Trump’s golf course employed undocumented workers — and then fired them amid showdown over border wall

They had spent years on the staff of Donald Trump’s golf club, winning employee-of-the-month awards and receiving glowing letters of recommendation.

Some were trusted enough to hold the keys to Eric Trump’s weekend home. They were experienced enough to know that, when Donald Trump ordered chicken wings, they were to serve him two orders on one plate.

But on Jan. 18, about a dozen employees at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County, N.Y., were summoned, one by one, to talk with a human resources executive from Trump headquarters.

“I started to cry,” said Gabriel Sedano, a former maintenance worker from Mexico who was among those fired. He had worked at the club since 2005. “I told them they needed to consider us. I had worked almost 15 years for them in this club, and I’d given the best of myself to this job.”

“I’d never done anything wrong, only work and work,” he added. “They said they didn’t have any comments to make.”

During the meetings, they were fired because they are undocumented immigrants, according to interviews with the workers and their attorney. The fired workers are from Latin America.

The sudden firings — which were previously unreported — follow last year’s revelations of undocumented labor at a Trump club in New Jersey, where employees were subsequently dismissed. The firings show Trump’s business was relying on undocumented workers even as the president demanded a border wall to keep out such immigrants.

Trump’s demand for border wall funding led to the government shutdown that ended Friday after nearly 35 days.

In Westchester County, workers were told Trump’s company had just audited their immigration documents — the same ones they had submitted years earlier — and found them to be fake.

“Unfortunately, this means the club must end its employment relationship with you today,” the Trump executive said, according to a recording that one worker made of her firing.

Eric Trump did not respond to specific questions about how many undocumented workers had been fired at other Trump properties and whether the company had, in the past, made similar audits of its employees’ immigration paperwork. He also did not answer whether executives had previously been aware that they employed undocumented workers.

The firings highlight a stark tension between Trump’s public stance on immigration and the private conduct of Trump’s business.

In public, Trump has argued that undocumented immigrants have harmed American workers by driving down wages. That was part of why Trump demanded a border wall and contemplated declaring a national emergency to get it.

But, in Westchester County, Trump seems to have benefited from the same dynamic he denounces. His undocumented workers said they provided Trump with cheap labor. In return, they got steady work and few questions.

“They said absolutely nothing. They never said, ‘Your Social Security number is bad’ or ‘Something is wrong,’ ” said Margarita Cruz, a housekeeping employee from Mexico who was fired after eight years at the club. “Nothing. Nothing. Until right now.”

To document the firings at the golf club, The Washington Post spoke with 16 current and former workers at the club — which sits among ritzy homes in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., 27 miles north of Manhattan. Post reporters met with former employees for hours of interviews in a cramped apartment in Ossining, N.Y., a hardscrabble town next door, whose chief landmark is the Sing Sing state prison.

Among those workers, six said they had been fired on Jan. 18. They and their attorney confirmed the other terminations.

Another worker said he was still employed at the club at the time of the purge despite the fact that his papers were fake. His reprieve did not last long, however. His attorney later said he was fired that night.

The workers brought pay stubs and employee awards and uniforms to back up their claims. They said they were going public because they felt discarded: After working so long for Trump’s company, they said they were fired with no warning and no severance.

Read the complete article here.

Three-year-old boy missing in woods for two days says friendly bear kept him safe

Casey Hathaway told family he hung out with a bear after he went missing near his grandmother’s North Carolina home. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A three-year-old boy who survived two nights alone in the woods in freezing conditions has told police and family he was helped out by a friendly bear that was with him the whole time.

Rescuers responding to reports of a baby crying found Casey Hathaway tangled up in thorny bushes, cold and soaked but safe on Thursday night. He had gone missing on Tuesday in conditions so bad the subsequent search had to be called off.

As it turned out, help – perhaps real, perhaps imaginary but certainly useful – was at hand in those woods in North Carolina, a state that is home to plenty of black bears. Craven county sheriff Chip Hughes said Casey “did say that he had a friend in the woods that was a bear that was with him”.

The claim was reportedly repeated by the boy’s aunt Breanna Hathaway. “He said he hung out with a bear for two days,” Hathaway wrote in a Facebook post. “God sent him a friend to keep him safe. God is a good God. Miracles do happen.”

Read the complete Guardian article here.

Fraudulent Tactics on Amazon Marketplace

A rival had framed Plansky for buying five-star reviews, a high crime in the world of Amazon. The funds in his account were immediately frozen, and his listings were shut down. Getting his store back would take him on a surreal weeks-long journey through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that began with the click of a button at the bottom of his suspension message that read “appeal decision.”

