Top of Mind: week ending 8/17/2018

Elon Musk’s Boring Company

Most of the Musk news this week has been about the hole he has dug himself into on the specious Tesla buy-out rumors that he himself started. But my attention this week has been drawn to his other hole-digging activity: The Boring Company. Both Los Angeles and Chicago are in talks with him to construct point-to-point transit tunnels to a major sports stadium and airport, respectively. On Wednesday Wired had a piece about the LA tunnel to Dodger Stadium and Crain’s Chicago had one about the O’Hare one.

So. Many. Questions.

I studiously ignored the spate of articles that appeared when Musk first announced this … venture? endeavor? showertime epiphany? But these articles and some other talk I’ve heard have sent me down a rabbit hole. I know a little bit (a very little bit) about what it takes to actually construct transit tunnels, and Musk’s primary innovation—save money by boring tunnels with smaller diameters, which will then carry autonomous vehicles with smaller clearance requirements than conventional rapid transit rolling stock—doesn’t quite compute. Tunnel size has little to do with the cost. The problem goes (pardon the pun) much deeper. Anyway, Musk says that the company would fund the construction of the new lines with private money and make back its investment by operating the system and leasing the terminal real estate. It would cost the public nothing.

If I were a more cynical individual, I would be tempted to say that this is not the real business plan, and would suggest that Musk’s real business plan is giving mayors and governors the opportunity to look like infrastructure visionaries at no upfront cost to them in return for (a) open-ended concessions on public land, and (b) a soft regulatory touch on aspects of Musk’s other ventures that require state or municipal approval. If you view it as a big, flashy government relations play for Tesla it’s actually kind of genius.

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Shahzeen Attari

I came across a talk that environmental activist/engineer Shahzeen Attari gave at the Long Now Foundation’s salon series, The Interval. It was released back in June but for some reason it only appeared in my podcast feed this week. Her work focuses on constructing effective narratives of climate change. Think of it as narrative science, or, more accurately, narrative engineering: designing, building, and shipping narratives that focus the general public on the desperate need to address climate change. It is every bit as interesting as it is important, and it has been banging around in my brain ever since I listened to her talk. Check out the whole talk here.

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Anna Karenina

I continue to slog through this masterpiece of western literature at the brisk pace of about 50 pages per week, mainly on the subway to and from work. (It’s strangely satisfying to know that my weekly commute equates to approximately 1,500 words of Tolstoy/Garnett prose. The commute time-to-word count conversion is something I plan on deriving for all future books.)

I just can’t bring myself to be interested in the fate of the characters, despite the occasionally brilliant moments of tension, reversal and revelation. What keeps me reading, apart from my mulish insistence that I crawl across the finish line on this one, are the moments of beautiful and deep characterization, which come every dozen pages or so. My favorite bit from the last week was nine year old Seryozha, Anna and Aleksy’s son, and his resistance to book learning. I loved this paragraph:

His father and his teacher were both displeased with Seryozha, and he certainly did learn his lessons very badly. But still it could not be said he was a stupid boy. On the contrary, he was far cleverer than the boys his teacher held up as examples to Seryozha. In his father’s opinion, he did not want to learn what he was taught. In reality he could not learn that. He could not, because the claims of his own soul were more binding on him than those claims his father and his teacher made upon him. Those claims were in opposition, and he was in direct conflict with his education. He was nine years old; he was a child; but he knew his own soul, it was precious to him, he guarded it as the eyelid guards the eye, and without the key of love he let no one into his soul. His teachers complained that he would not learn, while his soul was brimming over with thirst for knowledge. And he learned from Kapitonitch, from his nurse, from Nadinka, from Vassily Lukitch, but not from his teachers. The spring his father and his teachers reckoned upon to turn their mill-wheels had long dried up at the source, but its waters did their work in another channel.

That spring/mill-wheel image at the end is so good. Also, the scene a few chapters later where Seryozha briefly reunites with his mother nearly made me cry. So maybe there’s something to this book after all.

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Theranos

Last weekend we were camping and I brought along John Carreyrou’s justly famous book on the Elizabeth Holmes and her ill-fated hemato-tech concern. Long after my family was in the tent snoring, when the fire had burned down to dim embers and the Milky Way was shimmering majestically in the clear night sky above me, I was sitting hunched over on an uncomfortable picnic bench, running down my phone battery by using it as a reading lamp, in a frenzy to get to the end of this book. I think I read the whole thing in under 24 hours, which makes me feel less bad about taking six months to read Anna Karenina. It is hard to believe that Carreyrou is just reporting the blow-by-blow events as they happened. Not that I doubt it, but the book’s narrative arc is an almost perfect tragic thriller. Of course there’s already a movie version in the works.

