Aftermath Video Shows Wildfire Turned Paradise Into an Eerie, Apocalyptic Hellscape

California is battling chaotic wildfires all over the state today and the true toll it will take on residents has yet to be seen. In the northern town of Paradise, an eerie calm has settled over some areas as the burned out remains of civilization are surveyed.

Paradise has been hit by the Camp Fire, one of two major wildfires turning thousands of people’s lives upside down. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the fire quadrupled in size overnight overtaking 70,000 acres and firefighters are still working to contain it. So far, five people have been confirmed dead. They were found in vehicles trying to escape the blaze.

Footage of the aftermath is trickling out online and you can see two devastating clips below. This is just the beginning.

via Gizmodo

November 9, 2018 at 05:12PM

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Monkeywrenching Vandals Are Reinventing Climate Activism

It’s pretty easy to paralyze America’s oil infrastructure. All Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein needed was a set of 3-foot-long green-and-red bolt cutters. And a willingness to go to jail for years.

On October 11, 2016, as they pulled up to an oil pipeline facility in the farm fields outside Leonard, Minnesota, the pair were bent on taking direct action to address climate change, since, they figured, the US government had failed to do anything about it. “This is the only way we get their attention,” Klapstein said on video before she got out of the car. “All other avenues have been exhausted.”

By “their,” she meant policymakers and oil companies (and, by extension, you and me). Johnston, now 52, is a poet and cofounder of the Seattle chapter of climate action group For years, she’d done all the things law-abiding climate change activists do: filed petitions, lobbied legislators, hosted speakers, wrote letters, blockaded refineries, and tried to block Shell from moving their drilling rigs into the Arctic. Klapstein, 66, is a retired attorney from Bainbridge Island, Washington, whose job was to protect fishing rights for the Puyallup tribe. With her group, the Raging Grannies, her actions included blocking oil trains while chained to a rocking chair. They’re both white, middle-aged. Law-abiding folks. Except when they’re mad.

It was a cold morning, aspens shaking their dull gold under heavy skies. A fellow activist, Ben Joldersma, livestreamed to Facebook as the two women cut the chains around fenced enclosures containing large shut-off valves for two oil pipelines owned by the Canadian multinational Enbridge. The pipes carry crude oil from deposits of tar sands (also referred to as oil sands) in Alberta, transporting it to Lake Superior. Because making petroleum products from this goo—called bitumen—releases more global-warming emissions than most other oil sources, the activists were going to do what they could to keep it in the ground.

about the author

Dean Kuipers writes about the environment, politics, and the arts and is the author, most recently, of a forthcoming memoir, The Deer Camp.

Enbridge was well aware they were there: About 15 minutes before they cut their way in, an activist named Jay O’Hara with the Climate Disobedience Center in Seattle had talked to Enbridge staff on the phone and warned them that protesters were going to be closing the valves on Line 67 and Line 4, each of which hum with 33,000 gallons of crude oil per hour.

What only a handful of people knew, however, was that Johnston and Klapstein were part of a nationwide action dubbed #ShutItDown that would also choke off pipelines at three other locations in North Dakota, Montana, and Washington State that day, moving east to west. They referred to themselves as the Valve Turners, and Reuters called their effort “the biggest coordinated move on US energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.” On that day, five principal activists—Michael Foster, 54, Ken Ward, 61, and Leonard Higgins, 66, in addition to Johnston and Klapstein—cut off 70 percent of the oil from tar sands that flows into the US from Canada.

With the chains cut, Joldersma, 40, called Enbridge again and gave their names and location. Then he added: “For the sake of climate justice, and to ensure a future for human civilization, we must immediately halt the extraction and burning of Canadian tar sands. For safety, I’m calling to inform you that when I hang up this phone, we are closing the valves.”

Even as Johnston and Klapstein entered the enclosures, they could see and hear that Enbridge was already closing one of the valves remotely: A tall plunger or screw device was dropping as a gate shut in the underground pipe. On the other valve, they cut the lock on a large steel wheel that allowed for manual shut-off and cranked it for “I don’t know, seven or eight minutes,” Johnston told me later, until it too was closed.

It took almost an hour for Clearwater County sheriff Darin Halverson to show up with some deputies. When he did, according to Johnston, he said, “Well, you don’t look too dangerous to me,” and arrested everyone, including videographer Steve Liptay, who was also present but whose charges were later dropped. No one was even cuffed.

Getting arrested was part of the plan. Across the country, the Valve Turners and their support teams had closed the valves in the hope of getting into court to present to a jury what is called a “necessity defense,” arguing that their crime was an act of civil disobedience meant to prevent a greater harm—in this case, death by climate catastrophe. If the plan worked they would create a legal precedent that would put a powerful new tool in the hands of eco-warriors.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s also the child of desperation. The Valve Turners knew the pipelines would be turned back on in just a few hours. They needed to get into the courts, convince a jury, and prove to policymakers that people wanted real change. The point was to turn acts of necessity into a politics of necessity.

How would that happen? Johnston likes to cite a book by Mark and Paul Engler called This Is an Uprising, in which they describe how years of slow and patient work suddenly coalesce and unleash the “moment of the whirlwind.” She hoped to start it spinning.

