TBR News January 2, 2018

Jan 02 2018

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. January 2, 2018: “The idiots who frantically frequent Facebook, and other social media, do not realize that these sites are not designed to make people happy but are designed to make some rich and others informed. The vast amount of personal information extracted from users is daily used by investigative agencies and the same information is happily sold to commercial ventures to exploit unsuspecting users. Also, such sites can be a serious menace during political campaigns and for this reason, watch the social media being taken under control by the government.”

Table of Contents

  • Social media giants are wild beasts devouring freedom and democracy. We MUST tame them
  • Facebook faces German cartel office probe on exploiting user data
  • Secrecy News
  • There’s Something Different About These Iran Protests
  • Iran protests: ‘Isolated regime unlikely to survive’
  • Israel: African migrants told to leave or face imprisonment
  • First, this town lost its Macy’s. Then Sears. Now, all eyes were on J.C. Penney.
  • Nearly a quarter of world’s bitcoins may be lost forever
  • The creation of a fraud: Rare gold coins division
  • Trump Administration Bricked On at Least Half of Its Executive Orders in 2017
  • At least nine deaths from cold as vast area of US gripped by Arctic chill


Social media giants are wild beasts devouring freedom and democracy. We MUST tame them

January 1, 2018

by Max Hastings

Daily Mail

Almost 70 years ago, George Orwell wrote a nightmare into our language when, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, he imagined a future in which ‘Big Brother’ scrutinises an enslaved society with an all-seeing eye.

More recently, civil libertarians have warned ubiquitous CCTV and Government surveillance, born out of the fight against terrorism, have begun to fulfil Orwell’s prophesy.

Yet both the fictional fantasies and daily realities pale into insignificance alongside the threat posed by social media.

Scarcely imagined a generation ago, they have become a monstrous, intrusive presence in almost all our lives, especially frightening because of their influence upon children.


Don’t take my word for it. Facebook’s former technology chief said a few days ago the site is ripping apart the fabric of society — ‘eroding human interactions’ and leaving users feeling ‘vacant and empty’.

The Government’s independent ethics watchdog, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, last month warned that social media companies should face fines for failing to remove racist, extremist or child sex abuse content.

That was followed by a testy stand-off between the Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee and executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google, who were lambasted for the appalling content allowed on their sites.

Now, there has been a dramatic intervention from Security Minister Ben Wallace, who warned that internet giants should face punitive tax penalties if they don’t help deal with the threat of terrorism.

He said these ‘ruthless profiteers’ were failing to prevent the radicalisation of young people online, and thus forcing the Government to devote hundreds of millions in resources to tackle the threat.

This is all proof society has awakened to the fact that the way we go online and use our mobiles to communicate and shop has empowered the warlords of the electronic universe.

Headed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, these men and women are armed with the most personal details about each and every one of us such as no Gestapo, KGB or Inquisition in history ever dreamed of possessing. (Germany’s competition watchdog has just accused Facebook of a ‘limitless’ collection of users’ data.)

And all this information is being extracted every second of every day — not by red hot irons and thumbscrews, but because we are handing it over through our own actions.

We make constant voluntary sacrifices of privacy in pursuit of convenience and social exchange, seemingly unaware of the consequences.

There are 32 million UK Facebook users, and the company uploads more than 300 million images every day. Many of the young not only expose every detail of their relationships, social and working lives, but some also photograph and then broadcast images of themselves having sex.

Maja Pantic, a professor of affective and behavioural computing at Imperial College in London, offers a dire warning: ‘As individuals, we must get back the ownership of our own data — we just don’t understand how bad this really is.’

Already there is a fightback. Millions of iPhone users, led by the former chief of the consumer watchdog Which?, are seeking a £1 billion settlement after falling victim to Google embedding computer codes in their Apple devices which were designed to reveal to Google the websites users visited.

As for the scarily addictive Facebook, five years ago, when it reached a billion users, 55 per cent of them used it daily. Today, numbers have doubled — with two-thirds updating their entries every day.

For their part, while YouTube’s bosses profess a willingness to tackle abuses (some of them appalling) and Google at least pretends to think about them, Facebook simply does not care, according to a social media analyst.

The company’s origins explain a lot. Peter Thiel, one of its inventors, formed an early fascination for a 20th-century French philosopher and anthropologist called Rene Girard who identified a phenomenon known as ‘mimetic desire’. His reasoning was that, once human beings have met their basic needs for food and shelter, they are very vulnerable to a yearning to find out what other people are doing, then do it themselves.

Thus, at the heart of Facebook’s stupendous success is how it exploits the human weakness of ‘me-tooism’ (our wish to copy the behaviour of others) on a global scale. Its system empowers individuals to connect with others who think like themselves, in a way that no other medium in history has made possible.

In a political sphere, this is why some believe Facebook played a key role in Donald Trump’s election a year ago.

Whereas mainstream media, led by the Washington Post and New York Times and all the big TV networks except Trump’s unofficial mouthpiece Fox News, were telling people Trump was an irresponsible lunatic, Facebook connected its users to millions of other voters who thought that here at last was a ‘real American’ who shared their abhorrence of homosexuals, Muslims, Latinos, blacks, East Coast smartieboots and atheists.


Social media enables voters to feel that instead of being isolated freaks, they are part of a brotherhood and sisterhood, embracing each other to triumphant political effect.

Although I am not among those who believe Russian meddling was decisive in getting Trump into the White House, their efforts to manipulate the result are not in doubt, including buying £80,000 of Facebook advertising that reached ten million Americans. They created pages which — for instance — broadcast fake news about Muslim men claiming welfare for several wives.

Anyone who sees something in the Daily Mail, The Times, on the BBC, Sky News or Russia Today, for example, can make an immediate judgment about its reliability. With social media, this is impossible. And one of its most pernicious vices is that it encourages people to believe what they wish to believe — often nonsense.

