21 April 2021

Facebook Plans To Launch Stablecoin That Will Compete With Dollar Early Next Year

A couple of days ago, Morgan Stanley warned that China's new digital renminbi - the first "central bank digital currency" (or CBDC) - could cement its status as the next reserve currency. But as government and Wall Street continue their embrace of virtual currencies that, some say, threaten to blow up the industry status quo and eliminate the need for banks, corporations are also striving to create the stablecoin of the future, challenging governments' long-held monopoly on money.

Years after Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg first declared his intention to launch a transnational stablecoin via Facebook's "Libra" project that would, he hoped, enable cross-border payments on Facebook's platform, the Facebook-backed digital-currency project Diem is reportedly planning to launch its first stablecoin in 2021 as a small-scale pilot, according to an anonymously sourced report from CNBC.

But Libra, which involved a convoluted plan to launch a stablecoin backed by a potpourri of fiat currencies, was quickly scaled back after Facebook's talk about creating a new international financial system to supplant the dollar apparently rattled too many feathers. What was left was later spun off as Diem, a re-branding that has given life to a scaled-back vision of corporate stablecoin dominance. However, When it finally arrives, Diem won’t come with the same fanfare and controversy of the original idea envisioned by the social media giant nearly two years ago.

The person, who preferred to remain anonymous as the details haven’t yet been made public, said this pilot will be small in scale, focusing largely on transactions between individual consumers. There may also be an option for users to buy goods and purchases, the person added. However, there is no confirmed date for the launch and timing could therefore change.

"It’s really drifted off the radar in a way that’s quite striking," Michael Casey, chief content officer of the cryptocurrency publication CoinDesk and a former financial journalist, told CNBC.

Facebook won't play an official role in the launch, which instead will be overseen by the Diem Association, the Switzerland-based nonprofit which oversees diem’s development.

In comments to CNBC, financial journalist Michael Casey said he was surprised at how under-the-radar the diem project has become. It's almost as if the international community has forgotten about it, he said. "It really drifted off the radar in a way that’s quite striking," said Casey, the chief content officer of the cryptocurrency publication CoinDesk who was one of the first reporters at a major American newspaper (the Wall Street Journal) to cover the rise of crypto.

The soft reaction to Diem is also surprising considering how much of a backlash its predecessor created. "It was such a stunning challenge to the international order, in that the backlash was just really powerful," Casey said.

Diem has lost several senior executives over the past year, as well as the backing of powerful corporations like Mastercard and Visa, among many others. But in the wake of its rebranding, Diem is reportedly in talks with Swiss financial regulators to secure a payment license, a crucial step that would place the organization further along the path toward getting its digital currency project off the ground.

Of course, more "government sponsored" competitors are in the works: in addition to the eRMB, the ECB recently concluded a public consultation on a digital euro and will make a decision this summer, and the Boston Fed is set to release its initial research in the fall.

With stablecoins seen as a more practical alternative to bitcoin and ether, we will be closely watching the rollout of stablecoins as a space where corporations might win an early victory in the battle to use crypto technology to seize the money-making monopoly from government - and from the people.

To sum up, why should readers be skeptical of Facebook's Diem? Well, Tom Luongo once described it as a "Trojan Rabbit" that could quietly help Zuck seize the ability to print money, and launch "the Central Bank of Facebook."

Company Sells Sex Robot "Clones" Of Dead Partners Using 3D-Modeling Technology

For many people who have lost their significant others, sex dolls have provided one way to ease the pain of grief and loneliness.

However, sex robot company Lux Botics is taking things one step further – by offering a clone of dead partners using state-of-the-art three-dimensional modeling.

With demand for sex dolls booming amid the ongoing pandemic and lockdowns across the world, Lux Botics is offering “ultra-realistic humanoids” to satisfy the carnal needs of the singles without any other recourse.

The company’s flagship “Adult Companion” model called Stephanie goes for USD $6,000 on the Lux Botics website.

The model includes speech control, facial recognition, a “hyper realistic eyes” option and even the option of implanted real hair, as well as limited AI capabilities.

However, the company also offers the option of creating a facsimile of a lost loved one.

The company can either create a 3D model through detailed modeling prior to it being printed in ultra-fine resolution, or it can rely on photos of the individual.

A mould would then be constructed based on the 3D model, complete with a robot skeleton. The robot is then painted and fitted with the lips, nails, eyebrows and other features the customer chooses.

