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News 06.06.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

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In April, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt published an essay in The Atlantic in which he sought to explain, as the piece’s title had it, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Anyone familiar with Haidt’s work in the past half decade could have anticipated his answer: social media. Although Haidt concedes that political polarization and factional enmity long predate the rise of the platforms, and that there are plenty of other factors involved, he believes that the tools of virality—Facebook’s Like and Share buttons, Twitter’s Retweet function—have algorithmically and irrevocably corroded public life. He has determined that a great historical discontinuity can be dated with some precision to the period between 2010 and 2014, when these features became widely available on phones.

“What changed in the 2010s?” Haidt asks, reminding his audience that a former Twitter developer had once compared the Retweet button to the provision of a four-year-old with a loaded weapon. “A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly a billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.” While the right has thrived on conspiracy-mongering and misinformation, the left has turned punitive: “When everyone was issued a dart gun in the early 2010s, many left-leaning institutions began shooting themselves in the brain. And, unfortunately, those were the brains that inform, instruct, and entertain most of the country.” Haidt’s prevailing metaphor of thoroughgoing fragmentation is the story of the Tower of Babel: the rise of social media has “unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”

Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

News 06.06.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

News 06.06.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

On Sunday 1 February 1970, senior politicians and gas executives from Germany and the Soviet Union gathered at the upmarket Hotel Kaiserhof in Essen. They were there to celebrate the signing of a contract for the first major Russia-Germany gas pipeline, which was to run from Siberia to the West German border at Marktredwitz in Bavaria. The contract was the result of nine months of intense bargaining over the price of the gas, the cost of 1.2m tonnes of German pipes to be sold to Russia, and the credit terms offered to Moscow by a consortium of 17 German banks. Aware of the risk of Russia defaulting, the German banks’ chief financial negotiator, Friedrich Wilhelm Christians, took the precaution of asking for a loan from the federal government, explaining: “I don’t do any somersaults without a net, especially not on a trapeze.”

The relationship would benefit both sides: Germany would supply the machines and high-quality industrial goods; Russia would provide the raw material to fuel German industry. High-pressure pipelines and their supporting infrastructure hold the potential to bind countries together, since they require trust, cooperation and mutual dependence. But this was not just a commercial deal, as the presence at the hotel of the German economic minister Karl Schiller showed. For the advocates of Ostpolitik – the new “eastern policy” of rapprochement towards the Soviet Union and its allies including East Germany, launched the previous year under chancellor Willy Brandt – this was a moment of supreme political consequence. Schiller, an economist by training, was to describe it as part of an effort at “political and human normalisation with our Eastern neighbours”.

The sentiment was laudable, but for some observers it was a potentially dangerous move. Before the signing, Nato had discreetly written to the German economics ministry to inquire about the security implications. Norbert Plesser, head of the gas department at the ministry, had assured Nato that there was no cause for alarm: Germany would never rely on Russia for even 10% of its gas supplies.

Half a century later, in 2020, Russia would supply more than half of Germany’s natural gas and about a third of all the oil that Germans burned to heat homes, power factories and fuel vehicles. Roughly half of Germany’s coal imports, which are essential to its steel manufacturing, came from Russia.

An arrangement that began as a peacetime opening to a former foe has turned into an instrument of aggression. Germany is now funding Russia’s war. In the first two months after the start of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Germany is estimated to have paid nearly €8.3bn for Russian energy – money used by Moscow to prop up the rouble and buy the artillery shells firing at Ukrainian positions in Donetsk. In that time, EU countries are estimated to have paid a total of €39bn for Russian energy, more than double the sum they have given to help Ukraine defend itself. The irony is painful. “For thirty years, Germans lectured Ukrainians about fascism,” the historian Timothy Snyder wrote recently. “When fascism actually arrived, Germans funded it, and Ukrainians died fighting it.”

Read the rest of this article at: The Guardian

ZUNIL, GUATEMALA—As the Sun climbs over a hillside ceremony, Ixquik Poz Salanic invokes a day in the sacred calendar: T’zi’, a day for seeking justice. Before she passes the microphone to the next speaker, she counts to 13 in K’iche’, an Indigenous Maya language with more than 1 million present-day speakers in Guatemala’s central highlands. A few dozen onlookers nod along, from grandmothers in traditional dresses to visiting schoolchildren shifting politely in their seats. Then the crowd joins a counterclockwise procession around a fire at the mouth of a cave, shuffle dancing to the beat of three men playing marimba while they toss offerings of candles, copal, and incense to the wind-licked flames.

Poz Salanic, a lawyer, serves as a daykeeper for her community, which means she keeps track of a 260-day cycle—20 days counted 13 times—that informs Maya ritual life. In April, archaeologists announced they had deciphered a 2300-year-old inscription bearing a date in this same calendar format, proving it was in use millennia ago by the historic Maya, who lived across southeastern Mexico and Central America. In small villages like this one, the Maya calendar kept ticking through conquest and centuries of persecution.

As recently as the 1990s, “Everything we did today would have been called witchcraft,” says fellow daykeeper Roberto Poz Pérez, Poz Salanic’s father, after the day count concludes and everyone has enjoyed a lunch of tamales.

