America’s Belt and Road?

The US may be stepping up its game to counter China’s multi-trillion-dollar development strategy known as the Debt Trap Diplomacy–… sorry, the Belt and Road Initiative:

The US is preparing to create an agency that can invest up to $60bn in the developing world in an effort to counter what some in Washington describe as China’s use of debt to wage “economic warfare”.

In what observers say is the biggest shake-up of US commercial lending to developing countries in 50 years, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will be folded into the new agency and allowed to invest in equity. At present Opic can invest only in debt, putting it at a disadvantage to European development finance institutions (DFIs).

Ray Washburne, president and chief executive of Opic, told the FT that China – by using what he called “loan-to-own programmes” – was “creating countries that have the shackles of debt around them”. That amounted to “economic warfare”, he said.

By more than doubling Opic’s lending ceiling to $60bn and allowing it to invest in equity, he said, it would be put on “an equal footing with other DFIs”.

According to the report, OPIC well be folded into the new agency, called the International Development Finance Corporation, and “The arrangement has been sold to the president.”

Of course, the US has other ways of creating potholes in China’s Belt and Road… This could get very interesting indeed. On a quasi-related note, China is ramping up its PR campaign in the US, according to Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs:

China Daily advertising supplement

Text of the full thread:

CHINA sends a message to Trump and Ambassador Branstad by taking over 4 pages of Des Moines Register. Advertising supplement has “news” on:

—China buying soybeans from South America due to “trade row”

—Xi Jinping’s “fun days in Iowa”

—“Beijing can set an example for the world.”

The advertisement, labeled as paid for by the “China Daily, and official publication of the People’s Republic of China” is like a 4-page tweet from the Chinese government. It calls the trade war with Trump the “fruit of a president’s folly.”

In 15 years of covering Iowa news, I cannot recall the Chinese making a play like this. Certainly unprecedented for China to take out a four-page advertisement in the DMR. [Emphasis added]

China uses this advertising format regularly—“news” inserts have appeared in Nepal, Australia, U.S., etc. per @kashishds, @lillebuen, @DavidMDrucker and others. Beijing seems to be talking straight to Trump with this Iowa ad on “China-U.S. economic interdependence.”

Newspaper advertorials are a relatively clunky way of getting the message out, and unlike, say, troll armies on social media, they aren’t plausibly deniable. Nevertheless, as much as Americans (and others) may roll their eyes at such obvious and heavy-handed PR efforts, the cumulative impact of China’s vigorous overseas messaging is likely to be non-zero.

Age of cults

Keith Raniere NXIVM

Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM

It seems that cults are all over the news these days. What gives? Here is a partial roundup of top cult stories from just the past week:

“How an Irish mother saved her child from the “sex cult” NXIVM” (Sept 21)

“Nicole Kidman: Why She’s Giving Son, 23, His ‘Freedom’ & Not Pressuring Him To Leave Scientology” (Sept 20)

“Trial starts for militant religious sect leader over abuse” (Sept 20) — Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps

“Alleged Sex Cult Mastermind Keith Raniere To Rot In Jail For Months Until Trial” (Sept 19) — NXIVM

“Heaven’s Gate Cult Threatens Legal Action Over Lil Uzi Vert’s “New Patek” Cover” (Sept 19)

“‘I lost my entire family to a cult’: How one woman escaped Grace Road” (Sept 19) — “A South Korean church which believes global famine is imminent has set up base in Fiji, where it’s gained considerable influence but faced growing allegations of abuse.”

“15-Month-Old Girl Was Starved to Death by Dad Connected to Black Supremacist Cult” (Sept 18) — United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors

(I’ll take this opportunity to mention that back in July, Japan executed the former leader and six other members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which carried out the infamous 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Police were on alert for shenanigans by Aum followers, who remain active.)

We certainly appear to be living through a time of mass hysteria and apocalyptic thinking, at least in the US, which may explain the plethora of cult-related headlines. As social mood continues to darken, the prevalence and popularity of cults may well increase.

Google fails to not be evil

Google devil

“Google” by William Blake

Now we know why Google has scrubbed almost all mention of “Don’t be evil” from its code of conduct:

Google bosses have forced employees to delete a confidential memo circulating inside the company that revealed explosive details about a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, The Intercept has learned.

