Later On

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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The lost “Greek” tribe of Alexander the Great

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Paul Raffaele writes in The Critic:

One hundred and twenty-seven years ago, a mysterious Afghan pagan tribe, the Kalash, fled Islamic religious persecution to three secretive valleys in a remote corner of what is now north-western Pakistan. In 1998, when I was visiting Lahore, a Pakistani friend told me that little was known about the Kalash, except that they still lived largely as their people had back in their homeland for more than 2,000 years.

The Kalash, rarely visited by outsiders, claimed descent from Alexander the Great’s troops who had campaigned through their Hindu Kush homeland. In their refuge, they were said to still practice a similar culture and religion to that of ancient Greece, even worshipping Zeus as their paramount god.

In 330BC, Alexander established many cities across what is now Afghanistan — with thousands of his soldiers left to inhabit them, keep order, with his generals to rule them. More than 10,000 of his troops married local women and stayed behind. He gave the cities Greek culture with artists, musicians, architects and artisans. They built outdoor theatres and gymnasiums, and erected countless marble statues of Greek gods.

Nudging the remote north-eastern edge of Afghanistan, the mountain town of Chitral, the provincial capital, was ruled by the ul-Mulk royal family until 1947, when it was swallowed by Pakistan. At breakfast the morning after I arrived in search of the Kalash, Prince Siraj, the grandson of Chitral’s last king, told me that near the turn of the nineteenth century, the entire Kalash tribe of about 50,000 spread across the high mountains of Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush bordering Chitral.

Scorned by Afghan Muslims as kafirs, their homeland was a secluded, mysterious place called Kafiristan, or Land of the Unbelievers. That was where Rudyard Kipling set his epic story, “The Man Who Would Be King”, first published in 1888 in Kipling’s collection of short stories, The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales. It was later made into a fanciful but entertaining film. Two rogue British soldiers, played by Michael Caine and Sean Connery, travelled to Kafiristan, where the Connery character is mistaken for a god.

So little was known of the ethnic group in 1888 that the Bombay-born Kipling based his story on vague rumour and his fertile imagination. The movie plunged even further from the truth with John Huston, the director, depicting the Kafirs, or Kalash, as resembling shaven-headed, ancient Egyptian priests clad in white robes.

Towards the nineteenth century’s end, the Sultan of Kabul, Abdur Rahman, brutally put down 40 rebellions during his 21-year reign. Following the gruesome example of the invading Mongols five centuries earlier, he built towers formed from the heads of thousands of defeated rebels who dared challenge him.

In 1895, he turned his attention to the Kalash. He decided their presence in his domain, with their free-wheeling, timeless lifestyle — a religion with multiple carved gods, rampant wine drinking, especially at their bacchanalian religious festivals, and exuberant fornication, even sanctioned adultery — was an abomination, a flagrant public insult to Islam, and thus to himself.

“The Sultan ordered all the Kalash to convert to Islam immediately,” Prince Siraj told me, “if not, he would declare a jihad against the Kafirs, and his troops would slaughter, by beheading, all those who resisted — men, women and even their children.”

Invading Kafiristan, he renamed it Nuristan, Land of the Enlightened, and offered the Kalash a simple choice: convert to Islam immediately or die by the sword. Almost all converted. Those who resisted and were captured, were slaughtered.

Siraj alerted me to an account of the massacre in mountain climber Eric Newby’s classic book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. The prince had the . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2022 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Books, History, Religion

Pakistan is Bankrupt

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This video is another that takes a look at the economic storm now in progress. Video is from two days ago.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2022 at 11:54 am

Free Speech on Trial

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Matt Stoller writes in Big:

Today’s issue is about how a subtle form of speech control works in 21st century America, as seen through two ongoing antitrust cases. The first is a merger trial where the government is trying to block the combination of publishing giants Penguin/Random House and Simon & Schuster, and the second is a lawsuit where conservative video service Rumble is suing Google for monopolization.

In both, dominant firms are trying to gain or protect market power, and in doing so, end up with too much power over the public square. It’s not intentional, but monopoly power fosters centralized control of what we can discuss.

Speech and Concentration Creep

In the 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks star as two business rivals who hate each other in ‘real life’ but connect and fall in love anonymously over the internet. Hanks plays Joe Fox, a tycoon who owns a Barnes and Nobles-style corporate book chain, trying to crush the small store owned by Kathleen Kelly, played by Meg Ryan. After a noisy but adorably silly protest, the movie ends with Kelly losing her store, but getting Tom Hanks as a soulmate. It’s a delightful film, a Nora Ephron-written classic.

What’s interesting about this movie from an anti-monopolist standpoint, however, is not the romance, but the politics. The movie is almost aggressively apathetic about concentrations of power. We tend to look at corporate concentration as a relatively recent phenomenon. Big tech emerged in force in the 2000s, that’s when offshoring to China happened in force, and the key major ruling ending monopolization cases didn’t occur until 2004. But here’s a movie showing that almost 25 years ago, before all that, consolidation was so well-known as to be a relatively unremarked central plot element of a popular film.

You’ve Got Mail is also a movie about a specific industry, publishing. Indeed, in many ways, the book industry has been a canary in the coal mine for concentration in the American economy. Books were the very first industry dominated by Amazon, but it isn’t just the retail giant. Every part of the book business, from retail stores to distribution to printing to retail to audio and ebooks to publishing houses, has been consolidating for decades. In the movie Tom Hanks is kind and charming; in real life, Barnes and Nobles used its power over shelf space to act as the industry bully, until Jeff Bezos came along and turned market power into performance art. Then, ten years ago, Penguin and Random House merged, allowed by the Obama administration’s antitrust enforcers. The book business is an increasingly cruel and lawless world, not a romantic one. . .

