The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You (Eli Pariser)

The internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber in which websites tailor information according to the preferences they detect in each viewer. When some users search the word “Egypt,” they may get the latest news about the revolution, others might only see search results about Egyptian vacations. The top 50 websites collect an average of 64 bits of personal information each time we visit—and then custom-design their sites to conform to our perceived preferences. What impact will this online filtering have on the future of democracy? We speak to Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. “Take news about the war in Afghanistan. When you talk to people who run news websites, they’ll tell you stories about the war in Afghanistan don’t perform very well. They don’t get a lot of clicks. People don’t flock to them. And yet, this is arguably one of the most important issues facing the country,” says Pariser. “But it will never make it through these filters. And especially on Facebook this is a problem, because the way that information is transmitted on Facebook is with the ‘like’ button. And the ‘like’ button, it has a very particular valence. It’s easy to click ‘like’ on ‘I just ran a marathon’ or ‘I baked a really awesome cake.’ It’s very hard to click ‘like’ on ‘war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year.'”



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What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture?

via the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

organic agriculture bannerSustainability over the long term. Many changes observed in the environment are long term, occurring slowly over time. Organic agriculture considers the medium- and long-term effect of agricultural interventions on the agro-ecosystem. It aims to produce food while establishing an ecological balance to prevent soil fertility or pest problems. Organic agriculture takes a proactive approach as opposed to treating problems after they emerge.

Soil. Soil building practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, symbiotic associations, cover crops, organic fertilizers and minimum tillage are central to organic practices. These encourage soil fauna and flora, improving soil formation and structure and creating more stable systems. In turn, nutrient and energy cycling is increased and the retentive abilities of the soil for nutrients and water are enhanced, compensating for the non-use of mineral fertilizers. Such management techniques also play an important role in soil erosion control. The length of time that the soil is exposed to erosive forces is decreased, soil biodiversity is increased, and nutrient losses are reduced, helping to maintain and enhance soil productivity. Crop export of nutrients is usually compensated by farm-derived renewable resources but it is sometimes necessary to supplement organic soils with potassium, phosphate, calcium, magnesium and trace elements from external sources.

Water. In many agriculture areas, pollution of groundwater courses with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a major problem. As the use of these is prohibited in organic agriculture, they are replaced by organic fertilizers (e.g. compost, animal manure, green manure) and through the use of greater biodiversity (in terms of species cultivated and permanent vegetation), enhancing soil structure and water infiltration. Well managed organic systems with better nutrient retentive abilities, greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution. In some areas where pollution is a real problem, conversion to organic agriculture is highly encouraged as a restorative measure (e.g. by the Governments of France and Germany).

Air and climate change. Organic agriculture reduces non-renewable energy use by decreasing agrochemical needs (these require high quantities of fossil fuel to be produced). Organic agriculture contributes to mitigating the greenhouse effect and global warming through its ability to sequester carbon in the soil. Many management practices used by organic agriculture (e.g. minimum tillage, returning crop residues to the soil, the use of cover crops and rotations, and the greater integration of nitrogen-fixing legumes), increase the return of carbon to the soil, raising productivity and favouring carbon storage. A number of studies revealed that soil organic carbon contents under organic farming are considerably higher. The more organic carbon is retained in the soil, the more the mitigation potential of agriculture against climate change is higher.  However, there is much research needed in this field, yet. There is a lack of data on soil organic carbon for developing countries, with no farm system comparison data from Africa and Latin America, and only limited data on soil organic carbon stocks, which is crucial for determining carbon sequestration rates for farming practices.

Biodiversity. Organic farmers are both custodians and users of biodiversity at all levels. At the gene level, traditional and adapted seeds and breeds are preferred for their greater resistance to diseases and their resilience to climatic stress. At the species level, diverse combinations of plants and animals optimize nutrient and energy cycling for agricultural production. At the ecosystem level, the maintenance of natural areas within and around organic fields and absence of chemical inputs create suitable habitats for wildlife. The frequent use of under-utilized species (often as rotation crops to build soil fertility) reduces erosion of agro-biodiversity, creating a healthier gene pool – the basis for future adaptation. The provision of structures providing food and shelter, and the lack of pesticide use, attract new or re-colonizing species to the organic area (both permanent and migratory), including wild flora and fauna (e.g. birds) and organisms beneficial to the organic system such as pollinators and pest predators. The number of studies on organic farming and biodiversity increased significantly within the last years. A recent study reporting on a meta-analysis of 766 scientific papers concluded that organic farming produces more biodiversity than other farming systems.

