War and video: Some thoughts on the flood of graphic “conflict clips” online

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(Bullet holes are seen on the windshield of a car used by insurgents after an attack at Camp Phoenix in Kabul. Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

The Guardian invited me to write a quick opinion piece on the explosion of new sources of graphic online conflict videos, and what that sudden availability of explicit, violent material means for news coverage and for each of us as individual witnesses. Snip:

I do believe that truth is a good thing. And to the extent that the flood of bloody videos pouring out of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere right now document the truth, they are important. As commercial cable news networks (at least, in the US) evolve into something more like entertainment channels than the news outlets they began as, our access to these ugly streaming truths matters even more. Distant shots of missile drops are less likely to inspire empathy than a YouTube clip of a man in Libya whose lower jaw has just been blown off, who is still shouting for freedom. And yes, that video exists; the tireless Twitter chronicler Andy Carvin at NPR (@acarvin) tweeted it last week, along with many other videos like it. (I don’t know how he does it; I could not keep up his tolerance or his pace.)

But human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?

“I keep having to remind myself that we’re bearing witness,” Andy told me recently, when we were discussing how the volume of material was affecting him personally. “Otherwise, I think I would’ve lost my mind.”

Atrocity Exhibition(Guardian “Comment is Free” blog, thanks Matt Seaton)

Related: At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has a piece up gathering thoughts on this topic from others around the web today.

US Customs’ domain-seizure program punishes the first amendment, leaves alleged pirates largely unscathed

TorrentFreak’s postmortem of the DHS’s domain-seizure program (“Operation In Our Sites”) in which the .com and .net dozens of allegedly infringing sites were seized without due process and with a great deal of sloppiness. Though the program was willing to toss out the first amendment and turn the US government into a business agent for entertainment companies, it was a near-total failure in removing its targetted sites:

It wasn’t hard for the affected sites to continue their operations. Since their servers had not been touched physically it was a simple matter to change a few settings to make the sites available to the public again under a new domain, something achieved in a few minutes. This is exactly what most of the streaming and file-sharing related sites have done.

During the latest round of seizures under the “Operation In Our Sites” flag in February, a total of 10 domain names were targeted, belonging to 6 different sports streaming services. Despite the thousands of dollars in tax payer money that were spend on the enforcement effort, all of the sites were back up in no time under new domains.

As of today, only one of the six is no longer accessible and that is the site of Bryan McCarthy, who was arrested by the feds last month. McCarthy initially continued his Channelsurfing.net website under a new domain at Channelsurf.eu. The day after his arrest this site was still up and running and it is believed that due to the circumstances he took it offline himself after he was bailed out.

US Government’s ‘Pirate’ Domain Seizures Failed Miserably

Redditor outs astroturfer with 20 accounts

A Reddit user noticed an odd pattern of upvotes for stories related to G4 TechTV and various other game-related companies. After a little investigation, the firms in question came clean (or at least, accounts seeming to belong to them came clean), and admitted that they had a relationship with a pro linkspammer (“social networking specialist”) who was running up to 20 Reddit identities at once and using them to game the outcomes. The linkspammer (or at least, an account seeming to belong to the linkspammer) has admitted it:

I would go into why I do social media but it’s personal and I don’t like to give out personal information. Btw. As masterofhyrule. I would like to say I didn’t spam digg back then, I just added a bunch of friends to share to to get my videos on the front page but when I saw it hit top 10 I was surprised. I didn’t do the videos for money, I did it to be popular and the reason I was banned from digg back then wasn’t because of spam, it was from the greasemonkey script that 100+ users used. Just wanted to clear that up even thoughts been 3 years about. Feel free to attack me, just please don’t hate the sites, they aren’t the problem.

The comment threads in question are a fascinating glimpse into the corrosive effect of astroturfing on social relationships — a kind of social media reenactment of The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street — as Redditors rage against the house of mirrors and wonder who among them are simply sock-puppets for the wrongdoers.

Of course, this is the sort of thing that HB Gary was developing for use in the middle east, to destroy the burgeoning public discourse and turn neighbors against each other “own the narrative.”

Meanwhile, the spammer’s account of his own actions is so far in denial, so wounded and broken, you get a picture of some kind of savant psychopath festering in his begrimed underwear in a basement somewhere, plaintively mourning the loss of his make-believe “friends” who always showed up to agree with everything he said.

