Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tuesday 06-30-15

Well yesterday was a 1000 posts (on this blog), sort of a mini milestone.

The SCOTUS has been a big disappointment.  I never understand how they come to some of their conclusions. 

Voting-Rights Advocates Get Win at Supreme Court

Monday’s big election law news came from the Supreme Court’s penultimate decision of the term upholding Arizona’s congressional districts.
But before handing down its last three decisions, the court made voting-rights advocates happy by deciding not to review a different election case.

“Arizona citizens can continue to participate in voter registration drives without worrying about not having proof of citizenship documents,” Shirley Sandelands, of the League of Women Voters of Arizona, said in a statement Monday.
The case, Kobach, et al. v. Election Assistance Commission, et al., was about whether Arizona and Kansas could require voters to prove their citizenship when registering to vote with the so-called “federal form.” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach led the suit against the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which was an appeal of a lower court decision.
The Supreme Court did not take up a voter ID case brought by Arizona and Kansas. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The Supreme Court did not take up a voter ID case brought by Arizona and Kansas. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Both Kansas and Arizona have state laws that require applicants to prove their citizenship when applying to vote with state forms (for state or federal elections). But the U.S. EAC denied the states’ requests to have their citizenship laws applied when would-be voters use the standardized federal form.
The Supreme Court had already ruled in 2013 that state proof-of-citizenship laws couldn’t be applied when people try to register with the federal form. The states’ direct request to the EAC was a last-ditch effort to get around that.
By not hearing the case, the Supreme Court effectively upheld the decision of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against Arizona and Kansas in November 2014, saying the EAC did not have to modify its form to meet state laws. Under the federal form, would-be voters need only swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens.
“This is a very big deal,” University of California Irvine Law Professor Rick Hasen wrote on his election law blog Monday. “Kobach had the potential to shift more power away from the federal government in administering elections toward the states,” he added.
In a joint statement, the League of Women Voters of Arizona and Kansas and the Brennan Center for Justice praised the court for “reaffirming the important role Congress plays in preserving a fair voter registration process across the country.” The LWV, represented by the Brennan Center and several law firms, was a defendant in the case with the EAC.
“This is an important win for the National Voter Registration Act and an important step forward in making sure that all that are eligible are registered to vote,” President of the League of Women Voters of the U.S. Elisabeth MacNamara said in a statement.
But Kobach still hopes states’ authority will be recognized.
“Our position in court is that we’re exercising our state’s right to define the qualifications of electors,” Kobach told CQ Roll Call Monday afternoon. “By creating this loophole, the federal agency is interfering,” he said in reference to the EAC.
Kobach emphasized the court’s decision not to review the case does not reflect its opinion on the issues of the case.
“The Supreme Court decision not to review was not particularly surprising given the fact that there was no circuit split yet,” the secretary of state said.
Typically, Kobach continued, “the Supreme Court favors reviewing decisions where one circuit has gone one way and another circuit has gone another way. It appears that the Supreme Court is waiting for another circuit to weigh in.” He expects the 11th circuit, which he said has jurisdiction over two states with similar proof-of-citizenship laws, to eventually get involved.
The Kansas and Arizona laws stand, meaning that people wishing to register to vote with state forms are required to show proof of citizenship. Kobach said more than 99 percent of Kansans use the state forms. “But because of the Supreme Court decision not to review the case,” he added, “we do have a small limited loophole.” The slim majority that uses the federal form can “refuse to provide proof of citizenship,” he said, “but that will only suffice for federal elections.”
Kobach said he’ll be sending another request to the EAC, but that that request will be presented differently from the state’s previously denied request.
“Every time an alien votes, it may not steal an election, but it will cancel out a vote of a U.S. citizen,” Kobach said.


