President Donald Trump purportedly stepped away from his business interests for the duration of his term as president, but Vanity Fair‘s Tina Nguyen says that foreign governments are granting favors and greasing the wheels for Trump-branded projects around the world.

Anita Kumar at McClatchy reported that the Indonesian government has chosen to build a new road to shorten the drive between the island chain’s main airport and the new Trump golf resort.

In Panama, the national government directly intervened in a lagging sewer project connected to the new Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City. The original contractor tasked with constructing the system went bankrupt, prompting the government to use its own money to construct sewage and water pipes connecting to the resort hotel.

“And in other countries,” Kumar wrote, “governments have donated public land, approved permits and eased environmental regulations for Trump-branded developments, creating a slew of potential conflicts as foreign leaders make investments that can be seen as gifts or attempts to gain access to the American president through his sprawling business empire.”

As Nguyen noted, all of this appears to place Trump squarely in violation of the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal officials from accepting gifts or anything that might be constituted as a bribe from foreign governments.

However, she said, “Just weeks after Trump won the election, the Argentinian government suddenly granted a permit for a long-delayed Trump Tower development in Buenos Aires. In September, Trump’s Middle Eastern business partners granted a company partially owned by the Chinese government a contract to build a road to Trump World Golf Club in Dubai, seemingly going against his pledge to not engage in foreign business transactions during his presidency. And, of course, there is the ongoing constitutional crisis that is the Trump International Hotel Washington D.C., which critics claim violates the Emoluments Clause on a regular basis.”

Two lawsuits have been brought against the Trump administration alleging these violations, one of which was dismissed by a judge just before Christmas.

Kumar spoke with Noah Bookbinder of the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), who said, “If you have a foreign government providing a benefit to the Trump company that is going to violate emoluments clause of the Constitution.”

The president is reportedly receiving boons to his projects — which he claims he handed over to the management of his sons, Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump — from the governments of Uruguay, India and the Philippines.

Read the full McClatchy report here.

Thomas S Monson, who served in top leadership councils for the Mormon church for 50 years and became its president in 2008, has died. He was 90.

Monson was a church bishop at 22 and in 1963 the Salt Lake City native became the youngest church apostle ever, at 36. He was a counselor for three church presidents before assuming leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monson died at his home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, according to church spokesman Eric Hawkins. The next president was not immediately named, but the job is expected to go to next longest-tenured member of the church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell M Nelson, 93, per church protocol.

Monson’s presidency was marked by his noticeably low profile during a time of intense publicity, including the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Mormon Mitt Romney. His most public acts were appearances at church conferences and devotionals as well as dedications of church temples.

He will be remembered for continuing the religion’s push to be more transparent about its past; his emphasis on humanitarian work; and lowering the minimum age for missionaries.

He will also be remembered for leading the faith’s involvement in the passage of a gay marriage ban in California in 2008. At his urging, Mormons were vigorous campaign donors and volunteers. That prompted a backlash against the church that included vandalism of church buildings, protest marches and demonstrations outside church temples nationwide.

In subsequent years, the church began utilizing a softer tone on the issue. In 2015, the church backed an anti-discrimination law in Utah that gave unprecedented protections for gay and transgender people while also protecting religious freedoms.

But the religion came under fire again in the fall of 2015 when it banned baptisms for children living with gay parents and instituted a requirement that those children disavow homosexual relationships before being allowed to serve a mission. The changes were designed to avoid putting children in a tug-of-war between their parents and church teachings, leaders said.

Thomas Monson attends a corner stone laying ceremony at the dedication of the Draper Utah Temple in Draper, Utah, in 2009.
Thomas Monson attends a corner stone laying ceremony at the Draper Utah Temple in Draper, Utah, in 2009. Photograph: George Frey/Reuters

The revisions triggered anger, confusion and sadness for a growing faction of LGBTQ-supportive Mormons who were buoyed in recent years by church leaders’ calls for more love and understanding for LGBTQ members.

Monson also continued the church’s push to be more open about some of the most sensitive aspect of the faith’s history and doctrine. A renovated church history museum reopened in 2015 with an exhibit acknowledging the religion’s early polygamous practices, a year after the church published an essay that for the first time chronicled founder Joseph Smith’s plural wives.

Other church essays issued during Monson’s tenure addressed other sensitive topics: sacred undergarments worn by devout members; a past ban on black men in the lay clergy; and the misconception that Mormons are taught they will get their own planet in the afterlife.

The growth and globalization of the religion continued under Monson, with membership swelling to nearly 15.9 million, with more than half outside the US. There were 71,000 church missionaries serving around the world at the end of 2016.

