|Thursday 10th of June 2021
Archibald MacLeish ‘Riders on the Earth,’
For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth.
Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small…
To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.
Why the Sky and the Ocean Are Blue: Rebecca Solnit on the Color of Distance and Desire
The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.
Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue.
The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance.
This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue.
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away.
The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.
And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.
Blue is the color of longing for the distances you never arrive in, for the blue world.
The Ancient World How Nasty Was Nero, Really? @NewYorker
Law & Politics
Nero, who was enthroned in Rome in 54 A.D., at the age of sixteen, and went on to rule for nearly a decade and a half, developed a reputation for tyranny, murderous cruelty, and decadence that has survived for nearly two thousand years.
According to various Roman historians, he commissioned the assassination of Agrippina the Younger—his mother and sometime lover. He sought to poison her, then to have her crushed by a falling ceiling or drowned in a self-sinking boat, before ultimately having her murder disguised as a suicide.
Nero was betrothed at eleven and married at fifteen, to his adoptive stepsister, Claudia Octavia, the daughter of the emperor Claudius.
At the age of twenty-four, Nero divorced her, banished her, ordered her bound with her wrists slit, and had her suffocated in a steam bath.
He received her decapitated head when it was delivered to his court. He also murdered his second wife, the noblewoman Poppaea Sabina, by kicking her in the belly while she was pregnant.
Nero’s profligacy went beyond slaughtering his nearest and dearest. He spent a fortune building an ornate palace, only to have it burn down, along with the rest of the city of Rome, in a conflagration that lasted for more than a week. Nero watched the destruction from a safe elevation, singing of the decimation of Troy.
He was famous for never wearing the same garment twice. He sought out sexual thrills like a hog snuffling for truffles.
He had a favored freedman, Sporus, castrated, then married him in a ceremony in which Sporus was dressed in the traditional garb of a bride and Nero played the groom.
Later, Nero repeated the ceremony with another of his freedmen playing the groom while he adopted the role of bride, sans castration; the pseudo-nuptials were consummated on a couch in full view of guests at a banquet.
He was attention-seeking, petulant, arbitrary. He had the senator Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus murdered on the ground that his expressions were overly melancholic.
No wonder Nero’s name became a byword for degeneracy. “Let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom,” Hamlet reminds himself as he prepares to confront Gertrude over her marriage to Claudius, resolving to “speak daggers to her but use none.”
In the twentieth century, Nero was memorialized by the lurid, Academy Award-nominated performance of Peter Ustinov in the 1951 Hollywood epic “Quo Vadis,” in which Ustinov wore purple robes, kicked servants at will, and plummily insisted that Seneca, his tutor turned adviser, acknowledge his omnipotence.
In a more recent popular depiction, a TV movie directed by the late Paul Marcus, Nero is represented as a pretty-boy prince traumatized by having witnessed his father being murdered by the emperor Caligula; Nero starts his reign with good intentions before embarking upon his own program of Caligula-style excesses.
His popular reputation even features in that comprehensive catalogue of humanity “The Simpsons,” in an episode in which Homer takes his evangelical neighbor, Ned Flanders, to Las Vegas for an experiment in depravity.
After a night of boozing at the tables, they wake to find that each has married a cocktail waitress from the hotel casino where they are staying: Nero’s Palace.
All of this, according to some recent scholars, is at best an exaggeration and at worst a fabrication: a narrative derived from biased histories, written decades after Nero died, that relied on dubious sources.
Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, and these posthumous accounts were calculated in part to denigrate this dynastic line and burnish the reputations of its successors.
Depictions of Nero as notorious are “based on a source narrative that is partisan,” Thorsten Opper, a curator in the Greek and Roman division of the British Museum, told me recently.
The museum has just opened an exhibition that, if not quite aiming to rehabilitate Nero, challenges his grotesque reputation.
“Anything you think you know about Nero is based on manipulation and lies that are two thousand years old,” Opper, the show’s lead curator, said.
Indeed, some of the stories told about Nero, such as the saying that he “fiddled while Rome burned,” are patently absurd: violins weren’t invented until the sixteenth century.
Most of what has been passed down about Nero comes from three historians:
Tacitus, who portrays him as having “polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence”;
Cassius Dio, who describes Nero skulking incognito through Rome at night while “insulting women,” “practicing lewdness on boys,” and “beating, wounding, and murdering” others; and
Suetonius, who claims that Nero, having run through the usual roster of vices, invented a perversion of his own at public games that he hosted, in which he would put on an animal skin and “assail with violence the private parts both of men and women, while they were bound to stakes.”
Modern scholars have determined that many of the tropes used to characterize Nero’s depravities bear a remarkable similarity to literary accounts of mythical events.
Opper said, “The whole thing is based on literary techniques that were taught in Roman rhetorical schools.”
Tacitus’ and Dio’s accounts of the Great Fire of Rome, in 64 A.D., in their detailed evocations of citizens wailing and mothers grabbing their children, closely echo earlier accounts of attacks on cities, especially the siege of Troy.
Nero wasn’t even in Rome when the fire started. Moreover, much of what was destroyed was slum housing constructed by exploitative landlords. During the fire, Nero “led the relief effort,” in Opper’s words, and afterward instituted a new building code.
Descriptions of Nero as unhinged and licentious belong to a rhetorical tradition of personal attack that flourished in the Roman courtroom.
Opper told me, “They had a term for it—vituperatio, or ‘vituperation,’ which meant that you could say anything about your opponent.
You can really invent all manner of things just to malign that character. And that is exactly the kind of language and stereotypes we find in the source accounts.”
The scholar Kirk Freudenburg, writing in “The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero” (2017), argues that the lurid account of the collapsing ship—Nero is said to have sent Agrippina off with a grand display of affection, only to have his plot foiled when she swam to safety—“begs to be taken as apocryphal, a contraption of the historians’ own clever design.”
