TBR News July 24, 2017

Jul 24 2017

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C., July 24, 2017: “Inside the intelligence community, it is well-known that the so-called social networks are an excellent source of domestic, and foreign, intelligence. Being able to watch millions of Americans without using agents in the field is a huge savings for the FBI and so they actively have supported social networks and, as well, set up Internet II as their very own system. Realizing that there is a strong probability of severe domestic upheavals in America, the agencies, and the government, do everything they can to watch for the slightest sign of pubic rebellion. And to support these programs, the social networks are priceless.”


Table of Contents

  • Feds Deploy Massive ‘Pre-Crime’ Dragnet on Millions of Americans
  • Soros and EU striving for ‘mixed, Muslimized Europe’, says Hungarian PM Orban
  • The billion-dollar palaces of Apple, Facebook and Google
  • Facebook worker living in garage to Zuckerberg: challenges are right outside your door
  • People think Facebook’s app is secretly listening to their conversations
  • Sanctions Bill: An Ode to Hypocrisy, Groupthink, Smugness, and Cronyism
  • Israeli embassy compound in Jordan hit by deadly attack
  • What is Jerusalem’s contentious holy site Temple Mount?
  • Would a supervolcano eruption wipe us out?


Feds Deploy Massive ‘Pre-Crime’ Dragnet on Millions of Americans

How not to prevent the next Reality Winner.

July 21, 2017

by Philip Giraldi

The American Conservative

Once upon a time one applied for a government position that required a clearance with the expectation that in three or four months the process would be completed and the authorization would or would not be issued. I experienced the drill on three occasions for top-secret clearances, once for the Department of Defense (DOD) and twice for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Each government agency then managed its own security, and largely does today, in spite of last year’s creation of the National Background Investigation Board. A subsidiary of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, the board was intended to coordinate and resolve a massive backlog of clearances. Currently the processing delay in issuing more than 70,000 pending top-secret clearances is approaching one year and there is also a large backlog of existing clearances that are up for reauthorization and under review.

Back in my time there were major differences in how the various national-security components ran their background investigations. The DOD clearance was largely document driven, relying on police reports and public records from the various jurisdictions that I had lived in supplemented by a brief personal interview with the chief of police in the town in New Jersey where I had spent the most time. That pretty much was it and the check did not even include confirmation of the university degree that I claimed to have, as no one asked for my approval to obtain that information. The investigator clearly was looking for illegal activity and did not appear to be particularly interested in confirming that I was who I said I was.

One particular sticking point with the military was the concern over my father rather than me. He was a naturalized citizen and the investigation absolutely required production of the original document confirming that fact, which we were eventually able to produce. It struck me as odd that one part of the government could not have asked another part to confirm the information, but that was the case back then and apparently is still the case now. There is little reciprocity between agencies and information is not routinely shared.

One of the reasons why is that each agency has a different perspective on what is important and what isn’t. CIA clearances were quite different than those carried out by the Army. They required a polygraph examination at an early stage and the background checks were very thorough, including interviews with bosses from summer jobs while I was in college as well as of people I knew while I was at school. There were a number of questions about possible homosexuality both directed at friends and as part of the poly, which, of course, would not be allowed today. Public records were, of course, reviewed, as were credit reports. FBI clearances went through a similar vetting, though the polygraph exam was not mandatory in all cases. For CIA there were also follow-up reviews every five years or thereabouts, though they generally consisted of another polygraph exam with particular attention paid to concealed foreign contacts and relationships, both amorous and espionage related.

A big difference between background checks back then and now was that the investigations were initially conducted by the office of security of the actual component that one was intending to work for. Today the investigations are nearly all conducted by contractors, who are themselves hungry for a piece of what has become a multi-billion dollar business. These companies are developing highly sophisticated security software to constantly update government files on its employees.

There are nearly five million United States government employees with clearances. Since Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, there has been considerable demand from Congress to reduce that number. But the national security industry is, if anything, slated to grow under President Donald Trump. The White House has added its own concerns over politically motivated leakers of classified information and would like to see mechanisms in place that continuously monitor activity by clearance holders to reveal who might have engaged in unauthorized exposure of the sensitive information that has wound up in the Washington Post and New York Times.

But instead of limiting the access to classified information, there has been instead a push for increased and even continuous monitoring of those who have clearances to avoid what are described as “insider threats.” Software fixes are already in place at some agencies to scour public records and also in some cases redline users who have repeated access to certain types of files that are not directly germane to their work. As we have seen in the recent case of claimed whistleblower Reality Winner, printers connected to classified computers have features that enable identification of the actual user when there is a leak.

Using computers to continuously monitor cleared employees generally employs a variation on software that has already been developed for commercial users, including air carriers, where there is high risk and major liability if an employee is responsible for a violent incident. The special software constantly reviews criminal and civil files, such as divorce filings, bankruptcies, traffic violations, unreported foreign travel, and credit reports, to identify red flags that might result in unacceptable or even aberrant behavior on the part of the employee or prospective employee. Spies are notoriously motivated by money (Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen) and careful review of their credit reports might have revealed that they were financially stressed before they took the step of selling secrets to the Soviet Union. Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis, who killed 12 people in September 2013, reportedly was the subject of a Rhode Island police report that revealed that he had been “hearing voices” shortly before he went on his rampage.

Monitoring one’s civil and criminal record is not particularly easy to do, as much of the information is only available at state or even county and local levels and not all of it is online. Even though most of the information that is being screened by the government computers is public record and therefore fair game, there is concern that while something like a bankruptcy or a foreign trip is verifiable fact, other information might be either uninterpretable or completely lacking context. Even public databases frequently contain inaccurate information, including what is referred to as false negatives and false positives—and yet if they appear to cross an employer red line, they become part of the personnel file. Some of it is certainly information that once upon a time would have been regarded as both private and sensitive, such as a credit report, even though applicants for security clearances customarily waive any right to privacy when they are being background investigated.

And there is also increasing pressure coming from government managers to begin screening social media to determine if individuals are becoming disgruntled or otherwise developing hostile attitudes towards their employer. To complain about one’s job or express unpopular opinions would not exactly be criminalized but it would inevitably become an element in consideration of one’s ability to move upward in the organization, even if that is not the intention.

The bottom line is that no one has yet made the case that the continuous monitoring of five million security clearance holders would actually reduce espionage and “insider threats.” It is clear, however, that it would be enormously expensive and is therefore being pushed hard—both by prospective contractors offering their services and also hardliners in government who seek to have such a weapon in their arsenal to catch spies, leakers, and malcontents. Critics observe that while aggressive monitoring quite possibly might discover an individual instance where someone could appear to be in one of those “at risk” categories, most individuals who are moving in that direction do not necessarily allow their inner thoughts or hidden activities to become either part of the public record or an entry on Facebook.

