Meet the new master of the Middle East

There are indications that Russia is planning a military intervention in Libya. On March 13, Russian special units and drones were spotted in the Egyptian coastal town of Sidi Barrani, just 100 km east of the Libyan territory that’s controlled by the Russia-supported Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

If Russia is really working to change the balance of powers in Libya as they did in Syria, Turkey’s positions in the Eastern Mediterreanean will be threatened (not to mention America’s). Establishing a military presence there is aimed to stabilise the Sisi regime in Egypt against the Islamists. That’s in line with the traditional Russian policy since the Soviet times when they were in alliance with Egypt. Now they’re conducting joint military exercises, and Russia is actively helping Egypt to guard its vulnerable western border.

These movements have the long-term goal to support Gen. Haftar in Libya, who’s facing Jihadist threats against the territories he controls, including the important oil ports in Ras Lanuf and Es Sider. Haftar is a former Gaddafi loyalist who’s now ruling from Tobruq and has been a key player in the Libyan civil war. He now controls most oil fields in Libya, with a daily output of 700K+ barrels.

Last month, the Russian oil giant RosNeft signed an agreement with the Libyan national oil corporation for the delivery of raw oil, plus some further investment in Libya. And last December, the Russian deputy foreign minister Gatilov harshly criticised the special UN envoy to Libya, German diplomat Martin Kobler, for his statements in support of Haftar’s opponents.

In January, Haftar was invited on board the Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in the Mediterranean, where he had a video meeting with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu. And a month later, Shoigu warned his British counterpart Michael Fallon against meddling in Russian affairs in Libya (“Don’t tell a bear what to do!”)

There’s no doubt at this point that Russia is trying to restore its previous military alliances.

Meanwhile, Turkey is not sleeping either. They’re also trying to assert their positions in Libya after the failed attempt to prop up the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a couple of years ago. Last summer, during his visit to Libya, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoglu managed to snatch an agreement for the completion of 304 abandoned projects worth $18.5 bn. The deal was done with Haftar’s rivals, however. The Turks are concerned that after Syria and Egypt, Libya could be Russia’s next prize, and Putin might be trying to create a Russian ring to control the southern flank of the Eastern Mediterranean – which would practically mean the encirclement of Turkey, and its geopolitical isolation.

Let me remind that vast new oil deposits have been found off the Cyprus coast, conveniently situated well in range of at least half a dozen countries, so the scramble for access to that new treasure will be very fierce. Some have even argued that this is at the core of all the recent conflicts in the region, including the string of Arab Spring events across the Maghreb and the Levant. Iran is also a factor, trying to establish a Shia-controlled corridor spanning Iraq, Bahrain and Syria and allowing them to gain access to the Mediterranean and control the crucial trade and pipeline routes crossing the region. And Saudi Arabia wouldn’t allow that. So there are more than 4 or 5 big players, plus about a dozen other secondary participants involved in this whole mess. And the knot doesn’t seem likely to be untied any time soon. Worse, it’s only just beginning to get tightened.

More on this Erdogan guy

Herkese merhaba! Greetings, all! I’mma occupy you with this Turkish issue once more. The Sultan keeps being on top of the news these days, so I figured I could tune in as well, what with living just next door to him, and being able to personally smell the scent coming out of his smelly ass.

See, Erdogan was, at least on paper, democratically elected. Sure, the election was partly rigged, in that he had conveniently removed most of the serious opposition to himself well in advance. Still, he wasn’t supposed to be a dictator – at least not of the Kim type. Let’s not succumb to populist temptations and media propaganda and try to view things a bit more impartially (which admittedly is not that easy, given the emotional charge of the current political situation). Erdogan is not exactly Satan, he may have some redeeming qualities, like his pragmatism (which may’ve remained in the past, granted – but more about that a bit further down). The one thing that sticks out about him is his determination, I’ll have to give him that.

Also, he was, at least initially, a genuine reformist. By the way, and this is a little-known fact particularly in the West, he actually initially expanded women’s rights – and for a time, the freedom of the press as well. As shocking as it may sound to those who’ve only been fed what the Western media deign to serve to us all. He also led Turkey towards the EU, he created a middle class where none existed, and he vastly improved the social system of his society. Those are all things that have hugely contributed to his success at home, and to his popularity. During his rule, the Turkish economy grew and expanded almost exponentially for many years in a row, where it had always lingered in the backstage before. We shouldn’t ignore any of this if we want proper context about Turkey. Because when I’m reading most analyses these days, they all seem to have converged around the notion that he’s a malevolent despot who’s leading his country towards collapse.

So far so good. But the good news end there, I’m afraid. There’s not much left of that pragmatic, albeit a bit autocratic, strong-hand leader any more. He has become much darker these days, as he has become more and more immersed in his own story of the great Neo-Ottoman Empire that he now sincerely believes is his mission to restore. If anyone still believes he’d somehow decide to get back to democratic ways sometime in the future, is fooling themselves. The Turkey of 2017 is not what it used to be – now it’s a country full of fear. People are afraid they’d be stripped of their citizenship, or intimidated, or fired, or even jailed and made to disappear, for the mere act of thinking the wrong way – Allah forbid speaking the wrong way. Criticism of your own government is no longer considered the highest form of patriotism in Turkey, rather it’s seen as treason – and this is now an official policy.

