Archives for August 2018

As technology makes billions of people economically irrelevant, their political power is likely to shrink

Yuval Noah Harari writes:

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance.

The emergence of liberal democracies is associated with ideals of liberty and equality that may seem self-evident and irreversible. But these ideals are far more fragile than we believe. Their success in the 20th century depended on unique technological conditions that may prove ephemeral.

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. The causes of this political shift are complex, but they appear to be intertwined with current technological developments. The technology that favored democracy is changing, and as artificial intelligence develops, it might change further.

Information technology is continuing to leap forward; biotechnology is beginning to provide a window into our inner lives—our emotions, thoughts, and choices. Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.

Ordinary people may not understand artificial intelligence and biotechnology in any detail, but they can sense that the future is passing them by. In 1938 the common man’s condition in the Soviet Union, Germany, or the United States may have been grim, but he was constantly told that he was the most important thing in the world, and that he was the future (provided, of course, that he was an “ordinary man,” rather than, say, a Jew or a woman). He looked at the propaganda posters—which typically depicted coal miners and steelworkers in heroic poses—and saw himself there: “I am in that poster! I am the hero of the future!”

In 2018 the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious terms are bandied about excitedly in ted Talks, at government think tanks, and at high-tech conferences—globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, AI, machine learning—and common people, both men and women, may well suspect that none of these terms is about them.

In the 20th century, the masses revolted against exploitation and sought to translate their vital role in the economy into political power. Now the masses fear irrelevance, and they are frantic to use their remaining political power before it is too late. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump may therefore demonstrate a trajectory opposite to that of traditional socialist revolutions. The Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions were made by people who were vital to the economy but lacked political power; in 2016, Trump and Brexit were supported by many people who still enjoyed political power but feared they were losing their economic worth. Perhaps in the 21st century, populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people but against an economic elite that does not need them anymore. This may well be a losing battle. It is much harder to struggle against irrelevance than against exploitation. [Continue reading…]

Courageous grassroots leaders provide the best hope to a troubled world

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who steps down tomorrow, writes:

Across the world, in both the northern and southern hemispheres, there are politicians who are too self-serving, or too spiteful, to care for and protect the most vulnerable. They are not just cowardly but profoundly foolish, because in producing these stress fractures [– the result of decades of mediocre leadership –], they place at risk not only their own futures, but everyone else’s as well.

If we do not change course quickly, we will inevitably encounter an incident where that first domino is tipped—triggering a sequence of unstoppable events that will mark the end of our time on this tiny planet.

Can we swerve in time?

My hope lies in a set of people not widely known internationally, but familiar to those in the human rights community. Unlike the self-promoters—the elected xenophobes and charlatans—these people do have courage. They have no state power to hide behind: instead, they step forward. They are the leaders of communities and social movements, big and small, who are willing to forfeit everything—including their lives—in defence of human rights. Their valour is unalloyed; it is selfless. There is no discretion or weakness here. They represent the best of us, and I have had the privilege of knowing some of them personally, while others are well known to my office.

This is what true leaders look like. Bertha Zuniga Caceres from Honduras, the young daughter of the murdered environmental activist, Bertha Caceres, who has bravely continued her mother’s struggle. Dr Sima Samar in Afghanistan, who leads the country’s independent human rights commission and is utterly fearless, even when threats to her personal safety abound. The same could be said of Senator Leila de Lima in the Philippines, who has now been arbitrarily imprisoned without trial for 18 months. Pierre Claver Mbonimpa from Burundi, a gentle yet principled soul, undeterred even after his son was murdered and he himself survived repeated attacks.

I have also been deeply impressed by the dignity and courage of Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of Congo, an extraordinary human being by any measure. Likewise, I have been humbled by the determination of Angkhana Neelapaijit from Thailand, whose husband, a lawyer, disappeared in 2004 leaving her to become a most courageous activist, fighting against enforced disappearances.

There are others too, from Bahrain for example: the Khawaja family, Nabeel Rajab, Maytham Al Salman and Ebtisam Al Sayegh, who have all have shown extraordinary courage in the face of considerable adversity. Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi and Samar Badawi in Saudi Arabia: courageous leading voices for the rights of Saudi women, both currently in detention. Amal Fathy in Egypt and Radhya Al Mutawakel in Yemen are also two brave individuals who have put their own safety at risk as they have spoken out against injustice and on behalf of victims of human-rights violations.

