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Swath of Destruction: New Brazilian President Takes Aim at the Amazon

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Jair Bolsonaro, the new Brazilian president, wants to open up protected indigenous territories in the Amazon rain forest to mining, cattle ranching and farming. The decision could be a fateful one for the global climate.
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51 minutes ago
Today in right-wing threats…
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'More Work to Do': German Economy Prepares for No-Deal Brexit

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A no-deal Brexit threatens to have a major impact on the European economy. Companies have long since begun making concrete preparations for an eventuality that is looking increasingly likely.
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Researcher: As tech firms grow rapidly, privacy violations must be intentional

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If there's one person outside of government who has stood against Facebook's crashing wave, it's Ashkan Soltani.

Late last year, the independent privacy researcher was suddenly called to speak before the UK Parliament about Facebook's privacy practices, simply because he happened to be in London and, in his own words, "was just a dick on Twitter."

Soltani wasn't just some random Internet troll: he understood the company's technical practices in a way that few did, and better yet, he could explain them in a way that most civilians would understand.

Months earlier, Soltani had given similar testimony before a US Senate subcommittee, where he unequivocally said: "No other single company has done more to erode consumer privacy than Facebook."

Earlier in 2018, Soltani also helped author the new California Consumer Privacy Act, which was signed into law last June, just a few years after being named as the chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission.

Years ago, the Californian began his career researching undeletable browser cookies. Over time, he's come to a stark realization.

"We have very little privacy protection in the US," he explained at our most recent gathering of Ars Technica Live, our monthly event (second Wednesday of the month) at a local bar in Oakland, Eli's Mile High Club.

"We have very few privacy laws," Soltani said. "What we have is FTC, Section 5, which governs unfair and deceptive trade practices."

In short, one of the FTC's primary jobs is to simply enforce whether companies are abiding by the lengthy, verbose, and legalistic terms that customers agree to.

On January 18, The Washington Post reported that the FTC is honing in on imposing potential fines to Facebook over the recent Cambridge Analytica debacle that erupted in March 2018. That now-defunct British data-analytics company was revealed to have retained data on 50 million Facebook users despite claiming to have deleted it. That's on top of myriad other breaches, bug disclosures, and more.

"When the incentive is to grow at any cost, these violations don't seem like violations—they almost seem intentional," Soltani said.

Or, as he told the Senate committee: "'Growth at any cost' is the new 'unsafe at any speed' and must be treated as such."

A losing battle

Soltani quickly zeroed in on two primary reasons why it's been difficult for American regulators to wrap their arms around companies like Facebook. First, the California tech giant does provide a useful service: politicians want to reach voters and want to communicate with family members, too.

But the second issue is tougher, Soltani explained.

"Historically, if you wanted to govern airbags, there was a model year, you would recall a certain version, and you would hold a company liable," he said. "Software, particularly Web apps and cloud-based software, is constantly changing. It's not the same for you or [me]. You might be in a test group that I'm not in. To know this version versus that version and [how] the law should affect in this way is incredibly difficult."

It's impossible, he explained, for most people to keep track of the ins and outs of APIs and other data-sharing practices.

As an example, Soltani pointed to his June 2018 testing—at the request of The New York Times—which revealed how much a Facebook app on a BlackBerry phone could access. Facebook has maintained "data-sharing partnerships" with numerous device makers, which allows access to friends' data even after saying that it would no longer do so.

"When you're talking about these kinds of violations and these kinds of lies that the companies are telling, it feels like, as a consumer, it's hard for us to make good decisions," he said, pointing out how when we buy food at the grocery store, all the choices must abide by labeling requirements.

"None of [the foods in the grocery store] can include arsenic, [but] we're not required to test our products," he added. "That's kind of the online regime that we have for digital safety and digital security."

The researcher has repeatedly called on federal regulation to help turn the tide.

Interested in coming to our next Ars Live event? It will be held at 7pm on Wednesday, February 13, 2019, at Eli's Mile High Club, at 3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Oakland.

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Square meals


It’s likely that the term square meal originated in the restaurant culture of the California Gold Rush.

Most of the single men that were drawn to California then were temporary dwellers dependent on restaurants and hotels for their meals, so it is not surprising that “square meal” would first be applied to meals served in restaurants.

One of the earliest uses of the phrase I’ve found was in an advertisement for the What Cheer House in Marysville CA in 1858. The What Cheer said it offered three square meals a day for a moderate charge.

