Four things you need to know today

1. Attorney General Jeff Session just fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, one of the three senior FBI officials who can corroborate Jim Comey’s allegation that Trump asked him to kill the investigation into Michael Flynn. [The other two men, Jim Rybicki, Comey’s chief of staff, and James Baker, the FBI’s general counsel, had already been forced from their positions after having been attacked and maligned by members of the Trump administration.] This, of course, sets the stage for the end game to play out, as Trump, whith nowhere left to turn, attempts to end the Mueller investigation – something that he called for today, through his attorney, John Dowd.

2. Facebook has confirmed that, in 2014, Cambridge Analytica, the conservative data analytics firm owned by far-right hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and run at the time by Steve Bannon, illegally harvested the Facebook profiles of approximately 50 million American voters in an enormous data breach. This data, according to Christopher Wylie, who assisted Cambridge University professor Aleksandr Kogan in obtaining the data, told the UK Observer, “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis that the entire company was built on.” And they apparently did this through an app built by Global Science Research (GSR), a firm owned by Kogan. The app, called thisisyourdigitallife, paid Facebook users to take personality tests, telling them that the collected data would be used for academic use. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users took the test. What they didn’t know, however, is that, in violation of Facebook policy, GSR was also harvesting information on the friends in their networks, allowing Cambridge Analytica the ability to target U.S. voters at the individual level with false advertising intended to manipulate those inner demons. The only thing we don’t yet know for certain was the extent to which Cambridge Analytica shared this targeting data with the Russians, who were also engaged in an advanced disinformation campaign on the part of candidate Trump.

3. We discovered yesterday that the President of United States has filed a $20 million suit against porn actress Stormy Daniels for violating the terms of the agreement under which he attempted to buy her silence concerning an affair. And, what’s more, we also learned from Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, that, according to his client, she only signed the agreement to keep quiet because she’d been threatened with physical harm. Avenatti has refused thus far to say who threatened his client. When asked yesterday if it was Donald Trump himself who made these threats, Avenatti said, “I will neither confirm nor deny.” And, of course, unless Trump’s team finds a way to stop it (like with this threat of a $20 million judgement), Ms. Daniels is going to be on 60 Minutes the evening of March 25, talking about the affair, the threats, and the hush money she accepted from Trump attorney Michael Cohen.

4. It was reported yesterday that the Russians have penetrated our electrical grid, giving them the ability to essentially shut down significant portions of our country, should they wish to do so. The following is from the New York Times.

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued on Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not identified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systems that guide the operations of the plants.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage,” said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

“From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation,” Mr. Chien said…

Clearly they’re sending a message to Trump, warning him what might happen if he decides to move forward with those sanctions he’s yet to implement, right?

In related news… here, from yesterday, is my response to a Twitter post by John Dingell about the most recent mass exodus from the White House. I thought it was pretty brilliant, even if no one else did.

Posted in Mark's Life, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

Ypsilanti once again has a payphone… only this time it’s free

Last summer, I posted an interview here with a fellow in Portland by the name of Karl Anderson. Anderson, as you may recall, had formed an activism/public arts entity by the name of Futel with the goal of democratizing telecommunications through the introduction of free payphones into America’s urban centers. Well, as you may also recall, Anderson and I talked about the possibility that, one day, Ypsilanti might have a Futel phone of its own. And, today, I’m happy to announce that Ypsi’s free Futel payphone is officially open for business.

[above: Ypsilanti’s Futel phone can be found across the street from the Ypsilanti transit center, on the East side of the former Michigan Bell Telephone building at 209 Pearl.]

For those of you were are hearing about this for the first time, I’d encourage you to go back and read our earlier iterveiw, which gets quite a bit of depth. As I know most of you won’t, though, here are a few brief excerpts, which should give you at least a rough sense of what Futel is all about, and what you can expect from the new Ypsi phone.


MARK: OK, let’s talk about Futel. What’s the idea behind it?

KARL: I have a prepared statement which I think should fully explain everything”

“At Futel, we believe in the preservation of public telephone hardware as a means of providing access to the agora for everybody, and toward that goal we are privileged to provide free domestic telephone calls, voicemail, and telephone-mediated services. We do not judge the motivations of our users, or who they choose to call; if they don’t have someone to call, we can provide a presence on the other end. Denial of telephony services has long been a tactic used against undesirable populations, and our devices will counteract that. But more importantly, we will help to establish a new era of communication, one in which reaching out is not only desirable, but mandatory.”

