise from 10% to 16% with 2C of warming. Across the globe, an extra 200m tonnes of grain are expected to be eaten by insects in a 2C warmer world.


Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code

Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code
The death of a woman hit by a self-driving car highlights an unfolding technological crisis, as code piled on code creates ‘a universe no one fully understands’
By Andrew Smith
Aug 30 2018

The 18th of March, 2018, was the day tech insiders had been dreading. That night, a new moon added almost no light to a poorly lit four-lane road in Tempe, Arizona, as a specially adapted Uber Volvo XC90 detected an object ahead. Part of the modern gold rush to develop self-driving vehicles, the SUV had been driving autonomously, with no input from its human backup driver, for 19 minutes. An array of radar and light-emitting lidar sensors allowed onboard algorithms to calculate that, given their host vehicle’s steady speed of 43mph, the object was six seconds away – assuming it remained stationary. But objects in roads seldom remain stationary, so more algorithms crawled a database of recognizable mechanical and biological entities, searching for a fit from which this one’s likely behavior could be inferred.

At first the computer drew a blank; seconds later, it decided it was dealing with another car, expecting it to drive away and require no special action. Only at the last second was a clear identification found – a woman with a bike, shopping bags hanging confusingly from handlebars, doubtless assuming the Volvo would route around her as any ordinary vehicle would. Barred from taking evasive action on its own, the computer abruptly handed control back to its human master, but the master wasn’t paying attention. Elaine Herzberg, aged 49, was struck and killed, leaving more reflective members of the tech community with two uncomfortable questions: was this algorithmic tragedy inevitable? And how used to such incidents would we, should we, be prepared to get?

“In some ways we’ve lost agency. When programs pass into code and code passes into algorithms and then algorithms start to create new algorithms, it gets farther and farther from human agency. Software is released into a code universe which no one can fully understand.”

If these words sound shocking, they should, not least because Ellen Ullman, in addition to having been a distinguished professional programmer since the 1970s, is one of the few people to write revealingly about the process of coding. There’s not much she doesn’t know about software in the wild.

“People say, ‘Well, what about Facebook – they create and use algorithms and they can change them.’ But that’s not how it works. They set the algorithms off and they learn and change and run themselves. Facebook intervene in their running periodically, but they really don’t control them. And particular programs don’t just run on their own, they call on libraries, deep operating systems and so on …”

What is an algorithm?

Few subjects are more constantly or fervidly discussed right now than algorithms. But what is an algorithm? In fact, the usage has changed in interesting ways since the rise of the internet – and search engines in particular – in the mid 1990s. At root, an algorithm is a small, simple thing; a rule used to automate the treatment of a piece of data. If a happens, then do b; if not, then do c. This is the “if/then/else” logic of classical computing. If a user claims to be 18, allow them into the website; if not, print “Sorry, you must be 18 to enter”. At core, computer programs are bundles of such algorithms. Recipes for treating data. On the micro level, nothing could be simpler. If computers appear to be performing magic, it’s because they are fast, not intelligent.

Recent years have seen a more portentous and ambiguous meaning emerge, with the word “algorithm” taken to mean any large, complex decision-making software system; any means of taking an array of input – of data – and assessing it quickly, according to a given set of criteria (or “rules”). This has revolutionized areas of medicine, science, transport, communication, making it easy to understand the utopian view of computing that held sway for many years. Algorithms have made our lives better in myriad ways.

Only since 2016 has a more nuanced consideration of our new algorithmic reality begun to take shape. If we tend to discuss algorithms in almost biblical terms, as independent entities with lives of their own, it’s because we have been encouraged to think of them in this way. Corporations like Facebook and Google have sold and defended their algorithms on the promise of objectivity, an ability to weigh a set of conditions with mathematical detachment and absence of fuzzy emotion. No wonder such algorithmic decision-making has spread to the granting of loans/ bail/benefits/college places/job interviews and almost anything requiring choice.

