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Nederlog

Jul 28, 2016

Crisis: Scheer & Summers, U.S. Arms, Trump & Reagan, Smartphone Addiction
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Introduction

1.
Robert Scheer Questions Lawrence Summers, Michael
     Blumenthal About the 2008 Financial Crash

2. The Staggering, Semi-Secret, $70 Billion Annual U.S.
     Global Arms Business

3. Trump as the Reagan Reboot
4. Smartphone Addiction: The Slot Machine in Your
     Pocket

Introduction:

This is a Nederlog of Thursday, July 28, 2016.

This is a crisis log. There are 4 items with 4 dotted links: Item 1 is about Robert Scheer and Larry Summers and is interesting (but the video is bad); item 2 is about why people read so little about the $70 billion annual U.S. global arms business (and I found it a bit naive); item 3 is about Trump and Reagan (but I disliked the pumped up style); and item 4 is about smartphone addiction and the vast dangers of computing, which are very real.

1.
Robert Scheer Questions Lawrence Summers, Michael Blumenthal About the 2008 Financial Crash

The first item today is by Emma Niles on Truthdig:

This starts as follows:

Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer began Day 3 of the Democratic National Convention attending Politico’s “Economy and the Election” conference. There, he took the opportunity to speak with two former Treasury secretaries: Lawrence Summers, who worked under Bill Clinton, and Summers’ predecessor Michael Blumenthal, who served in Jimmy Carter’s administration. Accompanied by Truthdig Associate Editor Alexander Kelly, who filmed the discussions, Scheer questioned both former secretaries about economic policies that led to the 2008 financial crash.

Scheer spoke first with Summers, in an exchange that quickly grew tense.
We'll get to a video of the exhange below. Here are first two quotations from
Scheer's “The Great American Stickup”:
While much has been made of the baffling complexity of the new market structures at the heart of the banking meltdown, there were informed and prescient observers who in real time saw through these gimmicks. The potential for damage was thus known inside the halls of power to those who cared to know, if only because of heroines like gutsy regulator Brooksley Born, chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from 1996 to 1999. When they attempted to sound the alarm, however, they were ignored, or worse. Simply put, the rewards in both financial remuneration and advanced careers were such that those in a position to profit went along with great enthusiasm. Those who objected, like Born, were summarily crushed. ...

Of the leaders responsible, five names come prominently to mind: Alan Greenspan, the longtime head of the Federal Reserve; Robert Rubin, who served as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration; Lawrence Summers, who succeeded him in that capacity; and the two top Republicans in Congress back in the 1990s dealing with finance, Phil Gramm and James Leach.
Yes, quite so. And here is what Bill Clinton did, as president (for which he was rewarded after his presidency, or that is what I think):
“Clinton signed off on the reversal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the legislative jewel of the Franklin Roosevelt administration designed to prevent financial institutions from getting too big to fail,” Scheer once wrote. “The first beneficiary of that legislation was Citigroup, a corporation that resulted from a merger that would have been banned by Glass-Steagall.” Scheer continues:

So much for the “modernizing” that Clinton had bragged about.

A year later a variation of that same word appeared in the title of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which Clinton signed and which exempted from government regulation all of the collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that would later prove so toxic. That legislation led to the explosion of the market in unregulated mortgage-based securities, the key source of the financial-sector “dealmaking” that Clinton now bemoans.

Here is the video (but it is unfortunately not well made: I could not understand Scheer's questions - and my sound is OK):

DNC Day 3: Robert Scheer Questions Lawrence Summers, Michael Blumethal
2. The Staggering, Semi-Secret, $70 Billion Annual U.S. Global Arms Business

The second item is by William Hartung on AlterNet and originally on TomDispatch:

This starts as follows:
When American firms dominate a global market worth more than $70 billion a year, you’d expect to hear about it.  Not so with the global arms trade.  It’s good for one or two stories a year in the mainstream media, usually when the annual statistics on the state of the business come out.
Yes indeed, though I should also say this is not by far the only kind of item that is sorely lacking in the mainstream media that - in my vision at least,
and I read the Dutch NRC-Handelsblad from 1970-2010, and then cast it out precisely for the following reason, that since only got a lot worse, from my  occasional gleanings - they change more and more into amusement for their
readers
(perhaps with some information thrown in, as infotainment, though that again may well have been bought by one of their advertisers) much rather than giving real and verified information about the things that interest me, and that I could and did usually get in my forty years of reading the NRC-Handelsblad (and no: meanwhile it is unrecognizable from what it was in its good years, which are the 1970ies and 1980ies).