Cassius Dio’s history of ancient Rome suggests that Nero was inspired to build a trick vessel after seeing a play in which a prop boat suddenly opened up, but Opper argues that the historian himself likely borrowed the idea from the play.
Similarly, when Tacitus writes that Agrippina’s final gesture was to offer her womb up to an assassin’s blade, his words mirror a passage from Seneca’s “Oedipus” in which Jocasta seeks to be stabbed in the womb “which bore my husband and my sons.”
Seneca wrote the play around the time of Nero’s rule, and it’s possible that his retelling of the mythic story was inspired by the actual manner of Agrippina’s death.
But it’s more probable that Seneca engaged in a dramatic invention, and that, as Opper suggests, it colored Tacitus’ later account of how Agrippina died.
Some of the current revisionism can seem tendentious. In the 2019 book “Nero: Emperor and Court,” the British classicist John F. Drinkwater addresses the even more heinous death of Poppaea.
He accepts the historical sources that describe an argument between Nero and his wife—Suetonius says that she was angry with him for coming home late from chariot racing—but proposes that the blow to Poppaea’s belly may have been merely the climax of a “matrimonial row that got out of hand,” adding, “If so Nero was at worst guilty of manslaughter.”
Opper sees no need to downplay domestic abuse; rather, he contends that the over-all account of the marital argument conforms to an established pattern in earlier histories of powerful leaders.
For a tyrant, “killing your pregnant wife is a topos,” he told me. “It’s applied in Roman and Greek history. It’s just such an evil deed—how much worse can someone be?” Opper said that Nero was deeply in love with Poppaea, and desperate for an heir; the couple’s only other child, a daughter, had died recently.
In ancient Rome, pregnancy was a hazardous affair, and could prove fatal even without an assault.
Opper told me, “You can’t prove it either way, but the evidence, I think, isn’t at all strong to say that he was to blame for it.”
The British Museum seeks to build a less sensationalist account of Nero through the placement and elucidation of objects: statues, busts, coins, inscriptions, graffiti.
A portrait emerges of a young, untested leader at the helm of an unwieldy empire that is under enormous stress.
The show’s tenor is established by the first object on display: a statue of Nero as a boy of twelve or thirteen.
The statue, on loan from the Louvre, depicts Nero on the cusp of manhood, his status indicated by what would at the time have been legible symbols: a bulla, an amulet worn like a locket, confirms that he is a freeborn boy who has not yet come of age.
The occasion for the statue’s manufacture might have been the marriage of Nero’s mother to his granduncle Claudius, then the emperor, in 49 A.D., eight years after the death of Nero’s father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus.
More likely, the object commemorates Claudius’ adoption of Nero as his heir in 50 A.D., the year Nero turned thirteen.
The statue would originally have been displayed on a high plinth, but at the museum it is presented at ground level, so that the viewer is eye to eye with a child. The lighting design casts a long shadow: an imperial giant looms.
By the time Nero became emperor, in 54 A.D., the empire’s grip had long been weakening, and the senatorial and knightly classes of Rome often challenged the authority of the emperor, who was only the princeps—the leading member of their class—rather than a hereditary ruler.
In this light, Nero’s construction of the Domus Aurea—a lavish palace that he built after the Great Fire, with three hundred rooms decorated with frescoes and gold leaf—can be seen less as the expression of a luxurious appetite than as a necessary investment in the perpetual entertainment of senators and knights.
(That said, the Domus was a bit much; according to Suetonius, the building’s ceilings had secret compartments from which flower petals or drops of scented unguents were released onto guests’ heads.)
Material evidence in the exhibition indicates that when Nero ascended the throne he initially garnered the support of the Senate.
Claudius had minted coins in which his portrait was paired with an image of the Praetorian Guard’s barracks—a daunting display of military domination.
Nero asserted his legitimacy by inscribing the coins made for his accession with images of an oak wreath, which was traditionally bestowed as an honor by the Senate.
The Ancient World How Nasty Was Nero, Really? @NewYorker [continued]
Law & Politics
One of the most striking aspects of Nero’s early rule was the elevated role of his mother, Agrippina.
Gold coins issued shortly after Nero became emperor show him in profile, nose to nose, with his mother, whose titles are given: “Wife of the Deified Claudius, Mother of Nero Caesar.”
On a large marble relief that was created after Nero’s elevation, Agrippina is shown placing a crown on Nero’s head, as if she were responsible for his ascent.
In the year after his accession, a gold coin was minted depicting mother and son in parallel.
To the conservative historians who later gave accounts of this period, Agrippina’s prominence underscored the unnatural quality of Nero’s reign.
Tacitus scorned Nero for being “ruled by a woman.” The alleged incest between mother and son was, in this telling, part of Agrippina’s desperate effort to retain power after her husband’s death.
Tacitus writes that, when Nero was “flushed with wine and feasting,” Agrippina “presented herself attractively attired to her half intoxicated son and offered him her person.”
In the museum’s catalogue, Opper writes that “there seems little reason now to take any of this seriously, beyond what it reveals about the authors involved.”
In the British Museum’s presentation, Agrippina’s securing of power is portrayed as evidence of her intelligence and her remarkable political abilities, particularly given the constraints of a patriarchal society.
The coinage from Nero’s reign also documents her eclipse. A few years after his accession, Nero is depicted alone.
By 59 A.D. Agrippina was dead, at the age of forty-three, and though her demise probably did not involve self-sinking vessels at sea, Nero does seem to have been responsible for having her stabbed to death.
Opper suggests that Nero appears to have “sacrificed” her to appease Rome’s senatorial élite, who resented her interventions in public affairs.
Although matricide was generally regarded as a terrible crime by the ancient Romans, Opper points out that other inconvenient women of the period also met harsh fates: Julia, the only child of the emperor Augustus, was banished by her father and died in exile.
