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Thursday, 31 January 2019

A new Moscow on the Hudson (2)

Early 2015, I wrote part one of my blog A new Moscow on the Hudson. The title is a reference to the 1984 movie Moscow on the Hudson featuring the late and great Robin Williams. It's also a reference to the old Moscow, which is now the capital of kleptocrats. Last but not least, the title refers to my 2015 prediction that socialism may conquer USA.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a.k.a. AOC) is the new darling of US liberal media. She is also a self-declared democratic socialist. A decade ago, such a title was enough for not getting elected. Since 3 January 2019, she is the U.S. Representative for New York's 14th congressional district. Obviously, her election might be an aberration. I think, feel and believe it is not.

The demise of the American middle class (my 2018 blog) has created 2 opposite sides: the few haves and the many have-nots. The American top 10% has some 80% of total US wealth (my 2018 blog). This would not matter if American inequality was considered fair. A 2017 Yale study revealed that people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality (my 2018 blog).

The unfairness of American inequality has been demonstrated by the 45th President and his Cabinet of billionaires and millionaires ever since the 2016 presidential election. One of these billionaires even had the guts to ask why unpaid federal employees visited food banks during the longest-ever US government shutdown (eg, Vox).

The rise of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders cannot be viewed separately from the election of the 45th President. It's another example of Isaac Newton's Third Law of Motion: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". Mr Obama was able to maintain a perception of US moral decency. Mr Trump shred it to pieces (my 2018 blog).

The perception of unfair equality and immense wealth inequality has given rise to tax proposals which were - not long ago - considered lethal in US politics:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: a marginal income tax rate of 70% (eg, MWVox);
- Elizabeth Warren: #UltraMillionaireTax (eg, Facebook, Twitter).

Unlike the 20th century, the US political climate now seems ready to accept these views. If the voting majority would believe in these candidates then US politics may even swing left of Europe. However, such a swing would probably also cement a nationalistic US agenda. The main difference would be a wealth redistribution through higher taxes for millionaires and billionaires.

Ultimately, such a revamped US would hit the same wall as Nordic countries like Sweden: people still prefer fair inequality over unfair equality - let alone unfair inequality. In other words, the American dream should be kept alive: from paperboy to multi-millionaire.

Taxman (1966) by The Beatles

If you drive a car, car, I'll tax the street
If you try to sit, sit, I'll tax your seat
If you get too cold, cold, I'll tax the heat
If you take a walk, walk, I'll tax your feet

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The Moon and its dark side

A famous 1973 Pink Floyd album is called The Dark Side of the Moon. Until recently, I had never realised that we only see one (1) side of our Moon. The other ("dark") side of the moon is invisible to us. Recent Chinese images of that other side show a landscape full of craters unlike "our" side (Guardian). To some extent, our moon protects us from the impact of asteroids and meteorites.

On 25 January 2019, the science journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters published that a "sample collected during the 1971 Apollo 14 lunar mission was found to contain traces of minerals with a chemical composition common to Earth and very unusual for the moon" (Phys, EPSL, Curtin University). Note LO: bold and italic markings are mine.

Professor Alexander Nemchin of Curtin University assumes that "this piece was formed on the Earth and brought to the surface of the moon as a meteorite generated by an asteroid hitting Earth about four billion years ago, and throwing material into space and to the moon" (CU).

His assumption would confirm the so-called giant-impact hypothesis, which "suggests that the Moon formed out of the debris left over from a collision between Earth and an astronomical body the size of Mars, approximately 4.5 billion years ago" (Wiki).

On 17 January 2019, another finding revealed that "the number of asteroid impacts on the Moon and Earth increased by two to three times starting around 290 million years ago" (ScienceDaily). “The implication is that since that time we have been in a period of relatively high rate of asteroid impacts that is 2.6 times higher than it was prior to 290 million years ago.” (University of Toronto)

A moon is an astronomical object or celestial body similar to asteroids, comets, meteorites, planets and stars. The differences are based upon their:
- functionality: stars give light and warmth, like our Sun (eg, Socratic-2018);
- orbit: planets orbit a star while moons orbit a planet (eg, Forbes-2019Sciencing-2018);
- size: asteroids and meteorites are both "small" space rocks (NASA Science);
- shape: "comets are made of ice and dust—not rock" (NASA Science).

Our moon is neither common, nor uncommon: "[] many planets have these satellites. For instance, Jupiter has 63 moons, while 47 orbit Saturn while Mercury and Venus have none. [ ] Moons vary a great deal in size and shape, but most are made from the dust and gas that were going around planets during the formation of the solar system." (Sciencing-2018)

Today, our Moon is a moon as it's within Earth's gravity. However, our Moon has been drifting away from Earth by almost 4 centimeter annually, ever since that collision of 4.5 billion years ago. Hence, our Moon could once become a planet, based upon the 2006 IAU definitions.

Brain Damage a.k.a. Lunatic (1973) by Pink Floyd

And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
You shout and no one seems to hear
And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes
I'll see you on the dark side of the moon

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Trump must be a Russian agent; the alternative is too awful (Wired)

Wired title: Trump must be a Russian agent; the alternative is too awful

Wired subtitle: It would be rather embarrassing for Donald Trump at this point if Robert Mueller were to declare that the president isn’t an agent of Russian intelligence.

"THE PATTERN OF his pro-Putin, pro-Russia, anti-FBI, anti-intelligence community actions are so one-sided, and the lies and obfuscation surrounding every single Russian meeting and conversation are so consistent, that if this president isn’t actually hiding a massive conspiracy, it means the alternative is worse: America elected a chief executive so oblivious to geopolitics, so self-centered and personally insecure, so naturally predisposed to undermine democratic institutions and coddle authoritarians, and so terrible a manager and leader, that he cluelessly surrounded himself with crooks, grifters, and agents of foreign powers, compromising the national security of the US government and undermining 75 years of critical foreign alliances, just to satiate his own ego.

In short, we’ve reached a point in the Mueller probe where there are only two scenarios left: Either the president is compromised by the Russian government and has been working covertly to cooperate with Vladimir Putin after Russia helped win him the 2016 election—or Trump will go down in history as the world’s most famous “useful idiot,” as communists used to call those who could be co-opted to the cause without realizing it.