Erdogan has always been touchy. Very touchy – probably the same level of touchy as Trump. Except, he’s been in power for much longer, and has had much more tools to take petty revenge against anyone who has slighted him over the years. Journalists included. Especially journalists. But also political opponents, civil activists, military people and now foreign diplomats and even entire countries.

His relations with the press have always been at war. Especially with the Kemalist press (the old establishment), which used to be very strong before he started taking the rug from under their feet. They were always very critical of him, and for a good reason. His political philosophy is fundamentally hostile and incompatible with anything the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustaffa Kemal Ataturk stood for. And they never spared him that fact. So now he’s using his power to take revenge for that. It started from day one of his political career, back in the mid 90s when he was mayor of Istanbul. Back then, he used to constantly complain that whatever he said, it would be used by the mainstream Kemalist press. Sound familiar? In return, the press would always mock him for various things, including his poor origins (that’s a mean thing to do, I admit). They mocked him for his wife and his daughters who all wore hijabs. That was wrong too, of course. But the fact is, Erdogan himself has always resented free speech – he was just compelled to tolerate it at the time. And for a long time, all he was able to do was to sue anyone who offended him. But now, after last year’s failed coup attempt, he’s had his hands completely untied, and he has snatched the opportunity to do a sweeping clean-up against everyone and everything that doesn’t agree with him and doesn’t obey him.

And now, so emboldened, he has taken a look at Europe, and has spotted a weakness, which he’s now eager to exploit to further his Neo-Ottoman agenda. He has tested the tolerance of several countries, trying to provoke them by sending members of his government to various West European cities to rally the local Turkish diaspora in support for his planned referendum that would give him almost Sultan-like powers if it succeeds. Naturally, these countries have opposed those activities (although they’ve cited stupid excuses to block them, like “security concerns”, etc – typically half-assed stance from the hypocrite West). Erdogan has responded with his typical bombastic rhetoric, equating that opposition to “Nazi methods” and “fascism” (coming from a guy like him, that’s kind of rich). He’s also threatening with serious retaliation, both diplomatic and economic. And Europe is hardening its stance further in response. Things are not going in a good direction, but will it escalate into something truly damaging, or it’s just another episode of skillfully used PR strategy meant for distraction?

Well, given past experience, I’d bet on the latter. Erdogan’s absurd accusations sound much in the same vein as his entire election (now: referendum) strategy. The internal unrest that now exists in some Western societies (Germany, especially) about their relations with Turkey (mostly because of the migrant card that Erdogan is constantly shoving into Europe’s face for blackmail), is serving both Erdogan and the various xenophobic populists in Europe itself. The Sultan wants to impose a Dear Leader sort of “presidential” system at home, so he’s hunting for voices in the right-wing corner of the political spectrum. He needs the European nationalists to get even louder in order to invigorate his own base in Turkey. Germany and the Netherlands have so far refrained from getting tricked into that trap. Whatever you may think about those leaders, they’re not stupid or inexperienced, and they’ll do their best to preserve a level head, and try to be civil and objective, but they should also name things with their true names, and tackle the issue head-on, and put a finger on the wound. Because any other course of action would only allow it to fester even further.

The wound I’m talking about? The dismantling of what’s left of Turkish democracy. Europe should monitor the situation very closely and oppose any further persecution of other-thinkers with all means possible, wherever possible. Otherwise there’ll come a time when the rule of law will count for nothing in our south-eastern neighbor, and having an Iran-style quasi-theocratic autocracy of that caliber just next door would inevitably pose an existential threat to Europe itself in the long run. Not to mention his uneasy, yet potentially very efficient partnership with the other Tzar in the East.

The balkanization of Europe

Exactly a quarter of a century ago, in a small Dutch town called Maastricht, the European community was renamed to the European Union. The beginning of this union became a tale that everyone kept telling their kids as an example of economic and political success. But the downsides of that success that few people used to talk about until recently, which remained largely ignored for the last quarter of a century, are now threatening the future of the union more and more.

In the first years after Maastricht, these flaws might have been too difficult to spot, granted. But they remained there to linger, never to be addressed, and it took a lot of time for them to come to the surface and start threatening the unity of the union in a noticeable way. That time has come now.

One of those flaws that were put in the very foundations of the EU from day one was its inability to adequately assess the crisis in Yugoslavia and prevent the escalation of the conflicts among the warring sides. It later transformed into an inability to pacify the region in a meaningful way.

Practically, Maastricht was Germany’s way of transferring its economic power onto a larger scale – but also one of its inherent flaws: the EU became just like West Germany at the time of the Cold War. An economic giant that was simultaneously a political dwarf. That dwarf has almost stopped growing for the last quarter of a century. All temporary therapies with growth hormones in the area of foreign policy and security policy have proven futile. No coherent foreign-policy strategy towards the West Balkans ever came to be for that long period. And the region has remained engulfed in political instability.

