Nerd-sightedness and other new words

May 27, 2018

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

agnogenesis

The deliberate production of information or ideas that create ignorance or unwarranted doubt.

cry-it-outer

A person who practices or advocates letting babies cry themselves to sleep.

dog-directed speech

A manner of talking to dogs characterized by a high pitch, slow cadence, frequent repetition, and whimsical tone.

ghost hotel

A residence that is used mostly or exclusively as short-term rental accommodation, particularly when offered through an online booking service such as Airbnb.

insomnia identity

The erroneous belief that one has trouble sleeping, which leads to physical and psychological problems similar to those experienced by true insomniacs.

kittenfishing

Embellishing or exaggerating one’s online dating profile.

manel

A panel or similar public discussion group that consists only of men.

nerd-sightedness

The inability to see beyond a technology’s interesting technical aspects, particularly to miss its ethical implications; to see the world from the perspective of a nerd.

nutpicking

Claiming that the craziest or most outrageous member of a group is a typical representative of that group.

 

 

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The strange exile of Julian Assange

May 20, 2018

I was at a bit of a loss as to what to write this week when I saw an opinion piece in Friday’s Guardian – Julian Assange is suffering needlessly. Why not report that?:

Assange has won numerous awards for publishing information that has exposed egregious violations of human rights and abuses of state power. He has also won the more dubious prize of being placed in the crosshairs of US government attempts to silence free speech by silencing the publications and publishers that dare to speak freely.

There is no doubt that Assange helped inspire an era of whistleblowing, from Edward Snowden exposing illegal US and UK surveillance, to the Panama Papers that showed the extent of global tax avoidance. Assange has been a hero for many.  But, something doesn’t quite true to me. He seems to me to be a flawed character. I also believe that when material is leaked, we need to ask cui bono? This was true with Watergate, when Mark Felt aka Deep Throat had his agenda. Ultimately, the question is: who can hold the whistleblowers to account?

The WikiLeaks website, was set up in 2006 “to bring important news and information to the public… One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth.” Another of the organisation’s goals is to ensure that journalists and whistleblowers are not prosecuted for emailing sensitive or classified documents. Their online “drop box” was designed to be “an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to [WikiLeaks] journalists”. Instead of leaking directly to the press, whistleblowers have an intermediary, which will leak to the press on their behalf. In this way they have a greater chance of avoiding detection and punishment.  They are based in Stockholm because of its strict laws protecting confidential source-journalist relationships. It has servers throughout Europe which can be accessed from any uncensored web connection.

A selection of Wikileaks’ greatest hits would include unearthing evidence of military atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan and US espionage of the French, German and Brazilian governments. With the former the most famous case was that of Chelsea Manning. They also published a whole series of diplomatic cables in 2010, the protocol of the US Army at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and “the collected secret ‘bibles’ of Scientology”.  Their most significant act of recent times was the publishing of the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. And just last year WikiLeaks posted links to e-mails allegedly from Emmanuel Macron during the French 2017 presidential election. The documents had first appeared on the far-right 4chan forum and by pro-Trump Twitter accounts. What is interesting is that the leak came 36 hours before France’s runoff election in which Macron defeated Marine Le Pen.

This would be my first big criticism of WikiLeaks its apparent proximity to Russia. There are reports from different Western security agencies that WikiLeaks has been infiltrated by Russian agents aiming to discredit NATO governments. This is what I was blogging about last week. The security agencies even claim that Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev receive details about what WikiLeaks publishes before publication. I don’t know about that – these organisations have also been known to spread misinformation.  Establishing who leaked is a difficult task. But I believe that Russian involvement was highly likely. They do seem to be doing Russia’s bidding. The leaking of the hacked DNC material is a revealing case study. Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate and there is not doubt that that Julian Assange had a all-consuming hatred towards her. I suppose there could justify publishing in terms of transparency. Curiously, they came out immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, in which Trump talked about “grabbing pussy”.  But there can be no justification for collaborating with the Trump campaign. Yet, they leaked nothing on Donald Trump and his invisible tax records. Indeed, he frequently corresponded with Donald Trump Jr. through direct messages on Twitter during both the presidential election and after.