Mormons considered Monson a warm, caring, endearing and approachable leader, said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California.

He put an emphasis on the humanitarian ethic of Mormons, evidenced by his expansion of the church’s disaster relief programs around the world, said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.

Monson often credited his mother, Gladys Condie Monson, for fostering his compassion. He said that during his childhood in the Depression of the 1930s their house in Salt Lake City was known to hobos riding the railroads as a place to get a meal and a kind word.

“President Monson always seemed more interested in what we do with our religion rather than in what we believe,” Mauss said.

A second world war veteran, Monson served in the navy and spent a year overseas before returning to get a business degree at the University of Utah and a master’s degree in business administration from the church-owned Brigham Young University.

Before being tabbed to join the church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Monson worked for the church’s secular businesses, primarily in advertising, printing and publishing including the Deseret Morning News.

He married Frances Beverly Johnson in 1948. The couple had three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Frances died in 2013 at the age of 85.

Monson was an avid fisherman who also raised homing pigeons, specifically, roller pigeons who twirled as they flew. He was known for his love of show tunes, Boy Scouts and the Utah Jazz.

The man expected to take Monson’s seat, the 93-year-old Nelson, has been a church apostle since April 1970. Nelson will choose two new counselors from the Quorum of the Twelve who will join him to form a three-person “presidency” that is the top of the religion’s governing hierarchy. Monson’s two counselors were Henry Eyring and Dieter Uchtdorf. They will go back to being regular members of the Quorum unless they are chosen again.

President Donald Trump’s insecurity over losing the popular vote and the salacious allegations in the Steele Dossier have prompted him to lash out at the intelligence community’s claims that Russia influenced the 2016 election. Now that war against the intelligence community is impacting American national security.

A Wednesday Washington Postreport revealed that the National Security Agency is hemorrhaging staff at an alarming rate. Some of these “highly skilled” staffers have become “disillusioned” with intelligence but the leadership and a reorganization effort under the new administration has sent many to update their resumes.

The work these experts do included monitoring a broad array of subjects including the Islamic State, Russian and North Korean hackers, and analyzing the intentions of foreign governments, and they were responsible for protecting the classified networks that carry such sensitive information. Yet, these staffers saying that they want a higher-paying job in the private sector or more flexible hours.

Since 2015, hundreds of hackers, engineers and data scientists have bailed on the NSA, former officials said. Now it’s reaching a level that national security can be impacted. Of the 17 spy agencies, the NSA is the largest and they’re responsible for collecting the information that goes into the presidential daily briefing that Trump doesn’t understand. Over the first year in office, aides have even been forced to tailor the briefing so it doesn’t include anything about Russian interference in the election so as to not anger Trump.

“Some synonym of the word ‘epidemic’ is the best way to describe it,” said former NSA senior researcher Ellison Anne Williams. She left her job at the NSA in 2016 to start her own data-security firm and took 10 NSA staff with her. “The agency is losing an amazing amount of its strongest technical talent, and to lose your best and brightest staff is a huge hit.”

The agency won’t disclose the number of vacancies over the last year, but it said there is 5.6 percent decrease in staff who specialize in science, technology and math. The NSA isn’t the only place the Trump administration has implemented the right-wing war on science. In Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, scientists became the enemy. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was told never to say the words “climate change.” Losing the experts means new staff are filling the positions without the experience central to the NSA’s mission collecting huge swaths of data and analyzing it.

Former staff have complained that they felt their mission was marginalized by a restructuring of the agency. Others allege the reorganization was “an enormous distraction.” Some even call the pay structure and promotion program part of the problem. According to former staff, it prioritizes seniority over experience or expertise.

Another former employee alleged that the problems began with former contractor Edward Snowden and the arrest of former contractor Harold T. Martin III in 2016. Accessing data and information became more difficult for those trying to do their jobs. The witch hunt searching for leakers made things worse. An environment with collaboration has turned toward suspicion, a former staffer said.

“It comes down to death by a thousand cuts,” said a former employee, adding that people “tend to quit in packs. One person hits their breaking point, and once they leave, the dominoes start falling.”

NSA spokesman Tommy Groves didn’t discount the reports.

“If the price of security becomes that we drive away the very men and women that generate value in the first place, we now have a self-induced mission kill,” National Security Agency Director Administrator Michael Rogers said in a conference speech.

Trump’s attacks on the 17 intelligence agencies that confirmed the Russian interference couldn’t have made morale any better. After meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump swore that Russia didn’t do it.

