The World In A Nutshell
“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” – Hedonic treadmill definition in Wikipedia

“It is a mistake,” he said, “to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort.” – Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves


Nothing Is Going To Rain On His Parade, Especially Not A Forest: Yesterday was the day progressive Brazilians had been dreading: the inauguration of new president and far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro. Vowing to roll back environmental protections and make it easier to destroy the world’s biggest rainforest, Bolsonaro cancelled plans to host key UN climate talks next year and appointed a foreign minister who believes climate change is a Marxist plot. On the domestic front, Bolsonaro rewarded powerful ultra-conservative evangelicals, who were largely responsible for his election, by installing an anti-abortion evangelical preacher as head of a new ministry overseeing Brazilian women, families, human rights and indigenous communities.

Bolsonaro campaigned as a law and order candidate, but his support of police use of brutal force and bullets against alleged drug traffickers accounts for much of the violence. Brazil is already one of Latin America’s most violent societies, with a record 63,880 homicides in 2017, and the new president appears to have no real plan to reduce crime other than fighting violence with violence. The far-right populist is a proud homophobe and maligner of women who models himself after US president Donald Trump, and he undoubtedly will govern for the next four years in like manner. Bolsonaro’s English-speaking son, Eduardo, has positioned himself as South America’s answer to Jared Kushner; he is poised to play an outsized role in pivoting toward the White House.

Additional reads: “Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil’s new far-right president urges unity.” (BBC) and “Brazil Wanted Change. Even Before Taking Office, Jair Bolsonaro Delivered.” (NYT)

Battle Of Who Could Care Less: Much has been written that is critical of the Saudi-led coalition backed by the US in Yemen’s war. It has been vilified for killing thousands of civilians with airstrikes, torturing foes in secret prisons, and driving millions to the point of starvation. Much less has been written about similar atrocities committed by the Iran-aligned rebels known as Houthis. The Washington Post interviewed 13 former prisoners and victims of the Houthis, only four of whom agreed to speak on the record. Their accounts reveal a continual and increasing pattern of assault, detention and torture, inhumane crimes against civil society that are fueling an expanding atmosphere of fear and intimidation across rebel-controlled areas. (WaPo)

Zero Love Lost, One Country, Two Systems: The Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen suffered major losses in local elections last November. Candidates favoring closer ties with China won mayoral contests in Taiwan’s four largest cities. Regardless, Tsai said in an address on New Year’s Day that China must respect the freedom and democracy of Taiwan’s 23 million people. She urged China’s leader Xi Jinping to seek a peaceful solution to differences with Taiwan, stressing that in spite of the election results, the island’s people want to maintain self-rule. Beijing considers Taiwan to be Chinese territory that must be united with the mainland, by force if necessary. (NYT)

That’s One Small Step For Man, One Giant Icy Flyby: NASA scientists are celebrating their New Horizon’s spacecraft’s successful completion early New Year’s Day of the most distant space flyby in history. The spacecraft took thousands of photographs of the dark, icy space rock called Ultima Thule as it flew past it on the outer edge of the solar system. The mission operations manager for New Horizons said: “We are ready for Ultima Thule’s science transmission, science to help us understand the origins of our solar system.” The control centre is located at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. (Guardian)

Additional read: “China’s Lunar Lander To Explore Moon’s Far Side.” (NPR)

F(Promise of Economic Growth, Repression) = Centralized PowerSunday’s election in Bangladesh handed a hugely lopsided victory, 96% of ballots cast, to 71-year-old incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Her ruling coalition grabbed 288 out of 300 seats in Parliament. The results pave the way for Hasina to continue her formula for maintaining power: strong economic growth coupled with repression of political opponents and critics of her government. Opposition leaders accused the PM of vote-rigging and demanded a fresh election. One political commentator said Bangladesh had now become a “one-party democracy” with, in effect, no mechanism for accountability. (WaPo)

– “DRC electoral fraud fears rise as internet shutdown continues: Both opposition and ruling coalition claim victory after chaotic presidential poll” (Guardian)

– “Philippine President Says He Sexually Abused Housemaid as a Teenager” (NYT)

– “Kim Jong Un Wants New Summit With Trump, But Also Issues A Veiled Warning” (NPR)

