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11 minutes ago
Sydney, Australia
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Dropbox has quietly launched a new password manager in private beta

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Screenshots: Dropbox / Google Play Store

Dropbox has quietly launched a new password manager named Dropbox Passwords. The app is only available in a private beta on Android, and although you can download it, you won’t be able to use it unless you’ve got an invite. The app’s Play Store listing notes that the app is currently “in development” and therefore may be unstable.

The app seems pretty basic in its current state. Like most password managers, it can create unique passwords, store them in one place, sync them across devices, and automatically fill in login fields. There’s no mention of other useful features like importing passwords from browsers and support for two-factor authentication.

It also advertises something called “zero-knowledge encryption,” which means only the...

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10 hours ago
And of course, we're supposed to trust "shared our accounts with researchers at Northwestern" dropbox.
Sydney, Australia
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Australian energy policy: no vision too small

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Let’s talk about Australia’s energy policy failure.

At a time when most of the developed world has woken up to the facts that a) fossil fuels are really bad for people and the environment and b) fossil fuels are more expensive than non-polluting alternatives, the Australian federal government policy continues to shovel enormous subsidies at our failing fossil fuel industry.

Yes, that’s right. Despite having enormous reserves of oil, coal, and gas, a modern(ish) banking sector, and the best solar resource on Earth, Australia continues to operate some of the oldest, most polluting power stations on Earth while enduring some of the highest energy prices in the world. Even small pacific island nations with no local fuel supply have lower energy prices!

Of course, confronted with this continuing cascade of failure, the official response continues to be “more of the same”.

That solar and batteries, installed today, could meet >100% of Australia’s electricity demand at about a tenth of current retail prices, is beyond doubt. Solar energy reached price parity in Australia in about 2011 and has gotten more than twice as cheap since, while the costs of operating Australia’s ancient, poorly managed grid has only grown.

So why hasn’t the policy evolved?

Could it be that Australians are backward, ill-informed people, propagandized by a monopolistic and opportunistic media industry? To some extent. After all, Australia is the only country I know where the entirely fictitious “wind turbine syndrome” continues to get media airtime.

Could it be that our leaders have never been particularly visionary and usually take their cues from industry-financed lobbyists? Sure, some of them, probably. Indeed, some Australian MPs are spruiking this article, a veritable cornucopia of discredited energy ideas.

Don’t believe me? It summarizes the Australian chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel’s call to use coal and gas, combined with carbon sequestration, to produce hydrogen to feed the “hydrogen economy”.

Where does one even start?

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is the idea that maybe we can take CO2 from smoke stacks, compress it and store it somewhere, perhaps underground. This has basically never been practical, as the costs of storing the CO2 will always be higher than the value generated by producing it. This inconvenient detail is often concealed as an excuse to go on burning stuff. Indeed, every CCS project I know of has been a dismal failure, with the most glaring example occurring at the Kemper plant in Mississippi, in 2017. After consuming $7.5b and running years behind schedule, the project was scrapped entirely, with the DOJ later opening an investigation. Now, almost 4 years later, the Australian government’s consultants think they’ve fixed what the hopes and cash of the entire dying US coal industry couldn’t? If you believe that you’ll believe anything.

And that’s not even getting to the “hydrogen economy,” the 1980s-level out-dated idea that in the future we’ll use hydrogen instead of gasoline to power our vehicles. While hydrogen doesn’t produce CO2 during combustion, it is difficult to make, store, and move around as it’s a low density hard cryogen with the antisocial habit of leaking through metal containment vessels. Fifteen years ago Tesla decided to produce electric cars using laptop batteries and by 2008, their performance had already exceeded the theoretical upper limits of hydrogen fuel cell technology, which has never been demonstrated even in a laboratory. No hydrogen-powered car has ever been mass-produced. Nor will they.

In summary, the “technology stack” currently advocated by the Australian government is a fail-centipede of bullshit. It can’t work, it will never work, and it’s not really even meant to work.

Of course, just as coal mining companies continue to talk up CCS, traditional automakers continue to “invest” in fuel cell technology. Both are yardsticks that haven’t moved since I was a child. And both industries are now being utterly crushed by predictable applications of competing technology that could have been foreseen by a disoriented penguin.

