Do We Want Science At Any Price?

Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists To America by Annie Jacobsen describes how American ambition to win the Space Race and the Cold War with the Soviet Union led to an unprecedented immigration bypass program to extract Nazi Germany’s brightest scientific minds.

Linda Hunt was the first writer to file multiple Freedom Of Information Act requests with different military organizations to access the classified documents pertaining to Operation Paperclip. After more than a year, two lawyers and a threatened lawsuit the U.S. Army finally released the records and billed her $239,680 in so-called search fees (significantly more than $500,000 in today’s money). Annie Jacobsen’s book builds upon Hunt’s revelations and adds hundreds of hours of interviews and declassified intelligence documents. Her paperback stands at 445 pages. It is segmented into five parts. It takes the reader to the end of WWII when the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) and the US Army’s Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) come across the Osenberg List. This document was the equivalent to a LinkedIn for scientists and engineers employed by the Third Reich. It served as a target list during Operation Paperclip with rocket scientist Wernher von Braun at its top. Jacobsen describes the bureaucratic and moral challenges of a democratic nation when recruiting Nazi war criminals. For example, the case of Walter Schreiber illustrated a nauseating calculus by the US military to contract the former surgeon general of the Third Reich under Operation Paperclip despite tacit knowledge of his contributions to war crimes. Another example is the case of Hubertus Strughold. He rose to academic fame and received the nickname “Father of Space Medicine”. A San Antonio library bore his name and a plaque was put on display to honor his scientific work in complete ignorance of his human experiments on concentration camp inmates. Needles to state that in both cases, the inconvenient, dark truth of their participation in Nazi war crimes eventually imbued and drowned these men’s careers. Although they were never held accountable.

The Paperclip extractions surrounding medicine and chemistry appear to dominate Jacobsen’s book. However the lines are blurred between the different areas of expertise of the German scientists. And the density of information opens a many rabbit holes for the curious history buff. One of the more captivating things about the entire program is its historical impact that can still be observed today. For example, the program went from its original call sign “Overcast” to “Paperclip” to “Defense Scientist Immigration Program” whereby the CIA renamed its involvement the “National Interest” program. This particular terminology recently reappeared in the Military Accessions to the Vital National Interest (MAVNI) program and later slightly amended during the State Department’s effort to facilitate travel for highly qualified applicants during COVID-19 pandemic imposed travel bans.  Furthermore, Operation Paperclip created the foundation for other highly classified, ethically and morally obscure intelligence operations such as “Operation Bluebird/Artichoke” or “Project MK-Ultra”. Another interesting facet to this entire program that is not discussed in the book is the difference in educational systems between the United States and Germany. To this day, I believe the state-sponsored approach to afford all citizens free access to education in Germany is advantageous over the American tuition-based approach that requires substantial financial support. It was a dominant factor to allow the early 20th century Germany to develop intercontinental rockets, advanced nerve agents and other ground-breaking technology. Then, the United States was not only lacking a competitive educational system but it lacked advanced military technology to keep up with the more progressive nations of the time.   

(The German rocket team at Fort Bliss, Texas, after World War II led by Dr. Wernher Von Braun. Source: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center photo/DefenseMediaNetwork)

Annie Jacobsen masterfully presents the moral dilemma the United States government had to resolve in the quickly evaporating environment following the allied victory over Nazi Germany. The well-reserached book is packed with historical facts, contemporary interviews, and portraits of person’s of interest, each material for a separate book or movie. While her writing style is concise and captivating, I found myself progressing slowly due to the aforementioned density of intriguing characters and circumstances that populate each page. This book sheds light on some of the toughest moral and ethical questions. Some of which are still unanswered today. How was it possible that our democratic government looked past the former commitment to Nazi Party ideology of countless scientists, a few even awarded the NSDAP’s Golden Party badge honoring their outstanding services to the Nazi Party or the Third Reich. Can US citizenship be bought by saving the nation millions in research? Was WWII all about extracting scientific and technological advantages at the price of admitting Nazi ideology to our educational and scientific institutions? 

I think the most uncomfortable takeaway from this book is the arbitrary character of the US government. An old German adage goes “Wes Brot is ess’ des Lied ich sing’” (who pays the piper calls the tune). Throughout history this arbitrary character of different US governments casted a shadow on American democracy and the price of freedom.  

