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Artificial Intelligence May Destroy Humanity by Accident (but It Won’t Apologize)

Lee Camp

Future tense: Film plots involving out-of-control AI have been the stuff of big-screen nightmares for decades, as in this robotic creation from "Terminator Salviation." (By B / Flickr)(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The U.S. military has quietly said it wants 70 unmanned self-driving supply trucks by 2020. And seeing as $21 trillion has gone unaccounted for at the Pentagon over the past 20 years, when the Pentagon wants something, it tends to get that something.

Of course supply trucks in and of themselves don’t sound so bad. Even if the self-driving trucks run over some poor unsuspecting saps, that will still be the least destruction our military has ever manifested. But because I’ve read a thing or two about our military, I’ll assume that by “supply trucks,” they mean “ruthless killing machines.” In fact, it’s now clear the entire “Department of Defense” is just a rebranding of “Department of Ruthless Killing Machines.”

And even if they do mean simple supply trucks, once those unmanned trucks are commuting themselves around the Middle East like a cross between “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Platoon,” how long do you think it will be until some a-hole general blurts, “Why don’t we put a missile or two on those things?”

The answer is 17 minutes. (Fifteen minutes if Trump is still president.)

Plus, these trucks are not the military’s only venture into artificial intelligence. The Navy wants $13.5 million to go toward rapid advances in AI. The Air Force is looking for $87 million to experiment with it. The Army has requested $6.5 million more for it. And the Marine Corps says it needs $7.1 million. (These are just the publicly stated numbers. Much like a vampire, our military does 95 percent of its best work in the dark.)

So this brings up a pressing question that we will see again and again in the coming years: How much do we need to fear artificial intelligence—or is it simply a great technological advancement?

Let me answer that question with a bit of a tangent. Human beings are notoriously unreliable. But there are two things you can always rely on humans for:

1. Humans will advance technology in every way possible.

2. Other humans will strap explosives to that technology.

Think about it: The automobile eventually became the tank. The airplane became the bomber. The printing press became the semi-automatic assault printing press. And so on.

But maybe I’m being paranoid. Maybe artificial intelligence is here to help us. One of the top AI geniuses at Google says the world is currently screwed (climate change, pollution, auto-tune). To save it, he says, “either we need an exponential improvement in human behavior—less selfishness, less short-termism, more collaboration, more generosity—or we need an exponential improvement in technology. … I don’t think we’re going to be getting an exponential improvement in human behavior. … That’s why we need a quantum leap in technology like AI.”

Basically, he’s saying we’re horrible, shitty people who are not going to change, BUT the bots will arrive soon to show us the way!

And there is some truth to this. AI will one day be able to tap into basically the entire internet simultaneously and learn everything that has ever been learned far quicker than troglodytes like us. So it will be incredibly, unimaginably smart, and will always be three moves ahead of us. On top of that, it won’t have the things that get in the way of our mental advancement as a species, such as:

  • hunger
  • fear
  • insecurity
  • superstition
  • religion
  • the drive to stick one’s penis in anything that moves

Artificial intelligence doesn’t have to deal with any of that.

So maybe AI will indeed save us from ourselves. … Orrrr, maybe with its infinite knowledge it will decide the planet would be better off without the ape-like creatures who keep trying to tell it what to do. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had an exciting and upbeat response when he was recently asked about how fast artificial intelligence is advancing.

I tried to convince people to slow down. Slow down AI, to regulate AI. This was futile. I tried for years.”

(If you happen to have a cyanide tablet nearby, now would be the time to chomp down on that.)

Musk believes artificial intelligence is a far greater threat to humanity than nuclear weapons. Keep in mind, in order for AI to do great harm to our dopey species, it doesn’t necessarily have to be out to get us. It could simply come up with “solutions” that humans aren’t really prepared for. Here’s an example from The Atlantic of an AI mistake:

“One algorithm was supposed to figure out how to land a virtual airplane with minimal force. But the AI soon discovered that if it crashed the plane, the program would register a force so large that it would overwhelm its memory and count it as a perfect score. So the AI crashed the plane, over and over again, killing all the virtual people on board.”

That particular bot got a perfect score on landing a plane by killing all the imaginary humans. It kind of reminds me of the time I stopped my younger brother from beating me in “The Legend of Zelda” video game by throwing our television in a creek.

So now, dear reader, you may be thinking, “That’s terrifying—the AI was given an objective and basically just did ANYTHING to get there.” However, is that so different from humans? In our society, we are given the objective of “accumulate wealth and power,” and now we have people like weapons contractors and big oil magnates achieving the objective by promoting and fostering war and death around the world. It’s almost like they don’t care how they achieve the objective.

I’m not saying I know whether AI will save us all or kill us all, but I am saying these are the types of questions that need to be asked, AND SOON, because we won’t be the smartest beings on this planet much longer. (As it is we’re barely holding on to the top spot. A solid 50 percent of us are just glorified butlers to our dogs and cats. One can’t really claim to rule the world when one is carrying another species’ poop.)

Also check out Lee Camp’s new comedy special, which one review called “the new standard for political stand-up comedy.” It’s only available at

This column is based on a monologue Lee Camp wrote and performed on his TV show “Redacted Tonight.”

Surly Newz / Apostle of the Incel Army and the Way Things Used To Be
« on: November 15, 2018, 07:29:30 AM »
Standing up this thread as a much-needed corrective to the incursions of the acolytes of Jordan Peterson and his revanchist, fascist-enabling propaganda. Like some of his disciples, he spins a good tale and gets the rubes nodding and smiling, as he addresses their grievances and absolves them of responsibility for their actions. The problem is that he is utterly, irredeemably wrong. His premises attack the very foundation of the Enlightenment. Like his minions who send him $80,000 a month to be clothed in the raiment of Petersonian wisdom, he finds the enemy everywhere in the notion of human progress. Fuck him.

Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy
He says there’s a crisis in masculinity. Why won’t women — all these wives and witches — just behave?

CreditCreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy

He says there’s a crisis in masculinity. Why won’t women — all these wives and witches — just behave?

CreditCreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

TORONTO — Jordan Peterson fills huge lecture halls and tells his audiences there’s no shame in looking backward to a model of how the world should be arranged. Look back to the 1950s, he says — and back even further. He tells his audiences that they are smart. He is bringing them knowledge, yes, but it is knowledge that they already know and feel in their bones. He casts this as ancient wisdom, delivered through religious allegories and fairy tales which contain truth, he says, that modern society has forgotten.

Most of his ideas stem from a gnawing anxiety around gender. “The masculine spirit is under assault,” he told me. “It’s obvious.”

In Mr. Peterson’s world, order is masculine. Chaos is feminine. And if an overdose of femininity is our new poison, Mr. Peterson knows the cure. Hence his new book’s subtitle: “An Antidote to Chaos.”

“We have to rediscover the eternal values and then live them out,” he says.

Mr. Peterson, 55, a University of Toronto psychology professor turned YouTube philosopher turned mystical father figure, has emerged as an influential thought leader. The messages he delivers range from hoary self-help empowerment talk (clean your room, stand up straight) to the more retrograde and political (a society run as a patriarchy makes sense and stems mostly from men’s competence; the notion of white privilege is a farce). He is the stately looking, pedigreed voice for a group of culture warriors who are working diligently to undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality.

He is also very successful. His book, “12 Rules for Life,” which was published in January, has sold more than 1.1 million copies. Thanks to his YouTube channel, he makes more than $80,000 a month just on donations. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken his online personality tests and self-improvement writing exercises. The media covers him relentlessly.

Security at Mr. Peterson's "12 Rules For Life" tour event. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Security at Mr. Peterson's "12 Rules For Life" tour event. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

For two days in May, Mr. Peterson gives me a view of his life. He shows me his home, lets me listen in on business calls and a Skype session with a fan, and follow him backstage during a speaking engagement at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. He does not smile. He has a weathered, gaunt face and big furrowed eyebrows. He has written about dogs being closest in behavior to humans, but there is something extremely feline about him. He always wears a suit. “I am a very serious person,” he often says.

Wherever he goes, he speaks in sermons about the inevitability of who we must be. “You know you can say, ‘Well isn’t it unfortunate that chaos is represented by the feminine’ — well, it might be unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter because that is how it’s represented. It’s been represented like that forever. And there are reasons for it. You can’t change it. It’s not possible. This is underneath everything. If you change those basic categories, people wouldn’t be human anymore. They’d be something else. They’d be transhuman or something. We wouldn’t be able to talk to these new creatures.”

Why Men Murder

Mr. Peterson’s home is a carefully curated house of horror. He has filled it with a sprawl of art that covers the walls from floor to ceiling. Most of it is communist propaganda from the Soviet Union (execution scenes, soldiers looking noble) — a constant reminder, he says, of atrocities and oppression. He wants to feel their imprisonment, though he lives here on a quiet residential street in Toronto and is quite free.

“Marxism is resurgent,” Mr. Peterson says, looking ashen and stricken.

I say it seems unnecessarily stressful to live like this. He tells me life is stressful.

He tucks his legs under him as he talks, curled in a dark leather seat. He has been padding around softly in socks. He looks down while he talks and makes fleeting, suspicious eye contact.

He quit his private practice last year and is on an early sabbatical from the University of Toronto. He dragged the school into controversy in 2016 by opposing a Canadian bill that he believed would compel him to use a student’s preferred pronouns.

“I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest, and that’s that,” he said during a debate at the University of Toronto.

Mr. Peterson, who grew up in Fairview, Canada, a small town in northern Alberta, spent his career teaching psychology at Harvard and then at the University of Toronto, all while running a clinical practice.

The lesson most patients need to hear, he says, is “grow the hell up, accept some responsibility, live an honorable life.”

“We just haven’t talked about that in any compelling way in three generations,” he says. “Probably since the beginning of the ’60s.”

Why did he decide to engage in politics at all? He says a couple years ago he had three clients in his private practice “pushed out of a state of mental health by left-wing bullies in their workplace.” I ask for an example, and he sighs.

He says one patient had to be part of a long email chain over whether the term “flip chart” could be used in the workplace, since the word “flip” is a pejorative for Filipino.

“She had a radical-left boss who was really concerned with equality and equality of outcome and all these things and diversity and inclusivity and all these buzzwords and she was subjected to — she sent me the email chain, 30 emails about whether or not the word flip chart was acceptable,” Mr. Peterson says.

CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

So he was radicalized, he says, because the “radical left” wants to eliminate hierarchies, which he says are the natural order of the world. In his book he illustrates this idea with the social behavior of lobsters. He chose lobsters because they have hierarchies and are a very ancient species, and are also invertebrates with serotonin. This lobster hierarchy has become a rallying cry for his fans; they put images of the crustacean on T-shirts and mugs.

The left, he believes, refuses to admit that men might be in charge because they are better at it. “The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence,” he said.

Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.

“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”

It’s a hard one.

“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”

But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.

“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”

Recently, a young man named Alek Minassian drove through Toronto trying to kill people with his van. Ten were killed, and he has been charged with first-degree murder for their deaths, and with attempted murder for 16 people who were injured. Mr. Minassian declared himself to be part of a misogynist group whose members call themselves incels. The term is short for “involuntary celibates,” though the group has evolved into a male supremacist movement made up of people — some celibate, some not — who believe that women should be treated as sexual objects with few rights. Some believe in forced “sexual redistribution,” in which a governing body would intervene in women’s lives to force them into sexual relationships.

Violent attacks are what happens when men do not have partners, Mr. Peterson says, and society needs to work to make sure those men are married.

“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”

Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.

“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”

I laugh, because it is absurd.

“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”

But aside from interventions that would redistribute sex, Mr. Peterson is staunchly against what he calls “equality of outcomes,” or efforts to equalize society. He usually calls them pathological or evil.

He agrees that this is inconsistent. But preventing hordes of single men from violence, he believes, is necessary for the stability of society. Enforced monogamy helps neutralize that.