Genetically modified organisms. The use of GMOs within organic systems is not permitted during any stage of organic food production, processing or handling. As the potential impact of GMOs to both the environment and health is not entirely understood, organic agriculture is taking the precautionary approach and choosing to encourage natural biodiversity. The organic label therefore provides an assurance that GMOs have not been used intentionally in the production and processing of the organic products. This is something which cannot be guaranteed in conventional products as labelling the presence of GMOs in food products has not yet come into force in most countries. However, with increasing GMO use in conventional agriculture and due to the method of transmission of GMOs in the environment (e.g. through pollen), organic agriculture will not be able to ensure that organic products are completely GMO free in the future. A detailed discussion on GMOs can be found in the FAO publication “Genetically Modified Organisms, Consumers, Food Safety and the Environment“.

Ecological services. The impact of organic agriculture on natural resources favours interactions within the agro-ecosystem that are vital for both agricultural production and nature conservation. Ecological services derived include soil forming and conditioning, soil stabilization, waste recycling, carbon sequestration, nutrients cycling, predation, pollination and habitats. By opting for organic products, the consumer through his/her purchasing power promotes a less polluting agricultural system. The hidden costs of agriculture to the environment in terms of natural resource degradation are reduced.

One of my favorite leaked HBGary emails ….

“Ok I don’t mind insinuating and talking about the difficulty in government in doing this work. But I want to outwardly convey us as a security company, not an intelligence company that works for law enforcement. The guys that know cam read between the lines. If I outwardly exude intelligence them I could scare some folks off.”

— Aaron Barr, CEO of HBGary Federal in a private email leaked by Anonymous

Pentagon Fingered as a Source of Narco-Firepower in Mexico

Another series of leaked State Department cables made public this week by WikiLeaks lend credence to investigative reports on gun trafficking and the drug war published by Narco News as far back as 2009.

The big battles in the drug war in Mexico are “not being fought with Saturday night specials, hobby rifles and hunting shotguns,” Narco News reported in March 2009, against the grain, at a time when the mainstream media was pushing a narrative that assigned the blame for the rising tide of weapons flowing into Mexico to U.S. gun stores and gun shows.

Rather, we reported at the time, “the drug trafficking organizations are now in possession of high-powered munitions in vast quantities that can’t be explained by the gun-show loophole.”

Military-grade weapons seized in Mexico drug warThose weapons, found in stashes seized by Mexican law enforcers and military over the past several years, include U.S.-military issued rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and explosives.

The State Department cables released recently by WikiLeaks support Narco News’ reporting and also confirm that our government is very aware of the fact that U.S military munitions are finding their way into Mexico, and into the hands of narco-trafficking organizations, via a multi-billion dollar stream of private-sector and Pentagon arms exports.

Narco News, in a report in December 2008 [“Juarez murders shine a light on an emerging Military Cartel”] examined the increasing militarization of narco-trafficking groups in Mexico and pointed out that U.S. military-issued ammunition popped up in an arms cache seized in Reynosa, Mexico, in November 2008 that was linked to the Zetas, a mercenary group that provides enforcement services to Mexican narco-trafficking organizations.

Tosh Plumlee, a former CIA asset who still has deep connections in the covert world, told Narco News recently that a special-operations task force under Pentagon command, which has provided training to Mexican troops south of the border, has previously “… found [in Mexico] hundreds of [U.S.-made] M-67s [grenades] as well as thousands of rounds of machine gun-type ammo, .50 [and] .30 [caliber] and the famous [U.S.-made] M-16 — most later confirmed as being shipped from Guatemala into Mexico as well as from USA vendors. …”

Similarly, an AP video report from May 2009 confirms that “M16 machine guns” have been seized from Mexican criminal groups engaged in the drug war.

“It’s unclear how cartels are getting military grade weapons,” the AP report states.

Narco News offered an answer to that question in March 2009, when it reported that the deadliest of the weapons now in the hands of criminal groups in Mexico, particularly along the U.S. border, by any reasonable standard of an analysis of the facts, appear to be getting into that nation through perfectly legal private-sector arms exports, measured in the billions of dollars.

Those exports are approved through the State Department, under a program known as Direct Commercial Sales. A sister program, called Foreign Military Sales, is overseen by the Pentagon and also taps U.S. contractors to manufacture weapons (such as machine guns and grenades) for export to foreign entities, including companies and governments.