Read the rest of this article at: Science

News 06.06.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

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News 06.06.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

Nestled west of Washington, D.C., amid the bland northern Virginia suburbs, are generic-looking office parks that hide secret government installations in plain sight. Employees in civilian dress get out of their cars, clutching their Starbucks, and disappear into the buildings. To the casual observer, they resemble anonymous corporate drones. In fact, they hold Top Secret clearances and work in defense and intelligence. One of these buildings, at an address that is itself a secret, houses the cyberintelligence division of the Central Intelligence Agency. The facility is surrounded by a high fence and monitored by guards armed with military-grade weapons. When employees enter the building, they must badge in and pass through a full-body turnstile. Inside, on the ninth floor, through another door that requires badge access, is a C.I.A. office with an ostentatiously bland name: the Operations Support Branch. It is the agency’s secret hacker unit, in which a cadre of élite engineers create cyberweapons.

“O.S.B. was focussed on what we referred to as ‘physical-access operations,’ ” a senior developer from the unit, Jeremy Weber—a pseudonym—explained. This is not dragnet mass surveillance of the kind more often associated with the National Security Agency. These are hacks, or “exploits,” designed for individual targets. Sometimes a foreign terrorist or a finance minister is too sophisticated to be hacked remotely, and so the agency is obliged to seek “physical access” to that person’s devices. Such operations are incredibly dangerous: a C.I.A. officer or an asset recruited to work secretly for the agency—a courier for the terrorist; the finance minister’s personal chef—must surreptitiously implant the malware by hand. “It could be somebody who was willing to type on a keyboard for us,” Weber said. “It often was somebody who was willing to plug a thumb drive into the machine.” In this manner, human spies, armed with the secret digital payloads designed by the Operations Support Branch, have been able to compromise smartphones, laptops, tablets, and even TVs: when Samsung developed a set that responded to voice commands, the wizards at the O.S.B. exploited a software vulnerability that turned it into a listening device.

The members of the O.S.B. “built quick-reaction tools,” Anthony Leonis, the chief of another cyberintelligence unit of the C.I.A., said. “That branch was really good at taking ideas and prototypes and turning them into tools that could be used in the mission, very quickly.” According to the man who supervised the O.S.B., Sean, the unit could be “a high-stress environment,” because it was supporting life-or-death operations. (With a few exceptions, this piece refers to agency employees by pseudonyms or by their first names.)

Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

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News 06.06.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

On the afternoon of October 8, 2013, in the last moments of his life, twelve-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein, of Park Slope, Brooklyn, was walking to after-school soccer practice near his apartment on Prospect Park West when he lost control of his ball. It rolled into the busy southbound street, and he went after it. The driver of a car in one lane hit the brakes. The driver of a van in the next lane did not. Later, he said he’d seen only a ball, not a boy.

“Sammy didn’t yet have his growth spurt,” his mother, Amy Cohen, said. “He was small for his age. This is why he didn’t survive.” Apart from the funeral, to which nearly a thousand people came, she spent the following days under the covers, as her husband, Gary Eckstein, took the lead in caring for Sammy’s devastated older sister, Tamar. Their son had been a popular figure in the neighborhood, game to debate climate change and Yankees pitching with all comers. A random accident—that’s what people told them. Sleepless, Amy began to wonder how random Sammy’s death really was. Not long after shiva ended, she forced herself to walk to the corner where Sammy had been killed, which had also been a corner where he’d grown up playing. Raising a radar gun borrowed from a neighbor, she aimed toward Prospect Park West.

Drivers on this street go too fast, she used to warn the children. Now, at a little past 5 P.M., the hour her son was killed, she tracked just how fast, recording her findings on a legal pad. Almost no driver kept to the thirty-mile-an-hour speed limit. Sometimes they went over forty. By chance, the City Council’s transportation committee would soon be holding a hearing about a bill to cut the speed limit in residential neighborhoods to twenty miles per hour. Amy, Gary, and Tamar had decided to testify, and Amy wanted to bring hard evidence along with her grief.

At the hearing, after Amy and Gary presented data they’d gathered, Tamar, then fifteen, was the last to speak. She read a letter that she had written to her brother after his death: “At camp this summer, for the first time in our lives, we were separated for four weeks. It was really hard. I kept expecting you to be there, and you weren’t.” She took shallow breaths and read quickly, with little inflection. “Now I am going to have to live my whole life like that.” The transportation committee tended to be skeptical of measures that inconvenienced drivers. But, when Tamar spoke, the city councilman Brad Lander, who represented the Park Slope area, recalled, “You could feel the change in that hearing.” Several council members wept, among them James Vacca, the chairman of the committee, who said, “I’m going to remember this day for as long as I live.” But tears didn’t magically change the speed limits. The bill was tabled, representatives moved on to other topics, and the Cohen Ecksteins retreated back home.

A few days later, though, Amy’s phone rang, and on the other end was Caroline Samponaro, who had heard about the family’s testimonies. Samponaro was, at the time, the deputy director of a nonprofit called Transportation Alternatives, which sought to make New York City streets friendlier to non-drivers. Samponaro asked if her group could assist Amy’s family, perhaps by connecting them to legal counsel. Right away, Amy grasped that what she needed instead was the company of other families who could understand what hers had lost. In the fog of the early mourning days, another mother, Amy Tam-Liao, had called her to say that, two days before Sammy’s death, her three-year-old daughter, Allison, had been killed by a man driving an S.U.V. in Flushing, Queens. That weekend, Tam-Liao and her husband, Hsi-Pei, visited the Cohen Ecksteins, and the parents found comfort—small but not nothing—in telling one another that their children’s deaths had not been their fault.

Read the rest of this article at: The New Yorker

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