“We can make robots that talk but we have not made robots that truly walk on their own,” Lux Botics co-founder Bjorn told Daily Star UK

“We hope to develop this in the near future. We can make a large number of body parts that can move in a realistic manner.”

While the company hasn’t yet created body doubles, Lux Botics is offering the choice to customers.

Since the start of the pandemic, people have been desperate to cope with the solitude of self-isolation and lockdown measures. While many have resorted to traditional measures like purchasing a pet or using dating apps, sex doll sales have also skyrocketed as people seek an emotional crutch.

20 April 2021

Report: China, Russia fueling QAnon conspiracy theories

Michael Isikoff
·Chief Investigative Correspondent
·5 min read
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images, Getty Images (3)
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images, Getty Images (3)

Foreign-based actors, principally in China and Russia, are spreading online disinformation rooted in QAnon conspiracy theories, fueling a movement that has become a mounting domestic terrorism threat, according to new analysis of online propaganda by a security firm.

The analysis by the Soufan Center, a New York-based research firm focused on national security threats, found that nearly one-fifth of 166,820 QAnon-related Facebook posts between January 2020 and the end of February 2021 originated from overseas administrators.

An advance copy of the report, which is being released today, was provided to Yahoo News.

“It’s very alarming,” said Jason Blazakis, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and a former State Department counterterrorism official who is one of the authors of the report. “We have enough problems without the amplification of conspiracy theories by foreign actors, and that foreign impact really does stir up a hornet’s nest.”

The report injects a new element into the debate about how to counter QAnon — a bizarre but increasingly widespread conspiracy movement that has pushed the idea that the U.S. government is secretly run by Satan worshipers involved in a global sex trafficking ring.

Speaking to lawmakers last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern that the extremist nature of the movement could lead to violence, citing as an example the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. He said the bureau is preparing a formal “threat assessment” of QAnon that he expects to share with Congress “very shortly.”

QAnon conspiracy theorists hold signs and protest the California lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on May 01, 2020 in San Diego, California.  (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
QAnon conspiracy theorists protest the California coronavirus lockdown in May 2020 in San Diego. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Despite the outlandish nature of QAnon claims, the report also suggests that adherents to the movement’s conspiracy theories may be far more prevalent than some previous studies have shown. A new poll of 9,308 U.S. adults, conducted for the Soufan Center by Limbik, a data analytics firm, found that between 20 and 23 percent of respondents self-identified as a QAnon believer, member or supporter — figures far higher than in some earlier surveys.

The numbers became even higher when those polled were asked about specific issues that QAnon has emphasized. For example, when asked whether they believe “elites, politicians and/or celebrities are involved in global pedophile rings,” 35.8 percent said they did, up from 26.7 percent from a similar sample last December.

Asked whether they believe COVID-19 was created in a lab, 30.6 percent said they did in February compared to 29.1 percent in December. The survey in February also found that 25 percent supported the actions of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.

David Reinert holding a Q sign waits in line with others to enter a campaign rally with President Donald Trump Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., on August 2, 2018 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP)
A man with a Q sign before a campaign rally featuring Donald Trump and Republican Senate candidate Rep. Lou Barletta in August 2018 in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP)

These data points, the report concludes, suggest that there may be a “significant cognitive opening” among the U.S. population “that makes Americans more susceptible to further radicalization within the QAnon movement.”

If true, it is an opening that, according to the report, foreign actors are aggressively seeking to exploit. Limbik, which uses artificial intelligence and other techniques to sift through huge volumes of data, analyzed Facebook content that pushed QAnon-related content and concluded a significant portion was coming from overseas, apparently for the purpose of sowing societal discord or distrust about the American political process.

Zach Schwitzky, the founder of the firm, acknowledged in an interview that identifying foreign content was not “an exact science” since there is rarely publicly available account information about individuals or groups who post on Facebook. But by conducting linguistic analysis of the posts and logos or photos posted, the firm was able to unmask Russian, Chinese, Saudi and Iranian actors who were posting messages or stories that advanced QAnon beliefs about child sex trafficking rings, election fraud, vaccines and COVID-19 and related issues.

The Q-Anon conspiracy theorists  hold signs during the protest at the State Capitol in Salem, Oregon, United States on May 2, 2020. (John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A Q-Anon conspiracy theorist at a protest at the Oregon Capitol in Salem in May 2020. (John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

For much of last year, the report found, Russian actors dominated the foreign QAnon space on Facebook. But they have been overtaken in recent months by those based in China as the government there has ramped up its disinformation efforts in response to increased tensions with the United States, the report says. From Jan. 1 to Feb. 28, 2021, 58 percent of foreign-based QAnon posts came from administrators in China — more than double that from Russian administrators, the Limbik analysis found.