Militarizing Influence

Our information environment is increasingly dependent on the inescapable, largely unregulated cyberspace. Beyond national and geographical boundaries, however, this comes with its unique challenges ranging from information accuracy, integrity and relevancy to weaponizing information to influence a target audience in the pursuit of a diplomatic or economic goal. 

tl;dr

This paper proposes the development and inclusion of Information Influence Operations (IIOs) in Cyberspace Operations. IIOs encompass the offensive and defensive use of cyberspace to influence a targeted population. This capability will enable the evolution of strategic messaging in cyberspace and allow response to near-peer efforts in information warfare.

Make sure to read the full paper titled Information Influence Operations: The Future of Information Dominance By Captain David Morin at https://cyberdefensereview.army.mil/CDR-Content/Articles/Article-View/Article/2537080/information-influence-operations-the-future-of-information-dominance/

(Source: DoD/Josef Cole)

The United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) unifies the direction of cyber operations within the Department of Defense. This paper proposes to incorporate Information Influence Operations (IIOs) into its capability set. This influence will facilitate the exertion of soft power in the pursuit of US national interests. Moreover, IIOs will reduce the need for large-scale operations or use of critical cyber offensive operations. 

A notable omission in the paper is a clear definition of IIOs. The ‘Introduction’ suggests that “the unrealized value of cyberspace, and what makes it so dangerous, is it allows direct access to the individual and to the public at large. This access, when used correctly, provides actors in cyberspace the ability to influence public opinion and shape the narrative of ongoing operations.” This, however, appears to be conflating cyberspace with the general, public media landscape while it implies an operator could just hack Twitter accounts and send out some tweets with a favorable narrative. Applying the lessons and learnings from its efforts to counter foreign influence operations, Facebook views all “coordinated efforts to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal” as an influence operation. By definition in Joint Publication 3-13, information operations are described as “the integrated use of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations (PSYOP), military deception, and operations security to influence, disrupt, or corrupt adversarial decision making while protecting our own.” Therefore a suitable definition combining all of three concepts would define IIOs as “a capability to shape and direct public opinion in order to influence, disrupt, or corrupt adversarial decision making by leveraging soft- and hardware technology supported by psychological weapons and tactics in the pursuit of a strategic national interest.”

The author could have expanded more on the principles of US combatant command structures and its basic chain of command. This would have helped the reader to understand the current discrepancies in ownership of IIOs. As it stands, US combatant commands are structured by geographic focus and functional capabilities. USCYBERCOM falls into the latter category. A functional command unifies different military branches to achieve its mission. It remains unclear which military branch currently takes ownership of IIOs, if any. Taking it a step further out of the frame, the author comes out short on delivering a convincing rationale of when and where IIOs should be deployed and under whose authority. Cyberspace is predominantly civilian space created and maintained by privately held servers all across the world. Would USCYBERCOM install a permanent Information Influence Operations Center to execute IIOs spanning multiple months and years? Would such action require presidential or congressional approval? And would approved missions cease at servers operated on US soil or exclude US citizens from manipulation? Would it release a transparency report detailing the measures taken against foreign and domestic threats and under whose authority? These and other important questions need to be considered when thinking about consolidation of government power.  

But not all is dark and gloomy. The author does detail his proposition with a few more insights. In revisiting Stuxnet, NotPetya or the Russian involvement in dividing the US electorate during the 2016 US Presidential elections the author builds a foundation to support the argument for a centralized command of IIOs. Two of these events were targeted cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, one allegedly driven by the US and Israel, and the third event was a carefully curated, multi-year effort to exploit vulnerabilities in the US democratic process. All of these events indeed demonstrate the power that can be wielded through cyberspace operations, but where I disagree with the author is the comparability of these unique events and a causality between cyberspace and influencing information. Combining cyber attacks to corrupt critical infrastructure with a targeted narrative to redirect the public’s attention is a serious threat to US national security. However, identifying the operator and the motive behind such an attack may reveal domestic, private actors with a mere criminal motive, if attribution is even possible. Take the coordinated social engineering attack on Twitter ahead of the 2020 US Presidential elections. Government accounts from Joe Biden to Barack Obama as well as the accounts of notable public figures such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were hacked, hijacked and abused to distribute a bitcoin scam. Should USCYBERCOM have stepped in, take network control from Twitter, a private business, in order to mitigate and counter the attack? 

In the section ‘Influencers’ the author does raise valid concerns when he states that “influencers are capable of wielding influence over millions and have used this influence for a multitude of purposes from philanthropy and advertising to political ends.” Online reach is tantamount to circulation of a print paper with the difference being longevity – the internet never forgets. Unchecked influence of influencers is something our society needs to review and decide upon. Perhaps private businesses will recognize the powers that be and increase checks and balances for this specific type of user or automatically guardrail reach to create equity among users.

