Falling short

I think I need to make a bigger effort to find more positive stories. Everything I read convinces me more and more that we’re a planet of idiots.

Scarecrow’ statue of Melania Trump unveiled in Slovenia to mixed reviews
“I can understand why people might think that this falls short as a description of her physical appearance,” Downey told AFP, but insisted that he found the end result “absolutely beautiful”.

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If he’s saying this isn’t a good description of her ‘physical’ appearance, does he mean he was trying to represent her — what? Intellect?

Has humanity reached ‘peak intelligence’?
Whatever the cause of the Flynn effect, there is evidence that we may have already reached the end of this era – with the rise in IQs stalling and even reversing. If you look at Finland, Norway and Denmark, for instance, the turning point appears to have occurred in the mid-90s, after which average IQs dropped by around 0.2 points a year. That would amount to a seven-point difference between generations.

Making Twitter better, but why bother?

Twitter. I’m one of those boring snobs who say it was so much better in the old days, before it went all mainstream and shouty. I yo-yo a little with it; joining in, deleting everything, joining in again with a fresh account, deleting again.

I imagine someone trying to explain to me, back in 2007 when I first joined — happily twittering away to myself into the void — that in 12 years’ time it would become so embedded everywhere, its toxicity so inevitable and intractable, that Twitter would have to create specific rules to deal with hate speech from a sitting President of the United States.

Trump tweets could be restricted after Twitter moves against abusive posts by high-profile politicians
The new policy, announced by the company on Thursday, will affect world leaders and other political figures who use the platform to threaten or abuse others. It comes amid accusations Twitter has unfairly allowed the US president to tweet hateful messages other users would be censured for, and which critics say could lead to violence.

Why Twitter’s new policy on political figures’ tweets is encouraging
There is a strong argument that the rules governing everyone else’s ability to harass or spew hate should apply equally to those in power, whose harassing behavior is most likely to silence critics or cause other harm. But there’s also an argument that private companies such as Twitter have the least business meddling with the public conversation when elected or would-be-elected officials are involved. Doing so could have a dramatic impact on the democratic process, and citizens deserve to know what the people who represent them are doing and saying — perhaps even especially when their comportment is appalling.

I wonder what impact it will have on him, if any, to know that his posts have been formally categorised as hateful.

Politicians this side of the Atlantic can’t leave it alone, either.

Jeremy Hunt tweets solo Q&A after Boris Johnson skips debate
While answering Twitter users’ questions on Brexit, Hunt promised to give full rights to Europeans living in the UK and to “deliver a Brexit that works for the 48% not just the 52% — a positive, open and internationalist Brexit, Great Britain not Little England.”

What can be done? Here are a couple of suggestions.

Chrissy Teigen’s 2 suggestions for Twitter would make it 100 percent better
In a couple of tweets from Wednesday and Thursday, Teigen proposed two functions: One would create a feed for only happy posts that a user could access or view when they’re feeling emotional. The other proposed an “address book of sorts” where a user could, through typing or a link, note the reason why they started following somebody in the first place.

I use lists to help with both of those functions, but I’m not sure if I can be bothered going through the motions with it anymore. Does it bring me joy?

A week to remember

Two significant anniversaries last week. Let’s start in northern France, with some staggering numbers.

13 memorable facts about D-Day
D-Day was the opening chapter in a long campaign. The Normandy invasion was not a one-day affair; it raged on until Allied forces crossed the River Seine in August. Altogether, the Allies took about 200,000 casualties over the course of the campaign—including 4413 deaths on D-Day alone. According to the D-Day Center, “No reliable figures exist for the German losses, but it is estimated that around 200,000 were killed or wounded with approximately 200,000 more taken prisoner.” On May 7, 1945—less than a year after D-Day—Germany surrendered, ending the war in its European Theater.

Some of these images really get across the scale of that operation.

Photos: Take a look at D-Day, then and now
The 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings will fall on June 6. Here, we take a look back at iconic images of the day and at modern photos related to the day’s events.

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It all looks very different now.

11 incredible D-Day Landing pictures that show the beaches then and now
The following pictures combine original photos taken on and around D-Day with others taken in 2014 and show holidaymakers in the sun, largely oblivious to the horror that took place where they stood over 70 years ago.

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And for a different, but very direct, perspective of events that day, you must take a look at these scanned documents.

Bletchley Park and D-Day
A rare collection of Enigma messages sent on D-Day by the German navy, and broken at Bletchley Park, gives a blow-by-blow account of the action. As events unfold, confusion gives way to a realisation of the scale and importance of the invasion. Intelligence from Bletchley Park played a crucial part in the operation’s planning and execution.