That said, I may have taken the wrong lesson from this book. Of course, overpromising investors and taking many millions from them while delivering the med-tech equivalent of vaporware is very bad. Never do that. Also, don’t run your company on lies, vindictiveness, and paranoia. Of course. But, reading the book, I got the sense that there was a way that this concept could have actually worked out. Holmes’s insistence on the device being a certain small size and on the blood sample being a certain very low quantity from the very first prototype seemed to prevent the development of (bigger, thirstier) prototypes that actually could have done what she wanted them to do.

It seems like if you could get a bigger device that required more blood but which actually did the thing, your task then becomes optimizing and shrinking, which is much easier to do when the device actually works. If I’ve learned one thing from the history of computers it’s that devices that are the size of airplane hangars can shrink to the size of a post-it note, while also improving exponentially in functionality, in the period of a generation. Maybe that could have been the case here. But who wants to wait a whole generation?

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Good Stationary and Pens, and the Bloggers Who Blog About Them

A few weeks back I kind of unintentionally found myself enmeshed in a new hobby-cum-obsession, namely old fashioned-style writing on dead tree paper with ink. I bought a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen, a bunch of paper and notebooks from Rhodia, Maruman, Midori, Nock Co., and lower Manhattan’s very own Bowne & Co. The result is that I have found myself writing, like, 100% more than I used to. For years I avoided fountain pens and nice paper as the realm of fancy-pants posers, but the tactile experience really is quite nice. And since writing can often be unpleasant, little things like the aesthetic pleasure of good pen on good paper help a lot to keep my butt in the chair and the words pouring out of my brain.

It also should come as no surprise that there is quite an active community surrounding stationary and pens (and pencils!). These blogs have quickly become some of my favorite online media. Here is an incomplete list of stationary/pen/pencil blogs that I have been reading in recent weeks:

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Vaughan Williams’s “Pastoral Symphony”

As gloomy as British classical music can be, it really reached a peak of elegiac melancholy in decade immediately following the First World War. Elgar’s cello concerto is probably the poster child for this, but Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony does Elgar one better in my book.

Over the weekend I realized I am not as familiar as I would like to be with Vaughan Williams’s numbered symphonies, so I downloaded a few of the early ones. This one, dubbed the “Pastoral”, really stood out. I’ve listened to it maybe half a dozen times already, and will probably do so again this afternoon. It is something of a requiem for the casualties of the First World War, but avoids dramatic displays of bereavement in favor of a kind of grieving placidity. I don’t know how else to describe it. The trumpet solo in the second movement and especially the soprano solo in the fourth movement are incredibly evocative. You can listen to the whole symphony on Youtube.

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Recent Media Consumption

 

Internet:

  • I’m grateful to this Boston Globe article by Matthew Guerrieri for introducing me to the work (and, for that matter, the existence) of the Latvian composer Jazeps Vitols. He shipped off  to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 13 to study with Rimsky-Korsakov, and later stayed on there as a teacher, where he counted Prokofiev among his students. I’ve been pouring through his music on Youtube and there are some great pieces, including this theme and variations for solo piano on the Latvian folk song, Ej saulīte drīz pie Dieva (“Go sun soon to God”), and this Dramatic Overture.

 

  • Souciant has an interesting excerpt from Oleg Kalugin’s 1995 book Spymaster: My Thirty-two Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West (full text available here). As someone who came to Cold War-era espionage via John Le Carré novels, it’s amazing how much the factual history reads like a George Smiley story.

 

  • Slate Star Codex has an interesting post up on meritocracy that is kind of a defense of a pure form of the concept. The follow-up post highlighting reader comments from the original post is just as interesting, if not more so. SSC is one of the few places on the Internet where reading the comments is always worth it.

 

  • This Vanity Fair piece by Michael Lewis about the Department of Energy under Trump is both fascinating (the DOE is way cooler than I had thought) and terrifying.

 

  • But not nearly as terrifying as this BBC piece on supervolcanoes. Seriously, this piece, more than even the starkest assessment of nuclear war, filled me with existential dread.

 

 

  • Artificial Intelligence researchers at Facebook created two bots designed to compete against one another, which then proceeded to develop their own private language that the researchers could not decipher. Gulp. I’ve already come across a few Skynet references in the frothier regions of the Internet. The write-up on the Facebook AI Research web page is a bit more anodyne and full of interesting technical details,  as are some of the referenced research papers (see here, here, and here). Between this and Google’s Multilingual Neural Machine Translation System, it looks like one of the unintended beneficiaries of this recent golden age of AI research will be linguistic studies.

 

  • This is cool: there are only two species of flowering plants found on Antarctica, and they could hold the key to better means of protecting people and plants from ultraviolet light. How far away are we from being able to CRIPR UV-resistant genes into human beings?