New research suggests nature walks are good for your brain


In the past several months, a bevy of studies have added to a growing literature on the mental and physical benefits of spending time outdoors. That includes recent research showing that short micro-breaks spent looking at a nature scene have a rejuvenating effect on the brain — boosting levels of attention — and also that kids who attend schools featuring more greenery fare better on cognitive tests.
And Monday, yet another addition to the literature arrives — but this time with an added twist. It’s a cognitive neuroscience study, meaning not only that benefits from a nature experience were captured in an experiment, but also that their apparent neural signature was observed through brain scans.
The paper, by Stanford’s Gregory Bratman and several colleagues from the United States and Sweden, was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In it, 38 individuals who lived in urban areas, and who had “no history of mental disorder,” were divided into two groups — and asked to take a walk.
Half walked for 90 minutes through a natural area near the Stanford campus. The other half walked along a very busy road in downtown Palo Alto, Calif. (along El Camino Real, for those who know the area). Before and also after the walk, the participants answered a questionnaire designed to measure their tendency toward “rumination,” a pattern of often negative, inward-directed thinking and questioning that has been tied to an increased risk of depression, and that is assessed with questionnaire items like “My attention is often focused on aspects of myself I wish I’d stop thinking about,” and “I spend a great deal of time thinking back over my embarrassing or disappointing moments.”
Finally, both before and after the walk, the participants had their brains scanned. In particular, the researchers examined a brain region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex — which the study calls “an area that has been shown to be particularly active during the type of maladaptive, self-reflective thought and behavioral withdrawal that occurs during rumination.”
The result was that individuals who took the 90-minute nature walk showed a decrease in rumination — they actually answered the questionnaire differently, just a short period of time later. And their brain activity also showed a change consistent with this result. In particular, the scans showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the region of interest.
“This provides robust results for us that nature experience, even of a short duration, can decrease this pattern of thinking that is associated with the onset, in some cases, of mental illnesses like depression,” says Gregory Bratman, the lead author of the study.
What’s particularly valuable is that the brain scans allowed for the examination of a potential cognitive mechanism by which nature experiences help our mental states. Without such evidence, psychological research can in effect only speculate on the behavior within actual regions of the brain. “That’s why we wanted to push and get at neural correlates of what’s happening,” said Bratman.
In other words, the new research provides a new kind of evidence that is not only consistent with — but also strengthens — the growing body of research on the benefits of nature exposure.
Granted, brain scan research can be controversial – and it’s not as if conditions like depression have a single, simple cause. So as with all research, this work will need to be extended and verified by future studies.
The researchers set their study in the context of modern trends toward ever larger numbers of people living in cities — and an already demonstrated link between urbanization and mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
“We just passed the halfway point recently where 50 percent of humanity lives in urban areas,” said Bratman. “Along with this trend comes a decrease in nature and nature experience.” And the urbanized percentage of humanity is projected to be 70 percent by the year 2050, the study said.
But a key question raised by this is, precisely how would an urban environment worsen — or at least, fail to protect against — a mental behavior like rumination?
The idea seems to be that living in an urban area “is associated with many kinds of stressors, whether it be noise, increased social interactions, traffic,” said Bratman, which in turn increases rumination and anxiety — though he admits that this link in the study’s chain of logic needs further demonstration.
Still, it makes sense. Just think of waking up to the sound of a garbage truck in the morning outside your window — and the accumulation of all of this can lead to negative repercussions on our psyches. Meanwhile, the authors speculate, nature environments allow for “positive distractions” that block or counteract these negative mental processes. Rumination is “this inward focused, maladaptive choice of where you direct your attention,” said Bratman, and nature gives an alternative opportunity for attentional focus.
The researchers also tie their results to a large literature on so-called “ecosystem services” — valuable benefits, such as carbon sequestration or water purification, provided by natural environments. The work suggests that on top of these benefits, there may also be “psychological ecosystem services” as well.
That’s a mouthful — but the underlying thought that it captures is pretty simple. Spending time outdoors, in nature, is good for you. The new study just adds — in a new way — to a growing body of evidence that demonstrates that.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday 06-29-15

ATF official under investigation for possible data breach: report

A senior official at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is under investigation for possibly accessing the personal data of other agency employees.
The Justice Department probe is to determine whether Scott Sweetow, a deputy assistant director for strategic intelligence and information at ATF headquarters in Washington, sent employee information to his personal email account, CNN reported.
“It appears somebody is actively seeking to damage my reputation,” Sweetow said in a statement to the cable news network.
“While I respect your desire to look into items which may cross your desk, other than to confirm I am a SES [senior executive service] agent assigned to our National HQ and what limited details I place in social media, I am very guarded about my personal life, and any work products in which I may be working. Because of this, I would direct you to our office of Public and Government Affairs in our National HQ,” he added.
The possible breach comes as top officials at the Office of Personnel Management face intense public and congressional scrutiny over a hack of a database that contained the personal information of millions of federal employees.
"As a general policy, ATF does not comment on personnel matters. We respect the rights of all our employees. We do not discuss specific personnel issues, actions, or the existence of ongoing investigations,” the agency told CNN in a statement.
A Justice Department spokesman said the agency “has security solutions in place that detect the transmission of sensitive personally identifiable information outside the Department's computer network.”

WATCH: NASA cuts live video transmission as THREE UFOs fly past Earth

NASA was reportedly forced to end a live stream from the International Space Station as THREE UFOs blasted out of Earth's atmosphere.

