February 18, 2020

What's Going On with Putin's "RUNet"? New Report Makes Grim Predictions of This Endeavor

Image result for russian net

The past year marked many milestones in the Russian government's long struggle to bring the internet under control. Laws were passed against distributing “fake news’’ or disrespecting the authorities online. Fines were increased against digital companies which refused to hold data on Russian users on Russian territory. A law was published extending the concept of “foreign agents’’ to individual internet users. Last but not least, the long-awaited bill on a “Sovereign Internet’’ finally entered into force.
For ten years running, Agora, a Russian legal organization, and Roskomsvoboda, an NGO monitoring digital rights in Russia, have released a joint annual report on the state of internet freedom in Russia. Their most recent report, published on February 4, draws some troubling conclusions about what lies in store for the RuNet in years to come. 
The report notes a significant rise in attempts to disconnect certain regions or areas from the internet at times of political strife. This ability, while permitted by Russia's federal law on communications, had not fully been utilized by the authorities on a large scale until 2019 — which saw internet shutdowns in the Arkhangelsk Region, Buryatia, Ingushetia, the Pskov Region, and most notoriously in Moscow, during protests against the authorities’ refusal to permit independent opposition candidates to run in local elections.
Nevertheless, the report also cites a marked decrease in numbers of criminal prosecutions for activities online: from 384 cases in 2018 to 200 in 2019. The authors attribute this to the partial decriminalization of the controversial Article 282 of the criminal code, on incitement to hatred. The partial decriminalization of this act resulted in an additional act to the administrative code under which criminal liability for inciting hatred now only occurs after repeated violations within the space of a year. In the first six months of last year alone, 158 people were prosecuted under this new administrative act. However, the full force of Article 282 is still being brought to bear, as shown by the high profile case of the blogger Vladislav Sinitsa, who was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment last year for his Twitter comments about the fate of the children of riot police who were responsible for beating protesters in Moscow. Prosecution for online activity is apparently becoming a more common tactic to supplement existing convictions against political opponents, as shown by attempts to restrict internet access to Yegor Zhukov, the libertarian activist with a large following on YouTube.
A further administrative act that had repercussions for RuNet users was the vaguely worded law against disrespect for state authorities and bearers of federal power online. In 2019, it was applied 78 times, 44 of which specifically concerned disrespectful language about Vladimir Putin.
Undoubtedly, the report notes, one of the biggest developments was the country's “Sovereign Internet’’ drive. This package of laws and amendments is designed to allow the state to take control of the digital infrastructure in Russia in times of instability, thus severing the RuNet from the rest of the global network. Accordingly, the report's authors predict a marked intensification of pressure on IT firms and internet providers, who will be responsible for implementing increasingly unwieldy demands for surveillance and DPI inspection of all incoming traffic. Digital companies are already subject to increased fines for refusing to hand over user data to the Russian authorities, which also mandated all digital devices sold in the country to come with pre-installed government-approved software. 
Authors also link these trends to the arrest of Alexei Soldatov, a leading figure in the foundation of the RuNet, on charges of fraud. Prosecutors accuse him of sending hundreds of thousands of IP addresses previously administered by a Russian research institute to foreign control. Given that the Sovereign Internet drive also mandates the creation of a national domain system, the report speculates that the arrest was motivated by Soldatov's refusal to transfer control of the .su (for “Soviet Union”) and .rf (for “Russian Federation”), historically been controlled by Soldatov's Internet Development Foundation, to the state.
Blocking of “undesirable’’ websites continued apace. Over the first nine months of 2019, Russia's state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor and the Ministry of Internal Affairs together listed over 270,000 webpages as undesirable — almost a third higher than the same period in 2018. The authors note that a further 4.74 million webpages, while not blocked themselves, are associated with IP addresses on the authorities’ block list. Last year also saw a final block of secure messaging service ProtonMail and further failures in the state's long battle to restrict access to the banned messaging service Telegram. Several popular independent news websites, including MeduzaThe Village, and Batka, Da Vy Transformator, fell foul of the state's attempts to restrict online information about narcotics and were unavailable in Russia at various points. Nevertheless, many users reported that they were still able to access these websites and other blocked resources via VPNs, despite access to them formally being blocked.
The burgeoning amount of legislation, bold goals for digital control, and unwieldy expectations now being put on digital companies will make 2020 a difficult year for the RuNet. But the authors conclude that while the outlook is bleak, the resourcefulness of RuNet users is not to be underestimated:
"Officials are gradually ceasing to regard restricting freedom of speech as an exceptional step to be taken in extreme situations. Blocks of websites, harassment of users, and limitations on the rights of Russian and foreign media outlets have become [regarded as] instruments in a political struggle, and a means to counteract the West in an information war […]The authorities, after several hesitations a few years ago, have determined their political trajectory in relation to the Russian sector of the internet: control censorship, and isolation. The ultimate goal is the creation of a sovereign internet resembling the Chinese and North Korean models. In the past year, several key acts were passed in order to achieve this goal.The key intrigue lies in the extent to which this plan can be realized. For the time being, these initiatives have either not been started in earnest (such as Yarovaya's package on storing and decrypting traffic), failed (such as the blocking of Telegram and the ban on cryptocurrencies), or can be easily evaded (such as the multiple blocks of websites.) Much as before, internet users are quickly learning how to adapt to the new environment, while technology goes forward, limitlessly expanding the horizons for the battle against the enforcers, complicating methods of constraining the free flow of information".

