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Notes of a curious mind

Category: Politics (Page 1 of 6)

The Age of Em by Robin Hanson

I really don’t know what to make of this book.  It was on my bedside table for more than 3 weeks. This is very, very unusual. It is not that I couldn’t read it, it was actually quite interesting but I could manage only a few pages at a time, and that’s because I needed time to think about and reflect on what I had just read. It sounded so weird and so unbelievable that I wasn’t sure if this was a serious work from an accomplished academic, as Dr Robin Hanson, or a science fiction dystopia. Perhaps, it’s both.

Ok, let’s start.  Nowadays, our economy doubles roughly every 15 years, from every 1000 years during the farming period. If this trend were to continue, we should expect, according to the statistics models, that sometime during the next century, our economy to go to doubling every one month, or so.  This will last for a couple of years maybe, and then something entirely different will happen that would change everything. What will cause that disruptive change? The arrival of artificial intelligence, that is robots, smart enough to substitute wholesale for human workers.

There are several stories how this will become possible. One scenario is that we will keep writing and accumulating better software. At this rate, we need about three to four centuries for a full AI. Another scenario is that humans would be able to modify their biology so as to achieve a superhuman intelligence. Robin Hanson, who studied physics and was a software engineer before he become an economics professor at George Mason University, believes there is an entirely different way, and that is porting software from where it already exists, and that is the human brain.

To do that we need three things. First, fast computers, much faster than those today, second, scanning machines that will be able to produce a most detailed scan of the human brain with all its particular cell features and connections, and finally, computer models that would be able to process signals for each brain cell.  If we have all these, then we can have robots which will be whole brain emulations or “ems,” for short.  Robin Hanson expects that the first ems will appear within roughly a century or so.

Emulations are not a new idea, there have been in science fiction for many decades. Arthur Clarke investigated this idea in his novel The City and the Stars, in 1956 and more recently in 2003, in his novella The Cookie Monster, Vernor Vinge explores the idea of conscious computer simulations.

In The Age of Em, Robin Hanson focus on robots and how the world would look like at the next big era after ours. He explores what happens in this strange world that it is dominated by trillions of ems that live and work in liquid-cooled skyscrapers, in very dense and very hot cities where they can quickly interact with other ems. He talks about the physics the economy, the organisation and their attitudes to law, politics, love, sex, and a lot of different other things.

Ems are smart, efficient, conscientious and workaholics. They basically work all the time but despite their hard work, they earn just enough to survive. Because they are so many and because it is easy – although not inexpensive – to make a lot more, the value of the work goes down. It is the supply- demand concept of economics.

Ems congregate in related “clans” and make use of Decision Markers to make key group decisions. Psychologically are very human.  They are not ordinary humans, but they have all the psychological tendencies that humans have. They are after all emulation of human brains that are put on a computer. Therefore, they develop relationships, they have friends, lovers, work connections. Some ems have bodies, others do not.

Emulations do not have to feel pain, or hunger. They don’t have to face death as they can make billions of copies of themselves.  Em ethics are different from ours. Their society is less democratic and gender-balanced, more divided into district classes, and its leaders are more accessible and trusted.

But what about humans? If they survive, they will retire somewhere outside the dense cities and will live on pensions doing whatever they want to do. It is not very clear, humans are not the purpose of Robin Hanson.

The Age of Em is an efficiency, undemocratic utopia or dystopia, depending on your perspective.  The em scenario is not entirely persuasive to me but the book provides a baseline for future study in the important topic of artificial intelligence.

Ο Αγνωστος Καραμανλής του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου

«Δεν νομίζω ότι υπήρξα μεγάλος. Φαίνομαι ίσως μεγάλος, γιατί δεν είχα άξιους αντιπάλους.»