In both the political and consumer spheres, Facebook is constantly refining its reach by targeting users with the precision of a telescopic sight through its knowledge of their age, race, sex, shopping habits and preferences. Its partnership with Experian, a consumer credit reporting agency, has dramatically increased its information on people’s credit ratings and purchases, reaching back over decades.

Facebook trumpets its benevolence in enabling mankind to connect, to ‘build communities’, as if Mark Zuckerberg was a modern-day Mother Teresa, Walt Disney and William Caxton all rolled into one.


It is true social media is making as dramatic an impact on mankind as did the medieval pioneer of the printing press. But we should be in no doubt that Zuckerberg’s prime interest is to make money from us. He displays as much interest in or concern about the pernicious consequences of his actions as does a cruise missile or tidal wave.

Facebook is valued at around £400 billion, making it the fourth most valuable company on the planet. Zuckerberg’s personal wealth is around £60 billion. What makes him and his fellow-social media giants uniquely dangerous, however, is not their money, but their unprecedented, intimate personal knowledge of billions of people.

No human can be entrusted with such data, which we should properly view as a weapon of mass destruction.

There must be regulation of social media, and every government in the world ought to address itself on how best this can be implemented, without, of course, imposing improper restrictions on free speech.

It must be the beginning of wisdom that we understand how wildly excessive and deeply dangerous are the powers of the social media giants, headed by Facebook. They cannot be uninvented, but they must be tamed. Should we fail to do this, these wild beasts will devour our democracies and our individual freedoms.


Facebook faces German cartel office probe on exploiting user data

Germany’s federal cartel office has warned Facebook about exploiting user data, and mooted sanctions if the internet giant does not change methods. Facebook has a two-thirds market share among social networks in Germany.

January 2, 2018

by Ben Knight


Germany’s federal cartel office has expressed concerns about the way Facebook collects and sells user data, and warned it to come up with a “solution” — or face sanctions.

“We have informed the company that we believe it is dominating the market. And we criticize the way the company collects and exploits personal data as a possible abuse of its market power,” cartel office President Andreas Mundt told the Rheinische Post newspaper on Tuesday.

He specifically criticized the way the US social network, which has around 31 million users in Germany, mines data from outside its own site. “On the one side the social network offers an apparently free service, on the other it offers attractive advertising space, whose value is so high because Facebook controls vast amounts of personalized data,” he said. “But Facebook has to abide by the rules and laws.”

Mundt went on to warn the company that it could face sanctions if it didn’t change certain methods. “Now we will see how Facebook reacts to our criticism. Then we will decide what to do,” he said. “Maybe Facebook will suggest some solutions and commit to a different practice. Or maybe in the end we will have to ban the collection and use of data from third sources without the express agreement of users.” Mundt went on to say that though Facebook’s European operations are based in Ireland, it still comes under the cartel office’s jurisdiction because German consumers are affected.

A new investigation

It is well-known how Facebook’s ultra-lucrative business model works, and that it collects user data from its subsidiary services like WhatsApp and Instagram in order to personalize ads. Facebook made $26.9 billion (€22.4 billion) in advertising revenue worldwide in 2016, virtually all of its total revenue. This is the first time that the cartel office has announced an investigation into whether Facebook is dominating the social media market in Germany and has asked the company to explain its practices.

Facebook’s press office did not immediately respond to a DW request for comment, but told the Rheinische Post that while the company rejected Mundt’s criticism, it would cooperate with the cartel office.

“The current assessment by the Federal Cartel Agency is very much to be welcomed,” digital rights lawyer Christian Solmecke told DW. “We hope that Facebook will begin to offer solutions now — maybe by providing more information on its data collection practices and installing more control options for users so that people can limit data collection.”

Solmecke also believes that “in their current form,” Facebook’s methods are already a violation of Germany’s data protection laws, and that the cartel office will be working on the assumption that users are “not sufficiently informed about the kind and extent of the data collection and therefore cannot effectively agree to it.”

“A cartel office assessment is relatively labor-intensive,” said Lina Ehrig, who heads the digital and media team at the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (VZBV). “It could be that the cartel office did not have the capacity to carry out the assessment before. But it’s not as trivial as one might think.”

The VZBV, which welcomed the cartel office’s investigation, is also involved in the process as a partner representing the interests of consumers. “A huge number of consumers are affected by it; it’s about people’s private lives and protecting their data,” said Ehrig.

Knowing where your data is

The European Union has clear rules on how personal data may be used, which are enshrined in the 2016 data protection directive, This directive largely used German data laws as a model, and says, “Persons or organizations which collect and manage your personal information must protect it from misuse and must respect certain rights of the data owners which are guaranteed by EU law.”

“Just because people use Facebook and think of it as an interesting and nice application, doesn’t mean it is allowed to just use the data for whatever it wants,” said Ehrig.

She also points out that the cartel office is more powerful than German government’s data protection watchdogs, saying that utilizing cartel law rather than data protection laws raises the possibility of tougher sanctions, perhaps including banning certain data-collection practices. “The cartel office certainly has more power than we do — I think this could have a big effect on Facebook,” she said. “At least I hope so.”

Facebook will have the right to appeal any sanctions in court, meaning it could take a long time for any changes come into effect.


Secrecy News

From the FAS Project on Government Secrecy

Volume 2018, Issue No. 1

January 2, 2018


Excessive compartmentalization of intelligence can be counteracted by the use of “portfolios” of compartmented programs, according to new intelligence community guidance.

Undue secrecy in intelligence is not only a barrier to external oversight and public accountability. It can also be an obstacle to effective mission performance. That is fortunate in a way since it provides a reason for officials to reconsider classification policy and an incentive for them to curtail unnecessary secrecy.

Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats, who has kept a comparatively low public profile lately, surfaced last month to issue new guidance that is intended in part as a way to curb internal IC secrecy.

The guidance discusses the creation and management of intelligence “portfolios.” This term refers to a collection of classified programs that overlap in some way and that are bundled together to facilitate information sharing and collaboration.