 

 

  • Quanta Magazine has an interesting piece about bacterial biofilms and their similarity to cities. These days I’ll probably read any big think piece of the type “What Urban Planning Can Tell Us About [totally unrelated phenomenon].”

 

  • Narrative.ly has a tragic piece about how the Toto people, an isolated indigenous tribe in West Bengal, India, may completely die out from a rare blood disorder known as thalassemia. It’s not untreatable but the remoteness of tribe, and general unawareness of the disease, is hindering treatment efforts.
  • This Wired article about Cuba’s DIY Internet is pretty great, the author’s flatfooted attempt to ape Hunter S. Thompson notwithstanding. Having tried to re-book a flight using Havana’s scratch-off WiFi system, I can confirm the government Internet blows. The ingenuity of the Cuban people, however, is pretty awesome. On excerpt:

Every week, more than a terabyte of data is packaged into external hard drives known as el paquete semanal (“the weekly package”). It is the internet distilled down to its purest, most consumable, and least interactive form: its content. This collection of video, song, photo, and text files from the outside world is cobbled together by various media smugglers known as paqueteros, and it travels around the island from person to person, percolating quickly from Havana to the furthest reaches in less than a day and constituting what would be known in techie lingo as a sneaker­net: a network that transmits data via shoe rubber, bus, horseback, or anything else.

Oddly, it works. Cubans can be as conversant as any Netflix-and-chill American about popular shows like House of Cards or Black Mirror, and they drop allusions to the Lannisters and Omar Little constantly. It’s been reported that as many as 3 million Cubans access content via the paquete.

Podcasts:

  • Stravinsky in South Africa, a radio documentary from the BBC World Service about a concert that Stravinsky gave in 1962, at the age of 80, to South Africa. This is one of the best things I’ve listened to in a while. The SA government had arranged for Stravinsky to perform only for white audiences, but after being pressured he was allowed to do a concert in one of the Townships.  The audio of the concert is excellent, the reminiscences of the attendees are touching, and there are wonderful impromptu vocal performances throughout.

 

  • Breaking News, from Radiolab, gives a disturbing taste of a technology that is probably only a few years away: realistically altering audio and video media to make it look like a person is saying something they didn’t in fact say. This video, which fakes an Obama video and which they did using the non-proprietary software, is probably convincing enough to fool millions on Facebook. We’re in for a wild ride in the coming years.

 

 

  • Chapo Trap House has gotten some negative press in recent weeks, most of it little more than huffiness over a slight rhetorical excess (extremely slight in the context of the show’s frequently extreme rhetorical excesses). While the show is often vulgar I do feel like this podcast is to the Trump presidency what Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was to the GW Bush presidency: the show best able to satirize the entire milieu because they understand the current moment better than almost anyone else. Anyway, the recent criticism of the show made me re-listen to the episode that originally made me a fan: the Adam Curtis interview they did right after the election last November. Love it or hate it, this episode (and Curtis’s work) is required listening for anyone on the political left at this moment.

 

We’re Running Out of Stuff

I am a regular reader of the Peak Oil Reviews that Tom Whipple writes for Resilience.org every week. The importance of oil to modern society, its function in geopolitics, and its central role in climate change make it a resource worth monitoring, if for no other reason than the fact that when we finally start running out of the stuff the world will change in utterly gut-wrenching ways.

But there are other resources that deserve similar scrutiny. While they may be less obvious than oil they are comparably important for the smooth functioning of modern society, and the world may change in pretty dramatic ways when we start running out. In recent weeks I’ve come across articles on three such resources whose supplies may be running dangerously low.

The first is David Owen’s piece in the New Yorker about how we’re running out of sand, which plays an unrecognized but critical role in building materials, glass, computers, phones, and more. In this case the problem isn’t absolute scarcity as much as the inaccessibility of the remaining sand deposits. Owen writes:

Deposits of sand, gravel, and stone can be found all over the United States, but many of them are untouchable, because they’re covered by houses, shopping malls, or protected land. Regulatory approval for new quarries is more and more difficult to obtain: people don’t want to live near big, noisy holes, even if their lives are effectively fabricated from the products of those holes. The scarcity of alternatives makes existing quarries increasingly valuable.

It’s not hard to imagine a day when the price of sand gets high enough to allow quarrying companies to buy out those houses and shopping malls and sufficiently pad the pockets of enough elected officials to clear the regulatory hurdles. Just look at what fracking companies have been able to do when oil broke $80 per barrel.

Another “we’re running out of X” piece I came across recently was this article from Ethan Siegel at Forbes about helium. A new helium scare article hits the web every year or so (here are ones from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2016 (this last one from Wired magazine actually makes the case that this is not such a big deal)).

