Is it time to remove Zuckerberg from (his) office? – TechCrunch

A colleague, who shall remain nameless (because privacy is not dead), gave a thumbs down to a recent column in the NYT. The complaint was that the writer had attacked tech companies (mostly but not exclusively Facebook) without offering any solutions for these all-powerful techbro CEOs’ orchestral failures to grasp the messy complexities of humanity at a worldwide scale.

Challenge accepted.

Here’s the thought experiment: Fixing Facebook 

We’ll start with Facebook because, while it’s by no means the only tech company whose platform contains a bottomless cesspit of problems, it is the most used social platform in the West; the de facto global monopoly outside China.

And, well, even Zuckerberg’ thinks it needs fixing. Or at least that its PR needs fixing — given he made “Fixing Facebook” his ‘personal challenge’ of the year this year — proof, if any more were needed, of his incredible capacity for sounding tone-deaf.

For a little more context on these annual personal challenges, Zuckerberg once previously set himself the challenge of reading a new book every two weeks. So it seems fair to ask: Is Facebook a 26-book sized fix?

If we’re talking in book metaphor terms, the challenge of fixing Facebook seems at least on the scale of the Library of Alexandria, say, given the volume of human content being daily fenced. It may, more likely, be multiple libraries of Alexandria. Just as, if Facebook content was housed in a physical library, the company would require considerably more real estate that the largest library of the ancient world to house its staggeringly-massive-and-expanding-by-the-second human content collection — which also of course forms the foundation of its business.

Zuckerberg himself has implied that his 2018 challenge — to fix the company he founded years before the iPhone arrived to supercharge the smartphone revolution and, down that line, mobilize Facebook’s societal ‘revolution’ — is his toughest yet, and likely to take at least two or three years before it bears fruit, not just the one. So Facebook’s founder is already managing our expectations and he’s barely even started.

In all likelihood, if Facebook were left alone to keep standing ethically aloof, shaping and distributing information at vast scale while simultaneously denying that’s editing — to enjoy another decade of unforgivably bad judgement calls (so, basically, to ‘self-regulate’; or, as the New York Times put it, for Zuckerberg to be educated at societal expense) — then his 2018 personal challenge would become just ‘Chapter One, Volume One’ in a neverending life’s ‘work-in-progress’.

Great for Mark, far less great for humans and democratic societies all over the world.

Frankly, there has to be a better way. So here’s an alternative plan for fixing Facebook — or at least a few big ideas to get policymakers’ juices flowing… Bear in mind this is a thought exercise so we make no suggestions for how to enact the plan — we’re just throwing ideas out there to get folks thinking.

Step 1: Goodbye network of networks

Facebook has been allowed to acquire several other social communication networks — most notably photo-focused social network Instagram [1BN monthly active users] and messaging app platform WhatsApp [1.5BN] — so Zuckerberg has not just ONE massively popular social network (Facebook: [2.2BN]) but a saccharine suite of eyeball-harvesting machines.

Last month he revealed his sunless empire casts its shadow across a full 2.5BN individuals if you factor in all his apps — albeit, that was an attempt to distract investors from the stock price car crash conference call that was to follow. But the staggering size of the empire is undeniable.

So the first part of fixing Facebook is really simple: No dominant social network should be allowed to possess (or continue to possess) multiple dominant social networks.

There’s literally no good argument for why this is good for anyone other than (in Facebook’s case) Zuckerberg and Zuckerberg’s shareholders. Which is zero reason not to do something that’s net good for the rest of humanity. On one level it’s just basic math.

Setting aside (for just a second) the tangible damages inflicted upon humans by unregulated social media platforms with zero editorial values and a threadbare minimum of morality which wafts like gauze in the slipstream of supercharged and continuously re-engineered growth and engagement engines that DO NOT FACTOR HUMAN COST into their algorithmic calculations — allowing their masters to preside over suprasocietal revenue stripping mega-platforms — which, to be clear, is our primary concern here — the damage to competition and innovation alone from Zuckerberg owning multiple social networks is both visible and quantifiable.

Just ask Snapchat. Because, well, you can’t ask the social networks that don’t exist because Zuckerberg commands a full flush of attention-harvesting networks. So take a good, long, hard look at all those Stories clones he’s copypasted right across his social network of social networks. Not very innovative is it?

And even if you don’t think mega-platforms cause harm by eroding civic and democratic values (against, well, plenty of evidence to the contrary), if you value creativity, competition and consumer choice it’s equally a no brainer to tend your markets in a way that allows multiple distinct networks to thrive, rather than let one megacorp get so powerful it’s essentially metastasized into a Borg-like entity capable of enslaving and/or destroying any challenger, idea or even value in its path. (And doing all that at the same time as monopolizing its users’ attention.)

We see this too in how Facebook applies its technology in a way that seeks to reshape laws in its business model’s favor. Because while individuals break laws, massively powerful megacorps merely lean their bulk to squash them into a more pleasing shape.

Facebook is not just spending big on lobbying lawmakers (and it sure is doing that), it’s using technology and the brute force of its platform to pound on and roll over the rule of law by deforming foundational tenets of society. Privacy being just one of them.

And it’s not doing this reshaping for the good of humanity. Oh no. While democratic societies have rules to protect the vulnerable and foster competition and choice because they are based on recognizing value in human life, Facebook’s motives are 100% self-interested and profit-driven.

The company wants to rewrite rules globally to further expand its bottom line. Hence its mission to pool all humans into a single monetizable bucket — no matter if people don’t exactly mesh together because people aren’t actually bits of data. If you want to be that reductive make soup, not a “global community”.

So step one to fixing Facebook is simple: Break up Zuckerberg’s empire.

In practical terms that means forcing Facebook to sell Instagram and WhatsApp — at a bare minimum. A single network is necessarily less potent than a network of networks. And it becomes, at least theoretically possible for Facebook to be at risk from competitive forces.

You would also need to at keep a weather eye on social VR, in case Oculus needs to be taken out of Zuckerberg’s hands too. There’s less of an immediate imperative there, certainly. This VR cycle is still as dead as the tone of voice the Facebook founder used to describe the things his avatar was virtually taking in when he indulged in a bit of Puerto Rico disaster tourism for an Oculus product demo last year.

That said, there’s still a strong argument to say that Facebook, the dominant force of the social web and then the social mobile web, should not be allowed to shape and dictate even a nascent potential future disruptor in the same social technology sphere.

Not if you value diversity and creativity — and, well, a lot more besides.

But all these enforced sells-offs would just raise lots more money for Facebook! I hear you cry. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — so long as it gets, shall we say, well spent. The windfall could be used to fund a massive recruitment drive to properly resource Facebook’s business in every market where it operates.

And I do mean MASSIVE. Not the ‘10,000 extra security and moderation staff’ Facebook has said will hire by the end of this year (raising the headcount it has working on these critical tasks to around 20k in total).

To be anywhere near capable of properly contextualizing content across a platform that’s actively used by 2BN+ humans — and therefore to be able to rapidly and effectively spot and quash malicious manipulation, hateful conduct and so on, and thus responsibly manage and sustain a genuine global ‘community’ — the company would likely need to add hundreds of thousands of content reviewers/moderators. Which would be very expensive indeed.

Yet Facebook paid a cool $19BN for WhatsApp back in 2014 — so an enforced sell off of its other networks should raise a truck tonne of cash to held fund a vastly larger ‘trust and safety’ personnel bill. (While AI systems and technologies can help with the moderation challenge, Zuckerberg himself has admitted that AI alone won’t scale to the content challenge for “many years” to come — if indeed it can scale at all.)

Unfortunately there’s another problem though. The human labor involved in carrying out content moderation across Facebook’s 2BN+ user mega-platform is ethically horrifying because the people who Facebook contracts for ‘after the fact’ moderation necessarily live neck deep in its cesspit. Their sweating toil is to keep paddling the shit so Facebook’s sewers don’t back up entirely and flood the platform with it.