February 17, 2020

The Anti Gay Homophobe of The Bronx Will Get New LGBTQ PAC Campaign to Expose Him


Shant Shahrigian

  New York Daily News
 Opponents of a Bronx pol infamous for homophobic comments are taking the fight to his base, launching a campaign seeking to inform Christians and Spanish-speaking voters about his controversial record.
The Bronx United political action committee launched over the weekend with English- and Spanish-language videos casting Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. as a bigot and fake Democrat as he runs for Congress.
“I know first-hand what it feels like,” Rev. Carmen Hernandez, a Bronx-based LGBT rights activist, says in the video, which features blurbs about Diaz’s homophobic stances. “Who gives you the right to hurt another human being?”
She accuses Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, of exploiting voters of faith.

“In the Bronx, there are churches on every corner. He’s using the Christian people to win the votes,” she says. “Where are the LGBT people that need to come out?
Thanks to supporting from conservative-leaning Bronxites, Diaz has continuously been in office since 2003. He did not immediately answer a request for comment.
Bronx United is trying to chip away at his base by pointing out his most outrageous comments, like saying, “The Council ... is controlled by the homosexual community.”
He’s called gay people “cursed” and likened them to “drug addicts” — all facts noted in the new PAC’s video.
Diaz also infamously said he’d never report a colleague for sexual harassment because that would make him a “rat.”
While he’s running in a Democratic primary, Diaz has welcomed Republicans including Sen. Ted Cruz and Rob Astorino when they were campaigning in the Bronx for higher offices.
The crowded race for the 15th congressional seat includes Councilman Ritchie Torres, who is openly gay, and democratic socialist Samelys Lopez. 
But the new PAC is not endorsing any individual. Its message in targeted social media and on-the-ground canvassing will be “#anyonebutdiaz.”

Rick Cosnett, Vampire Diaries, Comes Out Gay

Rick Cosnett, who starred on The Flash and The Vampire Diaries, has come out as gay in an honest and cheerful post on Instagram.
The actor, best known for playing Iris’ (Candice Patton) love interest in the first season of The Flash as well as one of The Vampire Diaries‘ season 5 villains, shared the confessional video on Thursday with the caption, “Just me. Hello.” 
“Hi everyone. Dramatic pause. I’m gay,” Cosnett says in the selfie video. “I just wanted everyone to know because I’ve made a promise to myself to live my truth every day and sometimes that is a really hard thing to do when you have all these subconscious things that you don’t even know about from childhood and society and from just life.”


February 16, 2020

Did You Hear That Too Much Sex Will Cause Blindness Followed by Death? It's True!

an antechinus on a tree branch
What if I told you that in Australia, a mouselike marsupial called antechinus breeds so manically during its three-week mating season that the males bleed internally and go blind until every male lies dead? And what if I told you that this isn’t the reason the species is facing an existential threat?