Why do they do this? Imagine being a business development executive at General Motors. (I would use an Australian automaker but, oh snap, our elected representatives spent decades watching while our manufacturing sector collapsed. By the end of this blog, you’ll understand how to fix this.) You have to pitch the board on your plan to spend billions developing electric car technologies that will only cannibalize existing sales, drastically depreciate existing tooling, supersede engine manufacturing, and require massive capital outlays. It’s never going to happen. Why sacrifice the next few profitable quarters doing business as usual on a gamble to reinvent the industry, especially when innovation is usually led by suppliers?

So, same old shit, day in, day out.

Traditional automakers’ business models are predicated on expensive service for the existing fleet out of warranty, and are not compatible with developing compelling electric vehicles.

This is how a tiny upstart Californian company was able to eat their lunch to such a degree that it’s gone from “Tesla will die any day now” to “Tesla is a decade ahead of the competition and it’s all over bar the shouting” in about six months.

Would it surprise you to learn that Australian energy policy is basically the same? Let me explain.

Energy is really important. I was taught from birth by my bleeding heart liberal tribe to hate petrol and burning coal, but the reality is that petrol makes cars and trucks and tractors go. Yes, it’s a terrible poisonous dirty corrupt industry, but without it (or any part of it) Australians run out of food and starve in a matter of weeks. Keeping the lights on and the vehicles moving is at the core of Australian security and it’s a serious matter, especially when we depend on foreign imports for literally everything. This unspoken reality, I believe, drives a lot of otherwise peculiar obsession with the similarly-motivated US policy of bringing “peace and democracy” to the Middle East, at least before fracking was commercialized at scale.

That said, mining and exports is basically the only productive part of the Australian economy that’s left. To say we depend on it is an understatement. Every year that the government can avoid making tough decisions on the future of Australian industry is another year we can live off selling our coal to China, while being slowly baked alive by climate change.

I’m going to oversimplify here but there are a few different ways that economies can build wealth. Let’s talk about primary, secondary, and tertiary parts of the economy. Primary production is mining, extraction, farming. Getting bulk raw materials. Secondary production is manufacturing, where raw materials are combined to produce commercial products. And tertiary services are human-to-human tasks where a lot of people are now employed, be it in health, education, tourism, or sales.

The Australian economy is strong in primary production. We have fabulous wealth in basically everything: mining, agriculture, timber, etc. Without this we would probably have an economic situation more like Mongolia. Primary production is great, as far as it goes. But it leaves a lot of wealth on the table.

Australia has a strong services sector, but like any business where wealth is created through one-on-one human interactions, it’s not fit to be the engine of wealth creation. The economy can’t operate without it, but it still needs a strong underlying system to create real things.

Let’s talk about wealth. Wealth is created when humans or machines perform a process that improves the value of something. Normally wealth creation is equated with superannuation or investment, but the other end of that transaction is (hopefully) someone actually doing something useful, which you (the investor) get to profit from, because capitalism.

My favourite example here is an iPhone. An iPhone is about half aluminium by weight, and let’s say it began its life as bauxite (aluminium ore) in northern Australia. As bauxite, it was put on a ship and sold for $0.40, with a margin in the single digit percents. Once smelted into aluminium somewhere in Asia, it was worth about $2.50. Once machined into the right shape its Bill of Materials cost is around $15. The phone costs about $370 to produce and is sold for $999, so the consumer’s cost for that aluminium chassis is $40. The process of mining, smelting, machining, and sales increase the value of the raw materials by a factor of more than 100. Of that $40, $25 went to Apple to cover R&D, shipping, sales, and other overhead. $12 went to the machinist, most of which is needed to cover the cost of the tooling. $2.10 went to the smelter, most of which covers the cost of electricity and carbon electrodes. Finally, the (probably foreign) mining company’s revenue was 40c, its profit was about 2c, and the tax the government earned was less than a cent.

Every year, Australia exports $4.5b of bauxite, which is a decent sum of money for a few big holes in Queensland. After smelting, that aluminium is worth $25b. After its conversion into parts for planes, cars, laptops, and soft drink cans it’s sold for more than $100b. By failing to exploit Australia’s ludicrously cheap solar energy to onshore more material processing, we are giving away nearly all that value for free.

