Politics

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Not far from the madding crowd of the Middle East, is Achzivland, a micronation that is, yet is not, a part of Israel. Ruled since 1971 by Eli Avivi–he and his wife “seceded” that year and began issuing their own stamps, currency, passports and offering a haven to hippies who wanted strip down and light up–the state has successfully resisted Israel’s decades-long attempts to reign it in (and once fended off armed Palestinian invaders). It’s proven too tiny to get a grip on, too small to fail. From Raffi Berg of the BBC:

While most Israelis vote for a new parliament next week there’s one place in the north of Israel that will be an election-free zone – one-man rule has been the way there for more than 40 years.

On Israel’s coastal road, just south of Lebanon, lies a crossing into a land of another kind.

Large blue iron gates with white painted signs mark the border, but there is no entry procedure – visitors just arrive, then go and look for the president.

This is Achzivland, perhaps the most unusual piece of territory in the Middle East. It has the trappings of a state – a flag (of a mermaid), a national “anthem” (the sound of the sea) and a constitution declaring the president democratically elected by his own vote (never actually cast).

Achzivland also has a House of Parliament – a timber structure with scatter-cushions round a table – though it has no serving MPs and has never held any sessions.

It also issues – and stamps – its own passport, which requests bearers be allowed “to pass freely without let or hindrance” wherever they may travel.

Set among picturesque landscape, and with a history stretching back to the Phoenicians, Achzivland has been governed by its oldest inhabitant, Eli Avivi, and his devoted First Lady, Rina, since the couple “seceded” from Israel in 1971.

Next to the ailing Sultan of Oman, “President Avivi” is the longest-serving ruler in the region, having survived several attempts by one of the most powerful nations in the Middle East to oust him – not surprisingly, Israel has never recognised Achzivland.

But the tiny “state” has stood its ground, with a gutsiness well beyond its size.•

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Dan Pfeiffer, the outgoing White House communications advisor who planted President Obama between two ferns among other off-center platforms, spoke with Steven Levy at Backchannel about POTUS PR in a time of social media and selfie sticks and the future of such non-traditional communications. He sees a long-tail tomorrow. An excerpt:

Steven Levy:

How do you picture White House communications in the future—what’s your vision of the environment in 2020?

Dan Pfeiffer:

A bigger part of the job for White House government officials will be online engagement. If you’re doing climate change policy in the White House, instead of getting X number of hours a week to meet with the environmental groups, you will be spending time on Twitter, Facebook or whatever the next social platforms are, engaging people who are interested in that topic. You will not be reaching the quantity of people that you would reach by having a big broadcast television interview but the quality of the outreach will be better because you’ll be getting very engaged people who can take action on behalf of the thing you care about.

And I think that—and this one is tricky—a White House will have to have many more resources dedicated to producing content. We have a lot of people around here who write written words—speeches, talking points, press releases—and you will need people who are creating visual, graphical and video images to communicate the same message. It’s tricky because you don’t want to be in a world where it is propaganda. You’re going to have to vet this and give it scrutiny, but there is an insatiable appetite for content out there. Your traditional news outlets don’t have the resources to produce the amount of content that the Internet requires on a 24/7 basis.

There’s this funny thing where it’s like, if we put out a press release, it is accepted as a proper form of Presidential communication. But if we put out a video, that’s somehow propaganda. The mentality is going have to shift [to acknowledge that] a video is just a more shareable, more enjoyable way of communicating the same information as the press release. Everyone is going to have to adjust to that.•

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It’s pretty clear privacy is all but over, even inside the home. The Internet of Things will likely be the thing pretty soon, and once every last appliance is connected, the quantifying and monitoring will begin in earnest. Many positive advances will be made because of this new counting machine–yes, we will all count!–but the catch, of course, is that there’ll be no way to opt out, no choice. You too will be judged. From Sarah Butler at the Guardian:

“We are coming to the era of the connected customer, the latest in a series of shifts created by technology,” [Dixons Carphone CEO Seb James] told the Retail Week Live conference in London. “This shift is going to bump off as many retailers as the last. It will be a total asteroid strike at the heart of retail.”

The new technology, from health monitoring smartwatches to washing machines that can tell engineers when they need repairing – will mean retailers need to offer services to help consumers with the new products and keep them operating correctly. …

“Your connected home will know when you’re in, what mood you’re in, your temperature preferences and family members. They’ll know the state of health of your dog, how far you jogged this morning and what brand of toothpaste you like and how much you have left.

“It’s a little bit creepy but we’re all going to have to get used to it as information which used to be so hard to get is now going to be so easy to find new skills and tools [to deal with it].”•

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“What will it be like? How will we choose to live?”

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The assassination of Boris Nemtsov, who could almost, if not quite, pass for noble in the confusing welter of modern Russia, was a clap of thunder in the night. By sunrise, the murder made just as little sense. Was he a victim of the authoritarian state or those who opposed its power and viewed him as a useful sacrifice? Either way, his blood flows toward the Kremlin, and not just because of his proximity to the palace when gunned down. From Keith Gessen at the London Review of Books:

For years now there has been speculation about a ‘party of war’, which periodically stages provocations in order to push the president into decisive action. The party of war was said to have manoeuvred Yeltsin into Chechnya and, more conspiratorially still, to have blown up the apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 to push Putin into Chechnya in his turn. The party of war may also have sent Igor Strelkov and his merry band of murderers into eastern Ukraine last spring, to turn an inchoate set of local protests into the beginnings of a civil war. But does the party of war actually exist? We’re unlikely ever to know, even after all the archives have been opened and all the email accounts hacked. It is, however, a useful concept, even if its only function is to describe one part of Putin’s mind that’s in dialogue or competition with another. It would explain why Putin sometimes goes forward and sometimes steps back. And it gives at least a small space for hope, since if there’s a party of war there is also, presumably, a party of peace, and it might just win.

I always thought that Nemtsov would make it, that he would be shielded from the vengeance of the system in part because he was Nemtsov. He had a PhD in physics, but he wasn’t a serious thinker, nor did he pretend to be one. You could never tell if he was speaking out because he believed what he was saying or because he couldn’t stand being ignored. Or if he kept getting arrested at opposition rallies because he considered it an act of conscience or because he liked getting his picture taken (sometimes, when they arrested him, the police tore his shirt, and you could get an extra glimpse of his tan). Did he hate Putin because of what he’d done to the country, or because he felt cheated out of his birthright by their shared mercurial surrogate father, Boris Yeltsin? He was a narcissist, and there was his way with young women. On the last night of his life, he went with his girlfriend, a Ukrainian model called Anna Duritskaya, to a nice restaurant in the upscale mall just across Red Square from the Kremlin. Then they walked in the rain across the bridge towards his apartment.

