News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets


News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets
News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

Well before the catastrophic collapse of his FTX cryptocurrency exchange, Sam Bankman-Fried told everyone what he was doing. He told them about his appetite for risk. He told them some crypto exchanges were “secretly insolvent.” Last year, when declaring his net worth to be an estimated $10 billion, he said it was in “mostly illiquid” assets. Even when Bloomberg’s Matt Levine suggested he was in the “Ponzi business” during an interview in April, Bankman-Fried didn’t disagree. “I think that’s a pretty reasonable response,” he said.

That he was headed for calamity was inevitable. But with the ecosystem of hype and awe built around him, few heard what he was really saying. Employees, customers, and investors alike all saw the dollar signs being minted from his crypto market makers, including FTX, leaving few reasons to believe what Bankman-Fried had been saying all along. Prominent FTX backer Sequoia Capital was also caught in the gravitational pull, publishing a now-deleted 14,000 word paean to Bankman-Fried that likened him to fictional protagonist Jay Gatsby. (“Is crypto the new jazz?” the author wondered, apparently not considering that the titular Gatsby earned his fortune through crime.) This week, Sequoia wrote down its $213 million FTX investment to $0.

“Sam Bankman-Fried was the devil in nerd’s clothes,” said a BlockFi director whose future is now uncertain thanks to a now defunct deal with FTX that could have soothed the crypto lender’s liquidity woes after filing for bankruptcy itself in October.

After a week that saw FTX admitting to a liquidity crunch on Monday and filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection by Friday, the unfolding catastrophe has sent a tsunami barreling through the crypto market, triggering the collapse of more than 100 affiliated companies, lending platforms and exchanges once seen as unshakeable infrastructure providers to the industry.

Read the rest of this article at: Forbes

News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

A few days before NASA tried to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid as part of what it called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, I talked to Lindley Johnson, the agency’s planetary defense officer. I think we can all agree that this sounds like an important job.

The planetary defense officer focuses on the detection of dangerous asteroids and comets that might threaten the Earth (as in the movies “Don’t Look Up” and “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”), and explores technologies for preventing such a thing from happening. This job is not to be confused with the NASA planetary protection officer, who is supposed to keep Earth’s microbes from contaminating other worlds or hypothetical alien microbes from coming to Earth, as in “The Andromeda Strain.”

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) was conceived as NASA’s first planetary defense mission. A golf-cart-size spacecraft was launched in November 2021 from California. If all went precisely as planned, its 10-month journey would end at precisely 7:14 p.m. Eastern on Monday, Sept. 26, when it would collide with an asteroid named Dimorphos.

The asteroid posed no threat. This mission was just a test of a possible technique of asteroid deflection: a “kinetic impactor.” No hydrogen bombs needed. The collision, if successful, would help refine existing models for what it would take to keep an asteroid from striking Earth.

My question to Johnson: How worried should we be, really, about killer rocks from space? He said a major asteroid impact is rare but potentially catastrophic. He cited the Tunguska event of 1908, when either an asteroid or comet exploded over a remote region of Siberia and flattened 800 square miles of forest. It was, he said, “probably a once-every-200-years or so event, on average. But it’s entirely random. These can impact any time.”

Johnson explained that there are many asteroids lurking out there, still unidentified, that are bigger than the Tunguska object, and they “would devastate a multistate area — a natural disaster of a scale we’ve never had to deal with. That includes all the earthquakes and hurricanes that have ever happened in the past. It could be an existential threat to national well-being — an economic disaster as well as an environmental disaster.” He paused a beat and said, calmly, “So it’s not something you want to happen.”

And here we are at the crux of our existential predicament as a species: There are just so many things we don’t want to happen. There are so many potential doomsdays.

This is not the cheeriest topic, to be sure, but it’s endlessly fascinating if you can stomach it. What are our biggest existential risks? Should we feel more threatened by low-probability but high-consequence risks, such as asteroid impacts and runaway artificial intelligence (robot overlords and whatnot), or should we focus on less exotic, here-and-now threats such as climate change, viral pandemics and weapons of mass destruction? And should we even worry about low-probability risks when hundreds of millions of people right now lack adequate food, water, and shelter and are living off less than $2 a day?

We are not being paranoid when we recognize that human civilization has become increasingly complex and simultaneously armed with techniques for self-destruction. There are bad omens everywhere, and not just the melting glaciers and dying polar bears. We’re all still unnerved by the pandemic. Meanwhile, there’s this ancient threat called war. Vladimir Putin and his advisers keep rattling the nuclear saber. A nuclear holocaust is the classic apocalyptic scenario that never went away.

