Thursday, May 24, 2018

"DHS Fusion Center Gets Request For Documents On Extremists, Decides To Hand Over Mind Control Docs Instead"

Techdirt, May 24:

from the here's-the-thing-you-didn't-ask-for-but-will-probably-enjoy-reading dept
Once you release a document to a public records requesters, it's a public record, whether you meant to release it or not. The person handling FOIA requests for the Washington State Fusion Center (a DHS/local law enforcement collaboration known more for its failures than successes) sent Curtis Waltman something unexpected back in April. Waltman asked the Fusion Center for records pertaining to Antifa and white supremacy groups. He did get those records. But he also got something titled "EM effects on human"

Instead of intel and assessments on local Antifa/white supremacists, Waltman found things like this
And this:
The files did not appear to have been generated by any government agency, but rather collected from other sources who thought there might be some way the government could control minds using electronic stimulation or "remote brain mapping." Why the Fusion Center had them on hand remains a mystery, as does their attachment to a FOIA request containing nothing about electronic mind manipulation.

This inadvertent disclosure has led to more requests for the same documents. Only this time, requesters -- like Joshua Eaton of ThinkProgress -- are asking specifically for government mind control files. It appears the Fusion Center first thought about withholding some mind control docs, but somewhere along the line decided it couldn't pretend the documents that weren't supposed to be released hadn't actually been released.

An email chain in the release [PDF] to Eaton contains an apology from the staffer who accidentally sent Waltman the mind control files....MORE

" Uber Unveils Another Loss, CEO Promises To Be Profitable "One Day, Can't Say When""

Hey, speak of the devil!

From ZeroHedge:
It appears Uber is readying itself for an IPO as its release of what Bloomberg calls "cherry-picked financials" suggests a fast-growing company whose losses are shrinking.

Uber "was a company that was in trouble and lost its way in certain ways" according to Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi, but now he is fixing things apparently.

Uber said that in the first quarter it generated about $2.6 billion in revenue.

As Bloomberg reports, the company recorded a profit on paper, after accounting for the value of selling its Southeast Asian business to Grab and its Russian business to Yandex.
But it’s a different story without those windfalls.

Uber had a loss of $312 million before interest, taxes and other expenses in the quarter, cutting those losses in half compared to the first three months of 2017, according to financials provided by Uber. That’s a marked improvement for a company that’s burned through more than $10 billion....MUCH MORE

"Try as you might, it's difficult to find a more depressing stock market story than Noble Group".

A couple of the FT's heavyweights (commodities editor, energy markets editor) tell a sad, sad (but potentially instructive) tale.
Via FT Alphaville:

Noble rot in a shrinking Harbour
Try as you might, it's difficult to find a more depressing stock market story than Noble Group.

Once Asia’s biggest commodity trader, the Singapore-listed company has left a trail of devastation for investors who bought into Richard Elman’s dream of building a Far East rival to Glencore.
From Singapore’s mom and pop investors on the light-touch SGX, to institutional buyers that probably should have known better, all have suffered serious wealth destruction as critics have savaged Noble’s accounting practices.

While the company has always defended its financial reporting since it first came under attack three years ago, it has nevertheless written down billions of dollars worth of paper profits linked to long-term supply contracts that were at the heart of the initial controversy. Some were linked to projects that had never got off the ground.

Seemingly unable to generate cash and saddled with large debts, Noble has spent the past 18 months fighting for its survival. Now it is trying to push through a debt restructuring deal that will hand control of what’s left of the trading house to group of hedge funds and banks - who are charging the company millions in fees for the privilege.

Noble, however, seems to have learnt very little from the three-year crisis, which was triggered by a string of devastating reports published by a former employee under the guise of Iceberg Research.
Results published last week show muddy accounting - legal under international standards but often with the effect of obfuscation rather than clarity - something that appears to be embedded in Noble’s DNA. The company and its management team, many of whom would retain plum roles after the restructuring, seems unable to help itself.

The first quarter numbers were, predictably, poor. It was another loss - this time $71m - accompanied by the usual claims that there is a slimmed-down business worth saving.
The loss, the company accounts showed, was an improvement on this time last year. Shareholders, they seemed to suggest, should be emboldened to vote through the convoluted debt-for-equity swap even if it leaves them with just a sliver of the restructured company.

But a close examination of the figures shows the downward trend at Noble’s core business remains firmly intact....MUCH MORE
From Trading Titan to Penny Stock: Noble Group Faces Crunch as Creditors, Investors Circle

"China Now Has a Trade Deficit"

From The Conversable Economist, May 21:
A large share of the concern over China's effect on the world economy starts with large Chinese trade surpluses. But in the first few months of 2018, China's trade balance was negative(using the standard broad measure of the current account balance). That is, China had a trade deficit, not a trade surplus. For example, the Economist magazine reports: "China’s vanished current-account surplus will change the world economy" (May 17, 2018).  The South China Morning Post reports: "China’s first current account deficit for 17 years ‘could signal fundamental shift" (May 4, 2018).

Here's a figure showing China's pattern of trade imbalances since the late 1990s. Notice that although China's economic reforms and very rapid growth started in the late 1970s, its trade balance was fairly close to zero during late 1990s and early 2000s. Then China's trade surplus exploded in size before the Great Recession, fluctuated for a few years while gradually trending down, and then turns negative in early 2018.
There's a seasonal pattern in China's economy that exports tend to be lower in the early months of the year. Assuming the usual rise in China's exports later in the year, China may well end the year with a trade surplus, but it will be quite modest in size.

I have argued before that thinking of the trade balance as a measure of the unfairness of trade is economically illiterate. But if you are someone who holds that belief, then consider what it implies. You must believe that China was a fair trader in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s (near-zero trade deficit), then it exploded into large trade unfairness, and less but fluctuating trade unfairness, before now returning to trade fairness. Such an interpretation taxes credulity. But if China's trade surpluses are the rationale for imposing trade barriers on Chinese imports, that rationale does not presently exist....MORE

Watch Out Elon: Nikola Is Offering More Than Just Trucks ((TSLA; NEL:Oslo))

Following up on May 11's "Watch Out Elon: "Anheuser-Busch just bought 800 fuel cell Nikola trucks" (TSLA; NEL:Oslo)".

From Ars Technica:
This rugged electric off-roader from Nikola has specs to rival a Tesla 
This go-anywhere vehicle goes on sale next year.

FLAT ROCK, MICH.—If I were to tell you about an electric vehicle with 125kWh of batteries, 590hp (440kW), and a 0-60mph time of 3.5 seconds, you'd probably think "Tesla." But this EV is something a little more esoteric and one that can go places a Tesla would fear to tread. It's called the Nikola NZT, and it's a UTV, or utility task vehicle; think ATV but with four seats, pedals, and a steering wheel. The vehicle is still in development—Nikola is targeting next year as the on-sale date—but it was one of the highlights we saw showcased at the Bosch Mobility Experience USA event this week.

