Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The boys and their toys: Drones R Us

A seldom acknowledged dimension of the U.S. military today is what the impish historian of technology David F. Noble used to call "the boys and their toys."  The logo above from the "Program Executive Office" of the "Unmanned Aviation and Stike Weapons" program shows the ghoulish fun that the guys are having with the latest collection of gadgets in their toybox -- the drone aircraft.  Yes, your tax dollars are paying to  produce menacing graphics of The Grim Reaper surrounded by the circular bureaucratic logo on what appears to be a Pentagon door or in a military Power Point display.

The idea that designing, building and using lethal weaponry is a kind of game is a common obsession in America today.  It is clearly on display, for example, in the "build a robot to smash other robots" competitions that are commonly used to attract middle school, high school and college students to careers in computer science and engineering.  The subtext is that killing and destruction are all part of the enjoyment that sophisticated technology involves.   To point out (as I sometimes do) that this approach is ultimately pathological and certainly not a great way to attract young people to lives as technical professionals is dismissed as "denying the kids their fun," and "rejecting the best way to recruit the next generation of engineers."  

In the interest of truth in advertising, my suggestion would be to include the Pentagon's stylish new grim reaper on advertisements for the next round of killer robot games we take to the country's school children.  They need to know what they're getting into.  (Perhaps they do already.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Spanish activists drag bankster into court

                                                    Rodrigo Rato in happier times

An interesting episode from the ongoing financial crisis in Spain is the move by Spanish activists to file suit against financial mogul and conservative political bigwig Rodrigo Rato, former head of the International Monetary Fund and, more recently, president of "Bankia,"one of Spain's largest banks.  The trial is now taking place in Madrid.  Some details and commentary are offered below.  

(I worked with Florencio Cabello to do a quick English translation of the story written by F. Fafatale.  The term "15M" refers to the continuing mass movement that began in Spain on May 15, 2011.)

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To a considerable extent the current financial crisis in Spain was
triggered by the collapse of a particular bank, "Bankia," a relatively
new financial institution composed of several smaller banks in 2011.
Responding to the panic of "bailout," "austerity," and cuts in social
services, a group of Spanish citizens related to the M15 movement has
launched a campaing called 15MpaRato*
(http://15mparato.wordpress.com). In fact, the campaign's first move
has been to file a lawsuit demanding that Bankia's former director,
Rodrigo Rato, as well as the rest of the board, be held accountable
for the mismanagement and possible criminal behavior involved in the
notorious bank's demise.  The story below provides details of the
citizens' case against Rato.

[*The term "15MpaRato" is an untranslatable pun meaning in Spanish both
"M15 is out to get Rodrigo Rato" and "M15 is here to stay".]


15m Pa Rato: Citizens' networks find their own voice in the "Bankia case"
The signature of the memorandum [bank bailout plan] with the EU hasn't
caught 15MpaRato flat-footed. Here we review the course of the
citizens' initiative that has been successful in including its lawsuit
in the case against Bankia brought before the Audiencia Nacional [the
Spanish court that deals with serious crimes].

F. Fafatale (Madrid)
July 20, 2012.  Issue 179

"In the war between the elites and the common people, fear has changed
sides. Now we are the ones who define the targets", proclaims the
15MpaRato campaign website. On the web site we can find the lawsuit
against Bankia recently admitted by Fernando Andreu, judge of the 4th
Central Court of the Audiencia Nacional. This means that the M15
movement is already fully entitled to appear in court in this case.

Some weeks ago, the Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office backed the
lawsuit filed by the UPyD (Unión  Progreso y Democracia) party. This
meant that Rodrigo Rato and 32 former members of Bankia's board are to
be investigated on charges of falsifying accounts, dishonest
administration, price manipulation and improper appropriation of the
bank's funds.

Why is the 15MpaRato complaint different from UPyD's and others? In
their own words: "Our complaint includes almost every charge that
judge Andreu levels against members of the board, but also expands the
first lawsuit to include offenses contained in Article 282bis of the
Spanish Criminal Code". This article imposes jail sentences ranging
from one to six years and fines ranging from six to twelve months if
the administrators of a public company falsify economic and financial
 information in ways that cause serious damage. The 15MpaRato demand
adds: "The charges of falsifying accounts, dishonest administration,
price manipulation and improper appropriation are intended to protect
Bankia's legal goods, which formerly were public".

