The world gleams

December 7, 2019

Source: INCIDENTAL COMICS.

The global future of the surveillance states

December 6, 2019

Knowledge is power.  If I know everything there is to know about you, and you know nothing about me, I have power over you.

That power takes two forms.  One is the power of blackmail.  You would be highly unusual if you not only had never done anything bad, but had never done anything that could be made to look bad.

The other is the power of manipulation.  If I know everything about you, I have an idea of what psychological buttons to push to get you to do what I want.

Edward Snowden, in PERMANENT RECORD, told of how U.S. intelligence agencies are collecting information about the whole American population based on their electronic records and Internet activities.

We know that intelligence agencies use blackmail.  And we know from Shoshana Zuboff’s THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM that corporations such as Google, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica use data about individuals to help advertisers and win election campaigns.

But surveillance is not just American.  if U.S. intelligence agencies are gathering data about foreigners, foreign intelligence agencies must surely be gathering information about Americans.  And if they don’t yet have the technical capability to equal the American effort, it is only a matter of time until they do.

The government of China, for example, has financial and technological power equal to the USA, and the Chinese have an attitude that anything Americans or other Westerners can do, they can out-do.

They already carry surveillance of their own citizens to terrifying lengths, and there is no reason to think they would limit surveillance to their own citizens.

Snowden’s solution is strong encryption of electronic communication.  Individuals may or may not be able to bring their governments under control, he wrote, but they can take action to protect themselves.

There are problems with this.  One is persuading companies such as Google and Facebook to go along with it or persuading individuals to go without the convenience of using Google and Facebook.  After all, the Google and Facebook business model is based on collecting data from their users.

Another is whether they can be any encryption that is truly unbreakable.  Snowdon in his book gives examples of the Tor system of encryption and explains why it is not mathematically and technologically feasible to break it.

I don’t know enough about cryptography to contradict him.  But I do know the history of code-making and code-breaking has been a back-and-forth struggle.

Read the rest of this entry »

Edward Snowden tells his story

December 5, 2019

In 2013, at age 29, Edward Snowden became the world’s most famous whistleblower.

He told the world that U.S. Intelligence agencies were gathering information on everyone on earth who’d ever made a phone call, text message or e-mail, used Google, Amazon, Facebook or a credit card or had electronic medical, educational or financial information on record.

His new book, PERMANENT RECORD, tells how he got the information out, and why he risked death and prison and suffered exile to do it.

I don’t think anybody, no matter how much they may question his actions, can doubt the sincerity of his motives.

He grew up in a family with a heritage of military and government service.  Both his parents had security clearances.

HIs basic values (like mine) were belief in American freedom and democracy as he was taught about them in school.  Also, like many others in the 1990s, he believed in computers and the Internet as a force for human liberation.

From a young age, he had a knack for analyzing systems for weaknesses.  He analyzed the grading criteria for his high school courses, and figured out that he could get a passing grade without doing any homework.

As a teenager, he found a hole in the security system of Los Alamos National Laboratories and pestered authorities until they acknowledged it and fixed it.

His first impulse after the 9/11 attacks was to enlist in the Army and try to qualify for the Special Forces.  But he was injured in a training accident and discharged.  He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency instead.

Organizations based on hierarchy and adherence to a chain of command do not usually welcome recruits who are given to pointing out flaws in the system.  But the CIA dealt with Snowden by giving him special permissions so they could use his talents.

As a CIA officer and later as a contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden gained unusual access to the whole range of CIA and NSA activities.  He became aware that they were spying not just on foreign governments and suspicious characters, but virtually everyone in the USA and abroad.

Knowledge is power.  If someone knows everything about me, they have power over me.  Most people (myself included) have done things they’re ashamed of, and wouldn’t want known.  Almost everyone has done or said something that can be made to look bad.

In the days of J. Edgar Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation would wiretap prominent figures and read their mail, then blackmail them.  There is no guarantee that the heads of the CIA and NSA would not use their knowledge to blackmail.  There is no guarantee they are not already doing so.

Government agencies that are doing this operate in secrecy.  They have power over us, but we the people can’t set limits on them because we don’t even know what is happening.

Snowden could not discuss his qualms with anyone, not even his lover, Lindsay Mills (now his wife).  To breathe a word to anyone would have been considered a violation of the Espionage Act, which carries a maximum penalty of death.

Having reached a decision in silence, he had to make a plan silence and execute it alone.  He had to figure out exactly what the CIA and NSA were doing, how to prove it and how to disseminate that proof in a way that would have an impact.  Any error in his plan or its execution would have been fatal.