Helium’s primary industrial use is as a coolant for superconducting magnets such as the ones used in MRI machines. Siegel gives a good detailed explanation for why helium is so scarce. In brief, the radioactive process that generates helium inside the earth’s crust takes hundreds of millions of years, and we’re obviously using it at a faster rate than that. Also it’s hard to contain because it floats away. Also, the US Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that the US national helium reserve be sold off, which has flooded the market, depressing prices, boosting consumption. Great job, guys.

While helium scarcity is worrisome, the recent discovery of a large helium reserve in Tanzania means that there’s more of the stuff out there than we know about, and that 2016 article from Wired linked above indicates that medical device companies are getting better at recycling waste helium. So maybe there’s cause for optimism.

The third resource that we’re in danger of running out of is probably the most frightening of all, even more so than oil: phosphorus. The notion of peak phosphorus has been a subject of debate (and nightmares) for at least a decade now. And as with helium it is a perennial source of hand-wringing magazine articles and fear-mongering blog posts. While the consequences of peak phosphorus are far more dire than a world without MRI machines, or even a world without gasoline, there is no consensus as to whether we are in fact running out, and at the same time  some promising work is being done on phosphorus conservation and recycling.

The event that has brought phosphorus into the news lately has less to do with the threat of scarcity than some recent findings on the historical relationship between the Earth’s phosphorus and the rise of more complex life on Earth. Back in January (I’m a little late to this) a team of earth scientists published a paper in Nature describing the results from an analysis they conducted of some 8,000 samples of sedimentary rock that once made up the bed of ancient oceans. The researchers were studying phosphorus levels over time, and the samples, which spanned 3.5 billion years, gave them a deep, longitudinal data set to study.

Their results show that phosphorus levels in ancient oceans were pretty low until about 800 million years ago, when they started to rise, possibly as a result of massive plate tectonic activity. This event coincides with a genetic change that is thought to have brought about the evolution of the planet’s first multicellular organisms (and event that all of us multicellular organisms should be immensely grateful for).

Tim Lyons, one of the scientists who co-authored the paper, quoted in Astrobiology Magazine (where I first heard of it), describes their findings this way:

“We are now in a wonderful position to unravel the captivating chicken-and-egg relationships among the evolution of life, the rise of oxygen, the shifting availability of phosphorus in the oceans, and even the possibility of episodic nitrogen limitation,” Lyons said. “My money is on the important role of plate tectonics and, 800 million years ago, the breakup of a supercontinent.

This has implications for a number of things, from geology to the search for life on other planets. For me the it is a sobering reminder of just how closely life on this planet is tethered to a scarce resource that very few people are paying much attention to.

Recent Media Consumption

Books:

  • The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow, by Gabriel Banat. This is probably the most authoritative biography of Joseph Bologne, the Franco-Guadeloupean composer, violinist and swordsman. Born of an enslaved mother and plantation-owning father on the island of Guadeloupe, Bologne’s fencing skills earned him both a place in the royal guard of King Louis XV and the royal designation Chevalier, but he made his mark on history as a composer. Banat was a professional violinist not a historian, but this is a well-researched book. There is not much in the historical record about Bologne’s life (he did not have extensive correspondences like Mozart did), and Banat relies a little too much on speculation and colorful historical episodes in late 18th century French history to fill out the narrative. But it is a very meticulously researched book and if anything it makes Bologne into an even more interesting historical figure than I had thought. His music is also very good.
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. One of the most harrowing fictional narratives of the historical American experience I’ve read. It relies on the machinery of literary fantasy and alternate history to amplify (only slightly) the lived experience of enslaved people in the United States.

Podcasts:

  • Inside Psycho. A six-episode series on the history of the movie, Psycho. I heard about this podcast from the host of another podcast, Crimetown. It’s a bit uneven and in need of an editor but the against-all-odds story it tells of Hitchcock’s struggles to make this movie made me want to pick up a book-length biography of the director.
  • Startup Podcast two-episode series on Friendster (part 1 and part 2). Have you ever asked yourself “Whatever happened to Friendster?” Here’s your answer.
  • Joe Rogan interviews Dan Flores. I had never heard of historian Dan Flores before this interview, but now I have his books on hold at the library. Flores discusses his interest in the environment and ecology of the western United States, urban fauna, especially the foxes of Los Angeles, and the American Prarie Reserve.
  • And the Writers Is, with Benny Blanco. This is the first episode of a relatively new podcast interviewing popular songwriters. Benny Blanco is about as big a name in song writing as there is, and this interview gives an interesting glimpse into what it takes to break into this industry and how popular music is made today.
  • Exponential View with Scott Santens on UBI. I’m not familiar with Santens’s work, but this interview does a good job making the case that universal basic income is not only the morally right thing to do but that it makes economic sense.

