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SpaceX Gets Go-Ahead for NASA Astronaut Launch Next Week

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The agency confirmed its mission was proceeding smoothly, but made the announcement amid the puzzling departure of a top NASA official.

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Manzabar
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Cedar Rapids
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After FBI Successfully Breaks Into IPhones, Bill Barr Says It's Time For Legislated Encryption Backdoors

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FBI Director Chris Wray's potshots at Apple during the joint press conference about the Pensacola Air Base shooting weren't the only ones delivered by a federal employee. Famous anti-encryptionist/current DOJ boss Bill Barr made even more pointed comments during his remarks, mostly glossing over the FBI's brilliant discovery that the shooter was linked to al Qaeda -- something al Qaeda had claimed shortly after the shooting took place.

The DOJ never got the court battle it wanted. Its second attempt to talk a court into compelled decryption never gained momentum and FBI techs were eventually able to do the thing the DOJ couldn't make Apple do: access the phones' contents. Barr's comments had very little to do with the supposed matter at hand: the investigation of a shooting on a US military base. Instead, Barr gave perfunctory thanks to the hardworking men and women of the FBI before moving on to declaring Apple an enemy of the people, if not an actual enemy of the state.

Here's the first smear, which insinuates device encryption is a criminal co-conspirator.

Within one day of the shootings, the FBI sought and obtained court orders, supported by probable cause, authorizing the FBI to search the contents of both phones as part of its investigation. The problem was that the phones were locked and the FBI did not have the passwords, so they needed help to get in. We asked Apple for assistance and so did the President. Unfortunately, Apple would not help us unlock the phones. Apple had deliberately designed them so that only the user — in this case, the terrorist — could gain access to their contents.

Yes, this is a deliberate design decision by Apple. It secures all users' phones, not just users who engage in criminal acts. Barr wants insecure devices for everyone because it would make things easier for law enforcement. That it would make things easier for other criminals (phone thieves, stalkers, malicious hackers, etc.) never seems to cross his mind. Or if it does, he figures it's a sacrifice he's willing to force Americans to make.

That's not hyperbole. Later in Barr's remarks, he claims it's not even up to the public to vote with their phone-buying dollars on the subject of device encryption and the problems it poses for law enforcement. And despite this comment, Barr doesn't want it left up to citizens to vote with their actual votes.

Striking this balance should not be left to corporate boardrooms. It is a decision to be made by the American people through their representatives.

That sounds almost democratic. If you choose to stop reading here, it almost appears Barr will accept the will of the people even if they would prefer device security over encryption backdoors. But Barr doesn't stop there. He expands on this thought, dismissing the American people's momentary involvement in this issue.

The developments in this case demonstrate the need for a legislative solution. The truth is that we needed luck, in addition to ingenuity, to get into the phones this time. There is no guarantee that we will be successful again or that a delay of four months (or longer) will not have significant consequences for the safety of Americans. In addition, the costs in time and money of devising alternative methods of accessing encrypted information can be enormous. This is not a scalable solution.

There it is: a call for mandated encryption backdoors. If Apple and other device makers aren't willing to bend to Barr's will, perhaps the legislative branch can put its collective boot on tech companies' necks.

Barr's anti-encryption pitches are still as dishonest as ever. When not portraying encryption as almost solely beneficial to criminals, Barr deliberately misconstrues what's at stake. There's a reason he keeps discussing this in terms of privacy when it's actually about security. Privacy has wiggle room. Security doesn't. Encryption is secure. Backdoored encryption isn't. It's that simple. Barr's term-swap deceives listeners, many of whom are lawmakers.

Apple’s desire to provide privacy for its customers is understandable, but not at all costs. Under our nation’s long-established constitutional principles, where a court authorizes a search for evidence of a crime, an individual’s privacy interests must yield to the broader needs of public safety.  

It's not a privacy issue when the government demands all backdoors in the nation remain unlocked just in case law enforcement needs to enter them. It's a security issue. That's pretty much what Barr wants, using houses as an analogy for devices capable of holding far more sensitive info and data than any home possibly could. Barr wants encryption that can be bypassed at will. That's not a privacy issue. It's about securing devices users rely on to handle almost everything in their daily lives. Security helps protect their privacy, but the important thing here is the security -- not the government's lawful invasions of privacy when warrants are served.

If the FBI can break into a device without Apple's assistance -- as it has in at least two high-profile cases -- it can do it again. Weakening encryption shouldn't even be a discussion topic at this point. For all the talk about the problems encryption poses to securing the nation, arguing that a nation filled with insecure devices would be more secure than what we have now is ridiculous.

