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Amateur Hour in the Middle East

On Sunday it was revealed that the Syrian army has made a deal to help the Syrian Kurds (who are technically rebels) fight off the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a chunk of Syrian territory on the north-western border with Turkey that has been held by the Kurds since 2012,

And the Russians are allegedly brokering this new anti-Turkish alliance, even though they recently gave the Turks a green light for that invasion (or at least that was what the Turks thought they were getting).

And do you recall that the United States, which armed and supported those same Syrian Kurds because it needed them to fight Islamic State, announced three weeks ago that it would be training a 30,000-strong Kurdish-led force to patrol the borders of the large part of north-eastern Syria that has been liberated from IS?

When Turkey objected, Washington hastily dropped that notion, and is indeed standing idly by while the Turkish army tries to take Afrin from America’s Kurdish allies. It does warn, however, that American forces might take a different line if the Turks invade other Kurdish-held territories in Syria.

Meanwhile, at the other end of Syria, there were massive Israeli air strikes last week in retaliation for a small reconnaissance drone allegedly launched by Iranian forces in Syria that had entered Israeli airspace.

This huge over-reaction was orchestrated by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is trying to draw attention away from the criminal charges he is facing for corruption in office. A shabby tactic, certainly, but at least he knows who his real friends are (Trump and Saudi Arabia), and they all see Iran as the real enemy.

There is a kind of paranoid logic in that, but most of the players in Syria don’t have a serious strategy at all. Indeed the Americans, and increasingly the Russians as well, don’t have a clue about what they want as a final outcome. Neither do the Turks. It’s amateur hour in the Middle East.

The United States doesn’t want President Bashar al-Assad to win, but beyond that the Americans don’t know what they want. They originally made their alliance with the Syrian Kurds to destroy Islamic State, but now that that’s done they are essentially purposeless. Yet they won’t leave the field as long as the Russians and the Iranians are in Syria.

The Russians intervened to save Assad from defeat by Islamist rebels, which has also been accomplished. They would now like to declare a victory and leave, but they dare not leave so long as American troops are in Syria. And Assad (who does know what he wants – the ultimate reunification of Syria under his rule) works hard to keep the Russians trapped in the conflict.

The Turks are split right down the middle at home, with half the population swallowing President Erdogan’s line that all Kurds are terrorists. The other half disbelieves that and hates him, but Erdogan is pushing ahead with an invasion of Syria whose only rational goal would be the permanent Turkish occupation of Syria’s Kurdish-majority territories and the subjugation of the Kurds.

Yet the closer he gets to that goal, the more likely he is to provoke a counter-attack by the Syrian army, by the Russians, and even by the Americans. And by the way, after three weeks of fighting in Afrin the Turkish-led forces have actually made little progress against the Syrian Kurds. Like every player in the game, Erdogan habitually over-estimates his own strength.

The situation in Syria is coming to resemble the devastated and depopulated German lands in the final decade of the Thirty Years’ War, when almost all the local forces had lost their ideological motivations and were still fighting only because that was what they did for a living.

Then as now, foreign great powers would make splashy military interventions from time to time (Sweden, France and Spain then, Iran, Russia, Turkey and the United States now), but those interventions effectively cancelled one another out and the war dragged on senselessly year after year.

The Syrian war is in its seventh year now, but the commitment of Turkish and American troops to the conflict raises the odds that it might make it to a decade. And down on the ground there is an orgy of betrayals as the local players lose old foreign patrons and find new ones.

Weirdly, it reminds me of the J. Geils Band’s greatest song (they didn’t have many): ‘Love Stinks’.
You love her
But she loves him
And he loves somebody else
You just can’t win…

I’ve had the blues
The reds and the pinks
One thing for sure
Love stinks.