And the greatest danger of all is over the horizon. Once the government discovers a new technology to intrude on the lives of ordinary citizens, a pretext will no doubt be developed after the next terrorist incident or insider attack to use it in ever widening circles as new threats are allegedly discovered. When that happens, we can confidently expect Patriot Act III, with a provision allowing continuous surveillance of any and all possible suspects. And there is actually a precedent. Back in 2003, the Pentagon under George W. Bush was already tinkering with what if referred to as Total Information Awareness to examine predictive behavior, described at the time as the “biggest surveillance program in the history of the United States.”

Total Information Awareness was briefly implemented before being abandoned 14 years ago. Today the technical resources available are much more impressive, with the ability to have a fully automated process that can monitor, store, and recover billions of pieces of data in real time. It means that achieving continuous monitoring for everyone who resides in or travels to the United States is now a reality. Every American will become a potential victim and part of an Orwellian nightmare as a substantially mythical national security narrative trumps privacy concerns and constitutional rights. And the government, to quell any concerns, will continue to insist that what it is doing is only done to make you safer.


Soros and EU striving for ‘mixed, Muslimized Europe’, says Hungarian PM Orban

July 23, 2017


Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has hit out at George Soros and the European Union as the statesman’s war of words with the Hungarian-American billionaire continues to escalate.

During a state visit to Romania Orban accused Soros of using the EU in order to create a “new, mixed, Muslimized Europe,” according to AP.

The prime minister said that Soros is now more powerful in Brussels than in Washington or Tel Aviv and he argued that European institutions should fight to limit his influence, reported Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet.

“The European Union, the European Commission must regain independence from the Soros Empire before the billionaire finishes his program for the destruction of the continent,” Orban said in a speech at the 28th Bálványos Summer University event in southern Romania.

The Hungarian stated that reforming Europe can only begin by stopping illegal migration into the EU and that Hungary’s border defenses will help with that effort.

During the speech Orban also pledged that Hungary will support Poland in a row with the EU over its controversial judicial reform plans.

“The inquisition offensive against Poland can never succeed because Hungary will use all legal options in the European Union to show solidarity with the Poles,” he said.

Orban and Soros have clashed in the past, most prominently over the Soros-backed Central European University. In June the financier labelled Hungary a “Mafia state” and said he is the target of an “unrelenting propaganda campaign.”

Orban described the comments as “a declaration of war.”

”The only network which operates in mafia ways, which is not transparent… in Hungary is the Soros network,” he said.

A poll in Sunday’s Magyar Nemzet revealed that 43 percent of Hungarians think Soros is a threat to Hungary. Nearly as many people, 35 percent, said this is not the case.


The billion-dollar palaces of Apple, Facebook and Google

From California to London, the tech giants are employing top architects to build spectacular symbols of their immense global power. But they have their critics…

July 23, 2017

by Rowan Moore

The Guardian

We know by now that the internet is a giant playpen, a landscape of toys, distractions and instant gratification, of chirps and squeaks and bright, shiny things – plus, to be sure, ugly, horrid beasties lurking in all the softness – apparently without horizon. Graphics – rounded corners, lower case, Google’s primary colours, Twitter’s birdie, Facebook’s shades of blue – enhance the innocence and infantilism. It is a world, as Jonathan Franzen once said, “so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self”. Until we chance on the bars of the playpen and find that there are places we can’t go and that it is in the gift of the grown-ups on the other side to set or move the limits to our freedom.

We’re talking here of virtual space. But those grown-ups, the tech giants, Apple, Facebook, Google and the rest, are also in the business of building physical billion-dollar enclaves for their thousands of employees. Here too they create calibrated lands of fun, wherein staff offer their lives, body and soul, day and night, in return for gyms, Olympic-sized swimming pools, climbing walls, basketball courts, running tracks and hiking trails, indoor football pitches, massage rooms and hanging gardens, performance venues, amiable art and lovable graphics. They have been doing this for a while – what is changing is the sheer scale and extravagance of these places.

For the tech giants are now in the same position as great powers in the past – the bankers of the Italian Renaissance, the skyscraper-builders of the 20th century, the Emperor Augustus, Victorian railway companies – whereby, whether they want to or not, their size and wealth find expression in spectacular architecture. As Deyan Sudjic, formerly of this parish and now director of the Design Museum, wrote in his book The Edifice Complex, the execution of architecture “has always been at the discretion of those with their hands on the levers of power”. Having as much sense of their own importance as those previous powers, tech companies probably don’t mind commissioning structures that define their time.

A clue to their ambitions lies in their choice of architects, who are at the very to extremely famous end of the professional spectrum. They have, plainly, colossal resources, with the ability to do almost anything they like. They can have new materials invented, or make old ones perform as never before. They can build the biggest and most expensive workplaces yet seen. They can change cities. They have already redefined “architecture” in the sense that the word can now refer to the structures of software and hardware. Now the old-fashioned version of architecture finds itself an adjunct of the new sort. One sign of the shifted balance of power is the fact that Apple, having commissioned the mighty Foster and Partners to design its new HQ, chose not to name them even after they had unveiled the plans. The project is still not on the Foster website. The Apple brand had to come first.

Most though not all of these new structures are in the gathering of towns, suburbs and small cities that goes by the name of Silicon Valley. There is the Foster project, Apple Park in Cupertino, 2.8m sq ft in size and reportedly costing $5bn, at its centre a mile in circumference, visible from space, a metal and glass circle that is now nearly complete. There are the planned Google headquarters in Mountain View and London by the high-ego, high-reputation pairing of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick. Facebook has hired the New York office of OMA, the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, to add to the Frank Gehry-designed complex in Menlo Park that was completed in 2015.

The one that commands most attention, and has done since the designs were unveiled in 2011, is the Apple/Foster circle, built on a site vacated by the waning empire of Hewlett Packard, which as it happens was the company that gave the teenage Steve Jobs his first break. According to Wired magazine, the building preoccupied Jobs in his last months, and he would spend his precious time on five- or six-hour meetings on its design. In June 2011, visibly ailing, he appeared in person in front of a starstruck Cupertino city council, with members of the audience snapping him with what now look like Jurassic cameras, to convince them of its merits. He didn’t have to try too hard.

“We’ve had some great architects to work with,” he said, “some of the best in the world I think, and we’ve come up with a design that puts 12,000 people in one building.” The audience gasped. He’d seen “office parks with lots of buildings” but they “get boring pretty fast”. So he proposed, introducing a metaphor that has since stuck to the design like dust to a MacBook screen, something “a little like a spaceship landed” with a “gorgeous courtyard in the middle”. “It’s a circle and so it’s curved all the way round,” he said, which “as you know if you build things is not the cheapest way to build something. There’s not a straight piece of glass on this building.” At the same time the height would never exceed four storeys – “we want the whole place human-scale”. There would be 6,000 trees on the 150-acre site, selected with the help of a “senior arborist from Stanford who’s very good with indigenous trees around this area”.