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Manzabar
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New Study Tries, Fails, To Claim Community Broadband Is An Inevitable Boondoggle

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For years a growing number of US towns and cities have been forced into the broadband business thanks to US telecom market failure. Frustrated by high prices, lack of competition, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service, some 750 US towns and cities have explored some kind of community broadband option. And while the telecom industry routinely likes to insist these efforts always end in disaster, that's never actually been true. While there certainly are bad business plans and bad leaders, studies routinely show that such services not only see the kind of customer satisfaction scores that are alien to large private ISPs, they frequently offer better service at lower, more transparent pricing than many private providers.

Undaunted, big ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have waged a multi-pronged, several decade attack on such efforts. One, by passing protectionist laws in roughly 20 cities either hamstringing or banning cities from building their own networks, often in cases where private ISPs refuse to expand service. Two, by funding economists, consultants, and think tankers (usually via proxy organizations) happy to try and claim that community broadband is always a taxpayer boondoggle -- unnecessary because private sector US broadband just that wonderful.

The latest example of the latter comes via the Taxpayer Protection Alliance, a nonprofit that insists its focus is "holding government accountable," but is routinely backed by telecom giants like AT&T, which, for obvious reasons, are eager to paint an inaccurate picture of what's actually happening. The group's latest study, "GON with the Wind: The Failed Promise of Government Owned Networks Across the Country," claims to take a look at 30 examples of community broadband networks, with the heavy implication that the majority of them have failed -- proving that community broadband is always bad and private sector broadband is always good:

"Supporters of taxpayer-funded broadband systems claim that governments (i.e. taxpayers) are needed to build these systems because the private sector simply will not. The truth is that broadband providers have spent more than $1.6 trillion since 1996 to build, upgrade, and maintain networks, resulting in a 71 percent growth in rural broadband. Internet infrastructure is in place to serve 98 percent of the country, primarily built by telecom companies. This inconvenient truth, however, has not deterred attempts to use taxpayer dollars to fund broadband boondoggles."

But the fact that private ISPs have invested a lot of money in US broadband networks isn't in dispute. There's certainly numerous parts of the country where the private sector sees something vaguely resembling healthy competition. But as US telcos give up on upgrading aging DSL lines, there's a massive swath of the country that sees a cable provider (Comcast) as their only option (aka a monopoly). Despite billions in subsidization of private ISPs, there are still 42 million Americans without access to any broadband whatsoever. Millions more can't afford expensive US service thanks to muted competition and regulatory capture, the depth of which is fairly obvious to most (especially rural) Americans.

Community broadband isn't a magical panacea, but it certainly has a role to play in shoring up coverage gaps and motivating an uncompetitive sector suffering from captured regulators. And while the TPA report makes sweeping claims about the inevitable failure of such models, their report doesn't actually prove that in the slightest. In fact, a closer examination by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) (pdf) found that just 8 of the networks cited actually had financial issues of note:

"TPA chose 30 municipal networks to make its argument and can only accurately claim 8 out of 30 networks as failures. ILSR has previously dissected TPA’s work and found similar problems. Indeed, the fact that some municipal networks have struggled actually refutes another point frequently made in criticism of municipal networks — that they have unfair advantages. In reality, municipal networks have tended to operate in the most adverse environments, where the private sector saw little reason to invest sufficiently. They have generally succeeded despite multiple disadvantages."

Take a moment to notice that groups like the Taxpayer Protection Alliance routinely pearl clutch over community broadband, but usually have nothing to say about the $42 billion in tax cuts we recently threw at AT&T in exchange for layoffs and investment reductions. Or the countless billions we've thrown at AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, and Verizon over the years for fiber networks that (mysteriously!) always wind up half deployed. Somehow, taxpayer waste is only a problem when small towns and cities engage in it. Taxpayer waste on a larger, more industrialized scale is usually ignored. Why, exactly, do you think that is?

Groups like ILSR have long noted that community broadband is not a panacea; it's just another business model. Some are good, some aren't. These towns and cities aren't building these networks because it's fun or because there's nothing else that needs to be fixed locally. It's because giants like AT&T and Comcast enjoy potent monopolies across much of America, with little competitive incentive to expand or improve service in many markets. Fixing the problem is often difficult, expensive, and a political nightmare thanks to AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon legal, PR, and political opposition; that shouldn't be a surprise.

But several times now the TPA has been accused of simply ignoring data that proves the industry's thesis that these networks are inevitable failures. That appears to have happened again here, with the report even trying to insist that Chattanooga's EPB -- rated the best ISP in America by Consumer Reports just a few years back -- was somehow a failure, despite the fact that telecommunications portion of EPB’s debt has been entirely paid off, and the network is one of the most popular in America.

Similarly, while the report tries to frame community broadband as a mindless dash toward heavy taxpayer debt and disaster, it fails to note that towns and cities routinely back away from such options when they're utterly financially untenable, notes ILSR:

"Ironically, while TPA is attempting to discredit municipal networks, its own words consistently affirm that local leaders have made wise decisions with few exceptions. The introduction notes that Seattle commissioned a study in which it found the proposed plan would be too costly and risky. The city did not move forward with that plan. In other cases, TPA explicitly notes that local leaders considered a project only to wait until the feasibility improved over time. This experience is precisely why we trust local decision-makers rather than encouraging state legislatures to interfere with such complicated and intensely local decisions."