I cannot be more emphatic about this. The failure of Australian domestic manufacturing will destroy our way of life forever.

But, I hear you cry, Australia weathered the global financial crisis just fine. Boomers who own houses are doing fine. If the economy is screwed, why is real estate still out of control?

It’s a bubble. Housing prices are determined by supply and demand. But unlike other commodities, housing demand is extremely inelastic, since everyone needs to live somewhere, and supply is also relatively fixed. As a result, housing prices are a direct function of credit availability. The one and only reason for rising house prices is rising availability of enormous mortgages, enabled by continual deregulation of the rent-seeking banking industry and a government happy to trap the next generation in a lifetime of loan servitude in exchange for a small piece of the action.

Okay, so it’s morally questionable and hugely inconvenient, how does that make it a bubble? The intrinsic value of the underlying asset is fixed. Houses that get ten times more expensive cannot house ten times as many people. They are infrastructure that actually depreciates as they wear out. They don’t produce anything. For my entire life, the bulk of Australian consumer’s discretionary spending has been poured into servicing loans that have starved the rest of the economy for capital, and with predictable results.

It’s not real wealth growth. We can’t sell all those houses and get the money back. We can’t even tax this empty price growth or the impact on demand will crush the market overnight, destroying years of “invested” GDP. Its deliberately undersized impact on the consumer pricing index obscures its true impact as basically inflating away the value of any other part of the economy. This money is gone. The opportunity it could have bought, with steady investment in secondary industries that actually make something, is gone.

Try buying any kind of specialty equipment in Australia. Try to get a sales rep or engineer on the phone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Try walking to a retail electronics store and buying a transistor. There are market booths in Shenzhen with a greater range of selection than every electronics shop in Sydney, combined. This is a big problem. A country that has forgotten how to make anything is strategically vulnerable.

We’ve talked about how materials traverse the value chain, mostly outside of Australia. We’ve talked about how misplaced “investments” in real estate have burned up 30 years of Australian economic output with nothing to show for it. But we haven’t yet covered the single most important source of wealth for any nation on Earth. People.

Every day, people generate wealth. Every single part of the economy depends on people to operate it. To do the work. And while the global west employing a 40 hour working week has had a continuing labor surplus since the end of WWII, a vibrant domestic manufacturing industry can’t be imported. It needs to be built up, in Australia, by Australians. This stuff isn’t taught in school, and probably never was. Building a competitive industrial sector is taught through experimentation in garages and backyards by motivated people who cannot succeed without a critical supply of existing industry knowledge and a fungible supply chain. I don’t believe manufacturing consumer electronics is the answer to Australia’s industry woes, but kids can’t build robots without them.

Knowing that a technologically literate and constructive workforce is essential to Australia’s future, government policy has consistently promoted innovation in education, skilled migration, entrepreneurship, and critical infrastructure, right? Right? Hahahahahahahaha. In just my lifetime, I’ve seen the growth of the complete antithesis of these values, and for no apparent reason.

Got an idea in the US? People will line up to buy you lunch to offer to invest, even expecting that you’ll fail the first three times. Got an idea in Australia? “Nah mate, that’ll never work.” Our universities have been subordinated to the tourism industry where too many places have been sold to non-immigrant foreign full fee paying students spending insane time and money for a piece of paper that is already in the throes of self-inflicted devaluation. Ever tried to get an Australian entrepreneurship visa? It doesn’t exist. And finally, let’s not forget the national broadband network. After blowing incredible sums of money on politically expedient (and wrong) technology, Australia is 50th in internet speed. Many online scammers actually skip Australia specifically because its terrible internet infrastructure costs them too much to be worthwhile. This isn’t a good thing. It’s an international disgrace, and the people responsible should be ashamed.

Let’s sum up. The Australian economy is in deep shit. Primary production ships >99% of the value overseas and, like any commodity business, has terrible margins at the best of times. The bloated real estate sector has sucked the life out of domestic manufacturing and the rest of the economy. Infrastructure sucks. The education system has left a generation literally propagandized into thinking that technology is something that comes from overseas, if and when a foreign sales team is desperate enough to try to corner the tiny Australian market. And on top of this, the best and brightest national leadership continues to shovel what little disposable development cash it has into propping up the fossil fuel export industry, window dressing it as some antique discredited technology to sucker the rubes into agreeing.

