Commander in Thief: Profiteering from the Presidency

— excerpt below —




January/February/March 2018
Commander in Thief
How much of Trump’s profiteering is unconstitutional, and how much is just sleazy? A field guide.

by Nicole Narea MAGAZINE
Jim Watson/Getty Images
Fête accompli: Donald Trump has spent more than a quarter of his presidency patronizing his own commercial properties. Each visit—like this state dinner at Mar-a-Lago with Chinese President Xi Jinping—funnels public money into his pocket.


No story has gripped Washington’s attention over the last year more than the Russia investigation. Robert Mueller’s inquest draws ever closer to the president. Three congressional committees are at least going through the motions of conducting their own probes. One breathtaking media scoop follows another. The question at the heart of it all is whether Donald Trump violated the law or the Constitution—and, ultimately, whether those violations merit his impeachment.

Yet all the while, official Washington has tolerated an entire other class of corrupt and potentially unconstitutional behavior being carried out in plain sight, as Trump uses the presidency to enrich himself and his family. He has installed immediate relatives at the helm of the Trump Organization, continued to accept payments from foreign governments and private interests, and lavishly billed the government for using his own properties—all without guaranteeing that he will prioritize his duties as president over his own bottom line.

No president ever entered office with the type of immense personal fortune and ongoing business interests that Trump has. Trump’s vast business empire spans more than 500 companies in twenty-five countries and has earned him an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion. Traditionally, on taking office, presidents have placed their assets in a “blind trust” whose trustee is legally barred from telling the beneficiary about the trust’s holdings. Jimmy Carter famously placed the family peanut business into a blind trust in 1977. Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all followed suit.

Trump’s trust agreement is a little different. For one thing, it’s not blind—Trump’s children have admitted to providing their father with regular business updates. For another, the agreement allows him to withdraw profits and assets from the trust at any time. That means Trump has a direct and ongoing financial interest in any policy decision that could affect his businesses.

Much of this has happened in broad daylight. The mainstream media has covered Trump’s conflicts doggedly. But the steady drip-drip-drip of evidence hasn’t captured the public’s attention like Russia has, or motivated any serious response by the government—no investigations are under way, either in Congress or the executive branch. This despite the fact that the infractions raise the same terrifying possibility as Trump’s possible collusion with Russia: the sacrificing of American interests in the service of the president’s personal gain.

The only active effort to investigate Trump’s profiteering is happening through civil lawsuits in New York, D.C., and Maryland federal courts. The plaintiffs challenging Trump’s behavior include the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); some 200 Democrats in Congress, led by Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; attorneys general in Washington, D.C., and Maryland; and hotel and restaurant owners who compete with Trump. They all argue that Trump is in blatant violation of a provision in the Constitution meant to ensure that the president can’t exploit his office for profit. (Update: just before Christmas, but after this article went to press, a federal judge in New York dismissed one of the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. An appeal is likely.)

But aside from these civil suits, which may take years to resolve, Trump just keeps getting away with it. One reason this hasn’t generated more outcry is that the infractions have been a steady accumulation, rather than one smoking gun. So we thought now, one year into Trump’s presidency, would be a good time to pull everything together and document the full scope of what’s known about his corrupt behavior. (A more comprehensive list of the improper perks Trump has received can be found here.) Clearly, the Republican-
controlled Congress has no interest in holding Trump to account. But if the Democrats retake Congress, they should start an investigation on their first day. This is their background reading.

Full List: Here’s every time Trump has profited off the presidency.
Corruption Type 1: Foreign Emoluments
Foreign interference in our political system was of grave concern to the framers of the Constitution. They knew that when a federal officeholder receives gifts, money, or other benefits from foreign governments, his judgment is compromised and his loyalties are divided. So they wrote a strict rule into the text of the Constitution, the Foreign Emoluments Clause, which provides that federal officeholders may not “accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state” without Congress’s approval.

The mainstream media has covered Trump’s conflicts doggedly. But the steady drip-drip-drip of evidence hasn’t captured the public’s attention like Russia has, or motivated any serious response by the government—no investigations are under way, either in Congress or the Justice Department.
Unlike with bribery statutes, a violation of the Foreign Emoluments Clause doesn’t require proof that an official gave something in return. It’s designed to protect against not just quid pro quo corruption, but also the mere appearance of improper influence on government officials.

With that understanding, CREW argues in its suit that Trump’s business interests are “creating countless conflicts of interest, as well as unprecedented influence by foreign governments, and have resulted and will further result in numerous violations of the Constitution.” As an example, the group cites foreign governments’ lavish spending at Trump’s hotel and restaurants, particularly at the Trump International Hotel just steps away from the White House, in some cases at the prodding of Trump’s agents. After the election, the Trump International hosted more than 100 foreign diplomats for a tour, sending them home with goody bags and brochures in an attempt to encourage their patronage. Former Mexican diplomat Arturo Sarukhan has said that the State Department urged diplomats to stay at the Trump International while on official visits.