“Establishment of a Portfolio may be required in order to achieve unity of effort and effect against the highest priority requirements or when compartmentalization hinders or prevents access to information necessary for intelligence integration,” according to the new guidance. The practice has no bearing on public disclosure of intelligence information.

All portfolio personnel are to be “indoctrinated” (i.e. granted access) to all portfolio programs, in what amounts to a reversal of the compartmentalization process. See Intelligence Community Portfolio Management, Intelligence Community Policy Guidance 906.1, December 15, 2017.

The portfolio concept was previously defined in the 2015 Intelligence Community Directive 906.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence will convene a day-long “Intelligence Community Civil Liberties, Privacy and Transparency Summit” for IC employees on January 24.


“The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years,” President Trump provocatively tweeted yesterday, adding falsely that “they have given us nothing but lies & deceit.”

A breakdown of US aid to Pakistan (excluding covert assistance) was recently provided by the Congressional Research Service. See Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations for and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY2002-FY2018, November 28, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated December 27, 2017

Tailoring Bank Regulations: Differences in Bank Size, Activities, and Capital Levels, December 21, 2017

Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC): Structure and Activities, December 22, 2017

The Federal Tax System for the 2017 Tax Year, December 26, 2017

Five-Year Program for Federal Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing: Status and Issues in Brief, updated December 20, 2017

Basic Concepts and Technical Considerations in Educational Assessment: A Primer, December 19, 2017

CRS Products on North Korea, December 28, 2017


There’s Something Different About These Iran Protests

Four days into the protests, there are still more questions than answers.

December 1, 2018

by Trita Parsi

Common Dreams

In a matter of days, protests in Iran have quickly spread across the country, taking the government by surprise and leaving analysts and pundits alike confused. Part of the reason many have been caught off guard is because these protests appear quite different from their 2009 predecessor—in terms of size, leadership and objective.

But another reason is that the drivers of these protests are from a segment of the population that has rarely figured into Iran’s political developments in the past two decades—those who never believed or have lost hope in the idea of real change through reform.

Similarities between the current protests and the 2009 uprising are quite limited. While the current demonstrations started outside of Tehran—in Mashhad and Qom—and quickly spread to other cities, their size remains relatively small compared to what the world observed after Iran’s fraudulent 2009 elections.

In the first few days after that election, more than one million people protested in the streets of Tehran. Though quite ferocious, the current protests have rarely numbered more than a few thousand in any specific locality.

The protests in 2009 also had very specific goals—at least initially. They were prompted by accusations of fraud in the presidential election, and the protestors were demanding the votes be recounted. The protests also had strong leadership from then-presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who gave the movement much-needed organization.

The current protests appear much more sporadic, with no clear leadership and with objectives that have shifted over the course of the past four days. According to witnesses I’ve spoken to, the protests were initiated in Mashhad by religious hardliners who sought to take advantage of the population’s legitimate economic grievances to score points against the Hassan Rouhani government, which they consider too moderate.

But they quickly lost control over the protests as the economic message has resonated with a broader segment of the population than they expected. Frustrations with corruption and falling living standards appear to have given way to much sharper political slogans—such as “Death to the dictator!” and “Down with the Islamic Republic!”

Few have been more surprised by all of this than Iran’s reformists. The absence of slogans and chants invoking Green leaders such as Mousavi, Karroubi or former President Mohammad Khatami gives credence to their claims that they are not a driving force behind these protests. In fact, no major reformist figure has come out in favor of the protests, and some activists have even spoken out against them.

Key operatives in the Green movement that I have spoken to both in Iran and in exile have clearly adopted a calculated distance from the demonstrators, though they express sympathy for the population’s grievances.

The fact that reformists—who have been at the center of most of the large-scale protests in Iran for the past two decades—appear to be neither driving nor even particularly involved presents a new political phenomenon in Iran.

The protestors likely include some disillusioned Rouhani supporters. But remember that Rouhani won re-election with 57% of the vote (and 70% voter participation) only seven months ago. That means it’s more likely that the core of the demonstrators are of a different ilk.

Their uncompromisingly anti-regime slogans suggest they may belong to the segment of the population who tends not to vote, doesn’t believe the system can be reformed and either never subscribed to or has lost hope in the idea of gradual change. Add to that those who have joined the protests out of a sense of economic desperation and humiliation.

Most analysts have not kept an eye on these segments of the population precisely because they have not been at the center of political change in Iran in recent history. Nor do they have a track record of being able to muster protests of this size.

Precisely because this is a new phenomenon, it is also more challenging to predict how the protests will evolve and how protestors will react to the likely crackdown by the authorities in the coming days. This may also explain why the government’s reaction thus far has been relatively muted.

The Iranian government is certainly not known for its lack of brutality. Protests in 2009 were violently suppressed, with massive human rights violations captured by citizen journalists on their cellphones. The brutality it is capable of has—at least so far—not been fully mustered. The question is why?

Is it because the Rouhani government calculates that the protests will fizzle out on their own and potentially even give him leverage against the hardliners to push more aggressively for reform? Or, is it because the hardliners are holding back to embarrass Rouhani and claim he is incapable of upholding security?

Or, is it simply that the government as a whole is scrambling to figure out how to respond to this outpouring of discontent from segments of society they rarely pay attention to?

Four days into the protests, there are still more questions than answers. The picture that is emerging, however, is that the political landscape in Iran is being shaken up by those seeking change outside of reform.


Iran protests: ‘Isolated regime unlikely to survive’

At least 21 people have been killed in protests across Iran. In a DW interview, analyst Paulo Casaca says the theocratic regime in Iran is domestically and internationally isolated and cannot hold on to power for long.

January 2, 2018


DW: The main reason behind public protests in Iran is the people’s frustration with the economic situation in the country. Are there also other factors that have forced Iranians to take to the streets?