“He said he didn’t meddle, he said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters in November. “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

Trump has also waged a war with the FBI, calling it “tainted” and alleging it is part of the “deep state” shadow government.

“It is also a possible obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, and it’s obstructing justice by saying to agents, ‘you better not dig too deep, you better not find anything because I will attack you,'” former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks said to MSNBC.

The only way to maintain staff is to tape into the sense of duty “for God and country,” said former threat operations center chief Daniel Ennis. He thinks the agency will recover, because it always has.

Steve Bannon appeared to throw Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner under the bus in an explosive interview — and MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle wondered how badly the president and his supporters should worry.

The Breitbart News chief and former White House chief strategist, who’s expected to be called as a witness in the probes of Trump-Russia ties, told journalist Michael Wolff that special counsel Robert Mueller would eventually expose the presidential family’s “greasy” money laundering.

“They’re going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV,” Bannon said, according to Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.

He described the meeting arranged by Trump’s son, which was attended by son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort, as potentially “treasonous.”

“Let’s say I’m a true Trumper,” Ruhle said, speculating how the president’s supporters dismiss poll numbers, statistics and other unfavorable data.

“Those same people who believe that believe in President Trump and Don Jr.,” she continued. “They also believe in Steve Bannon, (who) he is quoted saying, ‘They —
meaning Robert Mueller — are going to crack Don Jr. like an egg on national TV.’ How worrisome should a comment like this from Steve Bannon be to Team Trump?”

“Crack an egg?” Ruhle added, mimicking the cracking of an egg on her head. “Painful.”

Jeremy Bash, national correspondent for MSNBC and former chief of staff for both the Department of Defense and the CIA, said Trump has already been announcing his fear in the last month’s worth of tweets.

“The president, whenever he seems a bit cornered, seems to lash out with these taunts, these attacks, these tweets,” Bash said. “I do think you have seen since Dec. 3, that was the day that Mike Flynn pleaded guilty and announced — it was announced that he would be cooperating with the special counsel and testifying and offering evidence against the president and against the president’s inner circle. Since that day you’ve seen the president really lose it over the Mueller investigation, lash out, try to attack Mueller.”

“He’s had his allies on Capitol Hill try to undermine the Justice Department,” Bash added. “(Tuesday) he actually began with a tweet, not against North Korea, but against the men and women of the United States Department of Justice, who actually protect and defend all of us, regardless of whether you’re Democrat or Republican. So we’re in for a long road here.”

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has reportedly asked officials to examine the feasibility of forcibly deporting thousands of African migrants, in the latest escalation of an anti-migrant campaign.

According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu instructed the national security adviser, Meir Ben Shabbat, to look into forced expulsion as his cabinet met to approve a plan to offer 40,000 people the choice of being deported with a cash payment or being incarcerated indefinitely.

Despite controversy around the existing plan, Netanyahu, following concerns over cost and prison space, asked officials to go a step further and ask if the migrants could be expelled by force – a proposal that would almost certainly be challenged in the courts.

On Tuesday, details were disclosed of a much-criticised scheme starting in April to persuade people to leave through a combination of the threat of prison and the incentive of a cash payment of $3,500.

Most of the migrants in question – largely Sudanese and Eritrean people – arrived in Israel in the second half of the last decade, crossing from Egypt before new security on the border sealed the route.

Many people settled in poor neighbourhoods of south Tel Aviv, prompting a campaign against them by local Israeli residents, which attracted the support of Netanyahu despite at times being heavily coloured by racism.

Speaking at the cabinet meeting that approved the scheme, Netanyahu said the “mission” was “to deport the illegal infiltrators who entered Israel prior to the construction of the new barrier with Egypt”.

He said: “Today the cabinet will approve the plan for deporting the infiltrators from Israel. We will step up enforcement and we will allocate budgets and personnel to implement the plan. I think that it is important that people understand that we are doing something here that is completely legal and completely essential.

“The infiltrators have a clear choice – cooperate with us and leave voluntarily, respectably, humanely and legally, or we will have to use other tools at our disposal, which are also according to law.”

The plan has been opposed by human rights groups including the Centre for Refugees and Migrants, Amnesty International Israel and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who recently signed a letter demanding the deportations be halted. “Anyone who has a heart must oppose the expulsion of the refugees,” the letter says.

Referring to a widely reported deal to pay Rwanda $5,000 per person to accept the migrants, the groups added: “Rwanda is not a safe place. All the evidence indicates that anyone expelled from Israel to Rwanda finds himself there without status and without rights, exposed to threats, kidnappings, torture and trafficking.”

