05 December 2022

Erik Torenberg: “The Hypocrisy of Elites”

We recently discussed Rob Henderson’s Luxury Beliefs, the idea being that if people buy expensive luxury goods to showcase how well-off they are, people also hold “expensive” beliefs for the same reason.

This idea is not new: Jared Diamond has suggested one reason people engage in displays such as drinking, smoking, drug use, and other costly behaviors is because they serve as fitness indicators. The message is: I’m so healthy I can afford to poison my body and continue to function.

Saying, I’m willing to redistribute my money and status is a costly but effective way of signaling, I’m so secure in my status and money that I can afford giving it away, seeing as I have a surplus of both.

This is what being an elite is about, after all. It’s not about money, although money plays a crucial role. It’s not even about education, though education plays a large role as well. It’s more about the set of behaviors and dispositions that indicate a person to be a member of the elite — which center around wanting to change the world. Recall we discussed the leveling and importance game: Wanting to change the world hits the sweet spot because it shows how important one is (you can afford worrying about the planet and not your rent), while also highlighting one’s empathy (wanting to take care of the less fortunate).

Which is the whole point of being an elite. It’s what separates a person from simply being a bourgeois. Aristocrats want to *matter*. Bourgeoisie just want comfort and safety. Meanwhile proletariats just want to put food on the table.

Erik Torenberg

Interesting perspective about the motivations of elites (although I feel the author is purposely conflating ‘elites’ with the ultrarich – you can have elites in particular fields like medicine or physics without the economic means to ‘change the world’). These are plenty of examples of billionaires spending on immensely expensive goods, from private islands to luxury yachts. I think the recent trend of influential people buying social media channels (Elon Musk acquiring Twitter, Trump launching Truth Social, Kanye West attempting to buy Parler, although this last one didn’t go through) can be ascribed to the same inclination of would-be aristocrats to shape the wider world by reinforcing their message.

04 December 2022

Reuters: “Tuvalu turns to the metaverse as rising seas threaten existence”

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe told the COP27 climate summit it was time to look at alternative solutions for his country’s survival and this included Tuvalu becoming the first digitised nation in the metaverse – an online realm that uses augmented and virtual reality (VR) to help users interact.

Our land, our ocean, our culture are the most precious assets of our people and to keep them safe from harm, no matter what happens in the physical world, we will move them to the cloud, he said in the video that sees him standing on a digital replica of an islet threatened by rising sea levels.

Lucy Craymer

Can’t decide what’s sadder about this story: that the world has done so little to address global warming that outlandish plans such as the virtualization of an entire nation are even being considered, or that anyone would genuinely think that a virtual recreation could ever replace the original. Not to mention that VR technology is still in its infancy; it doesn’t have mass adoption, nor industry-wide standards, so any current project might become incompatible with future hardware and software solutions, effectively erasing it from existence.

03 December 2022

MIT Technology Review: “The climate solution adding millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere”

CarbonPlan’s study comes days after the Washington state legislature moved a cap-and-trade bill with an offset program to the governor’s desk for approval. Oregon has also debated in recent months establishing a carbon market program that would emulate California’s policy. In Washington, DC, the Biden administration has signaled growing interest in harnessing forests and soil to draw down CO2. Businesses, too, increasingly plan to rely heavily on trees to offset their emissions in lieu of the harder task of cutting corporate pollution.

Forest offsets have been criticized for a variety of problems, including the risks that the carbon reductions will be short-lived, that carbon savings will be wiped out by increased logging elsewhere, and that the projects are preserving forests never in jeopardy of being chopped down, producing credits that don’t reflect real-world changes in carbon levels.

But CarbonPlan’s analysis highlights a different issue, one interlinked with these other problems. Even if everything else about a project were perfect, developers would still be able to undermine the program by exploiting regional averages.

Every time a polluter uses a credit that didn’t actually save a ton of carbon, the total amount of emissions goes up.

Far from addressing climate change, California’s forest offsets appear to be adding tens of millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere on balance, undermining progress on the state’s long-term emissions goals.

James Temple & Lisa Song

Convoluted story, and I’m not entirely certain I’ve understood all its twists and implications. Which I guess rather proves the point of the article: if not sufficiently transparent, the regulations used to determine carbon offsets can be exploited to generate meaningless carbon credits without materially reducing emissions. The overall effect thus delays climate action, as big polluters buy emissions credits while continuing to pollute, instead of investing in lasting measures to reduce their carbon footprint.

02 December 2022

The Washington Post: “Mysterious company with government ties plays key internet role”

Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari, nonprofit Firefox and others allow the company, TrustCor Systems, to act as what’s known as a root certificate authority, a powerful spot in the internet’s infrastructure that guarantees websites are not fake, guiding users to them seamlessly.

The company’s Panamanian registration records show that it has the identical slate of officers, agents and partners as a spyware maker identified this year as an affiliate of Arizona-based Packet Forensics, which public contracting records and company documents show has sold communication interception services to U.S. government agencies for more than a decade.

One of those TrustCor partners has the same name as a holding company managed by Raymond Saulino, who was quoted in a 2010 Wired article as a spokesman for Packet Forensics.

Saulino also surfaced in 2021 as a contact for another company, Global Resource Systems, that caused speculation in the tech world when it briefly activated and ran more than 100 million previously dormant IP addresses assigned decades earlier to the Pentagon. The Pentagon reclaimed the digital territory months later, and it remains unclear what the brief transfer was about, but researchers said the activation of those IP addresses could have given the military access to a huge amount of internet traffic without revealing that the government was receiving it.

Joseph Menn

Despite the concerted push a couple of years ago to move the majority of websites to secure connections, online traffic remains vulnerable to surveillance and hacking. After this investigation was published, Firefox and Microsoft Edge said they would stop trusting new certificates from TrustCor Systems, but the underlying issue remains. Organizations with an interest in interception would just create new, more sophisticated and concealed methods to exploit security certificates for their purposes.

01 December 2022

Engelsberg Ideas: “Mikhail Gorbachev gave Russia a chance”

The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in his time spoke of crossing the river by feeling for the stones, emphasising a gradualist approach to reform. Gorbachev, by contrast, jumped right into the river, learning to swim even as the raging currents carried him thence. This was a brave, admirable, dramatic, even a foolhardy attempt. He drowned.

As the economic situation went from bad to worse, queues lengthened, and poverty deepened. But there was also a new, exhilarating sense of freedom. In March 1989 Soviet citizens took to the first reasonably democratic polls in the country’s history, electing the Congress of People’s Deputies. The often unruly sessions of this experimental assembly were subsequently televised to stunned audiences around the country, completely upending Soviet politics. The shelves were empty, but the minds were alive to remarkable changes. Fewer potatoes, true — but more freedom!

Yet when all was said and done, freedom alone was not enough. Impoverished, embittered populace looked away from Gorbachev: towards the fire-breathing demagogues, the would-be authoritarians, the prophets of nationalist causes. In short — to those who promised to deliver order — and potatoes. Are we to blame them? They were just trying to survive.

But Gorbachev backed off. He was not a Stalinist. He put his faith in the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and often cited his well-known adage: Everything flows, everything changes. Gorbachev wanted to flow with, but also to direct change, to be recognised not just as the leader of a superpower but as the world’s strategist-in-chief for change: it was his mission, his historical role, and his claim to legitimacy.

Sergey Radchenko

Mikhail Gorbachev’s death at the end of August this year was largely overshadowed in the press by the passing of another major head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. In retrospect though, I would argue that his role on the world stage was evidently more impactful than the Queen’s, despite her exceptionally long reign. Granted, I may be biased in this opinion as a citizen of a former Communist country. I vaguely remember the fall of the Soviet Union from my childhood and the reverence people had for Gorbachev because he allowed Eastern European countries to go their own ways instead of attempting to repress the democratic revolutions.

29 November 2022

The New Yorker: “How the War in Ukraine Might End”

More recent theoretical literature had acknowledged the two-sidedness of war, Goemans writes, but here, too, important aspects had been missed. War theory imported from economics the concept of “bargaining”, and wars were thought to begin when the bargaining process—over a piece of territory, usually—broke down. The most common cause of the breakdown, according to war theorists (and again borrowing from economics), was some form of informational asymmetry. Simply put, one or both sides overestimated their own strength relative to their opponent’s. There were many reasons for this sort of informational asymmetry, not least of which was that the war-fighting capacity of individual nations was almost always a closely guarded secret. In any case, the best way to find out who was stronger was to actually start fighting. Then things became clear quite quickly. Many wars ended in just this way, with the sides reëvaluating their relative strengths and opting to make a deal.

But there were other kinds of wars, in which factors besides information predominated. These factors, in part because they did not play prominent roles in economics, were less well understood. One was the fact that contracts in the international system—in this case, peace deals—had little or no enforcement mechanism. If a country really wanted to break a deal, there was no court of arbitration to which the other party could appeal. (In theory, the United Nations could be this court; in practice, it is not.) This gave rise to the problem known as “credible commitment”: one reason wars might not end quickly is that one or both sides simply could not trust the other to honor any peace deal they reached.

Keith Gessen

Ostensibly written about the war in Ukraine, this article does a much more interesting job than most of linking the current conflict with similar instances in history and war theory in general – arriving at the well accepted conclusion that this war won’t end quickly, as neither side is willing to back down and reassess its minimum war goals.

24 November 2022

CNN Politics: “Ukraine suffered a comms outage when 1,300 SpaceX satellite units went offline over funding issues”

The recent outage started on October 24 and was described by one person briefed on the situation as a “huge problem” for Ukraine’s military. The terminals had been disconnected, this person said, due to a lack of funding.

The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals that Ukraine purchased from a British company in March and were used for combat-related operations.

SpaceX was charging Ukraine’s military $2,500 a month to keep each of the 1,300 units connected, pushing the total cost to almost $20 million by September, the person briefed on the matter said. Eventually, they could no longer afford to pay, the person said.

Earlier this month, Musk said that of the more than 25,000 terminals now in Ukraine, fewer than 11,000 were paying for the service, which can run as high as $4,500 per month.

Alex Marquardt & Sean Lyngaas

Interesting background information about the Starlink terminals used by Ukraine’s military – to no-one's surprise, Elon Musk didn’t actually donate the terminals, nor was he supporting the monthly operating fees.