Is humanity getting better?

London, 1665. The capital smelled of death in its last large outbreak of the Plague, the worst since the Black Death of the 14th century. The diarist Samuel Pepys mourned, “Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7,496; and of all of them, 6,102 of the Plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000 — partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number.”

As the deaths mounted and the streets filled with waste, Londoners noticed that dogs and cats were everywhere in the city. And so the order went out from the Lord Mayor.

Kill the dogs and cats.

The Chamberlain of the City paid the huntsmen, who slaughtered more than 4,000 animals. But the dogs and cats were chasing the rats that were feeding on the waste — and the rats were carrying the fleas that transmitted the Plague. Now spared from their predators, the rats spread the affliction even more fiercely. The medical advice from London’s College of Physicians — to press a hen hard on the swellings until the hen died — did not slow the disease. In the end, the Plague of 1665 is thought to have killed almost 20 percent of London’s population…A great fire then consumed a third of the city.

Many humans and animals died in this crisis of ignorance. Now that we understand the Plague bacterium, we know what procedures and medicines will keep the disease from becoming epidemic. Ignorance, we might say, no longer plagues us.

Today, pestilence threatens us not because of our ignorance but because of the success of our systems. Our transportation networks are now so fast and far-flung that they transmit diseases worldwide before cures can catch up. The next epidemics will play on our strengths, not our weaknesses — fighting them will mean canceling flights, not killing fleas. This Horseman of the Apocalypse has dismounted and now travels coach.

The introduction to an intelligent essay.

RTFA. Click the link.

Leif Wenar holds the chair of philosophy and law at King’s College London. He is the author of “Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World,” from which this essay was adapted.

Ground broken for California’s 130-miles high-speed rail project

Gov. Jerry Brown and state political leaders on Tuesday celebrated their perseverance over lawsuits and skeptical lawmakers and voters as they ceremonially started work in the Central Valley on the initial 29 miles of the nation’s first high-speed rail system.

Speaking to about 700 supporters of high-speed rail in a vacant lot in Fresno, the governor was cheered when he called critics — about 30 of whom protested outside the fenced-off festivities — “pusillanimous … that means weak of spirit,” and said the state owed it to the future to think big and invest in projects like high-speed rail.

Brown noted that the State Water Project, BART and the Golden Gate Bridge all faced opposition in their time. “We need to be critiqued,” he said, “but we still need to build…”

While high-speed rail backers made speeches and signed a symbolic section of rail in lieu of cutting a ribbon or wielding golden shovels, a new Congress whose Republican majority has vowed not to contribute more federal funding to California’s high-speed rail project took office in Washington. They include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, whose district would be bisected by the fast rail line…

Surely no one expects a 21st Century Republican to favor transportation, logistics and commerce considered modern in most nations.

Along with the financial challenge comes the need to complete the project without significant delays or massive cost overruns, and the question of whether state legislators have the political will to keep the project going when it runs into trouble.

The current construction is expected to be completed by 2018…The authority expects to award a contract this month for the next phase, which would take the tracks south to Bakersfield. Once that stretch is completed, with work overlapping the initial leg, the plan is to work on a connection to Palmdale, not from Bakersfield but from Burbank. Not only is that a critical stretch in connecting high-speed rail into the Los Angeles area, but officials believe it could operate as a profitable line even before the connection to the valley is completed.

By 2017 or 2018, the agency expects to have a 130-mile stretch through the valley that can be used as a test track for high-speed trains. And by 2022, it expects to be able to run trains from Merced to the Burbank Airport. Connections to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center and Los Angeles’ Union Station would be finished by 2029.

Critics…waved signs with such messages as blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!

In the same time period China is scheduled to build several hundred miles of standard rail – only travel at 110mph – for Thailand connecting Bangkok and major cities to Laos and southern China. Myanmar’s main industrial areas will be linked to the deep-sea port of Dawei. 2000 miles of rail will be built in a trilateral project for India, Myanmar and Thailand – linking those nations to Laos, Cambodia and VietNam. The ASEAN north-south corridor will be extended down to Malaysia and Singapore.

Besides ASEAN nations, there are six more partner countries – China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, combining half of the world’s population.

Good thing ain’t many of them as backwards as American conservatives.

Dubai solution to traffic problems? Ban poor from owning cars!

BugattiDubaiPolice

In many ways modern, Dubai seems like some sort of science-fiction utopia. It emerged from the Middle East’s desert seemingly overnight with some of the largest buildings in the world and it has police supercars patrolling the streets. It’s not all perfect, of course, and like many cities, it’s facing a mushrooming traffic issue. But officials may not deal with this growing congestion problem in a traditional way: the emirate is reportedly considering banning the poor from owning cars.

Hussain Lootah, Director General of Dubai Municipality, reportedly suggested during a recent business forum in Germany that the emirate could impose motoring restrictions based on income. According to emirates-focused newspaper The National, “a salary limit scheme that would restrict car ownership to those earning above a certain monthly income” is among the options on the table. Lootah blames Dubai’s rapid rise in wealth for clogging the emirate’s roads with cars and dramatically increasing rush-hour traffic. “Everybody has their luxury life, but the capacity of our roads cannot take all of these cars without ownership laws,” he said in a speech…

…Dubai authorities are committed to reducing traffic congestion. They are also considering an increase on parking fees, fuel prices, toll road fees and insurance rates to further limit car ownership. As an alternative to driving, Dubai is attempting to improve its public transport system with a new tram system that began testing this week.

I hope no one passes this idea along to the Republican Party. They’ll be all over it like flies on dog poop. No doubt part of the platform in 2016 – endorsed by both Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

Though the alternative offered to car ownership would probably be a discount on shoes.

Facebook isn’t a platform for you to use — you are a platform for Facebook to use

Facebook has come under fire from those who say the network is turning down the volume on their posts, but the bottom line is that the network can — and will — do whatever it wants with the algorithms controlling its news feed.

Facebook seems to be making users upset and/or confused again with the way it handles its news feed. A few months ago, it was actor George Takei and billionaire Mark Cuban who were upset with what they saw as changes to the Facebook algorithm that made their content less visible, and this time around it’s New York Times writer Nick Bilton, who complained that his posts haven’t been getting as many likes or shares as they used to. The assumption is that Facebook wants you to pay to get this kind of reach, but regardless of whether that’s what is happening, it still sends a valuable message: you are not in control — Facebook is.

Bilton described in a piece for the Bits section of the Times how his posts used to get as many as 50 or even a hundred likes and shares, from users of Facebook who had signed up to get his feed using the network’s relatively new Subscribe feature. But even though the number of users who subscribe has soared from just 25,000 after the feature was launched to almost half a million now, Bilton said that he gets far fewer responses to his posts — sometimes as little as 10 or 15 likes and shares. After paying Facebook to promote his posts, however, that number increased by almost 1,000 percent..

The conclusion that everyone seems to be jumping to is the same one that Mark Cuban arrived at when he complained in November about the increasing difficulty of reaching his fans on the network: namely, that Facebook is deliberately tuning out (or at least turning down) the signal coming from some users so that it can convince them to use promotional tools like ads and “sponsored stories.” Cuban said he was so irritated by the move that he was diverting almost all of the marketing budget from his various brands away from Facebook to Twitter and other platforms.

…An official post on the Facebook site entitled “Fact Check” says:

“Our goal with News Feed is always to show each individual the most relevant blend of stories that maximizes engagement and interest. There have been recent claims suggesting that our News Feed algorithm suppresses organic distribution of posts in favor of paid posts in order to increase our revenue. This is not true…”

The bottom line, of course, is that there is no real way for anyone to know why Facebook’s algorithm behaves the way it does, any more than it’s possible for us to know why certain pages rank high in Google. They are both a black box, and the way they function is a mystery. As I tried to point out to Cuban, Facebook is entitled to do whatever it wants with your news feed, including using it to convince you to pay for promotional tools, because it owns your news feed — not you. It’s good to be reminded of that sometimes.

Being a political animal, first, I’m glad to catch any page views I do. We live in society that has always discouraged dissent. The penalties can run from ignoring you – to prison. And don’t kid yourselves, I’ve had friends who experienced the latter.

But, my experience online has continued to be one of growth and concurrent acceptance. Yes, my experience was much the same when I was a performing artist. But, then, I had to put up with all the crap that comes with the territory. I finally quit the circuit – because I wasn’t satisfied with what I was able to do. Online, it’s all pretty much my own responsibility, my choices.

That’s good enough for me whether posting here at my personal site or at one of the Big Sites where I’m one of several contributing editors.

Dutch pig farmers fighting for factory farms for porkers

Creil, the Netherlands — Modest farms, 90 acres or less, dot the region here, most of them raising grains and vegetables, some the occasional sheep or cow.

In the midst of this idyllic scene a few years back there appeared what residents now call “the pink invasion,” three huge hog barns each with 10,000 or more pigs in the fields that skirt the dike that protects the region from the Ijsselmeer, once known as the Zuiderzee.

“Some people don’t like the idea,” said Dick van Leeuwen, 65, who walks his dog Thor along the roads leading to the largest of the barns. Local people feared that the pig farms would stink, while bringing an unwanted increase in truck traffic, he said, delivering feed for the thousands of pigs or hauling away manure or grown hogs for slaughter. But their complaints fell mostly on deaf ears.

The Netherlands, a country of almost 17 million people, is home to a pig population of 14 million. Despite its status as one of the smaller countries in the European Union — about half the size of the state of Maine — the Netherlands has long been Europe’s leading exporter of pork and pork products, though that ranking has been contested in recent years by wurst-loving Germany.

Like pork producers everywhere, Dutch farmers are fighting rising costs by resorting to ever bigger herds and barns, a trend that is reinforced by the petite size of the Netherlands…As the big barns become more common, the government has begun to respond to public complaints about industrial farming and cruelty to animals. Officials are now discussing ways to curb the size of barns like those in tiny Creil, with its 1,600 people in trim brick homes, much to the chagrin of the new generation of farmers who see industrial-scale husbandry as their only means to compete…

Critics of the pork industry argue that enormous pig barns damage the environment because of the immense amounts of manure they produce, threaten people’s heath because of the antibiotics used liberally to avoid sickness among the animals and disregard the welfare of the animals by confining them to barns…

Pig farmers like Mr. Vowinkel insist that they can compete only if they keep costs and the price of their pork down. “Some disappear, others get bigger, to lower production prices,” he said. A fellow farmer, Sietse van der Meer, agreed. “You grow bigger, or you stop,” he said.

Politicians feel the pressure of the environmentalists and animal rights groups. In December, Parliament will begin discussing a possible restriction on the size of farms and a ban on antibiotics, two steps the farming region of Noord-Brabant, in the south, has already taken on its own.

RTFA. The arguments of the Pig Farmers Association seem specious to me. They argue that the diminishing number of pig farmers is proof of their inability to compete because of regulation. They sound like Wall Street Republicans. But, the enormous expansion of the size of farms, number of pigs produced at lower prices is as likely to be the cause for small farmers being forced out of business.

They’ll never be able to compete with pork produced in nations with an excess of arable land – from China to Brazil – and their natural market is the citizens of the Netherlands and Europe. The rest – especially reliance on antibiotics – is the same sort of propaganda we get from members of every greed-driven guild in the world.

Black Friday sales climbed 6.6% to a record high

Black Friday sales increased 6.6 percent to the largest amount ever as many U.S. consumers unleashed pent-up demand and bought for themselves.

Shoppers spent $11.4 billion yesterday, ShopperTrak said in a statement today. Foot traffic rose 5.1 percent, according to the Chicago-based research firm…

The brisk turnout came as retailers from Gap to Wal-Mart Stores to Toys “R” Us opened their doors earlier than ever.

Many shoppers were rookies who had never before participated in the busiest shopping day of the year, dubbed Black Friday because many retailers are said to become profitable then. As many as 152 million people were expected to shop at stores and websites on Black Friday, up 10 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation…

Black Friday arrived with consumer sentiment at levels previously reached during recessions, as a record share of households said this is a bad time to spend, according to the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index. The measure has reached minus 50 or less in nine of the past 10 weeks, an unprecedented performance in its 26-year history.

Even with low confidence, shoppers paid more for goods and unleashed some pent-up demand, said Craig Johnson, president of consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, which is based in New Canaan, Connecticut…

Chains such as Macy’s, Target Corp. and Kohl’s Corp., which all opened at midnight, may have taken revenue from competitors like J.C. Penney that didn’t open until 4 a.m., according Ken Perkins, president of Swampscott, Massachusetts-based Retail Metrics…

The move to turn Black Friday into more than just one day also grew on the Web as online retailers, such as Amazon.com Inc., began advertising “Black Friday” deals well before yesterday. Online sales gained 39 percent on Thanksgiving and 24 percent on Black Friday, according to IBM’s Coremetrics.

Black Friday may illustrate a gap between what consumers tell pollsters and how they actually behave — a trend that has prevailed for much of this year, said Retail Metrics’ Perkins…“A solid Black Friday suggests the rest of the season should be pretty good,” Perkins said. “Those who have jobs have been willing to spend.”

Americans who have jobs have returned to saving in the course of the year. After a couple decades of relying on plastic to close the gap between the quest-for-scarce-goods and declining real income we reached negative savings numbers at the beginning of the recession. Over the course of this year, that number returned to halfway normal – around 5%.

Poisonally, I think folks spent less on credit this season and used debit cards and cash instead of credit cards. We’ll see. Unlike a couple of my favorite news sources and practically every conservative blog founded on Obama-hating I don’t intend to draw conclusions about commerce this season without hard data. Rightwing bloggers plastered the Web with posts about traffic being up on Black Friday and sales failing to match the traffic numbers.

They all were wrong. They counted on ideology and didn’t wait for real numbers.

My hopes – not ideological guesswork – is that folks return to increasing those savings amounts once the holiday season is past. We have a ways to go to return to a more traditional 10%. Meanwhile, China’s new middle class sticks to a savings rate around 40%. They even show up to buy a new car with cash instead of credit! You can guess what Wall Street whizbangs think of that?