The memo, authored by a Google engineer who was asked to work on the project, disclosed that the search system, codenamed Dragonfly, would require users to log in to perform searches, track their location — and share the resulting history with a Chinese partner who would have “unilateral access” to the data. […]

The memo identifies at least 215 employees who appear to have been tasked with working full-time on Dragonfly, a number it says is “larger than many Google projects.” It says that source code associated with the project dates back to May 2017, and “many infrastructure parts predate” that. Moreover, screenshots of the app “show a project in a pretty advanced state,” the memo declares.

Most of the details about the project “have been secret from the start,” the memo says, adding that “after the existence of Dragonfly leaked, engineers working on the project were also quick to hide all of their code.”

It’s pretty simple, if you want to operate in China you have to play by the CPC’s rules. There is no way for Google to do that while successfully upholding the values it pretends to care about. Hence the secrecy.

The Internet of Dumbass Things (IoDT)

Big Brother Alexa is watching you

Writing in Forbes (a few years ago), Theo Priestley threw cold water on the “Internet of Things” craze:

This time last year Gartner said that by 2022 a typical family home, in a mature affluent market, could contain several hundred smart objects by 2022. Several hundred. […]

But if we examine the market as it is today apathy is rife because the current trend by OEM companies is to “stick a chip in it” in order to connect it to the internet, without any real value to the consumer. In fact, the only ones getting excited by the Internet of Things are the vendors.

Take Samsung’s offerings at the recent IFA exhibition. Samsung now have a new SmartThings hub to connect the many devices in your home. There were examples like;

  • The smart oven that waited for you to be on your way home before starting to heat your dinner.
  • The home that switched on lights as you approached.
  • Samsung also added a touch of personality to their SmartThings platform; you can start the morning by texting the app “good morning”, and your house will bid you farewell as you leave.

The immediate response to these was – Why ? (especially the last one!)

What software and hardware vendors fail to answer is why is their connected device necessary for a consumer to own and what value does it ultimately bring ? Consider the ‘smart oven’ above. It won’t actually prepare the food for you the night before. You have to do that. So the convenience is…. ?

I know of a family that has a cutting-edge Samsung microwave/oven combo that cannot even display the clock for more than 60 minutes at a time. Apparently, this is because the screen is actually a tablet computer that needs to sleep. In their disgust, the family has not even bothered to set the clock to the correct time. Also, as far as they can tell, the Wi-Fi connectivity is completely useless and adds no value to their cooking experience. In effect, then, their lavishly priced “smart” appliance is arguably rather stupid.

I thought of this when reading of Amazon’s latest efforts to create an omni-connected happy digital republic:

Amazon is using a surprise hardware event in Seattle today to introduce a bunch of new devices with its Alexa voice assistant built in.

Why it matters: Amazon is in a race with Google (and to a lesser degree Microsoft and Apple) to make its assistant as ubiquitous as possible.

So far, the company has announced, per CNBC:

  • Amazon Basic Microwave, which will cost $59.99.
  • Echo Wall Clock, at $30, to set timers and such.

[Etc…]

  • New Alexa capabilities. She’ll be able to tell when you’re whispering — and she’ll whisper back. She’ll also act on “hunches,” so if you tell her “good night,” she might turn off your lights and check if your doors are locked.

Creepy! More to the point, how does this invasive consumer technology actually benefit humanity? Are we really better off being able to whisper to our devices, or to control our kitchen lights from 100 miles away?

Chinasplaining

Confucius Institute logo

From a 2017 article on the increasingly sophisticated global PR efforts of certain authoritarian states:

Consider this: As part of its “Great Leap Outward” in recent years, China has quietly built up a multibillion dollar international media empire transmitting content in a multitude of languages that is making inroads in dozens of countries around the globe. As an indication of its growing sophistication, Xinhua, the state news agency, and CGTN, the Chinese state television global network (until 2016 known as CCTV), cultivate content-sharing agreements in a growing number of countries, especially in young democracies. In countries such as Argentina, Kenya and Peru, the Chinese authorities embed their own entertainment, documentary and news programming into domestic media platforms, enabling CCP-friendly soft propaganda to reach audiences in these settings. […]