The D-Day commemoration coincided with Trump’s state visit. I loved the language in this view of that from across the Atlantic.

We are being embarrassed by ugly-American grifters on an ego trip to London
Referring to “the red-carpet treatment” accorded to Donald Trump and the ignominious confederacy of unindicted co-conspirators that accompanied him to London, the city’s mayor remarked, “In years to come, I suspect this state visit will be one we look back on with profound regret and acknowledge that we were on the wrong side of history.” Why wait? As an American, I’m already regretting the spectacle of the Trumps tweeting pictures of themselves stumbling around Buckingham Palace. It’s not just that, as a republican, I have no taste for the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the British royal family. It is not even that Trumps are so obviously enthralled by imperial excess.

What I have a problem with is the notion that the United States of America is being “represented” on the global stage by an ugly-American cabal of black hats in ill-fitting tuxedos. Mehdi Hasan got it brilliantly right when he said of the president’s decampment to the United Kingdom: “He’s taken four of his five kids with him, his four grifter kids with him to Buckingham Palace. They’ve been posting pictures all night on Twitter of themselves. They’re all loving it. It’s a great day for the whole grifter family.”

The other anniversary, of course, was in China.

Beijing falls silent as tight security surrounds Tiananmen Square anniversary
Thirty years after bloody crackdown in China, visitors have IDs checked and journalists are warned against taking pictures.

In the UK and elsewhere, reminders of what happened, like this one from The Guardian ten years ago, are so easy to find.

20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square: how events unfolded
Revisiting the protests, from the beginning of the student uprising to the brutal crushing of dissent by the Chinese regime.

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That’s obviously not the case in China.

A look at the many ways China suppresses online discourse about the Tiananmen Square protests
Suppression of information means that an entire generation of people know little about the events, even as the activists involved continue to suffer repercussions, including long prison sentences. In recent years, the government’s censorship apparatus has become even more powerful, with voice and image recognition and machine learning making it easier to block or remove posts at scale.

Jiayang Fan, writing in The New Yorker, was four in 1989.

Memories of Tiananmen Square
I had left China when I was too young to know about censorship, when I was just being introduced to the written word and to the stories that written words told. It would never have occurred to me, or, perhaps, to any child, to question the history books, because that would have seemed like an interrogation of reality itself. In China, the past is never past, but it is frequently purged. The story is rewritten, the narrative reframed, the villains and the heroes recast. There is a hallucinatory quality to such a society, as if you are living a life that does not and never can fully belong to you. China’s vertiginous economic growth during the last three decades, for example, has given people permission to pursue prosperity without ever granting them political autonomy, reducing them to children at the mercy of an irascible, paternalistic government.

Ilaria Maria Sala was an exchange student in Beijing at the time, just a couple of years older than me then.

The very last spring all things seemed possible in Beijing
People handed me spent bullets and bloodied items, wanting me to go back home and tell the world what the army had done. I told them that people knew, every journalist was in Beijing. I was evacuated by the British Embassy to Hong Kong in the early hours of June 7, and returned home to Italy. As soon as I could, at the end of August, I went back to Beijing again, to study, to look for friends, to try to understand what had happened.

Her story continues.

Beijing Autumn: My return to China three months after Tiananmen
Beishida felt too desolate, so I transferred to Peking University, where all the few returning foreign students seemed to have congregated. But as the students there were those most involved in the demonstrations, the authorities decided to suspend the first year, and send all the freshmen to the army instead. The notice-boards at Sanjiaodi, where the political posters had been hoisted just a few months before, where the international TV crews had filmed the students keeping up-to-date with the strike and its developments, where impromptu speeches had been given, was now a deserted triangle dotted with forlorn little posters advertising English classes, chess tournaments, and qigong demonstrations.

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Elections everywhere

Polarisation seems to be the political theme, these days.

Socialists strengthen hold in Spain election
Spain’s Socialist Party strengthened its hold on the government on Sunday in the country’s third national election since 2015, with nearly complete results showing growing political polarization and party fragmentation. […] An anti-immigration and ultranationalist party, Vox, won its first seats in Parliament, a major shift in a country that long appeared to be immune to the spread of far-right movements across Europe, in part because of the legacy of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

This doesn’t sound good.

Benin’s government has shut the internet ahead of an election that has no opposition
The West African nation now joins the list of African states, including Sudan, DR Congo, and Egypt who have limited online access ahead of key elections, political referenda, or anti-government protests this year. Activists say the cut-offs usually have significant economic, political, and social costs, particularly given how popular messaging apps like WhatsApp are crucial for voters, journalists, and election observers.

Some places are getting it right, though.

