Over the jump, an open letter to the Chemistry Committee of the Nobel Prizes urging them at long last to award the Nobel Prize to Professor John Goodenough, who invented the lithium-ion battery. If you agree, you can email a message of support to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at firstname.lastname@example.org. Continue Reading…
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who with Robert Cailliau created the World-Wide Web 28 years ago with the specification for HTML, has published an open letter to the Web’s 2 billion users today.
The text is here, in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. He invites everybody to share it, so I’ll save you the fatigue of clicking on the link to reproduce it below the jump. Some quick comments from me to get you going.
1. Berners-Lee is one of the few people who can speak with real authority on this stuff. If he says we have big problems, it’s a safe prior that we do. If he says they can be fixed, there is a very good chance they can.
2. The approach is too narrow. I rely here on another authority, Mike O’Hare of this blog. He has written about the crisis in society created by the arrival of transmission and reproduction of information at near-zero marginal cost, leading to the implosion of subscriber revenues for journalism and the dramatic thinning out of newsroom staff.
Let’s give this insight a catchy name: Gresham’s Second Law.
Robert Gresham was an English financier of the Elizabethan era, who has given his name to the first genuine economic law: that is, a generalisation based on solid observation, explained by a robust theory. (He had eminent predecessors including Copernicus so the attribution is a little unfair.) The Law reads:
Bad money drives out good.
That is, with a bullion specie currency, when the king debases it by reducing the bullion content of the coins, the price of the metal rises in nominal terms, and anyone who can get hold of the old, fatter coins can make a quick doubloon by melting them down. So the good old coins disappear.
Gresham’s-nth-granddaughter’s Second Law, which I have just invented, is similar:
Bad information drives out good.
The cost of production of good information – science, literature, accurate reporting – is high. The cost of production of lies, bullshit, smears, pornography, and rumours is negligible. On the consumption side, bad information is designed to appeal to our lower human nature (Kahneman’s System 1). Good information is often difficult, unwelcome or both, and requires the support of the lazy System 2. So the good information always has a struggle to be heard.
Now consider a technical innovation that lowers the cost of reproduction or transmission of information: say from hand copying to print, or print to the Internet. In the print era, Adolf Hitler had to struggle to get his message across. He had to find a printer for Mein Kampf (the title was accurate). He had to build a united movement from the hard-right flotsam floating round Munich, through endless face-to-face meetings in beer halls. Even in favourable conditions, it took him a decade before he could mount a credible challenge to gain power. Contrast Donald Trump. Starting from nowhere politically in 2015, he won an election in a much larger country with little more infrastructure than a Twitter account and support from the Breitbart website.
The contrast can be explained in terms of Gresham’s Second Law. The drop in transmission costs removes an obstacle to the dissemination of bad information, and releases its advantage in lower costs of production. So the problem has got worse.
3. Berners-Lee is right that we need to brake bad information. His example of political advertising linking to fake news is just one abuse. Americans in particular need to rethink free speech absolutism. Citizens United represented to many of us a reductio ad absurdum. As legal persons, corporations are slaves, with inferior, not equal rights to the humans they serve. Should corporate bodies – with access to much bigger megaphones than individuals – be held to a higher standard of care in their public speech? Companies that mislead their stockholders face severe sanctions, and deception in advertising is limited to suggestio falsi and suppressio veri, outright lies being banned. I don’t see why the privilege of corporate political and cultural speech should not face analogous restrictions.
4. We also have to think positively: how can the good information be paid for? The answer for science has been socialism leavened by philanthropy. Literature and music seem to be doing all right in the market system, though that’s just a non-expert impression. A sufficient number of customers for music seem prepared to pay one or two dollars for a song rather than pirate everything, a convention that relies more on an honesty-box ethic than on sanctions. The immediate crisis is in reporting. It’s good news that Sir Tim’s team will be looking at micropayments. They should be looking at socialism too. It’s already how we pay for education and health.