When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the US.

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

Amazon is far from the only tech company that, having annexed a vast sphere of human activity, finds itself in the position of having to govern it. But Amazon is the only platform that has a $175 billion prize pool tempting people to game it, and the company must constantly implement new rules and penalties, which in turn, become tools for new abuses, which require yet more rules to police. The evolution of its moderation system has been hyper-charged. While Mark Zuckerberg mused recently that Facebook might need an analog to the Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes and hear appeals, Amazon already has something like a judicial system — one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.

Amazon’s judgments are so severe that its own rules have become the ultimate weapon in the constant warfare of Marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of intricate schemes to frame their rivals, as Plansky experienced. They impersonate, copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even bribe Amazon employees for information on their competitors.

And what’s a seller to do when they end up in Amazon court? They can turn to someone like Cynthia Stine, who is part of a growing industry of consultants who help sellers navigate the ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzantine rules by which Amazon governs it. They are like lawyers, only their legal code is the Amazon Terms of Service, their court is a secretive and semiautomated corporate bureaucracy, and their jurisdiction is an algorithmically policed global bazaar rife with devious plots to hijack listings for novelty socks and plastic watches. People like Stine are fixers, guides to the cutthroat land of Amazon, who are willing to give their assistance to the desperate — for a price, of course.

Read the complete article of The Verge here.

What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell

LawFare has a very interesting article on the Russian investigation and Donald Trump. Here is a very brief portion of the article written by Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books. The rest you may read at LawFare’s site here.

Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt asking me to meet with him about some reporting he had done. Schmidt did not describe the subject until we met up, when he went over with me a portion of the congressional interview of former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who was then my Brookings colleague and remains my Lawfare colleague. When he shared what Baker had said, and when I thought about it over the next few days in conjunction with some other documents and statements, a question gelled in my mind. Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks: collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and potential obstruction of justice by the president, on the other. But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?

Late last year, I wrote a memo for Schmidt outlining how I read all of this material, a memo from which this post is adapted.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that in the days following the firing of James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation of President Trump. It wasn’t simply the obstruction investigation that many of us have assumed. It was also a counterintelligence investigation predicated on the notion that the president’s own actions might constitute a national security threat:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

The following is an adaption of the memo I sent Schmidt. I have updated it in important respects in light of the reporting in the Times’s actual story. The analysis remains, however, tentative; I want to be careful not to overread the threads of evidence I am pulling together here.

The analysis that follows is lengthy and takes a number of twists and turns before laying out what I think is the significance of the whole thing. Here’s the bottom line: I believe that between today’s New York Times story and some other earlier material I have been sifting through and thinking about, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.

Read the complete article on LawFare.

This clever AI hid data from its creators to cheat at its appointed task

Depending on how paranoid you are, this research from Stanford and Google will be either terrifying or fascinating. A machine learning agent intended to transform aerial images into street maps and back was found to be cheating by hiding information it would need later in “a nearly imperceptible, high-frequency signal.” Clever girl!

This occurrence reveals a problem with computers that has existed since they were invented: they do exactly what you tell them to do.

The intention of the researchers was, as you might guess, to accelerate and improve the process of turning satellite imagery into Google’s famously accurate maps. To that end the team was working with what’s called a CycleGAN — a neural network that learns to transform images of type X and Y into one another, as efficiently yet accurately as possible, through a great deal of experimentation.

In some early results, the agent was doing well — suspiciously well. What tipped the team off was that, when the agent reconstructed aerial photographs from its street maps, there were lots of details that didn’t seem to be on the latter at all. For instance, skylights on a roof that were eliminated in the process of creating the street map would magically reappear when they asked the agent to do the reverse process:

The original map, left; the street map generated from the original, center; and the aerial map generated only from the street map. Note the presence of dots on both aerial maps not represented on the street map.

 

Although it is very difficult to peer into the inner workings of a neural network’s processes, the team could easily audit the data it was generating. And with a little experimentation, they found that the CycleGAN had indeed pulled a fast one.

The intention was for the agent to be able to interpret the features of either type of map and match them to the correct features of the other. But what the agent was actually being graded on (among other things) was how close an aerial map was to the original, and the clarity of the street map.

So it didn’t learn how to make one from the other. It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

In fact, the computer is so good at slipping these details into the street maps that it had learned to encode any aerial map into any street map! It doesn’t even have to pay attention to the “real” street map — all the data needed for reconstructing the aerial photo can be superimposed harmlessly on a completely different street map, as the researchers confirmed:

The map at right was encoded into the maps at left with no significant visual changes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read the  complete article on TechCrunch here

Turning water into wine: how did simple H2O become a luxury commodity?

 

Fine Waters International Water Tasting Competition, in Machachi, Ecuador Photograph: Rodrigo Buendía/AFP/Getty Images

 

 

Over the last few years, an unusual and conspicuous sight has become commonplace in the cafes and eateries of Sydney’s inner suburbs: Frequency H20 Alkaline Spring Water. The water, which costs AUD$3.30 per 1 litre bottle, proclaims to be infused with the sound, light and literal frequencies of three very abstract “flavours”: Love (528Hz), Lunar (210.42Hz) and Rainbow (430-770THz).

Last year, Love became the first Australian water in nearly three decades to place first in the best bottled water category of the prestigious Berkeley Springs International Water Tasting. Its creator, Sturt Hinton (not a typo; he’s ironically named after the desert), meets me in his local vegan fish and chip shop. It’s one of 400 stores he personally delivers his product to whenever stocks run low.

“It’s about lifting the spirits of the world, you know what I mean? And lifting my spirits,” he says. He was inspired to create Frequency H20 after a lengthy bout of crippling depression. “Just bringing delight to people, and it delivers this promise to consumers through having something so high quality and people can taste it. They can feel the difference. It’s clean, it’s light, they just love it. They love the idea. What a wonderful concept. Beautiful water.”

The story of Frequency H20 was enough to pique the interest of Katy Perry (whose management requested it during her recent Witness tour), Paris Hilton (now following @frequencyh2o) and the Veronicas, who share their appreciation online with such vigour they could be unofficial brand ambassadors. Following this year’s Berkeley Springs victory, the Australian government at large even took note, with Austrade selecting it for the official Commonwealth Games showcase. Though he claims to have invested $100,000 in its development, Hinton is unwilling to discuss the unique device he claims he designed (“It’s not like Coke is going to give up their trade secret.”) that produces his water by harnessing “the incredible natural alchemy of energised molecules”. He does acknowledge this nebulous air of naturopathy is central to its appeal. That and the trending but increasingly dubious belief that alkaline water is better for you than regular tap water.

In the luxury water business, a free good is repackaged and resold as aspirational. “I think it’s like the most marketable thing ever invented,” Hinton says.

The core of this concept of “fine water” might seem like a new phenomenon, but in fact it dates back to the Roman empire, where certain aqueducts were preferred, or even considered divine, and natural carbonated water was imported from Germania in earthen jars. The industrial revolution would literally poison the well, as drinking water became a vector for diseases like typhus and cholera. The rich could afford to have unspoiled water delivered from remote sources; poor people simply died until municipal chlorination in the early 20th century helped people live longer.

The story of water, then, is the story of the world – and the luxury industry is cashing in.

Hinton’s frequency-infused industry darlings are just the tip of the iceberg. Some premium waters such as Svalbarði, sold locally for A$115 per 750ml bottle, are literally made from icebergs harvested on expeditions to the Arctic Ocean. Water bottles with crystals in them and crystal-infused water like that of Australia’s Madam Dry (A$49.99 per 12 pack) are trends within a trend, inspired by Instagram’s wilderness of “wellness”, the regimens of Miranda Kerr and there’s that naturopathy again: Madam Dry lists what astrological sign the moon was traveling through when “brewing” commenced. Premium, luxury or fine water has even co-opted much of the wine industry’s terminology – “varietal”, “mouthfeel” “terroir” – as well as introducing some of its own. “Total dissolved solids”, for instance, is a measurement scale unique to understanding why and how a water tastes and even feels the way it does. Water from the Fiji Islands, with its TDS of 222, is said to be smooth and velvety. Water like Vichy Catalan from Spain, with its TDS of 3054, is said to be extremely salty and complex.

The phenomenon isn’t particularly new. In 2005, “water sommelier” Martin Riese caught the attention of the media when he created a water menu at Berlin’s First Floor restaurant after a guest complained about the taste of the water on offer. By 2008 he’d published Die Welt des Wassers (The World of Water); in 2010 he was certified by the German water trade association; and in 2013 he landed in Los Angeles, after receiving an O-1 visa for his “extraordinary knowledge of water”.

As the country’s first certified water sommelier, he launched a 45-page water menu at Ray’s & Stark Bar. Two days later, he was a national curiosity, covered on Good Morning America, Fox News and CNN, and even interviewed by television science presenter Bill Nye. He opened a $100,000 bottle of water for a tasting with Diplo and 2Chainz. He appeared on late night host Conan O’Brien’s show in September 2013.

“Pretty much every day, I have people rolling their eyes when they hear the words ‘water sommelier,’ and when I even tell them that I can match water to food, more eye-rolling starts,” Reiss says. But, he stresses, he is driven by a loftier goal. “I want to give value to water. When people understand that water is not just water, they might rethink their use of water.

You may read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper here.

What Foods Are Banned in Europe but Not Banned in the U.S.?

The European Union prohibits or severely restricts many food additives that have been linked to cancer that are still used in American-made bread, cookies, soft drinks and other processed foods. Europe also bars the use of several drugs that are used in farm animals in the United States, and many European countries limit the cultivation and import of genetically modified foods.

“In some cases, food-processing companies will reformulate a food product for sale in Europe” but continue to sell the product with the additives in the United States, said Lisa Y. Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety advocacy organization.

A 1958 amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits the Food and Drug Administration from approving food additives that are linked to cancer, but an agency spokeswoman said that many substances that were in use before passage of the amendment, known as the Delaney amendment, are considered to have had prior approval and “therefore are not regulated as food additives.”

In October, the F.D.A. agreed to ban six artificial flavoring substances shown to cause cancer in animals, following petitions and a lawsuit filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other organizations. The F.D.A. insists the six artificial flavors “do not pose a risk to public health,” but concedes that the law requires it not approve the food additives. Food companies will have at least two years to remove them from their products.

Here’s a short list of some of the food additives restricted by the European Union but allowed in American foods. Most must be listed as ingredients on the labels, though information about drugs used to increase the yield in farm animals is generally not provided.

These additives are commonly added to baked goods, but neither is required, and both are banned in Europe because they may cause cancer. In recent years, some American restaurant chains have responded to consumer pressure and removed them from their food.

Potassium bromate is often added to flour used in bread, rolls, cookies, buns, pastry dough, pizza dough and other items to make the dough rise higher and give it a white glow. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers it a possible human carcinogen, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the F.D.A. to ban it nearly 20 years ago. The F.D.A. says potassium bromate has been in use since before the Delaney amendment on carcinogenic food additives was passed.

Azodicarbonamide, or ADA, which is used as a whitening agent in cereal flour and as a dough conditioner, breaks down during baking into chemicals that cause cancer in lab animals. It is used by many chain restaurants that serve sandwiches and buns. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has urged the F.D.A. to bar its use. The F.D.A. says it is safe in limited amounts.

The flavor enhancers and preservatives BHA and BHT are subject to severe restrictions in Europe but are widely used in American food products. While evidence on BHT is mixed, BHA is listed in a United States government report on carcinogens as “reasonably anticipated” to be a human carcinogen.

BVO is used in some citrus-flavored soft drinks like Mountain Dew and in some sports drinks to prevent separation of ingredients, but it is banned in Europe. It contains bromine, the element found in brominated flame retardants, and studies suggest it can build up in the body and can potentially lead to memory loss and skin and nerve problems. An F.D.A. spokeswoman said it is safe in limited amounts, and that the agency would take action “should new safety studies become available that raise questions about the safety of BVO.”

These dyes can be used in foods sold in Europe, but the products must carry a warning saying the coloring agents “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” No such warning is required in the United States, though the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the F.D.A. in 2008 to ban the dyes. Consumers can try to avoid the dyes by reading lists of ingredients on labels, but they’re used in so many things you wouldn’t even think of, not just candy and icing and cereal, but things like mustard and ketchup,” marshmallows, chocolate, and breakfast bars that appear to contain fruit, Ms. Lefferts, the food safety scientist, said.

The F.D.A.’s website says reactions to food coloring are rare, but acknowledges that yellow dye No. 5, used widely in drinks, desserts, processed vegetables and drugs, may cause itching and hives.

The European Union also bans some drugs that are used on farm animals in the United States, citing health concerns. These drugs include bovine growth hormone, which the United States dairy industry uses to increase milk production. The European Union also does not allow the drug ractopamine, used in the United States to increase weight gain in pigs, cattle and turkeys before slaughter, saying that “risks to human health cannot be ruled out.” An F.D.A. spokeswoman said the drugs are safe.

Source: The New York Times article here.