Wednesday, April 19, 2017

How to talk about climate change at a party




This is a real conversation that took place a few days ago although, of course, the words that I report here can't be exactly what we said. The protagonists are me and an acquaintance of mine. Imagine us holding glasses while at a party. 


Her: Ugo, did you hear what Trump is doing? He wants to destroy the climate data!

Me: I heard something about that.

Her. But it is awful! How can they allow him to do that? Destroying the work of the climate scientists!

Me. You know this joke about Trump? The one that goes, "What happens when Donald Trump takes Viagra?"

Her. Ugo, you keep joking all the time. But don't you work in this field? Why don't you tell me what you are really thinking about climate change?

Me (looking somber). It is a long story.

Her. Seriously, I want to know what you think.

Me. Really?

Her. Absolutely. Tell me what's going on.

Me (after having taken a deep breath). The situation is out of control. The amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are larger than any value seen in the past 10 million years and it keeps rising. The icecaps are melting, droughts are destroying agriculture in the tropical regions, extreme weather phenomena are on the rise. Temperatures are rising and the commitments to keep the increase below two degrees are insufficient. In addition, we are in the middle of a mass extinction, destroying the fertile soil, poisoning everything, running out of mineral resources, and the planet is overpopulated.

Her ....................

Me ...................

Her. I read that we'll soon be able to colonize other planets, is that true?

Me. ........

She walks away, glass in hand.




Thursday, April 13, 2017

The dark side of the Internet: the "Quantum Code" scam and its implications



The alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford," together with his assistant, "Tasha," peddling the products of the "Quantum Code" company. You can find the whole movie at http://tqcode.com/special.php. Go ahead, click on it, it won't harm your computer. It is a fascinating trip into the depths of human gullibility. And it explains a lot about how communication really works. 



The debate on any issue is normally framed on the concept that facts matter. It is also called the "information deficit model" and it says that if you provide people with the right kind of information, say, about climate science, they will understand it and act accordingly. I don't think I have to tell you that it doesn't work like that. There are many examples of this, but some are truly luminous, such as this one by "Quantum Code." 

This clip is truly amazing: it is all based on greed and on the concept that happiness is based on conspicuous consumption. Over and over, you are shown all the perks of being filthy rich: a personal jet plane, big cars, jewels, expensive watches and, yes, a nice looking, uniformed personal assistant, Tasha, who looks totally subservient to her boss and ready to do anything for him. This clip is not just a scam, it is a work of art in its own right. Art, after all, is mostly based on some kind of make-believe process and when we watch a play by Shakespeare we don't worry about whether Hamlet is a historical character or not. 

The same is true, here, for the alleged financial tycoon "Michael Crawford." He is a purely fictional character, like Hamlet or Captain America. That's clear from the very first sentence that you hear in the clip: "my name is Michael Crawford, yes that guy you might have read about on Forbes and other financial magazines." It takes about one minute to verify that there doesn't exist anyone with that name who's described on Forbes as a financial tycoon of any kind. 

Maybe a lot of people, out there, are unable to use search engines for debunking this kind of stories. Still, anyone should be wary when hearing "Michael Crawford" telling them that he wants to make them millionaires in exchange for nothing, out of pure philanthropy. Don't they have a grandmother who told them that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch"? To say nothing of the gaping holes in the whole idea. For instance, we are told that the software engineers of Quantum Code "make millions of dollars every year" using the code that they developed. If they can do that, why would they keep working for Quantum Code?

So, how would anyone believe in this so transparent scam? But for everything that exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist and this clip is a wonderful demonstration of how the messenger trumps the message in terms of effectiveness. The whole show is based on the quiet assurance of the actor playing "Michael Crawford". He is smooth, self-confident, a convincing fatherly figure.

Clearly, you are asked to believe the messenger, not the message. After all, it is what's normally done in politics. You vote for the candidates whom you think you can trust. And trust comes from consistency. The poor vote for the rich, as it happened for Donald Trump, not on the basis of facts or rational considerations. They do that because the personality of the chosen candidate is are consistent with the fact that he (rarely she) is rich.