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, on Wednesday sought to assure Fox News viewers that her boss does not want to start a nuclear war in the wake of a Twitter rant in which the president threatened North Korea with his “Nuclear Button.”

After North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that he had a so-called “nuclear button” on his desk, Trump fired back at the dictator on Twitter, noting that his button was “bigger.”

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,'” Trump wrote. “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Conway seemed to downplay the dire nature of the president’s threat.

“Our position on North Korea has never changed,” she insisted. “He continues to apply maximum pressure. North Korea must denuclearize the peninsula region.”

“The president has made very clear… that a nuclearized North Korea is not just a danger and a threat to America and to any freedom- and democracy-loving people, but to the entire world,” Conway opined.

“Does the president believe we are close to war with North Korea?” Fox News host Bill Hemmer asked the presidential counselor.

“The president has said many times, nobody wants that,” she replied. “Of course not, nobody wants that.”

“We are going to continue to apply maximum pressure on North Korea,” Conway concluded. “It is a dangerous place and we’re very happy the international community is responding.”

Watch the video below from Fox News.

Anything said by the cartoonish North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tends to be seen in the most threatening light, especially outside Asia. And no wonder. But the assumption that belligerence – of which there has been much in recent months – is to be taken at face value, while anything short of that is a malign stratagem designed only to trick and gain advantage, holds its own dangers. Even if recent experience has provided ample grounds for such negativity, the risk is that genuine efforts by Pyongyang to change the tone, if not yet the substance, of its international stance, go undetected.

So it was that the elements initially making the headlines from Kim’s new year speech were the hackneyed threats along the lines of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “We will bury you” and his boast of having his country’s nuclear button always on his desk. The accompanying pictures were of a stolid and intense Kim, of missiles and warheads in various poses, and even a missile carved in ice – further evidence, if any were needed, of North Korea’s aggressive intent. The almost equally cartoonish Donald Trump upped the ante by tweeting: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

So it was, too, that when the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, was asked for her response to what some had heard as more conciliatory sounds coming from North Korea, she stressed the “recklessness” of the regime and the need, not for a “Band-Aid” or “smile and take a picture”, but for Pyongyang to stop developing nuclear weapons and “stop it now”. The US, she said, “is not going to recognise it [North Korea] or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear weapons that they have”.

She also highlighted reports suggesting that North Korea may be preparing a new missile test in coming days and threatened “even tougher measures” than the current sanctions if it did.

Despite a more circumspect response from the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the overall impression was that the US was treating North Korea just as before, and pre-emptively “dissing” the prospect of two quite fundamental policy shifts contained in Kim’s new year speech: an openness to talks and the possible use of the Seoul Winter Olympics for a diplomatic opening. It was refusing, in other words, even to hint at taking “yes” for an answer.

But is this the real picture? Even last autumn, when the rhetoric between North Korea and almost everyone else was at its most inflammatory, and included some very personal invective between Kim and Trump, the stand-off may not have been – quite – as hair-trigger perilous as it seemed. There was talk of a UN back channel, and when Trump visited South Korea in November he declined the standard cold war photo-op in the demilitarised zone at Panmunjom. North Korean nuclear tests and US-South Korean manoeuvres seemed to be scaled back or placed on hold.

Play Video
1:08
South Korea offers to hold talks with North – video

There was a disparity between words and deeds that has continued. With Kim’s signalled policy shifts – and his unscheduled announcement that he is reopening the hotline with South Korea – there is surely an argument for trying to bring words and deeds more into line. Nor is it just Pyongyang that has changed tack. The turn of the year has produced quite tangible diplomatic overtures also from Seoul, with something of a pre-Olympic charm offensive, and it would seem negligent – reckless, even, to use Haley’s language – to leave no response.

It is also worth noting that both followed the offer made last month by Tillerson, and grossly played down at the time, to hold talks with the North, anywhere, any time and without pre-conditions.

The question really is whether all this is just more of the same old sparring or whether it could be the start of something new – and, if it is, whether the current official US response, somewhere between scepticism and outright rejection, does not risk shattering any prospect of a regional detente even before it has begun.

For the umpteenth time, it seems to me, all parties may be confusing the messages designed by national leaders for their domestic audience and those designed for abroad – or even interpreting them precisely the wrong way round. Bombast intended to reassure domestic opinion in a weak and fearful country is heard rather as a new threat of aggression towards the outside world. Defence is being picked up as offence.