Anyway - back to a theme that is hardly treated in today's mainstream amusements papers:

So here’s a question that’s puzzled me for years (and I’m something of an arms wonk): Why do other major U.S. exports -- from Hollywood movies to Midwestern grain shipments to Boeing airliners -- garner regular coverage while trends in weapons exports remain in relative obscurity?  Are we ashamed of standing essentially alone as the world’s number one arms dealer, or is our Weapons “R” Us role such a commonplace that we take it for granted, like death or taxes?

The numbers should stagger anyone.  According to the latest figures available from the Congressional Research Service, the United States was credited with more than half the value of all global arms transfer agreements in 2014, the most recent year for which full statistics are available. At 14%, the world’s second largest supplier, Russia, lagged far behind.
As to the first paragraph: I think I have answered both questions, though probably not as William Hartung would:

You read so little about quite important things like the enormous amounts of weapons sold
by the USA, with enormous amounts of profits, because the free press has ceased to function: People are not so much informed by the mainstream papers as that they are amused. And consequently most people are neither ashamed by the enormous amounts of weapons exports nor do they think it is a common place: Ordinary people just don't read about this anymore, and certainly are not informed well about them.

Clearly, not everybody is ignorant:
To be completely accurate, there is one group of people who pay remarkably close attention to these trends -- executives of the defense contractors that are cashing in on this growth market.  With the Pentagon and related agencies taking in “only” about $600 billion a year -- high by historical standards but tens of billions of dollars less than hoped for by the defense industry -- companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and General Dynamics have been looking to global markets as their major source of new revenue.
Yes, but I am quite confident they do not get their information from the mainstream media, simply because there is hardly any information about
the incredible amounts of arms that the US yearly sells.

There is a whole lot more in the article, that ends as follows:

There is, however, unlikely to be a genuine public debate about the value of the arms business and Washington’s place in it if it isn’t even considered a subject worthy of more than an occasional media story.  In the meantime, the United States continues to hold onto the number one role in the global arms trade, the White House does its part, the Pentagon greases the wheels, and the dollars roll in to profit-hungry U.S. weapons contractors.

Yes, but the underlying main reason that the public simply does not get any adequate information about "the value of the arms business and Washington’s place in it" is that the free press doesn't really exist anymore (apart from a few places on the internet).

3.
Trump as the Reagan Reboot

The third item is by J.P. Sotille on Consortiumnews:

This starts as follows:

The conventional wisdom says Donald Trump has turned presidential politics into a reality show. It’s an understandable diagnosis, particularly given his intentionally brassy persona and the professional wrestling-style antics he used to dispatch a motley crew of also-rans on this way to victory. Both were on display in Cleveland where — with the name “Trump” towering over him — the sole survivor triumphantly claimed the ultimate prize at the end of a year-long series

If nothing else, this “reality show as politics” narrative helps pundits make sense of a candidacy they couldn’t predict and the establishment couldn’t control. It affords them the cold comfort of categorizing Trump as something totally new and completely foreign to American politics. But in America’s celebrity-obsessed matrix of infotainment, clickbait-n-switch “news” and the instant iBranding of everything,  the more apt description of Trump’s presidential potboiler is not the reality show … it’s the Hollywood reboot.

Well... yes and no, but I will not comment because I don't like this pumped up style of writing, and also I am not at all interested in what "helps pundits".

Here is some more:

The reboot was as simple as it was effective. Trump took a proven hook — the Reagan Revolution — and “pumped it up” with a relentless tweetstorm of tendentious tropes and a bomb-throwing rhetorical style that would make action-movie filmmaker Michael Bay blush. Like a seasoned — or cynical — Hollywood producer, Trump used political investments in himselfhis own companies and those ubiquitous red hats to turn an old franchise into a new smash hit. Like so many of the films that have been rebooted in the whiz-bang era of computer animation, The Donald fills the screen like an action-packed, CGI-enhanced version of The Gipper.