Talking of tax WikiLeaks also criticised the Panama Papers, which had among other things revealed Russian businesses and individuals linked with offshore ties. The WikiLeaks Twitter account tweeted:

“#PanamaPapers Putin attack was produced by OCCRP which targets Russia & former USSR and was funded by USAID and [George] Soros”.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) Putin and RT would use Wikileaks to dismiss the Panama Papers. Despite Assange’s claims, the papers did not give western leaders and their allies a free pass. David Cameron and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko were both outed.

There has been a fascinating metamorphosis in political attitudes to Wikipedia. In its beginnings when it was exposing abuses by George W. Bush’s presidency, many liberals and left-wingers praised them. On the right, Donald J. Trump has gone from calling for the execution of Assange to saying that he loved WikiLeaks As a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, Sarah Palin had her  private email hacked and all the data posted on WikiLeaks. In 2010 she described Assange “an anti-American operative with blood on his hands.”  Like Trump, she called for the site to be shut down. Now in this upside-down world Sarah Palin has apologised to Wikileaks.

I am going to try to give a less partisan opinion. I am in favour of whistleblowing. I think that it is important that we know about military abuses, political corruption or corporate malfeasance. I do, however, have other reservations about WikiLeaks. I think their methodology is questionable. They really should be more careful about how they leak. The data dumps they do can compromise the security of people whose names appear.

Curiously for an organisation which promotes transparency, they are themselves rather secretive. Employees are made to sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements, with the penalty for non-compliance said to be  £12 million. I think that transparency is good, but an activity like diplomacy does need to be carried out away from the glare of publicity. In the end actors will feel unable to give advice for fear of this coming out a later date.

I have to confess that I’m no fan of Assange. As to the rape case in Sweden, the charges have been dropped, so I would not want to try him in the court of public opinion. I have criticised what he know he has actually done. Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly six years now. I would be opposed to his extradition to the United States. The US secretary of state has declared that first amendment protections don’t apply to Assange, and the US Department of Justice has promised that his arrest remains a priority. I think it would be outrageous if Assange were prosecuted under laws that were introduced in 1917. The effects on free speech would be dire. So I say despite all my personal reservations about him: Free Julian Assange!


The Road to Unfreedom – Timothy Snyder and Cold War 2.0

May 13, 2018

 

Timothy Snyder had originally set out to write about Russia and its relations with Ukraine and Europe. However, events let to a different book. It evolved into The Road to Unfreedom, a history of Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US in the 2010s. Russia would end up playing an key role in both the Brexit referendum and the 2016 election, which saw Donald J. Trump elected as the 45th president of the United States. Many   local journalists who had seen Putin’s playbook in Russia and the Ukraine were not at all shocked by Trump’s victory. Snyder, who was born in 1969, is an American historian, a specialist in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust. The Yale professor’s most famous work is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, in which he explored how “In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people.” It was an acclaimed book, which I must get round to reading.

A central idea The Road to Unfreedom is the distinction between two opposing narratives of history. The narratives of inevitability include free market evangelicals who prophesy the triumph of the free market or Marxists who foresee the withering away of the state. For them history is moving inexorably toward a clear end. Events such as the fall of communism and the Global Financial Crisis have seen these narratives being challenged by the narratives of eternity Here’s how Snyder describes it:

“The collapse of the politics of inevitability ushers in another experience of time: the politics of eternity. Whereas inevitability promises a better future for everyone, eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood. Time is no longer a line into the future, but a circle that endlessly returns the same threats from the past. Within inevitability, no one is responsible because we all know that the details will sort themselves out for the better; within eternity, no one is responsible because we all know that the enemy is coming no matter what we do. Eternity politicians spread the conviction that government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats. Progress gives way to doom.

