FactsandOpinions this Week

Fresh up on FactsandOpinions: commentary, reporting — and one very cool video of an unusual musical performance. Take time out for some slow journalism in a week fraught with the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian airliner, and growing tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

In Sound Art, by F&O photojournalist and web designer Greg Locke, musicians take to a Newfoundland beach to create sound with resonant rocks transformed into lithophones. (Public access)

Every two years since 1983 Sound Symposium has been happening in Newfoundland, Canada at the edge of the North Atlantic. Founded by classical musician and percussionist, Don Wherry, the event grew from a bunch of avant garde musician friends to a ten day international festival of new music, performing and sound art with everything from classical and jazz musicians experimenting with new sound, dance and theatre to audio engineers and sculptures creating audio art installations in the wild coastal environment.

McNiven for F&O bio
Jim McNiven

The Most Influential Man of the 20th Century is the title of Jim McNiven’s new column — about our unconscious passage into a world shaped by Frederick Winslow Taylor. (Subscription.)

The application of research and science to human work behaviour is so much a part of our lives that we hardly notice it today. It has led to a system that produces and distributes more goods and services to everyone than has ever been seen before. Without Frederick W. Taylor’s application of experimental research to the problems of production in the late 1800s, Henry Ford could not have created his version of the assembly line, Ray Croc could not have developed McDonald’s systems, Ray Walton could not have developed Wal-Mart’s logistics — and so on.

Jonathan Manthorpe’s International Affairs columns this week look at both China’s fearful reaction to the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian airliner, and how the dispute between the West and Russia over Ukraine highlights the dire global state of democracy. (Subscription.)

The first thought in many minds when Malaysia Airways’ flight MH370 disappeared a week ago was that the plane had been bombed or hijacked by Uigher separatists from the Chinese-occupied Xinjiang region of Central Asia, writes Manthorpe in Fear spreads in China of Uigher insurrection. “It was a natural speculation. The disappearance of the plane came only days after eight Uighers attacked crowds in the main railway station in Kunming, capital of China’s far south-western Yunnan province, killed 29 and wounded another 143 before they themselves were shot or captured by police.

In his column Putin more in tune with the times than Obama, Manthorpe contends “one of the more unfortunate pronouncements by United States President Barack Obama in this Ukraine embroglio was that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had put himself “on the wrong side of history.”  As one looks around the world it seems it is Putin, far more than Obama, who is step with the times.

Edward Snowden’s written response to to European Parliamentarians, which I reported in this F&O Dispatch, was released by Europe just days before the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reform European rules on data protection for citizens, in the wake of revelations of massive surveillance by the United States and other countries. “We need a uniform and strong European data protection law, which will make life easier for business and strengthen the protection of our citizens,” said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU’s Justice Commissioner, in a statement. But as the New York Times reported, it’s uncertain whether the proposal will survive European elections in May, or possible resistance by European countries that engage in massive spying.

The reform proposal jeopardizes Europe’s “Safe Harbour” agreement with the United States, considered essential for American technology companies to operate in Europe. Violations of new European laws, if passed, could leave large U.S. Internet companies like Facebook, Google or Apple — which opposed the legislation — potentially vulnerable to fines of up to a maximum of 100 million euros.

Landowners often losers in deals with U.S. energy companies, the latest Dispatch on F&O by the U.S. investigative journalism organization ProPublica, and it examines the behaviour of energy companies, some of them operating internationally, with small American landowners who allow them to work on their land. (Public access)

At the end of 2011, Chesapeake Energy, one of the United State’s biggest oil and gas companies, was teetering on the brink of failure. Its legendary chief executive officer, Aubrey McClendon, was being pilloried for questionable deals, its stock price was getting hammered and the company needed to raise billions of dollars quickly. The money could be borrowed, but only on onerous terms. Chesapeake, which had burned money on a lavish steel-and-glass office complex in Oklahoma City even while the selling price for its gas plummeted, already had too much debt. In the months that followed, Chesapeake executed an adroit escape, raising nearly $5 billion with a previously undisclosed twist: By gouging many rural landowners out of royalty payments they were supposed to receive in exchange for allowing the company to drill for natural gas on their property.