So, in a truly ideal ‘fixed Facebook’ scenario, there wouldn’t be a need for this kind of dehumanizing, industrialized content review system — which necessitates that eyes be averted and empathy disengaged from any considerations of a traumatized ‘clean up’ workforce.

Much like Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Zuckerberg’s mega-platform requires an unfortunate underclass of worker doing its dirty work. And just as the existence of slaves in Utopia made it evident that the ‘utopian vision’ being presented was not really all it seemed, Facebook’s outsourced teams of cheap labor — whose day job is to sit and watch videos of human beheadings, torture, violence etc; or make a microsecond stress-judgement on whether a piece of hate speech is truly hateful enough to be rendered incapable of monetization and pulled from the platform — the awful cost on both sides of that human experience undermines Zuckerberg’s claim that he’s “building global community”.

Moore coined the word ‘utopia’ from the Greek — and its two components suggest an intended translation of ‘no place’. Or perhaps, better yet, it was supposed to be a pun — as Margaret Atwood has suggested — meaning something along the lines of ‘the good place that simply doesn’t exist’. Which might be a good description for Zuckerberg’s “global community”.

So we’ll come back to that.

Because the next step in the plan should help cut the Facebook moderation challenge down to a more manageable size…

Step 2) Break up Facebook into lots of market specific Facebooks

Instead of there being just one Facebook (comprised of two core legal entities: Facebook USA and Facebook International, in Ireland), it’s time to break up Facebook’s business into hundreds of market specific Facebooks that can really start to serve their local communities. You could go further still and subdivide at a state, county or community level.

A global social network is an oxymoron. Humans are individuals and humanity is made up of all sorts of peoples, communities and groupings. So to suggest the whole of humanity needs to co-exist on the exact same platform, under the exact same overarching set of ‘community standards’, is — truly — the stuff of megalomaniacs.

To add insult to societal and cultural injury, Facebook — the company that claims it’s doing this (while ignoring the ‘awkward’ fact that what it’s building isn’t functioning equally everywhere, even in its own backyard) — has an executive team that’s almost exclusively white and male, and steeped in a very particular Valley ‘Kool Aid’ techno-utopian mindset that’s wrapped in the U.S. flag and bound to the U.S. constitution.

Which is another way of saying that’s the polar opposite of thinking global.

Facebook released its fifth annual diversity report this year which revealed it making little progress in increasing diversity over the past five years. In senior leadership roles, Facebook’s 2018 skew is 70:30 male female, and a full 69.7% white. While the company was fully 77% male and 74% white in 2014.

Facebook’s ongoing lack of diversity is not representative of the U.S. population, let alone reflective of the myriad regions its product reaches around the planet. So the idea that an executive team with such an inexorably narrow, U.S.-focused perspective could meaningfully — let alone helpfully — serve the whole of humanity is a nonsense. And the fact that Zuckerberg is still talking in those terms merely spotlights an abject lack of corporate diversity and global perspective at his company.

If he genuinely believes his own “global community” rhetoric he’s failing even harder than he looks. Most probably, though, it’s just a convenient marketing label to wallpaper the growth strategy that’s delivered for Facebook’s shareholders for years — by the company pushing into and dominating international markets yet without making commensurate investments in resourcing its business in international markets….

This facet of Facebook’s business becomes especially problematic when you consider how the company has been pouring money into subsidizing (or seeking to) Internet access in emerging markets.

Initially via its Internet.org ‘Free Basics’ initiative which was marketed as a ‘humanitarian’, quasi-philanthropic mission to ‘wire the world’ — though plenty of outsiders and some target countries viewed it not as charity but as a self-serving and competitive-crushing business development tactic. (Including India — which blocked Free Basics, but not before Facebook had spent millions on ads trying to get locals to lobby the regulator on its behalf).

More recently the company has been putting money into telecom infrastructure a bit less loudly — presumably hoping a less immediately self-serving approach to investing in infrastructure in target growth markets will avoid another highly politicized controversy.

It’s more wallpapering though: Connectivity investments are a business growth strategy predicated on Facebook removing connectivity barriers that stand in the way of Facebook onboarding more eyeballs.

And given the amounts of money Facebooks has been willing to spend to try to lodge its product in the hands of more new Internet users — to the point where, in some markets, Facebook effectively is the Internet — it’s even less forgivable that the company has failed to properly resource its international operations and stop its products from having some truly tragic consequences.

The cost to humanity for Facebook failing to operate with due care is painfully visible but difficult to quantify.

Not that Zuckerberg has let those inconvenient truths stop him from continuing to suggest he’s the man to build a community for the planet. But again that rather implies Facebook’s problems grow out of Facebook’s lack of external perspective.

Aside from the fact that we are all equally human, there is no one homogenous human community that spans the entire world. So when Zuckerberg talks about Facebook’s ‘global community’ he is, in effect, saying nothing — or saying something almost entirely meaningless as to render down to a platitudinous sludge. (At least unless his desire is indeed a Borg-esque absorption of other cultures — into a ‘resistance is futile’ homogenous ‘Californormification’ of the planet. And we must surely hope it’s not. Although Facebook’s Free Basics have been accused of amounting to digital colonialism.)

Zuckerberg does seem to have quasi-realized the contradiction lurking at the the tin heart of his ‘global’ endeavor, though. Which is why he’s talked suggestively about creating a ‘Supreme Court of Facebook‘ — i.e. to try to reboot the pitifully unfit for purpose governance structure. (Although talk of ‘community-oriented governance’ has neither been firmed up nor formalized into a tangible structural reform plan.)

While the notion of a Supreme Court of Facebook, especially, does risk sounding worryingly like Zuckerberg fancies his own personal Star Chamber, the fact he’s even saying this sort of stuff shows he knows Facebook has planet-straddling problems that are far, far too big for its minimalist Libertarian ‘guardrails’ to manage or control. And in turn that suggests the event horizon of scaling Facebook’s business model has been reached. Hello $120BN market cap blackhole.

“It’s just not clear to me that us sitting in an office here in California are best placed to always determine what the policies should be for people all around the world,” Zuckerberg said earlier THIS YEAR — 2018! — in what must surely count as the one of the tardiest enlightenments of a well educated public person in the Western world, period.

“I’ve been working on and thinking through,” he continued his mental perambulation. “How can you set up a more democratic or community-oriented process that reflects the values of people around the world?”

Well, Mark, here’s an idea to factor into your thinking: Facebook’s problem is Facebook’s massive size.

So why not chop the platform up into market specific operations that are free to make some of their own decisions and let them develop diverse corporate cultures of their own. Most importantly empower them to be operationally sensitive to the needs of local communities — and so well placed to responsively serve them.

Imagine the Facebook brand as a sort of loose ‘franchise’, with each little Facebook at liberty to intelligently adapt the menu to local tastes. And each of these ‘content eateries’ taking pride in the interior of its real estate, with dedicated managers who make their presence felt and whose jobs is to ensure great facilities but no violent food fights.

There would also need to be some core principles too, of course. A set of democratic and civic values that all the little Facebooks are bound to protect — to push back against attempts by states or concerted external forces seeking to maliciously hijack and derail speech.

But switch around the current reality — a hulkingly massive platform attached to a relatively tiny (in resources terms) business operation — and the slavering jabberwocky that Zuckerberg is now on a personal mission to slay might well cease to exist, as multiple messy human challenges get cut down to a more manageable size. Not every single content judgement call on Facebook needs to scale planet-wide.

Multiple, well resourced market-specific Facebooks staffed locally so they can pro-actively spot problems and manage their communities would not be the same business at all. Facebook would become an even more biodiverse ecosystem — of linked but tonally distinct communities — which could even, in time, diverge a bit on the feature front, via adding non-core extras, based on market specific appetites and tastes.