Paulo Casaca: Economic issues ignited a protest movement that quickly translated into something bigger, with people demanding the regime change, an end to theocracy and its replacement with a democratic form of government.

Do you think the protests could escalate and lead to the downfall of the theocratic regime in Iran?

Yes. There is no way this isolated regime can survive this crisis this time. No one in the country and outside Iran believes anymore in the “conservative-reformists” charade. The regime has only kept it intact through repression. The question is that will the conditions that allowed, for instance, the Syrian regime to continue despite its unpopularity, also apply in Iran?

Women’s liberation has become a key demand of many Iranian protesters. Saudi Arabia also seems to be gradually allowing more freedom to women. Why are we seeing a feminist movement in Iran and Saudi Arabia at this point in time?

Misogyny is a trademark of the old conservative forms of Islam like the Saudi-Wahhabism as well as the modern Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Shia’ism. The revolt against misogyny is a fundamental structural force that is challenging all forms of Islamism, and particularly so in Iran, as these countries become more culturally advanced.


Israel: African migrants told to leave or face imprisonment

January 2, 2018

BBC News

The Israeli government has issued a notice for thousands of African migrants to leave the country or face imprisonment.

The migrants will be given up to $3,500 (£2,600) for leaving within the next 90 days.

They will be given the option of going to their home country or third countries.

If they do not leave, the Israeli authorities have threatened that they will start jailing them from April.

The UN refugee agency said the controversial plan violated international and Israeli laws.

The Israeli government says their return will be humane and “voluntary”.

The order exempts children, elderly people, and victims of slavery and human trafficking.

A spokesperson for Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority told the BBC there were currently 38,000 “infiltrators” in Israel, of whom just 1,420 were being held in detention facilities.

Israel uses the term “infiltrators” to describe people who did not enter the country through an official border crossing.

Many of the migrants – who are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan – say they came to Israel to seek asylum after fleeing persecution and conflict, but the authorities regard them as economic migrants.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that an unchecked influx of African migrants could threaten Israel’s Jewish character.


First, this town lost its Macy’s. Then Sears. Now, all eyes were on J.C. Penney.

January 1, 2018

by Jessica Contrera

Washington Post

HERMITAGE, Pa. — Barbara Cake had made the sale. A man was hovering near the gold bracelets at the J.C. Penney jewelry counter when she said, “Hi, sir, how are you?” Before long, he was swiping his credit card for both a bracelet and a pair of diamond earrings for his wife. But Barbara wasn’t done.

“If she doesn’t like these,” she told the customer, “then tell her you know a lot of ladies who would.”

“I just want my husband to buy me a watch,” she continued. “She should be truly happy with these.”

Barbara ripped the receipt from the register, pointed at the flimsy paper and, in a tone that sounded as if she were revealing a sworn secret, she delivered her favorite line.

“Just wait till you see what you saved.”

There were four days until Christmas, and this customer had decided against shopping online to come to a real store and talk to real people. To Barbara, that meant she had to provide something he couldn’t get from clicking buttons on a computer. Could the Internet assure the customer that he was making the right choice? Could it praise him for being a thoughtful husband? Could it make sure that he was getting the best possible deal?

That was what Barbara could offer at the last remaining department store in the only mall in Hermitage, a city of 16,000 in Western Pennsylvania. J.C. Penney used to be one of three anchor stores at the Shenango Valley Mall. Then, one day last March, both Sears and Macy’s shut down, becoming two of the more than 500 department stores that closed across the country in 2017. Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the “retail apocalypse.” In Hermitage, employees called it “the funeral,” because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. “I’m so sorry,” they said. “I’m in shock.” “What are you going to do?” “What am I going to do?”

What might have been just a sign of the times in a bigger city was a life-changing and economy-altering loss for Hermitage, the kind of place too far from anywhere to be considered a suburb, but too developed to be considered rural or to attract visitors with small-town charm. The closest thing Hermitage has to a downtown is the intersection where its mall sits, surrounded by McDonald’s, Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts. The biggest buildings down the road are Kohl’s, Kmart and Walmart. The retail industry is the third-largest employer in town, just behind health care and manufacturing.

When Macy’s and Sears closed, nearly 200 people lost their jobs — the equivalent of 1 in 5 retail positions in the city. In the months that followed, strips of tape kept appearing on the mall directory, blacking out the names of stores that followed suit: FYE, Rue 21, GNC, the local antiques store, Jammin Jac’s pizza shop. At many of the businesses that remained, foot traffic and sales numbers plummeted.

But come November, J.C. Penney was still open, and the most important season in retail was about to begin. Sharon Loughner, the general manager, was confident that the rush of holiday customers was on its way and, with little choice of where to go, that they would be coming to her store. She would need more workers to do all the extra fetching, folding, stacking and selling, and so she put out a call for seasonal employees.

Among the parade of well-qualified applicants from Hermitage and towns nearby came Barbara, a 67-year-old woman who seemed to represent all that retail used to be. She was impeccably dressed for her interview. She planned to wear a pantsuit each day. She talked about catering to the customer’s every need. She addressed everyone, no matter their age, as “sir” or “ma’am.”

For J.C. Penney to succeed, it needed employees like Barbara, whose necklace and bracelet, Sharon noticed, coordinated perfectly with her outfit. Sharon thought of the department where the sale of a single item could equal a dozen sweaters in ­revenue.

“How would you like,” she asked Barbara, “to work behind the jewelry counter?”

Barbara accepted, not thinking about the arthritis in her hands that would make it hard to work the small clasps, the plantar fasciitis in her right foot that would act up if she stood for hours, the reading glasses she would need to see the small numbers on the price tags. She had been an executive secretary for 30 years, and now, a few years into her retirement, had done the math on her savings, her mortgage payment and her grandchildren’s Christmas gifts and decided it was time to return to work.

The job at J.C. Penney was guaranteed only until the new year, but if she worked hard enough, she thought, they might keep her on. As a “sales associate,” she would be expected to sell about $1,500 worth of merchandise a day and would bring home $8.50 an hour, before tax.