There’s not much love happening in Syria right now, but the tangle of alliances and allegiances, mistaken identities, misunderstandings and betrayals, come straight out of a very bad romantic novel. However, real people are being killed in large numbers at every step in this pathetic, ridiculous story, and it stinks.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 15 and 16. (“Weirdly…stinks”)

South Africa

A passer-by in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Saxonwold observed, the South African Police would never have raided the enormous, high-walled compound of the Gupta family if President Jacob Zuma were not on the brink of being removed. But early Wednesday morning, the police did exactly that.

The Guptas, three Indian immigrant brothers who became extremely rich due to their close partnership with Zuma, used to be untouchable. They were accused of ‘state capture’ in the media, but they were safe because of their alliance with Zuma. He did very nicely out of the deal too.

All that’s over now. One of the Gupta brothers was arrested in the raid, and the other two cannot be far behind. It was a signal to Zuma that the gloves were coming off, and fifteen hours later he was gone. He had clung desperately to the presidency since the African National Congress (ANC) voted him out as its leader in December, but on Wednesday evening he resigned “with immediate effect”.

Jacob Zuma joined the ANC, the country’s main liberation movement, in 1959, and had an illustrious career. He served ten years’ imprisonment on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, fled abroad in 1975, and became chief of the ANC’s Intelligence Department during the 1980s.

A man who served as his chief of staff in those years, a white South African now living abroad who has no reason to seek Zuma’s approval, told me recently that he was a brilliant strategist. He had admired Zuma greatly, he said, and like many others he was as much puzzled as dismayed by what Zuma became during his later years. After the decades of
sacrifice and dedication, it has been a tragic fall from grace.

Technically, Zuma still had a year left in his second term as president, but the ANC wanted him out now because he was blighting the party’s chances of winning next year’s election. Friendly hints and subtle pressures were not shifting him, so on Tuesday the ANC’s newly elected National Executive Committee ordered him to resign from the state presidency.

Zuma was still telling various media that he would refuse to quit until late afternoon on Wednesday, although it was clear that there was no way he could win. The state president is elected by parliament, not by a popular vote, and parliament can also remove him by a non-confidence vote. The ANC has a majority in parliament, and such a vote was already scheduled for the 22nd.

Why did he hang on so long if he was bound to lose in the end? Probably because he was hoping to negotiate some sort of amnesty deal in return for going quietly. But that’s a hard thing to do in South Africa, as the government does not control the courts.

Until recently Zuma’s exit plan involved getting his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chosen to succeed him as ANC president. She would then protect him from the many corruption charges that awaited him after he left the state presidency, at least in theory. But the ANC elected Cyril Ramaphosa as its president instead.

After that, Zuma’s only hope, if he wants to stay in South Africa after leaving office – which he clearly does – was an amnesty deal. But if the ANC is to rebuild its credibility with the voters there must be no amnesty, and Ramaphosa has said publicly that it is not on the cards. That is probably true.

In any case, it’s over now. Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader who became a very rich businessman, will probably take over the state presidency only briefly now, choosing some other ANC worthy to serve out the last year of Zuma’s term. He would prefer to be elected state president next year in his right. But in fact he will already be running the show behind the scenes, and much will be expected of him.

South Africa’s economy has stagnated during Zuma’s nine-year reign, in large part because both foreigners and local people were reluctant to invest in a country whose government had become so corrupt. There needs to be a massive cleansing exercise within the ANC, and it needs to start now if the results are to be visible before the election.

Zuma may stay to face the music – or, more likely, he will move abroad and live in the $25 million palace that the Guptas reportedly bought for him in Dubai. (He has categorically denied owning any property abroad himself, but the denial was carefully phrased.)

The ANC has fallen a long way from its glory days, but it is a legitimate and democratic political party that still commands the loyalty of many, perhaps most South Africans. Now that Zuma has finally quit, Ramaphosa, a competent and by all accounts an honest man, can get started on rebuilding the party’s reputation.

If he succeeds, the ANC could still win next year’s election and another five years in power. Whether that is the best thing for South Africa, given that the ANC has already been in power for a quarter-century, is another question.