Likewise, Ludmila Popovici, an activist against torture in Moldova. In Poland, Barbara Nowacka has been active in organising protests against measures to pull back women’s rights. Sonia Viveros Padilla in Ecuador is fighting for the rights of people of African descent. Close by, in El Salvador, Karla Avelar, the courageous transgender activist, deserves high praise—as does the Peruvian Maxima Acuna, a well-known environmental human rights defender.

I could continue. There are grassroots leaders of movements against discrimination and inequalities in every region. These names are just a sample of the real store of moral courage and leadership that exists among us today. [Continue reading…]

As final Syrian showdown looms, millions of lives are at risk

The Washington Post reports:

With Syria’s rebels nearing defeat after seven years at war, President Bashar al-Assad’s army says it is turning its firepower against their final stronghold. The target, Idlib province, is largely controlled by an al-Qaeda-linked militant group.

Caught in the middle are millions of civilians with nowhere left to run.

Public pronouncements by Syrian and Russian officials foreshadow a devastating attack if diplomacy and the pleas of aid groups for restraint are not heeded. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Idlib’s militants as “festering abscesses” that should be “liquidated.” A day later, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said his government’s forces would go “all the way.”

Using unusually urgent language, the United Nations’ Syria envoy, Staffan di Mistura, warned Thursday that the people of Idlib province are facing the prospect of a “perfect storm.”

A defeat of the armed opposition in the sprawling northern region of Idlib would effectively end Syria’s civil war. With rebels defeated across the rest of Syria, Assad’s government has implied that an all-out offensive there is imminent. In public, Russia is also ratcheting up the pressure, adding to its flotilla of warships in the Mediterranean Sea and escalating its rhetoric.

Idlib province is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, a hard-line group affiliated until recently with al-Qaeda. As well as being the strongest military force, HTS has also targeted civilian institutions, using arrests, threats and assassinations to bring them in line.

A major battle in Idlib could have disastrous humanitarian consequences. After seven years of war, the once quiet province is now bursting with some 3 million people, more than half displaced from elsewhere in Syria. With Turkey’s border sealed shut to the north, those people could have nowhere to run. [Continue reading…]

Donald Trump’s unadulterated racism

Eugene Robinson writes:

President Trump’s bigoted hatred of Latino immigrants has been clear from the beginning. Now his administration is aggressively persecuting Latino citizens as well.

It is hard to be shocked anymore, given the daily outrages committed by Trump and his minions, but a report Thursday by The Post was jaw-dropping: In the borderlands of southern Texas, the State Department is denying passports to hundreds and perhaps thousands of men and women who have official birth certificates demonstrating they were born in the United States.

In some cases, valid passports have been confiscated and revoked, their holders stranded in Mexico, unable to come home. In other cases, people have been arrested, sent to detention centers and slated for deportation. Imagine how they and their American families must feel — and how their distress must make Trump and his fellow xenophobes feel warm inside.

Denial of passports effectively renders the victims stateless — meaning they cannot travel outside the country, because they would not be readmitted — and potentially vulnerable to being deported. Again, these are people who have government-issued birth certificates, long accepted as gold-standard proof of citizenship. The Trump administration simply doesn’t see Latinos as full-fledged Americans. [Continue reading…]

White House faces legal and communications skills deficit at perilous moment

The Associated Press reports:

Increasingly convinced that the West Wing is wholly unprepared to handle the expected assault from Democrats if they win the House in November, President Donald Trump’s aides and allies are privately raising alarm as his circle of legal and communications advisers continues to shrink.

With vacancies abounding in the White House and more departures on the horizon, there is growing concern among Trump allies that the brain drain at the center of the administration could hardly come at a more perilous time. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s swirling probe of Russian election interference and potential obstruction of justice by Trump has reached ever closer to the Oval Office, and the upcoming midterm elections could grant his political adversaries the power of subpoena or, more worryingly, the votes to attempt impeachment.