When a council member said that “the word spectacular is an understatement”, Jobs didn’t demur. “I think we do have a shot at building the best office building in the world,” he said. “I really do think that architecture students will come here to see this, I think it could be that good.” He batted away mild requests for a few perks for the neighbourhood – free wifi, opening an Apple store, mitigating the increase in traffic – and in the nicest possible way reminded everyone that “we’re the largest taxpayer in Cupertino, so we’d like to continue to stay here and pay taxes.” If the city asked for too much, in other words, Apple would decamp to a rival municipality.

The mayor waved an iPad 2 (which also looks Jurassic now) and said how much his daughter loved it. “Your technologies really make everybody proud,” said another council member. “Well thanks,” said Jobs, “we’re proud to be in Cupertino too.” “Thanks,” she gurgled back, like a giddy teenager. In due course the project was approved.

Jobs was in fact understating the circle’s exceptionalness. Recently Steven Levy, a journalist for Wired, was let through Apple’s PR palisades to look inside the nearly-finished building. He described a high-precision Xanadu, a feel-good Spectre base, on which Lord Foster and his team were assisted by Apple’s famed chief design officer – also, as it happens, British-born – Sir Jonathan Ive. After a drive down a pristine 755-foot long tunnel, clad in specially designed and patented tiles, he discovered a world of whiteness, greenery and silver, with a 100,000 sq ft fitness centre and a cafe that can serve 4,000 at once, with the 1,000-seat Steve Jobs theatre, surmounted by a 165ft-wide glass cylinder, for Apple’s famous product launches, and with a landscape designed to emulate a national park.

It is a place where trees have been transplanted from the Mojave desert, where the aluminium door-handles have been through multiple prototypes to achieve their perfect form, where the stairs use fire-control systems borrowed from yachts, where the extensive glass has been specially treated to achieve exactly the desired level of transparency and whiteness, where even a new kind of pizza box that stops the contents going soggy has been invented and patented for the company cafe. The doorways have perfectly flat thresholds because, according to a construction manager reported by Reuters, “if engineers had to adjust their gait when entering the building, they risked distraction from their work”.

In life Jobs was ferocious about the detail; since his death his followers have striven to be true to his spirit. He specified how the timber wall-linings should be cut and at what time of year, to minimise its sap content. There is a yoga room, reports Levy, that is “covered in stone, from just the right quarry in Kansas, that’s been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs’s favourite hotel in Yosemite”. There are the sliding glass doors to the cafe, four storeys or 85 feet high, each weighing 440,000 lbs – nearly 200 tonnes –, that open and close with the help of near-noiseless underground mechanisms. Apple Park uses the largest, heaviest single pieces of glass ever installed on a building, with the added complication of being curved.

It is certainly a wonder of our age, though to what end is an open question. Jonathan Ive told Wired that the main aims were the connection and collaboration it would allow between employees. For Foster it is “a beautiful object descended on this verdant, luxurious landscape … a true utopian vision”. One of its aims is to inspire future Apple workers with its perfection and attention to detail, to set a standard for them to follow in their work. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, called it a “100-year decision”.

Ever since the design was unveiled, however, it has provoked scepticism. The architecture critic of the LA Times called it a “retrograde cocoon”, “doggedly old-fashioned”. As a perfect and excluding piece of modernist geometry, set within lush planting and dependent on large amounts of car parking, it looks oddly like a corporate HQ of the 1950s or 60s, something that IBM or Bell Labs might have built, which you would have thought is exactly the look Apple wouldn’t want. And a circle is a frozen form, hard to modify or augment. At any given point, the relationship to the rest is much the same as at any other point, which seems to work against Ive’s hopes for communication and spontaneity. It is the shape of infinity and eternity, of mausoleums and temples.

Many of the greatest inventions in modern technology have been made in rough and ready, easy-to-adapt spaces – in the garages, front rooms and borrowed office desks where Apple, Google and others were hatched and in Building 20, the big wooden shed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where major advances were made in linguistics, nuclear science, acoustics and computing, to name but a few. And while it’s impossible for a company the size of Apple to recreate that exact spirit in its workplace, the big circle does look over-determined and too complete, as well as expensive and slow to build. Foster’s “beauty” and “utopia” may not make the best environment for fast-moving invention. As for Cook’s 100-year ambition, this seems strange and hubristic – as the decline of Hewlett Packard shows, there is little reason to think that any tech company can last that long, in which case the Apple circle will, like the crumbling art deco skyscrapers of Detroit, be magnificently redundant.

There is another line of criticism, which is that those awed and tax-hungry members of Cupertino city council didn’t push hard enough for the help that their community needs. If the presence of Apple is mostly an immense boon for them it also brings pressure on housing and transport, creating traffic jams and long commutes and pushing the median price of a home in Cupertino to nearly $2m. The design writer Allison Arieff recently argued in the New York Times that the project shows a “blatant disregard not only for the citizens of Cupertino but also for the functionality of the region”. It should, she says, have made more effort to connect to public transport and the city should try harder to address the housing need that Apple’s presence generates.

It doesn’t often pay to bet against Apple’s judgment, and there may be intelligence in the project that is not visible in the available information. The company’s wealth and power may in any case be enough to counteract any unhelpfulness in its architecture, but Apple Park looks like the sort of splendid monument that empires build for themselves – Lutyens’s buildings for the British Raj in Delhi, the skyscrapers that went up on the cusp of the Wall Street crash – after they have passed their supremacy. It may also be governed by excessive if understandable respect for Jobs. It is a place imbued with his biography and his dreams. They call it “Steve’s gift”. It had better not be Steve’s millstone.

It is, at all events, the project against which other tech companies’ proposals want to define themselves. They want to be the things that it is not. The official story of the Facebook/Gehry collaboration is that Mark Zuckerberg was wary of the architect’s celebrity and the latter had to convince him of his ability to deliver the project – with the help of Gehry’s in-house software – more cheaply and efficiently than his rivals. The finished version is from the rough-edged and rumpus-room schools of tech HQ design, with a huge open-plan office containing 2,800 workers and splashy, colourful works by local artists. “The building itself is pretty simple and isn’t fancy. That’s on purpose,” said Zuckerberg. “We want our space to feel like a work in progress. When you enter our buildings, we want you to feel how much left there is to be done in our mission to connect the world.”

Shohei Shigematsu, the partner at OMA New York in charge of Facebook’s latest expansion, Willow Campus, says that “our mission was not to provide iconic architecture but also regional and social thinking”. He and his client, he says, want to “integrate with community and provide community amenity”, to provide “the things that the community desperately wants” – a grocery store, open space, 1,500 homes of which 15% will be offered at below market rents, a hotel, greenways, residential walks, shopping streets. “Facebook is the perfect company,” Shigematsu also says, “their mission is to connect people, and network is a word that is virtual but also physical.” So he wants to apply that mission to “urban ambitions for connectivity in the Bay Area”.