We no longer accept the sales pitch for this type of algorithm so meekly. In her 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, a former math prodigy who left Wall Street to teach and write and run the excellent mathbabe blog, demonstrated beyond question that, far from eradicating human biases, algorithms could magnify and entrench them. After all, software is written by overwhelmingly affluent white and Asian men – and it will inevitably reflect their assumptions (Google “racist soap dispenser” to see how this plays out in even mundane real-world situations). Bias doesn’t require malice to become harm, and unlike a human being, we can’t easily ask an algorithmic gatekeeper to explain its decision. O’Neil called for “algorithmic audits” of any systems directly affecting the public, a sensible idea that the tech industry will fight tooth and nail, because algorithms are what the companies sell; the last thing they will volunteer is transparency.


U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border, throwing their citizenship into question

U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border, throwing their citizenship into question
By Kevin Sieff
Aug 29 2018

On paper, he’s a devoted U.S. citizen. 

His official American birth certificate shows he was delivered by a midwife in Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas. He spent his life wearing American uniforms: three years as a private in the Army, then as a cadet in the Border Patrol and now as a state prison guard.

But when Juan, 40, applied to renew his U.S. passport this year, the government’s response floored him. In a letter, the State Department said it didn’t believe he was an American citizen.

As he would later learn, Juan is one of a growing number of people whose official birth records show they were born in the United States but who are now being denied passports — their citizenship suddenly thrown into question. The Trump administration is accusing hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the border of using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies, and it is undertaking a widespread crackdown.

In a statement, the State Department said that it “has not changed policy or practice regarding the adjudication of passport applications,” adding that “the U.S.-Mexico border region happens to be an area of the country where there has been a significant incidence of citizenship fraud.”

But cases identified by The Washington Post and interviews with immigration attorneys suggest a dramatic shift in both passport issuance and immigration enforcement.

In some cases, passport applicants with official U.S. birth certificates are being jailed in immigration detention centers and entered into deportation proceedings. In others, they are stuck in Mexico, their passports suddenly revoked when they tried to reenter the United States. As the Trump administration attempts to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, the government’s treatment of passport applicants in South Texas shows how U.S. citizens are increasingly being swept up by immigration enforcement agencies.

Juan said he was infuriated by the government’s response. “I served my country. I fought for my country,” he said, speaking on the condition that his last name not be used so that he wouldn’t be targeted by immigration enforcement.

The government alleges that from the 1950s through the 1990s, some midwives and physicians along the Texas-Mexico border provided U.S. birth certificates to babies who were actually born in Mexico. In a series of federal court cases in the 1990s, several birth attendants admitted to providing fraudulent documents.

Based on those suspicions, the State Department during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations denied passports to people who were delivered by midwives in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The use of midwives is a long-standing tradition in the region, in part because of the cost of hospital care.

The same midwives who provided fraudulent birth certificates also delivered thousands of babies legally in the United States. It has proved nearly impossible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate documents, all of them officially issued by the state of Texas decades ago.

A 2009 government settlement in a case litigated by the American Civil Liberties Union seemed to have mostly put an end to the passport denials. Attorneys reported that the number of denials declined during the rest of the Obama administration, and the government settled promptly when people filed complaints after being denied passports.

But under President Trump, the passport denials and revocations appear to be surging, becoming part of a broader interrogation into the citizenship of people who have lived, voted and worked in the United States for their entire lives.

“We’re seeing these kind of cases skyrocketing,” said Jennifer Correro, an attorney in Houston who is defending dozens of people who have been denied passports.

In its statement, the State Department said that applicants “who have birth certificates filed by a midwife or other birth attendant suspected of having engaged in fraudulent activities, as well as applicants who have both a U.S. and foreign birth certificate, are asked to provide additional documentation establishing they were born in the United States.”

“Individuals who are unable to demonstrate that they were born in the United States are denied issuance of a passport,” the statement said.

When Juan, the former soldier, received a letter from the State Department telling him it wasn’t convinced that he was a U.S. citizen, it requested a range of obscure documents — evidence of his mother’s prenatal care, his baptismal certificate, rental agreements from when he was a baby.

