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The Holy Ghost & the Machine?

Monday, December 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — because throwing holy water at a computer is foolish and beautiful, a combo I rather like ]
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Arthur Koestler‘s book title, The Ghost in the Machine, came to mind a day or so ago when I saw this tweet:

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A memory stirred: I had seen something similar before.

Back in 1999 — when programmers were putting in overtime to remediate or work around the so-called Y2K bug, CEOs were concerned as to the potential ripple-through effects of Y2K computer failures on just-in-time acquisition and distribution channels, and I was monitoring the possible social impact if, for instance, fear of bank failures led to bank failures, or terrorists saw a massive vulnerability and ran with it — a curious document came across my desk.

You might say, Mammon gave a sermon.

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The sermon was actually written for and distributed by the American Bankers Association to its members, for them to pass along to their pastors, rabbis and imams as what we might call sermon-fodder — a seldom mentioned sub-category of the public relations genre that gives us that handy shortcut to avoid actual thought, the press release.

The Washington Post highlighted this quote:

“Prepare as best you can,” advises the sermon, written by an ABA speechwriter and made available to local bankers earlier this month. “Then trust God for the rest”

Also known as “trust in God, but first tie your camel”.

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Here’s a link to the suggested sermon, plus a paragraph or two of text, in case at this late date you are still worried about bank failure, or indeed are worried now for the first time — the fall of the rouble, too, I suppose, has potential ripple-through impact on the global economy, though I know less than nothing about such things myself.

Sermon Title: Thinking about Y2K: Moses, Orson Welles and Bill Gates

You’ve heard the dire warnings, the off-the-wall forecasts and the downright silly predictions. Life insurance companies, they say, could bill us for coverage for the past 100 years. Airplanes won’t get off the ground. And that could be the good news. Our bank accounts will show zero. Our mortgages will require another 100 years of payments. Hospital monitoring equipment will stop monitoring. The lights will go out. The phones will fail. We’ll be plunged into a deep, cold winter without heat, electricity, money or — worst of all, pizza delivery.

And yes, some of us will report actually seeing a fire on the horizon.

Grovers Mill all over again. Orson Welles would be pleased.

Quite a few jokes have been made about Y2K as well. Perhaps you’ve heard that Bill Gates has just announced the official release date for the new Windows 2000 software.

It’s to be the second quarter of 1901.

[ .. ]

Most important, we should understand what Y2K really means. It’s a computer headache that experts are working to fix right now, not an alien invasion of New Jersey. And not the end of the world. As members of God’s community, we can and should play a leadership role in helping our own families, friends and community prepare for Y2K. By understanding it. And by not being afraid. We want to go into the next Century as God intended, with hope, knowledge and the promise of a bright future.

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I imagine it must have been quite fun writing that — and in the event, banks didn’t fail, and we went into the next century, and indeed millennium, pretty much as divinely intended.

But forget Y2K, forget the rouble’s present troubles: what’s the proper relationship between God and Mammon, spirituality and survival, the Ghost and the Machine?

I’m not convinced we’ve figured that one out as yet.

A trinity of bomb

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — photojournalistic fakery and a close shave for who knows who? ]
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To paraphrase the Athanasian Creed, which contains such phrases as:

Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father Uncreate, the Son Uncreate, and the Holy Ghost Uncreate.
The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible.
The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal.
As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Incomprehensible.
So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not Three Almighties but One Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God.
So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord.

we might say in this case:

The bomb is Russian, the bomb is Ukrainian, the bomb is Israeli: yet there are not three bombs, but one bomb.

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I am in agreement with Libor Smolik. It is my impression that these three images are not proof of a global similarity of weaponry, but rather of sloppy journalism.

A hat tip to FPRI’s Clint Watts for passing this tweet along. And I have to admit that “triples” such as this can beat out my DoubleQuotes on occasion. Well spotted, Libor!

On sovereignty by motorbike

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — so if they ride through Zürich, do they get to keep all the banks? ]
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Matthew Burton asked an intriguing question on Twitter today [upper panel, below] — while 5,000 Russians pose a similar question [lower panel]:

When was the last time sovereignty depended on bike club membership?

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Addendum:

Matthew Burton kindly pointed me to this WaPo piece, Obama speaks with Putin by phone, calls on Russia to pull forces back to Crimea bases, which includes the following wording:

“In the case of any further spread of violence to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea,” a statement issued by Putin’s office said, “Russia retains the right to protect its interests and the Russian-speaking population of those areas.”

Lucky 13th Sunday surprise!

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — from Russia with apocalypse? ]
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… or is this just a case of old enemies Bonding with one another?

Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?


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