This shocking footage is causing quite a stir online.
Some have already branded the clip definitive PROOF of alien lifeforms.
The video – which is reportedly shot from the International Space Station – shows three unidentified flying objects blast out of Earth’s atmosphere.
The lights leave our planet seconds before the live video feed is cut by NASA due to a reported “loss of signal”.
An artists’ impression of a UFO – and the location of the flashing lights before the transmission ends
Conspiracy theorists have already labeled the YouTube clip – which has been watched more than 15,000 times – proof of alien life.
“BINGO Caught them red handed leaving earths orbit,” one viewer wrote on Youtube “Thats the kind of proof that is needed."
Another posted on the video sharing website: “Cut the cameras more that just confirms its true.”
The NASA footage – entitled “UFO Mysteries: UFOs, Angels Or Biological Creatures Seen Leaving
NASA has not yet commented on the flashing lights captured during its live broadcast.
Of course, its possible the YouTube video has been doctored, or the unexplained objects are simply a trick of the light.
But this is not the first time conspiracy theorists claim NASA has inadvertently captured extra terrestrial activity.
Live streams from the International Space Station have triggered hundreds of viral videos claiming to show proof of alien crafts.
One such clip – posted on YouTube by user Streetcap1 – reportedly shows a small white disc flying near to the space station.
Critics claim the alleged UFO sightings on the live feed are simply down to NASA's poor camera and this latest sighting is likely to be a distorted view of the Moon.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saturday 06-27-15

Off to a Poultry Swap, hopefully I will find something to bring home.

I'm Shocked, Shocked!
To discover that there is "massive noncompliance" with New York's SAFE Act requiring registration of "assault-style" weapons.
In the years since Gov. Cuomo signed the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act, otherwise known as the NY SAFE Act, a total of 23,847 people have applied to register their assault-style weapons with the state, according to statistics provided by the New York State Police.

Those individuals themselves registered 44,485 assault-style weapons — a term whose definition under the law was expanded to include military-style features like a pistol grip and popular civilian models of the M16 and AK47 assault rifles — with State Police, the data, which was first obtained by the Albany Times Union, show.


Law enforcement experts have estimated there could be nearly 1 million assault-style weapons in circulation across the state, suggesting that many New Yorkers are ignoring a central provision of what had been touted by gun control advocates as a milestone law.

“What these numbers expose is that, if there are people who are wilfully ignoring the law, that means tens of thousands of gun owners are not complying with a law that is supported by New Yorkers," said (the ironically named) Leah Gunn Barrett, executive director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, citing a May poll commissioned by her group that showed state residents support key provisions of the SAFE Act.

Under New York law, failure to register an assault weapon by the April 2014 deadline can be treated as misdemeanor offense, punishable by “forfeiture of the weapon” and up to one year in jail, according to the New York State Police.

Under a different statute, the situation can also be treated as a low-level felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.
I know, let's make not registering REALLY ILLEGAL!! THAT'll work!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday 06-26-15

Ministry of Information

You’re being secretly tracked with facial recognition, even in church

Moshe Greenshpan, the CEO of Israel- and Las Vegas-based facial recognition software company Face-Six, says there are 30 churches around the world using his Churchix technology. He launched the service just four months ago and says churches are already using it to scan congregants’ earthly visages to keep track of attendance at events in order to know who wasn’t there so they can check up on them, or who attends most frequently so they can ask those people for donations. He declined to name any of the churches using the technology citing the controversy around facial recognition. I asked him if any of the churches are based in Texas or Illinois, the only two U.S. states that have laws on the books about getting permission to collect peoples’ faceprints. “I prefer not to say,” said Greenshpan.
(If a facial expression-detecting camera were trained on my own face, it would read “skeptical.” Without being able to talk to one of the churches using this technology, it’s impossible to verify Greenshpan’s claims.)
Greenshpan said the churches just have to upload one high-quality photo of a congregant to start scanning video or photos from gatherings to see if they were there. I asked him if the churches let people know they’re using the technology. “I don’t think churches tell people,” he said. “We encourage them to do so but I don’t think they do.”
That’s exactly the fear that privacy advocates have about the increasing roll-out of this technology: people’s faces are being put in databases and used to track them without any knowledge that it’s happening. Greenshpan argues that churches were already keeping track of who attended their events, but that his technology just makes it more efficient for medium-sized and mega-churches.
Greenshpan, who got his start with a facial recognition app called Skakash that was like a Shazam for celebrity faces, and then “followed the money” to business applications, is among the entrepreneurs who want to usher facial recognition into more common use. Some of the companies focus on their ability to create databases of “bad faces” — people who can be instantly identified for heightened scrutiny or even barred from entry. California-based FaceFirst tells retailers in an advertising brochure that they can get alerts when “pre-identified shoplifters” or “known litigious individuals” enter their stores.
FaceFirst also says retailers can create a database of “good customers,” so they can greet them by name when they walk through the door. Privacy advocates worry about the creation of face-tracking databases that could be used to track people’s movements in the offline world the same way advertising companies track them online from website to website using cookies.
From a Facefirst advertising brochure for retailers
“Instantly, when a person in your FaceFirst database steps into one of your stores, you are sent an email, text, or SMS alert that includes their picture and all biographical information of the known individual so you can take immediate and appropriate action,” says the Facefirst brochure. It doesn’t say what happens when that person isn’t you but is actually a doppelgänger with a bad reputation. Or how someone who doesn’t want to get greeted by name gets their face taken out of the database.
“There are no federal laws that specifically govern the use of facial recognition technology,” wrote Ben Sobel in a Washington Post editorial that discussed the only two states with relevant laws on the books. In lieu of a law, the Department of Commerce has been trying to establish facial recognition industry standards in a “privacy multistakeholder process.” For more than a year, industrial representatives and privacy advocates have been taking part in negotiations to come up with standards for how facial recognition should be deployed by businesses in the U.S. Last week, those negotiations broke down. Privacy groups involved in the process, including the ACLU and EFF, withdrew, saying in a letter that companies refused to agree to core principles of privacy.
“We asked the industry to agree that in general they need to get consent to put people’s images into facial recognition databases and they disagreed,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of Georgetown’s Center on Privacy & Technology. “So we proposed the narrowest of narrow situations, that when someone is walking down a street, a company they haven’t heard of shouldn’t identify that person by name. And the industry representatives wouldn’t agree to that either. So we walked out.”
According to many a sci-fi book and at least one hilarious comic, technology-enabled facial recognition in the wild will eventually be as common as caller id on your phone — which also got heat from privacy advocates when first introduced in 1990. How mainstream society feels about it is still unclear, though people occasionally seem to be discomforted judging from lawsuits filed this year in Illinois alleging that both Facebook and Shutterfly created faceprints without their users’ consents. But proponents say, with the steady march of technology and image collection, face recognition everywhere is looking increasingly inevitable.
You, I, everyone has the right to take photographs in public,” said Carl Szabo, a lawyer at online advertising trade group Netchoice who was on the other side of the Commerce debate. “Facial recognition can be applied immediately, or days later, or months later. If someone takes a photograph in public, and wants to apply facial recognition, should they really need to get consent in advance? Are they going to chase someone down the street to get them to fill out a form?”
Szabo said he was disappointed that the privacy groups had dropped out of the negotiations but that the Department of Commerce working group will still issue standards on facial recognition for industry. He thinks companies just need to be transparent about what they’re doing and put notices up about facial recognition being used. He says businesses will change their ways if consumers signal that they don’t like it. “I don’t know if society will get used to Carl Szabo being identified as he’s walking down the street,” he said. “But if a business makes people uncomfortable, there will be a backlash.”
Of course, if Greenshpan’s claims are true, there are congregants at churches who are currently being subjected to facial recognition scanning who have no idea it’s happening and thus no opportunity to raise holy hell about it if they object.
Supreme Court says government seizure of raisins is unconstitutional
The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the government can't force raisin farmers to give up part of their annual crop for less than it's worth, a victory for conservative groups that hailed the decision as a win for private property rights.
The justices ruled 8-1 that a 1940s-era program born out of the Great Depression is unconstitutional because it allows federal officials to seize personal property from farmers without fully compensating them, even though the goal is to benefit farmers by stabilizing market prices.
The court sided with California farmers Marvin and Laura Horne, who claimed they were losing money under a program they called outdated and ineffective. They had been fined $695,000 for trying to get around it.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said the government must pay "just compensation" when it takes personal goods, just as when it takes land away.
Roberts rejected the government's argument that the Hornes voluntarily chose to participate in the raisin market and have the option of growing different crops if they don't like it.
"'Let them sell wine' is probably not much more comforting to the raisin growers than similar retorts have been to others throughout history," Roberts said. "Property rights cannot be so easily manipulated."

The case was considered one of the most important property disputes to reach the high court since 2005, when the justices ruled that the city of New London, Connecticut, could use the power of eminent domain to hand private homes or businesses to developers to help stimulate economic improvement. That case sparked a backlash in many states and led more than 40 state legislatures to pass laws protecting property rights.
By contrast, Monday's ruling in the raisin case was seen as a decisive win for property-rights advocates seeking to limit government power.
"The decision confirms what should be obvious: the government cannot come and take your personal property without compensation, whether raisins or other property, on the ground that the taking is for your own good," said J. David Breemer, attorney for the Pacific Law Foundation, a conservative group that backed the Hornes.
The program was authorized by a 1937 law that allows the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep prices for raisins and other crops steady by helping to manage supply. A 1949 marketing order allowed farmers to form a committee that decides how much of the raisin crop handlers must turn over to the government each year.
These raisins would be placed into a reserve pool to be sold outside the open market, used for the school lunch program or given away to charities and foreign governments. Any profits from these reserve sales would go toward funding the committee and anything left over went back to the farmers.
The Hornes refused to participate in the program in 2003, when farmers were required to give up 47 percent of their crop but received far less in return than their costs of production. They also refused to cooperate in 2004, when other farmers gave up 30 percent of the crop in 2004 and were paid nothing.
The Hornes' lawyer, John O'Quinn, called the ruling "a personal vindication" for the couple and "an important win for personal liberty."
Raisin prices have been stable recently, and farmers have not been ordered to put crops in reserve since 2010.
Only a small number of other crops are regulated in the same way, though federal officials say most programs are not active. Those include California dried prunes, California dates, California almonds, tart cherries, walnuts and spearmint oil.
A USDA spokesman said agency officials were reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.
Roberts said the government could have restricted raisin sales by limiting production, which is how the vast majority of crops programs work.
In a separate opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that the Hornes were entitled to be properly paid for their crops, but he said the case should be sent back to a lower court to decide whether they would have been owed any money had they complied with the program.
Breyer's separate opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
Justice Clarence Thomas took issue with Breyer's point and wrote separately to say that sending the case back to figure out compensation "in this case would be a fruitless exercise."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only dissenter. She said the program did not deprive the Hornes of all property rights, it just limited the amount of potential income they could earn from it.


Obama has issued 19 secret directives

WASHINGTON — A one-digit correction to President Obama's directive on hostage policy Wednesday had the effect of disclosing the existence of a previously unknown — and still-secret — Obama order on national security.
The hostage policy was originally released Wednesday as a presidential policy directive numbered PPD-29. When the White House corrected that number to PPD-30, it meant Obama had issued a secret directive as PPD-29 sometime in the past 17 months.
Obama signed PPD-28, an order on electronic eavesdropping in the wake of revelations by Edward Snowden, in January 2014.
So what is PPD-29? No one's talking. A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment of the existence of classified PPDs Wednesday.
"The only reason we know about it is the sequential numbering of the directives, and realizing they skipped a few," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, which tracks the directives.
PPD-29 isn't the first to be tacitly acknowledged only by a missing number. Of the 30 PPDs issued by Obama, 19 have not been released. And for 11 of those, the White House has not disclosed even the subject of the order.
"It's not only the public that doesn't have copies. It's also Congress that doesn't have copies," Aftergood said. "It's a domain of largely unchecked presidential authority. It doesn't mean it's bad, but it's lacking in independent oversight."
But they have the same legal force as an executive order, forming a body of largely secret law, said Harold Relyea, a political scientist who advised Congress on national security directives before retiring from the Congressional Research Service.
"The difference is that while executive orders are public by law — they must be published in the Federal Register to be effective —- PPDs are not," he said. "It is a kind of secret law. People have to obey it. But it's a directive that can allocate money, direct people or take a course of action."
What Obama calls PPDs have gone by different names by different presidents back to the Truman Administration. President George W. Bush called them National Security Presidential Directives (NPSDs). President Clinton called them Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs). President Nixon called them National Security Decision Memoranda.
Whatever they're called, Obama has been less prolific than his predecessors. George W. Bush issued 66 such orders, plus 25 more Homeland Security Presidential Directives. President Reagan issued at least 325.
Some, going back as far as the Lyndon Johnson administration, remain classified. They can involve subjects including the use of nuclear weapons, ballistic missile defenses, space policy, cybersecurity and even continuity plans for the federal government in the case of a large-scale disaster.
The secrecy makes it difficult to know entirely what changes Obama has made in the hostage policy. The directive issued Wednesday revoked a prior directive by President George W. Bush in 2002. But that directive, known as NSPD-12, remains secret.
"You would think that if there's a new policy it would be a simple matter to explain what the old policy was," Aftergood said.
And even though Obama released his directive, it incorporates a classified annex with additional instructions to executive branch agencies.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Thursday 06-25-15

South Korean hospitals suspend services as MERS outbreak spreads
Seoul (AFP) - Two major hospitals in South Korea's capital suspended services to patients on Wednesday in a bid to stop the spread of MERS after four new cases of the deadly virus were reported.

The new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome included two who were in the same hospital ward as other patients with the potentially deadly virus, Seoul's health ministry said.
The others were a nurse at Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul -- one of the epicentres of the outbreak -- and a relative of a patient who was hospitalised for an unspecified disease in a hospital in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, in early June.
Out of 179 people confirmed to have caught MERS, five were infected through unknown transmission routes outside hospitals, which have until now been at the epicentre of the outbreak, the ministry said.
A total of 27 people have died in South Korea's MERS outbreak -- the largest outside Saudi Arabia -- while about 3,100 people were being held under quarantine at state facilities or at home.
Samsung hospital, where nearly 90 patients, visitors and medical staff have contracted the virus, declared a 10-day suspension of most services on June 14 to stem the spread of the virus.
But as the number of new infections has continued to grow, authorities have decided to extend the partial shutdown "indefinitely".
The outbreak at the hospital, which belongs to South Korea's top conglomerate Samsung group, prompted heir apparent Jay. Y. Lee to publicly apologise for "causing great pain and concern" on Tuesday.
Another major Seoul hospital, Konkuk University Medical Centre, on Wednesday also stopped admitting new patients and performing surgery after four cases were reported in recent days.

- 'Impact is weakening' -

Almost all infections so far have taken place in hospitals and the World Health Organization said it had found no evidence suggesting transmission of the virus outside hospital.
Sixteen patients were in critical condition as of Wednesday, the ministry said, while 67 people have recovered and been released from hospital.
South Korea's MERS outbreak began on May 20 when a 68-year-old man was diagnosed after returning from a trip to Saudi Arabia.
The virus since then has spread at an unusually rapid pace, sparking alarm in the Asia's fourth-largest economy and elsewhere in the region.
The outbreak dealt a severe blow to businesses from tourism to retail as people have shunned crowded venues and more than 120,000 foreigners cancelled planned trips to Seoul.
South Korea's central bank cut its key interest rate this month in a bid to counter the economic impact of the outbreak, but its chief on Wednesday said it was already starting to fade.
"The extent of the fall has declined from the first and second week of the outbreak, which is why we are hoping the impact is weakening," he said in comments carried by the Yonhap news agency.
There is no known vaccine for MERS, which has infected more than 1,330 people -- mostly in Saudi Arabia -- in 26 countries since first reported in 2012, according to the WHO.

I know it is past, did anyone get any effects?
GEOMAGNETIC STORM IN PROGRESS: A mild G1-class geomagnetic storm is in progress on June 22nd after one of a series of expected CMEs hit Earth's magnetic field. Another CME impact may be in the offing, so the storm could intensify in the hours ahead. 
FULL HALO CME, STORM WARNING: A coronal mass ejection (CME) is heading directly for Earth. It left the sun during the early hours of June 21st, and is expected to sweep up one or two lesser CMEs already en route, before it reaches Earth sometime on June 22nd. Click to view a movie of the "full-halo" CME, then scroll down for more discussion:
NOAA forecasters estimate a 90% chance of polar geomagnetic storms when the CME arrives. This doesn't mean that a major space weather event is in the offing. The storm could be mild. It all depends on how the magnetic field of the CME connects to the magnetic field of Earth at the time of impact. According to NOAA, there's only a 10% chance of nothing happening, so stay tuned. 

Uber may track you 24/7

Uber's hot on your trail.

A privacy group has filed a complaint against Uber for its updated policy of tracking passengers and accessing their personal information.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the growing ride service, which is considering tracking passengers through their mobile devices -- even when they're not actively using the Uber app.
"Uber will claim the right to collect personal information and detailed location data of American consumers, even when they are not using the service," EPIC said in its complaint filed Monday.
Uber explained last month in a statement how it collects information on drivers and passengers when they use the service. Uber gathers information through the user's mobile device to track location, contacts, transactions and other details. The company said it "may also collect the precise location of your device when the app is running in the foreground or background."
In order for Uber to record customer info, app users have to authorize that on their devices.
That's the detail that EPIC is concerned about -- the fact that Uber might track the location of a user and collect information even when he or she is not actively using the app.
Related: Uber says no guns or no rides
But Uber slammed EPIC as having "no basis for this complaint."
EPIC said past claims of Uber employees using its technology to track locations and other information on journalists critical of the company is cause for concern that the technology could be misused. The complaint also expressed concerns that user data could be accessed by hackers.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wednesday 06-24-15


Google eavesdropping tool installed on computers without permission

 Privacy advocates claim always-listening component was involuntarily activated within Chromium, potentially exposing private conversation.



Privacy and open source advocates complain over secret installation of audio-snooping software from Google. Photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

First spotted by open source developers, the Chromium browser – the open source basis for Google’s Chrome – began remotely installing audio-snooping code that was capable of listening to users.

It was designed to support Chrome’s new “OK, Google” hotword detection – which makes the computer respond when you talk to it – but was installed, and, some users have claimed, it is activated on computers without their permission.

“Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room,” said Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate party founder, in a blog post. “Which means that your computer had been stealth configured to send what was being said in your room to somebody else, to a private company in another country, without your consent or knowledge, an audio transmission triggered by … an unknown and unverifiable set of conditions.”

The feature is installed by default as part of Google’s Chrome browser. But open source advocates are up in arms about it also being installed with the open source variant Chromium, because the listening code is considered to be “black box”, not part of the open source audit process.

“We don’t know and can’t know what this black box does,” said Falkvinge.

Opt-in or opt-out

Google responded to complaints via its developer boards. It said: “While we do download the hotword module on startup, we do not activate it unless you opt in to hotwording.”

After having identified Chromium as the culprit, developer Ofer Zelig said in a blog post: “While I was working I thought ‘I’m noticing that an LED goes on and off, on the corner of my eyesight [webcam]’. And after a few times when it just seemed weird, I sat to watch for it and saw it happening. Every few seconds or so.”

Google also blamed the Linux distribution Debian for downloading the non-open source component with Chromium automatically, rather than Google Chrome.

“The key here is that Chromium is not a Google product. We do not directly distribute it, or make any guarantees with respect to compliance with various open source policies,” Google developer mgiuca said.

Falkvinge countered Google’s explanations saying: “The default install will still wiretap your room without your consent, unless you opt out, and more importantly, know that you need to opt out, which is nowhere a reasonable requirement.” He says a hardware switch to disable the microphone and camera built into most computers is needed.

Voice search functions have become an accepted feature of modern smartphones, but their movement into the home through the smart TV, and now browser, have caused concerns over the possibility of being listened to within the home.

