Facebook Warrant Targeting Student Journalists in Puerto Rico Prompts Fears of Political Surveillance

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 19/01/2020 - 11:30pm in

As seven University of Puerto Rico students prepare to face trial in February for participating in a nonviolent protest more than two years ago, documents released to their defense attorneys reveal that Facebook granted the island’s Justice Department access to a trove of private information from student news publications. The department’s sweeping search warrant was part of a hunt for crimes committed by members of the youth anti-austerity movement, and it has raised fears among civil liberties advocates of a return to a period of Puerto Rico’s history when police routinely targeted citizens for surveillance on the basis of their political interests.

It was April 2017, and for weeks, University of Puerto Rico students had been holding a school-wide strike protesting austerity policies that were poised to defund public services across the island to satisfy the government’s creditors. When the university’s governing board gathered on April 27 to discuss $241 million in budget cuts, the students demanded to be let in. The board refused, locking the doors to the building where the meeting was being held. But the students stormed in anyway, pushing past security.

The action unfolded in real time on Facebook, as three student media outlets, Diálogo UPR, Pulso Estudiantil UPR, and Centro de Comunicación Estudiantil, livestreamed the protest. The students surrounded the board members and shut down the meeting, demanding that the board sign a commitment to rejecting the budget cuts. The action, one of many that took place on campus and in the streets, was over within half an hour. A glass door, some furniture, and a lamp were allegedly broken or damaged. No one was injured, and no one was arrested. But the secretary of Puerto Rico’s Justice Department, now-Gov. Wanda Vázquez, pledged to investigate the incident and arrest lawbreakers.

Two weeks later, students who had assumed leadership roles in the wider strike received citations ordering them to appear in court. When they showed up, they were handcuffed, paraded before media crews, and charged with a host of crimes related to the boardroom protest, the most severe of which — rioting and burglary — were later dropped. The remaining charges, including violating the right to assemble, aggravated restriction of freedom, and violence or intimidation against a public authority, each carry between six months and three years in prison. The seven students go to trial on February 7.

How exactly Vázquez’s Justice Department determined which students to charge out of the dozens who participated in the protest has remained a mystery to defense attorneys. The lawyers’ suspicion: that the case isn’t about crimes committed in the boardroom that day, but rather an attempt to penalize the political activity of some of the most active student organizers. The seven facing trial were members of the student strikers’ negotiating committee as well as political organizations critical of the government.

“What we are alleging is that they selected them based on their participation in the strike, that those who were leaders in the strike were the ones who were selected,” said Marisol Sáez Matos, one of the defense attorneys on the case.

The documents released to defense attorneys provide further evidence of a broad and invasive hunt for prosecutable crimes related to the protests. An agent from the cybercrimes unit of Puerto Rico’s Justice Department sought a search warrant for the records of virtually every Facebook interaction over a 72-hour period with the three publications that livestreamed the protest. The agent obtained private messages with the publications’ followers and detailed information about the student journalists who managed the pages.

“We consider this to be a violation of our rights as a free press,” said Marisol Nazario Bonilla, who was Pulso Estudiantil’s director when the existence of the warrant came to light. She told The Intercept that the warrant could have put confidential sources at risk. “If this happened to a student media outlet, it could happen to local, national newspapers, or news outlets in general.”

The court documents, some of which have been covered in the Puerto Rican press, also describe how an unnamed informant compiled a list of 25 suspects in the lead-up to the activists’ arrests. Regarding the identity of the informant, prosecutors have only said that the individual was not a participant in the protest, an eyewitness, or a government official. Puerto Rico’s Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

To many politicians, activists, and civil rights attorneys, the electronic targeting of politically engaged students appears to be an updated version of a surveillance system that was banned decades ago. “Surveillance is something that has been present in Puerto Rican activism through the ’50s and ’60s,” said Gabriel Díaz Rivera, one of the students facing trial. “A lot of people thought the practice ended in the ’80s, but we now know that it has continued, and that it has been made easier by social media platforms like Facebook.”

The Long Shadow of Carpeteo

For decades, Puerto Rico’s police department operated an intelligence unit dedicated to spying on dissidents. With the knowledge of the FBI, police officers created a file, known as a carpeta, for anyone who could be construed as a supporter of Puerto Rican independence or other environmental or labor causes. Officers recruited neighbors, friends, and relatives to collect information about those targeted, and planted rumors that led to divorce, job loss, and irreparable discord within communities and families.

The existence of the carpetas was revealed only after two University of Puerto Rico students were lured by an informant into the mountains in 1978 and executed by police. Law enforcement attempted to cover up the incident, which would later be referred to as Puerto Rico’s Watergate. In a radio interview in 1987, a former intelligence officer who had pleaded guilty to perjury and conspiracy for covering up the murders provided the first detailed account of the existence of a list of alleged subversives maintained by the police. The ensuing investigations revealed that law enforcement held active files on 75,000 people.

In 1988, a judge declared that creating surveillance dossiers on people simply because of their political beliefs was illegal, and in the years that followed, the government granted thousands of Puerto Ricans access to their files. It appeared that an oppressive period of the island’s history had come to a close.