It sounds pretty bleak. A few years ago, when I decided to stay in the US, I was convinced that it was only a matter of time until Australia, too, had its moment of reckoning with the inevitable collapse of the housing market taking everything down with it. Argentina 2.0.

Obviously this are huge problems, they can’t simply be wished away. However, through no fault of our own, salvation may be at hand. Or at least an alternative to continuing to dig a deeper hole.

It’s time to begin the process of bringing advanced manufacturing back onshore in Australia. How? China makes stuff cheaper than we could ever hope to. This is true and it’s unlikely to change – economies of scale mean that even with the cost of shipping Chinese factories will make goods more cheaply than Australian factories can.

The answer lies in energy-intensive industries. It may seem odd given Australia’s habit of selling its gas overseas and then acting surprised that energy prices increase, but the right government policies could actually reverse this trend, giving Australian consumers and industry the cheapest electricity on Earth, forever.

How can this be done, and what can it be used for?


In adoption of wealth-building technology, Australia lags most of the world by decades. How is it possible to catch up? Consider the above map. Australia is basically the only (business friendly) western liberal democracy that has huge (developed) mineral resources AND enormous (undeveloped) solar resources. Nearly every competing country has to mine stuff somewhere, and ship it elsewhere to be processed somewhere where energy is cheaper.

With commercially available solar and battery storage technology, Australia could easily deploy a gigawatt of solar production annually, at a combined cycle price of about 2.5c/kWh. That’s 10 times cheaper than current retail prices and less than half the price of electricity in Iceland, which exploits its cheap geothermal energy to smelt enormous quantities of aluminium. Why ship bauxite to Iceland when it can be smelted right by the mine and sold for 6 times the price? Electricity is the main cost of aluminium production. Secure an infinite supply of much cheaper electricity and the rest is pure margin. Usually when we think of a country charging 100 times production cost for mineral wealth we think of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. In our solar future, Australia can have oil-level wealth while saving the planet.

Solar energy continues to get cheaper by about 10% a year. No matter how good a competing business case may be, it’s only a matter of time before the tech that powers trees crushes it completely. Australia’s current energy production capacity is 66.5 GW. At current prices, 100 GW of solar power would cost about $15b to deploy, which is almost nothing compared to current fossil subsidies when spaced over a decade. This power would be too cheap to meter 99% of the time, driving material processing onshore.

What can you do with nearly free electricity? We’ve discussed smelting aluminium, but there are many other energy intensive processes for which Australia should be the only place on Earth they get done. Mass desalination for irrigation. Comprehensive recycling of basically anything. Hard rock, zero impact mining using tunnel boring machines. Anything requiring refrigeration.

Just because Australia can’t export solar power the way it exports coal doesn’t mean that the wealth embodied by Australia’s enviable solar resource can’t be monetized. Smelted aluminium contains the huge quantities of energy used to create it, and the same goes for anything else where any amount of onshore processing exponentially increases the domestic value creation.

Australia does not deserve to escape the consequences of its consistently small-minded and backwards economic policies. We are incredibly fortunate that foreign investment in solar technology has created an opportunity ripe for the picking. We would be wise to exploit our natural resources to electrically re-industrialize our secondary manufacturing sector before competing nations get around to it. With solar costs falling 10% a year, Australia’s failure to move could cause competing nations to get to low cost onshore mineral processing first, at which point Australia will have blown yet another golden opportunity.

This window, this undeserved path to salvation, will not remain open forever.

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12 hours ago
Sydney, Australia
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Problems With Paywalls

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I hate paywalls on articles. Absolutely hate them.

A standard pro-business argument: businesses can either make your life better (by providing deals you like) or keep your life the same (by providing deals you don’t like, which you don’t take). They can’t really make your life worse. There are some exceptions, like if they outcompete and destroy another business you liked better, or if they have some kind of externalities, or if they lobby the government to do something bad. But in general, if you’re angry at a business, you need to explain how one of these unusual conditions applies. Otherwise they’re just “helping you less than you wish they did”, not hurting you.