At least the former scenario—that the president of the United States is actively working to advance the interests of our country’s foremost, long-standing, traditional foreign adversary—would make him seem smarter and wilier. The latter scenario is simply a tragic farce for everyone involved.

We’re left here—in a place unprecedented in American political history, wondering how much worse the truth is than we already know—after four days of fresh revelations in the public drip-drip-drip of the Russia investigation. The past two months have seen the public understanding of the case advance into almost unthinkable territory. Now we’re simply trying to figure out how bad things really are.

Consider: On Friday, The New York Times reported that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation of the president himself in 2017; on Saturday, The Washington Post published a story saying that Trump has gone to great lengths to cover up and hide—even from his own aides—his interactions with Putin; on Sunday, columnist Max Boot outlined the case for Trump as a Russian asset; and on Tuesday the Times came back with an authoritative recounting of Trump and Putin’s interactions, a recounting that included a bizarre telephone call from Air Force One where the president tried to argue off the record that contrary to the unanimous conclusion of his own intelligence community, “that the Russians were falsely accused of election interference.”

Like so much of the strangeness of the Trump era, these new revelations are simultaneously shocking but not surprising. Of course the FBI wondered why Trump’s actions toward Russia and the intelligence community were so aberrant and felt compelled to investigate. But to fully understand why these revelations matter so much in the grand scheme of the special counsel's investigation and the Russia probe, it helps to understand a bit about spies and the unique, dual mission of the FBI—which is tasked not just with enforcing federal criminal laws but also with protecting the nation’s secrets, politics, and economy from undue foreign influence.

I’VE SAID BEFORE that one of the most misunderstood aspects of this investigation—from the start and to this day—is that it began by targeting the Trump campaign and Americans like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Page and Papadopoulos (and more recently, Michael Flynn) have shouted from the rooftops in recent months that they were entrapped and targeted by the Deep State FBI—that’s even the name of Papadopoulos’ forthcoming, fever-dream-inspired book—but the FBI started with their best interests at heart: Agents saw people with ties to the Russian government circling around the Trump campaign, and so the bureau stepped in, entirely appropriately, to monitor that activity.

The FBI was apparently alerted to this activity by its own intelligence and by tips from friendly foreign intelligence overseas. It wasn’t like these Russia-affiliated characters were necessarily new to the FBI: In 2013, agents in New York had watched as undercover officers from the Russian SVR, its foreign intelligence service, akin to the CIA, tried to recruit Page as an asset—only to determine he was too scatterbrained to be of any use.

To fully understand why these revelations matter, it helps to understand a bit about spies and the dual mission of the FBI—which is tasked not just with enforcing federal laws but also with protecting the nation from undue foreign influence.

The FBI's investigation during the 2016 presidential campaign, which we know now was codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, began as an attempt to protect Trump, to protect a political neophyte and the bizarre assortment of advisers who had surrounded him (the political equivalent of the Star Wars bar scene) from what the FBI believed were the nefarious efforts of Kremlin-linked players.

Now counterintelligence investigations, as shadowy as they are, are just that; their singular goal is to counter the specific activities of foreign intelligence services. Counterintelligence cases are markedly different from criminal cases, because when they begin the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily a pair of handcuffs and a courtroom—the goal is simply to counter the targeted actions. That can mean an arrest in some cases, but it also can mean simply watching—monitoring a suspected intelligence officer’s or agent’s routines and meetings, as the FBI evidently did with the NRA’s Russian friend, Maria Butina, for years.

It can also mean covertly disrupting or neutralizing the activity in some way, which can be as simple as showing up unannounced in US offices to warn unwitting Americans that they might have interacted with—or are about to interact with—a suspected undercover intelligence officer. (The Trump campaign did, in fact, receive so-called “defensive” briefings from the FBI to be wary that it might be the target of outreach and attempted influence from foreign powers—warnings the campaign pointedly ignored, either stupidly or conspiratorially.) At their most advanced, counterintelligence investigations can lead to the recruitment of double agents, triple agents, or the feeding of false intelligence or information back through identified spy channels.

Counterintelligence cases come with special authorities, including powerful FISA warrants for monitoring communications, along with special oversight, coordinated nationally through the Justice Department’s National Security Division—because they’re vital to the security of the United States and meant to help protect both ordinary, unwitting Americans as well as the nation’s political and military leaders.

The evolution of the FBI’s inquiry—from starting out in the spring of 2016 by attempting to protect the Trump campaign and realizing by the fall that the Trump campaign was open for business with Russia, to wondering by the spring of 2017 whether the candidate-turned-president himself was in on or even directing the plot—must have been head-spinning for the bureau and its allies in the Justice Department.

We still don’t understand nearly enough about what transpired inside the ironically paired FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building headquarters on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Justice Department’s Robert F. Kennedy building across the street during the 10 days between FBI director James Comey’s firing and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel—the panic on the part of acting director Andrew McCabe, the befuddlement of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, and the horror among agents and prosecutors. (We might know more when McCabe’s memoircomes out later this spring.)

But we know that there was evidence that deeply concerned both McCabe and Rosenstein. And we know too that we haven’t yet seen that evidence. It’s easy to forget how much of this case the FBI and Mueller know that we don’t.

For just one example: We know thanks to the bumbling of Representative Devin Nunes of California that Carter Page was targeted with a FISA warrant that was renewed three times, each for an additional 90 days, by two successive deputy attorneys general: Sally Yates and Rod Rosenstein. Each time the FISA warrant was renewed, the Justice Department would have had to demonstrate to a court that it had uncovered new intelligence showing that Page was having contact with foreign agents. What was this new intelligence? What was Page doing during this whole period, which stretched from a couple weeks before the November 2016 election right through the transition and the beginning of the Trump presidency? We don’t yet know.

NEARLY ALL OF the revelations we’ve seen thus far from the Mueller probe and the Russia investigation have focused on the “what.” Some of the whats we know so far: Paul Manafort—a money launderer, deeply indebted to Russian oligarchs, who was working for free as Trump’s campaign chair—passed polling data to someone tied to Russian intelligence. The Trump Tower Moscow project continued well into the campaign. National security adviser Michael Flynn tried to cover up his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The attack on the 2016 election by Russian intelligence, approved by Putin himself, shifted over the course of 2016 from merely attacking Hillary Clinton to actively boosting Trump himself. Kremlin-linked figures sat down with Trump’s campaign leaders in June 2016. Trump confiscated the notes of his government interpreter after meeting with Putin in Hamburg.

