Mysterious observatory closure

Deep Impact observatory

A terrible discovery?

If you were to write a movie screenplay in which some cosmic disaster befalls mankind, you could do worse than lifting the opening scene from news reports of what happened at a New Mexico observatory last week:

A space observatory at the centre of swirling alien conspiracy theories has asked for “patience” as it continues to be locked down.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico caught the attention of the world when it was shut down by FBI agents who reportedly swooped on the facility after arriving in elite Blackhawk helicopters.

It led immediately to suggestions the advanced technology inside of the facility spotted something it shouldn’t – such as proof of extraterrestrials, UFOs or even some baseless speculation that the observatory had spotted that the sun has started dying. The fact the observatory is only about 120 miles from the site of the Roswell UFO incident has only fuelled speculation.

The FBI and the administrators of the facility have said only that the shutdown happened because of a “security issue”.

In the days since, the sheriff’s department has said it has no idea what is going on. And the lockdown continues with no new information.

Could the observatory have detected something that has the authorities spooked? Like a catastrophic solar storm? (The director denies this.)

Another theory:

The Sunspot observatory on Sacramento Peak overlooks Holloman Air Force Base and an observer could potentially see out to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Test range. That has raised questions about possible espionage. “New Mexico is a center of national-security-related science, and for that reason it has also been a prominent venue for foreign espionage,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Spies go where the secrets are, and there are plenty of secrets in New Mexico.”

But, Aftergood says, a solar observatory might not be the best place to conduct such activity. “I imagine most or all of its sensors are directed up.” He wonders if someone at the Sunspot observatory somehow inadvertently spotted a classified satellite or transmission, triggering the shutdown.

It wasn’t aliens, I tell ya:

A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group that runs the facility said the organization was addressing a “security issue,” but would offer no additional information, other than, “I can tell you it definitely wasn’t aliens.”

The open plan disaster

A recent Harvard study finds that open plan offices do not even bring the expected increase in collaboration that is supposed to compensate for their destruction of productivity:

As my colleague Jessica Stillman pointed out last week, a new study from Harvard showed that when employees move from a traditional office to an open plan office, it doesn’t cause them to interact more socially or more frequently.

Instead, the opposite happens. They start using email and messaging with much greater frequency than before. In other words, even if collaboration were a great idea (it’s a questionable notion), open plan offices are the worst possible way to make it happen.

Previous studies of open plan offices have shown that they make people less productive, but most of those studies gave lip service to the notion that open plan offices would increase collaboration, thereby offsetting the damage.

The Harvard study, by contrast, undercuts the entire premise that justifies the fad. And that leaves companies with only one justification for moving to an open plan office: less floor space, and therefore a lower rent.

But even that justification is idiotic because the financial cost of the loss in productivity will be much greater than the money saved in rent. Here’s an article where I do the math for you. Even in high-rent districts, the savings have a negative ROI.

It’s nice to see this stupid and inhumane practice get flayed by such an august institution. While we’re at it, can we nix the idea that “collaboration” is inherently good? Some types of work require concentration and solitude, not incessant communication in shared spaces.

They finally got him!

If only I had known about this before I wired $5,000 to that guy…

Nigerian email scam

Full statement here.

[…] On April 11, 2018, OPARA pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud before U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty, who imposed today’s sentence.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said: “From halfway around the world, Onyekachi Emmanuel Opara ran a global email scam business that victimized thousands of people out of millions of dollars. The global reach of our Office and the FBI ensured that Opara will serve time in the United States for his crimes.”

According to the allegations in the Indictment to which OPARA pled guilty and statements made at the plea and sentencing proceedings:

Between 2014 and 2016, OPARA and his co-defendant, David Chukwuneke Adindu (“Adindu”), participated in multiple business email compromise (“BEC”) scams that targeted thousands of victims around the world, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Singapore. OPARA sent bogus emails to employees of the victim companies directing that funds be transferred to specified bank accounts. The emails purported to be from supervisors at those companies or from third party vendors with whom the companies did business. In reality, the emails were either sent from email accounts with domain names very similar to those of the companies and vendors, or the metadata for the emails was modified to make it appear as if the emails had been sent from legitimate email addresses. After victims transferred the funds as directed in the bogus emails, the funds were quickly withdrawn or transferred to other bank accounts controlled by scheme participants. In total, the BEC scam participants attempted to steal more than $25 million from victims around the world.

In furtherance of the BEC scams, OPARA created accounts on dating websites and entered into online romantic relationships with individuals in the United States by portraying himself as a young attractive woman named “Barbara.” “Barbara” would then instruct these individuals in the United States to send their money overseas and/or to receive money from BEC scams and forward the proceeds to other scheme participants located overseas. For example, one victim with whom OPARA struck up a romantic relationship sent over $600,000 of the victim’s own money to bank accounts controlled by scheme participants at OPARA’s direction. OPARA also attempted to recruit at least 14 other individuals via dating websites to receive funds from BEC scams into their bank accounts and then transfer the proceeds to overseas bank accounts.

