August 11, 2018 in 3,180 words

Yuval Noah Harari extract: ‘Humans are a post-truth species’

In his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the bestselling author turns his attention to the problems we face today. Here, he argues that ‘fake news’ is much older than Facebook.

Graphic above: Power, nation and storytelling (clockwise from left)… troops in Ukraine, the story of Christianity, Donald Trump, the atomic bomb, protests against Vladimir Putin.


We are repeatedly told these days that we are living in a new and frightening era of “post-truth”, and that lies and fictions are all around us. Examples are not hard to come by. Thus, in late February 2014, Russian special units bearing no army insignia invaded Ukraine and occupied key installations in Crimea. The Russian government and President Vladimir Putin in person repeatedly denied that these were Russian troops, and described them as spontaneous “self-defence groups” that may have acquired Russian-looking equipment from local shops. As they voiced this rather preposterous claim, Putin and his aides knew perfectly well that they were lying.

Russian nationalists can excuse this lie by arguing that it served a higher truth. Russia was engaged in a just war, and if it is OK to kill for a just cause, surely it is also OK to lie? The higher cause that allegedly justified the invasion of Ukraine was the preservation of the sacred Russian nation. According to Russian national myths, Russia is a sacred entity that has endured for a thousand years despite repeated attempts by vicious enemies to invade and dismember it. Following the Mongols, the Poles, the Swedes, Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht, in the 1990s it was Nato, the US and the EU that attempted to destroy Russia by detaching parts of its body and forming them into “fake countries” such as Ukraine. For many Russian nationalists, the idea that Ukraine is a separate nation from Russia constitutes a far bigger lie than anything uttered by President Putin during his holy mission to reintegrate the Russian nation.

Ukrainian citizens, outside observers and professional historians may well be outraged by this explanation, and regard it as a kind of “atom-bomb lie” in the Russian arsenal of deception. To claim that Ukraine does not exist as a nation and as an independent country disregards a long list of historical facts – for example, that during the thousand years of supposed Russian unity, Kiev and Moscow were part of the same country for only about 300 years. It also violates numerous international laws and treaties that Russia has previously accepted and that have safeguarded the sovereignty and borders of independent Ukraine. Most importantly, it ignores what millions of Ukrainians think about themselves. Don’t they have a say about who they are?

Ukrainian nationalists would certainly agree with Russian nationalists that there are some fake countries around. But Ukraine isn’t one of them. Rather, these fake countries are the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic that Russia has set up to mask its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Whichever side you support, it seems that we are indeed living in a terrifying era of post-truth, when not just particular military incidents, but entire histories and nations might be faked. But if this is the era of post-truth, when, exactly, was the halcyon age of truth? In the 1980s? The 1950s? The 1930s? And what triggered our transition to the post-truth era – the internet? Social media? The rise of Putin and Trump?


How Globalization Has Broken the Chain of Responsibility

In today’s accelerating and overheating world, the gap between the people affected by change in local environments and the people in charge is growing ever wider.


Industrialization’s footprint has heavily impacted Gladstone, a city on the east coast of Australia.

In Gladstone, a small city in Queensland, Australia, even the sunset is shaped by the global resource industry. Looking west in the late afternoon, you cannot help but notice the three tall chimneys of the power plant in front of the yellow disk sinking below the horizon. It is a vibrant industrial city, with one of the world’s largest coal ports, two sizable alumina refineries, a smelter turning the alumina into aluminum, three liquid natural gas plants, a cement factory, and a cyanide factory. It is prosperous, thriving, and energetic—but at a price.

Gladstone is a child of globalization. Since the 1960s, the growth of its export-oriented, resource-based industry has increased exponentially along with the population of this once rural town. The rapid changes the city has experienced have turned it into the undisputed industrial hub of Central Queensland. But globalization has also given rise, for many in Gladstone, to vulnerability and powerlessness.