The EU has also proven incapable of achieving consensus on its foreign policy. The fact that Germany has shown stringent firmness towards the crisis-stricken economies from the southern periphery, while towards the refugees it showed an inexplicably lax generosity, could’ve been excused with some sort of humanitarian or financial logic. But both policies were poison to the EU’s unity. Furthermore, these decisions were pushed through with force, without consulting with the public or with the sides involved in the respective problems. As were a number of prior decisions before that. When Greece was getting ushered into the Euro zone, all Western EU members chose to turn the other way to the fact that Greece wasn’t ready. The same happened when Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia were getting accepted. The story repeated over and over.

The Dublin rules which says the refugees should remain or be returned to the country where they first entered the EU territory, serves Germany and the other wealthy North European countries well, but it puts a huge pressure on the Mediterranean countries. The stubborn neglect of the migration pressure coming like a wave from the south, has turned the Mediterranean Sea into a mass grave, and the Syrian tragedy, into an all-European drama.

America’s military logic, which has always served the EU’s interests, has brought a series of interventions in foreign lands. They’ve not only caused unimaginable destruction and the collapse of entire states, but it has eroded the solidarity between the EU members. Now there’s no trace left of the solidarity towards the weaker countries or migrants. Which is why the Brexit happened, why Kaczinski rules in Poland and Orban in Hungary, and why Le Pen and Wilders are charging for power in France and the Netherlands, respectively. As if the situation wasn’t already complicated enough, what with the growing assertiveness of the likes of Putin, Erdogan and now Trump.

The current situation in the EU is starting to resemble the pre-collapse era in Yugoslavia. The catastrophe in Tito’s former dreamland happened in result of an explosive mix of economic crisis and rapidly growing ethnic tensions. Thus, all political and economic cracks that had already been there, quickly became huge rifts, and grew into ethnic conflicts that saw the disintegration of that state.

In the eyes of the Western analysts, that sort of development looked like an outdated remnant of times long past at the time – more like a sad deviation from the general trend of unstoppable progress towards “the end of history” (as per Fukuyama). But now, 25 years later, unfortunately we’re compelled to realize that the collapse of Yugoslavia was just a minor precursor to what’s now starting to increasingly look like an inevitable end of an entire process that has passed through all stages of its life cycle.

Evidently, the neo-liberal elites in the Western societies have completely underestimated people’s fears. Which is why nationalism is rearing its head back again, and taking over the public discourse, including in the Western European countries which were supposed to be nearing the coveted stage of eternal and unshakable peace and prosperity. Austria almost elected an ultra-nationalist president, and what’s going to happen in France, no one can predict at this point.

So all that said, what can be done? As simple as it sounds, the way out of this predicament may not be that easy to implement: the EU has to behave as a team at the international scene, firmly united around a certain set of values. As for domestic policy, it has to really be a solidary society. Not just on paper and in words. It’s far better and cheaper to invest into early efforts than later do politically and economically expensive damage-control interventions after the fact.

Whether Europe would re-invent its failed idea for a European Constitution, or it’ll ultimately split into a “Europe of two speeds”, is of secondary importance in that respect. What’s of crucial importance is if the EU would work as a capable, solidary union internationally, a team that has a clear and solid strategy that it has discussed openly, understood completely, and decided to defend unfalteringly – or it’ll just keep floating along with the current, only to sink further down into irrelevance and obscurity. Time is running out. We must decide.

The problem with science

I’d argue that the current anti-scientific trend among modern societies largely comes from the fact that science is not about knowing “The Truth”(TM), it’s about looking for a better understanding of reality. Which implies a great deal of uncertainty, and the acknowledgement that we don’t possess the monopoly on “Truth”, but rather we’re on an eternal journey towards it. At least that’s what the scientific method is about. And there’s the problem: people want to have a sense of certainty, security, a feeling that they’re stepping on firm ground. Which is where superstition comes from, and irrationality, and religion, etc.

And I’m not talking about usual fringe battle-fronts like creationism or flat-Earthers, I’m actually talking of much more down-to-Earth topics like climate change for example. The fact that we might be fast approaching an era where the staple defenses such as evidence and not being suddenly censored are probably going to be under increased threat, is not helping much in that respect, either. Something tells me it’ll be ever harder to argue with people who don’t even know the full extent of what they don’t know – and on top of that, do not want to know.

A recent (and quite intriguing) paper called “When science becomes too easy: Science popularization inclines laypeople to underrate their dependence on experts” argues that it’s the rise of science communication that might be the cause of rising distrust in experts, which is quite a unusual thought, but it may have a point when you think of it. Again, the disadvantage of science communication is that it’s full of words like probably, maybe, possible, roughly, estimated, hypothesized – which hardly sounds convincing enough to the layperson, who, like I said, would rather deal in absolutes. Be it due to intellectual laziness or some other reason.

So how do we deal with this problem? Now. First off, I think it’s become evident by now that science in school should be less about teaching kids to recite dates and numbers in order to get good marks. The end of the last ice was how long ago? 10 thousand years is the “normal” way to “teach” it. A number that started off from varve counting in the Baltic Sea – later “more or less” confirmed by C14 dating. But a carbon-year is not the same as a calendar year – so when you take 10K C14 years and calibrate it to Earth orbits, you get a number that is well in excess of 11K. But when you start to think about it, the North American ice-sheet kept melting until 7K years before present. And the modern ocean circulation can be described as leaving the glacial mode as late as 6K years ago. We know for example that the “8,200 year event” is linked to glacial modus operandi. What to learn from this? That science does not know when the last ice age cycle ended within error bars covering 5-6K years? HELL NO! That’s not what I just said.