Between 2005 and 2009, a total of $41 billion worth of U.S. defense articles were exported under the FMS program and a total of nearly $60 billion via the DCS program, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The bulk of those exports went to seven nations, including South Korea, but Mexico, too, was a receiving nation, with some $204 million in military arms shipments approved for export in fiscal year 2008 alone, according to the most recently available DCS report.


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From the Pentagon to the Private Sector: Boston Globe Analysis Finds Large Numbers of Retiring Generals Entering Defense Industry

(via Democracy Now!)

A new investigation by the Boston Globe finds that retiring generals are leaving the military in large numbers to take lucrative jobs in the defense industry with little concern for any conflicts of interest. We speak with Bryan Bender, national security reporter for the Globe.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re turning now, though, from the Pentagon to the private sector. That’s the title of a new investigation by the Boston Globe that exposes how retiring generals are leaving the military in large numbers to take lucrative jobs in the defense industry with little concern for any conflicts of interest.

The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest-ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades. The results are staggering. From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives. That compares with less than half who followed that path a decade earlier.

The Globe analysis found that in many cases the generals are recruited for private-sector roles well before they retire, raising questions about their independence and judgment while still in uniform. What’s more, the Pentagon is aware and even supports this practice.

Bryan Bender is the national security reporter for the Boston Globe. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

Bryan, thanks so much for joining us on this very snowy day. The East Coast is blanketed. Talk about this research you have done, which is really a stunning exposé.

BRYAN BENDER: Well, what we did is, as you mentioned, went back and looked at the most senior military officers who have retired in the last 20 years to see where they went and what they did in their post-military careers. And the growth in the share of the three- and four-star generals and admirals who have gone into private defense work has increased quite substantially.

But what we found was not just the numbers. I think some would suggest that the nation has been at war for nearly a decade, so that explains, at least partially, why the rise. But more interesting was the sort of blurred lines between the role of these senior officers in the defense industry and their continuing role as official or unofficial advisers to the military.

AMY GOODMAN: Go through —- well -—

BRYAN BENDER: In other words —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

BRYAN BENDER: I was going to say, in other words, they’re leaving the military and very quickly taking jobs at defense companies or, increasingly, as private consultants either in business for themselves or in these consulting firms that specialize in what people call the “rent a general” phenomenon. But while they’re doing this private defense work, they’re still shaping, in a very real way, what the Pentagon’s priorities are, where they’re investing money. And so, in any other world, that would seem a pretty clear conflict of interest.

In one example, we found a retired four-star general from the Air Force who had been in charge of weapons programs, including the B-2 bomber, retires and then, within — literally within hours, is hired by Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the B-2, as a consultant, and then, very soon after, is called back by the Air Force to help oversee a study of what’s going to replace the B-2 bomber. So, that’s just one example of, again, these blurred lines between a private defense company official or consultant and an adviser to the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the man you started your piece “From the Pentagon to the Private Sector” with. “An hour after the official ceremony marking the end of his 35-year career in the Air Force, General Gregory ‘Speedy’ Martin returned to his quarters…” And you went from there saying, “almost as soon as he closed the door that day in 2005 his phone rang. It was an executive at Northrop Grumman.”

So, explain then — as you make your bullet points, you say, “When a general-turned-businessman arrives at the Pentagon, he is often treated with extraordinary deference — as if still in uniform — which can greatly increase his effectiveness as a rainmaker for industry. The military even has name for it — the ‘bobblehead effect.'” Explain that.

BRYAN BENDER: Well, that’s one of the things that’s most concerning to observers of this, including some retired generals and admirals themselves, who we interviewed. And that is that it’s quite well known that there’s a revolving door in Washington. If you leave Congress, if you leave an executive department, you go be a lobbyist or a consultant to the very industry that you had a responsibility to oversee while you were in the government.

Where the military is different, people suggest, is this very rigid, ingrained system of hierarchy and deference to seniority. And the old adage, I think, applies: once a general, always a general. When you talk to some of the people who sit in some of these meetings of advisory panels and the sort of mind-numbing number of these commissions and other bodies that advise the military, if there’s a retired four-star general in the room, he’s going to get a level of respect. People are going to hear him out in a very real way, as if he’s still a general and he didn’t leave the military.