What we haven’t seen in any of these instances (and many others) is the “why.” That’s where we’ll ultimately learn the truth about which scenario we face: an incredibly hapless and easily coopted president—or an active criminal conspirator. Why was Manafort funneling campaign polling data through Konstantin Kilimnik? Why does Mueller believe Kilimnik is tied to Russian intelligence? Why does the US believe the Russian president himself approved the attack?

So now we can add the following whys: Why has Trump covered up his interactions with Putin from his own government? Why has he sought out Putin for private conversations? Why did he confiscate the notes from his interpreter?

Presumably, the FBI and Mueller uncovered all these whats relatively quickly and easily. The investigation has stretched on to document and understand the whys.

As Esquire’s Charlie Pierce noted this week, The New York Times’ carefully written story on the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation includes a deeply pregnant phrase: “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.” No evidence has emerged publicly. But there are plenty of bread crumbs pointing to the idea that such evidence exists secretly, with investigators.

Understanding and answering those “why” questions will mark this final phase of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Only then will the nation and the world know the answer to the one big, honking “what” question that’s left: What are Trump’s motives for all his inexplicable actions? It’s hard to know which answer will be worse for the country.

Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and coauthor of Dawn of the Code War: America's Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at"

Monday, 28 January 2019

What powers Willpower?

Would you be able to explain what willpower is? The American Psychological Association states the following: "Many people believe they could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower" (APA). Note LO: italic markings are mine.

Despite my several blogs on the topic of willpower, I still cannot describe it beyond being an executional or operational level of the human mind. I think, feel and believe that willpower is empowered (sic!) by our beliefs (including my concept of the 7 Belief systems), which could be considered the strategic level.

Any organisation's strategy is usually derived from their mission statement. Humans also have a certain mission in their life: either help other people (ie, do good) - or use and abuse other people for one's own benefit (ie, wicked). For the purposes of this blog, I call this good faith versus bad faith. The word faith does not necessarily have a religious connotation. 

The above translates in a new diagram, which is a slight adaptation of a diagram in my 2017 blog.

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of basic goals (rather than needs) is the centerpiece of my diagram. It is supported by the Space/Time dimension and my concept(s) of Needs, Wants, Beliefs and Awakening.

My 2017 blog matches Maslow's goals with the various stages in human life: Needs, Wants, Beliefs and Awakening, which matches Maslow's final goal of self-transcendence or spirituality.

Faith - whether good or bad - is an even more mysterious concept than willpower. I visualise faith as an eternal, invisible and universal energy source, somewhat similar to (man-made) electricity. In this view, Energy is a dimension, like SpaceTime in physics. In my view, the Soul is the receiving point of this Energy - whether positive (good) or negative (bad).

The Body, Mind & Soul concept (my blogs) would have easily fitted in the above diagram, although I chose not to incorporate it. My diagram would not have benefited from the additional layer of complexity. Maslow's goals are in our Mind. Our Body executes Willpower. The human Soul determines our mission / path in life: good or wicked, including the many shades of grey.

E=MC2 (1985) by Big Audio Dynamite

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Is Big Tech Merging With Big Brother? Kinda Looks Like It (Wired)

"A FRIEND OF mine, who runs a large television production company in the car-mad city of Los Angeles, recently noticed that his intern, an aspiring filmmaker from the People’s Republic of China, was walking to work.

WHEN HE OFFERED to arrange a swifter mode of transportation, she declined. When he asked why, she explained that she “needed the steps” on her Fitbit to sign in to her social media accounts. If she fell below the right number of steps, it would lower her health and fitness rating, which is part of her social rating, which is monitored by the government. A low social rating could prevent her from working or traveling abroad.

China’s social rating system, which was announced by the ruling Communist Party in 2014, will soon be a fact of life for many more Chinese.

By 2020, if the Party’s plan holds, every footstep, keystroke, like, dislike, social media contact, and posting tracked by the state will affect one’s social rating.

Personal “creditworthiness” or “trustworthiness” points will be used to reward and punish individuals and companies by granting or denying them access to public services like health care, travel, and employment, according to a plan released last year by the municipal government of Beijing. High-scoring individuals will find themselves in a “green channel,” where they can more easily access social opportunities, while those who take actions that are disapproved of by the state will be “unable to move a step.”

Big Brother is an emerging reality in China. Yet in the West, at least, the threat of government surveillance systems being integrated with the existing corporate surveillance capacities of big-data companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon into one gigantic all-seeing eye appears to trouble very few people—even as countries like Venezuela have been quick to copy the Chinese model.

Still, it can’t happen here, right? We are iPhone owners and Amazon Prime members, not vassals of a one-party state. We are canny consumers who know that Facebook is tracking our interactions and Google is selling us stuff.

Yet it seems to me there is little reason to imagine that the people who run large technology companies have any vested interest in allowing pre-digital folkways to interfere with their 21st-century engineering and business models, any more than 19th-century robber barons showed any particular regard for laws or people that got in the way of their railroads and steel trusts.

Nor is there much reason to imagine that the technologists who run our giant consumer-data monopolies have any better idea of the future they're building than the rest of us do.

Facebook, Google, and other big-data monopolists already hoover up behavioral markers and cues on a scale and with a frequency that few of us understand. They then analyze, package, and sell that data to their partners.

A glimpse into the inner workings of the global trade in personal data was provided in early December in a 250-page report released by a British parliamentary committee that included hundreds of emails between high-level Facebook executives. Among other things, it showed how the company engineered sneaky ways to obtain continually updated SMS and call data from Android phones. In response, Facebook claimed that users must "opt-in" for the company to gain access to their texts and calls.

The machines and systems that the techno-monopolists have built are changing us faster than they or we understand. The scale of this change is so vast and systemic that we simple humans can’t do the math—perhaps in part because of the way that incessant smartphone use has affected our ability to pay attention to anything longer than 140 or 280 characters.

As the idea of a “right to privacy,” for example, starts to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the face of ever-more-invasive data systems—whose eyes and ears, i.e., our smartphones, follow us everywhere—so has our belief that other individual rights, like freedom of speech, are somehow sacred.