Science is not a place for those who demand “the answer” (which of course is 42). Which is why it tickles certain religious groups in need for absolute truth so much. Deniers will use rhetoric such as “what is the exact climate sensitivity of one CO2-molecule”, knowing full well that science only can give the unsatisfying answer “it is probably”, .and, “it depends”. Then they can play their smug gotcha game and feel good about themselves.

Science in school should teach that probability and uncertainty is not the same as not knowing. Probability and uncertainty is in fact how knowing is described. Science in school should teach philosophy of science: The difference between an analogue and a homologe. The difference between induction and deduction. The difference between a scientific hypothesis and a theory. The difference between falsification and verification, or indeed, what “proof” is. It should teach the structure of logic. It should teach the demarcation line. To make kids aware of the need to question the premise.

Kids do not necessarily need to learn how to solve diff-equations. But they do need to understand how to separate information. They must learn about fallacies that come in so many forms (even fun tricks allowing “proof” that 1=2 or that 1+1=1). Because these building blocks of science are publicly unknown, deniers and “alternative truths” can roam public space. They can troll – by sharing information (that per se can be correct) that seemingly falsify or significantly “weaken” any theory.

Admittedly, it’s too tempting to blame the ever changing education targets for this as well. It’s easy to measure “targets” by teaching kids to answer yes/no or multiple-choice questions. So kids grow up with thinking they understood the topic by 56%, 78% or 96%. The entire population is learning that there is some 100% answer key that science possesses. This is of course wrong.

In mathematics, because it is (most likely) a human construct (though some philosophers argue that mathematics is a real entity that can be discovered – similar to a fossil) this might be true to an extent – until one buries themselves deep into number-theory and starts to understand that there’s some pretty interesting epistemological stuff at the bottom of it – called axioms. Epistemology, even though it at first glance provides information that makes any idea look as likely as any other idea, is quite important to be aware of. These inner structures of knowledge are seldom discussed in scientific papers. They are treated as shared by all by default. They’re usually silently represented by how science is done/acted out – simply because they’re known by everyone else, and they “stand to reason”. Even mathematical papers don’t start with proving that 1+1=2 (Whitehead and Russell spent 400 pages of set-theory in an attempt to prove it to be true in the early 20th century, and besides, one really needs to get back to the axioms of Peano to truly start to appreciate that 1+1 is 2.

So here is what science is like – and to many people, it doesn’t look good. It’s hardly satisfying. Particularly because we use all these words that are the same as used in daily speak. Theory, for example. Error, for example. And if no one ever explains what is meant with a scientific theory or what error-bars (or residuals) mean in science – all they hear is that some scientist has a theory with lots of errors and unexplained residuals hanging around!

Finally, culture has developed a certain liking of the myth of the lone brilliant genius. You know, Einstein, who according to popular culture did not understand math and was rejected from science, thus discovering truth without any links to science itself in a patent office. These myths are harmful and wrong. Einstein knew math very well – and he was updated very well on the current science. He actually based his work on the current science at the time. He communicated massively with other scientists. Science is a web. It’s a deeply structured global collaboration. It’s a ladder – you can’t leap from the base straight to some abstract highest point that you can call truth. You need to step on the preceding steps first. And start climbing.

Reality check

Yes indeed, these posts will keep coming at a thick rate. It’s inevitable.

Israeli Settlements ‘May Not Be Helpful’ for Middle East Peace, Trump Administration Says

UN Ambassador Haley hits Russia hard on Ukraine

So what happens in week two of Trump’s term? He warns Israel that building more settlements isn’t going to be helping. Which is essentially the line Obama kept for 8 years. While he eases some sanctions on Russia, Trump refuses to unblock Russian assets in the US until Russia removes its paramilitary troops from Crimea and returns Crimea to Ukraine. Which is the line Obama kept for 8 years. And finally, Trump continues to shift America’s focus to the Pacific, particularly towards efforts to counter China’s expansionist aspirations. Which is the line Obama kept for 8 years (the Pivot to Asia).

I’d say spending some time in office tends to temper even the fringest of people, and get them back in line with the mainstream realities, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned.

There are differences, for sure. And significant ones, at that. The sharp tone he has taken towards China and Mexico, to begin with. It’s part of his “tough guy” and “business approach to diplomacy” image that he has crafted for himself (there was an insightful piece about this at CNN). The demand that Europe should contribute more fairly to its own security (fair point, by the way), and the insistance that America shouldn’t be funding everyone else’s defense (NATO) – which is an argument I’ve been hearing from left and right all over the place long before Trump appeared. The scrapping of the TTP, and possibly the blocking of TTIP until fairer deals are struck – which is what many people from both the left and right demanded for years. And then there’s that pipeline of course. Still, the overall trend points to something very different from what some alarmists are, well, alarming about, namely an almost-World-War-Three state of affairs, and the end of the world as we know it, to use that worn-out cliche.