Who knows why people do the things they do? Who knows why Nemtsov kept fighting for some kind of change in a country to which he himself had brought a lot of pain? And neither do we know exactly why they killed him. But it’s clear that it wasn’t for his human flaws, or for his contribution to the economic catastrophe of the 1990s. He was killed for his opposition to the war. Since the start, critics have been warning that the war in Ukraine would eventually come home to Moscow. No matter who pulled the trigger on the bridge, it has.•

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For some soldiers, there is, after war, no going home, not figuratively and occasionally not literally. Motorcycle gangs in America might not have ever taken flight were it not for WWII. Not every vet in the 1940s could re-acclimate to quotidian life, even if the G.I. Bill could ease their return materially, help them climb the social ladder. These men had seen hell and now only wanted to be angels in an ironic sense. So they bought bikes and lived in the purgatory in between upstanding U.S. citizen and full-on warrior. These tours of “duty” went on and on. 

The Iraq War was a calamity in every sense. We invaded a country for no reason, got 4,500 of our soldiers killed and many more seriously injured and spent at least a trillion dollars in tax money, a good deal of which was bilked by military contractors. I didn’t mention how many Iraqis died needlessly because we didn’t really count them. That wasn’t a priority. 

In the aftermath, the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda have turned the wrecked nation into a hotbed of terrorism. Another dubious “dividend” of the misguided invasion is that some U.S. soldiers, unsurprisingly, can’t make it all the way back into domestic life. They still crave a mission–or at least a distraction. Instead of burning rubber on a familiar highway system, a small number are circling back to the source of their frustration, offering their services to anti-terrorist forces in Iraq. From Dave Philipps of the New York Times:

“I may not be enlisted anymore, but I’m still a warrior,” said [Patrick] Maxwell, who left the Marines with an honorable discharge in 2011. “I figured if I could walk away from here and kill as many of the bad guys as I could, that would be a good thing.”

Mr. Maxwell is one of a small number of Americans — many of them former members of the military — who have volunteered in recent months to take up arms against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even as the United States government has hesitated to put combat troops on the ground. Driven by a blend of motivations — outrage over ISIS’s atrocities, boredom with civilian life back home, dismay that an enemy they tried to neutralize is stronger than ever — they have offered themselves as pro bono advisers and riflemen in local militias.

“More than anything, they don’t like ISIS and want to help,” said Matthew VanDyke, an American filmmaker who has spent time this winter with four American veterans covertly training a militia of Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq to resist ISIS. He is now recruiting more veterans to help, though late in February, the American Mesopotamia Organization, a California-based nonprofit that helped fund the militia, broke ties with him.

In a phone interview from Iraq, Mr. VanDyke said that many veterans spent years honing combat skills in war only to have them shelved in civilian life and that they are eager for a new mission.

“A lot of guys did important stuff overseas and came home and got stuck in menial jobs, which can be really hard,” he said. “We offer them kind of a dream job, a chance to do what they are trained to do without all the red tape and PowerPoints.”•

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It’s not a done deal that automation is going to create a troubling amount of technological unemployment, but that scenario has to be considered a real possibility. What then? Will we have endless down time to do more free work for multibillion-dollar corporations? From Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times:

Economic growth, even where it looks impressive, seems to be creating fewer jobs than in the past, and for the most part, poorly paid ones. The main metrics for economic success now appear to be decoupling from labor markets, the main source of income and meaning for citizens.

Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, underlined the point last week at a London conference on the future of work. “The share of labor in the economy is collapsing, and that will continue,” he said.

Some speak of a third industrial revolution; others call it the second machine age. With the processing speed of computers doubling roughly every 18 months and machines becoming ever smarter, paid work for human beings could become a lot scarcer — and soon.

Forty-seven percent of all employment in the United States is susceptible to automation over the next two decades, according to a study by Carl Benedikt Frey, an economist, and Michael A. Osborne, an associate professor of machine learning, at the University of Oxford.

It is not just truck drivers and tax preparers who risk losing their jobs, economists say. Robots can pick strawberries, distinguishing the ripe ones by taking hundreds of digital photographs a second, and algorithms apparently make more objective court decisions than human judges, who according to a study in Israel are more lenient after a food break.

This hyperdigital age is also creating some new jobs for humans. Among the 10 fastest-growing job descriptions identified by Dr. Frey were big data architect and iOS developer. But over all, he said, “It seems that job creation is not going to keep pace with automation.”•

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Before voting for any politician in any American election, it might be instructive to check back on where they stood on economic policy in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse. The results are in and the proof conclusive: The U.S. rebounded so quickly because we invested in the country while Europe is still in a terrible spot because it chose austerity, which may have felt right but was decidedly wrong. Two exchanges follow from a Thomas Piketty Q&A with Julia Amalia Heyer and Christoph Pauly of Spiegel.

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Spiegel:

You publicly rejoiced over Alexis Tsipras’ election victory in Greece. What do you think the chances are that the European Union and Athens will agree on a path to resolve the crisis?

Thomas Piketty: 

The way Europe behaved in the crisis was nothing short of disastrous. Five years ago, the United States and Europe had approximately the same unemployment rate and level of public debt. But now, five years later, it’s a different story: Unemployment has exploded here in Europe, while it has declined in the United States. Our economic output remains below the 2007 level. It has declined by up to 10 percent in Spain and Italy, and by 25 percent in Greece.

__________________________

Spiegel:

What do you propose?

Thomas Piketty: 

We need to invest more money in training our young people, and in innovation and research. That should be the most important goal of an initiative to promote European growth. It isn’t normal that 90 percent of the world’s top universities are in the United States and our best minds go overseas. The Americans invest 3 percent of their GDP in their universities, while it’s more like 1 percent here. That’s the main reason why America is growing so much faster than Europe.

Spiegel:

The United States has a uniform fiscal policy. What conclusions can be drawn from that?

Thomas Piketty: 

We need a fiscal union and a harmonization of budgets. We need a common debt repayment fund for the euro zone, like the one proposed by the German Council of Economic Experts, for example. Each country would remain responsible for repaying its portion of the total debt. In other words, the Germans would not have to pay off the Italians’ old debts, and vice-versa. But there would be a common interest rate for euro bonds, which would be used to refinance the debt.•

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As much as living in an endlessly public, hyperconnected world may be, perhaps, an evolutionary necessity, that doesn’t mean it isn’t the root cause of a global mismatch disease, that it isn’t bad for us on the granular level. You and I, remember, we don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. There’s something medieval in the new order, the way privacy has vanished and judgement is ubiquitous. But unlike during the Middle Ages, we’re now not exposed to just the village but to the entire Global Village. What effect does that have? From Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens:

The imagined order is embedded in the material world. Though the imagined order exists only in our minds, it can be woven into the material reality around us, and even set in stone. Most Westerners today believe in individualism. They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth does not depend on what other people think of him or her. Each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives. In modern Western schools teachers and parents tell children that if their classmates make fun of them, they should ignore it. Only they themselves, not others, know their true worth.