Carpeteo, or the act of keeping files, has become shorthand for political surveillance.

As Mari Mari Narváez, founder of the anti-police brutality organization Kilometro 0, put it, the release of the carpetas “changed the mentality of this country forever.” Referencing the Facebook warrant, she added, “To me, this is carpeteo.” Carpeteo, or the act of keeping files, has become shorthand for political surveillance.

On the day of the protest against the university board, the cybercrimes agent, Luis LaSalle Vargas, logged onto Facebook and downloaded the livestreams posted by the three student pages. He would later testify that he took screenshots of the videos, capturing the images of anyone he judged to be a protester whose face was recognizable. To defense attorneys, the focus on protesters, rather than people engaged in criminal activity, was an indication that the investigation was about politics.

LaSalle Vargas sent a notice to Facebook asking the company to preserve the three pages in their current state, in case legally significant information was erased in the days to come. After an even larger protest over austerity measures broke out on May 1, where thousands of people poured into the streets and police cracked down violently, Lasalle Vargas sent Facebook another preservation request for the student pages. His renewed interest in the case after the May 1 protest again raised concerns for defense attorneys. The timing seemed to be another signal that the search was part of a broader effort to suppress an intensifying movement.

On May 5, LaSalle Vargas submitted a warrant request aimed at uncovering content exchanged both privately and publicly via the Facebook accounts. The agent asked for complete chat registries for the three days in question, as well as any searches the account managers conducted, digital images they posted, and content that had been deleted. The agent also asked for phone numbers and email addresses associated with the accounts, physical addresses of service, and records of bills and payments. And he demanded metadata including the dates and times the accounts were accessed, the GPS coordinates of posts, browser types, IP addresses, and cellphone IMSI numbers.

It’s unclear why information exchanged by student journalists would be relevant to the case. In an affidavit arguing for the warrant, the agent claimed that the information could reveal “evidence of the commission of crimes” potentially beyond what was captured on camera. In court, Lasalle Vargas said the search was simply “part of the investigation.” The copy of the search warrant shared with defense attorneys appears to be missing the page describing exactly which items the judge approved, but Sáez Matos believes the full request was granted.

“When it happened, we were not notified,” Pulso Estudiantil co-founder Roberto Nava Alsina told The Intercept. Many reporters use Facebook to communicate with potential sources, and the three outlets often used their accounts to promote stories that included criticisms of the government. Pulso Estudiantil’s writers and editors had no idea that the Justice Department had accessed 1,553 pages of their information, including private messages between the pages’ administrators and followers and the credit card numbers of several students, among them Nava Alsina, who was not at the board protest and was not among those charged. None of the seven students facing trial were connected to Pulso Estudiantil, Nava Alsina added.

“This is the first time that I’ve seen them do an investigation of digital media where they decide who to accuse based on what they find.”

Under federal law, when a government entity applies for a warrant, it can ask the court to order service providers not to notify users for 90 days. “You won’t be told it in real time because of the claim from law enforcement that it will interfere with the ongoing investigation,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Of course, if someone has a search warrant for your apartment, then it’s much easier to know that your couch has been overturned versus the fact that someone has come in and taken your electronic information.”

Neither Facebook nor the government ever alerted the individuals whose information had been turned over. Instead, students only learned about what happened after Denis Márquez Lebrón, an Independence Party member of Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, contacted Pulso Estudiantil to let them know that he was requesting a congressional investigation into whether the search violated the island’s constitution. Nava Alsina, who has since left Puerto Rico for graduate school in Washington, D.C., first learned that the government had accessed his private information when Pulso Estudiantil reported it. “I was surprised,” he said. By that point, one of the publications, Diálogo UPR, the university’s official student newspaper, had shut down because of budget cuts.

Andrés González Berdecía, a legal aide for Lebrón, shared the documents with the student publications but declined to share them with The Intercept, citing privacy concerns. He described them in detail and noted that the judge appeared to have signed off on everything investigators had requested.

“You can basically say that it was every possible interaction from that page, whether by the user or other users, for three full days,” González Berdecía said. “That was way too broad.”

“The information requested in no way could legitimately be thought to be related to the commission of a crime for a specific date,” he added. “It was obvious that the information requested by the government for three days, of specifically three student accounts in a very important moment, right before the May 1 International Workers’ Day in Puerto Rico, had the intention of gathering a lot of information about student organizations that the government thought were against the government.”

Sáez Matos, the defense attorney, called the warrant a “fishing expedition” and said there has been no indication so far that the search unearthed information of value to the case. “This is the first time that I’ve seen them do an investigation of digital media where they decide who to accuse based on what they find,” she said. “Why investigate people that weren’t there?”

Too Much Information

The Puerto Rico warrant is the latest in a series of sweeping requests for social media data by law enforcement across the U.S., according to Cahn.