Note how, clearly, the fact that this clip is so easily debunked is not a bug; it is a feature (*). The script of the clip was thought from the beginning as a sucker's bait. Evidently, they want suckers and they make sure that those who fall for the trap are suckers. Later on in the clip, they ask people to pay $250 to open an account with them and I suppose that's how they make money.

But there is something strange, here. Won't they get a better success if they were a little more subtle? Why do they immediately give away the game and screen out everyone who has even a modest ability to verify facts? The trick, here, seems to be that scamming works according to special rules. Apparently, making the scam highly transparent triggers some kind of a short circuit in some people's mind. It makes them think something like, "if this guy is a scammer, why should he make the scam so obvious? Therefore, it cannot be a scam.

Strange but true. I have seen this mechanism at play many times with the story of the alleged nuclear device called the E-Cat. The many gaping holes in the narrative of this pretended energy breakthrough are consistently interpreted by believers as part of a grand strategy by the inventor to maintain secrecy about his invention. Howlers in the narrative make it more believable, not less! This is the main reason why "debunking" almost never works.

Maybe these considerations are sufficient to explain the Quantum Code story: nothing more than an average scam, although a little more transparent and aggressive than others. I don't know how much the clip may have cost to its developers, but if they manage to catch a few thousands of people who are willing to pay $250, then they can make a nice profit on their investment. Perhaps, just a few hundreds would be enough to get even. The site exists also in Italian and in other languages and is backed by an aggressive e-mailing campaign. I am sure they get a good number of contacts.

Yet, I keep thinking that there may be more to this story than just pulling a fast one on suckers. You know how the Internet works today. You are "profiled" and you are fed messages that you are supposed to be interested in. And that you are supposed to believe. So, my impression is that the Quantum Code scam is not so much about having some people paying a little money. Rather, the value of the whole enterprise may be in creating a list of "A-grade suckers" that they can sell to others. It is a list of people who are not just highly gullible, but also greedy and who have enough money to be able and willing to pay $250 for a scam. They are perfect targets for scammers everywhere. 

This list of A-grade suckers may also have a value for research purposes. How gullible are people on the average? Which fraction of the population would fall for such an obvious scam as this one? I am sure that there are government agencies who need this kind of data to calibrate their propaganda and for them it would be no problem to create this scam as a probe to launch on the Internet. The people on the list would also be a great asset for creating a political movement: they are natural born believers.

In the end, we always face the same problem: we create wonderful gadgets that we think will help us to make things better. And then we discover that, no, they are making things worse. That's the case also for the Internet. It was supposed to favor the free diffusion of information and, in some ways, it does. And that it would bring democracy by making people better informed. But we are discovering that there is a dark side to this capability: the manipulation of information that creates scams, disinformation, fake news, and all the rest. Where that will lead us remains to be seen, but the current omens are not so good (and we are still waiting for the "Internet of things" to appear!).




(*) Telling a lie from the very beginning may be described as the  "blue lie" strategy as described and explained in this article by Jeremy Adam Smith. Blue lies are statements that you know are false or at least very uncertain, but that you profess to believe - or maybe believe for real - in order to show that you belong to the tribe.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Crimea: from world war 0 to world war III



Today, we remember little about what we call the Crimean war (1853-1856), even though it was the largest war ever fought in history up to that moment. It prefigured many of the elements that would later reappear in the two world wars of the 20th century, so much that we might call it "World War 0." It included fossil fuels as the ultimate cause of conflicts, an enhanced role of propaganda, the tendency of leaders of losing control of the wars they have started, and the origin of the "Russophobia" still common in the West in our times. These elements may tell us a lot about what could be a "World War III" in our future. Above, you can see a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855. It makes clear that defending Crimea is not a trifling matter for the Russians, who lost some 400.000 men in the Crimean war.



There is much material scattered on the Web about the Crimean war, but nothing that I found really satisfactory in digging out the real reasons for the disaster that it was. So, this is an attempt of mine to create some order out of the chaos. It is not meant to be anything definitive: if you find the time to read it, it is up to you to judge.



