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Month: April 2016 (page 1 of 3)

How to Hide Earth From an Alien Civilization

What would it take to hide an entire planet? It sounds more like a question posed in an episode of Star Trek than in academic discourse, but sometimes the bleeding edge of science blurs with themes found in science fiction.

Of course we?ve been leaking our own position to distant stars via radio and television signals for six decades now, largely ignorant of the cosmic implications. But several notable scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have publicly voiced concerns about revealing our presence to other civilizations. These concerns largely draw from the darker chapters of our own history, when a more advanced civilization would subjugate and displace a less advanced one.

It might be too late for us to withdraw back into invisibility, but maybe not for other intelligent alien civilizations out there. A far-off planet?s inhabitants might prefer to hide from the likes of us. Recently, my graduate student Alex Teachey and I published a paper that proposes a way to cloak planets, as well as a way to broadcast a civilization?s existence. Even if we?re not manipulating our own signal in this way, it doesn?t mean other planets out there aren?t. It?s possible what we see as we scan the universe for other habitable planets has been engineered to disguise or highlight the existence of other civilizations.

Tracking transits to find other planets

Before we talk about how to hide a planet from distant voyeurs, consider the best way we?ve figured out to find one.

Humanity?s most successful technique for detecting other planets is the transit method. A transit occurs when a planet appears to pass in front of its parent sun, blocking out some of its starlight for a few hours. So if we have our telescopes trained at one part of the universe and a star seems to fade out for part of a day, that tells us that a planet has temporarily come between us as it goes about its orbit.

Using this technique, NASA?s Kepler Mission has discovered several thousand planets.

It seems likely that any advanced civilization would be aware of this simple method. Each time a planet transits its star, its existence is essentially being advertised to all points lying along the same plane as the planet and star.

An advanced civilization might be okay having its planet?s location, size and even atmospheric chemistry advertised across the cosmos. Or it might wish to conceal its presence. If the latter, it might choose to build a cloak.

A planetary invisibility cloak

It turns out that hiding planets from the transit method would be surprisingly easy, so easy that we earthlings could do it right now, if we chose. Since transits appear as a brightness decrease of a distant star, our hypothetical cloak simply produces the opposite brightness increase.

Lasers provide an efficient means of countering that dip in brightness. All a laser?s power is contained in a relatively narrow beam, as opposed to spreading out in all directions like starlight does. Due to the way light spreads as it travels?called diffraction?the laser beam would spread to encompass entire solar systems after journeying many light years across space, bathing that distant planetary system within the cloaking beam. No dip in brightness makes it look like there?s no planet there at all.

A laser cloak capable of hiding the Earth from an alien version of NASA?s Kepler Mission would require 30 megawatts of power at peak intensity, approximately equivalent to 10 wind turbines worth of power output.

Alex Teachey describes how a cloaking system would work.

While Kepler sees light in only one color, advanced civilizations might use more sophisticated detectors capable of collecting light at all wavelengths. Here too, our current technology could cloak us using modern tunable lasers, for a cost of about 10 times more power overall. More advanced civilizations might be able to detect other fine details of the light?s properties, betraying the cloak. But here too there?s no reason why with a little bit of work we couldn?t engineer solutions, leading to a near perfect cloak which could be targeted at distant stars where we suspect someone might be home.

Why choose to hide

So yes, it sounds like science fiction, but even current technology could do a fine job of cloaking the Earth?s transit signature.

Forget the Earth though; we never really thought of this as something humanity should or should not do. Instead, we posit that if our rudimentary human technology can build such an effective transit cloak at relatively little economic cost, then more advanced civilizations may be able to hide from us with respect to all detection techniques. The universe might not be all that it seems.

Why might a civilization choose to wrap itself in invisibility? It could be a sort of insurance policy: find the nearby planets with potential for supporting life and turn on a targeted cloak?just in case a civilization ever emerges. Such a policy effectively buys them time to reveal their presence when they see fit.

Given how cheap such a cloak would be, an insurance policy for your home planet is perhaps not as strange as it seems. It?s certainly not implausible a civilization might want to bide its time?surveilling the neighbors for a while before rolling out the intergalactic welcome mat. But there?s a flip side to this technology that could turn it from an invisibility cloak into more of a we-are-here spotlight.

The reverse: flick on the beacon

Perhaps not all civilizations are xenophobic?some might want to talk. If you wanted to reveal your presence to other civilizations as cheaply and unambiguously as possible, how might you do it?

Imagine looking at some data of a distant planet?which has become a somewhat normal enterprise for astronomers?and noticing something weird. The signature of the planet has a strange shape?in fact, none of your models are able to explain it. It looks like someone has imprinted a series of spikes into the data, following the prime number series. Nothing in nature can do this?you have just detected another civilization?s beacon. Alternative use of the cloaking system?s laser could be to make a planet?s signal look highly artificial, instead of hidden. Now they don?t care about building the perfect cloak; they want to be found!

Could such signals be lurking in our existing measurements? Perhaps so. No one has ever looked, and we hope our work sparks efforts on that front. It may be a long shot, since to even get to this point we need to try to imagine how aliens might think?but given the scientific prize on offer it?s also worth it. If we identify a strange transit, it may well contain information encoded via laser light pulses. Huge volumes of information could be hidden within the transit signatures of other planets.

For us, this was an exercise in intellectual curiosity. We simply calculated how much energy it would take to either cloak or broadcast a planet?s existence. Whether we should seriously consider wrapping Earth in a protective cloak of invisibility?or conversely, getting serious about trumpeting our existence?via laser manipulations is something we should all decide together.

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Orphan Black Returns to Form

On Orphan Black, the many female clones of Project Leda, all played by the brilliant Tatiana Maslany, have had their genetic code patented, their eggs harvested, their bodies sterilized, and their sexual histories interrogated. That powerful men?scientists, capitalists, or religious leaders?might want to clone human women, closely monitor them, and tamper with their reproductive systems does not take a huge imaginative leap. After all, women?s bodies have always been subject to scrutiny, study, and surveillance; state-directed forced sterilization is barely recent history. Orphan Black, entering its fourth season Thursday night on BBC America,is obviously a work of science fiction, but the way this show treats the body?the female body?is anything but unthinkable. 

After a tortuous third season that veered off track with a convoluted plot about a military-grown batch of homicidal male clones, Orphan Black has returned to its core theme of bodily autonomy. This back-to-basics approach also includes the return of season one?s primary antagonist: Neolution, a shadowy movement preaching the pseudoscientific doctrine of ?self-directed evolution.? (What that means in practice, from what we?ve seen, is creepy body modification: clubbers with white contact lenses and men with tails on their backs.) Neolutionists, we learn, have infiltrated all the other secretive organizations the show has introduced. Neolution is the insidious bond now holding this cumbersome plot together. 

The choice to bring back Neolution could have come across as backtracking?the show?s writers realizing the error of their ways after a poorly received season, and returning to what worked well in season one. And in some sense, that?s what it is. As Sarah, the closest thing the show has to a clone protagonist, says in a later episode: she?s going ?back to the beginning of all this shit.?

So it?s fitting that the season begins with a near episode-long flashback to Beth, a character who died in the pilot?s first moments. A cop driven mad by investigating her origins, Beth has always been the most enigmatic of the clones; her suicide kicks off the show, and we only ever knew her second-hand, through home videos and stories from the other main clones (Alison, Cosima, and Helena, who are all underutilized in the season?s first few episodes). The flashbacks?in which we learn that Beth was directed to Neolution by a new clone, M.K. (she?s paranoid and European, like a less-feral Helena)?leave us with more unanswered questions. But seeing Beth in the days leading up to her suicide, before we ever met Sarah Manning, reframes things. The flashback is engaging, with Sarah and Beth physically retracing each other?s steps, months apart, both searching for answers.

The search for answers, which often drives the action on Orphan Black, is most compelling when it bumps uncomfortably into reality. An effective scene from season two had Sarah investigating the history of Project Leda, digging through files in a church basement, pulling up records of something called the Cold River Institute. She finds old twentieth-century photographs with labels like, ?Most Perfect Baby, 1908.? The inspiration for Cold River, Jill Lepore writes in the New Yorker, comes from the very real Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Orphan Black may take a few liberties with current science, but the show has a clear understanding of history?s darker moments and the dangerous, often ignored consequences of scientific inquiry.

Season three abandoned these quiet moments of horror for loud scenes of torture and a ricocheting plot. Orphan Black is at its best when the camera and the plot are trained on Tatiana Maslany, and all the time spent last season on the male clones, played capably by Ari Millen, felt like a waste. The show never came close to revealing why the male clones, known as Project Castor, were created. It didn?t even seem that interested in asking the question. As shadowy entities proliferated, it became hard to remember any narrative thread beyond the characters? survival. 

In season four, Orphan Black regains the sharp feeling of curiosity that drove Sarah at the show?s start. Sarah?s choice to dig into the mess, to try and find some answers, broke the cardinal rule of the Project Leda: that the clones remain unaware. That same pursuit of answers drove Beth over the edge. For the women in Orphan Black, knowledge is dangerous. It?s also essential.

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Sailor?s Delight

The storms were so bad that first winter at Minot?s Ledge Light, a lighthouse drilled into a reef a mile off the Massachusetts coast, that in 1850 the keeper?s cat eventually threw itself from the watch room, 70 feet up. The keeper, Isaac Dunham, arrived at the railing in time to see the cat still alive on the rocks, before it was swept away by a passing wave.

Minot?s Ledge Light didn?t have a cottage or a garden or anything resembling the models you might find in a gift shop in Maine. It was a lonely iron cylinder elevated by nine metal piles. The summer before it was completed, Henry David Thoreau saw the lighthouse from a boat on his way from up the coast. ?Here was the new iron lighthouse, then unfinished, in the shape of an egg-shell painted red, and placed high on iron pillars, like the ovum of a sea monster floating on the waves?destined to be phosphorescent,? he wrote in 1849. ?As we passed it at half-tide, we saw the spray tossed up nearly to the shell. A man was to live in that egg-shell day and night.?

?A man was to live in that egg-shell day and night.?

Dunham, the former cat owner, lived in the ?egg-shell? for ten months. As gales pounded the lighthouse, his logbook entries soften to poetry; he writes of the wrathful ocean, and his own faint place just above it. From March 31, 1850: ?For this month ends, and I thank God that I am yet in the Land of the Living.? On April 6 of the same year: ?An ugly sea which makes the lighthouse reel like a drunken man?I hope God, in mercy, stills the raging sea?or we must perish.? And later: ?We cannot survive the night?if it is to be so?O God receive my unworthy soul for Christ sake for in him I put my trust.? Dunham quit ten months after starting, in October. His successors only lasted a few months before a spring storm sheared the lighthouse completely from the reef. A fisherman found a bottle they?d thrown before Minot?s Ledge Light collapsed into the sea. The note inside read: ?The lighthouse won?t stand over to night. She shakes two feet each way now.? Their bodies were later recovered.

The men of Minot?s Ledge Light had been put in that hellish iron room and killed by the sea for one simple reason: Somebody had to light the wicks. Minot?s Ledge Light probably saved dozens of ships and their crews from disastrous ends. Between 1832 and 1842, before the lighthouse was built, more than forty ships had been lost to the reef.

There are two kinds of lighthouses, each blinking polar messages. Those like Minot?s Ledge Light?perched on reefs or shoals or wherever the seafloor rears up?say, over and over, stay away, stay away. Those at the mouths of harbors, like the ancient lighthouse Pharos, the 450-foot, marble and limestone building from 300BC that watched over Alexandria, say, this way to safety, this way. (Pharos lends the root to pharology, the study of lighthouse construction and illumination.) The dichotomy provides a readymade metaphor. In one design, you find a beacon of life and of death. Unsurprisingly, lighthouses appear everywhere in literature.

Eric Jay Dolin?whose superb books Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America and When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail are required reading for those interested in maritime history?has turned his gaze landward in his latest effort, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse. Dolin guides us through the history of the American lighthouse, from the bureaucracy that built and managed them, to the men who tended them, through the wars that doused them, the science and engineering that lit them, and the storms that pummeled them. This magnificent compendium is a paean to the buildings that guided safe passage for economic prosperity of a young nation with huge, dangerous coastlines.

Dolin begins in 1716 with the construction of the granite Boston Lighthouse, a this-way beacon, replacing the bonfires Bostonians burned at the mouth of their harbor. The story ends, more or less, in 2002, when the last living civilian keeper passed away. To the extent that Brilliant Beacons is an American history, its arc exists as a policy overhaul, when the system matured from ?The worst I ever saw in any part of the world,? as one mariner testified in a 1844 document presented to Congress, to one of the most advanced and largest of any country.

In one design, you find a beacon of life and of death.

Dolin is a brilliant researcher and seasoned writer, allowing this mostly chronological sweep moments to pause and eddy into all the stories bound to emerge from heroic engineering, isolation, and fortitude. We see lighthouse keepers in the Civil War secretly burying lenses and barrels of whale oil in orange groves or river bands; criminal mooncussers hanging lanterns to horses? necks at night and walking them down the beach to mimic ships rocking safely in a nonexistent harbor; we see the county?s most talented stone masons zip-lining in oversized trousers from the mast of a ship to a cursed island in the Pacific Northwest; heroic female keepers rowing out in storms to haul aboard drowning sailors; keepers so sick of each other that they ate dinner facing different directions; a drunk assistant keeper chasing his boss around the lighthouse with a butcher?s knife; and we see the invention of a lens that could bend candlelight into a horizon-reaching beam. Dolin leaves little out, and in less capable hands, the book might lose momentum for its sprawl. But just as in Leviathan, the surplus feels only giving.

Part of the fun of Beacons is reading American history through this specifically coastal lens. We see the American Revolution in patriots defending or recapturing lighthouses from the British. We understand the true nature of American expansion, characterized by federal land seizures from indigenous coastal tribes as the government built more lighthouses for the growing number of ports and trade routes. We get a rare coastal perspective of the Civil War, far from the inland battlefields of Gettysburg or Bull Run, as Union ships bombarded lighthouses and Confederates defended theirs, in one case, by building ?a furnace that turned cannonballs into glowing projectiles that could ignite enemy ships.?

A thesis of sorts can be found in the simple equation Dolin writes in the final pages: ?[W]e will never return to time when new lighthouses will be built.? The American lighthouse has been snuffed out by radio beacons, shoran (short-range navigation) and loran (long-range) radar systems, sonar, and, in one final blow, GPS. Of the one thousand keepers tending lights in 1900s, there were fewer than five hundred by 1946, three hundred by the 1960s, and one?the Boston Lighthouse keeper?by 1990. By then, all lighthouses had either been automated or, in large numbers, decommissioned. Without ceremony, they?ve become as irrelevant a utility today as workhorses, lanterns, or sail-power; all those redundant lighthouses, unmanned and unmaintained, have left to be ground down by the sea.

?I think they keep me around because of public relations,? the last civilian keeper said in a 2002 interview. ?That?s it. To you, it?s romantic. But when you see it every day, day after, it?s not romantic anymore.?

He raises a good question. Why are lighthouses romantic, deserving of Dolin?s thick love-letter, in a way that, say, gristmills are not? Part of the fascination probably comes from the lore around the lives of keepers. Robert Louis Stevenson, visiting Point Pinos Lighthouse in Monterey, described the keeper as if he were on holiday: ?You will find the light-keeper playing the piano, making models and bows and arrows, studying dawn and sunrise in amateur oil-painting, and with a dozen other elegant pursuits and interests to surprise his brave, old-country rivals.? Life seemed different for lighthouse keepers than it was for the average citizen?keepers even lived on a different plane, their rooms stacked vertically. Of course, that wasn?t the reality, as Dolin?s research shows.

?This place is worse than prison.?

While keepers were their own bosses (with time to pursue oil painting), it was generally grueling and lonesome, especially in ?stag stations,? those far-flung posts that were unsuitable for keepers? families. It was a life of isolation and boredom. The Lighthouse Board (a 165-year-old organization) did its best to help, distributing mini-libraries in the late 19th century, boxes with dozens of books that traveled from one lighthouse to the next. But no number of books or other entertainment could alleviate the monotony of the job. In 1918, when Woodrow Wilson signed legislation enabling keepers to retire after thirty years of service, a huge number submitted their resignations immediately. In an interview from 1987, one Coast Guard member stationed in New London Ledge Light said: ?This place is worse than prison.?

Those who did find plenty of reasons to romanticize lighthouses?and the men and women who risked their lives to tend the fires?were sailors. In 1839, a weary Russian put it best. Upon sighting the Sitka Lighthouse?no more than a cupola in present-day Alaska, housing four copper cans filled with seal oil?he wrote in his journal: ?There are no words to express the feelings that induce a sailor to offer fervent prayers when he sees this mark of sympathy expressed by his fellow men. Suddenly he sees that he is no longer alone in the midst of the ocean waves; he sees that people are caring for him with paternal solicitude.?

Only a few years after the first Minot?s Ledge Light was swept away, another one was built, completed in 1860. This time, instead of metal, it was made of one thousand granite blocks uniquely sculpted to fit and lock into each other, further held together with galvanized iron bolts and cement. This one also got a literary appraisal: ?[It] rises out of the sea like a beautiful stone cannon,? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, ?mouth upward, belching forth only friendly fires.?

The second Minot?s Ledge Light has survived the past 156 years of storms, but like many other lighthouses today, was deemed unnecessary by the Coast Guard and sold to a private buyer. Now unneeded by passing ships, the light still flashes the numerical pattern assigned to it in 1894: A 1-4-3 sequence that one nineteenth-century observer noted was the same count in the words, ?I Love You??a message nightly repeating on the sometimes lethal and always indifferent ocean.

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Should Feminism Be About Political Solidarity?

We?re at an odd point these days when it comes to feminism and gender politics. On one hand, reproductive rights are as challenged as ever, in the U.S. and elsewhere. On the other, the more plugged-in youth (and fashion labels) have transcended gender altogether. Feminist concerns have started to seem out of date and even, at times, borderline offensive. A feminism focused on getting a woman elected president is guilty of Lean In-ish failures to acknowledge the plights of women who?ve faced more obstacles than Hillary Clinton. And various ?women?s? issues?everything from abortion to the women?s-only music festival?have, as Michelle Goldberg discussed in The New Yorker in 2014, come to seem exclusionary of women who were assigned male at birth.

Sam Escobar?s recent Esquire piece?about their non-binary identity, and about the pronouns they prefer?has renewed this part of feminist debate, but this time from the perspective of assigned-female-at-birth individuals who now identify otherwise. While gender non-conformity is a much-covered area these days, Escobar?s piece took the gender-ishow-you-feel position to an extreme. ?I do not identify as a woman, but the above photos show you that I present fairly feminine, meaning most people assume I am a cisgender woman until I inform them otherwise.?

Indeed, the photos show a person who, absent explanation, would read as a beautiful young woman. But Escobar?s words don?t leave a whole lot of room for debate. Their requests?which are limited to correct pronoun usage or a good-faith effort in that direction, and also refraining from inquiring about their genitals?are altogether reasonable. And if the pronoun thing seems a bit much, consider the extent to which we?ve embraced ?Happy Holidays? as opposed to ?Merry Christmas? in December; semantically speaking, including a minority is not a large burden on the majority. 

But a more critical take was to be found in one branch of feminist Twitter, where the more old-school feminists?that is, the ones whose feminism largely conflates gender and biological sex. A common sentiment among those who shared the piece: ?My god, the self-absorption and obsession. Nobody cares how interesting and complex you feel. Nobody cares.? Which is quite a stinging thud of a criticism, one I would not endorse. There is, however, a valuable point beneath the surface.

As an example: There?s a profound difference between a cisgender woman?s unease with traditional femininity and a trans man?s discomfort with having been assigned the wrong gender. I have no wish to trivialize the body image (and reproduction-related, and sexual-violence-related) concerns that many cis women face. But all things being equal, it?s clear that the latter complaint is a bigger deal than the former. An adolescent girl who feels terrible when she sees a Natalia Vodianova billboard can speak out about this and hear a tremendous echo of solidarity. She is not alone. A trans boy, meanwhile, is unlikely to be able to get a ?been there, son? talk from his father.

Even so, it would be wrong to interpret the criticism the piece received from some cisgender feminists as cis women straying from their lane. What these critics are expressing is a sense of frustration with what they present as turn in feminism, toward a more rigid definition of what it means to be a woman. I?m thinking about the second New York Times Ethicist letter here, from a transgender man who feels micro-aggressed when ?the waiter? uses ?ladies? to welcome him and his partner, and seems to be saying that gender-neutral language should be used in all cases. (Except, it would seem, those involving servers.) Neither the letter-writer nor Kwame Anthony Appiah?s response considers the possibility that an androgynous but masculine-presenting person one is interacting with for the first time might be a gender-non-conforming woman, rather than a trans man. 

But masculine-presenting women aren?t the only ones ignored in this new understanding, which is where things get more complicated. The ?binary? cis woman, as discussed (in Escobar piece?and in another essay, by their fellow ?cis-passing? writer Laurie Penny?is someone who affirmatively accepts female identity. That?s all this can mean, since being a non-binary but cis-presenting female is now also a possibility. That such a category now exists means that the women who don?t embrace an alternative label have, by default, identified really cozilyin their gender identity. Writes Escobar:

The gender binary separates those who identify as male or female, simple as that. Non-binary genders, however, don?t fit neatly within these two?they can be a combination of male and female, a fluid back-and-forth, or totally outside of the binary. Cisgender people, on the other hand, are folks whose identities align with the gender they were assigned at birth.

What this leaves out: Why identities may align with traits assigned at birth. It seems to me that gender is experienced, for some ostensibly cisgender women, as a non-negotiable. For me?and here I wish to speak only of myself?being female is like being Jewish. I could, in theory, convert and embrace another religion, and would want to feel free to do so if I felt I needed to embrace, say, Lutheranism. But I recognize that it wouldn?t change how the world perceived of me ethnically, and it wouldn?t change my lived experiences. This certainly doesn?t mean everybody experiences gender in this way. But any discussion of gender fluidity that assumes cis women are comfortable with their gender is missing a key point. While it?s silly to think that trans women, on account of having experienced however many years as apparent boys or men, are somehow advantaged over cis women, it?s at least a notch less silly to view the born-women who cease to identify as women, and who give, as the reason, that they sometimes feel male (or, more troublingly, that they don?t shave off all body hair) as having, in a sense, abandoned ship.

There are several places where well-meaning people may disagree. Which should we prioritize: how we self-define, or how others define us? And does feminist liberation come through the eventual elimination (or proliferation) of labels, or does it require outspoken solidarity on the part of those who present as female? Much as I might want to embrace the former in both cases, I wind up drawn to the latter. On some level, I identify as a Jew?despite no religious adherence, and no particular draw towards Jewish communal life?because anti-Semitism exists. That is, I think, what?s going on when cis feminists squirm at what seems like an evasive self-identification, like what Escobar described in their piece. It?s a political desire to see a level of solidarity.

It?s a matter of basic decency when it comes to pronouns?and restrooms?to err on the side of respect. And yes, this means allowing people to go through phases when they identify as a gender of their own invention. But who?s to say that the person someone is for a month at 15 or 25 is any less who they really are than the one they?ll be at 50? Ultimately, it doesn?t matter whether someone has embraced a new identity permanently; respect isn?t about wrapping your head around another person?s thought processes.

Just as we?the feminist women who identify as women with no other qualifiers?aren?t in a position to assess whether someone preferring a certain pronoun really feels whichever gender, so too should advocates of the new gender-fluidity remember that not all binary self-definition results from binary sentiment, or from a position of ease. In the end, it?s about the same thing: not policing others? identities, nor projecting our identities onto them.

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Why the Goldman Sachs Settlement Is a $5 Billion Sham

?Recently Goldman Sachs reached a settlement with the federal government for $5 billion because they were selling worthless packages of subprime mortgages,? Bernie Sanders shouted (as he does) in the last Democratic presidential debate. ?If you are a kid caught with marijuana in Michigan, you get a police record. If you are an executive on Wall Street that destroys the American economy, you pay a $5 billion fine, no police record.?

This lack of accountability for Wall Street and the perception of a two-tiered justice system gnaws away at Americans? trust. But now that the Goldman Sachs settlement Sanders referred to has been finalized, I?m sorry to say that he was wrong. If you are an executive on Wall Street who destroys the American economy, you don?t pay a $5 billion fine. You pay much, much less. In fact, you can make a credible case that Goldman won?t pay a fine at all. They will merely send a cut of profits from long-ago fraudulent activity to a shakedown artist, also known as U.S. law enforcement.

The Justice Department announcement in the Goldman case states that between 2005 and 2007, the investment bank marketed and sold mortgage-backed securities to investors that were of lower quality than promised. As a result, Goldman will pay a $2.385 billion civil penalty to the Justice Department, $875 million resolving claims from other state and federal agencies, and $1.8 billion in so-called ?consumer relief? measures, like forgiving principal on loans and providing financing for affordable housing. That?s where the much-touted $5 billion figure comes from.

In The New York Times, Nathaniel Popper took a careful look at the consumer relief provisions, finding that Goldman Sachs could pay up to $1 billion less than advertised, because the company gets extra credit for spending in certain hard-hit communities or for meeting its obligations within the first six months. I appreciate Popper?s precision, but it?s unnecessary. None of this consumer relief represents a penalty on Goldman at all.

That?s because Goldman Sachs doesn?t own any of the loans it?ll be modifying. They were sold to investors years ago. Goldman will quite literally pay that fine with someone else?s money; in fact, the money comes from the very investors Goldman victimized, by selling them toxic securities under false pretenses.

So what about the consumer relief that goes toward financing affordable housing and community reinvestment? This involves making loans, a moneymaking activity for banks (indeed, their primary function). Getting banks to lend in poor communities, which they often neglect, is laudable in some sense. But it?s hardly a penalty for Goldman Sachs. I have described this in the past as akin to sentencing a bank robber to opening a lemonade stand.

This brings the $5 billion settlement down to $3.2 billion. But only $2.385 billion of the total comes in the form of a cash civil penalty. The rest is tax deductible, as a business expense. Considering the indeterminate dollar value of the consumer relief, it?s hard to say how much money Goldman will be able to write off. But going with the Justice Department?s numbers, you have $2.615 billion in tax-deductible penalty, which at a 35 percent corporate tax rate equals a write-off of $915 million. That means nearly $1 billion of the settlement is effectively financed by taxpayers. 

So now we?re at approximately $2.3 billion. But let?s go back: The misconduct in question occurred between 2005 and 2007. The real value in 2016 dollars of a portion of profits made from 2005 to 2007 is substantially less, perhaps closer to $2 billion. More important, Goldman got to keep the money it made illegally for a decade before having to give any of it back. Goldman?s asset-management unit consistently predicts annual growth above ten percent, meaning that the company fully expects to double its money within ten years. Taking that into account, Goldman didn?t really pay a penalty at all, but used ill-gotten gains to generate a bunch of money, only returning some principal well after the fact while keeping the returns.

The upshot: Goldman Sachs and the Justice Department get to divvy up the profits of a fraud scheme perpetrated on the public.

Goldman Sachs made far more than $2 billion on the sale of mortgage-backed securities, by the way. Check out this list from the settlement documents of all the securitizations they issued that are covered by the settlement; it comes to roughly 530 securitizations, each of which typically held $1 billion in loans. I wouldn?t insult Goldman?s money-earning prowess by suggesting it only made $2 billion in profit on $530 billion in mortgage-backed securities. So even if you think Goldman is paying some kind of penalty, at best it?s a cut of the profits.

And who benefits from Goldman?s payments? Not the investors who were the actual victims of the misconduct; as I noted before they end up paying more money by seeing principal cut on the loans they own. Some homeowners get affordable loans or reduced mortgage debt, even though Goldman Sachs specifically harmed investors. But the biggest beneficiaries in this transaction are the Justice Department, the New York Attorney General?s office, and the other state and federal agencies who receive cash awards, from the civil penalty and the resolution of other claims.

The upshot: Law enforcement settled a case on behalf of investors and then walked away with the proceeds, while investors got nothing. Goldman Sachs and the Justice Department get to divvy up the profits of a fraud scheme perpetrated on the public.

The Goldman Sachs settlement is the last of a series of enforcement actions hammered out by a state/federal task force on financial fraud, co-chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Four other banks?JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley?paid similarly dubious fines over the packaging and sale of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities. The origins of this task force represent a failed choice by Schneiderman that let even more damaging misconduct on the part of banks go relatively unpunished. 

I recount this full story in my book Chain of Title, which comes out next month. But to summarize, mortgage companies (units of these same big banks) delivered millions of forged and fabricated documents to courthouses and county registrars nationwide, false evidence used to foreclose on homeowners when the companies otherwise had no standing to do so. This was dubbed foreclosure fraud, and with millions of examples of wrongdoing, it represented the best opportunity to prosecute executives who authorized and directed the scheme, as well as to use that legal exposure to reach an equitable resolution that kept people in their homes.

Instead of a vigorous investigation, the Justice Department and 50 state attorneys general moved directly to negotiating a settlement. Schneiderman initially opposed that, but reversed himself. He theorized that the real money wasn?t in foreclosure fraud, but in this criminal packaging and selling of securitizations, this defrauding of investors. So he made a deal to create a task force with enough resources to examine and prosecute that misconduct.

All that evidence of fraudulent foreclosures, the largest consumer fraud in American history, turned into the National Mortgage Settlement, a ?$25 billion penalty? against five mortgage companies, where only $5 billion was in the form of cash. Despite promises that 1 million homeowners would see principal reductions from that settlement, only 83,000 ever did. But no matter; Schneiderman promised that the task force would result in outcomes ?an order of magnitude? bigger.

That simply didn?t happen. Once you weed out the tax deductions, the payments with other people?s money, and all the rest, the final task force tally is miniscule. A couple years ago I surmised that the $36.65 billion coughed up by Bank of America, Citigroup, and JPMorgan Chase translated into just $11.5 billion in reality. And the Goldman settlement looks like it will cost the bank more like $0, when all is said and done. 

So the most wide-ranging financial crisis misconduct was quickly settled without investigation. And despite Schneiderman swearing that the task force would explore all options for accountability, none of its members ever issued a single criminal subpoena. The banks bought their way out of the problem on the cheap, no executive saw a jail cell or had to return a penny of personal compensation, and the law enforcement agencies, not the victims, reaped the majority of the rewards.

At that March 9 Democratic debate, Sanders closed his remarks on Goldman Sachs by vowing, ?we are going to bring justice back to a broken criminal justice system.? He has no idea how dire that need is. We don?t have a justice system with the courage to convict everyone, regardless of wealth and power. And that ensures that the wealthy and powerful will keep committing crimes.


Bokova at the UN: Fog over Turtle Bay

General Assembly Seventieth session Informal Dialogues with Candidates for the Position of Secretary-General: Ms. Irina Bokova Panel L-R Ms. Irina Bokova (Bulgaria), Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, President of the seventieth session of the General Assembly. Ms. Catherine Pollard, Under Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management.

Perish the thought that as an institution, the United Nations has a dire shortage of platitudes, buzzwords and vague good intentions. Should that body elect Irina Bokova as its next Secretary-General, she would arrive with sufficient in stock to build a new tower of them to cast a long shadow over New York?s East River.

One does not necessarily want to be beastly to Bokova. She was only the second in a series of candidates to be Secretary-General to take a seat at the high table of the UN?s Trusteeship Council Chamber in what has been labelled ?informal dialogue? (candidate hearings, one might prefer) and who knows what verbal fog might still gather in that august chamber.

Bokova was bookended on day one of these hearings, awfully sorry, informal dialogues, between Montenegro?s candidate Igor Luk?i? and António Guterres, the nominee of Portugal. She won, at least, the sartorial stakes. Guterres was grey-suited with a sombre maroon tie. Luk?i? favoured navy with a subtly fashionable tie. Bokova garbed herself in a blue trouser suit accessorised with a string of white pearls, not only channelling Thatcher (love or hate her, her tone for politicians lives on) but also discreetly suggesting the colours of the UN itself.

On one level, if this was Washington politics, Bokova would be the Beltway candidate; in her second term as the head of Unesco, a candidate from within the system. The observation about her sartorial choice is made not to be facetious but as an overture to the message that Bokova seemed keen to hammer home, of herself as the candidate of continuity. Whether or not that is an advisable choice may depend on your view of incumbent Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Bokova?s current boss, or for that matter, of the state of the UN itself.

Nominated by Bulgaria, and not without considerable domestic divisive controversy on the subject, Bokova offered a postcard of her country, boasting of its more than a millenium of history, its long-standing cultural, historical and geographical charms. Then, and it may be mischievous to suggest that this was done in mind of the controversy that attends her communist-era pedigree, she performed a graceful chronological entrechat to post-communist Bulgaria (thus leaving out some several decades of the 20th century and her own life) to introduce herself as an eager and involved contributor to the country?s 1991 constitution, especially ? in her description ? in the arenas of human rights and most particularly, women?s rights.

(Bokova?s less-than-subtle references to her own gender, generally acknowledged as a factor in this year?s choice of a new UN chief, would have put in the shade Hillary Clinton, who would have been campaigning not so far away, elsewhere in New York, to be the next US president.)

Referring to those early heady years in modern Bulgaria, Bokova asserted: ?I know what a transition is?*. She extended this idea to being of relevance to the UN as a whole.

She added that she was a ?convinced multilateralist?, perhaps a nice point to reinforce, though one that, were it lacking in her convictions, would make her choice to seek the job of chief of history?s most famous multilateral body a very odd one indeed.

After that, we meandered in to a question-and-answer session that was reminiscent neither of the cut-and-thrust of a US congressional hearing nor even of a European Parliament hearing of the kind that some years ago prompted the exit of Roumyana Zheleva from public life.

Much of the questioning served as a reminder of two things. First, that even as an association of member states, the latter-day UN is as much a motley cluster of groupings, as questions were put on behalf of ? among others ? the Non-Aligned Movement, the G77, the Africa Group, the G4, the European Union, African Union, the Alliance of Small Island States, and so on. Second, and one fears for envoys who clearly have spent far too much time in the cloistered walls of the UN, it has its own in-language, making the whole thing reminiscent of being trapped in some kind of hell of NGO-speak. Verbiage as a substitute for action, which may serve either as a criticism of the nature of the UN, or as its corporate mission statement.

Bokova, we learnt, is keen on COP21 and addressing climate change, believes in the role of women in peace and sustainable development, believes that the UN can work better with the African Union, and in reply to a question (from a civil society representative), declared herself to be against corruption and bad management practices at the UN, while keenly in favour of continuing the process of reforms. Toward the end of the hearing, she made reference to the Durban Declaration (to save you looking it up, that emerged at the end of the farcical UN conference in 2001 in South Africa?s otherwise beautiful Indian Ocean city) and let it be known that she was keenly against the resurgences of xenophobia and racism troubling the world of late.

She did not fail to point to her own years of experience as head of Unesco, noting, among other things, that ?human rights is the basis of all our activities? as, she said, should be the case for all of the UN. To a question from English school pupils about what she would do ? even if she did not get the post of UN Secretary-General ? to make the world a better and happier place, Bokova described herself as a ?happy person leading a happy organisation? ? the latter being, lest critics glance askance, a reference to Unesco.

Inevitably, the Middle East issue came up, including from the representative of the ?State of Palestine?. Bokova burbled about how she would ?spare no effort? to build trust and mutual confidence, though it remained unclear how; to be fair, her time to explain was limited. She went on, in reference to such conflicts, to concede that she had no ?magic bullet?, perhaps not the most fortunate choice of expression in relation to the Middle East.

In one of the few questions of direct substance, free of jargon and mercifully brief, perhaps in part because it came towards the closing minutes of the slightly more than two hours of the hearing (read: informal dialogue, if you must) a representative of Ukraine challenged Bokova directly to say what she would do to stand up for the UN General Assembly resolution on the territorial integrity of Ukraine, most specifically Crimea. Rushing to answer multiple questions at that stage, there seemed no direct answer, perhaps beyond that lack of a magic bullet and a commitment to stand for up for the founding principles of the organisation.

In sum, the hearing (yes, I know) was a largely tepid and pedestrian affair, genteel rather than challenging, and certainly no candidate was harmed in the production. Like other candidates, the fate of Bokova will ? for all the claims of a new age of transparency ? probably first be decided by the inner workings of the Security Council, before a decision is put to the General Assembly. And, as noted, there are other candidates yet to be heard, and perhaps deals to be made; it is the UN; Bokova made no gaffes, and at the UN, platitudes and vagueness are hardly the kind of thing that are penalised.

(Photo of Bokova: UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

[*For my birthday, I want a T-shirt with those words on it.]



Link to article

The Kind of Loneliness That?s Good for Art

?I never went swimming in New York,? Olivia Laing remarks in an early chapter of The Lonely City, her meditation on urban solitude and artists who have illuminated its murky terrain. Laing is English, based in London, and during a period she spent living in New York several years ago?first in sublets in Brooklyn Heights and the East Village, later in a converted hotel in Times Square?she never stuck around for a summer, when the pools were open. When she was in town, alone and mildly despondent following the sudden end of a relationship, she wandered the far east side of Manhattan, where she took a special interest in an empty pool. ?I was lonely at the time, lonely and adrift, and this spectral blue space, filling at its corners with blown brown leaves, never failed to tug my heart.? 

THE LONELY CITY: ADVENTURES IN THE ART OF BEING ALONE by Olivia Laing 337 pp., Picador, $26.00

As Laing reminds us, when we?re lonely, we see the world differently. We?re attuned to the apparently charmed lives of those around us, but also to other lonely people, as well as to sad movies, melancholy songs, and symbols of missed opportunity, such as empty swimming pools. (As Raymond Chandler quipped in The Long Goodbye, ?nothing ever looks emptier than an empty swimming pool.?) Laing?s pool evokes that special blend of dejection, but it also recalls her previous book, The Trip to Echo Spring, a literary investigation into writers and alcoholism, which includes a consideration of John Cheever?s short story ?The Swimmer.? There, a man makes his way home one evening through a suburban bedroom community via the backyard pools of his neighbors, stopping for nightcaps along the way. By the time he arrives, his house is empty, and life has passed him by. The story was published in The New Yorker in 1964, and by then, Cheever was well into his own solitary descent into drink.

Across all of her books, Laing is interested in how the baggage people carry threatens to define them, and how forces that are generally seen as destructive?alcoholism, radical loneliness?contain a kind of undeniable creative appeal. In Echo Spring, she juxtaposed close readings of Hemingway, Cheever, and Tennessee Williams? lives and works alongside her own memories of growing up with a violent alcoholic (her mother?s partner, who lived with the family as a ?friend? when homosexuality was not yet tolerated in England). In Lonely City, Laing again moves between memoir and criticism, focusing on the alienating effects of urban life as well as on those who find inspiration within its fragile ecosystems. In this, she poses the question of whether loneliness, usually seen as a form of failure, can be viewed as more complex, as something generative.

Laing is a literary critic, yet Lonely City draws primarily on visual art, which speaks to her during her own dark period. As a new transplant to New York, Edward Hopper?s chilly diner in Nighthawks calls out to her from across the Met; Hitchcock?s Rear Window resonates with her own voyeuristic experience of living alone in the city. On first glance, this seems like an unlikely turn: From Baudelaire to Auster and Ferrante, there have been many fictional portraits of loneliness, and more still when one includes the work of psychologists and sociologists such as Freida Fromm-Reichmann, Robert Weiss, and David Reisman. Laing nods at this scholarly literature, yet her central insight about loneliness is that it is fundamentally visual, the thing that remains once human connection has vanished and language rendered out of reach. In other words, when we can?t speak, we must see. ?When a person is lonely,? she writes, ?they long to be witnessed, accepted, desired, at the same time as becoming intensely wary of exposure.? There?s an intimacy in being seen, and a kind of isolation when we?re denied it. 

The former books editor of the UK Observer, Laing has a gift for sifting through art and archival materials and finding sympathetic windows into her subjects, many of whom don?t typically benefit from such generous treatment. In her hands, close readings of works tend to illuminate biography, rather than the other way around: The frustrated intimacy of David Wojnarowicz?s Rimbaud series is contextualized by his diaries entries about cruising the Chelsea Piers; Nan Goldin?s 1986 exhibition, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is complicated by shocking self-portraits of her own battered face. Lives and works are treated as texts, clues to broader psychological puzzles. Laing is a deft critic, and there?s an intimate, conversational quality to her approach?she?ll start with a memorable sentence or image, then drift almost anecdotally into a subject?s background, teasing out the implicit connections between loss and creation, the unsettling histories beneath the surface.

Laing?s critical compass is oriented by her fascination with outsiders, writers and artists whose iconoclasm often proved visionary. Lonely City includes a number of eclectic and excellently rendered mini-profiles of such people?Klaus Nomi and Vivian Maier, Sherry Turkle and Josh Harris?but the book focuses mainly on four main figures, starting with Edward Hopper, the painter whose images are ?so resistant to entry, and so radiant with feeling.? Again, criticism emerges from memoir: Much of life in New York consists of being outside and looking in, and at the Met, her impressions about living privately in public crystallize when she overhears a docent observing that the chilly midcentury diner in Nighthawks is missing a door. What?s the significance of this? ?Was the diner a refuge for the isolated? or did it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities?? Both, she determines: ?The painting?s brilliance derived from its instability, its refusal to commit.? This gives way to a consideration of Hopper himself, who, painfully shy and withdrawn, discouraged his wife?s career as a painter at the advantage of his own, and created a cocoon around their unhappy relationship. 

Like unhappy families, no two forms of loneliness are ever exactly the same.

Like unhappy families, no two forms of loneliness are ever exactly the same. While the Hoppers were alone in their marriage, Andy Warhol saw himself as alone in a  crowd. Burdened with the residual trauma of having grown up with a heavy Eastern European-inflected accent and a childhood stutter, he hid his reluctance to speak behind costumes and technology?namely a voice recorder, which he referred to as his wife. The device was central to the making of a, a novel, a book of transcribed conversations between the artist and Factory regulars. (Critics at the time decried a as parasitic and manipulative; Laing regards it as a ?symbiotic exchange between? excess and paucity, expulsion and retention.?) Warhol?s book is tragic in many ways, but not because it fails at connection. In one of the most fascinating sections of Lonely City, Laing compares the artist?s ability to have his thoughts taken seriously with that of Valerie Solanas, radical feminist, writer, and Warhol?s would-be assassin. Solanas shot Warhol because she felt their fraught friendship was crowding out her own voice; after that, she pinged between mental hospitals and prisons before dying in a welfare hotel in San Francisco. While Warhol was canonized as a genius, Solanas drifted further and further into obscurity, eventually losing her ability to speak for herself, and assuming a place in history as a footnote to Warhol.

Wojnarowicz shared Warhol?s brand of aphasia, a struggle with speech that doubled as a kind of social paralysis. Like Warhol, Wojnarowicz was gay and had survived a difficult childhood. Unlike Warhol (or at least, unlike what popular mythology holds about him) Wojnarowicz was at ease sexually. While Warhol took comfort in policing the boundaries of intimacy?he would let people in then pull away from them?Wojnarowicz prowled the edges of Manhattan in search of fleeting encounters, rarely seeing the same man twice. His photography and journal entries captured these moments in vivid detail, rendering the Chelsea Piers as Blakean landscapes of pleasure and torment, inspiration for his work.    

Henry Darger, the last main figure profiled in Lonely City, was the most removed from those who would later be considered his contemporaries, the most classically alone. A childhood orphan and lifelong bachelor, Darger lived all of his life in Chicago, where he worked as a janitor and spent his free time writing and illustrating an epic account of a Manichean battle between good and evil as led by a gang of young girls. The 15,145-page book, along with other prints and writings, were discovered after his death in 1973, and launched his reputation as an outsider artist. (The facts of his life and death no doubt facilitated his success, as they allowed Darger?s champions to interpret him without interference.)

Darger is frequently described as having suffered from an afflicted mind, yet Laing regards him as a victim of bad luck and negligent welfare systems; a man whose capacity for invention was inextricable from his ostracism. While Warhol, Hopper and Wojnarowicz were lonely within vast networks of people and exchange, Darger had almost no close human contact. The Realms of the Unreal, with its vast scale and elaborate moral systems, is an effort not to document loneliness, but to populate it.

Is loneliness an aesthetic? The Lonely City seems to suggest that it is, that certain works speak in languages we can only understand when we?re in the proper frame of mind. On the one hand, this seems intuitively true?there?s something, say, about the songs of Elliot Smith or the blue paintings of Picasso that betray a sadness and longing that seems inextricable from their creators. In her own dark period, Laing gravitated towards figures who shared her outlook, and whose troubled histories came through in their art. Biography, of course, doesn?t determine interpretation, yet even if a viewer weren?t aware of Wojnarowicz?s childhood abuse or Darger?s reclusiveness, they would likely be able to intuit something haunted about their work. Loneliness may not be an aesthetic, but it is a mood, one characterized by a powerful desire for expression.

In the final pages of the book, Laing turns her attention to Strange Fruit (for David) a sculpture by the artist Zoe Leonard to honor the memory of Wojnarowicz. The work is made up of the skins of 302 pieces of fruit, which are dried and sewn together and left to rot and disintegrate on the floor of wherever they?re being shown. It?s a kind of mourning ritual, and in this, it suggests a new community, one forged in grief and rebirth. We may live alone and die alone, as Orson Welles once remarked, but in our loneliness, there?s company to be found. 

From Bulgaria

A Maddening Sound

Sue Taylor first started hearing it at night in 2009. A retired psychiatric nurse, Taylor lives in Roslin, Scotland, a small village seven miles outside of Edinburgh. ?A thick, low hum,? is how she described it, something ?permeating the entire house,? keeping her awake. At first she thought it was from a nearby factory, or perhaps a generator of some kind. She began spending her evenings looking for the source, listening outside her neighbors? homes in the early hours of the morning. She couldn?t find anything definitive. She had her hearing checked and was told it was perfect, but the noise persisted. She became dizzy and nauseous, overcome, she says, by a crushing sense of despair and hopelessness at her inability to locate or escape the sound. When things got bad, it felt to Taylor like the bed?and the whole house?was vibrating. Like her head was going to explode. Her husband, who had tinnitus, didn?t hear a thing. ?People looked at me like I was mad,? she said.

Lori Steinborn lives in Tavares, Florida, outside of Orlando, and in 2006 she had started hearing a noise similar to the one Taylor was hearing. Steinborn thought it was her neighbors at first: some nearby stereo blasting, the bass coming through the walls. It would start most nights between 7 and 8 p.m. and last until the early hours of the morning. Like Taylor, she began searching for the sound; leaving town helped her get away from it, but it was waiting when she returned.

The experience described by Steinborn and Taylor, and many others, is what?s come to be known as ?the Hum,? a mysterious auditory phenomenon that, by some estimates, 2 percent of the population can hear. It?s not clear when the Hum first began, or when people started noticing it, but it started drawing media attention in the 1970s, in Bristol, England. After receiving several isolated reports, the British tabloid the Sunday Mirror asked, in 1977, ?Have You Heard the Hum?? Hundreds of letters came flooding in. For the most part, the reports were consistent: a low, distant rumbling, like an idling diesel engine, mostly audible at night, mostly noticeable indoors. No obvious source.

The story of the Hum begins in such places, far from the hustle and bustle of cities, where stillness blankets everything. That?s where you hear it, and that?s where it becomes intolerable. After it was first reported in Bristol, it emerged in Taos, New Mexico; Kokomo, Indiana; Largs, Scotland. A small city newspaper would publish a report of a local person suffering from an unidentified noise, followed by a torrent of letters to the editor with similar complaints.

Sometimes, this would lead to a begrudging official investigation, but these nearly always ended inconclusively. Far more likely was widespread dismissal of the complaints, which made the experience that much more frustrating for those who heard the Hum. Though University of Southampton researchers R.N. Vasudevan and Colin G. Gordon, who investigated claims of the Hum in 1977, established that it was ?very probably? a real phenomenon and not an auditory hallucination, Hum sufferers have been consistently written off as either delusional or simply suffering from tinnitus. When asked by The Independent about the Hum in 1994, Jonathan Hazell, head of research at the U.K.?s Royal National Institute for Deaf People, responded, ?Rubbish. Everybody who has tinnitus complains at first of environmental noise. ?Hummers? are a group of people who cannot accept that they have tinnitus.?

Dismissed by governments and mainstream researchers, Hum sufferers become demoralized, despondent. In such isolation the discourse festers, breeding conspiracy theories and kooks. In 2009, the first episode of the reality show Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura offered a theory of the Hum possibly stemming from a government mind-control device, and in a 1998 X-Files episode the Hum (or something very much like it) caused spontaneous head explosions. On a Facebook page for Hum sufferers, one rambling post describes how ?advanced satellite technology? is being used as ?a brutal torture instrument by transmitting sounds, voices, and images directly into the brain, creating numerous pains and sensations throughout the body and significantly altering energy level and emotional states.? The post goes on to name several people who have been targeted by this technology, including Miriam Carey, the dental hygienist who drove through a White House checkpoint in 2013, setting off a high-speed chase that led to her death, and Aaron Alexis, the civilian contractor who, on September 16, 2013, entered the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard and killed twelve people before dying in a firefight with police. Alexis has become, for some, proof positive that the Hum is not merely an annoyance but a massive government conspiracy. In a message later recovered by authorities from his computer, Alexis wrote that ?Ultra low frequency attack is what I?ve been subject to for the last three months. And to be perfectly honest, that is what has driven me to this.?

There are many things we know the Hum is not, but few things we actually know it is. I?d first heard stories of the Hum a few years ago, in the genre of weird conspiracies and odd occurrences one reads about when traveling the internet: another tin foil hat theory to go with the UFOs, Flat Earthers, and Raelians. But then I learned about Glen MacPherson, a high school math teacher in British Columbia, who had attracted attention not for sharing strange tales of the Hum but for doing serious, scientific work on the phenomenon. Word was that he had undertaken a research project that, if successful, could hold the secret to understanding the Hum once and for all. So I traveled to western Canada to hear about the sound.

As far back as the early nineteenth century, one finds records of strange noises, mysterious humming, inexplicable sounds. A traveler summiting the Pyrenees in 1828 described how, when his party first beheld Mount Maladeta, ?we were most forcibly struck with a dull, low, moaning, aeolian sound, which alone broke upon the deathly silence, evidently proceeding from the body of this mighty mass, though we in vain attempted to connect it with any particular spot, or assign an adequate cause for these solemn strains.? These enigmatic sounds were attributed to various causes?insect swarms just out of sight, shifting sands?but, being rare and benign, they were mostly ignored.

The Industrial Revolution changed attitudes toward noise, as machines and urban life introduced a constant, deafening racket into the world. By the end of the nineteenth century we?d begun a war on the noise we had created, particularly in the United States, where it quickly became a question of personal liberty and privacy. ?How soon shall we learn,? the magazine Current Literature editorialized in 1900, ?that one has no more right to throw noises than they have to throw stones into a house?? In 1930, the Saturday Evening Post commented that ?People dare not enter a man?s house or peep into it, yet he has no way of preventing them from filling his house and his office with nerve-racking noise.?

Using recordings uploaded to YouTube, Louivere+Vanessa broadcast audio files through a digital spectrometer to create images. These were then printed, using archival inkjet printer, onto handmade Japanese kozo paper, which was dibond primed with gesso, covered in gold leaf, and coated with resin. The resulting photographs are aural visualizations of an elusive noise: the Hum. Above is a recording from Bristol, England.

Different cities tried different tactics. New York set up ?Zones of Quiet? around hospitals and schools, and established the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, which pushed through a 1907 act prohibiting the needless use of steam whistles in maritime traffic?the first noise-abatement legislation passed by Congress. In Baltimore, a dedicated anti-noise cop named Maurice E. Pease was appointed to instruct any huckster shouting about their wares that business could be conducted more efficiently via printed signs. Chicago banned the hawking of wares outright in 1911, and peddlers responded with a riot that stretched over three days, in what the Tribune called ?a day of rioting and wild disorder such as has not been seen in Chicago since the garment workers? strike.?

After the introduction in the 1920s of the decibel as an objective unit for measuring noise, cities were able to implement noise-abatement policies that cut the overall volume to (mostly) manageable levels. But perversely, it?s precisely these noise-reduction laws that allowed the Hum to emerge. In a loud environment like New York City, it?s far too difficult to hear the Hum, since it tends to just blend in with the din and chaos of everything else. The Hum, you could say, is not so much a sound but what?s left over, the noise you hear once all the other noises have been taken away.

Further confusing matters is the fact that some reports of the Hum have been definitively traced to specific sources and corrected. The Hum was heard in Sausalito, California, in the mid-1980s, but was eventually found to be the result of the mating sounds of a fish called the plainfin midshipman, whose call could penetrate the steel hulls of the houseboats in the marina. The Windsor Hum was investigated by the Canadian government and ultimately traced to factories on Zug Island, across the Detroit River in Michigan. After an extensive study of the Hum in Kokomo, Indiana, researchers determined that it was caused by two nearby manufacturing plants whose production facilities were emitting specific low frequencies.

The Hum soon stopped for some people in Kokomo?but not for everyone. Even in cases where there?s a likely culprit, it?s difficult to prove for sure. Dr. Colin Novak, one of the lead researchers of the Windsor Hum, concluded his report in May 2014, but in a CBC article that year he was quoted saying that while there was a high probability the cause was the Zug Island factories, ?Unfortunately, we weren?t able to find that smoking gun.? Without a longer study and more cooperation from U.S. authorities, researchers couldn?t definitively identify the source. ?It?s like chasing a ghost,? Novak said. 

?I love science. I love mysteries. I love figuring things out,? said Glen MacPherson, the high school teacher and founder of the World Hum Map and Database Project, a site that has, since 2012, gathered and mapped reports of the Hum worldwide, including its location, intensity, and relevant biographical facts on the individual reporting it. MacPherson lives in Gibsons, British Columbia, a tiny town on the far west side of an inlet called Howe Sound. To get there you hook up with the Trans-Canada Highway and take it west until it runs out of road at a place called Horseshoe Bay, and from there a ferry carries you across the sound.

The air in Gibsons is lucid and still; you can hear the call of birds echoing across that pure stillness. Even the ferry and its cargo seem deferential to the silence of the water and its sparsely inhabited islands. The humble city of Vancouver, 30 miles away, seems a noisy urban nightmare.

We were sitting in the conference room of the Gibsons & District Public Library on a Saturday afternoon. It was quiet inside; any kids who could get away with it were out soaking up one of the last good weekends of the season. As I listened to MacPherson?s story of a mysterious noise, I couldn?t help but notice a sign tacked to the wall behind him, written in the big, gentle hand of a kindergarten teacher: ?Be kind, be safe, be listening.?

So I listened. MacPherson?s Hum story, at least initially, was fairly typical: In 2012, he was living in Sechelt, just a few miles from Gibsons, when he began hearing at night the droning of what he assumed were seaplanes taking off and landing. ?I couldn?t tell if it was a week or two or a month,? he recalled, ?but it became quite obvious at one point that this sound was not being caused by planes. So I waited until it started the following evening?it seemed to have a pretty regular onset at 10 to 10:30 p.m.?and I went outside, and the noise stopped.?

?My logic was that if it was louder inside and it stopped outside, then the source was inside: a refrigerator, a piece of machinery, whatever it was. I started walking through the house, and the sound was relatively consistent.? MacPherson began turning off various appliances, all to no avail. One oddity he did notice, however, was that the noise would stop if he turned his head sharply or exhaled, though it would instantly return. ?And then I ran out of ideas, and so I did what many people ultimately do: I cut the power to the house?and it got louder.?

Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don?t more of us hear it?

Though his experience with the Hum has not been as excruciating as some others (he describes himself as a Hum ?hearer? rather than ?sufferer?), MacPherson was drawn to the problem of this mysterious noise: ?Less than one month after beginning my informal inquiries, I did what essentially every single person who visits the Hum web site has done: You go to Google.? He found an article in The Journal of Scientific Exploration, by a geophysicist named David Deming, titled ?The Hum: An Anomalous Sound Heard Around the World.?

Deming, who has taught at the University of Oklahoma since 1992, was one of the first scientists to take the problem of the Hum seriously. (He also heard the Hum.) Crucially, Deming was able to distinguish the Hum from tinnitus. Tinnitus, usually a ringing in the ear, can take a number of forms, but while its intensity may wax and wane, it is more or less omnipresent, and those who suffer from it tend to hear it in any environment. The Hum, which is constant but only under certain circumstances (indoors, rural areas, etc.), defies a simple correlation with tinnitus. Additionally, Deming notes that if the Hum were related to tinnitus, one would expect a fairly normal geographic distribution rather than clusters in small towns.

Deming believed that the Hum wasn?t an acoustic sound, but possibly a low-frequency vibration that some people interpret as sound. The most likely culprit of the Hum was a Navy project known as Take Charge and Move Out, or TACAMO. Begun in the early 1960s, TACAMO is a network of aircraft that carry very low frequency (VLF) antennae to communicate with nuclear submarines. VLF waves, which require extremely long broadcast antennae and massive amounts of energy, can cover the globe and penetrate nearly any surface (they reach submarines a hundred feet below the surface). Deming proposed a simple experiment to test this hypothesis: Three boxes, each large enough to hold a human, one that blocked sound, one that blocked low-frequency waves and other types of electromagnetic radiation, and a control box that blocked neither.

Aside from Deming?s article, MacPherson realized, there was very little out there: The few user forums were rife with nonsense, heavy on anecdote, and light on fact. There were enough reports from far-flung places to suggest that the problem went beyond Taos and Bristol, but no one seemed to be doing anything systematic to gather all this information. As it happens, MacPherson had a background in technology. ?My degree major was in computer science programming, minors in mathematics and Russian language. I also worked briefly as a web professional in the early 2000s alongside my teaching.? In 2012, he used a simple Google Docs tool to create a list of self-reported experiences with the Hum. ?In combination of that and the Google form, and me knowing how to whip up web sites in a few hours, it began: the World Hum Map.?

MacPherson?s database allows users to input their experience with the Hum, including information on where and when it?s the loudest, if the hearer has tinnitus, if anything makes it stop, and so on. The World Hum Map soon came to the attention of Reddit, and submissions began pouring in; there are now over 5,000 data points. The first thing the site revealed was that the Hum wasn?t restricted to Taos and Bristol. It was everywhere.

A purported recording of the Taos Hum anonymously uploaded to YouTube.

It?s in Overland Park, Kansas, where it sounds like ?a metallic sound of something vibrating?; in Ankara, Turkey, where it?s a ?very deep and quiet rumble that sounds like a very distant diesel generator?; and in Hervey Bay, Australia, where it?s ?a pulsating continuous low background aircraft rumble that does not go away.? It seems to show up mostly in rural areas and in small cities: More people have heard it in Boise, Idaho, than in Washington, D.C. Reports dot the globe, from Iceland to the Philippines, but they?re concentrated in North America and Europe; MacPherson surmises this is only because the site is in English.

As I listened to MacPherson tell his story, the wind kept batting a branch against the windows, creating a noise just slight enough to hear but that gradually became maddening, as I found myself unable to tune it out. Hearing is complicated. It?s not just the physical sound waves that matter; it?s also what your brain does with that information. It?s important to remember that there?s so much we still don?t know about how hearing works. We know low-frequency waves can cause pain, nausea, and other deleterious effects on humans?indeed, the United States and other governments have long experimented with using sound and vibration as non-lethal weapons. Over a decade ago, the WaveBand Corporation introduced a device known as Mob Excess Deterrent Using Sound Audio (MEDUSA), which uses directed microwaves to create a strong, discomforting audio sensation in the victim?s head. More common are Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADS), which use ear-splitting focused noise and have been used on everyone from protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, to Somali pirates attacking cruise ships. Add to this the fact that since the early twentieth century we?ve been bombarding the atmosphere with all manner of frequencies and waves. Rather than dismiss Hum hearers as delusional tinnitus sufferers, the question that might be better asked is why don?t more of us hear it?

MacPherson liked his map and thought it was useful for creating a community for Hum sufferers. But he knew there was nothing scientific about it, nothing that would lead to a breakthrough in the Hum?s source. ?People tell me where they are and what they hear and I put a dot on a map,? he said. Then, a few months after he started hearing the Hum, he realized ?this crucial experiment that Deming had envisioned hadn?t been done yet.? The boxes. No one had thought to attempt Deming?s simple proposal of three boxes that could easily and definitively prove whether the Hum was an acoustic noise or a frequency, and no one had thought to try it. ?I couldn?t believe it.? So MacPherson crowdsourced a few hundred dollars to cover the material costs and built the first one, the one that would block VLF waves. 

MacPherson?s Deming box is six feet by three feet by two feet, and made of black low-carbon steel. It looks like a cross between a coffin and the monolith from 2001. He keeps it in a woodshed not far from his house. ?Deming,? MacPherson said, ?suggested that the first box out of three?which is what this is?should be able to completely block VLF radio waves.? Deming?s solution was a box with walls made from inch-thick aluminum, which would have been cost-prohibitive, to say nothing of technically difficult. ?Then I went on with my research and discovered that mild steel, with a minimum thickness of 1.2 millimeters, would provide what they call, in the physics lingo, about ten skin depths. Each skin depth of mild steel attenuates the signal to, let?s see,??he mumbled a few figures, working out some math in his head??about 30 percent of what the original signal strength would be. Ten skin depths essentially provides 100 percent coverage.? If a Hum sufferer were to get in the box, and if the Hum was indeed caused by VLF waves, then the noise should stop once inside the box. This is the test that MacPherson was planning to do while I was there. His goal was to take it on the road, bringing it down the Pacific Coast to meet up with other Hum sufferers and test it.

The welds on the box were thick, running along the edges like long-healed scars; as I ran a finger along one of them, he said, ?The welding is crucial, because VLF radio waves have a peculiar habit of being able to penetrate, and find cracks, just like water.?

He pried open the hatch so I could peer inside. It looked claustrophobic, a pure black interior not long enough for an adult to lie in comfortably.

?So you?ll need some kind of oxygen source,? I asked, feeling a bit queasy at the thought of spending time locked in there.

?No need,? MacPherson answered. ?There?s plenty of air inside a box that size, enough for, I don?t know, four hours of breathing.? This was probably technically correct but not at all reassuring.

MacPherson propped a foot up on the edge of the box. ?If it were a different frequency than VLF,? he said, ?like something around microwave, or cell phone frequency, which some people suggest, then this would not have taken me off and on three years to build.? I asked why, and he said that those waves can easily be blocked by thin layers of foil. ?You know, the classic??

?The tin foil hat,? I finished, both of us laughing. That he?s able to joke about this suggests his even-keeled approach to this whole question, but the hint of fringe conspiracy theories always lurks just around the corner and makes actual progress on solving the Hum extraordinarily difficult.

An inexorable attraction to anomalies is one of the ways science moves forward. 

Take, for instance, another prominent voice in the Hum community: Steve Kohlhase, a mechanical engineer living in Brookfield, Connecticut, who first started hearing the Hum in 2009. ?At one time it was very quiet around here,? Kohlhase told me over the phone. ?We moved up here from New Jersey in 1994, and there were two Algonquin pipelines by us??gas pipelines??and an Iroquois pipeline behind us. We bought the house realizing all that. But it was quiet, no issues at all. And during the 2000s, under Bush and all that?and I?m a Republican by the way?they decided they were going to start expanding. They put a couple of compressor stations behind us, and after they installed those, probably seven months later, I started sensing a low-frequency disturbing noise when I was in bed?the typical thing: One person hears it and the rest of the family doesn?t.? He wasn?t alone in hearing the noise, he said. ?The dog started acting up, and the coyotes started acting up: They started to walk up and down the street, leaving their habitat. ? The dog went on Prozac because he couldn?t handle it.?

Kohlhase believes the pipelines running through his neighborhood and throughout the country are producing the Hum. He claims many of his neighbors hear it too but are afraid to say anything for fear of driving down property values. Other Hum sufferers have connected the Hum to electromagnetic radiation from nearby power plants, cell phone towers, or ?smart? utility meters that broadcast their readings. Any facet of modern life that emits a signal or has moving parts has at one point or another been put forward as a potential cause of this unbearable noise, as though the Hum were something of a Rorschach blot of technological woe.

But from this set of information Kohlhase has extrapolated a conclusion more and more sweeping in scope. He believes that most?if not all?mass shootings of the past few decades can be traced to natural gas pipelines emitting low-frequency radiation. I asked Kohlhase about Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter. ?I don?t think he was crazy,? he said. ?I think he was basically sane given the conditions he was experiencing.? Nor does he think Alexis was alone. Using MacPherson?s maps of Hum reports, and his own research, Kohlhase claimed to have found a correlation between high numbers of Hum sufferers and mass shootings: ?[Alexis] was probably affected mentally by living in these Hum clusters, such as many of these other murderers?in Denver, Albuquerque, Tucson, out in California, even out here in Connecticut, at Newtown.? In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, Kohlhase submitted material to the Connecticut State Police suggesting that a natural gas pipeline near Adam Lanza?s home may have been what drove him to kill 27 people.

This reading of recent gun tragedies is pretty disturbing in its desire to explain with one stroke the root cause of these violent episodes, neatly sidestepping the problem of mental health, easy access to high-capacity assault weapons, and many other factors. It also sidesteps the deep conflicts, ambiguous problems, and difficult solutions in favor of what you could call a magic bullet that resolves the problem once and for all. But in the absence of serious scientific inquiry, this is precisely the kind of logic that?s allowed to prevail.

Visualization of a Hum recording from Taos, New Mexico.

Perhaps this is the reason so many people have seized on MacPherson?s experiment: its elegant simplicity, its promise of silencing the crackpots. With one simple test, it seems, we?ll know once and for all whether the Hum is related to VLF waves. If this theory is correct, we?ll know right away: If someone can hear the Hum outside of the box but not inside it, there will be strong evidence that it?s a low-frequency issue (the box isn?t soundproof). But the fact that it?s such a simple experiment is also why it?s so frustrating that MacPherson hasn?t tried it yet.

?As it turns out,? MacPherson told me, standing next to his steel monolith, ?this unit, despite its very mundane and sepulchral appearance, has not been tested. Nobody has entered this yet, and I?m going to be the first person.?

When I asked him why he hasn?t gone in yet, MacPherson gave me a range of answers. ?For one,? he said, ?I don?t think this location will work. For many people the Hum is inaudible out of doors.? The woodshed MacPherson uses for the box is covered but not sealed, and has no door on it. He won?t bring it inside his own house, claiming it won?t fit inside the door. So he has to move it. ?In the big picture scientifically, this sounds ludicrous, but I need a trailer. The box looks too much like a coffin. I don?t want it seen out in public too much.?

But it?s not just that he doesn?t want to be seen driving it around; he doesn?t want to be seen testing it, either. ?It?ll need to be put in someone?s garage, because that will provide the blocking for the ambient sound, but it?ll also provide the privacy necessary.? When I threw out the possibility of just going ahead and renting him a U-Haul, he demurred, changing the topic back to the theoretical discussion. Having come this far, he seemed suddenly uncomfortable with what he had made.

Gibsons, after all, is a small town of only a few thousand people, and MacPherson has taught high school here for 26 years. Without exaggeration, it?s safe to say that most everyone who lives here or their children has gone through his classroom. Since he?s begun this project he?s become known locally as the Hum guy: When he goes grocery shopping, one of the teenage clerks will stand behind him out of sight and hum quietly. It?s the kind of joke MacPherson takes in stride. ?If I don?t show a sense of humor on this,? he said, ?it?s going to be hell.?

David Deming has more or less ended his involvement with the Hum; he?s no longer doing research on it, and he declined an interview on the topic (though he did answer a few brief questions via email). One wonders if this is because of people like Kohlhase, who Deming sees as the main problem standing in the way of understanding the Hum and other scientific anomalies. ?They are inexorably attracted to anomalies of all types, but their behavior is fundamentally irrational,? he wrote in a 2007 paper. ?On internet discussion forums, these people relentlessly drive out good posters and ruin everything they come into contact with. They need to be condemned swiftly and mercilessly.?

MacPherson is a bit more tolerant. ?Everybody gets a chance with me,? he said. An inexorable attraction to anomalies is one of the ways science moves forward. William R. Corliss, the controversial physicist who spent years collecting records of scientific oddities from singing sands to the Nazca Lines, once wrote of such research that, ?while not science per se,? it nonetheless ?has the potential to destabilize paradigms and accelerate scientific change. Anomalies reveal nature as it really is: complex, chaotic, possibly even unplumbable.?

When Wolfgang Pauli first proposed the existence of neutrino particles in 1930, he almost immediately regretted it, referring to them as a ?desperate remedy? to explain anomalous readings of radioactive decay. The work that ultimately proved their existence led to a Nobel Prize in 1995, but there were still problems, and neutrinos continued to confront scientists with unexplained readings, unpredictable data, and other anomalies that confound known models. Ultimately the so-called solar neutrino problem (referring to the fact that only a third of expected neutrinos emitted from the sun are recorded as expected) was solved in 1998, leading to another Nobel in 2015 for neutrino research.

There are many in the Hum community who see MacPherson?s box as an equally important scientific feat. ?Regardless of the ultimate findings,? a poster commented on MacPherson?s site, ?you have moved the investigation on the Hum forward in an unparalleled manner.? Having come this far, on the verge of finally testing the VLF theory, excitement among the Hum community is pretty high. ?Thank you,? another commenter wrote, ?for the inspiring initiative which may eventually bring back a life to many wandering spirits.?

But having finally completed the box, MacPherson suddenly stopped. After weeks of telling me that he would conduct his experiment in my presence, he made it clear that it would not happen. Partly, he said, this had to do with the school year starting up again and the increasing demands of his main job and his other hobbies. A few weeks later, when MacPherson still hadn?t tested it, a poster on MacPherson?s web site snarled at him. ?Go in already,? he wrote. ?What is it with this cliff-hanger shit??

There was only so long I could stare at a metal box, particularly once MacPherson made it clear that neither of us were going inside it. We?d talked about going out to one of the places where MacPherson has heard the Hum the loudest, but instead he took me to his high school. He was eager to show me the garden he?d set up in the back of his classroom, where his students were growing tomatoes and various herbs. He talked about his other hobbies?surfing, cooking, playing bass guitar. He seemed far more enthusiastic about what his students are doing, and at times seemed quite over the Hum and his role in it.

I?d come to Gibsons to see the thing that was finally going to solve the problem of the Hum, made by the one man best positioned to make that happen. But MacPherson has already begun downplaying the impact of the box he?s built. It doesn?t have much practical use, after all: You can?t live in an airtight steel box all your life. Several people have written about the possibility of living in metal shipping containers as a means to escape the Hum, but since VLF waves can permeate most surfaces, one would have to flawlessly seal the container to get any kind of permanent relief. If it is VLF, in other words, it is inescapable, and MacPherson will at best only be able to verify that the Hum is everywhere.

Rather than hoping to end the problem once and for all, MacPherson hopes that his experiment?if he ever conducts it?will serve as a catalyst for more serious investigation. ?I expect at some point I?ll have this taken away from me by a big university lab,? he said. He believes that the entire problem could be solved with a good lab and a small amount of funding.

?The problem is that no one?s paying for this, no one has picked this up,? he said. ?It?s me and a few people sending me PayPal accounts through the mail that?s essentially made a big metal box sitting in a woodshed.?

click here …

Have we been catfished? Or is this animal a signal that the environment is a wreck? (Updated)

UPDATE: 30-Mar-2016 The Gothamist has followed up on this story of a three-eyed catfish and announced it was a hoax by an artist. The NY Times actually delivered the details on March 28 that an eccentric artist known as Zardulu orchestrated the three-eyed fish hoax from the Gowanus canal. She approached actor ?Greg Hunter? [actually Greg Boz] with the fake fish tale and a bunch of taxidermied fish:

He was given a fishing pole and instructed to return another day and to appear to have caught one of the fish, and to alert passers-by to his catch.

?It felt totally fake to me,? Mr. Boz, 29, said last week at his apartment in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the five fish laid out on his kitchen table. ?I felt like I was being a bad actor. But it was funny.?

It worked. Zardulu also claims credit for the pizza rat video that also went viral and the selfie rat story noting that perpetuating modern myths is ?a tragically underappreciated art form?. Really? Well that does explain a lot of Doubtful News!


NEVER FORGET, all news is doubtful!

Originally posted 2015-Nov 12

Nothing gets headlines like finding a weird critter in a scary place. It?s triply fun if the critter imitates a pop culture icon. So, in the news, we have the supposed discovery of Blinky ? a three-eyed catfish that has been found in a polluted waterway in New York. Is it real? Or is this a put on that is not what it seems?

Capture from video of freaky catfish.

Capture from video of freaky catfish.

A story appeared on The Gothamist on November 8 that some ?dude? caught a freaky fish:

?Bunch of people were crowding this dude fishing near Whole Foods on Gowanus,? a tipster who captured the fish on video wrote us. ?He caught a 3 eyed cat fish. Some lady was flipping out cause he whacked it dead and she said they were trying to preserve the remaining wildlife there or something. It was a crazy scene. He said he was gonna eat it! Crazy.?

The event which took place on the Hamilton Avenue Bridge was recorded on video by Greg Hunter who sent it to the media.

Notice that there is no water around the fish. Why is the guy just hanging around if he?s going to eat it? Why would ANYONE be fishing in this place to begin with? Other clues in the video lend itself to suspicion. It?s looking like a planned joke.

The Gothamist followed up the story with links to biologists who think this is fishy. Curiously, The Gothamist was also the source of this story of a ?thing? (a decomposing raccoon) that washed up along the East River in the summer of 2012, as well as several other stories of freaky finds ? dyed pigeons, a goat head, and the salad frog. So, it seems to be the media outlet for this kind of ?news?. They aren?t as tabloidy as other sites that would publicize such a story. But it did get around. NYMag picked up the story and noted that the placement of the ?third eye? was suspicious, as did the NY Times who was outright dubious about the tale.

One biologist quoted by the Times says that finding this freshwater bullhead in the saltwater Gowanus Canal is unlikely. But these fish are hardy, CAN tolerate pollution, and are bottom feeders, eating dead things and just about everything else. They can also tolerate brackish water but it?s generally conceded that the salinity here is still too high.

It?s also possible that this ?third eye? could be a lesion or injury and that the catch was real. Regulars to the canal say they have never seen such a big fish in there before. Hunter insists the fish was real but that does not preclude a hoax by the dude on the bridge. There is no mention of what happened to the fish.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn has a fascinating history. It was completed in 1869 to serve as a major transportation route. But now it is a Superfund site, which means it has been established that it contains levels of hazardous contaminants that need to be cleaned up with government money. The Canal was polluted by decades of industry, effects from ship transportation and urban runoff including sewage, and lack of environmental regulations and enforcement. The lands adjacent to the canal hosted stone and coal yards, mills, cement plants, gas, chemical and fertilizer plants, tanneries, paint, ink, and soap factories and machine shops. The water is saline. Rumors circulated that the Mafia dumped bodies in the waterway. Heck, it looked like everything else was dumped there. There have been repeated attempts to rejuvenate the area. 10-20 feet of toxic sludge has accumulated on the bottom. This must be dredged out and disposed as hazardous waste. Some report that wildlife is returning to areas along the waterway but the situation remains awful. EPA has identified more than a dozen contaminants in the canal including pesticides, metals, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs). Cleanup planning has begun but it is estimated to take about 10 more years. The goal is a waterway that people can safely fish in and exist alongside once again.

Freaky ?Blinky? fish have occurred before. Any rumor of strange ?mutated? animals alarms people regarding pollution in their immediate environment. That?s not a bad thing but hoaxes should still be called out. Real data are better than scare-mongering. It could be that this is a stunt to raise awareness of the condition of the canal and to push for the cleanup to begin. Was it an eye? Was it from that location? We don?t know. If another is found, alert a biologist. Don?t kill it. And, geez, DON?T eat it.

Three-Eyed walleye in the Great Lakes basin

Something to freak out about: Three-eyed fish caught near nuclear power plant (dubious)

Obligatory Simpsons reference

Obligatory Simpsons reference

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First Bulgarian business people named in Panama Papers reports

cash pounds euro dollars photo Darren Deans sxc hu

Bulgarian daily 24 Chassa has begun publishing the identities of the country?s business people that it says appear in the ?Panama Papers?.

In the first three days of stories on the topic of the Panama Papers, the paper has named Evgeniya and Nikolai Banevi, Petar Mandzhukov, and Chavdar Kunchev.

The Banev family and several recurring names are entered as shareholders or representatives of several companies in the Seychelles, the Bahamas and Panama between 2005 and 2015, according to data obtained by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung more than a year ago and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Interviewed by 24 Chassa, Evgeniya Baneva said, ?I do not see anything wrong with it. I do not know businessmen that do not have offshore companies. These are legitimate practices?.

?What is the problem to be working with offshore companies? We have also offshore companies, we have companies registered in Russia, Switzerland, Macedonia. How is this different?? Baneva was quoted as saying.

Baneva denied that there was tax evasion involved.

?We have firms registered in Switzerland and take advantage of opportunities in the Swiss cantons of negotiating different rates. These are commercial companies. Given that we pay taxes in Switzerland or in countries where there are agreements on avoidance of double taxation, it is quite normal.

?I liked the explanation these days of Emil Hursev who said that the biggest player with such practices is Jean-Claude Juncker. You know that on Luxembourg?s territory it has long been allowed to negotiate individual large companies for their taxes,? she said, adding that when prime minister of Luxembourg, Juncker had allowed several large international companies to negotiate different tax rates.

Baneva said that the ?Panama Papers? were an international conspiracy aimed at distracting from the important problems of mankind.

?If there really is some important information, related to politicians with drug traffickers, and so on, that affects the whole world. So far, however, I do not see information that would look like, ?Wow, something?s really been discovered here?,? Baneva said.

Asked if she was concerned that Bulgaria?s tax-collecting authority the National Revenue Agency had sent a request for information from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and had said that it would investigate, Baneva replied, ?no, that is their right. No, no, it does not bother me?.

24 Chassa said that Mandzhukov and his wife had an offshore company, Kegel Asset Management, registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2001. According to the report, in July 2014 Mandzhukov said that he wanted his wife to be the owner and director of the company, even though the company was not operating.

Mandzhukov, known for his involvement in the arms trade and media ownership including Bulgarian Socialist Party mouthpiece Duma, and who in 2010 was named by the Dossier Commission as having worked for State Security, was quoted by 24 Chassa as saying that he had never used the company and had forgotten about it.

Also named in the 24 Chassa reports was Chavdar Kanchev, former head of the Foreign Trade Bank.

Kanchev was a director and later a shareholder in two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, the report said. 24 Chassa said that Kanchev was recruited to State Security in 1983, the same year he became deputy director of Litex Bank in Lebanon.

Interviewed by 24 Chassa, Kanchev said that he did not want to talk about the two companies in the British Virgin Islands because of the risk of wilful negative misinterpretation.

He did not use the companies, ?I had plans that did not materialise,? he was quoted as saying.

?But I?m not going to explain, much less to justify. As you know, Bulgaria is currently still allowing offshore companies to apply for public procurement. If this happens, I do not see what the problem is,? Kanchev said.

Asked why he registered offshore companies, Kanchev said, ?for many things. Including security?.

Also asked if he was concerned about the National Revenue Agency saying that it would begin checking all the names it got from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Kanchev replied, ?Why should I worry? I am a taxpayer in good standing in Bulgaria. Impeccable! With taxes paid significantly larger than many of the so-called national capitalists. And that had nothing to do with offshore business?.

He had perfect records of all taxes he had paid since 1992, Kanchev said.

Commenting on the Panama Papers, he said that it was a targeted attempt to compromise and gradually destroy ?this offshore paradise?.

?It?s not just a matter of Panama, but everywhere. The offshore status was thought up by Meyer Lansky, who was associated with the American mafia. That happened in the early 20th century. This is the latest attempt to destroy everything.

?What exactly will those checking, check? It?s just negative noise. Why are there no Americans in this data? They used this status for almost 100 years. Most people do not know for what companies in offshore zones are used, and they think, that they are used illegally.?

He said that if there were political figures announced on a list, that list would become topical. ?Then there will be another list. The aim is for all offshore areas to be compromised. And the truth is, that every country has set up something like this.?

(Photo: Darren Deans/



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