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(Letter over the jump) Continue Reading…
Officially, the Iraqi government is still dampening expectations of an early victory in Mosul. But the news on the ground tells a different story.
- General Stephen Townsend, commanding the US “assistance” mission, last week: ISIS is down to 2,000 fighters in Mosul, including those now isolated in Tal Afar.
- Iraqi Federal police, 28 February: since the start of the offensive on the West bank of the Tigris in Mosul, 900 ISIS fighters have been killed.
- Unconfirmed local Iraqi report: 20 ISIS checkpoints in the semi-desert West of Mosul have been abandoned.
- The Iraqi Army recaptured the large airport and the adjoining military base in about two days. In the earlier offensive on the East bank, ISIS held out in smaller districts for a week, and then counter-attacked with infiltrators.
It’s speeding up. In the time since I started writing this, the Iraqi Army has captured the west end of a second bridge over the Tigris, at the SE corner of the old city, and claims to have recaptured 60% of the whole of the west bank of the city.It’s just possible that the weak resistance is part of a cunning plan to lure the Iraqi army into a costly house-to-house battle in the narrow streets of the old city. I don’t buy this. Fanatics don’t do tactical retreats. They are surrounded, low on ammunition, taking very heavy casualties, in a hostile population controlled by terror that will betray them at the first safe opportunity, and facing certain defeat. For Syrian and Iraqi ISIS fighters, melting into the civilian population only offers a slim chance of survival. For the foreigners, even that is nonexistent. They are stuck, like the French and Belgian SS soldiers who fought to the last in the centre of Berlin in May 1945 (source: Beevor). My guess is that they will be overrun in the next ten days.
Over the Syrian border, the Kurdish YPG militia (associated with Ocalan’s PKK and vehemently opposed by Turkey) has surrounded Raqqa on three sides, and cut the last road east on the north bank to Deir ez-Zor. The south is open, but the bridges over the Euphrates have been cut by bombing and the only crossing is by boat. There are unconfirmed reports that ISIS leaders have been evacuating their families from Raqqa into the countryside. That leaves ISIS holding three centres, cut off from each other, two under close siege.
The self-proclaimed caliphate will be gone in a few months. It may survive as a non-territorial conspiracy, a low-budget and even more extreme rival to al-Qaeda. But they don’t have the latter’s funding, organization, or experience. The attraction of ISIS to alienated young radical Muslim men across the world depended crucially on the caliphate claim, not just to statehood but empire. This absolutely required control of territory. I would not put it past them to pull a Jonestown rather than submit to shameful surrender. Not many of their enemies will be ready to leave them alive.
The end of the fake caliphate will be a victory for Obama’s proxy strategy, though Trump will surely claim it. In retrospect, it was bound to fail. A claim to universal dominion exercised by forced conversion, enslavement, and massacre of everybody in its reach cannot possibly work. The original expansion of Islam depended on the new religion’s exceptional tolerance for non-Muslim peoples of the book. The large numbers of converts from their new subjects were actually a problem to the Arab conquerors, and led to the Abbasid revolution. This contemporary bunch of millenarian crazies will leave nothing but an execrated memory.
Donald Trump, in the peroration of a prepared speech to CPAC:
We are Americans, and the future belongs to us.
Trump may have been careless, but for Bannon, a trollish dog-whistle fits better. This song from Cabaret is pretty famous:
From the starting-point of 1932 the future did not work out too well for 12-year-old Hitlerjugend enthusiasts like the blond boy soloist. Membership became compulsory from 1936, and you can’t infer from membership that Josef Ratzinger or Günter Grass were true believers. Grass has admitted he was, and applied for the U-Boat service at 17. Luckily for him, Grass was turned down, and had (like the boy in the photo below) to make do with a slightly less risky SS Panzer division, where he was lucky again to be merely wounded.