Clearwater County, Minnesota, however, is not a place you’d choose if you were going to have a trial affirming climate change. According to Yale’s Climate Opinion Maps, only 62 percent of people in Clearwater County believe global warming is happening (the national average is 70 percent), and most of those don’t tie it directly to oil. Loads of people there are employed by the pipelines in some way, or hope to be employed building Enbridge’s new Line 3, which will also carry oil from tar sands. Yards all over the rural county are festooned with blue signs that read “Minnesotans for Line 3.”

But this is where the pipelines are and where the activists had chosen to make a stand. “I had lost a lot of sleep in the run-up, concerned that there be no damage of any kind,” Johnston said. “So when we saw them shutting the first pipeline down, there was definitely a small feeling of triumph or gladness. To have even a brief sense of that kind of impact and efficacy was powerful.” Klapstein, for her part, said she felt “very calm,” that “this was what I needed to be doing, here in this time, facing this massive emergency. That I was doing everything in my power to ensure that my children had a future. That is the most important thing I can be doing, as an older person.”

Joldersma was less calm. A tall, thin CTO of a Seattle tech firm called Maven who has formerly worked at Microsoft and Google, he was a relative newcomer to direct action. He also had three young children. “I had a lot of fear of going up against the fossil fuel state power complex,” he says.

Johnston was charged with felony damage to “critical public service facilities,” plus other charges that could put her in prison for decades, and Klapstein and Joldersma were ultimately charged with aiding and abetting. Enbridge released a statement to WIRED calling the undertaking “reckless and dangerous.” It read: “The individuals involved in these activities claimed to be protecting the environment, but they did the opposite and put the environment and the safety of people at risk—including themselves, first responders, and neighboring communities and landowners.”

And yet, Clearwater County district judge Robert Tiffany shocked just about everyone in October 2017 when he issued a short memorandum granting a necessity defense to the Minnesota Valve Turners. The defense had been used by anti-nuclear-weapon and antiabortion defendants, but it was the first time such a defense would ever be put before a jury in a climate case.

“The necessity defense is something that I’ve been working on for almost 20 years, and other lawyers too,” says Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon, who was lead attorney in the Minnesota Valve Turner trial. “People were comparing this trial with the Scopes monkey trial. In the Scopes trial, evolution was on the stand and people were trying to prove whether evolution was real or not, and in this case, especially in our current political moment, it’s basically climate science that is on trial.”

To that end, Regan and her co-counsels, Kelsey Skaggs of the Climate Defense Project and Minneapolis attorney Tim Phillips, spent months lining up a dream team of expert witnesses. These included James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, whose 1988 testimony before Congress first brought climate change to the public’s attention and who determined that 350 parts per million was the safe amount of CO2 we could have in the atmosphere (level as I write this: 405). Also invited was Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature was a climate wakeup call and who cofounded; Anthony Ingraffea, an oil transport expert who wrote pipeline safety protocols currently used by the American Petroleum Institute; and eight others talking about the health effects of global warming and the efficacy of civil disobedience.

Their job was to convince a jury that our government has taken so little action to reduce the use of fossil fuels—even under Barack Obama—that concerned citizens have no choice but to intervene.

Tar sands oil has been at the howling center of climate protest for years. The embattled Keystone XL pipeline project, for instance, would also carry tar sands oil. “This is really the dirtiest oil on earth, in carbon terms,” McKibben says by phone from Vermont. It’s a mixture of bitumen and sand about as gooey as peanut butter. “In many cases you have to burn natural gas to heat the ground to get the stuff to actually flow, even before you burn it in somebody’s car and produce more carbon. If you set out to build a machine to wreck the climate, it would look like the Alberta tar sands.”

Crude oil seen separated from sand for collection. Tailings ponds are used to separate the heavy oil bitumen from the sticky sand mined from around the area. Near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

dan prat/Getty Images

Testimony like that could change minds, especially with horrible storm events like Florence and Michael being the new normal. But the necessity defense is almost never granted because the burden of proof is so hard to meet. As defined in the proposed jury instructions, the defense would need to prove:

  • First, the harm that would have resulted from obeying the law would have significantly exceeded the harm actually caused by breaking the law.
  • Second, there was no legal alternative to breaking the law.
  • Third, the defendant was in danger of imminent physical harm.
  • Fourth, there was a direct causal connection between breaking the law and preventing the harm.

Because the activists were charged with state crimes, each of the four states where the 2016 Valve Turner actions took place handled them differently. Regan led the defense in all four and planned to use the necessity defense in all of them. But as the trials rolled out in 2017 and 2018, only Minnesota granted the use of the necessity defense. In North Dakota, Montana, and Washington State, judges disallowed it, determining what an activist’s motivation is allowed to be, and how much a jury is allowed to know.

The judge in Washington said Ken Ward, an East Coast transplant in Oregon and former deputy director and COO of Greenpeace USA, had not exhausted his legal options to slow climate change. For instance, he could support political candidates. Still, Ward did present a modicum of climate science to explain his “state of mind” during the action, and he was sufficiently convincing that he got a hung jury on burglary and sabotage. He was retried on both charges and got a hung jury again on the sabotage count but was convicted of burglary. He was sentenced to two days in jail and 30 days of community service, which he has already completed, though he is appealing on the basis that he was not allowed to present a necessity defense.