The strain must have been almost unbearable.  The temptation to confide in someone must have been almost irresistable (which was the downfall of his fellow whistleblower, Pvt. Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning).

Read the rest of this entry »

Edward Snowden on the 9/11 attacks

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record.

Nearly three thousand people died on 9/11

Imagine everyone you love, everyone you know, even everyone with a familiar name or just a familiar face—and imagine they’re gone.  

Imagine the empty houses.  Imagine the empty school, the empty classrooms.  All those people you lived among and who formed the fabric of your days, just not there anymore.

The events of 9/11 left holes.  Holes in families, holes in communities. Holes in the ground.

Now consider this: over one million people have been killed in the course of America’s response.

Edward Snowden on the surveillance state

December 3, 2019

The following is from Edward Snowden’s new book, Permanent Record

Algorithms analyze…[our data] for patterns of established behavior in order to extrapolate behaviors to come, a type of digital prophecy that’s only slightly more accurate than analog methods like palm reading.

Once you go digging into the actual technical mechanisms by which predictability is calculated, you come to understand the its science is, in fact, anti-scientific, and fatally misnamed: predictability is actually manipulation.

A website that tells you that because you liked this book, you might also like books by James Clapper or Michael Hayden isn’t offering an educated guess as much as a mechanism of subtle coercion.

We can’t allow ourselves to be used in this way, to be used against the future.  We can’t permit our data to be used to sell us the very things that must not be sold, such as journalism.  If we do, the journalism we get will be merely the journalism we want, or the journalism the powerful want us to have, not the honest collective conversation that’s necessary.

We can’t let the godlike surveillance we’re under to be used to “calculate” our citizenship scores, or to “predict” our criminal activity; to tell us what kind of education we can have, or what kind of education we can have, or what kind of job we can have, or whether we can have an education or job at all; to discriminate against us based on our financial, legal and medical histories, not to mention our ethnicity or race, which are constructs that data often assumes or imposes.

And as for our most intimate data, our genetic information: if we allow it to be used to identify us, it will be used to victimize us, even to modify us—to remake the very essence of our humanity in the image of the technology that seeks its control.

Of course, all of the above has already happened.

A history of interest rates through the ages

December 2, 2019

Double click to enlarge

What this chart shows is how government debt became a source of income, like ownership of land, and then how governments in recent years tried to use interest rates as a way to guide the economy.

The theory is that low interest rates generate cheap money, which stimulates the economy, but also leads to inflation, while high interest rates do the reverse.

The problem with the theory is that we in the USA and UK have been in a period of unprecedentedly low interest rates for years, but that this has neither stimulated productive investment nor led to runaway inflation.

Something’s wrong that isn’t being fixed by tweaking interest rates and the money supply.

LINK

The History of Interest Rates Over 670 Years by Nicolas LePan for Visual Capitalist.

‘When a deed is done for freedom…’

November 30, 2019

J.R. Lowell in 1844

THE PRESENT CRISIS

by James Russell Lowell

  When a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast

Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west, 

And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb 

To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime 

Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time. 

  Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the instantaneous throe,

When the travail of the Ages wrings earth’s systems to and fro; 

At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing start, 

Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute lips apart, 

And glad Truth’s yet mightier man-child leaps beneath the Future’s heart. 

   So the Evil’s triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill, 

Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill, 

And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God 

In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod, 

Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod. 

   For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along, 

Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong; 

Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame 

Through its ocean-sundered fibers feels the gush of joy or shame; 

In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim. 

  Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, 

In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side; 

Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,

Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right, 

And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light. 

  Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand, 

Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?

Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ‘t is Truth alone is strong, 

And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng 

Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Ukrainegate situation summarized

November 28, 2019

We now have, in essence, the two sides investigating each other for the crime of having investigated each other

Source: Pete’s Politics and Variety

The changing balance of world population

November 27, 2019

Double click to enlarge.

Double click to enlarge

I came across these two maps on the Brilliant Maps web site,  They show the changing balance of world population over the past century.

In 1900, the population of North America exceeded the population of Latin America.  Now it is the reverse.

In 1900, the population of Europe vastly exceeded the population of Africa.  Now Africans are more numerous.

The population of present-day China is only slightly less than the population of the whole world in 1900.

To get a better idea of the absolute increase, you’d need to enlarge the maps, and enlarge the bottom map a little more so that the sizes of the little squares (each one equivalent to 500,000 people) are equal in size.

The population of China has more than tripled since 1900, but the population of the United States has quadrupled and there are five times as many Canadians and Australians.  There are more than 10 times as many Mexicans, Brazilians and Nigerians as in 1900 and more than 20 times as many Ethiopians.