GamePro, G4TV and VGChartz GamrFeed have been abusing multiple accounts to spam and manipulate /r/gaming for months (Thanks, Mikeout, via Submitterator!)

(Image: Brandon sock puppet, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from pepperlime’s photostream)

Does the pharmaceutical industry exaggerate their R&D costs?

One of the principle claims for allowing pharmaceutical companies to continue their hold on current patent practices, is that research and development (or R&D;) is very expensive. It just keeps coming up, and seems to be all the rage when arguing against things like the passing of Bill C-393 (which you can learn more about in this recent Boingboing post). Although the fact that there are high costs is obviously true, a recent paper published in Biosocieties would suggest that the oft cited statistics, the ones always used to support this assertion for lobbying or public relations purposes, may in fact be over inflated. Here, the authors, Donald W. Light and Rebecca Warburton look closely at where these numbers come from:

“The most widely cited figures (by government officials and the industry’s trade association for its global news network) for the cost to discover and bring a new drug (defined as a ‘new chemical entity’ or ‘new molecular entity’; not a reformulation or recombination of existing drugs) to market are US$802 million in 2000. This has been updated by 64 per cent to $1.32 billion in 2006.”

From this paper, we basically learn that the primary source of these figures come from one particular study published in 2003 and done by Joseph DiMasi, Ronald Hansen, and Henry Grabowski at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston, Massachusetts. In general, there are issues of bias in how such figures were calculated, and the Light and Warburton paper systematically looks at a number of variables that would suggest that the $802 million number, as well as subsequent numbers which extrapolate from this figure, are a gross over-estimate. The paper is definitely worth a read, having a number of points that would suggest strong mistrust for these industry figures. Examples include:

Continue reading “Does the pharmaceutical industry exaggerate their R&D costs?”

Japan: Emergency water drop operations begin at Fukushima; new photos show damage at stricken nuclear plant

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(screengrab of NHK TV coverage of the third helicopter water drop in the current operation, around 10am local time in Japan.)

Two helicopters, modified to help protect pilots from radiation, have just begun missions to drop tons of sea water on the quake and tsunami-stricken Fukushima 1 plant in Japan. The live TV coverage of the water drops has been chilling to watch, knowing what is at stake both for the pilots and the population they hope to protect.

Separately, according to reports in the US and from news agencies in Japan, the US military will also soon fly unmanned aerial drones over the plant to take photos of the inside of the building that houses the No. 4 reactor.

“The water is depleting rapidly at the number 3 and number 4 units, and the government is placing urgent priority on providing water now,” says a senior commentator on NHK right now, as I type.

An explosion occurred at reactor No. 4 on Tuesday, and was believed to have been a hydrogen explosion. White smoke has been rising from this site on Wednesday, and the spent fuel is believed to be heating up. The status of the spent nuclear fuel there is of greatest concern right now.

Currently, Japan ground self-defense force (GDF) helicopters are scooping water from the ocean and dropping it over the reactor, 7.5 tons at a time. The helicopters spraying water onto these reactors are protected by lead mats underneath, and the pilots are wearing protective suits and carrying dosimeters. In a press conference just now, a Japan nuclear safety agency official explained that the flights are limited to a certain minimum altitude, and no more than 40 minutes per helicopter per day, to limit exposure for pilots. The maximum permissible exposure level for Japan’s self defense forces is typically 50 millisieverts; during this operation, the level has been raised to 100 millisieverts. When the pilots reach the limit, they have to leave. Normally, they would hover in one spot; given the extremely high risk of radiation exposure, they must move.

Given the dimensions of the spent fuel pools, and the fact that that not all the water dropped will actually make it into the pool, they will need to make hundreds of these water drop operations.

Tokyo police force water cannon vehicles carrying 4 tons of water at a time have also arrived at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. The water spray they shoot will target the storage pool that holds spent fuel rods; again, this is the focal point of grave concern at this time.

If these efforts fail and current conditions within the spent fuel pool continues, officials on NHK are saying the spent fuel rods in the storage pool would likely become more exposed and damaged, and release massive amounts of radiation into the atmosphere.

Continue reading “Japan: Emergency water drop operations begin at Fukushima; new photos show damage at stricken nuclear plant”

Influential think-tanky tells Congress: bandwidth caps fight piracy!

Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson summarizes the crazy House Judiciary Committee testimony of Daniel Castro from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation DC think tank. Castro was testifying on proposals to reduce online copyright infringement, and he suggested that ISPs caps on downloads were a good way to accomplish this goal (much in the same way that you could reduce traffic fatalities by allowing auto-manufacturers to cap the number of miles you were allowed to drive each month!). It got crazier from there, and none of it would matter except that Castro has historically had the ear of lawmakers, who incorporated some of his proposals into the pending COICA web-censorship bill.

Should the US government actually fund antipiracy research? Sure. Should the US government “enlist” Internet providers to block entire websites? Sure. Should copyright holders suggest to the government which sites should go on the blocklist? Sure. Should ad networks and payment processors be forced to cut ties to such sites, even if those sites are legal in the countries where they operate? Sure.

Castro’s original 2009 paper goes further, suggesting that deep packet inspection (DPI) be routinely deployed by ISPs in order to scan subscriber traffic for potential copyright infringements. Sound like wiretapping? Yes, though Castro has a solution if courts do crack down on the practice: “the law should be changed.”

After all, “piracy mitigation with DPI deals with a set of issues virtually identical to the largely noncontroversial question of virus detection and mitigation.”

Congress told that Internet data caps will discourage piracy

(Image: Piracy, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from toobydoo’s photostream)

America fields “Son of ACTA” — a new, sinister, secret copyright treaty

Knowledge Ecology International has published a leaked draft of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the latest secret, US-led treaty, this one targeting countries on the Pacific rim. The IP chapter of the agreement contains all the material that the US was forced to drop from ACTA, the last secret copyright treaty the States tried to sneak into the world. As with ACTA, the game plan for TPP will be to get a bunch of rich, powerful countries to sign on, and then use this as a benchmark for all treaties between those nations and the rest of the world.

Here’s some of Michael Geist‘s analysis:

The U.S. plan is everything it wanted in ACTA but didn’t get. For example, the digital lock rules are the U.S. DMCA, complete with exact same exceptions (no more, no less). The term of copyright matches the U.S. term of life of the author plus 70 years, beyond the Berne requirement and Canadian law. The ISP provisions including a copy of the U.S. notice-and-takedown system as well as provisions that go beyond U.S. law. In other words, the U.S. envisions using the TPP to export its copyright law to as many countries as possible while creating backdoor changes to its own domestic laws. Moreover, the chapter extends well beyond copyright, with patent provisions that would restrict countries’ ability to restrict patentable subject matter.

The complete Feb 10, 2011 text of the US proposal for the TPP IPR chapter

US house prices fall to 1890s levels (where they usually are)


According to Case-Shiller/S&P;, US housing prices have fallen to levels not seen since the 1890s (adjusted for inflation, of course), in 11 of 20 markets. It looks like this is slightly skewed by the serious economic problems in rustbelt cities, which is not to say that things aren’t pretty terrible — and the same analysis predicts a further decline of 15-20%.

Some years back, Yale Professor Robert Shiller produced a long-run nominal home price index for the U.S. by fusing together data that had been gathered from a number of historical archives.

Shiller then adjusted the index for inflation revealing the very interesting fact that, in real terms, prices for U.S. homes changed very little over the span from 1890 to the mid-1990s.

This might come as a surprise to many since recent “common sense” notions held that homes were always a great investment carrying the implication that they must typically increase in value yet, the reality is that over the long run home prices must stay in-line with changes in the level of income (the source generally used to fund the home cost) or else typical households would not be capable of making a purchase.

Home prices falling to level of 1890s

California congresswoman: a vendetta against Planned Parenthood has nothing to do with creating jobs or reducing the deficit

Eileen Gunn sez, “Rep. Jackie Speier (D, CA) spoke passionately in opposition to stripping Planned Parenthood of any US funding. Compare and contrast with smarmy Rep. Chris Smith (R, NJ).”

Speier’s point is well-taken: using a budget debate as an excuse to pursue Planned Parenthood is obstructionist, divisive politics at its worst. Imagine if the Democratic House had refused to pass any budget unless it contained amendments blocking funding to every agency, institution, charity and contractor that the American left objected to. The fact that this particular amendment vilifies women who’ve had to make wrenching decisions and endure difficult and painful procedures, often for life-saving reasons, is all the more infuriating.

(Thanks, Eileen Gunn, via Submitterator!)