“America hand”

Wang Qishan fire brigade chief

Wang Qishan is known in China as the party’s “fire brigade chief”

Fascinating nuggets from a recent FT article about Wang Qishan’s appointment as vice president of the PRC, just five months after he “retired” as China’s anti-graft czar (and the country’s second most powerful official):

The Chinese Communist party’s most trusted crisis manager has returned to front-line politics just in time to face one of the biggest challenges of his long career — managing the fallout from what is likely to be the most dramatic deterioration in Sino-US relations in 30 years. […]

“Wang Qishan has forgotten more about our country than many of our senior people know,” said Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former political adviser who met Mr Wang in Beijing in September. “The level of detail he knew about the US was stunning — the economics of regions, the economics of cities, American infrastructure, the workings of the American economy.” […]

But with the recent departures of Mr Cohn and Mr Tillerson, there are very few senior Trump administration figures to argue for moderation in dealing with China. “Trump is going to be quite confrontational,” said Mr Bannon. “But the Chinese absolutely think the American establishment is going to bail them out and why wouldn’t they, it did in the past.

“The Chinese are going to play for time, engage in dialogue,” he added. “They owned us in Mar-a-Lago, no doubt about it. The globalists were in the ascendancy then, agreed to two ‘strategic’ dialogues [with China] and nothing got done, just more talk.”

I noted the FT piece about Wang’s meeting with Bannon here.

On the Skripal poisoning

Richard Sakwa, a Russia expert at the University of Kent, has some thoughts about the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

These are the circumstances and the consequences, but the whole affair raises many troubling questions. Is the case so clear-cut that the authorities in Moscow, and possibly Putin personally, ordered the assassination? After all, Skripal, a former GRU (Russian military intelligence) officer who had been recruited by the British intelligence agency, MI6, and had then worked as a double agent, had been part of a prisoner swap in 2010, and had lived openly in Salisbury every since. Why would the Russian authorities want to kill him? How would it benefit them, especially in conditions where relations are so bad anyway? If they wanted him killed, there are easier ways – unless of course it was for the demonstration effect, and to alienate the British government even more. These may well be considerations among parts of the Russian security elite, angry at Skripal’s betrayal of a reputed 350 Russian agents. As well as motive, there is also the question of timing. Why now, just weeks before the Russian presidential election of 18 March, when Putin won by a landslide for a fourth term. […]

Let us assess the various theories in turn. The official British government position, outlined by prime minister Theresa May in the House of Commons on 12 March, is that either the Russian state was responsible, or that the authorities had lost control over the nerve agent, identified now as part of the Novichok family of nerve agents. These, May insisted, were the only two plausible explanations. Later, British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, on 16 March alleged that Putin had personally ordered the killing, and then on 18 March he told the British media that Russia had secretly accumulated chemical and biological weapons. He hinted that the British government had information that the order had come directly from the Kremlin. […]

Although the public sphere is full of accusations, none of these cases [Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berzovsky and Boris Nemtsov] has been demonstrated to lead back to the Kremlin. In fact, the argument could be made that these deaths, and others, were ‘provocations’; in the sense that they reflected factional fighting in Moscow and the regions (notably Chechnya), and were ways of signalling threats to the Kremlin to force it to adopt certain policies and not others. […]

Unless serious evidence to the contrary emerges, I would be deeply sceptical that Putin took a personal interest in killing Skripal. What would he gain! Such a version only makes sense if two conditions hold: that Putin has nothing better to do than go around killing opponents who long ago have lost any relevance; and the Russian state is out to subvert the West. As the British foreign office put it in a propaganda video, Russia was out to ‘undermine world order’. This of course is the version repeated in the British mass media, including from some formerly respectable newspapers – but it is nonsense. […]

Novichok [the nerve agent] had been developed in Shikhany in central Russia, and according to the whistle-blower Vil Mirzayanov, it was then tested in Uzbekistan. In the early 1990s controls of weapons stores had been notoriously lax, and social media have repeatedly suggested that some could have found its way to Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The material could have been smuggled out of the country by unknown parties, possibly criminals. It is also not too difficult to reconstitute the agent in a laboratory. Britain sent a sample of the Salisbury material to the OPCW, but Russia also requested a sample, as it is entitled to do under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. The British refused.

And here is an excerpt from Prime Minister Theresa May’s official statement:

Mr Speaker, on Monday I set out that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a Novichok: a military grade nerve agent developed by Russia. Based on this capability, combined with their record of conducting state sponsored assassinations – including against former intelligence officers whom they regard as legitimate targets – the UK Government concluded it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for this reckless and despicable act. And there were only two plausible explanations. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or conceivably, the Russian government could have lost control of a military-grade nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

A number of things jump out at me here:

  • The PM did not conclusively blame the Russian government, but rather said it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible. The statement allows for the possibility that Russia had simply lost control of its stockpile of Novichok. That’s, again, the official position of the British government. By that logic, some other actor could have conceivably carried out the attack, without Putin’s knowledge.
  • Sakwa offers an additional four or five possible explanations for the attack, most of which seem plausible to me.
  • The French government was initially skeptical of the idea of Russian culpability, accusing May of “fantasy politics.” That’s pretty interesting.
  • The British summoned the Russian ambassador and demanded an explanation for the poisoning, but refused to provide the Russians with samples of the nerve agent so they could conduct their own investigation. This is a bit like asking someone when he stopped beating his wife. Imagine how this would be perceived by the Russian side if, in fact, they did not order the attack.
  • The question of motive remains unanswered. It’s hard to see what Putin would have to gain by carrying out a chemical weapons attack on British soil, and thereby significantly ramping up tensions with NATO. That would not appear to be in Putin’s or Russia’s interests. It could be argued that Putin wanted to “send a message” — but then, what message? Don’t mess with us? If so, the ploy has backfired miserably, as Britain seems to have decided to mess with Russia a whole lot more.

It’s very easy to give in to hysteria on this issue, and jump to conclusions before all the relevant facts are in. Given the stakes involved — potential war with a nuclear power — I would suggest that it’s very dangerous to do so.

Beyond the Panopticon: Faceborg update

Facebook 1984 INGSOC

I have always found Facebook to be unpleasant and creepy. Now an increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that it’s positively dangerous. Here’s a powerful tweetstorm by Google AI researcher François Chollet:

The problem with Facebook is not *just* the loss of your privacy and the fact that it can be used as a totalitarian panopticon. The more worrying issue, in my opinion, is its use of digital information consumption as a psychological control vector. Time for a thread

The world is being shaped in large part by two long-time trends: first, our lives are increasingly dematerialized, consisting of consuming and generating information online, both at work and at home. Second, AI is getting ever smarter.

These two trends overlap at the level of the algorithms that shape our digital content consumption. Opaque social media algorithms get to decide, to an ever-increasing extent, which articles we read, who we keep in touch with, whose opinions we read, whose feedback we get

Integrated over many years of exposure, the algorithmic curation of the information we consume gives the systems in charge considerable power over our lives, over who we become. By moving our lives to the digital realm, we become vulnerable to that which rules it — AI algorithms

If Facebook gets to decide, over the span of many years, which news you will see (real or fake), whose political status updates you’ll see, and who will see yours, then Facebook is in effect in control of your political beliefs and your worldview

This is not quite news, as Facebook has been known to run since at least 2013 a series of experiments in which they were able to successfully control the moods and decisions of unwitting users by tuning their newsfeeds’ contents, as well as prediction user’s future decision

In short, Facebook can simultaneously measure everything about us, and control the information we consume. When you have access to both perception and action, you’re looking at an AI problem. You can start establishing an optimization loop for human behavior. A RL loop.

A loop in which you observe the current state of your targets and keep tuning what information you feed them, until you start observing the opinions and behaviors you wanted to see

A good chunk of the field of AI research (especially the bits that Facebook has been investing in) is about developing algorithms to solve such optimization problems as efficiently as possible, to close the loop and achieve full control of the phenomenon at hand. In this case, us

This is made all the easier by the fact that the human mind is highly vulnerable to simple patterns of social manipulation. While thinking about these issues, I have compiled a short list of psychological attack patterns that would be devastatingly effective

Some of them have been used for a long time in advertising (e.g. positive/negative social reinforcement), but in a very weak, un-targeted form. From an information security perspective, you would call these “vulnerabilities”: known exploits that can be used to take over a system.

In the case of the human mind, these vulnerabilities never get patched, they are just the way we work. They’re in our DNA. They’re our psychology. On a personal level, we have no practical way to defend ourselves against them.

The human mind is a static, vulnerable system that will come increasingly under attack from ever-smarter AI algorithms that will simultaneously have a complete view of everything we do and believe, and complete control of the information we consume.

Importantly, mass population control — in particular political control — arising from placing AI algorithms in charge of our information diet does not necessarily require very advanced AI. You don’t need self-aware, superintelligent AI for this to be a dire threat.

So, if mass population control is already possible today — in theory — why hasn’t the world ended yet? In short, I think it’s because we’re really bad at AI. But that may be about to change. You see, our technical capabilities are the bottleneck here.

Until 2015, all ad targeting algorithms across the industry were running on mere logistic regression. In fact, that’s still true to a large extent today — only the biggest players have switched to more advanced models.

It is the reason why so many of the ads you see online seem desperately irrelevant. They aren’t that sophisticated. Likewise, the social media bots used by hostile state actors to sway public opinion have little to no AI in them. They’re all extremely primitive. For now.

AI has been making fast progress in recent years, and that progress is only beginning to get deployed in targeting algorithms and social media bots. Deep learning has only started to make its way into newsfeeds and ad networks around 2016. Facebook has invested massively in it

Who knows what will be next. It is quite striking that Facebook has been investing enormous amounts in AI research and development, with the explicit goal of becoming a leader in the field. What does that tell you? What do you use AI/RL for when your product is a newsfeed?

We’re looking at a powerful entity that builds fine-grained psychological profiles of over two billion humans, that runs large-scale behavior manipulation experiments, and that aims at developing the best AI technology the world has ever seen. Personally, it really scares me

If you work in AI, please don’t help them. Don’t play their game. Don’t participate in their research ecosystem. Please show some conscience

Now might be an opportune time to talk about government regulation of the social media platforms. And maybe even a temporary shutdown, until we can figure out what is going on and how to mitigate the risk of social catastrophe from this new and poorly understand technology.

Buckle up

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer

The tariffs cometh:

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Wednesday the administration would likely be unveiling tariffs against China soon, but cautioned that the precise details are still subject to change.

“The president is going to make a decision in the very near future,” Lighthizer told the House Ways and Means Committee. “Our view is that we have a very serious problem of losing our intellectual property, which is really the single biggest advantage of the American economy. … We are losing that to China in ways that is not reflective of the underlying economics.” […]

He said that the existing world trade system, including the World Trade Organization, was “wholly inadequate” to deal with China because it is “state-dominated economy that rejects market principles.”

Better dig a bomb shelter and stock up on canned beans and shotguns shells, as we are reliably informed that tariffs will lead to a “trade war.”

Direct-democracy-as-a-service

Luigi Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio

Luigi Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio

A brief explanation of Italy’s Five Star Movement, which won the biggest share of the vote in this month’s general election:

Davide Casaleggio is one of the top leaders of the Five Star Movement. He is president of the Rousseau Association, which created the movement’s digital platform. […]

Our experience is proof of how the Internet has made the established parties, and the previous organizational model of democratic politics more generally, obsolete and uneconomic. The Five Star Movement garnered around 11 million votes in the recent election. Each vote cost us about 9 cents — a cost covered by micro-donations from about 19,000 citizens who donated a total of about $1 million, supporting all the costs of our election campaign. For the traditional parties, according to the political group More Europe, a single vote cost nearly one hundred times more, about $8.50 per vote.

The platform that enabled the success of the Five Star Movement is called Rousseau, named after the 18th century philosopher who argued politics should reflect the general will of the people. And that is exactly what our platform does: it allows citizens to be part of politics. Direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.

The platform also allows registered users to choose parliamentary candidates through online voting and to propose, discuss and vote on legislative initiatives which, if approved, are submitted to parliament. This is direct democracy on the intraparty level, it’s very cutting-edge and frankly very cool. I suggest keeping an eye on Italian politics as I think they are simply ahead of the curve on this, and much of the West will soon catch up.

Good call

I’m old enough to remember this cover of The Economist:

Excerpt from the August 31, 2013 issue:

THE grim spectacle of suffering in Syria—100,000 of whose people have died in its civil war—will haunt the world for a long time. Intervention has never looked easy, yet over the past two and a half years outsiders have missed many opportunities to affect the outcome for the better. Now America and its allies have been stirred into action by President Bashar Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons to murder around 1,000 civilians—the one thing that even Barack Obama has said he would never tolerate.

The American president and his allies have three choices: do nothing (or at least do as little as Mr Obama has done to date); launch a sustained assault with the clear aim of removing Mr Assad and his regime; or hit the Syrian dictator more briefly but grievously, as punishment for his use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Each carries the risk of making things worse, but the last is the best option. […]

If the West tolerates such a blatant war crime, Mr Assad will feel even freer to use chemical weapons. He had after all stepped across Mr Obama’s “red line” several times by using these weapons on a smaller scale—and found that Mr Obama and his allies blinked. An American threat, especially over WMD, must count for something: it is hard to see how Mr Obama can eat his words without the superpower losing credibility with the likes of Iran and North Korea.

Last month, we learned this:

The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.

“We have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “We do not have evidence of it.”

He said he was not rebutting the reports.

“We’re looking for evidence of it, since clearly we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions,” Mattis said.

To my immense shock, the Google search site:economist.com assad mattis for the year 2018 generates no hits. I wonder why not?

At this point, is there a single, solitary reason to believe anything reported by The Economist?

No travel for you

North by Northwest smoking on trainIn the latest evolution of China’s social credit system, people who have committed offenses like smoking on trains or defaulting on fines will now be effectively banned from traveling:

China said it will begin applying its so-called social credit system to flights and trains and stop people who have committed misdeeds from taking such transport for up to a year.

People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday. […]

However, there are signs that the use of social credit scoring on domestic transport could have started years ago. In early 2017, the country’s Supreme People’s Court said during a press conference that 6.15 million Chinese citizens had been banned from taking flights for social misdeeds.

That’s an extraordinary number of people. A case could be made that people who, for example, open the emergency exit of a moving plane should be put on some kind of no-fly list, but only a small fraction of 6.15 million citizens can possibly be guilty of those types of offenses.

Protectionist China

Reuters provides a handy rundown of China’s restrictions on US imports. They are… significant:

TECHNOLOGY

China keeps close control over the use of tech within its borders, including full or partial blocks against many popular U.S. firms including Google, Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc and others.

The Chinese government has adopted a raft of strict new cybersecurity regulations, which foreign business groups complain either put China off limits or require them to provide sensitive intellectual property for government checks. […]

AUTOS

Global carmakers can only operate in China, the world’s largest auto market, via joint ventures (JVs) with local partners, with their stake limited to 50 percent, part of a government drive to protect home-grown auto firms.

Tesla Inc chief executive Elon Musk said on Twitter earlier this month that China trade barriers created an unfair playing field and that it was “like competing in an Olympic race wearing lead shoes.” […]

China also imposes a 25 percent duty on imported vehicles, versus a 2.5 percent import tax in the United States.

BANKING AND FINANCE

Foreign financial firms face long-standing equity caps to participate in some services in China, including a 50 percent limit on life insurance and a 49 percent cap on foreign-invested securities broker-dealers. […]

ENTERTAINMENT

China has a strict quota system for imported movies, limiting the number allowed to be shown on domestic cinema screens through the scheme to 34 each year. Hollywood producers also get around 25 percent of the box office, compared to nearer 40 percent they received in other overseas markets.

FOOD AND AGRICULTURE

China bans imports of poultry, poultry products and eggs due to avian flu. It conditionally lifted an import ban on U.S. boneless beef and beef on the bone in June last year. […]

RAILWAYS

China requires rail equipment suppliers to its domestic train networks, which are among the world’s longest, to prove that at least 70 percent of their supply chain is in China.

Embracing “free trade” when your trading partners are severely protectionist is a bit like leaving all your doors unlocked when your neighbors are thieves.

Anti-politicians

Beppe Grillo

Italy’s Beppe Grillo

The enigmatic Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S) is now Italy’s biggest political party:

One person notably absent from the Five Star Movement’s triumphant celebrations at a plush hotel in Rome in the early hours of Monday morning was Beppe Grillo, the comedian who less than a decade ago founded the party that seized the biggest share of the vote in Sunday’s inconclusive election. […]

Grillo, who was instrumental in turning the movement built by a rabble of rebels into Italy’s strongest political force, said in January that unless it won an outright majority in the election it should remain in opposition. “It would be like saying that a panda can eat raw meat. We only eat bamboo,” he said of the prospect of sharing power.

But Di Maio, said to have been groomed by Grillo for the leadership, has other ideas. On Monday he said he was open to talks with all political parties, and he has already presented his would-be cabinet – a list of what he calls “anti-politicians”.

In light of the news from Italy, I remembered this prescient article by Francesco Sisci — from April 2013:

Italy over the past century was a staging ground for experiments with new political solutions that had global consequences. Fascism was born in Italy in the 1920s, although it also flourished elsewhere and caused the start of World War II. In the 1970s, the Italian pro-Soviet Communist Party supported coalition governments that included pro-American parties, showing that communism could be adapted to a democratic environment. Thus, it inspired reforms in Gorbachev’s USSR some years later, something that led to the collapse of communism in Europe altogether.

One then wonders whether the new Italian political entity the “5 Star Movement”, created by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, will also lead to something else – and what that could be. The “5 Star Movement” scored a huge success in the recent Italian elections while refusing to reach out to voters through talks and debates on TV, the traditional means of political campaigning for the past five decades.

It canvassed votes by means of old-fashioned public meetings and by modern web chats and Tweets shot through the Internet and mobile phones. He and his followers explained that this is the new web democracy. In fact, there is something extremely modern in Grillo’s political movement. Certainly, US President Barack Obama understood the importance of the web and relied on songs spread on Facebook and Twitter slogans. But he still went on TV and engaged in all the traditional campaign activities.

Grillo, conversely, refused TV appearances, political debates, and even interviews in the Italian press, and this magnified his image, bringing him almost 25% of the vote. The Internet is and was the ground for internal debates. Candidates were selected through mock elections on the web among Grillo’s supporters; policy discussions were held in web chats rather than in smoky rooms. There were no meetings, no cells, and no steering committees.

Actually, this is not the only new element of Grillo’s party. Contrary to all past practices, Grillo and his main partner, Gianroberto Casalegno, chose not to run for parliament. Notwithstanding that, these two extra-parliamentary leaders control all their elected deputies in parliament through a series of binding agreements. Meanwhile, the few top leaders decide the party line in informal gatherings on phone calls. It may not sound good – the party looks more like a private entity than an organization to promote political change and effective popular participation – but it has so far provided an organization that works similar to, if not better than, the old party systems.

Social networking is devouring the political systems of the West, starting in Italy and the US. It’s easy to imagine that in another five or 10 years, online networks will have taken over the machinery of the major parties, turning politicians into puppets for internet movements/mobs. Which may or may not be an improvement over the existing, obsolete party systems.

In any case, China’s prescience in censoring the internet more severely than Saudi Arabia is now clear. China’s rulers are extremely uninterested in dealing with uncontrollable, socially networked movements that could destabilize the country and threaten the Party’s grip on power, so it has opted to wall off China from huge swaths of the global internet.

Under this brutal logic, all major foreign social media platforms are blocked, and the domestic platforms are heavily censored and monitored. Weibo, the closest thing to Twitter, has recently been chastened (again). The closed nature of WeChat, which now has a billion active monthly users, does not lend itself to hashtag activism. There will be no Beppe Grillo on China’s watch.

Wrestling minus Marx

Antonio Graceffo has the distinction of being an American who wrote and defended a PhD dissertation entirely in Chinese at the Shanghai University of Sport. He has also arguably hit and kicked more people in more countries than any economist alive.

A sort of modern-day, Brooklynite version of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Dr Graceffo has learned pretty much every Asian language I’m aware of and has studied more varieties of martial arts than I ever knew existed, and that was before he decided to become a specialist on economics and US-China trade.

Anyway, I’m currently reading The Wrestler’s Dissertation: Shanghai University of Sport PhD in Wushu, Chinese and Western Wrestling, which is an English-language version of the paper that earned him a doctorate in China, but with all the boring Marxist theory crap taken out and all the interesting stuff, which the university urged him not to include, put back in.

I have to say that although I’m not the kind of person that would normally be enthralled by a book about wrestling, Graceffo offers some fascinating insights into the differences between Western and Chinese culture through the lens of the ancient sport.

You’ll have to read the book for all the details, but this article is an appetizer:

Finally, I determined that the major reasons for differences in wrestling rules, techniques and cultures between China and the US came down to competitiveness, aggression, and violence. The most popular sports in China are ping pong and badminton. Like wushu, these are neither aggressive nor violent. In the US, nearly 800 universities have American football teams, with over a million Americans playing on high school and college football teams. This suggests that American and western sports culture is far more aggressive and violent than Chinese sports culture.

I even made a handy, meme-able table summarizing the differences:

There’s a great deal else in the book, from discussions about Roman gladiators to Andre the Giant, UFC, and the Soviet-style sports education system that exists in China (and why it sucks). The amount of research that went into the book is alarming, actually, and made me want to call Antonio to ask if he was ok.

I did ask him to elaborate on how he was required to stuff his original paper with Communist agitprop, and he had this to say:

PhD dissertations generally have standard sections such as literature review, objectives of study, motivation of study, theoretical framework and expected findings and so forth. In China, however, you also have sections for Marxist theoretical framework, where you extol the benefits of Marxism and explain how the teachings of Marxism enhance your research. A Chinese PhD student who is currently one of my unofficial advisees is writing his sport PhD these about Marxist Policies and Their Effect on Athletic Performance.

When I was at the sports university, for my first PhD, I learned from my Chinese classmates to just write my dissertation in the normal way and with a normal topic, but to include two to three sections for “correct political thought” or “Marxist ideology” which were just huge, the bigger, the better, and complete nonsense fluff, unrelated to the rest of the paper. These things were easily searchable online, so you could find models to follow, so I wrote one, basically saying Marx was great and without him, people couldn’t wrestle. My class sister reviewed my paper and said, “You really need to say more nice things about Marxism.” So, she helped me flesh out that section.

When I went for my defense, I was very worried they would ask me about Marxism. In theory, they could ask you about any part of your dissertation. While they didn’t actually ask me about Marxism per se, they asked a number of very loaded questions about Chinese culture and within the context of Marxism, People’s Republic of China vs. Republic of China. So, I prepared answers which included the words “development, ideological framework, and 5,000 years of history.” Also, when I talked about these concepts, I said “our” rather than “China’s’, as in “We Chinese have 5,000 years of cultural history and exist within an ideological framework of Marxism which is why we are developing faster than the West.” While the professors were all smiling and nodding, satisfied, and my advisor was looking very proud, I quickly added, “and wrestling.”

Fortunately there’s none of that nonsense in the English version, so if you like martial arts, but you’re not big on dialectical materialism, this might be the book for you. You can download the Amazon Kindle edition for $5.49.