Being wired together with billions of other humans in vast networks mediated by thinking machines is not an experience that humans have enjoyed before. The best guides we have to this emerging reality may be failed 20th-century totalitarian experiments and science fiction. More on that a little later.

The speed at which individual-rights-and-privacy-based social arrangements collapse is likely to depend on how fast Big Tech and the American national security apparatus consummate a relationship that has been growing ever closer for the past decade. While US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—as far as we know, anyway—there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.

These troubling trends are accelerating in part because Big Tech is increasingly beholden to Washington, which has little incentive to kill the golden goose that is filling its tax and political coffers. One of the leading corporate spenders on lobbying services in Washington, DC, in 2017 was Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent more than $18 million. Lobbying Congress and government helps tech companies like Google win large government contracts. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as a shield against attempts to regulate their wildly lucrative businesses.

If anything, measuring the flood of tech dollars pouring into Washington, DC, law firms, lobbying outfits, and think tanks radically understates Big Tech’s influence inside the Beltway. By buying The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos took direct control of Washington’s hometown newspaper. In locating one of Amazon’s two new headquarters in nearby Northern Virginia, Bezos made the company a major employer in the area—with 25,000 jobs to offer.

Who will get those jobs? Last year, Amazon Web Services announced the opening of the new AWS Secret Region, the result of a 10-year, $600 million contract the company won from the CIA in 2014. This made Amazon the sole provider of cloud services across “the full range of data classifications, including Unclassified, Sensitive, Secret, and Top Secret,” according to an Amazon corporate press release.

Once the CIA’s Amazon-administered self-contained servers were up and running, the NSA was quick to follow suit, announcing its own integrated big-data project. Last year the agency moved most of its data into a new classified computing environment known as the Intelligence Community GovCloud, an integrated “big data fusion environment,” as the news site NextGov described it, that allows government analysts to “connect the dots” across all available data sources, whether classified or not.

The creation of IC GovCloud should send a chill up the spine of anyone who understands how powerful these systems can be and how inherently resistant they are to traditional forms of oversight, whose own track record can be charitably described as poor.

Amazon’s IC GovCloud was quickly countered by Microsoft’s secure version of its Azure Government cloud service, tailored for the use of 17 US intelligence agencies. Amazon and Microsoft are both expected to be major bidders for the Pentagon’s secure cloud system, the Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative—JEDI—a winner-take-all contract that will likely be worth at least $10 billion.

With so many pots of gold waiting at the end of the Washington, DC, rainbow, it seems like a small matter for tech companies to turn over our personal data—which legally speaking, is actually their data—to the spy agencies that guarantee their profits. This is the threat that is now emerging in plain sight. It is something we should reckon with now, before it’s too late.

IN FACT, BIG tech and the surveillance agencies are already partners. According to a 2016 report by Reuters, Yahoo designed custom software to filter its users’ emails and deliver messages that triggered a set of search terms to the NSA.

The company’s security chief quit in protest when he learned of the program. “Yahoo is a law-abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said in a statement, which notably did not deny the activity, while perhaps implying that turning over user data to government spy agencies is legal.

While Google has stated that it will not provide private data to government agencies, that policy does not extend beyond America’s borders. At the same time as Yahoo was feeding user data to the NSA, Google was developing a search engine called Dragonfly in collaboration with the Communist Party of China. In a letter obtained by The Intercept, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a group of six US senators that Dragonfly could have “broad benefits inside and outside of China” but refused to release other details of the program, which the company’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, informed Google staff would be released in early 2019.

According to the documents obtained by The Intercept, Dragonfly would restrict access to broad categories of information, banning phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize” while linking online searches to a user’s phone number and tracking their physical location and movements, all of which will presumably impact social ratings or worse—much worse, if you happen to be a Uighur or a member of another Muslim minority group inside China, more than 1 million of whom are now confined in re-education camps. China’s digital surveillance net is a key tool by which Chinese authorities identify and track Muslims and others in need of re-education.

Google is also actively working with the US intelligence and defense complex to integrate its AI capacities into weapons programs. At the same time as Google was sending its letter about Dragonfly to Congress, the company was completing an agreement with the Pentagon to pursue Project Maven, which seeks to incorporate elements of AI into weaponized drones—a contract that is expected to be worth at least $250 million a year. Under pressure from its employees, Google said in June that it would not seek to renew its Project Maven contract when it expires in 2019.)

It doesn’t take a particularly paranoid mind to imagine what future big-ticket collaborations between big-data companies and government surveillance agencies might look like, or to be frightened of where they might lead. “Our own information—from the everyday to the deeply personal—is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Apple chairman Tim Cook during his keynote speechto the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels. “Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

Cook didn’t hesitate to name the process he was describing. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences,” he said. “This is surveillance.”

While Apple makes a point of not unlocking its iPhones and SmartWatches even under pressure from law enforcement and surveillance agencies, companies like Google and Facebook that earn huge profits from analyzing and packaging user data face a very different set of incentives.

Amazon, which both collects and analyzes consumer data and sells a wide range of consumer home devices with microphones and cameras in them, may present surveillance agencies with especially tempting opportunities to repurpose their existing microphones, cameras, and data.

The company has already come under legal pressure from judges who have ordered it to turn over recordings from Echo devices that were apparently made without their users' knowledge. According to a search warrant issued by a judge trying a double-murder case in New Hampshire, and obtained by TechCrunch, the court had “probable cause to believe” that an Echo Fire picked “audio recordings capturing the attack” as well as “events that preceded or succeeded the attack.” Amazon told the Associated Pressthat it would not release such recordings “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” a response that would appear to suggest that the recordings in question exist.

Under what, if any, conditions Amazon would allow government spy agencies to access consumer data or use the company’s vast network of microphones and cameras as a surveillance network are questions that remain to be answered. Yet as Washington keeps buying expensive tools and systems from companies like Google and Amazon, it is hard to imagine that technologists on both ends of these relationship aren’t already seeking ways to further integrate their tools, systems, and data.

THE FLIP SIDE of that paranoid vision of an evolving American surveillance state is the dream that the new systems of analyzing and distributing information may be forces for good, not evil. What if Google helped the CIA develop a system that helped filter out fake news, say, or a new Facebook algorithm helped the FBI identify potential school shooters before they massacred their classmates? If human beings are rational calculating engines, won’t filtering the information we receive lead to better decisions and make us better people?