You might be more familiar with Nikola for its heavy-duty fuel cell trucks; Anheuser-Busch recently placed an order for 800 of those, and the company is embroiled in a lawsuit with Tesla over the latter's electric Semi, which Nikola claims infringes its patents. Like Tesla, Nikola uses Bosch components in its vehicles, although in this case the relationship is quite a close one, with the tier 1 supplier being deeply involved in the development of both the long-haul truck as well as the NZT.

The NZT has a rather interesting design. Each wheel gets its own electric motor, which uses Bosch's eAxle technology we've described previously. This design also means it's capable of torque vectoring for better agility. Each corner also uses a Fox internal bypass damper with 20 inches (508mm) of travel. Since it's a completely flat-bottom design with no differential or other mechanical gubbins poking down, that means great off-road ability, with 14.5 inches (368.3mm) of ground clearance....MORE

China Signals to State Giants: ‘Buy American’ Oil and Grains

From Reuters via gCaptain:
China will import record volumes of U.S. oil and is likely to ship more U.S. soy after Beijing signaled to state-run refiners and grains purchasers they should buy more to help ease tensions between the two top economies, trade sources said on Wednesday.

China pledged at the weekend to increase imports from its top trading partner to avert a trade war that could damage the global economy. Energy and commodities were high on Washington’s list of products for sale.

The United States is also seeking better access for imports of genetically modified crops into China under the deal.

As the two sides stepped back from a full-blown trade war, Washington neared a deal on Tuesday to lift its ban on U.S. firms supplying Chinese telecoms gear maker ZTE Corp , and Beijing announced tariff cuts on car imports.

But U.S. President Donald Trump indicated on Wednesday that negotiations were still short of his objectives when he said any deal would need a “different structure.”

China is the world’s top importer of both oil and soy, and already buys significant volumes of both from the United States. It is unclear how much more Chinese importers will buy from the United States than they would have otherwise, but any additional shipments would contribute to cutting the trade surplus, as demanded by Trump.

Asia’s largest oil refiner, China’s Sinopec will boost crude imports from the United States to an all-time high in June as part of Chinese efforts to cut the surplus, two sources with knowledge of the matter said on Wednesday....MUCH MORE

"Digital Capitalism’s War on Leisure" (Gaming and Much More)

As a former* subscriber to The Journal of Leisure Studies...(see below).

On a more serious note, although we are not gamers, the subculture is worth keeping an eye on.
For example, Gamergate was a foreshadowing of Harvey Weinstein, Senator Franken and the whole #MeToo movement.

And the dopamine (and other neurotransmitter reward cascades) tie-ins with "Techlash". (253 hits)

And then there''s NVIDIA. Have I ever told you about NVIDIA?
(Yes, yes we have. A Google site search returns 1800 hits with most of them as the stock was running from $20 to $120: " NVIDIA")

So we pay attention to leisure, although not as intensely as previously.

From Democracy Journal:

Market forces are invading the space for leisure. Defending it will require nothing less than a return to robust twentieth-century social democracy.
Last July, a paper by Mark Aguiar et al. made waves by attributing 23-46 percent of the 12 percent decline in work hours among predominantly low-skill males aged 21-30 to improvements in video-gaming technology. That hypothesis offended the sensibilities of anyone who believes that all those who are able to work should do so. But what if it misses a larger point about the changing patterns of work and leisure?

Start with the story of recreational gaming in recent years, which is also a story about the commodification of free time. Where once video gaming offered individual or cooperative escapes from the workaday world (after the initial cost of purchase), it has now increasingly been pressed into the service of the market. As a result, gaming has come to privilege haves over have-nots, work and passive consumption over leisure, and the economic over the social. It represents a cautionary tale for what can happen to any social and leisure activity, particularly in the digital economy.

The market capture of gaming has taken at least three forms. First, gaming has, in many ways, been transformed from an ordinary leisure activity into a consumer luxury good. According to the Entertainment Software Association, “software, including in-game purchases and subscriptions,” accounted for $29.1 billion of the industry’s revenue in 2017, whereas “hardware, including peripherals,” accounted for a relatively meager $6.9 billion. And in 2016, mobile-gaming apps made up 75 percent of all Apple App Store revenues and 90 percent of Google Play Store revenues.
More to the point, the makeup of the gaming industry’s revenue—which grew by almost 20 percent in 2016 alone—suggests that it is catering not just to those who are working less, but also to a leisure class with higher levels of disposable income. Much of the industry’s growth is the product of a widely adopted “freemium” model, whereby users get a game for free, but are pressured to make credit-card purchases in order to experience it in full (hence the portmanteau of “free” and “premium”).

Accordingly, many of the highest-grossing games create a sunk-cost dilemma, in that users must continuously make new purchases to keep up with each software version update. In what becomes a vicious cycle, a player who has spent $50 to get a leg up over other players easily succumbs to the temptation to spend just $5 more to keep things that way. Similarly, many games use addictive “gacha” or “loot boxes” that deliver randomly generated, exclusive rewards. This increasingly common ploy functions so much like a slot machine that it has prompted new anti-gambling legislation in six U.S. states. Far from being just an inexpensive escape for idlers, then, modern gaming has become an outlet for people with money to burn—or, worse, for those gambling on credit.

Meanwhile, this trend has been accompanied by the rise to a growing precariat of semi-professional “content creators” publishing videos on YouTube and streaming their gameplay on Twitch. This growing informal labor force may constitute a healthy share of the 4 percent of young men who report spending six or more hours per day on computers, while neither working nor looking for work.
In fact, Twitch boasts 1.5 million “broadcasters” worldwide, some of whom log 60-hour weeks and make six figures from viewer donations, ad revenues, and sponsorships, notes Taylor Clark of The New Yorker. Still, most grind away in Twitch’s online gig economy without ever achieving that level of success. And all the while, the entire experience is saturated in advertising and direct solicitations to the site’s 100 million monthly visitors.

A third form of market mediation is not far off. Many machine-learning applications rely on vast stores of human-produced data, and digital gaming is an especially data-rich activity. Already, the “Grand Theft Auto” series is being used to teach autonomous vehicles to recognize street signs and other obstacles. Presumably, it is only a matter of time before developers start designing games with the goal of collecting even more human behavioral data. Such financial concerns will inevitably affect the content of games, optimizing them for machine learning alongside—or instead of—quality of experience.

Although the commodification of leisure is not new, it is also not something to be complacent about. In industrial and post-industrial societies, work tends to be necessarily hierarchical. But leisure has always held out the promise of equality. Under ideal conditions, one need not belong to the same socioeconomic class to belong to the same book club, or, for that matter, to the same “Clash of Clans” clan (a private in-game community formed by players who set the qualifications for membership). Video games, at their best, offer everyone an equal chance to overcome the same challenges on an equal playing field. “Pac-Man,” after all, didn’t let you add extra quarters to purchase immunity from the ghosts. And, like leisure generally, games provide a space for the formation of social relations that can stand apart from economic ones.

But as Harvard University philosopher Michael Sandel has demonstrated in great detail, the introduction of market forces can shatter the ideal of equality in a variety of spheres. Markets bring extraneous competition, even envy, which, as Bertrand Russell once observed, “consists in seeing things never in themselves but only in their relations.”