“Mothers obviously have a special status, but it is a mistake to look at Nero in isolation,” Opper told me. “You lose sight of the past patterns, and what they tell us about the values of this strange society.”
Nero’s demonic reputation also clashes with evidence that he was beloved by the Roman people.
Alongside official portraits of the Emperor—the busts and statues—the British Museum includes a digitized reproduction of a graffito scratched into a building on the Palatine Hill.
The image, which matches depictions of Nero on surviving coinage, shows him bearded and full-faced, with an ample double chin, and a hint of a smile on pursed lips.
Opper takes the portrait to be admiring, rather than satirical, noting that no graffitied slogan suggests otherwise.
Nero, he reports, was widely seen by the Roman public as youthful and vigorous.
Suetonius notes that Nero, after becoming emperor, permitted members of the public to watch him exercise, demonstrating a physical prowess that was in marked contrast to Claudius, who had been ill and frail.
Nero enacted tax and currency reforms, steps that may have been unpopular with the wealthy but were welcomed by the broader public.
The emperor Trajan, who came to power thirty years after Nero died, is said to have spoken of the “quinquennium Neronis”—the five good years of Nero’s fourteen-year rule.
Trajan did not cite a specific period, but as emperor Nero took various measures that were approved of and, tellingly, retained or built on by later leaders.
He erected a new marketplace and a spectacular complex of public baths, which allowed ordinary citizens to indulge ablutionary pleasures previously reserved for the wealthy.
At the end of the first century, the satirical poet Martial quipped, “Who was ever worse than Nero? Yet what can be better than Nero’s warm baths?”
The Roman public also admired an aspect of Nero’s character that was much criticized by his later judges: his love of theatricality, the arts, and spectacle.
Nero enjoyed singing, and Suetonius writes that he “frequently declaimed in public, and recited verses of his own composing, not only at home, but in the theatre.”
These performances were “so much to the joy of all the people” that “the verses which had been publicly read, were, after being written in gold letters, consecrated to Jupiter Capitolinus.”
Nero’s provision of public games and other entertainments further contributed to his popularity. The British Museum’s show features a terra-cotta figurine showing two gladiators in combat, of the sort that were mass-produced as souvenirs.
At the contests, violence sometimes spilled out of the arena.
During one gladiatorial match in Pompeii, in 59 A.D., fighting broke out among supporters of rival combatants, resulting in such a disturbance that the Roman Senate placed a ten-year ban on such events.
Nero intervened to have the ban reduced, which surely added to his public support.
Nero’s championing of fun and games, however, was insufficient to secure his position at the top of Roman society, especially after the Great Fire.
“Rome Is Burning,” a recent book by the classicist Anthony A. Barrett, argues that wealthy citizens were adversely affected by the inadequacy of fire services during the conflagration, and angered when Nero attempted to build his palatial grounds over the ruins of their ravaged properties.
But Opper points out that members of the élite had already come to dislike Nero.
An uprising in Britain so threatened Roman power that Nero had to reinforce troops in the province; though the insurrection was defeated, the tumult weakened his reputation.
Aristocratic families who had for generations nurtured their own aspirations to imperial control maintained that Nero wasn’t up to the job, and tried to assassinate him. (When the plotters were caught, many were forced to commit suicide.)
The museum’s exhibit emphasizes that Nero was struggling to hold together an empire that extended from Britain to Armenia.
Among the most arresting items in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, which was discovered in the River Alde, in Suffolk, England, just over a century ago.
There is a dent on the left side of the figure’s neck, which some scholars have read as a gesture of contempt: someone apparently decided to batter the art work with a heavy implement.
Nero clearly “needed to reach out” to constituents who came from the empire’s distant outposts, Opper suggests, but certain Roman senators behaved as if they were still running a city-state.
A rebellion broke out in Gaul, followed by a more serious challenge to Nero’s power from Servius Sulpicius Galba, the Roman governor of Spain.
The Senate turned against Nero, who fled to a country estate and killed himself, at the age of thirty. Galba was soon declared emperor.
Despite Nero’s downfall, not everyone was disenchanted with him. The show at the British Museum reminds visitors of occasional appearances, in the coming decades, of “false Neros” in the eastern part of the empire.
These pretenders to the imperial throne—whose appeal must have depended on an enduring affection for Nero—included one who bore a remarkable physical resemblance to him, and even shared his predilection for music.
Mounting a museum show dedicated to revising the reputation of one of history’s most infamous rulers is a provocative gesture at a time when world leaders have been exhibiting Neronian gestures of their own.
While the museum’s staff was installing the exhibition, the British newspapers were filled with accounts of the alleged profligacy of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in renovating the apartment that he shares with his wife, Carrie Symonds.
The expenses reportedly soared to a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, and a wealthy donor allegedly covered most of them. (Johnson insists that he has paid for the work himself.)
According to a headline in the Daily Mail, the new décor includes “gold wallpaper,” suggesting a Domus Aurea on Downing Street.
In the United States, the decadent tastes of former President Donald Trump and his family were on display for four years.
He spent as much time as he could at his gilded private residences; on the rare occasions that Melania Trump wore the same outfit twice, it made headlines.
Even before Trump’s Presidency began, the publication of the Steele dossier spread rumors of sexual behavior so theatrically perverse that Nero himself might have tipped his oak wreath in respect.
Recent historical experience has reminded us that political popularity need not be at odds with ineffective or even criminally negligent leadership.
In the spring of 2020, with the covid-19 crisis igniting, Trump retweeted a photograph of himself playing the fiddle—an act of Neronian trolling.
Opper’s purpose is not to burnish Nero’s reputation but to show how it was constructed, and to what end. “Who controls the narrative?” he asked me.
“It’s the people in power. If you only subscribe to one person, and read their tweets, you get a very one-sided story.”