Such fond hopes have a long history. Progressive techno-optimism goes back to the origins of the computer itself, in the correspondence between Charles Babbage, the 19th-century English inventor who imagined the “difference engine”—the first theoretical model for modern computers—and Ada Lovelace, the brilliant futurist and daughter of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron.

“The Analytical Engine,” Lovelace wrote, in one of her notes on Babbage’s work, “might act upon other things besides number, where objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

This is a pretty good description of the principles of digitizing sound; it also eerily prefigures and predicts the extent to which so much of our personal information, even stuff we perceive of as having distinct natural properties, could be converted to zeros and ones.

The Victorian techno-optimists who first envisioned the digital landscape we now inhabit imagined that thinking machines would be a force for harmony, rather than evil, capable of creating beautiful music and finding expressions for “fundamental relations” of any kind according to a strictly mathematical calculus.

The idea that social engineering could help produce a more efficient and equitable society was echoed by early 20th-century American progressives. Unlike 19th- and early 20th-century European socialists, who championed the organic strength of local communities, early 20th-century American progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey put their faith in the rise of a new class of educated scientist-priests who would re-engineer society from the top down according to a strict utilitarian calculus.

The lineage of these progressives—who are not identical with the “progressive” faction of today’s Democratic Party—runs from Woodrow Wilson to champions of New Deal bureaucracy like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes. The 2008 election of Barack Obama, a well-credentialed technocrat who identified very strongly with the character of Spock from Star Trek, gave the old-time scientistic-progressive religion new currency on the left and ushered in a cozy relationship between the Democratic Party and billionaire techno-monopolists who had formerly fashioned themselves as government-skeptical libertarians.

“Amazon does great things for huge amounts of people,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told Kara Swisher of Recode in a recent interview, in which he also made approving pronouncements about Facebook and Google. “I go to my small tech companies and say, ‘How does Google treat you in New York?’ A lot of them say, ‘Much more fairly than we would have thought.’”

Big Tech companies and executives are happy to return the favor by donating to their progressive friends, including Schumer.

But the cozy relationship between mainstream Democrats and Silicon Valley hit a large-sized bump in November 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton—in part through his mastery of social media platforms like Twitter. Blaming the election result on Russian bots or secret deals with Putin betrayed a shock that what the left had regarded as their cultural property had been turned against them by a right-wing populist whose authoritarian leanings inspired fear and loathing among both the technocratic elite and the Democratic party base.

Yet in the right hands, progressives continued to muse, information monopolies might be powerful tools for re-wiring societies malformed by racism, sexism, and transphobia. Thinking machines can be taught to filter out bad information and socially negative thoughts. Good algorithms, as opposed to whatever Google and Facebook are currently using, could censor neo-Nazis, purveyors of hate speech, Russian bots, and transphobes while discouraging voters from electing more Trumps.

The crowdsourced wisdom of platforms like Twitter, powered by circles of mutually credentialing blue-checked “experts,” might mobilize a collective will to justice, which could then be enforced on retrograde institutions and individuals. The result might be a better social order, or as data scientist Emily Gorcenski put it, “revolution.”

The dream of centralized control over monopolistic information providers can be put to more prosaic political uses, too—or so politicians confronted by a fractured and tumultuous digital media landscape must hope. In advance of next year’s elections for the European Parliament, which will take place in May, French President Emmanuel Macron signed a deal with Facebook in which officials of his government will meet regularly with Facebook executives to police “hate speech.”

The program, which will continue through the May elections, apparently did little to discourage fuel riots by the "gilets jaunes," which have set Paris and other French cities ablaze, even as a claim that a change in Facebook's local news algorithm was responsible for the rioting was quickly picked up by French media figures close to Macron.

At root, the utopian vision of AI-powered information monopolies programmed to advance the cause of social justice makes sense only when you imagine that humans and machines “think” in similar ways. Whether machines can “think,” or—to put it another way, whether people think like machines—is a question that has been hotly debated for the past five centuries. Those debates gave birth to modern liberal societies, whose foundational assumptions and guarantees are now being challenged by the rise of digital culture.

To recap some of that history: In the 17th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz amused himself with thinking about the nature of thinking. His most eloquent modern American popularizer, the UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle, asked Leibnitz’s essential question like this:

Imagine you taught a machine to speak Chinese and you locked it in a room with a man who did not speak Chinese. Then you had the machine produce cards with Chinese words and sentences on them, and the man took the cards and slid them out of the room through a slot. Can we say, Searle asks, that there’s anyone or anything in the room that understands Chinese?

If you believe, like Searle and Leibnitz, that the answer is no, you understand thinking as a subjective experience, a biological process performed by human brains, which are located in human bodies. By definition, then, the human brain is not a machine, and machines can’t think, even if they can perform computational feats like multiplying large numbers at blinding speeds.

Alan Turing gave an elegant answer to the Leibnitz/Searle question when he said that the only true mark of consciousness is the ability to think about oneself. Since you can build machines that fix their own problems—debug themselves—these machines are innately self-aware, and therefore there’s nothing stopping them from evolving until they reach HAL-like proportions.

What does the history of thinking about thinking have to do with dreams of digitally mediated social justice? For Thomas Hobbes, who inspired the social-contract theorist John Locke, thinking was “nothing more than reckoning,” meaning mathematical calculation. David Hume, who extended Hobbes’ ideas in his own theory of reason, believed that all of our observations and perceptions were nothing more than atomic-level “impressions” that we couldn’t possibly make sense of unless we interpreted them based on a utilitarian understanding of our needs, meaning the attempt to derive the greatest benefit from a given operation.

If, following Locke and Hume, human beings think like machines, then machines can think like human beings, only better. A social order monitored and regulated by machines that have been programmed to be free of human prejudice while optimizing a utilitarian calculus is therefore a plausible-enough way to imagine a good society. Justice-seeking machines would be the better angels of our nature, helping to bend the arc of history toward results that all human beings, in their purest, most rational state, would, or should, desire.

THE ORIGIN OF the utilitarian social calculus and its foundational account of thinking as a form of computation is social contract theory. Not coincidentally, these accounts evolved during the last time western societies were massively impacted by a revolution in communications technology, namely the introduction of the printing press, which brought both the text of the Bible and the writings of small circles of Italian and German humanists to all of Europe. The spread of printing technologies was accompanied by the proliferation of the simple hand mirror, which allowed even ordinary individuals to gaze at a “true reflection” of their own faces, in much the same way that we use iPhones to take selfies.