In modern architecture, this myth leaps out of the imagination to take shape in stone and mortar. The ideal modern house is divided into many small rooms so that each child can have a private space, hidden from view, providing for maximum autonomy. This private room almost invariably has a door, and in many households it is accepted practice for the child to close, and perhaps lock, the door. Even parents are forbidden to enter without knocking and asking permission. The room is decorated as the child sees fit, with rock-star posters on the wall and dirty socks on the floor. Somebody growing up in such a space cannot help but imagine himself ‘an individual’, his true worth emanating from within rather than from without.

Medieval noblemen did not believe in individualism. Someone’s worth was determined by their place in the social hierarchy, and by what other people said about them. Being laughed at was a horrible indignity. Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name whatever the cost. Like modern individualism, the medieval value system left the imagination and was manifested in the stone of medieval castles. The castle rarely contained private rooms for children (or anyone else, for that matter). The teenage son of a medieval baron did not have a private room on the castle’s second floor, with posters of Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur on the walls and a locked door that his parents were not allowed to open. He slept alongside many other youths in a large hall. He was always on display and always had to take into account what others saw and said. Someone growing up in such conditions naturally concluded that a man’s true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what other people said of him.•

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The German postal system grew from the nation’s military courier apparatus to become a multifaceted marvel, contributing subsequently to networks all over the world, leaving its mark on Soviet socialism and American capitalism. It has a latter-day parallel, of course, in the Internet, which was incubated and nurtured by the U.S. Defense Department wing DARPA. The Financial Times has a passage from David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules about the mixed blessing of bureaucracy, which allows for large-scale progress, making the unthinkable manageable, before beginning to succumb to its own weight, a sideshow giant who wows until his heart gives out. An excerpt:

All these fantasies of postal utopia now seem rather quaint. Today we usually associate national postal systems with the arrival of things we never wanted in the first place: utility bills, overdraft alerts, tax audits, one-time-only credit-card offers, charity appeals, and so on. Insofar as Americans have a popular image of postal workers, it has become increasingly squalid.

Yet at the same time that symbolic war was being waged on the postal service, something remarkably similar to the turn-of-the-century infatuation with the postal service was happening again. Let us summarise the story so far:

1. A new communications technology develops out of the military.

2. It spreads rapidly, radically reshaping everyday life.

3. It develops a reputation for dazzling efficiency.

4. Since it operates on non-market principles, it is quickly seized on by radicals as the first stirrings of a future, non-capitalist economic system already developing within the shell of the old.

5. Despite this, it quickly becomes the medium, too, for government surveillance and the dissemination of endless new forms of advertising and unwanted paperwork.

This mirrors the story of the internet. What is email but a giant, electronic, super-efficient post office? Has it not, too, created a sense of a new, remarkably effective form of cooperative economy emerging from within the shell of capitalism itself, even as it has deluged us with scams, spam and commercial offers, and enabled the government to spy on us in new and creative ways?

It seems significant that while both postal services and the internet emerge from the military, they could be seen as adopting military technologies to quintessential anti-military purposes. Here we have a way of taking stripped-down, minimalistic forms of action and communication typical of military systems and turning them into the invisible base on which everything they are not can be constructed: dreams, projects, declarations of love and passion, artistic effusions, subversive manifestos, or pretty much anything else.

But all this also implies that bureaucracy appeals to us — that it seems at its most liberating — precisely when it disappears: when it becomes so rational and reliable that we are able to just take it for granted that we can go to sleep on a bed of numbers and wake up with all those numbers still snugly in place.

In this sense, bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I like to call “poetic technology” — when mechanical forms of organisation, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshalled to the realisation of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratisation of despotism. Once, the privilege of waving one’s hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organise themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.•

 

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The decentralization of media has allowed some silent insecurities to grow loud. There’s nothing sadder than some middle-aged mook doing a podcast from his basement, complaining, obliviously, about the privileged existence of women and minorities. There are so many available for download that I can hardly count. For such wounded warriors, things are likely to only get worse, as women eventually come to prominence on the American political landscape. 

Would a female U.S. President drastically alter the country’s mindset away from sabre-rattling and toward greater enlightenment? Not instantly, probably. African-American police officers often engage in racial profiling of other African-Americans, so it’s not only about the electing of an individual but the reimagining of a system. Hopefully such a rethinking of priorities will be a byproduct of women gradually gaining greater parity in politics. In a WSJ opinion piece, Melvin Konner explains why male dominance is on the decline:

The Bible, the Iliad, the great Indian epics—all of them are full of sex and violence. I don’t know whether Helen’s face was what launched a thousand Greek ships against Troy. I don’t know whether David really fell in love with Bathsheba and had her soldier-husband sent to die at the front, or if Solomon had seven hundred wives. But all the evidence suggests the plausibility of such stories, and this culture of male domination didn’t come to an end with the ancients. It prevailed throughout the middle ages and the Renaissance as well.

But then what happened? Why did some men begin at last to let go of their privileges?

The great transformation of the past two centuries—the slow but relentless decline of male supremacy—can be attributed in part to the rise of Enlightenment ideas generally. The liberation of women has advanced alongside the gradual emancipation of serfs, slaves, working people and minorities of every sort.

But the most important factor has been technology, which has made men’s physical strength and martial prowess increasingly obsolete. Male muscle has been replaced to a large extent by machines and robots. Today, women operate fighter jets and attack helicopters, deploying more lethal force than any Roman gladiator or Shogun warrior could dream of.•

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Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist candidate for next year’s Presidential election, knows he’s not going to be taking his calls at the Oval Office come January 2017, which makes him far more politically self-aware than, say, Ted Cruz. So what is he after with his thus-far self-financed campaign? From a Q&A conducted by Ajai Raj at Medium:

Question:

What’s the goal of your campaign?

Zoltan Istvan:

Of course, as you know from reading my articles, there’s no chance of me winning. I’m not even trying to pretend that I’m necessarily going to take votes from anyone — it’s pretty complex to get on all the state ballots and do all these other things. But it’s very likely that I’m going to be involved in some discussions at the higher ranks of politics as to, well, what is this guy really talking about? Should we be considering genetic engineering and talking about it in our political campaigns, for example? I’m hopefully going to have some contact with Hillary Clinton. Al Gore has been a closet transhumanist for literally a decade.