And the bobblehead effect is a term that a few people used, which refers to those bobblehead toys where the head goes up and down. You get a retired general or admiral in many of these settings, and everybody sitting around the table, particularly military officers who may have worked for that general when he was in uniform — he or she was in uniform — or, you know, certainly knew of him, knew the command that he or she had had, they will sit around the table and nod their head as the general speaks. So, the bobblehead effect really is something that is sort of specific to the military. You have this deference to seniority, in a way that you don’t elsewhere, that doesn’t go away when a general or an admiral takes off their uniform.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the meeting that took place on the National Defense University’s campus on the banks of the Potomac River in June of 2009, Bryan Bender.

BRYAN BENDER: This was a meeting that the Army convened, the vice chief of staff of the Army convened. And the purpose was to lay out a strategy for the Army’s future combat vehicle, something — a program called the ground combat vehicle, or GCV, which is a new program that is potentially worth billions of dollars for the defense contractors that will build it. And at this meeting, the Army invited about a hundred mostly government officials, military officers, congressional staffers. There were a few scholars there from think tanks or academia. Defense companies were not invited, because this was a very initial meeting laying out what some of the specifications might be for this new vehicle. They had not awarded a request for companies to respond to yet. But at the meeting were a bunch of retired Army generals. And it turns out that many of them are private industry consultants, including for the companies that later bid on the ground combat vehicle contract when it came out. And it was just one example that we came across of, again, this blurring of the lines. Here, you know, are a bunch of retired Army generals who are brought in because clearly they have a lot of expertise in military affairs — many of them were responsible for overseeing some very similar programs when they were in uniform — the Army seeking their advice, seeking their input, as they craft this new major weapons program.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about, Bryan —

BRYAN BENDER: At the same time —

AMY GOODMAN: Bryan? Let’s talk about who was there.


AMY GOODMAN: Retired Army Lieutenant General William H. Campbell, who oversaw all the Army’s information systems before leaving the service in 2000. Since 2002, he’s been employed as a senior vice president at BAE Systems, one of the Army’s primary weapons suppliers and a major bidder for the new ground combat vehicle. You emailed him. He wrote back it’s not a conflict of interest because he’s in the electronics division of BAE, not the ground combat division. Campbell, you say, and BAE declined to say how much, if any, of the electronics system in the new tank might be produced by Campbell’s division at BAE. But Campbell suggested other generals at the meeting may have been skating closer to the edge. Like who, Bryan Bender?

BRYAN BENDER: Well, there’s a retired Army three-star general, Joseph Yakovac, who specialized in developing weapon systems just like this one when he was in the Army. And he’s a consultant for the same company, BAE Systems, but specifically on this ground combat vehicle program.

And this gets to the issue of disclosure. A lot of these generals will say, “Well, you know, when I was invited to this meeting, I had to fill out an ethics questionnaire.” And many of them, if not all of them, did so, as far as I can tell, but that’s where some people will come in and say, “Well, you know what? Yes, they filled out an ethics questionnaire, and presumably they told the truth, that they have a variety of defense industry clients or they plan to consult in the future on this very program that they’re advising the Army on, but I cannot find an example where anyone in a situation like that has been precluded from participating in a panel like that.” And that’s where some of the critics will say the process is broken. There’s a lot of paperwork these generals have to fill out. They file to the Army ethics questionnaires and nondisclosure agreements. But from what I can tell, in most cases, those documents get stuck in a drawer somewhere or on a computer hard drive and basically disappear. No one ever reviews them. No one ever says, “You know what? General Jack Smith, or whatever his name is, has these industry consulting clients and he’s advising us on some very similar technologies. Maybe we shouldn’t include him in this example.” So, that’s where public disclosure comes in.

And I think most people will say the problem with these disclosure forms is that there’s no way for the public to know who’s working for whom, particularly if they’re a consultant, and that, in the minds of some, there should be more disclosure, because at least there would be some sunlight on this process from the outside that might lead the Army and the other military services to do a better job of policing who is advising the military while they’re also being paid by the very companies who could benefit from that advice.

AMY GOODMAN: You mention retired General William S. Wallace, who ran the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command before retiring in 2008, who said he wasn’t representing one of the prospective bidders at the time of the meeting. Like the other participants, however, one of the ethics questions he was asked to answer, according to a blank copy, was whether he intended to consult in the future for a client that may have a direct interest in bidding on the new tank. Wallace didn’t say how he answered that question. But explain what his job is now, Bryan Bender.

