Tag Archives: politics

Intercepted Phone Calls Show Russia Directing Separatists to Seize MH17′s Black Boxes

The Ukrainian government has released recordings of alleged phone calls between pro-Russian separatists discussing the fate of Malaysian Flight MH17′s black boxes.

Ukrainian security officials released the tapes on Sunday, claiming that they proved Russia had directed the separatists to find and hide the black boxes.

The call is between Alexander Khodakovsky, leader of the Vostok (East) battalion of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine and one of his men (“Oleksiy”) at the crash site. You can listen to the conversations below:

In the first of the recordings, Khodakovsky urges Oleksiy to find MH17′s black boxes, saying,

“Do it really quick, urgently. Moscow is asking where the boxes are… [they] must be under our control”.

In a second call less than an hour later, Khodakovsky talks to another man at the crash site (“Andriy”), telling him,

“I have a request for you. It is not my request. Our friends from high above are very much interested in the fate of the black boxes. I mean people from Moscow.”

He also tells Andriy to,

“Try to take everything that you find so that it doesn’t get into somebody else’s hands.”

Around the time that the recordings were released, Reuters released footage of what appears to be the black boxes being removed from the crash site by the separatists:

Earlier this morning, the news service Interfax reported that rebel Russian separatists in Ukraine had handed over the black boxes to Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee.

Andrei Purgin is the self-proclaimed deputy prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the separatist government in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. Purgin told Interfax:

“Of course, we most likely will give them [the black boxes] to the Interstate Aviation Committee, to Moscow. High-level experts, who will be able to determine exactly the reason of the catastrophe, work there.”

So it seems that the black boxes are on their way to Moscow, if they’re not there already. This will definitely raise a lot more suspicion about Russia’s involvement in the MH17 tragedy.

But, for the sake of objectivity, it is definitely worth noting that these tapes have not been independently verified yet, and are being released by the Ukrainian government, who has every reason in the world to want Russia to be responsible for the tragedy.

That doesn’t mean I believe the tapes are fabricated- it’s just a reminder to tread carefully when trying to make sense of such a complex issue.

The Russian Government Just Edited the Wikipedia Page for the Plane Shot Down In Ukraine

On Thursday, Malaysian flight MH17,  headed to Amsterdam from Kuala Lampur, was shot down by a surface to air missile over Ukraine. All 298 of the passengers were killed.

As information started to come out, it became apparent that the missile that took the plane down came from an area controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine.

People walk through the debris of MH17 near the village of Grabovo (Photo: AP)

These pro-Russian groups refused to recognize the new government in Kiev after the Ukrainian revolution and have established strongholds in a number of cities on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.

Although the separatists have denied responsibility, much of the evidence points to them. Also, the fact that they are denying investigators access to the crash site while looters steal cash, credit cards and jewelry from the victims doesn’t seem to support their cries of innocence.

It is no secret that the separatist groups have the support of Russia, and many people think Russia holds some of the responsibility for the disaster. The main reason for this is that the missile used, an SA-11, requires a very complex weapons system operated by highly-trained personnel.

Some info about the missile system most likely responsible for taking down MH17. Click to enlarge

Yesterday, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby weighed in:

“It strains credulity to think that they could do this without some measure of Russian support and assistance. It is a sophisticated system.”

Then, yesterday evening, a Twitter bot added another piece to the story.

The bot, @RuGovEdits is basically a Russian version of @CongressEdits- it informs people any time a Wikipedia page has been edited by a Russian government IP address.

The Russian Twitter bot announced yesterday that the Wikipedia page for flight MH17 had been edited by the Russian government. What was changed?

Well, the original submission stated the plane was shot down by,

“…by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic with Buk system missiles, which the terrorists received from the Russian Federation.”

The new edited version says that,

“…the plane [flight MH17] was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers.

Russia has maintained that they were not involved in the tragedy and that the flight was brought down by Ukrainian forces, but this new revelation definitely raises questions about the truth of that statement.

(h/t Gizmodo)

Californians Prepare to Vote On A Plan to Split the Golden State Into 6 New States

The idea is the brainchild of Timothy C. Draper.