The Chinese government has placed enormous resources into relationship and network building, undertaking extensive people-to-people programs in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. Through such efforts, many hundreds of students, media professionals and policymakers each year are brought to China, often full-freight paid by the Chinese hosts. Emblematic of these wide-ranging efforts are initiatives such as the June 2016 “Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation” and the December 2013 “High-Level Symposium of Think Tanks of China and Central and Eastern European Countries,” which convened hundreds of media and think tank professionals in China. Chinese state-backed Confucius Institutes operate a vast network of cultural influence embedded in universities and schools—more than 1,000 institutes and classrooms operating worldwide.

Further reading here. Also see my comment yesterday on how the US should deal with foreign state-funded media.

An effective response by the US would include (but not be limited to) banning Confucius Institutes on American soil and restricting Chinese investment in the entertainment and media industries, exactly as China restricts foreign investment in those sectors.

Greg’s foreign media doctrine

The US is getting tough on Chinese state-owned media. But is it enough?

The Justice Department ordered two leading Chinese state-run media organizations to register as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the matter, as U.S. officials ramp up efforts to combat foreign influence operations and toughen their stance on a variety of China policies.

The DOJ in recent weeks told Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network—known as CGTN now and earlier as CCTV—to register under a previously obscure foreign lobbying law that gained prominence when it was used in the past year against associates of President Donald Trump, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, the people said.

The DOJ order comes as Washington and Beijing are involved in an escalating trade conflict, with China announcing on Tuesday it would retaliate for the U.S. tariffs unveiled Monday on $200 billion in Chinese goods. […]

The Justice Department told the senators it couldn’t comment on any potential continuing investigations and wrote that not all state-controlled media would necessarily be required to register as foreign agents, such as those that run news bureaus in the U.S. to report on events for an audience in their home countries.

“Unless there is an effort by the state-controlled media organization to use its reporting in the United States to target an audience here for purposes of perception management or to influence U.S. policy, there would probably be no obligation for it to register under FARA,” a DOJ official wrote in a letter dated Feb. 20 that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

It’s unclear whether Chinese media organizations like Xinhua and CGTN have significant audiences in America (although some of their messaging is clearly aimed at Americans). It’s also unclear what (if anything) separates normal “journalism” from “perception management,” and it’s unclear why media outlets such as Xinhua and Korea’s KBS America should be registered as foreign agents but not, say, the BBC.

The guidelines for FARA registration seem very vague. Another issue is that FARA-registered media entities are not required to stop producing content, including for American audiences (although they are required to disclose their funding and activities and pay a fee). Some laud this as a positive transparency measure, while others denounce it as a troubling assault on journalistic freedom, and yet others wish FARA had more teeth.

The whole situation is complex, murky, and unsatisfactory to a lot of people. I propose cutting through all the complexity by applying the principle of reciprocity. Quite simply, the US should treat foreign media outlets the way their respective countries treat US media outlets. For example, since China bans the publication and printing of foreign newspapers and magazines for sale in the mainland, the US should not allow China Daily to be sold from newspaper boxes on the streets of America’s major cities:

China Daily New York

(Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

And since China would never allow CNN, for example, to broadcast US foreign policy propaganda on Beijing’s giant Sky Screen, neither should Xinhua be allowed to broadcast Chinese foreign policy propaganda on a huge LED screen in Times Square:

Xinhua Times Square

(The Nanfang)

The same principle would apply to Russia, in whose capital city you allegedly can’t find a major foreign newspaper. (It should be pointed out that Russia’s attempts to control and limit foreign media predate the Kremlin’s recent move to label foreign media outlets as foreign agents, ostensibly in retaliation for the US doing the same to RT and Sputnik Radio.)

Besides being irreproachably fair, this policy would also expose the severe hypocrisy of any authoritarian governments that complain that their media outlets are being muzzled in the US, since the US would simply be mirroring the restrictive policies of those governments. Optimistically, this could even prompt some authoritarian governments to relax their controls on US media to regain their American footprint.

Now, this policy would do little to curb the Russian information warfare and influence operations that so terrify America’s political and media elites, as social media is the main battlefield for those alleged activities, carried out by armies of invisible trolls and bots. The rule of reciprocity hardly makes sense in the context of Twitter and Facebook. But that’s another story for another day.