There would obviously have to be basic core social function interoperability — so that individual users of different Facebooks could still connect and communicate. But beyond a bit of interplay (a sort of ‘Facebook Basics’) why should there be a requirement that everyone’s Facebook experience be exactly the same?

While Facebook talks as if it has a single set of community standards, the reality is fuzzier. For example it applies stricter hate speech rules to content moderation in a market like Germany, which passed a social media hate speech law last year. Those sorts of exceptions aren’t going to go away either; as more lawmakers wake up to the challenges posed by the platform more demands will be made to regulate the content on the platform.

So, Zuckerberg, why not step actively into a process of embracing greater localization — in a way that’s sensitive to cultural and societal norms — and use the accrued political capital from that to invest in defending the platform’s core principles?

This approach won’t work in every market, clearly. But allowing for a greater tonality of content — a more risqué French Facebook, say, vs the ‘no-nipples please’ U.S. flavor — coupled with greater sensitivity to market mood and feedback could position Facebook to work with democracies and strengthen civic and cultural values, instead of trying to barge its way along by unilaterally imposing the U.S. constitution on the rest of the planet.

Facebook as it is now, globally scaled but under-resourced, is not in a position to enforce its own community standards. It only does so when or if it receives repeat complaints (and even then it won’t always act on them).

Or when a market has passed legislation enforcing action with a regime of fines (a recent report by a UK parliamentary committee, examining the democratic implications of social media fueled disinformation, notes that one in six of Facebook’s moderators now works in Germany — citing that as “practical evidence that legislation can work”).

So there are very visible cracks in both its claim to be “building global community” or even that it has community standards at all, given it doesn’t pro-actively enforce them (in most markets). So why not embrace a full fragmentation of its platform — and let a thousand little blue ships set sail!

And if Facebook really wants one community principle to set as its pole star, one rule to rule them all (and to vanquish its existential jabberwocky), it should swear to put life before data.

Locally tuned, culturally sensitive Facebooks that stand up for democratic values and civic standards could help rework the moderation challenge — removing the need for Facebook to have the equivalent of sweat shops based on outsourcing repeat human exposure to violent and toxic content.

This element is one of the ugliest sides of the social media platform business. But with empowered, smaller businesses operating in closer proximities to the communities being served, Facebook stands a better chance of getting on top of its content problems — getting out of a reactive crisis mode piled high with problems where it’s currently stuck to taking up a position in the community intelligence vanguard where its workers can root out damaging abuse before it gets to go viral, metastasize and wreak wider societal harms.

Proper community management could also, over time, encourage a more positive sharing environment to develop — where posting hateful stuff doesn’t get rewarded with feedback loops. Certainly not algorithmically, as it indeed has been.

As an additional measure, a portion of the financial windfall gained from selling off Facebook’s other social networks could be passed directly to independent trustees appointed to the Chan Zuckerberg Foundation for spending on projects intended to counter the corrosive effects of social media on information veracity and authenticity — such as by funding school age educational programs in critical thinking.

Indeed, UK lawmakers have already called for a social media levy for a similar purpose.

Step 3) Open the black boxes

There would still be a Facebook board and a Facebook exec team in a head office in California sitting atop all these community-oriented Facebooks — which, while operationally liberated, would still be making use of its core technology and getting limited corporate steerage. So there would still be a need for regulators to understand what Facebook’s code is doing.

Algorithmic accountability of platform technologies is essential. Regulators need to be able to see the inputs underlying the information hierarchies that these AI engines generate, and compare those against the outputs of that shaping. Which means audits. So opening the commercial black boxes — and the data holdings — to regulatory oversight.

Discrimination is easier to get away with in darkness. But Mega-platforms have shielded their commercial IP from public scrutiny and it’s only when damaging effects have surfaced in the public consciousness that users have got a glimpse of what’s been going on.

Facebook’s defense has been to say it was naive in the face of malicious activity like Russian-backed election meddling. That’s hardly an argument for more obscurity and more darkness. If you lack awareness and perspective, ask for expert help Mark.

Lawmakers have also accused the company of willfully obstructing good faith attempts at investigating scandals such as Cambridge Analytica data misuse, Kremlin-backed election interference, or how foreign money flowed into its platform seeking to influence the UK’s Brexit referendum result.

Willful obstruction to good faith, democratically minded political interrogation really isn’t a sustainable strategy. Nor an ethically defensible one.

Given the vast, society-deforming size of these platforms politicians are simply not just going to give up and go home. There will have to be standards to ensure these mega-powerful information distribution systems aren’t at risk of being gamed or being biased or otherwise misused and those standards will have to be enforced. And the enforcement must also be able to be checked and verified. So, yes, more audits.

Mega-platforms have also benefited from self-sustaining feedback loops based on their vast reach and data holdings, allowing them to lock in and double down on a market dominating position by, for example, applying self-learning algorithms trained on their own user data or via A/B testing at vast, vast scale to optimize UX design to maximize engagement and monopolize attention.

User choice in this scenario is radically denuded, and competition increasingly gets pushed back and even locked out, without such easy access to equivalently massive pools of data.

If a mega-platform has optimized the phasing and positioning of — for example — a consent button by running comparative tests to determine which combination yields the fewest opt outs, is it fair or right to the user being asked to ‘choose’? Are people being treated with respect? Or, well, like lab rats?

Breaking Facebook’s platform into lots of Facebooks could also be an opportunity to rethink its data monopoly. To argue that its central business should not have an absolute right to the data pool generated by each smaller, market specific Facebook.

Part of the regulatory oversight could include a system of accountability over how Facebook’s parent business can and cannot use pooled data holdings.

If Facebook’s executive team had to make an ethics application to a relevant regulatory panel to request and justify access each time the parent business wanted to dip into the global data pool or tap data from a particular regional cluster of Facebooks, how might that change thought processes within the leadership team?

Facebook’s own (now former) CSO, Alex Stamos, identified problems baked into the current executive team’s ‘business as usual’ thinking — writing emphatically in an internal memo earlier this year: “We need to build a user experience that conveys honesty and respect, not one optimized to get people to click yes to giving us more access. We need to intentionally not collect data where possible, and to keep it only as long as we are using it to serve people… We need to be willing to pick sides when there are clear moral or humanitarian issues. And we need to be open, honest and transparent about challenges and what we are doing to fix them.”

It seems unlikely that an application to the relevant regulators asking for ‘Europe-wide data so we can A/B test user consent flows to get more Europeans to switch on facial recognition‘ would pass the ‘life before data’ community standard test.

And, well, it’s well established that the fact of being watched and knowing it’s happening has the power to change behavior. After all, Facebook’s platform is a major testament to that.

So it may be more that it’s external guidance — rather than a new internal governance model — which Facebook sorely lacks. Some external watchers to watch its internal watchmen.

Step 4) Remove Zuckerberg from (his) office

Public companies are supposed to be answerable to their shareholders. Thanks to the share structure that Mark Zuckerberg put in place at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is answerable to no one except himself. And despite Facebook’s years of scandals, he does not appear to have ever felt the urge to sack himself.

When the idea of personal accountability was brought up with him, in a recent podcast interview with Kara Swisher, he had a moment of making a light joke of it — quipping “do you really want me to fire myself right now? For the news?” before falling back on his line that: “I think we should do what’s gonna be right for the community.”

And, you know what, the joke was exactly right: The idea that Zuckerberg would terminate his own position is both laughable and ludicrous. It is a joke.

Which means Facebook’s executive structure is also a joke because there is zero accountability at the highest level — beyond Mark’s personal threshold for shame or empathy — and that’s now a global problem.

Zuckerberg has more power than most of the world’s elected politicians (and arguably some of the world’s political leaders). Yet he can’t be kicked out of his office, nor lose his CEO seat at any ballot box. He’s a Facebook fixture — short of a literal criminal conviction or otherwise reputation terminating incident.

