Thursday, January 31, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 31.1.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain


  • A young Anglo-Spanish couple has a video here on the 10 culture shocks he experienced when moving to Madrid. Here's a summary of them. I relate to most and long-time readers won't be at all surprised at the first one:-
  1. No concept of personal space. Spaniards love physical contact and don’t shy away from applying it liberally.
  2. Eye contact. Spaniards love a good eye-locked gaze. In this country you’ll often lock eyes with strangers, and they will hold your gaze. 
  3. When at home, its slippers on or else. No bare feet.
  4. This is one noisy country - and the locals thrive on the energy created by all the noise.
  5. Kids in bars.
  6. Traditional bars which often  forget to provision the toilet.
  7. If you don’t have the exact change, you may be in trouble. 
  8. Living in the moment. This is a country where it's all about spontaneity. Little planning. [As I've said more than once, if you dislike planning and never stick to the few plans you do make, you get very good at spontaneity, and come to value it highly. Especially if it drives Anglos nuts.]
  9. People peel fruit that shouldn’t be peeled
  10. There is actually a test for pregnant women to see if they can eat jamón.
BTW . . . I'm guessing the young NZ chap doesn't drive in Spain.¡
  • Spanish bodegas actually have been planning ahead of the Brexit deadline of end March.
  • Someone has commented that: If Franco is buried in Madrid's cathedral, his tomb will become an even greater draw for his followers. Surely there's an argument for keeping the dead dictator where he is, as damned by his ugly monument as Ozymandias was by his. She has a point.
  • This blog truly is powerful. After my regular complaints about the endlessly confusing speed signs on the N550, the Pontevedra provincial administration has announced it'll be making an inventory of all its 4,000 signs, so that it can remove the redundant ones. Or at least think about doing so.
The UK and Brexit
  • Richard North today: As the torrent of drivel pours forth, the UK media sets for itself a new low in its reporting of Brexit, presenting the prime minister in confrontation with the EU over the supposed negotiations and treating this as if it was a real event. . . . There is no excuse at all for the media to go along with the fiction that there are going to be meaningful (or any) renegotiations. And it is totally absurd for any media organ to project a sense of shock or outrage at the EU's response. . .  For the rest, there is just blather 
The EU and Brexit
  • Michel Barnier has explicitly accused Mrs May of bad faith, declaring that: Even before the votes in the parliament she distanced herself from the agreement she herself negotiated and on which we agreed. The British government subsequently gave its explicit support to an amendment which requests that the backstop is replaced by alternative arrangements, which have never actually been defined. At the same time the House of Commons rejected the no-deal scenario, without, however, specifying how to avoid such a scenario. The backstop is part and parcel of the Withdrawal Agreement and it will not be renegotiated.
  • Paraphrasing . . .  What bit of 'No' do you not understand?
  • Of course, there are those who believe/hope the EU will soften its stance as and when they come to realise how much damage will be done by a hard Brexit to, for example, the German car industry. This is because they agree with the dictum of Lenin that Politics is concentrated economics. Except it isn't when it comes to the EU project. You only have to look at the politically-driven premature creation of the euro to see that. So, things have to be sacrificed on the altar of the politically-driven EU, whatever the short-term economic consequences. Whether this is wise in the longer-term remains to be seen.
  • Meanwhile, in case you didn't go to the RN site. Putting all this graphically:-
The EU
  • Corruption arising. See the first article below.
The USA/Nutters Corner
  • The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders:  God wanted Donald Trump to become president. Is it really possible she believes this, as opposed to just spouting nonsense to please Fart's evangelical Christian base?
  • One such utterly immoral evangelist.
Social Media
  • See the second article below on the need to protect young people. History will not be kind on either the management of the relevant companies nor on the politicians who've allowed them to get away with (and profit hugely from) their nefarious activities. 
  • One of the differences between English and Spanish is that the former tends to take the perspective of the other person whereas the latter tends to take the speaker's perspective. As in: 
  1. I'm coming now v. I'm going how.
  2. Yes, I am going to dinner in your house on Saturday v. Yes, I am coming to your house on Saturday,
I only mention this because a Spanish friend told me yesterday that she'll never get her head around this. I pointed out that I'd had to get my head round it in Spanish . . .

  • Looking at the German text for my new Phillips filter-coffee machine, I see these English-German equivalents:-
- Recycling - 'Recycling'
- Guarantee and Support - 'Garantie und Support'
- Symbol - 'Symbol'.
- Problem - 'Problem'
I guess it's possible things have long been thus but I do wonder.

Finally . . .
  • Did you know that, back in 1308, England imported 5m gallons( 23m litres) of wine from the Aquitaine, a bit of France it owned at the time?

1. Rise of the European autocrats is a breeding ground for corruption:  Catherine Philp, Diplomatic Correspondent. The Times.

The rise of autocracy in countries such as Hungary and Turkey has led to rampant corruption, Transparency International said yesterday in its latest annual list.

Hungary’s score on the global anti-corruption index has dropped by eight points to 46 over the past five years. Developments there included curbs on the media and the judiciary, and the forced departure of the Open Society Foundation and Central European University, both of which were founded by the philanthropist George Soros.

Turkey’s score dropped by nine points in the same period to 41, as the country was downgraded to “not free” on a democracy ranking.

“With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe — often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies — we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights,” Patricia Moreira, managing director of Transparency International, said.

Britain was ranked 11th cleanest, level with Germany, with a score of 80 out of 100. This was a two-point fall from the previous year, when the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) put Britain at joint eighth. Denmark topped the chart as the world’s least corrupt nation, scoring 88 points. New Zealand was second at 87 points. Somalia pipped Syria for bottom position with 10 points to its 13. Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq all scored in the teens.

More than two thirds of countries scored under 50. The US fell out of the top 20 “cleanest” countries with a score of 71, having lost four points. “A four-point drop in the CPI score is a red flag and comes at a time when the US is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balance, as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power,” Transparency International said. “If this trend continues, it would indicate a serious corruption problem in a country that has taken a lead on the issue globally. This is a bipartisan issue that requires a bipartisan solution.”

President Trump’s second year in office has been dogged by corruption allegations, from the inquiry into links between his election campaign and Russia to accusations of nepotism and conflicts of interest. In December he shut his personal charity after the New York attorney-general said that it acted “as little more than a cheque book to serve Mr Trump’s business and political interests”.

Zoe Reiter, Transparency International’s acting representative to the US, said: “The Office of Government Ethics simply doesn’t have the teeth to control conflicts of interest at the highest levels.”

• Russian officials would be exempt from legal liability for bribery and other corrupt acts committed in “exceptional circumstances” under draft laws based on plans approved by President Putin. Ilya Shumanov, of Transparency International Russia, said that there was “not a single rational explanation” for the exemption. The independent Levada Centre showed that 67 per cent of Russians held Mr Putin responsible for high-level fraud. The Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy in Moscow has said that corruption costs Russia $35 billion a year.

2. Social media ‘must be forced to protect young users’: Mark Bridge, Technology Correspondent, the Times.

Tech companies including Facebook and YouTube have failed to protect young people despite repeated promises and should now be forced by law, the children’s commissioner has said.

In an open letter published today Anne Longfield questions whether the companies have “lost control”, given the huge volume of disturbing content available to under-18s. She calls for “a statutory duty of care” and the introduction of a digital ombudsman.

Her calls come after Ian Russell told the BBC that Instagram “helped kill my daughter”. Molly Russell, 14, viewed images of self-harm on the Facebook-owned app before taking her own life. The charity Papyrus said that more than 30 families had recently blamed social media for playing a role in their children’s deaths.

Ms Longfield says that Molly’s case “again highlighted the horrific amount of disturbing content that children are accessing online”. “I do not think it is going too far to question whether even you, the [platforms’] owners, any longer have any control over their content,” she writes. “If that is the case, then children should not be accessing your services at all, and parents should be aware that the idea of any authority overseeing algorithms and content is a mirage.”

She warns that the apps and websites could be harmful to children due to their “addictive” features and dangerous or inappropriate content.

“Over the last few years I have had dialogue with many of the big social-media companies over how best to make sure children have the resilience, information and power they need to make safe and informed choices about their digital lives,” she says. “I have been reassured time and time again that this is an issue taken seriously. However, I believe there is still a failure to engage and children remain an afterthought.”

She says that she shares the frustrations of the Duke of Cambridge, who has said that on “every challenge” such as fake news, extremism and bullying social media companies remained on the back foot. Ms Longfield says that “potential disruption” should no longer prevent the safety and wellbeing of young people being a priority. “Neither should hiding behind servers and apparatus in other jurisdictions,” she adds.

She calls for the companies to answer a series of questions on self-harm posts, including how many had been accessed by under-13s. She has backed calls for the companies to provide data relating to Molly Russell to the coroner.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 30.1.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.                                                                                                             
Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • With - surprise, surprise - no EU policy forthcoming, Spain gets tougher on immigration, says El País here.
  • Whatever Spanish laws exist on the reporting on crimes and sensational events, they seem to be honoured more in the breach than the observance. 'Feeding frenzy' is the phrase that springs to mind. The estimable Matthew Bennett takes up this issue here, in the context of the little boy who fell down a deep well and was - not to my surprise - found to be dead when the miners finally reached him. As MB says: Where Spain differs from other countries is perhaps in the degree to which such constant media coverage seems to know almost no ethical bounds, whether the medium is broadcast, online, social or mobile. . . .   If there is a national lesson to be learned from this new tragedy, perhaps it is that, if the media are not willing to exercise more self-control, politicians should come up with a way to do so. Victims and their families deserve that dignity and respect. Who could disagree?
  • Gibraltar: As you'd expect, trouble ahead.
  • Galicia boasts 36% of Spain's abandoned villages, 40% of the national total of e empty properties. You can find them on the internet, somewhere.
The UK and Brexit
  • Says someone: The UK parliament has voted for a unicorn option but the EU doesn't believe in unicorns. 
  • Says someone else: Nothing has changed. Plan B is Plan A with a wig on.
  • Richard North this morning: There's a conundrum: what does Mrs May think she is doing? As I think I said the other day, the answer might be, as RN himself puts it: She will return to parliament and tell MPs how sorry she is. "I tried my best", she will say, "but the EU says 'no'". Her basic message to parliament will be: "Over to you". The same choice then awaits them: the Withdrawal Agreement or a no-deal. But it will be parliament that makes the decision. She is but the obedient servant, doing her best to execute parliament's will. 
  • Me: So, more games, self-exculpation and responsibility-shifting for failure.+
The EU and Brexit
  • The betting is now on a 3 month extension of the Article 50 deadline.
  • But, if there is, indeed, a No Deal Brexit, British pensioners, tourists and students in Spain will lose free healthcare as of 29 March, says the UK Government guidelines. See here.
  • Here's what the Spanish government says on this.
  • At Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle manufacturer, 4th quarter profit was all but wiped out because of restructuring costs linked to Trump’s trade battles and the impact of EU retaliatory tariffs.
  • Speaking of Fart . . . My friend Eamon in La Coruña captured him on a recent visit to Pontevedra:-

Social Media
  • See the trenchant article below. How much longer can this go on? 
  • Here's an example of a word which suddenly takes off and takes the place of previous acceptable words and then disappears from sight. From a  TV ad:- Qatar: Curated for you.
  • From Private Eye's Pseuds Corner, English at its creative best:-

Finally . . 
  • Here's a sentence from the web page of an estate agent, about a flat in my mother's community:- Montrose court has an excellent range of amenities, including a salacious communal lounge, dining room, lifts to all floors, carpark and 24 hour on-site manager. As all readers will know, 'salacious' is defined as: 'Having or conveying undue or inappropriate interest in sexual matters'. I wonder if this is why the manager is on-site for 24 hours. Doesn't want to miss any of the fun.

Let's call social media what it is - an evil that must be stopped: Allison Pearson

After years of scrolling through stories about man’s inhumanity to man (and women and children), I thought I was pretty unshockable, desensitised even. Then I started researching the character of a teenage girl in my novel How Hard Can It Be? Emily is self-harming, but her parents haven’t noticed. That is partly because they are preoccupied with their own stressful lives.

It’s also because their sixteen-year-old daughter is extremely good at hiding it and tells her mum and dad to “Back off” whenever they come too close. The main reason Emily and girls like her can keep their painful secret, though, is because the older generation simply hasn’t got a clue about self-harming andthe DIY lessons in that cruel practice which their vulnerable children can access so easily on social media.

To give you just one warped example I came across, when the One Direction star Zayn Malik quit the band in 2015, a hashtag started trending #Cut4Zayn. The idea seemed to be that girls could assuage their sorrow in some kind of communal blood-letting. If they searched for #Cut4Zayn or expressed upset or anxiety over his departure, a helpful algorithm would soon direct those tearful teenagers to pro-self-harm websites.

What the hell is a pro-self-harm website? You may well ask. I didn’t know such a grotesque thing was possible, but I soon found out as my research saw me ensnared in that sticky web of images and aspirational lifestyles where my daughter and her friends live out a large part of their lives. Yesterday, out of curiosity, I Googled self harm and Pinterest and up popped, “104 Best Self Harm Images”.

Best in what sense exactly? How can a picture of a tearful young woman, her thighs cross-hatched with cuts, actually be highly recommended on a social media site? Women my age who think Pinterest is just a handy pinboard for pictures of fashionable interiors and scrumptious cupcakes are living in a dream world.

Pinterest meant something quite different to Molly Russell. A wonderful fourteen-year-old girl, Molly looked at images of self-harm on the site before she took her own life in 2017. I can hardly write what follows without furious tears forming in my eyes: Pinterest sent Molly a personalised email a month after she died containing images of self-harm. One featured a gruesome image of a girl who had self-harmed which was captioned, “I can’t tell you how many times I wish I was dead.”

Allow that to sink in for a moment. A beloved child, aided and abetted by social media, has taken her precious young life and one of the sites which may well have provided the inspiration sends her a handy round-up of horrors. “Hi Molly, We notice you are interested in self-harm. Here are many more imaginative ways in which you can mutilate yourself!”

Evil is a word that has fallen out of use. A bit too black and white, too judgmental for these godless times. But we can surely detect the devil in the detail of these internet sites which agitate teenagers with unattainable images of perfect lives and then, when they type in “lonely” or “depressed”, direct them to instructions on how to maim or murder themselves. It’s diabolical, that’s what it is.

“I have no doubt Instagram helped kill my daughter,” says Molly Russell’s father Ian. The family with three daughters, who live in Harrow, North West London, had no idea anything was wrong with young Molly, who loved horse-riding and sailing and had just landed the lead role in the school production of The Fantastic Mr Fox.

Ian Russell doesn’t believe Molly intended to kill herself when she went up to bed that November night. “It was her middle sister’s birthday the day after her body was discovered. Being such a caring soul, she would never have planned that.” He thinks Molly used her phone to log onto Instagram, the photo-sharing app, where algorithms encouraged her to view more and more distressing material.

If you or I google sheepskin slippers, whatever internet sites we use will bombard us with images of slippers. Annoying, yes, but essentially harmless. If girls like Molly do a search on “sad” or “depressed” the same algorithm will show them more and more posts on self-harm and even suicide. It’s easy to see how a teenager alone in her bedroom, doubts and fears crowding in, could be triggered by seductively macabre pictures of girls her own age.

Facebook executive Steve Hatch said that Molly’s was “a difficult story to read”. Confronted with print-outs of posts from Facebook-owned Instagram showing graphic photos of self-harm, Hatch said, “We’d have to make sure that we look at these and ensure that those are taken down if they are against our policies”.

Making sure “we look at those” is simply not good enough. In fact it’s criminally inadequate. Print media, like this newspaper, would be in terrible trouble if it reported the manner in which a young person had killed themselves, lest we encouraged copycat behaviour. The idea that the Telegraph would ever run graphic pictures of self-harm, let alone suicide, is abhorrent. And yet just a couple of clicks on social media can lead a highly suggestible young person to such toxic, potentially lethal material.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock says that, following Molly Russell’s tragic death, he is “desperately concerned to ensure young people are protected”. He has written to a number of internet giants telling them they have a duty to act.

Judging by the clueless response of Nick Clegg, Facebook’s new communications chief, that will hardly suffice. The former Deputy Prime Minister told the BBC he would not allow any of his own three children to view images of self harm found on the site. Well, I’ve got news for Nick. You’re not going to know what they’re looking at. Just as the Russells had no idea what Molly was looking at. Because you and your wife will simply not be able to police their social-media usage 24/7 when they are teenagers. Confiscate their phones as a last resort, as so many worried parents do, and you will effectively be shutting down their social life which will make them even more anxious and unhappy. This is the parallel world that Facebook has made.

Nick Clegg claimed that Facebook had saved the lives of thousands of suicidal users by flagging their posts to charity and mental health services. “We will do whatever it takes in order to make this environment safer online particularly for youngsters.”

I’m afraid the unpalatable truth for the social media providers like Facebook is that it is the online world which is making kids depressed in the first place. The only remedy is to tell young users to stop scrolling through Instagram, comparing themselves unfavourably to rich, thin strangers, and to go back to the place call IRL (In Real Life) where they are known and loved for themselves.

Matt Hancock suggests Parliament could ban social media companies that don’t purge their sites of harmful material. I reckon we should go even further and start jailing the bosses of companies which sent Molly Russell suggestions as to how she might hurt herself or end a life that was barely begun. Instagram helped kill his daughter, Ian Russell believes. I believe it, too. Look at her. Look at Molly’s blameless, gentle face and ask yourself this, would that same lovely girl have killed herself in an era before social media could warp her brain and lure her to her death? There’s a word for that. Evil.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 29.1.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
                                                                                   Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Corrupt cops and tax inspectors. What next?
  • This advice from The Local is pertinent for my daughter in Madrid and seems spot on to me, from observation over the years.
  • This has been going on for decades in Galicia. In the 60s, there were 20,000 cases a year. Now there are 'only' 4,000. Worse than killing songbirds, of course.
  • Some fine example of Romanesque architcture in Spain
  • My neighbour, the lovely Ester - and I were arguing about the respective merits of Mercadona and Carrefour 2 days ago. This survey has endorsed my opinion. 
  • Which reminds me . . . I was astonished to see a couple of novelties - a rare thing in Spain - in my branch of Mercadona the other day - several types of rice (basmati and jasmine, for example) at prices not much above the normal stuff. There'll be Asian stuff on the shelves one of these years . . 
The EU
  • Nerves are being tested by the Franco-German axis, it says here. [Is 'axis the right word here?]
The UK
The UK and Brexit
  • Richard North today: Ignorance is a pervasive feature of contemporary politics – something which Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand, was keen to point out at a European Policy Centre (EPC) seminar in Brussels yesterday. In a surgical dissection of the current debate, she observed that a lot of the discussion of the withdrawal agreement in the UK was "uninhibited by any knowledge" of what it actually contained. When, at the same seminar, Sir Ivan Rogers, made similar remarks, it is fairly evident that we have the makings of a serious problem. He was reported as saying that the "level of understanding" amongst even the best briefed MPs of what was in the deal was "strikingly low". He explained that there was an "enormous gap" between what the executive understood, what the people at the core of the negotiations understood and what the legislature understood. . . .  When Weyand repeats for the umpteenth time that there will be no further negotiation between the UK and EU, to expect anything different is beyond stupidity. It dwells in the realms of insanity. What happens later today in the Commons, therefore, is a matter of supreme indifference. Whatever the outcome, all we will get is another day older and closer to Brexit day, whence Weyand asserts that there is a "very high risk" of crashing out, not by design but by accident. 
  • Conflicts of interest???- Dozens of MPs and peers, including some with vast inherited wealth, own or manage farms that collectively have received millions of pounds in European Union subsidies. More here.
  • Rachel Sylvester has written an excoriating article on the hapless Mrs May. See it below.
  • Irony that might be lost on Fart.
Social Media
  • Can there one anything more illustrative of the downside of the internet that the existence of 'rival royal fans' and online abuse of the main UK princesses?
  • Come to think of it, there probably are better examples . . . 
Finally . . 
  • Are all cleaners clumsy? I ask because this week - for possibly the 10th time - I had to glue the head back on this chess piece. Why always this one??
  • Apple tells me it's St. Valero's Feast day in Zaragoza today. Do I really need to know that?


Divisive May should take the Queen’s advice: Rachel Sylvester

The prime minister should give up on her moribund Brexit deal and listen to other politicians about the way forward

There are two styles of political leadership — consensual and conflictual — and despite the need to bring the country together Theresa May continues to fuel division. Instead of seeking “common ground”, as the Queen urged last week, the prime minister has insisted on cultivating her own tiny plot of land, thinking only of the Tory party and her political survival, rather than the national interest.

With her threat that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, she deepened divisions between Leavers and Remainers, and ignored the concerns of almost half the country in her pursuit of a Brexit that she thought would be pure enough to satisfy Conservative hardliners. But of course it wasn’t. “Theresa May has proved herself completely incapable of being a unifying leader,” says one Tory MP. “She’s not a leader who makes big arguments that bring people along. At every opportunity she has chosen division over the common ground. That’s why we are where we are.”

This is a question of character as well as of political strategy. When David Cameron failed to win a parliamentary majority in 2010 he made a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government. Had he stayed on as prime minister after the EU referendum in 2016, he might have been able to work with other parties to forge a softer Brexit deal. His successor lacked the imagination to start a constructive discussion, instead defining the referendum vote in her own narrow terms that alienated swathes of voters and MPs.

On her recent visit to London, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, suggested that the first-past-the-post electoral system made it harder for politicians to work together. In New Zealand, which has proportional representation, she said, “we are constantly negotiating, having dialogue and forming compromises with other parties.”

The right leader can rise above partisan political pressures. Several newspaper tributes to Paddy Ashdown, who died last month, carried a photograph from 1995 of the former Liberal Democrat leader laughing with Sir John Major and Tony Blair. Each man fought for what he believed in but they also embodied a more civilised era of politics. It is impossible to imagine Jeremy Corbyn sharing such a moment with Mrs May; he is as sectarian and closed as she is.

Instead of trying to build a “big tent” in which people with different shades of opinion can feel at home, the prime minister has zipped the canvas shut on a teepee that leaves large numbers out in the cold. Even loyal cabinet ministers are excluded from the inner circle by a leader who lacks the confidence to be honest with them. Those who are seen as rivals are ruthlessly undermined. Over Christmas, newspapers reported that Sajid Javid had been spotted on a luxury safari in South Africa. In fact, the home secretary had not yet arrived there and had spent the day visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in jail, so somebody in Whitehall must have leaked the information. His closest aides did not know his itinerary but for security reasons, Downing Street did. Divide and rule has always been Mrs May’s style, as she demonstrated during her own time at the Home Office, but there is an added toxicity if such a callous “them and us” attitude is applied to the already divisive issue of Europe.

Opposition MPs and trade union bosses, who should have been consulted last year when it was clear that the prime minister was struggling to get her Brexit deal through the Commons, were only invited to No 10 after the government suffered a humiliating defeat earlier this month. Although Mrs May promised to reach across party lines in an attempt to find a way forward, it took her less than 24 hours to rule out all the possible compromises. Her focus narrowed to winning over the European Research Group of right-wing Tory MPs; people like Mark Francois, who said after the German chief executive of Airbus warned about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit: “My father was a D-Day veteran, he never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son.”

One former minister says: “The truth is she’s got two confidence and supply agreements [to keep the government in power], one with the DUP and the other with the ERG . . . I have never seen a political party set out its stall so deliberately to exclude half the population [who voted Remain]. She has granted the Tory party its death wish.”

The prime minister has cynically tried to position her deal as the middle way between “no Brexit” and “no deal” — a classic piece of political triangulation which is deeply misleading. She wants to put those calling for a second referendum and those who want to crash out at opposite ends of the Leave-Remain continuum, with herself in the middle. But there is no symmetry between asking people to give their informed consent to leaving (which would only result in “no Brexit” if people voted to Remain) and pursuing a course of action with potentially catastrophic consequences for the economy and national security.

MPs who are trying to seize control of the parliamentary agenda to stop a no-deal Brexit are also accused by No 10 of trying to block Britain’s departure from the EU. They are doing nothing of the sort. When a cabinet minister is unable to rule out that Britain might impose martial law to prevent disorder, and the image of the country being projected abroad is of lorries driving round and round in circles in preparation for no deal, you have to ask who is the responsible grown-up — Yvette Cooper or Mrs May?

The prime minister wants her Brexit deal to be seen as the “common ground” on which everyone should gather but one former minister says she has pursued a scorched earth policy of trying to “toxify” everyone else’s position in order to shore up her own. The long-term consequences will be devastating whether or not Mrs May’s deal ever gets through: “because of the way she’s handled it we have got to a point where there’s no Brexit without betrayal.”

The Queen is right that this is a time for “respecting different points of view, coming together . . . never losing sight of the bigger picture”. There is no one who needs to listen to her advice more than the prime minister. As one Tory MP puts it: “The biggest impediment to finding the common ground is a leader who has no interest in unity.”

Monday, January 28, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 28.1.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.  
                                                                                     Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • It says here that the (unfathomable) crisis in Venezuela has set Spanish politics on fire. This is news to me, probably because I'm not a big fan of Spanish TV. In fact, I'm not even a fan at all.
  • I fear this might be something else I've previously cited. But no matter. I'm short of material. and it's a nice story.
  • Perhaps I knew this but had forgotten  . . . Thanks to a long article on prostitution in a local paper yesterday, I now know that a red-light district is known in Spain as un barrio chino - a Chinese quarter.
  • Which reminds me . . . The bit of waste land where I park my car before walking across the river to town had long been home to 2 wrecked cars which served as home for a couple of people. Or at least for a woman who might well have been running a business from one of them. But, arriving there last week, I saw the black car had been burnt out and the blue one no longer appeared to be a desirable residence:-
  • I wondered who'd set a match to the car - the neighbours, the couple themselves or even the police. I guess I'll never know. But I'm glad to see the back of them. I'm pretty sure it was the guy who relieved me of everything electrical in my car, after I'd left my (malfunctioning) window open. And who often begged for money whenever I arrived at the place. [You might recall that the Honda dealer quoted me €500 to replace the broken rocker switch in the door. I meant to see what the quotation would be in the UK but never got round to it. Probably because I suspected it would be even more. So, I still have to open the door every time I need to take a ticket or pay for a toll.]
  • Another change that took place during my 3.5 month absence was replacement of all the wooden walkways in the marshlands I cross every day on my way to said waste land. Nice but not before time:-
  • Still on local matters . . .  This is the 'gypsy end' of Pontevedra's Sunday flea market. The illegal bit. Where no one wears the badge that was introduced a year or three ago,  to stop this sort of thing. And where most of the traders don't bother with tables. This illegal selling had almost taken over the market when it was in Vegetables Square and, while the police do nothing about it, will surely continue to creep until it reaches the road at one end of this street:-

The UK and Brexit
  • Richard North here lays into one of the 'WTO Rules' advocates of No Brexit. As usual, he doesn't pull any punches. Good stuff. North might well be a good friend but I'd hate to have him as an enemy. 
  • As RN says: The claims about most world trade being done on WTO terms, and UK trade with countries outside the EU being done under WTO terms, are completely false. But the British public has yet to be told this by the MSM. Or even the 'neutral' BBC. Which must say something.
  • Some of the Brexit extremists/fanatics/cretins:-
  • Odd old word of the day:- Gaudy loop. "A ceremony in which the bride was called on to leap over a stool or rope or bench at the church porch or gate. It's now supposed to mean that she left all her pets and humours behind her. But originally have been intended as a test of virginity."
Finally . . .
  • Writing about winter in the UK, a columnist opines:- Our capricious island climate has the endearing quality of never being quite as grim when you are out in it as it looks from indoors. I guess I'd go along with that. And add that it's also true of a similar - possibly even wetter - winter season here in Galicia. Even when the clouds /mist prevent me seeing not only Pontevedra city across the river but also the end of my garden, 5 metres from my window.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 27.1.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
               Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • A UK paper has has listed Europe's best cities for food. Here's someone's idea of the Iberian entries. It looks like surface-scratching for the well-heeled to me:-
  1. Barcelona's impressive food scene covers all manner of Spanish cuisines. Head to the maritime district of Barceloneta if it's paella you're after, but if you want traditional Catalan dishes it's best to stick inland in Barri Gòtic or Gràcia where you'll find tiled dining rooms and plenty of pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato) and hearty fare. And of course, there are tapas everywhere – from downright classics on charming squares to modern versions at hip restaurants following in the footsteps of Ferran Adrià.
  2. The Lisbon food scene continues to boom. An influential wave of young local chefs have remained loyal to the culture of the Portuguese table whilst reimagining it afresh, drawing on the endless bounty from the sea and coastline, the mountains, plains and vineyards. International chefs, such as acclaimed Peruvian Diogo Muñoz, have arrived too, offering diversity on a previously almost uniquely Portuguese platform. But dining out here is not merely about fashion or trends – food is held in high regard by 'lisboetas' and eating out is a necessity rather than a luxury. Just make sure you book a table.
  3. Madrid has gone gourmet with a vengeance, but the best of the classic tapas bars are still packed to the rafters come dinner time. Begin a visit to the Spanish capital by sinking your teeth into roast suckling pig at the 'world's oldest restaurant' Botín, or share a plate of sizzling garlic prawns at Cabreira. Then embrace the modern at Bodega de los Secretos, or one of the many Michelin-starred hotspots, including Punto MX, the first Mexican restaurant in Europe to be awarded a star.
  4. In Sevilla, you can hop from one traditional tiled tapas bar to the next, trying out small plates of baby clams with artichokes, or wafer-thin slices of jamon ibérico. Alternatively, you can slide into a chic velvet booth and dine on elevated tapas: think crab tacos and tuna ceviche. Instead of sangria, an over-priced tourist cliché, order like a local and go for tinto de verano (red wine with soda water) – or else sample the sherry selection, available in most restaurants. Note that you often pay more at an outside table.
  5. The citizens of Porto like their food, so if you have an appetite you’ll never be short on company. Fish features heavily in the local diet, with salted bacalhau (cod) a particular favourite. Every visitor to the city needs to try a Francesinha at least once. This meat-based, cheese-soaked, beer-sauced sandwich will send your cholesterol levels off the richter scale, but it’s a Porto rite of passage. Cafés are ubiquitous and, for the most part, cheap. Despite Portugal’s colonial history, options for international cuisine are limited, but innovative local chefs, such as Pedro Barreiros, are making their mark.
  • Spaniards - inter alia - in the UK are suffering greatly, it seems. Let's hope things are clarified soon. Yesterday, by chance, I read that the worst psychological state humans can find themselves in is uncertainty. Which might well be right. Though I don't personally rate it worse than clinical depression.
  • The EU is not happy with how Spain still treats the small birds which have the misfortune to fly over it.
The EU 
  • Here's El País's positive take on the unity of the Union. The paper might well see it as more unified than Spain.
The EU and Brexit
  • Janet Daley, with an interesting point of view: There is, at 5 minutes to midnight, a glimmering of hope. The European Union might possibly, just maybe, conceivably be about to relent over the Irish backstop, which is the insuperable obstacle to reaching any sort of remotely acceptable agreement.  . . .  Brussels should be careful what it wishes for - resistance from Britain will be hell if it keeps us in - A Britain, imprisoned but unbowed, with its enraged population urging it on to give respectability and coherence to the resistance movement. The argument for “reforming” from within was lost long ago. Now there could be professionals to organise rebellion and systematic obstruction from within. Britain would have found its natural role in Europe. Message to Brussels: is that what you really want?
The UK and Brexit
  • Richard North today 1: My `Flexcit' plan is suddenly getting more media attention than its had for the last 2 years. In the Guardian Nick Cohen describes me, the advocate of Flexcit, as 'the most significant thinker in the Brexit movement', and has me warning that a sudden departure would wreck people's lives. I really didn't put it quite that way, although I suppose a certain amount of artistic licence could allow for that. I certainly did argue that the process of forty-plus years of political and economic integration could not be reversed in so short a period as 2 years. Click here if you want to know why a good start on the (flexible)Brexit front ended in 'craven political cowardice'. And what we have today. An 'empty idea' - perfect post-rational politics, where   millions can be persuaded that the impossible is possible.'
  • RN today 2: Cohen concludes that, for good or ill, you can guarantee that the arguments that affect us most are the ones that never make it on to evening news. In the case of Brexit Britain, that could not be more true. That 12-year struggle sought to shape the entire campaign, and its failure led directly to where we are today. . . .  While few people even realise that an epic battle was being fought - in the Brexit camp - it is a battle that will have to be re-fought before we are finally clear of the EU, with a lasting, stable relationship.
  • Me: So, thanks to stupidity, deliberate obfuscation, rank dishonesty and vaunting political ambition - not to mention 'unforgivable negligence by politicians and journalists' - there are now years of nasty negotiations to come. Unless there's a No Deal Brexit, of course. When things will be clear but even worse.
  • Political commentator, Adam Boulting: My money is still on May. The PM will take us out, on her terms, on March 29. On the island-of-Ireland border issue there are signs of a slight softening across the Channel. After a week of confused messages from Dublin and the EU, Europe’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, clarified that in the event of no deal, “we will have to find an operational way of carrying out checks and controls without putting back in place a border. . . . May could well be gone at the hands of a frazzled party by next Christmas card. More likely still we’ll be out — and out her way — with a little help from Jeremy Corbyn.
Social Media
  • If you use Whatsapp and shun Facebook, you should be very nervous right now. For, their messaging services are going to be merged with that of Instagram. Which can mean only one thing. Even less privacy than now. I guess I should try Apple's offering - iMessage. When I have my new Apple ID, of course.
  • Meanwhile: Thirty UK families have accused technology giants of abetting their children’s suicides in the wake of the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, as the Health Secretary told social media sites to take responsibility for their effect on young lives.
  • I've often wondered why Americans stick with the old English form of gotten for the modern British got. Now I know, having read this comment from an Irish politician. Ninety-two per cent of Irish people last year said they wanted Ireland to remain part of the EU and, in fact, since Brexit that figure has gotten only bigger. As with 'bring' and 'take'. For example: US and Irish: Will you bring that to your mother in the next room. Brit: Will you take . . .
Finally . .
  •  A cartoon I've laughed at this week:-

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 26.1.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
                                                                                          Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

  • Check here on how many Spanish landmarks you recognise.
  • Having discovered that sprouts can actually be tasty, I'll now have to have a go at calçots. Suddenly everyone's talking about them. Here and here. Ironically, my German friend tried to convince me in November these were spring onions. I wondered about that.
  • Talking of Spanish food . . .  Did I already post this about morcilla? A second bite?
  • More on Spanish village buying here. Are you listening, Gwyneth?
The UK and Brexit
  • There's an interesting article below on where 'liberalism' (incidentally, a term coined in Spain c. 1832) has taken democracy. And what this has meant for the Brexit process. It does a very good job of encapsulating my overview and why I've been prepared to take an economic hit. Though not, of course, as one as large as that which the Brexit fanatics would deliver.
  • Fully  83% of respondents to a poll agreed that: “The entire political establishment has failed the country”. Who can be surprised at that number. Well, those who think it's low, I guess.
  • So, the great deal maker has caved in. And to a woman! He must be as sick as the proverbial.
The World
  • The chaos in Venezuela is hard to believe. I wonder if Jeremy Corbyn and his like-minded colleagues will come to regret his praise for the 'socialist' economic strategies of Chaves and Maduro. Come the next general election, I imagine the Tories will be seeking to ensure they do. And I, for one, look forward to hearing the responses, if any, of JC et al.
  • Odd old word of the day:- 'Man of straw': 1. "A person in trade for whom insolvency is imputed". 2. "A person whose witness statements could be bought, identifiable by straw in their shoes."
Finally . . 
  • I used to belong to 3 local societies - The Pontevedra English Speaking Society, the George Borrow Society and the Pontevedra Filharmonic Society. The first 2 have recently closed and I suspended my membership of the latter when I went away in October. Leaving my life less full. Time for a move?
  • You know you're ageing when the young professionals you've dealt with for 18 years tell you they're about to retire . . .
  • Another sign - (Half)watching the Arsenal-Manchester United match last night, I realised I only recognised 2 or 3 names of the millionaires on display.
  • But . . . A propos  . . . Matthew Parris: "The joy of ageing is not caring what you say." I'll say!

Why the battle for Brexit is now a fight to save Western democracy: Sherelle Jacobs

This time we really are witnessing the "end of history"

Western democracy is officially screwed. That is the conclusion that I came to this week speaking with campaigners at a London People’s Vote protest. The thought process of this band of dedicated Remainers deeply concerned me - and not just because they seemed to think cycling lycra and flimsy EU-starred berets was suitable activism gear in freezing January temperatures.

"One day I hope that we will have some kind of AI technology that will scan people’s brains in the ballot box," Mark, an accountant from Nottingham, told me when I asked him for his opinion on participative democracy. "We need machines that can evaluate the logic of individual voting decisions. If the reasons aren’t coherent and rational, they will be declared null and void."

Mark, who almost voted Leave until his father, an economist "laughed at his folly" was of the opinion that important decisions should be "left to experts". He kept coming back to one wretchedly helpless phrase: "I’m educated on paper, but in this complex world, I feel like I know nothing at all." Another protester, Roger, a retired teacher from Kent, insisted that "MPs should rise above not pander to we the public."

Mark and Roger were two well-read, engaging and eloquent, down-to-earth individuals.  Clearly they didn't think that Leave voters were stupid to vote - in fact they were eager to emphasise how much they "sympathised" with Brexiteers. They had thoughtful answers when I asked them for their thoughts on various aspects of the Brexit crisis. For example, when I asked Roger how he felt about Leave voters saying they would boycott a second vote he said they shouldn't: "When people don't vote, their giving their voice away to people who do", he said.

But overall both men seemed to be rather ambivalent about democracy. Both seemed to believe that big, fundamental decisions - like the direction of travel of the nation - should be delegated to “the experts”.

I personally find this a little disturbing. Are we sleepwalking into the "end of history", to borrow Francis Fukuyama’s phrase? What I mean by this is is the slow triumph of an autocratic, machinic strain of liberalism over rival political systems, including authentic democracy.

Modernity is proving a powerful catalyst. Our overwhelming, interconnected world has prompted a desire to delegate decision-making to the state even though it is generally hopeless at large-scale ventures. And it has given rise to the curious idea that the big questions can only be solved by “experts” even though their narrow and deep knowledge bases are completely inadequate for constructing a world with meaning and direction. Experts can treat depression with medicine, but they cannot give us a reason to get out of bed. They can try and predict the impact on the economy of a no-deal Brexit, but they cannot calculate the value of sovereignty to a nation's sense of purpose and self-confidence.

But the Brexit controversy also has thick roots in our history. It is the culmination of a centuries-old rivalry between two Western philosophies, liberalism and democracy. Tensions between the two have long run deep. Plato and Socrates, the grandfathers of liberalism, disdained the idea of mob rule. Enlightenment movements were antipathetic. Until well into the 19th century, it was not decorous to call oneself a democrat. The extension of suffrage in Britain was advocated by many as a "safety valve" lest the mob revolted, rather than as a mechanism to empower and engage citizens.

Liberalism may be nobly rooted in commitment to jurisprudence and the critical assessment of knowledge, but this has regrettably given rise to controlling approaches to governing, which seek to neutralise or correct irrational forces, such as democratic votes. In its quest to rationalise the “irrational”, Liberalism has fallen into the same trap as communism. Not just because things like the universe and human nature are too complex to fully grasp and administer, but because “rational”, as defined by elites inevitably boils down to self-serving preservation of the status quo.

Corporate rackets and bloated transnational bureaucracies varnished with vapid slogans about universalism and worlds without borders are apparently "rational". Exploitative low-wage mass immigration is apparently "rational".

A multicultural, relativist society where contradictory views are equally tolerated, and thus equally trivialised is apparently "rational". (The latter in particular is a clever ruse. By constructing a world in which an unmade bed is as much art as a Rembrandt, and we must allow ghastly treatment of women in particular communities out of respect for "culture", liberal elite "rationalism" cements its status as the only neutral, unbiased intellectual force in town.)

And of course, silencing the people, who had the audacity to vote for forces as nebulous as "change" and "sovereignty" is also "rational".

When Brexit is inevitably now stopped by MPs who never wanted it in the first place, we could be left with a society split into two categories: those who are disillusioned with democracy and those who, having been taken in by liberalist orthodoxy, don't believe in it.

I have spoken to Leavers who have been active in politics all of their lives but say they will "never vote again" if Brexit does not happen. Dozens have told me they would boycott a second referendum and never vote for the Conservatives again.

It is tempting to say "to hell with it" and withdraw. But those of us who believe in democracy must do the very opposite. Last week, a small business owner who works seven days a week and has never demonstrated in their life  told me that they would take a day off once a week to protest if the first referendum is not honoured. Peaceful civil disobedience could happen on a mass scale. And the Leave campaign scene is crackling with rumours about a new populist party that would wipe the floor with the incumbents.

This kind of grassroots energy and renewal is surely the way forward. Liberalism sprang from the human instinct for freedom from the unjustifiable limitations of society. But it has flipped on its head into a project that seeks to free society from the unjustifiable limitations of humanity.  The success of the latter would spell the end of democracy. We must not let the system win.

2. Is Big Tech Merging With Big Brother? Kinda Looks Like It

A friend of mine, who runs a large television production company in the car-mad city of Los Angeles, recently noticed that his intern, an aspiring filmmaker from the People’s Republic of China, was walking to work.

When he offered to arrange a swifter mode of transportation, she declined. When he asked why, she explained that she “needed the steps” on her Fitbit to sign in to her social media accounts. If she fell below the right number of steps, it would lower her health and fitness rating, which is part of her social rating, which is monitored by the government. A low social rating could prevent her from working or traveling abroad.

China’s social rating system, which was announced by the ruling Communist Party in 2014, will soon be a fact of life for many more Chinese.

By 2020, if the Party’s plan holds, every footstep, keystroke, like, dislike, social media contact, and posting tracked by the state will affect one’s social rating.

Personal “creditworthiness” or “trustworthiness” points will be used to reward and punish individuals and companies by granting or denying them access to public services like health care, travel, and employment, according to a plan released last year by the municipal government of Beijing. High-scoring individuals will find themselves in a “green channel,” where they can more easily access social opportunities, while those who take actions that are disapproved of by the state will be “unable to move a step.”

Big Brother is an emerging reality in China. Yet in the West, at least, the threat of government surveillance systems being integrated with the existing corporate surveillance capacities of big-data companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon into one gigantic all-seeing eye appears to trouble very few people—even as countries like Venezuela have been quick to copy the Chinese model.

Still, it can’t happen here, right? We are iPhone owners and Amazon Prime members, not vassals of a one-party state. We are canny consumers who know that Facebook is tracking our interactions and Google is selling us stuff.

Yet it seems to me there is little reason to imagine that the people who run large technology companies have any vested interest in allowing pre-digital folkways to interfere with their 21st-century engineering and business models, any more than 19th-century robber barons showed any particular regard for laws or people that got in the way of their railroads and steel trusts.

Nor is there much reason to imagine that the technologists who run our giant consumer-data monopolies have any better idea of the future they're building than the rest of us do.

Facebook, Google, and other big-data monopolists already hoover up behavioral markers and cues on a scale and with a frequency that few of us understand. They then analyze, package, and sell that data to their partners.

A glimpse into the inner workings of the global trade in personal data was provided in early December in a 250-page report released by a British parliamentary committee that included hundreds of emails between high-level Facebook executives. Among other things, it showed how the company engineered sneaky ways to obtain continually updated SMS and call data from Android phones. In response, Facebook claimed that users must "opt-in" for the company to gain access to their texts and calls.

The machines and systems that the techno-monopolists have built are changing us faster than they or we understand. The scale of this change is so vast and systemic that we simple humans can’t do the math—perhaps in part because of the way that incessant smartphone use has affected our ability to pay attention to anything longer than 140 or 280 characters.

As the idea of a “right to privacy,” for example, starts to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the face of ever-more-invasive data systems—whose eyes and ears, i.e., our smartphones, follow us everywhere—so has our belief that other individual rights, like freedom of speech, are somehow sacred.

Being wired together with billions of other humans in vast networks mediated by thinking machines is not an experience that humans have enjoyed before. The best guides we have to this emerging reality may be failed 20th-century totalitarian experiments and science fiction. More on that a little later.

The speed at which individual-rights-and-privacy-based social arrangements collapse is likely to depend on how fast Big Tech and the American national security apparatus consummate a relationship that has been growing ever closer for the past decade. While US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—as far as we know, anyway—there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.

These troubling trends are accelerating in part because Big Tech is increasingly beholden to Washington, which has little incentive to kill the golden goose that is filling its tax and political coffers. One of the leading corporate spenders on lobbying services in Washington, DC, in 2017 was Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent more than $18 million. Lobbying Congress and government helps tech companies like Google win large government contracts. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as a shield against attempts to regulate their wildly lucrative businesses.

If anything, measuring the flood of tech dollars pouring into Washington, DC, law firms, lobbying outfits, and think tanks radically understates Big Tech’s influence inside the Beltway. By buying The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos took direct control of Washington’s hometown newspaper. In locating one of Amazon’s two new headquarters in nearby Northern Virginia, Bezos made the company a major employer in the area—with 25,000 jobs to offer.

Who will get those jobs? Last year, Amazon Web Services announced the opening of the new AWS Secret Region, the result of a 10-year, $600 million contract the company won from the CIA in 2014. This made Amazon the sole provider of cloud services across “the full range of data classifications, including Unclassified, Sensitive, Secret, and Top Secret,” according to an Amazon corporate press release.

Once the CIA’s Amazon-administered self-contained servers were up and running, the NSA was quick to follow suit, announcing its own integrated big-data project. Last year the agency moved most of its data into a new classified computing environment known as the Intelligence Community GovCloud, an integrated “big data fusion environment,” as the news site NextGov described it, that allows government analysts to “connect the dots” across all available data sources, whether classified or not.

The creation of IC GovCloud should send a chill up the spine of anyone who understands how powerful these systems can be and how inherently resistant they are to traditional forms of oversight, whose own track record can be charitably described as poor.

Amazon’s IC GovCloud was quickly countered by Microsoft’s secure version of its Azure Government cloud service, tailored for the use of 17 US intelligence agencies. Amazon and Microsoft are both expected to be major bidders for the Pentagon’s secure cloud system, the Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative—JEDI—a winner-take-all contract that will likely be worth at least $10 billion.

With so many pots of gold waiting at the end of the Washington, DC, rainbow, it seems like a small matter for tech companies to turn over our personal data—which legally speaking, is actually their data—to the spy agencies that guarantee their profits. This is the threat that is now emerging in plain sight. It is something we should reckon with now, before it’s too late.

In fact, big tech and the surveillance agencies are already partners. According to a 2016 report by Reuters, Yahoo designed custom software to filter its users’ emails and deliver messages that triggered a set of search terms to the NSA.

The company’s security chief quit in protest when he learned of the program. “Yahoo is a law-abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said in a statement, which notably did not deny the activity, while perhaps implying that turning over user data to government spy agencies is legal.

While Google has stated that it will not provide private data to government agencies, that policy does not extend beyond America’s borders. At the same time as Yahoo was feeding user data to the NSA, Google was developing a search engine called Dragonfly in collaboration with the Communist Party of China. In a letter obtained by The Intercept, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a group of six US senators that Dragonfly could have “broad benefits inside and outside of China” but refused to release other details of the program, which the company’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, informed Google staff would be released in early 2019.

According to the documents obtained by The Intercept, Dragonfly would restrict access to broad categories of information, banning phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize” while linking online searches to a user’s phone number and tracking their physical location and movements, all of which will presumably impact social ratings or worse—much worse, if you happen to be a Uighur or a member of another Muslim minority group inside China, more than 1 million of whom are now confined in re-education camps. China’s digital surveillance net is a key tool by which Chinese authorities identify and track Muslims and others in need of re-education.

Google is also actively working with the US intelligence and defense complex to integrate its AI capacities into weapons programs. At the same time as Google was sending its letter about Dragonfly to Congress, the company was completing an agreement with the Pentagon to pursue Project Maven, which seeks to incorporate elements of AI into weaponized drones—a contract that is expected to be worth at least $250 million a year. Under pressure from its employees, Google said in June that it would not seek to renew its Project Maven contract when it expires in 2019.)

It doesn’t take a particularly paranoid mind to imagine what future big-ticket collaborations between big-data companies and government surveillance agencies might look like, or to be frightened of where they might lead. “Our own information—from the everyday to the deeply personal—is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Apple chairman Tim Cook during his keynote speech to the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels. “Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

Cook didn’t hesitate to name the process he was describing. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences,” he said. “This is surveillance.”

While Apple makes a point of not unlocking its iPhones and SmartWatches even under pressure from law enforcement and surveillance agencies, companies like Google and Facebook that earn huge profits from analyzing and packaging user data face a very different set of incentives.

Amazon, which both collects and analyzes consumer data and sells a wide range of consumer home devices with microphones and cameras in them, may present surveillance agencies with especially tempting opportunities to repurpose their existing microphones, cameras, and data.

The company has already come under legal pressure from judges who have ordered it to turn over recordings from Echo devices that were apparently made without their users' knowledge. According to a search warrant issued by a judge trying a double-murder case in New Hampshire, and obtained by TechCrunch, the court had “probable cause to believe” that an Echo Fire picked “audio recordings capturing the attack” as well as “events that preceded or succeeded the attack.” Amazon told the Associated Press that it would not release such recordings “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” a response that would appear to suggest that the recordings in question exist.

Under what, if any, conditions Amazon would allow government spy agencies to access consumer data or use the company’s vast network of microphones and cameras as a surveillance network are questions that remain to be answered. Yet as Washington keeps buying expensive tools and systems from companies like Google and Amazon, it is hard to imagine that technologists on both ends of these relationship aren’t already seeking ways to further integrate their tools, systems, and data.

The flip side of that paranoid vision of an evolving American surveillance state is the dream that the new systems of analyzing and distributing information may be forces for good, not evil. What if Google helped the CIA develop a system that helped filter out fake news, say, or a new Facebook algorithm helped the FBI identify potential school shooters before they massacred their classmates? If human beings are rational calculating engines, won’t filtering the information we receive lead to better decisions and make us better people?

Such fond hopes have a long history. Progressive techno-optimism goes back to the origins of the computer itself, in the correspondence between Charles Babbage, the 19th-century English inventor who imagined the “difference engine”—the first theoretical model for modern computers—and Ada Lovelace, the brilliant futurist and daughter of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron.

“The Analytical Engine,” Lovelace wrote, in one of her notes on Babbage’s work, “might act upon other things besides number, where objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

This is a pretty good description of the principles of digitizing sound; it also eerily prefigures and predicts the extent to which so much of our personal information, even stuff we perceive of as having distinct natural properties, could be converted to zeros and ones.

The Victorian techno-optimists who first envisioned the digital landscape we now inhabit imagined that thinking machines would be a force for harmony, rather than evil, capable of creating beautiful music and finding expressions for “fundamental relations” of any kind according to a strictly mathematical calculus.

The idea that social engineering could help produce a more efficient and equitable society was echoed by early 20th-century American progressives. Unlike 19th- and early 20th-century European socialists, who championed the organic strength of local communities, early 20th-century American progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey put their faith in the rise of a new class of educated scientist-priests who would re-engineer society from the top down according to a strict utilitarian calculus.

The lineage of these progressives—who are not identical with the “progressive” faction of today’s Democratic Party—runs from Woodrow Wilson to champions of New Deal bureaucracy like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes. The 2008 election of Barack Obama, a well-credentialed technocrat who identified very strongly with the character of Spock from Star Trek, gave the old-time scientistic-progressive religion new currency on the left and ushered in a cozy relationship between the Democratic Party and billionaire techno-monopolists who had formerly fashioned themselves as government-skeptical libertarians.

“Amazon does great things for huge amounts of people,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told Kara Swisher of Recode in a recent interview, in which he also made approving pronouncements about Facebook and Google. “I go to my small tech companies and say, ‘How does Google treat you in New York?’ A lot of them say, ‘Much more fairly than we would have thought.’”

Big Tech companies and executives are happy to return the favor by donating to their progressive friends, including Schumer.

But the cozy relationship between mainstream Democrats and Silicon Valley hit a large-sized bump in November 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton—in part through his mastery of social media platforms like Twitter. Blaming the election result on Russian bots or secret deals with Putin betrayed a shock that what the left had regarded as their cultural property had been turned against them by a right-wing populist whose authoritarian leanings inspired fear and loathing among both the technocratic elite and the Democratic party base.

Yet in the right hands, progressives continued to muse, information monopolies might be powerful tools for re-wiring societies malformed by racism, sexism, and transphobia. Thinking machines can be taught to filter out bad information and socially negative thoughts. Good algorithms, as opposed to whatever Google and Facebook are currently using, could censor neo-Nazis, purveyors of hate speech, Russian bots, and transphobes while discouraging voters from electing more Trumps.

The crowdsourced wisdom of platforms like Twitter, powered by circles of mutually credentialing blue-checked “experts,” might mobilize a collective will to justice, which could then be enforced on retrograde institutions and individuals. The result might be a better social order, or as data scientist Emily Gorcenski put it, “revolution.”

The dream of centralized control over monopolistic information providers can be put to more prosaic political uses, too—or so politicians confronted by a fractured and tumultuous digital media landscape must hope. In advance of next year’s elections for the European Parliament, which will take place in May, French President Emmanuel Macron signed a deal with Facebook in which officials of his government will meet regularly with Facebook executives to police “hate speech.”

The program, which will continue through the May elections, apparently did little to discourage fuel riots by the "gilets jaunes," which have set Paris and other French cities ablaze, even as a claim that a change in Facebook's local news algorithm was responsible for the rioting was quickly picked up by French media figures close to Macron.

At root, the utopian vision of AI-powered information monopolies programmed to advance the cause of social justice makes sense only when you imagine that humans and machines “think” in similar ways. Whether machines can “think,” or—to put it another way, whether people think like machines—is a question that has been hotly debated for the past five centuries. Those debates gave birth to modern liberal societies, whose foundational assumptions and guarantees are now being challenged by the rise of digital culture.

To recap some of that history: In the 17th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz amused himself with thinking about the nature of thinking. His most eloquent modern American popularizer, the UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle, asked Leibnitz’s essential question like this:

Imagine you taught a machine to speak Chinese and you locked it in a room with a man who did not speak Chinese. Then you had the machine produce cards with Chinese words and sentences on them, and the man took the cards and slid them out of the room through a slot. Can we say, Searle asks, that there’s anyone or anything in the room that understands Chinese?

If you believe, like Searle and Leibnitz, that the answer is no, you understand thinking as a subjective experience, a biological process performed by human brains, which are located in human bodies. By definition, then, the human brain is not a machine, and machines can’t think, even if they can perform computational feats like multiplying large numbers at blinding speeds.

Alan Turing gave an elegant answer to the Leibnitz/Searle question when he said that the only true mark of consciousness is the ability to think about oneself. Since you can build machines that fix their own problems—debug themselves—these machines are innately self-aware, and therefore there’s nothing stopping them from evolving until they reach HAL-like proportions.

What does the history of thinking about thinking have to do with dreams of digitally mediated social justice? For Thomas Hobbes, who inspired the social-contract theorist John Locke, thinking was “nothing more than reckoning,” meaning mathematical calculation. David Hume, who extended Hobbes’ ideas in his own theory of reason, believed that all of our observations and perceptions were nothing more than atomic-level “impressions” that we couldn’t possibly make sense of unless we interpreted them based on a utilitarian understanding of our needs, meaning the attempt to derive the greatest benefit from a given operation.

If, following Locke and Hume, human beings think like machines, then machines can think like human beings, only better. A social order monitored and regulated by machines that have been programmed to be free of human prejudice while optimizing a utilitarian calculus is therefore a plausible-enough way to imagine a good society. Justice-seeking machines would be the better angels of our nature, helping to bend the arc of history toward results that all human beings, in their purest, most rational state, would, or should, desire.

The origin of the utilitarian social calculus and its foundational account of thinking as a form of computation is social contract theory. Not coincidentally, these accounts evolved during the last time western societies were massively impacted by a revolution in communications technology, namely the introduction of the printing press, which brought both the text of the Bible and the writings of small circles of Italian and German humanists to all of Europe. The spread of printing technologies was accompanied by the proliferation of the simple hand mirror, which allowed even ordinary individuals to gaze at a “true reflection” of their own faces, in much the same way that we use iPhones to take selfies.

Nearly every area of human imagination and endeavor—from science to literature to painting and sculpture to architecture—was radically transformed by the double-meteor-like impact of the printing press and the hand mirror, which together helped give rise to scientific discoveries, great works of art, and new political ideas that continue to shape the way we think, live, and work.

The printing press fractured the monopoly on worldly and spiritual knowledge long held by the Roman Catholic Church, bringing the discoveries of Erasmus and the polemics of Martin Luther to a broad audience and fueling the Protestant Reformation, which held that ordinary believers—individuals, who could read their own Bibles and see their own faces in their own mirrors—might have unmediated contact with God. What was once the province of the few became available to the many, and the old social order that had governed the lives of Europe for the better part of a millennium was largely demolished.

In England, the broad diffusion of printing presses and mirrors led to the bloody and ultimately failed anti-monarchical revolution led by Oliver Cromwell. The Thirty Years’ War, fought between Catholic and Protestant believers and hired armies in Central and Eastern Europe, remains the single most destructive conflict, on a per capita basis, in European history, including the First and Second World Wars.

The information revolution spurred by the advent of digital technologies may turn out to be even more powerful than the Gutenberg revolution; it is also likely to be bloody. Our inability to wrap our minds around a sweeping revolution in the way that information is gathered, analyzed, used, and controlled should scare us. It is in this context that both right- and left-leaning factions of the American elite appear to accept the merger of the US military and intelligence complex with Big Tech as a good thing, even as centralized control over information creates new vulnerabilities for rivals to exploit.

The attempt to subject the American information space to some form of top-down, public-private control was in turn made possible—and perhaps, in the minds of many on both the right and the left, necessary—by the collapse of the 20th-century American institutional press. Only two decades ago, the social and political power of the institutional press was still so great that it was often called “the Fourth Estate”—a meaningful check on the power of government. The term is rarely used anymore, because the monopoly over the printed and spoken word that gave the press its power is now gone.

Why? Because in an age in which every smartphone user has a printing press in their pocket, there is little premium in owning an actual, physical printing press. As a result, the value of “legacy” print brands has plummeted. Where the printed word was once a rare commodity, relative to the sum total of all the words that were written in manuscript form by someone, today nearly all the words that are being written anywhere are available somewhere online. What’s rare, and therefore worth money, are not printed words but fractions of our attention.

The American media market today is dominated by Google and Facebook, large platforms that together control the attention of readers and therefore the lion’s share of online advertising. That’s why Facebook, probably the world’s premier publisher of fake news, was recently worth $426 billion, and Newsweekchanged hands in 2010 for $1, and why many once-familiar magazine titles no longer exist in print at all.

The operative, functional difference between today’s media and the American media of two decades ago is not the difference between old-school New York Times reporters and new-media bloggers who churn out opinionated “takes” from their desks. It is the difference between all of those media people, old and new, and programmers and executives at companies like Google and Facebook. A set of key social functions—communicating ideas and information—has been transferred from one set of companies, operating under one set of laws and values, to another, much more powerful set of companies, which operate under different laws and understand themselves in a different way.

According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, information service providers are protected from expensive libel lawsuits and other forms of risk that publishers face. Those protections allowed Google and Facebook to build their businesses at the expense of “old media” publishers, which in turn now find it increasingly difficult to pay for original reporting and writing.

The media once actively promoted and amplified stories that a plurality or majority of Americans could regard as “true.” That has now been replaced by the creation and amplification of extremes. The overwhelming ugliness of our public discourse is not accidental; it is a feature of the game, which is structured and run for the profit of billionaire monopolists, and which encourages addictive use.

The result has been the creation of a socially toxic vacuum at the heart of American democracy, from which information monopolists like Google and Facebook have sucked out all the profit, leaving their users ripe for top-down surveillance, manipulation, and control.

Today, the printing press and the mirror have combined in the iPhone and other personal devices, which are networked together. Ten years from now, thanks to AI, those networks, and the entities that control them—government agencies, private corporations, or a union of both—may take on a life of their own. Perhaps the best way to foresee how this future may play out is to look back at how some of our most far-sighted science fiction writers have wrestled with the future that is now in front of us.

The idea of intelligent machines rising to compete with the human beings who built them was seldom considered until Samuel Butler’s Erewohn, which was published in 1872. Riffing on Darwin, Butler proposed that if the species can evolve to the detriment of the weak, so could machines, until they would eventually become self-sufficient. Since then, science fiction has provided us with our best guides to what human societies mediated or run by intelligent machines might look like.

How precisely the machines might take over was first proposed by Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the 1921 play that gave us the term robot. Interestingly, Capek’s automatons aren’t machines: They emerge from the discovery of a new kind of bio-matter that differs from our own in that it doesn’t mind abuse or harbor independent desires. In the play, the humans are degenerates who stop procreating and succumb to their most selfish and strange whims—while the robots remain unerring in their calculations and indefatigable in their commitment to work. The machines soon take over, killing all humans except for a single engineer who happens to work and think like a robot.

In the play’s third act, the engineer, ordered by the robots to dissect other robots in order to make them even better, is about to take the knife to two robots, a male and a female, who have fallen in love. They each beg for the other’s life, leading the engineer to understand that they have become human; he spares them, declaring them the new Adam and Eve. This soulful theme of self-awareness being the true measure of humanity was taken up by dozens of later science fiction authors, most notably Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the film Blade Runner.

Yet even classic 20th-century dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldor George Orwell’s 1984 tell us little about the dangers posed to free societies by the fusion of big data, social networks, consumer surveillance, and AI.

Perhaps we are reading the wrong books. Instead of going back to Orwell for a sense of what a coming dystopia might look like, we might be better off reading We, which was written nearly a century ago by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin. We is the diary of state mathematician D-503, whose experience of the highly disruptive emotion of love for I-330, a woman whose combination of black eyes, white skin, and black hair strike him as beautiful. This perception, which is also a feeling, draws him into a conspiracy against the centralized surveillance state.

The Only State, where We takes places, is ruled by a highly advanced mathematics of happiness, administered by a combination of programmers and machines. While love has been eliminated from the Only State as inherently discriminatory and unjust, sex has not. According to the Lex Sexualis, the government sex code, “Each number has a right towards every other number as a sex object.” Citizens, or numbers, are issued ration books of pink sex tickets. Once both numbers sign the ticket, they are permitted to spend a “sex hour” together and lower the shades in their glass apartments.

Zamyatin was prescient in imagining the operation and also the underlying moral and intellectual foundations of an advanced modern surveillance state run by engineers. And if 1984 explored the opposition between happiness and freedom, Zamyatin introduced a third term into the equation, which he believed to be more revolutionary and also more inherently human: beauty. The subjective human perception of beauty, Zamyatin argued, along lines that Liebniz and Searle might approve of, is innately human, and therefore not ultimately reconcilable with the logic of machines or with any utilitarian calculus of justice.

In We, the rule of utilitarian happiness is embodied in the Integral, a giant computing machine/spaceship that will “force into the yoke of reason other unknown beings that inhabit other planets, perhaps still in a wild state of freedom.” By eliminating freedom and all causes of inequality and envy, the Only State claims to guarantee infinite happiness to humankind—through a perfect calculus that the Integral will spread throughout the solar system.

In reality, sexual relationships are a locus of envy and inequality in the Only State, where power rests in the hands of an invisible elite that has removed itself somewhere beyond the clouds. But the real threat to the ideal of happiness incarnated in the Integral is not inequality or envy or hidden power. It is beauty, which isn’t rational or equal, and at the same time doesn’t exclude anyone or restrict anyone else’s pleasure, and therefore frustrates and undermines any utilitarian calculus. For D-503, dance is beautiful, mathematics is beautiful, the contrast between I-330’s black eyes and black hair and white skin is also beautiful. Beauty is the answer to D-503’s urgent question, “What is there beyond?”

Beauty is the ultimate example of human un-freedom and un-reason, being a subjectivity that is rooted in our biology, yet at the same time rooted in external absolutes like mathematical ratios and the movement of time. As the critic Giovanni Basile writes in an extraordinarily perceptive critical essay, “The Algebra of Happiness,” the utopia implied by Zamyatin’s dystopia is “a world in which happiness is intertwined with a natural un-freedom that nobody imposes on anyone else: a different freedom from the one with which the Great Inquisitor protects mankind: a paradoxical freedom in which there is no ‘power’ if not in the nature of things, in music, in dance and in the harmony of mathematics.”

Against a centralized surveillance state that imposes a motionless and false order and an illusory happiness in the name of a utilitarian calculus of “justice,” Basile concludes, Zamyatin envisages a different utopia: “In fact, only within the ‘here and now’ of beauty may the equation of happiness be considered fully verified.” Human beings will never stop seeking beauty, Zamyatin insists, because they are human. They will reject and destroy any attempt to reorder their desires according to the logic of machines.

A national or global surveillance network that uses beneficent algorithms to reshape human thoughts and actions in ways that elites believe to be just or beneficial to all mankind is hardly the road to a new Eden. It’s the road to a prison camp. The question now—as in previous such moments—is how long it will take before we admit that the riddle of human existence is not the answer to an equation. It is something that we must each make for ourselves, continually, out of our own materials, in moments whose permanence is only a dream.