In situations where there is too much mate choice, “a small percentage of the guys have hyper-access to women, and so they don’t form relationships with women,” he said. “And the women hate that.”

Helping Men Out, One at a Time

Mr. Peterson, John O'Connell and Dave Rubin backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Mr. Peterson, John O'Connell and Dave Rubin backstage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

Mr. Peterson is a celebrity in the men’s rights community, a loose collection of activists who feel men have been subjugated or betrayed by social progress. Some of these supporters pay $200 a month for a 45-minute Skype conversation with Mr. Peterson to discuss their problems. (Mr. Peterson says this service has since been discontinued.)

Before he leads me to his office to sit in on one of these appointments, Mr. Peterson shows me around the third floor of his home, which is filled withcarvings made by Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist.

Over his bed is a painting celebrating electrification in the Soviet Union. On the wall across from it is a hyper-realistic painting of two nude women with swords. His bedspread is familiar: It’s the same image as his Twitter avatar, a dark geometric design based on a piece of art he made out of foam core in 1985 that he called “The Meaning of Music.” He says it’s “an attempt to portray in image what music means.” He has had it made into a rug as well.

Mr. Peterson’s office has objects scattered and strewn throughout: There is a hat from a gulag, some steampunk masks he thought were cool, stacks of papers and cords, and a Kermit puppet his sister sent him because his fans joke that his voice, high and hoarse, sounds like the Muppet. Mr. Peterson stresses the importance of cleanliness, but honestly his office is a mess.

For the Skype call, he wears a sharp blazer and button-down, but he sits shoeless and cross-legged. He knows where the frame cuts off.

The caller, Trevor Alexander Nestor, is a young white man: bearded, unemployed, at a friend’s house. He later posted the audio on his own Patreon.

“I’m really hoping that somebody is going to recognize my talent,” Mr. Nestor says.

Mr. Nestor says he recently wrote a paper on how testosterone levels and sperm count are dropping. He argues sociocultural transformations are probably making men less virile, and Mr. Peterson nods along.

At one point in the discussion, Mr. Peterson, who had been relatively quiet, becomes heated on the topic of women who find marriage oppressive.

“So I don’t know who these people think marriages are oppressing,” he says. “I read Betty Friedan’s book because I was very curious about it, and it’s so whiny, it’s just enough to drive a modern person mad to listen to these suburban housewives from the late ’50s ensconced in their comfortable secure lives complaining about the fact that they’re bored because they don’t have enough opportunity. It’s like, Jesus get a hobby. For Christ’s sake, you — you — ”

Mr. Nestor says he was an engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, but decided to transfer after feeling overcome by the liberal dogma when he took theater classes for his humanities requirement.

“They were teaching in classrooms things like Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported violent rebellion, and marriage is an institution that is designed to control the sexuality of women,” he says.

Mr. Peterson has a verbal tic where he makes a sound like m-hmm, a guttural forceful noise to signify agreement barked in two distinct beats; his mouth stays closed.

“I’ve talked to a few young women, and they have told me they do wish that they could be housewives,” Mr. Nestor says. “But what they’ve said to me is that they feel as though if they were to pursue that, other people would look down on them.”

“I’ve had lots of women tell me that,” Mr. Peterson says. “Women will never admit that publicly.” Women are likely to prioritize their children over their work, he says, especially “conscientious and agreeable women.”

When Mr. Peterson talks about good women — the sort a man would want to marry — he often uses these words: conscientious and agreeable.

Mr. Nestor feels anxious, and Mr. Peterson says he should. “My primary focus has been to not be homeless,” Mr. Nestor says.

“You don’t have a future and you don’t have a job and no bloody wonder you’re anxious,” Mr. Peterson says. “That just means you’re sane.”

Male Performance

Lined up for the book tour.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Lined up for the book tour.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

Jacob Logan, 18, from Alliston, Ontario, was first in line for Mr. Peterson’s talk on Thursday, May 3 at the Queen Elizabeth Theater. He had arrived 12 hours early, wearing a shirt with lobsters stacked upon each other. He also had 100 name tags to hand out on which he had scrawled the name “Bucko.” It’s a nickname Mr. Peterson sometimes uses for his fans.

“Whenever I listen to him, it’s like he’s telling me something I already knew,” Mr. Logan says. “Learning is remembering.”

When Mr. Peterson comes down the line shaking hands, the crowd cheers in a way that is not normal for a book tour. He is wearing a new three-piece suit, shiny and brown with wide lapels with a decorative silver flourish.

It is evocative of imagery from a hundred years ago. That’s the point. His speech too is from another era — stilted, with old-timey phrases, a hypnotic rhythm. It’s a vocal tactic he came to only recently. Videos from a few years ago have him speaking and dressing in a more modern way.

I ask him about the retro clothes and phrases. He calls it his prairie populism.

“That’s what happens when you rescue your father from the belly of the whale,” he says. “You rediscover your tradition.”

Inside among the crowd was Sue Bone, 66, a retired flight attendant from Halifax.

Ms. Bone loved her flight attendant job until she began to find it dehumanizing and corporate. Her friend told her the airlines were now run by “angry gay queens,” she says. She found Mr. Peterson. She feels he understands the danger of these strange new social forces.

“He’s waking us up in the West,” she says.

The People Who Have Found Their Leader

The audience during Mr. Peterson's talk. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
The audience during Mr. Peterson's talk. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

“You’re a divine locus of consciousness,” Mr. Peterson tells the crowd of 1,200 or so people.

He looks down as he walks. He paces. He pleads — he often sounds frustrated, like you’ve just said something absurd and he’s trying to correct you without raising his voice. He speaks for over an hour without any notes. He runs his hands over his face when it’s all too much. He cries often.

“We love you!” a woman screams from the back of the house.

Those with V.I.P. tickets get to shake his hand and take a picture. Many tell him something as they stand, waiting for the flash: “You made me have a religious experience”; “we got back in our faith because of you”; “this is another wedding you can take credit for.”

Mr. Peterson’s response is often, “How’s that working out for you?”

Around midnight, there is still a group outside, lingering and talking.

Lion Arar, 22, a theater student in Montreal, says Mr. Peterson’s discussion of gender brought him back to religion.

“It made sense in a primordial way when he breaks down Adam and Eve, the snake and chaos,” Mr. Arar says. “Eve made Adam self-conscious. Women make men self-conscious because they’re the ultimate judge. I was like, ‘Wow this is really true.’”

The changes in his life include starting to clean his room. “My mom’s been nagging me for years, but I’ve never done it until Dr. Peterson,” he says.

“You organize one shelf, you do that, just incremental challenges,” he says. “That makes you realize, ‘O.K., this is how I grow up.’”

Andrew McVicar, 45, a waiter, says it was good to hear someone finally talk about how hierarchies were O.K. He says current politics are pushing for everyone to be the same, promoting women and minorities into unearned positions.


“It’s forced diversity, it’s saying you must have X percent of A-B-C,” he says. “How about, look at yourself?”

Without notes.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
Without notes.CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

Jeffrey Rouillard, 21, from Montreal and also studying theater, says he was drawn to Mr. Peterson after watching a prominent female journalist grill him.

“How many times have I been in a situation where I had been set up to be the bad guy?” Mr. Rouillard asks. “Listening to Dr. Peterson, I got a grasp of myself. It’s things I already knew, but now I know how to process the thought.”

Agreeing, Mr. Arar gave off the same guttural m-hmm that Mr. Peterson does.

The Horror of Women

To Naureen Shameem, who works at the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, which is based in Canada, Mr. Peterson’s philosophies are part of a bigger global backlash to gender equality progress.

“It’s an old story, really,” she said. “In a lot of nationalistic projects, women’s bodies and sexualities become important sites of focus and control.”

“Jordan’s exposed something that’s been festering for a long time,” says Justin Trottier, 35, the co-founder of the men’s rights organizations Canadian Association for Equality and Canadian Centre for Men and Families. “Jordan’s forced people to pay attention.”

Mr. Trottier made headlines when his group called the anti-manspreading subway initiatives sexist. Their musty space hosts events in which men discuss the prejudices they perceive against them. One of their group’s main goals is “waking the police up” to female-perpetrated domestic violence, Mr. Trottier says.

Now, “there’s more acceptance of what we’re trying to do,” he says.

The V.I.P. meet and greet. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times
The V.I.P. meet and greet. CreditMark Sommerfeld for The New York Times

There are now regular Jordan Peterson discussion groups. The one in Toronto meets once a week at a restaurant called Hemingway’s and is run by Chris Shepherd, who used to be a professional pickup artist who coached men on how to get laid fast at a club but is now a dating coach.

Mr. Shepherd first encountered Mr. Peterson in a viral video of the professor getting yelled at by campus activists. Watching the stoic professor take on righteous liberal anger touched Mr. Shepherd.

“Campus censorship has been a problem when I was at university too,” he says at Hemingway’s one recent afternoon.

I ask for an example.

“One law professor said something like, ‘You young ladies should get married and start families,’ and he got fired,” Mr. Shepherd says. “The message was just you’ll have a happier life if you get married instead of focusing on your career.”

“Certainly not a firing offense,” he says. Except, for now, it is.

Surly Newz / Watch This Space
« on: November 14, 2018, 06:46:15 AM »
Creating a new thread for speculation, rumor, and innuendo.

Bringign us to the Palmer report. Written and curated by Bill Palmer, it runs from the thinly sourced to outright speculation, bit is always amusing to leftists like me. But I have found Bill's bets cover the spread far more than not.
I read his stuff, smile and go on,. but this little nugget leaped off the page.

Google Joseph Misfud. He was speculated to have been dead. He shou;ld take the greatest care that he doesn't end up that way.

George Papadopoulos’ attorneys decide to quit as Professor Misfud comes forward to testify about Trump-Russia

George Papadopoulos’ attorneys decide to quit as Professor Misfud comes forward to testify about Trump-Russia

|7:30 pm EST November 13, 2018

Palmer Report » Analysis

In the several weeks since George Papadopoulos was sentenced to fourteen days in prison as part of the Trump-Russia scandal, he’s posted one increasingly bizarre conspiracy theory on Twitter after another. He’s tried to paint himself as victim of a setup on the part of the intel community and Professor Joseph Misfud. Now suddenly Papadopoulos’s defense attorneys have decided to quit, just as Misfud is coming forward to cooperate with the Trump-Russia investigation.

The news broke this afternoon that Misfud, who has long been in hiding and was believed by some to perhaps be dead, is now seeking to testify before the Senate about the Trump-Russia scandal. Although the Senate is still under GOP control, the Senate Intel Committee probe into Trump-Russia has largely been run in an honest and bipartisan manner.

The big question is what’s prompted Misfud to suddenly decide that his best bet is to cooperate. It could be that he thinks Special Counsel Robert Mueller is about to get him anyway, or that he thinks his life may be in danger, or something else entirely. But what stands out is that, just as this story about Misfud was breaking, the AP announced that Papadopoulos’ attorneys filed amotionto withdraw from the case. Because the Papadopoulos case is ongoing, they’re not allowed to quit without a reason, and they’ll have to convince the judge that their reasoning is valid. But it’s clear they’ve decided to quit.

So what’s really going on here? Robert Mueller revealed in court filings earlier this year that he blamed George Papadopoulos’ dishonesty for the fact that Professor Misfud was able to flee the United States to begin with. Now Misfud suddenly wants to come back and plead his case, and Papadopoulos’s lawyers suddenly want nothing to do with him. There’s clearly more going on here than meets the eye. Stay tuned.

Source article:
Joseph Mifsud Wants To Testify Before The Senate, A Lawyer Claims
“We are working towards his appearance,” a lawyer closely associated with the Maltese professor wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News.

CDC director warns that Congo’s Ebola outbreak may not be containable

A Congolese health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a boy who had contact with an Ebola patient in the village of Mangina, in North Kivu province, on Aug. 18. (Olivia Acland/Reuters)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said Monday that the Ebola outbreak in conflict-ridden Congo has become so serious that international public health experts need to consider the possibility that it cannot be brought under control and instead will become entrenched.

