Sunday, August 14, 2022

Speaking of Which

PS: Added another China/Taiwan link [08-15].

Two local friends, distinguished for their writing, teaching, and political activism, died in the last few days: Steve Otto (66) and Dottie Billings (89, obit not yet available, pictures stage right). I knew them through the Peace Center, and they were also involved in DSA (which I've never been involved with). Steve has been a freelance writer, and has several books to his credit. I didn't know him well, but always wished he had turned his blog posts about local KS politicians (especially Rep. Todd Tiahrt) into the vicious little book they deserved. He lived out of town, in Maize, so I rarely saw him, and we never really clicked, though we had much in common. My wife knew him better, through the Peace Cener board.

I knew Dottie better, and knew people who took anthropology courses from her at Wichita State. We had her and her husband Jim Phillips over for dinner several times. She would regale us with stories about growing up in Milwaukee when it still had a Socialist mayor, and challenge us to do more, but was always appreciative of what we did manage.

Tweet of the week, from The Drunk and Learned Armadillo of Doom:

You can tell Republicans deeply love America by their constant desire for things to be worse.

Context was an Elise Stefanik tweet about "Joe Biden's baby formula crisis," arguing that it "should NEVER have happened," with no mention of the Biden administration's good work to resolve the problem. Steve M. replied:

It's killing them that the many of the worst things that happened this year are resolved or getting better.

For another example, Zachary D. Carter noted:

It is reprehensible for @CNBC to have Luntz on to flat-out lie, and then blast the clip around without acknowledging anywhere that he was wrong. Inflation was 0% in July. That's just the data. Sorry it doesn't fit the political narrative you want.

Sarah Burris: [08-10] Trump pleads the 5th in NY probe after claiming only guilty people do that. Not one of his greater hypocrisies, but he should take this as a learning experience, and become less intemperate when others exercise their constitutional rights. But calling a deposition "a witch hunt" is more ignorance than hypocrisy. He's been handled with kid gloves compared to practically anyone else who's run up against the justice system, and not just because he has a phalanx of lawyers.

Dave DeCamp: [08-11] Sweden Agrees to Extradite Man to Turkey After NATO Deal: Turkey has demanded the right to incarcerate and most likely torture Turks who left the country, mostly for political reasons, as the price of agreeing to NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. I've argued we need an international law securing the right to exile. That would seem to apply here. I rarely understand such an obsession with getting your "pound of flesh."

Connor Echols: [08-12] Diplomacy Watch: Ukraine digs in as its Western support ebbs: "Despite the risk of a Russia-friendly government in Italy and reduced support from the US, Kyiv is showing no appetite for negotiations." I still haven't seen any evidence from Putin that he wants to negotiate, but Zelensky's repeated vows to take back every inch of Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014), show him to be hardly less intransigent. Even if Ukraine could retake the territory, the cost both to soldiers on both sides but also to civilians will be horrific. The obvious deal is to cease fire and run fair elections in the disputed areas. Russia would have to agree to withdraw from areas that voted it out. Once that is done, with reasonable guarantees that neither side will restart hostilities, the sanctions against Russia can be lifted. A sticky issue is whether people who left their homes will still be able to vote, but that is a problem that only gets worse as the war grinds on. I'd like to see a second referendum scheduled for 5-10 years ahead, which can act as a check on the winners of the first referendum delivering the recovery they no doubt will promise, but I can't dictate terms like that. Although I always liked the 1967 UN resolution phrasing about "the inadmissability of the acquisition of territory by war," that hasn't kept Israel from continuing its control of territories seized from Jordan, Syria, and Egypt 55 years ago. The prospects of forcibly ejecting Russia from Russian-majority regions of Ukraine are no better, but a referendum deal (even one that leads to a pro-Russian result) would both end the current bloodbath and offer some principled hope for resolving similar conflicts in the future. (It would, for instance, be better to have pro-Russian referendums in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and settle those disputes than let them fester indefinitely to preserve the pretense that they belong to Georgia. I can think of another half-dozen obvious candidates, including Taiwan.) Echols also wrote [08-10] US foreign arms sales spike to nearly $20B in the dog days of summer. Buyers include Germany, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Netherlands, Kuwait, Taiwan, and Norway. Some more on Ukraine:

  • Phyllis Bennis: [08-09] It's Time for Diplomacy: Sure, it's always been time for diplomacy, but the costs and consequences of not ending this war keep growing.
  • William Hartung: [08-12] There's a nuclear catastrophe on the horizon in Ukraine: Specifically, from shelling near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility.
  • Doug Klain: [08-11] Ukraine's Strike in Crimea Could Be a Turning Point in the War: No. It's just another escalation that digs both sides in even deeper. The war will end only when both sides decide to end it.
  • Anatol Lieven: [08-10] Beware of viewing Balkans as new front in Russia-NATO proxy war. More trouble between Kosovo and Serbia. Lieven also wrote [08-12] Bans on Russian travel and culture play into Putin's hands.
  • Cathy Young: [08-11] What's Behind Amnesty International's Victim-Blaming in Ukraine? "A light-on-facts exercise in bothsidesism." I haven't made much sense out of this, but the greater detail helps get past some of my initial misunderstandings, such as why the head of AI's Kyiv office resigned after the "report" came out. I know from past experience that AI has a "bothsidesism" slant: a prime example being their insistence on blaming Palestinian rockets as well as Israel for the latter's periodic shelling and bombing of Gaza. While Israel often cites the rockets as reason for its attacks, they are usually a response, and their destructive effect is trivial compared to Israel's firepower. But even if they were equivalent, the illegality of Israel's occupation, the limits of Palestinian self-defense, and the failure of Israel to negotiate a resolution all point to Israel as culpable for the war itself. Similarly, Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine, which makes it responsible not only for its specific war crimes, but for incidental war crimes in defense of Ukraine. That doesn't mean AI cannot criticize Ukrainian (or Gazan) tactics, but it should first make clear that those tactical errors were conditioned by the more basic crime of war itself.

Thomas Edsall: [08-10] How We Think About Politics Changes What We Think About Politics. Draws heavily on Poli Sci papers, but the conclusion fits experience. One thing we've noted is how Republicans became more likely to hold anti-abortion views as the party became increasingly identified with those views, while Democrats became more supportive of abortion rights. The study also shows that party elites are even more susceptible to partisan issue alignment (so the effect is not just due to the threat of purges, which happens in both parties, but much more aggressively in the Republican). Also see the note from Dean Baker: [08-10] Thomas Edsall Can't Even Consider That the Way We Structure Markets Creates Inequality.

Tom Engelhardt: [08-11] The Decline and Fall of Everything (Including Me).

Richard Falk: [08-12] Connecting Toxic Memories: Hiroshima and Nuremberg: It's been 77 years, but some people still remember. Also:

Chas Freeman: [08-09] How China and the US Threaten Each Other: "The Sino-American relationship is proof positive that, if you disregard a country's interests or treat it like an enemy, you can and will make it one." That's an important insight, one that you rarely hear in any facet of American life, especially in foreign policy (where its value should be most obvious). Russia is a good example: they humored the US through the 1990s, even after NATO started encroaching ever closer, through Bosnia and Kosovo, even after Putin came to power and watched the US move through the graveyards of Afghanistan. But still the US kept closing in, expanding NATO into the Baltic states, fomenting revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, until Putin finally snapped -- hence the war in Ukraine. China, too, has been patient and understanding, but the US is snipping at its borders, trying to stir up its minorities (in Tibet and Xinjiang), carping over Hong Kong, arming Taiwan, levying tariffs, talking about a "pivot to Asia." It's almost as if the US wants war with China. I seriously doubt that, but there are business interests that would profit handsomely from the threat. If both sides were absolutely clear about the other's intentions, it might just be a bit of Kabuki for the home crowds, but the lack of understanding in the US is huge and getting worse, and that's dangerous -- all the more so because Xi Jinping doesn't seem to be coping with hostile signals much more intelligently than Putin has. I know people who see WWIII looming. They are not likely right, but they are not categorically wrong either. PS: Here's an interview with Freeman from [08-02], with the transcript. More on China:

  • Dave DeCamp: [08-11] Taiwan Rejects China's 'One Country, Two Systems' Plans for Unification.
  • Ellen Ioanes: [08-06] The US and China might not get over the Taiwan crisis.
  • Daniel Larison: [08-12] Hawks: Time to prepare the nation for war with China: Elbridge Colby said that. He founded and runs a "think tank" called The Marathon Institute, and was "lead architect of the 2018 National Defense Strategy," which helped elevate China as a military threat. He has a 2019 book, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict. His article is America Must Prepare for a War Over Taiwan. He's probably just shilling for more arms sales, but it wouldn't be surprising if China reads him and decides that their odds are better now than they could be once America "prepares." A big part of Germany's justification for starting WWI was their fear that Russia was getting stronger, so they figured that they'd be better off attacking before that could happen. It was a monumentally stupid decision, but that's how war planners think.
  • PS: [08-11] 'Years to rebuild': Analysts' ominous prediction for US after Taiwan war simulations: "The results are grim for everyone involved." A reader forwarded this unsigned article, pubished on Murdoch's News Corp Australia online outlet. It suggests that if China attacked Taiwan, US ships and planes in the region would provide little defense, and could well be wiped out. Since WWII, the US has never fought against a foe with comparable air (or for that matter, naval) weaponry, and is mostly used to total air superiority, so a direct conflict with China would be uncharted territory. Some time ago, Chalmers Johnson sketched out another scenario which is frightening enough war planners might consider other careers. The US is highly dependent on satellites to provide eyes and ears over potential enemies, as well as communications and GPS used to guide rockets. Yet satellites are very vulnerable. Johnson calculated that the entire system could be disabled by "launching a dumptruck load of gravel into earth orbit" -- a capability that China certainly has, and could see as leveling the playing field. I still believe that a land invasion of Taiwan would be very difficult, and that the human costs of conquering and occupying the island would be horrific for all. But with stakes so high, wouldn't a bit of prudence be in order? Instead, a second US congressional delegation visits Taiwan, and in response China announces new drills.

Susan B Glasser/Peter Baker: [08-08] Inside the War Between Trump and His Generals: My impression was that when Trump entered the White House in 2017, he was inclined to be totally deferential to the military, to let them handle trouble spots any way they wanted, as long as it reinforced the other image Trump wanted to project: that he was one tough motherfucker. But by 2017, most generals had assumed a defensive crouch, trying to recover from the numerous self-inflicted injuries of the War on Terror. And when Trump did push one of his own ideas, it was usually bad -- one the authors point out here was the decision to send the military to patrol the Mexican border, to help with immigration enforcement. This is an excerpt from a new book, The Divider: Trump in the White House 2017-2021. The authors have previous books together on James Baker and Vladimir Putin.

Dylan Gyauch-Lewis: [08-11] Why Is Larry Summers Engaged in Science Denial About Inflation? I had no interest in the title, until I read the subhed: "It could be his conflicts of interest." Oh yeah, that! The article is based on The Revolving Door Project, which sounds like something we need.

Homma Hosseinmardi: [08-12] Why Cable News Still Has a More Polarizing Effect Than Social Media. That strikes me as true. There's a lot of bullshit on social media, but users have much more control over what I see (even ads, though I'd like to have more), so tend to stay in their neighborhood (mind is populated by relatively sane persons, with a couple relatives as exceptions).

Jake Johnson: [07-26] Biden Told Not to Give Publicly Owned Covid-19 Vaccine Tech Over to Corporations. Johnson also wrote [06-17] WTO Deal on Vaccine Patents Decried as a 'Sham' Dictated by Rich Nations, Big Pharma. Thanks to this government generosity, Brett Wilkins: [08-03] Moderna Revenue Shows Pandemic Has Been 'Lucrative Smash-and-Grab' for Big Pharma.

Bonnie Kristian: [08-13] Americans Are Too Pampered and Neurotic to Fight a Civil War: "Thank goodness for laziness." I considered linking to Richard E Rubenstein: [08-12] Talking Sense About "A New American Civil War", but this piece cuts to the point quicker. As someone who thinks that we face a lot of major problems, and that a dangerously large segment of the public are working to make them even worse, and that said segment isn't even approachable by reason, even by appeals to their own interest, I'm the sort of person who should be extra-sensitive to the prospects of civil war, but I still don't feel it. One test was Jan. 6, 2021, and I understand why many people were horrified by what happened then. But I never for a moment doubted that the cops would restore order, and after that law and some sense of normalcy. What we do have to worry about are anti-democratic legal maneuvers that the Republican-packed courts might uphold, and not-really-random acts of violence.