In the section ‘Operationalizing IIOs’ the author states “There is little brand loyalty in the online world. Consumers will go elsewhere to find what they need if their preference is slow or unavailable. Influencing and controlling that “someplace else” yields the opportunity to wield influence.” In essence, the author suggests to take advantage of users impatience by increasing the time it takes to load a website. Once this latency or lag is in place, an operator may incentivice users to shift their attention to an alternative information source. This can be achieved through well-targeted advertising campaigns. As an example, the author offers the case of Amazon losing over $72 million due to a 63 minute outage on Prime Day 2018.

There is research to support an increased impatience during ecommerce transactions. However, there is an equal amount of research on brand loyalty, which across markets sees about 75% and higher retention rates once a customer relationship has been successfully established. For example, an Amazon Prime user, who pays for the privilege of Prime is unlikely to switch a book order to Barnes & Noble simply because there is a few milliseconds of delay when placing the order. It takes a contrast in price and shipping time to break the established brand loyalty with Amazon. Furthermore, in the author’s example the IIO appears to be directed at an ecommerce transaction. Even in the hypothetical foreign policy scenario of introducing latency to Alibaba to redirect users to Amazon to decrease economic output/revenue or other feasible US objectives, the author doesn’t really explain how it could favorably influence future behavior.

IIOs offer a tremendous potential to support diplomacy while strengthening our national security. Allocating the responsibility to exert and drive information influence to a military institution, however, raises constitutional concerns. It would likely undermine the trust of our allies but also chill diplomatic relations with non-allied nations. From a military perspective, an effort to centralize capabilities can reduce overall cost of cyberspace operations and increase transparency among military stakeholders. On the other hand, all centralized command structures are vulnerable to a single-point of failure, which can be devastating when USCYBERCOM is facing a sophisticated, superior adversary. In addition, an effort to centralize IIOs might increase the response rate to attacks in cyberspace or efforts to coordinate foreign influence operations by an adversary due to the extended chain of command.   

How The U.S. Air Force Won WWII

On August 6, 1945 at 8:15 AM the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber named after its pilot’s mother, was well above the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Its bomb bay opened and it released the infamous payload codenamed “Little Boy”. 53 seconds later and the city of Hiroshima resembled hell. This first ever wartime use of a nuclear weapon arguably expedited the Japanese decision to surrender the war. Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book “The Bomber Mafia” chronicles the renegade group of pilots who went well beyond the call of duty leading up to this point in history. They redefined military strategy that would become the foundation for the Air Force to eventually separate from the Army as an independent military branch. They utilized precision bombing tactics and creative strategy to attack the enemy from ever-changing angles at breathtaking casualty and destruction rates. While the nuclear attack on Hiroshima resulted in about 4.7 square miles of damage, the Bomber Mafia devised and executed incendiary air raid missions that destroyed ten times more enemy infrastructure and killed hundreds of thousands more. During Operation Meetinghouse, the single most deadly bomber attack in human history, as much as 16 square miles of Tokyo were destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed and over one million left homeless. Gladwell presents the impossibility of choice these men were faced with in a page-turning fashion. 

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, a Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War is unlike his previous books. He doesn’t introduce unknown facts or thought-provoking theories but instead zooms in on a specific moment in WWII history. Gladwell tries to answer the question what does it mean when technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war? All wars present a moral conflict. What allows Bomber Mafia to stand out is the impossibility of choice that these US military officials and soldiers were faced with: invasion by land, timed-precision bombing of high-value targets or relentless sorties dropping an inferno on enemy cities? Win at all cost versus a more humane approach to war. Like most of Gladwell’s books, its insights are easily transferable into our modern times. The Bomber Mafia takes place in the context of WWII but the moral dilemma it describes is relevant for 21st-century technology, for example when we think about artificial intelligence and human medicine or algorithm structure and social media.

“Curtis LeMay won the battle. Haywood Hansell won the war.”

The paperback’s metrics are 9 chapters plus author’s note and conclusion divided into two parts and spread across 206 pages. Apparently this book was conceived as an audiobook. The paperback only functions as a second addition. I didn’t miss anything noteworthy, but I have read the audiobook has more flesh to it. 