While you could argue that not being answerable to the mercenary whims of shareholder pressure is a good thing because it frees Zuckerberg to raise business transformation needs above returns-focused investor considerations (albeit, let’s see how his nerve holds after that $120BN investor punch) — his record in the CEO’s chair counters any suggestion that he’s a person who makes radical and sweeping changes to Facebook’s modus operandi. On the contrary, he’s shown himself a master of saying ‘oops we did it again!’ and then getting right back to screwing up as usual.

He’s also demonstrated a consistent disbelief that Facebook’s platform creates problems — preferring to couch connecting people as a glorious humanitarian mission from whence life-affirming marriages and children flow. Rather than seeing risks in putting global megaphones in the hands of anyone with an urge to shout.

As recently as November 2016 he was still dismissing the idea that political disinformation spread via Facebook had been in any way impactful on the US presidential election — as a “pretty crazy idea” — yet his own business had staffed divisions dedicated to working with US politicians to get their campaign messages out. It shouldn’t be rocket science to see a contradiction there. But until very recently Zuckerberg apparently couldn’t.

The fact of him also being the original founder of the business does not help in the push for disruptive change to Facebook itself. The best person to fix a radically broken product is unlikely to be the person whose entire adult life has been conjoined to a late night college dorm room idea spat online — and then which ended up spinning up and out into a fortune. And then into a major, major global mess.

The ‘no better person than me to fix it’ line can be countered by pointing to Zuckerberg’s personal history of playing fast and loose with other people’s data (from the “dumb fucks” comment all the way back in his student days to years of deliberate platform choices at Facebook that made people’s information public by default); and by suggesting entrenched challenges would surely benefit from fresh eyes, new thinking and a broader perspective.

Add to that, Zuckerberg has arguably boxed himself in, politically speaking, thanks to a series of disingenuous, misleading and abstruse claims and statements made to lawmakers — limiting his room for manoeuvre or for rethinking his approach; let alone being able to genuinely compromise or make honest platform changes.

His opportunity to be radically honest about Facebook’s problems probably passed years and years back — when he was busy working hard on his personal challenge to wear a tie everyday [2009]. Or only eat animals he kills himself [2011].

By 2013’s personal challenge, it’s possible that Zuckerberg had sensed something new in the data stream that was maybe coming down the pipes at him — as he set himself the challenge of expanding his personal horizons (not that he put it that way) by “meeting a new person every day who does not work at Facebook”.

Meeting a new person every day who did work at Facebook would have been far too easy, see.

Is it even possible to think outside the box when your entire adult life has been spent tooling away inside the same one?

Step 5) Over to you… 

What are your radical solutions for fixing Facebook? Should Zuckerberg stay or should he go? What do you want lawmakers to do about social media? What kinds of policy interventions might set these mega-platforms on a less fractious path? Or do you believe all this trouble on social media is a storm in a teacup that will blow over if we but screw our courage to the sticking place and wait for everyone to catch up with the cardinal Internet truth that nothing online is what it seems…

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Duo Security researchers’ Twitter ‘bot or not’ study unearths crypto botnet – TechCrunch

A team of researchers at Duo Security has unearthed a sophisticated botnet operating on Twitter — and being used to spread a cryptocurrency scam.

The botnet was discovered during the course of a wider research project to create and publish a methodology for identifying Twitter account automation — to help support further research into bots and how they operate.

The team used Twitter’s API and some standard data enrichment techniques to create a large data set of 88 million public Twitter accounts, comprising more than half a billion tweets. (Although they say they focused on the last 200 tweets per account for the study.)

They then used classic machine learning methods to train a bot classifier, and later applied other tried and tested data science techniques to map and analyze the structure of botnets they’d uncovered.

They’re open sourcing their documentation and data collection system in the hopes that other researchers will pick up the baton and run with it — such as, say, to do a follow up study focused on trying to ID good vs bad automation.

Their focus for their own classifier was on pure-play bots, rather than hybrid accounts which intentionally blend automation with some human interactions to make bots even harder to spot.

They also not look at sentiment for this study — but were rather fixed on addressing the core question of whether a Twitter account is automated or not.

They say it’s likely a few ‘cyborg’ hybrids crept into their data-set, such as customer service Twitter accounts which operate with a mix of automation and staff attention. But, again, they weren’t concerned specifically with attempting to identify the (even more slippery) bot-human-agent hybrids — such as those, for example, involved in state-backed efforts to fence political disinformation.

The study led them into some interesting analysis of botnet architectures — and their paper includes a case study on the cryptocurrency scam botnet they unearthed (which they say was comprised of at least 15,000 bots “but likely much more”), and which attempts to syphon money from unsuspecting users via malicious “giveaway” links…

‘Attempts’ being the correct tense because, despite reporting the findings of their research to Twitter, they say this crypto scam botnet is still functioning on its platform — by imitating otherwise legitimate Twitter accounts, including news organizations (such as the below example), and on a much smaller scale, hijacking verified accounts…

They even found Twitter recommending users follow other spam bots in the botnet under the “Who to follow” section in the sidebar. Ouch.

A Twitter spokeswoman would not answer our specific questions about its own experience and understanding of bots and botnets on its platform, so it’s not clear why it hasn’t been able to totally vanquish this crypto botnet yet. Although in a statement responding to the research, the company suggests this sort of spammy automation may be automatically detected and hidden by its anti-spam countermeasures (which would not be reflected in the data the Duo researchers had access to via the Twitter API).

Twitter said:

We are aware of this form of manipulation and are proactively implementing a number of detections to prevent these types of accounts from engaging with others in a deceptive manner. Spam and certain forms of automation are against Twitter’s rules. In many cases, spammy content is hidden on Twitter on the basis of automated detections. When spammy content is hidden on Twitter from areas like search and conversations, that may not affect its availability via the API. This means certain types of spam may be visible via Twitter’s API even if it is not visible on Twitter itself. Less than 5% of Twitter accounts are spam-related.

Twitter’s spokeswoman also make the (obvious) point that not all bots and automation is bad — pointing to a recent company blog which reiterates this, with the company highlighting the “delightful and fun experiences” served up by certain bots such as Pentametron, for example, a veteran automated creation which finds rhyming pairs of Tweets written in (accidental) iambic pentameter.

Certainly no one in their right mind would complain about a bot that offers automated homage to Shakespeare’s preferred meter. Even as no one in their right mind would not complain about the ongoing scourge of cryptocurrency scams on Twitter…

One thing is crystal clear: The tricky business of answering the ‘bot or not’ question is important — and increasingly so, given the weaponization of online disinformation. It may become a quest so politicized and imperative that platforms end up needing to display a ‘bot score’ alongside every account (Twitter’s spokeswoman did not respond when we asked if it might consider doing this).

While there are existing research methodologies and techniques for trying to determine Twitter automation, the team at Duo Security say they often felt frustrated by a lack of supporting data around them — and that that was one of their impetuses for carrying out the research.

“In some cases there was an incomplete story,” says data scientist Olabode Anise. “Where they didn’t really show how they got their data that they said that they used. And they maybe started with the conclusion — or most of the research talked about the conclusion and we wanted to give people the ability to take on this research themselves. So that’s why we’re open sourcing all of our methods and the tools. So that people can start from point ‘A’: First gathering the data; training a model; and then finding bots on Twitter’s platform locally.”

“We didn’t do anything fancy or investigative techniques,” he adds. “We were really outlying how we could do this at scale because we really think we’ve built one of the largest data sets associated with public twitter accounts.”

Anise says their classifier model was trained on data that formed part of a 2016 piece of research by researchers at the University of Southern California, along with some data from the crypto botnet they uncovered during their own digging in the data set of public tweets they created (because, as he puts it, it’s “a hallmark of automation” — so turns out cryptocurrency scams are good for something.)

In terms of determining the classifier’s accuracy, Anise says the “hard part” is the ongoing lack of data on how many bots are on Twitter’s platform.