So there’s been some involvement, especially in the liberal parties, and interest in what technology is doing, and interest in how it can help politics. What does Hillary Clinton think about artificial wombs, for example, or designer babies? What about the military controlling artificial intelligence, this technology with the potential to create something with a hundred times the intelligence of a human?

These are not things she wants to talk about, and neither does Mitt Romney [NOTE: This conversation took place before Romney announced that he will not run] or whoever else is going to run, but there’s a good chance if there’s enough press around it, they’ll be forced to deal with it.

The idea is that maybe in 2020, 2024, the Transhumanist Party can become something more significant than what it is now — a brand new startup, in a way.

Question:

So it’s about shifting the conversation, and getting some of these transhumanist ideas and concerns out of the fringe and into the mainstream, on people’s TVs.

Zoltan Istvan:

Absolutely. And I don’t mean to take anything away from my own campaign — everyone keeps saying, “Don’t say you’re going to lose” — but I’m just trying to be realistic. Our time might be in four or eight years. But what we can really do this time around is bring the conversation into the public’s view. I believe that I can be included in some debates, especially with other third parties, where we actually get a voice to make a dent, and get people saying, “Well, we really don’t want to talk about these topics, because they’re so controversial. However, it’s probably time we do, because after all, the country is kind of running headlong into the Transhumanist Age.”

You know, we have robotic hearts, bionic eyes, artificial hearing, all this stuff — it’s already here, it’s just a matter of, when we start implementing these things, how the FDA handles it, how the culture of America decides to say, “Wow, is a robotic arm something I’m going to want in ten years if it’s actually better than a human arm?”•

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America’s obituary has been written prematurely many times, and, no, fucking ISIS won’t be the death of us. There’s always hope for a bright future for the U.S. as long as our immigration policies aren’t guided by politicians pandering to xenophobic impulses. From an Economist review of Joseph Nye’s Is the American Century Over?:

Europe is hardly a plausible challenger. Though its economy and population are larger than America’s, the old continent is stagnating. In 1900 a quarter of the world’s people were European; by 2060 that figure could be just 6%, and a third of them will be over 65.

By 2025 India will be the most populous nation on Earth. It has copious “soft power”—a term Mr Nye coined—in its diaspora and popular culture. But only 63% of Indians are literate, and none of its universities is in the global top 100. India could only eclipse America if it were to form an anti-American alliance with China, reckons Mr Nye, but that is unlikely: Indians are well-disposed towards Washington and highly suspicious of Beijing.

China is the likeliest contender to be the next hyperpower: its army is the world’s largest and its economy will soon be. (In purchasing-power-parity terms, it already is.) But it will be decades before China is as rich or technologically sophisticated as America; indeed, it may never be. By 2030 China will have more elderly dependants than children, which will sap its vitality. It has yet to figure out how to change governments peacefully. And its soft power is feeble for a country of its size. It has few real friends or allies, unless you count North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Hu Jintao, the previous president, tried to increase China’s soft power by setting up “Confucius Institutes” to teach its language and culture. Yet such a strategy is unlikely to win hearts in, say, Manila, when China is bullying the Philippines over islands in the South China Sea. The staging of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was a soft-power success, but was undercut by the jailing of Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy activist, and the resulting empty chair at the ceremony to award him the Nobel peace prize. “Marketing experts call this ‘stepping on your own message’,” says Mr Nye.•

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Zoltan Istvan, your 2016 Transhumanist Party Presidential candidate, is concerned about the geopolitical implications of self-aware AI and is making it a plank of his campaign. I think his timeframe for such superintelligence (in the next 10-20 years) is not even remotely possible and Weak AI will be much more of a political challenge in the next few decades, but I would love to see him debate Jeb and Hillary. From Istvan at Vice:

​Forget about superintelligent AIs being created by a company, university, or a rogue programmer with Einstein-like IQ. Hollywood and its AI-themed movies like Transcendence and Her have misled the public. The launch of the first truly autonomous, self-aware artificial intelligence—one that has the potential to become far smarter than human beings—is a matter of the highest national and global security. Its creation could change the landscape of international politics in a matter of weeks—maybe even days, depending on how fast the intelligence learns to upgrade itself, hack and rewrite the world’s best codes, and utilize weaponry.

In the last year, a chorus of leading technology exp​erts, like Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates, have chimed in on the dangers regarding the creation of AI. The idea of a superintelligence on Planet Earth dwarfing the capacity of our own brains is daunting. Will this creation like its creators? Will it embrace human morals? Will it become religious? Will it be peaceful or warlike? The questions are innumerable and the answers are all debatable, but one thing is for sure from a national security perspective: If it’s smarter than us, we want it to be on our side—the human race’s side.

Now take that one step further, and I’m certain another theme regarding AI is just about to emerge—one bound with nationalistic fervor and patriotism. Politicians and military commanders around the world will want this superintelligent machine-mind for their countries and defensive forces. And they’ll want it exclusively. Using AI’s potential power and might for national security strategy is more than obvious—it’s essential to retain leadership in the future world. Inevitably, a worldwide AI arms race is set to begin.

As the 2016 US Presidential candidate for the Transhumanist Party, I don’t mind going out on a limb and saying the obvious: I also want AI to belong exclusively to America.•

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David Graeber, who’s just published The Utopia of Rules, explaining to Elias Isquith of Salon why free markets don’t actually supplant bureaucracy but actually beget more of it:

Salon:

The idea that free-market policies create bureaucracies is pretty counterintuitive, at least for most Americans. So why is it the case that laissez-faire policy creates bureaucracy?

David Graeber:

Part of the reason is because in fact what we call the market is not really the market.

First of all, we have this idea that the market is a thing that just happens. This is the debate in the 19th century: market relations creeped up within feudalism and then it overthrew [feudalism]. So gradually the market is just the natural expression of human freedom; and since it regulates itself, it will gradually displace everything else and bring about a free society. Libertarians still think this.

In fact, if you look at what actually happens historically, this is just not true. Self-regulating markets were basically created with government intervention. It was a political project. Certain assumptions of how these things work just aren’t true. People don’t do wage labor if they have any choice, historically, for example. So in order to get a docile labor force, you have to create police and [a] large apparatus to ensure that the people you kick off the land actually will get the kinds of jobs you want them to … this is the very beginning of creating a market.