Delegations from at least eight countries have obliged. In September, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and other members of his administration were seen hobnobbing in meeting rooms at the hotel, bringing in what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue. Saudi Arabia has spent more than a quarter of a million
dollars—$190,000 on lodging, $78,000 on catering, and $1,600 on parking—at the hotel in connection with its lobbying against legislation that would allow American citizens to sue foreign governments over terrorist attacks.

And the Kuwaiti embassy suddenly changed the venue for its National Day celebration last February from the Four Seasons to the Trump International, paying an estimated $40,000 to $60,000. A source with knowledge of the conversations between the hotel and the embassy told ThinkProgress that Trump Organization members had pressured the Kuwaiti ambassador to cancel the embassy’s “save the date” reservation at the Four Seasons, where it had held the event in the past. Perhaps it’s purely a coincidence that neither Saudi Arabia nor Kuwait were among the Muslim-majority nations singled out by Trump’s travel ban.

Moreover, foreign governments continue to hold leases on units in Trump buildings. Trump Tower’s largest commercial tenant is the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which pays nearly $2 million per year for office space—and whose lease is up for renewal in 2019. Other governments, including Saudi Arabia, India, Afghanistan, and Qatar, continue to pay collective charges of at least $225,000 annually on units purchased prior to Trump’s election.

The full extent of these arrangements, of course, is unknown. If Congress or the Justice Department investigated, they could very well uncover many more examples.

In an ostensible attempt to mitigate such impropriety, Trump has pledged to donate the profits he receives from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury, forfeiting funds earned in 2017 sometime in 2018. But it’s an empty promise, because there is no way to know if he’s following through unless he provides transparency into his business operations. Instead, Trump has gone to great lengths to keep his dealings secret, refusing to disclose his tax returns and leaving the public to wonder just how enmeshed with foreign governments he really is. It’s possible that he plans to donate all the proceeds, but his pattern of secrecy leaves little reason to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Curiously, Trump has an easy way to protect himself from running afoul of the Constitution while still profiteering from foreign governments. The Founding Fathers inserted flexibility into the Emoluments Clause by allowing public officials to disclose foreign emoluments and request the approval of Congress. Yet Trump has not even bothered to make this request, and Congress, controlled by the GOP, hasn’t demanded that he do so. The question is, why not just do this simple paperwork? Is it arrogance? Sloppiness? Or the fear that once the process of disclosing the foreign payments starts, facts will come out that Trump doesn’t want shared?

Moreover, Trump’s emoluments from foreign governments may extend beyond traceable cash payments. The Trump Organization has earned regulatory benefits like intellectual property rights in a number of foreign countries, most notably China, Russia, Mexico, and Indonesia.

In the decade before he became president, the Chinese government granted Trump seventy-seven trademarks. In the last year alone, it has granted at least thirty-nine, some of which it had previously rejected. The now-protected marks include those for spa and massage services, golf clubs, hotels, insurance, finance and real estate companies, restaurants, bars, and more. In one case, the Chinese green-lighted a Trump trademark application in February only days after he spoke with President Xi Jinping, pledging to uphold the “One China Policy” and maintaining the U.S.’s position that Taiwan is part of China (the opposite position from the one he campaigned on). “If this isn’t a violation of the Emoluments Clause,” noted Senator Dianne Feinstein, “I don’t know what is.” (First daughter Ivanka Trump pulled a similar trick last April, hosting, with her husband, Jared Kushner, a surf-and-turf dinner with the Chinese president at Mar-a-Lago the same day her company won provisional monopoly rights to sell Ivanka brand merchandise and spa services in the world’s second-largest market.)

The framers, with their eighteenth-century understanding of economics, may not have foreseen a world in which emoluments take the form of intellectual property rights in a foreign market. But they could envision scenarios in which the president might be tempted to accept a foreign policy deal sweetened with direct personal benefits—precisely the kind of conflict of interest they aimed to prevent with the Emoluments Clause.

Corruption Type 2: Domestic Emoluments
The framers weren’t just worried about foreign influences. They intended the Domestic Emoluments Clause to ensure that Congress, other parts of the federal government, and the states “can neither weaken [the president’s] fortitude by operating on his necessities, nor corrupt his integrity by appealing to his avarice,” as Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers. It entitles the president to receive a salary (currently $400,000 a year) and benefits fixed by Congress, but prohibits him from taking any other profits from the public—whether from the federal government or from any of the states.

Trump doesn’t just rely on others to put money into his businesses—he patronizes them himself with stunning frequency, having spent more than 100 days at them, nearly a third of his presidency, while in office. Each visit funnels public money to Trump’s business, mainly in the form of exorbitant security costs.
Trump violates this provision, many constitutional scholars have argued, when state or federal entities patronize his properties and spend taxpayer money. Although the full extent of these violations is unknown, public reporting has confirmed that the president is at least receiving some revenue from state and federal officials through the businesses that he owns.

