Category Archives: FastCompany Labs


We have an ethical obligation to end individual animal suffering

Last winter, unforgettable video footage online showed a starving polar bear, struggling in its Arctic hunting grounds. Because of global warming, the ice was thin and the food supply was scarce. The video generated a wellspring of sympathy for the plight of this poor creature, and invigorated calls for stronger efforts to combat climate change–and rightly so.

Such advocacy on behalf of wildlife usually focuses on species and the effects of human-caused climate change on their survival and well-being as the ecosystems on which they depend undergo drastic changes. Thus, we should act to save the polar bear–that is, the polar bear species–by doing what we can to preserve its natural ecosystem. I am fully behind this kind of advocacy. Anybody who cares about the future of our planet and its occupants should be.

But I would also like to make a plea not simply for polar bears at large, but for this particular polar bear–the one in the video.

In his book Animal Liberation (1975), the philosopher Peter Singer argues that it is morally wrong to treat non-human animals in certain inhumane ways. To be precise, they should not be treated in ways that make them suffer. As sentient beings–beings capable of experiencing pleasure and pain–they have a defensible, prima facie interest in being spared unnecessary pain and suffering. Discussing who and what should be included within the sphere of our moral concern, Singer quotes the 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham to ask: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’ Countering what he calls ‘speciesist’ assumptions, Singer argues that there can be no moral justification for regarding the pain that animals feel as less important than the same amount of pain felt by humans. There might, he concedes, be other reasons to give preference to a human life over an animal life. But in the absence of such compelling principled considerations, we must avoid causing suffering in all creatures that are capable of experiencing it.

[Source Image: Blake Guidry/Unsplash]

It seems to me clear that, in light of global warming, Singer’s arguments need to be amended. According to his application of the utilitarian doctrine to the welfare of non-human animals, their suffering must be considered when weighing the utility values of various actions and practices. But the implications of climate change mean that the scope of actions that are proscribed–and, especially, prescribed–by a consideration of animal suffering should be broadened. It would seem to follow from Singer’s use of that doctrine not only that we must not positively treat non-human animals in certain ways, but also that we are morally bound to relieve their suffering where we can do so without a comparable loss on our part. As far as I know, Singer does not explicitly make this extension to non-human animals, but his principles imply it. In the essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972), he proposes that we are morally obliged to provide aid to human beings living in poverty and to the victims of natural and man-made disasters, regardless of their geographical distance from us, provided that our contribution does not entail a significant loss to ourselves (for example, you are not obliged to impoverish yourself to relieve the poverty of others):

If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By ‘without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance’ I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent.

This “uncontroversial” principle of altruism, Singer says, ‘requires us only to prevent what is bad … and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important’. Thus, all things being equal, there is no moral excuse for not doing what we can to alleviate the suffering of people who are dying from lack of food, shelter and medical care, regardless of geographical proximity or distance. Just because they might be thousands of kilometers away, for example, doesn’t mean that we are not obliged to take the money that we would have spent on a luxury item and instead donate it to an international relief agency.

In light of Singer’s general views on the moral consideration due to the suffering of non-human animals, the extension of the principle of altruism to such creatures–not species, but individual animals–seems to be trivial. After all, once again, there is no morally relevant difference in terms of the capacity to suffer. In other words, we are obliged to help that starving polar bear.

What happened to this animal? Did the witnesses of its suffering intervene? Did the videographer and his crew take any steps to save it? Usually such efforts on behalf of this or that particular animal meet resistance, even discouragement, on the grounds that we should not intervene as nature “takes its course.”

Now put aside the fact that nature is taking such a course only because it has been altered, perhaps irrevocably, by irresponsible human activity, to the detriment of the members of other species (not to mention our own). Even so, how much weight should we give to this “leave nature alone” argument? Here is an animal that is suffering. Should we (or the people who take such videos) do anything to help it?

