5 Stories People Should Be Paying More Attention To
Right now, the news is as busy and exhausting as a fanboy explaining to everyone why Zack Snyder needs four hours to tell a story about Joker getting laser tattoo removal or whatever. Sometimes, we, too, just want it to stop. But where there are people, there are stories, and there will always be some pretty important stories that fall under the radar because we're either too busy talking about other important stories or (still) debating who's to blame for Game of Thrones ending on with fart instead of a bang ...
Alden Global Capital And Hedge Funds Coming For Our News Media
Randall D. Smith is founder of the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, and below is Heath Freeman, the president of Alden Global Capital and Smith's loyal henchman who's a hat away from looking like he's selling snake oil to cowboys:
These two guys have enjoyed relative anonymity for far too long (You'll find more real photos of Bigfoot than public images of Smith), because while the majority of people weren't paying attention, they have been gobbling up failing newspapers across the U.S. since 2009, selling off the papers' real estate assets -- oftentimes to Alden's side companies -- and cutting newsrooms into oblivion to squeeze out every cent they can get. "Vultures," as they've been dubbed, isn't even the right description because these guys actively seek out newspapers on the brink of bankruptcy, with no motive whatsoever to try and save them. They regard their roughly 200 owned papers (including the L.A. Daily News, the Boston Herald, and the Denver Post) not as a public trust but as their own personal ATMs. The company has cut around 71% of jobs in its NewsGuild-represented newsrooms, and it's been estimated that they've put 23,584 Americans out of jobs.
In Philadelphia, where a couple of papers made Alden $18 million in 2017 at a 30% profit margin, newsroom personnel complained of rats, falling ceilings, and mildew. One newsroom didn't have any hot water. And that's just the awful conditions of being placed in cheaper, rundown offices after these papers' buildings were sold off under new management. In San Jose, there was no one to report on education at The Mercury News after schools started shutting down during the pandemic. In St. Paul, Minneapolis, there was no reporter available at the Pioneer Press to cover the county board meetings where the local sheriff somehow overspent his budget by $1 million. In Vallejo, California, there was one remaining reporter left at the Times-Herald in 2019 to cover the news for the 120,000 city locals. But, you know, this is just something you should expect if your paper is in the hands of Heath Freeman, a guy who doesn't get why newspapers employ photographers.
Absolutely stumped on this one.
The above photo was taken in 2018 at a protest led by employees of The Denver Post after Alden started cutting the shit out of their staff. They pleaded for new ownership, called on Alden to change their out-for-profit strategies, and fought to keep their jobs by printing editorials in their own paper. But their pleas were only briefly heard and swiftly forgotten. And now the emboldened hedge fund wolves are set to sink their teeth into the Tribune Publishing Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the Baltimore Sun. And again, the employees at these papers are begging people to recognize what's going on and help them save their papers:
"The Tribune needs your help now more than ever as the journalists here face this paper's greatest threat in its nearly 175-year history -- potential new overlords whose track record suggests their primary interest is in draining as much profit as possible out of struggling newspapers as they suck the life, character and power out of them."
Newspapers worldwide have had a hard time adjusting to and coming up with better strategies to make it in a digital world. Facebook and Google made things worse when they took a monopoly-hold on digital advertising. But fixing the troubles facing the Fourth Estate will need people who actually give a damn about the news. Not guys like Alden, who are financially tied to fraud in Mexico, pollution in Russia, corruption in Brazil, and bleeding millions of dollars from one of their companies to take advantage of the Greek debt crisis. The news is there to expose companies like them, not make them richer while they destroy their entire industry. We need better working models, ethical leadership, and public investment in our papers. Instead, we have cartoon villains returning each and every episode to hunt down and strap their prey to train tracks loaded with TNT and watch as they explode into a million fireworks that rain down in money. And get away with it every time.
The Spike In Violence Against Asians
84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee was attacked and killed at an intersection in Daly City, California, in January this year.
61-year-old Noel Quintana was slashed in the face with a box cutter in a New York subway train in early February.