The Limbik analysis was unable to say whether the Russian or Chinese administrators posting the material on Facebook were acting as part of a government operation. But Blazakis, the former State Department official, said: “Do I think the Russian and Chinese governments have awareness of this? I think the answer is absolutely yes.” He noted in particular the “firewall” the Chinese government uses to block foreign content it disapproves of from penetrating the internet in that country, while tightly monitoring content within the country.

“In China, nothing is going to be done without the Chinese government being aware of it,” he said. “I think there is at a minimum tacit support for the amplification we’re seeing.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the company couldn’t comment on the report because it hadn’t yet had a chance to review it. But the spokesperson said it took “aggressive action” to stop the spread of dangerous content on its platform last year by expanding its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” policy to include foreign conspiracy networks. This has resulted in the removal of about 3,300 pages, 10,500 groups and 27,300 Instagram accounts that were spreading QAnon content. “We remain vigilant to this evolving threat so we can stay ahead of it and keep people safe,” the spokesperson said.

Sex workers get priority vaccine access in Vancouver

 A sex trade worker is pictured in downtown Vancouver in this file photo.

Everyone’s version of essential workers is different when it comes to vaccinating the population. Some think health workers should be at the front of the line, others think teachers.

In Vancouver, sex workers are now getting priority treatment.

The PACE Society, an organization in the city’s Downtown Eastside which “provides support, advocacy, and education by, with, and for current and former sex workers of all genders,” is hosting a vaccination clinic for sex workers Thursday.

“Enter through the alley,” the poster says.

PACE Society poster for a vaccination clinic for sex workers in Vancouver.
PACE Society poster for a vaccination clinic for sex workers in Vancouver.

The clinic is for a first shot only and is being presented as a way to “protect yourself and those around you!”

It was just days ago that police and other frontline responders in Surrey, a COVID hotspot in the Lower Mainland, were given their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I am pleased to advise you that we have received approval from the province and Fraser Health for all Surrey detachment staff (all categories of members and municipal employees) to receive vaccines on a priority basis,” RCMP Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards wrote in a memo to staff.

Like many other provinces, British Columbia has been allocating vaccine doses primarily through age ranges with some occupations getting earlier access. Right now, with some exceptions, vaccination appointments for the general public are open to those 50 years of age and older, with those over 40 able to book appointments starting next week.

So far, more than one million residents have received a COVID-19 vaccination.

16 April 2021

Rare "Electric Mushrooms" Found In Meghalaya, So Bright That Locals Use It As Natural Torches

By Gursharan Bhalla
mushroom-5fb90275165e0 Michele P. Verderane.

The story behind the discovery

During the monsoon, a team of scientists from India and China embarked on a fungal foray in Assam. Over the course of two weeks, they were amazed by the vast diversity of fungi in the region: hundreds of species of fungi were spotted, some of which were new to science.

After hearing reports from locals of “electric mushrooms”, they headed to West Jaintia Hills District in Meghalaya. It was a drizzly night and a local person guided the team to a bamboo forest, which is part of a community forest, and asked them to switch off their torches.

A minute later, the group was awestruck by what they saw: in the midst of the darkness an eerie green glow emerged from dead bamboo sticks that were smothered in tiny mushrooms. The fungus emits its own light – a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

mushrooms meghalaya File

One among the world's 97 glowing species

The new species — named Roridomyces phyllostachydis — was first sighted on a wet August night near a stream in Meghalaya’s Mawlynnong in East Khasi Hills district and later at Krang Shuri in West Jaintia Hills district. It is now one among the 97 known species of bioluminescent fungi in the world.

Interestingly, local residents used the glowing bamboo sticks as natural torches to navigate the forest at night. Steve Axford, a fungal photographer who accompanied the team, set up a small studio and took photos.

Upon closer observation, the team noticed that only the stipes (stalks) of the mushroom lit up and they suspected it could be a new species, said Gautam Baruah, who leads the Rural Futures initiative at the Balipara Foundation in Assam and is a co-author of the report. A detailed examination in the laboratory had confirmed their suspicion: it was a new species from the genus Roridomyces—and the first fungus in this genus to be discovered from India.

mushrooms glow meghalaya File

This mushroom was only found growing on dead bamboo (Phyllostachys mannii). Special elements could be present in the bamboo substrate that this fungus prefers, said Samantha Karunarathna, senior mycologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of the report She added that more research is needed to understand why they grow on this bamboo species.