Business at the Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office Building, which it leases from the federal General Services Administration, has been booming. It’s become a place to see and be seen for D.C. Republicans, including cabinet officials and members of Congress. And it’s where Maine Governor Paul LePage stayed during publicly funded travel to Washington over the summer, spending at least $2,250 just on accommodations for his security team.

Trump’s continued control over the hotel would seem to violate a provision in the contract that prohibits any U.S. elected official from participating in the lease or benefiting from it in any way. But the GSA has allowed him to keep the sixty-year lease based on his promise—totally unsubstantiated—not to receive profits until after he
leaves office. The GSA’s director is a presidential appointee, meaning Trump is both the landlord and tenant of this prime federally owned real estate.

The forty-six-story Trump SoHo Hotel in Manhattan has also been a lucrative source of public dollars. State pension funds in California, New York, Texas, Arizona, Montana, Michigan, and Missouri reportedly contributed millions to an investment fund that owns the hotel and has compensated the Trump Organization. The arrangement predated Trump’s inauguration by several years, but he continued to receive quarterly payments from the fund for almost a year after taking office. California’s pension fund alone paid the investment fund more than $1.7 million in management fees for the first three months of 2017. The Trump Organization, which received a cut of the hotel’s revenue, only severed ties with the investment fund in November, citing a decline in business in the deeply Democratic city.

But Trump doesn’t just rely on others to put money into his businesses—he patronizes them himself with stunning frequency, having spent more than 100 days at them, nearly a third of his presidency, while in office. Unlike any previous president, Trump’s vacation properties are for-profit enterprises, meaning each visit funnels public money to Trump’s business, mainly in the form of exorbitant security costs. Secret Service has blown through its budget due to Trump’s frequent travel expenses, requesting an additional $60 million to protect the first family in March. Trump’s detail reportedly paid Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s luxury club in Palm Beach, Florida, at least $63,000 between February and April, and has spent at least $144,975 on golf cart rentals at Trump properties in New Jersey, Virginia, and Palm Beach as of November. And last spring, the Defense Department signed a $2.39 million eighteen-month lease for space in Trump Tower for a military office meant to provide various presidential services, including access to nuclear launch codes.

Again, it’s theoretically possible that these dollars aren’t ending up in Trump’s bank account. Perhaps Trump’s businesses have provided every working lunch and hotel room to the government free of charge. But given Trump’s refusal to be transparent about that information, there is no way to confirm it. And even if Trump did start donating the revenue derived from public money, each visit would still amount to taxpayer-supported advertising for his properties.

The Domestic Emoluments Clause has long been interpreted as allowing presidents to receive some governmental perks that fall outside his salary, including security and other expenses when they travel. George W. Bush received these whenever he spent time at his Crawford ranch, just as Barack Obama did when he vacationed in Hawaii. Never before, however, have these expenses gone into the coffers of a company owned by the president himself, as happens every time Trump visits Mar-a-Largo or golfs at one of his clubs. At the very least, each visit appears to involve a transfer of taxpayer money to Trump’s bottom line—which looks like the kind of “appealing to his avarice” that the founders were afraid of.

Corruption Type 3: Slimy, but Probably Legal
Many presidents have been independently wealthy, but none before Trump entered the White House with a massive on-going business empire—or brazenly used the office to drive up that empire’s value.

Almost immediately following his inauguration, the annual membership rate at Mar-a-Lago, which Trump has dubbed his “Winter White House,” doubled, from $100,000 to $200,000, reflecting Trump’s eagerness to capitalize on the market value of access to the leader of the free world. In February, Mar-a-Lago management sold a tennis shirt featuring a “45” on the sleeve in reference to Trump, the forty-fifth president. By April, rates at the Trump International Hotel had jumped to at least $660 per night, an increase in hundreds from before his election. And in November, the president plugged his New Jersey golf course during a foreign policy speech in Seoul.

As sleazy as it is for a president to trade on his office to pad his bottom line, what’s truly shocking is that, when the money comes from private sources, there appears to be nothing illegal about it.
Despite Trump’s vow that his companies would make no new foreign deals while he is in office, the Trump Organization is actively expanding its portfolio and, in the past year, has opened two residential projects in India, a golf club in Dubai, and a hotel in Vancouver, while two real estate projects in Indonesia are still in the works. Trump insists that the public should take him at his word that he has no involvement in the Trump Organization, yet he continues to talk shop with his sons as they charge forward in promoting the brand worldwide.

As sleazy as it is for a president to trade on his office to pad his bottom line—and to continue to make international business deals while being responsible for America’s well-being—what’s truly shocking is that there appears to be nothing illegal about it. The Emoluments Clauses target domestic and foreign government payments, but say nothing about profiteering from private sources.

That means Trump doesn’t run afoul of the Constitution each time private organizations host an event at his properties, even if they are actively lobbying the government. And they do—frequently. At least fifteen interest groups—including the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, the private prison company GEO Group, and conservative organizations including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Fund for American Studies—have all hosted events at Trump hotels in the last year and are registered lobbyists.

