Sunday, December 18, 2016

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists discovers Tillerson ties to offshore company used in Russia deal

The Panama papers reveal Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's ties to Russia and offshore companies -- the first of many such revelations?

The Panama Papers is a collection of 11.5 million documents (2.6 terabytes) that was leaked by an anonymous source to Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a German newspaper. The documents were from the internal files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that creates anonymous offshore companies around the world. The database on 320,000 offshore companies may be accessed here.

SZ did not have the staff and resources to analyze that many documents, so they decided to cooperate with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a global network of more than 190 journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.

(The story of this massive, Internet-based collaboration is amazing in its own right. For more on the ICIJ and the methodology of this investigation, check out this excellent 15 minute podcast, with transcript).

The ICIJ has now turned it's attention to the Trump administration and has discovered that Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State nominee was a director of an offshore company in the Bahamas that is at the heart of Exxon’s close business dealings with Russia.

The ICIJ reports that:
The records show Tillerson’s direct involvement in Exxon’s extensive network of companies based in the Bahamas. ExxonMobil created at least 67 companies based in the island tax haven, which were involved in operations spanning from Russia to Venezuela to Azerbaijan, according to ICIJ’s documents from the Bahamas corporate registry.
An ExxonMobil spokesman said that it incorporates in the Bahamas because of the “simplicity and predictability” of the country’s laws for setting up companies and that "Incorporation of a company in the Bahamas does not decrease ExxonMobil’s tax liability in the country where the entity generates its income.”

This may be legal and may not be depriving the US of tax revenue, but it does raise questions of Russian influence and conflict of interest. Tillerson currently holds an estimated $228 million in Exxon stock, whose value stands to be affected by State Department policies on issues from climate change to sanctions against Russia.


The ICIJ promises to continue investigating the Trump administration -- stay tuned.
Update 12/19/2016

This is not the only result of the ICIJ investigation of the Panama Papers. For example, an earlier investigation revealed that Mossack Fonseca had been used to "create a string of companies in offshore financial havens that allowed it to sidestep the U.S. embargo in its commercial operations." They have identified at least 25 companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, Panama and the Bahamas that are linked to Cuba, enabling the Cuban government to import and export goods and invest funds abroad. Another investigation led to the resignation of the Prime Minister of Iceland.

The ICIJ promises to continue investigating the Trump administration -- stay tuned.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Why we need the Washington Post, New York Times et al

We can easily afford to lose publishers like Gawker Media, but not papers like the Washington Post and the "failing" New York Times.

Donald Trump's choices to head the Energy and Interior departments and the Environmental Protection Agency are climate-change "skeptics" and they support and are supported by the oil industry. This has led some climate scientists to initiate projects to back up climate-sicence research and data.

The Washington Post published a well researched article on the concern of the climate scientists with links to many supporting articles. Donald Trump routinely denigrates the "mainstream media," but this article is a terrific example of what the press can and must do.

The Internet has disrupted the business model of newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times and the Trump administration poses another threat.

Peter Theil is a member of the Trump transition team and a very rich Silicon Valley investor. Gawker Media alienated him by publishing the fact that he was gayand Theil retaliated by secretly financing a law suit for Hulk Hogan who had also been embarrassed by Gawker. The suit bankrupted Gawker Media.

Donald Trump frequently threatens to sue adversaries. Can we imagine him or a supporter like Theil suing the Washington Post?

Maybe, maybe not, but he will surely continue using his "bully pulpit" for ad hominem attacks against publications that fact-check and criticize him. For example, consider these tweets about the "failing" New York Times:

Trump nicknames -- lying, little ... now failing Source

In 2013, Jeff Bezos, founder of, purchasted the Washington Post from the Graham family for $250 million -- a lot of money for you and me, but not much for Donald Trump or Peter Theil.

Trump has has threatened Bezos, saying he has "a huge antitrust problem because he's controlling so much, Amazon is controlling so much of what they are doing." He added that Bezos is "using The Washington Post, which is peanuts, he's using that for political purposes to save Amazon in terms of taxes and in terms of antitrust."