Κωνσταντίνος Καραμανλής

Πρωτοδιάβασα  το  Ο Άγνωστος Καραμανλής του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου το 1984. Ο Κωνσταντίνος Καραμανλής έκτιε την πρώτη του προεδρική θητεία (μέχρι το 1985 που τον  διαδέχθηκε ο Χρήστος Σαρτζετάκης). Δεν είμαι σίγουρη ότι είχα τότε αξιολογήσει σωστά ούτε το βιβλίο, ούτε ειχα σκεφτεί αρκετά για τον Κ. Καραμανλή. Κάποια πράγματα απαιτούν μια  απόσταση και  μια ωριμότητα, τόσο χρονική όσο και συναισθηματική.  Το να  διαβάζεις για έναν πολιτικό, όταν ακόμα αυτός βρίσκεται εν ζωή, σε μια εποχή έντονων μεταβολών τόσο σε επίπεδο κοινωνικών συμπεριφορών όσο και σε επίπεδο πολιτικών και διοικητικών θεσμών, ίσως  να μην ειναι και  ο καλύτερος τρόπος να αποτιμήσεις την πορεία, το πολιτικό έργο και τον χαρακτήρα ενός πολιτικού.

Οι αυταπάτες, οι παλινωδίες και οι λαϊκίστικες εξάρσεις των τελευταίων χρόνων, με έκαναν να γυρίσω πίσω,  να ξαναδιαβάσω για το παρελθόν, όχι τόσο για να καταλάβω το παρόν, αλλά περισσότερο για να θυμηθώ και να ξαναγνωρίσω έναν από τους ανθρώπους που διαμόρφωσε την νεώτερη πολιτική πορεία της χώρας και που ξεχώρισε για τον πολιτικό πραγματισμό του, αλλα και για τα στοιχεία, θετικά και αρνητικά, που συνέθεταν την προσωπικότητα του.

Η φιλία και η εκτίμηση του Κωνσταντίνου Τσάτσου προς τον Κωνσταντίνο Καραμανλή είναι γνωστή. Παρόλο που Κ. Καραμανλής δεν ταυτίστηκε απόλυτα με τη φιλοσοφία του Κ. Τσάτσου η εκτίμηση ήταν αμοιβαία και ο Τσάτσος υπηρέτησε ως υπουργός στις κυβερνήσεις του. Ο φόβος του κομμουνισμού αποτελούσε τον κεντρικό άξονα των πολιτικών και θεσμικών επίλογων του  Κ. Τσάτσου, ενώ ο Κ. Καραμανλής δεν πίστευε στην ιδεολογική απομόνωση και δεν είχε μιλήσει “για κομμουνι­στική απειλή ούτε για ανάγκη να περιορισθούν τα δικαιώματα των μη εθνικοφρόνων.” [1]

Ο Άγνωστος Καραμανλής  είναι ένα δοκίμιο που αποβλέπει σε μια ενδοσκόπηση της προσωπικότητας του Κ.  Καραμανλή. Μελετά τον Καραμανλή σαν προσωπικότητα, τον εσωτερικό άνθρωπο, το ήθος και τον χαρακτήρα. Πως, αυτός άνθρωπος, με αυτόν τον χαρακτήρα, έρχεται σε επαφή  και πως συνεργάζεται με τον κόσμο γύρω του.

To βιβλίο δεν είναι ιστορικό, ωστόσο o K. Τσάτσος αναφέρεται σε ορισμένα ιστορικά γεγονότα, κυρίως των ετών 1955-1967 που συνδέονται με το πρόσωπο του Καραμανλή, για να γίνει πιο πλήρης η σκιαγράφηση της προσωπικότητάς του και για να εξηγήσει την θέση του Καραμανλή μπρος στην Ευρώπη και τον κόσμο. Στο δοκίμιο περιλαμβάνονται και κάποιες επιστολές του Κ. Καραμανλή όπου εμφανίζεται η πολιτική σκέψη του.

Απόσπασμα από επιστολή του Κ. Καραμανλή το 1945

Δυο πράγματα στον Καραμανλή εντυπωσίασαν τον Κ. Τσάτσο. Πρώτα ότι η πολιτική πορεία του Καραμανλή ήταν ευθύγραμμη. Οι βασικές του αρχές και σκέψεις  ήταν οι ίδιες από την νεαρή του ηλικία, στην περίοδο της Κατοχής και ήταν πολύ προοδευτικότερες από εκείνες που επικρατούσαν στην παράταξη από την οποία προερχόταν.  Δεύτερον, την ενδεχόμενη πολιτική άνοδό του την αισθανόταν σαν κάτι φυσικό.