Now, as for domestic policy, there’s no argument there – I’m afraid America is truly fucked.

Some fundies are gonna freak the hell out about this

Scientists just made a breakthrough by creating the first human-pig embryo that could revolutionize healthcare

…The ultimate goal of this type of work is to grow human organs inside of other animals as a means to ending the organ shortage that is costing thousands of Americans — who need a transplant — their lives each year.

Well, not just Americans but we get the point. Now cue the “OMG Frankenstein chimera!” lamentations of the Medieval segment of the public. I’m sure if there’s a Christian Doomsday Clock somewhere, it has moved a few minutes closer to the Apocalypse now.

But seriously, when you overcome your initial revulsion (“OMG, this is so sick!”), and force yourself to study this, you might consider this. Think of this way: if you transplant a kidney into a pig, it’s still a pig. Transplanting cells that could grow one of YOUR kidneys in a pig still makes it a pig, which you might one day need very much.

This scientific achievement holds promise of helping so many people needing organ transplants for everything from cornea eye to kidney transplants. It also helps have a rudimentary understanding of CRISPR gene editing. Regarding “human-pig” chimeras, the key is in understanding “induced Pluripotent Stem Cells”, or iPS for short. There are three types, and the type used to grow organs are iPS cells.

iPS cells offer great therapeutic potential. Because they come FROM A PATIENT’S OWN CELLS (caps mine), they are genetically matched to that patient, so they can eliminate tissue matching and tissue rejection problems that currently hinder successful cell and tissue transplantation.” (source)

Thus, these are NOT cells used from an aborted fetus. Thus,
1) If you need a pancreas transplant, a sample of cells from YOUR own body, like skin cells, are used, and 2) The scientists used a pig’s “egg” and edits out, or snips out its gene for a pancreas, using the CRISPR gene editing. That egg then could not produce a pig pancreas, but – the human skin cell, when injected into the egg, can fill in the void, creating and growing a replica of YOUR pancreas in a pig fetus.

Genius, humane cures, and what the 21st century should be about… I hope we don’t blow this. Medieval fundies, I’m looking at you.

Before you anathematize…

The clash of religions is a frequent subject these days. Whether it’s really a thing, is another question. But when we talk of religions, civilizations, etc, very often the biggest constituency somehow gets omitted: the atheists. And they’re actually more numerous than any religion, including Christianity and Islam.

Take the US for example. Being an atheist is considered a stigma, a shameful stain on the reputation, one that could destroy entire political careers. Being “godless” is worse than being black, Muslim, or homosexual. A meager 37% of Americans would choose an atheist for president. Because atheists are considered intolerant, immoral and blind for the beauties of creation. And that is wrong. Very wrong. Why? Let’s see.

Claim: atheists believe that life has no meaning. Verdict: false. It’s exactly because the religious people fear the senselessness of life that they give so much importance to the afterlife, where they hope to find the happiness they’re denied here. Conversely, atheists consider life precious. Their relations with other people matter NOW, not after.

Claim: atheism is responsible for the biggest crimes against humanity. Verdict: false. I’ve often heard the argument that the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were a natural consequences of their godlessness. In fact, the problem of communism, fascism or any other form of despotism, is not in that they reject religion but just on the contrary: they’re themselves inherently dogmatic, which makes them very similar to religion. And this facilitates their genocidal tendencies directed against other-thinkers.

Claim: atheism is dogmatic. Verdict: false. You don’t have to be dogmatic to be able to refute religious dogma. We all know Harry Roberts’ words, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours”.

Claim: atheists believe everything was created by chance. Verdict: only partially. In fact no one knows how the Universe was created. It’s not even clear if we could speak of beginning and creation at all, since these notions are related to the concept of time, and here we’re talking of the emergence of time and space itself. Granted, we may not know for sure which exact processes gave rise to the first life forms on Earth – but there’s strong evidence that the living world is a product of random chance PLUS the acting principles of evolution (random mutations combined with natural selection).

Claim: is unscientific. Verdict: false. There may be some scientists who are religions, but scientific thinking and the scientific process as a whole are inherently incompatible with religious belief. It’s quite telling that, while 90% of the American people believe tehre is a god, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences think otherwise.

Claim: atheists are arrogant. Verdict: only some. I know, Richard Dawkins comes to mind. In reality though, in principle when the scientists don’t know something (like, how the Universe was created, or how the first living cell emerged), they’re prepared to admit it. Religions are different. It’s ironic that religious people who constantly wave their humility in everyone’s faces, at the same time assume the right to “know” everything about the universe, and the whole “truth” about all facts of the world. When atheists ponder their place in the universe, they try to use scientific facts. This has nothing to do with arrogance, it’s intellectual decency.

