Friday, February 12, 2021

Cassandra has Moved


Professor Sabine Hossenfelder engages in a performance about Cassandra. Nice song, well sung, and it catches something of Cassandra's story and character. Although I am reasonably sure that Cassandra would not wear that kind of clothes. 

Cassandra's blog is closed. It will remain on line, but it will not be updated anymore. Ugo Bardi has moved to a new site called "The Seneca Effect."  It may be a bit more philosophical than the old Cassandra blog, but it will not be very different. 

You may also follow Ugo Bardi at "The Proud Holobionts" blog, a more optimistic blog dedicated to -- you guess to what! -- holobionts! A new concept that favors collaboration over competition in the evolution of the biosphere. 

And don't forget Ugo Bardis' musings about history and myths at the Chimera blog, with some fictional interpretations of Cassandra's story: An Interview with Cassandra  and "The True Story of the Fall of Troy"

Finally, if you like to hear Ugo Bardi rather than reading what he writes, you can find his youtube channel. It is still al little experimental, but it may grow to something interesting in the future. 

Thank you to all those who followed this blog for nearly ten years. It was a pleasure, but things keep moving and we have to move, too!


Monday, February 8, 2021

Cassandra is Dead. Long Live Cassandra!


After the fall of Troy, Cassandra was taken as Agamemnon's "pallake" (concubine) and taken to Mycenae where she was killed by Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife. The destiny of prophetesses is never so bright, especially when they turn out to have been right. Something similar, although fortunately much less tragic, is happening to the Cassandra blog, censored on Facebook by the powers that be. So, I guess it is time to call it quits. But Cassandra is not dead! She will return in some form.


On March 2, 2011, I started the blog that I titled "Cassandra's Legacy." 10 years later, the blog had accumulated 974 posts, 332 followers, and more than 5 million visualizations (5289.929). Recently, the blog had stabilized at around 2,000-3,000 views per day.

A small blog, by all means, but I always had the sensation that it was not without an impact on the nebulous constellation of the people, high up, whom we call "the powers that be." It is a story that reminds me the legend that George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003 after he had learned about peak oil. Reasonably, it can't be but a legend, but are we sure? After all, the people who take decision are not smarter than us, just way richer. And they can misunderstand things just like we all do. Of course, their blunders make much more noise.  

And so, it may well be that many things that we are seeing around us have a logic. For sure, it is past the time when a certain kind of message could be eliminated simply by ignoring it. Now, it has to be actively suppressed. And that seems to be what's happening with censorship rampant in the social media. Even the Cassandra blog, even though not important in itself, attracted the wrath of the powers that be. It was censored on Facebook and it seems to me that it is also kept nearly invisible in the search engines. As I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra, we knew it was going to happen and it did. 

Of course, this blog could survive even while boycotted by Facebook, but when you discover that you are in the crosshairs of someone big and powerful, it is better to take notice, duck down, and take cover. It makes little sense to insist to keep an indefensible position. It is time for Cassandra to fold. 

But this is not a defeat. It is, on the contrary, a badge of honor that the PTBs noticed this blog and acted against it (O.K., maybe it was just a glitch of some complicated AI program, who knows?). In any case, closing the blog simply means recognizing that the memetic war follows the standard rules of war. It is all about movement. And that's what Cassandra is doing. It is moving. We all do. The only things that never move are the dead, and we are still very much alive! And "Cassandra's Legacy" will remain on line, although it won't be updated anymore.

I am working at renewing a blog that I had already created, called "The Seneca Trap."  It will be online soon with the name "The Seneca Effect". We'll see if it becomes another target for the PTBs!

In the meantime, I am passing to you a few paragraphs that I took from Dmitry Orlov's book "The Five Stages of Collapse." (2013) where he correctly predicted how the West was moving along a path that's taking it to follow the steps of the old Soviet Union, even in terms of censorship. Orlov describes how, at that time, people defended themselves from an obtrusive and obtuse regime. I guess we'll have to adopt the same techniques.