A small environmental group, Gladstone Conservation Council, takes this vulnerability as its point of departure. It accuses local industry of not being sufficiently concerned with the ecological effects of rapid change. In the past, one activist told me, locals could deal constructively with the management of industries like the small limestone mine, which pumps millions of liters of water a year in a state where water is scarce. About a decade ago, the director was a local man who they knew and who they could hold accountable—for example, activists used their local power to secure compensation for farmers who had suffered a depletion of their water resources. Today, following a merger, the local manager is just an employee of one of the world’s largest cement corporations. After listening to farmers’ complaints, he can only direct them to the main office, which is located elsewhere in Australia. The local activists now have fewer cards in their hands.

When they do take their concerns to various corporate headquarters, activists typically get responses like: We are grateful for your submission and comments, and will take them into consideration. As one activist says, “This means, of course, that they will just do what they had planned to do anyway.”


$1bn for empty space: the saga of the world’s most valuable real estate

Skepticism abounds over 157-acre LA-area lot once linked to Brad Pitt and Iran’s shah, amid questions over sellers’ motivations.


The property offers views of Los Angeles and Bel-Air.

A billion dollars is a steep price to pay for a whole lot of nothing – even if the nothing in question happens to be a prime piece of open land with commanding views over the mansion-studded hills of Bel-Air and Los Angeles.

Still, a billion dollars is what the owners of the 157 acres perched between Benedict and Franklin canyons say they want, and they are not in the mood for discounts. At least in theory, the listing – known variously as the Vineyard or the Mountain – is an invitation to the ultimate gazillionaire to build his or her palace of dreams above a city famously built on them.

If the tract – or rather, 17 adjacent tracts – fetched the full billion, it would be by far the most valuable piece of real estate in the United States, and maybe the world.

That, though, is a big if.

From the moment the Mountain hit the market late last month, courtesy of a real estate agent specializing in the highest of high-end properties, it has attracted curiosity, astonishment, skepticism and some hard questions about who exactly owns it, whether they are serious about selling and, if they aren’t, what their motivation might be.


6 Ridiculously Dramatic Commercials For Totally Normal Stuff

Great directors make serious films about tough topics. Steven Spielberg tackled the horror of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, Darren Aronofsky showed the dark side of drug addiction in Requiem For A Dream, and Robert Rodriguez showed the death of childhood innocence in The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl In 3D. But despite these varying themes, these films all held one inalienable truth to heart: When broaching a sensitive topic to the audience, don’t also try to sell them a new washing machine at the same time. These commercial directors sure could have used that advice …

5. A Widow Bonds With Her Son Over His Dead Father’s Love Of McFish


In this scene from a British McDonald’s ad, a boy is sifting through a box. He finds an old watch, a stern pair of glasses, and a notebook — all mementos from his deceased father.

Christopher Walken could really fit a lot of stuff up there.

He runs downstairs to his mother, and asks her what he was really like, this wonderful man who owned both glasses and notebook. To set his mind at ease, she talks about all the ways he’s nothing like him. Dad was tall and strong, with big hands …

“But he still couldn’t save the little man and his racing snail from the Nothing.”

Dad was always dressed nice and had shiny shoes …

Dad was great at sports …

There’s being bad at sports, and then there’s having an undiagnosed motor skill problem.

Clearly, he was nothing like this ugly hobbit we’re stuck with. Then the pair arrives at a McDonald’s for a quick bite, but instead of telling her son that his dad was a much better chair-sitter as well, she remarks that he was a fan of the very same Filet-O-Fish the kid has chosen.

“Though he always got Sprite as his drink …”

Finally, a link to his dead father. As he wipes the tartar sauce from his face and dreams of all the father/son moments he could’ve had talking about their shared love of breaded fish, his mother looks at him and finally realizes “Yes, thanks to this sandwich, they are exactly the same.”

“I was gonna leave you at the next fire station, but I think you can move into the main house when we get home.”