27-year-old Air Force veteran Denny Kim was assaulted and had his nose broken in Los Angeles on February 16, while his assailants yelled racial slurs like "ching chong" and "Chinese virus" at him.
A 36-year-old Asian man was stabbed while walking in the street in New York City's Chinatown on February 25.
We could go on, also including the long list of incidents that happened in 2020 and even the incidents happening in other countries because while lawyers and judges will argue that it's mostly difficult to prove whether a crime was racially motivated -- the numbers tell a story. Data from the NYPD show that crimes fueled by anti-Asian sentiment (with most including verbal harassment) have gone up 1,900% in the last year. In 2017, anti-Asian hate crimes made up 2% of all hate crimes in the United States. By the end of 2020, that number sat at 15.6%.
While it's true that the rise in cases could be the result of Asian Americans being encouraged to actually report these assaults, it doesn't take away from the glaring problem facing these communities. Many of them have voiced their frustration with the "model minority" concept constructed during the Civil Rights era and made people believe that Asian Americans were generally successful and enjoyed high socioeconomic status among minority groups. It essentially created a hierarchy of races, where Asian and Jewish Americans were pitted against other American POC in a super racist game of "Look Who Prospers More." It caused many people to think that Asian Americans couldn't be discriminated against -- what with all the class privilege they seemingly enjoy -- and it caused the Asian community to feel like they should just keep quiet and carry on. Eric Toda, head of social at Facebook, has spoken out about "being inappropriately placed on a pedestal," saying, "One moment we're Americans, the next we are all foreigners, the people who they claim brought this virus here."
We know where this spike comes from. We're not going to reiterate Trump's anti-Asian rhetoric here. But it's also important to acknowledge that this wave of anti-Asian sentiment isn't new. When the bubonic plague hit the U.S. in 1900, the San Francisco Health Department allowed all the white citizens to leave Chinatown while its Asian citizens were quarantined inside with barbed wires and rope. Following the Pearl Harbor attack during WWII, almost all of the 120,000 Japanese American citizens living in the U.S. -- two-thirds of them born and raised in the states -- were forced to leave their homes and relocate to internment camps. In 1982, Chinese American Vincent Chin was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat after being mistaken for being Japanese and blamed for the decline of the auto industry in America. And, of course, the blatant racism we're seeing against Asian Americans today is a chilly reminder of what happened after 9/11. Hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs sky-rocketed and, more alarmingly, have remained elevated compared to numbers before the attack. In 2016, the number surpassed the level we saw in 2001. What could've happened in 2016 to cause such a thing?
The culture of hate has always been fueled by political rhetoric and propaganda, and it's playing out again. Only this time, we're seeing a growing target of Asian Americans too scared to cough and too scared to even wear a mask because it might just trigger a racist on the street to scream and spit in their faces, or worse.
The Hacking Of A Town's Water Supply
On February 6, 2021, just two days before the Super Bowl in Tampa, a city in a nearby county got hacked through its water system. Oldsmar, with a population of just under 15,000 people, almost got way too much sodium hydroxide (lye) added to their water supply when a supervisor saw the concentration increased by a factor of more than a 100 on their remote access system in real-time. He immediately changed the number back and reported the incident because that is absolutely the right thing to do. The sheriff held a press conference, and the FBI and Secret Service were called in to investigate, not only because it was regarded as a terrorist attack but also because they were worried it had something to do with the Super Bowl event.
Either way, it turned out that whoever hacked the system wasn't going to get very far, what with the lye taking anywhere from 24 to 36 hours before actually hitting the water supply and all the alarms and other safety measures that would have alerted supervisors of the high concentration long before then. However, the bigger problem is these remote access systems, which cybersecurity experts have warned industries about for years. Many say that these networks should be isolated from the internet to prevent these kinds of attacks. Still, for small municipalities with tiny budgets and not nearly enough resources, the solution doesn't seem that simple. Throw in a pandemic, and it gets even trickier to not allow for remote working conditions and, therefore, remote access systems.