Miscellaneous findings:

The World Wide Web turned 25 last week, but celebrations were muted by security and sustainability worries. Tim Berners-Lee, the  software engineer who conceived of the web while working at European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN,) in  Geneva, has now launched a campaign for net neutrality. “The web should be a neutral medium. The openness of the web is really, really important,” Berners-Lee told the New York Times. “It’s important for the open markets, for the economy and for democracy.”


Reporters Without Borders released its annual “Enemies of the Internet” report on March 12, designated as World Day Against Cyber-Censorship. The press release hammers surveillance, and also slams the governments and companies that sell products for online censorship and surveillance.

The mass surveillance methods … are all the more intolerable because they will be used and indeed are already being used by authoritarians countries such as Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to justify their own violations of freedom of information. How will so-called democratic countries will able to press for the protection of journalists if they adopt the very practices they are criticizing authoritarian regimes for?

Said the organization, “Attention must be drawn to the practices of these Enemies of the Internet, which usually operate in the shadows. As many people as possible must be made aware of them. This is needed so that international bodies, such as the United Nations, Europe focus on these practices and adopt legislation to end them as quickly as possible.”  The organization’s entire report, in pdf, is here.


The web’s vulnerability was revealed again today as a group from Ukraine called “cyber berkut” claimed credit for bringing down several websites of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attacks,. NATO was likely targeted due to its strong criticism of Crimea’s referendum by Secretary-General  Anders Fogh Rasmussen:

“The so-called referendum in the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea planned on 16 March would be a direct violation of the Ukrainian constitution and international law. If held, it would have no legal effect or political legitimacy.”

A group calling itself “cyber berkut” said the attack had been carried out by patriotic Ukrainians angry over what they saw as NATO interference in their country.


Emotions expressed on Facebook can be contagious, suggests research published this week in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS-One.  Researchers studied millions of posts by Facebook users to track the spread of people’s feelings when they posted from places where it was raining. Other studies showed that people in physical contact “catch” emotions and happiness, loneliness, and depression “are correlated between socially-connected individuals.” This study suggests that such correlations also exist online. They wrote:

These results imply that emotions themselves might ripple through social networks to generate large-scale synchrony that gives rise to clusters of happy and unhappy individuals. And new technologies online may be increasing this synchrony by giving people more avenues to express themselves to a wider range of social contacts. As a result, we may see greater spikes in global emotion that could generate increased volatility in everything from political systems to financial markets … Our findings also have significance for public wellbeing. To the extent that clinical or policy maneuvers increase the happiness of one person, they may have cascade effects on others in their social networks, thereby enhancing the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of the intervention, and these results suggest that such cascade effects may be promoted online. For example, providing better care for those who are suffering might not only improve their happiness, but also the happiness of numerous others, thereby further vindicating the benefits of medical care or public policy. 

Recommended reading:

Before reading Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? in the Guardian, I suggest you fortify yourself. But do read it, because if the research findings are even remotely accurate they’re a wake-up call — and there just may be time for humanity to pull itself back from the brink. The Guardian piece is aligned with another profoundly disturbing piece late last year by former soldier and essayist Roy Scranton, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. It, too, is a grim but important perspective.
UPDATE March 21: the study about collapse has come under strong criticism. Discover Magazine writer Keith Kloor picks apart the criticisms — and scant response by the study authors — in this piece titled Judging the Merits of a Media-Hyped ‘Collapse’ Study.


On a lighter note, Richard Renaldi’s photo series of strangers in close contact is best viewed in this feature in the Guardian: Brief encounter: touching strangers – in pictures. It’s charming, and a welcome antidote to the recent viral marketing scheme in which a video ad for a clothing company  featured people kissing — while suggesting the people were strangers, and failing to make clear that the kisses were staged for an advertisement. That video spread wildly on social media, soon followed by an angry backlash by people who felt duped.

Tomorrow, look for a lovely piece of writing by F&O feature writer Brian Brennan, an Irishman, about St. Patrick’s day. A hint: he will not be drinking green beer.

— Deborah Jones