Dylan Matthews: [08-08] How effective altruism went from a niche movement to a billion-dollar force. I'm pretty skeptical of charities, but note this for future reference -- not that I have an informed opinion on the subject. PS: Turns out a flurry of articles have come out on this, most tied to the release of William MacAskill's book, What We Owe the Future. His previous book was Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work that Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back (2015).

  • Gideon Lewis-Kraus: [08-08] The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism: a profile of MacAskill.
  • Ezra Klein: [08-09] Three Sentences That Could Change the World -- and Your Life: an interview with MacAskill. [Transcript]
  • William MacAskill: [08-05] The Case for Longtermism: Adapted from the book.
  • Robert Wright: [08-10] The Case for Shortermism: "Concern for generations unborn is laudable and right, but is it really a pre-requisite for saving the world?" I'm most familiar with the short-vs.-long-term debate in business, where financial incentives are rigged to favor the short term (quarters rather than years, with decades and centuries all but unimaginable). Often the division is between founders (and employees), who aim to stick around, and financiers, who can't wait to sell out. But short-termers don't have the option of selling out of society (although some politicians seem to think that way). The bigger problem is uncertainty, which not only increases over time, but if pretty rife in the here and now.

AJ McDougall: [08-07] MAGA Clothing Brand Busted Over Fake 'Made in USA' Tags.

Ian Millhiser:

Aryeh Neier: [08-14] The Appalling Attack on Salman Rushdie Is an Attack on Free Speech: Back in the 1980s, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini was in a protracted pissing contest with Saudi Arabia over the spiritual leadership of the Islamic world. The division between Sunni and Shiite was at the root of this, but each side staked out extremist ground within that division. This started in 1979, when Khomeini overthrew the Shah, when Saudi radicals seized control of the Grand Mosque, when Iranian students took hostage of US embassy personnel in Tehran, and continued through the 1981-89 war initiated by Iraq, with the backing of the Saudis and their allies (including, ultimately, the US). In 1989, shortly before his death, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the faithful to kill Salman Rushdie, whose novel (The Satanic Verses) was held to as blasphemous to Islam. The book had already elicited demonstrations, both in the UK and India/Pakistan, sometimes violent. In some sense the fatwa was a mere publicity stunt, but in the context it was taken as a deadly threat. Rushdie went into hiding, appearing in public only with extra security (although that seems to have lapsed in recent years). Iran has paid little attention to the fatwa since Khomeini died, but his successor never revoked it. At this point, no one seems to know how closely the assault was linked to the fatwa, or indeed whether it had anything to do with it. Many of us had hoped that the extreme polarization of the 1980s would give way to acceptance of Iran as a normal nation -- hopes that have been repeatedly strained by the Ayatollah's old enemies across the Persian Gulf, by the Iran's even more virulent later enemy, and by their allies in the US. (Trita Parsi's 2007 book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, has a full accounting of how Israel, which had remained cozy with Iran through the 1980s, turned against them once Iraq ceased to be a serious threat -- it appears that Israel needs an existential enemy to keep its alliance with the US profitable.) Unfortunately, if Iran is responsible for this horrific crime, there's no real way to hole them accountable -- at least not one that doesn't further isolate and embitter Iran. PS: For the latest, see [08-14] Salman Rushdie taken off ventilator as 'road to recovery' begins, agent says. Also:

Jordan Michael Smith: [08-09] Focus on the Israel Lobby Gets U.S. Foreign Policy Wrong: Review of Walter Russell Mead: The Arc of Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People. Tries to argue that American "policymakers increased their support for Israel because they believed it was in the United States' strategic interest, rather than on principle." Supposedly, this disproves the notion that American politicians are simply being manipulated by AIPAC, but he winds up falling back on an ideological crutch: "The United States' bond with Israel is based on love for a strong, isolated country that embodies a macho Judeo-Christian heritage, is vengeful, and subdues its foes." That sentence embodies several fallacies. The success of AIPAC is largely based on their skill at manipulating such misunderstanding.