Bomber Diplomacy

Operation Rolling Thunder was a highly controversial aerial assault on key infrastructures under control of North Vietnam. Notwithstanding its failures, the bombing campaign offers important lessons on the concept of coercion. A recent UCLA research paper shows that an escalating exercise of airpower can unlock vital information to inform and revise coercive military campaigns. 

tl;dr

Operation Rolling Thunder’s failure has been widely blamed on the strategy of using force to send “signals.” It discredited the associated theory of coercion among a generation of military officers and scholars. In this paper, I show that whatever its other failures, Operation Rolling Thunder did successfully signal a threat. I rely on the latest research to demonstrate that Hanoi believed the bombing would eventually inflict massive destruction. I also show that Washington accurately ascribed the failure of the threat to North Vietnam’s resolve and continued the operation for reasons other than signaling. These findings show that Operation Rolling Thunder can be productively understood as an exercise in both signaling and countersignaling. Rather than discrediting the theory of coercion, these findings modify it. They show that failed threats can be informative and that coercive campaigns can become prolonged for reasons other than a lack of credibility.


Make sure to read the full paper titled Was Airpower “Misapplied” in the Vietnam War? Reassessing Signaling in Operation Rolling Thunder by Ron Gurantz at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09636412.2021.1915585

(Source: Robert Taylor)

Operation Rolling Thunder was an aerial assault during the Vietnam War designed to gradually escalate in force. It started on Mar 2, 1965 and ended on Nov 2, 1968. Rather than to pursue a shock and awe strategy then commander-in-chief and 36th President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson opted for a limited-force strategy to signal the enemy American resolve and to coerce a truce. From the American perspective, the Vietnam War was a war with limited objectives, so it made sense to use limited means. North Vietnam, however, viewed it as a total war, so it made sense to resist any military strategy. Its failure to achieve a truce by compelling a cease of supplies to the Vietcong or stop infiltration into South Vietnam created a narrative among military strategist that the airpower was misused or misapplied.

The theory of coercion directs to “influence the enemy’s behavior to compel a certain outcome by means of anything short of brute force”. Applied to the Vietnam War, Operation Rolling Thunder was a means to influence North Vietnam’s behavior, notably to cease support of the Vietcong. It signaled a threat of grave devastation to North Vietnamese infrastructure and potentially civilian lives. Continued fighting does not contradict this conclusion, but indicates that North Vietnam understood the American approach of restraint, adapted to it, and accepted the threatened consequences. These actions taken by North Vietnam acted as a sort of countersignal. Furthermore, The United States recognized the effects of its signals early on, but nevertheless continued the bombing campaign under the calculus that a gradually escalating bombing campaign would erode North Vietnam’s resolve until it would reach a breaking point where the threat of heavy bombing would meet a vulnerable North Vietnamese leadership. Therefore coercing them to consider ceasefire, truce or pursue non-military alternatives such diplomacy.

As history tells, LBJ’s bomber diplomacy would not bode well for the United States. Nevertheless, the US military sent and received vital signals to inform and revise military strategy. Even though the threat of total destruction was accepted by the North Vietnamese, this countersignal was correctly interpreted by the United States as a willingness to accept consequences rather than a lack of credibility. So, why did the United States continue to gradually escalate rather than turn brute force when it became clear that North Vietnam was willing to accept heavy bombing? Coercion may benefit from restraint because an instant destruction of critical infrastructure would have left nothing to protect but also set back Vietnam’s faltering economy hundreds of years. Furthermore, coercion may benefit from restraint because the longer the bombing campaign lasts, the more it wears down the enemy’s will. The takeaway for military strategists may lie in the finding that signaling and restraint in warfare to allow for a gradual escalation will remain powerful alternatives to a blitzkrieg strategy. Sending and receiving signals has the power to inform and revise coercive military campaigns.

PBS offers an intriguing learning series on Operation Rolling Thunder and its wider impact on the Vietnam War. C-Span recorded a class by Douglas Kennedy of the U.S. Air Force Academy on Vietnam’s War’s “Operation Rolling Thunder” air campaign. Both complement and support the findings in Gurantz’ paper.

Cheer Up, It Could Always Be Worse. You Could Be Livin’ In Texas!

Molly Ivins collection of political commentary for there are nothin’ but good times ahead.

When I think of a strong and independent woman I think of Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins. Her inimitable talent of writing political commentary that combines both, lighthearted humor and serious critique, is dearly missed in times when the fourth estate of our great nation seems to lack identity and direction. “Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead” is a compendium of her political columns published between circa 1991 and 1993. While the early ‘90s seem to be a world away, her writings could have been published today without missing the mark. In a way, this says a lot about the never-changing political theatrics that is American politics. That being said, this book has no beginning and no end. Each chapter stands alone at a perfect length for your daily commute. The occasional laugh is guaranteed. In the chapter “Gibber An Other Misdemeanors” Ivins describes the former Speaker of the House of Texas Representatives Gib Lewis as 

“The Gibber gave us so many moments to remember. Both his tongue and his syntax regularly got so tangled that his language was dubbed Gibberish and provided the state with wonderful divertissement. He once closed a session by thanking the members for having extinguished theirselfs. Upon being reelected at the beginning of another session, he told members he was both grateful and ‘filled with humidity.’”