A nation can be populous and weak, like India and China in 1900 and Nigeria and Ethiopia today.  Nevertheless, there is a relationship between population and power in the long run.

Bertrand Russell wrote somewhere that if there is to be world peace, nations must agree to limit their populations as well as their armaments.  He had a good point, but I’m not sure such agreements are feasible.

There seems to be a universal demographic transition.  When modern medicine and agriculture reduce death by disease and famine, the death rate falls and population increases rapidly.  When living standards rise, contraception is available and women are emancipated, the birth rate falls, eventually falling below replacement rate.  Governments don’t seem to be able to affect this very much.

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The price of anything and the value of everything

November 23, 2019

Another piece of on-line fiction that I like.

The Cambist and Lord Iron: a Fairy Tale of Economics by Daniel Abraham for Lightspeed magazine

Abraham is co-holder of the pen name James S.A. Corey and co-author of The Expanse science fiction series,

Will Trump restart the nuclear arms race?

November 22, 2019

Click to enlarge.

President Donald Trump has threatened to allow the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to lapse when it comes up for renewal in 2021.

Renewal of the treaty would mean a drastic reduction in nuclear weapons.  Failure to renew would mean a resumption of the nuclear arms race and, sooner or later, a virtual certainty of nuclear war.

The Federation of American Scientists reports that number of nuclear warheads has been reduced from a peak of about 70,300 warheads in 1986 to 13,890 early this year.  That’s good progress, but no reason to stop now.

The USA and Russia still have enough nuclear weapons to obliterate each other and much of the rest of the human race in the process.

We the human race have been lucky so far.  The world has come close to the brink of war, but avoided it.  We can’t count on being lucky forever.

If you don’t count nuclear warheads retired, but not yet dismantled, the USA has 3,800 and Russia has 4,490.  The new START, if renewed, would reduce the number to 1,550 each.

President Trump has said he will not renew the treaty unless it covers China as well.  China has an estimated 290 warheads, which is not trivial.

Pakistan only has an estimated 160 nuclear warheads and India has 140.  Analysts say that if those two countries found a nuclear war, just the dust and soot from the nuclear explosions (never mind the radioactive fallout) would darken the skies and bring about nuclear winter.

It would be desirable for all the smaller nuclear powers, including France, the UK, Israel and North Korea, to accept an upper limit on their numbers of nuclear weapons.  But it is unlikely they would cut back so long as the USA and Russia have thousands of weapons.

So what is Trump’s motive?  My guess is that either he or the national security establishment thinks that, by restarting the nuclear arms race, the USA can force Russia to spend itself into bankruptcy or accept U.S. global military supremacy.

Click to enlarge

Read the rest of this entry »

The Plain of Snakes: Paul Theroux in Mexico

November 20, 2019

In 2017, the travel writer Paul Theroux, at the age of 76 set out in his car to drive through Mexico, disregarding well-founded warnings of danger. He wrote about his trip in his new book, On the Plain of Snakes: a Mexican Journey.

The Plain of Snakes is an actual place in Mexico, but Theroux wrote that for ordinary Mexican people, most of the country is like a plain of snakes.

There is no safe haven from the murderous criminals that run the drug cartels.  Nor do the corrupt police and military offer an protection.

Yet ordinary Mexicans, he found, are amazingly hospitable and helpful.  He saw a stark contrast between the integrity and courage of individual Mexicans he met, and the corruption and savagery of Mexican society.

The drug cartels demonstrate their power by dumping mutilated corpses in public places.  They kidnap powerful people and hold them for ransom.  They kidnap poor migrants and coerce them into being prostitutes or couriers.

More than 200,000 Mexicans have been killed since 2006 when the Mexican government, at the instigation of the United States, declared war on the cartels.

But the killings aren’t just due to the drug wars.  Many were in power struggles between cartels, or attacks on honest journalists, judges and police, or just demonstrations of raw power.

In many parts of Mexico, the narcos are more powerful than the government.  Recently there was confrontation between a cartel and the government, and the government backed down—which may have been justified under the circumstances, but does not bode well.

The Mexican military and police are almost as violent and abusive as the cartels, according to Theroux.  They are often interlocked with the cartels, while the gangs themselves recruit from elite Mexican and Central American military units.

Narco terrorism in Mexico is a more serious concern for the USA than ISIS terrorism in the Middle East, but of course any U.S. military intervention in Mexico would be a disaster..