The Rise of Steganography

by Dmitry Orlov -- From "The Five Stages of Collapse" (2013)

I am sure that certain readers will at this point recollect schlocky American Cold War novels they wasted their time reading, or automat-ically conjure up secret codes and communications technologies used Financial Collapse45to play a spy vs. spy cat-and-mouse game with the KGB, while others will want to think that the KGB was sufficiently incompetent and/or demoralized to just let all that secret communication slip by (I assure you that it was not). Well, having seen how it all works in practice, I am happy to disabuse you of all such notions. The only technologies involved were spoken word and pen and paper; the good results were achieved thanks to mental fortitude and solidarity.

The technique I saw used was an instance of steganography, which “is the art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message, a form of security through obscurity. The word is of Greek origin and means ‘concealed writing’ from the Greek words steganos (στεγανός), meaning ‘covered or protected’, and graphei (γραφή), meaning ‘writing'. There is the outer, public message, which is innocuous or insipid or annoyingly redundant (except for a few easily overlooked details); then there is the inner, private message, which can only be discerned by the intended recipient, who has prior knowledge. The key security feature is that the recipient needs to know that the message is a message at all, never mind decipher it.
My mother and my grandmother kept up a voluminous correspondence augmented by regular telephone conversations. They discussed everything from the weather to their reading to what they ate for breakfast. They also seemed to be curiously obsessed with pieces of porcelain: which tea set was a present from whom, who would have liked it, who had owned a similar one at one time or another, from whom they may have purchased it and how much they may have paid for it, how many cups were cracked or broken, whether they could be repaired, who was the clumsy one and broke a cup, who had been particularly skillful at gluing together a broken cup so that it is now as good as new and so on and so forth, all seemingly innocent prattle between two dotty women reminiscing about sentimental bits of bric-à-brac—but for someone in the know, laden with secret meanings. Cups were thousands of dollars. Tea sets were tens of thousands. Cracked cups were expenses incurred. Broken cups were deals that had fallen through. Any persons mentioned were not referred to by full name but by informal diminutives and endearments and referenced not to actual places and times but to private, shared memories. But there were also passages of general interest, such as soup or cake recipes, sometimes supplied with a passing comment addressed directly to the KGB censor, such as “Others who are reading this might find this interesting as well.” Who could possibly suspect secret, nefarious, conspiratorial intent in someone so seemingly guileless? Not even the KGB!



Monday, February 1, 2021

Censorship: How the West is becoming more and more like the old Soviet Union


A message I received from Facebook on Jan 29, 2021. Five of my posts were deemed "spam" and erased. Some were somewhat "political" although non-partisan, but two were purely technical. That these posts were erased is an indication that censorship is by now applied to all forms of dissent, not just political ones. It was not unexpected, but it was still somewhat shocking after decades of propaganda that had convinced most of us that the Western world was a place where you could enjoy "freedom of expression." But we are quickly moving toward a Soviet-style management of public information, as Dmitry Orlov noted already in 2013. It had to happen and it did.


Last year, a Spanish climatologist, a friend of mine, had his Facebook page erased. Apparently, it was because it was deemed as too "catastrophistic" (or for whatever reason had caused the opaque fact-checkers of Facebook to take it as a target). He protested and he also tried to convince other climatologists to start a boycott of Facebook. 

The answer was a little disappointing, to say the least. It may be best described as a resounding worldwide "meh." Those climatologists who bothered to reply to him expressed the concept that, yes, censorship is bad, but, you know, you can't allow deniers to diffuse their fake science around. 

It was on that occasion that I discovered that most people like censorship. It is just that it should be applied to those they disagree with. In that case, they actually love it and protest because Facebook doesn't censor enough (you can read that, for instance, here).