And so the standard justification for paywalls. Journalists are providing you a deal: you may read their articles in exchange for money. You are not entitled to their product without paying them money. They need to earn a living just like everyone else. So you can either accept their deal – pay money for the articles – or refuse their deal – and so be left no worse off than if they didn’t exist.

But I notice feeling like this isn’t true. I think I would be happier in a world where major newspapers ceased to exist, compared to the world where they exist but their articles are paywalled. Take a second and check if you feel the same way. If so, what could be going on?

First, paywalled newspapers sometimes use a clickbait model, where they start by making you curious what’s in the article, then charge you to find out.

Here are some articles I’ve seen advertised recently (not all on paywalled sources): “Why Trump’s Fight With Obama Might Backfire”, “This Tech Guru Has Made A Shocking Prediction For 2020”, “Here’s Why Men are Pointing Loaded Guns At Their Dicks”.

I didn’t wake up this morning thinking “I wonder whether men are pointing loaded guns at their dicks, and, if so, why. I hope some enterprising journalist has investigated this question, and I will be happy to compensate her with money for satisfying this weird curiosity of mine.” No, instead, I was perfectly and innocently happy not knowing anything about this, right up until I read the name of that article at which point I became consumed with curiosity, ie a feeling that I will be unhappy until I know the answer. In this particular case it’s fine, because the offending website (VICE) is unpaywalled. I go there and after reading through nine paragraphs attacking “MAGA dolts”, in the tenth paragraph I get the one-sentence answer: there’s a meme in the gun community that any time someone posts a picture with their gun, amateurs will chime in with condescending advice about how they should be holding it more safely, so some people post pictures of them pointing loaded guns at their dicks in order to piss these people off. I feel completely unenlightened by knowing this. It has not brightened my day. It just removed the temporary itch of curiosity.

Some people critique capitalism by saying it creates new preferences that people have to spend money to satisfy. I haven’t noticed this being true in general – I only buy shoes when I need shoes, and I only buy Coke when I want Coke. But it seems absolutely on the mark regarding paywalled journalism. VICE created a new preference for me (the preference to know why some people point loaded guns at their dicks), then satisfied it. Overall I have neither gained nor lost utility. This seems different from providing me with a service.

They have an excuse, which is that this is how they make money. But what’s Marginal Revolution’s excuse? I saw this link in an MR links roundup. It was posted as “5. Why men are pointing loaded guns at their dicks.” So obviously I clicked on it, and here we are. But what is MR’s interest in making me click on a VICE article and read through nine paragraphs about “MAGA dolts”?

I can’t really blame them, because I did the same thing for years. I posted links posts, I framed the links in deliberately provocative ways, and then I felt good about myself when my stats page recorded that thousands of people had clicked on them. Sometimes I would write the whole thing out – “Here’s an article about men pointing loaded guns at their dicks – it’s because they want to criticize what they perceive as an excessive and condescending emphasis on trigger safety in gun culture” – and then nobody would click on it, and I would interpret that as a sign that I had failed in some way. I was an idiot, I apologize to all of you, and I have stopped doing that. I urge other bloggers to do the same – we gain no extra money, nor power, nor readership by being running-dogs for VICE’s weird ploy to trick people into reading its stupid articles. But as long as bloggers, Facebookers, tweeters, etc aren’t following good Internet hygiene, the very existence of paywalled sources will continue to be a net negative for the average Internet user.

This isn’t just about obvious clickbait like men pointing guns at their dicks. “Why Trump’s Fight With Obama Might Backfire” feels exactly the same to me. I don’t want to know more ephemeral garbage about Trump which may or may not affect his polls 0.5% for a week before they return to baseline. I don’t want to get more and more outraged until my ability to relate to my fellow human beings is shaped entirely by whether they’re a “MAGA dolt” or not. And yet I find myself curious what’s in the article!

(Trump’s fight with Obama might backfire because independents like Obama more than Trump, and the tech guru’s 2020 prediction was that Trump will lose. You’re welcome.)

Second, paywalled articles become part of the discourse.