Basically, we assume that market relations are natural, but you need a huge institutional structure to make people behave the way that economists say they are “supposed” to behave. So, for example, think about the way the consumer market works. The market is supposed to work on grounds of pure competition. Nobody has moral ties to each other other than to obey the rules. But, on the other hand, people are supposed to do anything they can to get as much as possible off the other guy — but won’t simply steal the stuff or shoot the person.

Historically, that’s just silly; if you don’t care at all about a guy, you might as well steal his stuff. In fact, they’re encouraging people to act essentially how most human societies, historically, treated their enemies — but to still never resort to violence, trickery or theft. Obviously that’s not going to happen. You can only do that if you set up a very strictly enforced police force. That’s just one example.•

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Silicon Valley isn’t merely about money in the way of Wall Street, and it isn’t about power in the traditional sense. The true measure of success in the tech capital is impact, how many lives can be changed–allegedly for the better. It’s about the building of a huge and overarching mechanism that can’t be avoided. From “Tomorrowland: How Silicon Valley Shapes Our Future,“ Thomas Schulz’s Spiegel piece about the shift of influence from bankers to technologists and what that means:

The iPhone only made its appearance seven years ago, but most of us no longer remember what the world was like before. Driverless cars were considered to be a crazy fantasy not long ago, but today nobody is particularly amazed by them. All the world’s knowledge condensed into a digital map and easily accessible? Normal. The fact that algorithms in the US control some 70 percent of all trading on the stock market? Crazy, to be sure. But normal craziness.

Dozens of companies are trying to figure out how to use drones for commercial use, be it for deliveries, data collection or other purposes. Huge armies of engineers are chasing after the holy grail of artificial intelligence. And the advances keep coming. Machines that can learn, intelligent robots: We have begun overtaking science fiction.

The phenomenon is still misunderstood, first and foremost by policymakers. It appears they have not yet decided whether to dive in and create a usable policy framework for the future or to stand aside as others create a global revolution. After all, what we are witnessing is not just the triumph of a particular technology. And it is not just an economic phenomenon. It isn’t about “the Internet” or “the social networks,” nor is it about intelligence services and Edward Snowden or the question as to what Google is doing with our data. It isn’t about the huge numbers of newspapers that are going broke nor is it about jobs being replaced by software. It’s not about a messaging service being worth €19 billion ($21.1 billion) or the fact that 20-year-olds are launching entire new industries.

We are witnessing nothing less than a societal transformation that ultimately nobody will be able to avoid. It is the kind of sea change that can only be compared with 19th century industrialization, but it is happening much faster this time. Just as the change from hand work to mass production dramatically changed our society over 100 years ago, the digital revolution isn’t just altering specific sectors of the economy, it is changing the way we think and live.

This time, though, the transformation is different. This time, it is being driven by just a few hundred people.•

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It’s possible I could read a better book during the rest of 2015 than Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Edge.org made my day as it often does with “Death Is Optional,” a dialogue between the Israeli historian and the psychologist Daniel Kahnemananother great thinker. Harari argues (as I have here many times) that computer consciousness is nowhere near a reality, but that Weak AI can displace and disrupt us regardless. The two consider the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even death, may not be an egalitarian affair (though it never was completely). An excerpt:

Daniel Kahneman:

Do you get to a broader view by becoming more differentiated, that is, by having more detailed views? Or is it just that you get people to consider a possibility that wouldn’t occur to them?

Yuval Noah Harari:

Mainly, the second way. The main thing, and my main task as a historian is to get people to consider the possibilities which usually are outside their field of vision, because our present field of vision has been shaped by history and has been narrowed down by history, and if you understand how history has narrowed down our field of vision, this is what enables you to start broadening it.

Let me give you an example that I’m thinking about a lot today, concerning the future of humankind in the field of medicine. At least to the best of my understanding, we’re in the middle of a revolution in medicine. After medicine in the 20th century focused on healing the sick, now it is more and more focused on upgrading the healthy, which is a completely different project. And it’s a fundamentally different project in social and political terms, because whereas healing the sick is an egalitarian project … you assume there is a norm of health, anybody that falls below the norm, you try to give them a push to come back to the norm, upgrading is by definition an elitist project. There is no norm that can be applicable to everybody.

And this opens the possibility of creating huge gaps between the rich and the poor, bigger than ever existed before in history. And many people say no, it will not happen, because we have the experience of the 20th century, that we had many medical advances, beginning with the rich or with the most advanced countries, and gradually they trickled down to everybody, and now everybody enjoys antibiotics or vaccinations or whatever, so this will happen again.

And as a historian, my main task is to say no, there were peculiar reasons why medicine in the 20th century was egalitarian, why the discoveries trickled down to everybody. These unique conditions may not repeat themselves in the 21st century, so you should broaden your thinking, and you should take into consideration the possibility that medicine in the 21st century will be elitist, and that you will see growing gaps because of that, biological gaps between rich and poor and between different countries. And you cannot just trust a process of trickling down to solve this problem.

There are fundamental reasons why we should take this very seriously, because generally speaking, when you look at the 20th century, it’s the era of the masses, mass politics, mass economics. Every human being has value, has political, economic, and military value, simply because he or she is a human being, and this goes back to the structures of the military and of the economy, where every human being is valuable as a soldier in the trenches and as a worker in the factory.

But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

And once most people are no longer really necessary, for the military and for the economy, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain. Could be. It’s not a prophecy, but you should take very seriously the option that people will lose their military and economic value, and medicine will follow.•

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Your city will likely be a smart one eventually, and you won’t have much of a say in the matter. It will all flow beneath the surface and you may consider it as infrequently as you do electricity. That will mean constant quantification which will lead to some good things and, quietly, some that are not. An excerpt from a heady talk at Salon (via Alternet) about the nature of smart cities, between journalist Allegra Kirkland and urban theorist Catherine Tumber:

Allegra Kirkland:

It seems like there’s a fundamental split between people who think there is something organic and inexplicable about the ways human beings come together in cities, and those who believe that all human behavior is quantifiable—that we can rely on data to understand how humans interact. Which side of the line do you fall on?

Catherine Tumber:

Digital technology and its use compresses experience. It tends to lead to niche cultures; it tends to lead to a sense of being untethered, as if that’s the golden pathway to real freedom. There are several traditions of political philosophy that hold that its important to be tethered so that you have a sense of the limits of yourself and of what it is that humans can do in the time that they have on this earth. This sense of endless freedom can lead to a very false sense of utopian promise that is simply unrealistic and unwanted. It’s yet another way that we’ve decided to take a pause from history and what history has long told us.

There are some things that you really don’t play with. People have acquired great wisdom over the ages—across the globe, this isn’t just a Eurocentric thing—about what it means to travel and to leave home and to come back. These are all the great stories and myths and fables. Technology kind of flattens all of that.