While most services require a user to opt in, privacy advocates have questioned whether their use, which requires sending voice recordings over the internet to company servers for processing, risks unintentionally exposing private conversations held within the home.

Samsung’s voice-recording smart TVs breach privacy law, campaigners claim


Chinese Votive Sword Found in Georgia suggests Pre-Columbian Chinese travel to North America

In July 2014, an avocational surface collector chanced across a partially exposed Chinese votive sword behind roots in an eroded bank of a small stream in Georgia. The 30 cm artifact is possibly a one-of-a kind find in North America and is another example in the growing list of seemingly out-of-place Chinese artifacts suggesting Chinese travel to North America in Pre-Columbian times.
The exquisite sword has preliminarily been identified as being fashioned in Lizardite and has surface features indicating it is very old. It is hoped that future testing will confirm the type of stone, and determine the source, since Lizardite deposits exist in both eastern and western hemispheres.
Answers to the when, who, and how questions remain uncertain. An attempt to determine when the soil at the extraction site was last exposed to sunlight with thermoluminescence testing procedures, was thwarted because it was determined the soil had been disturbed. There remains a small section of an unknown stranded material still attached to the sword which may be suitable for radiocarbon dating, and also select areas of surface accretions that may produce helpful information.

Chinese symbology

Less uncertain are the many symbols and the shape of the sword, both of which are found on jade objects from the Xia (2070-1600 BC), Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC). The dragon figure spanning a portion of the top of the blade is typical to the Shang Dynasty, as is the feathered crown. The grotesque face mask of the Taotie on the guard and handle of the sword, first appears during the Liangzhu culture (3400-2250 BC) but it is more commonly found during the Shang and Zhou periods. (Siu-Leung Lee, PhD,  personal conversation, and soon to be published paper.)
 Close up of dragon Right: Close up of Taotie in this general area. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation.
Left: Close up of dragon Right: Close up of Taotie in this general area. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation.
The dominant presence of Shang period diagnostics and the similarity of the Taotie to depictions of the Mesoamerican Olmec were-jaguar, provide clues as to when the sword was made and a general time frame for when it may have arrived in Georgia.

Chinese – Olmec connection?

The similarity of Chinese-Olmec mythology and symbolism has been the subject of scholarly debate for over one hundred years. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Olmec culture appears around 1500 BC during the beginning of the Shang Dynasty, and the first written history of China begins. It was the start of the Bronze Age resulting in ornate bronze works of art, bronze chariots and weaponry. The first Chinese script appears at this time along with extensive irrigation systems and other public works projects, all indicators of a sophisticated and advanced culture.
It was also a time in Chinese culture when Jade was more valuable than gold, and likewise with the Olmec elite who had Jade deposits located in now Honduras and Guatemala. It may not be coincidental the Olmec, during their Middle Formative period (900-300 BC), mastered the difficulties of shaping and drilling Jade (a stone so hard that it cannot be worked with steel tools), with abrasive materials into small ornamental and votive pieces. The similarities of Chinese-Olmec art is quite telling and for those interested, an excellent comparison is presented in Art and Ritual in Early Chinese and Mesoamerican Cultures, Santiago Gonzalez Villajos, 2009.
The likely introduction of Chinese concepts of rulership and a stratified society, along with their religion and symbolism no doubt altered the Olmec and later Mesoamerican groups. It was an event that would be repeated in the 16th century when Spanish Friars waded ashore carrying the cross of Christianity.
Reverse side of the votive sword. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation.
Reverse side of the votive sword. Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation.

How did the sword get to Georgia?...some possibilities

Around 900 BC, these new Olmec cultural attributes started to spread throughout the region. There is considerable literature indicating that they served as a foundation for other contemporaneous and subsequent cultural groups, such as the Maya. Though modified by other groups to meet local needs and with changes over time, the basic concepts of the Olmecs persisted into the 16th century conquest period. Interestingly, some of these ancient concepts, such as those relating to the planting of maize, are still practiced today within certain Mesoamerican indigenous groups. It is generally believed this dispersal was a by-product of the Olmec land and coastal maritime trade routes transporting basic and exotic trade goods.
An intriguing element to this cultural phenomenon, and why it is mentioned, is that it starts around 900 BC, which as mentioned previously, is when the Olmec started making Jade ceremonial objects.
An example that illustrates the geographic extent of this cultural diffusion is the distribution of flat and cylindrical printing seals, a technology that first appears in the Mesoamerica artifact record with the Olmec. In China, printing seals first appear during the Shang Dynasty.