Thus, in the “freemium” economy, one’s expendable income really does determine whether one can join certain “Clash” clans, because many only accept members who have advanced to a level that can only be achieved through the in-app purchase of “gems.” On Twitch, income divides social communities into haves and have-nots who must constantly hustle for the former’s patronage. And in an AI-driven setting – as on social media – one can never be too sure where the fun stops and the exploitation begins. In any case, a potential realm of equal opportunity has been replaced by a congeries of unequal, transactional power relations.

To be sure, any discussion of recreational gaming, and the community it has created, is largely a discussion about a narrow cohort of men and boys born after 1980. But the market’s wholesale colonization of this domain is of a piece with broader trends across health care, education, media, and even public spaces such as U.S. national parks—areas where a strict economic logic is often incompatible with the public good. What’s more, this process has been accompanied by a larger cultural shift toward market prerogatives, one that is reflected in most gamers’ passive acceptance of the full-bore commodification of their chosen free-time activity. (Now that the Supreme Court has granted an imprimatur for state governments to legalize sports betting, the culture of athletic “fantasy” leagues – and fandom more generally – will likely continue even further down this path.)

Reversing the cultural acceptance of market infiltrations into leisure will require nothing less than a return to traditional twentieth-century social democracy. Under today’s state-sanctioned system of per capita GDP-anchored utilitarianism (or “neoliberalism”), the social and environmental costs of unfettered GDP growth are considered not just incidental, but justified for the greater good. Within this prevailing economic model, the social-democratic impulse is to redress the externalities of growth through labor-market and social-insurance policies.

But such policies are merely the “apps” of social democracy. The operating system is something larger. It might best be understood as a political dispensation for preserving that which should be separate from markets, be it the environment, organic social networks, or public goods such as education and basic research....

*June 2012
Work and Leisure
Guess who gets to write off their subscription to The Journal of Leisure Studies?

From FT Alphaville:
On abundance, post-scarcity and leisure
Robert and Edward Skidelsky, emeritus professor of political economy at the University of Warwick and lecturer on moral and political philosophy at the University of Exeter respectively, have penned what FT Alphaville feels is a must read essay on the impact of abundance and post-scarcity dynamics on price stability and the nature of labour, and work itself.

Entitled “In Praise of Leisure“, it picks up beautifully from where our own “Beyond Scarcity” series left off, echoing many of the same points....MORE
Thanks Izzy.

Anybody Find a Million Missing Shipping Containers?

From Reuters, May 17:

P&R's million missing ship containers puzzle German prosecutors
Managers of insolvent P&R Group are being investigated after it was discovered the investment firm sold nearly one million more shipping containers than it owned, the Munich prosecutors’ office said on Thursday.

Once the world’s biggest lessor of shipping containers, P&R sells containers to investors and its sister company in Switzerland rents them out to shipping companies.
P&R later buys back the containers from investors.

P&R, which is based near Munich, has sold some 1.6 million containers to around 54,000 investors for a total 3.5 billion euros ($4.12 billion).

But a tally made after its German units filed for insolvency earlier this year has shown that P&R only has a fleet of around 600,000 containers, administrator Michael Jaffe said in a statement.... MORE

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Carreyou: "A New Look Inside Theranos’ Dysfunctional Corporate Culture"

Over the years I've mentioned "we like business journalists, we've gotten some of our best ideas from them."
It's not just a Kindergarten-style "ooh great idea, let's trade this" (although we've done a bit of that).
On a higher level of abstraction, following a good journo is akin to machine-learning: exposing your brain to examples of behaviors, corporate and individual, to train the brain and create pattern-recognition templates.

The advantage in reading such examples is the ability to absorb many more variations than your personal experience could ever give you. This is one of the reasons we spend so much time on non-publicly traded situations. If you follow a company such as Uber for a few years you will see many different manifestations of dysfunction that may stand you in good stead should you come across something similar in the market.

Ditto for Theranos which was showing signs of being a fraud before Mr. Carreyou ripped the bandage off to expose the suppurating pustule that was Ms. Holmes' creation. See our 2015 "Theranos: She's Young, She's Rich, Is She A Marketing Huckster?" if interested. And apologies for the pustule line, I was channeling another fraudster we've highlighted, more after the jump.

Here's the headline story:
about the author
John Carreyrou is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal. For his extensive coverage of Theranos, Carreyrou was awarded the George Polk Award for Financial Reporting, the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism in the category of beat reporting, and the Barlett & Steele Silver Award for Investigative Business Journalism.
From Wired, May 21:

When a chemist raised concerns about the blood testing machines' high error rates, she was ignored. So she resigned.
Alan Beam was sitting in his office reviewing lab reports when Theranos CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes poked her head in and asked him to follow her. She wanted to show him something. They stepped outside the lab into an area of open office space where other employees had gathered. At her signal, a technician pricked a volunteer’s finger, then applied a transparent plastic implement shaped like a miniature rocket to the blood oozing from it. This was the Theranos sample collection device. Its tip collected the blood and transferred it to two little engines at the rocket’s base. The engines weren’t really engines: They were nanotainers. To complete the transfer, you pushed the nanotainers into the belly of the plastic rocket like a plunger. The movement created a vacuum that sucked the blood into them.

Or at least that was the idea. But in this instance, things didn’t go quite as planned. When the technician pushed the tiny twin tubes into the device, there was a loud pop and blood splattered everywhere. One of the nanotainers had just exploded.
Holmes looked unfazed. “OK, let’s try that again,” she said calmly.

Beam1 wasn’t sure what to make of the scene. He’d only been working at Theranos, the Silicon Valley company that promised to offer fast, cheap blood tests from a single drop of blood, for a few weeks and was still trying to get his bearings.

He knew the nanotainer was part of the company’s proprietary blood-testing system, but he’d never seen one in action before. He hoped this was just a small mishap that didn’t portend bigger problems.
The lanky pathologist’s circuitous route to Silicon Valley had started in South Africa, where he grew up. After majoring in English at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (“Wits” to South Africans), he’d moved to the United States to take premed classes at Columbia University in New York City. The choice was guided by his conservative Jewish parents, who considered only a few professions acceptable for their son: law, business, and medicine.

Beam had stayed in New York for medical school, enrolling at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but he quickly realized that some aspects of being a doctor didn’t suit his temperament. Put off by the crazy hours and the sights and smells of the hospital ward, he gravitated toward the more sedate specialty of laboratory science, which led to postdoctoral studies in virology and a residency in clinical pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

In the summer of 2012, Beam was running the lab of a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh when he noticed a job posting on LinkedIn that dovetailed perfectly with his budding fascination with Silicon Valley: laboratory director at a Palo Alto biotech firm. He had just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. The book, which he’d found hugely inspiring, had cemented his desire to move out to the San Francisco Bay Area.

After he applied for the job, Beam was asked to fly out for an interview scheduled for 6 pm on a Friday. The timing seemed odd but he was happy to oblige. He met with COO Sunny Balwani first and then with Holmes. There was something about Balwani that he found vaguely creepy, but that impression was more than offset by Holmes, who came off as very earnest in her determination to transform health care. Like many people who met her for the first time, Beam was taken aback by her deep voice. It was unlike anything he’d heard before.