Continue reading. Interesting stuff.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2022 at 11:44 am

This photo triggered China’s Cultural Revolution

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This short video is well worth watching. The Great Chinese Famine’s death toll was staggering (see this earlier post). As China lurches toward another Great episode (as depicted in three recent videos), it’s worth taking a few minutes to see the course earlier taken.

Written by Leisureguy

10 August 2022 at 11:34 am

Cathie Wood: China’s COLLAPSE Is FAR Worse Than You Think

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This is another video on the perils the Chinese economy faces. Worth watching.

Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2022 at 12:54 pm

What is the optimal diet?

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Something happened in 1926, and I have no idea what it was. Look at the two charts in the video at 00:44 to 00:51. Note the sharp change in rate of increase that happened in 1926. Any ideas about that year?

— Update: Just received a phone call from The Eldest, who works at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. She told me that it was around 1926 — in fact, slightly before — that scientists began to discover the chemistry of food: what things in food made it nutritious. She sent me a PDF of a timeline of nutrition research. 

Still, that leaves open the question of what happened in 1926 to bend upward the rate of deaths from heart disease — e.g., 

Chart from the video below, which includes also a chart for Females (showing the same upward bend at 1926)
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Written by Leisureguy

9 August 2022 at 11:47 am

A Uranium Ghost Town in the Making

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Mark Olalde and Maya Miller report in ProPublica:

The “death map” tells the story of decades of sickness in the small northwest New Mexico communities of Murray Acres and Broadview Acres. Turquoise arrows point to homes where residents had thyroid disease, dark blue arrows mark cases of breast cancer, and yellow arrows mean cancer claimed a life.

Neighbors built the map a decade ago after watching relatives and friends fall ill and die. Dominating the top right corner of the map, less than half a mile from the cluster of colorful arrows, sits what residents believe is the cause of their sickness: 22.2 million tons of uranium waste left over from milling ore to supply power plants and nuclear bombs.

“We were sacrificed a long time ago,” said Candace Head-Dylla, who created the death map with her mother after Head-Dylla had her thyroid removed and her mother developed breast cancer. Research has linked both types of illnesses to uranium exposure.

Beginning in 1958, a uranium mill owned by Homestake Mining Company of California processed and refined ore mined nearby. The waste it left behind leaked uranium and selenium into groundwater and released the cancer-causing gas radon into the air. State and federal regulators knew the mill was polluting groundwater almost immediately after it started operating, but years passed before they informed residents and demanded fixes.

The contamination continued to spread even after the mill closed in 1990.

The failures at Homestake are emblematic of the toxic legacy of the American uranium industry, one that has been well-documented from its boom during the Cold War until falling uranium prices and concerns over the dangers of nuclear power decimated the industry in the 1980s. Uranium mining and milling left a trail of contamination and suffering, from miners who died of lung cancer while the federal government kept the risks secret to the largest radioactive spill in the country’s history.

But for four decades, the management of more than 250 million tons of radioactive uranium mill waste has been largely overlooked, continuing to pose a public health threat.

ProPublica found that regulators have failed to hold companies to account when they missed cleanup targets and accepted incorrect forecasts that pollution wouldn’t spread. The federal government will eventually assume responsibility for the more than 50 defunct mills that generated this waste.

At Homestake, which was among the largest mills, the company is bulldozing a community in order to walk away. Interviews with dozens of residents, along with radon testing and thousands of pages of company and government records, reveal a community sacrificed to build the nation’s nuclear arsenal and atomic energy industry.

Time and again, Homestake and government agencies promised to clean up the area. Time and again, they missed their deadlines while further spreading pollution in the communities. In the 1980s, Homestake promised residents groundwater would be cleaned within a decade, locals told the Environmental Protection Agency and ProPublica. After missing that target, the company told regulators it would complete the job around 2006, then by 2013.

In 2014, an EPA report confirmed the site posed an unacceptable cancer risk and identified radon as the greatest threat to residents’ health. Still, the cleanup target date continued shifting, to 2017, then 2022.

Rather than finish the cleanup, Homestake’s current owner . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 August 2022 at 12:16 pm

The continuing struggle to make America what it claims to be

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Heather Cox Richardson looks at the history of America’s conflicted aspirations:

On this day in 1880, the Republican candidate for president, James A. Garfield, spoke to thousands of supporters from the balcony of the Republican headquarters in New York City. Ten years before, in 1870, Americans had added the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, making sure that Black men could vote by guaranteeing that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

As soon as the amendment was ratified, though, white southerners who were dead set against their Black neighbors participating in their government began to say that they had no problem with Black men voting on racial grounds. Their objection to Black voting, they claimed, was that poor, uneducated Black men just out of enslavement were voting for lawmakers who promised them public services, like roads and schools, that could be paid for only with taxes levied on people with the means to pay, which in the post–Civil War South usually meant white men.

Complaining that Black voters were socialists—they actually used that term in 1871—white southerners began to keep Black voters from the polls. In 1878, Democrats captured both the House and the Senate, and former Confederates took control of key congressional committees. From there, in the summer of 1879, they threatened to shut down the federal government altogether unless the president, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, agreed to end the federal protection of Black Americans in the South.