Last week’s Wall Street Journal included an opinion column, Lockdowns Vs. The Vulnerable, arguing that statistics show the coronavirus lockdowns do not really prevent the coronavirus, but do disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people. It’s already gotten retweeted a few dozen times, including by some bluechecks with tens of thousands of followers.

Do you want to figure out exactly what statistics it uses and check whether they really show that lockdowns don’t prevent coronavirus? Too bad – the article is paywalled and you cannot read it without paying $19.50/month to the Wall Street Journal. I personally suspect that this article is terribly wrong, possibly to the point of idiocy. But I can neither convince others of this, nor correct my own potentially-false first impression, without paying the Wall Street Journal $19.50 a month. Which I don’t want to do. Partly because it is bad value, and partly because I don’t want to reward them for publishing false things.

Newspapers publish articles – factual and opinionated – intending them to enter the public square as a topic of discussion. But if the discussions in the public square have an entry fee, the public square becomes smaller and less diverse.

It also becomes more of an echo chamber. Probably conservatives subscribe to the Wall Street Journal and liberals subscribe to the New York Times. So if conservatives post articles from the Wall Street Journal, liberals can neither benefit from the true ones and change their own opinions, nor correct the false ones and change conservatives’ opinions. If you can’t even read the other side’s arguments, how can you be convinced by them?

Third, newspapers make it hard to guess whether you will encounter a paywall or not. Some of them raise a paywall on some kinds of articles but not others. Some of them raise a paywall if you’re linked in from social media, but not if you’re linked in from Google (or vice versa). Some of them raise a paywall if it’s your Xth article per month on a certain computer, but not before.

The end result is you can’t just learn to avoid the newspapers with paywalls. If you clearly knew which links were paywalled or not, you would just never click on those links, and not waste any time. Since any given newspaper has like a 25 – 50% chance of being paywalled whenever you read it, you get the variable reinforcement strategy that promotes frustrated addiction. And since at any given moment you are desperate to click on that link and find out Why Some Men Are Pointing Loaded Guns At Their Own Dicks, you will, like a chump, click it anyway, only to howl with rage when the paywall comes up.

This usually isn’t a deliberate misdeed; newspapers understandably want to people limited access so they can decide whether or not they want to subscribe. But some forms of this do seem deliberate to me. Like when they let you read the first two paragraphs and get emotionally invested in the story, and then surprise you with a paywall in the third (I think this is why you need nine paragraphs of filler before getting to the one-sentence curiosity-satisfier). Or when they wait five seconds before popping up a paywall message pops up, for the same reason.

Fourth, and most important, paywalled newspapers make it hard to search for information on Google. When I was trying to gather statistics on coronavirus to figure out how fast it was spreading, I noticed that the top ten or twenty relevant search results for a lot of coronavirus-related queries were paywalled articles. Because articles will make you wait several paragraphs/seconds before the paywall comes up, I couldn’t just quickly click on something, see if it had a paywall or not, and then move on to the next one. Instead, a search that would have taken me seconds if all paywalled sources ceased to exist ended up taking me several frustrating minutes.


There are some simple steps we can take to fix this.

First, search engines should give users an option to hide paywalled articles from results. I realize how big a shitstorm this will cause, I and I plan to enjoy every second of it. If they can’t make this happen for some reason, they should at least display a big red $$$ sign in front of paywalled articles, so users know which links will give them information before they waste a click on them. If Google refuses to do this, Bing should do it to get a leg up on Google. If both of them refuse, DuckDuckGo. If all three of them refuse, sounds like they’re providing an opening for some lucky entrepreneur.

Second, browser or browser-extension designers should figure out some way to automatically get links to display whether they’re paywalled or not. Maybe something like this already exists, but I can’t find it.

Third, bloggers (and social media users) should stop deliberately frustrating their readers. Stop posting tantalizing links like “Why Men Are Pointing Loaded Guns At Their Dicks” without further explanation! If you find the dick-gun phenomenon interesting, post the link plus a one-sentence summary. If someone wants more than the one-sentence summary, they can click the link, but I’ve done A/B testing on this and it never happens.

Fourth, bloggers (and social media users) should preferentially link non-paywalled sites. I realize this is not always possible, but most major stories are important enough that at least one non-paywalled outlet will be covering them.