International sporting events have a record of facilitating unlikely diplomacy, with a theoretically politics-free zone providing the ground for discreet approaches. Until this week, however, the Winter Olympics had looked set to continue, even exacerbate, the tensions between North and South Korea, with the North operating a unilateral boycott and the South feeling slighted.

Kim’s suddenly softer tone and the prospect of a North Korean Olympic team offer a shred of hope. We may be a way off the Sunshine diplomacy of the late 1990s, but if Pyongyang’s signals are not recognised for what they are, there will be no chance of even starting, let alone fostering, a new detente. And the converse is true. If the US and the South were to respond positively, the recent high tensions on and around the peninsula could begin to subside.

Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster and former foreign correspondent

As if a divisive Star Wars film wasn’t bad news enough this Christmas, now an analysis by more than 200 astronomers has been published that shows the mysterious dimming of star KIC 8462852 is not being produced by an alien megastructure.

The evidence points most strongly to a giant cloud of dust occasionally obscuring the star. The cloud was most possibly produced by the collision of two comets or the break-up of a single one. Another option is that the star itself is undergoing some sort of internal convulsion that astronomers have never seen before.

KIC 8462852 is approximately 1,500 light years away from the Earth and hit the headlines in October 2015 when data from Nasa’s Kepler space telescope showed that it was dimming by unexplainably large amounts. The star’s light dropped by 20% first and then 15% making it unique. Even a large planet passing in front of the star would have blocked only about 1% of the light.

For an object to block 15-20%, it would have to be approaching half the diameter of the star itself. With this realisation, a few astronomers began whispering that such a signal would be the kind expected from a gigantic extraterrestrial construction orbiting in front of the star – and the idea of the alien megastructure was born.

Tabetha Boyajian, then at Yale University and now at Louisiana State University, led the investigations into the mysterious signals. It was after her that the star was nicknamed Tabby’s star. She said at the time that a constant monitoring programme was needed to watch the star for more dips.

Today’s new analysis is the result of that programme. It was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that attracted support from more than 1,700 people and raised more than $100,000. In partnership with the Las Cumbres Observatory, a privately-funded organisation that operates 21 telescopes at eight sites around the world, the astronomers monitored the star from March 2016 to December 2017.

In that time they recorded four more dips, though none were as dramatic as the originals, reaching only a percent or two. These were named by the Kickstarter supporters as Elsie and Celeste, Skara Brae and Angkor. Significantly for the analysis, the dimming events were captured at multiple wavelengths.

If an alien megastructure had been causing the drop in light, being a solid object, it would block all wavelengths in the same way, at the same time. That’s not what the team saw. Instead, different wavelengths of light dropped by different amounts. This is exactly what you would expect from starlight passing through a tenuous dust cloud.

It happens because dust grains scatter light depending on its wavelength. Blue light, which has short wavelengths, is scattered more easily than red, which has longer wavelengths. This is why our sky is blue; that colour has been scattered out of the sun’s direct light by the molecules in the air.

In the case of Tabby’s star, the new observations show that it dims more at blue wavelengths than red. Thus, its light is passing through a dust cloud, not being blocked by an alien megastructure in orbit around the star (#sadface).

The new analysis of KIC 8462852 showing these results is to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It reinforces the conclusions reached by Huan Meng, University of Arizona, Tucson, and collaborators in October 2017. They monitored the star at multiple wavelengths using Nasa’s Spitzer and Swift missions, and the Belgian AstroLAB IRIS observatory. These results were published in The Astrophysical Journal.

While it is not aliens this time, the story serves as a valuable reminder that unexpected signals of this kind are definitely the ones to look out for. Something unexplainable in some unexpected observation rather than a deliberate radio message to us is probably the way we are going to spot the presence of extraterrestrials – if they’re out there in the first place, of course.

Stuart Clark is the author of The Search for Earth’s Twin (Quercus).

Nate Silver makes an excellent point:

Reporters should fan out to shopping malls in upscale suburbs of purple states and try to figure out why Trump's approval rating is only 35% there despite booming local economies.

— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 1, 2018

A lot of the problem with these mainstream media retrospectives on Trump's first year is a failure to recognize how profoundly unpopular he is -- especially for a president in a pretty good economy.

— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 1, 2018

We know that mainstream journalists who go on anthropological journeys to the American heartland prefer to interview mostly old white guys in rural diners -- but the interviewees Silver is recommending would tend to be white, too, perhaps the adult children of those old diner guys, the ones who moved to moderate-size cities and did reasonably well for themselves. Some of them would be still be pro-Trump. But a lot of them wouldn't -- why? Why did they become disillusioned? Isn't that worth asking?

