October 23, 2019
“Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” – Jean Piaget
“Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.” – B.F. Skinner
As Far Back As I Can Remember, I Always Wanted To Be An Autocrat
A lot’s been written about President Trump’s overarching proclivity to bond with tough guys and dictators. In the administration’s early days, some level-headed people were available to thwart most of the president’s worst instincts — like believing foreign autocrats over US intelligence and national security advisers.
One danger White House and State Department officials held at bay was an official visit from Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban. They had two major concerns: (1) it would legitimize a leader often ostracized in Europe for undercutting his own country’s democratic institutions; and (2) the probability that Orban could wield substantial influence over Trump.
By early 2019 those level-headed stopgaps were gone, and Mick Mulvaney — someone sympathetic to Orban’s hard-right views and skepticism of European institutions — was acting White House chief of staff. Trump called Putin to ask about Volodymyr Zelensky after he won the presidential election in Ukraine in April. A former official familiar with the conversation described Putin as doing “what he always does” — demonizing Ukraine.
Nine days later Orban made that worrisome trip to the White House. The visit began with an hour-long meeting between Trump and Orban, sans note-takers. Mulvaney was instrumental in making the visit happen; he also facilitated Trump’s direction to other diplomats, including US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, to work with Rudy Giuliani on Trump’s Ukraine agenda.
Then came the infamous July 25 phone call Trump made to Zelensky, which triggered an extraordinary whistleblower complaint that in turn triggered a House impeachment inquiry. Putin’s and Orban’s outsized roles in shaping Trump’s impression of Ukraine were described to impeachment investigators in closed-door testimony last week by George Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state.
- US envoy says Trump used military aid to push Ukraine to investigate Biden: Ambassador Bill Taylor’s testimony met with ‘sighs and gasps’ (Guardian)
- 4th Defendant Arrested In Alleged Campaign Contribution Scheme Linked To Giuliani (NPR)
- Democrats Slow Impeachment Timeline to Sharpen Their Public Case House: Democrats, once eyeing an impeachment vote by Thanksgiving, now conceded they may have to go slower as they plan public hearings to drive home their case. (NYT, $)
- Cracks in the firewall: Republicans’ support for Trump begins to falter: They’ve backed him through scandal after scandal. But concerns over Ukraine, Syria and the G7 summit are proving too much for some (Guardian)
Kurdish Leader Executed
- As recently as October 3, State Department officials had met with and reassured Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf that Washington would safeguard northern Syria from a threatened Turkish assault by mediating between Kurdish-led forces and Ankara. Khalaf had helped form the Future Syria Party in 2018, supporting democracy for Syria and aiming to attract members from across the ethnic spectrum.
- But on October 7 President Trump abruptly ordered US troops to begin withdrawing from a section of the border, and shortly afterwards Turkish troops mounted their third incursion into northern Syria since 2016.
- On October 12, Khalaf, her driver and an aide were pulled from their SUV and executed by Turkish-backed rebels. To Khalaf’s colleagues in the Future Syria Party and Kurdish communities in Syria’s northeast more broadly, her killing has become a key symbol of their profound betrayal by the United States. (Reuters)
- Putin and Erdogan Announce Plan for Northeast Syria, Bolstering Russian Influence (NYT, $)
Water Water Everywhere And Not A Drop To Drink…Unless…
- Saudi Arabia is one of the most water-starved nations on earth. Desalinated seawater is its lifeblood, providing about half the fresh water supply for this country of 33 million people. Worldwide, desalination is increasingly seen as one possible solution to problems of water quantity and quality that will worsen with global population growth and extreme heat and prolonged drought linked to climate change.