The congressional leader who eventually forced them to back down was James A. Garfield (R-OH). Impressed by his successful effort to save the country, in 1880, party leaders nominated him for president.

Garfield was a brilliant and well-educated man and had served in the Civil War himself. On August 6 in New York City, he singled out the veterans in the crowd to explain how he saw the nation’s future.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “ideas outlive men; ideas outlive all earthly things. You who fought in the war for the Union fought for immortal ideas, and by their might you crowned the war with victory. But victory was worth nothing except for the truths that were under it, in it, and above it. We meet tonight as comrades to stand guard around the sacred truths for which we fought.”

“[W]e will remember our allies who fought with us,” he told them. “Soon after the great struggle began, we looked beyond the army of white rebels, and saw 4,000,000 of [B]lack people condemned to toil as slaves for our enemies; and we found that the hearts of these 4,000,000 were God-inspired with the spirit of liberty, and that they were all our friends.” As the audience cheered, he continued: “We have seen white men betray the flag and fight to kill the Union; but in all that long, dreary war we never saw a traitor in a black skin.” To great applause, he vowed, “[W]e will stand by these [B]lack allies. We will stand by them until the sun of liberty, fixed in the firmament of our Constitution, shall shine with equal ray upon every man, [B]lack or white, throughout the Union.” As the audience cheered, he continued: “Fellow-citizens, fellow-soldiers, in this there is the beneficence of eternal justice, and by it we will stand forever.”

Garfield won the presidency that year, but just barely. The South went solidly Democratic, and in the years to come, white northerners looked the other way as white southerners kept Black men from voting, first with terrorism and then with state election laws using grandfather clauses that cut out Black men without mentioning race by permitting a man to vote if his grandfather had voted, literacy tests in which white registrars got to decide who passed, poll taxes that were enforced arbitrarily, and so on. States also cut up districts unevenly to favor the Democrats, who ran an all-white, segregationist party. In 1880, the South became solidly Democratic, and with white men keeping Black people from the polls, it would remain so until 1964.

But then, exactly 85 years after Garfield’s speech, on August 6, 1965,  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

7 August 2022 at 2:39 pm

The war against printing

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Aldus Pius Manutius (1449-1515) an Italian humanist. Engraving by Yenetta, 1880. Credit : Album / Alamy Stock Photo.

Technological progress frequently is met with resistance because almost always such progress involves trade-offs, and for some what is traded off is too central to the enterprise to be discarded. Alexander Lee provides an example in Engelsberg Ideas. He writes:

The pen is a virgin,’ wrote Filippo de Strata in the late fifteenth century, but ‘the printing press is a whore.’ And that wasn’t the half of it. Born into a wealthy Pavian family, Filippo had joined the Dominican Order at a young age and had spent most of his adult life at the convent of San Cipriano, on the Venetian island of Murano. One of the smallest religious communities in the lagoon, it could boast no special intellectual renown, yet its members still attached great importance to the production of manuscripts, and Filippo was no exception. He translated texts from Latin into Italian, copied sermons and biblical commentaries, and even penned a few works of his own. Yet he was also a pompous, even arrogant man, who seemed to be at war with the world around him. His invectives were legion. He attacked the French for spreading heresy among unsuspecting Italians and wrote a rather clunky elegy against the use of organ music in church. But it was printing which attracted the worst of his ire. In a Latin address to Doge Nicolò Marcello, written at some point between August 1473 and December 1474, and in a vernacular poem composed about 20 years later, he lashed out at it with unconcealed hatred. He not only called the press a ‘whore’, but also accused printers of being ‘asses’ — and even asked the Doge to ban printing altogether.

It was, perhaps, not the most obvious of targets. Between the development of the first writing systems in ancient Mesopotamia and the dawn of the internet age, nothing so revolutionised communication as the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg (c.1400–68). Indeed, as the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) later wrote, it was one of the three innovations ‘unknown to the ancients’ which could genuinely be said to have ‘changed the appearance of the whole world’.

Granted, the idea behind it wasn’t completely new. For some time, Europeans frustrated by traditional forms of scribal production had been looking for ways of speeding things up. Back in the thirteenth century, the so-called pecia system had been introduced at the universities of Oxford, Paris and Bologna. Books which were in high demand were divided up into sections and rented out a piece at a time, so that several students could copy the same text simultaneously. A little over 100 years later, some Rhenish or Burgundian carvers may also have experimented with printing very short texts using wooden blocks. But even at their best, such methods were clumsy, expensive and fraught with problems.

What made Gutenberg’s innovation so remarkable was his use of movable metal type. This not only allowed compositors to set any text, but it was also so durable that it could be used hundreds — if not thousands — of times without any significant loss of clarity. Combined with a press (modelled on that used for producing wine), a stickier variety of ink and large sheets of paper, Gutenberg’s type allowed a printer to produce books in greater numbers and more quickly than anyone had ever thought possible. As the humanist Benedetto Brugnoli (1427-1502) later observed, ‘twenty men may [now] print in a month more books than one hundred could previously have copied in a year.’

After Gutenberg established his press in Mainz in c.1450, printing spread rapidly — if rather erratically — throughout Europe. Within less than 20 years, . . .

Continue reading. Complaints about readily available books are specified later in the article.

Written by Leisureguy

6 August 2022 at 1:45 pm

“Zero City,” a fascinating surreal late-Soviet movie

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Zero City (aka Zerograd) was released 34 years ago and is a stunning movie. You can watch the entire movie on YouTube in full HD. (Unless you understand Russian, you’ll want to turn on the English subtitles by clicking the little “CC” box in the screen’s menu bar.)