Reporting today in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, biologists from the University of New England in Australia and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology present troubling evidence that antechinus might be ill-prepared for a warmer world. The researchers set out to look at something called phenotypic plasticity in the yellow-footed antechinus, one of the creature’s 15 known species. Think of your phenotype as your body’s hardware, or physiology: your height and skin color and metabolism. This is in part coded by your genotype, the genetic software that powers the hardware. Phenotypic plasticity is the ability of a species to respond to environmental stressors—like temperature swings—by altering their physiology without mucking with all the underlying genetics.

For the antechinus, the researchers were interested in the plasticity of its metabolism. This is highly influenced by temperature: An adult antechinus’ metabolism shifts to expend less energy when it’s cold during the winter and there isn’t much insect prey for it to hunt. When it’s warm, an antechinus can afford to expend a lot of energy because the prey is plentiful.

The researchers, though, were more interested in how temperature affects antechinus babies—that is, how being raised in cold or warm environments might affect how their metabolism works once they become adults. So they reared two groups of babies, one in colder temperatures and one in warmer temperatures. They then flipped the thermostat, exposing the individuals reared in the cold to warm temperatures and the warm-reared ones to the cold.

As the researchers expected, when the temperature switched from warm to cold the animals decreased their activity levels, which the scientists were recording using infrared sensors that logged movements. This is perfectly natural for wild animals since in winter they have fewer insects to hunt and need to conserve their energy to keep from starving. In fact, in the dead of winter, antechinus can slip into a state called torpor, drastically lowering their body temperature and metabolic rates.

In the lab, the researchers also found that when turning up the heat on animals that had been reared in the cold, the animals increased their activity levels, just like they would in the wild as warmer spring temperatures bring more insects to hunt.

So far so good—until the researchers also looked at the metabolic rates, instead of just the activity levels, of the animals as they experienced temperature shifts. A metabolic rate is a measure of how much energy the animal needs to maintain function at rest. For a mammal-like antechinus, that rate can change significantly when outdoor temperatures go up or down. Unlike a reptile, a mammal-like antechinus has to constantly maintain its own body temperature, either spending energy to cool or warm itself.

This time, the researchers found that when the antechinus raised in the warm group shifted to the cold, they increased their metabolic rate only slightly. But those raised in the cold group that shifted to the warmth decreased their metabolic rate significantly. The discrepancy suggests that the babies brought up in cold conditions have more plastic phenotypes when it comes to adjusting to temperature changes.

“So we hypothesize that perhaps these results reveal that antechinus that is raised in cold conditions have more flexibility in their physiology than those that are raised in warm conditions,” says physiological ecologist Clare Stawski of University of New England in Australia and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, lead author on the new paper. “Which might show you that in the future when it's much warmer, and more consistently warm, that the antechinus might not be as flexible to changes in the climate.” 

And that’s a problem because the antechinus relies on torpor to survive the winter months. As Australia warms, this strategy may no longer be available to the species. “If it's very warm, they can't use torpor,” says Stawski. That might be fine if a warmer climate also ensures a steady supply of insects to eat all year round. “But if for some reason they lose all their food—for example, there's a fire—they might not be able to deploy torpor, and then they would really struggle to have enough energy,” she says.

Bushfires are a perfectly natural component of the Australian landscape—every so often a mild fire sweeps through an area, and these animals can take refuge underground or in fallen logs. But climate change is creating ever more powerful wildfires. Instead of gently resetting an ecosystem, they wipe it out. Even if the antechinus in the fire’s area manages to survive, the ecosystem’s insects will have been obliterated. While insect populations will eventually rebound, all the vegetation will be gone—at least in the short term—so the insects will have less food. In other words, instead of leading to a year-round insect buffet, a warmer climate might actually create more summers in which the antechinus go hungry because their food supply has been diminished by fire.

Australia has also been withering under a fierce drought; indeed, it was that lack of moisture that supercharged this season’s bushfires. Unfortunately for antechinus, food is closely linked to moisture availability, says Queensland University of Technology mammologist Andrew Baker, who wasn’t involved in this new work. “We found a decline in threatened antechinus numbers right across that drought leading up to the fires,” he says. “And that we believe is probably really closely related to lack of food availability.”

In fact, the animals’ three-week mating frenzy is so short because it’s timed with the availability of food. Females mate in the winter and give birth in the spring, when insect populations explode, providing the species with plenty of food. In the months leading up to that mating season, the males are sprinting all over the landscape, eating insects and packing on weight, since that they won’t even stop to eat once the sex frenzy starts. Once the orgy kicks off, the males’ testosterone levels skyrocket, which in turn glitches their bodies’ ability to regulate the stress hormone cortisol. An overload of this hormone makes the males’ bodies literally start falling apart. Their hair falls out, they develop open sores and they go blind, yet still stumble around in search of females.