The story of Nero that emerges in the British Museum’s reconsideration is more complex and less salacious than the familiar narrative, though Opper acknowledged,
“I don’t know if he was good. He certainly wasn’t bad in the ways that he was depicted. He was a spoiled young aristocrat. But he wasn’t a monster.”
It was almost inevitable that Nero’s reputation was crudely remade after his death, since those who replaced the Augustan line needed to secure their own claims to power.
The exhibition includes a sculpture of a male figure that illustrates the ruthless logic of imperial succession.
The sculpture, excavated in Carthage, Tunisia, evokes the graffitied sketch of Nero found on the Palatine Hill: the figure has the familiar contours of Nero’s jowly face and forward-brushed hair.
But the man’s face has evidently been altered, with the addition of wrinkles and creases, to transform it into the face of a much older man: Vespasian, who came to power in 69 A.D., at the age of sixty.
He established his own dynasty, the Flavians, who held power for the next three decades before themselves succumbing. Not for the last time, the celebration of a new emperor entailed the disfiguring of Nero.
Whoever Controls The Narrative Controls The World
Law & Politics
The Pandemic and Political Order @ForeignAffairs @FukuyamaFrancis
Another reason for pessimism is that the positive scenarios assume some sort of rational public discourse and social learning.
Yet the link between technocratic expertise and public policy is weaker today than in the past, when elites held more power.
The democratization of authority spurred by the digital revolution has flattened cognitive hierarchies along with other hierarchies, and political decision-making is now driven by often weaponized babble.
That is hardly an ideal environment for constructive, collective self-examination, and some polities may remain irrational longer than they can remain solvent
Exporting Chinese surveillance: the security risks of ‘smart cities’ @FT
Law & Politics
Belgrade’s Republic Square is one of the cultural and social hubs of the Serbian capital, a popular meeting point lined with cafés and the site of the National Museum and the National Theatre.
It is also now at the centre of an international debate about the export of Chinese technology, authoritarian surveillance and cyber security.
The square is under constant observation by equipment made in China.
A surveillance camera system installed by Huawei, the Chinese technology group, has the capacity to monitor the behaviour of people in the square and elsewhere in the city, recognise their faces, identify their vehicle number plates and make judgments on whether suspicious activities are afoot.
The cameras in central Belgrade represent the first among some 8,000 that the city plans to install as part of a comprehensive “safe city” partnership with Huawei.
When the project was unveiled in 2019, Nebojsa Stefanovic, Serbia’s former interior minister, boasted that every street and building in the area of the square would be covered by cameras.
“We will know from which street [a perpetrator] came, from which car, who was sitting previously in that car,” he said.
But although the Serbian government has a good relationship with Beijing — the pro-China president Aleksandar Vucic last year kissed the Chinese national flag in a video seen over 600m times on Chinese social media — the installation of such surveillance systems is causing controversy.
“Very delicate technology is in question which allows monitoring of the whole society — and enables a dystopian, Orwellian society,” says Zlatko Petrovic, assistant secretary-general to the Serbian Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection.
‘It can be dangerous in the hands of someone who is not responsible, and it can easily be misused,” adds Petrovic.
His independent state agency advocates more debate and transparency about how biometric data should be stored, who can access it, how it will be used and for how long.
The controversy in Serbia is being repeated in different ways across the world as scores of countries — including several western democracies — install surveillance technology as part of “safe city” and “smart city” packages supplied by Chinese companies including Huawei, ZTE Corporation, Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology, Zhejiang Dahua Technology, Alibaba and others.
The growing use of these Chinese technologies around the world is one of the issues that will provide a backdrop to Friday’s G7 summit in Cornwall, where the leading democratic nations will swap notes on how best to respond to China’s growing global reach.
“Safe” and “smart” city technologies represent a complex new frontier for China’s projection of power — an indication that Beijing will use its influence not just to defend itself against outside pressure but to actively export its political values to other parts of the world.
To defenders of the Chinese-backed projects, they use surveillance systems that are already widely in use in many democratic countries while offering big efficiency gains as city operations are automated.
It is unfair to single out Chinese technology, they say, when products made in other countries might pose many of the same risks.
Nevertheless, several intelligence sources, city officials, academic experts, and security industry executives interviewed in Europe, the US and Asia, told the Financial Times that Chinese “safe” and “smart” city systems carry a plethora of potential security and human rights threats.
Although they offer convenience and cost savings, these systems come with three specific risks, the experts say.
The first is that authoritarian governments may use the capacity to monitor individual people on a real-time basis to impose a digital form of totalitarianism.
The second is the risk that Chinese vendor companies — and thereafter possibly the Chinese security state — could gain access to sensitive data.
The third is that, in extremis, a Chinese company could flick a “kill switch”, shutting down a city’s operations.
Several cities have already begun to try to extract Chinese-made equipment from their monitoring systems.
“This represents the global expansion of the Chinese system of digital authoritarianism. When I say digital authoritarianism, I mean the ability to control, surveil and coerce societies using this type of safe and smart city technology,” says Xiao Qiang, an expert on China’s state surveillance at the University of California in Berkeley.
The distinction between “safe” and “smart” cities is blurred. “Safe” cities are mainly concerned with automating the policing of society using video cameras and other digital technologies to monitor and diagnose suspicious behaviour.
“Smart” city technology often also includes video surveillance but is primarily devoted to automating municipal functions such as traffic control, garbage collection, power distribution and water systems.
New data shown exclusively to the FT reveals that the adoption of China’s safe and smart city technology by countries around the world is accelerating.
A study by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based advisory, shows that out of a total of 144 safe and smart city contracts involving Chinese vendors signed outside China since 2009, 49 were scheduled for installation in 2018 or later.
The data also shows a clear predominance of illiberal regimes placing orders.