She studied up on diamond ratings and learned to lock the jewelry counter’s glass cases to help prevent shoplifting. She learned not to ask if customers had J.C. Penney credit cards, but to assume that they did, so they would feel like they should. “And that will be on your Penney’s card, sir?” She survived Black Friday, perfecting her response to unhappy customers: a hand over her bedazzled brooch and a sincere apology. “I’m sorry, ma’am, we don’t have the Fitbit here.”

Sometimes she worried she might be taking this position from someone who needed it more than she did. For many of her co-workers, Penney’s was a second job. Amanda in jewelry had four children to support. Tina in home goods was taking care of her sick mother. Marcia in the men’s department had been laid off when Macy’s left. The employees bristled every time a customer asked, “Is Penney’s going to close, too?”

The question was being asked constantly during the holidays, as customers returned to the Shenango Valley Mall and saw, some for the first time, the hallways of empty storefronts. There was nowhere except Penney’s to buy men’s dress clothes. The store known for its elastic waistband pants for “mature women” was still thriving, but staples such as Bath & Body Works and the Hallmark store kept reporting drops in profits to their corporate owners. Fewer than 100 people still worked at the mall year-round.

One of them was Don Howell, the man some shoppers called the rent-a-cop, but who called himself director of public safety. Don roams the wide halls for hours a day, wearing a round-brimmed hat, a gold badge and a radio to page the mall office, because there is really a need for only one officer at a time.

When the mall tenants kept complaining that the building’s New Jersey-based owner wasn’t doing anything to improve the mall’s situation, Don decided to give himself another title: assistant mall manager. That is how he introduces himself when he emails established retail giants in hopes they will take a chance on the mall. He has contacted Target and Rural King, Boscov’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods. He has been in talks with a local bakery that might be interested in the old GNC space. So far, the biggest success has been a local coffee shop that opened in what used to be an American Eagle.

When he hears shoppers complaining about the state of the mall, he offers them a simple solution: “Use it,” he says, “or lose it.”

Three days before Christmas, Barbara arrived in the J.C. Penney break room to find her co-workers huddled around the local newspaper.

“Wow, look at this,” she said, picking it up. A photo of the mall was at the top of the page.

The article said the county had decided that the mall building and the property it sits on is no longer worth what it once was. Soon, the amount of taxes the mall owners pay the city would be cut by more than half. This would make the mall easier to sell — but would mean huge losses in revenue for the city and its schools.

“Yep, people’s home and property values are going to be going down now,” said Lori Ost, who had been working at J.C. Penney for four years.

“Is that what it’s saying?” Barbara asked, thinking of her home four miles from the mall.

“Hermitage has nothing; this is what Hermitage has,” Lori said. “I would be out there hustling every day to get business in here. Maybe a lower price will attract potential buyers.”

Barbara nodded, opening up the paper to find the rest of the article.

“If I had that kind of money,” Lori said, “I’d just buy it and tear it down and build something new.”

Barbara closed the paper. “That’s really scary,” she said, and then she went down to the sales floor, where nearly every customer she met would be affected if someone did decide to tear down the mall.

Here came the “mall walkers,” who arrived for their exercise ­every day at 9 a.m. There was John and Marty, two older gentlemen, accompanied by Jim, the younger one whom they let join their routine after he lost his job at the Cooper Bessemer engine-making plant nearby. There was Tom and Lorene, a couple who had been walking in the mall every cold day since 1991. They hadn’t yet been to the mall’s new coffee shop, where coffee is $2.50 more expensive than it is at Auntie Anne’s. “We’re not really fancy Starbucks people,” they explained.

Here came the kind of shoppers malls have always depended on: the browsers, who saw shopping as something fun to do. Liz and Bob Adams planned on picking up a Paw Patrol toy for their grandson but ended up at the jewelry counter.

“There are some great deals today. You would be shocked,” Barbara told them.

Liz hovered near the diamond rings. She and Bob had both been widowed before they met. Usually at Christmas they said “we are each other’s gift,” but these rings, Liz told Bob, were really beautiful.

Barbara showed them the “Holiday Extra Effort” deal that meant they could get an extra 30 percent off if they spent more than $500. They walked out with a $612 ring, $1,887 off the retail price.

Then came the type of customer Barbara loved helping most: those for whom a trip to the mall was a special occasion that had to be saved for, as it had been for her growing up in Shamokin, Pa. She was one of eight children. Her mother would send her to scour the Woolworths, W.T. Grant and Newberry stores to see which had the best price before they bought anything.

Now she met a 7-year-old named A.J., whose mother had given him $50 from her Social Security check, her only income, to buy her a Christmas gift. A.J. asked his grandparents to take him to buy her some jewelry.

“She likes pink,” A.J. told Barbara.

“She likes earrings that dangle,” his grandmother said.

Barbara walked them to the cases of sterling silver hoops, to the bracelets, to the pendants with 1/10 karat of a diamond on special for $25.“Nothing gold?” the grandmother asked.

Barbara placed her hand over her brooch. “Not for $50,” she apologized.

She walked them back to the case of gold anyway, opened it and started taking out each box, scanning bar codes and adding all the coupons she could.

“His mom doesn’t have too much real stuff,” A.J.’s grandmother said.

In the corner of the case, Barbara found a $124 pair of earrings on sale for $31.79. The jewels were cubic zirconia, but the thin metal loops were 10-karat gold.

“A bargain,” she promised. A.J. gave her a thumbs up.

Barbara looked at her watch as she rang them up. She had spent nearly 40 minutes helping them. She knew she wouldn’t meet her sales goal today.

By Dec. 23, the slowdown had begun. Barbara’s manager posted a sign at the counter saying the fine jewelry department was less than $8,000 from its holiday season goal. “Ladies!” she wrote. “Keep pushing, we’re almost there!” But the snow was coming down during Barbara’s closing shift, and she knew it would stop her customers from visiting. She was already worried about driving to her daughter’s house on Christmas Day. She had saved up enough to buy her 8- and 10-year-old granddaughters iPads, which she had purchased online with discounts.