For some reason, the British public wasn’t a big fan of an advert exploiting the pain of widows and fatherless children to hawk buns filled with processed fish guts. McDonald’s took the ad down and apologized for its tone-deafness. Then they made a commercial about how when you get right down to it, French fries are just like 9/11.


How a Notorious Gangster Was Exposed by His Own Sister

strid Holleeder secretly recorded her brother’s murderous confessions. Will he exact revenge?


Astrid Holleeder has lived in hiding since becoming the star witness in a murder trial against her brother.

Astrid Holleeder has arresting eyes—they are swimming-pool blue—but that’s all I can reveal about her appearance, because she is in hiding, an exile in her own city, which is Amsterdam. For the past two years, she has lived in a series of furnished safe houses. She prefers buildings with basement parking, in order to minimize her exposure during the brief transit to a bulletproof car. She bought the car used, for fifteen thousand euros. She also owns two bulletproof vests. She thinks a lot about how she might be assassinated, gaming out fatal scenarios. Whenever she stops at a red light and an unfamiliar vehicle sharks up alongside her, she clutches the wheel, her heart hammering. Then the light changes, and she exhales and keeps moving.

Amsterdam, a city of fewer than a million people, is a difficult place to stage your own disappearance, particularly if you grew up there. Fortunately for Holleeder (which is pronounced “Hol-lay-der”), she guarded her privacy even before her life became threatened, and no photographs of her as an adult can be found on the Internet. Today, she arranges furtive visits with a small circle of friends, but otherwise stays mostly at home. When she moves through Amsterdam, she does so in secret, and sometimes in disguise: she has a collection of fake noses and teeth. Holleeder typically dresses in black, but if she suspects she’s being followed she may duck into a bathroom and emerge in a wig and a red dress. Occasionally, she has posed as a man.

Such subterfuge is not conducive to a social life. Certainly, it is risky for her to meet anyone she doesn’t already know. Holleeder is a vibrant woman who draws energy from having people around her, but she has armored herself. She told me recently that, at fifty-two, she is single, and added, “Relationships are overrated.”

The threat to Holleeder’s life stems from a decision that she made, in 2013, to become the star witness in a mob trial. She agreed to testify against the most notorious criminal in the Netherlands, a man known as De Neus—the Nose, a reference to his most prominent facial feature. This was a risky choice. “Everyone else who has turned on him ended up dead,” she pointed out. The Nose is being held at the Netherlands’ only maximum-security prison. In 2016, he allegedly asked gang leaders at the prison to enlist members on the outside to execute Holleeder, along with two other witnesses in the case against him. The plot was disrupted when one of the prisoners confessed to officials. But the threat lingers. “Of course he would do it,” Holleeder said. “He would kill me.”


INSIDE CHINA’S VAST NEW EXPERIMENT IN SOCIAL RANKING

In 2015, when Lazarus Liu moved home to China after studying logistics in the United Kingdom for three years, he quickly noticed that something had changed: Everyone paid for everything with their phones. At McDonald’s, the convenience store, even at mom-and-pop restaurants, his friends in Shanghai used mobile payments. Cash, Liu could see, had been largely replaced by two smartphone apps: Alipay and WeChat Pay. One day, at a vegetable market, he watched a woman his mother’s age pull out her phone to pay for her groceries. He decided to sign up.

To get an Alipay ID, Liu had to enter his cell phone number and scan his national ID card. He did so reflexively. Alipay had built a reputation for reliability, and compared to going to a bank managed with slothlike indifference and zero attention to customer service, signing up for Alipay was almost fun. With just a few clicks he was in. Alipay’s slogan summed up the experience: “Trust makes it simple.”