Allegra Kirkland:

This is sort of a related question, but what do you think are the primary things smart cities take away from the people who live there? What do we lose in these sorts of manufactured urban environments?

It makes me think of the complaints about the gentrification of places like New York City. Michael Bloomberg created new green spaces in Times Square and along the waterfront, made city services more efficient, rezoned districts, and now we have this sanitized, business-friendly, soulless city. The neighborhoods look the same; there’s no mixing of social classes, no weird dive bars. So you’d think smart cities, with their emphasis on homogeneity and efficiency, would be equally off-putting to people.

Catherine Tumber:

I think it’s a matter of the convenience of it and the novelty of it. But smart technology is relatively new and there are so many unexamined consequences, as I think there are with any major technological change like this.

I think that we’re only beginning as a culture to wince a little and take a second look at this. … There really hasn’t been any sort of consensus about what the right manners are in using these technologies. Across the world for time immemorial, every culture had some understanding of manners, and I don’t mean that in the prim Victorian sense. But just some ways in which you convey unspoken, coded assumptions about respect and caring and common courtesy and stuff like that. We haven’t had that conversation here. …The main point is that there are real unintended consequences of this.•

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Matt Yglesias, given to huge overreactions to transient situations, may have a point in his apocalyptically titled Vox pieceAmerican Democracy Is Doomed.” Our system is deeply flawed. But it’s not, as Yglesias argues, because we’re a very polarized people whose President, whether Democrat or Republican, has to do an end-around of Congress to get anything accomplished. It’s because of a system of representation that isn’t truly representative. Gerrymandering has made for a congressional body largely out of step with the majority of the American public. The rule of two Senators per state regardless of population was not a good idea. The election of a President by virtue of Electoral vote rather than Popular one is a mistake (though one soon likely to be remedied.) We’ve erred in being too concerned with making sure land mass and regions are empowered at the expense of citizens. And, of course, having no caps on the amount of money an individual or group can pour into the political process causes serious distrust. I don’t think most of these issues are solvable from within; the American people will have to exert great pressure from outside for change to happen. Maybe that will only occur after an implosion or maybe not. Yglesias’ opening:

America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.

Some day — not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies — there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else. If we’re lucky, it won’t be violent. If we’re very lucky, it will lead us to tackle the underlying problems and result in a better, more robust, political system. If we’re less lucky, well, then, something worse will happen.

Very few people agree with me about this, of course. When I say it, people generally think that I’m kidding. America is the richest, most successful country on earth. The basic structure of its government has survived contested elections and Great Depressions and civil rights movements and world wars and terrorist attacks and global pandemics. People figure that whatever political problems it might have will prove transient — just as happened before.

But voiced in another register, my outlandish thesis is actually the conventional wisdom in the United States. Back when George W. Bush was president and I was working at a liberal magazine, there was a very serious discussion in an editorial meeting about the fact that the United States was now exhibiting 11 of the 13 telltale signs of a fascist dictatorship. The idea that Bush was shredding the Constitution and trampling on congressional prerogatives was commonplace. When Obama took office, the partisan valence of the complaints shifted, but their basic tenor didn’t. Conservative pundits — not the craziest, zaniest ones on talk radio, but the most serious and well-regarded — compare Obama’s immigration moves to the actions of a Latin-American military dictator.

In the center, of course, it’s an article of faith that when right and left talk like this they’re simply both wrong. These are nothing but the overheated squeals of partisans and ideologues.

At the same time, when the center isn’t complaining about the excessively vociferous complaints of the out-party of the day, it tends to be in full-blown panic about the state of American politics. And yet despite the popularity of alarmist rhetoric, few people act like they’re actually alarmed. Accusations that Barack Obama or John Boehner or any other individual politician is failing as a leader are flung, and then abandoned when the next issue arises. In practice, the feeling seems to be that salvation is just one election away. Hillary Clinton even told Kara Swisher recently that her agenda if she runs for president is to end partisan gridlock.

It’s not going to work.•

 

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Herman Kahn saw the glass half full. The futurist and systems theorist (mentioned at the end of the post on 1970s Swinging Singles) thought while nuclear war would be awful, it wouldn’t wipe out the entire species. There were varying degrees of awfulness. He was likely right, but his conversation about the end of much of humanity and his coining of the term “megadeath” made him one of the inspirations for Stanley Kubrick’s titular Dr. Strangelove character. Interesting that even someone so associated with nuclear believed that solar was the future. The following is an odd and disapproving 1974 piece about him from something called IPS, which apparently was a press service from loony Lyndon Larouche, one of the strangest figures of 20th-century Americans politics, who turned 92 last fall:

IPS INTERVIEW WITH HERMAN KAHN: WOULD YOU BUY A USED FUTURE FROM THIS MAN?

NEW YORK, N.Y., Nov. 24 (IPS)–In a recent interview with IPS, futurologist Herman.Kahn confirmed that no one but a criminal psychotic could field “ideas” for the Rockefeller family. The portly Kahn, who is the founder and director of the Hudson Institute, gained notoriety during the late 1950s by calculating the number of “megadeaths” that could be expected as a result of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Also present at the interview was Professor Robert Mundell of Columbia: University. Mundell organized the conference of bankers and econcmistsheld near Siena, Italy in September, exposed by IPS as a planning session for the Chileanization of Great Britain and Italy.

During the wide-ranging discussion, the following exchange took place: 

IPS:

If you reduce the level of energy “throughput” into the biosphere, as the Hudson Institute proposes, you tend to set into motion entropic processes which get out of your control. The result would be an ecological holocaust. For example, in Brazil, where levels of nutrition and health have been reduced, you see the spread of new types of plagues faster than you can find vaccines for them.

Herman Kahn:

Well, there are two basic types of population curves, the up and down curve, where you expand population, overgraze, and so forth, and then have to reduce population. Or there is the collapse curve, where you have famine and disease. I would divide the world up into four categories. 1.4 billion people are “rich”–include Portugal in this. 0.85 billion live in Communist Asia. 1.05 billion are “coping”–like Mexico. and Brazil. That is, income is trickling down to at least one third of the population. People always misunderstand “trickle down” theories because they think wealth is supposed to get to the bottom. It never does … But there is no study which shows a correlation between hunger and disease. You won’t have plagues that kill half the world’s population. (At this point Mr. Kahn, who had ordered a Japanese dinner, paused to eat a raw squid.)

Robert Mundell:

No, we are about to have another plague. We have them every 300 years. You know, 1100, 1400, then–I forget the dates exactly.