It only takes India a month to set up a better election than the US
To be sure, the Indian election is a thing of wonder. Its scale alone is mind-boggling: More than a million polling stations, 900 million voters, nearly 2,300 parties. It is also an impressive work of democratic logistics that can teach a few lessons to the rest of the world, including countries with far more resources, like the US.

Meanwhile.

The French Ambassador is retiring today. Here’s what he really thinks about Washington.
Let’s look at the dogma of the previous period. For instance, free trade. It’s over. Trump is doing it in his own way. Brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right. What he’s doing with China should have been done, maybe in a different way, but should have been done before. Trump has felt Americans’ fatigue, but [Barack] Obama also did. The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over. Obama started, Trump really pursued it. You saw it in Ukraine. You are seeing it every day in Syria. People here faint when you discuss NATO, but when he said, “Why should we defend Montenegro?,” it’s a genuine question. I know that people at Brookings or the Atlantic Council will faint again, but really yes, why, why should you?

 

This report is ███████████

So what are we to make of the Mueller Report on Trump’s dealings with Russia? Here’s The Economist‘s take on it.

What to make of the Mueller report: Robert Mueller’s magnum opus
The first 170 pages concern Russia. […] Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s campaign chair, who was deep in debt to a Russian oligarch, shared internal polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, one of his Kiev-based employees with apparent links to both that oligarch and Russian intelligence. Even Rick Gates, Mr Manafort’s right-hand man, believed Mr Kilimnik was a “spy”. That did not stop Mr Manafort from meeting Mr Kilimnik. George Papadopoulos, a junior foreign-policy advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, tried to let the campaign know early on that the Russians had compromising material on Mrs Clinton (nobody thought to tell the FBI). Donald Trump junior arranged a meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Mrs Clinton. And of course Mr Trump himself was pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow project until just five months before the election, while simultaneously pushing for better relations with Moscow. None of this may have been illegal, but had voters known about it they might have made a different choice.

[…]

The report’s second part deals with obstruction of justice. […] The striking thing about this section, when read in full, is how self-wounding Mr Trump’s behaviour has been. Had he simply kept quiet, and let Mr Mueller complete his investigation into his campaign’s links into Russia, the obstruction investigation never would have happened. Instead, he interfered clumsily on many occasions, allowing the special counsel to amass a damning record of the president’s truculence, dishonesty and contempt for federal investigators.

The report itself is quite an important, historical document, though.

Mueller Mania is in full swing, and people are paying a pretty penny for the free report
The Mueller Report is available for free on the Justice Department’s site (here). But that didn’t stop publishers from printing it for profit.

Simon & Schuster’s Scribner published a version “presented with related materials by The Washington Post” — available for $10.22 as a paperback or $7.99 on the Kindle — that topped Amazon’s best-seller rankings. Publisher Skyhorse’s version, featuring an intro by a Harvard law professor, claimed the #2 spot (at $9.20 in paperback); publisher Melville House’s straight-up version (just $7.27) took the #3 spot. […]

People aren’t buying books, they’re buying mementos
The fact that people bought enough copies of a free report to mint not 1 but 3 separate best-sellers may seem unlikely, or even downright dumb.

But it’s not the first time a government document has gone big: The Starr Report (about President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky) and the Pentagon Papers both became popular best-sellers after printing in 1998 and 2011, respectively.

Perceptive publishers know that people don’t buy these books for the info they contain, but the emotions they evoke: A physical Mueller Report meta-memorializes months of dramatic, scandalous, and conversation-starting news cycles in a single, boring book.

You would have thought we had had enough by now.

Remember when Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, shot himself in the foot with some sloppy document formatting? Mueller’s report wasn’t much better, initially — it was just a collection of scanned images.

The official PDF of the Mueller report has been updated in a subtle but important way
The decision immediately elicited groans from people trying to search the report for juicy details. A giant file of images has no text to search. It was also condemned by a group involved in setting technical specifications for the portable document format: “This deliberate and unnecessary act made the document substantially harder for anyone and everyone to use, forever,” wrote Duff Johnson, executive director of the PDF Association, in a delightful review of the file’s nerdiest details.

News organizations and Mueller fanatics quickly addressed this problem by running the PDF through a process known as optical character recognition (OCR) to add searchable text to the document. So, to review: The Mueller report was written on a computer, then printed out on paper, scanned back into digital images, and finally regenerated into text using software.

Of course, not everything in the report has been made available to us. As this image from FlowingData shows, a significant amount of redaction has taken place.

Redacted
The redacted version (pdf) of the Mueller report was released today. Here’s the thumbnailed view for a sense of the redactions.

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And as this Quartz Obsession post explains, redaction is big business.