He wants to re-activate a disused rail corridor at the edge of the site as a cycling track, a pedestrian route and a possible line for a Facebook shuttle that can also be used by the public. He wants to “undo the corporate fortress-like approach”, although he acknowledges that a vast company will always have secrets and that much of its territory will be out of bounds to the general public. The imagery published so far shows generically pleasant parks and streets, of the kind that well-mannered urbanists have been generating for more than three decades, with none of the provocation, surprise and signature perversity that you usually get with OMA projects. Shigematsu says he is happy to accept “a certain level of banality” in the appearance – it is the “large-scale thinking” that matters to him.

Google want something else again. They’re definitely not afraid of icons. After considering various architects – Zaha Hadid, for example – they shotgunned Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels’s practice, BIG, into a marriage. It’s a striking idea, like a billionaire hiring Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears to perform at his sprog’s 18th birthday. Heatherwick and Ingels are among the younger recruits to the ranks of iconists, unabashed showmen, purveyors of WTF spectaculars untrammelled by the intellectual scruples of older architects. One of the two might be considered ample for any one project, but then businesses like Google don’t play by normal rules when it comes to hiring designers, or indeed much else.

At Mountain View, where permission was recently granted to proceed, a huge roof is proposed, both mountainous and tent-like, with upward-curving openings – “smile-shaped clerestories” – for viewing the sky. Beneath its capacious shelter, on a raised open deck, hundreds if not thousands of Googlers will be doing their stuff. The next level down a publicly accessible route runs through, part of a programme of engaging with the local community that also includes a “public plaza” for group tai chi and whatever. It is framed by “oval oak thickets”.

If Apple Park seems aloof and extraterrestrial – despite the fact that quite a lot of its landscape is open to the public – then Facebook and Google want you to know how much, like street jugglers or mime artists, they want to engage you. But there are also similarities between all these projects, such as the all-embracing nature of their ambitions. Each campus is a self-contained universe where everything – the species of vegetation, the graphics, the food in the cafe, the programming of events, the ar

Under the Google tent or inside the Apple circle there is little but googleness or appleness. There is nature but – despite the meticulous selection of native plants – it is of an abstract, managed kind. There is art, but it is drained of the power to shock and subvert, leaving only diversion and reassurance. There is architecture but, notwithstanding the high degree of invention that goes into materials, it finds it hard to shed the quality of computer renderings, the sense that buildings are made of a kind of digistuff, which could as well be one thing or another. Even when the corporations reach out to their communities, to use the preferred PR terminology, the rest of the world is a hazy, ill-defined entity, a mist in the background of the computer-generated images.

These panoptical worlds are a function of the sheer scale of the corporations, but they also reflect their mindset. It has been pointed out that tech campuses resemble hippie communes of the 1960s in their apparent egalitarianism, their illusion that you can go back to nature, make your own rules, liberate yourself with science and share everything. Physically, Google’s big roof echoes the geodesic domes that hippies put up in their rural retreats.

While their sci-fi is strangely dated, culturally it makes sense. As the author Fred Turner has argued in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, radical Californian ideas of the 1960s were, with added profit motive, converted into radical Californian technologies of recent decades. And as has been belatedly dawning, there are limits to the sharing, equality and freedom, particularly when the intellectual property and business strategies of the tech giants are at stake. Their architecture gives form to these contradictions, to the combinations of openness and control and of freedom and barriers. They are perfect diagrams of the apparent equality and actual inequality of the tech sphere, where impermeable septa divide those in the inner circles from the rest. There is inequality everywhere, of course, but the tech trick is to pretend that there isn’t.

Sometimes tech HQs find themselves in the middle of big cities, rather than the compliant sprawl of Silicon Valley, which causes them to modify but not abandon their hippie-commune mentality. Amazon has chosen to situate itself in downtown Seattle, where it is believed to occupy 15-20% of the available office space, which allows it to boast that 20% of its 25,000 employees walk to work. To its fairly anodyne assembly of office blocks it has just added the Spheres, an urban Eden Project of interlocking bubbles, where its employees will wander, in Costa Rican temperatures, among tropical forests and waterfalls.

At King’s Cross in London pressure of space has obliged the stacking-up of Google’s campus into an 11-storey, one-million-square-foot structure as long as the Shard is tall. Here the fun and games of the inside – a promenade that ascends past cafes and fabulous sports facilities to a rooftop landscape of “headland”, “fields”, “garden” and “plateau” – are compressed into an exterior that takes its cue from the somewhat po-faced regularity of office blocks around it, and from the repeating lines of the railway tracks down one side. These rhythms then get jiggered, as if the internal energy can’t be contained any longer.

The proposed building is one of the more convincing architectural designs so far by either BIG or Heatherwick, in which the encounter of campus and metropolis generates compression and tension, pushing and pulling, action and reaction. It is also a decisive structure, unafraid of its scale, amid the more hesitant blocks around, which is something the area needs. But it is still inward-looking, offering a conventional office entrance plus an array of retail units to the street. If the same can be said of other office buildings nearby, one could have hoped that the force of Google could have achieved more.

When Microsoft was in its pomp it was happy to occupy a bland scattering of low buildings on the edge of Seattle. It still does. It’s also striking that for all its fame Silicon Valley makes little impression on the visual consciousness of the world – there’s not a strong sense of what it actually looks like. Until now it has lacked landmarks. But that much power and that much money will not always be happy to be unobtrusive. We are only just beginning to see the ways in which it can change the landscape of cities

 Facebook worker living in garage to Zuckerberg: challenges are right outside your door

As the Facebook CEO travels across the US to ‘learn about people’s hopes and challenges’, the cafeteria workers at his company struggle to make ends meet

July 24, 2017

by Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco

The Guardian

Mark Zuckerberg’s travels throughout the United States to fulfill his 2017 “personal challenge” to “learn about people’s hopes and challenges” have seen him drive a tractor, meet with recovering heroin addicts, don a hard hat and speak out against the staggering wealth inequality that his $68.5bn fortune so clearly represents.

But to Nicole, a worker in one of Facebook’s cafeterias, they have also raised an important question: “Is he going to come here?”

“Here” is just a few miles from Zuckerberg’s five-house compound in Palo Alto and mere blocks from Facebook’s sprawling Menlo Park headquarters. Here, on a quiet street of modest bungalows, Nicole and her husband Victor, who also works at a Facebook cafeteria, live in a two-car garage with their children, ages nine, eight and four.

“He doesn’t have to go around the world,” said Nicole. “He should learn what’s happening in this city.”

The family of five have lived in this cramped space next to Victor’s parents’ house for three years. Three beds crowd the back wall, while a couch and coffee table mark the front of the room as a living area. Clothes are hung neatly from the garage door tracks. The family goes next door to use the bathroom and kitchen. “It’s not easy,” Victor said on a recent morning. “Especially when it’s raining.”

“Our daughter continues to ask us when she’s going to get her own room, and we don’t know what to tell her,” added Nicole.

On Friday, the couple were among about 500 Facebook cafeteria workers who elected to join a union, Unite Here Local 19. They are the latest group of tech industry service workers to seek unionization in the hopes of achieving a better standard of living.

