Digest: 1 January 2014




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In The Age of Sustainable Development, Jeffrey D. Sachs (for Project Syndicate) discusses the importance of study in sustainable development in preparation for future challenges. Sachs sees the engagement of people in sustainable development as a necessity in meeting challenges such as extreme poverty and environmental devastation. He is offering a free global online lecture course, starting late January, on the subject.  The course will cover the interrelations of topics such as the economy, the environment, politics, and culture and how they influence prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability.  The course complements Sachs’ work as Director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, an initiative under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.



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In Google’s For-Profit Surveillance Problem, Yasha Levine (for PandoDaily) discusses the questionable role of Silicon Valley companies in promoting government surveillance reform.  Some companies that have been actively promoting such reforms have a market position that is reliant on their own capacity to surveil as many people as they can. Google is a prime example, having been investigated and fined in relation to its vacuuming-up of information from private networks through its Street-View program.  In addition, Google’s policy with Gmail is to scan every email to take note of details regarding the correspondence, building up a database of profile information regarding users and their correspondents. Ultimately, what is not necessarily immediately apparent is that Google’s main business is not in advertising so much as it is in collection and dissemination of information. Google has aggressively fought investigations and lawsuits that allege its practices infringe upon privacy laws, and no doubt welcomes the disclosures regarding the NSA – they help distract from its own for-profit surveillance activities.



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In US Scientists Convert Algae to Crude Oil in Less Than an Hour, Tim Radford (for Nation of Change) discusses efforts to develop an alternate source of energy – crude oil from algae.  Initial small scale results have been successful, but energy intensive. By exposing the algae to very high temperatures and very high pressure the team at the US Government’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has managed to do in one hour what it takes nature millions of years to do. The process leaves leftovers of clean water, a mix of fuel gases and nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium that feed back into the system as food for further algae growth. The challenge is to scale the system up to the point that it can compete commercially with oil wells.



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In The Strange Case of American Inequality, J. Bradford Delong (for Project Syndicate) discusses one measurement that shows the financial crisis to have had a greater negative economic effect than the Great Depression. Delong compares current growth with what he considers to have been in 2007 a reasonable expectation of growth. The result is not good. He demonstrates that the damage that has been done to the US’s productive capabilities, the costs of idle workers and capital, is equal to 3.5-10 years of total output. If something doesn’t shift, it will in future be to this time that historians look for the greatest example of economic failure, not the Great Depression. He asks why such a financial catastrophe would not have triggered a correcting policy response, but to this he points out that for those with the greatest sway on government policy this is a good time economically, they have no current economic incentive to cause policies to shift.

In Inside TAO, Der Spiegel discusses the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations. TAO is the US’s premier computer hacking unit, uncovered through documents provided to Der Spiegel by Edward Snowden. TAO provides services to the US government from counter-terrorism to cyber attacks to traditional espionage. It was developed to hack into global communications traffic, to make sure that there was nowhere the US could not gain access to. In response to strong recruitment initiatives, the unit has been growing steadily and fast. Der Spiegel describes TAO’s Operation WHITEAMAIL that infiltrated Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Security, and places it in context with Operation Stuxnet, the operation to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. They also describe TAO’s successful efforts to infiltrate personal computers through Microsoft error messages, and through tapping into major fiber optic communications cable bundles that run between Europe and Thailand through North Africa, the Middle East, and India.

In Russia Today, Benjamin Bidder (for Der Spiegel) discusses the rise of Russian media through Russia Today, a Kremlin funded media outlet that employs Larry King and whose task is to dethrone Anglo-Saxon mass media on the international stage.  Started in 2005 the growth of Russia Today has been somewhat meteoric, both in terms of size and reach, and in terms of funding. Mixing smart propaganda, sex appeal and unlimited cash, it has been highly successful. Run by Margarita Simonyan, it is now operating in Arabic, English and Spanish as well as Russian, and its listeners are not just people abroad who don’t like the US. Russia Today is growing in the US as well, appealing to those who have been disillusioned by the activities of their own government and of US based companies.



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In The Decline of Wikipedia, Tom Simonite (for MIT Technology Review) discusses Wikipedia’s rise, its structure, and the problems that structure has brought about.  Wikipedia is in trouble, while it is the 6th most used website in the world it is not structured like an ordinary company. Rather it is run by a small group of volunteers – Wikipedians – who in an effort to improve upon certain early faults have managed to alienate many who might otherwise contribute. Reacting to problems of editorial vandalism, Wikipedia instituted processes to make it more difficult to post edits. The result is a user experience, for those who wish to post or edit, that amounts to navigating a bureaucratic nightmare. But the foundation that provides for Wikipedia has also had difficulties with the bureaucratic rules and guidelines – their efforts to make the user experience more friendly, for example, have been largely thwarted.  This is a shame as Wikipedia provides at least the promise of a major public good.

In 2013: The Best Long Tech Reads of the Year, the Editors of MIT Technology Review discuss what they consider to have been particularly important articles from 2013.  These articles include stories related to the pricing of drugs by pharmaceutical and biotech companies, the danger of increased information gathering by governments and companies, the internet and free speech, the effect on jobs of automation, artificial intelligence, and advanced software, the creation of treatments for erasing traumatic memories, the future of driverless cars, the reinvention of the computer chip, saving Wikipedia (included above), and the necessity for genetic engineering in crops in light of climate change and increasing human population.

In Inequality for Dummies, Bill Keller (for New York Times) discusses President Obama’s speech on inequality, but points out that the speech was not so much about inequality as it was about social immobility.  Keller considers first that, historically, societies that prevent social mobility end up collapsing. Economic inequality turns into political inequality, which triggers disillusionment and cynicism in those who are left out. He discusses the various roles being played across the political spectrum giving particular consideration to policy differences between center-lefts and left-lefts. Three of these differences can perhaps be considered most important – how to restart the engine of growth, how to deal with entitlements, and how to make the government more efficient. Ultimately though nothing from either can possibly succeed with the current Republican House. For political success stories, it is necessary to look not to the Federal Government but to cities.