Nine current and former White House staffers and administration allies expressed concerns Thursday that the West Wing is simply unprepared for the potential troubles ahead. They spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns about estranging colleagues.

Attrition, job changes and firings have taken their toll across the White House, but their impact has been felt particularly in the communications and legal shops — two departments crucial to Trump staving off the looming threats. The upcoming departure of White House counsel Don McGahn has highlighted the challenges in an office that has shrunk by a third since last year. [Continue reading…]

Time-restricted eating can overcome the bad effects of faulty genes and unhealthy diet

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sukrit3d/Shutterstock.com

By Satchin Panda, University of California San Diego

Timing our meals can fend off diseases caused by bad genes or bad diet. Everything in our body is programmed to run on a 24-hour or circadian time table that repeats every day. Nearly a dozen different genes work together to produce this 24-hour circadian cycle. These clocks are present in all of our organs, tissues and even in every cell. These internal clocks tell us when to sleep, eat, be physically active and fight diseases. As long as this internal timing system work well and we obey them, we stay healthy.

But what happens when our clocks are broken or begin to malfunction?

Mice that lack critical clock genes are clueless about when to do their daily tasks; they eat randomly during day and night and succumb to obesity, metabolic disease, chronic inflammation and many more diseases.

Even in humans, genetic studies point to several gene mutations that compromise our circadian clocks and make us prone to an array of diseases from obesity to cancer. When these faulty clock genes are combined with an unhealthy diet, the risks and severity of these diseases skyrocket.

My lab studies how circadian clocks work and how they readjust when we fly from one time zone to another or when we switch between day and night shift. We knew that the first meal of the day synchronizes our circadian clock to our daily routine. So, we wanted to learn more about timing of meals and the implications for health.

[Read more…]

Music: Jazzanova ft. Paul Randolph — ‘Let It Go’

 

Crop losses to pests will soar as climate warms, study warns

The Guardian reports:

Rising global temperatures mean pests will devour far more of the world’s crops, according to the first global analysis of the subject, even if climate change is restricted to the international target of 2C.

Increasing heat boosts both the number and appetite of insects, and researchers project they will destroy almost 50% more wheat than they do today with a 2C rise, and 30% more maize. Rice, the third key staple, is less affected as it is grown in the tropics, which are already near the optimal temperature for insects – although bugs will still eat 20% more.

Rising heat stress on crops is already expected to cut cereal yields by about 10% for 2C of warming, but the new research indicates rising pest damage will cause at least another 4-8% to be lost. With 800 million people chronically hungry today and the global population rising towards 10bn, increasing pest destruction will worsen food security. [Continue reading…]

As wildfires rage, smoke chokes out farmworkers and delays some crops

NPR reports:

On Mike Pink’s potato farm at dawn, the sun is an angry red ball low in the sky.

This summer, wildfire smoke has blanketed much of the West for days and weeks. And that smoke has come between the sun and ripening crops.

Pink watches as his year’s work tumbles onto a fast-moving belt and into a waiting semi truck. He’s got most of his 1,600-acre potato fields yet to harvest on his 3,000-acre farm, spread over about 40 miles between Burbank and Basin City, Wash. And this thick smoke makes him nervous.

“When we’re not getting the sunlight like that, the plants aren’t growing. They are just kind of sitting there and doing nothing,” Pink says. “And every day that goes by, we lose a day of potential growth.” [Continue reading…]

Trump’s top targets in the Russia probe are experts in organized crime

The Atlantic reports:

Bruce Ohr. Lisa Page. Andrew Weissman. Andrew McCabe. President Trump has relentlessly attacked these FBI and Justice Department officials as dishonest “Democrats” engaged in a partisan “witch hunt” led by the special counsel determined to tie his campaign to Russia. But Trump’s attacks have also served to highlight another thread among these officials and others who have investigated his campaign: their extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia.

As Trump praised and defended Russian President Vladimir Putin along the campaign trail, financial analysts and money laundering experts questioned whether the real-estate mogul had any financial incentives—including business ties or outstanding debt—to seek better relations with Moscow. Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed in May 2017 to investigate a potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow to defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, assembled a team with revealing expertise in fraud, racketeering, money laundering and other financial crimes. [Continue reading…]