 In power, eternity politicians manufacture crisis and manipulate the resultant emotion. To distract from their inability or unwillingness to reform, eternity politicians instruct their citizens to experience elation and outrage at short intervals, drowning the future in the present. In foreign policy, eternity politicians belittle and undo the achievements of countries that might seem like models to their own citizens. Using technology to transmit political fiction, both at home and abroad, eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling.”

Snyder introduces us to a thinker I had not heard of before – an obscure Russian fascist, called Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin. Such is Putin’s devotion that he organised the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains for reburial in Moscow in 2005. According to Ilyin, God made a mess of the world but fortunately there was one pure and innocent being — the Russian nation. Consequently, whatever Russia did, and does, to defend itself is legitimate. One day it will find its redeemer – inevitably a strong and virile man – and triumph. I wonder who that might be.

This redeemer will wage war on Russia’s enemies. These foes start with his own citizens who have the impertinence to demand democratic rights. Then, we get Ukrainians and other neighbours who dare to be independent. Finally, we have the European Union and the United States, who offer the temptations of a more prosperous way of life. Snyder has an interesting take on Putin’s strategy, which he calls strategic relativism:

 “The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe, and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be gained by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skilful player will lose less than everyone else.”

Apparently Putin once described the internet as a CIA conspiracy. That was then. Now the Russian state has unparalleled expertise at manipulating cyberspace to apply Sun Tzu’s “confusion to our enemy” principle to a mass disinformation war. They have effectively transformed international affairs by waging a systematic war on the very concept of truth. The internet has made getting into the heads of Europeans and Americans is considerably easier than it was in the past. The Russians like to fight in this psychosphere rather than on the battlefield.  With electronic screens you can create havoc with a few cleverly targeted messages. The great advantage of this way of fighting is that the bang for the rouble is unbeatable; Russia’s cyber budget is less than an F-35 according to Snyder.

How Russia employed propaganda in the Ukraine is fascinating. They were able to use the internet to target opposing political susceptibilities. To appeal to the right they argued that the Ukraine was an artificial construction run by an international Jewish conspiracy. To attract the left, Ukraine was an artificial construction by fascists. Then there was the brazen lying with Putin denying that Russia had invaded the Ukraine. This was complemented by something that is more traditional – the atrocity story:

One day after Russia began shelling Ukraine, Russian television provided a compelling escalation in the competition for innocence. On July 12, 2014 Pervyi Kanal [First Channel] told a stirring—and entirely fictional—story of a three-year-old Russian boy who was crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk. No evidence was provided, and independent Russian journalists noted the story’s problems: none of the people in the story existed, nor did the “Lenin Square” where the atrocity supposedly transpired. When confronted with this, Russia’s deputy minister for communications, Alexei Volin, said that ratings were all that mattered. People watched the cruci-fiction, so all was well.

 Finally they created a cacophony of competing rumours to create doubt. When Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on 17 July 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, the Russians did not deny it. What they did instead was to float a series of possible conspiracies. One of these was that it was shot down by a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet. Instrumental in this campaign was Russia Today, whose slogan is – “Question More“. Yana Erlashova, who used to be one of the star reporter for the Moscow-based, international news network claims to have found many witnesses who said they had seen jet fighters:

I don’t push any scenarios or theories, I just report what people say.”

Despite this modesty she has produced a documentary called “MH17: A Year Without Truth” I found it referenced on what seems to be a far-right website, which praises the video:

“The anti-Putin agenda of the Zionist-controlled media in the West, however, blames Russia in this blatant false-flag operation and ignores the facts and evidence.  This video is highly recommended viewing.”

The Dutch Safety Board’s official technical report concluded that a single, powerful, Russian-made Buk ground-to-air missile had hit the plane.

These dark arts employed in Ukraine were then employed in the west. In Germany Russia spread false information, like the fake story of a German schoolgirl’s gang-rape by Muslims. The bombing in Syria created millions of refuges, many of whom ended up in Germany. This provided a fertile area for the German far-right; Alternative for Germany In the 2017 German federal elections the AfD won 12.6% of the vote, the best performance of such a party since 1933. Snyder shows how Russian news sources promoted the idea that the Scottish independence referendum had been “rigged”. The goal of course is to undermine faith in democratic institutions and processes. They have also sought to sew division in the European Union. Russia TV regularly featured Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Russia’s great European success was the Brexit referendum. However, they were not finished yet.