Jobs: Moravec’s Paradox vs. AGI

Don’t bother asking if jobs are being lost to computers. Of course they are, and the current wave of populist political revolts in Western countries is what Luddism looks like in an era of industrialised democracies. The right question to ask is: what KINDS of jobs are being lost? Moravec’s Paradox predicted the answer almost 30 years ago.

Right now, it’s the jobs in the middle that are at risk of disappearing. Not high-level professional and managerial jobs that require sophisticated social and intellectual skills and pay very well. Not poorly-paid jobs in delivery or the fast-food industry either, although automation will eventually take jobs in the service industries too.

But the middle-income, semi-skilled jobs, mostly in manufacturing or transportation, that used to sustain a broad and prosperous middle class are dwindling fast. Western societies are being hollowed out by automation, just as Moravec’s Paradox predicts. Often the newly unemployed find other work, but it is generally in the low-income service sector. These disinherited lower-middle-class and upper-working-class people are the foot-soldiers of the populist revolutions.

Back in the 1980s Hans Moravec, a pioneer researcher in artificial intelligence (AI), made the key observation that “it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

The paradox is that activities like high-level reasoning that are challenging for human beings are easy for robots endowed with AI. Simple sensory and motor skills that are easy for the average one-year-old child, on the other hand, are far beyond the current reach of the robots. No surprise, really: those skills in human beings are the products of a billion years of evolution, and indeed are largely unconscious in us.

So the jobs that robots can most easily take are mid-level management jobs and semi-skilled, highly repetitive manual jobs – and there goes the middle-class meat in the sandwich. What’s left is a small group of rich people (who own the robots), an impoverished mass of people who provide them with services of every kind or have no jobs at all – and a level of resentment in the latter that is rocket fuel for a populist revolution.

This dystopian vision is commonplace nowadays, pushed to the top of the agenda by Brexit in the UK, the election of Donald Trump in the US, and neo-fascist election successes (though not yet victories) in the Netherlands, France and Germany. The same phenomenon may well play a big part in Italy’s election next month.

And the robots are soon going to be able to take out the rest of the jobs too. Moravec and his colleagues were working with the computers of thirty years ago, which were really simple-minded and single-minded. Today’s and tomorrow’s AI is running on computers that are orders of magnitude more powerful, and that allows them to do different things – like ‘deep learning’, for example.

The operating instructions don’t only come from the top (human beings) any more. More and more often, the AI is told what the result should be, and works out how to get there for itself by ‘deep learning’, a trial-and-error process that only becomes feasible when you have a number-crunching capability magnitudes greater than in the 1908s.

Then the path opens to (among other things) Artificial Intelligence that has human-level sensory and motor skills. Not right away, of course, but in due course.

There go the rest of the jobs, you might think, and certainly a lot will go. There goes the need for human beings altogether, the more pessimistic will think, and maybe that’s true too. But the latter outcome is still a choice, not an inevitability.

A significant number of AI specialists are now working on what they call ‘artificial general intelligence’: AGI. Rather than teach a machine to use symbolic logic to answer specific kinds of questions, they are building artificial neural networks and machine-learning modules loosely modelled on the human brain.

Horoshi Yamakawa, a Japan-based leader in AGI, sees two advantages to this approach. “The first is that since we are creating AI that resembles the human brain, we can develop AGI with an affinity for humans. Simply put, I think it will be easier to create an AI with the same behaviour and sense of values as humans this way.”

“Even if superintelligence exceeds human intelligence in the near future, it will be comparatively easy to communicate with AI designed to think like a human, and this will be useful as machines and humans continue to live and interact with each other.…”

Feeling reassured now? Thought not. There’s never much reassurance to be had when thinking about the future. Most of the jobs are going to go sooner or later, including the skilled manual jobs and the high-level management jobs that presently seem safe. We’ll have to get used to that, just like our recent ancestors had to get used to working in cities not on farms.