Fifth, until the browser extension comes through, bloggers (and social media users) who do need to link a paywalled site should let readers know it’s paywalled. For example, Lockdowns Vs. The Vulnerable [PAYWALLED] or [$$$] Lockdowns Vs. The Vulnerable. This will save readers a click and hopefully make bloggers think about what they’re doing and whether it’s really necessary.

I’m making a commitment to do 3, 4, and 5 from now on. If I ever change this commitment, I’ll let you know. If you notice me slipping up, please point it out (nicely) and I’ll try to correct myself.

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13 hours ago
Sydney, Australia
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Tanks for the Memories

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It’s June 5 in China as I type this late in the evening of June 4 in the U.S.

~ ~ ~

We’ve seen U.S. military personnel deployed to American cities which are not burning down and are not under siege; they’ve been deployed because Americans dared to exercise their First Amendment rights.

These are the same innate rights which founded this nation when colonists rebelled against the tyranny and oppression of an autocratic monarch, writing rebellious missives and tossing tea into Boston Harbor.

Troops and equipment were deployed on both coasts, to Washington D.C. and Los Angeles area.

Sen. Chris Murphy wants to know more about this aircraft also deployed:

Some of this military deployment was just plain stupid, sloppy, wasteful — flip-flopping resources from one place to another. I can’t imagine the military doing this; this is on Barr and Trump.

A federal riot team was dispatched to Miami for some reason. Perhaps it was because of Trump National Doral Miami golf course, or Mar-a-Lago, Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, and Trump International Golf Club West Palm Beach located an hour north. Perhaps it was because Miami-Dade County is only 15% non-Hispanic white and there would surely be protesting there. Maybe it was intended as an intimidation or voter suppression tactic which doesn’t appear to have occurred to Floridians.

The locals in Miami certainly didn’t know why.

With the news, a question hung in the air. Why Miami?

The answer is still shrouded in mystery, but the way the announcement was carried out has confused officials across different levels of government. Several law enforcement sources at both local and federal levels only learned about the team’s presence in Miami after reporters pointed them to statements from the Trump Administration.

Ultimately, the federal team is leaving Miami without being deployed.

Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the National Guard to drop its work on COVID-19 support and take up patrol in Tampa because of protests there — but the protests have been relatively peaceful.

At least until police showed up.

There’s also the hyper-militarized police which can barely be distinguished from military. This one is particularly puzzling since Walnut Creek, California is a relatively wealthy and relatively white part of the state.

This tank-ish vehicle drew comparisons to tanks used in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

June 4, 1989, to be exact — 31 years ago.

It’s not just Americans who see a parallel; this is from a Canadian academic:

Some of my friends of Chinese heritage are disturbed by the comparison, suggesting Americans avoid it in no small part because many Chinese are still traumatized by the 1989 events. Others are concerned because China’s government still aggressively censors any mention of the 1989 protests, potentially removing users from social media. This is a serious punishment because all their identity, employment information, bill paying, credit scores are mediated through social media.

Other Chinese who don’t live in the mainland point to the comparison between 1989 and the US in 2020 and warn us not to end up like the Chinese — under an even more repressive state after hundreds of civilians’ deaths when the military put down the protests, squelching demands for a more democratic society.

It doesn’t seem possible that there could be more than a passing similarity between China in 1989 and the U.S. today, given the amount of freedoms many (straight white) Americans in this country possess.

We were reminded, though, the likely reason the military was called upon may have found inspiration in 1989.

Does Trump think this is just a noisy student uprising which can be put down with tanks? Do his bigoted, talentless minions likewise think police brutality is a nothing burger which can be squashed easily with a show of force?

It’s rather ridiculous what power has been called upon to protect the White House from the protesters who want police brutality against black Americans to end.

So much energy and resources wasted because Trump has a ridiculously shallow concept of power and how best to use it.

But even more ridiculous than all this overkill intended to suppress Americans’ First Amendment right to exercise free speech through protest is the Republican Party’s hypocrisy, from Sen. Tom Cotton’s obnoxious op-ed in The New York Times calling for military deployment against Americans, to this feckless gem from the House GOP caucus:

Utterly blind to their double standard — a president who uses the military to suppress constitutionally-protected speech in violation of his own oath of office is okay with them, but they threaten a totalitarian government which also suppressed speech with military force?