Along the way he’s sexed-up Reagan’s Revolution with a barrage of attacks on the corrupt political system, on the media and on the turncoats in his own party. He’s wowed disillusioned Republicans and entreated embattled Reagan Democrats with explosive charges against China’s economic rapists, with dire warnings about cunning Mexican negotiators and with blanket condemnations of incompetent, perhaps even nefarious politicians.

Again: Well... yes, but I know these things for a long time now and I don't need this having rewarmed in a sensationalistic prose style.

There is quite a lot more in the article, but I didn't learn anything new from it and I disliked the style.

4. Smartphone Addiction: The Slot Machine in Your Pocket

The fourth and last item today is by Tristan Harris on Spiegel International:

This starts as follows:

When we get sucked into our smartphones or distracted, we think it's just an accident and our responsibility. But it's not. It's also because smartphones and apps hijack our innate psychological biases and vulnerabilities.

I learned about our minds' vulnerabilities when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, vulnerabilities and biases of people's minds, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people's buttons, you can play them like a piano. And this is exactly what technology does to your mind. App designers play your psychological vulnerabilities in the race to grab your attention.

I want to show you how they do it, and offer hope that we have an opportunity to demand a different future from technology companies.

First two general orientations:

Tristam Harris, the writer of this article, was both a magician and (I quote, because I find the description quite oddly loaded, though that is not Harris's fault) "a product philosopher at Google, where he studied how technology affects a billion people's attention, well-being and behavior". He is also 31 years of age, and the "hope" he speaks of in the above last quoted paragraph seems to me completely false, but I will come to that below.

And as for me: I never had a smartphone, and I never will have one, because (1) I might just as well send everything I do with it directly to the NSA, the GCHQ, and many other secret services, including Facebook and Google, and (2) I do like to keep my own privacy, my own mind, my own decisions and my own choices without being manipulated by all manners of completely unknown human shit [1], and (3) meanwhile, I think that computers + internet are the greatest enemy of anyone who is interested in privacy, good government, democracy, honesty and decency. [2]

Here is some more by Harris:

The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Why do we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices? One major reason why is the number one psychological ingredient in slot machines: intermittent variable rewards.

If you want to maximize addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user's action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

Does this effect really work on people? Yes. Slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.
I certainly do not check my phone "150 times a day". I do check it about 10 times a day, and that is three or four times too many. Also, I despise slot machines for over 50 years now, and yes: I did learn about variable rewards
etc. in psychology.

Then there is this:

But here's the unfortunate truth: Several billion people have a slot machine in their pocket.

When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we're playing a slot machine to see what notifications we have received. When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we're playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next. When we "Pull to Refresh" our email, we're playing a slot machine to see what email we got. When we swipe faces on dating apps like Tinder, we're playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.

I quite agree that it is a very "unfortunate truth" that "[s]everal billion people have a slot machine in their pocket" and not only because it is a slot machine, but because all of them have effectively given their all - their privacy, their mails, their desires, their ideas, in brief: everything that made them the persons they are - to the NSA, the GCHQ, untold many other secret services, and Facebook, Google, Microsoft etc. etc.

I also fear these billions are mostly of the lower half of the IQs, but even that assumption is not always true, for "it is so convenient" that Facebook knows everything about you (while you don't know anything about Facebook's operators and principles).

Then there is this, to show you how Facebook manipulates you (one of its very many mostly unknown ways):

Apps also exploit our need for social approval. When we see the notification "Your friend Marc tagged you in a photo" we instantly feel our social approval and sense of belonging on the line. But it's all in the hands of tech companies.

Facebook, Instagram or SnapChat can manipulate how often people get tagged in photos by automatically suggesting all the faces we should tag. So when my friend tags me, he's actually responding to Facebook's suggestion, not making an independent choice. But through design choices like this, Facebook controls the multiplier for how often millions of people experience their social approval.

I hate Facebook and never was a member and generally totally avoid it. I hate Instagram and Snapchat and never used them. Also, I don't think algo- rithmically generated "social approval" is social approval at all: it is advertising and being advertised.

Then there is this on LinkedIn, that recently was acquired by Microsoft, so that it can know even more about you, without you knowing anything about who is learning all these things about you, nor what it is used for:

LinkedIn is another offender. LinkedIn wants as many people creating social obligations for each other as possible, because each time they reciprocate (by accepting a connection, responding to a message, or endorsing someone back for a skill) they have to come back to linkedin.com where they can get people to spend more time.