There is a widespread cult in Mexico of an entity called Santa Muerte (Holy Death), who is cross between a Catholic saint (although her worship has been condemned by the Vatican) and an Indian spirit.  Theroux said she has an estimated 20 million worshipers, including members of the cartels but also many ordinary Mexicans.

The distinctive thing about Santa Muerte is that she supposedly offers unconditional help to those who worship her.  You don’t have to be in a state of grace or repent of your sins, just willing to venerate her.  I can see why this would be appealing to poor and desperate people.

One of the distinctive things about Mexican culture is acceptance and even embrace of the fact of death.  The Day of the Dead is an important Mexican holiday.  It is in some ways like an exaggerated version of U.S. Hallowe’en, but all skeletons and ghosts, and also a time for picnicking near the graves of loved ones.

With all these things bearing down on them, one might expect Mexicans to be callous and suspicious.  That’s how I would be in their circumstances.

But Theroux’s experience was just the opposite.  Except for his encounters with police, all his interactions with Mexicans were positive. HIs trip depended on the helpfulness of many people.

Read the rest of this entry »

What if the Greek gods were alive and among us?

November 16, 2019

A Modern Myth by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.

Why risk war with Russia over Ukraine?

November 15, 2019

The impeachment hearings are about allegations of President Donald Trump’s interference with the criminal justice system in Ukraine..

How and why did the United States become so deeply involved in Ukraine in the first place?  The video above of an interview of Prof. Stephen F. Cohen, a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, gives a good background of this.

The conflict in Ukraine stems from a U.S. effort to draw Ukraine into an anti-Russian alliance, and from a military coup in 2014 that brought an anti-Russian government to power in Ukraine.

The Russia of Vladimir Putin is not a country I would want to live in.  There are too many unsolved murders of investigative journalists and opposition leaders, too much wealth in the hands of corrupt oligarchs, too much power in the hands of secret intelligence agencies.

But Putin is not paranoid to see a threat to Russia in an American-dominated Ukraine.  Look at a map of the greatest advance of the Nazi armies during World War Two, and then look at a map of a NATO including Ukraine and Georgia and you’ll see why.

President Zelensky of Ukraine is a political unknown who was elected by an overwhelming majority on a promise to seek peace with Russia.  He is hemmed in by his dependence on U.S. aid, and by the anti-Russian faction, including neo-Nazis, in the Ukrainian government.

President Trump wants to be a peacemaker and he also wants to dominate.  But he lacks the knowledge, skill or constancy of purpose to pursue either peace or power effectively.

His foreign policy is incoherent.  He is like a drunkard staggering along a sidewalk, sometimes to in the direction of peace, sometimes in the direction of war.

But when he staggers in the direction of peace, he bumps up against a wall—the war hawks in the Pentagon and CIA and in Congress.  So the likelihood is that he will wind up in the gutter and blunder into war.

The USA and Russia are the main nuclear powers.  Each has the power to totally destroy the other.  I don’t think that President Trump or President Putin desire to go to war, but the present confrontation along Russia’s borderlands creates a danger that it could happen anyway.

LINKS

Ukraine for Dummies by Ray McGovern for Consortium News.  A timeline of recent Ukrainian history.

Why Are We in Ukraine? by Stephen F. Cohen for The Nation.

We’re More at Risk of Nuclear War With Russia Than We Think by George Beebe for POLITICO.

Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Ukraine corruption

November 15, 2019

Presidents Zelensky and Trump

I think there is a case to be made that President Donald Trump abused the power of his office.

He did threaten to withhold military aid unless the Ukrainian government announced an investigation of the Burisma oil and gas company and Hunter Biden’s involvement in it.

The problem with this is that Joe Biden, when he was vice president, did the exact same thing.

He threatened to withhold aid from Ukraine unless it fired the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma.

Biden’s claim is that the prosecutor was lax in investigating corruption.  But the evidence indicates otherwise, that the prosecutor was closing in on Burisma at the time he was forced out.

Hunter Biden knew nothing of Ukraine or the oil and gas business.  His only value to Burisma is that he was the vice-president’s son and therefore provided Burisma with a certain immunity from prosecution.

It hasn’t been proved that Hunter Biden did anything wrong beyond this, but then his role hasn’t been investigated.

This is not a justification of wrong-doing by President Trump.  Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Ukraine is a vast swamp of corruption, and Hunter Biden is not the only politically-connected American who has sought to make money there.

Donald Trump and Attorney-General William Barr oppose the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which make it a crime for an American to bribe a foreign government official.  They want to make bribery once again simply a cost of doing business.

Barr also opposes the False Claims Act, which gives any American standing to sue a person or company that defrauds the U.S. government.  In other words, both Trump and Barr want protect corruption and fraud.