“To what extent are our interactions mediated by intelligent machines? Who is doing the talking when we let them decide who we interact with and what constitutes appropriate topics of communication? We believe that the time has come to greet each other not with our heads down, staring at our hands and begging for the permission of the minds that oversee our networks, but proudly, standing tall, with our eyes open and aware of our surroundings.”

“We are primarily driven by the basic needs that we see on the streets every day, by giving something away that is cheap for us but valuable to the recipient. But we hope that we can also build a tower of Babel on top of that, a monument of telephones and switching networks and cascading psychological structures which will give the community something else as well, something we may not appreciate until it has forever changed us.”

MARK: And how did all of this come to you? Was there something specific that made you think, “It’s imperative, for all the reasons outlined above, that we bring public phones back”?

KARL: The original reason was mainly just that I like payphones. Public phones were part of the cyberpunk urban furniture that we didn’t expect to go away, and part of hacker history. I like street hardware, public keyboards, the whole thing. And then there was a guy who mowed my lawn, but he couldn’t always keep his phone paid up. He would push his mower around the neighborhood, but some days I wouldn’t be home, or I wouldn’t need my lawn mowed. I thought he might find it helpful if he had a phone and a voicemail account. And my street has a lot of foot traffic, there’s a light rail station down the block and a lot of tent encampments around. I thought it would be interesting to see how it would get used. I just repeated all those reasons to myself until I was convinced. It might not make the most sense, but other people have continued to contribute over the years, I use that as validation.

MARK: Speaking of the history of hacking, were you ever in envolved in phone hacking, or phreaking?

KARL: Not me! I didn’t even get a modem until 1990, and, while I did visit some scummy BBSs, I was really just an outside observer when it came to that particular scene. I may or may not have enjoyed using a red box, though.

MARK: Where was your first install, and has the vision for Futel changed at all as a result of what you’ve experienced thus far?

KARL: The first Futel phone is in Portland, in front of my house. I expected it to get used, given the neighborhood I’m in, but I’ve been surprised by how much activity it gets. But, to your question, no, the vision remains pretty much the same. We’re both a social service organization and a public art project… I should add, however, that we realize all communities are different, and, for that reason, we want to allow flexibility when it comes to how the phones are configured. It depends on what the host might want, so long as the phones provide free calls…


MARK: So, speaking of operators, is scaling going to be difficult as you add more phones, and thus users to the system?

KARL: We have several operators, but we can always use more. I’d love to have more in other timezones. But, to answer your question, we don’t always get every call. If you don’t get an operator, though, you can always try again. Eventually someone will call you, if you stick around…. When an operator doesn’t pick up, you’re prompted to leave a message, and you can leave your voicemail box number, if you want a reply.

MARK: If someone out there happens to read this, and wants to find out about being an Futel operator, is there an online application or something? And can people sign up for limited shifts? Could someone, for instance, sign up for 9:00 to midnight EST the first Friday of every month?

KARL: We don’t currently have limited shifts, but operators don’t need to respond to every call. The system rings every operator, and, whoever wants to pick up the call just indicates their intention before being connected. As for prospective operators, they’re always welcome to apply. All they have to do is call an existing operator from any Futel phone! The handbook is currently only printed in issue one of (the Futel zine) Party Line, but we could set up an orientation conference call…


MARK: OK, one of the choices (on the Futel menu) is voicemail. Can people actually set up voicemail through Futel?

KARL: Yes, and voicemail can be left or checked from the incoming line. We would like to be able to give out numbers that would go directly to voicemail accounts someday – the caller wouldn’t know that you didn’t have a phone…

MARK: OK, so there’s also a reference to conference calls. What’s that all about?

KARL: It’s basically a party line.

MARK: And the “wildcard line”?

KARL: That is an audio zine, basically call and response. Users can contribute from any Futel phone. Currently, you can only hear it from the phone, although I plan to put them on the net when I get time.