The RWR Advisory study shows that out of 64 countries that have signed up to install the safe and smart city technology of Chinese companies, 41 were ranked as “not free” or “partly free” by Freedom House, a US non-governmental organisation. The remaining 23 were in countries classified as “free”.
“Many, but not all, of the countries that are installing safe and smart city packages are illiberal regimes that are deciding to depend on these Chinese companies to run their infrastructure for them,” adds Xiao, who is also founder and editor-in-chief of the China Digital Times, a news website.
Countries in south-east Asia and the Middle East have signed the most contracts, with 20 and 19 respectively since 2009.
Both regions have been identified as crucial to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s signature policy to build infrastructure and win influence around the world.
Late last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping exhorted south-east Asian countries to help build a “digital silk road”, a scheme that falls under the broad BRI umbrella and is charged with promoting the adoption of Chinese “safe” and “smart” city tech — as well as other digital technologies and services — around the world.
“Chinese surveillance technology companies are gaining a dominant position in this sector globally with the assistance of state support that takes a number of different forms,” says Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer at RWR Advisory.
Indeed, recent research by CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank, revealed that in the narrowly defined areas of cloud infrastructure and e-government services, Huawei was also making rapid inroads, signing 70 deals in 41 countries for these services from 2006 to April this year.
Jonathan Hillman, a senior fellow at CSIS, says this means that Huawei’s cloud infrastructure and e-government services are handling sensitive data on citizens’ health, taxes and legal records in these countries.
“Huawei is building a strategic position as a cloud provider to governments in the developing world, where its sales pitch is sweetened by Chinese state financing,” Hillman says.
“For its part, the Chinese government stands to shape global standards, gain intelligence and build coercive capabilities as developing countries become digitally dependent on Beijing.”
A spokesperson for Huawei said: “We firmly believe that any future security principles should be based on verifiable facts and technical data rather than ideology or a vendor’s country of origin, and that network security and resilience can best be achieved by diversifying suppliers.”
An executive at another Chinese surveillance company, who requested anonymity, says the country’s surveillance equipment vendors follow relevant regulations on data privacy.
Projects were owned by city managers who had control over the devices and the data, the executive adds.
Hikvision, Dahua, ZTE and Alibaba did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
The extraordinary success that Chinese surveillance corporations have had in popularising their digital infrastructure and services internationally suggest that repeated US warnings about the sector in recent years have fallen largely on deaf ears.
The administrations of Donald Trump and current president Joe Biden have alleged that Chinese surveillance companies helped Beijing carry out human rights abuses in detention camps in the Xinjiang region, where some 1m Uyghurs are estimated to be detained.
Beijing has denied western allegations of human rights abuses against Uyghurs as “slanderous attacks”.
The Trump administration also put several surveillance companies — including Huawei, Hikvision and Dahua — onto a blacklist that prohibits US-based companies from exporting products to them.
Biden took further steps this month, signing an executive order to prohibit US investments in 59 Chinese defence and surveillance tech companies in an effort to stop US capital from being used by China to undermine national security.
The White House said in a statement as it announced the prohibition that the “use of Chinese surveillance technology outside [China], as well as the development or use of Chinese surveillance technology to facilitate repression or serious human rights abuses, constitute unusual and extraordinary threats”.
Evidence is now growing that not only in the US but also in Europe and parts of Asia, a backlash toward Chinese surveillance technology is gathering momentum.
The UK presents a prime example of this trend. The FT discovered in May that a deal for “smart place” services supplied by Alibaba to the southern English town of Bournemouth had been aborted at the last minute. Alibaba declined to comment on the Bournemouth deal.
Another English town, Milton Keynes, has cancelled a contract with Huawei for a smart city project that used 5G telecoms equipment and is planning to strip out the Chinese company’s telecoms kit following Downing Street’s decision last year to eradicate Huawei equipment entirely from its network by 2027.
Since then, guidance from UK security officials to councils throughout the country highlights the risk that overseas smart city technology suppliers may come under pressure to “access and exfiltrate data” on behalf of security and intelligence services in their countries of origin.
In May, an official identified only as “Dean” from the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of the UK’s GCHQ signals intelligence agency, made rare on-the-record comments about the risk of smart city technology being misused.
“I think with any bulk data store, there’s going to be threats of attack and risk of accidents,” Dean told a cyber security conference.
“It’s clear from various incidents reported, the extraordinary lengths our adversaries and actors will go to to obtain data of this nature.”
He added: “We need to make sure that these services are resilient, and they are not easily disrupted by cyber attack. If a [smart city] is compromised, there will be a potential impact on local citizens.”
In Taiwan too, concerns over data privacy have led to the eschewal of China-made smart city technology.
“Our direction in Taiwan is try not to use Made in China,” says Lee Chen-yu, director, Taipei Smart City Project Management Office.
“We understand that with regard to some small, very tiny components this may be unavoidable sometimes, but we still try to mainly rely on Taiwanese vendors. ”
“There are some chips where there is a risk of a backdoor, where data could be transferred out,” Lee adds.
“The vendors themselves must not be Chinese, and the requirements with regard to certain products, such as cameras, where there have been issues in the past about data being sent back to China, are particularly strict. ”
Jonny Wu, senior director at Ability Enterprise, a Taiwanese smart city vendor, confirmed the change in attitudes toward China-made technology.
“Many companies in Taiwan previously would repackage made-in-China components. Now [they are] all forced to change,” Wu says.
“Last year, the Taiwan government started changing public surveillance and IP cam systems and getting rid of all China-made ones.”
Alexi Drew, a specialist in emerging technology and security at King’s College London, says smart city contracts provided Chinese vendors with all-important access points to a potential trove of sensitive information.
“In pure cyber security terms, one of the most difficult parts of any malicious activity is gaining access,” Drew adds.
“If we’re providing access to a hostile state actor as part of a smart city contract, then we’re looking at a wide suite of local authority infrastructure which at some point potentially overlaps with national infrastructure.”
Another industry executive, who declines to be identified, says the regular software updates served by safe and smart city vendors provided opportunities to insert “backdoor” routes into the system that are almost impossible to detect.
Thus, a safe or smart city system may start off clean but over time become riddled with access points for snooping.
There have been various public allegations related to Chinese-built infrastructure and data vulnerabilities.
A 65-page report funded by the Australian government and published last year found that a data centre built by Huawei for Papua New Guinea contained glaring errors that would have made the facility vulnerable to hacks.
Huawei also won a contract to install communications equipment inside the headquarters of the African Union building in Addis Ababa in 2012.
African Union officials subsequently accused China of hacking the building’s computer systems every night for five years and downloading confidential data.
A Huawei spokesperson said that while the company supplied equipment for the African Union projects, it has never collected data illegally.
Such privacy concerns have ignited a debate on how best to benefit from the efficiencies of automating certain city functions while observing citizens’ rights and safeguarding security.
Lee says Taipei has developed several approaches and standards. It deploys video cameras, for instance, but does not use facial recognition because “that is individual, private digital information”.
Only the police department is allowed to access footage from the cameras, he adds. “Other government departments, even if I am the transportation department, I cannot access them,” Lee says.
In Belgrade, resistance to safe city technology is also growing. The facial recognition feature on the cameras installed in the centre of the city has not been activated while the government prepares a legal framework governing its use.
Meanwhile, Danilo Krivokapic, director of the Belgrade-based NGO Share Foundation, has been stirring opposition towards the surveillance technology by crowdsourcing photos of the Huawei cameras.
Local residents are asked to upload images and geo-tags of new cameras to an ever-growing list.
“We are a post-socialist country and there is a persistent fear of the government watching everyone, especially when you talk about digital surveillance,” says Krivokapic.
The Bukele Clan that Rules with @nayibbukele @ElFaroEnglish
Law & Politics
Karim, Ibrajim and Yusef Bukele Ortez constitute the most influential circle of power surrounding President Nayib Bukele.
The three men are his brothers, sons of Armando Bukele Kattán and Olga Ortez, and, together with the president, are four of Bukele Kattán’s 10 children.
Although they don’t officially hold public office, numerous sources and even they themselves confirm that they’re the main strategists, lobbyists, and emissaries of this administration.
Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 - 8 June 2021 @WHO
Global case and death incidences continued to decrease with over 3 million new weekly cases and over 73 000 new deaths, a 15% and an 8% decrease respectively, compared to the previous week
Despite the downward trend in global case and death incidences for a sixth and fifth consecutive week respectively, many countries across all six regions have reported rises in the number of cases and deaths.
The highest numbers of new cases were reported from
India (914 539 new cases; 33% decrease)
Brazil (449 478 new cases; 7% increase)
Argentina (212 975 new cases; 3% decrease)
Colombia (175 479 new cases; 17% increase)
United States of America (99 103 new cases; 35% decrease).
Bond Front-Runners Don't Care About Inflation @markets @bopinion @johnauthers
World Of Finance
The fall in the benchmark 10-year yield since it peaked two months ago has now been equivalent to a rate cut by the Federal Reserve, and Wednesday saw it drop below 1.5% for the first time since March.
That this seems shocking owes much to the human tendency to extrapolate existing trends into the future, and also the market’s tendency to stage “tantrums” in which yields rise in a hurry as bond investors (once known as “vigilantes’) storm out.
As marked on the chart, the 10-year yield appeared to follow a clear trend from last summer until this spring.
Then, in February and March, there was a vintage tantrum. Yields shot up, and suddenly predictions that they would rise above 2% in short order were popular.
Very few at that point would have predicted that the market would revisit 1.5% before a trip to 2%. But that is what has happened:
So why the spasm of doubt? One important factor, identified by Harry Colvin of Longview Economics Ltd. in London, is simple overconfidence.
Markets tend to overshoot, and by late March, the betting on yields heading beyond 2% was excessively certain.
In such circumstances, the “short bonds” trade became overcrowded. Once there was evidence that the trend wasn’t holding, traders asked if they really wanted to be short bonds ahead of an unpredictable inflation report, and bought back. That gave us the results we see in the charts.
A second point, Colvin says, is that the bond market tends to react to the most cyclical parts of the economy, and some “mini-cycles” are already showing signs of slowing after a sudden rise.
But unemployment may be more important than anything else. The course of the 10-year yield over the last two weeks gives a good clue.
Yields dipped sharply after the publication of non-farm payroll data at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning (ringed on the chart).
They have fallen further since. When the data came out, yields were still solidly in the middle of their range for the last few months. Since then, they have dropped below 1.5%:
09-MAY-2021 The Markets The Lotos-eaters
World Of Finance
On 28th March when the Bears had gotten hold of the US 10 Year, I wrote that I expected the 10 Year to target 1.45% well we got real close on Friday before the market reversed
Ten- year yields initially plunged to a more than two-month low of 1.46%, then reversed to end the day at 1.58%. However, I am resetting my target Yield to 1.25% now.
Given the volume of money Printing and the extraordinary stimulus I have to say that the US Recovery is actually really weak and I believe it will be very short lived and the Penny will drop soon with the Bond Market and the Shorts will be forced to cover.
The Consensus View appears to be that the Global economy is going to accelerate big time and that its going to BOOM!
I beg to differ
Furthermore The Central Banks are in a corner.
They have fired a lot of bullets and even if there was a meaningful bounce they cannot raise rates.
Here is why central banks are trapped and cannot raise rates even if inflation rises: @dlacalle_IA Feb 2
Don't Call Bitcoin a Bubble. It's an Epidemic @markets @bopinion @johnauthers
Fads, Bugs, Bubbles and Bitcoin
Robert Shiller, the Yale University economist who shared the 2013 Nobel prize in economics, is famous above all else for his role in spotting the dot-com bubble before it burst in 2000.