Draper is the son and grandson of successful venture capitalists. His father founded the Draper & Johnson Investment Company in 1962 and served as both chairman and president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

His grandfather founded Draper, Gaither and Anderson, one of the U.S.’s first venture capital firms in 1958.

Timothy Draper has a vision of six separate Californian states

Timothy attended Stanford University, where he earned an electrical engineering degree before going on to get his MBA from Harvard Business School.

After spending a year at Alex, Brown & Sons (the oldest investment bank in the U.S., founded in 1800), Draper left to start his own venture capital firm with Jon Fisher and Steve Jurvetson.

Draper and Jurvetson are credited with coming up with the idea of advertising at the bottom of Hotmail messages, and the firm, DJF, owned 10% of Skype when it sold to eBay for $4.1 billion in 2005.

Early this year, Draper proposed an initiative to divide California into 6 separate states.

Click to enlarge

In support of his plan, he argues that the state is too big to be representative of its citizens or to be competitive economically:

“With six, you do get a good sense that you can drive 45 minutes in any direction and maybe be part of a different state and it keeps those states on their toes,”

he said while speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. If his plan is approved, each of the six states would have its own government, with it’s own elected officials and Congressional representatives.

Draper recently used Twitter to announce that he had submitted a petition with 1.3 million signatures to put his 6-state initiative up to a popular vote.

The plan definitely has its opponents though. Steve Maviglio is the spokesman for the OneCalifornia committee:

“This is a colossal and divisive waste of time, energy, and money that will hurt the California brand, our ability to attract business and jobs, and move our state forward together,”

he told the San Jose Mercury News. Many opponents also point out that even if Californians vote in favor of the plan, carrying it out would require an act by Congress.

Steven Maviglio is one of the plan’s biggest opponents

Draper also has plans to expand the use of digital currencies. On June 27th, he won an auction to buy 30,000 bitcoins (worth an estimated $19 million) that were confiscated from the dark web’s illicit marketplace Silk Road by U.S. Marshalls.

He plans to use the bitcoins to help start-up bitcoin exchange Varuum increase the use of dgital currency:

“With the help of Vaurum and this newly purchased Bitcoin, we expect to be able to create new services that can provide liquidity and confidence to markets that have been hamstrung by weak currencies,”

Draper said through a statement from Varuum.

As for the six state initiative, the signatures on the petition are currently being verified before an official date for the vote is announced.

Rad more from CBS News here.

True/False: The Last Time A President Signed Executive Orders Less Often Than Obama Was in the 1800s

In recent months, right-wing media outlets have been pushing the narrative of Obama as a dictator who simply signs an executive order whenever he can’t get Congress to do what he wants.

I disagree with plenty of Obama’s politics, but I decided to look into the numbers for myself. Here’s what I found, courtesy of The American Presidency Project at the University of California- Santa Barbara:

executive orders

The first column of numbers shows total executive orders. As of now, Obama is at 182. Since 1900, only two presidents, Gerald Ford (169) and George Bush senior (166) have signed less total executive orders. However, both of them only served one term.

The second column of numbers shows average executive orders signed per year. Obama is currently at 33.58 orders per year.

That’s lower than both Bush Sr. (31.5) and Gerald Ford (68.92). Both were conservatives who advocated small-government.

In fact, it’s lower than any president since Grover Cleveland was in the White House from 1885-1889. He averaged 28.25 executive orders per year during that time (he averaged 35 during his second term from 1893-1897).

If you want to attack Obama’s executive orders, attack their content, not their numbers. You can check them out on whitehouse.gov here.

NOTE: A number of websites seeking to take advantage of the executive order myth (like Western Journalism and Four Winds 10) have posted lists of Obama’s worst executive orders.

The problem is, the orders they list are from 10990-11921. That means they were signed by John F. Kennedy during the Cold War.

Obama’s first order was #13489. While some people claimed this order was essentially a sealing of his records (so nobody could check his birth certificate), it was pretty much the opposite.