“It’s incredibly problematic when we see a warrant as broad as this, used to gather the information on dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of individuals at a time,” Cahn told The Intercept. “The most high-profile example that really put a lot of us on notice about the practice was the Disrupt J20 protest in Washington, D.C.” Following protests and mass arrests during the inauguration of Donald Trump, the government obtained invasive warrants for the “distruptJ20” Facebook page and the private accounts of two activists. “The enforcement of these warrants would reach deeply into individuals’ private lives and protected associational and political activity,” the American Civil Liberties Union, which achieved some success in reining in the searches’ scope, said at the time.

Cahn noted that these mass requests are constitutionally shaky in that they fail to meet the threshold for “particularity” required under the Fourth Amendment, meaning they yield “too much information, on too many people, and on too tenuous a basis” to qualify as reasonable searches. But Cahn also pointed to the fact that no warrant is required for an undercover officer or a confidential informant to simply request access to a private group and then scrape its contents. Although Puerto Rican prosecutors indicated that an informant assembled a list of 25 students from which the seven defendants were selected, they declined to say more about the informant’s activities or identity.

“Before, police needed a person or investigator following you around, but now we basically do that for ourselves.”

The Puerto Rico case, Cahn said, “is part of a continuum of policing practices that we are seeing.”

The use of an informant only deepened the perception of a return to the past. Unlike the old days, though, when police spied on people with little oversight, this time the surveillance was approved by a judge. Indeed, if this was carpeteo, it was a modernized version. “In this age, we have made our own carpetas, our own political files, and Facebook has made it much easier for the police to just access those types of intimate files and more of our day-to-day life,” said Rivera, the student facing trial in February. “Before, police needed a person or investigator following you around, but now we basically do that for ourselves, and with a formal request, Facebook can just hand police all this information.”

“What a lot of people probably didn’t realize was that it would be so easy for police to use that information to prosecute students, like in our case, that weren’t arrested formally in the act of a protest,” he added.

Of course, if the prosecution of the students and the surveillance that surrounded the 2017 protests were intended to intimidate people and discourage dissent, that has largely failed. “What’s interesting is that that hasn’t stopped people. The biggest protest that has happened in Puerto Rican history happened this summer,” Rivera told The Intercept. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in July and successfully demanded the resignation of the corrupt governor Ricardo Rosselló. “And if you look around the world, no matter how much these neoliberal governments crack down on protest and crack down on activism, what we are seeing, in the whole world, is that activism gets stronger. The way a lot of these governments have acted toward dissent has basically been like gasoline for people.”

Correction: January 19, 2020, 9:30 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Puerto Rico’s governor, Wanda Vázquez. The article has also been updated to clarify that none of the students facing trial were connected to Pulso Estudiantil, according to co-founder Roberto Nava Alsina.

The post Facebook Warrant Targeting Student Journalists in Puerto Rico Prompts Fears of Political Surveillance appeared first on The Intercept.

Collection of Science Fiction Stories Tackling Racism

Allen De Graeff, ed., Human And Other Beings (New York: Collier Books 1963).

Science Fiction, it has been observed, is more often about the times in which it was written than about the future. Quite often it’s been the ‘literature of warning’, in which the author has extrapolated what they feel to be an ominous trend in the present to show its possibilities for the future if left unchecked. Thus H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine presented a nightmarish far future in which capitalist elites and the working class had diverged into two separate species. The Eloi – descendants of the elite – were small, dreamy creatures, with no industry of their own. They were the food animals instead of the Morlocks, descendants of the working class, who had been forced into lives of underground toil by the late Victorian and Edwardian class system. Other SF stories have tackled the problems of overpopulation – John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, the catastrophic over-reliance on mechanisation for, well, just about everything – E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, or the horrifying potential of genetic engineering and mass psychological conditioning, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and so on. I borrowed this colllection of SF stories from a friend. It’s interesting because it uses the theme of contact with alien and other non-human intelligences to criticise and denounce the very real, present issue of racism. The book’s blurb begins with the quotation ‘”Everything that diminishes human dignity is evil,”‘, and continues

With this timeless truth as his theme, Editor Allen DeGraeff has collected a group of superbly told science fiction tales that support it with horror or humor. Other planets, other centuries, living beings of shapes and colors other than “human” are the imaginative ingredients. Shock, surprise, and sympathy are the emotions they act upon.

  • Would you join the Anti-Martian League? Or, like Sam Rosen, would you fight it?
  • Would the gentle Adaptoman – four arms, two brains, three eyes-arouse your hostility if he worked in your office?
  • Could you live as a Professional in a world of Categoried Classes if there were also people known as Wipers, Greasers, and Figgers?
  • Would you marry an Android, a person physically just like you, but artificially “Made in the U.S.A.”?
  • Would you mock or make a friend of Narli, the charming fur-bearing exchange professor from Mars?
  • Could you serve with a soldier Surrogate, a human being reclaimed from the dead with biological techniques of the future?

In settings ranging from the Second Battle of Saturn to Earth 2003 and shining blue-green globe Shaksembender, these authors portray the ideas of human dignity.

The authors, whose work is collected in the volume include some of SF great masters – Ray Bradbury, William Tenn, Leigh Brackett, Frederick Pohl, both alone and with his frequent collaborator, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and Eric Frank Russell.