Politico has an interesting article on how the movie relates to current Russian events (and of what became of some of the participants in the movie), but it is chockablock with spoilers, so I recommend you watch the movie before you read the article in Politico.

Written by Leisureguy

5 August 2022 at 7:29 am

The Conscious Universe

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Joe Zadeh wrote in Noéma in November 2021:

London was a crowded city in 1666. The streets were narrow, the air was polluted, and inhabitants lived on top of each other in small wooden houses. That’s why the plague spread so easily, as well as the Great Fire. So did gossip, and the talk of the town was Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle.

Cavendish was a fiery novelist, playwright, philosopher and public figure known for her dramatic manner and controversial beliefs. She made her own dresses and decorated them in ribbons and baubles, and once attended the theater in a topless gown with red paint on her nipples. In his diaries, Samuel Pepys described her as a “mad, conceited, ridiculous woman,” albeit one he was obsessed with: He diarized about her six times in one three-month spell.

The duchess drew public attention because she was a woman with ideas, lots of them, at a time when that was not welcome. Cavendish had grown up during the murderous hysteria of the English witch trials, and her sometimes contradictory proto-feminism was fueled by the belief that there was a parallel to be drawn between the way men treated women and the way men treated animals and nature. “The truth is,” she wrote, “we [women] Live like Bats or Owls, labour like Beasts and die like Worms.”

In 1666, she released “The Blazing World,” a romantic and adventurous fantasy novel (as well as a satire of male intellectualism) in which a woman wanders through a portal at the North Pole and is transported to another world full of multicolored humans and anthropomorphic beasts, where she becomes an empress and builds a utopian society. It is now recognized as one of the first-ever works of science fiction.

But this idea of a blazing world was not just fiction for Cavendish. It was a metaphor for her philosophical theories about the nature of reality. She believed that at a fundamental level, the entire universe was made of just one thing: matter. And that matter wasn’t mostly lifeless and inert, like most of her peers believed, but animate, aware, completely interconnected, at one with the stuff inside us. In essence, she envisioned that it wasn’t just humans that were conscious, but that consciousness, in some form, was present throughout nature, from animals to plants to rocks to atoms. The world, through her eyes, was blazing.

Cavendish was not the only one to have thoughts like these at that time, but they were dangerous thoughts to have. In Amsterdam, the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote that every physical thing had its own mind, and those minds were at one with God’s mind; his books were banned by the church, he was attacked at knifepoint outside a synagogue, and eventually, he was excommunicated. Twenty-three years before Cavendish was born, the Italian Dominican friar and philosopher, Giordano Bruno — who believed the entire universe was made of a single universal substance that contained spirit or consciousness — was labeled a heretic, gagged, tied to a stake and burned alive in the center of Rome by the agents of the Inquisition. His ashes were dumped in the Tiber.

If the dominant worldview of Christianity and the rising worldview of science could agree on anything, it was that matter was dead: Man was superior to nature. But Cavendish, Spinoza, Bruno, and others had latched onto the coattails of an ancient yet radical idea, one that had been circulating philosophy in the East and West since theories of mind first began. Traces of it can be found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and the philosophy of ancient Greece, as well as many indigenous belief systems around the world. The idea has many forms and versions, but modern studies of it house them all inside one grand general theory: panpsychism.

Derived from the Greek words pan (“all”) and psyche (“soul” or “mind”), panpsychism is the idea that consciousness — perhaps the most mysterious phenomenon we have yet come across — is not unique to the most complex organisms; it pervades the entire universe and is a fundamental feature of reality. “At a very basic level,” wrote the Canadian philosopher William Seager, “the world is awake.”

Plato and Aristotle had panpsychist beliefs, as did the Stoics. At the turn of the 12th century, the Christian mystic Saint Francis of Assisi was so convinced that everything was conscious that he tried speaking to flowers and preaching to birds. In fact, the history of thought is dotted with very clever people coming to this seemingly irrational conclusion. William James, the father of American psychology, was a panpsychist, as was the celebrated British mathematician Alfred North Whitehead; the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck once remarked in an interview, “I regard consciousness as fundamental.” Even the great inventor Thomas Edison had some panpsychist views, telling the poet George Parsons Lathrop: “It seems that every atom is possessed by a certain amount of primitive intelligence.”

But over the course of the 20th century, panpsychism came to be seen as absurd and incompatible in mainstream Western science and philosophy, just a reassuring delusion for New Age daydreamers. Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of recent times, described it as “trivial” and “grossly misleading.” Another heavyweight, Ludwig Wittgenstein, waved away the theory: “Such image-mongery is of no interest to us.” As the American philosopher John Searle put it: “Consciousness cannot be spread across the universe like a thin veneer of jam.”

Most philosophers and scientists with panpsychist beliefs kept them quiet for fear of public ridicule. Panpsychism used  . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2022 at 5:53 pm

Nancy Pelosi, China and the Slow Decline of the U.S. Military

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

As military tensions flare between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, it’s easy to put all eyes on Nancy Pelosi and her visit to the island. Symbolism matters deeply in international relations, and this event is setting the direction for how Chinese and U.S. leaders will relate to one another. But six weeks ago, an obscure military bureaucrat named Cameron Holt offered another, equally important signal about this relationship. Holt is the head of acquisitions for the Air Force, which means he oversees the buying of everything from drones to nuclear missiles. And in a fascinating and spicy speech, he said that if the U.S. doesn’t get better at buying weapons, America will lose in a future conflict to China. “It’s simply math,” he argued.