The title of the book he published the year before, Irrational Exuberance, has passed into the financial lexicon. And yet he dislikes the concept of a “bubble” and would prefer something else.
That was perhaps the most surprising finding when we discussed his latest book, Narrative Economics, on the terminal with him Tuesday.
The point of a real bubble is that after it reaches a certain size, all it can do is burst. After that there will be nothing left. There’s no chance to release some air and see it deflate gradually, as there might be with a beachball.
The word swiftly attached itself to the scandal of the South Sea Bubble in early 18th century England, and its twin the Mississippi Bubble in France. Even Isaac Newton lost his savings before the South Sea Company was revealed to be one big scam.
The answer Shiller gave when we asked him if we agreed that the stock market today is in a bubble was surprising:
The term bubble, or “boule” in French, appears to have suddenly appeared in 1720 -- it was called the Mississippi event.
Speculating on Mississippi became a name for the first really big stock market crash, 75 years before the New York Stock Exchange was founded.
Somebody called it “boule” and it has persisted to this day. But it suggests something that is factually wrong, which is that they end in a crash, a one-day event, but that’s not historically accurate.
So I wish we could have another name for a bubble, maybe call it a fad, fads can come back again in a different form
We had a Kewpie doll fad in the 1920s, I think, then we had Beanie Babies, people were buying them thinking they had collectors’ value like an investment
I asked if non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, were also a fad rather than a bubble.
Yeah, fad is a better term but it’s not as unique. People would imagine if we ask them that the 1929 Crash was all over in one day. It fell on Oct. 28 and then came almost all the way up by 1930 and then went down by 1932.
But the narrative emphasizes the all-or-nothing crash. We learned it wasn’t the case with Bitcoin, it’s on its third-wave, like disease epidemics that go in waves.
After a year of watching charts of epidemics in different countries, comparing R-0 rates, cases, vaccinations, excess deaths and all the rest, and applying moving averages to sinister lines snaking across graphs, maybe we should now use our new-found familiarity with epidemiology to give us a new mental model for how markets work, and how they become overpriced.
Epidemics are, as we all now understand, an intensely social phenomenon, born of the way in which we interact with each other, and sometimes thwarted by our choices not to interact with each other — just like market manias.
As Shiller put it when he was asked about the possibility that exogenous shocks could interact with narratives generated within the market:
Epidemiologists speak of “co-epidemics,” like AIDS and tuberculosis, which reinforce each other. Epidemiologists also study narratives in some cases at least, in trying to understand the progress of disease.
The economy was hurt by some Covid-19 narratives, and the economy affected mitigation efforts that limited the disease.
One can, however, seek out mutations, both in the virus and the narratives about it, that seem to be largely exogenous.
No one would have predicted that Kanye West would suddenly help the Trump campaign and then switch to run for president!
Milton Friedman called such events “quasi-controlled experiments” because they seem unconnected with any economic channel of causation.
Remarkably, the first chapter of the book, published in 2019 before most of us had any reason to have heard of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is full of the language of epidemics, mutations and contagions.
So when I asked if he preferred the concept of an epidemic to a bubble, the reply was clear. Even the Romans, who had a stock market, used epidemic analogies for it:
Yes, “epidemic” would be better than “bubble.” In Ancient Rome, they referred to “contagio,” or contagion. Their word for meme in Latin was “rumor.” They were aware of contagion and meme.
So if we are now using the words “epidemic” or “fad” rather than bubble, does that help?
Meme stocks at present are a fad, and it’s certainly possible to claim that there is an epidemic of enthusiasm in the stock market as money pours in. Both of which speak to the social element of markets.
The environmental, social and governance, or ESG, phenomenon is another example of a narrative that has mutated more than once; once known as ethical investing, it morphed into socially responsible investing, or SRI, and then came back as ESG.
Much criticized, there is something about the ESG narrative, as with bitcoin, that is genuinely appealing, and that people truly want to believe.
Asked if a fad like bitcoin could become an asset class, Shiller pointed out that there is a precedent:
It’s definitely possible, how did we arrive at the gold standard? Gold is this relatively useless metal, mentioned something like 300 times in the Bible.
You can have both long-term and short-term contagions, the contagious idea that gold has value has been going around for thousands of years.
To reiterate, the word “bubble” implies a phenomenon supported by nothing but air that can only burst. That’s a fitting description for a Ponzi scheme, or any deliberate fraud.
It is also an apt word to capture what the economist Hyman Minsky called the “Ponzi finance” stage of speculative excess, when people are buying into an asset solely because they believe someone will pay them more for it, rather than because they believe in its ultimate worth.
Thus many “me too” dot-com stocks behaved just like Ponzi schemes back in 1999 and 2000, even though their backers were honest and sincerely believed they had a business model that would make money.
Bitcoin has run into moments of speculative excess that certainly look like bubbles several times already — but as I’ve pointed out before, the price has gone on to recover.
The analogy of a fad, or of a virus that finds a way to mutate, is a better one than a bubble.
Many of the most extreme investment manias in history involved the introduction of genuinely exciting new technology, whose valuation was difficult to fix initially. This applies to canals, railroads, and motor cars.
There is a burgeoning literature in defending bubbles as a by-product of healthy excitement over investing in new technologies — but it’s impossible to support a true “bubble” like the South Sea Bubble or tulipmania.
Defending investment fads or epidemics makes far more sense.
Our thanks to Shiller for talking to the club, and for tolerating a number of technical difficulties with patience. There should be a transcript available shortly.
WHO regional African Region Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 - 8 June 2021 @WHO
The African Region reported just under 66 000 new cases, a 25% increase compared to the previous week, and over 1100 new deaths, a number similar to that of the previous week.
The region reported an increase in weekly case incidence by over 20% for a second consecutive week, while death incidence increased for a third consecutively, though by a lower rate.