Neither Facebook nor the food service contractor, Flagship Facility Services, opposed the union drive.

Working at a Facebook cafeteria is an enviable job in many ways. Nicole earns $19.85 an hour as a shift lead, while Victor makes $17.85 – well above the $15 per hour minimum for contractors that Facebook established in 2015.

But in a region where software engineers earning four times as much complain about “trying to make ends meet”, the family is struggling.

They earn too much to qualify for state health care, but not enough to afford the health insurance offered by their employer. They frequently struggle to find enough money for basics like food and clothes for their children. Victor recently borrowed money from his mother to hold a birthday party for one of his daughters, and from a friend to pay for a dentist appointment.

“Back in the day, [the wage] would have been a great number,” said Victor, “but because of Facebook moving in, everything is so expensive. I have to get payday loans sometimes. We barely make it.”

At times, the challenges make the couple nostalgic for the days before Facebook moved to Menlo Park. When Victor was growing up, his father was able to buy a small house in Menlo Park with his earnings a landscaper. Earlier in their relationship, the couple both earned about $12 per hour as managers at Chipotle and were able to afford their own apartment.

“I felt more secure at my other job. You didn’t have people looking down at you,” Nicole said. Now she works at cafeterias with names like “Epic” and “Living the Dream”, and the distance between the two classes of Facebook workers can feel immense.

“They look at us like we’re lower, like we don’t matter,” said Nicole of the Facebook employees. “We don’t live the dream. The techies are living the dream. It’s for them.”

The smaller indignities are numerous. At the end of every shift, Nicole watches large amounts of leftover food go into the compost – food that she’s not allowed to take home. Cafeteria workers only enter Facebook’s medical clinics if they’ve been selected for a mandatory drug test. Facebook recently held a “Bring your kids to work” day, but cafeteria workers’ children were not allowed.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said that none of the company’s contingent or contract workers have access to facilities such as clinics, gyms, or bring your kid to work days, but that other policies were a matter between the contractor and the workers.

“We are committed to providing a safe, fair, work environment to everyone who helps Facebook bring the world closer together, including contractors,” the spokeswoman said in a statement.

A spokesman for Flagship said that it “looks forward to a positive and productive relationship with the union”. The company declined to comment on its policies for workers at the Facebook campus.

“People think oh, you’re working for Facebook, you’re doing great,” Victor said.

“I’m supposed to the strong one in the family, and to be pushing off promises to the kids – to go buy clothes or food … We’re both working and we still can’t provide.”

“Our motivation is not to bash either company,” said Nicole. “It’s for our families. Why do we have to live like this, when the company we work for has the resources to make it better?”

“We’re not asking for millions,” added Victor. “I just want to not be afraid if I need to go to the doctor. That’s the reason we’re uniting.”


People think Facebook’s app is secretly listening to their conversations

June 4, 2016

by Alex Heath


Facebook wants you to know that it doesn’t use your phone’s mic to secretly listen to your conversations and show you targeted ads.

That creepy, Big Brother kind of behavior is something Facebook has had to repeatedly deny since 2014. Why? Because people keep thinking that they are indeed being spied on.

A NBC-affiliated news station in Columbus, Ohio recently reignited fears that Facebook is eavesdropping on us all with the headline, “Spying Secrets: Is Facebook eavesdropping on your phone conversations?”

As part of the story, USF Professor Kelli Burns demonstrated the following scenario:

Kelli enabled the microphone feature and talked about her desire to go on safari, right down to her mode of transportation.  “I’m really interested in going on an African safari. I think it’d be wonderful to ride in one of those jeeps,” she said aloud, phone in hand.

Less than 60 seconds later, the first post on her Facebook feed was a safari story that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Turns out, it was a story that had been posted three hours earlier. And, after mentioning a jeep, a car ad also appeared on her page.

Weird, right?

The conspiracy theory that Facebook is spying through our microphones began when the social network debuted a Shazam-like audio recognition feature in the US two years ago. By giving its app access to a phone’s microphone, Facebook could recognize music, a TV show, or movie playing in the background and add it to a status update.

Since then, people keep wondering if Facebook is listening in on everything.

“Last year I was working up in Northern Alberta and one day at lunch we started talking about our favorite snacks and I mentioned these Tamari almonds I had once,” one Redditor said 7 months ago. “I hadn’t had or heard or thought of these things for a long time. Next thing I know my Facebook add space is full of Tamari flavored everything.”

Here are some more examples from Reddit:


340 points•1 year ago•

We found a roach in our apartment (very common in my part of the world). We were complaining about it and the need for pest control. Within 10 minutes I had an ad on my Facebook feed for a local pest control place. Never ever ever have a seen a similar ad on Facebook.

The rationalist in me wanted to say that it must have to do with the time of year and the frequency of roach problems in my area, but the coincidence was enough to give me pause.


143 points•1 year ago•

I’m sure this comment is too buried to get attention but….. My wife and I had a conversation about getting life insurance for our baby (the Gerber grow up plan or whatever) and next day all the adds on her Facebook app were nothing but baby insurance. So we thought it was maybe a coincidence so to test it I had her leave the app just open. Not like she was going to post a status or anything and I just mentioned going to Lake Tahoe and renting a houseboat. Next day, HOUSEBOAT RENTALS!!! I immediately deleted my Facebook account completely. Fuck those fucking fuckers. That’s some shady shit….. I’m sure other apps do the same thing but that was the last straw with Facebook for me.


56 points•1 year ago•

One time my girl friends and I were all in the car coming back from doing hair and makeup for a wedding. We were all chatting about the wedding, the honeymoon (they were going to Disney World) and then my friends dating life. She joked she wished she was a lesbian because of her recent dating frustrations with guys (all of us are straight). I didn’t search for ANY of this, my phone was in her cupholder the whole time. The next time I opened Facebook I got an ad for lesbian weddings in Orlando. It freaked me out so much I stopped using Facebook for a while. I promise you, there has never been a circumstance where I’ve searched for anything lesbian related (not that I’m ashamed whatsoever, I’m just stating facts). I wasn’t searching for anything in Orlando, everything about it was just downright creepy.

Facebook posted the following statement on June 2:

Facebook does not use your phone’s microphone to inform ads or to change what you see in News Feed. Some recent articles have suggested that we must be listening to people’s conversations in order to show them relevant ads. This is not true. We show ads based on people’s interests and other profile information – not what you’re talking out loud about.

We only access your microphone if you have given our app permission and if you are actively using a specific feature that requires audio. This might include recording a video or using an optional feature we introduced two years ago to include music or other audio in your status updates.