BRYAN BENDER: Well, General Wallace, who, as you mention, ran the Training and Doctrine Command, which is basically the senior Army headquarters for determining what weapons and equipment the military — the Army should buy, he’s now a private consultant. And one of his clients now is General Dynamics Land Systems Division, which is directly bidding on the ground combat vehicle program that he was brought to the National Defense University to advise on. And it gets to my earlier point. I have no reason to believe that General Wallace was, you know, untruthful in his ethics questionnaire. So when the question came up — “Do you have any plans or intention to consult for a company in the future that might have a stake in this program?” — it really doesn’t matter what he said, whether he said yes or no, because obviously, in the end, it really didn’t matter, because he soon thereafter went to work for General Dynamics Land Systems.

And, you know, General Wallace and others I talked to will say, “Well, we signed a nondisclosure agreement before we went to this meeting, so, you know, we promised that whatever we learn here, whatever we find out, whatever this meeting is about, we will not share that with anyone else.” But that gets to this other issue, which some others raised, which is, the policing mechanism basically is inside the brain of the general or admiral. As one put it, you have to have a firewall in your head. So you know some inside information, perhaps, that you got from a meeting like this or a variety of others in the Pentagon, but when you go to the boardroom or when you go meet with your client, you basically have to make sure that you don’t download from one side of your brain to the other the information that you learned that you’re not supposed to share with your client. And I think many will say that that’s a minefield that is very difficult to walk. And that’s why many people think that the generals shouldn’t be in that position to begin with.

And maybe one point I’ll make, which is sort of a broader point: even the most concerned critics of this phenomenon and how it’s grown, no one will say that, “Oh, the generals should just retire and go off to the golf course or sit in their rocking chair and smoke a corncob pipe.” You know, many of them retire at 55, they’re in great health, they’ve spent an enormous amount of years in the military, they certainly have an expertise that is valued. Everyone agrees that they’re going to go do something, like in any other industry, which is their expertise. Where the real concern is is, again, the blurring of the lines. No one’s saying they shouldn’t go work for defense companies. But they probably shouldn’t be also, in so many cases, advising the Pentagon on some of the very same issues that they’re working on in the private sector.

AMY GOODMAN: Brian, I want to —

BRYAN BENDER: And that particularly goes for the consulting arena. Go ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a related issue: David Barstow, the twice Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, who exposed how dozens of retired generals working as radio and television analysts had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to military contractors that benefited from policies they defended. This is David Barstow on Democracy Now! in May of 2009 explaining how Pentagon officials developed this program during the lead-up to the Iraq war.

DAVID BARSTOW: The way to really influence the American public was to try and find people who were viewed as independent of both government and the media, people who were considered authoritative and expert, and people who would have an ability to cut through the spin.

And the group that they began zeroing in on were all the military analysts who were being hired in droves after 9/11 by all the major TV networks. In the view of Torie Clarke and her staff, these guys were sort of the ultimate key influencers. They were seen as, most of them, retired decorated war heroes. They were, many of them, retired generals, some three- and four-star generals. They came from an institution that traditionally is extremely trusted by the American public. And they were seen by the public not really as of the media, but not of the government either.

And so, in the fall of 2002, Torie Clarke and her aides, with the strong support from the White House and from her bosses, set out to target this group and to make them, really, one of the main vehicles for reaching the American public and building support for the war on terror. So that’s how it sort of began, was with this idea that they could take this thing, this thing called the military analyst, which is a creature that’s been around for a long time — going back to the first Gulf War, we remember some of the retired generals first coming on air — and they could take this and the fact of 9/11 and the fact of how prevalent they were on air, sometimes appearing segment after segment after segment, getting more air time than many correspondents were getting, holding forth, not just on the issues of where the airplanes are flying and where the tanks are moving, but weighing more heavily on even the strategic issues of what should we do next and how should the war on terror unfold, what should be the next targets.

And they looked at them as effectively what they were doing was writing the op-ed on air for the networks and for the cables. And they noticed the way the relationships between the anchors and their sort of in-house generals, there was a sort of bond between anchor and general. And you didn’t see the kind of challenging questioning that would go on if you had sent, for example, a representative of the Pentagon to the TV station. It was a much more — almost fawning, in some cases, kind of relationship between anchor and general. So they saw this group, and they saw in this group a way of taking the media filter, which politicians are always so fond of complaining about, and turning the media filter into more of a media megaphone.