Internet

  • The making of a prison town, by Sarah Tory at High Country News, by Sarah Tory at High Country News. A fascinating and sad report about the relationship between private prisons and down-at-heel municipalities, told through the story of a formerly detained Ghanaian asylum-seeker. Here’s a quote: “When the men asked for better food and more respect from the GEO guards, ICE officials were unreceptive. ‘You guys are refugees,’ they were told, according to Khan, ‘you can’t ask for things.'”
  • Remembering Cordwainer Smith, by Ted Gioia at The Atlantic. A good overview of Paul Linebarger, aka Cordwainer Smith, one of the stranger science fiction writers in the genre. After describing some of Smith’s representative stories Gioia concludes, “In short, people who don’t like science fiction will really hate these stories.” I for one love them, but haven’t read much. I need to fix that.
  • Silicon Valley: A Reality Check, from Slatestar Codex. A contrarian view of Silicon Valley as more than just out-of-touch billionaires funding cupcake app startups. Here’s a quote: “If you’re an average well-off person, leading your average well-off life, consuming average well-off media and seeing ads targeted at the average well-off demographic, and going over to your average well-off friends’ houses and seeing their average well-off products, which are you more likely to hear about? A structured-light optical engine for cytological research? Or a juicer?” See also: Silicon Valley Rebrands Itself as Good for the Rest of America, from Nitasha Tiku at Wired.
  • Has French politics changed for good?, By Claudia Chwalisz at CAPX. “Macron did not simply rely on those who voted for François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012: he really did build a new coalition.” Very hopeful, but, as I keep hearing from every news source much depends on the legislative elections on June 11 and June 18.

 

Islam and Intolerance in Indonesia

It is very sad to see what is happening in Indonesia right now. The Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama,  was recently sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. Setting aside the absurd fact that blasphemy laws are still a thing in this ostensibly non-theocratic country, Ahok’s alleged blasphemy is tame, almost non-existent to the ears of someone who spent his formative years in Catholic school.

Certain Muslim groups in Jakarta opposed Ahok’s candidacy in the 2017 governor’s race on the grounds that it violates chapter 5, verse 51 of the Quran, which states:

O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you – then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people.

In a speech last September Ahok referred to this line of attack against him, and acknowledged that some people would not vote for him because they have been “threatened and deceived” by this appeal to the Quran.

That’s it. That fairly mild statement, which opposition groups portrayed as a desecration of the Quran, was Ahok’s ticket to a two-year prison sentence.

As upsetting as this incident is on its own, it is just the latest and most high profile manifestation of a larger trend that has seen ultra-conservative Muslim groups exert increasing influence over Indonesian civic affairs.

Indonesia has been held up in the west as a role model of tolerance. Despite being the world’s largest Muslim nation it is not a theocratic one, at least compared to its peers in the Middle Eastern. The national doctrine of Pancailsa does not encourage widespread religious pluralism the way the US (notionally) does. Instead, it states a national preference in favor of monotheism, bans most indigenous religions, and limits national recognition to only six religions (alongside Islam is Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism). But within those six it does not place one above the other, at least in theory.

But, in fact, a number of well-organized and well-funded efforts are working diligently to elevate an extreme form of Islam to a privileged position in Indonesian law. A 2014 report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide titled “Pluralism in Peril” lists out five factors driving increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia:

  1. The spread of extremist ideology, fueled and funded by sources outside Indonesia (notably Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East, and Pakistan) as well as domestic organisations, through education, preaching and the dissemination of literature through publishing pamphlets and books, DVDs and CDs, and via the internet;
  2. The inaction and at times complicity of the local, provincial and national authorities, including active complicity by senior government ministers who have made statements which contribute to intolerance;
  3. The implementation of discriminatory laws and regulations;
  4. Weakness in terms of law enforcement on the part of the police and the judiciary, in cases where religious minorities are victims in need of protection and justice;
  5. The unwillingness on the part of the majority of Indonesian Muslims, who make up over 86% of the population,13 to speak out against intolerance.

Numbers two through five are, in their own way, second order derivatives of Indonesia’s lethargic, highly corrupt civic institutions and its deeply cynical political and military elite. The first factor, however, the outside influence from Middle Eastern petro-states, is worth dwelling on.

Krithika Varagur has an excellent piece on The Atlantic’s website from this past March describing Saudi Arabia’s nearly 50-year effort to build a “deep network of Saudi influence” within Indonesia by sponsoring mosques and schools that practice their ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam called Salafism.