Barbara watched the last-minute shoppers browse — too late to buy things online now, she thought. She tried to sell a $60 watch to a mother looking for her son but quickly pulled out the $29 one when the woman grimaced at the price. “A steal!” she said as she handed over the receipt.

A husband bought a necklace and earring set at nearly 70 percent off. “She’s going to think you robbed the bank to get her gift,” Barbara said.

She rang up purchases for customers who didn’t want to wait in the regular checkout line, selling them jeans and socks and pajama bottoms.

“I feel weird just standing here,” she said.

In a few days, the store managers would call Barbara to ask if she would like to stay on after the holidays. They would warn her that the job would be far fewer hours come January. After customers finished their post-Christmas returns, things would be slow, at least until Valentine’s Day. They just weren’t sure how slow.

“Excuse me?” a customer said, and Barbara turned around.

“Yes, sir,” she said. “What can I do for you today?”

“Where’s the men’s bathroom?” he asked.

She pointed him in the right direction. There were still two hours to go until midnight and closing. She slipped a foot out of her heels and stretched. Then she reached for a roll of paper towels, picked up a spray bottle and began to polish the glass counters, trying to make everything as shiny as she thought it ought to be.


Nearly a quarter of world’s bitcoins may be lost forever

January 2, 2018


Missing out on bitcoin’s wild rally may not be the worst thing in the world. You could be sitting on a fortune unable to access it. Data shows up to 23 percent of bitcoins currently in circulation may be lost forever.

It is impossible to say exactly how many bitcoins are being hoarded and how many will never be recovered. According to estimates from blockchain analysis company Chainalysis, between 2.78 million and 3.79 million bitcoins worth up to $50 billion at current prices are already gone for good.

The findings were based on a detailed empirical analysis of the blockchain where all bitcoin transactions are recorded. Chainalysis used age and transaction metrics to work out which bitcoin hasn’t been moved in a very long time.

The firm also estimated that some two percent of all bitcoins traded throughout 2017 were lost. That accounts for a billion dollars’ worth of the digital currency.

Such losses are expected to continue, but they should gradually become rarer, Chainalysis said, explaining it that owners are taking added care of their cryptocurrency as its value spiked during the year.

Analysts say one of the main reasons behind the lost cryptocurrencies is forgotten passwords because storing bitcoins works in such a way they can’t be recovered without crucial information.

Having a cryptocurrency “wallet” on a hard drive or flash drive means it is protected from being stolen online. However, if the owner loses access to the device, the coins are also lost forever. Many early miners and investors have misplaced the currency before it was ever worth anything.

Experts from Chainalysis suggest around a million of the lost bitcoins could belong to the cryptocurrency’s mysterious inventor Satoshi Nakamoto. His fortune is thought to currently stand at over $17 billion and could turn him into the world’s first trillionaire. According to media reports, Nakamoto has never spent a single coin.

To recover their lost or forgotten passwords desperate bitcoin investors are turning to different methods, including hypnosis and ‘brute force’ attacks with a supercomputer. The so-called crypto-hypnotists say they could help people recall forgotten passwords or find misplaced storage devices.

Investor Philip Neumeier bought 15 bitcoins for roughly $260 in 2013 when he wanted to accept the virtual currency on his e-commerce site. Trying to recover the long-forgotten password to his cache, which has skyrocketed in value to nearly $200,000, the distraught investor considered hypnosis but decided instead to build a supercomputer to crack the code.

The editor of Wire and founder of the website Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder published a story on his four-month unsuccessful attempts to recover the password of a bitcoin wallet with the help of hypnosis. He finally got access to the wallet after appealing to hackers.

However, nothing could help James Howells, a British IT worker who claims he threw away a hard drive with 7,500 bitcoins on it in 2013. Worth $130 at the time, their value today – around $100 million.


The creation of a fraud: Rare gold coins division

January 2, 2018

by Christian Jürs


I have just received a long ms from a contributor of considerable experience and veracity, concerning the alleged “wreck of the SS New York” and coins she might have been carrying.

He states cataegorically that there was no such ship, no such storm and no such sinking.

He said the story had been invented out of whole cloth, based on ‘Issac’s Storm” book on the devastating 1900 Galveston hurricane and the finding of the SS Central America, to explain the appearance of coins now being minted in China.

He says that these coins are: Morgan silver dollars of every year and mint, gold U.S. Indian head $2.50, $5.00 and $10 denominations and, of course, the coins purported to have been fished up from the Gulf of Mexico. His contention is that the Chinese government makes these coins for the American gullible coin trade and that by doing so, they are counterfeiting American coinage.

He also included a long article on the alleged ‘Elmali horde” or “rare Greek coins’ all of which had been struck in the Bulgarian state mint in Sofia as a means of raising dollar currency for their version of the KGB. I checked this out with the British Museum people (who have a wonderful collection of such original coins) and was told the story was correct.    I must assume, given our contributor’s notations, that this story must be essentially true. As coin collecting, especially gold coin collecting, has gained momentum given the recent economic disasters.

Note, that the Chinese do not make their forgeries from the same caret of gold or silver as the originals. Therefore, a fake rare U.S. gold coin or a relatively common Morgan silver dollar will weigh less than the original.

Here is the article about the Chinese counterfeits in question:


Straight Into the Hurricane’s Path!

In the fateful year of 1846, the S.S. New York set sail from Galveston, Texas at 4:00 pm on September 5th with 53 passengers and crew on board. Captain John D. Phillips maneuvered the rough winds and an even rougher sea the first night out. After barely making 50 miles, the ship found itself in the path of a major hurricane.

The Captain ordered the anchor dropped to weather out the gale force winds. Unfortunately for the stalled ship, by 2:00 am on September 7th, the winds changed and swung the ship around the wrong direction.