Among the most extravagant events was a $400,000 Red Cross ball hosted at Mar-a-Lago in February and themed “From Vienna to Versailles,” referencing the route traveled by Marie Antoinette in 1770 before she was married to the last French king, Louis XVI. (And long before the couple were beheaded in the French Revolution.) With the first lady on his arm, Trump himself attended, greeted with explosive applause from the party goers upon his arrival.

For the private organizations that dote on his hotels, Trump is likely to return the favor. He has shown himself to be susceptible to flattery, receiving twice-daily briefings on favorable press coverage of himself and condemning his media critics as universally “failing.”

Where the Constitution cannot regulate the president’s profiteering from private sources, federal ethics rules are also impotent. The rules bar executive branch employees from soliciting and accepting “gifts” from private interest groups, particularly if they have used their position to do so or have received a benefit for “being influenced in the performance of an official act,” according to the Office of Government Ethics. And political appointees, including Trump’s cabinet members, are explicitly prohibited from accepting “gifts or gratuities from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations.” (Both White House adviser Kellyanne Conway and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have already been accused of violating those rules.)

But Trump isn’t subject to the same restrictions. Congress exempted the president from the 1978 Ethics of Government Act and the 1989 Ethics Reform Act, out of fear that presidents would have to recuse themselves from policy decisions. “They made a judgment call to rely on accountability and conscience as the restraint on presidential profiteering,” said Jed Shugerman, a law professor at Fordham University. “And for most of American history, those norms were sufficient.”

It looks like it might be time to rethink that judgment call.

Nicole Narea
Nicole Narea is a reporter based in New York City who covers public policy from a legal perspective.

© 2018 Washington Monthly.


Hilarious: we asked Legal Experts if Elon Musk can really send his Roaster into space..

The First Car in Space
On December 21, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk posted seven photos to Instagram of his red Tesla roadster being encased within a Falcon Heavy rocket, seemingly confirming rumors (that he had himself started via Twitter) that he plans to make the vehicle the payload for the rocket’s first test. The Falcon Heavy is slated to carry supplies into Mars orbit for future manned missions — but it has to get off the ground first.

After months of delays, the test mission is planned for sometime in January, and will utilize the Roadster as a dummy payload to be delivered into a “billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”

Musk has been very open about the fact that the first Falcon Heavy flight could very likely fail; this test flight will allow the rocket to demonstrate that it can carry real supplies into orbit, but without risking the loss of expensive equipment packed into the first-ever launch.

“There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy, a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit,” he said at a discussion during the International Space Station Research and Development conference. “I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly. I hope it makes it far enough beyond the pad so that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”

Whether the launch is successful or not, there are still lots of questions remaining about the specifics of the unusual payload: is it legal to launch a car in the Falcon Heavy? Is it safe? Does it pose the threat of creating space debris? And, since Musk has stated that he loves the idea of “a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future,” is a Tesla Roadster really the best legacy we can leave for aliens to discover?

We asked experts about the legal, technical, and extraterrestrial issues that arise from Musk’s planned Roadster launch — and what might happen if that launch fails.

Frans Von der Dunk, Othmer Professor of Space Law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Law

Whether Musk’s plans are feasible and/or advisable is, of course, not a legal question as such — so I’ll limit myself to the legal sides indeed. The short answer is yes. There is law both on the international plane and on the U.S. plane dealing with that.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) imputes state responsibility and state liability on relevant states (in this case the U.S.) for private launches into, and activities in, space, such as Musk’s; SpaceX being both a U.S. company and launching from U.S. territory or facilities. It also offers the U.S. the possibility to exercise jurisdiction and control over SpaceX vehicles, so as to effectively make them into vehicles carrying the U.S. flag just like U.S.-registered ships or aircraft. The U.S. is one of the parties to the OST, together with all other important spacefaring nations, including Russia and China.

Other than that, the OST only imposes some rather general limitations to the legitimate use of space, such as the orbiting of weapons of mass destruction or (to some extent only) the wanton harmful interference with other states’ legitimate space activities. But in principle, outer space is a kind of global commons, an area free for exploration and use by all states and their private entities as long as properly authorized and supervised.

The 1972 Liability Convention (LC) has further detailed the liability regime for damage caused by space objects — including anything sent into outer space by Musk — again imputing that liability to the U.S.

Following on from these international obligations resting upon the U.S. (as well as from its own varied interests in a relatively orderly conduct of mankind’s activities in outer space) the U.S. has enunciated a set of laws over the last decades to implement these obligations, notably of authorization and supervision through a complicated licensing system, imposing the obligation to ensure upon licensees.

SpaceX needs to have a license prior to being allowed to launch, whereby the relevant office within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) scrutinizes the safety, security and other relevant public interest aspects of the launch, including a payload review addressing, in this case, the Tesla Roadster. In the license will include an obligation to repay the U.S. government the first tier of any international liability claim that the U.S. government would be required to pay out following its OST and LC obligations, a first tier likely amounting to a seven or eight figure dollar amount, against which SpaceX has to then insure itself.