The problem with censorship is that it is a little like playing the apprentice sorcerer: once you start the mechanism, you don't know how to stop it. What's happening now is that censorship is becoming widespread, wide-ranging, and pervasive. Everyone can be affected and it takes unexpected forms. I was surprised when Facebook decided to erase two rather technical posts of mine, apparently because they were critical of the concept of a hydrogen-based economy. Apparently, censoring doesn't just apply to political dissent. Any dissent is now considered bad

Of course, Facebook is not the government, but it would be silly to dismiss the whole story by saying "it is a private company." Facebook has now almost 3 billion users, close to half of the world's population. No other entity in the world -- governments included --has such a reach over so many people. Do governments have any power on Facebook? Or does Facebook own the governments?

It was expected, we knew that it was coming. Already in 2009, Dmitry Orlov had noted in his book "Reinventing Collapse" how the Soviet and the American Empires had been moving along parallel tracks, with the American Empire poised for collapse just a few decades after the Soviet one. In a later book, "The Five Stages of Collapse" (2013), Orlov described the mechanisms of censorship in the Soviet Union and discussed many remarkably prescient concepts on how electronic surveillance in the West would dwarf anything that the old and clumsy Soviet system could do to spy their citizens. 

And so, there we are. Covering the whole story of the Soviet censorship would be very interesting exercise that not even Orlov attempted in his books. I can't claim to be an expert in these matters (*), but let me just note that censorship in Russia was a nuanced story, not just a clumsy dictatorship dictating to people what they had to believe. In part, yes, censorship was imposed by the government but, in part, it was also enforced "from below." Russian newspapers often carried comments by the "korrespondents" (Корреспондент), people who were not professional journalists. They seem to have had a certain leeway in criticizing the government, of course only as long as they didn't express doubts about the founding myths that kept the state together. They were similar to our commenters on newspapers and social media who have a list of no-no's that's probably as long as they had. The Soviet Union had an efficient trolling system that could demolish a dissenter, just like our trolls can. (the story of how Boris Pasternak was demonized for his "Doctor Zhivago" novel is a good example of the mechanism)

Overall, it is clear that censorship is developed by societies under stress to try to keep the social fabric together as much as possible. If you think that Russia had been invaded 4 times by powerful Western armies over less than two centuries, you can also understand that the fear of the West was not paranoia, but a reasonable attitude for Russians. And many of them preferred to support a bad government rather than risking that the US would bring democracy to them by the usual methods.

About the West, nowadays, I don't think we need to note how stressed we are. And, as a result, we are clearly heading in the direction of a Soviet-style management of public information. Is it unavoidable? Most likely yes. It is a desperate, last-ditch effort to keep together a political system that's rapidly crumbling away, but which is doomed in the long run (perhaps even in the short run). But it is probably unavoidable: we'll have to live with censorship because it is the simplest way to try to stop the forces that lead to the disgregation of society.

So, what should we expect for the future? The analogy with the Soviet Union holds only up to a certain point. In Soviet times there was no Internet, or it was in its infancy. The new communication technologies are disrupting everything, as we saw in the recent "Gamestop" story (see this interesting discussion by Chuck Pezeshky) and we may well be moving toward some completely different information exchange system that, for the time being, remains difficult for us to understand. Maybe it would be something like the glasnost (transparency), that Mikhail Gorbachev introduced in the Soviet Union in 1986. But glasnost didn't prevent (and perhaps eased) the collapse of the Union. Eventually, if collapse has to come, it comes.


Additional note: A commenter defined this post as a simplistic way to cry, "but free speech!" I understand his point, but that was not what I wanted to say. By comparing the US with the old Soviet Union in terms of censorship, I tried to explain why playing with it is like playing the apprentice sorcerer. Once you decide that it is your duty to suppress lies, where do you stop? And who decides what's a lie? I think that the experience of the Soviet Union can tell us a lot on what is in store for us in the future. They did suppress dissent rather efficiently. But the result was a rigid society that eventually crashed very quickly. It is always the same story: The Seneca Effect. The more you try to stave off collapse, the faster it is when it arrives. 


(*) Russians and people from other areas formerly being part of the Soviet Union are welcome to correct my interpretation of censorship on the other side of what once was called the "Iron Curtain." I did my best to inform myself, but I never lived there.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)