For two long hours the crew tried to turn the ship back into the wind, but giant waves began pelting the ship, carrying off the wheelhouse, the smokestack, and putting out the boiler fires. The ship’s bell rang out one final time before she was lost to sea, sending out the “death knoll” to all who heard it.

Only 36 souls aboard the S.S. New York survived by holding on to ship debris for two days until they were rescued by the S.S. Galveston. The S.S. New York was lost to the sea, taking the lives of 17 people, including five children. Also lost in the shipwreck was some thirty to forty thousand dollars in U.S. gold coins, U.S. silver coins, and bank notes as reported in insurance reports and manifests.

The Recovery

In 1846, news of the shipwreck was lost among stories of the Mexican-American War battles. Let’s put the shipwreck in its historical context. The Republic of Texas had only become a state a few months before the shipwreck. Texas was still America’s wild western frontier and settlers were still fighting Indians. There were few newspapers those days and the mail moved slowly by stagecoach. With the vast distances and the relatively low loss of lives, news of the shipwreck of the S.S. New York received little fanfare. Far more men were dying on the battlefields as America fought to defend Texas.

As a result, this was a shipwreck that was apparently overlooked by salvage firms. It wasn’t until 144 years after the shipwreck that a Louisiana oil field worker and an amateur diver read a newspaper article about the sunken ship and decided to start looking for it. As unlikely as it seems, the oil field worker used his electronic fish finder equipment and research gained from shrimpers in the area, to find the exact location of the shipwreck. For many decades, maps of the area in the Gulf of Mexico labeled an area in the water that was dangerous to dragging shrimp nets as “snag.” The snag proved to be the remains of the 160 foot steamer’s paddlewheel, smokestack, and heavy boilers.

The discovery of the S.S. New Yorker shipwreck led to excitement recently at the prospect of finally recovering some of the lost gold and silver coins minted before 1846. No doubt, the coins around the shipwreck would be worth a small fortune– sure to be highly prized by coin and shipwreck artifact collectors alike. At first, a contractor was hired to remove all of the sand from the hull of the ship, but barely any coins were found. Luckily, the oilfield worker appreciated the historical significance of the site and would not allow the contractor to demolish the wreck. Divers again examined the site in 1997 and 1998, but no one was able to find the lost silver and gold coins.

Finest Known Southern Gold

Finally, in 2007 the remains of the S.S. New York were explored again by the original discoverers in a full-scale salvage operation. Craig DeRouen, Avery Munson, and Gary and Renee Hebert (pronounced “a-bear” in Louisiana) had wisely obtained rights to the shipwreck from a federal court, including ownership of all the rare and valuable coins that might be rescued. The operation proved to be quite a success for the treasure hunters– the coins were finally uncovered and carefully brought to the surface.

After the recovery of coins from the S.S. New York Shipwreck, the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) was chosen to certify the authenticity and grade each coin individually. Each one will bear the official designation of “S.S. New York Shipwreck.”

Thankfully, gold coins resist corrosion by saltwater and the rare coins from the Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans Mint were well preserved, some in high “Mint State” condition. A few of the coins have been appraised as “the most impressive Southern-minted gold known to exist.”

Even the U.S. Silver coins will be highly collectible despite the fact that silver coins are often etched by seawater. NGC denotes such coins as having a “Shipwreck Effect” rather than assigning them a specific grade. In recent years, these shipwreck coins have become highly prized among collectors who appreciate the history, rarity, and exclusivity of owning coins with such an amazing pedigree.”


Trump Administration Bricked On at Least Half of Its Executive Orders in 2017

January 2, 2018

by David Dayen

The Intercept

The Trump administration has either failed to complete or is keeping from the public more than half of the reports that President Donald Trump assigned to the administration through his early and prolific use of the executive order. Of the reports it did complete, many were turned in well past the assigned due date and only “complete” in the sense that they consist of words on paper.

In his first year in office, Trump ordered 95 separate reports, performance reviews, instructions, or other activities to be carried out by executive branch agencies. The Intercept has been reviewing these orders for the last year. We found that 48 of the 95 actions were completed, in many cases after the due date stipulated in the order. Federal agencies have yet to complete another 20. In 27 cases, the agency was unresponsive to our requests for information.

The executive orders were intended to form the building blocks of Trump’s governing strategy. They covered everything from defeating the Islamic State, to instituting signature policies on immigration and cybersecurity, to fashioning the administration’s position on regulatory reform and energy independence. That the executive branch has completed just half of the tasks the president had ordered suggests that the administration isn’t running like the “fine-tuned machine” Trump has boasted about. If federal agencies cannot do the basic block-and-tackling work of writing a progress report, their ability to operate in a crisis is highly questionable.

The administration’s track record also reinforces the incredible secrecy within the Trump government. Only 19 of the 48 completed reports were publicly released. The Intercept attempted to obtain the still-private reports under the Freedom of Information Act and ran into continuous brick walls. Either the administration chose not to commit its plans to written documents so that those looking for information would have nothing to discover, or it deliberately hid them from the public. Cabinet heads have made it difficult for people to obtain their public schedules, let alone the reports they write to the president laying out their agenda.

For example, in April, the president signed an executive order on “Buy American and Hire American” rules for the federal government. It laid out a series of steps for executive agencies to prioritize American products and materials in federal procurement, as well as to step up enforcement of “Buy American” laws within their jurisdictions.

The policy is central to fulfilling Trump’s “America First” agenda. The secretary of Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget were to collate reports from agency heads on compliance, as well as assess the impacts of trade agreements on “Buy American” laws. And by November 24, the Commerce Department was to submit a final report, with recommendations on strengthening those laws so that the campaign promise could become reality.

The agency has not confirmed its completion of any of those reports. It took a Democrat, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, to write the White House asking for the final report on December 12, 18 days after it was due. “I understand that the report is not finished and I am writing to urge your Administration to expedite the publication of this now late report,” she wrote. The Intercept asked the Commerce Department whether the preliminary reports were completed; the agency did not respond.