Of course, it’s not all about making fun of elected officials. Her subjects receive an equal amount of praise if they did live up to their political mandate. Another feat of Ivins’s writing style is her subconscious hook with which she provokes the reader’s reflection and encourages political awareness.

“It’s all very well to dismiss the dismal sight of our Legislature in action by saying, ‘I’m just not interested in politics,’ but the qualifications of the people who prescribe your eyeglasses, how deep you will be buried, what books your kids read in school, whether your beautician knows how to give a perm, the size of the cells in Stripe City, and a thousand and one other matters that touch your lives daily are decided by the dweebs, dorks, geeks, crooks, and bozos we’ve put into public office.”

Nowadays, our media spews out and distributes divisive messages of the nature of “Don’t California my Texas”. Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson are relentless in pointing fingers at the other side. Ivins’ column, her legacy really, is about critical thinking. It’s about the essence of democracy – participation. If we, the people, fail to critically reflect on who we vote into public office and check their decisions once in a while, then we’re headed nowhere. Her contributions carry an optimistic message that it’s not all dark and gloomy. There are honorable folks out there, who have integrity and dedicate themselves to serve the public without ifs or buts. In her own words

“The people I admire most in our history are the hell-raisers and the rabble-rousers, the apple-cart upsetters and plain old mumpish eccentrics who just didn’t want to be like everybody else. They are the people who made and make the Constitution of the United States a living document”

If only she were around today. Rest in peace, Molly Ivins. 

On Tyranny

A pocket guide for civil disobedience to safe democracy.

Democracy requires action. Timothy Synder’s “Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century” inspires action. In his short pocket guide, Synder offers civic lessons ranging from taking responsibility for the face of the world to political awareness all the way to what it really means to be a patriot. His theme is ‘those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. It struck me as an ideal guide to give out at demonstrations or town hall meetings. His ideas for civic measures are worth recounting for they aim to protect the integrity of democracy. That being said, most of his lessons should be working knowledge for every citizen. 

Twitter And Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci takes an insightful look at the intersection of protest movements and social media.

Ever since I’ve read Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd”, I’ve been fascinated with crowd psychology and social networks. In “Twitter And Tear Gas – The Power And Fragility Of Networked Protests” Zeynep Tufekci connects the elements of protest movements with 21st-century technology. In her work, she describes movements as

“attempts to intervene in the public sphere through collective, coordinated action. A social movement is both a type of (counter) public itself and a claim made to a public that a wrong should be righted or a change should be made.”

In times of far-reaching social media platforms, restricted online forums, and end-to-end encrypted private group chats, the means to organize a protest movement have drastically changed. 

“Modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organizational capacity before the first march or protest. (…) The Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to a massive movement within days clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools. However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, the new movements find it difficult to make tactical shifts because they lack both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions. Often unable to change course after the initial, speedy expansion phase, they exhibit a ‘tactical freeze’. Second, although their ability (as well as their desire) to operate without defined leadership protects them from co-optation or “decapitation,” it also makes them unable to negotiate with adversaries or even inside the movement itself. Third, the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.”

While these movements often catch the general public by surprise, it really does come down to timing and committment by a group of decentralized actors. These actors, who come from all walks of life, seek to connect with others as rapidly as possibly by leveraging the unrestricted powers of social media. Social media creates ties with a variety of supporters. Tufekci points out

“people who seek political change, the networking that takes place among people with weak ties is especially important. People with strong ties already share similar views (…). Weaker ties may be far-flung and composed of people with varying political and social ties. Also, weak ties may create bridges to other clusters of people in a way strong ties do not.”

Protest movements predating social media often shared similarities with multi-day music festivals, overnight camps or even military training exercises. They instill a sense of camaraderie which attracts a certain type of indivudal. Today’s protest movements differ from those days in that they can erupt quickly, but fall apart as fast as they came to be. Still 

“many people are drawn to protest camps because of the alienation they feel in their ordinary lives as consumers. Exchanging products without money is like reverse commodity fetishism: for many, the point is not the product being exchanged but the relationship that is created.”