At the time, Theranos was on the cusp of becoming a tech darling. Founded by the charismatic Stanford dropout in 2003, its promises to revolutionize blood-testing—and by extension, the vast industry of medical diagnostics—would be swallowed whole by most of the technology press, which would lavish Holmes with glowing coverage. (WIRED was not exempt). Only later—in October 2015—would the truth come out: Theranos was a fraud built on secrecy, deliberate fabrication, and hype. After I revealed that fraud, the company would begin an implosion that continues to this day....MUCH MORE
From last year's "Faraday Future issues bombastic statement accusing former CFO of ‘malfeasance and dereliction of duty’":

...And my all time favorite bit o'bombast, recounted as the intro to 2007's "Planktos Highlights Real Ocean/Climate Crises & Responds to Recent Misinformation Campaigns" about a Euro-American reinsurance scam that had reverse-merged its way onto the American Stock Exchange, gotten onto the Fed Board's margin list and then, rather than doing the dump half of a pump-n-dump as they gunned it from 50 cents to $15.00, had just margined  the hell out of their brokerage accounts, requested the excess buying power be wired out and skedaddled, picking up the remaining cash in the corporate bank accounts on their way out the door:
...But first, one of my favorite examples of a stock scam (I told you, I have a morbid fascination with the underbelly of the markets, it's like watching the lions approach the wildebeest at the watering hole, you don't want to see it but you can't look away):
...Peter Uttley, Equisure's chairman and a former Lloyds of London executive, took control of the company this week, assuming the chief executive post....

...Uttley said in the press release that his chairman role had been a "passive" one, but he now plans an active reorganization of the company, whose reputation has been stained by allegations that it is a scam insurance operation....
...In an unusually emotional statement to the press, sent from an Equisure board meeting Friday in London, Uttley told his version of events over the summer, which eventually led to the delisting of Equisure shares on the American Stock Exchange.
"The simple truth was consumed in the belly of deception, but now has been vomited for the world to see," Uttley began.
He then proceeded to tell a story of three men, whom he described as "liars," "cheats," and "scallywags," who worked with law enforcement officials and the press to spread false rumors about the company with the intent of buying Equisure out at 50 cents a share, a tiny fraction of the stock's trading price of $15, before AMEX suspended trading Aug. 1.
Isn't that damn fine bloviating? It's hard to research but I think Uttley et. al. got away with $100 mil.
Here's Russ George of Planktos responding (I think) to Greenpeace's submission to the recent meeting of the International Maritime Organization...
Who's going to top "The simple truth was consumed in the belly of deception, but now has been vomited for the world to see," in a press release?
Scallywags is a nice touch as well.

"The US military is funding an effort to catch deepfakes and other AI trickery"

But, but...I saw it on the internet.
From MIT's Technology Review:

But DARPA’s technologists admit that it might be a losing battle.
Think that AI will help put a stop to fake news? The US military isn’t so sure.
The Department of Defense is funding a project that will try to determine whether the increasingly real-looking fake video and audio generated by artificial intelligence might soon be impossible to distinguish from the real thing—even for another AI system.
This summer, under a project funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the world’s leading digital forensics experts will gather for an AI fakery contest. They will compete to generate the most convincing AI-generated fake video, imagery, and audio—and they will also try to develop tools that can catch these counterfeits automatically.
The contest will include so-called “deepfakes,” videos in which one person’s face is stitched onto another person’s body. Rather predictably, the technology has already been used to generate a number of counterfeit celebrity porn videos. But the method could also be used to create a clip of a politician saying or doing something outrageous.
DARPA’s technologists are especially concerned about a relatively new AI technique that could make AI fakery almost impossible to spot automatically. Using what are known as generative adversarial networks, or GANs, it is possible to generate stunningly realistic artificial imagery.

“Theoretically, if you gave a GAN all the techniques we know to detect it, it could pass all of those techniques,” says David Gunning, the DARPA program manager in charge of the project. “We don’t know if there’s a limit. It’s unclear.”

 A GAN consists of two components. The first, known as the “actor,” tries to learn the statistical patterns in a data set, such as a set of images or videos, and then generate convincing synthetic pieces of data. The second, called the “critic,” tries to distinguish between real and fake examples. Feedback from the critic enables the actor to produce ever-more-realistic examples. And because GANs are designed to outwit an AI system already, it is unclear if any automated system could catch them....MUCH MORE
Related (and because all news is local), from the Columbia Journalism Review:
Reporting in a Machine Reality: Deepfakes, misinformation, and what journalists can do about them
That's not local in the geographical sense but rather intellectual provincialism:
...In yesterday's "Questions America Wants Answered: How Will Brexit Affect The Art Market?" I amused myself with the provincialism of the headline question, somewhat akin to the old joke about the small Italian town that sent its most esteemed resident, a tailor by trade, to represent said villaggio at an audience with the Pope. Upon his return from Rome the citizens crowded around and asked "What kind of man is Il Papa?

Their emissary replied, "About a 42 regular"....
We all see the world through our own self-created lenses. And on a related provincialism point, easily the most terrifying news of the last couple years:

"Equity Analysts Join the Gig Economy"
"The automation of creativity: scary but inevitable"
First they came for the journalists and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a journalist.

Then they came for the ad agency creatives and I did not speak out-
Because I was not an ad agency creative. (see below)

Then they came for the financial analysts and I
said 'hang on one effin minute'....

Just Like China!: London-Based Startup Uses Machine Vision To Judge Your Emotional State

From TechCrunch, May 22:

Realeyes, which uses AI and a front-facing camera to read viewers’ emotions, raises $16.2M
One of the more interesting applications of AI to the world of advertising and marketing has been in how it’s being used to help measure and ultimately shape campaigns. Now, a company providing the technology to do that has raised a round both to expand its business in adtech as well as to tackle new applications in healthcare and education.

Realeyes, a London-based startup that uses computer vision to read a person’s emotional responses when they are watching a video as short as six seconds long, and then using predictive analytics to help map that reading to the video to provide feedback on its effectiveness, has raised $16.2 million in funding, money that it plans to use to expand in engineering and business development.

The rise of “smart” and connected hardware that picks up data as much as produces it is the opportunity that Realeyes is tapping. “We are surrounded by devices with cameras and microphones in them,” CEO and founder Mihkel Jäätma said in an interview.

The Series A round comes after a strong run of growth at the company. It says that revenues have shot up 932 percent in the last four years, and it has added customers like Coca Cola, Mars, Publicis, Turner and Oath (which also owns TechCrunch) to its books.