The reason is that China is better at procurement. China is getting weapons “five to six times” more rapidly than the United States. “In purchasing power parity,” he said, “they spend about one dollar to our 20 dollars to get to the same capability.” This problem is directly related to market power in the U.S. Holt went over the business strategy of U.S. defense contractors, noting their goal is to lowball contracts but keep control of intellectual property. Then, he said, they create vendor lock-in, and raise prices later. In other words, they underprice upfront so they can eventually exploit pricing power over the Pentagon. Chinese acquisition strategies are more efficient and less brittle, which means over time their military will overtake ours.

Nothing Holt said is a surprise. Everyone knows how screwed up U.S. procurement is, the warnings come in almost daily. For instance, the U.S. can’t replace its stocks of Javelins and Stinger missiles sent to Ukraine, it’s going to take years to restart some of the assembly lines. Raytheon and Lockheed are having supply chain issues, and are unable to deliver weapons despite strong orders. We can’t even make the chips for weapons systems like the B-2 bomber, because semiconductor firms are shutting down the fabs that made the old parts. One could argue these are anomalies, unusual situations, but war is the ultimate moment of supply chain disruption, so that’s cold comfort.

To put the problem simply, we spend massively on weapons and get too little for it. Why? Just like health care or most other bloated sectors, it’s the prices, stupid. We consolidated economic power in the hands of a few dominant defense contractors and financiers, and they have become slothful and expensive. Fortunately, since it’s a problem caused by policy, it’s also a problem that can be solved by policy. And there are useful legislative attempts to do so.

Let’s start with how the U.S. organizes its defense thinking around procurement and economics. Traditional American strategy was laid out after the Revolutionary War, when U.S. policymakers recognized that to be an independent nation required domestic manufacturing and shipping capacity to reduce dependency on foreign actors, which through much of the 19th century was Great Britain. The idea we should be able to supply ourselves with industrial goods that could be repurposed for weaponry was key to every U.S. war, both then and since. For instance, in World War II, the U.S. became the ‘arsenal of democracy’ largely by transforming its peacetime industrial capacity to focus on industrial-scale warfare. Instead of cars, Ford factories churned out tanks and aircraft. Similarly, the Cold War aerospace industry in the form of Boeing and regulated airlines such as Pan Am served both civilian and military purposes.

Until the early 1990s, this basic strategy held; retain an industrial base for security purposes, so as to be able to produce lots of cheap interoperable machines and weapons if necessary. Public control over the defense part of this base occurred through competition; during World War II, there were more than a dozen prime contractors for every major weapons system. So if one entity screwed up or under-invested, military officers could procure elsewhere.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, U.S. strategists changed this successful model of governance. The national security world and Wall Street, whose relationship had always been somewhat tense, became more aligned in their vision of how to project U.S. power. They coalesced around . . .

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Written by Leisureguy

3 August 2022 at 11:41 am

How the NRA has blocked gun control in the U.S.

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Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2022 at 10:58 am

The reactionary roots of crypto and web3: A TEDx talk by David Troy

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Written by Leisureguy

2 August 2022 at 10:56 am

Revealed: untold story of the CIA/Stasi double agent abandoned after 22 years of service

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A fascinating article by leni Braat, Associate professor of international history, Utrecht University, and Ben de Jong, Research Fellow, Leiden University, that was published in The Conversation:

I was naked, tied to a hard chair with handcuffs. Three or four burly fellows in uniform are standing around me, one of them behind me with a truncheon… ‘Sie sind ein Verräter! [You are a traitor!],’ they snap.

These are the words of double agent “M”, who operated for the Dutch security service and the CIA against the East German Stasi for 22 years. In early 1985, it appeared that the Stasi may have uncovered his deception – and his true loyalty to the west. He was in East Berlin at the time and the men had rudely awoken M around 4am. Still in pyjamas, he was taken from the safe house where he was staying for debriefing sessions with his Stasi handlers to a van with darkened windows that transported him, under armed guard, to a prison.

They told him he was in the Untersuchungshaftanstalt (pre-trial detention center) Berlin-Hohenschönhausen, a notorious site during the cold war under the control of the Ministry of State Security (Stasi). M was forced to undergo a degrading and extremely painful cavity inspection, before being taken – still naked – to an interrogation room.

His captors intimidated him by pouring cold water over him from a bucket until the afternoon. They taunted him constantly, saying things like “You betrayed Marxism-Leninism” and “You are a CIA agent”. Yet M said he felt strangely reassured because these accusations were not specific – they were meant to provoke him. In other words, his interrogators seemed to lack proof.

We interviewed M extensively between 2019 and 2021 about his career as a spy during the cold war. He told us about his life as a “double agent” and how, in the end, he was abandoned by the masters he had served. We checked and cross-referenced his account and our research has been peer-reviewed and published in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. But it is hard to know the full truth when it comes to the secretive world of espionage, so we have tried to highlight those areas which are impossible to verify.

It’s important to underline just how rare it is for a former secret service agent to open up and talk on the record about their experiences. M gave us a truly unique insight into the secret workings of three different intelligence agencies. He spoke about issues he hadn’t even told his wife about.