Entropy

The total entropy of an isolated system, such as the universe, can never decrease over time. This has some unfortunate consequences. For example, cleaning my room will decrease the level of disorder locally, but only by producing large amounts of waste heat that will increase the overall level of entropy (unavailable thermodynamic energy) in the universe.

Therefore, I have decided to help keep entropy at bay by sitting around today and doing nothing at all.

By my calculations, I have prolonged the life of the universe by approximately one googolth of a second.

You’re welcome.

*

PS: I thought this was my own idea, but here’s a good article exploring it in more depth.

“Only the disciplined ones in life are free”

Eliud Kipchoge

An amazing new world marathon record has just been set:

Somewhere around mile 7 of my race along the Schuylkill River, I found myself marveling at what the great Kenyan distance runner [Eliud Kipchoge], almost unquestionably the greatest marathoner ever, had just pulled off. He hadn’t just set a new marathon record; he’d shattered the old one by a minute and 18 seconds, running the fast Berlin course in 2:01:39.

Consider what that means: The 33-year-old Kipchoge, who is 5 foot 6 and weighs 115 pounds, had run 26 straight, blazingly fast, 4-minute and 38-second miles. I’ve always said of world-class marathon times like this that if I didn’t know it could be done, I wouldn’t believe it was possible to run that fast for that long.”

And the limits of human capacity have been stretched a bit further. Kipchoge also seems to have gleaned some nuggets of wisdom from his years of pounding the polyurethane:

He is also marathon running’s “philosopher king,” according to Cacciola, distinguishing himself as much with his motivational speaking as he does out on the course. “Kipchoge is the type of person,” writes Cacciola, “who says stuff like: ‘Only the disciplined ones in life are free. If you are undisciplined, you are a slave to your moods and your passions.’ And: ‘It’s not about the legs; it’s about the heart and the mind.’ And: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 25 years ago. The second-best time to plant a tree is today.’”

Observatory reopens, but I still believe in aliens

Mulder aliens

An update on that mysterious observatory closure last week is aptly summarized by the Buzzfeed headline, “New Mexico’s Solar Observatory Is Finally Reopening But The Whole Thing Is Still Pretty Weird”:

A solar observatory in the mountains of New Mexico has reopened 10 days after it was suddenly closed and its employees evacuated for a mysterious security threat, baffling locals, the internet, and whipping conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.

On Sunday, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), announced that it is reopening the Sunspot Observatory, which it manages, and that employees and the residents who had been forced to leave their homes on the site are now allowed to return.

“AURA has been cooperating with an on-going law enforcement investigation of criminal activity that occurred at Sacramento Peak. During this time, we became concerned that a suspect in the investigation potentially posed a threat to the safety of local staff and residents,” Shari Lifson, an AURA spokesperson, said in a statement Sunday. “For this reason, AURA temporarily vacated the facility and ceased science activities at this location.”

The statement provided no further details on the nature of the presumed threat, or on the status of the investigation. […]

Of course, that’s just what the authorities would say if the telescope had detected aliens or an apocalyptic solar storm, isn’t it? 🤔

But even some former NSO employees and other scientists have raised questions about the mysterious shutdown, calling it “fishy” and “pretty weird.”

“Nothing like this has ever happened before at an observatory,” John Varsik, a data scientist and telescope operator at Big Bear Solar Observatory who worked at Sunspot about two decades ago, said Friday.

“It’s all very fishy,” he said.

Here’s a nice rundown of the top theories on the closure.

Perhaps we’ll learn more when the new presidential alert system is rolled out this week:

The Trump administration will send a message to all US mobile phones on Thursday, as it tests an unused alert system that warns the public about national emergencies.

Phones will make a loud tone and have a special vibration according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which will send the alert.

The test message will be headlined “Presidential Alert” and will go on to read “THIS IS A TEST of the National Wireless Emergency Alert System. No action is needed.”

US mobile phone users will not be able to opt out of the test.

Are we quite sure that’s what the message will say? Because I’m predicting a very special message of a different sort… and the famous five-tone sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind would make for a perfect alert sound.