It would be very interesting to know how many Americans are on the boards of Ukrainian companies, or political consultants or public relations consultants to Ukrainian oligarchs or politicians.  I’m sure their numbers would include both Democrats and Republicans.

I think Democrats in the House of Representatives would help themselves politically by investigating corruption and mismanagement in the Trump administration across the board, rather than limiting themselves to this one ambiguous issue.

True, they might uncover things that are embarrassing to their own donors.

I feel sorry for the long-suffering people of Ukraine.  Neither the U.S. government, the European Union, the Russian Federation or their own plutocrats and autocrats care anything for their welfare.

LINKS

Corruption in Ukraine Wikipedia article.

Hunter Biden’s Ukraine gas firm pressed Obama administration to end corruption allegations by John Solomon on his blog.

A Timeline of Joe Biden’s Intervention Against the Prosecutor General of Ukraine by the Moon of Alabama blog.

Is Trump the Most Corrupt President in American History? an interview of Bill Black, an expert on financial fraud, on the Real News Network.  Black’s answer: Yes.

This Is What a Legitimate Anti-Corruption Effort in Ukraine Would Look Like by Samantha Winograd for POLITICO.

Taibbi on how the news divides and misleads us

November 13, 2019

Last week I I read Matt Taibbi’s HATE INC.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another.  Of all the books I’ve read during the past 12 months or expect to read in the near future, this is the one I’d most recommend to anybody who wants to understand what’s going on in the USA..

It is about how and why the business model for the American press changed from the seeking of a broad, noncontroversial consensus to the promotion of conflict.  It also is about why the conflict so seldom involves fundamental issues.

Noam Chomsky famously said that the way to preserve the illusion of freedom of the press is to allow vigorous debate, but only within certain prescribed bounds.

There is extreme polarization for and against Donald Trump.  Some say we’re on the verge of a new civil war.   But the debate remains within limits, and is focused on personalities.

We the public are encouraged to think that there is a deep and permanent conflict of ideas between Democratic liberals such as Rachel Maddow and Republican conservatives such as Sean Hannity, but also that there are no ideas worth considering beyond the limits of what they say.

Neither side questions ever-increasing military budgets, everlasting wars, ever-expanding surveillance, ever-growing bailouts of tax breaks for and and handouts to the most powerful corporations.

The current $716 billion military appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year contained a $165 billion increase—in itself more than the entire military budget of Russia or China, and more than the entire cost of the Iraq war in 2003 or 2004.   Large majorities of both parties in both houses of Congress supported it.

The press coverage of the bill focused not on its contents, but on whether President Trump was disrespectful of Senator John McCain, the sponsor, by not mentioning his name during the signing ceremony.

In the old days, the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite sought to appeal to a broad, bland consensus.  The feeling he tried to project was reassurance—that all was right with the world.  Other broadcasters were the same way.

They also were limited by the government’s Fairness Doctrine.  If they broadcast anything controversial, they had to provide free air time for the other side.

Newspapers followed a similar path.  Most had local monopolies.  All had secure revenue streams based on classified advertising (job listings, legal notices) and as the main source of information for stock prices and the like.

I got started in journalism at the end of the old era.  The ideal in reporting in that era was objectivity and impersonality.  Reporters strove to write in a way that nobody could guess their personal opinions.  Routine newspaper articles lacked bylines because it shouldn’t matter who wrote them.

Then the Reagan administration repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  Opinion no longer had to be balanced.  CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle.  The easiest way to fill time was with commentary and opinion.

The Internet, especially Facebook and Twitter, provided a way to segment the readership individually.  No longer did a newspaper or TV broadcast have to appeal to the whole family.  Each person could have their own news, tailored algorithmically to their own desires and viewpoint.

Fox News, and also talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, took advantage of the new business model.  They realized they didn’t have to have universal appeal to make money.  All they needed to do was to target a segment of the viewers or listeners and tailor things to their interests.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fossil fuels, nukes keep the lights on in the USA

November 13, 2019

Click to enlarge.

According to the Energy Information Agency, the U.S. generates 4.03 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually.

Natural gas is now the top energy source at 32.1% of the total generating capacity, followed very closely by coal at 29.9%. Other major sources include Nuclear (20%), Hydropower (7.4%) and Wind (6.3%).

Finally, while solar is growing, it still only accounts for 1.3% of large scale energy generation (small scale solar [e.g. rooftop] would increase this by around 50%).

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

It’s going to be hard to expand the use of solar power and other renewable sources of electric power, because they depend on weather conditions, geographic location or both.