Similarly, Michael Foster, a family therapist and environmentalist from Seattle, was convicted of felony criminal mischief and conspiracy and misdemeanor trespass and sentenced to one year in prison and three years’ probation, which he served in North Dakota. Leonard Higgins, a retired state government IT executive manager from Eugene, Oregon, was convicted of felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor trespass and sentenced to $3,755 restitution and three years in prison, deferred, which means it can be expunged from his record once his probation in Oregon is done.

No federal charges were filed by the Obama administration. However, on October 23, 2017, 84 members of the House signed a letter decrying “recent attempts to disrupt the transmission of oil and natural gas” and calling on attorney general Jeff Sessions to prosecute. It cited the Valve Turners’ attempted sabotage. So far, no action.

The Minnesota case, however, has given the necessity defense some legal traction. The county prosecutor in Minnesota appealed Judge Tiffany’s ruling on the defense, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the decision 2–1 in April. The Minnesota Supreme Court refused to hear further appeal, so the use of the necessity defense at jury trial now has precedent, at least in the state of Minnesota.

“I have been waiting 10 years for a real climate necessity defense case,” says Tim DeChristopher, sitting with me in the old brick VFW Hall bar in Bagley, Minnesota, the tiny burg where the Clearwater County courthouse sits. In 2008, DeChristopher fraudulently purchased oil and gas leases on Bureau of Land Management parcels in Utah’s red rock country for $1.7 million, with no intention of paying for them. He believed that climate change was already so advanced that civilization was threatened, but his own necessity defense was denied and he served 21 months in prison. “I was not able to talk about climate change, not able to talk about my own motivations,” he says.

Since then, however, more and more judges have seemed open to the defense. Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara were involved in a now famous action in May 2013, when they used a 32-foot lobster boat to block a freighter carrying a load of coal to the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. The day of their trial, prosecutor Sam Sutter announced that he was dropping the criminal charges, saying, “Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced.” Sutter subsequently ran for mayor of Fall River and won, and the utility decided to close the Brayton Point plant.

In the 2016 trial of activists known as the Delta 5, who had blocked train tracks used by crude-oil trains in Everett, Washington, the judge allowed them to present expert witnesses to argue necessity in court, but then did not allow the jury to consider that defense. Though they were convicted of trespassing, the judge declared from the bench that the activists were “part of the solution” to climate change.

Just this year, DeChristopher and a group of other activists actually did win a necessity case, though it was not by jury trial. In that case, 14 people, including DeChristopher and Karenna Gore, daughter of Al Gore and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, were charged with civil infractions after disrupting construction of a high-pressure gas pipeline being built through the Boston suburb of West Roxbury. At the hearing early in 2018, Judge Mary Ann Driscoll found them “not responsible” by reason of necessity.

Still, DeChristopher points out, the necessity defense will not be fully legitimized until a jury decides: This is real. “If a jury of 12 random people unanimously says that climate change is so serious, and our government’s response to it is so inadequate, that it necessitates this kind of action by regular people—that, I think, is groundbreaking,” he says.

Regan notes that, in all three previous Valve Turner trials, very rural, conservative, law-and-order juries were transformed: “They would say things like, ‘Don’t come back here and do it, but thank you for what you were trying to do, and thank you for caring about our kids.’ These folks really made a long-term impact on those communities where the cases were held.”

On the day the trial began in Bagley, October 8, 2018, the Nobel Prize–winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out with a sobering report that raised the stakes. The IPCC, which has long been considered the voice of global scientific consensus, said that rigorous carbon emission reductions had to be achieved by 2030 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the low end of a scale at which massive global habitat loss for plants and animals—and, subsequently, us—begins. The report made clear that climate catastrophe isn’t happening in the far-off future. It’s happening now.

As Regan queried the assembled jury pool in Bagley, it became equally clear that the US is still far from a politics of climate necessity. “I don’t believe there is any global warming,” one middle-aged woman said. When Regan pressed her on whether she saw changes in storm severity on the news, she added, “Changes? Yeah, it’s getting colder.”

“I think it’s a hoax,” another said.

Another woman barked out at Regan, “Is this actually pertinent to this trial, or are you just wasting our time?!”

A majority of people in Clearwater County might believe that climate change is real, as the Yale Climate Opinion Maps found, but lots of them were reluctant to say so in public. Of the 55 people in the jury pool, a hilarious percentage of whom had Swedish surnames, some acknowledged that global warming was happening, but they were quick to add that they didn’t believe oil pipelines were the problem. One man was called in without any other potential jurors present and explained in very moving terms that he taught in a local school and risked damaging his professional standing for expressing his opinion. Almost everyone knew someone else in the room, including husbands and wives, and many had family members with jobs dependent on the pipeline. One man summed it up by saying he believed the climate was changing, “but I ain’t ready to blame it all on fossil fuels.”

David Hanson, the former county attorney in Clearwater and now the county attorney in neighboring Beltrami, warned in comments to Minnesota Public Radio that a favorable ruling in this case would threaten public safety. “They’re going to take their First Amendment right to assemble, and they’re going to push it beyond the right to assemble,” he said. “They’re going to start committing more crimes.”