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M’s spying career began in the second half of the 1960s when the Dutch security service, the BVD (Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst) – the predecessor of the present-day AIVD (Algemene Inlichtingen- en Veiligheidsdienst) – recruited him. He was working for a Dutch multinational that we have agreed not to name. That career would go on to provide excellent cover for his clandestine work, as it involved a lot of international travel.

M worked for the Dutch service for many years and subsequently for the CIA. The Americans were keen to use him when they learned he had also been recruited by the foreign intelligence arm of the Stasi – the renowned Hauptverwaltung (Chief Administration) A, known by its acronym HVA.

Over a period of more than 20 years, from the late 1960s until the end of the cold war, the HVA considered M their agent and he gave the East Germans information – much of it acquired through the multinational he worked for. But throughout this time, his primary loyalty was to the Dutch service and the CIA. From the perspective of the East Germans, M was indeed a traitor. After seeing the evidence he provided to us, we believe his account of working against the Stasi is credible.

A double-cross?

M’s motive in sharing his story stems from his desire to learn more about certain episodes from his spying career. He wants to find out, in particular, why his East German handlers, whom he had managed to deceive so successfully for so many years, suddenly seemed to turn against him in the mid-1980s.

It transpired that the humiliating interrogation was in fact a mock arrest led by Stasi handlers to test his mettle. But the episode planted a seed of doubt in M’s mind about whether the Stasi was on to him. A seed that would grow over the years to become an obsession. He would go on to believe that he had been betrayed.

According to M, only “treason” within the CIA could explain it – that a mole within the American intelligence service had betrayed him as a double agent to the Soviet KGB. During the cold war, the KGB, of course, worked very closely with the Stasi. On several occasions, M discussed the possibility that someone like Aldrich Ames, a notorious KGB mole inside the CIA between 1985 and 1994, was responsible for betraying him.

In all six of our interviews, M emphasised the distinctive nature of his relationships with the three different services he dealt with. His two long-time Stasi handlers were . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2022 at 5:55 am

Excellent movie: “The Last Full Measure”

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The Last Full Measure on Netflix now is an excellent movie with an excellent cast. Based on a true story.

Written by Leisureguy

29 July 2022 at 2:19 pm

Why humans run the world

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Very interesting TED talk by Yuval Noah Harari. It seems to me that the cement that enables large-scale cooperation among humans is trust, and currently that is being diluted and undermined by those who exploit it selfishly.

What he calls “fictions” are, in my view, a variety of memes (cultural entities).

Also, interesting quotation:

We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or unindebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong.

-Karl Popper, philosopher and professor (28 Jul 1902-1994)

Written by Leisureguy

28 July 2022 at 2:34 pm

Past Lives of the Paragraph

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When I read Richard Hughes Gibson’s essay on the paragraph, I immediately misremembered a quotation from Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, 1874-1904. That passage in my memory was as follows:

[B]y being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell — a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great — was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing — namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. . . Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British paragraph — which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.

The actual quotation has “sentence” in place of “paragraph,” but in the context of Gibson’s essay, “paragraph” slid neatly into place. (His comment that clever boys could “learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat” first brought to mind Samuel Johnson’s famous dictum, “Greek, sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can” and then also a comment from Eva T.H. Brann, one of my tutors at St. John’s, to the effect that students in general think the amount of Latin they already know is sufficient, but however much Greek they know, they want to know more.)

But let us now turn to the paragraph. Gibson writes:

[I]t is a little remarkable that the treatises on rhetoric were so slow in coming to note the organic significance of the paragraph: that the theory of the teachers was so many years behind the practice of the writers.

Edwin Herbert Lewis, A History of the English Paragraph (1894)

[T]here is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch of a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimited by a blank line or an indentation.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (2015)

What is a paragraph? Consult a writing guide, and you will receive an answer like this: “A paragraph is a group of sentences that develops one central idea.” However solid such a definition appears on the page, it quickly melts in the heat of live instruction, as any writing teacher will tell you. Faced with the task of assembling their own paragraphs, students find nearly every word in the formula problematic. How many sentences belong in the “group?” Somewhere along the way, many were taught that five or six will do. But then out there in the world, they have seen (or heard rumors of) bulkier and slimmer specimens, some spilling over pages, some consisting of a single sentence. And how does one go about “developing” a central idea? Is there a magic number of subpoints or citations? Most problematic of all is the notion of the main “idea” itself. What qualifies? Facts? Propositions? Your ideas? Someone else’s?

In his 1928 English Prose Style, the poet and art critic Herbert Read argued that there’s no point in fussing about the “vague” notion of a central “idea” anyway, since it “will be found of little application to the paragraphs we find in literature,” a claim that Read illustrates with unruly precedents from Thomas Babington Macaulay, John Milton, and D.H. Lawrence, among others. What Read clarifies is not only that single-minded definitions buckle under even minimal stress. Taking up his nearly century-old book, one recognizes a peculiar tradition in which one textbook after another, one generation after another, has promoted a blueprint for paragraph construction conspicuously at odds with the prose of the most highly acclaimed stylists of the English language.

What gives? The tension reflects the paragraph’s curious history as a punctuation mark and unit of thought. In fact, my opening question—what is a paragraph?—only gets more complicated as we gaze further and further into the past, as the paragraph gradually dwindles to a thin line in the margins. This backstory explains why it is so hard to say what exactly a paragraph is and, in turn, why we struggle now to legislate its parameters. But this isn’t an entirely despairing story: To recall the paragraph’s past lives is also to consider how previous generations have put their thoughts in order and to gain thereby a vantage to reconsider our own writing practices.