Nearly every area of human imagination and endeavor—from science to literature to painting and sculpture to architecture—was radically transformed by the double-meteor-like impact of the printing press and the hand mirror, which together helped give rise to scientific discoveries, great works of art, and new political ideas that continue to shape the way we think, live, and work.

The printing press fractured the monopoly on worldly and spiritual knowledge long held by the Roman Catholic Church, bringing the discoveries of Erasmus and the polemics of Martin Luther to a broad audience and fueling the Protestant Reformation, which held that ordinary believers—individuals, who could read their own Bibles and see their own faces in their own mirrors—might have unmediated contact with God. What was once the province of the few became available to the many, and the old social order that had governed the lives of Europe for the better part of a millennium was largely demolished.

In England, the broad diffusion of printing presses and mirrors led to the bloody and ultimately failed anti-monarchical revolution led by Oliver Cromwell. The Thirty Years’ War, fought between Catholic and Protestant believers and hired armies in Central and Eastern Europe, remains the single most destructive conflict, on a per capita basis, in European history, including the First and Second World Wars.

The information revolution spurred by the advent of digital technologies may turn out to be even more powerful than the Gutenberg revolution; it is also likely to be bloody. Our inability to wrap our minds around a sweeping revolution in the way that information is gathered, analyzed, used, and controlled should scare us. It is in this context that both right- and left-leaning factions of the American elite appear to accept the merger of the US military and intelligence complex with Big Tech as a good thing, even as centralized control over information creates new vulnerabilities for rivals to exploit.

The attempt to subject the American information space to some form of top-down, public-private control was in turn made possible—and perhaps, in the minds of many on both the right and the left, necessary—by the collapse of the 20th-century American institutional press. Only two decades ago, the social and political power of the institutional press was still so great that it was often called “the Fourth Estate”—a meaningful check on the power of government. The term is rarely used anymore, because the monopoly over the printed and spoken word that gave the press its power is now gone.

Why? Because in an age in which every smartphone user has a printing press in their pocket, there is little premium in owning an actual, physical printing press. As a result, the value of “legacy” print brands has plummeted. Where the printed word was once a rare commodity, relative to the sum total of all the words that were written in manuscript form by someone, today nearly all the words that are being written anywhere are available somewhere online. What’s rare, and therefore worth money, are not printed words but fractions of our attention.

The American media market today is dominated by Google and Facebook, large platforms that together control the attention of readers and therefore the lion’s share of online advertising. That’s why Facebook, probably the world’s premier publisher of fake news, was recently worth $426 billion, and Newsweek changed hands in 2010 for $1, and why many once-familiar magazine titles no longer exist in print at all.

The operative, functional difference between today’s media and the American media of two decades ago is not the difference between old-school New York Times reporters and new-media bloggers who churn out opinionated “takes” from their desks. It is the difference between all of those media people, old and new, and programmers and executives at companies like Google and Facebook. A set of key social functions—communicating ideas and information—has been transferred from one set of companies, operating under one set of laws and values, to another, much more powerful set of companies, which operate under different laws and understand themselves in a different way.

According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, information service providers are protected from expensive libel lawsuits and other forms of risk that publishers face. Those protections allowed Google and Facebook to build their businesses at the expense of “old media” publishers, which in turn now find it increasingly difficult to pay for original reporting and writing.

The media once actively promoted and amplified stories that a plurality or majority of Americans could regard as “true.” That has now been replaced by the creation and amplification of extremes. The overwhelming ugliness of our public discourse is not accidental; it is a feature of the game, which is structured and run for the profit of billionaire monopolists, and which encourages addictive use.

The result has been the creation of a socially toxic vacuum at the heart of American democracy, from which information monopolists like Google and Facebook have sucked out all the profit, leaving their users ripe for top-down surveillance, manipulation, and control.

TODAY, THE PRINTING press and the mirror have combined in the iPhone and other personal devices, which are networked together. Ten years from now, thanks to AI, those networks, and the entities that control them—government agencies, private corporations, or a union of both—may take on a life of their own. Perhaps the best way to foresee how this future may play out is to look back at how some of our most far-sighted science fiction writers have wrestled with the future that is now in front of us.

The idea of intelligent machines rising to compete with the human beings who built them was seldom considered until Samuel Butler’s Erewohn, which was published in 1872. Riffing on Darwin, Butler proposed that if the species can evolve to the detriment of the weak, so could machines, until they would eventually become self-sufficient. Since then, science fiction has provided us with our best guides to what human societies mediated or run by intelligent machines might look like.

How precisely the machines might take over was first proposed by Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the 1921 play that gave us the term robot. Interestingly, Capek’s automatons aren’t machines: They emerge from the discovery of a new kind of bio-matter that differs from our own in that it doesn’t mind abuse or harbor independent desires. In the play, the humans are degenerates who stop procreating and succumb to their most selfish and strange whims—while the robots remain unerring in their calculations and indefatigable in their commitment to work. The machines soon take over, killing all humans except for a single engineer who happens to work and think like a robot.

In the play’s third act, the engineer, ordered by the robots to dissect other robots in order to make them even better, is about to take the knife to two robots, a male and a female, who have fallen in love. They each beg for the other’s life, leading the engineer to understand that they have become human; he spares them, declaring them the new Adam and Eve. This soulful theme of self-awareness being the true measure of humanity was taken up by dozens of later science fiction authors, most notably Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the film Blade Runner.

Yet even classic 20th-century dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 tell us little about the dangers posed to free societies by the fusion of big data, social networks, consumer surveillance, and AI.

Perhaps we are reading the wrong books. Instead of going back to Orwell for a sense of what a coming dystopia might look like, we might be better off reading We, which was written nearly a century ago by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin. We is the diary of state mathematician D-503, whose experience of the highly disruptive emotion of love for I-330, a woman whose combination of black eyes, white skin, and black hair strike him as beautiful. This perception, which is also a feeling, draws him into a conspiracy against the centralized surveillance state.