Until energy storage becomes really cheap, the USA and other countries are going to need nuclear power—hopefully in modern, well-maintained plants on sites not subject to earthquake or flooding.

LINKS

This Map Shows Every Power Plant in the United States by Jeff Desjardins for Visual Capitalist.  More details.

U.S. Power Plants by Daniel V. Schroeder of Weber State University  Interactive map with even more detail.

Gabor Mate on anti-Semitism and Zionism

November 11, 2019

Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician who lives in Vancouver and writes about addiction and childhood trauma.

Born in Hungary, he is a Holocaust survivor and a disillusioned Zionist.  He is shown in the video above being interviewed by his journalist son, Aaron Mate, about anti-Semitism, Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

He said he has gone through three disillusionments in his lifetime—with Hungarian Communism, with American exceptionalism and with Zionism. Disillusionment is painful, he said, but it is better to be free of illusion than a slave to it.

The interview is well worth watching, as is an earlier interview about Russiagate.

LINKS

Gabor Mate on the misuse of anti-Semitism and why fewer Jews identify with Israel, an interview for The Gray Zone.

America in denial: Gabor Mate on the psychology of Russiagate, an interview for The Gray Zone.  With transcript.

The deep strangeness of life in the deep sea

November 9, 2019

Hat tip to Jason Kottke.

The most impressive thing about life in the deepest ocean depths is that it exists at all.

Who, if anybody, has a vision for the future?

November 8, 2019

Political debate in the United States is based on nostalgia—a desire to return to a former era.

Donald Trump’s motto is “Make American great again!”  He doesn’t specify when America was great.  My guess is that his favorite era would be the 1920s, when the country was prosperous, big business was respected and the U.S. was free of entangling alliances.

The Clinton-Biden wing of the Democratic Party simply wants to turn the clock back to 2015.  Bernie Sanders wants to complete the unfinished business of the New Deal of the 1930s.  Elizabeth Warren wants to go back to a time when capitalism worked the way it should—perhaps under Eisenhower.

The closest thing we have to a positive vision of the future is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal.  Her idea is to meet the challenge of global warming and resource exhaustion in ways that avoid or minimize hardship on working people.

Her key idea is full employment through a 1930s-type public works program that builds a green infrastructure and meets the country’s other long-deferred needs.  This is the only way the coming bad years can be made bearable.  I don’t blame her for not thinking out all the details in advance.

The government of China, in contrast, has a definite, feasible plan to make China a powerful and prosperous nation.  It includes an industrial policy to make China a technological leader and a foreign investment program to bring about the economic integration of Eurasia.

For the past 15 years, Pepe Escobar has been writing about the overreach and coming collapse of American empire and how China, along with Russia, will pick up the pieces.  I think that is highly possible, although my view of China is not as uncritical as his.

I think the socialist vision of a utopian centrally-planned economy has been discredited, both in theory and practice. All the uprisings going on all over the world seem to have a vision of radical democracy, which I think is hopeful, but I don’t claim to understand them well.

Science fiction offers visions of the future.  There is a lot of excellent, dystopian, near-future science fiction – Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife; Ken McLeod’s Intrusion; and Cory Cotorow’s Radicalized.

For a positive SF vision of the future, I recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s work.  Cory Doctorow’s novels are said to be good, but I haven’t read them.

The trouble with extrapolating present trends into the future is that there are foreseeable crises that are likely to change everything in unpredictable ways;

  • a climate and renewable resources crisis, as global warming becomes unbearable and fossil fuels and certain raw materials become unobtainable;
  • an economic and financial crisis, as the system of global finance and fragile global supply chains breaks down; and
  • an international crisis, as the world turns against the United States and the dominance of the dollar.

I don’t know whether the change will be for the better or the worse.

If the future is unpredictable, what is the point of even thinking about it?  It is because your vision of the future gives you a compass point for the present.

How progressivism was defeated in its birthplace

November 6, 2019

Wisconsin is arguably the birthplace of progressivism in the United States.  At the dawn of the 20th century, that state enacted the nation’s first workers’ compensation law, its first unemployment insurance program, and the first recognition of collective bargaining rights for public employees.

Under the leadership of the great Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state established direct primary elections, banned corporate contributions to political candidates and regulated railroad rates.

He forged a powerful political coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners, defending their interests against corporate monopoly.  In 1910, running for re-election as senator, he won 78 percent of the vote and carried all but one of Wisconsin’s then 71 counties.  After his death in 1926, his two sons carried on his legacy.  From 1901 until 1946, a La Follette was either senator from Wisconsin or governor of the state.