The females, in turn, mate with as many partners as possible. Each carries sperm from perhaps dozens of males. By the time a female gives birth to around a dozen young that suckle in a depression on her belly, every adult male around her lies dead. None of them will have lived more than a year—they were all born after the previous year’s mating bonanza. Which is just as well, at least for the females and their offspring: It means more food for the mothers, who have to produce lots of highly-nutritious milk for their immature babies. (It seems bizarre, but it’s an evolutionary trade-off. Placental mammals like humans are born relatively mature but take longer to develop in the womb. In marsupials like kangaroos, babies are born less mature, but have to finish developing in the mother’s pouch.)

For the antechinus, it’s a fast life filled with drama and death, and all of it depends on being able to eat enough food and save up enough energy for the big finish. But a warmer Australia will threaten its food supply, and leave it less able to adapt to change. If only its sole worry was finding a date.

In a 5 Year Journey to Document Gay Love in China

Raul Ariano photographer on all photos

Although China officially decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, activists say the stigma around being LGBTQ — and discussing it publicly — remains today.
In the past few years, Chinese Web censors have made headlines for repeatedly targeting depictions of homosexuality. In a 2018 survey by the U.N. and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, only 5% of LGBTQ people in China felt comfortable being out at work.
Italian-born photographer Raul Ariano is currently based between Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. He says he traveled from Italy because he was fascinated by "Chinese people and their way of adapting themselves in the fast-paced change of their society."
Over dinner during Ariano's first weekend in mainland China, he says he was talking with a friend who called LGBTQ people "sick and dangerous."
"I was shocked to hear that," Ariano says.
So, over the course of five years, Ariano set out to photograph more than 30 LGBTQ participants across mainland China — eventually turning the project into a portrait series.
He says his goal was to "share stories of love, dignity, and hope in a segment of society that tends to be hidden in China."

Because many people avoid coming out to their parents and relatives for fear of being rejected, Ariano says he constantly faced difficulties finding willing participants. He almost gave up on the project several times.
But between commercial and editorial assignments, he reached out to the local community with the help of PFLAG China, an organization based in Guangzhou City.
Ariano photographed participants in their apartments, with natural lighting and different colors to show the intimacy between couples.
He says he was inspired by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's 1997 movie Happy Together. The movie is famous for his masterful explorations of colors and blurs and its distinctive style.

Ariano says getting access to such private spaces in people's lives was the most challenging part of the project.
But the concept of home was compelling for him. He says it's "space where the couples share their time, their intimacy, and is a sort of shelter where they are protected and can be their real selves."
Throughout the series, Ariano met LGBTQ people across mainland China. Some had the support of their families. Others had been forced to endure conversion therapy.
"But the most incredible thing I have felt was the strength and the determination of those people to live the life they want," he says. "Whatever it takes."
Raul Ariano is an Italian photographer based in Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Shuran Huang is NPR's photo intern.

How Is the Corona Virus Politicly Impacting China and It's Future ?