One of the curious thigns of the Crimean war of 1853-1856 is that we remember so little about it. Ask anyone what the war was about, who won, who lost, and even who fought it and the answers are likely to be vague, at best. It seems that the only thing remembered today about that war is the disastrous charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava. It is as if we remembered the 2nd world war only for the episode of saving private Ryan.

Yet, the Crimean war was the largest ever fought up to that time. It was a global engagement that involved practically all the major military powers of the time, nearly two million combatants, and a number of casualties that can be estimated as between half a million and a million. In many ways, the Crimean war prefigured the world wars that would take place during the 20th century, especially for the increasingly important role of propaganda. For this reason, we could rightly call it "world war 0".

But why this war? And why was it so thoroughly forgotten, at least in the West? For anything that happens there has to be a reason and, also in this case, there are reasons. We may find them in a mix of economic factors and in the monumental incompetence of some leaders. But we have to start from the beginning.

Many of the struggles of the 19th century can be understood in view of the role of coal in history. Starting with the late 18th century, coal created the industrial revolution in those countries that had coal resources. That, in turn, generated an economic surplus that was used in large part to build up military power and - with it - empires. The two largest empires of the 19th century were the British and the Russian one; the first dominating the seas, the second the Eurasian landmass. England had the largest coal resources in the world and it was also the most industrialized country in those times. Russia was not so thoroughly industrialized as Britain, but it had enormous human and mineral resources that made it a major player in the world domination game. At that time, it became common to speak of "the Great Game," also well known as "Bolshoya Ikra" in Russian. And from the languages used to define the game, you can understand who were the players. It is still being played today, even though the capital of the Sea Empire has moved from London to Washington.

While the coal-powered empires were expanding, the regions that didn't have coal resources were in deep trouble. Of course, coal could be imported, but that implied having a system of canals that could distribute coal everywhere. No canals, no industry. No industry, no military power. That was the situation of the Ottoman Empire, called at the time "the sick man of Europe." But the old Empire was not sick: it was starved of coal. It didn't produce any and it controlled lands too dry to be suitable for waterways. It was a problem created by geology and, as such, it was not affected by politics. So, the Ottoman Empire was destined to be carved up among the coal-powered states, a process that would be completed with the first world war.

It was clear to both Russia and Britain that the Great Game was about competing for the spoils of the Ottoman State. The Russians were coming down from the North, in Central Asia and in the Balkans. The British were working their way up from the South, in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Region. In a series of wars fought during the 18th century, the Russians had reached the shores of the Black Sea. During the reign of Catherine II, the Russians defeated once more the Ottoman Empire and, in 1783, they annexed the Crimean Khanate, once a protectorate of the Ottomans.

For the Russians, Crimea was not just one more piece of land for their already vast empire. With the military harbor of Sevastopol, Crimea was a springboard for further expansion southward. Sevastopol also gave to the Russian the possibility of projecting their naval power into the Mediterranean sea. Of course, the British didn't like the idea of sharing the Mediterranean with the Russians, but it seems that they had to put up with that. After all, if the Russians were at work at weakening the Ottoman Empire from the North, that gave to the British better chances to advance from the South. That was the situation until the French rocked the boat around 1850, starting a quarrel over a trivial question about the rights of the Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, eventually leading to a major, world-wide war.

In those times, France was another powerful empire. It had been one of the first states to engage in the large-scale use of coal and, during the early 19th century, it had become the dominating power in Central and Western Europe. That was the origin of the disastrous adventure of Napoleon in Russia, in 1812: it was the attempt of eliminating a major rival in the domination of Europe. Napoleon's colossal mistake was typical of leaders everywhere and of all times: overestimating the military might he commanded.

Mistakes tend to generate more mistakes and that's true for empires as well as for individuals. Some 40 years after Napoleon's defeat in Russia, France had rebuilt its military strength and Europe was set for a new military confrontation. As before, it was the result of economic factors and of the poor judgment of the people who controlled the most powerful states of that time. This time, the blunders were made mainly by Louis Napoleon, who had styled himself as "Emperor of the French" and taken the title of "Napoleon III."