The stories were written at a time when the Civil Rights movement was gaining power, although still bitterly opposed by a viciously racist, conservative state apparatus and politicians. A number of other SF writers were also using the genre to denounce racism. Sometimes that was through metaphor, such as in Cordwainer Smith’s ‘The Ballad of Lost C’Mell’. This tale’s titular heroine is a young woman genetically engineered from cats. She is a member of an oppressed servile class of similarly genetically engineered animals. These creatures are denied all rights by their human masters, and humanely killed by euthanasia is they are unable to perform their functions. Through telepathic contact with another such creature, a dove of immense intelligence and wisdom, C’Mell is able to persuade a human board of inquiry to grant her people human rights. Other SF writers tackled racism directly, such as Harry Harrison in his 1963 story, ‘Mute Milton’. This was his angry reaction to a comment by a redneck southern sheriff’s response to the news that Martin Luther King was highly respected in Sweden and Scandinavia, and had been awarded the Nobel prize. The sheriff responded that King might be popular in Norway, but back in his town he would be ‘just one more n***er’. Harrison’s story is about a Black American college professor, who comes to a southern town on his way to another university to present his invention: a radio that runs on gravity. A stranger to the racial repression of the Deep South, he falls into conversation in a bar with a wanted civil rights activist while waiting for his bus out of town. The Black activist tells him what it’s really like to be Black in the South. The sheriff and his goons burst into the bar looking for the activist. He escapes out the back. The sheriff and his men shoot, but miss him and shoot the professor instead. When one of the goons tells the sheriff that they’ve killed an innocent man, he just shrugs it off as ‘another n***er’.

Racism has since gone on to be a major topic of much SF. It’s been explored, for example, in Star Trek, both recently and in the original 60’s series. It also inspired Brian Aldiss 1970s short story, ‘Working in the Spaceship Yards’, published in Punch. This was about a man with a Black friend having to come to terms with his own feelings about androids as they started working alongside them in the spaceship yards of the title, and going out with human women. It’s a satire on the racial politics of the day, when many White Brits were, as now, concerned about Black and Asian immigrants taking their jobs. And specifically anti-Black racism was tackled in an episode of Dr. Who written by award-winning Black children’s writer, Mallory Blackman. In this tale the Doctor and her friends travel back to the American Deep South to make sure Rosa Parks makes her epochal bus journey against the machinations of White racist from the future determined to stop Blacks ever gaining their freedom.

Not everyone is satisfied with the metaphorical treatment of racism pursued by some SF. I can remember arguing with a friend at college about Star Trek, and how the series explored racial tension and prejudice through Mr Spock. Despite being half-human, Spock was still an outsider, distrusted by many of his human crewmates. My friend believed instead that the series should have been more explicit and specifically explored anti-Black racism. More recently there has been the rise of Black SF writers, who use their work to address issues of race and the Black experience. An anthology of their work was published back in the 1990s as Dark Matters, a pun on the dark matter of astronomy, that is supposed to give the universe its missing mass.

Even if not explicit, the metaphorical approach allows writers to say what otherwise may not be said, as in the former Soviet Union. There, writers such as the Strugatsky brothers used the ‘Aesopian’ mode – SF as fable – to attack conditions in the Communist state, which would have been subject to censorship and severe punishment if said openly. Over in the capitalist world, the political situation was much freer, but there were still limits to what could be portrayed. Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss, between Kirk and Lt. Uhuru in the episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, but the network faced deep opposition from broadcasters in the Deep South. An indirect treatment also allows people to think about or accept ideas, which they would have rejected through a more straightforward treatment of the subject. Some readers may have been more receptive to anti-racist ideas if presented in the form of aliens than through an explicit treatment of colour prejudice against Blacks and other races.

This anthology, then, promises to be very interesting reading both through the tales themselves, and what they have to say about the times in which they were written. Times in which Science Fiction was joining the other voices denouncing racism and demanding equality and freedom for all, human and non-human. 




















Russian Rocket Engine Street Art in Cheltenham

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/01/2020 - 9:21pm in

One of the shops in Cheltenham has a very unusual piece of street art decorating its door. It’s of the rocket motor designed to power the Russian N1 spaceship to the Moon. The N1 was the Russian counterpart of the massive American Saturn V, and was similarly intended for a manned mission. Unlike the Americans, the Russian rocket would have a small crew of two, only one of whom would make the descent to the lunar surface in a module very much like the American. Unfortunately the project was a complete failure. Korolyov, the Soviet rocket designer, had died by the time it was being designed, and the head of the design bureau was his second-in-command, Mishin. Mishin was an excellent lieutenant, but this project was far beyond him. The N1 space vehicles kept exploding on the launch pad. These were powerful spacecraft, and the explosions destroyed everything within a radius of five miles. After three such explosions, one of which, I think, killed Mishin himself, the project was cancelled. The Russians never did send a man to the Moon, and instead had to satisfy themselves with the Lunakhod lunar rover.