Herman Kahn:

You mean the one in the eighteenth century where they all danced around?

Robert Mundell:

That was it. Anyway, every 300 years you wipe out half the world’s population.

Herman Kahn:

Oh, a cycle theory. I’m not sure about cycle theories…

Robert Mundell:

Well, anyway, I only make up these theories for fun.

Kahn, whose style is a blend of Jackie Gleason and Heinrich Himmler, turned his attention again to his raw fish, adding to the morning coffee stains on his shirt front.

Both these men, who have access to cabinet-level members of many governments,. have been touted as leading minds of the capitalist class. In fact, “Fat Herman,” as he is known to friends, is something of a public-display item, next to whom the other psychotic “planners” of the Rockefeller faction are intended to  look sane. 

Among his most recent efforts are a study of Britain, calling into question the country’s existence by the year 1980, and the preparation of a four-year development program for the “radical” government of Algeria.•

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Yaroslav Trofimov, who covers the Greater Middle East Region for the Wall Street Journal, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. He staunchly opposes American ground troops being deployed to eradicate the Islamic State, feeling that such a mission would legitimize the terrorists. A few exchanges follow.

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Question:

If you had to choose, would you call ISIS a terrorist organization, an apocalypse cult, or something closer to an nascent transnational actor, like a fledgeling state fighting for independence?

Yaroslav Trofimov:

I think it is all of the above — but the most important attribute of IS is that it is, in fact, a state that controls and governs territory (to which it urges Muslims worldwide to immigrate.)

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Question:

What is the average day in the life of a member of ISIS? What would Jihad John do while not making videos; what would top ranking officials do compared to the lowest level of fighters?

Yaroslav Trofimov:

Let’s not forget that IS is not just your average terror organization — they do, in fact, run a state with the land mass of Great Britain. Which means there IS sewage inspectors, IS tax collectors, IS religious police members, IS officials in charge of road maintenance… The foreigners from the West are often employed in the communications/ propaganda departments, but also in finance, health etc.

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Question:

What is the end goal of the Islamic State?

Yaroslav Trofimov:

They are very clear about it — world conquest and then the end of days. They have a very apocalyptic vision that relies on prophecies mentioned in the Quran and the Sunna. That is their biggest difference with al Qaeda, which had more pragmatic real-world goals, such as evicting the U.S. and Israel from the region.

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Question:

Difficult to predict, but do you feel a particular country is next up to have a larger following of pro-ISIS people? (Egypt, etc.)

Yaroslav Trofimov:

Egypt does have an IS branch, the Province of Sinai, that is waging a deadly campaign against the Egyptian army in the Sinai peninsula. So far, its activities are largely limited there.

But IS is aiming to spread across the Muslim world — and does have sizable franchises in Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria etc. There has recently been an alarming influx of recruits from ex-Soviet Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

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Question:

If the Israelis stopped being Jewish, and gave up Judaism. And the Arabs stopped being Muslim, and gave up Islam. Do you think they could get along?

Yaroslav Trofimov:

Jews and Muslims (Arab and non-Arab) lived in peace in the Middle East for centuries even as anti-Semitic killings raged in Europe. Even as late as the 1930s, Egypt and Iraq had Jewish cabinet ministers. The hostility seen now is very very recent, not the intrinsic result of Islam or Judaism.

Question:

Correct but in the 1930’s, and prior. There really wasn’t a “formal” Israel at the time. Now that there is, countries like Iran don’t like the idea of a “jewish state” neighboring them, and do not recognize it.

Yaroslav Trofimov:

True — though Iran actually still has a sizable Jewish community. What I was trying to say is there is nothing intrinsic in Judaism or Islam that caused the current hostility in the region. It is all about politics, not about religion.•

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I’m certain a drone carrying explosives will fly into the side of a very important U.S. building at some point in the foreseeable future. It needn’t be large to be deadly. Like 3D-printed guns, in the coming years these things will be cheap and ubiquitous. Drones are just one of the new global challenges of warfare, which is rapidly changing, with stateless ideological sects difficult to pinpoint and robots entering the scrum at an accelerating pace. The opening of David Sterman’s provocative New America essay “Will We Still Call It War?“:

When Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno says that today’s environment is the most uncertain in his 40 years in the army, it’s easy to see why. Wars are now less about land than ideology. Robots can kill.  A cold war with one enemy has given way to a world with myriad, inter-connected conflicts with no one the U.S. can call ally or enemy. Global warming has shifted the very nature of the environment upon which wars are fought.

Our increasingly complex conflict environment is part of what’s driving the contentious debate over the President’s proposed authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS. How do we define our enemy, and the theatres of conflict, in a war that is metastasizing and changing everyday? As Congress reviews the proposed authorization, it’s hard not to compare the present to the past –and to wonder about what the future holds.  At New America’s Future of War Conference this week,  Odierno’s lament helped frame the conversation: if so much has changed in his 40 years of service, what can we expect in the next 40 years?

First, there’s the spread of new technologies – like the proliferation of drones, combined with America’s deteriorating influence in the fields of drone technology and robotics. According to New America’s new World of Drones project, 85 countries have some form of militarized drone, three countries have used drones in combat, and more have considered it.

Dr. Missy Cummings, an associate professor at Duke and former Navy pilot, said the United States military has “lost the edge” in the field. Today, the Israelis lead the world in drone development, Amazon and Google lead the world in robotics, and her students can 3D print a drone in a weekend, she said. Cummings even “guaranteed” that U.S. forces would be struck by a 3D printed drone in the future. As other countries and even companies surpass or challenge the United States in the development of key technologies, the American capability to manage crises may decline.•

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Technology has made a certain level of cinematic sophistication available to all, even terrorists. This lesson has clearly been processed by ISIS, which shoots its real-life snuff films to mirror the hard-R torture porn shown in multiplexes, aiming them at the youth quadrant, with sequels that seemingly never stop coming. From Jeffrey Fleishman in the Los Angeles Times:

The Islamic State’s production values have steadily improved since the network grew in Iraq and Syria; it now operates or has affiliates across North Africa and the Middle East. The group’s ranks have been bolstered by as many as several thousand recruits from Europe, which may be where the organization’s videographers learned their trade. The videos, including those showing the deaths of American, British and Japanese hostages, have been frequently released since last summer.

The most recent films unfold with almost surreal matter-of-factness, taking their time before death is carried out. Cameras pan and glance from different angles; anxiety builds. The executioners are masked and often dressed in black, including the militant who beheaded American hostage James Foley in August. In those videos and in the one in which 21 Coptic Christians were decapitated on the Libyan coast, the killers speak in English and relish in lurid exhibitionism.

