Digest: 28 January 2014




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In The Myth of Human Progress and the Collapse of Complex Societies, Chris Hedges (for TruthDig) discusses the evolution of modern humans through the lens of Herman Melville’s story Moby Dick.  Captain Ahab is replaced by “a consumer culture that is based on corporate profit, limitless exploitation and continued extraction of fossil fuels”.  Ahab’s crew and the ship are replaced by us – “bowing slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess.”  We have the clear means to know that our financial system is deeply and systemically corrupted, that our democracy is not really democracy, and that the integrity of the ecosystem we rely on for our survival is disintegrating as a result of our exploitative behavior.  And yet we continue as we have been, hoping that things will come right while captivated by “seductive images of glory and lust for wealth and power”, as well as by our own Ahab’s incredible power of propaganda and brutal coercion.  But human experience, the history of our species, tells us that our failure to attend to these issues will result in collapse – this time on a global scale.


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In The Power to Decide, Antonio Regalado (for MIT Technology Review) discusses the increasing use of “big data” in decision making. MIT Technology Review has prepared a report on how data and the analytical tools to manipulate it are changing decision making. Companies like IBM are exploring how computers can be further utilized in roles that require “thinking”. This development of huge volumes of information and the ability of computers to employ it provides a more reliable decision making mechanism than gut-instinct, but it is necessary also to avoid allowing data to rule decision making, as it might when employed a computer. Data scientists are being increasingly employed to act as the interface between the data and the decisions that result, as a result they are taking on a powerful role in our society.

In The Global Economy in 2014, Klaus Schwab (for Project Syndicate) discusses how we are entering a period of decreased expectations and increased uncertainty. He describes the domestic and international collateral damage resulting from ongoing Federal Reserve quantitive easing policies. He also describes the overall weak economic conditions in many emerging countries, the less than ideal improvement in the performance of high-income countries, and a backdrop of rising economic inequality. In such an environment, he argues that it is crucial that we develop high-quality economic growth. He recommends focusing on infrastructure, education, green energy, and sustainable agriculture.  But this will require a change of mindset – without more inclusive policies we will not achieve a path of strong and sustained growth.


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In Game Over? Obama Gifts Big Coal $1 Billion, Jeff Biggers (for AlterNet) discusses the Obama Administrations “gift” of a billion dollars to continue the FutureGen clean-coal project in Illinois.  Obama’s energy “All of the Above” energy policy includes the development of clean-coal technology, but it is a technology thought by some to be inherently flawed as a result of its continued use of coal. More specifically, the Congressional Reseach Service has put into question the viability of the FutureGen carbon capture and storage project.  The continued pursuit of coal energy undermines efforts to effectively establish next generation sustainable energy sources, and meanwhile coal extraction processes continue to harm people and natural habitats and resources.


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In The Rise and Fall of the Failed-State Paradigm, Michael J. Mazarr (for Foreign Affairs) discusses the apparently misguided focus of the last decade and a half on the dangers posed by failed states.  In the aftermath of the Cold War the vast US military apparatus was left without a mission. In the absence of an obvious foe, US military energies were refocused on less obvious threats – those posed by failing or failed states, where disorder could breed and act to destabilize international order and US security.  President Clinton’s state-building focused on developing “multi-dimensional operations composed of such components as political/diplomatic, humanitarian, intelligence, economic development, and security.” Arguments against such intervention were swept aside after 9/11 when the security element of failed states was brought sharply into focus. Mazarr describes the practical and now also intellectual challenges of state-building operations, and supplies an alternative model that might better be employed.

In On Children’s Website, NSA Puts a Furry, Smiley Face on Its Mission, Michael S. Schmidt (for The New York Times) discusses the website the NSA employs to reach out to children.  For the past ten years the website has used much the same methods used by marketing companies to develop the interest of children in their clients’  products – cartoon characters that tell kids, essentially, that the NSA is “Kewl”and that they should think of working there someday.  Many federal agencies and departments have websites for children as part of an effort to reach out to the public and make our country’s government more understandable and thus approachable. Civil libertarians are calling the site propaganda.

In Watchdog Report Says NSA Program Is Illegal and Should End, Charlie Savage (for The New York Times) discusses a report by The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent federal privacy watchdog.  The report asserts that NSAs bulk collection of phone call records has provided minimal benefits and rests on inadequate legal foundations. While a two member minority of the Privacy Board dissented, arguing that the Board should not opine on legality, the Board was unanimous in recommending important and immediate changes. The NSA program started in 2001 under President Bush, and has been continued under President Obama. The Board found that the Patriot Act foundation presented by both administrations is a subversion of the law’s intent, that the program also violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and that arguments to validate the program on the basis of Congressional acquiescence are insufficient as a matter of legal precedent and democratic accountability.


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In Bill Moyers on Dark Money, the Attack on Voting Rights & How Racism Still Drives Our Politics, Amy Goodman (for Democracy Now!) interviews Bill Moyers who discusses a range of contemporary issues. His discussion includes views on shifting nature of the Republican Party and uncertainty as to who is funding voter redistricting in swing states.  He describes how hidden money is having a material effect on democratic processes in these important states and how without proper oversight we have no idea who is buying our government.  While redistricting might appear benign or merely political on its face, he argues that there is often a racist element to it.

In Google to Buy Artificial Intelligence Company DeepMind, Alexei Oreskovic and Greg Roumeliotis (for Reuters) shed a quick light on Google’s development of its artificial intelligence capacity.  Google hired Ray Kurzweil in 2012, and announced the launching of its Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab in partnership with NASA and several universities in 2013.