However, this complaint (launched by the Platform for a Citizen Debt
Audit, Xnet, Citizens' Bailout Plan, Iaioflautas (aging M15
activists), Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, Euribor
Operation, #CierraBankia, Real Democracy Now network and Madrilonia)
goes a step further: "We intend to protect the people, the affected;
we represent no other interest than the common interest of the people.
We are the people! The admission of our complaint allows us to appear
in court and watch over those interests at every moment in the process".

After the admission of its lawsuit, the 15MpaRato campaign has
required the judge Andreu the intervention of Bankia before Spain
signs the memorandum of agreement with the EU. This memorandum implies
modifying Spanish laws to turn the banks' private debt into public
debt. "The issuance of bonds is the trick to pay the big creditors,
but in ways that will later increase the national debt", explains
15MpaRato. On the contrary, If the judicial administrators intervene,
as will be discussed this week at the Audiencia Nacional, the
Government-backed issuance of new bonds could be abruptly stopped.

The next steps of 15MpaRato will be to expand attention to the
criminal aspects of the dispute and to gather information from Bankia
workers. Besides, this campaign collaborates with the platform of
#OpEuríbor, which focuses on the possible manipulation of Euribor, the
reference rate upon which most Spanish mortgages are indexed. to.
Together they reclaim "the nullity of all contracts signed by Bankia,
on the grounds that the calculation of Euribor in Spain has been
revealed as a fraud of historic dimensions, in much the same way that
we are seeing the Líbor scandal unfold in the UK".

The 15MpaRato lawsuit is also distinctive in its mode of operation,
showing the power of network collaboration achieved through the
Internet. The citizen response to the online campaign exceeded its own
promoters' expectations: the crowdfunding campaign launched to obtain
the ? 15 000 needed to file the lawsuit pulverized all records,
raising the money in less than 24 hours; all the information required
to initiate the case was gathered in 23 days, something that would
have been impossible for any single citizen to accomplish acting on
her own; in just 12 hours 50 small shareholders offered themselves as
plaintiffs and dozens of inside witnesses were located.

- From a communicative perspective, the campaign bears the imprint of
M15 movement, making the most of social networks. The press conference
organized in June to announce the filing of this lawsuit was both
twitted and streamed. The message was clear: "Impunity is over. For
each bank intervention, we will save schools, hospitals and jobs for
the benefit of all. We don't owe, we won't pay. They owe, they shall pay".

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Will we regard Coke and Pepsi the way we do cigarettes?

The presence of high fructose corn syrup in the food and drinks we consume is now commonly linked to America's obesity epidemic and a range of associated health concerns.  A story by Susan Heavy in Reuters notes:

" A leading U.S. cancer lobby group is urging the Surgeon General to conduct a sweeping study of the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on consumer health, saying such drinks play major role in the nation's obesity crisis and require a U.S. action plan.

In a letter to U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the American Cancer Society's advocacy affiliate on Tuesday called for a comprehensive review along the lines of the U.S. top doctor's landmark report on the dangers of smoking in 1964.

"An unbiased and comprehensive report on the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages could have a major impact on the public's consciousness and perhaps begin to change the direction of public behavior in their choices of food and drinks," American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network wrote."

 In a similar light, the the descriptions below by John Cassone, PhD of Cassone Wellness, arrived in a Google+ message.  They seem plausible.

 * * * * * * * * 

This is what happens to your body within one hour of drinking a can of soda.

10 minutes: 10 teaspoons of sugar hit your system, which is 100 percent of your recommended daily intake. You'd normally vomit from such an intake, but the phosphoric acid cuts the flavor.

20 minutes: Your blood sugar skyrockets. Your pancreas attempts to maximize insulin production in order to turn high levels of sugar into fat.

40 minutes: As your body finishes absorbing the caffeine, your pupils dilate, your blood pressure rises, and your liver pumps more sugar into the bloodstream. Adenosine receptors in your brain are blocked preventing you from feeling how tired you may actually be.

45 minutes: Your body increases dopamine production, causing you to feel pleasure and adding to the addictiveness of the beverage. This physical neuro response works the same way as it would if we were consuming heroin.