– “Israel’s opposition alliance disbands months before election: Centre-left coalition leader Avi Gabbay says he will no longer partner with Tzipi Livni” (Guardian)

American Politics and The Avengers: 2016 was the movie Age of Trump(as opposed to Age of Ultron ), 2019 is Infinity War , and 2020 might be Endgame . Washington D.C. Elections have consequences, and big Democratic wins in the 2018 midterms mean no more one-party rule in Washington. When the House Democratic majority takes office January 3rd, incoming committee chairs will have the power and resources to pursue investigations, issue subpoenas and compel testimony. It’s all part of a new, rigorous oversight of President Trump and his administration. In response, Trump has threatened to adopt a “warlike” posture. (Guardian)

The Man, The Myth, the MattisDefense Secretary James Mattis has left the position he’d occupied in the Trump administration for two years. His successor on an acting basis will be Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Shanahan is a longtime management executive of defense contractor Boeing and has no government or foreign policy experience. On December 19 Trump tweeted his intention to quickly withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan. Mattis issued his resignation letter the next day. On Monday Trump tweeted the withdrawal might not be that quick. Mattis’ departure ushers in a period of intense uncertainty for the military. (WaPo)

Additional read: “Trump attacks McChrystal after retired general called Trump immoral.” (CNN)

– “Arizona shelter under fire as videos said to show rough handling of migrant kids: Prosecutors will decide whether to file charges over incidents that took place at shelter housing unaccompanied minors” (Guardian)

– “House Democrats ready strategy to reopen government, deny Trump wall money” (WaPo)

Turnaround Bright Eyes (and 2018) …Nothing I can say, A Total Eclipse of the World: “The Story of 2018 Was Climate Change: Future generations may ask why we were distracted by lesser matters.” (NYT) “The Year in Charts: Economic and other indicators are making it increasingly clear that Trump’s economic dreams are unlikely to come true.” (NYT) And a total eclipse of the truth: “A year of unprecedented deception: Trump averaged 15 false claims a day in 2018” (WaPo) “83 Things That Blew Our Minds in 2018:The most extreme, most sobering, and zaniest facts that The Atlantic’s science, technology, and health reporters learned this year” (Atlantic)

Destiny is calling me, Open up my eager eyes, ‘Cause I’m Mr. Artificial Intelligence Brightside: “GM’s decline truly began with its quest to turn people into machines” (Quartz). The robots are singing “Coming out of my [Google] cage, And I’ve been doing just fine”: “Wielding Rocks and Knives, Arizonans Attack Self-Driving Cars: The assailant slipped out of a park around noon one day in October, zeroing in on his target, which was idling at a nearby intersection — a self-driving van operated by Waymo, the driverless-car company spun out of Google.” (NYT) And humans are now signing and venting: “And I just can’t look, it’s killing me, And taking control.”

– “This clever AI hid data from its creators to cheat at its appointed task:Depending on how paranoid you are, this research from Stanford and Google will be either terrifying or fascinating.” (Tech Crunch) AI bots are singing “Choking on your alibis, But it’s just the price I pay, Destiny is calling me.”

– “The Verge 2018 tech report card: AI: As for much of the tech industry, 2018 has been a year of reckoning for artificial intelligence. As AI systems have been integrated into more products and services, the technology’s shortcomings have become clearer. Researchers, companies, and the general public have all begun to grapple more with the limitations of AI and its adverse effects, asking important questions like: how is this technology being used, and for whose benefit?” (The Verge)

– “Fake-porn videos are being weaponized to harass and humiliate women:‘Everybody is a potential target’: ‘Deepfake’ creators are making disturbingly realistic, computer-generated videos with photos taken from the Web, and ordinary women are suffering the damage” (WaPo) In a few years humanity might be yelling the chorus “And my stomach is sick, And it’s all in my head.”

– “The Most Amazing Artificial Intelligence Milestones So Far” (Forbes) And finally “It started out with [an AI] kiss, How did it end up like this?”

The New Year by Death Cab for Cutie, “So this is the new year; And I don’t feel any different; The clanking of crystal; Explosions off in the distance.” We spent the holidays with family in Seattle and listening to music from the Pacific Northwest: Sleater-Kinney, Elliott Smith, Presidents of the USA, Temple of the Dog, along with Postal Service and Death Cab. Happy New Year!

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