If that happened, it would be the first time since the deadly viral disease was first identified in 1976 that an Ebola outbreak led to the persistent presence of the disease. In all previous outbreaks, most of which took place in remote areas, the disease was contained before it spread widely. The current outbreak is entering its fourth month, with nearly 300 cases, including 186 deaths.

If Ebola becomes endemic in substantial areas of North Kivu province, in northeastern Congo, “this will mean that we’ve lost the ability to trace contacts, stop transmission chains and contain the outbreak,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which hosted the briefing on Capitol Hill that featured the Ebola discussion with Redfield.

In that scenario, there would be a sustained and unpredictable spread of the deadly virus, with major implications for travel and trade, he said, noting that there are 6 million people in North Kivu. By comparison, the entire population of Liberia, one of the hardest-hit countries during the West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016, is about 4.8 million.

The outbreak is taking place in a part of Congo that is an active war zone. Dozens of armed militias operate in the area, attacking government outposts and civilians, complicating the work of Ebola response teams and putting their security at risk. Violence has escalated in recent weeks, severely hampering the response. The daily rate of new Ebola cases more than doubled in early October. In addition, there is community resistance and deep mistrust of the government.

Some sick people have refused to go to treatment centers, health-care workers are still being infected, and some people are dying of Ebola or spreading the virus to new areas. An estimated 60 to 80 percent of new confirmed cases have no known epidemiological link to prior cases, making it very difficult for responders to track cases and stop transmission. In late August, the United States withdrew some of the CDC’s most seasoned Ebola experts who had been stationed in Beni, the province’s urban epicenter, because of security risks.


“I do think this is one of the challenges we’ll have to see, whether we’re able to contain, control and end the current outbreak with the current security situation, or do we move into the idea that this becomes more of an endemic Ebola outbreak in this region, which we’ve never really confronted,” Redfield said.

If that happens, health-care responders may need to consider vaccinating broader populations instead of the current strategy of vaccinating those who have been in contact with infected people.

When contact tracing begins to fall apart, “then you are entering another phase and losing the hope that you can arrest the outbreak through standard interventions,” J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview. In a new report, Morrison wrote that there is an urgent need for “high-level political attention focused on generating an updated game plan” to improve security, train and deploy community health workers, and win community trust.

“This is going to be a complicated and deeply problematic situation and we need to prepare ourselves for dealing with this long term,” Morrison said.

Redfield, officials from the World Health Organization and other experts say one of the biggest worries is the spread within Congo to places like Butembo, a major trading port and urban area, where the risk of widespread transmission escalates dramatically.

In mid-October, the World Health Organization said that it was “deeply concerned” by the outbreak but that the situation did not yet warrant being declared a global emergency. The U.N. health agency called for response activities to be “intensified.” The WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and a top U.N. official for peacekeeping operations, are in Congo this week to take stock of the response.

Read more:

Drop in adult flu vaccinations may be factor in last season’s record-breaking deaths, illnesses

Paralyzing polio-like illness mainly affecting children confirmed in 22 states, CDC says

How Ebola sped out of control

Economics / The Potempkin Economy
« on: November 03, 2018, 07:29:47 AM »
Behind the latest rosy jobs figures, here’s the ‘true state’ of Americans’ financial lives--
Unemployment is at a 48-year low, so why are only 28% of Americans considered ‘financially healthy’?

Some 42% of Americans have no retirement savings at all.



The finances of Americans may not be as good as they look from the outside.

Despite optimistic metrics like a nine-year-long bullish, if volatile, stock market, higher than expected job and wage growth, and consumer confidence levels nearing record highs, millions of Americans continue to struggle, a study released Thursday from financial consultancy nonprofit the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) found.

Only 28% of Americans are considered “financially healthy,” according to a CFSI survey of more than 5,000 Americans. “Financial health enables family stability, education, and upward mobility, not just for individuals today but across future generations,” the CFSI says. “Many are dealing with an unhealthy amount of debt, irregular income, and sporadic savings habits.”

Some 44% of people said their expenses exceeded their income in the past year and they used credit to make ends meet. Another 42% said they have no retirement savings at all.

Meanwhile, 17% of Americans are “financially vulnerable,” meaning they struggle with nearly all financial aspects of their lives, and 55% are “financially coping,” meaning they struggle with some but not all aspects of their financial lives. The recent volatility in the Dow Jones Industrial DJIA, -0.43% and S&P 500 SPX, -0.63% has not helped Americans feel secure, experts say.

These findings are based on the CFSI Financial Health Score, a framework designed by CFSI to measure financial health more holistically by examining spending, saving, credit, and other indicators. Some 44% of respondents said their expenses exceeded their income in the past year and they used credit to make ends meet. Another 42% said they have no retirement savings at all.

They come on the heels of a previous study from personal-finance site that found only 29% of Americans had 6 months or more of emergency savings and a nearly equal percentage said they had none. Indeed, most Americans would not be able to pay for an emergency expense of $1,000, a separate 2015 study showed.

The median American household currently holds just $11,700 in savings, according to a recent analysis of Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data by personal-finance site Magnify Money. The top 1% of households in the U.S. by income have a median savings of $1.1 million across a variety of saving accounts. The bottom 20% by income have no savings accounts and the second lowest 20% income earners have just $26,450 saved.

What should people do to become more financially fit?

“We need to look beyond the headlines to metrics that will help us better understand the true state of Americans’ financial lives,” the study said.

The CFSI survey shows the broad statistics on the economy, a bull market, and unemployment rates often fail to capture the plight of Americans as individuals, said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst “The news surrounding the markets and the economy is critically important, but it doesn’t speak to the status of everyone,” he said.

‘All of this is a call to action: We need to make savings, both for retirement and for emergencies a higher priority, so that they aren’t the source of financial regret later in life.’
Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst Bankrate

Hamrick advised making two things a priority. “All of this is a call to action,” he said. “We need to make savings, both for retirement and for emergencies a higher priority, so that they aren’t the source of financial regret later in life.”

The study from CFSI pointed to broader cycles of financial struggle. It found Americans who struggled financially growing up were less likely to be financially healthy in the future. The high cost of living in the U.S. is also challenging Americans’ ability to lead financially healthy lives. The ongoing financial stress is having negative impacts on mental and physical health, CFSI researchers said.

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans in a recent survey said their finances have not improved since the 2016 elections. “Given the market growth, consumers would expect to be earning more money, but it’s not really happening,” said Divya Sangam, spokeswoman at personal-finance site ValuePenguin.

Surly Newz / Will QAnon Go Down as the Dumbest Story of the Year?
« on: November 03, 2018, 07:18:37 AM »
Once again, Matt Taibbi shows himself a worthy heir to HST's mantle:
"Someone is making great sport of this, and whoever it is has a sense of humor, if not a conscience."

Will QAnon Go Down as the Dumbest Story of the Year?
The political quackery doesn’t just create an alternate reality using existing conspiracy theories — it ties them all together

A Make America Great Again rally In Pennsylvania in August 2018.  Rick Loomis/Getty Images

Matt Taibbi

Were it a government plot — a dazzling scheme to keep the public stupid — QAnon would be a great achievement in the otherwise relatively undistinguished history of the CIA. Alas, it is not. Like most things these days, if it seems like 4D chess, it’s probably just stupid.

So it is with Q, the anonymous executive-branch staffer who is said to be leaking “breadcrumbs” across the bowels of the Internet, illuminating a vast subterranean effort to expose Donald Trump’s enemies for everything from pedophilia to killing Princess Diana to causing Hurricane Katrina. It’s a thrilling fantasy that takes the rightist paranoia of The Turner Diaries and mixes it with the gore of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer and the doomsday religiosity of Heaven’s Gate.

The QAnon legend assigns every terrible thing in history to a blue-state plot. Liberals killed JFK Jr. to make way for the Clintons, shot Reagan, murdered Seth Rich, organized lots of kid-buggering operations (Pizzagate was just the tip of the iceberg), pulled off the Las Vegas massacre and allied themselves with an array of villains, from Julian Assange to JonBenet Ramsey’s killer. Into this mass rave of evil comes Donald Trump, a fat Christ sent down from right-winger heaven to clean the temples.

In one version of the story, Q is actually JFK, who faked his own death to join Trump’s secret evil-crushing team. The covert cabal has supposedly arrested Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and the corpse of John McCain, all of whom are said to be wearing ankle bracelets.

Someone is making great sport of this, and whoever it is has a sense of humor, if not a conscience. The goofball graphics of Q’s “drops” make for perfect Internet-age performance art. The “crumbs” are disseminated mainly by meme and tweet, and designed to travel on a spearlike trajectory straight into the brains of the modern media consumer. The secret sauce is the sheer quantity of connections. QAnon doesn’t just borrow from conspiracy theories — it ties all of them together.

It would be hilarious were it less believed. QAnon has already gobbled the front line of not-smart right-wing celebrities, from Roseanne to future president Curt Schilling. Naturally, Trump himself has already taken the step of posing for a photo op with Q movementists, which doesn’t necessarily mean he believes it, but still portends something quite dark.

Q videos at one point cited Trump’s real campaign-trail rhetoric promising to clean out the “failed and corrupt political establishment” as the backdrop for the movement, so QAnon believers may now give him credit for fulfilling real promises, through the secret-but-unrevealed arrests of key conspirators. Because Q says the prez is clandestinely battling a combination of DARPA, Queen Elizabeth II and Draco — reptilian liberals, his failure to deliver on promises ending campaign-finance corruption and taking on Goldman Sachs will be a little less obvious. If you’ve been wondering how election-year political rhetoric could get dumber than 2016’s, Q is a preview.

Surly Newz / Hellfire- This Is What Our Future Looks Like
« on: October 19, 2018, 04:08:16 AM »
Hellfire- This Is What Our Future Looks Like

The worst case scenario plays out the same way everywhere, whether you are in southern California or northern Alberta. A nascent wildfire – driven by extreme heat, high winds, drought conditions and a century of largely successful fire suppression – explodes into a juggernaut and takes over the countryside.

Any houses in the way are simply more fuel. Preheated to 932F by the 100ft flames of the advancing blaze, homes don’t so much catch on fire as explode into flames. In a dense neighborhood, many homes may do this simultaneously. The speed of ignition shocks people – citizens and firefighters alike – but it is only the beginning.

Because the temperatures achievable in an urban wildfire are comparable to those in a crucible, virtually everything is consumed as fuel. What doesn’t burn, melts: steel car chassis warp and bend while lesser metals – aluminum engine blocks, magnesium wheels – will liquify.

In turn, the ferocious heat generates its own wind that can drive sparks and embers hundreds of meters ahead of the fire. Conflagrations of this magnitude are virtually unstoppable. Ordinary house fires often leave structures somewhat intact; things can be salvaged. But no one is prepared for the damage caused by a wildfire when it overruns their town – not the scale of it, nor its capacity to wipe out everything they have worked for.

A burnt truck sits in Lake Keswick Estates in Redding, California. after the Carr Fire

A statue stands where a fire whirl swept through during the Carr Fire in Redding, California

In late July, nearly half of the 92,000 residents of Redding, California, were forced to evacuate. More than 1,600 homes, businesses and other structures burned in the Carr fire, due to sparks thrown by a trailer wheel with a flat tire. But the cause hardly matters; it was 113F that day, and the land was primed for fire.

Seven people were killed, three of them firefighters, but when survivors tell of their escapes, it seems a miracle there weren’t many more. A local dentist, surprised by the flames in the gated community of Stanford Hills, fled for her life through the woods. Disoriented, with no idea where to go, she and her husband followed the animals – deer, rabbits and squirrels – as they fled downhill, toward the Sacramento river. Several of her neighbors were rescued by helicopter.