You’d imagine (or, well, hope) Twitter knows — or can at least estimate that. But, either way, Twitter isn’t making that data-point public. Which means it’s difficult for researchers to verify the accuracy of their ‘bot or not’ models against public tweet data. Instead they have to cross-check classifiers against (smaller) data sets of labeled bot accounts. Ergo, accurately determining accuracy is another (bot-spotting related) problem.

Anise says their best model was ~98% “in terms of identifying different types of accounts correctly” when measured via a cross-check (i.e. so not checking against the full 88M data set because, as he puts it, “we don’t have a foolproof way of knowing if these accounts are bots or not”).

Still, the team sounds confident that their approach — using what they dub as “practical data science techniques” — can bear fruit to create a classifier that’s effective at finding Twitter bots.

“Basically we showed — and this was what we were really were trying to get across — is that some simple machine learning approaches that people who maybe watched a machine learning tutorial could follow and help identify bots successfully,” he adds.

One more small wrinkle: Bots that the model was trained on weren’t all forms of automation on Twitter’s platform. So he concedes that may also impact its accuracy. (Aka: “The model that you build is only going to be as good as the data that you have.” And, well, once again, the people with the best Twitter data all work at Twitter… )

The crypto botnet case study the team have included in their research paper is not just there for attracting attention: It’s intended to demonstrate how, using the tools and techniques they describe, other researchers can also progress from finding initial bots to pulling on threads, discovering and unraveling an entire botnet.

So they’ve put together a sort of ‘how to guide’ for Twitter botnet hunting.

The crypto botnet they analyze for the study, using social network mapping, is described in the paper as having a “unique three-tiered hierarchical structure”.

“Traditionally when Twitter botnets are found they typically follow a very flat structure where every bot in the botnet has the same job. They’re all going to spread a certain type of tweet or a certain type of spam. Usually you don’t see much co-ordination and segmentation in terms of the jobs that they have to do,” explains principal security engineer Jordan Wright.

“This botnet was unique because whenever we started mapping out the social connections between different bots — figuring out who did they follow and who follows them — we were able to enumerate a really clear structure showing bots that are connected in one particular way and an entire other cluster that were connected in a separate way.

“This is important because we see how the bot owners are changing their tactics in terms of how they were organizing these bots over time.”

They also discovered the spam tweets being published by the botnet were each being boosted by other bots in the botnet to amplify the overall spread of the cryptocurrency scam — Wright describes this as a process of “artificial inflation”, and says it works by the botnet owner making new bots whose sole job is to like or, later on, retweet the scammy tweets.

“The goal is to give them an artificial popularity so that if i’m the victim and I’m scrolling through Twitter and I come across these tweets I’m more likely to think that they’re legitimate based on how often they’ve been retweeted or how many times they’ve been liked,” he adds.

“Mapping out these connections between likes and, as well as the social network we have already gathered, really gives is us a multi layered botnet — that’s pretty unique, pretty sophisticated and very much organized where each bot had one, and really only one job, to do to try to help support the larger goal. That was unique to this botnet.”

Twitter has been making a bunch of changes recently intended to crack down on inauthentic platform activity which spammers have exploited to try to lend more authenticity and authority to their scams.

Clearly, though, there’s more work for Twitter to do.

“There are very practical reasons why we would consider it sophisticated,” adds Wright of the crypto botnet the team have turned into a case study. “It’s ongoing, it’s evolving and it’s changed its structure over time. And the structure that it has is hierarchical and organized.”

The Man Who Put Premature Babies in Carnival Sideshows

New York, 1917

The men had shipped out to fight in the Great War. Some of Martin Couney’s earliest patients were among them; one would earn the Croix de Guerre. Back home, however, the littlest citizens were in “no-man’s land.”

It wasn’t just that the country was focused on the war. The entire approach to birth was in transition. With obstetrics becoming a more sophisticated specialty, middle class American women were increasingly giving birth in hospitals instead of staying home. But obstetricians didn’t have much time or inclination to fuss over “weaklings,” as preemies were called, and the nascent field of pediatrics hadn’t quite gotten to them. They fell between the cracks, where they died.

*

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All the world loves a baby! On Coney Island and in Atlantic City, Martin’s patients thrived and so did his business. Women, in particular, kept coming back for a feel-good dose of clinical-grade cuteness. One woman would end up visiting the Coney Island concession every week of the summer for 36 years.

Slowly, Martin and his wife, Maye, began filling their home with the trappings of wealth, in keeping with the neighbors. Crystal goblets on the table, prisms of light from the chandelier. Sterling silver chargers under each fine china setting. A servant in the kitchen (live-in), and a chauffeur for the automobile (a matter of safety: Martin did his best, but he was known to be a menace at the wheel). Diamonds for her, black poodles for him.

Martin polished his spiel. He liked to cite the names of famous men who’d entered the world too early:

Sir Isaac Newton

Francois Marie Voltaire

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Jean Jacques Rousseau

Napoleon Bonaparte

Victor Marie Hugo

Charles Darwin

And who would know the difference if, in spiffing things up, he burnished his credentials? If he said he’d studied in Paris with the great Pierre Budin, it would cause the city’s doctors to take him more seriously. If he claimed he had European degrees, if he said he’d shown the machines in Berlin and that he’d invented them—well, who was getting hurt? The way the world was, there was nobody checking. Not a soul to contradict him. The truth was, the care the babies got was every bit as good as it would have been if all those credentials were real, and better than any hospital. (One doctor, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association the previous year, announced that “incubators are passé,” and “It is a fact that practically all prematures entrusted to institution care die.”)

But Martin was starting to paint himself into a corner, albeit a well-appointed one. With the culture changing, he must have felt he needed the credentials—yet anyone believing they were genuine might judge him more harshly. If he had truly been the protégé of Pierre Budin, if he were educated, as he claimed, in Liepzig and Berlin, then it would certainly seem self-serving and exploitative to persist in showing babies on the midway. Why not—at the least—publish clinical results?

“Obstetricians didn’t have much time or inclination to fuss over ‘weaklings,’ as preemies were called, and the nascent field of pediatrics hadn’t quite gotten to them. They fell between the cracks, where they died.”

Martin Couney had no other recourse. To an extent, like almost anyone of a certain age, he had worn himself into a groove. Too, his wife, Maye, and his head nurse, Madame Louise Recht, had devoted the better part of their lives to this. And money is addictive. But the bottom line was this: He had the means to save thousands of babies, who otherwise were doomed. If he quit, they would die.

What he was offering wasn’t only treatment; it was public propaganda on behalf of preemies.

Propaganda mattered in a war. Later, he could have added Sir Winston Churchill to his spiel.

*

In Chicago, someone else was making propaganda, only his was deadly. Harry J. Haiselden, M.D., was the head of the city’s German-American Hospital. Up until now, the public had seen two prongs of eugenics. One, at least in theory, was “positive”— it focused mostly on the prevention of birth defects, and prenatal and baby care. The second, negative, prong was the elimination of “undesirable” births. Before it was over, the horrors of involuntary sterilization would be visited on 60,000 people in 27 states, including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, people who’d committed petty crimes, and individuals with disabilities or mental illness. American eugenics would influence the Nazis, who admired it. Not content to stop at selectively preventing birth, several American eugenics leaders raised the possibility of killing certain newborns. Dr. Harry Haiselden unveiled the third prong of the trident, denying lifesaving treatment to infants he deemed “defective,” deliberately watching them die even when they could have lived. In some cases, the traumatized parents were in agreement; in others, he had to persuade them that their children were better off dead. He wasn’t the first or only doctor to intentionally allow a child to die, but he was the first to the call the press. He eagerly displayed dying babies to journalists, in addition to writing his own articles for the Chicago American.

“The bottom line was this: He had the means to save thousands of babies, who otherwise were doomed. If he quit, they would die.”