Jeffrey St Clair: [08-12] Roaming Charges: Gaza by Bomblight. Intro, on Israel's latest bombing of Gaza and its long list of precedents, is worth reading, even if you know it already. "Israel exists; therefore Gaza must be bombed. As long as Israel exists, Gaza will be bombed. Israel defines itself by what it is not. Israel is not Gaza. The more Israel bombs Gaza, the more deeply it becomes its true self." Much more, including a curt summary of the FBI finally looking at Trump instead of their usual prey, and many climate items (e.g., a picture of the waterless Loire River, noting that it is "the source of cooling water for 12 of France's nuclear power plants."

Emily Stewart/Li Zhou/Rebecca Leber: [08-07] The Inflation Reduction Act, explained: "The climate bill is also a health care bill (and it does a few things on taxes, too)."

Brynn Tannehill: [08-11] The Republican Plan to Devastate Public Education in America. More trouble with "thinking" about education:

Nick Turse: [08-10] Post-9/11 era one of the most militarily aggressive in US history: "Aeria has conducted nearly 400 interventions since its founding, with more than a quarter in the last 30 years."

Peter Wade: [08-14] Like Their Cult Leader, Jan. 6 Rioters Try to Cash in on Attempts to Destroy Democracy.

Jeanne Whalen: [08-09] A new era of industrial policy kicks off with signing of the Chips Act. Back when Trump was pulling tariffs out of his ass, I liked to note that tariffs make no sense unless you have a national industrial policy to take advantage of them. The US didn't have a policy, didn't even believe policies were a good thing. Republicans and neoliberal Democrats alike believed that businesses should be free to build or buy anything they want from anywhere they like, even if that means sending manufacturing jobs abroad in search of cheaper workers and more profits. So this bill is a big change, even if cloaked under a veneer of anti-Chinese "national security" rhetoric and larded in favor of the already rich. Whether it's a good thing will depend on myriad details, but the principle that manufacturing decisions can be influenced by the public interest is a major change. Other pieces:

Natasha Hakimi Zapata: [08-01] Boris Johnson's (Far From Final) Bill for Damages.

I saw a Jasper ad on Facebook, touting "NEW AI WRITES CONTENT FOR YOU," claiming "Start writing articles 10X faster." This offers people who suspect the web is heading for oblivion, drowned in a sea of hack content, an obvious target for blame, but humans are pretty efficient creators of crap content even without AI. So this ad, like so many, is targeted mostly at folks who don't know any better. One thing I'd like to see is a program that could read any piece of content and spit out a percentage likelihood that the piece was written by a machine. This could be embedded in a browser with a little meter up in one of the info bars. Google could use such a program to weigh its search options (not that anything but advertising seems to matter to them these days). Of course, that would lead the SEO experts to tricks to rig the standings. Ever since Turing's test, there's been a thin line between Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Stupidity.

The idea isn't new. Back in the 1980s, I imagined writing a program that could generate letters to my mother, who was more concerned with hearing from me than with what exactly I had to say. Ultimately, I didn't bother, but I'm not sure she wouldn't have been happier had I did. Back then the more interesting idea was developing tools to help writers write better. Researchers at Bell Labs developed something they called Writer's Workbench, but it got dropped from their UNIX releases, and I'm not aware of any efforts to reimplement it as free software. The commercial program Grammatik was available for a while, and ultimately incorporated into WordPerfect, but I'm not aware of similar tools these days, even though they should be much more sophisticated and useful. I routinely run my pieces through a wrapper program I wrote based on GNU spell, but it misses a lot of stuff that WWB could have caught in the 1980s. I can imagine much more useful tools, which could help people write better, but wonder whether their development isn't being inhibited by the business plans of big tech companies, which mean to keep AI embedded in products they can exploit commercially, often to our detriment.

Also on Facebook, Gretchen Eick underlined a section from a Carl Sagan book (The Demon-Haunted World, 1995):

But there's another reason: science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

I commented:

This reminds me of Jane Jacobs' similar warnings in her 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead. The book is organized into five sections, of which the third is "Bad Science." The second was on education, where she saw credentials seeking becoming more important than learning. The Sagan book features what he calls the "baloney detection kit." That reminded me of the best book ever written on education, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, which argued that the highest goal of education is to equip students with "bullshit detectors" (as I remembered it; the first chapter is "Crap Detecting." It was published in 1969, which in itself is evidence of how much darker the age had become by the time Sagan and Jacobs were writing.

Ask a question, or send a comment.