Wisconsin became known for the quality of its public schools, state university and public services.  Much of what was done there became the model for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.  The La Follette legacy was very much a living memory when I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1952-56.

Later Wisconsin became known as a leader in protection of the environment.  The state was the home of Aldo Leopold, the noted writer and advocate of soil and wildlife conservation, and Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, who was both governor and senator.

But in 2010, the voters of Wisconsin elected Scott Walker, an extreme right-winter as governor.  He pretty much wiped La Follette’s legacy off the blackboard.  And then, in 2016, Wisconsin’s choice for President was Donald Trump.

I read THE FALL OF WISCONSIN: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics by Dan Kaufman to try to understand what happened.

What I learned from the book is that Wisconsin’s rich and interesting political tradition is irrelevant to what happened.  Scott Walker is not a product of Wisconsin politics.  He was the product of a national right-wing movement that has been building for 40 years.

This movement consists of an interlocking network of corporate donors, tax-exempt foundations and think tanks whose agenda is restore corporate business to a position of dominance.  Their specific goals are tax cuts, budget cuts, reduced pubic services, no public welfare, deregulation of business and regulation of labor unions.  Their claim is that all these things will attract business investment and promote prosperity, but this didn’t happen in Wisconsin or anywhere else it was tried.

The key right-wing institutions mentioned in the book are (1) Americans for Prosperity, the political advocacy arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, which among other things funded the Tea Party movement; (2) the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, whose “weaponized philanthropy” funds conservative think tanks, public interest law firms and opposition research firms; and (3) the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes model legislation to advance the corporate cause.

For them, winning elections is not a goal, but a means of enacting their agenda.  Leaders such as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and Mitch McConnell do not try to appeal to as broad a constituency as possible, because the broader the appeal, the more their program would have to be diluted.

They prefer a narrow majority and an extreme program, which includes measures to lock in their power.  They recognize that, inevitably, the tide will turn against them.  Their calculation is that the tide will never go all the way back to where it was before, and meanwhile they will have left things in place that will help them make a comeback.

The problem is that there is no equivalent force to stand in their way.  There is no La Follette coalition of wage-earners, independent farmers and small-business owners left to defend the La Follette legacy..

All three groups have been losing ground, economically and politically, for decades.  None has a powerful voice in Madison (Wisconsin’s state capital) or Washington.  None of the three groups regards either of the other two as an ally or potential ally.

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The making of the Oxford English Dictionary

November 2, 2019

The Oxford English Dictionary, which attempts to encompass the whole English language, was and is an epic achievement.

Commissioned in 1857, begun in 1879 and completed in 1926, it consisted of 12 volumes containing 414,825 words and 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, most of them in type set by hand.  New editions and updates of the OED continue to this day.

This unflagging commitment to a purely cultural project, of no monetary or military value, is truly remarkable.  It is like the construction of the medieval cathedrals that were begun with the knowledge they would take a century or more to complete.

I learned about the background of the OED by reading Simon Winchester’s book THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1998, which my friend Jan Hickman gave me.

The professor was James Murray, the chair of the committee overseeing the compilation of the dictionary.  He was a Scot who dropped out of school because of poverty at age 14, but was respected as an expert on philology, having taught himself multiple ancient and modern languages, including Roma, the gypsy dialect.

Because of the immensity of the project, the OED depended on volunteers to contribute definitions and examples of word usage.

One of the most prolific volunteers was one Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted tens of thousands of definitions and turned out to be an inmate of an asylum for the criminally insane. He had murdered an innocent man whom he thought was part of a plot to assassinate him.  Murray liked and respected Minor, and visited him regularly.

Minor’s distinctive contribution was to collect centuries-old books and read them through, not out of interest in the content, but simply to find early usages of words and how the definition would change.

By day, he was a scholar,  By night, he felt he was being tortured by enemies coming out of the walls and floor.  His performance, under the circumstances, was heroic.

Winchester remarked that it is too bad that mental illness was not understood back then as it is now.  But if Minor had lived 50 or 100 years later, he might have been subjected to lobotomies, electric shock treatments or mind-altering drugs. We still do not know to what extent mental illness is biological in nature and to what extent it is due to life experiences.

Instead his keepers treated him kindly and simply prevented him from wandering off and tried to prevent him from harming himself or others.  Of course good treatment was encouraged by the fact that his family was immensely rich.

I put down the book with increased respect for these Victorian men—their strength of character, their devotion to learning, their determination to carry through what they had committed to do.  I also appreciated the great individual dictionary makers—Samuel Johnson in 18th century England and Noah Webster in the 19th century USA.

What project could be started today that people would still be committed to carrying on a century or more from now?