Doctors all over the country lined up on both sides of this fight, as did prominent Americans. Helen Keller, the first blind and deaf person to earn a college degree, famously advocated for the disabled, yet she agreed with Dr. Haiselden. In Chicago, attempts to prosecute him and revoke his license failed. The Chicago Medical Society would finally succeed in stripping him of membership, not for letting his patients die but for publicizing his cases.

Meanwhile, frightened parents were writing to Dr. Haiselden, begging him to do something about their very disabled children. They had almost nowhere to turn for help, and now they had been convinced their sons and daughters were dragging down the human race.

*

The movie was called “The Black Stork.” Released in 1917, it starred Dr. Haiselden, coolly playing himself, in a story loosely based on a real case. In the silent, captioned film, the newborn is afflicted with an unidentified genetic disease. His mother is upset—to be expected—but she accepts the doctor’s wisdom following a vision of her child’s miserable future on this earth: a life of insanity and crime. When a nurse tries to hand the doctor his operating apron, he sternly refuses her. Chastened, she turns and walks way, leaving the infant to die alone on a table. The dead child eventually levitates into the arms of Jesus. One 1917 newspaper advertisement read “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation, and See ‘The Black Stork.’”

Later retitled “Are you Fit to Marry?” the movie played in theaters for years.

*

The obstetricians sending babies to a sideshow felt uneasy with the spectacle. The parents, too, had their reservations. But what else could they do? In New York, as the years went by, newborns would be coming from Midwood, Zion, Bellevue, Boro Park Maternity Hospital, Long Island College Hospital, King’s County Hospital, and other Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan institutions. Over in Jersey, they were arriving from Atlantic City Hospital, as well as the private homes where they’d been born.

Martin Couney’s patients didn’t have severe anomalies; they were simply early, underdeveloped. But the cultural undercurrent was clear—anyone imperfect, anyone who might grow up with an impairment, wasn’t worth saving.

*

The fire began with a cigarette. Midways were notorious for burning, and in August of 1917, a Luna Park ride called the toboggan burst into flames, next door to the incubators. The head nurse, Louise Recht, with another nurse and a couple of cops, carried all 11 babies to safety.

The incubator show went on: It reopened in nearby Steeplechase Park. And Luna Park survived. Before his career ended, Martin Couney would return. As things played out, the flames of hell might not have sufficed to keep him away.

__________________________________

Andreessen-funded dYdX plans “short Ethereum” token for haters – TechCrunch

Crypto skeptics rejoice! A new way to short the cryptocurrency market is coming from dYdX, a decentralized financial derivatives startup. In two months it will launch its protocol for creating short and leverage positions for Ethereum and other ERC20 tokens that allow investors to amp up their bets for or against these currencies.

To get the startup there, Dydx recently closed a $2 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Polychain, and joined by Kindred and Abstract plus angels including Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong and co-founder Fred Ehrsam, and serial investor Elad Gil.

“The main use for crypotocurrency so far has been trading and speculation — buying and holding. That’s not how sophisticated financial institutions trade” says Dydx founder Antonio Juliano. “The derivatives market is usually an order of magnitude bigger than the spot trading or buy/sell market. The cryptocurrency market is probably on the order of $5 billion to $10 billion in volume, so you’d expect the derivatives market would be 10X bigger. I think there’s a really big opportunity there.”

How dYdX works

The idea is that you buy the Short Ethereum token with ETH or a stable coin from an exchange or dYdX. The Short Ethereum’s token price is inversely pegged to ETH, so it goes up in value when ETH goes down and vice versa. You can then sell the Short Ethereum token for a profit if you correctly predicted an ETH um price drop.

On the backend, lenders earn an interest rate by providing ETH as collateral locked into smart contracts that back up the Short Ethereum tokens. Only a small number of actors have to work with the smart contract to mint or close the Short Tokens. Meanwhile, dYdX also offers Leveraged Ethereum tokens that let investors borrow to boost their profits if ETH’s price goes up.

The plan is to offer Short and Leveraged tokens for any ERC20 currency in the future. dYdX is building its own user facing application for buying the tokens, but is also partnering with exchanges to offer the margin tokens “where people are already trading” says Juliano.

“We think of it as more than just shorting your favorite shitcoin. We think of them as mature financial products.”

Infrastructure To Lure Big Funds Into Crypto

Coinbase has proven to be an incredible incubator for blockchain startup founders. Juliano was employed there as a software engineer after briefly working at Uber and graduating in computer science from Princeton in 2015. “The first thing I started was a search engine for decentralized apps. I worked for months on it full-time, but nobody was building decentralized apps so no one was searching for them. It was too early” Juliano explains.

But along the way he noticed the lack of financial instruments for decentralized derivatives despite exploding consumer interest in buying and selling cryptocurrencies. He figured the big hedge funds would eventually come knocking if someone built them a bridge into the blockchain world.

Juliano built dYdX to create a protocol to first begin offering margin tokens. It’s open source, so technically anyone can fork it to issue tokens themselves. But dYdX plans to be the standard bearer, with its version offering the maximum liquidity to investors trying to buy or sell the margin tokens. His five person team in San Francisco with experience from Google, Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs, NerdWallet, and Consensys is working to find as many investors to collateralize the tokens and exchanges to trade them as possible. “It’s a race to build liquidity faster than anyone else” says Juliano.

So how will dYdX make money? As is common in crypto, Juliano isn’t exactly sure, and just wants to build up usage first. “We plan to capture value at the protocol level in the future likely through a value adding token” the founder says. “It would’ve been easy for us to rush into adding a questionable token as we’ve seen many other protocols do, however we believe it’s worth thinking deeply about the best way to integrate a token in our ecosystem in a way that creates rather than destroys value for end users.”

“Antonio and his team are among the top engineers in the crypto ecosystem building a novel software system for peer-to-peer financial contracts. We believe this will be immensely valuable and used by millions of people” says Polychain partner Olaf Carlson-Wee. “I am not concerned with short-term revenue models but rather the opportunity to permanently improve global financial markets.”

Timing The Decentralized Revolution

With the launch under two months away, Juliano is also racing to safeguard the protocol from attacks. “You have to take smart contract security extremely seriously. We’re almost done with the second independent security audit” he tells me.

The security provided by decentralization is one of dYdX’s selling points versus centralized competitors like Poloniex that offer margin trading opportunities. There, investors have to lock up ETH as collateral for extended periods of time, putting it at risk if the exchange gets hacked, and they don’t benefit from shared liquidity like dYdX will.

It could also compete for crypto haters with the CBOE that now offers Bitcoin futures and margin trading, though it doesn’t handle Ethereum yet. Juliano hopes that since dYdX’s protocol can mint short tokens for other ERC20 tokens, you could bet for or against a certain cryptocurrency relative to the whole crypto market by mixing and matching. dYdX will have to nail the user experience and proper partnerships if it’s going to beat the convenience of centralized exchanges and the institutional futures market.

If all goes well, dYdX wants to move into offering auctions or swaps. “Those derivatives are more often traded by sophisticated traders. We don’t think there are to many traders like that in the market right now” Juliano explains. “The other types of derivatives that we’ll move to in the future will be really big once the market matures.” That ‘once the market matures’ refrain is one sung by plenty of blockchain projects. The question is who’ll survive long enough to see that future, if it ever arrives.

The Vietnam War Deserters Who Sought Asylum in Sweden

The tumultuous events of 1968, the so-called “year that rocked the world,” have been very much in the news in 2018, their 50th anniversary. Though overlooked in many histories of the period, Japan, too, was the scene of massive New Left-inspired protests and university occupations throughout that famous year. An obscure but significant part of that history is about Japanese radicals assisting U.S. soldiers who deserted the military in protest of an unjust war. I just had to write about them.

My novel Sweden, which is based on true characters and events, traces the paths of American soldiers who, while stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War, went AWOL and the anti-war Japanese activists who made their escape possible. The soldiers’ ultimate destination was Sweden, which at the time granted asylum to American servicemen who abandoned the military in protest of the war in Vietnam.