It rescinded executive order 13233 (signed by George W. Bush) which let former presidents and even their family members declare “executive privilege” to block public access to White House records for pretty much any reason.

Update: I Owe Hobby Lobby an Apology… Sort Of

Yesterday I took Hobby Lobby to task for what I saw as blatant corporate hypocrisy.

My goal for The Higher Learning is to always provide our readers with all the facts surrounding a story, even if they might contradict or weaken a claim that we made in the past.

So, I feel that it is my duty to revisit the issue and add some key information that I discovered earlier today.

In my post from yesterday, I criticized Hobby Lobby for including companies that produce contraceptives in their investment portfolios while celebrating the recent Supreme Court ruling which said they couldn’t be forced to provide contraceptives to their employees.

The nine current members of the Supreme Court

This is an oversimplification. First off, while Hobby Lobby provides employees with a number of different options in terms of their 401(k) investments, it’s ultimately up to the individual employees to decide how these investments are allocated.

Some people may have also gotten the impression that these investments are direct investment in the companies creating the contraceptives. They are not, they are part of mutual funds which often include hundreds of companies.

However, since the investment options are ultimately selected by Hobby Lobby’s owners, they should have just omitted the funds that include contraceptive companies, right?

Well it turns out that the pension law surrounding corporate retirement plans make this pretty difficult to do. The law states that owners can’t sacrifice returns or increase risk for the sake of pursuing religious preferences. Because of this, most companies will offer both a socially conscious option and an alternative that is based solely of financial factors, leaving the decision up to the individual employee.

Also, if a company official (like an owner or human resource officer) offers advice to an employee to invest based off of religious ideals and their portfolio loses value, that official can be held personally liable for the losses.

So, Hobby Lobby moving all of their employees’ pensions out of funds containing companies that produce contraceptives is unrealistic under current pension law.

But this brings up a new issue. The pension law forces companies to exclude their religious views from their decisions about retirement investments. The current version of the law was passed back in 2006.

President Bush signs the Pension Protection Act in 2006

That means for six years before the Obamacare lawsuit, the pension law was limiting Hobby Lobby’s religious expression by forcing them to include pension plans which invest in companies who make contraceptives.

But Hobby Lobby never complained about this law. It wasn’t until they were asked to provide contraceptives as part of their health-care plans that they decided their religious rights were being violated.

If Hobby Lobby steps up and demands that the pension law be reformed to allow them to avoid investing in contraceptive companies without facing financial liability, I will applaud them for being genuine and consistent in their religious convictions.

But I don’t see that happening any time soon, so I won’t be holding my breath.

Here’s the Forbes article about pension law which prompted me to write this update.

NOTE: The article above suggests that it is nearly impossible to create a portfolio using only “Christian” companies. I looked up “christian retirement plans” on google and found a number of organizations claiming to do just that.

Obviously, I haven’t looked through all of their various portfolios, but claiming that it’s virtually impossible to create a successful portfolio that avoids contraceptive companies is misleading at best.

Why It Has Taken 28 Long Years for the EPA to Start Reviewing Chemical Risks Again

Last wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency published its final risk assessment for the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE).

The assessment found that long-term exposure this chemical (which is used as an industrial solvent by artists, car mechanics, and dry cleaners among others) can cause a number of serious health issues, including cancer.

It probably doesn’t sound surprising that the EPA would review the health risks of a potentially harmful chemical. After all, the agency was created to protect the health of the citizens and environment of the United States by writing and enforcing regulations.

It is surprising however that this is their first assessment in 28 years. So why the long drought?

Enter the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the legislation which created the EPA in the first place 38 years ago. A loophole in the legislation basically says that any chemicals invented before the law was passed are considered “safe until proven otherwise”.

According to the EPA, that means 62,000 chemicals we regularly use today are essentially un-reviewed. In the press release, the EPA calls for a modernization of the law.

In a recent blog post, Jim Jones, EPA assistant administrator of chemical safety and pollution prevention, said:

“The American public shouldn’t have to wait 28 years between … chemical risk assessments… As the old adage goes, you have to walk before you can run.”