The primary Saudi-Salafist beachhead in Indonesia is the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (aka LIPIA), which is a kind of Liberty University of Salafism, funded entirely by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Muhammad Rizieq Shihab,  the founder and leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, which was one of the primary agitators behind Ahok’s blasphemy charges, received his education at LIPIA. It is not a stretch to say that the persecution of Jakarta’s Christian governor on trumped-up blasphemy charges can be traced, at least in part, to Saudi-funded Salafist groups.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to spread conservative Islam is not just limited to Indonesia; it is just the largest and most high-profile front in the Kingdom’s campaign to push the more conservative Saudi flavor of Islam in the Muslim world. Iran, the world’s dominant Shia Muslim power, is waging a similar campaign to proselytize Shia ideology worldwide (they are even in Indonesia, though not to the degree the Saudis are). Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are actively competing for converts throughout the globe in places as far flung as Senegal and Tajikistan.

This Saudi-Iranian race to pull the Muslim world into either the Sunni or Shia orbit has been described, appropriately, as a new cold war. And just as the US-Soviet cold war flared up into hot wars in Korea and Southeast Asia, there are some half dozen Saudi-Iran proxy wars taking place throughout the Middle East at the moment, many of which involve the US. In a sense, Ahok was just another victim of the aggressive evangelism of ultra-conservative Islam coming from the theocratic petro-states of the Middle East.

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But there’s another element of Ahok’s story which is also worth highlighting. Ahok was the first governor of Jakarta to have Chinese ancestry.

Chinese people have been living and working in Indonesia for centuries. There is a persistent belief among non-Chinese Indonesians that the Chinese population profited off of “regular” Indonesians and hoarded their wealth. The result is a perpetual low level sense of resentment among non-Chinese Indonesians that occasionally boils over when provoked by irresponsible politicians who see the Chinese as a convenient scapegoat for the failings of the public sector. These resentments have occasionally boiled over into street violence.  The Guardian had a good piece this past November about the history of riots in Jakarta’s Chinatown neighborhood, Glodok.

Just the other day, Bachtiar Nasir, leader of the Islamist Ar-Rahman Qur’anic Learning Islamic Center, and another one of the leading voices in the anti-Ahok movement, implied in a recent interview that he is now looking to target the wealth of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population, saying that as they become wealthier “It seems they do not become more generous, more fair”. This is about as transparent an effort as you can get to push a button that has historically resulted in hatred, bloodshed, and death.

It is sad to see these strains of religious fundamentalism and ethno-nationalism gain strength in Indonesia just as we in the US are struggling with similar iterations of the same evils.  Hopefully forces of opposition and resistance in both countries can find support in each other.

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Back in September of 2010 my wife and I visited Indonesia. It was my second time in the country, and it was fascinating to see how much things had changed in the six or so years since I had last visited, particularly in Jakarta. For instance, there was now a bus rapid transit (BRT) system serving downtown Jakarta that was pretty fast and efficient (Jakarta traffic is some of the worst in the world).

One evening we were taking the BRT to the Kota Tua, the core of the old city, to walk the Chicken Market bridge and get dessert at Cafe Batavia. The bus was full of very serious-looking people with signs. At Merdeka Square, home of the national monument, we saw a large mass of people flowing into the square, clearly very agitated. Our bus emptied out and the riders were absorbed into the crowd, leaving only my wife and me and maybe one or two other people on the bus. We had no idea what was going on but at no point did we, two obvious white non-Muslim westerners, feel the least bit threatened. A few minutes later we got off in the Kota, strolled across the famous bridge, and ate mousse.

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(A picture I took of the Chicken Market Bridge that night, 9/4/2010)

It was only when we got home a few days later did I realize that the crowds in Merdeka Square were part of a nation-wide protest of Florida Pastor Terry Jones’s planned Quran-burning event to commemorate the September 11, 2001, attacks. I was pretty pissed. The crowd of people in that bus, and every Muslim in the entire country for that matter, had cause to hate America and Americans, all because some xenophobic hick from the most deviant state in the union managed to get global publicity for a hateful stunt.

It’s the kind of thing that, if the tables were turned and someone in, say, Bhutan had insulted Americans, it would be very hard to convince most Americans that there was anything redeeming about the Bhutanese people writ large. There would probably even be a congressman or two (probably from Florida) talking about dropping bombs on them. Any Bhutanese person who rode the subway, stopped to get gas, or stand in line at McDonald’s was liable to be on the receiving end of an ugly confrontation.

But when one American insulted nearly every Muslim on the planet, two obviously American tourists who bumbled into the middle of a public demonstration of that insult were left alone. It was almost as if Indonesians, who live in a country with state-sanctioned religions and blasphemy laws, are better able to disassociate the personal from the political in a way that the country with constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state just cannot get a handle on.