After careful questioning by Regan, however, some jurors were identified who cared deeply about climate change. A soft-spoken, white-haired farmer named John Gunvalson, who has six pipelines running through his property in Gonvick, said he was trained in soil science and knew climate change was scientific fact. “It’s pretty ironic that when people get sick they go get the best medical care they can, but on global warming they don’t go with the best science available,” he said in court.

Gunvalson was cut from the jury by county prosecutor Al Rogalla. Afterward, Gunvalson told me, “It’s like the world has stood still for 40 years around here. No one seems to pay any attention to new knowledge.”

You can see the value of having a Clearwater County jury declare that it’s necessary to stop climate change. But it never got the chance. As abruptly as I write this sentence, the judge himself acquitted the Valve Turners on all counts. His courtroom would not be the start of the whirlwind.

Judge Tiffany had surprised everyone just before the trial began by severely limiting the expert testimony for the defense, cutting the list of defense witnesses from 11 to four. Hansen, McKibben, Ingraffea, and Twin Cities neurologist Bruce Snyder were still scheduled to appear, and it was going to be a hell of a show. In the course of normal courthouse negotiations meant to simplify the trial, the list of charges had been reduced to two—damage to critical infrastructure (Johnston) as well as aiding and abetting (Klapstein and Joldersma)—and when Rogalla presented his evidence to the jury, the only physical damage he cited was the cut chain. That, on its face, didn’t meet the statutory standard of “damage” to the pipeline, Judge Tiffany decided. He had remarks prepared to that effect, and he read them out loud and banged his gavel. The defendants were free to go.

The state lost and still clearly got the better outcome. There were no backroom negotiations with the defense, because Regan and her defendants were eager to present their case. There seemed to be little risk to the state or prosecutor Rogalla to proceed with the trial, since so many jurors were saying openly that they were pipeline supporters and chances were slim that they would have acquitted for reasons of necessity. But Regan and her co-counsels had lined up a fair amount of scientific firepower that could have showed how Clearwater County was due to be negatively impacted by global warming, and juries in the other Valve Turner trials had been very impressed by this same kind of locally targeted information

Rogalla seemed in a good mood for just having lost his case. He hugged Klapstein when she came across to shake his hand. Asked if there had been some kind of deal between him and the judge, he said only, “The state presented all the evidence it had available to prove the case. The judge decided that cutting a chain was not enough. This county prosecutor respects Judge Tiffany’s decision.”

Not everybody was buying that. “It seems like they didn’t want to talk about climate change,” Leonard Higgins told me.

The Bagley decision, however, left the door open to the necessity jury trial they wanted. Maybe in some other county. Regan pointed out that the Minnesota Appeals Court ruling means the necessity defense can now be used in other jury cases, at least in that state. She also noted that Judge Tiffany’s acquittal further restricted the meaning of “damage” under the statute. Her office in Oregon has trained activists for years on what to do once they get arrested; despite her warnings that the necessity defense is hard to use, she gets a call “about once or twice a month” from climate activists who are considering using it.

Meanwhile, activists all over the country are interfering with oil and coal infrastructure, blockading the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, temporarily shutting down construction of a section of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, killing plans for coal ports in Portland, Oregon, and other towns, locking themselves to the doors of banks to get them to divest from fossil fuel projects. Even as some 30 states have introduced bills to beef up their antiprotest laws, activists are swarming. If one of them were to draw federal charges in a city like New York or San Francisco, where science has more sway and jurors are more liberal, maybe national policy could be changed by one trial. Maybe that’s why Sessions hasn’t gone after climate change activists despite that letter from Congress asking the DOJ if it planned to ramp up its prosecution of environmental protesters.

The Brayton power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, was shut down in the wake of protests.

Frank Grace/Getty Images

Out on the steps of the courthouse in Bagley, Johnston said, “I’m very relieved that the state of Minnesota acknowledged that we did no damage. I also admit that I am disappointed that we did not get to put on the trial that we hoped for. We very much wanted our jurors to be able to hear from our expert witnesses, that we did this action because the problem of climate change is so urgent that we have to start shutting down tar sands pipelines now.”

Later, in a hall at the VFW that the legal team was using for its prep, James Hansen thought it was important to keep pushing in the courts. His granddaughter, Sophie Kivlehan, is one of the 21 plaintiffs involved in the landmark case Juliana vs. US, suing the federal government for failing to protect them from future climate change. After years of motions, the case is now on hold, as the Trump administration got a last-minute stay from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals while it petitions for the case to be dismissed. Hansen is writing a book called Sophie’s Planet. “I think we have to go on the offense. That means we have to put the government on trial,” Hansen says. “We shouldn’t have these elderly ladies on trial for turning off a pipeline; we should have the real criminals on trial. And that’s the government for failing to do its job.”

As the CTO of a tech company, Joldersma believes that his industry could wield significant power as a lobbying force. “What we need is what the hacking world calls ‘social engineering,’” he says. In other words: influence. “Amazon and Facebook and Microsoft and Google command so much power. These companies, if they decided to lobby Congress and put the same kind of influence on Congress like oil companies do, they could have an enormous impact for good.”

Johnston and Klapstein plan to go right back to direct action. “Nothing has gotten better since we shut down the valves two years ago,” Klapstein says. “The political system has been even further foreclosed. What does that leave ordinary citizens to do? It doesn’t mean stop trying legal means, but it does mean step up and put your body on the line too.”