Redaction
95 million: Documents classified by the United States in 2012

2 million: Employees the National Archives estimates it would take, given a year and a half, to review one year’s worth of current classified output of one US intelligence agency

14,462: Peak size of the US government’s World War II-era Office of Censorship, whose duties included redacting letters

But let’s end this on a more creative note.

The Trump-era boom in erasure poetry
Published less than a month after Trump’s first executive order banned citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, “Form N-400 Erasures” is an example of erasure poetry, a poetic form that has spiked in popularity since Trump’s elections galvanized a culture of resistance online. Also known as blackout or redaction poetry, this is a type of poetry created from the substrate material of an existing text. Obscure many of the words, these poems command, and you will find the sentences that have been there all along.

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While erasure can mimic the violence of the state, it can also expose the human cost of suppression, and symbolically restore a voice to the silenced.

Erasing the language of Trump, on the other hand, provides the particular satisfaction of watching Trump say exactly what he means, stripped of bombast. That perverse pleasure drives “When You Win It’s Winning,” Ariel Yelen’s erasures of four of his speech transcripts. Here, Trump is hyperbolic and boastful as ever, but in erasing certain words, Yelen has him articulate the implications of his rhetoric. “I / want / a new America / an / America / so / reckless / s / o / disastrous / s / o / chao / t / ic /,” he says. “I / am / what is wrong with this country.”

Political storytelling

Politics is all about story-telling, reframing the world around us to encourage us to think a certain way. Verso have released an extract from James Meek’s new book, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, offering an explanation of why the Brexiteers got the upper hand at the referendum.

James Meek on Brexit and the myth of St. George
Of the two folk myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is the simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Where Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over, St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, society’s problems disappear. The swish of the warrior-saint’s sword slicing through the dragon’s flesh and the great beast’s death cry are, to the oppressed, both a joy in themselves and the herald-notes of a new era of happiness. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate.

Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood–like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk narrative of England to events that can easily be held in consciousness as St George–like releases, so often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English – the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966.

The Guardian continues this look at political language with its new series on the recent shift to a certain kind of anti-elite, right-wing politics.

Revealed: the rise and rise of populist rhetoric
Major study analysing speeches of leaders from 40 countries over two decades shows surge in populism.

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It’s interesting, though, what research is suggesting about the poster boy for populist politics — it might not be all down to him.

The Teleprompter Test: why Trump’s populism is not his own
Kirk Hawkins, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said there was a “dramatic difference” in the language in Trump’s speeches, depending on whether or not they were scripted. “Trump’s speeches with teleprompters all have longer words, longer sentences, and less frequent use of his pet words. And they have much higher levels of populism,” he said. “This is powerful evidence that Trump’s populism is not entirely his own.”

He’s still full of BS, though.

President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days
The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. He hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year. So far in 2019, he’s averaging nearly 22 claims a day.

You’d think that would cheer him up a little.

A debate-watching robot learned Trump’s emotional self: sad!
A robot built around Microsoft’s Emotion API may have uncovered something surprising about the dominant emotions of either candidate. Or it may have just spat out a lot of random numbers.

No change

Another great find from Futility Closet.

Unquote
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, Jan. 21, 1980

I wonder why that quote, from 1980, made me think of this news item from just the other day, in 2019.

Why the attack on our cameraman was no surprise
President Trump interrupted his speech and checked that Ron was OK. But there was no condemnation. No statement that this was unacceptable. The Trump campaign issued a two-line statement on the incident, but equally did not condemn what happened. What conclusion should we draw from that? What message does it send to people who feel hostile towards the media?

Trim Trump touch-ups?

The BBC have a couple of before-and-after images of President Trump that raised a smile this morning.

Trump team accused of posting edited images on social media
Social media users were quick to point out the possible tweaks to this image, which was shared on Mr Trump’s official Instagram and Facebook accounts. […]

The ruffles in the president’s suit have been smoothed out near his shoulder and he looks trimmer, specifically around his neck. His hair also seems tidier, although this could be a result of the image being superimposed on a different background, and his face has been brightened.

One of the more unusual differences is that Mr Trump’s fingers seem to have been made longer.

How vain! I can’t replicate it properly here, but you must check out the interactive slider they have on their website, to see for yourself.

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The lost painting, the Saudi prince and the US president

Well, the ongoing mystery of Da Vinci‘s Salvator Mundi is going in a direction I hadn’t imagined.

Salvator Mundi
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have ‘lost’ the world’s most expensive painting. The Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, Salvator Mundi, may hold the key to the Trump-Russia investigation. And, the artwork itself could be evidence of collusion.

Curiously, when I last mentioned this painting here, I compared it to a painting currently in the White House. I never would have thought that Salvator Mundi and Trump would go on to be more directly connected like this.

There can be no certainty when the game is subterfuge, and we need to wait for Mueller’s final report before we reach any conclusions, but if Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi proves to be a key which helps unlock Trump-Russia, “Savior of the World” could prove to be nothing short of prophetic.

A strange morning

The Quartz Daily Brief is just one of several e-mail newsletters I like to start my day with, on my commute to work on the number 97. A variety of topics are covered, some catch my eye more than others — politics, yes; business, not so much — but today’s ‘Surprising Discoveries’ section was so odd I just have to share it all with you.

Jack Dorsey sent his facial hair to Azealia Banks. The Twitter CEO wanted the rapper to make a protective amulet out of his beard shavings.

A judge ordered a Missouri poacher to watch Bambi on repeat. He has to watch the Disney classic at least once a month during his year-long jail sentence.

Actual witches want Trump to stop saying “witch hunt.” They say his comparison of the Mueller investigation to their painful history is disrespectful.

A diamond the size of an egg was unearthed in Canada. The value of the 552-carat “fancy yellow” gem will depend on the cutting (subscription).

The year 536 was the worst to be alive. A mysterious global fog covered half of the planet for 18 months, leading to constant darkness, crop failure, and mass starvation.

That’s quite a collection of strangeness for one morning. Sign up for your own odd start to the day.

Paintings, ridiculous and sublime

The art world is such a strange place.

Artist ‘astounded’ to see his Trump painting hung in the White House
Thomas knew Trump had received the painting as a gift – from a Republican congressman who was already a fan of the artist – because the president had recently called to congratulate him. But he only found out the painting had been hung in the White House – close to the Oval Office – when it popped up as a backdrop during a TV interview broadcast on Sunday evening.

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We’re ‘astounded’ too – why would anyone paint such a horrible thing, even with its incredibly subtle feminist message? Where are the Old Masters when you need them?

Ah, here’s one. I think. Remember that incredibly expensive Da Vinci painting I mentioned earlier, the one with its own instagram account? Well, it looks a little different now to when it was sold for nearly half a billion dollars.

The Da Vinci mystery: why is his $450m masterpiece really being kept under wraps?
It was Martin Clayton, curator of Leonardo’s drawings at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, who suggested I check out Campbell’s post and drew my attention to the startling differences between the painting after it was cleaned and its appearance now. “Photographs seem to show that, before it was touched up, it was all Leonardo,” he says. “They show the painting mid-restoration – and it looks as if the subsequent retouching has obscured the quality of the face.” Clayton is not questioning the painting’s authenticity. He’s suggesting that a very pure Leonardo has been partly “obscured”.

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This is how it was described in 2011. Not too flatteringly.

Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery – the greatest show of the year?
For a long time it was assumed that Leonardo had painted a Saviour of the World, or Salvator Mundi, but that the painting was lost, and all that survived were later engravings and dubious copies, including the newly restored head of Christ here. New research published this summer has now identified this as an authentic Leonardo. Or at least some of it. Maybe. What a difficult painting this is to like, let alone to be affected by. Jesus has the glazed look of someone stoned. You can imagine the raised fingers holding a spliff. Once imagined, the image won’t go away.

That Guardian article links to this one from the Mail.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Is long-lost £120m Salvator Mundi painting authentic?
A person close to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York who asked not to be identified said: ‘The painting was forgotten for years. When it turned up at auction, Simon thought it was worth taking a gamble. It had been heavily overpainted, which makes it look like a copy. It was a wreck, dark and gloomy. It had been cleaned many times in the past by people who didn’t know better. Once a restorer put artificial resin on it, which had turned grey and had to be removed painstakingly. When they took off the overpaint, what was revealed was the original paint. You saw incredibly delicate painting. All agree it was painted by Leonardo.’

I hate linking to the Mail, but I felt I must because of these two images on that article. What a journey that painting’s been on.

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A dark side

Stephen Shames’ best photograph: Robert Kennedy in his final days
There are clear parallels for me with what’s happening right now. Most 21 year olds are idealistic. Everyone grows up a patriot. You’re in school, you salute the flag, you read the sanitised history in your textbooks. Then there’s a polarising moment like this that shoves you into the real world.

In the US, beyond the election of Trump, which was a fluke, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the supreme court is one such moment. Young people here having their eyes opened. They are realising there’s a dark side to the United States. Their idealism is being shaved away.

No doubt another Trump bestseller

Another book’s coming out about Trump’s train-wreck presidency. Well, at least he’s good for book sales.

Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency
The dramatic and previously untold scene is recounted in “Fear,” a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward that paints a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency, based on in-depth interviews with administration officials and other principals. […]

Woodward depicts Trump’s anger and paranoia about the Russia inquiry as unrelenting, at times paralyzing the West Wing for entire days. Learning of the appointment of Mueller in May 2017, Trump groused, “Everybody’s trying to get me”— part of a venting period that shellshocked aides compared to Richard Nixon’s final days as president.