Realeyes is not wasting time in bringing on extra talent to support the expansion. Barry Coleman, formerly at LootCrate, is coming on as COO. And Maja Pantic, a professor of affective and behavioural computing at Imperial College London who had been on the Realeyes Advisory Board, is getting “a more hands-on role.” Both will report to Jäätma, who started the company while still a student at Oxford....MUCH MORE
Meanwhile, via ForexNews, May 22:

Facing the future: China installs facial recognition technology in schools
China continues to lead the way in embedding facial recognition software into daily life. Biometric information is already widely used for payments (Alibaba’s Alipay ‘Smile and Pay’ function launched late last year) and controversially in crime detection and prevention. Now the cameras and coding have been trained onto the freshest faces around – the nation’s students.

A high school in Hangzhou has introduced facial recognition technology into its classrooms. Its more prosaic functions include automatically recording attendance, organising payment in the canteen and tracking library use. So far, so typical for a country that’s embraced widespread smart CCTV surveillance.

But it also scans students’ faces twice a minute when they’re in lessons and classifies them into different emotional states, including happy, scared, angry, upset, confused and neutral. Teachers are given real-time updates about their pupils’ perceived attentiveness and can take immediate corrective action if minds are wandering.

The ‘intelligent classroom behaviour management system’ also records movement to provide feedback to teachers about individual pupils’ engagement during class. Certain actions, like reading, writing, raising your hand, standing, listening attentively and slumping at your desk are also logged and analysed to improve lesson and learning quality.

Zhang Guanchao, Vice Principal of Hangzhou Number 11 High School, waved off concerns about privacy, explaining that the metrics are stored on a local (rather than a cloud) server and that no actual images are stored – only the resultant analysis. He also emphasised that the intention is to assess the mood and actions of the class as a whole, rather than zero in on specific students.

The cameras have been watching for a month now, and reports reveal that behaviour has improved. It seems that the students have adapted to learning and working under the ceaseless gaze of the classroom cameras....MORE

Bank of England on Risk: "US Hurricane Clustering: A New Reality?"

More accurately the BoE's Bank Underground blog, May 22:
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was the fifth most active in 168 years.  It was also one of only six seasons to see multiple Cat 5 hurricanes (Irma & Maria).  These two hurricanes, followed similar tracks and, together with Hurricane Harvey, occurred close together.  This situation can hinder relief efforts.  For insurers it may also lead to resource strain, disputes and unhedged risks, if insurers do not have enough ‘sideways’ reinsurance cover.  Our post asks whether three major hurricanes occurring in the US in close succession really was exceptional or, as our analysis of recent data suggests, it might happen more often in future.  Is the insurance industry underestimating the likely ‘clustering’ of major hurricanes?

Natural weather events such as hurricanes can cause significant loss of life, disruption to homes and communities, property damage and other economic losses.  In addition, many insurance companies are heavily exposed to these events as they will insure property and other risks within areas commonly affected.  The US Eastern Coast is one area where hurricanes are relatively common and where insured values are particularly high.  As a result, it is important for insurers to consider the potential occurrence of hurricanes in this region, and the damage they might cause.

The estimation of hurricane losses depend on several uncertain parameters including their frequency, size and intensity, the likelihood of making landfall, the accuracy of data on insurers’ exposures and historical meteorological records, property values in the affected areas, and the amount of rain and flooding.  We focus in this paper on the observed frequencies of major Atlantic hurricanes.
Our analysis suggests the frequency of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes with significant insurance implications could double in the future if recent observed changes in hurricane frequency persist. We estimate a 15% (a 1-in-7) chance of three or more major hurricanes making US landfall every year and a 0.6% (a 1-in-180) chance that these all impact the US East Coast (leading to potentially very high insurance losses). Insurance solvency regimes typically expect insurers to be able to withstand a 1-in-200 year shock.  So a season with three or more hurricanes is within the spectrum of possibilities that insurers should consider.

Hurricanes can be classified into different groups
Kossin et al (2010) identified four distinct regional groups of Atlantic hurricanes. Their paper analysed all storms included in the National Hurricane Centre’s HURDAT database from 1950-2007. We have extended their analysis to include all storms up to 2017, using updated data provided by Suzana Camargo of Columbia University.  The four groups, that pack together hurricanes with similar tracks, are shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Major hurricane tracks from 1950-2017 separated by regional group
The groups reflect different genesis locations, mechanisms and varying impacts of the main climatological indices (e.g. El Nino-Southern Oscillation – ENSO):
  • Group 1 storms form further north, over typically less warm water, and usually curve northwards over the Atlantic, thus have minimal impact on the US.
  • Group 2 storms form mainly in the Gulf of Mexico. Although these often make landfall, they typically have limited time to develop into major hurricanes. Despite that, Group 2 includes hurricanes that led to significant insurance losses such as Katrina (2005), Sandy (2012) and Harvey (2017).
  • Group 3 storms are the classic Cape Verde, high intensity deep-tropical storms. These develop over warm tropical waters off the coast of West Africa and have time to gather energy to develop into major hurricanes. A significant proportion curve to the north and miss the US. However, Group 3 spawns some of the most powerful hurricanes with the potential of severely impact the US East Coast. Examples include Gloria (1985), Hugo (1989) and Fran (1996).
  • Group 4 storms are like Group 3, but originate further west and tend to maintain a westerly track, through the Gulf. Recent destructive examples include Andrew (1992), Ike (2008), Irma (2017) and Maria (2017).
The table below summarises the split of major hurricanes between the different groups from 1950-2017 (the ‘analysis period’). It also includes the number of Continental US landfalls, where the largest insurance losses typically occur....MORE
Of course if our old pal, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, is rolling over, the 2017 season may prove to have been the high point for the giant heat engines, for this cycle at any rate, and the re/insurers pricing off last year will have windfall loss ratios.

Sweden Probably Won't Be Invading Russia

From ZeroHedge: 

Attacking Russia Would Become "Military Nightmare", Swedish Paper Warns
The Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (SvD), recently examined the most difficult countries in the world to invade, which includes Russia, Switzerland, and New Zealand. The paper said an invasion of Russia would become a “military nightmare” for foreign armed forces. While SvD did not define who precisely that enemy would be, our suspicions point to the countries intertwined with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The topography of the region, distance, and military power are some of the critical components that determine the country’s defensive capabilities, explained the paper.
Topography Map of Russia 
Based on these benchmarks, the Swedish paper said, “whoever thinks the idea of invading Russia must be prepared to handle all kinds of terrain.”...


Tuesday, May 22, 2018

"How Politicians Intensify Financial Cycles: 300 Years of Pro-Cyclical Regulation"

Be careful with this piece. I didn't have time to check all the details the writer musters to his argument but am pretty sure there are a couple errors in this bit:
...A Short Narrative of Three Centuries of Regulatory Cycles
Roll back the clock to 1725, when the South Sea Bubble was riding high in England. It was one of the earliest well documented stock market bubbles. Political elites cheered for the stock market mania until it crashed. The political backlash was substantial, and many members of parliament were thrown in jail. England inherited from the South Sea Bubble backlash the ‘Bubble Act,’ an oppressive law that placed a tremendous hurdle on companies going public. The Act remained in place for a full century. It was then repealed at the peak of the next big bubble, in 1825. The repeal is well documented as being the result of lobbying and influence peddling. The response to the ensuing crash and banking crisis transformed and modernized financial markets in England....
Putting on the academic hat: The bubble had run its course by July 1721 (all time high one year earlier, July 1720), it was not "riding high" in 1725:

Secondly, the Bubble Act was passed during the mania, June 11, 1720, just before the third subscription and the ultimate top-tick in the forward market (because the transfer books were closed there was no spot price).
The Bubble Act forced any new companies to apply for a Royal Charter and was actually enacted as an impediment to new joint-stock companies that might compete for capital the South Sea directors thought should rightfully go to their venture.
The Act did not stop the formation of companies, you just had to be connected enough with the royals or the court denizens to get the official okey-dokey.