Το πήδημα από τη θέση του υπουργού, του πετυχημένου εκτελεστή, στη θέση του πρωθυπουργού μου φάνηκε ότι το έκανε χωρίς δυσκολία, διότι μέσα του το είχε εκτελέσει ήδη προ πολλού ….. Χωρίς να το δείχνη, χωρις να το διακηρύσση, αναγνώριζε στον εαυτό του την ιδιότητα του ηγέτη, σαν να είχε γεννηθη γι’ αυτή την αποστολή.

Ο Καραμανλής έζησε μια μοναχική ζωή. Ενσυνείδητα  και προμελετημένα είχε πλάσει την εμφάνισή του, αυστηρή, αινιγματική και δυσπρόσιτη για να κρατά τον τρίτο σε απόσταση.  Πίσω όμως από τη βιτρίνα του απρόσιτου, λακωνικού, ακόμη και αγριωπού πολιτικού ηγέτη υπήρχε ένας βαθύτατα συναισθηματικός άνθρωπος, που όμως δεν επέτρεπε να ξεφύγει τίποτε από μέσα του που θα μπορούσε να χαλάσει την εικόνα του εαυτού του, όπως την ήθελε ο ίδιος να παρουσιάζεται στους άλλους.

Ουσιαστικά,  ο Κ. Καραμανλής έκτισε απο πολύ νωρίς, αυτό που σήμερα ονομάζουμε πολιτικό branding. Μια εικόνα / προιόν (brand) δηλαδή που ενισχύει το κυρίαρχο αίσθημα και την εντύπωση που έχει το κοινό ή  ο λαός για έναν πολιτικό, και δημιουργεί – παρ’ όλα τα αρνητικά χαρακτηριστικά που αυτό το  πρόσωπο μπορεί να έχει – ένα αίσθημα και μια σχέση εμπιστοσύνης μεταξύ του πολιτικού και του λαού.


[1] Ν. Αλιβιζάτος Ο Κ. Τσάτσος και το Σύνταγμα του 1952, 1947-1967.

Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide by Lynsey Hanley

Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another,”  wrote Margaret Thatcher in 1992. A couple of year later, John Major hailed Britain’s “classless society” and just before the 1997 elections John Prescott announced that “we’re all middle class now”.

Politicians used to pretend that there are no class differences in Britain and therefore the “class gap” received almost no attention at all. But pretending does not mean that class differences don’t exist or that they are no longer important.

Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty,” wrote thirty years ago the British sociologist Richard Hoggart. In the second decade of the 21st century, class distinctions still pervade almost all aspects of English culture and life.  And continuously, find new ways of expressing themselves.

According to a BBC survey in 2013, the traditional categories of working, middle and upper class are outdated (only 39% of the people in Britain fit in these three categories). They have been replaced by seven social classes which include, in addition to traditional occupation, wealth and education, the economic (income, savings, house ) and cultural (interests and activities) capital.

Class is such a complex concept, after 20 years living and working in the UK, I am still struggling to grasp all the aspects of class divide and social mobility. We have known that social mobility is lower in the UK than elsewhere in Europe and that is failing; the university access gap between rich and poor has actually widened in recent years.

In her book Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide,  Lynsey Hanley describes her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in the 1980080s, as well as the experience and the significance of undertaking social mobility in the context of wider social inequality.

Hanley also writes about respectability as a condition within working class communities. Respectability as against rough. She examines the idea of respectability as a way of how individuals are preserving dignity and self-respect and also as a way of getting closer to the values of dominant society.

“Respectability is a property of your specific circumstances: circumstances which permit you, or at least make it easier, to maintain the appearances and felling of self-respect.”

Richard Hoggart, and especially his book in The Uses of Literacy (1957) is a great influence to Lynsey Hanley. Following Hoggard’s detailed description of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the second world war, Lynsey Hanley also sets her book and the story of social mobility in a specific time and place.

“This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal.”