Other glowing fungi in India

So far this mushroom is known from Krang Shuri, West Jayantia Hills District and Mawlynnong, East Khasi Hills District in Meghalaya. Only a few species of glowing fungi have been reported from India. Two have been reported from the Western Ghats, one in the Eastern Ghats, and one in the state of Kerala, among others. Glowing fungi have also been spotted in the forests of Maharashtra and Goa (part of the Western Ghats) but they have not been scientifically reported. Karunarathna believes the actual number of bioluminescent fungi in India should be higher.

glow-mushrooms File

A 2015 study showed that bioluminescence in Neonothopanus gardneri, a large, bright mushroom that grows at the base of young palm trees in Brazilian coconut forests, is under the control of a circadian clock. The activity of the enzymes involved in producing light peaks at night and this regulation implies that the lights serve a purpose.

Give Safe Passage To Myanmar Journalists

Three journalists working with a multimedia news organisation have fled the military junta and taken shelter in border town Moreh

A forum of Manipur journalists has appealed to the State government not to send back three of their Myanmar counterparts who fled the military junta and have taken shelter in border town Moreh.

The All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) also asked the government to give the three journalists a safe passage to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi for seeking official refugee status under the international convention on refugees.

“As a journalist body, we are alarmed by the prevailing situation in Myanmar, especially by the fate of the media and mediapersons in the country,” a statement issued by AMWJU president Bijoy Kakchingtabam said.

The three journalists from Mizzima, a multimedia news organisation in Myanmar, crossed over to Moreh a few days ago. Manipur-based journalists said the trio had been apprehensive about being pushed back into Myanmar by the Indian security forces.

“The union appeals to the Manipur government to make necessary concessions to allow the journalists to come to (State capital) Imphal and all facilities be extended to them so that they can proceed to Delhi to seek the protection of the UNHCR,” the statement said.

After the coup in February, the Myanmar military had revoked Mizzima’s licence, arrested several of its journalists, raided its office in Yangon and froze its bank account.

The AMWJU alluded to a letter by the Ministry of Home Affairs to the north-eastern States bordering Myanmar not to let “illegal migrants” from that country in. “That letter is with reference to illegal migrants but the Mizzima journalists at Moreh are obviously refugees seeking asylum within India due to prosecution in their country,” the union said.

Myanmar lawmakers

More Myanmar nationals are fleeing to adjoining Mizoram than Manipur. Officials in Mizoram capital Aizawl said a majority of some 2,200 people who have crossed over are police and fire service personnel and teachers.

Among them are 14 lawmakers from ethnic minority groups in Myanmar. A few of them are members of that country’s Parliament while the others represent a lower House equivalent to the Assembly of a State in India.

“People are coming in every day, but we cannot turn them away on humanitarian grounds. Many are hiding in the jungles along the border waiting for an opportunity to cross over,” V.L.T. Bawihtlung, president of Mizo Zirlai Pawl (students’ union), said.

Six Mizoram districts — Champhai, Siaha, Lawngtlai, Serchhip, Hnahthial and Saitual — share 510 of the 1,643 km land border that India shares with Myanmar.

Manipur High Court Cancels Election Of Congress MLA Who Joined BJP

The Manipur High Court's order citied "false affidavit" submission to the Election Commission by Okram Henry

Manipur High Court Cancels Election Of Congress MLA Who Joined BJP

The election of Okram Henry Singh was cancelled by the Manipur High Court

Mr Singh alleged that Mr Henry "deliberately misrepresented his educational qualification" and "concealed a criminal case to the Election Commission of India in his affidavit for the 11th Manipur Legislative Assembly elections 2017."

The court order citied "false affidavit" submission to the Election Commission and made the petitioner, a second-highest scorer in the 2017 elections, as "duly elected as a member of 15-Wangkhei Assembly Constituency."

In the 2017 assembly election, Mr Henry got 16,753 votes to beat Mr Singh, who won 12,417 votes.

Mr Singh had cited in the petition that Mr Henry filed his highest educational qualification as BA from Punjab University in his nomination, and filed "Class XII from Manipur Public School, CBSE" as highest educational qualification in his nomination in the 2017 election.

Mr Singh said Mr Henry had not disclosed about a criminal case and a narcotics case against him to the Election Commission.

Listen to the latest songs, only on JioSaavn.com

Mr Henry, who contested the 2017 election from Congress, is the nephew of former Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh from Congress. He left the Congress in August last year after resigning along with five other Congress MLAs and joined the BJP.