The author of this piece is probably confusing the Bubble Act with Barnard's Act, more on that after the jump.

From The University of Chicago's ProMarket blog:
[Note: The post below was first published at with the title “Regulatory Cycles: Revisiting the Political Economy of Financial Crises.”]

Back in early 2017, while the stock market was breaking records, the new administration in the US made promises to significantly roll back the recently implemented regulations under the Dodd-Frank Act. We have seen the move toward deregulation take shape on various fronts. By most accounts, new regulatory appointees have signaled a shift toward a softer approach to financial regulation.  On the legislative front, after a failed attempt by the House of Representatives to erase core financial regulations under the DFA, the Senate has voted last week on a bill that would offer regulatory relief to small and mid-sized banks.

Over the last two decades, the US has gone through a regulatory cycle. The financial sector was deregulated during the boom spanning the late-1990s to mid-2000s, and then re-regulated following the 2008 crash (e.g. Goldstein 2009). Currently, it appears that the regulatory pendulum is swinging the other way. In a recent paper, I examine the political economy of financial policy during ten of the most infamous financial booms and busts since the 18th century (Dagher 2018). I rely on a wealth of scholarship on each episode to show that procyclical regulations are a recurring feature since the early days of finance and across countries. Financial boomsand risk-taking during these episodeswere often amplified by political regulatory stimuli, credit subsidies, and an increasing light-touch approach to financial supervision. Financial crises led to a massive regulatory backlash, which sometimes suffocated finance. The regulatory response can be best understood in the context of the political ramifications of such crises.

The large literature on the 2008 Global Crisis tends to focus on identifying the regulatory failures that led to the crash. I argue that it is equally important to understand the roots of these regulatory failures, and that politics is usually at the heart of the story.

A Short Narrative of Three Centuries of Regulatory Cycles
Roll back the clock to 1725, when the South Sea Bubble was riding high in England. It was one of the earliest well documented stock market bubbles. Political elites cheered for the stock market mania until it crashed. The political backlash was substantial, and many members of parliament were thrown in jail. England inherited from the South Sea Bubble backlash the ‘Bubble Act,’ an oppressive law that placed a tremendous hurdle on companies going public. The Act remained in place for a full century. It was then repealed at the peak of the next big bubble, in 1825. The repeal is well documented as being the result of lobbying and influence peddling. The response to the ensuing crash and banking crisis transformed and modernized financial markets in England.

To those familiar with the financial history of the US this might ring a bell or two. The market euphoria in the late 1920s came at the heels of a period of deregulation, inaction by regulatory agencies, and rising subsidies to the housing sector. President Hoover at the time took a dim view of federal regulations and supervision, and appointed regulators that shared this view. The 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression led to a major rethinking of the role of government, resulting in an impressive comeback by the Democrats in Congress.  The New Deal reshaped the financial landscape in the US and imposed stricter regulations and supervision. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 separated commercial and investment banking in order to protect depositors. The Act remained in effect for much of the remaining 20th century, but was then repealed in 1999 at the height of a stupendous stock market boom. During the 1990s, securities laws were also eased by Congress, but they were then tightened under the Sarbanes-Oxley law a few years later, after the Dot-Com crash – a short-lived regulatory cycle confined to the securities market. But deregulation and a light touch approach in the banking sector continued and intensified in the midst of a tremendous housing boom. The credit boom benefited from government subsidies and sponsorship under both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Two years after its crash in 2008, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Act, the most significant regulatory overhaul since the New Deal.

Stylized Facts
These regulatory cycles can be observed across time and countries....MUCH MORE
Back to the Bubble, been down this road before. Here's 2009's "Murphy A. (2009) The smartest boys in the alley, early derivatives on the London stock market":
On Thursday I was pulling some links together on the British experience regulating derivatives after the South Sea Bubble of 1720. Lo and behold what pops up this morning but a link via Alphaville to the Economic History blog. Just one quibble, Dr. Murphy states that Barnard's Act* was dated 1737, I'd swear that my memory puts it earlier.
[just how old are you? -ed]
From the Economic History blog:
Murphy, Anne L. (2009) Trading options before Black-Scholes: a study of the market in late seventeenth-century London. Economic History Review, 62/1: 8-30.
The ledger of the financial broker Charles Blunt contains the details of some 1,500 transactions realized between 1692 and 1695, about a third of which regard the then novel trade in equity options (p.9). The technique had arisen in the 1620s in the commodity market and was proving very useful in the decade following the Glorious Revolution, when some 100 joint-stock companies were floated in London (p.10). During the boom of the early 1690s, it is likely that “several thousand derivatives were transacted each year”.
Various strategies
Four out of five options traded were calls (i.e. the right to pursue a share at any time during a given period, usually 6 months) and at-the-money (i.e. for the price of the share at the time of the agreement). “It is likely that they were transacted to take advantage of an anticipated price move associated with a specific future event” (p.12). Most of Charles Bunt’s clients were not professionals, for them using a broker was the only way to find a buyer. However many of these amateurs did in fact engage in option trading....MORE
HT: FT Alphaville

*Barnard's Act, which outlawed the use of options and forwards to purchase stock, was enacted in 1734 and due to sunset in 1737. Instead it was made perpetual and not repealed until 1860.
If interested see also "Prop Trading the South Sea Bubble: Hoare's Bank 1720":

*From deep in the link-vault comes a tiny treasure, an analysis of Hoare's trading during the South Sea bubble (62 page PDF):

Riding the South Sea Bubble
This paper presents a case study of a well-informed investor in the South Sea bubble. We argue that Hoare’s Bank, a fledgling West End London bank, knew that a bubble was in progress and nonetheless invested in the stock: it was profitable to “ride the bubble.” Using a unique dataset on daily trades, we show that this sophisticated investor was not constrained by such institutional factors as restrictions on short sales or agency problems....MORE

"Smart Containers Ready to Disrupt the Seafood Industry"

From BuzzOnEarth:

The seafood industry must comply with increasingly strict demands from consumers on sustainable seafood production. For that reason, a group of graduates has spent their summer at DNV GL developing smart “robot containers” with cooling systems that can sail to ports without any human interaction.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that food production must increase by 70% to feed the world population in 2050. A sustainable increase in food production, especially proteins, is a necessity to maintain global development in line with United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Land-based agriculture is already pushing the limits of sustainability and requires a more sustainable approach to feed new generations, whereas the oceans hold a great deal of unused potential.