Sanctions Bill: An Ode to Hypocrisy, Groupthink, Smugness, and Cronyism

July 24, 2017

by Justin Raimondo


The Republican-controlled Congress couldn’t get it together on healthcare, infrastructure, immigration, or much of anything else, but, hey, they got together with the Democrats on a Russia sanctions bill: the “Russia, Iran, and North Korea Sanctions Act.” If you read the text, the proportion of moral preening, rheotorical rodomontade, and blustering bloviation is unusually high, even for a bill with Lindsey Graham’s and John McCain’s imprint all over it. That it also manages to violate the terms of the Iran deal is an extra added bonus.

The meat of the bill involves tying the President’s hands when it comes to actions intended to “significantly alter US foreign policy with regard to the Russia Federation” – with the explicit understanding that the default policy is implacable hostility. Under the terms of this bill, no action designed to improve relations with the Russians  is permitted. In order to take such actions, the President must first submit a proposal to the appropriate congressional committee, in both houses of Congress, which must then approve (or, more likely, disapprove) it.

This bill is, in effect, a de facto declaration of war – cold war, to be more precise. This is the Congress of the United States putting the nation – and the Russians – on notice that Cold War II has begun.

The bill is filled with self-justifying polemics, asserting that Russians have delayed or obstructed the Minsk agreements, when in reality it is the government of Ukraine which has refused to implement its part of the agreement by failing to hold local elections in eastern Ukraine, refusing to reform the constitution to comply with the Minsk accord, and continuing to bomb, strafe, and murder its own people in that region.

The bill also claims that “On January 6, 2017, an assessment of the United States intelligence community entitled, ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections’ stated, ‘‘Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the United States presidential election.’’ In fact, “the United States intelligence community” issued no such opinion: two intelligence agencies, the CIA and the FBI, did, without offering any convincing public evidence. A third, the National Security Agency, said it has “moderate confidence” in such a conclusion. There was no National Intelligence Estimate issued because such a document requires strict standards of evidence and also includes dissents – and, of course, no dissent on this question is permitted.

The sanctions consist of restrictions on investment in the Russian energy sector – which had to be modified at the last minute because US investors  objected to certain elements – and this ought to make oil producers in the US happy: it is a brazenly protectionist measure, one which, ordinarily, the “free trade” majority in Congress would oppose, but an exception must be made as long as it hurts the Russians.

My favorite parts of the bill are the sections devoted to anti-Russian propaganda, like this passage:

“The Government of the Russian Federation has sought to exert influence throughout Europe and Eurasia, including in the former states of the Soviet Union, by providing resources to political parties. think tanks, and civil society groups that sow distrust in democratic institutions and actors, promote xenophobic and illiberal views, and otherwise undermine European unity.”

Oh no, not “xenophobia”! Isn’t that a hate crime? How dare the Russians point out that Angela Merkel has allowed her country to be overrun with refugees from a war made worse by Western intervention on behalf of Islamic extremists! Hungary and Poland have refused to open their borders to the floodtide, and the result has been the complete absence of terrorist incidents and civil disorder in those countries. How “illiberal” can you get?!

As for “sowing distrust in democratic institutions” and otherwise “undermining European unity,” it has been the anti-democratic “Remainers” who have been undermining the democratic decision of the British people to leave the European Union. Liars always project their lies onto those they’re trying to malign.

It is, naturally, perfectly okay that the United States and its allies fund political parties and “non-governmental organizations” throughout Europe and the world to push their agenda: no one else is allowed to do the same. And of course the resources the Western governments can afford to deploy in their propaganda campaigns far exceed the paltry amounts coming from cash-strapped Moscow.

Speaking of which, $250,000,000 is appropriated in this bill for propaganda efforts that go into the “Countering Russian Influence Fund.” This will go to various NGOs, with those controlled and supported by billionaire George Soros no doubt at the head of the line. It’s quite a lucrative gravy train, and every “democracy”-promoting thinktank and NGO is there with their hands out, using their political influence to get a cut of the action.

Another bit of pork is the $30,000,000 to be given for “Ukraine energy security,” i.e., subsidies for US energy companies and investors and their Ukrainian clients. For decades, ever since the days of the Warsaw Pact, Russia sold Ukraine subsidized energy, but this ended when Ukraine refused to pay anything for oil and gas deliveries. Now the International Monetary Fund has pressured the Kiev regime to cut its energy subsidies to consumers, if not eliminate them altogether, which has led to unrest as ordinary Ukrainians freeze their butts off during the harsh winters. Now the United States is stepping into the breach, at least partially, by playing the role the old Soviet Union did – subsidizing its Ukrainian satellite (and, incidentally, enriching politically-connected US energy companies).

Oh yes, there’s something in this bill for everyone – free money, politically correct jeremiads against “xenophobia,” partisan rhetoric around the 2016 presidential election, and most of all hatred of all things Russian. It’s a monument to the hypocrisy, groupthink, and smugness that permeates our nation’s capital like a poisonous fog. No wonder the two parties united around it.


Israeli embassy compound in Jordan hit by deadly attack

Two Jordanians have been killed and an Israeli security guard injured in a shooting at the Israeli embassy complex in Amman, Israel said. Tensions between Israel and Jordan run high over Muslim shrines in Jerusalem.

July 23, 2017


Jordanian police deployed dozens of anti-terrorism police forces following the two deaths on Sunday.

“We have started a large scale investigation into the incident and ordered the prosecutor general to look at all the details,” the police said in a statement.

According to Israel, an Israeli security guard opened fire after a 17-year-old Jordanian workman attacked him with a screwdriver. The guard killed the teenager, but also accidentally shot the Jordanian apartment owner who was present at the scene. The owner, a medical doctor, later died of the injuries he sustained. The Israeli security guard was lightly injured, Israeli media reports.

The 17-year-old worker had entered the embassy complex with a colleague to replace furniture, Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement, while Jordan said they were there to “do carpentry.”

Israeli media reported that Jordan had insisted on conducting an investigation and prevented the embassy staff to leave the grounds. While the Foreign Ministry did not mention such requests, it stated that the guard, referred to as “deputy director of security” of the embassy, had diplomatic immunity.

The incident comes amid mounting tensions between Israelis and Palestinians over metal detectors that Israel has installed at Jerusalem’s holy site of Temple Mount after two police guards were shot dead on July 14.

“They (metal detectors) will remain. The murderers will never tell us how to search the murderers,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli minister for regional development, told Army Radio on Sunday. “If they (Palestinians) do not want to enter the mosque, then let them not enter the mosque.”

Thousands of Jordanian marched in protest of Israeli policies on Friday.

International response

The Temple Mount is in east Jerusalem, which was seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.

King Abdullah’s Hashemite monarchy in Jordan has been custodian of the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem since 1924. Earlier on Sunday, Jordan requested an urgent meeting of Arab League foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Jerusalem. It is to be held on Thursday in Cairo.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would halt security ties with Israel until it removed the walk-through gates installed at the entrances to the Al-Aqsa mosque.

The UN Security Council is to hold closed-door talks Monday about the violence.


What is Jerusalem’s contentious holy site Temple Mount?

Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has often been at the center of competing Jewish and Palestinian national narratives. DW explains the significance of the holy site and why it is so contentious.