From an ethical perspective, the answer seems to me to be clear: yes, absolutely. Moreover, Singer’s brand of utilitarianism and its extension to non-human animals, demands this answer. Anyone who accepts Singer’s arguments that we are morally obliged both (a) not to treat animals in a certain way, because of their capacity to suffer (similar to ours), and (b) to relieve the suffering of human beings (as long as it does not involve a comparable loss on our part) must also grant (c) that we are morally obliged also to relieve the suffering of non-human animals when it is possible to do so and without comparable loss on our part.

Of course, we do often acknowledge such a duty to help animals that suffer, especially when it is clear that such suffering is directly related to human activity. We typically come to the aid of waterfowl harmed by oil spills, sea mammals incapacitated by plastic floating in the oceans, and animals injured by vehicles. But here is the sticking point: why should it be any different with animals whose suffering is less obviously or directly related–and perhaps not related at all–to human activity, suffering for which we less clearly bear responsibility, or for which we bear no responsibility at all?

A failure to help that polar bear–or any individual animal in a comparable condition, regardless of our responsibility (direct or indirect) for that suffering–is callous and morally wrong. Nor can lack of action be defended by some alleged concern for the course of nature (“We must not interfere!”) or the gene pool of the species (“Let the weak die!”). Consider someone who would use those same arguments to justify not intervening to help relieve the suffering of particular human beings during a famine or after a tsunami, or someone who would use such arguments to say that we should not give antibiotics to a child with pneumonia. Such an attitude, reminiscent of various Charles Dickens characters, would be rejected out of hand as immoral. If the only morally relevant factor is “can they suffer?” there is no relevant moral difference when animals suffer pain that we can alleviate.Aeon counter – do not remove

Steven Nadler is the William H Hay II professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life (1999), A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age (2011), The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter: A Portrait of Descartes (2013), Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (with Ben Nadler). His biography Menasseh ben Israel: Rabbi of Amsterdam (2018) has just been published. 

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

AT&T gets sued over two-factor security flaws and $23M cryptocurrency theft

Crypto investor Michael Terpin filed a $224 million lawsuit against AT&T in California federal court Wednesday alleging that the phone company’s negligence let hackers steal nearly $24 million in cryptocurrency from him, Reuters reports. He’s also seeking punitive damages.

Terpin says hackers were twice able to convince AT&T to connect his phone number to a SIM card they controlled, routing his calls and messages to them and enabling them to defeat two-factor authentication protections on his accounts. In one case, he says hackers also took control of his Skype account and convinced one of this clients to send money to them rather than Terpin.

The second hack came even after AT&T agreed to put an additional passcode on his account, when a fraudster visited an AT&T store in Connecticut and managed to hijack Terpin’s account without providing the code or a “scannable ID” as AT&T requires, he says.

“We dispute these allegations and look forward to presenting our case in court,” AT&T told Reuters.

The trouble is, experts have said, it’s often relatively simple to trick phone company employees into reassigning numbers to thieves in what’s called a “SIM swap” scam. Once they control the number, they can intercept texts for two-factor authentication programs and password resets, quickly hijacking other accounts. The victim sometimes even struggles to contact the phone company, since his or her phone is disabled once the new SIM card is activated. Crypto investors have been a particular target, presumably since stolen digital funds are relatively hard to trace. Victims have included Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson.

Last week, security journalist Brian Krebs reported that a 25-year-old Florida man was arrested for being part of a multistate SIM swap scam ring, using the technique to steal bank accounts. Police were allegedly first alerted by a worried mom who heard one of the conspirators on the phone pretending to be an AT&T employee.

Protect yourself: Experts recommend using a non-phone-based two-factor-authentication system when it’s available, such as Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator. If you do have a service that requires phone authentication, one possibility is to connect it with a number that’s not widely associated with you, even if that means getting a separate number just for that purpose.

You can also ask your phone company to put additional passwords on your account, though that may not always help if an employee doesn’t follow procedures or is even in cahoots with the criminals.

Airbnb regulation pain hits Chicago as city threatens to reject 1,200 hosts

Regulation is causing trouble for Airbnb hosts in Chicago. Some 1,200 hosts have received letters from the city threatening to reject their short-term rental licenses if they don’t update their listings to the city’s specifications.

Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection began issuing registration numbers last year, about a year after Chicago passed a rule requiring people who rent out rooms for less than 30 days to register with the city or risk $1,500 a day fees. So far, the city has licensed 6,000 hosts. Unfortunately, some applications were not up to the city’s standards. Last week the agency started sending out notices asking Airbnb hosts whose registration was still pending to update their listings with additional details or face rejection, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Airbnb, in turn, sent its hosts an email, asking them to get in touch with Airbnb customer service if they need help updating their profiles. The company also released the following statement to the press:

“We are working with the city to address this issue and continue to support our Chicago host community. As one of only two licensed home sharing platforms in Chicago, Airbnb appreciates its ongoing partnership with the city and looks forward to a swift resolution of this matter.”

Chicago has one of the more manageable policies concerning Airbnb and short-term rentals. The city allows Airbnb to pass along information from consenting hosts. In some cities, like Paris, Airbnb hosts are supposed to register directly with the city.

Paris has taken a more aggressive stance against rental platforms. In April, the city decided to sue Airbnb for failing to take down listings that were not registered with the city. The city said it would start fining the platform €1,000-5,000 per day for each unregistered listing. The new law went into effect in December 2017.

Up until now, Chicago has had a more lax approach to registering hosts, and those with pending applications are still allowed to rent their homes. But even officials in cities with more lenient registration processes have limits on how long they’ll wait for platforms and their users to comply.

Regulation has had a mixed impact on the home-sharing platform. Laws around short-term rentals have lowered the number of listings in areas where they’re enforced. But sometimes Airbnb benefits from such rules, at least from a competition perspective. By the beginning of this year, Airbnb had lost half of its listings in San Francisco thanks to a city crackdown on short-term rentals. While it lost a significant percent of listings, its competitors lost even more. FlipKey dropped more than three-quarters of its listings, while HomeAway listings more than halved.

Omarosoa claims Betsy DeVos mocked the intellect of black students who booed her

As has been widely reported in recent days, Omarosa Manigault-Newman, the Apprentice star turned White House official turned Trump critic, spares no details when it comes to skewering her enemies and criticizing the administration in her new book, “Unhinged.” One of her biggest nemeses was Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who Manigault-Newman paints as relentlessly out-of-touch and uncaring when it comes to education policy for poor and minority communities.

When DeVos gave the commencement address at Bethune-Cookman, a historically black university, in May 2017, outraged students turned their backs on her and booed her. It was an embarrassing moment for the administration and the video went viral, but DeVos told Manigault-Newman, “I did great!” and tried to explain the students’ negative reaction by disparaging their intellect, according to the book. “They don’t get it. They don’t have the capacity to understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Marigault-Newman fired back: “They get it, and they aren’t happy about you or your goals.”

When DeVos later issued a statement saying that HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) were a form of school choice, Manigault-Newman educated her: “No, Secretary DeVos, it was not always a choice to go to black colleges. Black students had to attend black colleges because most PWI [predominantly white institutions] did not accept black students as recently as the 1960s.”

When Manigault-Newman returned to the White House and complained about DeVos to Trump, she claims the president shook his head in disgust and implied he’d fire her soon: “She is Ditzy Devos, what do you expect? In a very short period of time, I will get rid of her. Believe me, believe me.”

Manigault-Newman, who also claims that DeVos canceled an annual HBCU summit meeting at a hotel, resulting in $75,000 in cancellation fees, is withering in her opinion of the education secretary.

“She is still serving and destroying the education system, in this country. The depth and breadth of her ignorance is a travesty for children.” Later, she adds that DeVos is “woefully inadequate” and “as horrible as you suspect she is.”

A spokesperson for DeVos hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.


A famous fake photo from the great 2003 Northeast Blackout is still claiming victims

Today marks the anniversary of not only the Great Northeast Blackout, but of one of the greatest fake photos in internet history—one that is still claiming victims today.

