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.

Mysterious observatory closure

Deep Impact observatory

A terrible discovery?

If you were to write a movie screenplay in which some cosmic disaster befalls mankind, you could do worse than lifting the opening scene from news reports of what happened at a New Mexico observatory last week:

A space observatory at the centre of swirling alien conspiracy theories has asked for “patience” as it continues to be locked down.

The Sunspot Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico caught the attention of the world when it was shut down by FBI agents who reportedly swooped on the facility after arriving in elite Blackhawk helicopters.

It led immediately to suggestions the advanced technology inside of the facility spotted something it shouldn’t – such as proof of extraterrestrials, UFOs or even some baseless speculation that the observatory had spotted that the sun has started dying. The fact the observatory is only about 120 miles from the site of the Roswell UFO incident has only fuelled speculation.

The FBI and the administrators of the facility have said only that the shutdown happened because of a “security issue”.

In the days since, the sheriff’s department has said it has no idea what is going on. And the lockdown continues with no new information.

Could the observatory have detected something that has the authorities spooked? Like a catastrophic solar storm? (The director denies this.)

Another theory:

The Sunspot observatory on Sacramento Peak overlooks Holloman Air Force Base and an observer could potentially see out to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Test range. That has raised questions about possible espionage. “New Mexico is a center of national-security-related science, and for that reason it has also been a prominent venue for foreign espionage,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “Spies go where the secrets are, and there are plenty of secrets in New Mexico.”

But, Aftergood says, a solar observatory might not be the best place to conduct such activity. “I imagine most or all of its sensors are directed up.” He wonders if someone at the Sunspot observatory somehow inadvertently spotted a classified satellite or transmission, triggering the shutdown.

It wasn’t aliens, I tell ya:

A spokeswoman for the nonprofit group that runs the facility said the organization was addressing a “security issue,” but would offer no additional information, other than, “I can tell you it definitely wasn’t aliens.”

The open plan disaster

A recent Harvard study finds that open plan offices do not even bring the expected increase in collaboration that is supposed to compensate for their destruction of productivity:

As my colleague Jessica Stillman pointed out last week, a new study from Harvard showed that when employees move from a traditional office to an open plan office, it doesn’t cause them to interact more socially or more frequently.

Instead, the opposite happens. They start using email and messaging with much greater frequency than before. In other words, even if collaboration were a great idea (it’s a questionable notion), open plan offices are the worst possible way to make it happen.

Previous studies of open plan offices have shown that they make people less productive, but most of those studies gave lip service to the notion that open plan offices would increase collaboration, thereby offsetting the damage.

The Harvard study, by contrast, undercuts the entire premise that justifies the fad. And that leaves companies with only one justification for moving to an open plan office: less floor space, and therefore a lower rent.

But even that justification is idiotic because the financial cost of the loss in productivity will be much greater than the money saved in rent. Here’s an article where I do the math for you. Even in high-rent districts, the savings have a negative ROI.

It’s nice to see this stupid and inhumane practice get flayed by such an august institution. While we’re at it, can we nix the idea that “collaboration” is inherently good? Some types of work require concentration and solitude, not incessant communication in shared spaces.

They finally got him!

If only I had known about this before I wired $5,000 to that guy…

Nigerian email scam

Full statement here.

[…] On April 11, 2018, OPARA pled guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud before U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty, who imposed today’s sentence.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said: “From halfway around the world, Onyekachi Emmanuel Opara ran a global email scam business that victimized thousands of people out of millions of dollars. The global reach of our Office and the FBI ensured that Opara will serve time in the United States for his crimes.”

According to the allegations in the Indictment to which OPARA pled guilty and statements made at the plea and sentencing proceedings:

Between 2014 and 2016, OPARA and his co-defendant, David Chukwuneke Adindu (“Adindu”), participated in multiple business email compromise (“BEC”) scams that targeted thousands of victims around the world, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Singapore. OPARA sent bogus emails to employees of the victim companies directing that funds be transferred to specified bank accounts. The emails purported to be from supervisors at those companies or from third party vendors with whom the companies did business. In reality, the emails were either sent from email accounts with domain names very similar to those of the companies and vendors, or the metadata for the emails was modified to make it appear as if the emails had been sent from legitimate email addresses. After victims transferred the funds as directed in the bogus emails, the funds were quickly withdrawn or transferred to other bank accounts controlled by scheme participants. In total, the BEC scam participants attempted to steal more than $25 million from victims around the world.