But without the lobbying power of large corporations or political super PACs,  the EPA lacks the political leverage to force Congress into giving it the resources it needs to actually review the thousands of chemicals all around us today.

The chemical industry has become extremely profitable in the last few decades, and has significant lobbying influence in Washington.

In just the first four months of 2014, Dow Chemical, one of the U.S.’s largest chemical companies, spent a whopping $5 million on lobbying, around $2 million more than they did in the same period last year.

Click to enlarge. Courtesy of opensecrets.org

The EPA did announce, however, that it will be reviewing the risks of 83 chemicals that have already been identified as potentially harmful to our health.

The bottom line is that long-term scientific studies on the effects of different chemical substances are expensive, and that money simply isn’t there for the EPA, mostly because it’s really not something the average American is worrying about on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s make sure we don’t let this extremely important issue get drowned out by the howling of partisan politics that has made Congress virtually useless these days.

Read the original story from Al-Jazeera here.

A 16-Year Old Programmer Just Made a Plugin That Shows Where Politicians Get Their Funding

Nicholas Rubin is a 16-year old self-taught computer programmer from Seattle, Washington. He is also the inventor of Greenhouse, a new browser plugin that let’s you know exactly where politicians get their campaign funding from.

When the plugin is active, the names of House or Senate members on any given webpage are highlighted. All you have to do is hover your mouse over the name of a politician, and a box will pop up showing all the industries and groups that contributed funds to their campaign, as well as how much the politician got from each sector.

What the plugin looks like in action. Click to enlarge

The box also shows you what percentage of their contributions came from small donors (contributions of less than $200), and let’s you know whether or not they are in favor of reforming our relatively seedy campaign finance system.

Here’s the statement that Nicholas released with the plugin:

“It is my hope that providing increased transparency around the amount and source of funding of our elected representatives may play a small role in educating citizens and promoting change. If you use the extension when reading about a Congressional vote on energy policy, for example, maybe you’ll discover that a sponsor of a bill has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the oil and gas industry. Or maybe you’ll learn that the top donors to a member of Congress who opposes tort reform are lawyers and law firms. I use data from the last full election cycle (2012) and plan to update it as more relevant data becomes available. Special thanks to OpenSecrets.org for providing access to that data.

The motto of Greenhouse is: “Some are red. Some are blue. All are green.” What it signifies is that the influence of money on our government isn’t a partisan issue. Whether Democrat or Republican, we should all want a political system that is independent of the influence of big money and not dependent on endless cycles of fundraising from special interests. The United States of America was founded to serve individuals, not big interests or big industries. Yet every year we seem to move farther and farther away from our Founders’ vision.”

I must say this is one of the best ideas I have ever seen to combat against the influence of special interest groups on our political system.

For years, politicians have pretended to personally care about issues when, more often than not, the truth is that they were bribed by that industry (through campaign finance) to make decisions that  would help the industry.

I don’t think this will make politicians At the very least, it will make politicians think twice about where they get their contributions from.

You can download the Greenhouse plugin for free here. (NOTE: because of the plugins popularity, Greenhouse’s homepage was down when this story was published, but I’m sure they will have it back up and running soon.)

(h/t Represent.Us)

We’re Losing the Ability to See Things In the Long Term. And It’s Slowly Destroying Us

The world we live in today is very much absorbed in the here-and-now.

Modern technology has given us access to a virtually infinite amount of information, and social media allows us to keep up with all the latest news in realtime.

To compensate for this overwhelming amount of information, we’ve drastically reduced our attention spans. Driven by the fear of missing out on some amazing video or juicy piece of gossip, we skip over people who post long statuses and skim over headlines instead of reading full reports.

Twitter based their entire business model off of this phenomenon, creating a service that forces people to express themselves in 140 characters or less. Our unwillingness to to be patient on the internet is causing an increasing number of very real problems.

For one, there’s a shitstorm of questionable or straight up fake content out there that is designed to take advantage of our headline abuse.

The biggest value of the internet is that it gives us access to unprecedented amounts of information. But ironically, our predictability and quick emotions have created a growing industry of misinformation.