To no one's surprise, this is not an isolated case. Attacks on critical infrastructures have been going on for years. In 2007, the United States and Israel teamed up to attack one of Iran's nuclear facilities, taking out about a thousand uranium centrifuges. In 2012, Russia started snooping around American energy and electrical utilities. In turn, the U.S. has targeted Russia's power grid multiple times. In 2013, Iran was caught manipulating a small dam in New York. And so on and so forth. It has also been reported that hacking by novices have increased in the past year, with new guys looking to learn about these remotely accessible industrial systems since it doesn't seem like there's a shift to move away from them any time soon.
Of course, with all the security warnings about these systems, you would think that plants would at least keep their tech updated, but we can't stress enough how it really seems like no one is giving a shit about this. Following the Oldsmar water hack, the FBI said that an outdated version of Windows and poor password security was part of what made it so easy for the hackers to get in. That's right, a critical facility that needs to supply thousands of people with water that won't kill them was still running their operation on Windows 7 and using software set to create random passwords for login. Oh, and just to make sure you are in fact plenty alarmed by all of this, now's a good time to tell you that of the roughly 52,000 U.S. water systems that provide the American people with drinking water, almost all of them rely on some type of remote access to monitor their facilities.
It's also been pointed out that there are probably way more of these hacking incidents that we simply don't know about since none of these facilities are required to disclose it. In a way, it makes sense because they're afraid of exposing their vulnerabilities to potential hackers. But information sharing is also key if we want to protect valuable infrastructure from future attacks. Currently, there exists a single federal law that applies to the cybersecurity of water facilities in the U.S., and it states that water systems serving more than 3,300 people must "develop or update risk assessment and emergency response plans." But the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't even collect these assessment and response plans, nor do they really seem to care about any of them. So, uh, yeah. Have an Erin Brokovich moment, and go take a big sip of your tap water while you still can (we hope).
We Need To Talk About U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. Again.
It would be nice to have someone in charge of the Post Office that seems to care about the service and its half a million postal workers who ensure that the country gets their letters, medications, and whatever the Etsy community is selling right now, on time. Instead, Louis DeJoy is still the 75th Postmaster General of the United States Postal Service. A guy who ran his previous company, New Breed Logistics, "like a sweatshop" while collecting campaign contributions from his own employees with the promise of reimbursing them through bonuses.
The USPS has long prided itself in being an apolitical federal government agency, an attribute largely favored by the public. A survey done by the Pew Research Center in March 2020 showed a whopping 91% of the public feeling just peachy about the US Postal Service. Its structure was designed to ensure bipartisanship, with its Board of Governors supposed to be made up of 5-4 members of the official parties. We say supposed because it's been years since all nine seats were filled. During Barack Obama's presidency, Congress refused to confirm any of his nominees. Republicans were saying no to those favored by Democrats, and Sen. Bernie Sanders placed a hold on two Republican nominees who allegedly wanted to privatize the USPS, cut jobs, and hinder the speed and efficiency of mail delivery.
In June 2020, Trump's former Treasury Secretary Mnuchin engineered the appointment of DeJoy as the new Postmaster General -- causing two board members to resign in protest of the political interference -- and things went south faster than your mail these days. DeJoy started implementing changes almost immediately, including cuts to overtime and delivery trips. Mail started piling up at post offices across the country, bills arrived late, and medications weren't making it to those who needed it. (All of this, months before the election and with Trump spouting mail-in ballot fraud accusations everywhere.) Thankfully, DeJoy was forced to suspend his bulldozing tactics after appearing in a Senate hearing in August last year. When asked at that hearing about people not getting their mail, he said, "We all feel, you know, bad."
Even though his changes were suspended, on-time delivery of first-class mail dropped from 92% at the beginning of 2020 to 71% by the end of the year. Non-first class on-time delivery dropped from 79% to 38%, which is really something given the fact that the overall mail volume has decreased significantly since the start of the pandemic. As of January 2021, there are six appointed board members on the Board of Governors. Five of those members are Republicans.