The next 10 years went pretty well for the Nazi cause – but they were followed by three years of unmitigated disaster and slaughter for Germans. One under-recognized reason for the complete reversal in German political culture after 1945 was the very high and selective death toll among convinced Nazis. They tended to volunteer for high-risk services like the Luftwaffe, the U-Boats, and front-line Waffen SS units. Of the 41,900 serving German submariners in WWII, 28,000 died: almost exactly two-thirds. The 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” Panzer Division arrived in Normandy in June 1944 with 20,540 men, soon commanded by the fanatical and ruthless Kurt Meyer. On August 22, at the end of the Normandy battle, his division was down to 300 men. SS units didn’t generate many POWs, especially on the Eastern front.
The Nazi gamble on world domination was of course crazy from the outset. At least Donald Trump can look back at several historical moments of true American hegemony: 1919, 1945, and 1991. These partly reflected American economic and technical strength, but also and to a considerable extent the collapse of its adversaries and the exhaustion of its allies. Murphy’s Law struck everybody else, a stroke of geopolitical luck. 2017 is peacetime. There is nothing in sight to prevent the inevitable relative decline of the USA. China and India are much more populous, much poorer, and therefore growing faster.
Since 1945, and indeed before (as at Bretton Woods), American statesmen have sought to embed American values and interests in the world institutional order. It has been the only rational strategy for an outnumbered imperialist. Trump and Bannon despise this order and are are doing their worst to sabotage it by macho posturing, waving the bloody flag, and beating the tin drum of nationalism. The result is certain to accelerate, rather than delay, the inevitable readjustment.
The future won’t be American. It can still be a world in which Americans can be safe, respected and prosperous. The chances of this happy ending are shrinking ever day Trump stays in power.
It was, I admit, far from the worst falsehood in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech:
And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they will [fill?] their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator.
This is roughly what the child in Detroit sees on a clear moonless night. The photo was taken in suburban southern California, which surely has less light pollution.
At a plausible inner city star visibility cutoff of magnitude 2, about 70 stars are visible from anywhere on the Earth, or at most 35 stars from a given point.
This is what the same night sky looks like from unpolluted and bone dry Death Valley:
Credit Grant Kaye (a fine professional photographer but I couldn’t find copyright info – I’ll replace if he objects)
… on blogging in the Trump reign.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street…
This is the opening line of Auden’s fine poem on the outbreak of the Second World War. A year later, Evelyn Waugh memorably pilloried Auden and Isherwood in his satire Put Out More Flags, as the poets Parsnip and Pimpernel bravely opposing fascism from New York. He had a point. In the summer of 1940, petit-bourgeois Kentish shopkeepers and lumpenproletariat middle-aged farm labourers were joining the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, in order to fight invading Panzers and Brandenburgers, a battle in which they would have got themselves killed. Every wargamed rerun of Operation Sea Lion confirms the wisdom of Hitler’s decision to cancel the invasion, but the shopkeepers didn’t know that at the time.
My excuse for Parsnippery is that I’m not American and don’t live in the USA, so I’m not running from anything. It would still be rather unseemly to egg on others to take personal and career risks from a safe vantage point in Spain. So for the record, let me say just once: I support the resistance to the odious acts and statements of an illegitimate, incompetent and dangerous President, and welcome what non-violent protest you feel up to. On violent protest, I am more with Macaulay than Gandhi and King, as long as it’s effective, which these days it rarely is. I do not expect to say this again. So what am I doing here?
A week ago I had a little exchange with Keith Humphreys. He wrote a post on blindness to “sweet spots” in public policy. I commented that such rational thinking had no place in the age of Trump’s nihilism. Keith rejoined that there are other players than the US federal government.
On reflection, Keith was right and I was wrong. So I, and as far as I am concerned my fellow RBC bloggers, should keep on doing what we have always done, as long as we have readers. There are negative and positive reasons for this. Continue Reading…
Paul Krugman, blogging on Trump’s half-proposal for a border tax:
To be fair, these tax-and-trade issues are kind of two-ibuprofen stuff at best. But confusions persists even longer than usual when they serve a political purpose.