MARK: So people are prompted to say something… tell a story, describe what’s happening where they are, etc… and your intention is to aggregate all of that into an audio zine that could, one day, be shared online, as well as through Futel phones.

KARL: Two episodes are already shared through the phone. I like to give phone users something special, so they get everything first. But you can hear at least one episode on the incoming line – 503 HOT 1337.

MARK: So, here in Ypsi, assuming we move forward, how much flexibility would we have in configuring our menu?

KARL: We will be making a custom menu for Ypsi. We really should get the mayor’s number in there, and relevant social services, whatever else you want. The only real constraint is that it’s a slow process right now to push changes.

MARK: Can you give us an idea of the kinds of numbers you’re sharing on other Futel phones?

KARL: Besides the mayor, we have a directory of social service numbers and a directory of amusing numbers. The social service numbers are things like 211, a transportation service called Call To Safety, bus schedules, things like that. The amusing numbers include the Apology Line, which is one of our inspirations, it’s basically voicemail discussions as social art.

MARK: What about emergency calls? Is there any risk, given how the system is configured, that emergency calls may not go through? I mean this is all contingent on the wireless being operational and the internet being up, right? I’m just wondering if there’s any responsibility, when you place a public phone outside, to ensure that it connects… Is that something that you’ve thought about?

KARL: There is always risk, and there is great responsibility. If the power or net goes down, the phone goes down. All I can say is that reliability is the first priority, we monitor and notice when a phone isn’t connecting, and we test emergency calls with each release, and we’ve been more reliable than other payphones in the area. One user had to run over a mile and pass two non-working phones to use ours. One user had difficulties and got an operator to make a call. I do fear that someone will spend time someday trying to use a non-working Futel phone in an emergency. But I am certain that it is a net positive, the phones have been used to get emergency medical services at least twice…

So, with that, I’d like your thoughts on what we should ask Anderson to consider adding to the Ypsi menu the next time he does a system-wide update? Should we link directly to the providers of community services, like the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County, Community Action Network, SOS Community Services, or Ozone House? And should we have a link to a local weather forecast? Or how about a suicide prevention hotline? And how about arts, culture, history? For instance, in New York City they have phone booths where people can hear the stories of immigrants. Could we have a local historian record an abbreviated history of Ypsilanti? Or what if we set up a number where Futel users could hear something by a random local band? Now that we have this platform, how would we like to use it? I mean being able to make free phone calls is awesome on its own, but what else could we use the Futel platform for?

[above: An amateur male model, hired from Craigslist, pretends to use Ypsilanti’s first Futel phone.]

One last thing… It should be noted that Ypsi’s Futel phone, which is hosted by the folks at Landline Creative Labs, was funded in part by a grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation. Also, the phone wouldn’t be online right now if not for David Gustofson, who handled the installation for us. And, of course, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now, were it not for the vision and drive of Karl Anderson, the founder of Futel.

[above: Futel’s Karl Anderson tests equipment at 209 Pearl Street.]

Posted in Art and Culture, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Conor Lamb defeats Rick “Trump 2.0” Saccone in the race for the House seat vacated by Tim “I’m anti-abortion until I knock up my mistress” Murphy. This is a good night for Pennsylvania and America.

Now that Lamb has done the unthinkable and won the special election in Pennsylvania, Republicans are scrambling, saying that Saccone’s defeat was more of a referendum on Saccone than on Trump, and that Lamb only won because he’s more of a Republican than a Democrat, but, when you strip all the political spin away, what you’re left with is the fact that the Democrats just took a seat in a district that Trump won by 19 points just a year ago. [In 2014 and 2016, Murphy ran unopposed for the seat, as no Democrats felt as though they even had a shot in the deep red district.] This is absolutely staggering. Tonight’s win, especially as it comes just after Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the deep red state Alabama, and the big Democratic gains in Virginia, has to be terrifying to the GOP. The question is, will it be enough to make them finally start to turn on Donald Trump… Personally, I don’t have much faith that anyone left in the GOP still has the capacity for independent thought, let alone the ability to consider what would be best for the American people, but the next few weeks could be very interesting.

[Technically, there’s still a chance that Lamb could lose, given that he’s only up 500-some votes, and there are still absentee votes to count. I feel confident enough to call it, though. And I’ve never been wrong.]