On the night the trial closed, the Valve Turners and a lot of their supporters attended a talk in nearby Bemidji by James Hansen and tribal attorney Tara Houska of Honor the Earth. As I spoke to Regan, she was approached by an attorney representing three activists who locked themselves to the gate of a Wells Fargo bank branch in Duluth to protest that bank’s financial support of Enbridge. (While Wells Fargo has a financial relationship with Enbridge, the bank says it isn’t funding Enbridge’s pipeline project.) The court-appointed “referee” there—who serves in place of a judge—heard her clients’ arguments for climate necessity on October 19. In another case, in Cortlandt, New York, three activists argued before a judge in late October that climate necessity drove them to blockade the construction of a new Spectra/Enbridge pipeline. Decisions in both cases are a few months off. By then, there will almost certainly be more such cases. The case for necessity is only growing stronger.

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via Wired Top Stories

November 9, 2018 at 06:06AM

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The Future of Safe Self-Driving Cars Is Thermal Imaging

By the end of this year, Google’s Waymo self-driving program plans on expanding its public self-driving ride-sharing program in Arizona, and in the next decade there are about 46 companies working to do the same. Many of these systems don’t yet use thermal imaging, but after a demonstration of how effective it is at identifying objects, I’m not sure I’d get in a self-driving car that didn’t have it.

(Full Disclosure: FLIR wanted me to see how its thermal imaging technology could be easily incorporated into self-driving cars so their PR team showed up at our office with a Chevy Suburban with some cameras mounted to the roof. It was driven by a human but they still got the point across.)

FLIR, which claims to have about a 70 percent market share in thermal imaging technology but is not the only thermal imaging company trying to get in the self-driving game, has already offered automotive applications for the last few years in the form of visual driver assistance systems in high end cars from BMW, Mercedes, Audi and others. In this form, a display in the car uses the thermal imaging as a form of night vision to help spot animals and pedestrians in the road at night.

What FLIR is trying to do now is just apply that same concept to self-driving technologies, except instead of serving as a visual aid for a human driver, the thermal imaging acts as another visual layer for self-driving software to scan in real time and react to the environment around the car.

Here’s a video that FLIR paid The Drive contributor and former Jalopnik columnist Alex Roy to do to explain it all:

In an effort to advertise thermal imaging’s self-driving functionality, FLIR has developed its own visual awareness software and a new camera for demonstration purposes. The way it works is very straightforward.

The camera is no larger than a GoPro, ideally planted somewhere on the top of the car, just behind the windshield in the middle of the width of the roof, which is where a lot of new cars placing cameras anyway. The application I witnessed was very simple, with a FLIR camera and a standard camera mounted side-by-side, connected to a relatively powerful gaming laptop via USB cables. In this application, some of the capabilities of the setup is limited by the computer hardware and the fact that we were using USB connections.

On the demonstration screen inside the car, I saw a side-by-side view of what the standard camera was seeing, and a synced-up feed of what the thermal camera was seeing in black and white, in real time. Since it was dark outside, the thermal image was picking up a remarkable amount more data than the standard camera.

While in our demo, the thermal feed was in black and white—black being cooler areas of the image with white being the warmest areas of the image, and hundreds of shades of gray in between—it can be programed to have temperature ranges register in various colors, like the average range of human body temperature, for example.

Pedestrian figures stand out in the image as moving, glowing white human-shaped figures, with a clear outline that any person watching could instantly recognize, which is a good sign for any computer program trying to do the same. The way the computer analyzes the video feeds works with over 14,000 pre-programmed annotated visuals.

Basically, FLIR has taken recorded footage and gone through and annotated, or marked down, which shapes are cars, which shapes are bicycles, animals, people, etc. and fed that data back into the software so the computer can recognize and track similar-looking objects in real time.

I watched as we drove a couple of blocks around the Jalopnik office in Manhattan. Thanks to Benjamin Franklin or George Hudson or whichever brain-genius came up with daylight savings time, it was already nearly pitch black by 5:30 p.m., and the standard camera was picking up next to zero pedestrians and vehicles, despite street and ambient light.

But the thermal imaging camera was picking up a constant stream of cyclists and people on sidewalks, in crosswalks, jaywalkers, people in the back of box trucks, and even someone’s head poking around a tree.

I also watched as the FLIR camera and annotation software highlighted almost every parked car on the side of the road, every car in front of us and cars passing by in the intersection ahead. The only vehicles it didn’t seem to pick up was a parked mail truck, which was essentially just a giant grey box on screen, and a New York City bus. A FLIR representative told me the system didn’t see the bus because they didn’t have enough data from their test drives in California to have accurately annotated city buses yet. Presumably because California doesn’t believe in public transit, though I’ve been assured in the past that Silicon Valley is going to invent the bus any day now.

It’s important to note that this thermal imaging technology is not meant to replace traditional cameras, radar or LIDAR, the laser imaging system already found on most self-driving cars that does the three-dimensional mapping work. Instead, it’s meant to be a passive layer supplementing the recognition software in the car.