I’ve thought about that a lot in the years since that incident, wondering if Indonesians are just better at pluralism than Americans are. It’s unfortunate to see that maybe they aren’t.

Fast Radio Bursts Flying Under the Radar

Back in the summer of 2014 I distinctly remember driving through the hinterland of northern Massachusetts and hearing a news story on the radio that simply blew my mind.  It was a Sunday morning and we were listening to an NPR report (this one, in fact) about mysterious signals from outer space that had astronomers scratching their heads. These signals were of extremely short duration but very, very powerful. Astronomers called them “fast radio bursts” and put forward a range of possible explanations, ranging from pulsars, black holes and solar flares to plain old cell phone interference. But nothing seemed to fit.

This kind of thing is catnip for me. A big dramatic scientific mystery, signals from outer space, the patina of a possibility of extraterrestrial life. The moment I got home I stayed up late searching the internet for more information. Surprisingly, there was very little even in the scientific press. But it was a recently discovered phenomenon, so I figured it would take some time to capture the public’s imagination. I set a Google alert for “fast radio bursts” and got by on the occasional update on the research.

There was a flurry of stories in late 2015/early 2016 when a repeating signal was found, and another round of stories when, in January of this year, some researchers announced that they had located the source of one of these signals. Contrary to expectation, it was coming from another galaxy three billion light years away. This meant that whatever was generating these bursts (and the researchers were able to shed no light on this) was putting a ginormous amount of energy into it.

As for what is actually causing this phenomenon, the latest hypothesizing is focused on a type of neutron star called a magnetar, but other theories abound. It is genuinely exciting to have a scientific mystery of this proportion that is the focus of such a wide variety of astrophysical speculation.

Despite all this, fast radio bursts never gained much traction as a topic of mainstream scientific interest, but I still find it fascinating. So earlier this week I was very happy to see Quanta Magazine publish an excellent blow-by-blow primer by Katia Moskvitch on this phenomenon that touches on all the most recent discoveries. It conveys some sense of the excitement surrounding this very young field of research.  To give a small taste, here’s how Moskvitch describes the moment in 2015 when researchers found a burst that repeated:

The discovery was “both amazing and terrifying,” Chatterjee said — amazing, because “everyone knew that FRBs don’t repeat,” and terrifying because of the gargantuan energy required to produce even one of these bursts. Perhaps the only thing fiercer than emitting the energy of 500 million suns is doing it again.

Every now and then it is good to be reminded that it really and truly is an exciting time to be alive.

Bruce Sterling on the State of the World, 2017

More than a quarter of the year has passed and only this past week have I gotten around to reading Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s State of the World 2017 over at The Well. I’m glad I waited. Late December is so taken up with retrospective/prospective pieces that it can numb you to truly original thinking about our current moment. And Bruce Sterling has never been lacking in original thought about this or any other moment.

Sterling achieved notoriety in the science fiction scene of the early 1980’s as a leading light of the cyberpunk movement. His Shaper/Mechanist stories of 1982-1984 garnered multiple Hugo and Nebula award nominations, and his 1985 novel , Schismatrix, set in the Shaper/Mechanist universe, is one of the few works of fiction I reread on the regular. He earned a reputation as a critical firebrand and literary scold as editor of the Cheap Truth fanzine, which was a manifesto of sorts for the early cyberpunk movement (the first line of the first issue accurately conveys the flavor of Sterling’s critical rhetoric: “As American SF lies in a reptilian torpor, its small, squishy cousin, Fantasy, creeps gecko-like across the bookstands. Dreaming of dragon-hood, Fantasy has puffed itself up with air like a Mojave chuckwalla.”). And in 1986 he gave the larger literary world its first taste of the major voices in cyberpunk as editor of the Mirrorshades anthology.

But for all that Sterling’s fiction is something of an acquired taste, even to devoted science fiction fans. He lacks the evocative prose style and raw postindustrial aesthetic that helped catapult his compatriot, William Gibson, into literary stardom. His plots tend to move nonlinearly, chasing tangents or jumping the timeline in non-intuitive ways. The focus of his authorial gaze flits from one shiny, mind-melting thing to another.

While that may be grating in a novel (for some–I happen to love it), it makes Sterling’s non-fictional current events commentary consistently fascinating. I look to him to not only find and explain the oddball, under-the-radar stories circulating in the aphotic zones of the Internet, but to actively obsess about them. And his annual State of the World sessions with Jon Lebkowsky over at what remains of The Well are one of the best places to see that on display.

This year he begins with a lengthy and surprisingly heartfelt meditation on the death of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, who was assassinated on December 19, 2016. Although knowing nothing about the ambassador prior to his death, Sterling writes that

I felt a kind of genuine and rueful affection for the guy. As if we were on a first-name basis, and he’d slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk that presented a danger to anybody. “So, it’s come to this, has it Andrei?” I wanted to say.