More U.S. military personnel deserted during the Vietnam War than in any other war in modern American military history. According to the Department of Defense, there were a total of 503,926 desertions between July 1st, 1966 and December 31st, 1973. This compares with an estimated 50,000 desertions during World War II and 13,790 during the Korean War.

But the overwhelming majority of desertions during the Vietnam War occurred on U.S. soil, typically among troops who had returned from a tour of duty. Only a small minority, probably no more than a few thousand, fled to foreign countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Sweden, where they joined an ever-increasing number of American draft resisters. It was a tiny proportion of deserters who fled while actually serving in Vietnam, while an equally insignificant number absconded while stationed at bases elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

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In Japan, which hosted more than a dozen U.S. military bases and was a popular R&R destination for American military personnel, circumstances were quite different to those faced by deserters either in Vietnam or at home. Outside places like Okinawa and Yokosuka, where there was a heavy U.S. military presence, foreigners were few in number and English was not widely spoken, making it difficult for American deserters to hole up. Moreover, not only were they unable to claim asylum in Japan, but under Japanese immigration law, once deserters left the armed forces they could be arrested as illegal residents. Despite these difficulties, a number of deserters chose to remain in the country. Others acquired forged travel documents and attempted to flee Japan on their own. At the end of 1967, another option became available when Japan’s largest anti-Vietnam War organization, Beheiren, began reaching out to U.S. military deserters, offering to smuggle them out of Japan.

“The soldiers’ ultimate destination was Sweden, which at the time granted asylum to American servicemen who abandoned the military in protest of the war in Vietnam.”

I first learned of these events while living in Japan in the early 1990s. I had been interested for some time in the Japanese radical left (I later went on to study the Japanese pre-war anarchist movement at Keio University in Tokyo), and was drawn to the story because of its political dimension. But it also appealed to me as a classic David and Goliath struggle, with a small group of idealistic young anti-war activists and deserters taking on the might of the U.S. military and the American and Japanese governments.

The Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to U.S. Anti-War Deserters, or JATEC, the clandestine group whose real-life exploits were the inspiration for Sweden, was active for just a few years. Yet it was so successful that the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee rated it “the most active and effective” of the two dozen or so organizations in seven countries working with American deserters during the Vietnam War.

Formed in early 1968 in the wake of the Intrepid Four episode (see below), JATEC functioned as the underground wing of Beheiren, or the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam. Beheiren had existed since 1965 as a popular anti-Vietnam War movement. It initially concentrated on organizing largely non-confrontational actions, such as marches and public meetings. By 1967 it had become more militant, staging sit-ins in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and actively encouraging American military personnel to take direct action against the war, including sabotage. But it remained highly open and inclusive, and these qualities meant Beheiren was ill-suited to the task of assisting American deserters, which required a high level of secrecy.

Given this unsuitability, as well as its unpreparedness to act in the event of deserters actually seeking their assistance, the speed and efficiency with which Beheiren organized and implemented the escape of the Intrepid Four were nothing short of remarkable. It was on October 23rd, 1967 that Beheiren’s Tokyo office first learned of the existence of the four American sailors who went AWOL when their ship, the USS Intrepid, docked in Yokosuka after a tour of duty off the coast of Vietnam, and of their wish to desert. Beheiren took custody of them on October 28th. Less than two weeks later, on November 11th, the four were transported to Yokohama and smuggled aboard a passenger ship bound for the Russian port of Nakhodka. They arrived in Sweden on December 29th.

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Beheiren’s coordination of the escape of the Intrepid Four was a major PR coup for the organization and a cause of great concern for the U.S. and Japanese governments, who were worried that others would be emboldened to follow in the quartet’s footsteps. Despite this concern, the American Embassy in Tokyo was convinced that Beheiren’s success was a “fluke.” This conviction proved to be wildly optimistic.

With JATEC now handling the deserter operation and news of Beheiren’s success in spiriting the Intrepid Four to Sweden spreading, the organization’s continued efforts to reach out to disillusioned American military personnel quickly bore fruit. Over the next 12 months they successfully sent a further dozen deserters to Sweden, most leaving Japan on fishing boats sailing out of the port of Nemuro and being transferred to Soviet Maritime Border Patrol vessels on the high seas in the manner depicted in my novel. By 1971, when JATEC’s underground railroad effectively ceased operating, this number had doubled.

Given JATEC’s effectiveness in smuggling deserters out of the country, then, why did this operation end so prematurely? One reason is that the Soviet Union, whose assistance was essential to the operation of the Nemuro route, ceased cooperating with JATEC toward the end of 1968 after an American spy infiltrated the group, leading to the arrest of a deserter. Related to this was the increasing cost of JATEC’s operations. The number of deserters seeking JATEC’s help increased, but the unavailability of the Nemuro route required them to be sheltered in Japan for longer, up a to year in some cases. Also a factor was the knowledge that the PR value of providing assistance to deserters in Japan had diminished significantly after the initial shock and intense media coverage of the escape of the Intrepid Four.

In the fall of 1970, two American deserters flew out of Japan on commercial flights bound for Europe using forged passports provided by JATEC. They were the last deserters to be spirited out of the country by Beheiren’s underground wing, which henceforth directed most of its resources toward supporting G.I. resistance among troops stationed at U.S. military bases in Japan.

*

The growth of Beheiren, support for which swelled early in 1968 following the publicity surrounding the escape of the Intrepid Four and Beheiren’s involvement in a large protest in Sasebo over the visit of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was just one manifestation of the dramatic rise of the New Left in that country. The student movement, which had atrophied and split following its failure to prevent the re-signing of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960, experienced a resurgence, culminating in the occupations of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious university, and Nihon University, the country’s largest tertiary institution. By the end of the year, dozens more high school and college campuses around Japan had been taken over by students.

Later in 1968, on International Antiwar Day, October 21, nationwide protests reached a crescendo in Tokyo where students overran Shinjuku Station, the city’s largest train depot, in an attempt to stop a freight train loaded with aviation fuel leaving for the U.S. military base at Yokota. Demonstrators occupied the station and the surrounding streets, forcing the closure of several major department stores and the suspension of rail traffic. 500 people were arrested at Shinjuku and a further 200 at Roppongi and other locations around Tokyo.

The responses by authorities around the world to the New Left-inspired uprisings of 1968 varied both in their swiftness and in their intensity. In France, President Charles de Gaulle threatened to implement a state of emergency and call in the army if workers did not return to work. The National Assembly was dissolved and a snap election called, after which the revolutionary fervor of both students and workers subsided. The Prague Spring ended that summer, crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August at a cost of 72 dead and more than 600 injured.

“It also appealed to me as a classic David and Goliath struggle, with a small group of idealistic young anti-war activists and deserters taking on the might of the U.S. military and the American and Japanese governments.”

In Japan, the occupation of Nihon University, which had been ongoing since June, was dealt a blow with the issuing in October of arrest warrants for the student leaders, who were forced underground. Despite this, the occupations at Nihon University and the University of Tokyo continued until January the following year, when the police moved in. Beginning early on the morning of January 18th, the police assault on Yasuda Hall, the students’ stronghold at the University of Tokyo, lasted two days. Police fired thousands of tear gas grenades from the ground and sprayed tear gas from helicopters. There were 400 arrests, and 270 students and 710 police were injured. Far from abating, however, the student unrest spread, with nationwide campus occupations totaling 127 in 1969, compared to 67 the previous year. By the end of 1969, however, nearly all of the barricades at campuses around the country had been dismantled and the street demonstrations subdued.

The Man Who Put Premature Babies in Carnival Sideshows

New York, 1917

The men had shipped out to fight in the Great War. Some of Martin Couney’s earliest patients were among them; one would earn the Croix de Guerre. Back home, however, the littlest citizens were in “no-man’s land.”