The Internet has cost newspapers dearly and the Graham family might have been vulnerable to an attack by Trump if they had not sold it. At the time Bezos bought the Washington Post, there was a lot of speculation as to his motivation. I don't know why he bought it, but I am glad he did, because he can afford to defend it.

We can easily afford to lose publishers like Gawker Media, but not papers like the Washington Post and the "failing" New York Times.

Backing up climate-science data

It is nearly inconceivable that Trump would order the deletion of climate-science data -- a modern book burning -- but one can imagine large budget cuts for climate-science research, making it impossible to maintain and update this sort of public data.

Climate scientists have kicked off at least two projects to create backup copies of their research and data.

One is Climate Mirror, which is part of an ad-hoc project to mirror public climate datasets before the Trump Administration takes office -- to make sure these datasets remain freely and broadly accessible.

Another is a hackathon that will be hosted on December 17th at the University of Toronto in collaboration with the Internet Archive End of Term project, which seeks to archive the federal online pages and data that are in danger of disappearing during the Trump administration. (Note that they have done the same for earlier administrations).

For example, NASA recently released data showing how temperature and rainfall patterns worldwide may change through the year 2100 because of growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere.

The post announcing the dataset states:
The dataset, which is available to the public, shows projected changes worldwide on a regional level in response to different scenarios of increasing carbon dioxide simulated by 21 climate models. The high-resolution data, which can be viewed on a daily timescale at the scale of individual cities and towns, will help scientists and planners conduct climate risk assessments to better understand local and global effects of hazards, such as severe drought, floods, heat waves and losses in agriculture productivity.

"NASA is in the business of taking what we’ve learned about our planet from space and creating new products that help us all safeguard our future,” said Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist. “With this new global dataset, people around the world have a valuable new tool to use in planning how to cope with a warming planet.
The climate-science community is obviously alarmed by Donald Trump's appointments of Ryan Zinke, who characterizes climate change as “unsettled science," as Secretary of the Interior, Rick Perry, who once could not recall the name of the department, but remembered that he did want to eliminate it, as Secretary of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who consistently opposes regulation, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

These men are all supporters of and supported by the oil industry.

The Trump transition team also requested a list of the names of Energy Department people (contractors and employees) who have worked on climate science and the professional society memberships of lab workers.

It is nearly inconceivable that Trump would order the deletion of climate-science data -- a modern book burning -- but one can imagine large budget cuts for climate-science research, making it impossible to maintain and update this sort of public data.

Update 12/29/2016

Check out this excellent, short (5:14) interview of Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. The interview begins with climate scientist Eric Holthaus talking about the effort to archive climate research, then Khale goes on to say more about how and why they archive government (.gov and .mil) Web sites when a new administration takes over.

He said 83% of the .pdf files on government sites were deleted between 2008 and 2012. In addition to Web pages, they will be archiving virtual machine versions of interactive government services and databases. (As noted above, those are vulnerable to defunding).

When asked for an example of the value of the archive, Khale mentioned the press release announcing George Bush's ironically famous "Mission Accomplished" speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier. As shown below, the headline reads "President bush announces combat operations in Iraq have ended" and the first sentence qualifies the headline by saying "major" combat operations have ended. Khale said that a couple of weeks later "major" was added to the title and a couple months later, the press release was deleted.

Excerpt from press release on "Mission Accomplished" speech

The Internet is potential providing raw data for historians -- it should be complete and accurate.

If you would like to see a video of the entire speech, the Internet Archive has preserved that as well:

Update 12/30/2016

The following is a transcript of Bob Garfield, co-host of the podcast On The Media, interviewing Brewster Khale, founder of the Internet archive and a partner in the End-of-term Project with a lead-in question for on climate-science research Eric Holthaus of Slate Magazine.

Bob: Meanwhile a small army of volunteer archivists, scientists and advocates have been working to save the government climate change research that already exists

Eric: at NASA and NOA that takes the temperature of the planet from weather stations from satellites from ocean buoys.

Bob: Meteorologist Eric Holthaus spoke to NPR about his effort to save government climate data.