Not that he is blind to the realpolitik of Russian aggression in Syria and elsewhere. But despite the gulf between Western and Russian ideologies Sterling sees Karlov’s death as the latest and most dramatic of a long line of harbingers foreshadowing the demise of the Westphalian order:

He’s got an alien value system, his activities don’t align with my interests, but somehow, I’m beyond that kind of knee-jerk irritation. Troll hot buttons rarely get to me at the dawn of 2017, I understand them as the counterfeit pennies of the modern intellectual marketplace. Karlov is dead, and I take his death “personalitically.” The personal is the political, and he’s like a freshly coffined microcosm of the trouble we share from pole to pole.

A variant of this sentiment creeps up later in the discussion regarding Vladimir Putin. Comparing him to Louis IX, Sterling writes that “Maybe the proper attitude in 2017 is not piling such emotional effort into: ‘What is this awful guy gonna do to mankind, what are his dreadful capacities,’ but ‘What if he’s not around?’”

The implications here being that the western-led world regime has relied on leaders in the periphery practicing various levels of authoritarianism as a key ingredient in global order. And in 2017 not even the dictators are safe, and the chaos that they so effectively repressed for so long is only one well-aimed bullet away from its debut on the world stage.

Elsewhere, Sterling launches into his tech-curmudgeon spiel, familiar from prior years. Google is “harebrained” and their “moonshots all miss the Moon.” Apple is “Elderly, formerly-daring, an aging diva who is transgressive in ways that nobody thinks are actually liberating.” Facebook is “bitter, toxic, creepy.” Amazon is the only major tech company Sterling thinks has any competence and even there he finds room for pessimism in Bezos’s recent entree into politics via the Washington Post.

More interesting his his take on AI. Despite being “genuinely impressed” by recent advances in deep learning, Sterling remains skeptical, largely due to their opacity:

You can’t mathematically prove that you have an accurate answer with a deep-learner. You just get cool Ouija-board hints. They strike me as a form of decadence for computer science, frankly. They have a baroque, visionary, suggestive, occultist quality when at this historical moment that’s the very last thing we need.

As someone who has been following Sterling for years, this techno-skepticism is almost cliche at this point, despite being a welcome counterweight to the prevailing tech boosterism that persists in mainstream media organs. And this point about the opacity of deep neural networks is something that the industry is starting to wring its hands about.

As scathing as he is about tech, this year Sterling reserves his harshest, most pessimistic words for the environmental movement:

If anybody thinks that standard Al Gore rationalist, scientific Blue State leftie environmentalists are destined to be the heroes of this great crisis of our civilization, well, they haven’t been entirely ineffectual, but they’ve gotta be one of the least successful mass movements ever.

[…]

… I get annoyed by the kind of febrile leftist melancholia that says, “Well, they failed to do what was obviously correct by my cogent analysis, and therefore a Dark Age looms.” It’s not that your analysis was even mistaken, it’s just that reality isn’t bound by your rationality.

###

There’s much more here worth reflecting on, including comparisons between the current economic crisis in China and Italian politics (“Once you’re inside Italy, you slowly realize that, though by anybody else’s standards it really is a deep and serious and chronic ‘crisis,’ by Italian standards it’s never a crisis unless they’re actively shooting each other”), thoughts about an insane recent Italian espionage case that has gotten exactly zero attention over here in the US, and speculation about the future of espionage in general.

The one part of Sterling’s remarks here that I keep turning over in my mind, and which I think deserves to be more generally discussed, is his perspective on our current fascination with dystopias in fiction and film. He writes:

Okay, I get it why dystopia is popular now, but that is a genuinely problematic sensibility. Today really WILL be over with, it’s crumbling, we’re gonna be knee-deep in the ruins of the unsustainable. However, we don’t have to get all ruin-porn about that. Even if that is our cultural sensibility, we could up our game and do it with better taste.

Scary political disaster, Nazism, Fascism – okay, a lot of people simply lived through that historic period. It didn’t last all that long. In fact it was only melodramatic creeps like Hitler who really thought it was a Thousand Year Reich that deserved to end in a totalizing scorched-earth Gotterdammerung. If you tremble all over from a prospect like that, you’re actually buying into the worldview of the problem.

Germany, Italy and Japan were all smoldering ruins in the 1940s and quite lively, prosperous, inventive places in the 1960s. Strange, but true.

Because text on The Well, god bless it, is not  threaded to make for an intuitive reading experience, I collected a condensed version of Sterling’s SOTW 2017 remarks in a Google doc viewable here.