Or, hell, the media anthropologists could keep it rural and "authentic" by following up on this Dave Weigel story with a few interviews:

Iowa, the epicenter of the Republicans’ 2014 and 2016 surge, is not an obvious place for a Democratic comeback. Unemployment, sinking under 4 percent when Donald Trump won the state, has fallen to 3 percent....

[But] Iowa has seemingly soured on the president and his party. The end-of-year Iowa Poll, an industry standard conducted by Des Moines-based Selzer and Co., found Trump with just 35 percent approval in the state. Only 34 percent of Iowans said they would back Republicans for Congress in 2018....

This despite the fact that

Thirty-one of Iowa’s 99 counties voted for Barack Obama twice, then flipped in 2016 to support Donald Trump. Just 41.7 percent of Iowans backed Hillary Clinton for president, the weakest showing for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1980.

Weigel cites some of the issues in Iowa (trade protectionism might not go over well in a state that exports a lot of agricultural products) and talks to some political insiders. He doesn't go to diners -- that isn't the kind of article he set out to write.


↓ Story continues below ↓

C'mon, MSMers -- here's your big chance. Iowa doesn't border an ocean -- and it's 91% white. So just about everyone you interview will be, by your definition, a "real American." What are you waiting for?

Crossposted from No More Mr. Nice Blog

Archivists in Germany are losing hope of being able to solve the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle, as technology is struggling to piece together hundreds of thousands of Stasi files ripped to shreds in the dying days of the East German regime.

The government-funded Stasi records agency confirmed this week that it had to halt an €8m (£7m) project to digitally reassemble the contents of 23 bags stuffed with torn-up documents detailing the activity of the secret police, because the scanning hardware it was using was not advanced enough.

Over the 60-year existence of communist East Germany, the state security ministry built one of the most tightly knit surveillance states in recent history, with historians calculating one Stasi informant per 6.5 citizens.

After German reunification in 1990 an archive was set up to allow the system’s victims to access their records, but stacks of paperwork were shredded or ripped up by hand to cover up the regime’s activity. Some researchers estimate that 10-40% of the archive’s contents may be lost to history.

Since 1995 workers employed by the agency have managed to piece together more than 1.5m pages of destroyed files by hand, shedding light on East Germany’s use of doping in sports, links between the Stasi and West Germany’s Red Army Faction terrorist group, and the persecution of writers critical of the regime.

But workers have struggled with files that were torn up more than four times. “Once you have nine snippets per A4 sheet of paper, the human brain really can’t keep up”, said Dagmar Hovestädt, the spokesperson for the Stasi Records Agency.

A so-called ePuzzler, working with an algorithm developed by the Fraunhofer Institute and costing about €8m of federal funds, has managed to digitally reassemble about 91,000 pages since 2013. However, it has recently run into trouble.

A member of the Stasi Museum shows folders with records gathered by an informer for the secret police.
A member of the Stasi Museum shows folders with records gathered by an informer for the secret police. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

For the last two years, the Stasi Records Agency has been waiting for engineers to develop more advanced hardware that can scan in smaller snippets, some of which are only the size of a fingernail.

The ePuzzler works by detecting the outline of the torn-up page rather than its content. It has struggled with files that were folded before being torn, thus leaving several snippets with near-identical outlines.

“We currently don’t have a scanner that we can work with”, said Hovestädt, adding that her agency was hopeful that technological progress would allow the archive to resume reassembling destroyed records this year.

In the meantime, a small team of manual puzzlers continue their work of matching up more crudely ripped files by hand.

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Imaging What A New Diddy Kong Racing Might Look Like

Diddy Kong Racing for the N64 was never able to escape that long shadow cast by Mario Kart. While the game got a remake for the DS, it never got a true successor. And if we’re being honest, it probably never will. Fortunately there’s a fan video to help fill the void left by its eternal absence.

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Foreign governments are granting Trump projects big favors to get what they want from...

President Donald Trump purportedly stepped away from his business interests for the duration of his term as president, but Vanity Fair‘s Tina Nguyen says that foreign governments are granting favors and greasing the wheels for Trump-branded projects around the world.

Anita Kumar at McClatchy reported that the Indonesian government has chosen to build a new road to shorten the drive between the island chain’s main airport and the new Trump golf resort.

In Panama, the national government directly intervened in a lagging sewer project connected to the new Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City. The original contractor tasked with constructing the system went bankrupt, prompting the government to use its own money to construct sewage and water pipes connecting to the resort hotel.