The Only State, where We takes places, is ruled by a highly advanced mathematics of happiness, administered by a combination of programmers and machines. While love has been eliminated from the Only State as inherently discriminatory and unjust, sex has not. According to the Lex Sexualis, the government sex code, “Each number has a right towards every other number as a sex object.” Citizens, or numbers, are issued ration books of pink sex tickets. Once both numbers sign the ticket, they are permitted to spend a “sex hour” together and lower the shades in their glass apartments.

Zamyatin was prescient in imagining the operation and also the underlying moral and intellectual foundations of an advanced modern surveillance state run by engineers. And if 1984 explored the opposition between happiness and freedom, Zamyatin introduced a third term into the equation, which he believed to be more revolutionary and also more inherently human: beauty. The subjective human perception of beauty, Zamyatin argued, along lines that Liebniz and Searle might approve of, is innately human, and therefore not ultimately reconcilable with the logic of machines or with any utilitarian calculus of justice.

In We, the rule of utilitarian happiness is embodied in the Integral, a giant computing machine/spaceship that will “force into the yoke of reason other unknown beings that inhabit other planets, perhaps still in a wild state of freedom.” By eliminating freedom and all causes of inequality and envy, the Only State claims to guarantee infinite happiness to humankind—through a perfect calculus that the Integral will spread throughout the solar system.

In reality, sexual relationships are a locus of envy and inequality in the Only State, where power rests in the hands of an invisible elite that has removed itself somewhere beyond the clouds. But the real threat to the ideal of happiness incarnated in the Integral is not inequality or envy or hidden power. It is beauty, which isn’t rational or equal, and at the same time doesn’t exclude anyone or restrict anyone else’s pleasure, and therefore frustrates and undermines any utilitarian calculus. For D-503, dance is beautiful, mathematics is beautiful, the contrast between I-330’s black eyes and black hair and white skin is also beautiful. Beauty is the answer to D-503’s urgent question, “What is there beyond?”

Beauty is the ultimate example of human un-freedom and un-reason, being a subjectivity that is rooted in our biology, yet at the same time rooted in external absolutes like mathematical ratios and the movement of time. As the critic Giovanni Basile writes in an extraordinarily perceptive critical essay, “The Algebra of Happiness,” the utopia implied by Zamyatin’s dystopia is “a world in which happiness is intertwined with a natural un-freedom that nobody imposes on anyone else: a different freedom from the one with which the Great Inquisitor protects mankind: a paradoxical freedom in which there is no ‘power’ if not in the nature of things, in music, in dance and in the harmony of mathematics.”

Against a centralized surveillance state that imposes a motionless and false order and an illusory happiness in the name of a utilitarian calculus of “justice,” Basile concludes, Zamyatin envisages a different utopia: “In fact, only within the ‘here and now’ of beauty may the equation of happiness be considered fully verified.” Human beings will never stop seeking beauty, Zamyatin insists, because they are human. They will reject and destroy any attempt to reorder their desires according to the logic of machines.

A national or global surveillance network that uses beneficent algorithms to reshape human thoughts and actions in ways that elites believe to be just or beneficial to all mankind is hardly the road to a new Eden. It’s the road to a prison camp. The question now—as in previous such moments—is how long it will take before we admit that the riddle of human existence is not the answer to an equation. It is something that we must each make for ourselves, continually, out of our own materials, in moments whose permanence is only a dream."

"David Samuels is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is a longtime contributor to Harper’s, N+1 and The New Yorker."

How climate change caused the world’s first ever empire to collapse (Conversation)

The Conversation title: How climate change caused the world’s first ever empire to collapse

"Gol-e-Zard Cave lies in the shadow of Mount Damavand, which at more than 5,000 metres dominates the landscape of northern Iran. In this cave, stalagmites and stalactites are growing slowly over millennia and preserve in them clues about past climate events. Changes in stalagmite chemistry from this cave have now linked the collapse of the Akkadian Empire to climate changes more than 4,000 years ago.

Akkadia was the world’s first empire. It was established in Mesopotamia around 4,300 years ago after its ruler, Sargon of Akkad, united a series of independent city states. Akkadian influence spanned along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from what is now southern Iraq, through to Syria and Turkey. The north-south extent of the empire meant that it covered regions with different climates, ranging from fertile lands in the north which were highly dependent on rainfall (one of Asia’s “bread baskets”), to the irrigation-fed alluvial plains to the south.

It appears that the empire became increasingly dependent on the productivity of the northern lands and used the grains sourced from this region to feed the army and redistribute the food supplies to key supporters. Then, about a century after its formation, the Akkadian Empire suddenly collapsed, followed by mass migration and conflicts. The anguish of the era is perfectly captured in the ancient Curse of Akkad text, which describes a period of turmoil with water and food shortages:
… the large arable tracts yielded no grain, the inundated fields yielded no fish, the irrigated orchards yielded no syrup or wine, the thick clouds did not rain.
Drought and dust

The reason for this collapse is still debated by historians, archaeologists and scientists. One of the most prominent views, championed by Yale archaeologist Harvey Weiss (who built on earlier ideas by Ellsworth Huntington), is that it was caused by an abrupt onset of drought conditions which severely affected the productive northern regions of the empire.

Weiss and his colleagues discovered evidence in northern Syria that this once prosperous region was suddenly abandoned around 4,200 years ago, as indicated by a lack of pottery and other archaeological remains. Instead, the rich soils of earlier periods were replaced by large amounts of wind-blown dust and sand, suggesting the onset of drought conditions. Subsequently, marine cores from the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea which linked the input of dust into the sea to distant sources in Mesopotamia, provided further evidence of a regional drought at the time.

Many other researchers viewed Weiss’s interpretation with scepticism, however. Some argued, for example, that the archaeological and marine evidence was not accurate enough to demonstrate a robust correlation between drought and societal change in Mesopotamia.

A new detailed climate record

Now, stalagmite data from Iran sheds new light on the controversy. In a study published in the journal PNAS, led by Oxford palaeoclimatologist Stacy Carolin, colleagues and I provide a very well dated and high resolution record of dust activity between 5,200 and 3,700 years ago. And cave dust from Iran can tell us a surprising amount about climate history elsewhere.

Gol-e-Zard Cave might be several hundred miles to the east of the former Akkadian Empire, but it is directly downwind. As a result, around 90% of the region’s dust originates in the deserts of Syria and Iraq.