And now DeJoy appears to be back on his bullshit, as he hopes to eliminate two-day delivery for first-class mail by adding it to three-to-five day envelopes, banning first-class mail delivered by planes, and introducing price hikes, all of which will hit the poor and elderly hardest. Also, call us silly, but slowing down mail and making it more expensive is a sure way of making customers mad, diminishing public trust, and making it easier for competitors to sell their ability to deliver on time ...
We Need To Talk About Amazon And Its Shenanigans In India
What is the news these days without talk of some Big Tech company doing nefarious things nobody knows about until everyone knows about it? Anyway, let's talk about Amazon, the multinational tech company that gives people on Twitter as much to discuss as anything Marvel manages to cook up. For years, Amazon has targeted the world's most populated countries, getting a nice foothold in their economies by positioning itself to accommodate third-party sellers. China was target number one, but they had trouble competing with other e-commerce companies over there. India, however, proved to be easier and way more lucrative, thanks to the unapologetic way Amazon used Indian laws to manipulate what it could and could not do. And what they ended up doing was screwing over small retailers.
According to internal documents, Amazon favors big sellers on its India platform and has used them to circumvent the laws that are supposed to protect the country's small retailers from companies like Amazon.
The documents revealed that of the roughly 400,000 sellers on the India platform, 35 of them accounted for two-thirds of all sales on Amazon.in. It's worth noting that this was stated in the document with a note that read "Sensitive/not for disclosure." But now the cat's out of the cart, and the people of India aren't buying Amazon's public message of being BFFs with small businesses anymore. Not that they really did before, given that both smaller and brick-and-mortar Indian traders have long claimed this exact thing, only for Amazon to retaliate and say that they treat everyone equally. Which smells like a load of crap because those documents show that Amazon has helped a small number of big sellers by giving them discounted fees and getting them special deals with tech giants like Apple.
As for complying with Indian law, Amazon has said that there are "substantial uncertainties" to its interpretation and that views around it might be contradicting, which is just another way of saying, "I don't understand this one thing but instead of bringing it up let's just use it as an excuse to do whatever we want 'MERICA!"
It's not like India just sat back and allowed Amazon to go wild in their country for the past decade -- they've been trying to rein them in by strengthening laws and capping their control, only for Amazon to find a way around it. India's investment regulations restrict foreign e-commerce firms from selling directly to customers or holding inventories of goods. They're only allowed to connect sellers with buyers on their platforms. So Amazon decided to form a joint venture with an Indian tech mogul and create Cloudtail, a seller on Amazon that could offer goods directly to the people. Labeled in internal documents as Amazon's "Special Merchant," the goal was to get Cloudtail to account for 40% of sales on Amazon.in. Amazon helped its own side-tail to strike deals - some of them exclusive - with Apple, Microsoft, and OnePlus. When questioned about it, Amazon said that Cloudtail was an independent seller and enjoyed "the same privileges as any of the other sellers on our platform."
By 2016, Cloudtail was bringing in around 47% of all Amazon.in sales. The Indian government responded by capping the sales from a single seller at 25% and stressed that no e-commerce platforms were allowed to exercise ownership over inventory sold on their sites. What Amazon did was simply move some of Cloudtail's smartphone brands to Amazon Wholesale, an operation in India that didn't fall under the foreign investment restrictions. Through them, they supplied these brands to specific sellers to sell them on Amazon.in. It also created another special merchant called Appario to deal with the 25% sales cap on single sellers because why have one way to fuck with small businesses if you can have ten dozen?!
In 2018, India announced it was banning vendors in which guys like Amazon had an equity interest. For a couple of days, products being sold by Cloudtail and Appario disappeared from the site, only to return after Amazon reduced its equity stakes in their parent companies. Just writing all of this feels like there'll never be an end to this cartoonish cat-and-mouse game, but with the revelations from these leaked documents and the antitrust probe into Amazon in 2020, their days of beating the game by being the biggest douchebags might be numbered. Given that Amazon has made it difficult for small businesses in the U.S. to serve the public, here's to hoping.
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Top image: Ron Adar, Sarunrod/Shutterstock