I’d been meaning to take a photograph of the painting for sometime and finally got around to it yesterday. The full painting isn’t visible during the day, as much of it is on the cover that gets put over the door at night. This is the part of the painting shown in the top photograph. During the day only the bottom part of the engine, painted on the door itself, is visible.

The shop-owner himself was really helpful. He saw me crouching trying to photograph the bottom part of the engine, and asked if I knew what it was. When I told him it was a rocket motor, he proudly replied that it was TsK-33 for the N-1, and asked if I wanted to photograph the whole thing. I did, so he got down the door cover. Talking to him about the painting both then, and later on with a friend, who also has an interest in space, he told us a bit more about the rocket engine and his painting of it. Although the N-1 was scrapped, the Russians still retained the rocket engines. Someone from the American Pratt and Whitney rocket engine manufacturers met one of the engineers, designers or managers on the N-1 motors, who showed him 33 of the engines, which had been mothballed after the project’s cancellation. The Pratt and Whitney guy was impressed, as it turns out that these Russian motors are still the most efficient rocket engines yet created. He made a deal with the Russians to take them back to America, where they are now used on the Atlas rockets launching American military satellites. Or that’s the story.

My friend asked if the shopkeeper had painted it himself. He hadn’t. It had been done by a street artist. The shopkeeper had seen him coming along painting, and asked him if he would do an unusual request. And so the artist came to paint the Russian rocket engine.

There’s much great street art in Cheltenham, though as it’s an ephemeral genre you have to catch it while it’s there. Just before Christmas there was a great mural of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour logo in one of the town’s underpasses. I wanted to photograph that too. But when I tried yesterday, it had gone, replaced with another mural simply wishing everyone a happy Christmas.

But I hope the rocket engine, as it was done specifically for the shop, will be up for some time to come.

It also seems to me to bear out the impression I’ve had for a long time, that the real innovative art is being done outside of the official artistic establishment. The painting would have delighted the Futurists, who were into the aesthetics of the new machine age. And also the French avant-garde artist, Marcel Duchamps. Duchamps anticipated the Futurists concern with the depiction of movement in his painting, ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. He also painted a picture of ‘The Star Dancer’, which isn’t of a human figure, but a ship’s engine, which also anticipates the Futurists’ machine aesthetic. Unfortunately, what he is best known for is nailing that urinal to a canvas and calling it ‘The Advance of the Broken Arm’ as a protest against the artistic establishment. This went on to inspire Dada, and other anti-art movements. It’s now in Tate Modern, although it no longer has the same urinal. As a work of art, I really don’t rate it at all. Neither do most people. But for some reason, the artistic establishment love it and still seem to think it’s a great joke.

The real artistic innovations and explorations are being done outside the academy, by artists exploring the new world opened up by science and the literature of Science Fiction. And it’s to that world that this mural belongs. 





In Absorbing Science and Technology, Capital is Digging its Own Grave

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/01/2020 - 5:50am in

image/jpeg iconmodern_times.jpg

Capitalism is now undergoing a technological and scientific modernisation that is becoming a bomb ready to blow up the whole system. Humanity finds itself swept along in a vortex of technological innovations and automation.

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Nail, meet wood

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 17/01/2020 - 2:35am in



Remember the satisfying thunk when you strike a nail squarely with a strong hammer blow and the nail sinks an inch into wood? Few metaphors are as sound and accurate as “hitting the nail on the head”. Forgive the boast, dear readers, for a post Mike O’Hare and I made here five years ago proposing more building in wood as a way of cutting carbon emissions. There is a nifty new technology (engineered wood beams and panels) that makes it much easier; trees fix carbon, and using the wood in structures extends the sequestration for decades.

Dave Roberts at Vox has a long new post up  making essentially the same points. With more recent data, he has better and higher estimates than ours of the potential savings in carbon emissions. The other news is that things are beginning to move, as wood is transitioning from a handful of bespoke prestige projects to routine use in large buildings.

I thought the trendsetter would be New Zealand, which is heavily forested and has innovative wood structural engineers. But it’s small (4 million population), remote, and does not export much timber. No, it’s Canada; specifically British Columbia, the centre of the large Canadian forestry industry.

A mundane timber-framed 18-storey block of student rooms, Brock Commons, in Vancouver. The concrete stairwells are presumably required for fire safety.

BC has changed its building code to allow 12-storey wooden buildings routinely, and its code has been copied in the rest of Canada. Three are 500 mid-size wooden buildings under construction across the country. The new standards have spread to China and now much of the USA. US building codes are a local or state responsibility, but they often rely on common models, which now allow engineered wood.

The caveat to the RBC paean is that to get the full benefit, the forest management has to be based on forests that are (1) sustainably managed (2) second-growth. In BC, the timber building movement runs into nuanced criticism from defenders of the splendid old-growth forests. There is no inherent conflict here: engineered wood can perfectly well use fairly small pieces of lumber, such as those you get from smaller second-growth trees (in parts of Europe, eighth-growth), or 40-year thinnings, glued together in factories into panels and beams of the required size. But the lumber industry is what it is, and greater demand poses a threat to old growth worldwide unless its appetite is restrained by firm government and honest regulation. This will be a battle in the Pacific Northwest, and an even bigger one in tropical Africa and South America.