- Currently, desalination is primarily limited to affluent countries — those with ample fossil fuels and access to seawater. And while it might be the solution for one big problem, the environmental costs of desalination are high: there’s emissions of greenhouse gases from the large amount of energy used, and how best to dispose of the brine, the extremely salty remains that are laced with toxic treatment chemicals. (NYT)
Privacy Is Not Made In China
- Under President Xi Jinping’s watchful eye, China’s state-sponsored hackers have become much more selective in their surveillance techniques and targets. The government has poured huge amounts of resources into the change, which is part of a reorganization of the national People’s Liberation Army that Xi initiated in 2016.
- Since that time China’s hackers have built up a new arsenal of techniques, like elaborate hacks of iPhone and Android software. These more sophisticated attacks primarily target China’s ethnic minorities and their emigres in other countries.
- Xinjiang especially, the home region of the Uighurs, has seen a vast build-out of surveillance tech in recent years. (NYT)
- China has more ‘unicorn’ start-ups than the US (BBC)
Trudeau Part Deux
- Justin Trudeau has edged out a second term as Canada’s prime minister after national elections, but his narrow victory means he’ll be leading a minority government forced to depend on other parties to govern. With results still trickling in Tuesday morning, Liberals had secured 156 seats, 14 short of the 170 needed for a majority in the 338-seat House of Commons.
- Trudeau lost some key cabinet members, and deep divisions in the country became evident when not a single Liberal was elected in the western Prairie provinces.
- Nevertheless, Trudeau told cheering supporters in Montreal that the election meant Canadians had sent a clear message of support for progressive policies. (Guardian)
Look Both Ways…Look All The Ways
- According to a report released Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more pedestrians and cyclists were killed last year in the US than in any year since 1990.
- In urban areas, in the decade between 2009 and 2018, pedestrian deaths rose 69 percent, and cyclist deaths rose 48 percent. On average about 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day in crashes. Together they accounted for some 20 percent of all traffic fatalities. (NYT)
Three Strikes, You’re Out
- America’s economy has been on a 10-year winning streak, yet tens of thousands of workers across the country, from GM employees to teachers in Chicago, are striking to win better wages and benefits. So if the economy’s so strong, why are so many workers on strike?
- According to those on the picket lines, the strong economy is precisely the point. Autoworkers, teachers and others say they accepted austerity when the economy was in free fall, expecting to share in the gains once the recovery took hold. But over the years they watched as their employers’ wealth grew, while their own incomes barely budged.
- Corporate profits had recovered from 2007-2009 recession by 2010, yet it took the typical household another six years to regain its footing, and many Americans are still struggling.
- Overall strike activity has fallen sharply since the 1970s as the ranks of unions have been depleted. But last year the number of workers who participated in significant strikes soared to nearly 500,000, its highest point since the mid-1980s. (NYT)
- Kickstarter’s employees want a union. Will the company continue to oppose them? (Guardian)
- A New Kind of Labor Movement in Silicon Valley: Employees at Google and elsewhere are protesting their bosses’ business decisions. Will that evolve into a more sustained labor movement? (Atlantic, $)
Additional USA News
- Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids – Fueled by fears of school shootings, the market has grown rapidly for technologies that monitor students through official school emails and chats (Guardian)
- Your Guide To The Massive (And Massively Complex) Opioid Litigation (NPR)
- White House Factions Fight Over Trump’s Next Homeland Security Secretary (NPR)
Every Bot Is Working For The weekend.exe
- A new report focusing on warehouse automation, prepared by researchers at the University of Illinois, says emerging technologies won’t actually replace the over one million US warehouse workers anytime soon, but they’ll probably make those workers’ lives harder. Tools like self-driving carts, body sensors and AI-powered management systems are putting pressure on workers to work harder, faster and under more scrutiny.
- One of the paper’s authors said: “The next decade is a story not about job loss, but more so about changes in job quality. Technology has led to workers being pushed harder and also their privacy getting violated.”
- The warehousing industry has grown dramatically, thanks to how well e-commerce is doing as a sector. Unfortunately, US Bureau of Labor statistics show that workers are not sharing in the gains, even though they are a job where they are twice as likely to be injured than in all other private sector occupations. (Vox)
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