LINKS

Simon Winchester’s website.

Blog | Oxford English Dictionary.

Contribute to the OED | Oxford English Dictionary.

Update of the famous ‘they came for’ quote

October 31, 2019

There’s a famous quote attributed to a German pastor about the failure of respectable people to resist the Nazis.

  • First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a socialist.
  • Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
  • Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew.
  • Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me.

Caitlin Johnstone, noting the silence of the mainstream press about the arrest of left-wing reporter Max Blumenthal, updated the quote for our time.

  • First they came for Assange, and I did not speak out, because I was a mainstream western journalist with no intention of ever upsetting the powerful.
  • Then they came for Blumenthal, and I did not speak out, because I was a mainstream western journalist with no intention of ever upsetting the powerful.
  • Then they came for all the other dissident journalists, and I did not speak out, because I will never be a dissident journalist.
  • They never came for me, because I have chosen to serve power.

LINK

Mainstream Journalists Who Refuse To Defend Dissident Journalists Are Worshippers Of Power by Caitlin Johnstone.

Max Blumenthal Arrest Exposes Hypocrisy of Western Media and Human Rights NGOs by Joe Emensberger for Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR)  [Added 11/1/2019]

Reporter shackled, caged, denied a phone call

October 30, 2019

This is disturbing.

Max Blumenthal, the editor of the news site The Gray Zone, was arrested on the morning of October 25 on a fabricated charge related to the siege of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC that took place between April and May.

A team of DC police officers appeared at Blumenthal’s door at just after 9 AM, demanding entry and threatening to break his door down.  A number of officers had taken positions on the side of his home as though they were prepared for a SWAT-style raid.

Max Blumenthal

Blumenthal was hauled into a police van and ultimately taken to DC central jail, where he was held for two days in various cells and cages.  He was shackled by his hands and ankles for over five hours in one such cage along with other inmates.  His request for a phone call was denied by DC police and corrections officers, effectively denying him access to the outside world.

Blumenthal was informed that he was accused of simple assault by a Venezuelan opposition member. He declared the charge completely baseless.

“This charge is a 100 percent false, fabricated, bogus, untrue, and malicious lie,” Blumenthal declared. “It is clearly part of a campaign of political persecution designed to silence me and the The Gray Zone for our factual journalism exposing the deceptions, corruption and violence of the far-right Venezuelan opposition.”

The arrest warrant was five months old.  According to an individual familiar with the case, the warrant for Blumenthal’s arrest was initially rejected.  Strangely, this false charge was revived months later without the defendant’s knowledge.

“If the government had at least told me I had a warrant I could have voluntarily surrendered and appeared at my own arraignment. I have nothing to fear because I’m completely innocent of this bogus charge,” Blumenthal stated. “Instead, the federal government essentially enlisted the DC police to SWAT me, ensuring that I would be subjected to an early morning raid and then languish in prison for days without even the ability to call an attorney.”

Source: The Gray Zone

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Edward Snowden on the Joe Rogan podcast

October 30, 2019

Edward Snowden was interviewed on the Joe Rogan podcast a week ago, but I only got around to viewing it the whole way through last night.

It’s an unusually long interview – 2 hours, 49 minutes – but I found it interesting throughout.  However, you can get an idea of Snowden’s core message if you start at 1 hour 30 minutes and watch for 15 or 30 minutes.

Snowden is a great hero of our time, along with Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.  They’ve all been charged with violating the Espionage Act for revealing wrongdoing by the U.S.government.

Assange is in prison in Britain facing extradition to the USA.  Manning served a prison term, and is in prison again for refusing to testify against Assange.  Snowden is in exile in Russia, but he said he’ll return to the USA if he can get a fair trial.

By “fair trial,” he means the right to tell a jury the reason why he did what he did,  Someone on trial for murder would have this right, but an accused whistleblower does not.

Snowden worked for the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency and learned that they monitor and store virtually every electronic communication by every citizen.

Everyone has done something in their lives that is shameful or can be made to look shameful.  If the FBI, CIA and NSA can know everything about you and me, and their activities are invisible to us, that comes close to having absolute power.

One interesting sidelight is that Snowden, who has a deep understanding both of the technology and of the political, legal and moral issues at stake, is a college dropout.  Educational credentials are not a measure of the intellect, let alone character.

Joe Rogan also lacks credentials.  He is a stand-up comedian with a love of the martial arts.  But his podcasts are more illuminating than most network news shows because of his open-mindedness, intellectual curiosity and willingness to let his guests have their say.  A lot of them are with guests or about topics I don’t care about, but so what?