Olmec traditions spread north

By 800 BC, the seals were in use in northern South America some 1700 miles south of the Olmec heartland, and an equal distance to the north with the Adena Culture (800 BC-1 AD) in the upper Ohio River Valley in North America. Not only did the printing technology arrive in Ohio but also Olmec art. In an unpublished research project on the Adena tablet shown below, this author found stylistic duplicates of the unique center vertical element representing the World Tree, at the Lake Chalco region south of now Mexico City and at Veracruz on the Gulf coast.
Printing Seal from the Adena Culture.
Printing Seal from the Adena Culture. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society
The arrival of seals at the beginning of the transformational mound building Adena culture, along with other evidence too numerous to include in this short article, indicates that an influential Mesoamerican group entered the region and influenced the cultural destiny of the local population. 
Returning to Georgia. In 1685, Charles de Rochefort in his chronicles regarding the Apalachites who occupied the lands in southeastern America in the 17th century, writes,
“Thefe Apalachites boaft, that they had propagated certain Colonies a great way into Mexico: And they fhow to this day a great Road by land, by which they affirm that their Forces march'd into thofe parts… The Inhabitants of the Country, upon their arrival gave them the name of Tlatuici, which fignifies Mountaineers or High-Landers...”.
Rochefort also writes, “This people [Apalachites] have a communication with the Sea of the Great Gulf of Mexico or New Spain, by means of a River”...the Spaniards have called this River Riu del Spirito Santo” [Mississippi River].
While Rochefort's observations are from after the Conquest Period, his observations highlight a geographic fact that is often overlooked or minimized in North American history. The various cultures occupying the lands of now Georgia and other States fronting on the Gulf of Mexico, along with the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and South America, were in a circum-Caribbean region where everyone knew their neighbors. One can therefore reasonably assume that this is the reason is why ball courts and rubber balls are found in both mainland Mesoamerica and the Caribbean Islands.
Also, one cannot overlook that the Olmec and Maya had a fleet of large ocean going canoes plying the coastal waters of the Gulf region, and the logistical organization to supply the basic needs of major urban areas with population densities equal to today’s major cities. For example, salt, a basic requirement for survival in the tropics, needed in countless tons per month, was shipped from salt producing facilities in the Yucatan to known river ports stretching from the Honduran Moskito Coast to Tampico, Mexico.
Other than being a wet and scary experience with no life preservers in rough seas off the Moskito Coast, I can attest based on multiple trips, the dugout log design works very well. Even today, with the exception of Yamaha outboard motors, these vessels which have not changed in manufacture or design since the Maya, still transport tons of stacked 50 gallon barrels of gasoline, food stuffs and people into the Honduran interior.
In the Greater Antilles, the impressive Taino culture, who migrated from Venezuela starting around 400 BC, and the Caribes, were equally adept at traversing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Christopher Columbus makes numerous entries in his log of large Taino canoes, measuring approximately 40 to 79 feet in length, laden with trade goods and people. More noteworthy is that his log entries indicate that the Taino knew of the Calusa in Florida and the Maya on the Yucatan.
From all of this it is seems apparent that the circum-Caribbean region cultures, even in more ancient times, were connected by water and land routes, and this furnishes us a possible explanation as to how the sword and two Olmec-style pendants arrived in Georgia.
Olmec Style Pendants found in creek near Chinese votive sword.
Olmec Style Pendants found in creek near Chinese votive sword.
Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation.

So, were the Chinese in Georgia?

Part of the answer is the artifact itself. You have to ask why a person would tote around a Votive sword which by definition is an object “expressing a religious vow, wish, or desire: offered or performed as an expression of thanks or devotion to God”, if they were not Chinese.
Secondly, the sword is not the only diagnostic Chinese artifact found nearby. Chinese researcher Dr. Lee disclosed that two other ancient Chinese artifacts have been recently found within a two hour drive of the sword site. He will feature these artifacts in a forthcoming paper. Also, there has been a remarkable number of other Chinese artifacts, rock art script and symbolism located in southwestern America.
Unfortunately in the quest for accuracy in historical and archeological topics, there never seems to be enough data to reach an absolute and non-debatable answer that all can agree with. So at this time the “were the Chinese in Georgia?” question can only be answered affirmatively when there is a sufficient amount of evidence to rise above an individual's “Threshold of Believability”.

A closing comment

About 90 years, before Columbus first sailed into Caribbean waters, the Ming Chinese dispatched flotillas under the command of Admiral Zheng He on multiple voyages to the lands around the Indian Ocean to acquire exotic items and materials.
The Admiral's first expedition consisted of approximately 185 vessels:
  • 62 or 63 baoshan  or “treasure ships” were constructed for the first expedition, 440'-538' long by 210' wide, four decks, nine masts, displacing an estimated 20-30,000 tons, approximately 1/3 to 1/2 the displacement of a current large aircraft carrier.
  • Machuan or “horse ships”, 340' long by 138' wide, 8 masts, carrying horses, timber for repairs and tribute goods.
  • Liangchuan or “grain ships”. 257' long by 115' wide, 7 masts, carrying grain for crew and soldiers.
  • Zuochuan or “troop ships, 220' long by 84' wide, six masts.
  • Zhanchuan warships, 165' long, 5 masts
  • 27-28,000 estimated sailors, soldiers, translators and crew members

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