Any houses in the way are simply more fuel

Another neighbor, a retired homicide detective named Steve Bustillos, was preparing to evacuate when he noted an ominous, breath-like quality to the rising wind. It was the fire drawing oxygen into itself – so powerfully that it made the seals in his house whistle. When Bustillos stepped outside he saw the air rippling, “like when you open an oven door”.

A moment later, the air itself appeared to burst into flames. Trees and houses followed, igniting spontaneously in the superheated air. Bustillos escaped in his pickup, but the fire caught him on Buenaventura boulevard, a kilometre from his home. His pickup was heavy – over three tonnes – but it was moved off the road. After the passenger window blew out and the truck caught fire, Bustillos managed to exit the vehicle and take refuge under a nearby bulldozer.

Somehow, he survived and is recovering well, though he looked for a time as if he had been rolled in red-hot gravel. In the truck were all of his and his wife’s valuables – guns, jewelry, passports and cash. His loaded pistols were firing as the truck burned; nothing was salvageable. Forensic analysis of the scene on Buenaventura, where a bulldozer operator was also killed, concluded that wind speeds were somewhere between 220 and 270km per hour, and that “peak gas temperatures likely exceeded 2552F” – the melting point of steel.

In other words, what Bustillos endured was equivalent to an EF3 tornado, combined with a blast furnace.

Carrie and Steve Bustillos stand near the spot where Steve narrowly survived the fire whirl as he was evacuating his home in the Carr Fire. He abandoned his truck after it caught fire, took cover under a bulldozer and survived with minor injuries.

"We all know someone who lost a home” is not a phrase you used to hear very often, but in the North American west, it has grown much more common over the past decade. The communities where you hear this are growing, too – small cities, entire neighborhoods.

In Redding, many residents returned to ruins and in them there are patterns. The showers often survive, standing alone, a morbid joke now, while washer-dryer sets stare out like blank eyes in a roofless skull. The charred shells of stoves, air conditioners, freezers and refrigerators are warped out of shape, or collapsed. Fire damage has its own palette; it runs from bone-white through taupe to charcoal black, the rest of the spectrum burned away.

Ash covers everything – the memories, the histories, smells, recipes and comforts, reduced now to the barest elements: carbon, stone and steel, all cloaked in smoke and suffused with the acrid reek of burning. This tableau repeated itself more than a thousand times around Redding – a thousand families standing on the sidewalk, wondering where their houses went.

Everyone who loses a home is struck by how much is gone, and also by what remains: a carpet preserved by leaking water from a ruptured water pipe; books, ghost-white with every page intact, until you touch them and they collapse in a cloud of ash.

A home is a kind of memory palace and there is an existential cruelty in the razing of it. To burn them down by the hundreds and thousands, as wildfires are doing now in the western US and Canada, is a brutal affront to the order we live by, to the habitats that give our lives meaning. Their loss shocks the heart like a sudden death. Left behind are juxtapositions so surreal and disorienting that to describe them sounds like the mutterings of an insane person: garbage can puddle; melted guns on a platter; cars bleeding aluminum; pile of tire wire. Is this really where I lived, where I raised my children? Where did their beds go? Their bedrooms?

The photos, the evidence – all of it is gone. In their place, a void, the shadow of a burned tree where the kitchen table was, pools of once-familiar things gone molten, settled now into new forms, rigid and unrecognizable.

Larry and Willie Hartman lost their uninsured home that they built in the Carr Fire, in Redding, Calif. Their home was in the path of the unusual fire whirl, with wind speeds of more than 140mph, that swept through their community. They pledged to rebuild.

A scorched landscape near Keswick Estates in Redding, Calif. Power transmitters like these were torn out of the earth from a powerful fire whirl that swept through the area.

Two miles north of Redding, on a broad, forested slope that feels almost rural save for the steady crackle of high tension wires overhead, Willie Hartman stands ankle-deep in the ruins of her home. Hartman is a slight but sturdy grandmother with white hair and a sad-eyed kindness and, a month on, while her granddaughter plays around her, she is still coming to terms with the fire that has unmade everything as far as the eye can see. Behind her, what used to be a metal porch railing droops like a Dali clock. Spotting a charred skeleton of furniture, she murmurs: “The lawn chair’s in the house.”

So is the mailbox. Nothing is where it should be anymore, or even what it should be because the Hartman family, along with hundreds of others in the thickly wooded hill country north of downtown, were subject to something far more intense than ordinary wildfire.

Hartman’s living room, which no longer exists, once had a picture window of double-paned glass, but it melted. You can see it now outside, a vitrified river flowing downhill toward her daughters’ homes, each of them burned to the foundations, many of their contents borne away on the incinerating wind that spun out of the Carr fire and into their neighborhood shortly before 8pm on 26 July.

Sarah Joseph, 73, lives a kilometre to the north-west, in the Keswick estates neighborhood of modest, mostly single-story homes. Many of the residents here were sure the 30 metre-wide Sacramento river would stop the fire’s advance. Joseph had to gather herself before describing what crossed the river on that 100F evening. “It looked like a tornado,” she said, “but with fire.” It arrived so quickly that she had only minutes to gather up her cat, some photos and a change of clothes before fleeing for her life.

It looked like a tornado but with fireSarah Joseph

There are videos and they are terrifying: surging up out of a cluster of burning neighborhoods is a whirling vortex 300 metres across, seething with smoke and fire. In the annals of firefighting, there is no direct comparable. No one has ever seen anything this big, this explosive, or this destructive rise up out of the forest and enter a town. During its brief existence of approximately 30 minutes, the incendiary cyclone sent jets of flame hundreds of metres into the sky, obliterated everything in its path, and generated such ferocious thermal energy that its smoke plume punched into the stratosphere.

The damage at ground zero, a 300-metre wide, kilometre-long swathe of scoured earth, annihilated homes and blasted forest running just south of the Hartman family compound, is hard to comprehend. There, a pair of 40-metre tall steel transmission towers have been torn from their concrete moorings and hurled to the ground where they still lie, crumpled like dead giraffes.

All the houses nearby are gone, stripped to the foundations. In the surviving branches of blackened trees, where plastic bags would ordinarily flutter, 3-metre pieces of sheet metal have been twisted like silk scarves. A 4-ton shipping container was torn to pieces and hurled across the landscape. The same thing happened to trucks and cars; one was wrapped around a tree.

Most of the grass and topsoil are gone; anything left behind was burned.

Really Hartman, 6, explores areas of her family's property destroyed by the Carr Fire in Redding, Calif. on August 28, 2018.

Larry Hartman, Willie’s husband of 47 years, is a large, congenial man with a hydraulic handshake and a gift for problem-solving. Finding himself with a dozen bear-hunting dogs that needed regular exercise, he devised a mechanical carousel with twelve chain leashes that now lies upside down in a heap of unrelated wreckage. When I asked him what he would have imagined happened here if he hadn’t witnessed it himself, he regards the utter ruination all around him, the spaces where outbuildings and other landmarks of his life no longer are, and says, “A bomb. Like Hiroshima.”

When you compare photos of the hypocenter of that nuclear blast with the excoriated ground just south of the Hartmans’ property, they are hard to tell apart. One of the Hartmans’ daughters, Christel, used to hunt bears with her father and she inherited his formidable handshake. Christel recorded video of their evacuation on her phone, and it shows a fire surging over the hill, which is how many California wildfires arrive, but this fire is higher than the transmission lines.

You can see the towers’ latticed silhouettes ghosting in and out of the flaming wall. War of the Worlds comes to mind. “It made a roaring sound,” said Christel, “like a man.” She demonstrates for me and then says: “Only 10 times that.” Across Quartz Mine Road, a few hundred metres from the Hartman compound, an elderly woman and her two great grandchildren were burned alive in their trailer.

Captain Dusty Gyves, a 20-year veteran with Cal Fire, California’s 130-year-old state firefighting agency, was shocked by what he saw four hundred metres south-west of the Hartmans’. After being lifted into the air, a two-ton pickup truck was subjected to forces so extraordinarily violent that it looked, said Gyves, “like it had been through a car crusher”. And then incinerated.

A firefighter named Jeremy Stoke was inside that truck and there is a memorial to him now on Buenaventura, where he was wrenched from this world. There are flowers, a flag, a nightstick and a humorous portrait of Stoke holding a pistol, along with dozens of ballcaps, T-shirts and shoulder patches representing police and fire departments from all over California. Among the offerings is a handwritten note saying: “Rest easy, brother. We will take it from here.”

Kyle Holtan updates a map while fighting the Herz fire north of Redding on August 30, 2018.

Sarah Joseph said she is moving to Oregon after the Carr Fire destroyed her home in Lake Keswick Estates in Redding, Calif.

What do you call something that behaves like a tornado but is made of fire?

Wildfire scientists bridle at the term “fire tornado”; they prefer “fire whirl”, but “fire whirl” seems inadequate to describe something that built its own weather system seven miles high. In 1978, meteorologist David Goens devised a classification system that placed fire whirls of this magnitude in the “fire storm” category, along with the caveat that: “This is a rare phenomenon and hopefully one that is so unlikely in the forest environment that it can be disregarded.”

This was 40 years ago. So what has changed?

For one, the addition of a new verb to the wildfire lexicon. “Natural fire never did this,” explained Gyves. “It shouldn’t moonscape.” But now it does. It is alarming to consider that this annihilating energy arrived out of thin air, born of fire and fanned by an increasingly common combination of triple-digit heat, single-digit humidity, high fuel loads, dying trees and the battling winds that swirl daily through the mountains and valleys all over California and the greater west.

Natural fire never did this, it shouldn't moonscapeCaptain Dusty Gyves

That this phenomenon may represent something new under the sun has become a subject of earnest debate among fire scientists and meteorologists. The only other event that comes close is a full-blown tornado that occurred in conjunction with the notorious Canberra bushfires of 2003. With the exception of the Hamburg firestorm, ignited when Allied bombers dropped thousands of tons of incendiaries on that German city in 1943, there is no record of a “pyronado” of this magnitude occurring anywhere on earth.

Painfully clear is the fact that there is no way for firefighters to combat these all-consuming fires – with or without a tornado in their midst. Water has little effect on a high intensity wildfire. Among the structures burned near Redding was a fire station. As one Cal Fire representative said of the Carr fire’s ferocious early days: “It shifted from a firefighting effort to a life-saving effort.”

There was a time not so long ago, when a fire like this one, which forced the evacuation of 40,000 people and burned nearly 1,000 sq km across two counties, might have been a monstrous anomaly, but now, says Jonathan Cox, a Cal Fire battalion chief: “The anomalies are becoming more frequent and more deadly.”

Police tape is tied to a tree near where firefighter Jeremy Stoke was killed during a fire whirl in Carr Fire in Redding, Calif. According the the National Weather Service, winds exceeded 143 mph.

A scene from where a fire whirl swept through during the Carr Fire in Redding, Calif. According the the National Weather Service, winds exceeded 143 mph.

Eight of the most destructive wildfires in California’s fire-prone history have occurred in the past three years. But as destructive as others have been – the 2017 Tubbs fire with 44 lives lost and 5,600 structures destroyed; this year’s Mendocino Complex fire, the largest ever – none of them has unleashed the apocalyptic mayhem visited upon the Hartmans and their neighbors.

Once restricted to weapons of mass destruction and exceptionally intense forest fires in remote settings, the tornado-sized firestorm is no longer as unlikely as it was in the 1970s. In 2014, another huge one was observed in dense forest, just 40 miles east of Redding. As the climate changes, fires no longer cool down at night as they once did; instead, they simply grow bigger and more powerful. Meanwhile, human settlement continues to push deeper into the forest where kilotons of unburned energy waits for any spark at all.

But most people traumatized by wildfire aren’t thinking about that. They are thinking about getting their lives back. The Hartmans had no insurance, but Larry is optimistic: “If I have my way,” he says, “there’ll be a new house here in a year.”