The trouble begins with the ancient Greeks. Their scribes—and later their Roman imitators—laid out documents in columns on papyrus bookrolls (a.k.a. scrolls) using a method known as scriptio continua in which words are written without spaces in between. The classicist William Johnson has memorably likened the effect to “a tight phalanx of clear, distinct letters, each marching one after the other to form an impression of continuous flow.” But scriptio continua poses an obvious challenge: The reader must sort the marching characters into meaningful words and sentences. Unsurprisingly, scribes and readers over the centuries invented marking systems to aid the reader’s labors of understanding and, equally important, vivid articulation—reading being very much an oral performance in antiquity.

The first such mark—in use from the fourth-century BCE on—was a plain horizontal stroke drawn in the margin alongside or perhaps slightly intruding between lines of the text. This paragraphos (literally, “written beside”) has been called “the first punctuation mark,” though it likely wouldn’t pass muster with modern grade school teachers because it didn’t have a consistent grammatical or rhetorical function. It signified simply that a transition of some kind would take place in the neighboring line—perhaps the beginning of a new sentence or stanza, perhaps a change of speaker in a drama or Platonic dialogue. Typophile Keith Houston has rightly called the paragraphos a “crude instrument.” Its pliability, though, made it eminently useful.

As a mark of change, the paragraphos was a familiar device in the scribal arsenal—along with techniques such as outdenting, enlarging letters, and leaving empty space— for identifying subsections of texts, including those that conform to our sense of paragraph-scale. However, and here we run into our first bump in the narrative, classicists and biblical scholars have debated whether to call these chunks “paragraphs,” at least in the modern sense. First of all, save for a few hints otherwise, these marks cannot be attributed to the authors of the documents; they represent a later (perhaps centuries-later) reader’s or scribe’s interpretation of a given document’s structure (which sometimes varies between copies). More importantly, classical rhetoric had no concept of “the paragraph” as “a generic unit of discourse,” as the rhetorician Jeanne Fahnestock has observed. To be sure, ancient rhetoricians were formidable scholars, and left behind an enormous body of useful counsel about language (poetic and prosaic), argumentation, and education, among other matters. But their principal charge was the training of orators, and though some teachers encouraged writing exercises to that end, none taught the skill of assembling a series of written blocks of text, each designed to unfold ideas, themes, subjects, incidents, etc. Antiquity, in short, provided the terminology from which the paragraph derives but no edicts to govern its production.

The medievals gradually disbanded the scriptio continua phalanx. First its field was taken. In the late Roman Empire, the bookroll was displaced by the new stack-and-flip writing technology, the codex (what we usually mean by “book” now), which had been adopted early on by Christian communities and was better suited to northern lands where papyrus was hard to come by but animal skins weren’t. The codex introduced the page—a new surface, framing device, and interface whose possibilities scribes and artists of the High Middle Ages would consciously exploit. But the more immediate threat to scriptio continua was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 July 2022 at 8:54 am

The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change

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Dishonesty and bad faith are endemic in business and politics — and doubtless in all large swaths of human relations — and those will be what will destroy us. Ignoring reality is a strategy for failure because reality endures.

Jane McMullen reports for BBC News:

Thirty years ago, a bold plan was cooked up to spread doubt and persuade the public that climate change was not a problem. The little-known meeting – between some of America’s biggest industrial players and a PR genius – forged a devastatingly successful strategy that endured for years, and the consequences of which are all around us.

On an early autumn day in 1992, E Bruce Harrison, a man widely acknowledged as the father of environmental PR, stood up in a room full of business leaders and delivered a pitch like no other.

At stake was a contract worth half a million dollars a year – about £850,000 in today’s money. The prospective client, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – which represented the oil, coal, auto, utilities, steel, and rail industries – was looking for a communications partner to change the narrative on climate change.

Don Rheem and Terry Yosie, two of Harrison’s team present that day, are sharing their stories for the first time.

“Everybody wanted to get the Global Climate Coalition account,” says Rheem, “and there I was, smack in the middle of it.”

The GCC had been conceived only three years earlier, as a forum for members to exchange information and lobby policy makers against action to limit fossil fuel emissions.

Though scientists were making rapid progress in understanding climate change, and it was growing in salience as a political issue, in its first years the Coalition saw little cause for alarm. President George HW Bush was a former oilman, and as a senior lobbyist told the BBC in 1990, his message on climate was the GCC’s message.

There would be no mandatory fossil fuel reductions.

But all that changed in 1992. In June, the international community created a framework for climate action, and November’s presidential election brought committed environmentalist Al Gore into the White House as vice-president. It was clear the new administration would try to regulate fossil fuels.

The Coalition recognised that it needed strategic communications help and put out a bid for a public relations contractor.

Though few outside the PR industry might have heard of E Bruce Harrison or the eponymous company he had run since 1973, he had a string of campaigns for some of the US’s biggest polluters under his belt.

He had worked for the chemical industry discrediting research on the toxicity of pesticides; for the tobacco industry, and had recently run a campaign against tougher emissions standards for the big car makers. Harrison had built a firm that was considered one of the very best.

Media historian Melissa Aronczyk, who interviewed Harrison before he died in 2021, says he was a strategic linchpin for his clients, ensuring everyone was on the same page.

“He was a master at what he did,” she says.