The 22-minute video depicting the death of Jordanian pilot Lt. Moaz Kasasbeh, who was captured when his F-16 was shot down over Syria during a U.S.-led coalition bombing mission against Islamic State, was filmed amid war ruins. Militants dressed in fatigues and bracing Kalashnikovs stand guard. They seem as if regal sentinels in a perverted ideology to impose a primitive brand of Islamic law on what they see as a permissive and godless world.

Kasasbeh wanders bewildered down a hazy street that leads to a cage. The scene is interspersed with images showing the bodies of Syrians the Islamic State claims were killed by coalition missiles. Kasasbeh’s orange jumpsuit, reminiscent of those worn by suspected extremists held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, appears soaked with accelerant. A short distance away, a militant holds up a torch and then touches it to the ground as fire — the camera lingers on wisps of white smoke — races toward the cage and Kasasbeh is engulfed.

“It’s horrific, but they know the power of storytelling and the importance of images,” said Robert Greenwald, president and founder of the Culver City-based Brave New Films, which has produced documentaries on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He added that the videos’ music, sound effects, camera angles and even costumes evoke suspense. “It really gives me pause to think about and to be concerned. It’s a level of sophistication that’s quite striking.”•

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I have far fewer concerns about Net Neutrality than I do about cable providers. We’re warned that innovation in the sector will be stymied now that throttling is illegal, but we seem to get electricity each day just fine. But even those who didn’t necessarily oppose the FCC’s decision can see some clouds in the commission’s bold call. Two such worried opinions follow.

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From Tim Harford at the FInancial Times:

This kind of product sabotage is far older than the internet itself. The French engineer and economist Jules Dupuit wrote back in 1849 that third-class railway carriages had no roofs, not to save money but to “prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from travelling third class”. Throttling, 19th-century style.

But imagine that a law was introduced stipulating “railway neutrality” – that all passengers must be treated equally. That might not mean a better deal for poorer passengers. We might hope that everyone would ride in comfort at third-class prices, and that is not impossible. But a train company with a monopoly might prefer to operate only the first-class carriages at first-class prices. Poorer passengers would get no service at all. Product sabotage is infuriating but the alternative – a monopolist who screws every customer equally – is not necessarily preferable.

Fast lanes and slow lanes are a symptom of this market power but the underlying cause is much more important. The US needs more internet service providers, and the obvious way to get them is to force cable companies to unbundle the “last mile” and lease it to new entrants.

Alas, in the celebrated statement announcing a defence of net neutrality, the FCC also specifically ruled out taking that pro-competitive step. The share prices of cable companies? They went up.•

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From Alex Pareene at Gawker:

Don’t get me wrong. Regulating broadband as a utility is (in my opinion) the correct policy. This is as close as Washington gets to a victory for the forces of “good.” I would just urge everyone to keep in mind that the forces of good in this instance won not because millions of people made their voices heard, but because the economic interests of a few giant corporations aligned with the position of those millions of people. And I say that not simply to be a killjoy (though I do love being a killjoy), but because if anything is to change, we musn’t convince ourselves that actual victory for the masses is possible in this fundamentally broken system. Please don’t begin to believe that the American political establishment is anything but a corrupt puppet of oligarchy.

American politicians are responsive almost solely to the interests and desires of their rich constituents and interest groups that primarily represent big business. Casual observation of American politics over the last quarter-century or so should make that clear, but if you want supporting evidence, look to the research of Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, and Princeton’s Martin Gilens and Northwestern’s Benjamin Page. Gilen and Page’s conclusions are easily summed up: “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Political battles are won when the rich favor them. America’s rich have lately become rather progressive on certain social issues, and those issues have rather suddenly gone from political impossibilities to achievable dreams.•

 

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Artists have often been oppressed by authoritarian regimes, their art grinded to a halt by a disapproving dictator, some even incarcerated for their creations. But it is odd, even by the very promiscuous standards of North Korea’s nuttiness, to kidnap filmmakers from other countries and force them into an artistic output. But Kim Jong-il has done just that, shanghaiing talent for his country’s film industry, a despot as Disney. From Stephen Evans at BBC:

It sounds more far-fetched than anything a filmmaker could invent – the story of how a director and a leading actress were kidnapped by North Korea and forced to make films for the state’s movie-mad leader, Kim Jong-il.

It seemed like a simple solution – North Korea needed skills. Other countries had those skills – so why not just kidnap the skilled workers?

In some cases, very skilled workers. In 1977, a top South Korean pianist was hired by a mysterious patron to give a private performance in an isolated villa outside Zagreb.

But he’d grown suspicious, spotting a North Korean aircraft at the airport and then hearing North Korean accents as he approached the house. He fled and escaped.

But South Korea’s most celebrated film director and his film-star wife were not so lucky. Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee were both snatched in Hong Kong. A similar ruse was used to that tried with the pianist – the lure of meeting in a remote house. The couple spent eight years in North Korea making films there before finally escaping.

The kidnap plot was hatched by Kim Jong-il who, before he succeeded his father as the country’s leader, was in charge of its film industry. He was a great film buff, an avid watcher of Hollywood movies – in particular, the first Rambo movie, anything with Elizabeth Taylor and the James Bond films which may have fed his appetite for covert operations.•

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Paul Krugman is continually taken to task for predicting in 1998 that the Internet would be no more important economically than the fax machine by 2005. Culturally, of course, this new medium has been a watershed event. But he had a point on some level: the Internet–and computers, more broadly–still disappoint from a productivity perspective. Either that or all conventional measurements are insufficient to gauge this new machine. At his Financial Times blog, Andrew McAfee, co-author with Erik Brynjolfsson of 2014’s wonderful The Second Machine Age, wonders about the confusing state of contemporary economics. An excerpt:

The economy’s behaviour is puzzling these days. No matter what you think is going on, there are some facts — important ones — that don’t fit your theory well at all, and/or some important things left unexplained.

For example, if you believe that technological progress is reshaping the economy (as Erik and I do) then you’ve got to explain why productivity growth is so low. As Larry Summers pointed out on the first panel, strong labour productivity growth is the first thing you’d expect to see if tech progress really were taking off and reshaping the economy, disrupting industries, hollowing out the middle class, and so on. So why has it been so weak for the past 10 years? Is it because of mismeasurement? William Baumol’s “Cost Disease” (the idea that all the job growth has come in manual, low-productivity sectors)? Or is it that recent tech progress is in fact economically unimpressive, as Robert Gordon and others believe?

If you believe that tech progress has not been that significant, however, you’ve got to explain why labor’s share of income is declining around the world.•

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