The trend is also affecting the so called “reputable” news agencies, which have rapidly degenerated to a point not too far above sleaziest of tabloids. The key word here is sensationalize. It’s so important I’ll give you the full definition (courtesy of my MacBook dictionary):

sensationalize |senˈsā sh ənlˌīz| ; verb: (esp. of a newspaper) present information about (something) in a way that provokes public interest and excitement, at the expense of accuracy

So what are the two best ways to “provoke public interest and excitement” in our society today?

The first is pop culture. There’s an army of paparazzi all across the country just waiting for an athlete, musician, actor or other public figure to do something crazy, or dumb, or funny, or ya know… whatever honestly.

Reality TV has made us obsessed with these people, to the point where many people have to know what’s going on with their favorite celebs all the time. Hell, Samsung even made an entire app just for people to follow around Lebron James, who has a promotion agreement with the company.

The second way to “provoke public interest and excitement” is, unfortunately, anger. This anger is typically fueled by politically-poisoned social issues.

See, politicians have also realized that we’re not willing to put in the time to do any real research into what they’ve actually voted for and against in the past (to be fair, it’s tough for the average working person to keep up with), so their best tactic to get your vote is to get you mad.

First they have to get you mad that their primary opponent isn’t extreme enough in their political views. That’s pretty much how the Tea Party emerged and how Eric Cantor, who was on his way to House Majority Leader, lost to an economics professor from Randolph Macon College (Cantor spent more on steak dinners than Dave Brat did on his entire campaign).

People were mad that Congress has been ineffective and Cantor, who had realized the only way to get things done was to compromise with the Democrats, was blamed for being to weak of a conservative. People were mad that he didn’t “stand up for his ideals”, whatever that means these days.

Eric Cantor, Republican House member from Virginia

Once the primary is won the real fun starts, because the candidates get to make you mad about stuff the things you’re most sensitive about: social issues. Guns, abortion, religion and education, gay people getting married. Most people have very strong views about these things, and these views are almost always closely entwined with our emotions.

Most people don’t vote for someone because they particularly like that candidate, they do it because they dislike or distrust the other guy even more. Get people mad about something that the other guy did some time in the past, and you win yourself votes.

Rather than basing our vote off of candidate’s long-term record, we base it off some random 30-second sound bite. And we wonder why Congress is so ineffective…

The media is complicit in this farce, because they know that discussing the issues that make us emotional will get them more viewers, so the news industry has become political polarized, with the major stations becoming more and more biased one way or the other.

Meanwhile, both parties are quietly screwing us all. Do you remember when we bailed out Wall Street after the housing bubble burst causing the recession in 2008? Well after that happened, legislation was passed letting investment banks know that the government would no longer bail them out for any risky investments they made (like the derivatives which bankrupted so many of them).

Well, late last year, the House of Representatives quietly repealed this provision, allowing banks to move their riskiest assets back into government-insured accounts. A few people reported it, but it went widely unnoticed for the most part.

Why didn’t it spark the outrage it should have? Because legislation, provisions and the general proceedings of Congress are on almost everyone’s filter of things not to read as we fly down our news feeds.

Need another example? How about the USA FREEDOM Act, which was passed by Congress after the Snowden revelations to end the NSA’s practice of mass collection of American’s phone records.

Well at least that’s what we were told it would do. But by the time it actually passed, the legislation was so watered down that it is virtually powerless to stop the mass collection of phone data.

Or how about our entire economic system, which is based off of the constant accumulation of debt?

When central banks set their interest rates super low, everyone borrows and spends a lot of money.

But when everyone realizes that most of the money being spent is money people don’t actually have, the bottom falls out.

That’s what happened in 2008. A piece of legislation designed to give more people access to housing ended up just making it very easy to give out home loans, even to people who banks knew couldn’t afford the payments.

But they gave out the loans anyways. Why? Because the government promised to pay them back for any losses. Banks went crazy giving out these toxic loans, and everyone started buying houses with money they didn’t have, slowly inflating the housing bubble.

Then one day, somebody realized the emperor had no clothes, and the housing bubble burst, dragging the economy down into a recession which screwed the average American pretty hard.

The banks, on the other hand, got bailed out to the tune of $1 trillion. The rich got richer, the poor got poorer. And this was definitely not the first time something like that happened. In fact, just 8 years before the housing bubble burst, we went through a similar downturn when the dotcom bubble burst.

This constant accumulation of debt causes cycles of inflation and deflation, but they happen over a number of years, so most people are unaware of the cycles, preferring to discuss only how  the market has performed in the past few months .

Click to enlarge

The European Union has gotten so desperate to get people to spend money that their central bank recently set the standard interest rate for banks to -0.1% (yes that’s a negative sign), meaning that banks will actually lose money if they try to hold onto their cash instead of loaning it out.

The bottom line is that history repeats itself because we allow ourselves to be so consumed in the present that we forget about the past.

We’re so obsessed with staying “current” that we have blinded ourselves to the long-term trends which are really hurting us the most.

It’s basically a massive societal drug addiction: we opiate ourselves with material things to help us avoid confronting the serious problems that we all face together these days.

Rather than trying to do something about these problems, we get drunk off retail and high off social media, feeding the cancers of our world, rather than treating them.

We need a collective awakening to these issues. Otherwise, one day very soon, we’re going to reach a point when these cancers are no longer treatable, no matter how much we pray for recovery.

The Latest from the Middle East: Terrorists, Rebels and the Geopolitical Clusterf***

I’ll try to make this as quick as I can.

Yesterday, we reported on how the new emergent terrorist group ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city on Tuesday and stole nearly half a billion dollars from the central bank there. All this week the group has been advancing towards Baghdad, taking a number of towns along the way.

ISIS's advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)
ISIS’s advance towards Baghdad. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Then early this morning, reports came out that the Syrian government, which the United States is trying to overthrow by backing largely Jihadist rebels (the Syrian government calls them terrorists), is coordinating with the Iraqi government (which was put in by, and is still heavily backed by the U.S. government) to fight against Jihadist rebels/terrorists in Iraq.

Are you still following? Feel free to read that last part again- I had to read it at least five times myself. Ok, ready? Let’s continue.

Amidst all of this ridiculousness, Iran (one of the U.S.’s biggest political foes) has offered to help it’s former sworn enemy, Iraq, and its biggest political foe (the U.S.), to fight against the Jihadist rebels/terrorists of ISIS as well.

It’s interesting how quickly all of these countries were able to put their political differences aside as soon as there was a common enemy.

On top of this already massive mound of geopolitical shit, the Daily Beast just reported that ISIS has been funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia: three of the U.S.’s closest allies in the middle east.

Welcome to the geopolitical clusterf***. My brain hurts.

Lego Asks British Government to Stop Using Their Toys In Anti-Scottish Independence Ads

On September 18th, Scottish citizens will vote in a referendum to decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to break away and become independent.

Though only about a third of the Scottish population is in favor of leaving the UK, the British government has been leading a campaign to discourage voters from choosing independence.

Scottish Prime Minister Alex Salmond, who proposed the separation when he was elected back in 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

A cornerstone of the British government’s pro-unity argument is their claim that staying part of the UK will make the average Scotsman better off by £1,400 UK ($1,900 USD) per year, as compared to if the country were to separate.

To illustrate this point, the British Treasury Department made a BuzzFeed style list of the “12 things that £1,400 UK Dividend could buy”, using legos to illustrate each entry. They have since removed most of the images, but you can check out some of the original entries below:

Unfortunately for  Britain’s PR team, the plan backfired. Many people accused the government of patronizing the Scottish with suggestions like, “Scoff [eat] 280 hot dogs at the Edinburgh Festival,” or, “cover your family’s yearly shoe habit for about the next 6 years”.

On top of that, the Lego company (which is based in Denmark) asked the government to remove the images, saying,

“We have requested that the images are removed due to our neutral political stance. We are a children’s toy company and therefore all of our communication is targeted towards children. People all over the world use Lego to depict stories and scenarios – some of it not to our knowledge. We maintain our position as being a politically neutral company.”

Read more from The Guardian here.