60 minutes: The phosphoric acid binds calcium, magnesium and zinc in your lower intestine, which boosts your metabolism a bit further. High doses of sugar and artificial sweeteners compound this effect, increasing the urinary excretion of calcium. The caffeine’s diuretic properties come into play. (You have to GO!) Your body will eliminate the bonded calcium, magnesium and zinc that was otherwise heading to your bones. And you will also flush out the sodium, electrolytes and water. Your body has eliminated the water that was in the soda. And in the process it was infused with nutrients and minerals your body would have otherwise used to hydrate your system or build body cells, bones, teeth.

The sugar crash begins. You may become irritable and/or sluggish. You start feeling like crap. Time to grab another?"

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It's been years since I've had a Coke or Pepsi.  I moan when as I watch friends order them in restaurants or at the ball park.  Once thought to be harmless beverages emblematic of the good life, they now loom as an increasingly obvious menace to our well-being.  Efforts to remove them from the American are often resisted with much the fervor that greeted anti-smoking campaigns and attempts to require the use of auto seat belt campaigns.  It's a question of precious "freedom" don't you know?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Smashing victory over censorship at RPI and Troy

                                       Artist Wafaa Bilal with image from "Virtual Jihadi"

During the spring of 2008 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York the scheduled presentation of “Virtual Jihadi,” a piece of performance art by artist Wafaa Bilal, was banned by the university.   Mr. Bilal had been invited by the Department of Arts to show his work – a modified version of a first person shooter video game that depicts armed conflict in the Middle East – for the campus community.  Following a protest by the campus Republicans, Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer, decided that the work was not suited for campus viewing, and forbid the artist to show and discuss his politically controversial anti-war statement.  (I wrote extensively about this incident of explicit censorship in this blog during that period.)

As an alternative, the off campus Sanctuary for Independent Media located in north Troy, offered its auditorium for an evening showing.  Despite the presence of picket signs and protests outside the Sanctuary, the event to place in a fully packed house.  But the next morning, officials of the City of Troy arrived and locked the building, claiming that “code violations” made the place unfit for any social activity there.   Thus, Mr. Bilal’s art was censored a second time within a week.  Troy joined R.P.I. on the list of institutions eager to suppress constitutionally protected free speech.

It’s a long story, folks, but the long and the short of it is that the Media Alliance that operates the Sanctuary for Independent Media, filed a civil rights law suit against the City of Troy and won.  Part of the settlement involved an agreement for the Sanctuary and City to write a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts.  Today the news came through that the proposal had been awarded an NEA grant, one to be matched dollar for dollar by The City of Troy.  Here’s the message of the Sanctuary’s Steve Pierce about this astonishing outcome.  

Hi--  Good news!  Our federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Troy for shutting down an anti-war art exhibit at the Sanctuary in 2008 comes to a close today with the announcement of a grant award from the National Endowment for the Arts, to be matched dollar for dollar by $50,000 from the city as agreed in our settlement of the case (http://www.nyclu.org/regions/capital-region/sanctuary-settlement-022712).    If you're unfamiliar with the history, there's a great short documentary about what happened: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v42OLzCDr98  Thanks for all your support over the years...  --Steve 

  % % % % % %

 At RPI, in Troy, New York and everywhere else, this a victory worth celebrating. 
Congratulations to Branda Miller, Steve Pierce and their colleagues who've made the Sanctuary for Independent Media such a lively place for art, education, community activity, media, and politics during the past decade.  

Note:  The documentary listed above is fabulous.  It should be required viewing for university and city officials who believe it would be a wonderful show of strength and moral character to censor political speech and works of art.  The stupidity of such measures is shockingly obvious.  Especially notable in the video are the absurd, laughable arguments in favor of censorship, especially the repeated insistence of RPI managers that Wafaa Bilal's provocative video presentation must be banned because it is equivalent to child pornography.   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Two elegant gentlemen: Sal Restivo and Tony Bennett

My friend and colleague Sal Restivo, brilliant, prolific sociologist of science, recently retired from the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer and has moved to Ghent in Belgium where he continues his work as a research fellow at the university there.   I'll miss him. 

In an exchange of emails today he mentioned that he'd gone to a Tony Bennett concert in Antwerp and later spent some time with his fellow Italian American.  Here's Sal's description:   "In photo left to right: Sal,Tony Bennett (holding the CD from my son Dave's gig as the Boss Brass pianist with Mel Torme; Dave sent Tony the CD in appreciation for his influence on his (Dave's) music), my friend Phyllis, and Tony's wife Susan."  

 I see.  So this is "retirement" in Europe.  Go, Sal!