He managed to find some of those documents but weeks later received another denial. In a letter, the government said the information “did not establish your birth in the United States.”


Miami Will Be Underwater Soon. Its Drinking Water Could Go First

[Note:  This item comes from friend Geoff Goodfellow.  DLH]

Miami Will Be Underwater Soon. Its Drinking Water Could Go First
The city has another serious water problem.
By Christopher Flavelle
Aug 29 2018

One morning in June, Douglas Yoder climbed into a white government SUV on the edge of Miami and headed northwest, away from the glittering coastline and into the maze of water infrastructure that makes this city possible. He drove past drainage canals that sever backyards and industrial lots, ancient water-treatment plants peeking out from behind run-down bungalows, and immense rectangular pools tracing the outlines of limestone quarries. Finally, he reached a locked gate at the edge of the Everglades. Once through, he pointed out the row of 15 wells that make up the Northwest Wellfield, Miami-Dade County’s clean water source of last resort.

Yoder, 71, is deputy director of the county’s water and sewer department; his job is to think about how to defend the county’s fresh drinking water against the effects of climate change. A large man with an ambling gait, Yoder exudes the calm of somebody who’s lived with bad news for a long time.

“We have a very delicate balance in a highly managed system,” he said in his rumbly voice. “That balance is very likely to get upset by sea-level rise.” What nobody knows is when that will happen, or what happens next.

From ground level, greater Miami looks like any American megacity—a mostly dry expanse of buildings, roads, and lawns, sprinkled with the occasional canal or ornamental lake. But from above, the proportions of water and land are reversed. The glimmering metropolis between Biscayne Bay and the Everglades reveals itself to be a thin lattice of earth and concrete laid across a puddle that never stops forming. Water seeps up through the gravel under construction sites, nibbles at the edges of fresh subdivisions, and shimmers through the cracks and in-between places of the city above it.

Miami-Dade is built on the Biscayne Aquifer, 4,000 square miles of unusually shallow and porous limestone whose tiny air pockets are filled with rainwater and rivers running from the swamp to the ocean. The aquifer and the infrastructure that draws from it, cleans its water, and keeps it from overrunning the city combine to form a giant but fragile machine. Without this abundant source of fresh water, made cheap by its proximity to the surface, this hot, remote city could become uninhabitable.

Climate change is slowly pulling that machine apart. Barring a stupendous reversal in greenhouse gas emissions, the rising Atlantic will cover much of Miami by the end of this century. The economic effects will be devastating: Zillow Inc. estimates that six feet of sea-level rise would put a quarter of Miami’s homes underwater, rendering $200 billion of real estate worthless. But global warming poses a more immediate danger: The permeability that makes the aquifer so easily accessible also makes it vulnerable. “It’s very easy to contaminate our aquifer,” says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, a local environmental protection group. And the consequences could be sweeping. “Drinking water supply is always an existential question.”

County officials agree with her. “The minute the world thinks your water supply is in danger, you’ve got a problem,” says James Murley, chief resilience officer for Miami-Dade, although he adds that the county’s water system remains “one of the best” in the U.S. The questions hanging over Miami and the rest of Southeast Florida are how long it can keep its water safe, and at what cost. As the region struggles with more visible climate problems, including increasingly frequent flooding and this summer’s toxic algae blooms, the risks to the aquifer grow, and they’re all the more insidious for being out of sight. If Miami-Dade can’t protect its water supply, whether it can handle the other manifestations of climate change won’t matter.

The threats to the Biscayne Aquifer are unfolding simultaneously, but from different directions and at different speeds. In that way, Miami’s predicament is at once unique and typical: Climate change probes a city’s weaknesses much as standing water finds cracks in the foundation of a house.

Twenty minutes east of the Northwest Wellfield sits the Hialeah Water Treatment Plant. With its walls built of coral rock in 1924, Hialeah was Miami’s first major water processing facility. The water drawn from the Northwest Wellfield is piped here to be cleaned along with water from another cluster of wells that pull from straight beneath the plant. As climate change worsens, this plant will matter more and more.