For the record, ibuprofen was discovered by Boots in England. Paracetamol is basically German, as was the synthesis of aspirin, the active ingredient of an ancient herbal remedy known to the Sumerians. The opioid painkillers are also of great antiquity. With only an all-American pharmacopoeia, you would just have to endure your trade headaches.
The crowds protesting the odious anti-some-Muslims executive order are heartening. Unlike the bon enfant Womens’ March, they were focused and angry.
Angry is good here. I thought of the best of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, Virginia. Macaulay was a liberal toff. But here, he takes the side of a violent mob protesting with “pebbles, and bricks, and potsherds” against an eerily apt combination of oligarchic lawlessness and sexual and economic predation, with vile sidekicks thrown in. His generation understood that bourgeois liberals need a tiger of popular anger to ride to moderate reforms. Otherwise, Grey’s Reform Act of 1830 would not have been possible. Rioting has become ineffective with modern policing: rioters can’t get close enough to the rulers to throw a real scare, and the economic damage gets diverted onto luckless bystanders like the Korean shopkeepers in Watts. The objection to a “Burn Wall Street” movement is more practical than ethical.
King Lear, Act 2, scene 4:
Lear: No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall—I will do such things,—
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
This is very much the Trump style. I’ll cancel the Paris Agreement! Mexico will pay for the Wall!
Making credible threats is still an essential part of diplomacy. An Fengshan, spokesman for China’s policy-making Taiwan Affairs Office, said on 14 December :
Upholding the ‘one China’ principle is the political basis of developing China-US relations, and is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. If this basis is interfered with or damaged then the healthy, stable development of China-US relations is out of the question, and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait will be seriously impacted.
Major national interest? Check. Means to deliver on threat? Check. Careful wording allowing plenty of space for future escalation? Check. This threat is serious. Like this one.
You can also go wrong by being too specific. Theresa May, in her Brexit speech on January 17:
While I am sure a positive agreement can be reached – I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain. Because we would still be able to trade with Europe. We would be free to strike trade deals across the world. And we would have the freedom to set the competitive tax rates and embrace the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors to Britain. And – if we were excluded from accessing the Single Market – we would be free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.
What had she been drinking?
According to an official within the Department of Energy, the Trump transition team has declined to ask the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration and his deputy to temporarily stay in their roles after Trump takes office on January 20th.
The NNSA is the $12 billion-a-year agency that “maintains and enhances the safety, security, and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.” [….]
Trump’s team hasn’t asked Under Secretary for Nuclear Security Frank Klotz and his deputy, Madelyn Creedon — both Obama appointees—to stay in their posts, even if it means no one is in charge of maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons. According to our Energy Department source, Trump’s team has yet to nominate anyone to succeed them. Since both positions require Senate confirmation, it could be months before their chairs are filled.
Still, while [the] career civil servants will continue on with their current directives, they’re effectively barred from embarking on anything new. That’s because the legislation authorizing the NNSA specifically prohibits non-NNSA officials from managing NNSA employees — agency staffers are only allowed to take orders from Klotz and Creedon or their (nonexistent) replacements.
According to our source, both officials “have expressed [to the Trump team] that they would likely be willing to stay to facilitate a smooth transition, if asked,” as is the tradition for key officials, and have received no response.
Klotz is not some DLC intellectual, he’s a career Air Force nuclear weapons officer. Creedon is a long-serving civilian nuclear security analyst. An NNSA official has unattributably denied the two political appointees have been “fired”, but effectively confirmed that they have not been asked to stay on.
Trump has also fired the head of the Washington National Guard – appointed by Bush in 2008 – from the moment of his inauguration:
Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz will be removed from his post at 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day, just after Trump is sworn in but before the Inaugural parade begins.
This is beginning to look horribly like the beginnings of the oprichnina.