In 2003, a series of unfortunate events turned out the lights for some 50 million people across the Northeast, including Cleveland, Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, and New York City. The darkness lasted for days and produced some stunning photos—and a notoriously fake one. The image, seen here, shows the northeast corner of North America plunged into darkness, a gaping black hole in the otherwise illuminated continent. It’s a stunning image that happens to be almost completely fake.

Falsified image [Screenshot:]

While it’s unclear where the photo came from originally, according to the fake news busters at Snopes, “the original picture is a composite image of nighttime North America which someone has manipulated with an editing program to darken the northeastern area.” Other hints that the photo was of dubious origin include the fact that it was marked with an eastern time stamp (not GMT like most space photos) and the small fact that there is no such satellite as the “ISAT GeoStar 45” credited with snapping the picture.

Despite Snopes exposé, the photo lives on. Just this morning NY1 Weather, in a since-deleted tweet, sent out the photo. They found out it was a fake pic thanks to one of their followers and quickly replaced it with a real photo of the blackout and an apology for falling for one of Photoshop’s greatest hits.


Are Walmart’s streaming plans too little, too late?

With more news this week of Walmart’s plans to launch its own subscription streaming service, the question is: Is it too little, too late? 

On paper, the idea behind the service, which could be announced later this summer or in early fall, sounds reasonable: In a streaming world dominated by services like Netflix, HBO Now and GO, and Hulu, all of whose signature shows cater toward the liberal elite (this year Netflix signed a production deal with the Obamas), Walmart seeks to go after the folks in Middle America and serve them up shows like the (short-lived) Roseanne reboot and Fuller House.  

Walmart certainly has cash to spend. The retail giant generated $123 billion in revenue in the first fiscal quarter and has $7.9 billion in cash in its coffers. Sources say it is willing to spend a few billion dollars to launch the new service–something that will surely be enticing to Hollywood. The entertainment industry is increasingly brand agnostic, ready and willing to play with whoever will write the biggest check. 

As for consumers, Walmart has hinted that its service, which would include free and paid tiers, would be cheaper than its competitors, giving it another notch in its belt. 

The only problem is that Fuller House is actually already a thing–and on Netflix. In other words, the great swath of Middle America that Walmart is so eager to tap into is arguably already being served. Perhaps not blatantly or exclusively, but, arguably, rather effectively. Indeed, although Netflix has built its reputation in the media on sophisticated dramas like The Crown and House of Cards, it actually has a decent load of what might be considered Red State content, including Ozark and the Ashton Kutcher comedy The Ranch. Not to mention a huge catalog of network TV series. 

[Photo: Fabio Bracht/Unsplash]

The bigger challenge for Walmart, which is being advised on the project by former Epix CEO Mark Greenberg, is how to start from scratch, which is what the company will effectively be doing, when so many players are already so far ahead in streaming. Netflix has over 125 million subscribers and is pumping $8 billion into content this year; or four times what Walmart is reportedly thinking about spending. Amazon is now nipping at Hulu’s heels with over 100 million subscribers and is spending $5 billion on content. Hulu is about to be re-invigorated with more resources and strategic management by Disney, its majority-owner-to-be, once Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox is complete. HBO, meanwhile, has orders to beef up its pipeline from new-owner AT&T, which will be writing the company bigger checks than former owner Time Warner was. Disney, with the help of streaming-tech giant BAMTech, is putting all of its corporate energy into launching a new family entertainment streaming service by the end of 2019. Wait, are we forgetting anyone? Oh yeah, just a couple of small fries: Apple and Facebook.  

Beyond having to race to create a product and lure talent to create the kind of brand-making shows that have defined Netflix (Orange Is the New Black, Narcos), Amazon (Transparent), and Hulu (The Handmaid’s Tale), in order to succeed, Walmart would need to fill its library with licensed shows, which are what actually drive viewing. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out last week, 80% of TV streams on Netflix are licensed TV shows, and 42% of Netflix members watch little to none of the company’s original content. The data was based on a study conducted by the research firm 7Park Data.