To be a credible Emperor, Louis Napoleon needed the kind of prestige that can only come from military victories. Possibly, he would have liked to avenge the defeat of his uncle against the Russians in 1812 but, of course, he couldn't even dream to have the French army march on Moscow again. Still, he thought that the Russians were the enemies of France and he endeavored to build up a coalition that would fight Russia. He couldn't understand that the game in mid 19th century was not anymore the game that had been played at the time of the first Napoleon. Louis Napoleon was making the mistake that Lao Tzu described by saying that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." That was exactly what was to happen with the Crimean war.

The escalation that led to an all-out war was probably something that none of the leaders involved in it could control, or perhaps even understand. It was an ominous presage of what would happen 60 years later, when Europe exploded in the first world war. Perhaps it was an even more ominous presage of what propaganda can do when the Western press started describing the Russians as ugly savages, as you see in this image from 1855. In those times, propaganda wasn't as sophisticated as it is today, but the idea is always the same: they are bad and we are good.

Eventually, the Ottomans declared war on Russia in October 1853, knowing that they were supported by France and Britain. Then, the war exploded along a ring of fire that followed the Russian borders, from the White Sea in the North-West, to the Kamchatka peninsula in the East. At the beginning, the idea of attacking Crimea doesn't seem to have been in the plans of the coalition. But, once they had built up a military force in the Black Sea, someone must have realized that the harbor of Sevastopol could have been an excellent objective to demonstrate the coalition's superior power. The idea suited Louis Napoleon very nicely: by conquering Sevastopol he could claim to have avenged the French defeat of 1812. In September of 1854, British, French and Ottoman troops landed in Crimea with an ambitious objective: taking Sevastopol.

They succeeded, but at a very high price. In August 1855, after nearly one year of struggle, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol after having destroyed most of what was left intact by the allied bombardment. The fall of Sevastopol effectively put an end to the war. There followed negotiations and the treaty of Paris (1856) that basically recognized that neither side wanted to continue fighting. By all means, the outcome of the Crimean war was a military defeat for the Russians but the only obligation that was imposed on them was to demilitarize Crimea.

At the same time, the war had been a military success for the coalition, but the costs had been enormous and the tangible results nearly zero. The allies had suffered tremendous losses and they couldn't possibly have kept the occupation of Crimea for a long time. Not many years later, in 1870, with France defeated by Prussia, there was no coalition that could stop the Russian from returning and re-militarizing Sevastopol - which they did. By 1877, Russia and Turkey were again at war on one another and, this time, the Western European powers didn't intervene to help Turkey. Rather, Britain profited from the occasion to snatch Cyprus away from the Ottoman Empire.

As it normally the case for wars, the whole Crimean war was fought for nothing. But perhaps, in this case, the futility of the whole enterprise was more evident than in others. It may be for this reason that in the following years most people in the West made an effort to forget everything about this ill-fated war. The only memory of it left was the colorful and dramatic charge of the 600 at Balaclava. We still remember that episode, today.

But mistakes, as we saw, keep begetting mistakes and a typical source of mistakes for leaders is their tendency to see the world in terms of "friends" and "enemies". After the Crimean war was over, it seems that the bad guys of the story were identified not so much with the Russians but with those European states which had refused to join the coalition against Russia: Austria and the Kingdom of Naples. These two states were singled out as worth punishing, in particular by Louis Napoleon. In 1859, the French engaged in a military campaign aimed at expelling the Austrians out of Italy, and they succeeded. One year later, Louis Napoleon did nothing to prevent Piedmont from defeating and annexing the Kingdom of Naples, creating the "Kingdom of Italy" in 1861.

In these actions, Luis Napoleon had shot himself (and France) in both feet. He hadn't understood the growing role of Prussia (another coal-powered empire) in central Europe and that weakening Austria meant giving to Prussia a chance to expand even more. At the same time, the new Italian state was a competitor of France for domination in the Mediterranean region and would stop France from further expanding in North Africa. Maybe Louis Napoleon thought that Italy would have become a French protectorate, as Piedmont had been. It was another colossal mistake: ten years after the unification, Italy was allied with Prussia in a war against Austria and France. At Sedan, in 1870, Prussia dealt a deadly blow to the French imperial dreams. From then on, the German Empire was to be the top dog of Western Europe. It still plays this role, today.

You see how a chain of events affecting Europe originated from the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Starting from that event, we could play the "what if?" game. What if Louis Napoleon had not pushed for war against Russia? What if he had prevented the Italian unification from occurring? It is one of the fascinating games you can play with history, and I have done that here and here. Perhaps all that happens in history is a game that leaders play with the lives of their subjects. And, in this game, Crimea seems to be often playing an important role, even in modern times.

Over the years, Empires changed names but the strategic struggle for the domination of the world remained unchanged. During the first world war, taking advantage of the turmoil in Russia, German forces took control of Crimea in April 1918. That was a short-lived occupation and the Germans withdrew in November. Tzarist Russia disappeared and in 1920 the Red Army occupied Crimea after that it had been briefly in control first of the anti-Bolshevik White Army and then also invaded by the French. During the second world war, history repeated itself once more. The Axis forces attacked Crimea in 1941 and managed to take Sevastopol after an extended siege. Then, the Red Army took back Sevastopol in 1944. A pattern appears in these events: Western armies seemed to be always able to occupy Crimea, but never to hold it for a long time.

The British Empire waned in the following decades, replaced by the US empire, The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, replaced in part by the Russian Federation. But the importance of Crimea and the military port of Sevastopol remained unchanged. In our times, the focus of the struggle has moved more and more from traditional warfare to the kind of "hybrid" warfare that includes propaganda, infiltration, and psyops. In 1954, the administration of Crimea had been transferred to another Soviet country, Ukraine. When the Ukraine coup of 2014 moved the country to the Western sphere of influence, it seemed that the West had found an easy way to gain control of Crimea. It didn't work as planned. Less than one year later, Russia took back Crimea in a bloodless counter-operation of hybrid warfare. Again, we see how the the West can take Crimea but can't hold it.

Unsurprisingly, the return of Crimea to Russia (obrazovanje in Russian) in 2014 was not taken kindly in the West and that led to another round of hybrid warfare, this time based on economic sanctions. The struggle is still ongoing and the small peninsula of Crimea remains one of the major friction points of the world's strategic balance. Apart from the importance of the military port of Sevastopol, Crimea has the characteristic of being part of Russia but, at the same time, to be disconnected from the Russian mainland and to be vulnerable to attack from the sea. These characteristics make it a possible target for an aggressive Western leader. At the same time, the importance of Crimea for Russia is so high that no Russian leader could even dream to abandon Crimea before trying to defend it with all the available means. This is a recipe for disaster, today as it was at the time of Louis Napoleon. Whether it will take us to another world war, WW3, is all to be seen, but it can't be excluded.




Appendix: the viewpoint from Italy

A little known part of this story is the role of the Kingdom of Naples in the 19th century Crimean war. The Kingdom had a long story of friendship with Russia and, some 50 years before, Russia had sent troops to Naples to help (unsuccessfully) the Kingdom to repel an attack from France. It seems that the Russians saw the Southern Italian kingdom as their gateway to the Mediterranean region and maintained good relations with it. At the time of the Crimean war, there was no formal alliance between the Kingdom of Naples and Russia, but when the British asked to the King of Naples to send troops to Crimea to join the Anti-Russia alliance, the King refused. He didn't know that, in doing so, he was signing the death sentence for the kingdom. Even when it was clear that Russia was losing, the King of Naples refused to make the about-face that the Austrian empire did at the last moment. That turned the Kingdom of Naples into a pariah in the eyes of both the French and the British. Instead, the Kingdom of Piedmont (more exactly, the Kingdom of Sardinia) had been smarter and had sent an expeditionary corps to support the anti-Russian coalition. We can perhaps understand how harsh the Crimean war was if we note that, of the 15,000 troops sent to Crimea from Piedmont, it is reported that only about 2500 returned to their homes alive and all in one piece.