In addition the speed at which modern movements operate serves as an invitation for individuals disconnected from broader society or individuals who simply prefer the short-lived special operation to right a policy wrong over the long-term work required to build and maintain relationships that are powerful enough to organically drive a change of policy.

“Some online communities not only are distant from offline communities but also have little or no persistence or reputational impact. (…) Social scientists call this the “stranger-on-a-train” effect, describing the way people sometimes open up more to anonymous strangers than to the people they see around every day. (…) Such encounters can even be more authentic and liberating.”

Tufekci spends much time on describing the evolution of social interactions in a networked space, the social inertia that needs to be managed in order to pick up momentum, but she also offers some insights on defensive considerations to make a protest movement work. First and foremost, a protest movement garners attention online, which in turn creates an influx of supporters. It will also attract opposition from private individuals, political opponents, and current political leaders. Those in power had previously relied upon, and in some countries still rely upon, censorship and suppression of information. Twitter and other social media platforms have disrupted this control over the narrative:

“To be effective, censorship in the digital era requires a reframing of the goals of censorship not as a total denial of access, which is difficult to achieve, but as a denial of attention, focus, and credibility In the networked public sphere, the goal of the powerful often is not to convince people of the truth of a particular narrative or to block a particular piece of information from getting out, but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people.”

I apologize for using a wealth of quotes from her book, but it’s best described there, in her own words. Protests movements are here to stay. Understanding how democratic nations evolve their policies, right political wrongs, and influence authoritarian nations through subtle policy, online protest and real-world tear gas confrontation will help us make more informed decisions as we pick our political battles. Zeynep Tufekci put together a well-researched account that helps to make sense of the most important, controversial online protest movements from the Occupy Gezi/Wall Street movements to the Eqyptian Revolution to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter and MeToo or the March For Our Lives. There are two noticeable drawbacks of this otherwise excellent book. First, the chapters appear uncoordinated within the book and are too long. The reader can’t take a breather without feeling to lose a thought. Second, her examples are chronologically disconnected from the actual movements. While this helps to illustrate a certain point, I found it to be a confusing feat. Twitter And Tear Gas has its own website. Check it out at https://www.twitterandteargas.org/ or reach out to the author on Twitter @zeynep 

Bitcoin Billionaires

Bitcoin is a fascinating digital currency. Its almost mythical origin story combined with the promise of decentralizing the financial system makes for a great story. Bitcoin Billionaires, however, doesn’t tell that great story. 

I recognize the challenges that come with writing about an emerging technology. Bitcoin’s presumed inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, is nowhere to be found. Bitcoin’s record keeping technology, aka the blockchain, has become a buzzword for modern privacy advocats and fintech entrepreneurs. Over the years, Bitcoin forked many times over to create an ecosystem of improved mutations of the Genesis Block, notably Bitcoin Cash and Bitcoin Gold. It also inspired a number of new cryptocurrencies along the way. 

That being said, Bitcoin Billionaires – A True Story of Genius, Betrayal And Redemption is mildly entertaining hackwork. Amazon’s recommendation algorithm put this book on my radar. The title seemed clickbait, but I usually approach books with an open mind. As I skimmed the sales page, learning more and more about its content, I became quite excited to read Bitcoin Billionaires. I wanted to learn more about the history of Bitcoin, who was driving the technology and where sound development might take it. Cryptocurrencies will become part of our financial future. Understanding its roots, knowing its key individuals, and piecing together the milestones that got us where we are today (a single Bitcoin is worth $37,431.29 according to CoinMarketCap) might inspire me and other individuals to prepare for a better financial future. Bitcoin Billionaires answered none of it.  Instead the author appeared to use his platform to brown-nose the main protagonists Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss.

Bitcoin Billionaires appears to start out where The Accidental Billionaires ended. I wasn’t aware of the connection or read the book, but I’ve seen the movie adaptation “The Social Network”. For a few awkward chapters, the author tries hard to paint the picture of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss as upstanding, hard-working heroes that made the unfortunate encounter with an evil, self-absorbed software prodigy, who pulled one over them. This unfortunate encounter left them $65 million – arguably the foundation for the Winklevii future successes in crypto-finance.