Claim: atheists are insusceptible to any spiritual experience. Verdict: false. Atheists are humans. And as such, they’re also capable of experiencing love, awe or piety, or reaching a state of ecstasy. They can also strive for experiences that break the boundaries of the rational. What they don’t do though, is to draw ungrounded conclusions about reality out of it. Some Christians get ecstatic by merely reading the Bible and praying to Jesus; same can be said about Muslims and the Quran. This may help them believe their life has been made better – which is fine. But what does this prove? The only thing it proves is that certain mental exercises and behaviors can have deep impact on human spirit. Hardly a surprise. We all know what the placebo effect is. But is that proof that Jesus is humankind’s only savior? Hardly. After all, millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists have the same or similar experiences on a daily basis.

Claim: atheists believe that there’s nothing greater than the human mind. Verdict: false. In fact, atheists know the limits of the human mind too well. Let me remind that it is the atheists who admit we’re unable to know everything about the Universe. In the meantime, the major religions tend to trivialize the beauty and endlessness of the Universe.

Claim: atheists don’t think there’s anything useful in religion. Verdict: not necessarily. When we talk of religion’s positive effects, we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t proof of its correctness. It’s only proof that suggestion can have effects on society, both positive and negative. There’s a big difference between the consoling effect of being part of a larger community of like-minded people on one side, and objective truth on the other. By the way, religion’s overall positive effect is quite debatable. Christianity for example prescribes a number of questionable motivations for doing “good”. Because what’s more moral: to help the weak and the poor because you disagree with their predicament – or because you expect to be rewarded by a deity for helping them, or punished for ignoring them?

Claim: atheism is incompatible with morality. Verdict: very false. Take a person who has committed atrocities, for example. Do we really think they’d suddenly change their ways by merely reading the Bible or the Quran? Hell, (ha!) these scriptures are teaming with odes in praise of violence, both by man on man or by god on man. No, our morality does not come from religion. It comes from us following our moral intuition, which is likely a product of our biological features and social condition. Of course, in result of thousands of years of human inquiry into the issues of ethics and morality, these mores have been vastly refined. Scripture does contain lots of good lessons that are useful to society – these should be cherished for their ethical wisdom. But that doesn’t mean they were deigned upon us by a deity. No, they were all crafted by man.

The saddest thing is that in our presumably modern times, in the 21st century, false notions like the above continue to persist, and set the tone of the political discourse, and thus shape the social construct that we all live in – to everyone’s detriment. And I contend that these falsehoods shouldn’t be ignored, given a free pass, or be shown unnecessary tolerance towards. No, that’s the wrong approach. As Jon Stewart famously said in his farewell speech during his last Daily Show appearance, “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something”.

Fear inequality, not terrorism

The annual meeting of the Illuminati/Bilderberger cabal in Davos has come up with a new motto: “Responsive and Responsive Leadership”. Sounds nice and timely, what with the inauguration of President Douche who has vowed to shake up the existing world order, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

So, the Davos smart-heads are unanimous that the main culprits for The Donald’s shocking rise are the key crises of the recent years: polarized society, income inequality, and many countries shutting themselves in and getting introvert. This years Global Risk Report (something like a Davos manifesto setting the priorities for the next year) outlines five factors that will determine world events from now on. 1) Slow growth plus high debt and demographic shifts that will increase inequality and give ammo to the anti-globalist camp and those who feel marginalized by the current capitalist model. 2) Smeared-out national identities, systematically undermined by globalization, and the subsequent emotion-prone decision-making process. 3) The Fourth Industrial Revolution having changed modern societies, economies, and ways of doing business. 4) The transition to a multi-polar world order that threatens stable global cooperation. 5) The need for urgent action on climate change that’s hanging like a sword over everybody’s heads with an ever growing menace.

This report has been focusing on the major global risks and the relations between them for more than a decade now. The years of growing tensions in various parts of the world have crystallized last year, in the form of strong public discontent against the status quo. Trump and the Brexit are the most obvious examples. Many populists have chosen to ride this wave of discontent for political gains. And this increases the global risks.

The first major challenge, the report concludes, is restoring economic growth and reforming market capitalism. Despite the unprecedented levels of prosperity and the emerging middle class in many countries, the feeling of economic strife is contributing to the anti status quo, populist and anti-globalist sentiments. It’s telling that the 1% in the US have gained 1/3 of income for the last decade, while the remaining 99% haven’t seen any significant progress in that respect. That’s why income disparity is definitely the most dangerous global trend, and it’s here to stay for quite a while. But encouraging economic growth alone won’t help heal the deep rift. Fundamental reform of the market model is also required, and we’re not only not seeing this happening any time soon, but we’re now seeing some major reactionary forces rearing their head and pushing back in the exact opposite direction.

Another big challenge is reinforcing the communities, because the yeas of fast social and economic change has opened up the generation gap even more. In result, issues like national identity and cultural values have become more acute, and now that politics is largely defined by the so called Post-Truth era, where emotion takes precedence over fact and rationality, this creates even more cracks in society. In Europe, this process resulted in the rise of various parties that focus on nationalist values and national sovereignty, their agenda being reinforced by the migration pressure from the Middle East. The question is, is there a way to narrow these deep divisions without hurting individual rights. It’s a delicate problem that no one seems to have a smart answer to.