Read the rest of this article at: The Washington Post

When the concept artist and illustrator RJ Palmer first witnessed the fine-tuned photorealism of compositions produced by the AI image generator Dall-E 2, his feeling was one of unease. The tool, released by the AI research company OpenAI, showed a marked improvement on 2021’s Dall-E, and was quickly followed by rivals such as Stable Diffusion and Midjourney. Type in any surreal prompt, from Kermit the frog in the style of Edvard Munch, to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings feasting on a slice of watermelon, and these tools will return a startlingly accurate depiction moments later.

The internet revelled in the meme-making opportunities, with a Twitter account documenting “weird Dall-E generations” racking up more than a million followers. Cosmopolitan trumpeted the world’s first AI-generated magazine cover, and technology investors fell over themselves to wave in the new era of “generative AI”. The image-generation capabilities have already spread to video, with the release of Google’s Imagen Video and Meta’s Make-A-Video.

But AI’s new artistic prowess wasn’t received so ecstatically by some creatives. “The main concern for me is what this does to the future of not just my industry, but creative human industries in general,” says Palmer.

By ingesting large datasets in order to analyse patterns and build predictive models, AI has long proved itself superior to humans at some tasks. It’s this number-crunching nous that led an AI to trounce the world Go champion back in 2016, rapidly computing the most advantageous game strategy, and unafraid to execute moves that would have elicited scoffs had they come from a person. But until recently, producing original output, especially creative work, was considered a distinctly human pursuit.

Read the rest of this article at: The Guardian

News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets


News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

Russia’s war in Ukraine has involved many surprises. The largest, however, is that it happened at all. Last year, Russia was at peace and enmeshed in a complex global economy. Would it really sever trade ties – and threaten nuclear war – just to expand its already vast territory? Despite the many warnings, including from Vladimir Putin himself, the invasion still came as a shock.

But it wasn’t a shock to the journalist Tim Marshall. On the first page of his 2015 blockbuster book, Prisoners of Geography, Marshall invited readers to contemplate Russia’s topography. A ring of mountains and ice surrounds it. Its border with China is protected by mountain ranges, and it is separated from Iran and Turkey by the Caucusus. Between Russia and western Europe stand the Balkans, Carpathians and Alps, which form another wall. Or, they nearly do. To the north of those mountains, a flat corridor – the Great European Plain – connects Russia to its well-armed western neighbours via Ukraine and Poland. On it, you can ride a bicycle from Paris to Moscow.

You can also drive a tank. Marshall noted how this gap in Russia’s natural fortifications has repeatedly exposed it to attacks. “Putin has no choice”, Marshall concluded: “He must at least attempt to control the flatlands to the west.” When Putin did precisely that, invading a Ukraine he could no longer control by quieter means, Marshall greeted it with wearied understanding, deploring the war yet finding it unsurprising. The map “imprisons” leaders, he had written, “giving them fewer choices and less room to manoeuvre than you might think”.

There is a name for Marshall’s line of thinking: geopolitics. Although the term is often used loosely to mean “international relations”, it refers more precisely to the view that geography – mountains, land bridges, water tables – governs world affairs. Ideas, laws and culture are interesting, geopoliticians argue, but to truly understand politics you must look hard at maps. And when you do, the world reveals itself to be a zero-sum contest in which every neighbour is a potential rival, and success depends on controlling territory, as in the boardgame Risk. In its cynical view of human motives, geopolitics resembles Marxism, just with topography replacing class struggle as the engine of history.

Geopolitics also resembles Marxism in that many predicted its death in the 1990s, with the cold war’s end. The expansion of markets and eruption of new technologies promised to make geography obsolete. Who cares about controlling the strait of Malacca – or the port of Odesa – when the seas brim with containerships and information rebounds off satellites? “The world is flat,” the journalist Thomas Friedman declared in 2005. It was an apt metaphor for globalisation: goods, ideas and people sliding smoothly across borders.

Yet the world feels less flat today. As supply chains snap and global trade falters, the terrain of the planet seems more craggy than frictionless. Hostility toward globalisation, channelled by figures such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, was already rising before the pandemic, which boosted it. The number of border walls, about 10 at the cold war’s end, is now 74 and climbing, with the past decade as the high point of wall-building. The post-cold war hope for globalisation was a “delusion”, writes political scientist Élisabeth Vallet, and we’re now seeing the “reterritorialisation of the world”.