OPARA was arrested on December 22, 2016, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was extradited to the Southern District of New York on January 26, 2018. […]

Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.

Thanks for all the fish

A group of dolphins is called a “pod,” apparently. A group of hundreds of dolphins? Say hello to the Superpod:

Over the last week, a group of common dolphins has been racing along the Pacific coast in Monterey, Calif.

So Patrick Webster, the social media content creator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, set out on Monday to shoot video of the mammals, working together to corral schools of small fish.

What he captured is a remarkable scene: dozens and dozens dolphins, breaking through the surface and plunging down again, under skies the same gray as the water. Webster said the whole group was thought to number more than 1,000.

Thwarting democracy to save it

 

Unless this is just a hoax, a troll, or a high-profile LARP, it’s a little alarming to read of an anonymous “senior official” in the Trump administration that think it knows better than to do its actual job: 

The dilemma — which he does not fully grasp — is that many of the senior officials in [Trump’s] own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. […]

In addition to his mass-marketing of the notion that the press is the “enemy of the people,” President Trump’s impulses are generally anti-trade and anti-democratic. […]

Astute observers have noted, though, that the rest of the administration is operating on another track, one where countries like Russia are called out for meddling and punished accordingly, and where allies around the world are engaged as peers rather than ridiculed as rivals.

On Russia, for instance, the president was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies as punishment for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain. He complained for weeks about senior staff members letting him get boxed into further confrontation with Russia, and he expressed frustration that the United States continued to impose sanctions on the country for its malign behavior. But his national security team knew better — such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.

Truthful or not, the op-ed points to a reality that has been obvious for some time, namely that the president is surrounded by numerous officials who are implacably opposed to core elements of his agenda. You may recall that protectionism and detente with Russia were two of Trump’s signature campaign promises, which the voting public effectively endorsed when they elected him. This process, whereby a candidate makes promises and voters elect him to implement those promises, is called democracy. I know it’s hard for many Washington bureaucrats to accept this, but surreptitiously thwarting the will of the electorate on such contested issues as trade and foreign policy is pretty much the opposite of what is implied by “preserv[ing] our democratic institutions.”

Declining well-being of Americans

Professor Peter Turchin explains his observation that the well-being of Americans has been declining over the last four decades — a process called immiseration:

Last year I had an interesting conversation with someone I’ll call the Washington Insider. She asked me why my structural-demographic model predicted rising instability in the USA, probably peaking with a major outbreak of political violence in the 2020s. I started giving the explanation based on the three main forces: popular immiseration, intra-elite competition, and state fragility. But I didn’t get far because she asked me, what immiseration? What are you talking about? We’ve never lived better than today. Global poverty is declining, child mortality is declining, violence is declining. We have access to the level of technology that is miraculous compared to what previous generations had. Just look at the massive data gathered together by Max Rosen, or read Steven Pinker’s books to be impressed with how good things are.

There are three biases that help sustain this rosy view. First, the focus on global issues. But the decrease of poverty in China (which is what drives declining global poverty, because Chinese population is so huge), or the drop in child mortality in Africa, is irrelevant to the working America. People everywhere compare themselves not to some distant places, but to the standard of living they experienced in their parents home. And the majority of American population sees that in many important ways they are worse off than their parents (as we will see below).

Second, the Washington Insider talks to other members of the 1 percent, and to some in the top 10 percent. The top-income segments of the American population have done fabulously in the last decades, thank you very much.

Third, many economic statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt. […]

So what has been happening with the well-being of common, non-elite Americans? In my work I use three broad measures of well-being: economic, biological (health), and social.

Briefly:

-Economic: Wages of non-elite workers show “rapid, almost linear growth to the late 1970s, stagnation and decline (especially for unskilled labor) thereafter”; the “relative wage” (the nominal wage divided by GDP per capita) drops sharply after 1960; labor participation has been trending downward regardless of education level since at least the late 1970s.

-Biological: Average height of native-born Americans stopped growing after the 1980s (and has declined for some demographic groups); life expectancy growth has lagged behind Western Europe and for some groups, life expectancy has declined in absolute terms; suicide rates are climbing for all ethnic groups.

-Social: Average age of marriage and percentage of people unmarried are on the rise.

Remember when the original Star Wars came out? That was around the historic peak of American economic, social and biological well-being. Hard times are coming, and for an increasing number of people, have already arrived.

Minimum wage machine

This is pretty funny:

If you’ve always wanted to work for minimum wage, but in typical overachieving fashion haven’t quite got there yet, the Minimum Wage Machine will pay you $7.15 for an hour of turning the crank-handle.