Which corporate telecom giant stores your data the longest?

The nation’s major mobile-phone providers are keeping a treasure trove of sensitive data on their customers, according to newly-released Justice Department internal memo that for the first time reveals the data retention policies of America’s largest telecoms.

The single-page Department of Justice document…is a guide for law enforcement agencies looking to get information — like customer IP addresses, call logs, text messages and web surfing habits – out of U.S. telecom companies, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

The document, marked “Law Enforcement Use Only” and dated August 2010, illustrates there are some significant differences in how long carriers retain your data.

Verizon, for example, keeps a list of everyone you’ve exchanged text messages with for the past year, according to the document. But T-Mobile stores the same data up to five years. It’s 18 months for Sprint, and seven years for AT&T…

The document was unearthed by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina via a Freedom of Information Act claim. (After the group gave a copy to Wired.com, we also discovered it in two other places on the internet by searching its title.)

“People who are upset that Facebook is storing all their information should be really concerned that their cell phone is tracking them everywhere they’ve been,” said Catherine Crump, an ACLU staff attorney. “The government has this information because it wants to engage in surveillance…”

“I don’t think there there is anything on this list the government would concede requires a warrant,” said Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “This brings cellular retention practices out of the shadows, so we can have a rational discussion about how the law needs to be changed when it comes to the privacy of our records.”

Vermont’s Patrick Leahy has introduced legislation to alter the Electronic Privacy Communications Act to protect Americans from intrusions on our privacy. How much chance do you think it has of being passed into law?

Do you think Obama would sign it – if it passed Congress? That’s a tough question for many of us who don’t care to vote for the proto-fascist populists who seem to be the Republican alternative.

Chinese businessman avoids traffic – on horseback


Discussing the day’s schedule with his secretary en route

A wealthy Chinese businessman has become so fed up with the snail’s pace of the traffic in the northwestern city of Xianyang that he has taken to riding his horse to get to work.

He Yanqing, a successful property entrepreneur with a fleet of cars in his garage at home worth several hundred thousand pounds, said he’d opted for four legs over four wheels because of the constant snarl up and jams.

Mr He, who can now be seen trotting down the city’s bike lanes most mornings – usually accompanied by his secretary – said his commute had been cut from 40 to 20 minutes since taking to the saddle, with a host of other benefits besides.

“Riding a horse to work has many advantages,” he told Shaanxi Satellite Television, “It keeps me fit, has low carbon dioxide emissions, avoids traffic jams, parking fines, speeding tickets and my horse, unlike the car, has no need for an annual examination…”

Fellow commuters in the city of 5m mostly appeared to approve of the idea, though some worried about who would clear up after the animal or what might happen if the horse got spooked and ran out of control.

“So cool!” enthused one citizen in an online discussion, “Runs only on grass, not oil, but the only question is what to do when it fouls the place?”

After consulting the regulations, a slightly bemused-looking traffic policeman said that China’s traffic rules only governed horse-drawn carriages and cattle-carts, leaving Mr He free to go on his way unimpeded.

Not so unusual in Santa Fe – though local coppers would probably freak out a bit in the heart of the tourist zone downtown. But, it was never unusual in the neighborhood where I lived in town to see a horse waiting outside a convenience store while the owner picked up a sixpack of refreshment.

In fact, it’s not unheard of for someone to be arrested for horseback DUI.

Dangerous drivers made to work as traffic police in India

Bharti Arora, the Deputy Commissioner of Police in Gurgaon, has launched a new scheme to let some of the city’s worst drivers know how it feels to try to manage the chaos by forcing them to work as traffic cops.

She told The Daily Telegraph she had adopted a new approach because on the spot fines of a hundred rupees for jumping red lights were not working.

“We were fining them, but it wasn’t really helping, because a fine is just 100 Rupees. The worst of the chaos is six hours of jammed traffic because some vehicle has over-turned, construction is going on, narrowing the lanes.

We decided to let them see how it is to work as a traffic constable. It’s not an easy job.” she explained.

Offenders at the IFFCO Chowk junction are now pulled to one side, issued an on-the-spot fine, and then told to join the constable in trying to direct the chaos they have helped create.

“They do it for half an hour or longer. Some are hostile, some are willing, and some say it has changed their attitude,” she said.

In a country where roads are choked by elephants, horses, camels, cycle rickshaws, teetering overloaded trucks, and child acrobats, its drivers regularly jump red lights, cut in front of fellow highway users without warning, never keep apart two chevrons, and only very rarely ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre.’

Sounds like Santa Fe. Except for the elephants and camels, cycle rickshaws.

We also miss other qualities some folks think are necessary: drivers licenses, insurance, safety and smog checks.