The biggest issue with thermal imaging is the prohibitively expensive cost of thermal imaging cameras, which can be over $1,000 per unit, which may be too much to ask of companies that may find the technology redundant. But the company is confident that it can get the cost of the cameras below $1,000 as more companies incorporate the technology into their self driving cars. The other main issue with the tech is its limited functionality as a backup, additional passive layer to imaging systems.

Thermal imaging doesn’t pick up street light colors, road sign markings, lane markings, and a lot of three-dimensional information is lost in the middle-toned greys of the surroundings. But what matters—moving cars, cyclists, animals and people—stands out remarkably better than a standard video camera. And to my eyes, objects can be more reliably tracked by the software, particularly at night.

FLIR even went through the trouble of re-enacting the fatal self-driving Uber incident, where a Volvo XC90 running Uber’s self-driving systems and hardware struck and killed a jaywalking pedestrian pushing a bicycle across the street at night, while Uber’s employee in the driver’s seat watched television on their phone. In FLIR’s recreation, the thermal imaging software recognized the pedestrian nearly 80 meters away, and around 30 seconds before they were clearly visible to me on the normal camera.

But beyond the self-driving aspects, there’s also something comforting about watching the system recognize obstacles and people on a screen in real time, something companies should keep in mind as they try to convince the masses to hop in the back seat of a driverless car.

When it comes to self-driving cars, however, the more safeguards and redundancy, the better.

via Gizmodo

November 8, 2018 at 07:06PM

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Google Contractors Say Reporting Process for Sexual Misconduct Remains Flawed

Last week, thousands of Google staffers walked out of their offices and into the streets in what is perhaps the largest collective protest of tech workers in history. The demonstration, which included Google offices across several continents, was sparked by reports that the company offered lucrative exit packages to multiple top executives accused of sexual misconduct. The impressive solidarity among Google’s workforce marked the industry’s big Time’s Up moment.

The “women’s walk” demonstration organizers demanded a number of changes to create a more inclusive and safe environment. Among their top demands is an improved process for reporting sexual harassment and assault, which Google on Thursday promised to at least partially address. But for thousands of contract workers contracted by Google, sources tell Gizmodo, the process is particularly frustrating and confusing, potentially discouraging contractors from filing complaints or otherwise raising concerns. And for contractors specifically, it does not appear Google has a plan to improve it anytime soon.

On Thursday, CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email to all Google employees outlining a number of changes the company plans to roll out in response to the walkout and the organizers’ demands. This includes ending forced arbitration for individual claims of sexual harassment and assault, an improved process for reporting misconduct and improvements around mandatory sexual harassment training, and “more granularity around sexual harassment investigations and outcomes.” The company also held a town hall on Thursday for full-time Google employees. Temp workers, vendors, and contractors were excluded from Pichai’s email and not even allowed in the room during Google’s all-hands, according to one contractor.

“I had to read it in the press rather than directly from the CEO whose company I have worked for this past year,” a contractor told Gizmodo on Thursday.

About half of Google’s workforce is reportedly made up of temporary, vendor or contract employees, better known within the industry as TVCs. This includes individuals working on projects with full-time employees, as well as service workers like baristas, bus drivers, and cafe workers. These are not officially Google employees, and they don’t have the same benefits or job security as those who are, according to contractors who spoke with Gizmodo. In addition, contractors say, they have a separate process for reporting misconduct that may remove Google’s involvement entirely.

Two contractors currently doing work for Google, who spoke to Gizmodo on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, say the process is currently confusing and unfair to a workforce that feels more vulnerable than full-time Googlers. Neither of the contractors claimed they experienced or needed to report sexual misconduct, but both expressed frustration over the current reporting process, characterizing it as difficult to navigate. They also said they fear that reporting any misconduct could negatively impact their employment status despite the company’s reassurance of non-retaliation.

One contractor said their impression of Google was not one of obvious negligence or misguided priorities. Instead, they said it continues to maintain a system that may present roadblocks for contract workers.

“I think Google would say … ‘We want to protect women, we want to protect people, reporting sexual harassment would not jeopardize your contract,’” they said, adding that it’s common for contractors to know someone on their team whose contract was cut short or not renewed without a stated reason. “There’s just some inconsistencies about what Google says and what Google does, especially around TVC issues.”

In response to a New York Times article published last month detailing how Google reportedly kept quiet sexual misconduct allegations against several executives, CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email directed to the full Google staff with the subject line “Reporting and investigating harassment.” He included a few lines explaining how workers can find more information on how to raise concerns through internal tools.

One contractor told Gizmodo that TVCs have a separate anonymous web portal for workplace concerns. “There’s a couple things to click on, it’s not super clear what to click on first,” the contractor said of the portal. “I have no visibility of where this goes, how things happen.”

According to screenshots obtained by Gizmodo of Google’s support page for raising workplace harassment issues, individuals should first raise their concerns to their the staffing agency, not to Google itself. If an incident involves another TVC, the page explains, Google will inform the contractor’s employer. If it involves a Google employee, Google states that it “will ensure the appropriate team addresses the matter and follow up with you once our process is complete.”

This page also includes contact information for an anonymous helpline as well as a section ensuring individuals that they will not face retaliation for raising a concern. “This means Google won’t take action that has an adverse impact on someone just for reporting or participating in an investigation of a possible violation of our Code of Conduct, Google policy, or the law,” it states.