July 21, 2017

by Chase Winter


Known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), the holy site has long been a center of contention between Palestinians and Israelis.

Located in Jerusalem’s Old City, the entire compound includes the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, several gates, fountains and open areas. It is from the Al-Aqsa Mosque that Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to the heavens.

For the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, it is the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. For Palestinians, it is also symbol of their struggle for a state and Israel’s military occupation.

Competing claims

The Temple Mount is believed by Jews to be the site of two biblical temples. It is Judaism’s holiest site, but Jews are not allowed to pray there. It is located above the Western Wall, part of an old temple and the holiest site where Jews can pray.

Israel occupied the Old City and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in an act not recognized under international law.  Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of any future state.

However, the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif remained under the administration of the Islamic Waqf (endowment) and custodianship of Jordan, whose Hashemite leaders claim a direct line of descent to the Prophet.

Jews and tourists are allowed to visit the holy site, but only Muslims are allowed to pray.

Changing the status quo?

Palestinians have long accused the Jewish nationalist right-wing of seeking to undo the so-called status quo, a series of arrangements that give Muslims considerable administrative autonomy over the compound.

These actions include allowing “illegal Israeli settler leaders, along with other Israeli extremists, to invade the Al-Aqsa compound escorted by Israeli Police,”according the Palestinians.

Palestinian concerns are aggravated by frustration over the larger issue of continued Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and military occupation.

The Israeli government has repeatedly stated it has no intention of undoing the status quo.  It has also accused the Palestinians of over-exaggeration and incitement over issues surrounding the mosque compound.

Standoffs over the holy site, such as the implementation of metal detectors, have raised concern it could unleash a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Over the years, there have been repeated Palestinian protests and clashes with Israeli police over the holy site.

The second intifada was triggered in 2000 after former Israeli President Ariel Sharon visited the holy compound.


Would a supervolcano eruption wipe us out?

Throughout our planet’s history, massive volcanic eruptions have devastated life. Could one bring an end to human civilisation?

July 24, 2017

by David Cox

BBC News

In the Bay of Naples, Europe’s most notorious giant is showing signs of reawakening from its long slumber.

Campi Flegrei, a name that aptly translates as “burning fields”, is a supervolcano. It consists of a vast and complex network of underground chambers that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago, stretching from the outskirts of Naples to underneath the Mediterranean Sea. About half a million people live in Campi Flegrei’s seven-mile-long caldera, which was formed by vast eruptions 200,000, 39,000, 35,000 and 12,000 years ago.

The past 500 years have been fairly peaceful ones for Campi Flegrei. There have been no eruptions at all since 1538, and that was a comparatively small event that resulted in the formation of the “New Mountain”, Monte Nuovo. But recent events suggest that this period of quiescence may be coming to an end.

An acceleration of processes causing deformation and heating within the caldera saw the Italian government raise the volcano’s threat level in December 2016. Fears are growing that magma deep inside Campi Flegrei could be reaching the “critical degassing pressure”, where a sudden large-scale release of volcanic gases could abruptly inject heat into surrounding hydrothermal fluids and rocks. When this happens on a significant scale, it can cause catastrophic rock failure within the volcano, triggering an eruption. In line with this, a study published in May 2017 found evidence that the supervolcano has been building towards an eruption for decades.

But the difficult question is not if, but when, and just how big an event this would be.

Campi Flegrei is in a critical state,” says Antonio Costa of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Bologna, who is part of a team monitoring the supervolcano. “In probabilistic terms, we expect something called a ‘violent Strombolian eruption’. This is relatively small-scale to a supereruption. However, it’s not easy to say if there will definitely be an eruption in the coming years. Campi Flegrei has not erupted during the timescale that it’s been under observation, so we don’t know entirely what to expect.”

A violent Strombolian eruption would blast molten rock and volcanic gases a few thousand feet into the atmosphere. It would surely be a major event, potentially requiring the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. But in the context of Campi Flegrei’s past, it would be minor.

The volcano’s most notorious supereruption was the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption, which occurred some 39,000 years ago. It punched an estimated 300 cubic kilometres of molten rock 70km up into the stratosphere, along with an estimated 450,000 tons of sulphur dioxide. The ash cloud was carried as far as central Russia, some 2,000km away.

The eruption occurred at a time when much of Europe was already going through a lengthy glacial period, and the consequences are thought to have devastated much of the continent for centuries.

Entire swathes of land, including Italy, the Mediterranean coast and the entirety of eastern Europe, were left covered in up to 20cm of ash. This would have destroyed vegetation and created a vast desert. Much of Russia was immersed in 5cm of ash, enough to disrupt plant life for decades or more.

“We know from chemical analysis that the ash contained fluorine, which has a strong impact on vegetation, and it would have produced a disease called fluorosis in animals,” Costa says. “This would have had a knock-on impact on humans.”

In addition, the huge quantity of sulphur dioxide released would have created a volcanic winter. Sulphur dioxide backscatters the Sun’s radiation in the upper atmosphere, preventing it from reaching the ground. The 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption, one of the biggest of the 20th Century, did exactly this, temporarily lowering the global temperature by around 0.6C. But the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption may have had a far greater impact, with some scientists estimating that it decreased temperatures in Europe by as much as 4C, drastically altering the climate for many years.

The timing of this huge eruption is suspicious, because many archaeologists believe that 39,000 years ago is roughly when our cousins the Neanderthals died out in Europe. It has long been speculated that the eruption triggered extreme environmental conditions across Europe, contributing to the extinction of the Neanderthals, at least in some regions.

However, while the impact on the Neanderthals was surely significant, many scientists now believe it is unlikely that this single event was cataclysmic enough to wipe them out. Archaeological evidence suggests that Neanderthals persisted in parts of western Europe for some 10,000 years after the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption. This may be because of the way the ash dispersed.

“After the eruption, Neanderthal archaeological sites are found only in France and Spain,” Costa says. “This is probably because these two areas were not affected by the eruption at all, because the wind was blowing towards the east.”

There is even an argument that the eruption could have benefited the Neanderthals, by delaying the arrival in Europe of modern humans, who would have competed with them for resources. “To reach western Europe, modern humans would have had to cross the Middle East and the vast desert created by the eruption,” says Costa. “It would have taken many hundreds of years for this land mass to recover.”

For now, it is unclear how much damage Campi Flegrei’s last major eruption did. But it is far from the only supervolcano on the planet. Earth’s geological history is a catalogue of apocalyptic-looking volcanic events.

In south-west Colorado, there is a vast canyon approximately 100km wide and one kilometre deep. It serves as the legacy of one of the most explosive single events in the planet’s history. La Garita Caldera was formed by an eruption nearly 28 million years ago, which expelled 5,000 cubic kilometres of molten rock.

Fortunately for us, the tectonic plates in the area have since rearranged themselves, so a repeat event is impossible. But approximately 75,000 years ago in Indonesia, an eruption of similar scale occurred, and the supervolcano responsible remains active.