Prof. Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, Emerita, Editor-in-Chief Emerita, Journal of Space Law

There is clear U.S. law regarding launches and reentries. Therefore, if the launch is from U.S. territory, SpaceX will have to get a U.S. launch license from the FAA. However, the FAA only has authority to license launches and reentries.

As for the payload itself, the FAA does not have authority to license activities of payloads on-orbit or on celestial bodies. It has issued one favorable payload review for a lunar activity. A favorable payload review determination means that a payload does not present any issues affecting public health and safety, the safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States. It is not an authorization to operate. Congress would have to pass a law that grants jurisdiction to a federal agency, or agencies, to authorize on-orbit operations.

The FAA has said that any future payload reviews would have to be done on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, the FAA would have to conduct a review to determine if a payload consisting of a Tesla Roadster presents any issues affecting public health and safety, the safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States. And if a favorable review were made, there would still have to be a law in place that allows a federal agency to authorize on-orbit activities. In short, the legal environment is currently ambiguous for non-traditional space missions.

Don Kessler, Orbital Debris and Meteoroid Consultant; Retired NASA Senior Scientist for Orbital Debris Research

The issue as to whether Mr. Musk creates a debris hazard depends more on where in Mars orbit he puts the Roadster, rather than what material is in the required payload. However, the international debris community has yet to define the “safe limits” of debris in various regions of Earth orbit, much less in orbit around Mars or in any other planetary orbit.

The international community still needs to address the need for an international long-term management plan, starting with all of Earth orbit and then expanding to a plan for other planets. So far, the only plan that exists is a set of unenforceable guidelines to minimize the accumulation of debris in all Earth orbits below geosynchronous orbit.

Most of space is large enough that any mass we introduce could not cause a significant debris hazard. That is not true of the space around planets. Obviously, the closer an orbit is to a planet, the less available space there is, making collisions between orbiting objects more probable, and any mass in lower orbits becomes more dangerous due to the increase in velocity necessary to stay in orbit.

At this point, the safe option for Musk is to leave the payload in an orbit around the sun rather than in an orbit around Mars. However, we have already introduced artificial objects into Mars orbits and so Musk would not be the first to contribute to a future debris hazard there. By ignoring these issues in Mars orbit, we are beginning a process that created debris issues in Earth orbit that we have not yet adequately explored. We should not make the same mistake again.

Seth Shostak, Chief Astronomer, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute

Compare this payload to the Voyager pioneer probe, which was created to send messages to aliens. There are two aspects of considering both: one, would aliens understand any of it, would they be appropriate messages? And two, would they ever find it?

Regarding that second thing, the chances that they’ll find the Voyager probe strike me as somewhat less than minuscule. To find this thing, it will have to get by chance maybe within one light year to someone else’s star system. It takes a hundred thousand years for the fastest rockets to go to Alpha Centauri. And that doesn’t matter because it will survive that journey, but in between – it’s very small. It’s the size of a compact car, and space is really big. I did a calculation a few weeks ago, and it would kind of be like locating a bacterium on the Pacific ocean without knowing it’s there! And that’s only a two-dimensional calculation; it’s actually much worse than that because it’s a 3D problem.

Now, if a payload is going into Mars orbit, that changes things. Theoretically, aliens might go into our solar system, look around Mars, [and] might eventually find it.

The first question, of: will they understand it, or be ticked off by the message, send battle wagons to earth to destroy the planet out of pique? [When it comes to the Voyager message], that’s a question about alien sociology more than anything. But I think that probably the most informative thing would be any craft they find. You could think of it as if we had found one of the ships from the great age of exploration from the 1500’s. There might be a Bible or two on board, but the interesting thing would be the ship itself. [We would know], so they steered with this big wooden paddle on the back, they had sails and ropes, and that would tell you something about the technical sophistication of that society. So aliens could probably learn more from the craft itself.

I think, if I’m going to construct a message for the aliens, I would just give them the internet. They could pick up a lot from that. There’s a lot of redundancy there. If you look up “cat,” you don’t just see symbols. Their computers could look through the whole thing, referenced many times, and between images and funny videos they could get an idea of what that meant. I wouldn’t go for a very carefully crafted, specific message: we’re humans and this is what we looked like. I’d just give them lots and lots of stuff.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

BBC News: Why Guyana’s rainforests are a scientist’s dream

Why Guyana’s rainforests are a scientist’s dream – and how indigenous people are the first scientists of the forest. Scientists rely on tribal knowledge of the land and species within, then simply promote themselves using or knowledge. Then they leave us forgotten, no acknowledgement, not resources to protect the land, not to become university trained scientists.

China’s solar powered highway


Solar Roadways Are Now Open
Roofs and windows of buildings aren’t the only surfaces that can be used to generate solar power. In China, construction has begun of the country’s first solar highway, in which solar panels are placed underneath transparent concrete.