An email from one contractors’ staffing agency obtained by Gizmodo aligns with Google’s policy, stating that the TVC should not contact their manager at Google if they needed to file a claim and instead contact an HR email associated with the agency. Google works with a number of different staffing agencies, and one contractor said that the way TVCs are treated within the company “feels very inconsistent.”

“There just needs to be one clear course of action and some kind of peace or assurance that if you are a TVC, the status of your contract will not be in jeopardy if you report something,” they said.

A representative at Crowdstaffing, one of the staffing agencies that works with Google, told Gizmodo that it has its own employee handbook and policies and serves as the contractor’s primary contact, including for filing workplace complaints. The representative said that at some point in the complaint process, they might loop in a client, such as Google, but that would happen “at a later stage,” after they perform their own analysis assessment.

“That’s designed simply as a way to ensure that we are the ones providing support,” the representative said. “They are our employees, not Google’s.”

The agency’s spokesperson noted that over the last several years, Crowdstaffing has employed over 1,000 people at Google, and while contractors have brought up various topics over the course of their assignment, such as pay, the agency has “never had a sexual harassment case.”

“We have had maybe one or two situations where we’ve had workers just perhaps not get along with certain team members in the organization,” the representative said, adding that this is “not to say [sexual misconduct complaints] don’t exist, but from my perspective, it’s been a pretty good situation there.”

The Google organizers’ specifically demanded “a clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously”—one that includes TVCs. The confusing, disjointed process of filing complaints hardly inspire faith in a system designed to protect and assure a company’s workers, a contractor said, especially its most vulnerable.

“There was no communication about the TVC reporting process in any of Sundar’s emails, anything from my manager, or anything in team meetings,” one contractor told Gizmodo.

Asked for comment on whether the policies it rolled out on Thursday apply to TVCs, Google referred Gizmodo to a quote from an internal announcement, dated November 8, which asserts that Google holds the staffing agencies it works with to its standards. It reads:

T-V-Cs are an important part of our extended community. We investigate all matters in which a complaint is made by a T-V-C against an employee, and require that suppliers do the same for complaints against T-V-Cs, and report back to us on any complaints. In addition, we recently broadened the reach of our Supplier Code of Conduct and require Google suppliers to “demonstrate a commitment to identify, measure, and improve a culture of diversity and inclusion through all aspects of workplace management.” This contractual agreement also holds suppliers accountable for maintaining “a program that provides workers with a means to report grievances anonymously and without fear of retaliation, unless prohibited by law”. We’ll continue routinely reviewing our suppliers for adherence with these provisions. For those suppliers that employ Google’s T-V-Cs, we’ll consider the findings from these reviews in evaluating whether to continue our supplier relationships.

In response to Pichai’s announcement on Thursday that Google would improve its process for reporting sexual harassment for full-time employees, the walkout organizers said the steps were promising but did not meet all their demands. They also emphasized the need to improve the process for TVCs in a Medium post published Thursday evening, which states that TVCs “perform essential roles across the company, but receive few of the benefits associated with tech company employment. They are also largely people of color, immigrants, and people from working class backgrounds.”

Stephanie Parker, a policy specialist at Google and one of the walkout organizers, said in the post: “We demand a truly equitable culture, and Google leadership can achieve this by putting employee representation on the board and giving full rights and protections to contract workers, our most vulnerable workers, many of whom are Black and Brown women.

While both contractors we spoke with agreed with the numerous demands outlined by the walkout organizers, they say that some full-time employees may not fully grasp how tenuous their positions feel. One of the contractors said that during the walkout in New York, they overheard other contractors—you can easily identify them by their red badges—pointing out that their job insecurity, and how that impacts their motivation to report misconduct, wasn’t really addressed during the walkout or in the press.

“I feel like they covered the necessities,” a contractor said, adding that a clear line on how contractors can raise workplace concerns isn’t “a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have.”

Do you have information about Google’s handling of misconduct allegations and workplace concerns? You can email me at You can also contact us anonymously using SecureDrop.

via Gizmodo

November 8, 2018 at 08:00PM

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Windows 10 users finding their legit installs are being deactivated

For reasons that are currently unclear, Windows 10 Professional users are finding that their properly licensed installations are being deactivated.

On systems affected by the issue, Windows is complaining that a Windows 10 Home license key is being used with a Windows 10 Pro installation. To fix things, the system needs to be wiped and Windows 10 Home installed. Otherwise, a genuine Windows 10 Pro key needs to be used.

Microsoft has acknowledged that the problem exists and that some unspecified issue with the Windows Authentication servers is causing the problem, but as yet, there’s no fix. The Windows 10 Pro licenses do seem to be valid, and some resolution is promised within a couple of business days.

Listing image by Rural Learning Center

via Ars Technica

November 8, 2018 at 03:49PM

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North Korea-linked hacking group stole millions from ATMs


Lazarus, North Korea-linked hacking group that was behind the notorious WannaCry attack, managed to steal tens of millions of dollars from ATMs in Asia and Africa, according to a report from security firm Symantec. The hackers deployed malware called Trojan.FastCash and infected thousands of servers that communicate with ATMs. It then used that access to approve its own fraudulent transactions and withdraw money from the machines.