Seafood undoubtedly has some of the greatest potentials in terms of protein sources. Due to biological constraints and the sustainability of wild catch, the growth within wild captures will be minimal in the years to come. This implies that growth in the seafood sector must originate from the aquaculture industry. The production and transportation of seafood must seek innovative sustainable solutions to meet these growth ambitions.

Technological advances offer us unprecedented opportunities for efficient seafood production. Enhanced cooling systems for extended shelf life, autonomous vessels and big data can reduce costs, ensure higher product quality and better-informed consumers.

Introducing SEAtrue: a Smart Seafood Solution

SEAtrue is a supply chain for offshore distribution of aquaculture products. The consumer application TraceEat sends information about consumer preferences and enables the best possible use of resources. The seafood is transported in autonomous, smart “robot containers” which employ sophisticated cooling techniques to extend shelf life. SEAtrue is a cutting-edge supply chain system that allows for optimal distribution and lower emissions. Moreover, it adjusts production to meet demand and thereby enhances a sustainable aquaculture industry.

The self-propelled containers are released from the processing vessel, and either position themselves for pick-up by a designated container ship or sail directly to a nearby port. That way, transportation by sea becomes more effective and efficient and uses data from an autonomous fleet of container ships to determine the optimal routing to reach the consumer....MORE
FT Alphaville's May 22 Further Reading post which went with the "Seafood and disrupt it" construction because, apparently, the puns are irresistible when dealing with food stories.

The Cattle Are Lowing
What's Mooving: Ag Stocks (CF; MOS; MON; MOO)

It was all explained in 2014's "Ironically, Milk Futures Are Not Very Liquid":
We don't have many posts* on the dairy business, every couple years or so I break out the "What's Mooving" headline but the business, at least the way (whey?) it's structured in the U.S. is tough to trade from a portfolio perspective. In addition it seems to foment (ferment?) some simply awful puns in folks who write about it.

The futures are currently in backwardation, not that anyone cares....
...Back in 2010 we had a post, "CME Group expands dairy complex with cheese futures" which I intro'd with:
Years ago I heard of a Chicago company that made a whey-based artificial cheese.

Apparently the operation was headed by a mad scientist type who had come up with the formula but had no marketing ability.

He was producing the stuff and not selling any, converting all the investors cash into this "analog" goop and storing it in Chicago area warehouses.

Then the Chernobyl reactor blew, the price of whey skyrocketed, I've no idea what the connection was, the company went broke and the receivers opened the warehouses to find tons of this 'cheeze', semi-molten in the summer heat.

That's what I thought of when I saw this story, tons of the stuff oozing out of bonded warehouses. No connection of course, just a visual....

"ACLU asks Amazon to stop selling facial recognition tech to local governments" (AMZN)

Let's hope that, at minimum, it works better than this from a couple weeks ago:
UK police say 92% false positive facial recognition is no big deal
About which the Cardiff force said:
South Wales Police: "No facial recognition system is 100% accurate under all conditions."
From GeekWire:
Concerned about the use of facial recognition technology to detect and identify Americans walking down the street, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Tuesday asking the company to place limits on how its Amazon Rekognition image-detection technology can be used by law enforcement.
The letter, which was signed by several other civil rights organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League, highlights work Amazon Web Services has done with police departments in Orlando, Fla., and suburban Portland’s Washington County, Ore. Amazon Rekognition is a image-recognition service first introduced by AWS in 2016 and enhanced to handle video recognition last year at AWS re:Invent 2017.

AWS has not exactly tried to hide its work with Washington County, publishing a case study last year describing how Rekognition is used to identify “persons of interest” in the county. In one example, Washington County used Rekognition to identify a shoplifter by uploading a photo of him from the store’s checkout line to a dataset of mugshots from people arrested in the county dating back to 2001, tracking down the suspect on Facebook after the department got four image results with greater than 80 percent similarity.

“Amazon Rekognition has become a powerful tool for identifying suspects for my agency,” wrote Chris Adzmia, senior information systems analyst for Washington County, in the case study.
That’s pretty much exactly what the ACLU is worried about, especially given the ease at which anyone can be potentially identified as a “suspect” in this day and age....

"Intel’s Mobileye wants to dominate driverless cars—but there’s a problem" (INTC; GOOG)

A deep dive into Waymo vs. Intel.
The current iteration of LIDAR (Waymo) will be around for at least five years before something replaces it.
However, if Intel (cameras) can figure out how to get the Nervana chip technology working in autonomous vehicles, pull your bets back fast.

From Ars Technica:
Why we're skeptical of Mobileye's plan for validating self-driving car safety.

Mobileye, the Israeli self-driving technology company Intel acquired last year, announced on Thursday that it would begin testing up to 100 cars on the roads of Jerusalem. But in a demonstration with Israeli television journalists, the company's demonstration car blew through a red light.

Mobileye is a global leader in selling driver-assistance technology to automakers. With this week's announcement, Mobileye hoped to signal that it wasn't going to be left behind as the world shifts to fully self-driving vehicles. But the red-light blunder suggests that the company's technology may be significantly behind industry leaders like Waymo.

While most companies working on full self-driving technology have made heavy use of lidar sensors, Mobileye is testing cars that rely exclusively on cameras for navigation. Mobileye isn't necessarily planning to ship self-driving technology that works that way. Instead, testing a camera-only system is part of the company's unorthodox approach for verifying the safety of its technology stack. That strategy was first outlined in an October white paper, and Mobileye CTO Amnon Shashua elaborated on that strategy in a Thursday blog post.

"We target a vehicle that gets from point A to point B faster, smoother, and less-expensively than a human-driven vehicle; can operate in any geography; and achieves a verifiable, transparent 1,000-times safety improvement over a human-driven vehicle without the need for billions of miles of validation testing on public roads," Shashua wrote on Thursday.

It's a bold claim. We're skeptical it's actually true.

Mobileye hopes to prove safety with formal models

Intel's new test vehicles use only cameras.
Enlarge / Intel's new test vehicles use only cameras.

The industry leader, Waymo, has focused on racking up more than six million miles of on-road testing, supplemented by billions of miles of simulation based on data collected in those real-world tests. But Mobileye argues that this approach is simultaneously wasteful and unlikely to deliver sufficient evidence of safety.

Instead, Mobileye advocates a more formalistic approach to demonstrating that its cars are safe. Mobileye envisions dividing its self-driving system into two parts—perception and policy—and then testing and validating them separately.

The perception system takes raw sensor inputs and translates them into labeled objects with exact three-dimensional coordinates. Then the policy system takes this labeled three-dimensional world and plans how to navigate through it....MORE

"How North Korean hackers became the world’s greatest bank robbers"

From Global Post Investigations, May 16:
The Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea’s equivalent to the CIA, has trained up the world’s greatest bank-robbing crews. In just the past few years, RGB hackers have struck more than 100 banks and cryptocurrency exchanges around the world, pilfering more than $650 million. That we know of.

It was among the greatest heists against a United States bank in history and the thieves never even set foot on American soil.

Nor did they target some ordinary bank. They struck an account managed by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, an institution renowned for its security.