Facing a newly hostile environment, leaders are pulling old strategy guides off the shelf. “Geopolitics are back, and back with a vengeance, after this holiday from history we took in the so-called post-cold war period,” US national security adviser HR McMaster warned in 2017. This outlook openly guides Russian thinking, with Putin citing “geopolitical realities” in explaining his Ukraine invasion. Elsewhere, as faith in an open, trade-based international system falters, map-reading pundits such as Marshall, Robert KaplanIan MorrisGeorge Friedman and Peter Zeihan are advancing on to bestseller lists.

Read the rest of this article at: The Guardian

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News 14.11.22 : Today’s Articles of Interest from Around the Internets

One afternoon last October, thousands of fans began gathering outside St. James’ Park, the 130-year-old home of the English soccer club Newcastle United, to celebrate a new beginning. Some sported the club’s traditional black-and-white striped jerseys. Others toted cases of booze. There was no match that day, but that only improved the mood. In seven games that season, the team had yet to record a win. Newcastle, once one of the best sides in England, had endured years of mediocrity under the ownership of a miserly local sporting-goods magnate. Magpies supporters resorted to stockpiling cans of beer for the day their fortunes changed. That day had come at last.

The key acquisition who would turn Newcastle around wasn’t a new midfielder or a manager; he was a murderer. The club had been sold for $409 million to an investment group led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, an almost endless reserve of cash controlled by Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto head of state. In 2018, according to the US government, MBS had personally approved an operation to assassinate a Washington Post journalist. But as the news of the takeover sank in, the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi with a bone saw was the last thing on the minds of these supporters. To some, MBS seemed to be a point in favor of the deal. Outside the stadium and on social media, fans added a new flourish to the team’s uniform—they donned red and white head coverings, in imitation of the Saudi ruler. “We’re richer than you,” the crowd sang. One supporter wore an MBS mask.

The fans in Newcastle were unsubtle, but hardly unique. Soccer is undergoing a financial and geopolitical shake-up that has ushered in a gilded age of excess, dirty money, and inequality. Fueled by Wall Street and petrostates, the sport is more profitable than ever. But the consequences of consolidation and unchecked money have become clearer, too. The story of how teams like Newcastle win is also about what fans, institutions, and governments lose to get there. To watch the Premier League on Saturdays, or the World Cup this November, is to experience a crash course in capitalism and power today.

Just as the Moneyball era produced a generation of baseball fans who talked like Nate Silver, soccer’s age of decadence has turned fans into current-affairs obsessives. Sovereign wealth funds, sanctions, and debt seep into Saturday-morning chatter with the same frequency as counter-pressing or expected goals. The forces shaping modern soccer into something bigger, better, and more morally bankrupt than ever are the same ones that have blown up everything else. Following the sport is an education in oligarchs, oil, corruption, media, partisanship, politics, and the financialization of everything. You don’t even have to like soccer to learn from it—because in a lot of ways, the story of the sport’s last two decades hasn’t been about soccer at all.

Soccer has always been a mirror of the larger world, but the image it’s reflecting back is decidedly new. In 2004, Franklin Foer published How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. It was a canonical text for Americans who took an interest in European soccer in the early 2000s, coinciding with the US women’s World Cup victory and the men’s unlikely run to the quarterfinals; the movie Bend It Like Beckham; the actual David Beckham; and the emergence of satellite TV and illegal streaming. You used to have to travel abroad to access this world; now anyone could tune in.

The book’s title is a kind of carbon dating. Everyone had an unlikely theory of globalization back then; if you took too long in the McDonald’s drive-thru, Thomas Friedman would burst through a wall to tell you about “Golden Arches Theory.” Foer’s subjects trended toward the nationalistic—a Serbian fan club whose members formed a paramilitary unit; the Catalan identity of FC Barcelona. It makes for a terrific travelogue. But it also reads like a story from before the Flood. The forces and characters that have reshaped European soccer over the last two decades hardly show up. You won’t find any reference to Qatar, Vladimir Putin, leveraged buyouts, or the Super League. There’s an “oligarch”—but it’s Silvio Berlusconi.

That’s because something monumental happened just after the book came out: the Russian billionaire Roman Abramo­vich won his first English Premier League title with Chelsea, the club he’d purchased a couple years earlier after 15 minutes of negotiations. The arrival of a Kremlin-linked oligarch in London presaged a gusher of money that transformed the sport. It changed how the sport was funded, how it was organized, and where and when it was played—and in turn, it changed how people talked about the finances of the sport, or how they rationalized not talking about them.

Read the rest of this article at: Mother Jones

P.S. previous articles & more by P.F.M.