The New York Times reports: Google Plus, the company’s social network, is like a ghost town. Want to see your old roommate’s baby or post your vacation status? Chances are, you’ll use Facebook instead.
But Google isn’t worried. Google Plus may not be much of a competitor to Facebook as a social network, but it is central to Google’s future — a lens that allows the company to peer more broadly into people’s digital life, and to gather an ever-richer trove of the personal information that advertisers covet. Some analysts even say that Google understands more about people’s social activity than Facebook does.
The reason is that once you sign up for Plus, it becomes your account for all Google products, from Gmail to YouTube to maps, so Google sees who you are and what you do across its services, even if you never once return to the social network itself.
Before Google released Plus, the company might not have known that you were the same person when you searched, watched videos and used maps. With a single Plus account, the company can build a database of your affinities.
Google says Plus has 540 million monthly active users, but almost half do not visit the social network. [Continue reading...]
Kevin Roose recounts what he witnessed when he sneaked into the annual black-tie induction ceremony of a secret Wall Street fraternity called Kappa Beta Phi — and then got caught: “Who the hell are you?” [billionaire Michael] Novogratz demanded.
I felt my pulse spike. I was tempted to make a run for it, but – due to the ethics code of the New York Times, my then-employer – I had no choice but to out myself.
“I’m a reporter,” I said.
Novogratz stood up from the table.
“You’re not allowed to be here,” he said.
I, too, stood, and tried to excuse myself, but he grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go.
“Give me that or I’ll fucking break it!” Novogratz yelled, grabbing for my phone, which was filled with damning evidence. His eyes were bloodshot, and his neck veins were bulging. The song onstage was now over, and a number of prominent Kappas had rushed over to our table. Before the situation could escalate dangerously, a bond investor and former Grand Swipe named Alexandra Lebenthal stepped in between us. Wilbur Ross quickly followed, and the two of them led me out into the lobby, past a throng of Wall Street tycoons, some of whom seemed to be hyperventilating.
Once we made it to the lobby, Ross and Lebenthal reassured me that what I’d just seen wasn’t really a group of wealthy and powerful financiers making homophobic jokes, making light of the financial crisis, and bragging about their business conquests at Main Street’s expense. No, it was just a group of friends who came together to roast each other in a benign and self-deprecating manner. Nothing to see here.
But the extent of their worry wasn’t made clear until Ross offered himself up as a source for future stories in exchange for my cooperation.
“I’ll pick up the phone anytime, get you any help you need,” he said.
“Yeah, the people in this group could be very helpful,” Lebenthal chimed in. “If you could just keep their privacy in mind.”
I wasn’t going to be bribed off my story, but I understood their panic. Here, after all, was a group that included many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark. (Or worse, sing about it — one of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”) These were activities that amounted to a gigantic middle finger to Main Street and that, if made public, could end careers and damage very public reputations.
After several more minutes spent trying to do damage control, Ross and Lebenthal escorted me out of the St. Regis.
As I walked through the streets of midtown in my ill-fitting tuxedo, I thought about the implications of what I’d just seen.
The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. [Continue reading...]
AFP reports: China is exploiting Africa’s resources just like European colonisers did, with disastrous effects for the environment, acclaimed primatologist Jane Goodall has told AFP.
On the eve of her 80th birthday, the fiery British wildlife crusader is whizzing across the world giving a series of lectures on the threats to our planet.
And the rising world power’s involvement on the continent especially raises alarms when it comes to her beloved chimpanzees and wildlife habitats.
During the last decade China has been investing heavily in African natural resources, developing mines, oil wells and running related construction companies.
Activists accuse Chinese firms of paying little attention to the environmental impact of their race for resources.
“In Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialist did. They want raw materials for their economic growth, just as the colonialists were going into Africa and taking the natural resources, leaving people poorer,” she told AFP in an interview in Johannesburg.
The stakes for the environment may even be larger this time round, she warns.
“China is bigger, and the technology has improved… It is a disaster.”
Other than massive investment in Africa’s mines, China is also a big market for elephant tusks and rhino horn, which has driven poaching of these animals to alarming heights.
But Goodall, who rose to fame through her ground-breaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, is optimistic.
“I do believe China is changing,” she said, citing as one example Beijing’s recent destruction of illegal ivory stockpiles.
“I think 10 years ago, even with international pressure, we would never have had an ivory crush. But they have,” she added.
“I think 10 years ago the government would never have banned shark fin soup on official occasions. But they have.” [Continue reading...]
Nicholas Stern writes: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last September pointed to a changing pattern of extreme weather since 1950, with more heatwaves and downpours in many parts of the world, as the Earth has warmed by about 0.7C.
The IPCC has concluded from all of the available scientific evidence that it is 95% likely that most of the rise in global average temperature since the middle of the 20th century is due to emissions of greenhouse gases, deforestation and other human activities.
The upward trend in temperature is undeniable, despite the effects of natural variability in the climate which causes the rate of warming to temporarily accelerate or slow for short periods, as we have seen over the past 15 years.
If we do not cut emissions, we face even more devastating consequences, as unchecked they could raise global average temperature to 4C or more above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.
This would be far above the threshold warming of 2C that countries have already agreed that it would be dangerous to breach. The average temperature has not been 2C above pre-industrial levels for about 115,000 years, when the ice-caps were smaller and global sea level was at least five metres higher than today.
The shift to such a world could cause mass migrations of hundreds of millions of people away from the worst-affected areas. That would lead to conflict and war, not peace and prosperity.
In fact, the risks are even bigger than I realised when I was working on the review of the economics of climate change for the UK government in 2006. Since then, annual greenhouse gas emissions have increased steeply and some of the impacts, such as the decline of Arctic sea ice, have started to happen much more quickly.
We also underestimated the potential importance of strong feedbacks, such as the thawing of the permafrost to release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as tipping points beyond which some changes in the climate may become effectively irreversible.
What we have experienced so far is surely small relative to what could happen in the future. We should remember that the last time global temperature was 5C different from today, the Earth was gripped by an ice age.
So the risks are immense and can only be sensibly managed by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which will require a new low-carbon industrial revolution. [Continue reading...]
Sean McElwee writes: There’s a lot of talk of Karl Marx in the air these days – from Rush Limbaugh accusing Pope Francis of promoting “pure Marxism” to a Washington Times writer claiming that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is an “unrepentant Marxist.” But few people actually understand Marx’s trenchant critique of capitalism. Most people are vaguely aware of the radical economist’s prediction that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism, but they often misunderstand why he believed this to be true. And while Marx was wrong about some things, his writings (many of which pre-date the American Civil War) accurately predicted several aspects of contemporary capitalism, from the Great Recession to the iPhone 5S in your pocket.
Here are five facts of life in 2014 that Marx’s analysis of capitalism correctly predicted more than a century ago: [Continue reading...]
Tom Perkins, who was one of the founders of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, sees himself as belonging to America’s “creative one percent” — the one percent who are “the job creators.” He takes pride in the fact that Kleiner Perkins has “created pretty close to a million jobs.” He says the rich “get richer by creating opportunity for others.”
The idea that capitalists create jobs is central to the American view of the way economies work. It’s so axiomatic, hardly anyone seems to pause to consider whether it makes any sense.
Certainly, capitalists provide investments that make the creation of jobs possible, but this isn’t fundamentally different from walking into Best Buy and buying an iPhone.
In a store, the transaction is simple: make a payment and in return receive a product. There’s nothing creative in the action of the buyer. Money is used in order to be able to make use of the creativity of others. The buyers of iPhones do not create iPhones.
Likewise, investors are buying the fruit of the labor of others. Investors have the luxury of being able to afford to wait for a return on their capital and the willingness to risk seeing no return, but the only creative element in what they do is focused on their calculations about where to place their bets. Even then, it’s creative focus, irrespective of the innovative vehicle, is on the creation of wealth.
Capitalists don’t create workers and the jobs they claim they are creating are useless if no one with the required skills is available to fill them. It is workers themselves and educators and the society that supports them, that are the real engine of job creation. All the investor does is control the flow of money and cream off a hefty portion of the profit.
As for Perkins claim that if the rich are allowed to do what the rich do, which is get richer, then everyone else will get richer too, he’s just rehashing discredited free-market economics.
Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, lays out the reasons that growing inequality is not just a problem — it’s built into the structure of capitalism.
There are a number of key arguments in Piketty’s book. One is that the six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period, Piketty suggests, represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.
According to Piketty, those halcyon six decades were the result of two world wars and the Great Depression. The owners of capital – those at the top of the pyramid of wealth and income – absorbed a series of devastating blows. These included the loss of credibility and authority as markets crashed; physical destruction of capital throughout Europe in both World War I and World War II; the raising of tax rates, especially on high incomes, to finance the wars; high rates of inflation that eroded the assets of creditors; the nationalization of major industries in both England and France; and the appropriation of industries and property in post-colonial countries.
At the same time, the Great Depression produced the New Deal coalition in the United States, which empowered an insurgent labor movement. The postwar period saw huge gains in growth and productivity, the benefits of which were shared with workers who had strong backing from the trade union movement and from the dominant Democratic Party. Widespread support for liberal social and economic policy was so strong that even a Republican president who won easily twice, Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognized that an assault on the New Deal would be futile. In Eisenhower’s words, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear from that party again in our political history.”
The six decades between 1914 and 1973 stand out from the past and future, according to Piketty, because the rate of economic growth exceeded the after-tax rate of return on capital. Since then, the rate of growth of the economy has declined, while the return on capital is rising to its pre-World War I levels.
“If the rate of return on capital remains permanently above the rate of growth of the economy – this is Piketty’s key inequality relationship,” [Branko] Milanovic [an economist in the World Bank’s research department] writes in his review, it “generates a changing functional distribution of income in favor of capital and, if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years.” [Continue reading...]
Rita F. Redberg, a cardiologist and Rebecca Smith-Bindman, a radiologist, write: Despite great strides in prevention and treatment, cancer rates remain stubbornly high and may soon surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death in the United States. Increasingly, we and many other experts believe that an important culprit may be our own medical practices: We are silently irradiating ourselves to death.
The use of medical imaging with high-dose radiation — CT scans in particular — has soared in the last 20 years. Our resulting exposure to medical radiation has increased more than sixfold between the 1980s and 2006, according to the National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements. The radiation doses of CT scans (a series of X-ray images from multiple angles) are 100 to 1,000 times higher than conventional X-rays.
Of course, early diagnosis thanks to medical imaging can be lifesaving. But there is distressingly little evidence of better health outcomes associated with the current high rate of scans. There is, however, evidence of its harms.
The relationship between radiation and the development of cancer is well understood: A single CT scan exposes a patient to the amount of radiation that epidemiologic evidence shows can be cancer-causing. The risks have been demonstrated directly in two large clinical studies in Britain and Australia. In the British study, children exposed to multiple CT scans were found to be three times more likely to develop leukemia and brain cancer. In a 2011 report sponsored by Susan G. Komen, the Institute of Medicine concluded that radiation from medical imaging, and hormone therapy, the use of which has substantially declined in the last decade, were the leading environmental causes of breast cancer, and advised that women reduce their exposure to unnecessary CT scans.
CTs, once rare, are now routine. One in 10 Americans undergo a CT scan every year, and many of them get more than one. This growth is a result of multiple factors, including a desire for early diagnoses, higher quality imaging technology, direct-to-consumer advertising and the financial interests of doctors and imaging centers. CT scanners cost millions of dollars; having made that investment, purchasers are strongly incentivized to use them.
While it is difficult to know how many cancers will result from medical imaging, a 2009 study from the National Cancer Institute estimates that CT scans conducted in 2007 will cause a projected 29,000 excess cancer cases and 14,500 excess deaths over the lifetime of those exposed. Given the many scans performed over the last several years, a reasonable estimate of excess lifetime cancers would be in the hundreds of thousands. According to our calculations, unless we change our current practices, 3 percent to 5 percent of all future cancers may result from exposure to medical imaging. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Battling a perfect storm of government suspicion and pricing probes in China, U.S. technology companies are having to re-think how they sell hardware and services in the world’s second-biggest economy.
U.S. multinationals, including IBM, Cisco Systems and Qualcomm, are looking to settle price-gouging investigations and restore trust with Chinese regulators in the wake of reports that U.S. government agencies directly collect data and tap networks of the biggest domestic technology companies.
All U.S. IT firms are “on the defensive” in China, said Scott Kennedy, director of the Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business at Indiana University. “They are all under suspicion as either witting or unwitting collaborators in the U.S. government’s surveillance and intelligence gathering activities.” [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: The Obama administration is retreating from previous demands of strong international environmental protections in order to reach agreement on a sweeping Pacific trade deal that is a pillar of President Obama’s strategic shift to Asia, according to documents obtained by WikiLeaks, environmentalists and people close to the contentious trade talks.
The negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would be one of the world’s biggest trade agreements, have exposed deep rifts over environmental policy between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. As it stands now, the documents, viewed by The New York Times, show that the disputes could undo key global environmental protections.
The environmental chapter of the trade deal has been among the most highly disputed elements of negotiations in the pact. Participants in the talks, which have dragged on for three years, had hoped to complete the deal by the end of 2013.
Environmentalists said that the draft appears to signal that the United States will retreat on a variety of environmental protections — including legally binding pollution control requirements and logging regulations and a ban on harvesting sharks’ fins — to advance a trade deal that is a top priority for Mr. Obama. [Continue reading...]
Bloomberg reports: Google’s top privacy official said the European Union’s “flawed” attempt to overhaul data-protection rules is “dead” and urged politicians to go back to the drawing board.
“Europe’s much-ballyhooed, and much-flawed, proposal to re-write its privacy laws for the next 20 years collapsed,” Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel at Mountain View, California-based Google, said in a blog post today. “The old draft is dead, and something else will eventually be resurrected in its place.”
EU nations have dragged their heels over measures that could empower regulators to levy fines of as much as 100 million euros ($136 million) against technology companies for privacy violations when they process EU citizens’ data. U.S. firms from Google to Facebook would be covered by the law.
This is “another try of Fleischer to kill the data-protection regulation by calling it dead,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green Party politician who has steered the draft EU law through the European Parliament. The “EU would have already agreed if Google wouldn’t fight every regulation” with hundreds of millions of dollars “for lobbyists in Washington D.C. and Brussels.”
The Guardian reports: The west’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.
More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguán region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists.
Farmers’ leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.
Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.
Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguán.
They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.
The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (Muca) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.
The Bajo Aguán dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market.
Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.
Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites. [Continue reading...]