Large private ISPs, the beholden FCC, and a chorus of industry experts have long engaged in elaborate calisthenics to try and demonize community broadband networks as an inevitable, wasteful disaster. In reality they're usually not. Even if they were, there's an easy way to put these efforts to bed: start deploying faster, cheaper, better broadband to the countless pissed off communities that have been complaining about substandard private sector broadband for the better part of a generation. Don't want communities getting into the broadband business? Do a better job serving them with cheaper, faster, more widely available service.

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Manzabar
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Irish beekeeper's Covid Lego Beehive is fully functional, and houses 30,000 bees

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Ruairi O Leocháin of Athlone Wildlife Apiaries decided to make a lego beehive "just for a bit of craic"

A beekeeper in Ireland put their coronavirus quarantine time to good use by crafting an elaborate, fully functioning beehive out of LEGOs.

Here's the original story published by Westmeath Independent:

A beehive which an Athlone schoolteacher and wildlife activist made out of lego has been creating a real buzz since video footage of it was shared online in recent days.

Ruairi O Leocháin of Athlone Wildlife Apiaries decided to make a lego beehive "just for a bit of craic", but a video clip he shared of the bees in their colourful new home has been hugely popular and is about to surpass 100,000 views on Facebook.

"To be honest, I wasn't expecting such a big reaction," he said.

"I have had people getting in touch with me from China, America, and elsewhere saying that they love the idea."

LEGO Beehive

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Manzabar
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Trump also fired another watchdog investigating Elaine Chao, wife of Mitch McConnell

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On the same night that he fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, a watchdog who was allegedly investigating Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over any number of potentially corrupt activities, Trump also terminated a watchdog working for the Department of Transportation. As Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington explains:

At DOT, the acting IG was overseeing a high profile investigation of Secretary Chao’s alleged favoritism benefiting her husband Senator Mitch McConnell’s political prospects, but has now been replaced with a political appointee from within the agency. The acting IG’s ouster calls into question the future of the Chao-McConnell investigation, other critical oversight, and whether the watchdog was dismissed for unearthing damaging information.

[…]

Trump’s decision to sideline DOT acting IG Mitch Behm (who has 17 years of experience with OIG) was lost in the shuffle of outrage following the announcement that Trump planned to fire the State Department IG, but potential conflicts of interest abound. The most high profile is the DOT OIG’s review of allegations that Secretary Chao gave Senator McConnell’s constituents special treatment and helped steer millions of federal dollars to Kentucky as he is facing low approval ratings and a tough reelection bid.

Secretary Chao also served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President George HW Bush and Secretary of Labor under President George W Bush. Her father is a wealthy and successful Chinese-American shipping magnate who has donated tens of millions of dollars to Senator Mitch McConnell, even before he married Chao in 1993 (McConnell's first wife, Sherrill Redmon, is a feminist scholar at Smith; neither she or their Democrat daughters discuss their relationship with McConnell). In 2019, Chao's brother-in-law, Gordon Hartogensis, became the director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) under the Labor Department, a nomination that was confirmed by McConnell.

Trump just removed the IG investigating Elaine Chao. Chao's husband, Mitch McConnell, already vetted the replacement. [Donald K. Sherman / Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington]

Image: Takemetothelake / Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0)

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Manzabar
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A huge Scottish hillfort was the largest settlement in medieval Britain

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A huge Scottish hillfort was the largest settlement in medieval Britain

Enlarge (credit: University of Aberdeen)

On a hilltop overlooking a small Scottish village lie the buried remains of the largest settlement in medieval Britain. About 4,000 people lived within the community’s earthen ramparts during its heyday in the 400s and 500s CE. That’s around the time the Picts of northeastern Scotland were banding together into kingdoms to defend themselves against rival groups.

Until recently, archaeologists assumed the fortified community was much older and much smaller. But a recent lidar survey, combined with excavations on the hill, revealed a large urban center thriving in the centuries just after Rome left Britain. A drone carrying lidar instruments sent over the site, called Tap O’Noth, mapped the long-buried foundations of about 800 huts, clustered in groups and along pathways. The huts were all within the 17 acres encircled by an earthen rampart on Tap O’Noth’s lower slopes. If each hut was home to about four or five people, that’s a total population of 3,200 to 4,000.

“That’s verging on urban in scale, and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this. We had previously assumed that you would need to get to around the 12th century in Scotland before settlements started to reach this size,” said University of Aberdeen archaeologist Gordon Noble. In an email to Ars, he added, “We really don’t have any parallels for a site this large in early medieval Britain.”

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