Poster displaying a map of China on the four characters reading ζ­¦ζ±‰θ‚Ίη‚Ž meaning Wuhan pneumonia. Image used with permission.
What started at a seafood market as a local health issue has grown into a national health crisis in China. After the Wuhan coronavirus was identified in December 2019, a chain reaction was set in motion that has profoundly shaken Chinese society and challenged Beijing’s political stability
Gripped by its obsession with information control, the Chinese government, both local and central, delayed the release of life-saving information for weeks. When they suddenly announced drastic measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic in late January, for many it was much too late as the Chinese New Year kick-off celebrations had already begun. 
Doctors and scientists are still researching and debating the possible origin of the previously unknown Wuhan coronavirus, also called COVID-2019, a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and can lead to pneumonia. One possible theory is that it comes from snakes or bats that are consumed as a delicacy in China and were sold at the Huanan wet market in Wuhan where the virus is believed to originate.
One of the key questions determining the spread of the virus is its transmissibility: whether it can jump from human to human, and how many people can be infected on average by the same virus carrier. The latest medical evidence indicates there is a human-to-human transmission, and what is concerning is that it seems to happen before the virus carrier develops symptoms, thus making detection incredibly challenging.
As for the rate of transmission, called “basic reproduction number” by epidemiologists, it is believed to be between 2 to 3 in late January, meaning one person infects two to three persons, but the numbers are still being discussed and require further research should proper data be made available. 
As the figure of infected people rises daily, a major health crisis has developed in China’s central province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan that has a combined population of nearly 60 million people. As cases have been confirmed all over China, all medical staff are on alert, adding pressure on a medical system that is often insufficient for such a large and aging population. 
But the Wuhan coronavirus is not just a health crisis, it is also a major political moment of truth. Trust in the government that claimed there was nothing to worry about until very late in the game has eroded public confidence significantly, and not just in Hubei province. Beijing was criticized for the way it mishandled the SARS crisis in 2002-2003 as it concealed information from the World Health Organization (WHO). China’s top leader Xi Jinping kept silent on the recent outbreak until January 20 when he recognized the severity of the situation in a public statement – over one month after the first cases had been identified. Control of information remains tight, and as China is experiencing a trade war with the US and an economic slowdown, the handling of the Wuhan coronavirus crisis will determine the course of Chinese society and politics in 2020. 

February 15, 2020

Local Politics and International Skirmishes on LGBTQ World

Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, has submitted his resignation.
Why it matters: Results from last week's caucuses were delayed due to software failures and reporting errors, leading to calls for an independent investigation and requests by the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns for a partial recanvass.

What he's saying: 

"While it is my desire to stay in this role and see this process through to completion, I do believe it is time for the Iowa Democratic Party to begin looking forward, and my presence in my current role makes that more difficult. Therefore, I will resign as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party effective upon the election of my replacement."
— Troy Price 
The big picture: Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, has said he will "absolutely not" consider resigning in the aftermath of the Iowa chaos. He told CNN on Sunday that there will be a conversation within the party about stripping Iowa of its first-in-nation caucus status after this election cycle.
School in London Gets Abusive calls, mails, email because of they an LGBT Rainbow Crossing

 Rainbow crossing and highway workersImage copyrightWOODSIDE HIGH SCHOOL
Image captionThe crossing, outside Woodside High School in Wood Green was installed to celebrate LGBT Month

A school in London claims it has received about 200 abusive messages after a rainbow-colored crossing was installed outside its building.
It said the crossing was painted last week in celebration of LGBT History Month and has prompted some angry reactions on social media.
However, the school in Wood Green said that would not deter it from continuing its work on equality.
The crossing was funded by Haringey Council.
A spokeswoman for the school said the abusive messages were sent to the school on Twitter and Instagram but were "not from parents or anyone connected with the school", adding that the school had been "overwhelmed with positive messages of support from parents, carers and [its] community".
Gerry Robinson, head of Woodside High School, on White Hart Lane, said: "This rainbow crossing stands for our commitment to championing equality, for our children's rights to be respected and able to thrive as themselves, in school and beyond.
"The hundreds of abusive messages regarding Woodside's work on equality will not deter us from continuing our work. 
"In fact, it only encourages us further for we do not want our students to go out into the world and face such hate."

Gerry RobinsonImage copyrightWOODSIDE HIGH SCHOOL
Image captionGerry Robinson, head teacher of Woodside High School, said the school was committed to championing equality

She added: "Never has there been a more important time to stand up to hate in all its forms and education is a key part of that."
Haringey Councillor Seema Chandwani said Woodside had become the first school in England to install a rainbow crossing and added the authority stood "in solidarity with them, and the LGBTQ+ community against discrimination and prejudice of any kind".
Woodside holds the Gold Award Stonewall School Champion title, awarded by charity stonewall to schools that celebrate diversity and work to tackle discrimination.
Head of education programs at the charity Sidonie Bertrand-Shelton said two in five LGBT pupils were not taught anything about LGBT identities and 45% were bullied for being LGBT in Britain's schools.
"That's why it's fantastic to see such visible displays of support for equality, like the rainbow crossing at Woodside High School," she said.


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What's Going On with Putin's "RUNet"? New Report Makes Grim Predictions of This Endeavor

     The past year marked many milestones in the Russian government's long struggle to bring the intern...