Alipay turned out to be so convenient that Liu began using it multiple times a day, starting first thing in the morning, when he ordered breakfast through a food delivery app. He realized that he could pay for parking through Alipay’s My Car feature, so he added his driver’s license and license plate numbers, as well as the engine number of his Audi. He started making his car insurance payments with the app. He booked doctors’ appointments there, skipping the chaotic lines for which Chinese hospitals are famous. He added friends in Alipay’s built-in social network. When Liu went on vacation with his fiancée (now his wife) to Thailand, they paid at restaurants and bought trinkets with Alipay. He stored whatever money was left over, which wasn’t much once the vacation and car were paid for, in an Alipay money market account. He could have paid his electricity, gas, and internet bills in Alipay’s City Service section. Like many young Chinese who had become enamored of the mobile payment services offered by Alipay and WeChat, Liu stopped bringing his wallet when he left the house.

If you live in the United States, you are by now accustomed to relinquishing your data to corporations. Credit card companies know when you run up bar tabs or buy sex toys. Facebook knows if you like Tasty cooking videos or Breitbart News. Uber knows where you go and how you behave en route. But Alipay knows all of these things about its users and more. Owned by Ant Financial, an affiliate of the massive Alibaba corporation, Alipay is sometimes called a super app. Its main competitor, WeChat, belongs to the social and gaming giant Tencent. Alipay and WeChat are less like individual apps than entire ecosystems. Whenever Liu opened Alipay on his phone, he saw a neat grid of icons that vaguely resembled the home screen on his Samsung. Some of the icons were themselves full-blown third-party apps. If he wanted to, he could access Airbnb, Uber, or Uber’s Chinese rival Didi, entirely from inside Alipay. It was as if Amazon had swallowed eBay, Apple News, Groupon, American Express, Citibank, and YouTube—and could siphon up data from all of them.


Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Robert Reich lists Trump’s failures to negotiate better deals.


Author and MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell joins Bill to discuss reaching new heights in political corruption and the re-release of his book, “Deadly Force: A Police Shooting and My Family’s Search for the Truth.”


Author and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker joins Bill to share some good news about the 21st century.


In his editorial New Rule, Bill reveals the truth about #QAnon.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.


Every branch of the Armed Forces has their own anthem, and the most smartest branch of all should be no exception. Performed by the Young New York Chorus.

THANKS to TBS and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee for making this program available on YouTube.


The KKK uses candy to recruit kids, Mexican immigrants have been entering the U.S. through Canada, and Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is in jeopardy.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.


久しぶりの広い箱を満喫するまる。Maru enjoys the wide box. But…


FINALLY . . .

Are you socially awkward, or just “spiritually Finnish?”

JINGFEN


A day at the beach in Dallan, Liaoning province, China.

If you find it awkward to make small talk, you may be “jingfen” (精芬) or “spiritually Finnish.” That’s the newly coined Chinese buzzword for a burgeoning identity taking hold among millennials.

The term “jingfen” is inspired by a comic from Finland called “Finnish Nightmares,” starring a cartoon figure named Matti who prefers minimal contact and avoids social situations. His creator Karoliina Korhonen describes Matti as “a stereotypical Finn who appreciates peace, quiet and personal space. Matti tries his best to do unto others as he wishes to be done unto him: to give space, be polite and not bother with unnecessary chit chat.”

That type of person is apparently quite appealing in crowded Chinese cities where privacy and space are limited. This is particularly true for young adults who grew up as only children under China’s one-child policy, posits Chen Si, a 26-year-old resident of eastern China’s Anhui province, who spent three years studying in Finland. She identifies as jingfen, and tells the publication Sixth Tone, “I believe that there are many more cases of jingfen in our generation compared to our parents’ generation…they find they can live alone happily.”

Matti expresses the social awkwardness that Si and so many others feel. He’s the kind of perpetually uncomfortable character who hides in his apartment when a neighbor is out in the hall. If someone takes a vacant seat next to Matti, he wants to disappear. He hates being singled out, even for praise, avoids talking to salespeople, and can’t stand working in pairs.


Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?