_Richard Hoggart

Lynsey Hanley’s book helps to bring class back on the map and the conversation. She also sets a few existential questions about social mobility and describes how the physical walls of council estates sustain what she calls ‘walls in the head’ – the ‘invisible barriers to knowledge, self-awareness and social mobility’. It is a fantastic book.

 

The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West by Alexandros Petersen

On January 2014, Taliban suicide bombers attacked a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul. Twenty one people were killed, among them was Alexandros Petersen a scholar of geopolitics, and energy politics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. At the time of his death Alexandros was working as an Assistant Professor in political science at the American University campus in Afghanistan.


In his book, The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West, Alexandros Petersen is making a case for the West to pursue a strategy around Russia’s perimeter, with the aim of integrating the smaller nations of the former Soviet Union more deeply into Western-oriented market and democratic institutions.

Petersen ‘s  Twenty-First-Century Geopolitical Strategy for Eurasia (21CGSE) sets out and communicates what is at stake for the West in the Eurasian theatre, and provides a joint framework for trans-Atlantic cooperation. Its most important policy implication is the restoration of geopolitical purpose to Western institutions such as NATO, EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), among others, by arguing that their activities and expansion should be refocused in Eurasia.

“The Eurasian landmass ought to be the focal point of the West’s strategic exertions… If the nascent process of Western decline is to be arrested and reversed, a better understanding of the geopolitical relevance of Eurasia, and the struggle therein, and a concerted effort there, is crucial, “

By Eurasia or “World Island”, Peterson means the mega-continent that divided into Europe, the Middle East, East and South Asia and Africa, which really constitutes one land surrounded by one giant interconnected ocean. The term was first introduced by Harold Mackinder, a British geographer, academic and politician, and was used to describe the area that stretches from the eastern borders of Germany to the western border of China and from the Arctic Circle to the South Asian deserts and mountain ranges. In the future, Petersen argues,  this area will be deemed to be of decisive strategic importance to the United States and its West European allies.

Mackinder formulated his geopolitical ideas shortly before and after World War I in opposition to those of A.T. Mahan, who argued that sea-power is the key to world domination. Mackinder argued that the most important part of the world, geopolitically speaking, is the Pivot Area or Heartland of Eurasia, which lay at the centre of the world island, stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic, a vast territory controlled by Russia.

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world. ”

Harold Mackinder,  Democratic Ideals and Reality, 1919.

Petersen argues that the pivotal importance of the Heartland still remains and the West needs to actively engage with the small nations in the periphery of Russia, the post-Soviet territories e.g. Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, etc, in order to prevent Russian and/or Chinese dominance.

It is a comprehensive analysis of the ideas of Mackinder and Kennan’s “Containment”, combined with  Josef Pilsudski’s “Prometheism” and “Intermarum” policies.  Josef Pilsudski, the first leader of the modern Polish state as it emerged after the end of World War I, aimed to create a fortress of common defence against Russia that would include independent states in the basins of the Baltic, Black and Caspian Seas, arguing that “any great Eurasian power would crumble if its many minorities were empowered from without”.

Western involvement and integration in Eurasia is not only possible but strategically imperative, not just in the Black Sea region, but also around the Caspian and Central/Inner Asia. The strategy departs from the traditional emphasis placed on the future of Ukraine and its schismatic domestic policies. Rather, it links Western efforts in Europe, Russia, Afghanistan, China and Iran into strategic whole to form an overarching purpose for Western institutions and governments. It is not hopelessly isolationist not vaingloriously imperialistic. It is aggressively realistic …..

The World Island arms the reader with insights and ideas in order to better understand the basics of geopolitics in the region. Petersen’s arguments are both thought-provoking and controversial, but often they are vaguely defined and they lack imagination. How do you contain a big country like Russia, especially when its fellow BRICS do not wish to isolate it? He also fails to answer fundamental questions, such as, what if, in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 when the EU was visibly not in the ‘most robust health’,  Central Asian countries do not have strong incentives for institutional change and find that the Chinese alternative is more attractive and beneficial for their economic development albeit less oriented towards democratization.

Another day in the death of America by Gary Younge

The cover of Gary Younge’s book, Another day in the death of America, a happy white family in America from the 1950s, is in complete contrast to the bitter reality in America today.

Every day, on average, 7 children and teens seen their lives cut tragically short by gun violence in America.  American teens are seventeen times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in any other high income country. Gun violence disproportionately affects children of colour.

Gary Younge has picked a random day, 23 November, 2013, to present the cases of the ten young people who were shot at this particular day, in different parts of the country. The number of fatalities that day exceeded the national daily average for 2013, which was of 6.75. The youngest was 9 and the oldest, 19 years old. All were males, seven were black, two Hispanic, and one white.

For eighteen months, Gary Younge, tracked down the families of the young victims, he talked to parents and siblings, relatives and friends, teachers and community workers. He examines the circumstances of the deaths; some were deliberate, others tragic accidents, due to easy access to guns.

This is not a book about gun control though, but about what happens when you don’t have gun control, when guns are so easily available. It is not a book about race, though a disproportionate number of those who fell that particular day were black. Certain racial themes are, therefore unavoidable.

For eighteen months, Gary Younge, tracked down the families of the victims, he talked to parents and siblings, relatives and friends, teachers and community workers. He approaches the subject of the vulnerability of the young in America with great sensitivity and empathy. He sticks closely to his case studies, avoiding any kind of polemic.  At the same time, he touches subjects more challenging and knotted than that. Poverty and inequality, poor education and lack of employment opportunities, drugs and gangs,  create a desperate situation and have detrimental effects on life chances.

Gary Younge is not optimistic that this situation will change. Despite the fact that the number of Americans that support further guns’ regulation has been increased, the National Rifle Association (NRA), the principle gun lobbyist which advocates for gun ownership, has done “an excellent job of mythologizing gun-ownership as being a ‘right’ bequeathed to them by their revolutionary forbears, that could not be violated,” while continuously maintain a sense of the world as a dangerous, insecure place.  NRA’s appeal goes beyond the weapon itself to the tested American tropes of rugged individualism, masculinity, small government and homestead. It “evokes a threat not only to an individual or a family, but to American civilization itself”, writes Gary Younge.

Gun violence can have a series of serious snowball effects in education, health, incarceration, family instability, and social capital. The distress, the trauma and the pain many poor, inner-city families experience, following the killing of a family member or close relative, deserves special attention. Better education, youth services, jobs that pay a living wage, mental health services, trauma counselling, a fair criminal justice system – “in short more opportunity”, writes Gary Younge, “would contribute to a climate where such deaths were less likely.”

Gary Younge has written a gripping, emotional and thought provoking book. It is a cry for the wealthiest country in the world that could and should do better for its children.

Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe by Anne Applebaum

“For a thousand years, the geography of the borderlands dictated their fate,” writes Anne Applebaum in her evocative and well-written book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, which first published in 1994.

In the 1991 and 1992, an era of social, political and economic turmoil, Anne Applebaum travelled in the countries of former Soviet Union, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, across the borderlands that constitute Europe’s far east landscape. The Soviet empire had ended but nothing else had yet replaced it. Longstanding institutions, such as the Communist Party, had vanished. Corruption was rampant. New politicians constantly replacing old ones. The desire for freedom and national sovereignty had raised troubling questions about identity. In the next few years, political, cultural and military conflicts shook the territories that used to be part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union.

The end of the Soviet Union, saw the “construction of homelands”, a process in which the nationalist elites and intellectuals, mobilised the myths and the images of a homeland, in order to reinforce the depiction of a nation as an ancient community and to give people a sense of belonging. Nationalism became attractive and synonymous with decentralization and democratisation and nationalists were considered democratic and progressive heroes.

Anne Applebaum take us to a journey into the past and the post-Soviet era of Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. She travels us to an area defined throughout its history by colliding empires, cultures and religions.

“Travel here demands a forensic passion, not merely a love of art or architecture or natural beauty,” she writes.

“there are many layers of civilization in the borderlands, but they do not lie neatly on top of one another. “A traveller can meet a man born in Poland, brought up in the Soviet Union, who now lives in Belarus – and he has never left his village.”

 

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