So, much of what happened in Italy after the Crimean War can be explained by these simple facts. The French and the British felt that the Kingdom of Piedmont was to be rewarded for its help, while the Kingdom of Naples was to be punished for the opposite reasons. The Kingdom of Naples had no coal and no waterways to import it, and it was in a desperately weak position. The defeat of Russia in Crimea had made it impossible for the Russians to send help to Naples and the kingdom found itself completely isolated against the industrialized, coal-powered Kingdom of Piedmont, well supported by Britain. There came the expedition of Garibaldi to Sicily in 1860, whose ships were protected by the British fleet. The Neapolitan army was defeated, the kingdom was invaded by the Piedmontese from the North and that was the end of the Kingdom of Naples and the birth of the Kingdom of Italy.




Saturday, April 1, 2017

President Silvio Berlusconi: Make Italy Grate Again!


Rome, April 1st, 2017

In a surprise move, today, the Italian Parliament held a joint session of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies in which the resignation of the current president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella was accepted. The parliament unanimously designated Mr. Silvio Berlusconi as the new President of Italy.

According to a member of the parliament, the general feeling was that there was no alternative to returning Mr. Berlusconi to a position of political power, since the Italian political system had been unable to produce anyone who could take his place after he resigned from the position of prime minister, in 2011. Asked about the former prime minister, Mr. Matteo Renzi, as a possible candidate, the MP declined to provide an assessment. Later on, he was observed puking on the floor of the parliament.

Mr. Berlusconi said that he would be implementing a completely new policy designed to "make Italy great again". While some commentators understood this as implying a strong support for the Italian cheese producers ("make Italy grate again"), Berlusconi himself explained his economic and political reforms in a press conference held today. The main points are:

1. Italian energy independence. The Sardinian coal mines will be re-opened. It is anticipated that these mines won't be able to provide sufficient coal to replace oil imports, therefore, in an initial transitional phase, coal will be imported from England to operate new steel plants and convert the Italian economy to a fully coal-based energy system. Renewable energy installations will be encouraged, but only indoor wind plants will be allowed in order to preserve a pristine landscape. New photovoltaic plants will be permitted only if able to demonstrate 24-hours constant output (no batteries allowed).

2. Italian mining supported. The new President aims at re-opening the Etruscan iron mines in Tuscany, as well as the sulfur mines in Sicily that were closed in the early 19th century. This is expected to boost employment, creating many jobs for young Italians as miners.

3. Boosting employment. The Italian University System will be reformed. No more funds will be allocated for climate and energy research. New mining schools will be established with the objective of creating a new generation of miners. At the same time, the diffusion of coal in the Italian energy system will create many jobs as chimney sweepers.

4. Domestic industries supported. In a restatement of some old policies, tariffs will be slapped on all imports. At the same time, imported goods will be replaced with Italian-made ones. The new President sees a return of CRT, black and white television sets operated by vacuum tubes. Electric cars will be forbidden in order to support the domestic car industry which will be encouraged to develop coal-powered vehicles.

5. The Alpine wall. The new President aims at building a wall along the Italian Alpine border with Germany in order to keep the Germans out, as well as other German-like hordes (Austrians, Swiss, and the like). He said about the Germans, "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."

6. Climate Change. The new Presidents stated that climate change is not a threat and, in any case, its origin is wholly natural. Nevertheless, plans are being devised in order to dismantle Venice and selling it to the Germans who will re-assemble it near Bonn. The income from the sale of Venice will be used to finance the Alpine wall. Also, an agreement with Perrier is being implemented in order to fight the desertification problem in Sicily.

7. The Eurolira. Italy will abandon the Euro and move to a new currency called the Eurolira. The new currency and the old one will be exchanged at a strict, government enforced, 1:1 rate. Banknotes and coins will continue to be issued by the European Central Bank and will still be marked as "Eur" even though when they circulate in Italy will be referred to as "liras".

8. Foreign policy. The new President strongly supports an assertive foreign policy for Italy. If Carthage will threaten Rome again, the Carthaginians will be swiftly punished by a new fleet of triremes armed with a secret weapon whose characteristics are not known at present, but that goes under the mysterious name of corvus.


Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)