3 Comments In September last year, Chief Minister N Biren Singh dropped six cabinet ministers and inducted five new MLAs, including Mr Henry. He held the portfolios of social welfare, cooperation and MAHUD.

Can Huarong Go Bankrupt?

By Ling Huawei, managing editor of Caixin Media and Caixin Weekly. Originally published in Caixin,

After China Huarong Asset Management Co. Ltd. on March 31 decided to suspend its share trading the next day, the market became awash in rumors that the company, one of the country’s four largest bad-asset managers, would be forced into restructuring or might even go bankrupt (as we discussed in "This Is A Fatal Event": China's Bond Market Hammered After Huarong Bankruptcy Rumors).

The rumors spooked many institutional investors, sending the company’s bonds tumbling. Huarong, a product of China’s reform of state-owned banks at the end of last century, has once again found itself at the center of a critical moment in its history.

But can Huarong go bankrupt?

Huarong is not a bank. Most of its investors are the institutional sort, not individuals. If it were to go bankrupt, the spillover risks ought to be much easier to handle. Also, although Huarong has total assets upward of 1.7 trillion yuan ($259 billion), the central bank does not regard it as a systemically important financial institution. Therefore, it seems that Huarong’s problems ought to be dealt with in the same “market-oriented” way as average financial institutions. Under China’s Company Law in the case, shareholders would need to fill the holes on the books with net assets. After that, the company could issue new shares or introduce strategic investors to supplement the company’s capital. If the company was still insolvent after all that, it might end up facing debt restructuring or bankruptcy.

However, Huarong is not an ordinary company. Rather it is a central government-administrated state-owned financial enterprise. At the end of last century, the company was set up to dispose of the nonperforming assets of state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd. Since 2006, it gradually expanded into a financial holding company. Huarong’s biggest shareholder is the Ministry of Finance, which holds a 61.25% stake. Huarong has grown its business mainly by obtaining financing with a state guarantee. In July 2014, the company started issuing bonds overseas, the outstanding value of which is more than $23 billion.

Huarong, which went public in Hong Kong in October 2015, provides financing to multiple industries, with a large portion of its investment flowing into the property market or other areas where bank lending is kept under tight restrictions. Excluding its subsidiary, Huarong Xiangjiang Bank Corp. Ltd., Huarong has around 1 trillion yuan in assets, connecting financial institutions including banks, trust firms and insurance firms and nonfinancial industries. That gives Huarong certain characteristics of a systemically important financial institution that probably shouldn’t be allowed to go bankrupt.

Regardless of whether it ends up going bankrupt, Huarong will need to put under strict financial constraints. Lai Xiaomin, a former chairman of Huarong who came under investigation in April 2018, was sentenced to death this January in the country’s biggest financial corruption case since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Some believe that Lai’s misconduct as chairman left Huarong with a huge financial black hole. The complexity of Lai’s case made it difficult to unwind some of Huarong’s more problematic projects, so it’s unrealistic to expect Huarong to fill that hole all on its own.

As of mid-2020, Huarong had 160 billion yuan in net assets, and more than 30 billion yuan in loan-loss provisions. Huarong needs to be thoroughly recapitalized and have the value of its nonperforming assets correctly recalculated. It needs to “take a big bath.” Unless it does so, the company’s moral hazard will continue to grow. The financial black hole won’t disappear on its own, so Huarong needs to take responsibility and shoulder the losses.

There’s no making without breaking. “Breaking” does not mean a hasty debt restructuring or even bankruptcy, but a practical restructuring plan created after completely clarifying its assets and liabilities. “Making” means Huarong needs to have the professional capabilities to dispose of nonperforming assets, to become a professional institution that can effectively dispose of such assets at both home and abroad.

To achieve this goal, Hong Kong-listed Huarong will need the support and understanding of shareholders and other investors so that it can be privatized and delisted if necessary. Also, it needs to clear up its financials and recalculate its loss provisions. It will also need to reduce the costs of restructuring as much as possible and once again become a professional institution by reshaping its corporate culture and improving its internal governance.


Confirming the above, this morning Bloomberg reported that Huarong has prepared funds for full repayment of a S$600 million offshore bond due April 27, according to a person with direct knowledge of the company’s plan.

Huarong plans to make the payment on the due date, while a Huarong spokesperson declined to comment but said the company has “adequate liquidity” and has made full repayment on bonds that have matured

Huarong International, the main offshore arm of China Huarong, “will continue its stable and compliant operations based on new business development plan,” the spokesperson said.