The author introduces a variety of characters associated with BitInstant, an early exchange platform for Bitcoin, which is at the center of Bitcoin Billionaires. The Winklevii twins ended up investing in the company and its founder Charlie Schrem. In a predictable pattern, the author continues his love musings about the Winklevii twins while degrading all other characters. This is really where the book plateaus – a back and forth about meetings, running BitInstant, promoting Bitcoin, etc. There is no mention of the actual technology that drives Bitcoin. Let alone any mention of crypto competition, e.g. Kraken (2011), CoinBase (2012) or Binance (2017). BitInstant was founded in 2011 and ceased operations in 2014. Yet the author rides on this single, shadow platform as if it had any meaningful impact on the proliferation of Bitcoin. Gemini, founded by the Winklevii twins, and ShapeShift, founded by Erik Voorhees, do make it into the book, but again without much detail on the technology or startup history. Furthermore, the author fails to mention any other Bitcoin Billionaires, e.g. Sam Bankman-Fried, Chris Larsen or Brian Armstrong among many others. 

Altogether Bitcoin Billionaires left an impression of tabloid writing style meets not knowing anything about cryptocurrency. It doesn’t tell the story of Bitcoin – the technology. Billionaires, who made their fortune from investing in Bitcoin, are nowhere to be found in this book. And there is nothing, that brings together all the random excerpts about the Winklevoss’ brothers.

The lesson is this: buy cryptocurrencies, but don’t buy Bitcoin Billionaires.*

(* For obvious reasons, this is not to be considered financial advice. Invest at your own risk. Investor discretion is advised.)

Redefining The Media

LiveLeak was a video-sharing website for uncensored depictions of violence, human rights violations, and other world events – often shocking content. Earlier this year, the website reportedly shut down. Surprisingly, there is little detailed academic research on LiveLeak. While available research centers around internet spectatorship of violent content, this 2014 research paper discusses the communication structures created by LiveLeak; arguably redefining social media as we know it.

tl;dr

This research examines a video-sharing website called LiveLeak to be able to analyze the possibilities of democratic and horizontal social mobilization via Internet technology. In this sense, we take into consideration the Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s philosophical conceptualization of “rhizome” which provides a new approach for activities of online communities. In the light of this concept and its anti-hierarchical approach, we tried to discuss the potentials of network communication models such as LiveLeak in terms of emancipating the use of media and democratic communication. By analyzing the contextual traffic on the LiveLeak for a randomly chosen one week (first week of December 2013) we argue that this video-sharing website shows a rhizomatic characteristic.

Make sure to read the full paper titled An Alternative Media Experience: LiveLeak by Fatih Çömlekçi and Serhat Güney at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/300453215_An_Alternative_Media_Experience_LiveLeak

liveleak
(Source: Olhar Digital)

LiveLeak has often been referred to as the dark side of YouTube. LiveLeak had similar features to engage its existing userbase and attract new users. Among them were Recent Items, Channels, and Forums. Furthermore, immersive features such as Yoursay, Must See, or Entertainment. Its central difference to mainstream video-sharing websites was the absence of content moderation. Few exceptions, however, were made with regard to illegal content, racist remarks, doxing, or obvious propaganda of terrorist organizations. LiveLeak first attained notoriety when it shared a pixelated cellphone video of the execution of former dictator Saddam Hussein. 

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari described aborescence, a tree model of thinking and information sharing whereby a seed idea grows into a concept that can be traced back to the seed idea, as the fundamental way of Western logic and philosophy. In our postmodern world, they argue, arborescence no longer works but instead, they offer the concept of rhizomatic structures. In essence, a rhizomatic structure is a decentralized social network with no single point of entry, no particular core, or any particular form of unity. Fatih Çömlekçi and Serhat Güney describe rhizomes as a

“swarm of ants moving along in an endless plateau by lines. These lines can be destroyed by an external intervention at one point but they will continue marching in an alternative and newly formed way/route”

Most social media networks are built around arborescence: a user creates an account, connects with friends and all interactions can be traced back to a single point of entry. LiveLeak resembled rhizomes. Content that circulated on its platform had not necessarily a single point of entry. It was detached from the uploader and often shared with little context. Therefore it was able to trigger a social mobilization around the particular content from all kinds of users; some with their real-life personas, most anonymously but none connected in an arborescent way. Another interesting feature about LiveLeak was its reversal of the flow of information. Western media outlets define the news. LiveLeak disrupted this power structure by, for example, leaking unredacted, uncensored footage of atrocities committed by the Assad regime during the Syrian Civil War. Moreover, users in third-world countries were able to share footage from local news channels which were not visible in the mainstream media. Taken together, LiveLeak enabled social movements such as the Arab Spring or the Ukraine Revolution. Arguably, the video-sharing platform influenced public opinion about police brutality in the United States fueling the Black Lives Matter movement. Undoubtedly, its features contributed to a more defined reality, that is less whitewashed. LiveLeak played a seminal role in establishing our modern approach to communication moderation on social media networks.