Endnote 1: the inventor of cross-laminated timber

Dave Roberts credits Austrian Gerhard Schickhofer, a professor at Graz Technical University. Alpine forestry is necessarily conservative; prevention of landslides and avalanches has priority over wood yield, and you don’t see clear cuts. Hillside trees tend to be small. This environment encourages a frugal approach to wood use, and lamination is a natural extension.

Endnote 2: Notre Dame

As you all know, the roof of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burnt down in a huge fire in April last year. The roof above the vaulting was supported by massive oak beams, so many that they were known as “the forest”. There were no firewalls or sprinklers in this huge drafty space, an ideal system to keep the flames supplied with oxygen. The rebuilding fund has money: but what to do about the roof?

A very French grand débat has started over this. Suggestions include the wacky (a rooftop open-air swimming pool, an all-glass roof). Nobody will listen to our views but it’s fun to join in anyway.

The baseline restoration scheme is “just as it was before”, including the 19th-century iron central spire. Taken literally, this requires replacing the Forest with new oak beams. Where do you find the trees? The oak forests of France have shrunk since the 12th century, or the 9th when the acorns that generated those beams fell. There are fine oaks like these planted by Colbert to replace those he cut to build warships for Louis XIV – trees that have preservation orders on them. Even in a good cause, felling a thousand of them is not on.

What makes the problem more tractable is that the Forest was not generally open to visitors before the fire. It should be culturally possible to innovate. I’d go for a technically modern roofspace, using a steel space frame or engineered wood, and preserving some of the surviving blackened timbers as a memorial. The space could be made partly usable for religious or cultural purposes, assuming you could put in lifts.

Mock Spaghetti Western Trailer for ‘The Mandalorian’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/01/2020 - 4:17am in

The Mandalorian is an American SF series. It’s a spin-off from Star Wars about a bounty hunter from Boba Fett’s people, who roams the Galaxy rounding up fugitives from justice. As far as I can make out, his companions include a war droid and an infant clone of Yoda.

I found this highly entertaining video on Kingkida’s channel on YouTube. This is mock cinema trailer for the show in the style of those for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood, For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a really well put together spoof. It has the grainy quality of the film used in them days for low budget movies, the text is in Italian with English subtitles, as in the spaghetti westerns, and it uses the iconic music. Oh yes, and it also nods to the third film in Leone’s trilogy with the captions ‘The Good’, ‘the Bad’, and ‘the Ughnaut’ – one of the aliens from the Star Wars universe.

#1507; The Rhythm Method

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 12/01/2020 - 4:00am in


comic, Technology

Watch long enough to see this comic animate!

Weird Science: Plants as Interplanetary Communication Devices

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/01/2020 - 5:06am in

Science Fiction has been described as the literature of ideas, and one of the most bizarre ideas is that grass is an artificial computing device. This strange notion appears in Clifford Simak’s 1965 novel, All Flesh Is Grass. This is about a small American town that finds itself completely enclosed beneath a forcefield. The town is on a nexus linking our world and its counterpart in a parallel universe. Investigating the force field and the strange disappearance years earlier of a mentally handicapped lad, the hero finds himself transported to this alternative Earth, where he meets the missing boy, now grown up. He also encounters a group of mysterious travellers from yet another universe, who have come to the world simply to listen to music and dance. Returning to our Earth, he finds that the force field has been put around the town by intelligent extradimensional aliens. There is a series of alternative Earths, who have come together to form some kind of interdimensional federation. These wise, enlightened beings wish to help humanity. They are skilled physicians, and show their good intentions by healing the town’s sick free of charge. It’s revealed that grass is some kind of intelligently engineered device, which was used by an alien race for information storage thousands of years ago.

As with many of the stranger ideas in literature, whether Science Fiction or not, you wonder where the idea came from. Some clue is perhaps given in the 1973 Erich Von Daniken book In Search of Ancient Gods: My Pictorial Evidence for the Impossible. Beginning on page 192, the world’s most notorious author on ancient astronauts discusses how two American scientists suggested that plants could be extraterrestrial communication devices. He writes

So far all attempts to capture signals from the cosmos with the aid of electromagnetic waves have failed. Dr George Lawrence of the Ecola Institute in San Bernardino, California, hit on a fantastic new way to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences. Lawrence wondered if plants connected to an electronic control system would be suitable for communication with the universe. It is known that plants possess electrodynamic properties, indeed their capacity to assimilate tests and react in a binary way like a computer is sensational. Lawrence closely observed the semiconductive and general electromotive capacities of plants. He asked himself the following questions as part of his programme:

  1. Can plants be integrated with electronic apparatuses in such a way that they yield usable data?
  2. Can plants be trained to react to specific objects or events?
  3. Is the assumption that plants have the capacity for exception perception provable?
  4. Which of the 350,000 kinds of plants is most suited for the test. (p. 192)