Situated in the midst of a mountain range in northern Sumatra, the tranquillity and natural beauty of Lake Toba makes it a popular tourist location. But this lake is actually an enormous caldera, a footprint of the most extreme climatic event in human history.

“The Toba eruption was frankly as big as any in the past tens of millions of years,” says Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge, who studies some of Earth’s biggest volcanos. “It’s a particularly prominent one, because it’s within the timeframe of modern humans, and the timing is quite critical, because it occurs around the time that humans come out of Africa and spread across Asia.”

But exactly what effect this had on the human race has been the subject of much controversy.

In the 1990s, volcanologists discovered large ash deposits from Toba in marine sediments scattered across the Indian Ocean. The ash contained a chemical signature that could be traced back 75,000 years. Later studies found similar ash in the South China Sea, Arabian Sea and even in Lake Malawi, some 7,000km away from Toba.

The colossal scale of the eruption means that volcanic gases from Toba are thought to have been ejected through both hemispheres of the Earth’s atmosphere, causing them to circulate all around the world. But exactly which gases were emitted from Toba, and in what quantities, is crucial to knowing its impact on the climate and understanding what happened next. So far back in time, this is not straightforward.

“There’s an ice core in Greenland where they have a chemical record of how global temperatures went up and down over the past 125,000 years,” says archaeologist Sacha Jones of the University of Cambridge, who has spent many years researching Toba. “Distinct layers of ice are laid down each year, and people have measured how much sulphate is in these layers. There is a large peak of sulphate, which seems to correspond to the timeframe of Toba.”

If the Toba eruption did indeed send vast quantities of sulphur dioxide around the world, scientists have predicted it may have sparked a volcanic winter, which blackened the skies and lasted some 6,000 years. In line with this, geneticists studying patterns in human mitochondrial DNA in the early 1990s, identified what appears to be a population bottleneck, which occurred somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. Many were quick to make the link to Toba.

But not everyone is so convinced.

“Over the last 10 or so years, people have become more sceptical that Toba almost killed off Homo sapiens,” Oppenheimer says. “Magmas can dissolve and hold things like carbon dioxide and water and sulphur in different amounts, depending on the volcano. And chemical analysis of ash from Toba has found that its magma can’t actually hold very much sulphur.”

There is also something suspicious in the archaeological record. Indonesia, Malaysia and India are thought to have been blanketed in at least 5cm of ash from Toba, which undoubtedly affected vegetation and caused mass floods. Yet archaeological studies of ash deposits appear to show that humans were remarkably resilient to the environmental changes.

“The main signs of human activity around this time are stone tools, such as hand axes and flint tips,” says Jones, who has excavated sites in the Jurreru Valley in Andhra Pradesh, India. “When we excavated deposits above, through and below the Toba ash layer, we didn’t really see much change at all in these Stone Age technologies before and after the eruption, which suggests that it didn’t really cause any mass extinction.”

The key factor may be that most of the ash from Toba is believed to have fallen in the ocean, where it would have had only minimal effects on land-dwelling species like humans. However, Jones believes that the impact was still extremely severe for some communities.

“Toba was an incredibly large eruption, so it will have had some massive effects in particular areas,” she says.”The whole Pacific region in the immediate vicinity is very diverse, with lots of micro-climates. There’s rainforest, desert, mountains, and people in certain areas may have suffered more than others.”

But what of Toba’s future? Geologists and geophysicists who study the volcano remain concerned about its magma chamber, which could be reawakened if the Sumatra fault line, which bisects the island and runs through Mount Toba, became active.

If it did, the only solution would be mass evacuation. But we do not even know how much warning we would receive.

Located underneath Yellowstone National Park in the US, the Yellowstone supervolcano is one of the most actively monitored places on the globe. A variety of instruments, including seismometers to detect chains of earthquakes, GPS sensors to record how the ground swells and shifts, and even satellite images to detect pressure changes in the magma chamber, are all used to look for any noticeable trends in behaviour.

Yellowstone has had three supereruptions in the past 2.1 million years. The first remains one of the largest of all time, producing 2,500 times the volume of ash as the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption. If Yellowstone erupted again, some scientists think it would have more devastating consequences than Toba, because the majority of the ash would fall on land rather than in the sea.

“The last eruption of Yellowstone would potentially have put ash across both American continents,” says David Pyle at the University of Oxford. “If you take a continental land mass and you suddenly cover it with 10cm of volcanic ash, all the organic matter and trees will lose their leaves and probably die. Animals will take in chemicals which are toxic to them. The ground will suddenly be much brighter than before, so a lot of the incoming solar radiation might simply be reflected back into the atmosphere, resulting in a lengthy drought.”

With water supplies clogged, electricity transmission lines failing and a complete disruption in ground transport, there would be an immediate crisis.

“If Yellowstone, Campi Flegrei or Toba exploded, there would be huge economic impact across the globe, because of the way the world economy works now,” Oppenheimer says. “We saw that after the relatively small Icelandic eruption [Eyjafjallajökull] in 2010. It affected supply chains for Volkswagen, because parts were coming from Japan. Global aviation could be affected for decades. If a lot of sulphur dioxide was released, this could precipitate monsoons and climate shifts, which could affect global food security.”

This would all be very problematic, but scientists are sceptical that a single explosive event like this could actually wipe out humanity.

Instead, volcanologists say that another type of volcanic event may pose a much greater threat to our existence.

Over the past 500 million years, all of the five largest mass extinctions in the fossil record have coincided with huge lava eruptions. These eruptions did not happen as single events, but as continuous outpourings going on for hundreds of thousands of years. They are known as flood lavas, and are caused by rising plumes of hot material from deep inside the Earth.

The most violent flood lava eruptions are thought to be associated with continental drift. Only 11 have taken place in the past 250 million years, each shaping vast mountain ranges, plateaus or volcanic formations. One such flood lava event took place 66 million years ago and created a huge expanse of volcanic rock called the Deccan Traps, in west-central India. These eruptions may have contributed to the mass extinction that took place at this time, by releasing cocktails of gases that slowly acidified the oceans and altered the climate.

The trouble is, nobody knows when the next flood lava event will occur. “We expect another flood lava event sometime in the next 50 million years, but I don’t think anyone’s got any idea where and when,” Pyle says.

Whether we are predicting the next supervolcano eruption or the next flood lava event, the problem is the same. The former has not been observed in recorded human history, while the last major flood lava eruptions occurred 10 million years ago in southern Canada, many millions of years before our species walked the planet. As such, while the world’s volcanic hotspots are supremely well-monitored, we have no idea quite what to expect or how much warning we would receive before an event of such scale. Our tiny snapshot of monitoring time is dwarfed by volcanic cycles that can last millions of years.

We have no real idea where we are on these cycles. It is entirely possible that nothing will happen in our lifetimes, or even in the next hundred thousand years. There is only one certainty about these eruptions: they will, eventually, happen.

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