The term evidently was not known in the East. Most of the news about life in California was delivered by newspaper correspondents who wrote long stories about their experiences. One of those was J. Ross Browne, a frequent contributor to Harper’s magazine, who wrote in 1863 about a small shanty eatery called “The Howling Wilderness Saloon” that offered “a good square meal” for fifty cents. Browne explained that a square meal “is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block; but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance that will serve to fill up the corners of a miner’s stomach.” [Above advertisement, California, 1861]

Other writers also felt it was necessary to explain to faraway readers what square meal meant. In the mid-1860s the term was often included in lists of colorful and unfamiliar Western slang such as shebang, grub, and muk-a-muk, plus sayings such as You bet, or Bet your bottom dollar.

By the end of the Civil War, the term had begun to spread across the country. A Union soldier from Wisconsin referred in summer of 1865 to enjoying his first square meal since joining the regiment. The reporter asked what he meant by that and he answered, “Four cups of coffee, all the ham I can eat, with bread, butter, pies, cakes, pickles and cheese . . .”

A few years later a restaurant in Memphis TN celebrated the opening of a new eating saloon where “A ‘square meal’ is served up smoking hot for fifty cents.”

What is most revealing about the slang term – suggesting what the mainstream American idea of a good meal was – is what did NOT qualify as a square meal.

For many diners, a meal in a Chinese restaurant did not qualify. Samuel Bowles, publisher of the esteemed Springfield (MA) Republican, who wrote of his travels to the West in 1865, explained that a square meal was “the common term for a first rate one.” He described a Chinese dinner he attended in San Francisco where the “the universal odor and flavor soon destroyed all appetite.” He was rescued from the situation by the chief of police who took him to an American restaurant where he enjoyed mutton chops, squab, fried potatoes, and a bottle of champagne.

Another New England paper ratified Bowles’ disdain for a Chinese dinner, stating, “An American generally has to go and get a ‘square meal’ after thus dining.” A possible reason for the rejection of Chinese food may lie in an editorial in 1872 in the New York Evening Post that referred to a political campaign amounting to a “dish of hotch-potch, instead of a square meal of honest viands.” In other words, people wanted chunks of meat [i.e., viands], not bits of food mixed together.

It was also clear that a square meal was not the same thing as a lunch. Back in 1858 the What Cheer House advised that in addition to three squares a day, regular diners there might also get “a lunch between meals, if they can keep on the right side of the Cook.” A lunch was regarded then almost as a snack. Boston’s Lindall “Dining & Lunch Rooms” had three departments, one “for the ‘regular square meals,’ one an oyster counter, and one “devoted to hot lunches of smaller orders of almost every dish.”

Guests from abroad were not always pleased with the squareness of American meals. The Londoner Walter Scott wrote in Our American Cousins (1883) about struggling with square meals in hotels where typically an enormous number of dishes of food were served, not in courses but all at once. As a waiter told another visitor, “What people want here is a good square meal; they are not particular about what they eat, if only they have a lot of things placed in front of them.” This style of service reportedly led to huge amounts of dumped food floating in the NY harbor.

In the 20th century some people began to mourn the loss of the good old pre-modern square meal – which was increasingly seen as the opposite of “fancy food.” A street reporter in Chicago in 1924 asked a woman whether she preferred home cooking to what was served in a “high class” restaurant and she answered that she preferred a good square meal with “fewer fancy frills.”

I think her answer would still resonate today, and I’d guess that many would say a diner was the best place to get a square meal.

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
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President Trump made 8,158 false or misleading claims in his first two years - The Washington Post

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Two years after taking the oath of office, President Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims, according to The Fact Checker’s database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president.

That includes an astonishing 6,000-plus such claims in the president’s second year.

Put another way: The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. But he hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year, almost triple the pace.

We started this project as part of our coverage of the president’s first 100 days, largely because we could not possibly keep up with the pace and volume of the president’s misstatements. Readers demanded we keep it going for the rest of Trump’s presidency. Our interactive graphic, managed with the help of Leslie Shapiro of The Washington Post graphics department, displays a running list of every false or misleading statement made by Trump. You can also search for specific claims or obtain monthly or daily totals.

In the first 100 days, the president made 492 unsupported claims. He managed to top that number just in the first three weeks of 2019. In October, as he was barnstorming the country in advance of the midterm elections, he made more than 1,200 false or misleading claims.

Not surprisingly, the biggest source of misleading claims is immigration, with a tally that has grown with the addition of 300 immigration claims in the past three weeks, for a total of 1,433.

In the president’s immigration address Saturday, the last day of his second year in office, we counted 12 false or misleading claims, including:

"Heroin alone kills 300 Americans a week, 90 percent of which comes across our southern border.”

  • The 300-a-week number checks out. But while 90 percent of the heroin sold in the United States comes from Mexico, virtually all of it comes through legal points of entry. “A small percentage of all heroin seized by [Customs and Border Protection] along the land border was between Ports of Entry (POEs),” the Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2018 report. So Trump’s wall would do little to halt drug trafficking. Trump’s repeated claim that the wall would stop drug trafficking is a Bottomless Pinocchio claim.

“Many of these security ideas have been proposed by Democrats themselves, and all of them have been supported by Democrats in the past, including a physical barrier wall or fence.”

  • Trump overstates the supposed Democratic support. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and many Democrats (although not Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California) voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed by President George W. Bush and authorized construction of a fence along nearly 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. It passed 283 to 138 in the House, with 64 Democratic votes, and 80 to 19 in the Senate, with 26 Democratic votes. But the fence they voted for is not as substantial as the wall Trump is proposing. Trump himself has called the 2006 fence a “nothing wall.” 

"However, the whole concept of having lengthy trials, for anyone who sets one foot in our country unlawfully, must be changed by Congress. It is unsustainable. It is ridiculous. Few places in the world would even consider such an impossible nightmare.”

  • Trump is routinely astonished by U.S. and international laws on asylum. This is how it works in any country that abides by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees: A refugee enters and makes a petition, and the government makes a ruling after analyzing the facts. It’s also worth keeping in mind that 85 percent of all deportations in the United States are ordered quickly, without a hearing before a judge. 

"If we build a powerful and fully designed see-through steel barrier on our southern border, the crime rate and drug problem in our country would be quickly and greatly reduced. Some say it could be cut in half.”

  • Trump’s statement that a border wall would cut the nation’s crime rate — and “drug problem” — in half is simply laughable. There is no evidence to suggest that is the case. Most undocumented immigrants do not illegally cross the southern border, undocumented immigrants do not commit crimes at a rate higher than U.S. citizens, and drugs flow through the border mostly through legal crossing points. 

"Thousands of children are being exploited by ruthless coyotes and vicious cartels and gangs.”

  • Here’s an example of where the president or his aides appear to have responded to our fact checks. No government statistic tracks children smuggled in by bad actors, “coyotes” or drug gangs, and for this speech, Trump has altered his usual claim that “last month alone, 20,000 minors were smuggled into the United States.” Now the number is fuzzier, and he no longer says “smuggled” but uses a weaker “exploited.” Trump previously referred to Customs and Border Protection’s number for family-unit apprehensions and unaccompanied minors. But we have pointed out that it’s wrong to describe it as a statistic that represents children being smuggled into the country. Trump appears to be acknowledging there are no firm numbers for how many parents might have hired a smuggler, coyote or gang member — though there is no evidence that the figure would be “thousands.” 

Claims about foreign policy (900) and trade (854) rank second and third, followed by claims about the economy (790) and jobs (755). But there’s also a grab-bag category of “miscellaneous” (899), which includes misleading attacks on the media or people the president perceives as enemies.

By our count, there were only 82 days — or about 11 percent of the time — on which we recorded no claims. These were often days when the president golfed.

But there were also 74 days, or about 10 percent of his presidency, in which Trump made more than 30 claims. These were often days when he held campaign-style rallies, riffing without much of a script.

Trump has made many misleading claims about the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, claiming 192 times a variation of the statement that it was a hoax perpetuated by Democrats. The CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency had announced that they had “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to influence the election, with a clear preference for Trump. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed by Trump’s Justice Department, and the congressional committees investigating the matter have been headed by Republicans.

Trump repeated 127 times the falsehood about securing the biggest tax cut in U.S. history, even though Treasury Department data shows it would rank eighth. And 126 times, he has falsely claimed that the United States has lost money on trade deficits. Countries do not “lose” money on trade deficits. A trade deficit simply means that people in one country are buying more goods from another country than people in the second country are buying from the first country. Trade deficits are also affected by macroeconomic factors, such as currencies, economic growth and savings and investment rates.

Visit our website of Bottomless Pinocchios for highly misleading or false claims that the president has made so often that they have become a form of disinformation.

(Contributors to the database over the past two years include Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Nicole Lewis.)

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This is a challenge for reporters: it’s important to call him on it but it just blurs together for most people
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‘We’re left in the dark’: As many industries get shutdown relief, those without political clout feel left behind - The Washington Post

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Alaska’s cod and pollock fishing fleet headed out on the Bering Sea this month without delay, thanks to federal inspectors brought back from furlough to certify their boats. And alcohol producers have two calls scheduled next week with Treasury Department officials to discuss how to keep new products moving onto liquor store shelves.

But advocates for survivors of domestic violence have not been able to find an official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help them access their grant money for temporary housing. And some Native American leaders said they are operating with no guidance about what to do about the abrupt cutoff of federal funds.

In the chaotic landscape of the partial federal shutdown, some constituencies have gotten speedy relief and attention from federal officials — while others are still trying to get in the door.

The lack of guidance from the White House on what services can be considered essential — as well as the ability of agencies to restart some programs with discretionary funds — has created an opening for politically connected interests to prod parts of the government back into action.

The haphazard aspect of what services are getting restored has fueled a sense that the shutdown, in many cases, has been more painful for those without political power, critics said.

“There is supposed to be a principle that agencies are shut, with the exception of essential personnel there for public safety,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic policy expert and president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank. “When that bright line disappears, you get inequities across agencies, and that feels like where we are.”

He added: “The fact that it’s not being done in a seemingly evenhanded fashion across agencies raises the question if it’s the squeaky wheel getting the grease.”

Influential industries are not the only ones getting relief during the budget impasse.

The Trump administration has scrambled to blunt its broadest and most severe impacts on Americans — including those with limited income — by extending food stamp payments and bringing back tens of thousands of Internal Revenue Service employees to ensure that Americans receive their tax refunds on time.

Brad Bishop, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said in an email that the president is working to keep as much of the government open as possible

“In stark contrast to previous administrations, President Trump has directed all impacted agencies to make the partial lapse in appropriations as painless as possible for the American people, consistent with law,” Bishop said.

But as agencies work to allocate scare resources, some constituencies with little political clout say they are having trouble being heard.

Some nonprofit groups and shelters that receive funding through HUD to subsidize transitional housing costs for domestic violence victims cannot access the grant money because they are locked out of HUD’s computer system — and the staffers who would help are furloughed.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence appealed to congressional aides for help this week and said it reached out to Jemine Bryon, the HUD assistant secretary who oversees the homelessness grants.

But Bryon has not responded, said Monica McLaughlin, the network’s director of public policy. The nonprofit groups are relying now on donors and landlords to float the money needed for rent.

“We’re using all of our advocacy relationships to try and get this untangled, but there is no one there at HUD,” said Cindy Southworth, the network’s executive vice president. “That speaks, to me, to the priorities of the administration.”

HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said a password problem has locked out multiple groups, including those who provide services to the homeless, who are now unable to access their grant money.

“We’re working on a resolution,” Brown said. “This is normally handled in the field offices, but there is no one in the field to assist.” The response may not be immediate, he added: “We have a limited staff here.”

The powerful alcohol industry, by contrast, has the attention of senior Treasury officials as it presses its concerns about the impact of the shutdown.

Wine, beer and distilled spirits makers — which accounted for $10.6 billion in tax revenue in fiscal 2018 — are asking for more staff to return to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which must approve new equipment, formulas and labels.

“The backup is extraordinary,” said Frank Coleman, senior vice president of the Distilled Spirits Council.

Industry officials were told that staff could not be brought back in, according to a person close to the tax bureau, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

However, talks are ongoing. Treasury officials urged alcohol producers to collect data on the economic effects of the shutdown on the industry, including the loss of tax revenue to the U.S. Treasury, according to a person familiar with the department’s response. Second and third calls have been scheduled with agency officials for Monday and Tuesday.

A Treasury Department spokeswoman declined to comment

Some industries saw the potential fallout of a shutdown coming — and worked to mitigate it.

During last year’s three-day government shutdown, the National Pork Producers Council and other livestock groups successfully pressed the Agriculture Department to continue publishing livestock pricing data — the major source of market information for the meat industry — reversing the position of the Obama administration. That policy has continued in the current shutdown.

The pork council continues to have an open line to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his staff, said council spokesman Jim Monroe. The USDA has for the last month continued to buy commodities under President Trump’s bailout for farmers hurt by the trade war with China, a large portion of which goes to pork producers.

“They’ve listened to our concerns, and we’re very pleased,” Monroe said.

And American Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Dale Moore and a handful of his colleagues privately outlined their worries about the freeze in USDA loans and federal subsidies with Purdue just before he took the podium Monday to address farmers and ranchers gathered in New Orleans for the Farm Bureau’s annual convention, according to John Newton, the Farm Bureau’s chief economist.