Sarah Joseph was insured, but she is finished with Redding, a place she has witnessed growing steadily warmer. “I’ve walked out on everything two or three times in my life,” she said. “I can do it again.” There is a town in Oregon and she is taking her younger brother. That town is as vulnerable to wildfire as Redding; so are most towns now, from Mexico to Alaska, but that is not what concerns her.

“I will not cry,” she says to herself as she gets a grip one more time.

Art & Photography / The Moment
« on: October 16, 2018, 11:59:09 AM »


Diners will appreciate.

Environment / Climate Deniers Are More Likely to Hate Democracy
« on: September 29, 2018, 07:50:06 AM »
Climate Deniers Are More Likely to Hate Democracy
If you care strongly about climate change, you’re most likely to be someone passionate about democracy. If you don’t think climate change is real, odds are that you don’t find the core principles of democracy very appealing, either.

It’s official. Climate deniers are basically tyrants. So says a new analysis of global survey data that is likely to drive Western conservatives nuts.

The new research concludes the following: If you care strongly about climate change, you’re most likely to be someone passionate about democracy. But if you don’t think climate change is real, odds are that you don’t find the core principles of democracy very appealing either. And ironically, it’s in the West where climate denial is most ideological.

These are the findings of a major analysis of global attitudes to climate change across 36 countries by scholars at Georgia State University. The new study published in Environmental Politics this month examines data from the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Global Attitudes Survey.

Previous studies have tended to focus on public opinion in the US and other Western democracies. That research shows that in English-speaking Western countries, views about climate change are heavily skewed by party political ideology. For the most part, conservatives tend to reject environmentalism, while liberals tend to see climate change as a serious concern.

While it’s often assumed that this pattern can be extrapolated to the rest of the world, the new study finds that outside the Western bubble, political ideology has little to do with concern about the climate.

Rather, the overwhelming connection is support for democratic values, described by the study as “the most important predictor of climate change concern everywhere except the English-speaking Western democracies.”

In a statement, lead study author Professor Gregory Lewis, chair of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ Department of Public Management and Policy at Georgia State University, said:

“The biggest surprise in this study is the strength of the Pew measure of commitment to democratic values as a predictor of climate change concern. A belief in free elections, freedom of religion, equal rights for women, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and lack of Internet censorship is nearly universal in predicting this attitude. In fact, it is the strongest predictor of climate change concern everywhere except in English-speaking Western democracies, where party identification matters more.”

Commitment to such democratic principles is a “nearly universal” predictor of concern for climate change around the world, the study finds—except English-speaking Western democracies where “political party has a large impact.”

In their study, the authors explain that being “very”, as opposed to just “somewhat” committed to democratic principles “increased the probability of believing climate change is a very serious problem by 7 to 25 percentage points in 26 of the 36 nations surveyed. It is the strongest predictor in 17.”

At first, the authors—including Risa Palm, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Georgia State and Bo Feng with IMPAQ International—tried to fit the findings into the straitjacket of political ideology. But it just didn’t work.

“We originally included it as an alternative measure of liberalism, but it is significantly related to ideology in only 4 of 13 countries, and it is only significantly higher for liberal than conservative party members in 9 of 36 countries,” they wrote in the paper.

In fact, most of the polarisation around climate along political ideology, gender, age, and religiosity that we see in the United States is not reflected elsewhere.

In the English-speaking West, for instance, women are 7 percent more likely to see climate change as a serious problem, but are about about half as likely to do so in Europe. And in the rest of the world, gender plays no role at all.

While young people in the West tend to support climate change concerns, in the rest of the world, it’s often older people that express concerns.

As for religiosity, for most English-speaking Western democracies, the more religious you are, the less concern you have for climate change—but the opposite is true for most of the world, especially in Asia and Africa.

So why is it that party political ideology is such a big deal for how we view climate change in the West? The study suggests that it has a lot to do with the fact that in Western capitalist economies, the idea that the free-hand of the market should never be interfered with (thus opposing environmental regulations or limits to fossil fuel production) has become entrenched—and is particularly associated with the political right.

“Party identification may only drive climate change opinions in advanced capitalist economies,” says the study. These involve “countries where conservatism is strongly linked to commitment to free markets, or in countries where conservative media have a strong presence.” That’s why in the US, polarisation about climate change along gender, age, and religiosity lines “may simply reflect that country’s ideological divide, with women, young people, and the less religious being more liberal.”

Lewis said that he hoped the research would help policymakers develop more effective ways to reach populations about the realities of climate change. But more ‘cross-national’ studies like this are needed to understand the polarisation of public opinion on climate change in greater depth.

In the meantime, the research to date shows that climate denial has little to do with concern for science. For the US, Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, and the UK, “party identification” with right-wing ideology (and in turn free-market fundamentalism) is the main correlate with climate denialism.

And overwhelmingly, the real correlate that appears to explain trends in climate concern worldwide is alignment with democratic principles: The more you dismiss climate change, the greater your contempt for the fundamental building blocks of a functioning democracy.

Diner TV / The Religion of Libertarianism
« on: September 13, 2018, 11:51:36 AM »
The Religion of Libertarianism

We'll just put this right here. Enjoy.

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Far Out Newz / Bright Insight
« on: September 12, 2018, 11:51:33 AM »
AZ, I stumbled across this guy's channel, and I have found his stuff highly speculative but entertaining AF. I thought you'd get a kick out of it.

Futurology / Why Technology Favors Tyranny
« on: September 09, 2018, 04:49:00 AM »
Why Technology Favors Tyranny

Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy, and erode the ideals of liberty and equality.

I. The Growing Fear of Irrelevance

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.

The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. The causes of this political shift are complex, but they appear to be intertwined with current technological developments. The technology that favored democracy is changing, and as artificial intelligence develops, it might change further.

Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.

Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology in any detail, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the common man’s condition in the Soviet Union, Germany, or the United States may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an “ordinary man,” rather than, say, a Jew or a woman). He looked at the propaganda posters—which typically depicted coal miners and steelworkers in heroic poses—and saw himself there: “I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!”

In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious terms are bandied about excitedly in ted Talks, at government think tanks, and at high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, AI, machine learning—and common people, both men and women, may well suspect that none of these terms is about them.

In the 20th century, the masses revolted against exploitation and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump may therefore demonstrate a trajectory opposite to that of traditional socialist revolutions. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but feared they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the 21st century, populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation.

The revolutions in information technology and biotechnology are still in their infancy, and the extent to which they are responsible for the current crisis of liberalism is debatable. Most people in Birmingham, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, and Mumbai are only dimly aware, if they are aware at all, of the rise of AI and its potential impact on their lives. It is undoubtable, however, that the technological revolutions now gathering momentum will in the next few decades confront humankind with the hardest trials it has yet encountered.

II. A New Useless Class?

Let’s start with jobs and incomes, because whatever liberal democracy’s philosophical appeal, it has gained strength in no small part thanks to a practical advantage: The decentralized approach to decision making that is characteristic of liberalism—in both politics and economics—has allowed liberal democracies to outcompete other states, and to deliver rising affluence to their people.

Liberalism reconciled the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, the faithful with atheists, natives with immigrants, and Europeans with Asians by promising everybody a larger slice of the pie. With a constantly growing pie, that was possible. And the pie may well keep growing. However, economic growth may not solve social problems that are now being created by technological disruption, because such growth is increasingly predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies.

Fears of machines pushing people out of the job market are, of course, nothing new, and in the past such fears proved to be unfounded. But artificial intelligence is different from the old machines. In the past, machines competed with humans mainly in manual skills. Now they are beginning to compete with us in cognitive skills. And we don’t know of any third kind of skill—beyond the manual and the cognitive—in which humans will always have an edge.

At least for a few more decades, human intelligence is likely to far exceed computer intelligence in numerous fields. Hence as computers take over more routine cognitive jobs, new creative jobs for humans will continue to appear. Many of these new jobs will probably depend on cooperation rather than competition between humans and AI. Human-AI teams will likely prove superior not just to humans, but also to computers working on their own.

However, most of the new jobs will presumably demand high levels of expertise and ingenuity, and therefore may not provide an answer to the problem of unemployed unskilled laborers, or workers employable only at extremely low wages. Moreover, as AI continues to improve, even jobs that demand high intelligence and creativity might gradually disappear. The world of chess serves as an example of where things might be heading. For several years after IBM’s computer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov in 1997, human chess players still flourished; AI was used to train human prodigies, and teams composed of humans plus computers proved superior to computers playing alone.

Yet in recent years, computers have become so good at playing chess that their human collaborators have lost their value and might soon become entirely irrelevant. On December 6, 2017, another crucial milestone was reached when Google’s AlphaZero program defeated the Stockfish 8 program. Stockfish 8 had won a world computer chess championship in 2016. It had access to centuries of accumulated human experience in chess, as well as decades of computer experience. By contrast, AlphaZero had not been taught any chess strategies by its human creators—not even standard openings. Rather, it used the latest machine-learning principles to teach itself chess by playing against itself. Nevertheless, out of 100 games that the novice AlphaZero played against Stockfish 8, AlphaZero won 28 and tied 72—it didn’t lose once. Since AlphaZero had learned nothing from any human, many of its winning moves and strategies seemed unconventional to the human eye. They could be described as creative, if not downright genius.

Can you guess how long AlphaZero spent learning chess from scratch, preparing for the match against Stockfish 8, and developing its genius instincts? Four hours. For centuries, chess was considered one of the crowning glories of human intelligence. AlphaZero went from utter ignorance to creative mastery in four hours, without the help of any human guide.

AlphaZero is not the only imaginative software out there. One of the ways to catch cheaters in chess tournaments today is to monitor the level of originality that players exhibit. If they play an exceptionally creative move, the judges will often suspect that it could not possibly be a human move—it must be a computer move. At least in chess, creativity is already considered to be the trademark of computers rather than humans! So if chess is our canary in the coal mine, we have been duly warned that the canary is dying. What is happening today to human-AI teams in chess might happen down the road to human-AI teams in policing, medicine, banking, and many other fields.

What’s more, AI enjoys uniquely nonhuman abilities, which makes the difference between AI and a human worker one of kind rather than merely of degree. Two particularly important nonhuman abilities that AI possesses are connectivity and updatability.

For example, many drivers are unfamiliar with all the changing traffic regulations on the roads they drive, and they often violate them. In addition, since every driver is a singular entity, when two vehicles approach the same intersection, the drivers sometimes miscommunicate their intentions and collide. Self-driving cars, by contrast, will know all the traffic regulations and never disobey them on purpose, and they could all be connected to one another. When two such vehicles approach the same junction, they won’t really be two separate entities, but part of a single algorithm. The chances that they might miscommunicate and collide will therefore be far smaller.

Similarly, if the World Health Organization identifies a new disease, or if a laboratory produces a new medicine, it can’t immediately update all the human doctors in the world. Yet even if you had billions of AI doctors in the world—each monitoring the health of a single human being—you could still update all of them within a split second, and they could all communicate to one another their assessments of the new disease or medicine. These potential advantages of connectivity and updatability are so huge that at least in some lines of work, it might make sense to replace all humans with computers, even if individually some humans still do a better job than the machines.

All of this leads to one very important conclusion: The automation revolution will not consist of a single watershed event, after which the job market will settle into some new equilibrium. Rather, it will be a cascade of ever bigger disruptions. Old jobs will disappear and new jobs will emerge, but the new jobs will also rapidly change and vanish. People will need to retrain and reinvent themselves not just once, but many times.

Just as in the 20th century governments established massive education systems for young people, in the 21st century they will need to establish massive reeducation systems for adults. But will that be enough? Change is always stressful, and the hectic world of the early 21st century has produced a global epidemic of stress. As job volatility increases, will people be able to cope? By 2050, a useless class might emerge, the result not only of a shortage of jobs or a lack of relevant education but also of insufficient mental stamina to continue learning new skills.

III. The Rise of Digital Dictatorships

As many people lose their economic value, they might also come to lose their political power. The same technologies that might make billions of people economically irrelevant might also make them easier to monitor and control.