“And in other countries,” Kumar wrote, “governments have donated public land, approved permits and eased environmental regulations for Trump-branded developments, creating a slew of potential conflicts as foreign leaders make investments that can be seen as gifts or attempts to gain access to the American president through his sprawling business empire.”

As Nguyen noted, all of this appears to place Trump squarely in violation of the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits federal officials from accepting gifts or anything that might be constituted as a bribe from foreign governments.

However, she said, “Just weeks after Trump won the election, the Argentinian government suddenly granted a permit for a long-delayed Trump Tower development in Buenos Aires. In September, Trump’s Middle Eastern business partners granted a company partially owned by the Chinese government a contract to build a road to Trump World Golf Club in Dubai, seemingly going against his pledge to not engage in foreign business transactions during his presidency. And, of course, there is the ongoing constitutional crisis that is the Trump International Hotel Washington D.C., which critics claim violates the Emoluments Clause on a regular basis.”

Two lawsuits have been brought against the Trump administration alleging these violations, one of which was dismissed by a judge just before Christmas.

Kumar spoke with Noah Bookbinder of the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), who said, “If you have a foreign government providing a benefit to the Trump company that is going to violate emoluments clause of the Constitution.”

The president is reportedly receiving boons to his projects — which he claims he handed over to the management of his sons, Donald Trump, Jr. and Eric Trump — from the governments of Uruguay, India and the Philippines.

Read the full McClatchy report here.

Mormon leader Thomas Monson dies aged 90

Thomas S Monson, who served in top leadership councils for the Mormon church for 50 years and became its president in 2008, has died. He was 90.

Monson was a church bishop at 22 and in 1963 the Salt Lake City native became the youngest church apostle ever, at 36. He was a counselor for three church presidents before assuming leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monson died at his home in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, according to church spokesman Eric Hawkins. The next president was not immediately named, but the job is expected to go to next longest-tenured member of the church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Russell M Nelson, 93, per church protocol.

Monson’s presidency was marked by his noticeably low profile during a time of intense publicity, including the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Mormon Mitt Romney. His most public acts were appearances at church conferences and devotionals as well as dedications of church temples.

He will be remembered for continuing the religion’s push to be more transparent about its past; his emphasis on humanitarian work; and lowering the minimum age for missionaries.

He will also be remembered for leading the faith’s involvement in the passage of a gay marriage ban in California in 2008. At his urging, Mormons were vigorous campaign donors and volunteers. That prompted a backlash against the church that included vandalism of church buildings, protest marches and demonstrations outside church temples nationwide.

In subsequent years, the church began utilizing a softer tone on the issue. In 2015, the church backed an anti-discrimination law in Utah that gave unprecedented protections for gay and transgender people while also protecting religious freedoms.

But the religion came under fire again in the fall of 2015 when it banned baptisms for children living with gay parents and instituted a requirement that those children disavow homosexual relationships before being allowed to serve a mission. The changes were designed to avoid putting children in a tug-of-war between their parents and church teachings, leaders said.

Thomas Monson attends a corner stone laying ceremony at the dedication of the Draper Utah Temple in Draper, Utah, in 2009.
Thomas Monson attends a corner stone laying ceremony at the Draper Utah Temple in Draper, Utah, in 2009. Photograph: George Frey/Reuters

The revisions triggered anger, confusion and sadness for a growing faction of LGBTQ-supportive Mormons who were buoyed in recent years by church leaders’ calls for more love and understanding for LGBTQ members.

Monson also continued the church’s push to be more open about some of the most sensitive aspect of the faith’s history and doctrine. A renovated church history museum reopened in 2015 with an exhibit acknowledging the religion’s early polygamous practices, a year after the church published an essay that for the first time chronicled founder Joseph Smith’s plural wives.

Other church essays issued during Monson’s tenure addressed other sensitive topics: sacred undergarments worn by devout members; a past ban on black men in the lay clergy; and the misconception that Mormons are taught they will get their own planet in the afterlife.

The growth and globalization of the religion continued under Monson, with membership swelling to nearly 15.9 million, with more than half outside the US. There were 71,000 church missionaries serving around the world at the end of 2016.

Mormons considered Monson a warm, caring, endearing and approachable leader, said Patrick Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California.

He put an emphasis on the humanitarian ethic of Mormons, evidenced by his expansion of the church’s disaster relief programs around the world, said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.

Monson often credited his mother, Gladys Condie Monson, for fostering his compassion. He said that during his childhood in the Depression of the 1930s their house in Salt Lake City was known to hobos riding the railroads as a place to get a meal and a kind word.

“President Monson always seemed more interested in what we do with our religion rather than in what we believe,” Mauss said.