The author is the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, so it will be interesting to see how this compares to the more gossipy Fire and Fury, from earlier this year.

But let’s not get too carried away with any possible consequences just yet. This, from The Onion, sums things up nicely.

Trump disapproval rating reaches all-time none of this matters
Offering an overview of Americans’ opinions of the commander in chief’s job performance, a new poll released Friday indicated that President Trump’s disapproval rating had reached an all-time none of this matters. The report, released by who really cares which of the utterly useless polling firms and corroborated by several leading increasingly feckless news organizations, confirmed that well over half of those surveyed for really no goddamn reason. In addition, the poll found strong support for who gives a shit, it’s just a bunch of fucking numbers. … At press time, a new poll had found that President Trump’s disapproval rating was now at, Jesus Christ, a sizable portion of the country supports and has always supported an openly white supremacist president and the party he leads, and a bunch of goddamn numerical ratings aren’t going to do a fucking thing to change that.

Update 06/09/2018: On the back of the Washington Post’s launch of Bob Woodward’s book, the New York Times have published an anonymous editorial from a senior official in the Whitehouse that could be seen to corroborate it, reassuring us there are ‘adults in the room’.

I am part of the resistance inside the Trump Administration
I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

And the race is on to find out who wrote that.

Who is the Donald Trump staffer who penned the New York Times anonymous op-ed?
Within minutes of it being published online, text alerts were buzzing on phones across Washington DC, as insiders, outsiders, reporters, and everyone else tried to answer one question: Who was the anonymous author?

Very presidential

Maybe this is how it is now, this is how presidents conduct themselves.

Omarosa tapes: There is nothing the former Trump aide can say or do that could possibly matter.
But there is reason to believe that an N-word tape wouldn’t torpedo Trump’s presidency, or even keep him from winning a second term. By this point, we shouldn’t need to hear Trump saying the N-word to become convinced that he considers black people second-class citizens. At the same time, no one who has supported him through his Obama birther fabrication, his insistence that the Central Park Five are guilty, and his defense of white supremacists as “very fine people” will turn against him because he used a racial slur.

I wonder if those Word of the Year assessments will include ‘normalised’ this year.

Dog days of summarizing
If the birtherism campaign strategy, the Mexican rapists comment, the good people on both sides argument, the attacks on NFL players, the LeBron James critique, the efforts to avoid renting apartments to African-Americans, the Central Park jogger case, the wall, the Muslim ban, the disparaging of a Mexican judge, the suggestion that all Haitian immigrants have AIDs, the “shithole countries” description, the response to Hurricane Maria, the backing of Joe Arpaio and Roy Moore, and the constant dog whistles to the alt-right haven’t swayed you, spelling out an offensive word sure isn’t gonna make the difference…

Or has ‘fake news’ already grabbed that accolade?

Trump’s ‘dirty war’ on media draws editorials in 300 US outlets
Starting with the Boston Globe itself, the editorial there, headlined Journalists Are Not The Enemy, argued that a free press had been a core American principle for more than 200 years.

The New York Times chose the headline A Free Press Needs You, calling Mr Trump’s attacks “dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy”. It published excerpts from dozens more publications beneath.

The New York Post – a pro-Trump tabloid – answered the Globe’s call by saying “Who are we to disagree?” adding: “It may be frustrating to argue that just because we print inconvenient truths doesn’t mean that we’re fake news, but being a journalist isn’t a popularity contest. All we can do is to keep reporting.” But it also said: “Will this make a difference? Not one whit”.

The Topeka Capital-Journal was another paper to join the campaign. It said of Mr Trump’s attack on the media: “It’s sinister. It’s destructive. And it must end now.” The paper was one of the few to endorse Mr Trump in 2016.

Trump’s version of a paperless office?

This shouldn’t surprise us, I suppose.

Meet the guys who tape Trump’s papers back together
Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.

It was a painstaking process that was the result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.”

Makes me wonder if that Trump Kim document is worth the paper it’s written on.

Looking forward in anger

Zoe Williams at the Guardian tries to understand where all the anger is coming from these days. Does anger always have an economic basis? Is social media to blame? Can it be a force for good? There’s certainly a lot of it about.

Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?
There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.

I’m not really convinced by the theories that suggest these things are cyclical. The dates of these suggested 40 to 60 year ‘Kondratiev waves’ of high and low economic growth, that tie in to periods of stagnation, unrest and anger, feel a little forced. I’m going to continue to blame Trump. And social media.

Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.

Yes, ok, fair enough.