As reported by Electrek, the solar highway is a 2 km (1.2 mile) stretch of road located on the Jinan City Expressway, and it’s divided into three layers. The see-through concrete shields an array of solar panels of two sizes. Beneath the solar panels is a layer that will keep them isolated from the damp ground. The road itself has already been completed, and now it’s only a matter of connecting the grid, which is expected to be finished by the end of the year alongside the completion of the Jinan Expressway’s south section.

Overhead shot of China’s solar highway. Image Credit: People’s Network
This isn’t the first solar road China has worked on. Earlier this year, the Qilu Transportation Development Group — which is also handling the Jinan Expressway solar road — built a 160 meter (0.09 mile) long solar road in the city of Jinan itself. It’s capable of heating up to keep the highway clear of snow and ice, and may one day be able to wirelessly charge electric vehicles. The new solar highway is expected to one day be equipped with the same features.

Solar Roads Around the World
Outside of China, solar roads are nothing new. In 2014, the Netherlands built a bike path fitted with solar panels to generate electricity; a village in the north of France opened a km (0.62 mile) long solar road in 2016. In the U.S. the Missouri Department of Transportation agreed to begin testing solar sidewalks near Route 66.

Solar roadways may have their critics (they are susceptible to being covered by dirt and other debris), but as their efficiency and applications improve, they’re sure to prove their value. And with EVs becoming more popular, the world’s going to need more ways to keep their vehicles charged and ready to go.

Noise Pollution health crisis looms

— excerpt below —

Cities don’t just get filthy in the visual sense — urban spaces can often be a raging mess of sound. The blaring car horns, the police sirens screaming through the usual waves of traffic, the clatter of passing trains, the constant cacophony of voices rising and falling as a strange melody — this deluge of noise can be devastating to the human psyche.

“I think, as a society, we are becoming much more aware of the noise around us,” Scott Sommerfeldt, an engineer at Brigham Young University who specializes in acoustic noise mitigation, tells Futurism. “Excessive noise has detrimental health effects on us, and we’re finally realizing how those effects add up.”

By 2100, 84 percent of the world’s estimated 10.8 billion people will likely live in cities. That means noise pollution will bloom in those areas and beyond, in surrounding suburbs and rural spaces that were typically safe havens from the clamor of the city. Urban sprawl will get worse, encompassing quieter areas into the thick sounds of city life.

It’s impossible to overstate how much noise pollution can wreak havoc on human health and safety. High noise levels can exacerbate hypertension, cause insomnia or sleep disturbances, result in hearing loss, and worsen a plethora of other medical conditions. All of these problems can aggravate other health issues by inducing higher levels of stress, which can cascade into worsened immune systems, heart problems, increased anxiety and depression — the list just goes on and on.

Humans have been suffering because of excess noise for a long time, and scientists have known about it at least for several decades. The government first acknowledged that noise was a problem when it passed the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act of 1972. “There was already a real awareness that noise was harmful to health, and the Act was a formal acknowledgment by the government,” says Arline Bronzaft, a psychologist and authority on noise pollution who currently serves as chairman of the noise committee of GrowNYC. “Although there wasn’t enough information to point to how noise affects us in every which way, there was enough for us to move forward with back in 1972. And today, there’s enough literature for everyone to agree noise pollution is a public health hazard.”

Humans aren’t the only species suffering from the racket. Urban and suburban noise can easily escape from peopled areas into nature, causing problems for animal populations, especially those that live close to highways or busy harbors. Noise pollution can make it harder for animals to avoid predators (or for predators to find and catch prey), reproduce, and live healthy lives.

Birds and marine mammals, for instance, rely on specific vocalizations to attract potential mates. Noise pollution can disrupt those behaviors. Bats rely on echolocation to move around and find food but have an impaired ability to forage when ambient noise levels are high. Oysters clam up during stress; exposure to loud noises along the coast has caused them to close their shells more frequently and for longer periods, preventing them from ingesting enough food. As filter feeders, oysters play a critical role in keeping the ocean’s water quality at a healthy, sustainable level for all marine life. They can’t do that if they’re all clammed up, which could cause the entire habitat to deteriorate.

Where is most of this noise coming from? Traffic is the biggest contributor to noise pollution. A diesel truck at 50 feet away, for instance, generates up to 90 decibels of noise. Generally speaking, prolonged exposure to anything over 85 decibelsputs someone at risk for temporary or permanent hearing loss.

But noise pollution is more than just automobiles. Increased development — in the big city or in a quaint suburb — means construction sites, where heavy machinery creates a fitful, ugly noise that can echo into the placid surrounding areas. People living close to train tracks or airports are bludgeoned with noise (and usually accompanying vibrations and shakes) at all hours. Air traffic can be a major headache. All these factors are exacerbated by city planning and community zoning, which fail to mitigate noise for residents.

So all things considered, what can be done to keep future society from turning into a deaf, noise-addled dystopia? Bronzaft says there’s more awareness about noise pollution these days among the general public than there was in 1972, but we need more than just awareness. As cities swell up to more extreme sizes, without a responsible combination of technological innovations and more radical policy measures, the problem is bound to get worse.