Before the pitch, Harrison had assembled a team of both seasoned PR professionals and almost total novices. Among them was Don Rheem, who had no industry credentials. He had studied ecology before becoming an environmental journalist. A chance meeting with Harrison, who must have seen the strategic value of adding Rheem’s environmental and media connections to the team, led to a job offer on the GCC pitch.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is an opportunity to get a front row seat at probably one of the most pressing science policy and public policy issues that we were facing.’

“It just felt enormously important,” Rheem says.

Terry Yosie – who had recently been recruited from the American Petroleum Institute, becoming a senior vice-president at the firm – remembers that Harrison began the pitch by reminding his audience that he was instrumental in fighting the auto reforms. He had done so, in part, by reframing the issue.

The same tactics would now help beat climate regulation. They would persuade people that the scientific facts weren’t settled, and that alongside the environment, policy makers needed to consider how action on climate change would – in the GCC’s view – negatively affect American jobs, trade and prices.

The strategy would be implemented through an extensive media campaign, everything from placing quotes and pitching opinion pieces (so-called op-eds), to direct contacts with journalists. . .

Continue reading. The report includes a link to a video, which can be viewed only in the UK, that provides more information:

Big Oil v the World

Drawing on thousands of newly discovered documents, this three-part film charts how the oil industry mounted a campaign to sow doubt about the science of climate change, the consequences of which we are living through today.

Watch now on BBC iPlayer (UK Only)

It is thanks to the efforts of such PR professionals and the industries that funded them that we face the climate catastrophe that is our future.

A quotation commonly attributed to Vladimir Lenin (though not found in any of his works): “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.” Though Lenin may not have written or said those words, it certainly seems true that capitalists will embrace their own destruction so long as they make money from it. In this, they resemble alcoholics who embraces illness and death so long as they can drink, cigarette smokers who continue smoking even while fighting lung cancer, and gambling addicts who will continue to play until all their money is gone and their credit is exhausted and their lives are ruined. In other words, capitalists are addicts who are willing to destroy anything for their fix, and now they are well on their way to destroying our livable world.

Written by Leisureguy

25 July 2022 at 10:04 am

More canaries keeling over in the coal mine of American democracy

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Heather Cox Richardson’s column tonight is another warning that Americans must wake up to the danger they face.

On Friday, Axios began to publish a deeply researched and important series by Jonathan Swan, explaining that if former president Trump retakes power, he and allies like his former chief of staff Mark Meadows, Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH), and head of Trump’s social media network Devin Nunes are determined to purge our nonpartisan civil service and replace it with loyalists. In a normal administration, a new president gets to replace around 4000 political appointees, but most government employees are in positions designed to be nonpartisan. Trump’s team wants to gut this system and put in place people loyal to him and his agenda.

When he campaigned for the presidency, Trump promised to “drain the swamp” of officeholders who, he suggested, were just sucking tax dollars. Once in office, though, Trump grew increasingly angry at the civil servants who continued to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia, insisting that figures like former FBI director Robert Mueller and former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, were Democrats who wanted to hound him from office. (They were, in fact, Republicans.)

Trump’s first impeachment trial inflamed his fury at those he considered disloyal. The day after Republican senators acquitted him on February 6, 2020, he fired two key impeachment witnesses: U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top expert on Ukraine at the National Security Council. Ironically, Vindman had testified in the impeachment hearings that he had reassured his father, who had lived in the Soviet Union and was worried about Vindman’s testifying against the president, not to worry because in America, “right matters.” Trump fired Vindman’s twin brother, Yevgeny, at the same time, although he had nothing to do with the impeachment.

A Trump advisor told CNN the firings were intended to demonstrate that disloyalty to the president would not be tolerated.

Within days, Trump had put fierce loyalist John McEntee in charge of the White House office of personnel, urging him to ferret out anyone insufficiently loyal and to make sure the White House hired only true believers. McEntee had been Trump’s personal aide until he failed a security clearance background check and it turned out he was under investigation for financial crimes; then–White House chief of staff John Kelly fired him, and Trump promptly transferred McEntee to his reelection campaign. On February 13, 2020, though, Trump suddenly put McEntee, who had no experience in personnel or significant government work, in charge of the hiring of the 4000 political appointees and gave him extraordinary power.

Trump also wanted to purge the 50,000 nonpartisan civil servants who are hired for their skills, rather than politics. But since 1883, those jobs have been protected from exactly the sort of political purge Trump and McEntee wanted to execute.

A policy researcher who came to Trump’s Domestic Policy Council from the Heritage Foundation, James Sherk, found that employees who work in “a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating” job can be exempted from civil service protections.

On October 21, 2020, Trump signed an executive order creating a new category of public servant who could be hired by agency heads without having to go through the merit-based system in place since 1883, and could be fired at will. This new “Schedule F” would once again allow presidents to appoint cronies to office, while firing those insufficiently loyal. One Trump loyalist at the Office of Management and Budget identified 88% of his agency as moveable to Schedule F.

Biden rescinded Trump’s executive order on January 22, 2021, just two days after taking office.

According to Swan, Trump has not forgotten the plan. Since the January 6 insurrection, he has called those former colleagues who did not support his coup “ungrateful” and “treasonous.” In a new administration, he would insist on people who had “courage,” and would reinstate the Schedule F plan in order to purge the career civil service of all employees he believes insufficiently loyal to him.

The idea of reducing our professional civil service to those who offer loyalty to a single leader is yet another fundamental attack on democracy.

Democracy depends on . . .

Continue reading. And perhaps think about your Plan B.

Written by Leisureguy

24 July 2022 at 10:42 pm

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