Eric: Sometimes these data sets are only stored in United States government servers so there hasn't really been an effort to catalog those in other countries because we haven't thought it was necessary before

Bob: The Internet Archive on the other hand has given a lot of thought to what gets lost in presidential transitions. Every week the archive tapes three hundred million Web pages and every four years it enlists a bunch of volunteers to make copies of government Web sites as a hedge against what the next administration may choose to delete. It's called The End-of-term web archive and for some reason this year the organizers are getting a lot more offers of help. Brewster Kahle founder of the Internet Archive says that this year his team also is backing up its data to Canada

Brewster: When the election went the way that it did, it was a bit of a surprise, so we looked through the television archive at what President-elect Trump said about freedom of the press and about the Internet and what we found was shocking. He wanted to close up parts of the Internet that there was mocking of freedom of the press. This was kind of a wake-up call and we said let's make sure we have a copy in some other location.

Bob: What are your priorities? How does it work?

Brewster: So the Internet Archive works with the Library of Congress, University of North Texas -- now a growing list of groups to try to do as best we can to record the information that's available on the Web sites and now the web services that have been made available on .gov and .mil Web sites. We found in 2008, 83 percent of the PDFs that were available back then are no longer available even by 2012. So with an 83 percent loss rate when the Obama administration came on board we're likely to see something like it maybe even more with the Trump administration.

So we're coordinating activities to go and archive web pages and we're reaching out to federal webmasters to go and see if we can keep whole services up and running. Can we take virtual machine versions of the databases that they're running and be able to run them in snapshot form so that we can keep these services going as they were in 2016 in the future?

Bob:Give me some examples of when the federal web archive has come in handy. Was there something that you and disappeared that you were super glad to have archived?

Brewster: Oh the anecdotes go on and on. Example -- there is a press release from the White House during the George W. Bush administration when he stood on an aircraft carrier and declared “mission accomplished.” And the headline of that press release was combat operations in Iraq had ceased but a couple of weeks later they changed the headline and said major combat operations had ceased with no notice that it had changed. The only reason why we know is because we had archived both versions. And then a couple of months later the press release went away completely from the web. You know what is more Orwellian is it changing a press release that's in the past or is it disappearing completely?

Bob: What are you most worried is going to disappear in a Trump administration?

Brewster: Frankly we have no idea. This upcoming administration is very aware of the power of the Internet and how it can be manipulated -- how you can go and push things out in the middle of the night and use the journalist system in ways that are really pretty blatant. So let's at least keep a record of it.

Bob: We have just experienced the interference in a political campaign by outsiders. Is this archive secure -- I mean really secure against hacking, against intrusion?

Brewster: The history of libraries is a history of loss. Libraries are burned. That's what happened in the Library of Alexandria. It'll be what happens to us -- just don't know when. So let's design for it. Let's go and make copies in other places. Let's make sure people want universal access to all knowledge, that they want education based on facts. Let's go and make sure that there is an environment that supports libraries. That's the only way that in the long term we're going to survive. And the copies that are maybe now unique at the Internet Archive will survive based on all sorts of changes whether it's earthquakes or institutional failure or law changes.

Bob: Brewster as always many thanks.

Brewster: Thank you very much.

Bob: Mr. Khale is the founder of the Internet Archive and a partner on the End-of-term Project.

Khale's interview was part of longer podcast episode called Hurry Up. They discussed other steps President Obama could take during the last weeks of his term. The suggestions included disclosing information on contributions by government contractors, surveillance and the drone program, closing Guantanamo and clemency. The episode ends with a discussion of the nature of time by science writer James Gleick.

Finally, I created the interview transcript using a nifty service called PopUpArchive. You simply upload a sound file and wait for the text version to be posted ready for download. It takes a little proofreading and editing, but it is a lot faster than manual transcription and as this Microsoft Research report shows, we can look forward to more accurate speech recognition in the future.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Trump's China tweets -- data for historians, political scientists, journalists and us

Trump's tweets and other posts provide us with an unprecedented stream of current information and data for political scientists, journalists and future historians.