AI frightens many people because they don’t trust it to remain obedient. Science fiction makes much of the possibility that computers or robots will develop consciousness—and shortly thereafter will try to kill all humans. But there is no particular reason to believe that AI will develop consciousness as it becomes more intelligent. We should instead fear AI because it will probably always obey its human masters, and never rebel. AI is a tool and a weapon unlike any other that human beings have developed; it will almost certainly allow the already powerful to consolidate their power further.

Consider surveillance. Numerous countries around the world, including several democracies, are busy building unprecedented systems of surveillance. For example, Israel is a leader in the field of surveillance technology, and has created in the occupied West Bank a working prototype for a total-surveillance regime. Already today whenever Palestinians make a phone call, post something on Facebook, or travel from one city to another, they are likely to be monitored by Israeli microphones, cameras, drones, or spy software. Algorithms analyze the gathered data, helping the Israeli security forces pinpoint and neutralize what they consider to be potential threats. The Palestinians may administer some towns and villages in the West Bank, but the Israelis command the sky, the airwaves, and cyberspace. It therefore takes surprisingly few Israeli soldiers to effectively control the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

In one incident in October 2017, a Palestinian laborer posted to his private Facebook account a picture of himself in his workplace, alongside a bulldozer. Adjacent to the image he wrote, “Good morning!” A Facebook translation algorithm made a small error when transliterating the Arabic letters. Instead of Ysabechhum (which means “Good morning”), the algorithm identified the letters as Ydbachhum (which means “Hurt them”). Suspecting that the man might be a terrorist intending to use a bulldozer to run people over, Israeli security forces swiftly arrested him. They released him after they realized that the algorithm had made a mistake. Even so, the offending Facebook post was taken down—you can never be too careful. What Palestinians are experiencing today in the West Bank may be just a primitive preview of what billions of people will eventually experience all over the planet.

Imagine, for instance, that the current regime in North Korea gained a more advanced version of this sort of technology in the future. North Koreans might be required to wear a biometric bracelet that monitors everything they do and say, as well as their blood pressure and brain activity. Using the growing understanding of the human brain and drawing on the immense powers of machine learning, the North Korean government might eventually be able to gauge what each and every citizen is thinking at each and every moment. If a North Korean looked at a picture of Kim Jong Un and the biometric sensors picked up telltale signs of anger (higher blood pressure, increased activity in the amygdala), that person could be in the gulag the next day.

And yet such hard-edged tactics may not prove necessary, at least much of the time. A facade of free choice and free voting may remain in place in some countries, even as the public exerts less and less actual control. To be sure, attempts to manipulate voters’ feelings are not new. But once somebody (whether in San Francisco or Beijing or Moscow) gains the technological ability to manipulate the human heart—reliably, cheaply, and at scale—democratic politics will mutate into an emotional puppet show.

We are unlikely to face a rebellion of sentient machines in the coming decades, but we might have to deal with hordes of bots that know how to press our emotional buttons better than our mother does and that use this uncanny ability, at the behest of a human elite, to try to sell us something—be it a car, a politician, or an entire ideology. The bots might identify our deepest fears, hatreds, and cravings and use them against us. We have already been given a foretaste of this in recent elections and referendums across the world, when hackers learned how to manipulate individual voters by analyzing data about them and exploiting their prejudices. While science-fiction thrillers are drawn to dramatic apocalypses of fire and smoke, in reality we may be facing a banal apocalypse by clicking.

The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. Historically, autocracies have faced crippling handicaps in regard to innovation and economic growth. In the late 20th century, democracies usually outperformed dictatorships, because they were far better at processing information. We tend to think about the conflict between democracy and dictatorship as a conflict between two different ethical systems, but it is actually a conflict between two different data-processing systems. Democracy distributes the power to process information and make decisions among many people and institutions, whereas dictatorship concentrates information and power in one place. Given 20th-century technology, it was inefficient to concentrate too much information and power in one place. Nobody had the ability to process all available information fast enough and make the right decisions. This is one reason the Soviet Union made far worse decisions than the United States, and why the Soviet economy lagged far behind the American economy.

However, artificial intelligence may soon swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. AI makes it possible to process enormous amounts of information centrally. In fact, it might make centralized systems far more efficient than diffuse systems, because machine learning works better when the machine has more information to analyze. If you disregard all privacy concerns and concentrate all the information relating to a billion people in one database, you’ll wind up with much better algorithms than if you respect individual privacy and have in your database only partial information on a million people. An authoritarian government that orders all its citizens to have their DNA sequenced and to share their medical data with some central authority would gain an immense advantage in genetics and medical research over societies in which medical data are strictly private. The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century.

Yoshi Sodeoka

New technologies will continue to emerge, of course, and some of them may encourage the distribution rather than the concentration of information and power. Blockchain technology, and the use of cryptocurrencies enabled by it, is currently touted as a possible counterweight to centralized power. But blockchain technology is still in the embryonic stage, and we don’t yet know whether it will indeed counterbalance the centralizing tendencies of AI. Remember that the Internet, too, was hyped in its early days as a libertarian panacea that would free people from all centralized systems—but is now poised to make centralized authority more powerful than ever.

IV. The Transfer of Authority to Machines

Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. We might willingly give up more and more authority over our lives because we will learn from experience to trust the algorithms more than our own feelings, eventually losing our ability to make many decisions for ourselves. Just think of the way that, within a mere two decades, billions of people have come to entrust Google’s search algorithm with one of the most important tasks of all: finding relevant and trustworthy information. As we rely more on Google for answers, our ability to locate information independently diminishes. Already today, “truth” is defined by the top results of a Google search. This process has likewise affected our physical abilities, such as navigating space. People ask Google not just to find information but also to guide them around. Self-driving cars and AI physicians would represent further erosion: While these innovations would put truckers and human doctors out of work, their larger import lies in the continuing transfer of authority and responsibility to machines.

Humans are used to thinking about life as a drama of decision making. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. Works of art—be they Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels, or cheesy Hollywood comedies—usually revolve around the hero having to make some crucial decision. To be or not to be? To listen to my wife and kill King Duncan, or listen to my conscience and spare him? To marry Mr. Collins or Mr. Darcy? Christian and Muslim theology similarly focus on the drama of decision making, arguing that everlasting salvation depends on making the right choice.

What will happen to this view of life as we rely on AI to make ever more decisions for us? Even now we trust Netflix to recommend movies and Spotify to pick music we’ll like. But why should AI’s helpfulness stop there?

Every year millions of college students need to decide what to study. This is a very important and difficult decision, made under pressure from parents, friends, and professors who have varying interests and opinions. It is also influenced by students’ own individual fears and fantasies, which are themselves shaped by movies, novels, and advertising campaigns. Complicating matters, a given student does not really know what it takes to succeed in a given profession, and doesn’t necessarily have a realistic sense of his or her own strengths and weaknesses.

It’s not so hard to see how AI could one day make better decisions than we do about careers, and perhaps even about relationships. But once we begin to count on AI to decide what to study, where to work, and whom to date or even marry, human life will cease to be a drama of decision making, and our conception of life will need to change. Democratic elections and free markets might cease to make sense. So might most religions and works of art. Imagine Anna Karenina taking out her smartphone and asking Siri whether she should stay married to Karenin or elope with the dashing Count Vronsky. Or imagine your favorite Shakespeare play with all the crucial decisions made by a Google algorithm. Hamlet and Macbeth would have much more comfortable lives, but what kind of lives would those be? Do we have models for making sense of such lives?

Can parliaments and political parties overcome these challenges and forestall the darker scenarios? At the current moment this does not seem likely. Technological disruption is not even a leading item on the political agenda. During the 2016 U.S. presidential race, the main reference to disruptive technology concerned Hillary Clinton’s email debacle, and despite all the talk about job loss, neither candidate directly addressed the potential impact of automation. Donald Trump warned voters that Mexicans would take their jobs, and that the U.S. should therefore build a wall on its southern border. He never warned voters that algorithms would take their jobs, nor did he suggest building a firewall around California.

So what should we do?

For starters, we need to place a much higher priority on understanding how the human mind works—particularly how our own wisdom and compassion can be cultivated. If we invest too much in AI and too little in developing the human mind, the very sophisticated artificial intelligence of computers might serve only to empower the natural stupidity of humans, and to nurture our worst (but also, perhaps, most powerful) impulses, among them greed and hatred. To avoid such an outcome, for every dollar and every minute we invest in improving AI, we would be wise to invest a dollar and a minute in exploring and developing human consciousness.

More practically, and more immediately, if we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, we must regulate the ownership of data. In ancient times, land was the most important asset, so politics was a struggle to control land. In the modern era, machines and factories became more important than land, so political struggles focused on controlling these vital means of production. In the 21st century, data will eclipse both land and machinery as the most important asset, so politics will be a struggle to control data’s flow.

Unfortunately, we don’t have much experience in regulating the ownership of data, which is inherently a far more difficult task than regulating land or machines. Data are everywhere and nowhere at the same time, they can move at the speed of light, and you can create as many copies of them as you want. Do the data collected about my DNA, my brain, and my life belong to me, or to the government, or to a corporation, or to the human collective?

The race to accumulate data is already on, and is currently headed by giants such as Google and Facebook and, in China, Baidu and Tencent. So far, many of these companies have acted as “attention merchants”—they capture our attention by providing us with free information, services, and entertainment, and then they resell our attention to advertisers. Yet their true business isn’t merely selling ads. Rather, by capturing our attention they manage to accumulate immense amounts of data about us, which are worth more than any advertising revenue. We aren’t their customers—we are their product.

Ordinary people will find it very difficult to resist this process. At present, many of us are happy to give away our most valuable asset—our personal data—in exchange for free email services and funny cat videos. But if, later on, ordinary people decide to try to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.

Nationalization of data by governments could offer one solution; it would certainly curb the power of big corporations. But history suggests that we are not necessarily better off in the hands of overmighty governments. So we had better call upon our scientists, our philosophers, our lawyers, and even our poets to turn their attention to this big question: How do you regulate the ownership of data?

Currently, humans risk becoming similar to domesticated animals. We have bred docile cows that produce enormous amounts of milk but are otherwise far inferior to their wild ancestors. They are less agile, less curious, and less resourceful. We are now creating tame humans who produce enormous amounts of data and function as efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but they hardly maximize their human potential. If we are not careful, we will end up with downgraded humans misusing upgraded computers to wreak havoc on themselves and on the world.

If you find these prospects alarming—if you dislike the idea of living in a digital dictatorship or some similarly degraded form of society—then the most important contribution you can make is to find ways to prevent too much data from being concentrated in too few hands, and also find ways to keep distributed data processing more efficient than centralized data processing. These will not be easy tasks. But achieving them may be the best safeguard of democracy.

Surly Newz / The real Goldfinger: the London banker who broke the world
« on: September 08, 2018, 04:15:22 AM »
I know of someone here who will enjoy this story. The Bretton Woods system, based on dollars backed by gold and tightly controlled currency flows, created an unprecedented period of global financial stability after World War II. Here is a look at the German banker whose ingenious “eurobonds” helped break that postwar system—giving rise to the global superrich.

The real Goldfinger: the London banker who broke the world

The true story of how the City of London invented offshore banking – and set the rich free
by Oliver Bullough

Every January, to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Oxfam tells us how much richer the world’s richest people have got. In 2016, their report showed that the wealthiest 62 individuals owned the same amount as the bottom half of the world’s population. This year, that number had dropped to 42: three-and-half-dozen people with as much stuff as three-and-a-half billion.

This yearly ritual has become part of the news cycle, and the inequality it exposes has ceased to shock us. The very rich getting very much richer is now part of life, like the procession of the seasons. But we should be extremely concerned: their increased wealth gives them ever-greater control of our politics and of our media. Countries that were once democracies are becoming plutocracies; plutocracies are becoming oligarchies; oligarchies are becoming kleptocracies.