Trump’s “Buy American” plan could theoretically be a place for bipartisan cooperation and is one that aligns with the president’s promises to his base to restore jobs to the “forgotten man.” But all of that is apparently not enough of a priority for the administration to bother with it.

Other examples display the White House’s penchant for secrecy. The shrinking of two national monuments in Utah, announced in early December, came after a comically thin interim report on recent monument designations in June and a final report in August of which the public only got to see a two-page executive summary. Journalists had to look to leaked documents to ferret out that the Utah monuments would be targeted for shrinkage. Even members of Congress only learned about the plans when they were leaked to the media.

Ultimately, Trump modified the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and could shrink several more, if he acts on a report from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the Washington Post first reported. Several Native American tribes have sued the Trump administration over the monument changes.

Similarly, while the Department of Homeland Security has ordered federal agencies to enhance cybersecurity efforts, only four of the 14 reports scheduled to be delivered to the White House per a sweeping cybersecurity executive order have been confirmed as completed, and none of them have been made public.

The case of the president’s commission on combating drug addiction and the opioid crisis is also instructive. The commission completed reports ordered by Trump — albeit belatedly — and made its recommendations public. And after some prodding, the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, which in theory freed up some resources to deal with the scourge. But the emergency declaration unlocked around 2 cents for each individual suffering from opioid use disorder in America, neglecting to add new money to the paltry $57,000 in the Public Health Emergency Fund.

The commission, following Trump’s lead, also didn’t ask for new money to deal with the crisis, making its recommendations quaint but rather symbolic. To date, there’s been little action on preventing opioid addiction, and deaths from the epidemic continue to play a significant role in declining life expectancy in America, a trend not seen in over half a century.

Some of the reports have been useful in understanding the White House position on key issues. The series of Treasury Department reports on the financial system and regulatory burdens has clarified where it stands on issues like corporate taxes and how to unwind big banks that get into trouble. But this has been the exception more than the rule.

Trump has not stopped issuing executive orders and ordering reports and reviews. But the point of these exercises has become clear: to give the impression of activity within the administration, regardless of the follow-through.

We finished our review of the administration’s record on executive orders at the end of 2017


At least nine deaths from cold as vast area of US gripped by Arctic chill

  • Water tower freezes in Iowa and New York ferry service halted
  • Indianapolis schools closed and snow flurries seen in Texas

January 2, 2018


Dangerously cold temperatures across the US have been blamed for at least nine deaths. The plunge in temperature has wreaked havoc in some places, freezing a water tower in Iowa, halting ferry service in New York and leading officials to open warming centers even in the deep south.

The National Weather Service (NWS) issued wind chill advisories and freeze warnings on Tuesday covering a vast area from south Texas to Canada and from Montana through New England.

Indianapolis tied a record low of -12F (-24C) for 2 January, set in 1887, leading Indianapolis Public Schools to cancel classes. The north-west Indiana city of Lafayette got down to -19F (-28C), shattering the previous record of -5F (-21C) for the date, set in 1979, the NWS said. After residents there began complaining of an audible hum, Duke Energy said it was caused by extra power surging through utility lines to meet electricity demands.

“The temperatures are certainly extreme but we’ve seen colder,” said Joseph Nield, a meteorologist in Indianapolis, noting that the all-time low temperature in Indiana was -36F (-38C) in 1994.

Nevertheless, the cold is nothing to trifle with, forecasters warned. With Chicago-area wind chills expected between -35F and -20F (-37C and -29C), forecasters warned of frost bite and hypothermia risks and urged residents to take precautions, including dressing in layers, wearing a hat and gloves, covering exposed skin and bringing pets indoors.

Atlanta hospitals were seeing a surge in emergency room visits for hypothermia and other ailments as temperatures plunged well below freezing. The temperature in Atlanta fell to 13F (-11C) before dawn on Tuesday.

“We have a group of patients who are coming in off the street who are looking to escape the cold – we have dozens and dozens of those every day,” said Dr Brooks Moore, associate medical director in the emergency department of Grady Health System, which operates Georgia’s largest hospital in Atlanta.

The cold has been blamed in at least nine deaths in the past week.

Police in St Louis said a homeless man was found dead inside a trash bin on Monday evening, apparently frozen to death as the temperature dropped to -6F (-21C). Sheriff’s officials in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, said a 27-year-old woman whose body was found on Monday evening on the shore of Lake Winnebago probably died of exposure.

The Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office said two men whose bodies were found on Sunday showed signs of hypothermia. Police believe the cold weather also may have been a factor in the death of a man in Bismarck, North Dakota, whose body was found near a river.

Warming shelters were opened across the south as freeze watches and warnings blanketed the region, including hard freeze warnings for much of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Temperatures fell to 8F (-13C) near Cullman, Alabama, and 20F (-7C) in Mobile, Alabama. Georgia saw one of its coldest temperatures of the winter: 2F (-17C) shortly before dawn at a US Forest Service weather station at Toccoa.

Plunging overnight temperatures in Texas brought rare snow flurries as far south as Austin, and accidents racked up on icy roads across the state. In the central Texas city of Abilene, the local police chief said more than three dozen vehicle crashes were reported in 24 hours.

In Savannah, Georgia – where the January’s average high is 60F (16C) – the temperature hovered at 30F (-1C) at noon on Tuesday, cold enough for icicles to dangle from the ornate wrought-iron fountain in Forsyth Park at the edge of the city’s downtown historic district. The city could see up to 2in of snow and sleet on Wednesday, its first measureable snow since February 2010.

“I’ve never seen icicles in Savannah, period,” said Sean Dempsey, a local restaurant manager who wore a hat, gloves and a thick coat to walk his dogs. “I’m pretty sure last year at New Year’s lots of families were in the park playing catch, Frisbee football and stuff like that.”




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