Snyder dubs Trump Russia’s candidate. The hacking of emails, the spreading of disinformation, the Russia-linked Facebook ads and the troll farms may well have decided an election where the margins were very small. I don’t know what Mueller will unearth in his investigation. But what Snyder has shown already seems scandalous. He talks about how Trump would retweet Russian propaganda posts. He also shows how Trump’s business was saved by Russian buying his properties in order to launder money. What about Paul Manafort, the American lobbyist, political consultant and lawyer, who joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign team in March 2016. As well as lobbying dictators like the Philippines’’ Ferdinand Marcos, and the   Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, he was promoting the pro-Russian former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. According to leaked text messages between his daughters, Manafort was also one of the proponents of violent removal of the Euromaidan protesters which resulted in police shooting dozens of people in 2014. In one of the messages his daughter writes that his “strategy that was to cause that, to send those people out and get them slaughtered.”

Ultimately there is a fascinating dovetailing between Russian disinformation campaigns and Trump’s shameless mendaciousness. Of course politicians have always been economical with the truth. But Trump has a total disregard for the truth.  One unlikely hero in this story is Mitt Romney. When he called Russia the US’s number one geopolitical foe, he took a lot of flak. Obama quipped that “the 80s called and wants their foreign policy back.” According to the New York Times Romney’s words displayed “a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.” Now amid Mueller’s probe of the 2016 presidential campaign Romney appears to have been prescient. And we are living in a world turned upside down, with the Republicans blasé about Russia and the Democrats hawks. Indeed one Democratic senator compared the Russian intervention to Pearl Harbour

I have always found Putin’s mix of Soviet nostalgia, Orthodox Christianity Fascism and homophobia difficult to understand. Snyder’s book has helped me see things a bit more clearly. I can also see how this all relates to what has been happening in the West. Snyder likens Putin to a perverse doctor who diagnoses you and then tries to make your diseases worse. Nevertheless, Putin’s diagnosis is correct.  Wealth inequality, economic problems, voter suppression and gerrymandering, race relations, and the opioid crisis are all very real. Without these Putin’s efforts would not have had the impact that they undoubtedly did.  I will admit that I am intrigued by the way Putin has been able to achieve his geopolitical goals. I have always had a sneaking admiration for the KGB, one of the few things that actually worked in the Soviet Union. I would also say that none of this is new. When I hear about the meddling in the U.S. election, I do remember that the Americans have been known to influence elections in a number of countries. However, we will have to look at how we can make our societies immune to such damaging interventions.


A Man Like Putin: the backstory

May 13, 2018

I first heard Someone Like Putin on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. The song, which is performed by the duo Singing Together, first appeared as far back as 2002 and quickly topped the charts in Russia. It went on to become a Putin theme song, and is still played at his rallies. I didn’t realise the fascinating backstory to this catchy propaganda song. This PBS documentary takes a look at how it was created…


Asne Seierstad’s Two Sisters

May 6, 2018

The Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad has carved out a niche for herself depicting war zones and political extremism. The author Luke Harding has described Seierstad as “the supreme non-fiction writer of her generation”.  I mentioned her in a previous post, where I looked at her 2013 book One of Us, the tale of Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who killed 77 people in Oslo on Friday July 22nd, 2011. One of Breivik’s principal motivations was his outrage at the presence of Muslims in Norway. Now, in her latest book, Two Sisters, Seierstad looks at the other side of the coin, Islamist extremism. The two sisters, in the book given the pseudonyms Ayan and Leila, left Norway to join ISIS. How could these girls just up and leave Norway and go to war-torn Syria and marry ISIS fighters?

At the heart of the story is the Juma family. Their father, Sadiq, had been a child soldier in Somalia. He was on the winning side, but things didn’t work out for him. So he ended up in Norway, where one year later he would bring his wife, Sara and their five children.