The FastCash scheme has been going on for years. According to Homeland Security’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), which issued a warning about the attack last month, the trojan has been active since 2016 and has been used in a number of widespread campaigns. In 2017, the hackers used FastCash to simultaneously withdraw money from ATMs in 30 different countries. Another hit that happened earlier this year drained cash across 23 countries. In most cases, the hit banking servers that are running out of date operating systems, meaning the exploit may have been patched in more recent versions of the software.

The ATM hacks are just Lazarus’ latest high-profile attack. The group, which is believed to have ties to the North Korean government, has been behind a number of noteworthy hacks. Lazarus carried out the 2014 attack on Sony Pictures that led to the leak of The Interview and a significant amount of private documents and emails. They were also behind an $81 million theft of a Bangladesh Bank in 2016 and last year’s WannaCry ransomware outbreak that infected hundreds of thousands of machines around the world.

via Engadget

November 8, 2018 at 11:54AM

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This vaccine could help people with celiac eat gluten again, but it’s not for everyone

Despite the explosion of gluten-free food in the last few years, actually being on a physician-prescribed GF diet isn’t easy. Millions of people with celiac disease spend their lives fretting over cross-contamination at restaurants and scrutinizing labels. It’s a lot of paranoia and watching other people eat cake. Worst of all, despite interrogating waiters about which foods are safe to eat, sometimes you get glutened anyway.

For all these reasons, physicians and researchers who work with celiac patients know that staying on a gluten-free diet isn’t the simple fix that it appears to be. That’s why a company called ImmusanT has been developing an alternative: a vaccine.

We usually think of vaccines as useful for battling viruses, not autoimmune diseases, but the theory behind ImmusanT’s Nexvax2 seems sound so far. Like a normal shot, Nexvax2 exposes a patient’s immune system to a small quantity of what would otherwise be a dangerous substance. For standard vaccines, that’s a virus, but for Nexvax2 it’s gluten.

To really understand how it works, though, we have to dive a little further into what celiac actually is, because contrary to popular belief it’s not an allergy. Allergies are essentially an overreaction to something that your body is supposed to consider harmless. If you’re allergic to milk, your immune system thinks milk proteins are dangerous and will release a ton of histamines in response to their presence. This flood of histamines causes the symptoms of the allergy (some so-called allergies are actually intolerances related to how the gut breaks down certain foods, like alliums, but still aren’t autoimmune in nature). Celiac patients’ immune systems have also mischaracterized a protein, in this case gluten proteins, as being dangerous, but instead of releasing a bunch of histamines it starts attacking itself.

When people with celiac eat gluten they don’t get wheezy—they experience gastrointestinal distress as their immune systems attack their intestinal lining. If there’s enough gluten, this response damages the delicate fingers called villi that normally absorb nutrients from food. Celiac patients with damaged villi can end up malnourished if this goes on for long enough.

This whole attack gets coordinated by T cells, which are a type of immune cell responsible for recognizing foreign invaders. People with celiac have T cells that have accidentally learned to identify bits of the gluten proteins as dangerous. So, the folks at ImmunsanT wanted to know, what if you could teach T cells that gluten was okay?

The first step was to figure out which parts of the gluten proteins were triggering T cells to respond. Turns out, it’s just a handful of locations. They isolated those short peptide strands and essentially loaded them straight into a syringe, then injected them into the arms of celiac patients. With too high a starting dose, pretty much everyone had a classic gluten reaction: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and fatigue. But in later trials when they started out with just three micrograms of gluten and gradually increased the dose, most people tolerated up to 900 micrograms, or .0009 grams, with few to no symptoms. Europeans and Americans eat about 10 to 14 grams of gluten per day, on average, but eating the stuff isn’t quite the same as shooting it directly into your veins; ImmusanT’s ultimate goal is to allow patients to enjoy a regular diet.

Unfortunately, those with celiac can’t immediately get their gluten shots and start enjoying carefree cake. In upcoming trials, ImmusanT needs to prove that their vaccine isn’t just safe, but that it’s actually more effective than currently available options (which won’t be difficult—right now a gluten-free diet is your only option). Once it passes phase 2 and 3 trials, it’ll need to get approval from the Food & Drug Administration before patients can get their hands on it.

And there’s one more caveat: it’s not for everyone. The portions of the gluten peptide that a celiac patient’s immune system recognizes is specific to the genetic mutations they carry. This vaccine is being made for people with the HLA-DQ2.5 mutation, which 90 percent of people with celiac have. Another five percent have a mutation on HLA-DQ8, and the final five have some other, unidentified mutation. At a celiac conference at Columbia University in March 2018, ImmusanT’s Chief Scientific Officer Robert Anderson explained that they wanted to start with the most common genotype so they could help the most people, but that they’re working on one for DQ8 patients as well.

The hope is that celiac patients might eventually develop full tolerance to gluten and be able to eat an unrestricted diet, possibly accompanied by occasional booster shots to ensure that the tolerance sticks around. That future is still many years off. The current phase 2 trials won’t end until 2019, then phase 3 trials will take another few years and FDA approval could take even longer, followed by drug manufacturing and distribution. But the possibility of a longterm treatment for celiac disease is becoming more real—and that’s pretty darn exciting.

via Popular Science – New Technology, Science News, The Future Now

November 8, 2018 at 10:22AM

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