It wasn’t just that the country was focused on the war. The entire approach to birth was in transition. With obstetrics becoming a more sophisticated specialty, middle class American women were increasingly giving birth in hospitals instead of staying home. But obstetricians didn’t have much time or inclination to fuss over “weaklings,” as preemies were called, and the nascent field of pediatrics hadn’t quite gotten to them. They fell between the cracks, where they died.

*

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All the world loves a baby! On Coney Island and in Atlantic City, Martin’s patients thrived and so did his business. Women, in particular, kept coming back for a feel-good dose of clinical-grade cuteness. One woman would end up visiting the Coney Island concession every week of the summer for 36 years.

Slowly, Martin and his wife, Maye, began filling their home with the trappings of wealth, in keeping with the neighbors. Crystal goblets on the table, prisms of light from the chandelier. Sterling silver chargers under each fine china setting. A servant in the kitchen (live-in), and a chauffeur for the automobile (a matter of safety: Martin did his best, but he was known to be a menace at the wheel). Diamonds for her, black poodles for him.

Martin polished his spiel. He liked to cite the names of famous men who’d entered the world too early:

Sir Isaac Newton

Francois Marie Voltaire

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Jean Jacques Rousseau

Napoleon Bonaparte

Victor Marie Hugo

Charles Darwin

And who would know the difference if, in spiffing things up, he burnished his credentials? If he said he’d studied in Paris with the great Pierre Budin, it would cause the city’s doctors to take him more seriously. If he claimed he had European degrees, if he said he’d shown the machines in Berlin and that he’d invented them—well, who was getting hurt? The way the world was, there was nobody checking. Not a soul to contradict him. The truth was, the care the babies got was every bit as good as it would have been if all those credentials were real, and better than any hospital. (One doctor, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association the previous year, announced that “incubators are passé,” and “It is a fact that practically all prematures entrusted to institution care die.”)

But Martin was starting to paint himself into a corner, albeit a well-appointed one. With the culture changing, he must have felt he needed the credentials—yet anyone believing they were genuine might judge him more harshly. If he had truly been the protégé of Pierre Budin, if he were educated, as he claimed, in Liepzig and Berlin, then it would certainly seem self-serving and exploitative to persist in showing babies on the midway. Why not—at the least—publish clinical results?

“Obstetricians didn’t have much time or inclination to fuss over “weaklings,” as preemies were called, and the nascent field of pediatrics hadn’t quite gotten to them. They fell between the cracks, where they died.”

Martin Couney had no other recourse. To an extent, like almost anyone of a certain age, he had worn himself into a groove. Too, his wife, Maye, and his head nurse, Madame Louise Recht, had devoted the better part of their lives to this. And money is addictive. But the bottom line was this: He had the means to save thousands of babies, who otherwise were doomed. If he quit, they would die.

What he was offering wasn’t only treatment; it was public propaganda on behalf of preemies.

Propaganda mattered in a war. Later, he could have added Sir Winston Churchill to his spiel.

*

In Chicago, someone else was making propaganda, only his was deadly. Harry J. Haiselden, M.D., was the head of the city’s German-American Hospital. Up until now, the public had seen two prongs of eugenics. One, at least in theory, was “positive”— it focused mostly on the prevention of birth defects, and prenatal and baby care. The second, negative, prong was the elimination of “undesirable” births. Before it was over, the horrors of involuntary sterilization would be visited on 60,000 people in 27 states, including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, people who’d committed petty crimes, and individuals with disabilities or mental illness. American eugenics would influence the Nazis, who admired it. Not content to stop at selectively preventing birth, several American eugenics leaders raised the possibility of killing certain newborns. Dr. Harry Haiselden unveiled the third prong of the trident, denying lifesaving treatment to infants he deemed “defective,” deliberately watching them die even when they could have lived. In some cases, the traumatized parents were in agreement; in others, he had to persuade them that their children were better off dead. He wasn’t the first or only doctor to intentionally allow a child to die, but he was the first to the call the press. He eagerly displayed dying babies to journalists, in addition to writing his own articles for the Chicago American.

“The bottom line was this: He had the means to save thousands of babies, who otherwise were doomed. If he quit, they would die.”

Doctors all over the country lined up on both sides of this fight, as did prominent Americans. Helen Keller, the first blind and deaf person to earn a college degree, famously advocated for the disabled, yet she agreed with Dr. Haiselden. In Chicago, attempts to prosecute him and revoke his license failed. The Chicago Medical Society would finally succeed in stripping him of membership, not for letting his patients die but for publicizing his cases.

Meanwhile, frightened parents were writing to Dr. Haiselden, begging him to do something about their very disabled children. They had almost nowhere to turn for help, and now they had been convinced their sons and daughters were dragging down the human race.

*

The movie was called “The Black Stork.” Released in 1917, it starred Dr. Haiselden, coolly playing himself, in a story loosely based on a real case. In the silent, captioned film, the newborn is afflicted with an unidentified genetic disease. His mother is upset—to be expected—but she accepts the doctor’s wisdom following a vision of her child’s miserable future on this earth: a life of insanity and crime. When a nurse tries to hand the doctor his operating apron, he sternly refuses her. Chastened, she turns and walks way, leaving the infant to die alone on a table. The dead child eventually levitates into the arms of Jesus. One 1917 newspaper advertisement read “Kill Defectives, Save the Nation, and See ‘The Black Stork.’”

Later retitled “Are you Fit to Marry?” the movie played in theaters for years.

*

The obstetricians sending babies to a sideshow felt uneasy with the spectacle. The parents, too, had their reservations. But what else could they do? In New York, as the years went by, newborns would be coming from Midwood, Zion, Bellevue, Boro Park Maternity Hospital, Long Island College Hospital, King’s County Hospital, and other Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan institutions. Over in Jersey, they were arriving from Atlantic City Hospital, as well as the private homes where they’d been born.

Martin Couney’s patients didn’t have severe anomalies; they were simply early, underdeveloped. But the cultural undercurrent was clear—anyone imperfect, anyone who might grow up with an impairment, wasn’t worth saving.

*

The fire began with a cigarette. Midways were notorious for burning, and in August of 1917, a Luna Park ride called the toboggan burst into flames, next door to the incubators. The head nurse, Louise Recht, with another nurse and a couple of cops, carried all 11 babies to safety.

The incubator show went on: It reopened in nearby Steeplechase Park. And Luna Park survived. Before his career ended, Martin Couney would return. As things played out, the flames of hell might not have sufficed to keep him away.

__________________________________

Starbucks drops major hint at plans to accept Bitcoin – TechCrunch

Back in May, reports surfaced that New York Stock Exchange owner Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) was developing a Bitcoin trading platform. This morning, it officially announced the creation of Bakkt, a new company that will help trade and convert the best known cryptocurrency to fiat money — government-backed legal tender.

As one might expect from a new company with close ties to the NYSE, Bakkt has enlisted some big names already, including backing from Microsoft, Starbucks and BCG. Microsoft, for its part, will provide cloud infrastructure for the service. Even more compelling, however, is the involvement of Starbucks.

After all, the coffee giant has played an outsized role in helping mainstream mobile payments among the U.S. population, it has worked with Square (which accepts Bitcoin) and it just announced a deal with Alibaba in China for coffee deliveriesThe chain isn’t always the first to adopt payment solutions, but its involvement goes a long ways toward legitimizing technologies among the public. If played right, this could be the push Bitcoin as a payment systm for mainstream consumers here in the States.

In a statement, Starbucks referred to itself as “the flagship retailer” involved in the project, hinting at the very real potential that the company is setting itself up to accept Bitcoin converted through the Bakkt system.

“As the flagship retailer, Starbucks will play a pivotal role in developing practical, trusted and regulated applications for consumers to convert their digital assets into US dollars for use at Starbucks,” said Starbucks Payments VP Maria Smith said in the statement. “As a leader in Mobile Pay to our more than 15 million Starbucks Rewards members, Starbucks is committed to innovation for expanding payment options for our customers.”