In furtherance of the BEC scams, OPARA created accounts on dating websites and entered into online romantic relationships with individuals in the United States by portraying himself as a young attractive woman named “Barbara.” “Barbara” would then instruct these individuals in the United States to send their money overseas and/or to receive money from BEC scams and forward the proceeds to other scheme participants located overseas. For example, one victim with whom OPARA struck up a romantic relationship sent over $600,000 of the victim’s own money to bank accounts controlled by scheme participants at OPARA’s direction. OPARA also attempted to recruit at least 14 other individuals via dating websites to receive funds from BEC scams into their bank accounts and then transfer the proceeds to overseas bank accounts.

OPARA was arrested on December 22, 2016, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was extradited to the Southern District of New York on January 26, 2018. […]

Rethinking World War II

 

Churchill reviewing American troops

Peter Hitchens has come out with a new book, The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion, that challenges much of the conventional wisdom surrounding Britain’s involvement in the unpleasant events of 1939-45. Here, he summarizes the book’s main arguments, most of which will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ column and blog. For many other people, especially in Britain, I suspect some of these ideas will prove seriously unwelcome.

[UPDATE: I review the book here.]

It seems that Hitchens is touching a third rail of politics with this book, which attempts to take an axe to some of the most cherished Anglo-American beliefs about the war. Here’s a sample:

MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’

Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.

The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.

Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.

The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.

The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.

This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.

There’s much more in the linked piece. Hitchens has taken a lot of flak in the past for arguing that the British bombing of German population centers was unjustified, an issue that is revisited in the article. A lot of people find Hitchens’ viewpoint on this matter unpatriotic and disturbing because it undermines Britain’s moral standing in the war. This is of course a ridiculous non-argument, but the negative reaction is understandable. It’s very difficult for people to think objectively about events that are charged with personal or emotional significance, and this is especially true of World War II, which has loomed large in the imaginations of whole generations on both sides of the Atlantic.

This is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. By the way, I haven’t read the book yet, nor can I vouch for Hitchens’ arguments. All I can say is that Hitchens is a serious writer and thinker and I expect his treatment of the topic to be very interesting as well as controversial. History is complicated and our understanding of past events is fragmentary and distorted, full of yawning gaps and risible falsehoods. There is no reason to believe that history’s greatest conflict would be an exception to this rule.

Thanks for all the fish

A group of dolphins is called a “pod,” apparently. A group of hundreds of dolphins? Say hello to the Superpod:

Over the last week, a group of common dolphins has been racing along the Pacific coast in Monterey, Calif.

So Patrick Webster, the social media content creator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, set out on Monday to shoot video of the mammals, working together to corral schools of small fish.

What he captured is a remarkable scene: dozens and dozens dolphins, breaking through the surface and plunging down again, under skies the same gray as the water. Webster said the whole group was thought to number more than 1,000.

Declining well-being of Americans

Professor Peter Turchin explains his observation that the well-being of Americans has been declining over the last four decades — a process called immiseration:

Last year I had an interesting conversation with someone I’ll call the Washington Insider. She asked me why my structural-demographic model predicted rising instability in the USA, probably peaking with a major outbreak of political violence in the 2020s. I started giving the explanation based on the three main forces: popular immiseration, intra-elite competition, and state fragility. But I didn’t get far because she asked me, what immiseration? What are you talking about? We’ve never lived better than today. Global poverty is declining, child mortality is declining, violence is declining. We have access to the level of technology that is miraculous compared to what previous generations had. Just look at the massive data gathered together by Max Rosen, or read Steven Pinker’s books to be impressed with how good things are.

There are three biases that help sustain this rosy view. First, the focus on global issues. But the decrease of poverty in China (which is what drives declining global poverty, because Chinese population is so huge), or the drop in child mortality in Africa, is irrelevant to the working America. People everywhere compare themselves not to some distant places, but to the standard of living they experienced in their parents home. And the majority of American population sees that in many important ways they are worse off than their parents (as we will see below).

Second, the Washington Insider talks to other members of the 1 percent, and to some in the top 10 percent. The top-income segments of the American population have done fabulously in the last decades, thank you very much.

Third, many economic statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt. […]

So what has been happening with the well-being of common, non-elite Americans? In my work I use three broad measures of well-being: economic, biological (health), and social.

Briefly:

-Economic: Wages of non-elite workers show “rapid, almost linear growth to the late 1970s, stagnation and decline (especially for unskilled labor) thereafter”; the “relative wage” (the nominal wage divided by GDP per capita) drops sharply after 1960; labor participation has been trending downward regardless of education level since at least the late 1970s.

-Biological: Average height of native-born Americans stopped growing after the 1980s (and has declined for some demographic groups); life expectancy growth has lagged behind Western Europe and for some groups, life expectancy has declined in absolute terms; suicide rates are climbing for all ethnic groups.

-Social: Average age of marriage and percentage of people unmarried are on the rise.

Remember when the original Star Wars came out? That was around the historic peak of American economic, social and biological well-being. Hard times are coming, and for an increasing number of people, have already arrived.