In general they were well integrated, but the mother never learnt the language and was unable to fully adjust to Norwegian life. As her children were growing up, she became increasingly worried that her children were becoming too Norwegian. She went to her local mosque, where they recommended they receive religious instruction from a Koran teacher. And so, a number of parents clubbed together to pay for the services of Mustafa, a respected and sought-after teacher, who was not yet 20. The reality is that Mustafa imparted a doctrine of hatred, with an unhealthy obsession with death and martyrdom. This is when, at least according to Sadiq, their nightmare began.

At first, the mother was pleased the two girls began to become more observant. But then they began the slide into extremism. Ayan became deeply involved with the extremist Muslim youth organisation Islam Net. The sisters even started wearing the full niqab, which incidentally is not a Somali tradition. What seems to have happened is that Ayan was the first one who radicalised and she in turn influenced her younger sister, Leila. The book is full of telling vignettes. This one is about Leila.;

On another occasion a boy who had forgotten his pencil case asked to borrow a pen. She said, “All right, but then I can’t ever use it again.”

He did not quite understand. Before she tossed it to him, she said, “Just keep it. I can’t touch anything you’ve handled.”

This is just one example of the retrograde ideas that the sisters would adopt. It did not happen overnight. Both their parents, the more liberal father and the more traditional mother failed to see the dangers. This failure was shared by the school, who automatically assumed that it was the parents who were radicalising their children.

It was on October 17, 2013 that the girls would leave for Syria. They explained it all in an e-mail. After wishing “Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon their parents in Somali. The text continued in Norwegian:

We love you both sooo much and you have given us everything in life. We are eternally grateful for everything ♥.

We ask your forgiveness for all the pain we have caused you. We love you both sooo much, would do anything for you, and would never do anything to purposely hurt you, and is it not then fair and proper that we do everything for ALLAH swt’s [Subhanahu wa ta’ala, Arabic for “May He be glorified and exalted”] sake and are grateful for what he has given us by following his rules, laws, and commands.

Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear what ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgement.

Just three days after the girls’ escape, Sadiq got himself the to the Turkish-Syrian border. With the help of a middleman, he managed to get into Syria. Somehow he tracked down the girls. He was allowed to spend five minutes with Ayan. It did not turn out as he had expected. He was not able to persuade her to come back with him; she had married to an ISIS fighter and had no intention of accompanying him.  It got worse – he was put in prison, where his jailers interrogated and tortured him. He saw cellmate after cellmate being taken away and killed, but he was finally released. However, he has not seen either of his daughters since.

To bring the story up to date, we do not know where they are. It is nearly five years since they left Norway. They became mothers.  Her parents do not even know if they are alive. The situation of ISIS in Syria is much worse now. They control only a few slivers of territory. They have been from Raqqa, where the cities were. If they are still alive, their prospects look rather grim.

What lessons can we learn from this? Seierstad provides a riveting account of what happened, but there are no definitive answers.  The sisters played no part in the book. They refused to give their side of the story, which undoubtedly does raise important ethical questions. Is it ethical to focus on the lives of two girls who have not given their consent?

I do agree with Seierstad that we are not talking about brainwashing. That is a lazy way of thinking. They do not start out as evil. Their radicalisation is a gradual process. One factor is how important is identity. Islamism gave them an identity they valued. And religion itself played a key role. For example, I would question the role of the mosque and the Koran teacher. There are certain governments in the Middle East who promote Wahabbism, an Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. It is a hate-filled creed that should have no place in the modern world. I do not know what became of Mustafa, but the tragedy is that it was the parents themselves who brought him in. However, the girls’ brother, Ismael attended the same classes and was not radicalised. Indeed, after seeing the transformation his sisters underwent, he has become an atheist.

Although Seierstad offers no definitive answers, her book is so hard to put down. I do like her novelistic non-fiction. What’s more it seems to be meticulously researched. Ultimately her goal is to report. Two Sisters is a fascinating, but harrowing read, essential for these times .