Facts and beliefs

Have we always had this ‘post-truth’ menace in our societies? Whilst the name might be new, the concept isn’t. There have always been spurious beliefs and conspiracy theories, but they seem more prevalent now. Can’t think why.

The conspiracy theory that says Trump is a genius
From these clues, a sprawling community on message boards, YouTube videos and Twitter accounts has elaborated an enormous, ever-mutating fantasy narrative about the Trump presidency. In the QAnon reality, Trump only
pretended to collude with Russia in order to create a pretext for the hiring of Robert Mueller, the special counsel, who is actually working with Trump to take down an inconceivably evil and powerful network of coup-plotters and child sex traffickers that includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros.

Diana Popescu at Aeon explains why we can’t always expect people to agree with us and share our beliefs just because we’ve explained some ‘facts’. As ever, it’s much more complicated than that.

What we talk about when we talk about post-truth
Objective facts and sound verification procedures are not what post-truth groups deplore but, specifically, what drives their dissent. What post-truth groups do deplore are established facts and agreed-upon truths. The issue is one of trust, not verification.

And as well as providing another explanation of how we ended up here, this post from Mark Lorch, Professor of Science Communication and Chemistry, University of Hull, offers some practical advice on how we might get out of this mess.

Why people believe in conspiracy theories – and how to change their minds
The simple answer is that facts and rational arguments really aren’t very good at altering people’s beliefs. That’s because our rational brains are fitted with not-so-evolved evolutionary hard wiring. One of the reasons why conspiracy theories spring up with such regularity is due to our desire to impose structure on the world and incredible ability to recognise patterns.

[…]

To make matters worse, presenting corrective information to a group with firmly held beliefs can actually strengthen their view, despite the new information undermining it. New evidence creates inconsistencies in our beliefs and an associated emotional discomfort. But instead of modifying our belief we tend to invoke self-justification and even stronger dislike of opposing theories, which can make us more entrenched in our views. This has become known as the as the “boomerang effect” – and it is a huge problem when trying to nudge people towards better behaviours.

It seems strange to think that we can’t rely on the facts of each case to get people to bin their conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, to avoid the backfire effect, ignore the myths. Don’t even mention or acknowledge them. Just make the key points: vaccines are safe and reduce the chances of getting flu by between 50% and 60%, full stop. Don’t mention the misconceptions, as they tend to be better remembered.

Also, don’t get the opponents gander up by challenging their worldview. Instead offer explanations that chime with their preexisting beliefs. For example, conservative climate-change deniers are much more likely to shift their views if they are also presented with the pro-environment business opportunities.

What a mad world we find ourselves in.

Socialschadenfreude

I’m enjoying reading about the mess Facebook is in, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We all like to see successful things in trouble, I guess.

Remember when the ‘fake news’ style of direct marketing first hit Facebook by storm, allowing Trump to win the presidency? This first article from 2016 explains how these highly personalised posts worked.

Cambridge Analytica and the secret agenda of a Facebook quiz
In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Donald Trump, and I approved this message.”

It turns out those staggeringly large datasets were obtained in a somewhat underhand way.

How Trump consultants exploited the Facebook data of millions
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Surprise surprise, the company as a whole is far from ethical.

Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians
An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News reveals how Cambridge Analytica secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.

And so the powers that be are wanting answers.

Cambridge Analytica: Facebook boss summoned over data claims
In a letter to Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Collins accused Facebook of giving answers “misleading to the Committee” at a previous hearing which asked whether information had been taken without users’ consent.

He said it was “now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process”.

Requesting a response to the letter by 26 March, the MP added: “Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to “fixing” Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”

Here’s someone willing to help.

Facebook whistleblower gives evidence to MPs on Cambridge Analytica row
Sandy Parakilas, who has claimed covert harvesting was routine at the social network, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Facebook did not do enough to prevent, identify – or act upon – data breaches

But so far nothing.

Where is Mark Zuckerberg?
That is the most prevalent question from people following Facebook’s data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the data firm Trump hired to help with his 2016 presidential campaign. Over the weekend, we learned that Cambridge Analytica collected data from some 50 million Facebook users without their consent back in 2015, a revelation that has led to a public outcry about Facebook’s data policies, a tanking stock price and fear of increased regulation.

What can we do? How should we respond to all this? #DeleteFacebook?

WhatsApp co-founder tells everyone to delete Facebook
The tweet came after a bruising five-day period for Facebook that has seen regulators swarm and its stock price plunge following concerns over data privacy in the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data.

Hating Facebook’s easy. Deleting everything, not so much.