Netflix is having trouble holding onto licensed content as the studios become more protective of their own IP; the biggest blow has come from Disney, which will stop selling shows and movies to Netflix once its current contract expires. For anyone who isn’t building its own streaming service, its content is increasingly already locked up with other players like Amazon and Hulu. Even if Walmart shells out better offers, the company would have to wait for deals to expire, which could take years (which is more like decades, in streaming terms). 

Finally, Walmart’s track record in direct-to-consumer entertainment is weak, suggesting that perhaps the Walmart shopper thinks of it as a retailer and not a lifestyle brand. As far back as 2002, Walmart started testing a Netflix-style DVD-by-mail service. It sold that business to Netflix in 2005. In 2007, it tested a movie and TV show download service in partnership with Hewlett-Packard, but it never took off. In 2010, the company bought the video-on-demand company Vudu, which allows users to buy and rent movies, but that, too, has failed to gain traction. According to comScore, Vudu, which is available on devices like Roku, attracted only 13% of U.S. streaming households in April, compared to Netflix’s 73%, YouTube’s 50%, Hulu’s 36%, and Amazon’s 28%.  

By copying some of those players and throwing money at its streaming efforts, Walmart can certainly get to the starting gate. But to become an effective player–and get people to pony up for yet another streaming app–the company will need to do more than simply make another version of Roseanne.

It will need to distinguish itself in both its product and portfolio in a way that feels novel and exciting. Walmart already has a well-established brand. To win in streaming, it will need to prove why that brand matters in entertainment. 

Facebook’s controversial Messenger Kids app makes it easier for little BFFs to connect

Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the social media site’s controversial chat app for the under-13 set, finally made it easier for kids to friend one another on the app without requiring their parents to be Facebook friends, too.

That means parents don’t have to Facebook friend some paste-eater’s parents just because their kid knows all the answers to the math homework. Instead, kids can request parents’ approval of new contacts after the fact, no faux-friending required, TechCrunch reports. To use the feature, parents must opt-in to the setting. The app will then randomly create a four-word passphrase for each child. When the child wants to add a friend to their contact list, they share the phrase with the future friend to enter in their own app.

While the parents don’t have to be Facebook friends for the kids to connect, some parental involvement is still required—both parents receive a contact request from their child and both have to approve the request before the kids can start chatting.

However, this is even less parental involvement than an earlier tweak that required parents to search for the parents of their child’s friend and invite them to get the app so the kids can connect. Facebook must have realized that even that level of involvement was too much for parents who would literally rather clean the classroom chalkboard with their tongues than go to a PTA meeting, let alone connect with that mom who is always screaming on the sidelines of a soccer game.


Are middle children really going extinct? Here’s a reality check

I’m a middle child, and I can tell you that a lot of the stereotypes about middle children are true. For example, being wedged between an older and younger brother seems to have inflicted me with a Jan Brady-style inferiority complex that never really goes away. And because middle children are often thrust into the role of sibling mediator, I’ve also been cursed with a natural inclination to try to see both sides of every issue—a rather frustrating trait that, in this day and age, just makes you exceptionally bad a social media.

At the same time, middle children have contributed much to our society (thank you, Abe Lincoln and Jennifer Lopez), so it’s been somewhat bittersweet to read lately that these types of people, my people, are going extinct, at least in the United States, where most families are now having only one or two children. New York magazine took a crack at this theory last month, writing that “like the mountain gorilla and the hawksbill turtle, the American Middle Child is now an endangered species.”

[Image via Pew Research]

Sadly, statistics from Pew Research back up this up. In honor of Middle Child Day, which is today, the research organization parsed some of the demographic data around family size to dig deeper into the question of middle child extinction. Broadly speaking, middle children in America are a lot less common than they were 30 years ago. In 1976, 65% of American mothers aged 40-44 had three or more children, Pew writes. By 2016, that number had fallen to just 38%.