A second world war veteran, Monson served in the navy and spent a year overseas before returning to get a business degree at the University of Utah and a master’s degree in business administration from the church-owned Brigham Young University.

Before being tabbed to join the church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Monson worked for the church’s secular businesses, primarily in advertising, printing and publishing including the Deseret Morning News.

He married Frances Beverly Johnson in 1948. The couple had three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Frances died in 2013 at the age of 85.

Monson was an avid fisherman who also raised homing pigeons, specifically, roller pigeons who twirled as they flew. He was known for his love of show tunes, Boy Scouts and the Utah Jazz.

The man expected to take Monson’s seat, the 93-year-old Nelson, has been a church apostle since April 1970. Nelson will choose two new counselors from the Quorum of the Twelve who will join him to form a three-person “presidency” that is the top of the religion’s governing hierarchy. Monson’s two counselors were Henry Eyring and Dieter Uchtdorf. They will go back to being regular members of the Quorum unless they are chosen again.

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How Donald Trump’s war on intelligence is destroying American national security

President Donald Trump’s insecurity over losing the popular vote and the salacious allegations in the Steele Dossier have prompted him to lash out at the intelligence community’s claims that Russia influenced the 2016 election. Now that war against the intelligence community is impacting American national security.

A Wednesday Washington Postreport revealed that the National Security Agency is hemorrhaging staff at an alarming rate. Some of these “highly skilled” staffers have become “disillusioned” with intelligence but the leadership and a reorganization effort under the new administration has sent many to update their resumes.

The work these experts do included monitoring a broad array of subjects including the Islamic State, Russian and North Korean hackers, and analyzing the intentions of foreign governments, and they were responsible for protecting the classified networks that carry such sensitive information. Yet, these staffers saying that they want a higher-paying job in the private sector or more flexible hours.

Since 2015, hundreds of hackers, engineers and data scientists have bailed on the NSA, former officials said. Now it’s reaching a level that national security can be impacted. Of the 17 spy agencies, the NSA is the largest and they’re responsible for collecting the information that goes into the presidential daily briefing that Trump doesn’t understand. Over the first year in office, aides have even been forced to tailor the briefing so it doesn’t include anything about Russian interference in the election so as to not anger Trump.

“Some synonym of the word ‘epidemic’ is the best way to describe it,” said former NSA senior researcher Ellison Anne Williams. She left her job at the NSA in 2016 to start her own data-security firm and took 10 NSA staff with her. “The agency is losing an amazing amount of its strongest technical talent, and to lose your best and brightest staff is a huge hit.”

The agency won’t disclose the number of vacancies over the last year, but it said there is 5.6 percent decrease in staff who specialize in science, technology and math. The NSA isn’t the only place the Trump administration has implemented the right-wing war on science. In Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency, scientists became the enemy. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was told never to say the words “climate change.” Losing the experts means new staff are filling the positions without the experience central to the NSA’s mission collecting huge swaths of data and analyzing it.

Former staff have complained that they felt their mission was marginalized by a restructuring of the agency. Others allege the reorganization was “an enormous distraction.” Some even call the pay structure and promotion program part of the problem. According to former staff, it prioritizes seniority over experience or expertise.

Another former employee alleged that the problems began with former contractor Edward Snowden and the arrest of former contractor Harold T. Martin III in 2016. Accessing data and information became more difficult for those trying to do their jobs. The witch hunt searching for leakers made things worse. An environment with collaboration has turned toward suspicion, a former staffer said.

“It comes down to death by a thousand cuts,” said a former employee, adding that people “tend to quit in packs. One person hits their breaking point, and once they leave, the dominoes start falling.”

NSA spokesman Tommy Groves didn’t discount the reports.

“If the price of security becomes that we drive away the very men and women that generate value in the first place, we now have a self-induced mission kill,” National Security Agency Director Administrator Michael Rogers said in a conference speech.

Trump’s attacks on the 17 intelligence agencies that confirmed the Russian interference couldn’t have made morale any better. After meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump swore that Russia didn’t do it.

“He said he didn’t meddle, he said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” Trump told reporters in November. “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

Trump has also waged a war with the FBI, calling it “tainted” and alleging it is part of the “deep state” shadow government.

“It is also a possible obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, and it’s obstructing justice by saying to agents, ‘you better not dig too deep, you better not find anything because I will attack you,'” former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks said to MSNBC.

The only way to maintain staff is to tape into the sense of duty “for God and country,” said former threat operations center chief Daniel Ennis. He thinks the agency will recover, because it always has.