That desert dust has a higher concentration of magnesium than the local limestone which forms most of Gol-e-Zard’s stalagmites (the ones which grow upwards from the cave floor). Therefore, the amount of magnesium in the Gol-e-Zard stalagmites can be used as an indicator of dustiness at the surface, with higher magnesium concentrations indicating dustier periods, and by extension drier conditions.

The stalagmites have the additional advantage that they can be dated very precisely using uranium-thorium chronology. Combining these methods, our new study provides a detailed history of dustiness in the area, and identifies two major drought periods which started 4,510 and 4,260 years ago, and lasted 110 and 290 years respectively. The latter event occurs precisely at the time of the Akkadian Empire’s collapse and provides a strong argument that climate change was at least in part responsible.

The collapse was followed by mass migration from north to south which was met with resistance by the local populations. A 180km wall – the “Repeller of the Amorites” – was even built between the Tigris and Euphrates in an effort to control immigration, not unlike some strategies proposed today. The stories of abrupt climate change in the Middle East therefore echo over millennia to the present day."


Saturday, 26 January 2019

The death rate for opioid use has surpassed car crashes in the US (Quartz)

"According to a new report from the US National Safety Council, accidental deaths from opioids overtook deaths from car crashes in 2017.

Since 1999, the number of opioid-overdose deaths per 100,000 people has steadily increased, while the rate of car-crash deaths has decreased. In 2017, opioids killed 43,036 Americans, compared to 40,231 in car crashes. The opioid crisis is now so severe, it’s causing overall life expectancy of Americans to fall.

The latest report, based on mortality data from the National Center for Health Statistics, found that the odds of dying of heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death in the US, are one in six and one in seven, respectively.

Neither of those are considered “preventable” causes of death by the report, which noted that in 2017, there were 169,936 deaths that could have been prevented—an increase of 5.3% from last year, and almost double the number of preventable deaths 25 years ago. In 2017, the odds of dying via suicide were one in 88, and the odds of dying as a result of opioids were one in 96. The odds of dying in a car crash were one in 103. (This figure excludes pedestrian deaths. The lifetime odds of dying in a pedestrian incident are one in 556.)

Ken Kolosh, the manager of statistics at the National Safety Council, told NPR that although the total odds of dying are one in one, it should be possible to lower the accidental death rate to zero.

The decrease in the death rate from car crashes is a sign of progress. As Vox reported in 2014, it’s a result of better technology within cars to help them avoid crashes, like electronic stability control to detect skidding, fewer drunk drivers, and fewer miles driven in total. Improved adherence to seatbelt may also be a factor; Kolosh noted that roughly half of the car-crash deaths involved people not wearing seat belt. Death rates from car crashes could fall even further if the tech industry is right on its bet that autonomous vehicles will eliminate driver error, which causes the vast majority of car crashes.

Meanwhile, the opioid crisis in the US is only getting worse. The National Safety Council does have some ideas how to alleviate that problem: a separate report from the council recommended that states should set guidelines for when providers prescribe opioids to patients, and should make addiction treatment and naloxone—a drug which reverses opioid overdoses—easier to access."

Friday, 25 January 2019

This revolution will not be televised (2)

Early January, the LIMA Group of 12 neighbouring countries plus Canada, issued a joint statement that they will not recognize Mr Maduro's new term as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Mr Maduro shrugged this off as “interventionist actions” (Bloomberg, 4 January 2019). Then, USA was silent. Things have changed rapidly ever since.

On 22 January 2019, the US Vice President "released a video message in support of the Venezuelan protesters and calling leader Nicol├ís Maduro a “dictator” who had never won a free and fair election" (Miami Herald).

On 23 January, the leader of the majority opposition declares himself as interim President. The 45th President immediately recognizes his (interim) authority by declaring:
“Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela. [] In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant.” (WE)
I'm impressed how the 45th President is (not) handling the Venezuelan revolution. Most likely, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo (a former CIA director), is handling this revolution.

As an act of retaliation, Mr Maduro ordered all US diplomats to leave Venezuela within 72 hours. Mr Pompeo's refused to leave the US Embassy in Venezuela by declaring:
“The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela. [] Accordingly the United States does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.” (WE)
Nevertheless, Mr Pompeo warned Mr Maduro for a possible US military intervention:
“We call on all parties to refrain from measures that are inconsistent with the privileges and immunities enjoyed by members of the diplomatic community. [] The United States will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel.” (WE)
The above suggests that the LIMA Group, Canada, and USA have been playing a brilliant cat-and-mouse game with Mr Maduro. Obviously, similar authoritarian regimes are now supporting Mr Maduro, while the Venezuelan military leadership is so far remaining loyal (eg, BBC, Bloomberg).

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (1971) by Gil Scott-Heron

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Climate change as an ecosystem

In my blog of 13 January 2019 on the Sahara swinging every some 20,000 years between a lush and a desert, I made two comments that are probably interlinked:
  1. Climate change is the default in life and nature, and not the exception.
  2. Climate change may well be an ecosystem in and of itself.
My 2nd comment is my belief, my opinion rather than a (scientific) fact. It also raises a question: Why would climate change even be an ecosystem?

Wikipedia defines an ecosystem as "a community of living organisms in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment, interacting as a system". 

In this case, the living organisms are humans and the nonliving components are the 5 classical elements, being aether, air, earth/land, fire and water.

These 5 classical elements are a guarantee for permanent Change, including climate change. Change requires adaptation and improvement in order to survive as a species. 

The alternative is death and extinction. Hence, there have been many human species before Homo sapiens. The Neanderthal even lived for some 800,000 years before they disappeared.

Nevertheless, the Neanderthal live on as they provide about 2% of contemporary human DNA, albeit only outside Africa. Homo sapiens has benefited from interbreeding with Neanderthal and Denisovans, "mostly within immune and skin pigmentation genes". Interbreeding also caused some disadvantages to non-African populations: reduced reproduction and reduced fitness.

Seeing humans as fragile living organisms amongst these 5 classical elements is not an image that is on the mind of most humans. Shielded by our technology, we have distanced ourselves from nature and even from fellow humans. Scientists and Big Tech are looking for solutions that would increase our longevity and possibly even provide us with an eternal life.

Reasons (1974) by Earth Wind & Fire

Reasons, the reasons that we're here 
The reasons that we fear

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise