Bannon’s dark valley

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon offers a perspective on the great geopolitical issue of our time:

But what he really wanted to discuss what how the obsession with Russia was a giant red herring from the bigger looming threat of China’s economic dominance. He pointed to Australia as ‘an object lesson to Great Britain and the United States’ for what happens to a country when it lets itself be dominated by China’s economic might.

He said: ‘The people in Australia thought they were playing by the rules, and what they found out ten years later is that the Chinese had gone in and bought minority stakes in companies and bought natural resource companies – next thing you know, with the investments they made in real estate and real assets et cetera, they took control of companies. Next thing you know they’ve got political power – they’re being politicians. And now Australia is in a situation of creeping control by an independent Republic like China – it’s dangerous. That’s happening in the United States and it’s happening in Britain.’ […]

But Russia, he argued, is distraction from the great evisceration of America, Britain and Europe’s power, which is down to the ‘axis of the 21st century’– China, Persia, Turkey, or ‘the Asian landmass’ and China’s one belt one road.

Is it too late for the west, though? Has China’s economic power now grown so great, and our economies so weak, that the Chinese takeover is inevitable?

‘Up until Donald Trump came on the scene, we were told by everybody in the city of London and on Wall Street that the inexorable rise of China is the second law of thermodynamics. It is the physics of the universe.’

But Trump, he insisted, through the threat of tariffs, and the aggressive limiting of Chinese investments in western countries, can reverse the advance of China’s economic advance: ‘If we were to go full on, and pull the trigger on that, you bring ‘em to their knees.’

What are the chances of America actually doing that, even with Trump? ‘Low,’ he says, ‘but the stakes are too great not to try.

‘We are going through a dark valley. People say I’m apocalyptic – I just look at facts, and I’ve been saying this for years and now it’s all coming to fruition. That’s why with Russia, the kleptocracy are not good guys, but eventually, we have to end the Cold War and we have to bring Russia into some sort of alliance or rapprochement with the west.’

If the west allows Russia to partner ‘with this [China-led] axis, the 21st century will be quite different.’

Even if you’re not inclined to agree with Bannon, it’s a fascinating interview and I recommend listening to the whole thing.

The cultural iceberg

This is a useful model for conceptualizing cultural differences:

I might quibble with the placement of some of the items — for example, body language, gestures [insert Italian joke here], and concepts of cleanliness should probably be above the waterline… but it’s a good place to start.

Americans have a bad habit of assuming that because people in country X drink Starbucks coffee, use iPhones and eagerly consume American pop culture, they are becoming “Americanized” or “Westernized,” when in fact, all that is being observed is a partial transformation of the top of the iceberg.

Russia says Browder associates donated $400,000 (not $400M) to Clinton campaign

Putin said at yesterday’s press conference in Helsinki that business associates of Bill Browder “have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia. They never paid any taxes, neither in Russia nor in the United States, and yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amount of money, $400 million as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

I was struck by that shocking claim, which The New York Times tried but was unable to verify.

Well, now it appears that either Putin misspoke, or his statement was mistranslated. The actual alleged figure is $400,000, according to the Russian Prosecutor General. Here’s the story in Russian. Since I cannot read Russian, below is an except of the story after being run through Google Translate. I can’t find any references to this story in English:

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a news conference on Monday after talks with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki that Browder’s business partners illegally earned more than $ 1.5 billion in Russia and sent $ 400 million to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

“Later, the president asked us to correct his reservation, which he made yesterday, not 400 million, but 400,000, but that’s quite a huge sum,” the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

You read it here first in English.

UPDATE: Correction, you read it here second. Looks like I missed this English-language report by TASS:

The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is ready to send a request for the questioning of staffers of US intelligence services and public officers within the framework of a criminal case against Hermitage Capital founder William Browder, prosecutors’ spokesman Alexander Kurennoy told a briefing on Tuesday.

“Within the framework of a probe into a criminal case against William Browder and his criminal group, we are ready to send another request to the US competent agencies for a possibility to question these staffers of US special services, some other public officers of the US and a number of entrepreneurs in order to later charge them with the crimes committed by Browder,” Kurennoy said.

Browder has transferred $400,000 to accounts of the US Democratic Party, Kurennoy said.

“Browder’s criminal group funneled $1.5 billion from Russia into tax havens. Of this sum, at least $400 million was transferred to the Democratic Party’s accounts. Afterwards, our president asked us to correct the sum for $400,000 from $400 million,” Kurennoi said.

Bill Browder

Bill Browder

From the NY Times:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a surprise offer to Robert S. Mueller III, the special prosecutor investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, at the news conference on Monday concluding the summit meeting between him and President Trump.

The Kremlin, Mr. Putin said, would allow Mr. Mueller and his team to travel to Russia and be present at the questioning of 12 Russian military intelligence officers the special counsel indicted last week for hacking into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and the emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

In exchange, however, the United States would have to permit Russian law enforcement officials to take part in interrogations of people “who have something to do with illegal actions on the territory of Russia.” He singled out one man: William F. Browder.

A London-based financier who led a global human rights crusade against the Kremlin that has resulted in sanctions being leveled against numerous Russian officials, Mr. Browder, 54, is a source of deep frustration for the Kremlin, which has gone to great lengths to shut him down. In May, he was arrested and briefly detained in Spain by officers acting on a Moscow-issued Interpol red notice, the sixth the Russians have filed against him. […]

“Business associates of his have earned over $1.5 billion in Russia,” Mr. Putin said. “They never paid any taxes. Neither in Russia nor in the United States. Yet the money escaped the country. They were transferred to the United States. They sent huge amounts of money, $400 million, as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.”

Additionally, Mr. Putin declared, “we have solid reason to believe that some intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions.”

Mr. Putin offered no evidence to support his claims about money moving to the Clinton campaign, let alone with assistance from intelligence officers. […]

It was not clear from where Mr. Putin derived the $400 million figure, or whether he was referring to the Ziffs or possibly other donors as well. Former Clinton campaign officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Here’s Browder’s full response to the press conference.

What did Putin have in mind by making such an extraordinary allegation — the only really surprising aspect of the event? I expect we’ll find out.

Daily links: Putin, Ortega, and Kubrick

Axios describes the Russian president as “an enemy of the United States,” which is interesting because I wasn’t aware that Congress had declared war on the Russian Federation… and I doubt Axios would use such inflammatory and hysterical language to describe the president of China which, you may recall, has been accused of all sorts of damaging cyber espionage against the US, including stealing private information on tens of millions of government employees and other Americans.

Don’t mess with Florida: Trump reportedly read Putin the riot act over a campaign video illustrating nuclear missiles raining down on the state.

Russia to consider lifting a four-year-old ban on US adoptions. A good sign?

A lost, nearly complete Stanley Kubrick screenplay has been found, and it sounds sorta creepy.

An estimated 350 people have been killed in protests against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega since April. It’s curious how little media attention the events in America’s backyard tend to receive.

At least 42 people, all believed to be Chinese tourists, died when their ferry in Thailand capsized. The Thai defense minister alleged that the ferry was illegally operated by a Chinese firm, concluding that “The Chinese did it to the Chinese,” then later walked back his comments.

The Event

Academic and author Douglas Rushkoff discovers what’s on the minds of a group of billionaires, and it’s… alarming:

Last year, I got invited to a super-deluxe private resort to deliver a keynote speech to what I assumed would be a hundred or so investment bankers. It was by far the largest fee I had ever been offered for a talk — about half my annual professor’s salary — all to deliver some insight on the subject of “the future of technology.” […]

After I arrived, I was ushered into what I thought was the green room. But instead of being wired with a microphone or taken to a stage, I just sat there at a plain round table as my audience was brought to me: five super-wealthy guys — yes, all men — from the upper echelon of the hedge fund world. After a bit of small talk, I realized they had no interest in the information I had prepared about the future of technology. They had come with questions of their own.

They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

Or some combination of the above, presumably. It gets even better:

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

The rest of the article comes across as an elaborate attempt to avoid thinking seriously about the implications of that meeting.

When the titans of the financial industry are quietly paying for advice on how to control the people guarding their bunkers after the apocalypse, we normals should perhaps be concerned. Fortunately, after more than a dozen paragraphs of tedious moralizing directed at — for some reason — tech billionaires and assorted futurists and transhumanists, the author comes through with some trenchant advice for the rest of us:

Luckily, those of us without the funding to consider disowning our own humanity have much better options available to us. We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the individual consumers and profiles that our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.

Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

Thaaaaanks man.

“Hunting the Con Queen of Hollywood”

Wild story:

For more than a year, some of the most powerful women in entertainment — including Amy Pascal, Kathleen Kennedy, Stacey Snider and a ‘Homeland’ director — have been impersonated by a cunning thief who targets insiders with promises of work, then bilks them out of thousands of dollars. The Hollywood Reporter has obtained exclusive audio recordings of the savvy imposter as victims come forward and a global investigation heats up.

He was a freelance documentary photographer, 27 and eager, but not inexperienced. He’d worked in conflict zones for several prestige newspapers and magazines and shot ad campaigns for corporate clients. One day in late 2017, he opened his email to find an unusual message. The first thing he noticed was the sender’s name: Amy Pascal, the former co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. That kind of thing didn’t happen every day. […]

Six months and $65,000 later, the photographer, who has requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, has come to understand that he was duped by one of the most elaborate scams to ever hit Hollywood. The woman he’d spoken to several times a day for weeks on end wasn’t Pascal, but a sophisticated imposter who took him for a colossal financial and emotional ride.

[Facepalm]

For the past two and a half years, hundreds of unwitting victims around the world have been ensnared by a small but cunning criminal organization whose contours are only beginning to be understood. […]

At the center of the organization is the impersonator — a woman whose sophisti­cated research, skill with accents and deft psychological and emotional manipulation have earned her the begrudging respect of her victims and trackers. […]

In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars he forfeited, the photographer struggles to wrap his head around the fact that she toyed with him so aggressively long after his funds were depleted, after she had gotten everything she would ever get, when it was simply a game she appeared to enjoy. “At what point does a crazy evil genius say, ‘I’ve got enough out of this person, let’s move on to someone else?'”

What we have here, is a Grade A psychopath.

Listen to those audio recordings, they are really spooky. It will be interesting to find out who this woman is, if we ever do. I wonder if it bothers her that she will never be a celebrity unless she gets caught.

Voice confrontation

Glad to learn there is a term and an interesting explanation for something I have most definitely experienced:

Most of us have shuddered on hearing the sound of our own voice. In fact, not liking the sound of your own voice is so common that there’s a term for it: voice confrontation.

But why is voice confrontation so frequent, while barely a thought is given to the voices of others?

A common explanation often found in popular media is that because we normally hear our own voice while talking, we receive both sound transferred to our ears externally by air conduction and sound transferred internally through our bones. This bone conduction of sound delivers rich low frequencies that are not included in air-conducted vocal sound. So when you hear your recorded voice without these frequencies, it sounds higher – and different. Basically, the reasoning is that because our recorded voice does not sound how we expect it to, we don’t like it. […]

Through their experiments, the late psychologists Phil Holzemann and Clyde Rousey concluded in 1966 that voice confrontation arises not only from a difference in expected frequency, but also a striking revelation that occurs upon the realisation of all that your voice conveys. Not only does it sound different than you expect; through what are called “extra-linguistic cues”, it reveals aspects of your personality that you can only fully perceive upon hearing it from a recording. These include aspects such as your anxiety level, indecision, sadness, anger, and so on.

To quote them, “The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which, until that moment, [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed.”

Now, is there such a thing as face confrontation?

End of the road?

Just a bump in the road, or is China’s global infrastructure drive really turning out to be a highway to nowhere? Only time will tell:

CHINA is facing growing controversy surrounding the debts associated with Belt and Road projects. Pakistani politicians are warning that if they are forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for assistance, the financing arrangements of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will have to be fully disclosed.

At the same time Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has ordered a temporary halt to construction work on the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), and wants to use a planned official visit to China in August to renegotiate some of the terms of the deal.

Meanwhile China has hit back at US media articles on the so called “debt trap” that it has allegedly created in Sri Lanka, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang saying that the reports are “a gross distortion of facts”, and are “either irresponsible or engineered by people with ulterior motives”.

These controversies are mirrored by similar concerns across Africa about the build-up of debt associated with the Belt and Road. Nonetheless, many countries still see the Belt and Road Initiative as an opportunity to spur economic development. China clearly views some of the hostile media coverage as something that has to be viewed in the context of the deteriorating relationship with the United States on trade issues.

The rare earths Achilles’ heel

Rare earths production in Russia

Nice rare earths you’ve got there. Be a shame if something… happened to the supply chain:

Despite an abundance of minerals reserves, America has become increasingly dependent on imports to meet demand. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that America is now 100 percent import-reliant for 21 minerals, and at least 50 percent import-reliant for another 29. Most troubling is that the U.S. is now 100 percent import-dependent for all of the 17 minerals that constitute the rare-earth minerals group. And China, which controls more than 95 percent of global rare-earth minerals production, has a monopoly.

Whether it’s cellphones, electric motors, batteries, aircraft, wind turbines or MRI machines, rare earths play an essential role. But it’s not just commercial manufacturing assembly lines that are vulnerable to an embargo; it’s also military hardware.

Whether it’s the advanced electronics and control systems in F-22 and F-35 aircraft, night vision devices, guidance, targeting systems, or dozens of other critical defense technologies, they’re all built with rare earth components. While the U.S. has a small strategic reserve of some of these minerals — to provide a short-term supply for our military supply chain — we have allowed ourselves to become unnervingly comfortable in China’s vise.

The executive order President Trump signed Friday ordering a government-wide review of America’s defense industry aims to help fulfill Trump’s promise to “rebuild” the military, a top U.S. trade official says.

Just a few decades ago, the U.S. was the world’s largest rare earths producer. The erosion of our production and its shift to China is a complex story, but the common thread across our growing minerals-import dependence is a regulatory approach to mining that has seen investment flee despite world-class resources. For example, the U.S. possesses 13 percent of global rare-earth minerals reserves, with significant deposits in California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Missouri. Yet increased import reliance has become a national security issue.

This needs to be fixed ASAP. It’s really not that hard. Some ideas from a previous article:

The first step to a whole-of-market approach to spur innovation in minerals production is removing regulatory hurdles that dissuade would-be investors. Most notably, the United States must accelerate its mine permitting process. The current seven to 10 year timeline is simply untenable. Australia and Canada adhere to similarly stringent environmental guidelines, yet maintain permitting processes that average just two years. […]

The Pentagon must also focus on existing Department of Defense programs designed to support the U.S. defense industrial base. Each branch of service has a ManTech program intended to improve the productivity and responsiveness of the industrial base and to enable manufacturing technologies. In the president’s fiscal 2019 budget request, the Army, Navy, and Air Force are only requesting approximately $60 million each for ManTech. Furthermore, the Pentagon only requested $38 million for Defense Production Act (DPA) purchases—a defense-wide program focused on expanding and restoring domestic production capacity. This is down from the $63 million requested for DPA in FY2018. With a $700 billion defense budget, dedicating just 0.025 percent of the budget to the next generation of manufacturing technologies is nowhere near enough to catch up to China and shore up domestic capabilities.

Pathetic, is it not? This goes back to what I was saying about the need for an industrial policy. Securing the minerals supply chain should be one element (heh) of a technology-focused economic strategy designed to restore American self-sufficiency and maintain America’s military edge.