Workers will receive one penny for every 5.04 seconds’ worth of work, which at $7.15 an hour is the minimum pay required by the NY state—or at least, it was back in 2008 when this piece was created by artist Blake Fall-Conroy.

Q

No, I don’t mean this guy:

I mean the “QAnon” phenomenon, the open-source investigation into alleged Deep State crimes which is either a deranged conspiracy cult, or a mass awakening to the truth (depending on whether you ask the media or QAnon’s followers, respectively). In a brilliant article, tech entrepreneur Jordan Greenhall analyzes Q in the context of the sweeping cognitive and cultural changes brought about by the internet:

But if I pull up to 40,000 feet, I can start to make sense of what kind of thing this is and what it means in the context of the larger changes discussed above: Q is the most recent and most important example of a widely distributed self-organizing collective intelligence.

We’ve actually seen many precursors. Cicada 3301 is a famous example. Even the I Love Bees ARG for Halo 2. Perhaps Bitcoin is the most important precursor to Q.

These “self-organizing collective intelligences” (SOCI), are a new kind of socio-cultural phenomenon that is beginning to emerge in the niche created by the Internet. They involve attractive generator functions dropped into the hive mind that gather attention, use that attention to build more capacity and then grow into something progressively real and self-sustaining.

The Q SOCI is, for the most part, about sensemaking. It is combing through the billions of threads of “what might be real” and “what might be true” that have been gathered into the Internet and it is slowly trying to weave them into a consistent, coherent and congruent fabric. In the transition from Wonderland, sensemaking is so obviously needed that millions of people are viscerally attracted to the SOCI. The shared desire to wake up from Wonderland and have some firm notion of what is real and true is proving a powerful attractor.

“Wonderland” is Greenhall’s term for the world created by television over the past few generations: “A land of affect, artifice, viscerality, and aphasia. Where it is much more important to ‘look presidential’ than to be presidential.” Wonderland is a product of “broadcast analog” media, most notably TV. The Q phenomenon stems from the transition to a “decentralized digital” medium (the internet), which creates a radically different cognitive landscape: “We are witnessing the birth of an entirely new kind of sensemaking.”

The emergence of this new collective intelligence is of course frightening to the mainstream media, whose traditional role as information gatekeepers and manufacturers of consent is gravely threatened by it, which may help explain the massive blizzard of negative media coverage that greeted QAnon in early August. (By the way, Greenhall’s article does not concern itself with assessing the factual merits or political implications of Q, so if that’s the kind of “take” you’re looking for, go elsewhere.)

For me, Greenhall’s analysis sheds new light on the truly terrible effects of television, which created multiple generations of Americans with diminished cognitive capacity and a tenuous grasp of reality. I think history will look unkindly on the Era of TV. This is not to dismiss the many fine TV shows that exist, but overall, as our primary medium of news and entertainment, the boob tube has been an absolute disaster for the human mind.

That era is manifestly coming to an end, giving way to the internet era, which has spawned Q — and it does seem that Q is, for better or worse, an early application of a radically new type of collective thinking. That’s why attacking Q as a baseless conspiracy theory feels a bit like arguing against a swarm of bees. It’s a category error. Q is the vanguard of the online hive mind. It cannot be stopped, any more than the mass printing of books could be stopped in Renaissance Europe. Things will only get crazier from here on out, so buckle up and enjoy the ride.

China’s jurisidiction now reaches into Hong Kong

Hong Kong West Kowloon terminus

New high-speed rail terminus in West Kowloon

Hong Kong’s absorption into the Motherland continues apace with the furtive launch of a “co-location” agreement inside a new high-speed rail station in West Kowloon, under which mainland China extends its jurisdiction to a one million square foot patch in the heart of the city:

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials shook hands inside the new station in West Kowloon district on Monday night to mark the new arrangement, which will mean that anyone who commits a crime in the “mainland port area” or onboard trains will be subject to mainland laws, that could include the death penalty for serious crimes.

Big Lychee comments:

It’s not every day you get what might be called a ‘private government ceremony’, but that’s what happened at the One Country Two Systems Sacrificial Midnight Mass deep in the bowels of the West Kowloon Express Rail Station. It was essentially a handover of territory from Hong Kong to the Mainland – an arrangement that would be unconstitutional if the documents that outline the constitution meant anything, but they don’t so there’s no point in worrying about it, and obviously the press aren’t going to be invited. […]

Many Hongkongers look at the high-speed rail link and see little use for it other than a possible one-off jaunt to Wuhan out of curiosity. Its main mission is simply to prove physically that Hong Kong is a part of China, and its secondary purpose is to divert your tax dollars into the construction industry’s pockets. But to the extent it will serve as a transport system, it will be an efficient funnel through which Mainland tourists can be vacuumed up and disgorged into Tsimshatsui and the West Kowloon Culture Hub Zone Project. (Or not efficient, from a baggage point of view.)