Von Daniken then goes on to describe how plants respond to electric stimulation, and how Dr Clyde Backster, an expert in lie detectors, observed similar responses in 1969 during experiments in which he believed his test plants responded telepathically, at first to himself lighting a match, and then to a bucket of shrimps being plunged into boiling water. This response became known, apparently, as the Backster effect. Von Daniken continues

Dr Lawrence next tried to use plants for electromagnetic contact with the cosmos. A series of experiments, christened Project Cyclops, was organised over a distance of seven miles in the Mojave Desert, near Las Vegas. On 29 October 1971 at the same fraction of a second the measuring sets attached to the plants registered heightened curves which were transferred to the tape by an amplifier. What was going on? Was something underground stimulating the plants? Were there torrents of lava, earthquakes, magnetic influences? New sets were made, the plants were protected in lead boxes and Faradaic cages. The result was the same! Observed over a long period of time, curves and notes showed a certain synchronicity. The plants seemed to be communicating. Plants cannot think: they can only react. Every conceivable kind of magnetic wavelength was tried. At the moment of the different reactions, nothing could be heard. Could the process be connected with the fixed stars, with quasars or radiation? A new series of experiments clearly showed that the cause came from the cosmos. Radioastronomers with their gigantic antenna could pick up nothing, but plants showed violent reactions. Obviously a wavelength that functioned biologically was involved. This brought the experimenters into a territory whose existence has been suspected, but which is not measurable so far – telepathy. A biological contact took place in a way unexplained to date, but during the detour via the cells it became measurable. Dr George Lawrence said on the subject:

Obviously biological interstellar communication is nothing new. We have only 215 astronomic observatories in the world, but about a million of the biological type, although we call them by other names such as churches, temples and mosques. A biological system (mankind) communicates (prays) to a far distant higher being. Biological understanding is also the order of the day in the animal kingdom; we have only to think of dogs and cats which find their way home again by instinct. A fascinating feature of the experiments in the desert is the realisation that these biological contacts with the cosmos are connected with the speed of light.

The suspicion is growing stronger that the plants are called up by someone in the constellation Epsilon Bootes at a hundred times the speed of light. That is also why radioastronomers could not register the transmissions. Why use a big drum when a kettledrum is available? Perhaps we have investigated interstellar contacts with the wrong instruments, the wrong wavelengths and the wrong spectrum until now. (p.194-5).

This is clearly very fringe science, if not actually pseudoscience of the type likely to get Richard Dawkins grinding his teeth. It also merges into a kind of New Age pantheism, in which the cosmos itself may be some kind of God or supreme intelligence. It’s all very different from what I was taught in secondary school that grass was a monocotolydon. That means, it only has one leaf. I also note that the experiments started in 1971, some six years after Simak published his novel. But scientists and novelists were discussing plant intelligence from the 1950s onwards, including the idea that they could feel pain. It’s now been found that plants do communicate biochemically, and there was an article in the papers last week stating that they do feel pain. Perhaps Lawrence’s ideas, or ideas similar to them, were being discussed several years before Lawrence conducted his experiments, and influenced Simak when he wrote his book.

‘I’ Review of Art Exhibition on Ecological Crisis and Some Solutions

Also of interest in yesterday’s I was a review by Sarah Kent of the exhibition, Eco-Visionaries, at the Royal Society in London. This was about the current ecological crisis, and showcased some possible solutions to the problem, some of them developed by architects. This included a moving desert city, the Green Machine, which also planted a watered crops as it moved. The article ran

Melancholy humming welcomes you to the exhibition, with a globe suspended in the cloudy waters of a polluted fish tank. This simple installation by the artist duo HeHe neatly pinpoints our predicament: our planet is suffocating.

“The absence of a future has already begun,” declare Ana Vaz and Tristan Bera in a film, Reclaimed (2015). We know this already – according to the UN, we need to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050 if we are to prevent the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem. So what are we waiting for?

Vaz and Bera highlight the problem. The situation requires a wholesale change in attitude: minor tinkering can’t solve it. We need “reciprocity with nature rather than domination… We are nature.” We are mesmerised by events such as the Arctic on fire, Greenland’s ice-cap melting and Venice drowning. But the scale of the problem is so enormous that we can only watch, “fascinated by the acceleration” of the crisis.

The collective Rimini Protokoli encourages us to confront our imminent extinction. On film we see a tank full of languidly floating jellyfish. They flourish in the warming seas and, with diminishing fish stocks, there’s less competition for the plankton they feed on, so their numbers are increasing dramatically. Humans are similarly multiplying – by 2050, according to the UN, there will be 9.7 billion of us – but unlike jellyfish, we require too much energy to adapt to climate change so, like the dinosaurs, our days are numbered. At the end of the presentation they invite us to go with the words: “Your time is up; you will have to leave.”