At least the Chinese show signs of breaking their suppression — in spite of attacks on Hong Kong’s freedoms — after their government’s initial handling of the COVID-19 pandemic cost the country valuable time to stop the disease from ravaging Wuhan’s population.

Free speech would have saved Chinese lives; it would have prevented President Xi Jinping’s and the Chinese Communist Party‘s loss of credibility caused by suppressing Dr. Li Wenliang’s warning about COVID-19

Somehow I doubt Trump will learn anything at all from China’s failure.

He certainly doesn’t seem able to learn from his own.

~ ~ ~

It’s now June 5 here in the U.S. as I finish typing this.

31 years ago, a lone man carrying bags in his hands as if he had just been shopping, stood in front of a line of tanks impeding their procession. The Chinese military had fired upon protesters, killing as many as 500 people in Tiananmen Square during the previous two days in an effort to put down the pro-democracy movement.

Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, 1989 - photo by Stuart Franklin
For a moment in time one man stood between the regime and an oppressive future.

I’d like to think there are more than one or two persons willing to stand up to systemic abuses and repression here, hold it in check longer than a moment in time.

The protesters in the streets over the last 10 days tell us there are.

The polls in November will tell us if there are enough.

What will our children say of this time in 31 years? What will they remember of us?


This is an open thread.

The post Tanks for the Memories appeared first on emptywheel.

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Truth Hurts

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Henrietta Lacks, whose cells are still used in labs today.

This week, as protesters have taken to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people murdered at the hands of the police, local bail funds have been inundated with donations. One of my favorite tweets calling for people to take action:

An earlier version of that sentiment appealed to the science nerds out there:

If you don’t know the story of HeLa cells, here’s the cliffs notes version, detailed in Rebecca Skloot’s excellent book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: in 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, went to the Johns Hopkins medical center for cervical cancer treatment. Researchers took a biopsy from a tumor and discovered that her cells were unusually hearty, so they began culturing those cells and using them in medical experiments.

Soon, they sent and sold cells to other scientists, and now HeLa cells are among the most popular cell lines used by researchers. Lacks’s cells were used to test the first polio vaccine, showed scientists that humans have 23 chromosomal pairs and not 24, and have even been sent to space. Science owes a great deal to Henrietta Lacks and her family. But Lacks’s family wasn’t ever told their relative’s cells were being used, nor have they seen any money from that exploitation.

What happened to Lacks shows the many ways in which our society is built on Black people’s bodies and labor, and how this history often remains invisible because powerful people and institutions have a vested interest in ignoring it. To turn away from this obscures the truths science aims to uncover, and yet all too often, science writers or scientists shy away from discussing race and politics in their work. But it’s not possible to compartmentalize race and politics; they are inherently a part of science, and always have been. Any work that ignores anti-Blackness in our society and, especially, in science, is lacking. (And that’s aside from the morality of it all; as a Huffington Post article once put it, “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.”)

What’s happening in the US right now only underscores how deeply race and politics are intertwined with science and nature. This pandemic disproportionately kills Black and brown people. Public health experts are speaking out about white supremacy as a public health issue that shortens Black people’s lives. And Christian Cooper’s encounter with a hysterical white woman who called the cops on him exposed how Black birders may be treated while engaging with nature (and led to Black Birders Week). Black lives matter, and it’s clear we need to keep working at building systems in science and nature that actually reflect that.

So, to echo @undocusci: if you’ve ever worked in a lab that uses HeLa cells, donate — though maybe consider donating to a community program instead, since many bail funds say they’re all set. Or even if you haven’t worked with HeLa cells, donate. There’s plenty else to do, too: learn, volunteer, call, amplify Black voices (for starters, some scientists and naturalists: Corina Newsome, Danielle Lee, Raychelle Burks, Tressie McMillan Cottom, #BlackBirdersWeek, @BlackAFinSTEM). And given the title of this post (a Lizzo lyric), I’m off to put my money where my mouth is.

Image: Oregon State University’s Flickr, courtesy of Crown Books

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12 hours ago
If you really think about it, the HeLa cells aren't actually Henrietta Lacks. They're actually cells from the thing that murdered her.
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