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.

Social credit system

I used to think that between the two great dystopian novelists, Huxley was more prophetic than Orwell. Not so sure anymore:

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

One early encounter with the system is described by a Chinese journalist who found himself on a government blacklist after he (inadvertently) defaulted on a court fine:

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

More details on that here.

Another example of the nascent system at work:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect system of social control. This is not so much ruling with an iron fist as ruling with a joystick. The largest society in the world is being turned into a video-game simulation.

The social credit system seems perfectly adapted for a Confucian, group-oriented society, which also happens to lead the world in mobile payments and video surveillance. Of course, China is not the only country on the road to socially networked repression.

One possibility that occurs to me is that the government could use this apparatus to tackle China’s demographic crisis by pressuring people to have more babies. This piece in Wired talks about how Alibaba’s Sesame Credit (a potential precursor to the nationwide system) factors people’s shopping habits into an assessment of their character, an example being that “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

What if “a sense of responsibility” was defined to include having two or more children, and the nationwide social credit system linked your “score” to how many children you have and the age at which you have them? I could easily see this being rolled out if more traditional pro-natalist policies fail to boost China’s birthrate to an acceptable level. (Note that China ended its one-child policy in early 2016, allowing all married couples to have two children.) In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been considered.

This all reminds me of the “credit poles” from Gary Shteyngart’s 2011 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story. As he explains:

A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.


The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what’s called RateMe Plus technology. Let’s say you walk into a bar; it says, “OK, you’re the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating,” things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else’s ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

Life imitating Shteyngart…

A real-world vector

The Pentagon has officially confirmed the existence of a quasi-secret program to investigate UFOs, called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which started in 2007 and is reportedly still ongoing (although its annual $22 million of “black money” funding was cut off in 2012).

The program, which was supported by senators Harry Reid, Ted Stevens and Daniel Inouye, collected audio and video recordings of reported UFO sightings, including this 2004 footage of an encounter with a mysterious glowing, rotating object moving at high speeds:

Another NY Times report on the same day provides more details about that encounter, which was recorded by the US Navy off the coast of San Diego:

“Well, we’ve got a real-world vector for you,” the radio operator said, according to Commander Fravor. For two weeks, the operator said, the Princeton [a Navy cruiser] had been tracking mysterious aircraft. The objects appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, and then hurtled toward the sea, eventually stopping at 20,000 feet and hovering. Then they either dropped out of radar range or shot straight back up. […]

Then, Commander Fravor looked down to the sea. It was calm that day, but the waves were breaking over something that was just below the surface. Whatever it was, it was big enough to cause the sea to churn.

Hovering 50 feet above the churn was an aircraft of some kind — whitish — that was around 40 feet long and oval in shape. The craft was jumping around erratically, staying over the wave disturbance but not moving in any specific direction, Commander Fravor said. The disturbance looked like frothy waves and foam, as if the water were boiling.

As Popular Mechanics points out:

There are several interesting details about the sighting here. For one, there were clearly two unidentified objects. The first was a large underwater object that was “much larger than a submarine.” For reference, the U.S. Virginia-class nuclear attack submarines are 377 feet long. The object also had some passing resemblance to a “downed airliner.” This was technically a USO, or unidentified swimming object. Although much rarer than UFOs, such craft have been sighted over the years.

We know a little more about the UFO itself. It is described as “wingless, white, and shaped like an oblong pill. It was 24-30 (40 in the NYT article) feet long and had no visible markings or glass. The USS Princeton was able to faintly track the “capsule” via its SPY-1B radar system, but the fighters were not able to get a radar lock on the object. The “capsule” was not only more maneuverable than the Hornets but also much faster —for it to have reached the CAP point ahead of the Navy fighters it would have had to have flown in excess of 2,400 miles an hour. According to, which published a detailed chronicle of the event in 2015, the object did not emit hot jet exhaust typical of ordinary aircraft.

One more noteworthy detail from the Times:

A 2009 Pentagon briefing summary of the program prepared by its director at the time asserted that “what was considered science fiction is now science fact,” and that the United States was incapable of defending itself against some of the technologies discovered.