The highest numbers of new cases were reported from
South Africa (32 421 new cases; a 22% increase)
Uganda (5745 new cases; a 137% increase)
Zambia (4789 new cases a 191% increase).
.@PMEthiopia has launched an unwinnable War on Tigray Province.
Ethiopia which was once the Poster child of the African Renaissance now has a Nobel Prize Winner whom I am reliably informed
PM Abiy His inner war cabinet includes Evangelicals who are counseling him he is "doing Christ's work"; that his faith is being "tested". @RAbdiAnalyst
@PMEthiopia has launched an unwinnable War on Tigray Province.
Ghana Inflation Hits Record Low, Beating Economists’ Estimates @economics
Ghana’s inflation rate dropped to a record low in May, falling below the middle of the central bank’s target range.
Consumer inflation slowed to 7.5% from 8.5% in April, Government Statistician Samuel Kobina Annim told reporters Wednesday in Accra, the capital.
That’s the lowest rate since at least the start of 2013. The median of five economists’ estimates in a Bloomberg survey was 8.3%. Prices climbed 0.8% in the month.
The slowdown brought inflation below the midpoint of the official target band of 6% to 10% earlier than the central bank had projected.
The monetary policy committee said last week the rate will be close to 8% by June.
At the same briefing, Governor Ernest Addison announced the panel’s unexpected move to cut its benchmark interest rate to the lowest in more than nine years to support the recovery of the economy, even as cost pressures from new taxes and a 13% rise in transport fares are yet to reflect in price data.
The inflation rate in the West African economy was above 11% in May, June and July last year at the peak of the pandemic and movement restrictions, creating a high base for comparing year-on-year price moves.
That, and a relatively stable exchange rate, added to the drop in the headline number last month.
A “drop in the rate of inflation may make the Bank of Ghana feel vindicated in cutting the policy rate,” Courage Martey, an economist with Accra-based Databank Group, said by phone ahead of the release.
“If subsequently the rate goes up, then we expect to see the policy rate on hold for the rest of the year.”
Food-price growth, that helped to keep inflation above 10% for most of last year, slowed to 5.4 % from 6.5% in April. Non-food inflation was 9.2%.
East Africa Seeks $16 Billion of Debt to Boost Economic Growth @economics @herbling
Finance ministers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania will present their 2021-22 spending plans on Thursday, providing details on funding key projects, including building railways and ports, in the wake of heavy indebtedness.
The three governments will contend with a combined budget shortfall of about $16.4 billion in the fiscal year.
Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, faces a gap of $8.8 billion equivalent to 7.7% of gross domestic product, which it plans to fill with external and domestic borrowing.
“Policy makers will this year need to lay bare their fiscal consolidation plans and address the elevated debt burdens,” Jacques Nel, head of Africa Macro at NKC African Economics, said in emailed responses to questions.
“Developmental needs and projects already underway mean that there is little room to cut spending.”
The countries are betting on a strong economic recovery for a rebound in revenues that will help narrow fiscal deficits.
The International Monetary Fund projects 2022 growth of 5.7% for Kenya, 5% for Uganda, 4.6% for Tanzania and 8.7% for Ethiopia.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration is poised to borrow more to fund an 8.8% increase in spending to 3.66 trillion shillings ($33.9 billion).
The added expenditure is fueled by Kenyatta’s need to continue investing in expressways, ports and railways as he nears the end of his second term in office next year.
The public debt-service costs will probably surge to a record 1.17 trillion shillings, consuming about two-thirds of domestic revenue, according to the parliamentary budget office.
That exceeds the 660 billion shillings Treasury Secretary Ukur Yatani proposes to spend on development projects.
The government has increased its budget by 4% to 36.3 trillion shillings ($15.7 billion) in Samia Suluhu Hassan’s first fiscal year as president.
She has approached the IMF for a program to support her administration in mitigating the impact of the pandemic, and to implement a recovery plan.
Tanzania plans to borrow close to 10.2 trillion shillings, about half of which will come from external sources.
Hassan is preparing to procure vaccines for her people, begin delayed investments such as the $30 billion liquefied natural gas project led by Equinor ASA, and continue multi-billion programs including an oil-export pipeline with Uganda.
Still, the government is optimistic of keeping its fiscal deficit below 3% of GDP.
Uganda has reduced its planned expenditure by 2% to 44.7 trillion shillings ($12.6 billion), and intends to narrow the fiscal deficit to 6.4% of GDP from an estimated 9.7% in the year ending June 30.
The government of Africa’s largest coffee exporter is in talks with the IMF for a $1 billion loan to boost its recovery plan.
Debt could approach 50% of GDP at the end of June, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
“Persistently large fiscal deficits” lifted the government’s debt burden to about 40% of GDP in fiscal 2020 from 22% in 2013, Moody’s said in a statement.
Planned expenditure for Africa’s second-most populous nation will grow by nearly a fifth to 561.7 billion birr ($13 billion) for the fiscal year starting July 8.
The government is walking a tight rope between sustaining the fastest pace of economic growth in the region, and keeping a lid on debt.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration sold a telecommunications license to a Safaricom Plc-led consortium last month under a plan to liberalize the economy.
Doing business in the country might, however, depend on the impact of U.S. sanctions against Ethiopia over its handling of the war in the northern Tigray region.
The restrictions could also affect Ethiopia’s access to funding from the IMF and the World Bank, and probably complicate its intention to restructure some liabilities under the Group of 20 debt-relief initiative for poor nations.
The government has raised its annual budget by 10% to 3.81 trillion francs ($3.8 billion), and is also in talks with the IMF for a funding program. About a third of the budget will be funded from external sources.
The IMF projects Rwanda’s economy to grow at 6.8% in 2022 from an estimated 5.7% this year.
Rwanda and Ethiopia won’t present their budgets on Thursday.