In vaults 80 feet below the streets of Manhattan, the bank holds the world’s largest repository of gold. Many of these gold bars belong to foreign governments, which feel safer storing their gold inside well-defended bunkers in America than at home.

By the same token, overseas governments also store cash with the Fed. But this is cash in the 21st-century sense: all ones and zeroes, not smudgy bills. The bank holds vast foreign wealth on humming servers wired up to the internet.
That’s what the thieves went after in February 2016: nearly $1 billion, sitting in a Fed-run account. This particular account happened to belong to Bangladesh. Having already hacked into the servers of the Bangladesh Central Bank, the criminals waited until a Friday — a day off in many Muslim-majority nations, Bangladesh included.
Then they started draining the account.

Posing as Bangladesh Central Bank staff, the hackers sent a flurry of phony transfer requests to the Fed totaling nearly $1 billion. The Fed started zapping cash into accounts managed by the thieves overseas, most of them in the Philippines. Much of the money was quickly pulled out as cash or laundered through casinos.
From there, the trail goes cold.

The hackers didn’t get the full billion they desired. Most of the bogus requests were caught and canceled by suspicious personnel. But they did end up with an amazing score: $81 million.
The culprits of this heist are loyal to one of the most impressive organized crime syndicates in the world. They don’t work for the Triads, nor the Sinaloa Cartel, nor Sicily’s Cosa Nostra. They are agents of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (or RGB), which is headquartered in Pyongyang. This is North Korea’s equivalent to the CIA.

Like the CIA, North Korea’s RGB is steeped in clandestine overseas plots: assassinations, abductions and lots of spying. But it is perhaps better understood as a mash-up between the CIA, the KGB and the Yakuza.

What distinguishes the bureau is its entrepreneurial streak — one with a distinctly criminal bent.
For decades, North Korea has been beleaguered by Western sanctions and barred from global markets. This has prodded the regime to seek revenue in darker realms that are beyond the law. These black-market enterprises have included heroin production, printing bogus $100 bills and counterfeiting name-brand cigarettes.

But all of those rackets have now been totally eclipsed by hacking. The bureau has trained up the world’s greatest bank-robbing crews, a constellation of hacking units that pull massive online heists.
These thieves also have one distinct advantage over other syndicates: They are absolutely confident that they’ll never be charged. So it goes when your own country sponsors your criminal mischief.
This is a new phenomenon, according to US intelligence officials. “A nation state robbing banks … that’s a big deal. This is different,” says Richard Ledgett. He was, until his recent retirement, the deputy director of the National Security Agency.

In recent years, North Korea has launched hacks against more than 100 banks and online exchanges in a total of 30 countries. The RGB appears to have successfully pilfered $650 million. That we know of.

And yet they are chronically overlooked — at least in the American media, where talk of online subterfuge is dominated by Russian political hacks. If you weren’t aware that North Korea pulled a heist on the Federal Reserve, note that the caper went down in February 2016, when the media spotlight was fixed on the US presidential race at the expense of, well, almost everything else.
Now that gaze has swung toward North Korea — and for good reason.

Not so long ago, North Korea spoke of smiting the US with its “treasured nuclear sword of justice.” Now it offers grand gestures of warmth. Kim Jong-un has released American prisoners. He has giddily stepped into South Korea — if only for a moment — and he is now readying peace talks with President Donald Trump, a man who has threatened the young autocrat’s life via Twitter. (This could all change in an instant, of course. The North Korean leader suspended talks with South Korea on Wednesday over joint US-Korea military exercises and threatened to cancel his summit with Trump.)...

Natural Gas: "Never Too Late? Bulgarian President Resurrects Idea of South Stream"

From Sputnik:
The South Stream project was suspended in 2014, after Bulgaria halted work on the project twice during the summer of the same year. The Russian government has accused the European Commission and Sofia of obstructing the project. South Stream later transformed into Turkish Stream.
Bulgarian President Rumen Radev has expressed his views in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant that Bulgaria needs direct shipments of Russian gas via a pipeline through the Black Sea. He noted that such aspirations are no different from those of Germany with Nord Stream 2 and that such a project would benefit both Sofia and the EU in general.

"Let's call it Bulgarian Stream. Such an approach is dictated by common sense and the need for energy security and efficiency, not only in Bulgaria, but also in the EU in general," Radev said.
He added that Bulgaria hopes to strengthen its positions as a regional gas hub. At the same time, Radev expressed hope that if Russia decides to participate in such a project, it will adhere to the requirements of EU legislation, namely the Third Energy Package.

The comment by the Bulgarian president comes amid his visit to Moscow, where he is due to meet Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on May 21. He is also planning to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi the following day...MORE

So, What's New In Silicon Valley?

From the San Francisco Chroicle, May 19:
Huh, same 'ol, same 'ol.

From Trading Titan to Penny Stock: Noble Group Faces Crunch as Creditors, Investors Circle

From gCaptain:
Just seven years ago, Noble Group was a $11 billion-plus Asian commodity powerhouse, trading everything from soybeans to oil. As it readies its latest earnings report, it’s worth barely $80 million, rooted among Singapore’s penny stocks.

Due later on Tuesday, Noble’s first-quarter results will shed light on whether it can stem huge losses provoked by a lack of trade financing and market calls that went sour – while whittling down a debt mountain. They also precede shareholder meetings and legal rulings that will decide whether it survives.

Amid accusations of false accounting levelled in 2015, and a legal spat this year, a long slide in investor confidence has seen most of Noble’s market value wiped out. Noble has defended its accounting and is now trying to clinch a last-ditch deal with creditors and shareholders from which – if it succeeds – it will emerge a transformed company.

Noble is seeking approval to halve its $3.4 billion debt in return for handing over 70 percent of equity to senior creditors, mostly a group of hedge funds which calls itself the “Ad Hoc Group”. Under that plan, its headquarters will be in London, not Asia, no longer controlled by founder Richard Elman.
“Noble’s restructuring…remains critical to averting bankruptcy,” Singapore’s KGI Securities said ahead of the Noble results.

The deal would leave existing shareholders with just 15 percent equity in a company that has seen its share price fall from a peak of S$17.6 Singapore dollar ($13.18) in 2011 to below S$0.1.
Despite its woes, Noble has so far defied talk of its demise. But to keep going, Noble needs a majority of its shareholders to approve the restructuring – a vote on the proposal is expected in June.

Scared by the prospect of total loss and lack of any alternate plan, the proposal could get enough support, company sources say.
Founder Elman, still Noble’s biggest shareholder with a stake of nearly 18 percent, would be given a board seat in the new firm.

Noble chairman Paul Brough, a restructuring and liquidation expert, has urged shareholders to support the deal, threatening a failure would result in insolvency and bankruptcy.
But leading the resistance is Abu Dhabi-based Goldilocks Investment Co. Ltd, which holds 8.1 percent in Noble. Goldilocks has filed complaints and lawsuits against the restructuring plans, arguing they protect creditors at the expense of shareholders.

Goldilocks is Noble’s third-biggest shareholder after Elman and China Investment Corp, which has a 9.5 percent stake....MORE