But maybe the robots will grow up to be our colleagues, not our overlords or our successors. If we take the trouble to design them that way, starting now.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and . (“This dystopian…month”; and “The operating…1980s”)

Universal Health Care – a No-Brainer

It began, as so many things do these days, with a Donald Trump tweet. Frustrated by his inability to kill the ‘Obamacare’ expansion of public healthcare provision in the United States, Trump seized on a protest about the under-funding of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) in London last Saturday to trash the entire concept of universal healthcare paid out of taxes and free at the point of delivery.

“The Democrats are pushing for universal healthcare [in the US] while thousands of people are marching in the UK because their system is going broke and not working,” he tweeted. It was an awkward moment for Britain’s Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, who tries to avoid criticising Trump whenever possible, so she let her health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, respond instead.

Hunt tweeted back that while he disagreed with some of the protesters’ opinions, “not ONE of them wants to live in a system [like the US] where 28 million people have no cover….I’m proud to be from the country that invented universal coverage – where all get care no matter the size of their bank balance.”

It’s true. The British population is growing older and needs more health services, but Conservative governments over the past seven years have not raised spending on the NHS to match. As a result, many people are dissatisfied with the growing delays in treatment, but the NHS is the most beloved institution in the United Kingdom. Not one person in a hundred would want to replace it with a privatised, insurance-based system.

A huge controversy rages permanently in the United States over public vs. private spending on healthcare, with the Republican always trying to cut the share paid out of taxes by federal and state governments (currently about half). But there is no equivalent controversy elsewhere.

Every other developed country has a universal healthcare system – and in an eleven-country study published by the US-based think-tank The Commonwealth Fund last summer, the United States came dead last in terms of safety, affordability and efficiency. The contrast is particularly stark in the differences between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Americans spend twice as much per capita as Britons on healthcare. Health services account for an astonishing 17.2 percent of American GDP (the highest in the world), compared to 9.7 percent in the UK. Yet the British system delivers better results: life expectancy at birth is almost three years higher in UK (81.4 years, compared to 78.8 years for Americans).

To be fair, it’s not only the NHS that enables British people to live longer. They are less obese than Americans (23 percent of English adults have a body mass index of more than 30, compared to 32 percent of Americans). The murder rate in the US is five times higher than it is in the UK. But even if average life-spans were identical in the two countries, Americans would be paying twice as much for the same result.

There really is no controversy: universal healthcare is better. Since half of that enormous American spending on health goes to profit-making enterprises like insurance companies, there is an immensely rich and powerful lobby fighting to keep the public-private controversy alive in the United States, but elsewhere, even in much poorer countries, it is a no-brainer. Like in India, for example.

India, which recently overtook China to become the world’s most populous country, is still relatively poor (although its economy is now growing at over 7 percent annually). Last week in the Indian parliament, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a new government initiative that will provide the poorest 100 million families (half a billion people) with up to $7,800 annually to cover hospitalisation costs in case of severe illness.

“This will be the world’s largest government-funded healthcare programme,” he told parliament. “The government is steadily but surely progressing towards a goal of universal health coverage.” People are already calling it ‘Modicare’ (after Prime Minister Narendra Modi), and it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Obamacare.

India currently spends only one percent of its GDP on healthcare, so there’s still a very long way to go – and as always in India, the tricky bit is actually implementing the programme, especially in the rural areas. (Free government hospitals are mostly in the cities.)

Diagnostic tests, doctor follow-ups, basic medicines (like statins for heart disease or diabetes control) and post-operative home care are not covered by the $1.7 billion scheme. Private hospitals and clinics are still not properly regulated, and frequently overcharge. Poor families dealing with a major illness often end up in the hands of money-lenders, and even in government-run hospitals bribes are sometimes necessary to get good treatment.

All that said, the direction of travel is clear, and maybe in a couple of decades India will have a universal health service like the NHS. Beloved, in other words.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“To be…result”)