Things were not always this way. In the years after the second world war, the trend was in the opposite direction: the poor were getting richer; we were all getting more equal. To understand how and why that changed, we need to go back to the dying days of the conflict, to a resort in New Hampshire, where a group of economists set out to secure humanity’s future.

This is the story of how their dream failed and how a London banker’s bright idea broke the world.

In the years after the first world war, money flowed between countries pretty much however its owners wished, destabilising currencies and economies in pursuit of profit. Many of the wealthy grew wealthier even while economies fell apart. The chaos led to the election of extremist governments in Germany and elsewhere, to competitive devaluations and beggar-my-neighbour tariffs, to trade wars and, ultimately, to the horrors of the second world war.

The allies wanted to prevent this ever happening again. So, at a meeting at the Bretton Woods resort in New Hampshire in 1944, they negotiated the details of an economic architecture that would – in perpetuity – stop uncontrolled money flows. This, they hoped, would keep governments from using trade as a weapon with which to bully neighbours, and create a stable system that would help secure peace and prosperity.

Under the new system, all currencies would be pegged to the dollar, which would in turn be pegged to gold. An ounce of gold cost $35 (that’s about $500/£394 today). In other words, the US Treasury pledged that, if a foreign government turned up with $35, it could always buy an ounce of gold. The United States was promising to keep everyone supplied with enough dollars to fund international trade, as well as to maintain sufficient gold reserves for those dollars to be inherently valuable.

To prevent speculators trying to attack these fixed currencies, cross-border money flows were severely constrained. Money could move overseas, but only in the form of long-term investments, not to speculate short term against currencies or bonds.

To understand how this system worked, imagine an oil tanker. If it has just one huge tank, then the oil can slosh backwards and forwards in ever greater waves, until it destabilises the vessel, which overturns and sinks. At the Bretton Woods conference, the oil was divided between smaller tanks, one for each country. The liquid could slosh back and forth within its little compartments, but would be unable to achieve enough momentum to damage the integrity of the vessel.

Strangely, one of the best evocations of this long-gone system is Goldfinger, the James Bond book. The film of the same name has a slightly different plot, but they both feature an attempt to undermine the west’s financial system by interfering with its gold reserves. “Gold and currencies backed by gold are the foundations of our international credit,” a Bank of England official named Colonel Smithers explains to 007.

Goldfinger: Sean Connery as James Bond fights with Harold Sakata’s Oddjob the bullion in Fort Knox’s gold depository.
Sean Connery as James Bond and Harold Sakata as Oddjob in Goldfinger (1964). Photograph: Getty

The trouble is, the colonel continues, that the Bank is only prepared to pay £1,000 for a gold bar, which is the equivalent of the $35 per ounce price paid in America, whereas the same gold is worth 70% more in India, where there is a high demand for gold jewellery. It is thus highly profitable to smuggle gold out of the country and sell it overseas.

The villain Auric Goldfinger’s cunning scheme is to own pawnbrokers all over Britain, buy up gold jewellery and trinkets from ordinary Brits in need of a bit of cash, then melt them down into plates, attach the plates to his Rolls-Royce, drive them to Switzerland, reprocess them and fly them to India. By doing so, Goldfinger will not only undermine the British currency and economy, but also earn profits he could use to fund communists and other miscreants. Hundreds of Bank of England employees are engaged in trying to stop this kind of scam from happening, Smithers tells 007, but Goldfinger is too clever for them. He has secretly become Britain’s richest man, and has £5m-worth of gold bars sitting in the vaults of a bank in the Bahamas.

“We are asking you to bring Mr Goldfinger to book, Mr Bond, and get that gold back,” says Smithers. “You know about the currency crisis and the high Bank rate? Of course. Well, England needs that gold, badly – and the quicker the better.”

By modern standards, Goldfinger wasn’t doing anything wrong, apart perhaps from dodging some taxes. He was buying up gold at a price people were prepared to pay for it, then selling it in another market, where people were prepared to pay more. It was his money. It was his gold. So what was the problem? He was oiling the wheels of commerce, efficiently allocating capital where it could best be used, no?

No, because that wasn’t how Bretton Woods worked. Colonel Smithers considered the gold to belong not only to Goldfinger, but also to Great Britain. The system didn’t consider the owner of money to be the only person with a say in what happened to it. According to the carefully crafted rules, the nations that created and guaranteed the value of money had rights to that money, too. They restricted the rights of money-owners in the interests of everybody else. At Bretton Woods, the allies – desperate to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the inter-war depression and the second world war – decided that, when it came to international trade, society’s rights trumped those of money-owners.

All this is hard to imagine for anyone who has only experienced the world since the 1980s, because the system now is so different. Money flows ceaselessly between countries, nosing out investment opportunities in China, Brazil, Russia or wherever. If a currency is overvalued, investors sense the weakness and gang up on it like sharks around a sickly whale. In times of global crisis, the money retreats into the safety of gold or US government bonds. In boom times, it pumps up share prices elsewhere in its restless quest for a good return. These waves of liquid capital have such power that they can wash away all but the strongest governments. The prolonged speculative attacks on the euro, the rouble or the pound, which have been such a feature of the past few decades, would have been impossible under the Bretton Woods system, which was specifically designed to stop them happening.

And the system was remarkably successful: economic growth in most western countries was almost uninterrupted throughout the 1950s and 1960s, societies became more equal, while governments made massive improvements in public health and infrastructure. All of this did not come cheap, however. Taxes had to be high to pay for it, and rich people struggled to move their money out of the taxman’s reach – thanks to the separate compartments in the oil tanker. Fans of the Beatles will remember George Harrison singing on Taxman about the government taking 19 shillings for every one he could keep; that was an accurate reflection of the amount of his earnings that was going to the Treasury, a 95% marginal tax rate.

It wasn’t only the Beatles who hated this system. So did the Rolling Stones, who relocated to France to record Exile on Main St. And so, too, did Rowland Baring, scion of the Barings bank dynasty, third earl of Cromer and – between 1961 and 1966 – the governor of the Bank of England. “Exchange control is an infringement on the rights of the citizen,” he wrote in a note to the government in 1963. “I therefore regard [it] ethically as wrong.”

One reason Baring hated the restrictions was that they were killing the City of London. “It was like driving a powerful car at 20 miles an hour,” lamented one banker, of his spell in charge of a major British bank. “The banks were anaesthetised. It was a kind of dream life.” In those days, bankers arrived at work late, left early and frittered away much of the time in between having boozy lunches. No one particularly cared, because there wasn’t much to do anyway.

Today, looking over its glass-and-steel skyline, it is hard to imagine that the City of London once almost died as a financial centre. In the 1950s and 1960s, the City played little part in the national conversation. Yet, although few books about the swinging 60s even mention the City, something very significant was brewing there – something that would change the world far more than the Beatles or Mary Quant or David Hockney ever did, something that would shatter the high-minded strictures of the Bretton Woods system.

A group of diners at Pimm’s snack bar in the City of London, 1951.
Bankers dining at Pimm’s snack bar in the City of London, 1951. Photograph: Getty

By the time Ian Fleming published Goldfinger in 1959, there were already some leaks in the compartments of the oil tanker. The problem was that not all foreign governments trusted the US to honour its commitment to use the dollar as an impartial international currency; and they were not unreasonable in doing so, since Washington did not always act as a fair umpire. In the immediate post-second-world-war years, the US government had sequestered communist Yugoslavia’s gold reserves. The rattled eastern bloc countries then made a habit of keeping their dollars in European banks rather than in New York.

Similarly, when Britain and France attempted to regain control of the Suez canal in 1956, a disapproving Washington froze their access to dollars and doomed the venture. These were not the actions of a neutral arbiter. Britain at the time was staggering from one crisis to another. In 1957, it raised interest rates and stopped banks using sterling to finance trade in an attempt to keep the pound strong (this was the “currency crisis and the high bank rate” that Smithers told Bond about).

City banks, which could no longer use sterling in the way they were accustomed, began to use dollars instead, and they obtained those dollars from the Soviet Union, which was keeping them in London and Paris so as to avoid becoming vulnerable to American pressure. This turned out to be a profitable thing to do. In the US, there were limits on how much interest banks could charge on dollar loans – but not so in London.

This market – the bankers called the dollars “eurodollars” – gave a bit of life to the City of London in the late 1950s, but not much. The big bond issues were still taking place in New York, a fact which annoyed many bankers in London. After all, many of the companies borrowing the money were European, yet it was American banks that were earning the fat commissions.

One banker in particular was not prepared to tolerate this: Siegmund Warburg. Warburg was an outsider in the cosy world of the City. For one thing, he was German. For another, he hadn’t given up on the idea that a City banker’s job was to hustle for business. In 1962, Warburg learned from a friend at the World Bank that some $3bn was circulating outside the US – sloshing around and ready to be put to use. Warburg had been a banker in Germany in the 1920s and remembered arranging bond deals in foreign currencies. Why couldn’t his bankers do something similar again?

Up to this point, if a company wanted to borrow dollars, it would have to do so in New York. Warburg, however, was pretty confident he knew where he could find a significant chunk of that $3bn – Switzerland. Since at least the 1920s, the Swiss had been in the business of hoarding cash and assets on behalf of foreigners who wanted to avoid scrutiny. By the 1960s, perhaps 5% of all the money in Europe lay under Switzerland’s steel mattresses.

For the City’s most ambitious financiers, this was tantalising: there was all this money squirrelled away, doing nothing much, and it was exactly what they needed in their quest to start selling bonds again. As Warburg saw it, if he could somehow access the money, package it up and lend it, he would be in business. Surely, Warburg thought, he could persuade the people who were paying Swiss bankers to look after their money that they would rather earn an income from it by buying his bonds? And surely he could persuade European companies that they would rather borrow this money from him and avoid paying the steep fees demanded in New York?

It was a great idea, but there was a problem: the compartments of the oil tanker were in the way. It was impossible for Warburg to move that money from Switzerland via London to clients who wanted to borrow it. But he took two of his best men and told them to get it done anyway.

They began their efforts in October 1962, the same month that the Beatles released Love Me Do. The bankers finalised their deal on 1 July the following year, the same day that the Fab Four recorded She Loves You, the song that sparked global Beatlemania. That extraordinary nine months not only revolutionised pop music, but also geopolitics, since they included the Cuban missile crisis and John F Kennedy’s Ich bin ein Berliner speech. Under the circumstances, it is understandable that a simultaneous revolution in global finance passed little remarked.

Warburg’s new bond issue – these bonds became known as “eurobonds”, after the example set by eurodollars – was led by Ian Fraser, a Scottish war hero turned journalist turned banker. He and his colleague Peter Spira had to find ways to defang the taxes and controls designed to prevent hot money flowing across borders, and to find ways to pick and choose different aspects of different countries’ regulations for the various elements of their creation.

If the bonds had been issued in Britain, there would have been a 4% tax on them, so Fraser formally issued them at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands. If the interest were to be paid in Britain, it would have attracted another tax, so Fraser arranged for it to be paid in Luxembourg. He managed to persuade the London Stock Exchange to list the bonds, despite their not being issued or redeemed in Britain, and talked around the central banks of France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Britain, all of which were rightly concerned about the eurobonds’ impact on currency controls. The final trick was to pretend that the borrower was Autostrade – the Italian state motorway company – when really it was IRI, a state holding company. If IRI had been the borrower, it would have had to deduct tax at source, while Autostrade did not have to.

The cumulative effect of this game of jurisdictional Twister was that Fraser created a bond paying a good rate of interest, on which no one had to pay tax of any kind, and which could be turned back into cash anywhere. These were what are known as bearer bonds. Whoever possessed the bond owned them; there was no register of ownership or any obligation to record your holding, which was not written down anywhere.

Fraser’s eurobonds were like magic. Before eurobonds, hidden wealth in Switzerland couldn’t really do much; but now it could buy these fantastic pieces of paper, which could be carried anywhere, redeemed anywhere and all the while paid interest to their owners, tax free. Dodge taxes and make a profit, worldwide.