Technological advancement is another issue. It radically changes the world. But we shouldn’t also forget the fact that 3/4 of all jobs lost in the US for the last decade or so, are due to automatization. The forecast puts almost half of all remaining jobs at risk due to technological progress. This partially explains the deteriorating prospects for some segments of the labor market (but also the emergence of new professions branching out in places unanticipated before). This naturally leads to a sense of distrust in progress as a whole, and the tendency of ordinary folk to vote for anti-establishment parties.

The next big challenge is to find ways to reinforce and reform the systems of global cooperation. Trump’s proposed isolationism isolationism and Britain’s eagerness to divorce with the EU are hardly unique, single events. The examples of countries that want to remove themselves from various international partnerships are increasing by the day. But the Davos experts believe a sharp turn toward a domestically orientated economy would be very risky. In many areas, including the Syrian crisis and the subsequent refugee crisis, international cooperation and multilateralism seem like the only viable option for finding long-term solutions. Everything else is just pouring more salt onto a wound.

Finally, there’s the risk of climate change of course. The last decade has seen a number of environmental challenges emerging: from extreme climate conditions to water shortages to failing attempts to curb carbon emissions. These have consistently featured in all previous analyses, and they bring along a myriad of collateral risks, including social unrest, political turmoil, armed conflict and migration crises. And this year the climate concerns will be more severe than ever, because the last 16 years have broken all temperature records, and the trend seems to be accelerating.

In conclusion, the smart-heads in Davos may be acknowledging all the problems, but the question is, will they move a finger about it this time, or they’ll just stick to talking. It’s evident that the rising political, economic, social, technological and climate tensions will only be increasing the danger of a systematic collapse, and this makes the global order ever more fragile, and puts the world’s collective prosperity at great peril – not to mention its chances for survival. What’s more, if 2016 is any guide, many challenges can’t even be remotely anticipated, let alone tackled. Which puts us in quite “interesting” times, indeed.

Time to stop the fussing

The waiting is over. Britain is now clearly formulating a road-map towards its divorce with Europe. And that is quite something. Because for a long time there was no clarity about the Brexit: how it would happen, when it would happen, and who would do it. And what the consequences would be. For too long, too many people were having false illusions that the Britons would somehow change their minds. Or that Britain would somehow manage to keep its place in the European market. Well, the EU’s response was No. Juncker had said even before the referendum that the UK would have to either take it all or leave it all. That was a warning and a treat: there would be no compromise, “deserting traitors” would not be welcome.

Now we can sense some Schadenfreude in the statements coming from Brussels. Whenever the plunging pound is mentioned, the general mood is that this is deserved punishment for Britain. Perhaps Brussels wants to discipline the other 27 members this way, but in fact it’s only giving ammo to more Euro-skepticism, and harming itself economically. For example, it is in the interest of the German exporters to have access to the British market without trade restrictions, because this is a very important market for them. 1/5 of all German cars go to Britain, after all.

Now the British are finding themselves compelled to look for other ways, and take on the offensive. They want to leave the European internal market and re-negotiate their relations with the EU, and hopefully achieve as close a trade partnership as possible. At least that is how we can read Mrs May’s speech from the other day, which by the way she gave with quite some sense of defiance and pride. Britain does not intend to beg Brussels for anything, you see. It wants to be open to the whole world. And this matches well with Trump’s plans to reach a bilateral agreement with the UK. Given the EU’s enormous difficulties in negotiating transnational trade agreements, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that other countries like China and Brazil could pursue separate agreements with Britain as well.

Of course, few Britons wanted things to come to this point. Those who voted for the Brexit mostly wanted better control on immigration. Contrary to the predominant impression in continental Europe, the Britons didn’t have such a problem with the current migrants of EU origin, but rather the future ones. There were frequent questions before the referendum how Cameron would stop the hundreds of thousands of migrants from arriving to Britain after getting EU citizenship (mostly German). He never had an adequate answer to this. And Merkel’s policy of uncontrolled migration at the time added new momentum to the pro-Brexit camp. We all know the result.

Whatever we say, the decision has been made. And Brussels and Berlin have to adjust their behaviour. Juncker’s warning/threat about the “deserting traitors” reveals a certain amount of bewilderment with the very possibility that someone, anyone, could even think of turning their back on the brave Brussels-led world. A world that was so complacent and self-assured in its own righteousness and correctness that it never saw the trouble coming. And now the Brexit is putting the entire EU as we know it in question. Which is not necessarily a dangerous or a bad thing – it could actually turn out to be a healthy catalyst for real change. Because, as great an idea as the European project may be, it cannot be sustained through pressure and threats of punishment. Its strength is when it is open and attractive, not intimidating.

The home of media freedom

The Nordic countries have dominated the global media freedom rankings for years. The Reporters Sans Frontieres report for 2016 makes no exception: the Scandinavian countries occupy the top spots yet again. Finland is 1st again, Norway is in the top 3, followed by Denmark, Sweden is in the top 10, Iceland in the top 20. In comparison, the US is 41st, France 45th, the UK 38th. The question many are asking is, what is the core reason for these achievements? What lessons could the rest of the world learn from Scandinavia?

So let us dig a bit into this. First, the public media in the Nordic countries have to give their best to keep themselves neck in neck with the private outlets, and offer quality that would keep the viewers and readers consistently interested. Of course we are talking about money here, but not only. Many countries around the world (including the developed wold) are trying to cut their public media budgets for the sake of austerity, but the Nordic countries won’t allow this to happen. They keep an ambitious approach to the media, believing that a public media could only be successful if it maintains a variety and high quality of the product that it offers. This is the primary criterion for assigning funds on a yearly basis, based on the results. In result, most public media end up offering a stunning variety of materials, from the traditional publicism and research that one might expect from such a media, to sports and even HBO-style entertainment.

It’s a simple principle: if a certain media manages to keep the public interest regularly, it is logical that it should be granted better financial positions. Conversely, if a large enough segment of society stops seeing anything interesting there, that media cannot rely on political and financial support from the government.

Self-regulation is another important factor. The thing is, it only works if everyone involved agrees to it. So it is largely a cultural thing, because these societies are big on ethics and self-regulation. The Scandinavian press councils are independent organisations, mostly funded by the media industry itself. Their function is to review complaints and feedback from the consumers. When they receive a complaint about a certain publication, they give a chance to both sides, the claimant and the accused media, to present their position on the case. The complaint is reviewed by a group of distinguished journalists, editors and citizens, this council ultimately deciding if the complaint is legitimate or not. If yes, the media could be obligated to publish the respective official refutation of its own previous material.

And here is the catch. While membership in these councils is completely voluntary, there is hardly a media organisation in Scandinavia that has not joined one. The self-regulation is voluntary, and done diligently, in a transparent and open way.

Another feature of the Nordic model is that the public media are always trying hard to prove their independence. Since they are funded by the state, the citizens have a strong feeling of ownership over the content they are being served by the public televisions, radios and newspapers. The public media constantly provide feedback to their public, they frequently publish various analyses and reports about the air time each political party has been provided with, etc. There is also very stringent external audit. In Denmark for example, the radio and TV board funds a regular research on the political balance and impartiality of the public media during elections. In Sweden, there is an annual report on the activities of the media and the response of their public, as well as the level of public trust in the public media. The state funds regular researches on the public perception of the media, and this creates an atmosphere of mutual trust. In Sweden there is a joke that the media are the most trusted institution after IKEA. =)

On top of all that, the Scandinavian media system has the advantage of being able to afford to experiment with all sorts of innovative business models. Large media conglomerates, just like any other form of monopolies, are not viewed well by those societies – be they private or public. Which is why in 2010 the Danish government announced they were selling one of the biggest radio stations to the private market in order to boost competitiveness in that segment (it had started to almost dominate the radio market at the time). From a business point of view, such a step didn’t make any sense – you do not quit something that is so successful. But from a public and social standpoint, it was the right thing to do. So there were a number of foreign companies who placed bids for that purchase, but they couldn’t cope with the requirements for high funding levels, and they had a particular problem with the requirement for no adverts on the program. But the government did not cave in, and the requirement stayed. Because it was the right thing to do. So the Danish government developed a new business model, which is essentially a mixed public-private hybrid. The radio station became the property of a private company, but it would receive public funding on the condition that it should accept strict requirements for the public content it would be providing.

Another feature of the Nordic media model is the absolute protection of the information sources. The Swedish law is the most frequently cited in that respect. It says that any court report, public document or government communication should be fully accessible to the public. The state employees are encouraged, not discouraged, to give information to the journalists. It is absolutely forbidden to punish anyone for providing information to the media. The term “leaked information” is practically non-existent.

The Swedish media and information law is so explicit in this respect that if a journalist publishes information from an anonymous source, it would be criminal to insist that they should reveal their sources. The other countries in the region are no different: Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland also consider the idea of full openness of the official documents to be sacrosanct. Which explains why Iceland is actively pursuing the role of an information haven now, by the way – including the desire to host the likes of WikiLeaks. It is what the public wants.

In result of all this, the journalists in Scandinavia are the freest in the world, and the public there is among the biggest consumers of media content. Finland is a fine example: the EU centre for journalism reports that 483 per 1000 people buy newspapers regularly in Finland. 76% of the Finns over 10 years of age read newspapers daily. It is logical that the media market is highly developed and of top quality there.

A very important factor in Finland is the strong journalist union which defends the rights of the employees in the sector: 14 thousand people, 355 companies and 6 media associations are members. And all this, in a country of 5.5 million.

But the real reason that Finland has performed so well is the fact that the government has turned transparency, informedness and quality journalism into one of its top priorities (along with education, as previously mentioned here). While Finland is the standard-bearer in that respect, the other Nordic countries are not too far behind, either. The public there has full and free access to public information at all levels. And this of course reflects on the politics. These countries have topped any and all “least corrupt” rankings in the world for decades. There is a good reason for this of course: given the level of media freedom and public transparency, and the quality of education and the informed public that it fosters, the politicians cannot even think of stepping over the line.

So the world really has a lot to learn from the Nordic countries in terms of media freedom. Journalist protection, efficient and voluntary self-regulation, as well as raising transparency and the access to information to a pedestal, are lessons that these societies have learned a long time ago, and are now picking the fruits from it. They are a fine example that media freedom is one of the key factors for social, political, and consequently, economic prosperity.