Two days later, Purdue announced that 2,500 employees in the Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency were being summoned back — without pay — for three days to hundreds of local offices across the country to help farmers complete paperwork for loan applications, process existing loan payments and open mail to “identify priority items.”

Yet other USDA programs are drastically pared back.

The Rural Housing Service, a $30 billion operation that funds construction, home loans and loan guarantees for homeowners, hospitals, child-care centers, libraries and schools in small-town America — along with rental assistance for the elderly and disabled — is largely shuttered, with thousands of employees across the country on furlough.

As a result, no new loans or guarantees can be processed or closed. Rental assistance is flowing for now but will end in a month if the shutdown continues, according to David Lipsetz, chief executive of the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit group that helps build rural housing.

“This shutdown is hitting poor and middle-class folks the hardest. It’s especially true in rural places,” said Lipsetz, a former senior USDA official who served during the Obama administration. “Why open offices to process farm loans and FHA mortgages and not do the same for rural families ? . . . It’s driving inequality and the poverty of individual rural families while helping out businesses and people buying half-million dollar homes.”

In a statement, USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the department brought in 200 staff members who work on rural development in St. Louis to service existing loans and guarantees.

Murtaugh said the USDA has sought to continue as many services as possible — such as food stamps, which he said are fully funded through February — “working with OMB to establish legal authority to do so.”

“We continue to examine those possibilities as the shutdown continues,” he added.

In some cases, even players within the same industry find themselves in starkly different predicaments.

When the shutdown began, members of Alaska’s congressional delegation said they made it clear that it was imperative that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service keep enough managers on the job. Without the inspections the NOAA staff perform, boat operators would not be able to head out to the Bering Sea to catch cod starting Jan. 1 and pollock beginning on Jan. 20.

Chris Oliver, NOAA assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service — an Alaskan himself — tapped funds the agency had collected from industry to keep some employees at work over the past month and brought at least a couple back from furlough this month, according to several individuals briefed on the matter.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) credited Oliver’s “outstanding work” for keeping the fisheries in business.

“Since holiday break, my office and I have worked and been in direct communication with a number of Commerce Department officials to ensure that federal fisheries in Alaska opened on time and fishermen were able to gain the necessary approvals and inspections to get out on the water,” Sullivan said in a statement. “This approach is vastly different from the 2013 government shutdown, which delayed Alaska’s lucrative and iconic crab fishery, and the agency’s efforts at mitigating impacts from the lapse in funding should be commended.”

But some fishing operators on the East Coast have yet to receive similar help — leaving their vessels grounded.

John Lees, managing partner of the scallop fishing vessel Madison Kate in New Bedford, Mass., said he was in the final stages of getting NOAA officials to transfer his federal permit from his old boat to his new one last month when the agency closed. Under federal rules, he has until March 31 to catch 134,000 pounds of scallops under certain conditions.

If he cannot sail, he said, he and his crew stand to lose $1.5 million worth of seafood.

“All we’re looking for now is for NOAA to just assign a number. That’s it,” Lees said in an interview, adding that he is working to reach agency officials amid the short staffing and that his assigned quota could now be out of reach. “It’s possible that we won’t be able to do it.”

NOAA spokeswoman Julie Roberts said in an email that agency staffers were working on key matters, despite the shutdown.

“NOAA continues to conduct enforcement activities for the protection of marine fisheries including quota monitoring, observer activities, and regulatory actions to prevent overfishing,” she said. “This is not specific to Alaska.”

In the uncertain landscape of the shutdown, few groups remain as vulnerable as Native American tribes now cut off from federal assistance.

The Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, whose funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs stopped flowing, has already laid off two-thirds of its tiny police force, along with a sizable share of its court system, firefighters and maintenance crew, tribe chairman Lester Randall said.

Randall said he has tried several times to seek guidance from federal officials in Washington and called regional offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Anadarko, Okla., but the employees there have been furloughed.

Two of the laid-off police officers have already found jobs with other police departments, meaning they are unlikely to come back even when the shutdown ends and funds return. Randall’s biggest concern now is trying to prepare the tribe of 1,600 for a snowstorm in their small slice of northeast Kansas, after it cut back the hours of its roads maintenance department.

“It’s real frustrating. We’re left in the dark with whatever you can read from the news,” Randall said. “I have all these members with questions, and I can’t provide answers.”

Damian Paletta contributed to this report.

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