You want to quit Facebook, but will you really click the button? These folks tried.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, three quarters of them checking the platform daily. When Facebook reaches a moment of crisis — and it has had a lot of them recently — there’s a wave of users who wonder why they are on the platform in the first place. With the news late last week that Facebook had suspended the data firm Cambridge Analytica for improperly collecting data from Facebook users, this viral discussion about quitting for good has started once again.

[…]

But the idea of quitting always seems to spread further than the follow-through. Even as we learn more about what Facebook does to us, that knowledge comes into conflict with what Facebook has grown to do for us. For many, that moment of hovering over the deactivate button feels a lot like trying to leave a store that’s giving away candy.

If only we all did this earlier.

Should I delete Facebook? The Cambridge Analytica files explained
To avoid this kind of data breach being used to target you, you need to be very careful about the data permissions you give to your connected apps – but even if you do that, you’re still at risk of your friends offering your data to third parties when they give their apps certain permissions. Highly personalised adverts are probably on your feed already.

So should you delete your Facebook account? Let’s hear from Theresa Hong again. “Without Facebook”, the Trump campaigner said last year, “we wouldn’t have won.”

You have your answer.

But perhaps there’s no need to worry, because we don’t really care about any of this, after all.

The only privacy policy that matters
Do you care? We’ve gone so far down the internet highway that we rarely ask that question anymore. But it’s still pertinent. Do you care that your privacy has been, and will be, repeatedly invaded — and that anything you share (willingly or otherwise) on the internet can and will be used against you?

I think I know the answer. I don’t have access to your information. I didn’t pose as an academic to download a treasure trove of social media data. I haven’t coded a programmatic advertising platform aimed at enabling a pair of machines to automatically decide which marketing messages you’ll be more receptive to at any given moment. And yet, just by sharing this medium with you, I feel I know you well enough to know your answer.

You don’t give a shit.

Caught out by their own documents

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager currently tied up with the ongoing Russia investigation, must have skipped a few MS Office training seminars at work, as he seems to be unaware of Word’s Save As function.

How Manafort’s inability to convert a PDF file to Word helped prosecutors
“Manafort emailed Gates a .pdf version of the real 2016 DMI P&L, which showed a loss of more than $600,000,” the indictment claims. “Gates converted that .pdf into a Word document so that it could be edited, which Gates sent back to Manafort. Manafort altered the Word document by adding more than $3.5 million in income.”

Then, according to the indictment, Manafort “sent this falsified P&L to Gates and asked that the Word document be converted back to a .pdf, which Gates did and returned to Manafort.”

By sending these documents back and forth by email, Manafort and Gates made it easy for prosecutors to pinpoint exactly who changed the documents and when.

It reminded me of this story, linking corruption to a popular Microsoft font.

A Microsoft font may have exposed corruption in Pakistan
The Microsoft font Calibri is now a key piece of evidence in a corruption investigation surrounding Pakistan’s prime minister. Investigators noticed that documents handed over by the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, were typed up in the font Calibri. But the documents were dated from 2006 — and Calibri wasn’t widely available at that point, making a good case that they were forged.

How Wikipedia found itself at the centre of a major corruption scandal in Pakistan
As I am part of Wikipedia’s counter-vandalism team, I have been engaged in the reverting of unverified information being added to the Calibri page by anonymous users. But as the edit war grew and the sensitivity of the issue became obvious, I had to ask an administrator to lock the page to restrict any further edits in order to avoid misleading information being spread outside of Wikipedia.

I’ve heard of ‘gutter’ politics…

Trump asked to borrow a Van Gogh, and the Guggenheim offered him a gold toilet
“We are pleased that they are interested in demonstrating their support for the arts… I am sorry, however, to inform you that we are unable to participate in this loan,” it begins. “Fortuitously, a marvellous work by the celebrated contemporary Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, is coming off view today after a year’s installation at the Guggenheim, and he would like to offer it to the White House for a long-term loan…. The work beautifully channels the history of 20th-century avant-garde art by referencing Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal of 1917.”

Indeed. And speaking of Duchamp’s Fountain, here’s a great story from Brian Eno.

When Brian Eno and other artists peed in Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal
I thought, how ridiculous that this particular … pisspot gets carried around the world at—it costs about thirty or forty thousand dollars to insure it every time it travels. I thought, How absolutely stupid, the whole message of this work is, “You can take any object and put it in a gallery.” It doesn’t have to be that one, that’s losing the point completely. And this seemed to me an example of the art world once again covering itself by drawing a fence around that thing, saying, “This isn’t just any ordinary piss pot, this is THE one, the special one, the one that is worth all this money.” So I thought, somebody should piss in that thing, to sort of bring it back to where it belonged. So I decided it had to be me.

And for more Trump-inspired art, check out Edel Rodriguez’s magazine cover artworks for Der Spiegel and Time.