The New York Times has published a thorough analysis of Donald Trump's recent phone conversation with the president of Taiwan. It takes a multifaceted look at the call, asking whether it was a "diplomatic gaffe or a calculated new start" in our relationship with China.

Only Trump, his advisors and perhaps some of the people he has been interviewing for Secretary of State can answer that question, but we can get clues as to Trump's thinking by looking at his Twitter stream.

A search of his Twitter stream for the word Taiwan, returned only four tweets:

The two October tweets are anti-Obama campaign statements.

The tweet announcing the call says "CALLED ME" in caps. Was that Trump crowing about his stature or was it intentionally saying he had not initiated the call? I cannot know, but I am certain that this was not a casual call -- it was planned and scheduled by both sides in advance.

The latest tweet justifies the call and serves as a message to China and Trump's constituency. (I have to reluctantly admit that I agree -- pretending that Taiwan does not exist is absurd).

Trump's tweets do not provide definitive answers, but they do give us more information about what is going on than we are used to.

"China" tweets

Since Trump is focusing on China, I searched of his Twitter stream for the word China. Twitter returned 276 tweets -- here are the earliest four:

Trump has been posting anti-China tweets for nearly six years. The first had little engagement -- one reply, 73 retweets and 26 likes -- while the latest one has had 22k replies, 39k retweets and 122k likes so far. He was already campaigning at the time of the first tweet, which refers to a site called (Today that site contains only a copy of a statement by the Federal Election Commission saying he was eligible to run).

Who is the intended audience for these tweets? No doubt, the early tweets were intended for Trump supporters -- Breitbart readers and Limbaugh listeners -- but future tweets might also be for the general public and the Chinese government.

I have no doubt that both our State Department and the Chinese Foreign Service are well aware of the issues on which our nations co-depend and where we have conflicts, but discussions of such things are traditionally held in private. Whatever you think of Trump, he is providing us with a degree of transparency we are not used to in our politicians and civil servants.

Listening to a fireside chat
New media are mastered by new politicians and Trump's use of social media is reminiscent of the fireside chats President Roosevelt used to communicate with the American people and others when radio became ubiquitous.

If I were a political scientist, I would begin looking at these and Trump's other tweets and posts as research data, ripe for content analysis and fact-checking. They will also be data for historians one day. (The archive of network traffic during the 1991 Soviet coup attempt might be the earliest example of historical data online).

One thing is for sure -- I hope he keeps tweeting after becoming president.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

I hope Trump keeps tweeting

I hope Trump keeps up his tweeting. They say our eyes are windows to our souls, his late-night tweets are a window to his.

Since I have a blog on the Internet in Cuba, I took a look at Trump's tweets, hoping to learn something about his likely Cuba policy. I searched his Twitter stream for tweets with the words Cuba or Cuban and Twitter returned 27 results, but only three were what I was looking for.

I was surprised to see that 20 of the tweets were about Mark Cuban, an entrepreneur, business man and outspoken Trump critic and four related to President Obama. What do those tweets reveal about Trump?

Two of the tweets illustrate his competitive nature.

In this tweet, he brags (with reason) that his reality TV show, The Apprentice, was a bigger hit than one Cuban was on, The Shark Tank.

(NBC later severed relations with Trump because of his remarks during the campaign).

This tweet refers to the Dallas Mavericks, a professional basketball team owned by Cuban:

The next tweet illustrates Trump's proclivity for personal, ad hominem attacks:

(Trump's physique has also been ridiculed).

Three of trump's Cuba tweets were shots taken at President Obama during the campaign, for example these:

An earlier tweet about President Obama was as goofy as Trump's "birther" campaign:

It turned out that only three of the tweets pertained to my initial question:

They give us a clue as to his posture on Cuba during and after the campaign, but I suspect his hard line will be tempered by practical economic and political factors. Regardless, Trump's tweets reveal more about him than about his Cuba policy.

I plan to repeat my Twitter search "Cuba from:realdonaldtrump" from time to time to see how his views evolve. I hope Trump keeps up his tweeting. They say our eyes are windows to our souls, his late-night tweets are a window to his.