I can’t be the only person who would like to know more about that. And I can think of a plausible rationale for the Pentagon to disclose more information: the existence of super-advanced alien technologies against which we have no defense is a pretty good argument for a massive increase in military R&D…

I see what you did there

A pretty astonishing story. When Beijing Normal University set up a research base in the capital of Greenland, it forgot to mention to its local partners that the facility would double as a satellite ground station with possible military uses. Just an oversight, I’m sure:

China has ‘officially’ launched a project to set up a satellite ground station in Nuuk, although Greenland’s public and elected representatives were kept in the dark about it for months, in an attempt to avoid concerns about its likely dual-use capabilities. Last May, a ‘launching ceremony’ was held in Greenland, where speakers included the well-known polar scientist in charge of the project and a military pioneer of the Beidou system, China’s alternative to GPS. The event was attended by a public of a hundred ‘élite’ businesspeople, including, in all likelihood, a senior Navy officer, as part of a group holiday; only two Greenlandic representatives were present. While reports were immediately available in Chinese media, the project’s launch went unnoticed in Greenland until I first ‘revealed‘ it last October.

It would be a shame if something happened to that facility. What if chronic power outages or some mysterious, unfixable technical glitch put it out of commission, perhaps indefinitely? That would really be terrible. Just saying.

On a related note (report from last December):

China’s first overseas land satellite receiving ground station was put into trial operation on Thursday.

The China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station is above the Arctic circle, half an hour’s drive from Kiruna, a major mining town in Sweden.


All of creation

This is quite cool:

The universe is so vast it’s almost impossible to picture what it might look like crammed into one field of view.

But musician Pablo Carlos Budassi managed to do it by combining logarithmic maps of the universe from Princeton and images from NASA. He created the image below that shows the observable universe in one disc.

Our sun and solar system are at the very center of the image, followed by the outer ring of our Milky Way galaxy, the Perseus arm of the Milky Way, a ring of other nearby galaxies like Andromeda, the rest of the cosmic web, cosmic microwave background radiation leftover from the big bang, and finally a ring of plasma also generated by the big bang.

Parallax view

This is cool:

We’re putting the far side of the galaxy on the map. The most precise measurement yet of an object on the far side of the galaxy’s centre is paving the way for a definitive map of the other side of the Milky Way.

It’s difficult to observe anything on that side of the galaxy because of the dense, frenetic swarm of dust and gas at its centre. Thomas Dame at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts and his colleagues got around this by looking at a jet of radio waves that can outshine any emissions coming from that mess of stars.

“It’s a very bright source, indicative of a flamboyant region of star formation, and these regions are almost always located in the spiral arms of the galaxy,” says Dame. He and his team pinned down the source’s location to the Scutum-Centaurus arm of the galaxy, probably one of the Milky Way’s two major arms.

To do this, they used parallax measurements, which take into account differences in measurements from two points in space. […]

“The idea that you could be doing this for more objects on the far side of the galaxy is really exciting,” says Robert Benjamin at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. “How can you talk about the structure of our galaxy when you only have half of it?”

Dame says with this technique we could have an accurate and complete map of the entire Milky Way within 10 years.

Networked totalitarianism

Comment by author and strategist John Robb:

Facebook just declared war against “disruptive” information. In addition to hundreds of new human censors, they are training AI censors capable of identifying and deleting ‘unacceptable’ information found in the discussions of all two billion members in real time. This development highlights what the real danger posed by a socially networked world actually is.

The REAL danger facing a world interconnected by social networking isn’t disruption. As we have seen on numerous occasions, the danger posed by disruptive information and events is fleeting. Disruption, although potentially painful in the short term, doesn’t last, nor is it truly damaging over the long term. In fact, the true danger posed by an internetworked world is just the opposite of disruption.

This danger is an all encompassing online orthodoxy. A sameness of thought and approach enforced by hundreds of millions of socially internetworked adherents. A global orthodoxy that ruthless narrows public thought down to a single, barren, ideological framework. A ruling network that prevents dissent and locks us into stagnation and inevitable failure as it runs afoul of reality and human nature.

It will be fun to see whether the hive mind created by social networking proves to be a greater threat to human liberty than a king on a throne, or a dictator with a secret police force. It clearly has the potential to be.

If so, there is one simple and obvious way to defeat the system that was not available to the rebels and dissidents of the past, and that is to unplug. Say no. Refuse to engage with the system. That is easier said than done, though, as most people are increasingly addicted to their gadgets and increasingly comfortable offloading their mental activity to the network. And even if you disconnect from the network, most others will not.