The Royal Academy is to be congratulated for hosting an exhibition that tackles this urgent issue, but the show exemplifies the problem. The warnings are persuasive, but the solutions envisaged are pitifully inadequate, mainly by architects who don’t address the catastrophe but instead offer us post-apocalyptic follies. The Green Machine (2014) is Studio Malka’s answer to desertification. Resembling a giant oil rig, this monstrosity trundles across the Sahara on caterpillar treads that plough the ground then sow and water the seeds to produce 20 million tons of food per year. Solar towers, wind turbines and water-capturing balloons create a “self-sufficient urban oasis” for those inside. What percentage of the 9.7 billion will they accommodate, I wonder?

Studio Malka’s Green Machine mobile desert city.

It’s a grim subject, and clearly the ecological crisis requires drastic action across the entire globe and very soon. But I am fascinated by the Green Machine. It reminds me of the giant moving cities that cross the devastated future Earth in the SF film Mortal  Engines. As for how many people such a machine could house, the answer is: very few. Douglas Murray’s book Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture predicts that if we carry on as we are, we will end up with a future in which the rich will inhabit closed, protected environments like the various biodomes that were created in the 1990s, while the rest of humanity will be left to fend for itself in the decaying world outside.

It’s a bleak, dystopian prediction, but one I fear will come true if we carry on electing leaders like Trump and Johnson.

‘I’ Article About Research into Artificial Wombs and their Morality

This is another science story from yesterday’s I for 7th January 2020. It’s about current research into developing artificial wombs. At the moment, these would be for very premature babies, but they could in theory go much further, which raises some serious ethical issues.

The article by Alla Katsnelson, ‘Baby in a bag: could humans be grown in an artificial womb?’ runs

Critically preterm babies face an uncertain future. Although a foetus is considered viable at 24 weeks of gestation, only about 60 per cent of babies born so young will survive, and many will experience life-long complications.

For those born a couple of weeks earlier, the statistics are even more dire: just 10 per cent of babies born at 22 weeks are likely to survive.

building a so-called artificial womb could potentially save these babies. In October, researchers from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands announced that they had received a grant for E2.9m (£2.5m) to develop a prototype of such a device. But the project isn’t the only artificial womb on the horizon. In 2017, researchers in Philadelphia transferred foetal lambs, aged between 105 and 115 days of gestation (equivalent to about 28 to 30 weeks human gestation), into a so-called biobag filled with artificial amniotic fluid. After several weeks in the bag, the lambs developed normally. And in March 2019, an Australian and Japanese research team kept younger lambs, about 95 days’ gestational age, alive in a different system.

Dr Matthew Kemp, who led the latter work, admits that researchers don’t fully understand foetal growth in the womb, which makes replicating it a challenge. The Dutch group noted plans to roll out a clinic-ready prototype in five years, but Dr Kemp says it will probably take much longer. And because the technology is so costly, it’s unlikely to be widely available any time soon.

So far, what researchers call artificial wombs are essentially souped-up incubators. They provide a fluid-filled space in which a foetus can receive nutrients and oxygen through a ‘placenta’. From there to full-on ectogenesis – incubating foetuses outside a human for the full duration of a pregnancy – is an enormous leap.

But many bioethicists note that technology moves quickly, and proactively thinking through the possibilities is important.

In this more futuristic vision, artificial wombs can do a lot for society, says Dr Elizabeth Yuko, a bioethicist at Fordham University in New York. It could allow people who can’t carry a pregnancy for whatever reason – illness, infertility, age, or gender – to do so. It might also shift some of the childbearing responsibilities carried by women. But it also raises concerns. For example, ex-utero gestation would probably turn reproductive rights on their head, says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Manchester. If a foetus can gestate outside a woman’s body, the choice fo whether or not to have the baby might be deemed out of her hands.

Another issue is that our legal rights are predicated on having been born alive. “I don’t think that a gestating subject in an artificial womb necessarily meets that requirement,” says Romanis. “That raises some questions about human entities ex-utero that have never existed before.

There have been newspaper articles about the development of artificial wombs since the 1980s, at least. The Absurder published one c. 1985, and I think the Independent also published one in the 1990s. And the whole area of artificial reproduction has been a live issue since the first ‘test tube’ baby created through in vitro fertilisation in the 1970s. But it also raises the spectacle of the kind of dystopian society Aldous Huxley portrayed in Brave New World, where humans are bred in hatcheries, engineered and conditioned for their future role in society. The Auronar, the telepathic race to which Cally, one of the heroes of the Beeb’s SF series, Blake’s 7, also reproduced through artificial gestation.And one of the predictions in Brian Stableford’s and David Langford’s future history, The Third Millennium, is that during this millennium this will be the preferred method of human reproduction, at least in some extraterrestrial colonies. And over a decade Radio 4 broadcast a series in which various intellectuals created fictional museums. One was ‘the museum of the biological body’, set in a post-human future in which people were neuter cyborgs born from hatcheries. This is obviously very far off, and I doubt anywhere near the majority of humans would ever want to reject gender and sexuality completely, whatever certain sections of the trans community might believe.

As with cloning and Dolly the Sheep, it raises very profound and disturbing questions about humanity’s future and how far technology should expand into the area of reproduction.