Like Facebook, LinkedIn exploits an asymmetry in perception. When you receive an invitation from someone to connect, you imagine that person making a conscious choice to invite you, when in reality, they likely unconsciously responded to LinkedIn's list of suggested contacts. In other words, LinkedIn turns your unconscious impulses into new social obligations that millions of people feel obligated to repay. All while they profit from the time people spend doing it.

There is a lot more in the article, that ends by articulating a hope that "[w]e have an opportunity to demand a different future from the tech industry".

I consider that hope utterly phony. Most people don't understand their smartphones; most people don't understand how they are being abused; most people don't even learn to program; and most of the billions who use smartphones simply are far from smart themselves.

Here is the last but one paragraph from the article:
The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that's on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely.

If you want a free mind and are truly intelligent, you don't have a smartphone. If you have a free mind, you don't believe in "our team" (whoever that is). If you want to live, feel, think and act freely, you mostly avoid computers and you mostly avoid the internet. (Spend some time with your friends, without any computer. Read a real paper book!)

For computers + internet are the greatest enemy of anyone who is interested in privacy, good government, democracy, honesty and decency. And to restore them to proper uses, proper restrictions and proper oversights, I assume it is necessary that the economy crashes hugely.

I am very sorry, but that is how I think it is. [3]

---------------
Notes
[1] Yes: I am completely convinced that the three types of human beings that are almost always despicable shit are (i) the politicians, who nearly all excel everybody else in precisely one trait: they are enormous liars (nearly always for their own private interests) (ii) the rich, who profit enormously and as a rule give back hardly anything; and (iii) the spies, whether with Facebook, the NSA, Google or the GCHQ: I suspect most of these are in fact sadists (which I think some 10% of the people are). (I certainly could not do what they are supposed to do, and no: I am not a sadist either, and I never dreamt about the delicacies of spying on others.)

[2] As to "
I think that computers + internet are the greatest enemy of anyone who is interested in privacy, good government, democracy, honesty and decency":

Yes, I definitely do and the reason is simple: A computer + internet will almost certainly deliver you in the hands of many secret services, who can plunder your emails and your computers, in secret, without your knowing anything about it, and besides, it will deliver you in the hands of very many spies who work for dataminers.

I think almost nobody ought to be in the hands of these persons, but almost everybody these days is, for which reason almost nobody is in a position to say that he knows that his privacy, his secrets, his personal information, is not spread amongst hundreds or thousands of secret offices of secret persons whom he doesn't know but who either know or are in a position to know everything about him (and very far more than he can recall by himself).

These are the outlines of the greatest totalitarian spying system that has ever been constructed, and it has been constructed in the form of computers + internet connections.

I like computing but I hate spying, and since spying these days controls computing, I think wise people should mostly avoid computers (with internet).

[3] First see the previous note. Next, you should realize that I know rather a lot about computing, and do so a long time:

I learned to program in Fortran in 1973 (but didn't like the kind of job, while the programming was still effectively done with cards and only for banks); I had a friend who bought an Apple II in 1979, on which I also programmed (in Applebasic, which was quite good); I got my first personal computer in 1987 (an Osborne, that ran CP/M), soon followed by Philipses and other IBM-clones; I learned to program in Basic, TurboPascal, Prolog, C, Smalltalk and Assembler between 1989 and 2007, and some JavaScript after that (but not much); I have two sites (copies, but each is over 500 MB of html, mostly written by me); and altogether I have been using a computer almost every day since 1987.

There surely are quite a few who know a lot more about computing than I do, but I do know a fair amount, and I have a lot of experience.

And while I still like computing, my attitudes towards it have been growing very much less sympathetic to it (i) since 2007, when I learned about data- mining; (ii) since 2012, when I realized that who controls the internet controls the world and feared I and billions of others were spied upon in everything we did by both dataminers and secret services; and (iii) since 2013, when I learned, thanks to Edward Snowden, that my fears about being spied on were very much less serious than the awful reality.

Finally, my position about being spied upon is similar to my position to the crisis: This will end only if capitalism crashes royally, mostly because the politicians who could have ended it all have almost all been vastly corrupted.

This is a very sad conclusion - neofascism or collapse, in brief - but that is what I think. I agree we aren't there yet.

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