One approach is to think big. Roadway or railway barriers can buffer communities from the noise of passing cars and trains. European engineers, in particular, have developed novel building materials and barrier designs (such as curved structures, and steel or plexiglass) to envelop highway noise, leaving the outside with little more than a quiet hum.

Barriers to highway noise. Image credit: Reider Group

Hybrids and electric cars generate quieter noise levels than engines that guzzle gasoline and diesel. In mass numbers, even these greener vehicles cause a lot of noise, mostly from tire and road friction and wind passage. But they do mean individual cars can sidle through quiet streets without causing much of ruckus (in fact, electric vehicles are sometimes too quiet for comfort — the government requires that these cars make at least some minimal threshold of noise at low speeds in order to give other drivers and bystanders a heads up).

Within cities themselves, developers who are keen to rent quieter office and residential space for a premium are more inclined now to fit new buildings with thicker glass facades or insulation materials that limit noise. Interior designers are outfitting buildings with soundproofing materials, such as acoustic ceiling tiles. Boilers and generators are typically secluded into basement rooms that will not disturb individuals on other floors.

Policy initiatives have also made changes for the better in the past. Bronzaft coauthored a landmark 1975 study that demonstrated the negative impact of noise on student performance in schools. “Here, I do one study on the effects of noise in schools, and the [New York City] Transit Authority quiets the track adjacent to the school, and the Board of Education puts acoustic ceilings in the classrooms,” Bronzaft says. After those changes were made, researchers conducted a follow-up study and found a significant improvement in student reading comprehension. More recently, in 2007, Bronzaft was a major force in helping revise New York City’s noise code, which focused largely on limiting construction site noise and even recommended what types of machinery and tools site workers ought to be using to protect the neighbors.

Bronzaft also points out that community groups such as Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, US-Citizens Aviation Watch, and Noise Free Americahave had huge success in mandating changes in aircraft routes to protect people on the ground from jet engine roars, loud traffic, and construction. Bronzaft has been involved in efforts in places like New Orleans, which is renowned for its live music, to draft new noise ordinance revisions. She also helped stop a noisy motocross racetrack from being built in Cheyenne, Wyoming. In her view, these instances are evidence that “people can do something. An ordinary citizen can initiate a positive change.”

Bronzaft is especially bullish on educating children and young adults into taking local action, especially since noise control has been effectively ceded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to state and local governments. She lauds the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s online curriculum on sound and noise, “to teach children about the beauty of sound and the dangers of noise,” as a great example of how to embed noise pollution awareness early. “You should always start with children,” she says.

Given how ineffable noise can be, many people can’t afford to wait for policy changes or large infrastructure projects to help them find some quiet. Luckily, personal technology solutions are becoming more popular. Sommerfeldt is an expert in a field called Active Noise Control (ANC) — the method of using noise to cancel out noise. “This is generally a low-frequency solution,” he says. A popular example is noise-canceling headphones, which protect the user’s ears from outside sound by generating their own white noise. Some cars are also beginning to use ANC solutions to block out external noise (especially from the engine) for passengers inside a vehicle. “It’s relatively easy to implement for cars — up to a certain point,” says Sommerfeldt. “It’s more challenging to make it quiet over a large region or the region completely inside an automobile or plane.”

Critics might decry all of this spending on an issue that doesn’t seem to be immediately hazardous, but Bronzaft emphasizes that the problems caused by noise compound over time if not addressed. Solving noise pollution is a preemptive measure that can forestall bigger physiological and learning issues people may later develop. “Health and student education cost a lot of money in this country,” says Bronzaft. “It’s cheaper in the long term to quiet things down.”

Ultimately, a game-changing factor might simply be accruing more data on the subject so that policy-makers and engineers can put it to use. Some researchers are trying to leverage new technologies to solve that obstacle. A team of scientists at New York University’s Music and Audio Research Lab (MARL) recently launched the Sounds of New York City (SONYC) initiative, which seeks to distribute compact sensors throughout NYC to generate an acoustic “map” of the city to better understand how sounds get dispersed in the city, and what areas are louder than others. As the city that never sleeps with a din to fit, NYC is a pretty obvious testbed for such a project. If SONYC is successful, its data could be combined to health and safety studies to demonstrate more about how debilitating noise pollution is to our lives, and to wildlife populations in nearby regions.

It’s impossible to conceive of a quiet future for the planet — surely, things will only get noisier. True quiet will be increasingly hard to find. But new innovations could go a long way in helping the average person better navigate through the hullabaloo of a clamorous world. There’s little reason to believe it’s inevitable we’ll all go deaf by 55.

Swarm AI correctly predicts Time’s Person of the Year

— excerpt below —

Persons of the Year

People tend to adapt, capable of shifting towards one idea in favor of another as more information come in. True to the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and human wisdom it functions on, Unanimous AI’s artificial swarm intelligence, known as UNU, is capable of this kind of adjustment too.

Towards the end of November, their swarm AI favored Russian president Vladimir Putin to be TIME’s Person of the Year for 2017. However, when the prediction was finalized by December 4, the swarm dropped Putin from among its final contenders. UNU instead gave the top spot to the #MeToo movement, closely followed by U.S. president Donald Trump. Both were among the original finalists, together with Putin.

By the morning of December 6, TIME published the Person(s) of the Year for 2017. The winners have been given the monicker “The Silence Breakers,” referring to those who spoke out against sexual assault and harassment. In other words, as the swarm intelligence correctly predicted, it was the #MeToo campaign and the people behind it that won. TIME short-listed Trump second for the title.

(Image credit: Unanimous AI)

UNU’s top four contenders also included North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Robert Mueller, special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US election. TIME placed Mueller 4th for Person of the Year, and Kim Jong-un for 5th.

Amplified Intelligence

As Unanimous AI founder and CEO Louis Rosenberg previously explained to Futurism, a swarm AI works by combining real-time human input with algorithms to produce what he calls an “emergent hive mind.” This tends to be smarter than your regular AI and an individual human. UNU’s record of successes, which includespredicting President Trump as TIME’s Person of the Year in 2016, can attest to that. (Observers might see some irony here, as last year’s winner is arguably the person who started a larger conversation around sexual harassment.)

Coming up with a prediction for the Person of the Year proved challenging, Rosenberg said. Thanks to how swarm AI works, which amplifies “the intelligence of human populations using AI algorithms modeled after swarms in nature,” it wasn’t impossible. Unlike TIME’s very own poll, which favored Saudi Arabia crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the swarm AI was able to account for uncertainties. Here’s a quick recap of the process.

Image credit: Unanimous AI

“For Person of the Year, this was very important as world events were changing fast,” Rosenberg explained to Futurism. “We ran an update Swarm AI prediction on November 24 and the #MeToo campaign had jump up to a 59% chance of winning, as predicted by our Swarm AI platform, and Putin was fading fast. We ran our final prediction on December 1, and this time #MeToo was pulling away from the pack, and Putin was no longer in our top picks at all.”

Swarm AI has been proven to be successful in both formal academic studies and in more informal, high-profile predictions, Rosenberg noted. The power of the human hive, however, goes beyond just making these predictions. Overall, it’s the way a swarm AI can optimize decision-making, while banking on human insightthat’s available in real-time, that make the technology particularly impressive.

“Forecasting using Swarm AI technology is all about generating optimized outcome probabilities for the various alternatives by weighting competing sets of information and converging on solutions that maximize the collective confidence inherent in a population,” Rosenberg explained. “This means, as world events changed in real-time over the last few weeks, the swarming algorithms allowed the forecasts to adapt, converging on updated probabilities.”

“[O]f the hundreds of predictions we do each year, Person of Year is a particularly difficult one because there are so many candidates,” Rosenberg told Futurism. “TIME had published a list of 33 options on their website to choose from. That’s a difficult call in any year, and this was a very complex year with many high profile choices in the running — from Trump and Putin, to Mueller and Kim Jung-un.”

China’s CCTV system located and apprehended a reporter in only 7 minutes

— excerpt below —

World’s Largest CCTV Monitoring System

There are 170 million CCTV cameras in place across China, with 400 million more are set to be installed by 2020. Boasting the world’s largest CCTV monitoring system, the country is also investing in artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition technologies.

In a demonstration of technological prowess, Chinese officials located and apprehended BBC reporter John Sudworth only seven minutes after his image was “flagged to authorities.” This wasn’t a real arrest, however. It was merely an exercise to show the power of both the nation’s CCTV cameras and advanced facial recognition technology. Judging from the speed of Sudworth’s capture, it’s clear that China’s monitoring systems are undoubtedly capable. You can watch the process on BBC’s website.

China’s surveillance system is impressive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

While China uses its surveillance systems to support police investigations and increase overall security, private corporations also utilize these technologies to monitor workers. Some have argued that the technology could easily be abused by the government.

Big Brother Is Watching

From an efficacy standpoint, China’s surveillance system is impressive. But the threat of it being used in nefarious or unethical ways is very real. This is especially potent because of the use of a reporter in this demonstration. Right now, in places like Turkey, for instance, journalists are being tracked down and jailed. Not all governments respect the right of free speech, and this technology opens up a world of nightmarish possibilities.

If not properly regulated, such extensive monitoring systems could dramatically impact information sharing and modern journalism. Currently reporters are able to travel to and cover stories in most countries without serious interference from that nation’s government. But if more and more governments use surveillance technology like this to track them down, not only will more journalists be in danger, but information about activity in more authoritarian countries might not be available.

If Big Brother is watching, who is guiding its eyes? This technology, a staple of science fiction tales gone wrong, has the potential to restrict free speech and protect governments who are, to put it simply, acting badly. With all of the information we entrust to our various devices — where we are, what we’re buying, what we’re searching for — individuals are easier than ever to pin down. But using this information to identify, track, and eventually capture individuals in a matter of minutes has the potential to dismantle life as we know it.