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A few short hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests that Russia was likely to blame for the U.K. chemical attack, Donald Trump abruptly fires him

When I heard this morning that Trump had fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet, I assumed it was a preemptive measure, hoping to distract attention away from the neck and neck Congressional special election race in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, which, historically speaking, should have been an easy win for the GOP, even before Trump started holding rallies for Republican Rick Saccone, and hastily pushing through steel tariffs in hopes of appealing to the blue collar voters of Southwest Pennsylvania. As it turns out, though, the firing had nothing to do with the race between Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone, and Trump’s attempt to obscure the fact that a district he’d won by nearly 20 points just a year ago, had done the impossible and turned blue. It also apparently didn’t have anything to do with with the ever-expanding Stormy Daniels scandal, or the fact that, just as Trump was firing Tillerson, his presidential aide, John McEntee, was about to be escorted from the White House grounds for “serious financial crimes”.

No, Rex Tillerson, at least according to popular Russian news anchor Olga Skabeeva, lost his job because, the evening before his abrupt firing, he had sided with British Prime Minister Theresa May, stating that the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the U.K. was “a really egregious act” that appears to have “clearly” come from Russia. [The military-grade chemical weapon used against Skripal and his daughter nine days ago Salisbury is from a family of Soviet-developed nerve agents known as Novichok.] Noting that Tump immediately fired Tillerson, Skabeeva told Russian State TV viewers, “Trump is ours!”

While I suppose it’s possible that Tillerson was fired for other, unrelated reasons, it does seem odd that, within hours of promising a response against Russia, should it be determined that they’d perpetrated this chemical warfare attack on British soil, he’d be fired. Again, it may be a coincidence, but it does seem odd, doesn’t it, that Trump has yet to speak out on the first chemical warfare attack on British soil since WWII, or, for that matter, the fact that, a few weeks back, Putin announced a new missile system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to Florida.

Here, if you’ve yet to see it, is video of British Prime Minister Theresa May, talking about the chemical attack, which took place in a city of 40,000 people, and may have poisoned hundreds. “The government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible,” May said.

So, yeah, Tillerson wasn’t fired last October when it came out that he’d referred to Trump as “a fucking moron”, but something that happened yesterday that made Trump, without any warning, fire him. If you have an alternate explanation, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime, here are two tweets that I’d like you to check out… They were posted just a few hours apart.

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Rick Saccone, losing ground to Conor Lamb at a breakneck pace, says liberals have “hatred for our country” and “hatred for God”

In Pennsylvania, the state where people marry their assault rifles, there’s going to be a big election tomorrow, as Marine-turned-federal prosecutor Conor Lamb faces off against Trump acolyte Rick Saccone in a special election for the House seat vacated by Tim Murphy, the pro-life, “family values” Republican, who was forced from office when it became known that he’d pressured a woman he was having an affair with to have an abortion.

While voters in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, located in Southwestern Pennsylvania, tend to favor Republican candidates by approximately 20 points, Lamb has pulled into a dead heat with Saccone in recent days, having many thinking that Democrats might be able to pull off yet another upset. And, because of this, Saccone is pulling out all the stops. Over the weekend, he had Trump come in and stoke the fires of white anger on his behalf, and, today, in a last minute appeal to his base, Saccone said that liberals have “hatred for our country” and “hatred for God”… Here’s the video.

Like I said, though, it doesn’t seem to be working. According to the most recent polling, Lamb has come within striking distance, in spite of the fact that, just last year, Trump carried the 18th by 19 points over Clinton. [In 2014 and 2016, Murphy ran unopposed for the seat, as no Democrats felt as though they even had a shot in the deep red district.] But it looks like this might actually happen, if Democrats actually show up and vote. And that’s why I’m posting right now… in hopes that maybe just one person in the audience has a friend or relative in Southwest Pennsylvania who might benefit from a last minute reminder. As today’s shutting down of the House probe into Russia’s election interference proves, it’s vitally important that we retake the House in November, and put an end to the reign of Republican obstructionists and enablers who have proven themselves again and again to be unwilling to stand up and defend our democratic institutions… But the good news is, it can be done, and it can all start with Cnnor Lamb. And it’s actually within reach… Here’s the most recent polling.

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