Staff with gold deposits at the Federal Reserve in New York City, 1968.
Gold deposits at the Federal Reserve in New York, 1968. Photograph: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty

So, who was buying Fraser’s magical invention? Who was providing the money he was lending to IRI, via Autostrade? “The main buyers of these bonds were individuals, usually from eastern Europe but often also from Latin America, who wanted to have part of their fortune in mobile form so that if they had to leave they could leave quickly with their bonds in a small suitcase,” Fraser wrote in his autobiography. “There was still a mass migration of the surviving Jewish populations of central Europe heading for Israel and the west. To this was added the normal migration of fallen South American dictators heading east. Switzerland was where all this money was stashed away.”

Later, historians tried to downplay Fraser’s account a little, and to claim that corrupt politicians – those fallen South American dictators – made up just a fifth or so of the demand for these early bond issues. As for the remaining four-fifths of the money that bought up the bonds, this came from standard tax dodgers – “Belgian dentists”, the bankers called them – high-earning professionals who steered a chunk of their earnings to Luxembourg or Geneva, and who welcomed this lovely new investment.

The eurobonds set wealth free and were the first step towards creating the virtual country of the rich that I call Moneyland. Moneyland includes offshore finance, but is much broader than that, since it protects every aspect of a rich person’s life from scrutiny, not just their money. The same money-making dynamic that enticed Fraser to defang capital controls on behalf of his clients, entices his modern-day counterparts to find ways for the world’s richest people to avoid visa controls, journalistic scrutiny, legal liability and much more. Moneyland is a place where, if you are rich enough, whoever you are, wherever your money comes from, the laws do not apply to you.

This is the dirty secret at the heart of the City’s rebirth, the beginning of the process that eventually led to today’s stratospheric inequality. It was all made possible by modern communications – the telegram, the phone, the telex, the fax, the email – and it allowed the world’s richest people to avoid the responsibilities of citizenship

That first deal was for $15m. But once the way to sidestep the obstacles that stopped cash flowing offshore had been identified, there was nothing to stop more money following behind. In the second half of 1963, $35m of eurobonds were sold. In 1964, the market was $510m. In 1967, the total passed $1bn for the first time, and it is now one of the biggest markets in the world.

The result was that, over time, the system created at Bretton Woods fell apart. More and more dollars were escaping offshore, where they avoided the regulations and taxes imposed upon them by the US government. But they were still dollars, and thus 35 of them were still worth an ounce of gold.

The trouble that followed stemmed from the fact that dollars don’t just sit around doing nothing. They multiply. If you put a dollar in a bank, the bank uses it as security for the money it lends to someone else, meaning there are more dollars – your dollar, and the dollars someone else has borrowed. And if that person puts the money in another bank, and that bank lends it, there are now even more dollars, and so on.

And since every one of those dollars was nominally worth a fixed amount of gold, the US would have needed to keep buying ever more gold to satisfy the potential demand. If the US did that, however, it would have to have bought that gold with dollars, meaning yet more dollars would exist, which would multiply in turn, meaning more gold purchases, and more dollars, until the system would eventually collapse under the weight of the fact that it didn’t make sense; it couldn’t cope with offshore.

Banker Siegmund Warburg, 1968.
Banker Siegmund Warburg, 1968. Photograph: Getty

The US government tried to defend the dollar/gold price, but every restriction it put on dollar movements just made it more profitable to keep your dollars in London, leading more money to leak offshore, and thus more pressure to build on the dollar/gold price. And where the dollars went, the bankers followed. The City had looser regulations and more accommodating politicians than Wall Street, and the banks loved it. In 1964, 11 US banks had branches in the City of London. In 1975, 58 did.

The US Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, who administered the federal banking system, opened a permanent office in London to inspect what the British branches of American banks were up to. But the Americans had no power in the UK and got no help from the locals. “It doesn’t matter to me,” said Jim Keogh, the Bank of England official responsible for monitoring these banks, “whether Citibank is evading American regulations in London”.

By that time, however, Washington had bowed to the inevitable and stopped promising to redeem dollars for gold at $35 an ounce. It was the first step in a steady dismantling of all the safeguards created at Bretton Woods. The philosophical question over who really owned money – the person who earned it, or the country that created it – had been answered.

If you had money, thanks to the accommodating bankers of London and Switzerland, you could now do what you wanted with it and governments could not stop you. As long as one country tolerated offshore, as Britain did, then the efforts of all the others came to nothing. If regulations stop at a country’s borders, but the money can flow wherever it wishes, its owners can outwit any regulators they choose.

The developments that began with Warburg did not stop with simple eurobonds. The basic pattern was endlessly replicable. Identify a line of business that might make you and your clients money. Look around the world for a jurisdiction with the right rules for that business – Liechtenstein, the Cook Islands, Jersey – and use it as a nominal base.

If you couldn’t find a jurisdiction with the right kind of rules, then you threatened or flattered one until it changed its rules to accommodate you. Warburg himself started this off, by explaining to the Bank of England that if Britain did not make its rules competitive and its taxes lower, then he would take his bank elsewhere, perhaps to Luxembourg.

Hey presto, the rules were changed, and the tax – in this case, stamp duty on bearer bonds – was abolished. The world’s response to these developments has been entirely predictable as well. Time after time, countries have chased after the business they have lost offshore (as the US did by abolishing the regulations the banks were dodging when they moved to London), thus making the onshore world ever more similar to the offshore piratical world that Warburg’s bankers created.

Taxes have fallen, regulations have relaxed, politicians have become friendlier, all in an effort to entice the restless money to settle in one jurisdiction rather than another. The reason for this is simple. Once one jurisdiction lets you do what you want, the business flows there and other jurisdictions have to rush to change, too. It is the Moneyland ratchet, always loosening regulations for the benefit of those with money to move around, and never tightening them.

Different nations are affected by Moneyland in different ways. Wealthy citizens of the rich countries of Europe and North America own the largest total amount of cash offshore, but it is a relatively small proportion of their national wealth, thanks to the large size of their economies. The economist Gabriel Zucman estimates it to be just 4% for the US. For Russia, however, 52% of household wealth is offshore, outside the reach of the government. In the Gulf countries, it is an astonishing 57%.

“It’s very easy for oligarchs of developing countries, non-democratic countries, to hide their wealth. That provides them with huge incentives to loot their countries, and there’s no oversight,” says Zucman.

Come January, we will get another update of how much more of the world’s wealth these oligarchs have taken for themselves: the only surprise will be the precise volume of their new acquisition, and how little they have left for the rest of us. But we shouldn’t wait until then to grasp the urgency of the situation.

We need to act now to shine a light on their wealth, on the dark matter whose gravitational power is bending the fabric of our societies. We may have been ignoring Moneyland, but its nomad citizens have not been ignoring us. If we wish to take back control of our economies, and our democracies, we need to act now. Every day that we wait, more money is stacked against us.

Adapted from Moneyland: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule The World & How to Take It Back by Oliver Bullough, published by Profile Books

Surly Newz / Bullshit Jobs
« on: September 02, 2018, 09:58:22 AM »
On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant

by David Graeber
Printed: Issue 3 The Summer Of...August 2013 Estimated Read Time: 9 minutes

n the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century's end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There's every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn't happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes' promised utopia—still being eagerly awaited in the '60s—never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn't figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we've collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment's reflection shows it can't really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the '20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

John Riordan

ISo what are these new jobs, precisely? A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture (and I note, one pretty much exactly echoed in the UK). Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’ In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.)

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world's population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.

It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don't really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

The answer clearly isn't economic: it's moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the '60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don't like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done—at least, there's only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there's endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it's all that anyone really does. I think this is actually a pretty accurate description of the moral dynamics of our own economy.

Now, I realise any such argument is going to run into immediate objections: ‘who are you to say what jobs are really “necessary”? What's necessary anyway? You're an anthropology professor, what's the “need” for that?’ (And indeed a lot of tabloid readers would take the existence of my job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure.) And on one level, this is obviously true. There can be no objective measure of social value.

I would not presume to tell someone who is convinced they are making a meaningful contribution to the world that, really, they are not. But what about those people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless? Not long ago I got back in touch with a school friend who I hadn't seen since I was 12. I was amazed to discover that in the interim, he had become first a poet, then the front man in an indie rock band. I'd heard some of his songs on the radio having no idea the singer was someone I actually knew. He was obviously brilliant, innovative, and his work had unquestionably brightened and improved the lives of people all over the world. Yet, after a couple of unsuccessful albums, he'd lost his contract, and plagued with debts and a newborn daughter, ended up, as he put it, ‘taking the default choice of so many directionless folk: law school.’ Now he's a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm. He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.

There's a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever met a corporate lawyer who didn't think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting (an anthropologist, for example), will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely (one or t'other?) Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, as in the case of the fish-fryers, to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one's work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it's obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might markedly improve.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.

Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralysing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyse London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people. It's even clearer in the US, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It's as if they are being told ‘but you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?’

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it's hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working 3–4 hour days.

Woman killed as Caltrans crew clears homeless encampment in Modesto

AUG 30, 2018 |11:50 AM
Woman killed as Caltrans crew clears homeless encampment in Modesto
Police say a homeless woman sleeping in a cardboard box was struck and killed by heavy machinery operated by a Caltrans crew clearing a homeless camp earlier this month in Modesto. (Deke Farrow / Associated Press)

A 33-year-old woman sleeping in cardboard box in a homeless camp died this month after she was struck by machinery used by a California Department of Transportation crew to bulldoze the area.

Shannon Marie Bigley’s last known address was in Stockton, but police said prior to her death on Aug. 1, she had set up camp in a grassy field where homeless people frequently sleep alongside Highway 99 south of Kansas Avenue. A Caltrans crew operating a front loader was clearing the area that day.

California Highway Patrol Officer Thomas Olsen said the department’s multidisciplinary accident investigation team is still trying to determine how Bigley died. It is not clear when the investigation will be complete.

“We owe it to the family members and the victim to do a proper investigation,” Olsen said. “We’re not going to rush anything.”

A man who said he witnessed the incident told a reporter at the encampment that her body was “smashed.”

The woman’s death also renewed lingering tensions among Caltrans workers, who have been tasked with cleaning up dozens of homeless encampments across the state.

The union representing Caltrans workers on Wednesday filed a formal complaint with the agency highlighting health and safety concerns related to the practice, which workers contend should not be part of their duties.

“As we have said before, Caltrans is putting our members and the public at risk by requiring them to perform these homeless encampment cleanup duties,” Steve Crouch, director of public employees for Local 39 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, wrote in the complaint.

Caltrans did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

“Our sympathies go out to the family of the woman who was found earlier this month during an encampment cleanup along State Route 99 in Modesto,” the agency wrote in a statement to the Modesto Bee.

Crouch said Caltrans workers are not given protective equipment, training or vaccinations necessary to undertake the hazmat-type work. Homeless encampments where crews are dispatched often are littered with human waste and potentially hazardous items such as needles, which Crouch said poses a health risk for employees.

“This is not work that’s in their job specification,” Crouch said. “These are not hazmat crews. They’re being sent unprepared into an unsafe and unhealthy area.”

Crouch filed a similar grievance with the agency in April. In response, Caltrans officials told him they already were providing employees with necessary vaccinations and training and rejected the complaint, he said.

Keeping homeless encampments at bay is becoming a growing challenge as California’s unsheltered population continues to climb.

The tab for cleaning up homeless encampments across the state also has grown steadily over the past several years. Since 2012, Caltrans has spent about $29 million on it. Last year alone, the agency spent $10 million on the sweeps, according to a March performance report.

Crouch said he was told by Caltrans officials that it’s uncommon for crews to use machines to clear encampments. Before cleanup begins, a supervisor also is expected to survey the area and tag potentially hazardous items, he said.

“We were worried about something like this happening,” Crouch said. “The thing that troubles me about the incident in Modesto is: Why didn’t somebody walk it?”

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