An Ode To Diplomacy

There are few books that taught me more about the strategic decisions behind U.S. foreign policy than the Back Channel. Bill Burns’ account is both a history lesson and an upbeat reminder of the value of diplomacy.

The Back Channel by Bill Burns is a well-written, historic memoir of one of the finest career diplomats in the foreign service. Exceptionally clear-eyed, balanced, and insightful in both voice and content, Burns walks the reader through his three decades of foreign service. Starting out as the most junior officer of the U.S. embassy in Jordan under then Secretary of State George Shultz, Burns quickly made a name for himself in the Baker State Department through his consistency, ability to mediate and deliver, but also his foreign language skills including Arabic, French, English and Russian. In describing “events” at the State Department, Burns strikes a perfect balance between the intellectual depth of his strategic thinking against the contours of U.S. foreign policy. He offers a rare insight into the mechanics of diplomacy and the pursuit of American interests. For example, Burns illustrates the focus of the H.W. Bush administration in Libya was on changing behavior, not the Qaddafi regime. Sanctions and political isolation had already chastised Qaddafi’s sphere of influence, but American and British delegations supported by the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) interdiction in the Mediterranean were able to convince Qaddafi to give up the terrorism and WMD business. “He needed a way out, and we gave him a tough but defensible one. That’s ultimately what diplomacy is all about – not perfect solutions, but outcomes that cost far less than war and leave everyone better off than they would otherwise have been.”

I was too young to remember the German Reunification, but I vividly remember the Yeltsin era, its mismanaged economic policy, and the correlating demise of the Russian Ruble sending millions of Russians into poverty. When Al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, I was glued to the news coverage for days, weeks on end – forever changing my worldviews and national identity. Burns memoir offers a new, liberating viewpoint for me about these events; it helped me to connect their impact on the foreign policy stage and subsequent decisions by world leaders. This really manifests in his description of Obama’s long-game in a post-primacy world:

“Statesmen rarely succeed if they don’t have a sense of strategy – a set of assumptions about the world they seek to navigate, clear purposes and priorities, means matched to ends, and the discipline required to hold all those pieces together and stay focused. They also, however, have to be endlessly adaptable – quick to adjust to the unexpected, massage the anxieties of allies and partners, maneuver past adversaries, and manage change rather than be paralyzed by it. (…) Playing the long game is essential, but it’s the short game – coping with stuff that happens unexpectedly – that preoccupies policymakers and often shapes their legacies.”

But aside from candid leadership lessons and rich history insights, what makes the Back Channel so captivating is the upbeat and fervent case for diplomacy. Burns goes out of his way detailing the daily grind that is required to serve and succeed in the State Department:

“As undersecretary, and then later as deputy secretary, I probably spent more time with my colleagues in the claustrophobic, windowless confines of the White House Situation Room than I did with anyone else, including my own family. (…) Our job was to propose, test, argue, and, when possible, settle policy debates and options, or tee them up for the decision of cabinet officials and the president. None of the president’s deputy national security advisors, however, lost sight of the human element of the process. (…) We were, after all, a collection of human beings, not an abstraction – always operating with incomplete information, despite the unceasing waves of open-source and classified intelligence washing over us; often trying to choose between bad and worse options.”

Moreover Burns offers lessons for aspiring career diplomats:

“Effective diplomats (also) embody many qualities, but at their heart is a crucial trinity: judgment, balance, and discipline. All three demand a nuanced grasp of history and culture, mastery of foreign languages, hard-nosed facility in negotiations, and the capacity to translate American interests in ways that other governments can see as consistent with their own – or at least in ways that drive home the cost of alternative courses. (…) What cannot be overstated, however, is the importance of sound judgment in a world of fallible and flawed humans – weighing ends and means, anticipating the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions, and measuring the hard reality of limits against the potential of American agency.”

All taken together make the Back Channel a must-read of highest quality for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy or diplomacy. I would even think the shrewd political observations captured in the Back Channel make for a valuable read with regard to domestic policy or current affairs, but a modicum of international policy awareness is still required. The Back Channel’s only drawback is its predominant focus on American interests in the Middle East and Europe. I can’t help but wonder how the United States would look like today had its political leadership opted for a strategy of offshore-balancing instead of a grand strategy of primacy; more focused on pressing domestic issues such as trade or immigration with our immediate neighbors Canada, Mexico and northern Latin America. I’m curious to hear Burns’ thoughts on this. Perhaps he’ll cover this arena after finishing his term as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.