But look closer at the data and you’ll see a glimmer of hope. Most of the decline in middle children is due to the relative rareness of households with four children or more. Thirty years ago, that number was 40%. Today, it’s 15%. But families with three children have remained relatively stable, accounting for 23% of moms in 2016 versus 25% in 1976. That means the familiar Brady-style trifecta is alive and well and inflicting a whole new generation of American children with inferiority complexes, which I find comforting in a misery-loves-company kind of way.

Perhaps even more encouraging is that, according to Pew, some 41% of Americans now say having three or more children is ideal—the highest percentage since 1997. So even if we middle kids are slowly going extinct, at least we’re still valued. Cold comfort to a damaged ego, perhaps, but I’ll take it.

San Francisco anti-tax business group got trolled by housing activists

In November, voters in San Francisco–by some measures the most expensive city in the country–will decide on a ballot measure called “Our City, Our Home” that could raise up to $300 million per year to fund subsidized housing and new services to help get homeless people off the streets. The money would come from a “gross receipts tax” averaging 0.5% on companies’ annual revenue over $50 million. That could affect about 300 firms, reckons the city’s Chamber of Commerce, who aren’t happy about it, as it has made abundantly clear in a recently launched opposition campaign called Right Priority, Wrong Approach.

But good luck googling it. You’re likely to find only a parody website and social media accounts set up by pranksters sympathetic to the ballot measure. In their excitement, tax opponents apparently neglected to register the domain, which pro-tax advocates snapped up to build a parody site. Their biting sarcasm extends to the campaign’s supposed mission statement: “Because we care about homelessness . . . but we care more about our tax breaks.”

The campaign website also features Onion-style photos and fake quotes from tax opponents or skeptics. One, from Chamber of Commerce VP of public policy Jim Lazarus reads, “Homelessness is the No. 1 issue facing SF. But it’s not fair to ask the largest corporations to pay a little more–especially after Trump just cut their taxes.” (I have spoken with Lazarus, and his arguments are more nuanced than that.)

Related: San Fran ballot initiative would tax big business to fight homelessness

The pranksters also snapped up the email account, the Facebook page RightPriorityWrongApproach, and the Twitter account @WrongApproachSF.

Even in one of the world’s technology capitals, it seems, many businesses could benefit from some digital marketing and social media training.

“Unite the Right 2” rally: 6 things to know about the D.C. demonstrations

After last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a Whitman’s Sampler of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, paramilitary, and the alt-right got together to spew hate, the white nationalists are doing it all over again this weekend.

Exactly one year after the original rally, “Unite the Right 2”–titled like a bad Hollywood sequel–will be held in a park near the White House. About 400 people are expected to attend the so-called “First Amendment” event.

Here’s what you need to know about the rally:

  • Organizer: The event was organized by Jason Kessler, who already had last year’s rally on his resume. Kessler initially wanted to return to Charlottesville, but the city denied his request, so he headed to the nation’s capital.
  • Event: The rally will start in Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C., and run from August 11 to 12. According to the rally’s website, the main demonstration is expected to begin at 5:30 p.m. in Lafayette Square on the 12th.
  • Attendees: According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the rally’s confirmed speakers include neo-Nazi Patrick Little, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, South African survivalist Simon Roche, a guy from Patriot Prayer, the editor of the Revolutionary Conservative, Kessler’s reported attorney Corey Mahler, and “pro-white” town manager Tom Kawczynski.
  • Counter-protests: There are several counter-demonstrations planned. The National Park Service (NPS) has granted official permits to multiple counter-protests in Washington D.C.—reportedly before the Nazis got their permits.
  • More counter-protests: The Daily Beast reports that 18 anti-racist, anti-fascist, and feminist groups have organized a “DC United Against Hate” coalition, which will be counter-protesting throughout the weekend. According to ABC News, at least one group “plans to burn a Confederate flag in Lafayette Park.”
  • Shut it down: According to DCist, 22 different organizations, including Black Lives Matter Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter D.C., Maryland Antifa, the D.C. Antifascist Collective, and the Frederick Socialists have teamed up for an event called Shut It Down D.C., which will go on for the entire weekend.