Hypothetically, a resistance movement could arise that would seek to overthrow the network by dissuading or physically preventing people from plugging into it. We would expect this battle to manifest in the real world, with tangible efforts to destroy the machinery of the network and desecrate its symbols. iPhones dumped into Boston Harbor by the truckload. Internet servers smashed with sledgehammers. Data centers firebombed.

More likely, though, any type of resistance to the hive mind would be swallowed up by the network itself, taking the form of a pitched battle between different networked tribes. Hive mind vs. hive mind, super-augmented by swarms of bots. Participants would fight for mind share, and only indirectly for territory or physical assets. Weaponized memes, hacking attacks, and information-warfare concepts like reflexive control would take the place of bombs and bullets. A future conflict may be fought entirely online. Of course, it could also spill over into the real world, using drones and robots, which… let’s just say it wouldn’t be great.

Totalitarianism: What you thought you were getting vs. what you’re actually getting

The End of History fails to arrive in Spain

It seems we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the End of History:

Spain’s King Felipe intervened dramatically Tuesday in the crisis over Catalan leaders’ bid for independence, accusing them of threatening the country’s stability and urging the state to defend “constitutional order.”

The 49-year-old king abandoned his previously measured tone over tensions with Catalonia as the standoff dragged the country into its deepest political crisis in decades.

He spoke after hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied in fury at violence by police against voters during a banned referendum on independence for their region on Sunday.

Catalan regional leaders held the vote in defiance of the national government which brands it illegal — as did Felipe on Tuesday.

“With their irresponsible conduct they could put at risk the economic and social stability of Catalonia and all of Spain,” he said of the Catalan leadership.

“They have placed themselves totally outside the law and democracy,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the legitimate state powers to ensure constitutional order.”


Pictures of police beating unarmed Catalan voters with batons and dragging some by the hair during Sunday’s ballots drew international criticism.

Catalan regional leader Carles Puigdemont said nearly 900 people had received medical attention on Sunday, though local authorities confirmed a total of 92 injured. Four were hospitalised, two in serious condition.

The national government said more than 400 police officers were hurt.

A king intervenes in a standoff between separatists and a nominally democratic government that is trying, and failing, to bring them to heel… in Western Europe. Not quite what universal liberal democracy was supposed to look like.

Speaking of which, I somehow doubt this is what the inventors of the World Wide Web had in mind:

The world’s first internet war has begun, in Catalonia, as the people and government use it to organize an independence referendum on Sunday and Spanish intelligence attacks, freezing telecommunications links, occupying telecoms buildings, censors 100s of sites, protocols etc.

Spanish police raided the offices of the .cat domain registry in Barcelona, seizing all computers

The .cat domain was used for sharing information about last week’s Catalan independence referendum


The industrial revolution and its consequences

Provocative article (with quite a title) in the Chicago Tribune:

The introduction of the new iPhone X — which features wireless charging, facial recognition and a price tag of $999 — appears to be a minor event in the advance of technology. But it’s an excellent illustration of something that has long gone unrecognized: The Unabomber had a point.

Not about blowing people up in an effort to advance his social goals. Ted Kaczynski’s campaign to kill and maim chosen victims with explosives was horrific in the extreme and beyond forgiveness. But his 35,000-word manifesto, published in 1995, provided a glimpse of the future we inhabit, and his foresight is a bit unsettling.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” it begins. Among the ills he attributes to advances in technology are that they promise to improve our lives but end up imposing burdens we would not have chosen.

Does technology serve humanity, or the other way around? It’s getting harder to tell.

The problem is hardly a new one. In his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari argues that the agricultural revolution that took place 10,000 years ago was “history’s biggest fraud.”

In the preceding 2.5 million years, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers they worked less, “spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease” than afterward.

Farming boosted the population but chained humans to the land and demanded ceaseless drudgery to plant, tend, harvest and process food — while making us more vulnerable to famine, disease and war. People who had evolved over eons for one mode of life were pushed into a different mode at odds with many of their natural instincts.

Talk about a Luddite. Kaczynski just wanted to roll back the industrial revolution. This guy thinks the domestication of plants was a mistake.

He kind of has a point, though.

Never go full Ted