Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey through Virtual Reality – Jaron Lanier

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Usually when a man credited with coining a technical term, expounds about his creation, the outcome is inevitably anticipated to be dense, it not downright esoteric – expect for a segment of the populace that terms itself fraternity. Unless such a man goes by the name of Jaron Lanier that is. The author of the best-seller “You Are Not a Gadget”, and “Who Owns The Future”, in his latest book, “The Dawn Of the New Everything”, gives a vantage techno-spiritual overview of the concept of virtual reality. Universally acknowledged as one of the pioneers of this immersion technology, and also the computer scientist who coined the term VR for the first time, Mr. Lanier has penned what can be correctly described as a riveting quasi-memoir.

Here’s summarizing the latest offering of Techverse’s most famous recluse:

  • A deeply personal and touching memoir where Mr. Lanier dwells about the devastating loss of his mother in an automobile accident and how he was left to nurse this scar for a protracted period of time. Writing in a matter-of-fact manner, Mr. Lanier described as to how before turning seventeen he designed his family home, an asymmetric, futuristic, weird angled geodesic dome. Not surprisingly, he chose to call it, “Earth Station Lanier.” This following the burning down of their home in an arson attack. Unable to obtain any compensation from the insurance companies, the prodigious Mr. Lanier and his equally prodigious father Ellery (Ellery went on to obtain a PhD in his eighties), were forced to live for some time in a tent. If this reads unbelieving, wait until you get to the part where he deals with goats and musical instruments;

 

  • Possessing an inveterate and a preternatural zeal for music, Mr. Lanier accumulates musical instruments at a rate which puts even the reproduction capabilities of rabbits to utter shame! From the conventional to the bizarre, Mr. Lanier’s personal collection numbers at least a whopping 1,000!
  • Stretch limos are passé; goat limos are in! Procuring a goat so that he could make money by selling cheese, which in turn would enable the payment of his tuition fee, Mr. Lanier comes to the firm conclusion that many are better than one. Modifying an already modified care – one with a missing back seat – he stuffs bales of hay where there once was a seat and where one rightfully should be too, thereby converting the battered car into a barn. This “goat limo” facilitated Mr. Lanier going about his chores while, “moving the lovely creatures around in style.”
  • In a Where-C.S.Lewis-meets-J.R.R.Tolkien fantasy, while still attending high school, Mr. Lanier gets himself enrolled at New Mexico State University. In the course of studying computer science, he comes across the exploits of Ivan Sutherland, a pioneering tech enthusiast, who, in the 1960s, conceived a head-mounted display permitting an individual to view a digital world, the preserve of computer programs. Another book that gets a special mention by Mr. Lanier is the complex work, “Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid”, popularly known as GEB, penned by Douglas Hofstadter
  • Virtual Reality is a kaleidoscope of a myriad definitions. In this book, Mr. Lanier defines Virtual Reality in more than fifty – yes you read that right – different ways. From the Triptych of Hieronymus Bosch to haptic Data Gloves and Headsets named Sword of Damocles, the medley is just jaw-dropping! However, at the heart of every definition lies a benevolent and benign concept of beauty. The objective of VR is to encourage young people “create beauty” in stark contradistinction to the greedy multinational corporations where hackers, “twitch our marionette strings.”
  • The story of how a group of happy-go-lucky, carefree and creative spirits brought together their eccentricities and enthusiasm to form a formidable VR Company – VPL Inc. – demonstrates in clinical fashion the heights to which an unshackled human spirit full of vibrancy and bereft of the weight of expectancy can soar. However, Mr. Lanier’s story also underscores how swiftly and unfortunately such a vision can disintegrate, if not evaporate as after a bout of differences of opinion, involvement of venture capitalists and gung-ho marketers, Mr. Lanier leaves the very company that he founded. In a typical self-deprecating and humourous manner, Mr. Lanier blames himself rather than castigating any of the protagonists involved in the rupture of VPL. In fact, throughout the book, he refuses to bite the bait, in the form of the lure which a juicy story about a rambunctious board battle could bring both to the author and to the published work. He prudently and steadfastly steers away from making controversial statements of any ilk;
  • VPL existed for all of five years during the course of which Mr. Lanier had the opportunity to engage in eclectic collaborations. Partnering surgeons in an effort to design higher quality prosthetics to working in tandem with military personnel on defense contracts, Mr. Lanier attempted to elevate the utility of Virtual Reality to a height hitherto experienced or ascended. In fact, VR’s coming-of-age movie, The Lawnmower Man featured VPL’s ‘EyePhone’, a headset capable of tracking head movements. VPL’s most famous invention, arguably, the haptic “DataGlove” appeared on the front cover of Scientific American in 1987.
  • A phantasmagoria of characters appears in a whorl throughout this curious book. Ace Hollywood Director Steven Spielberg, Marvin Minsky, the American cognitive scientist concerned largely with research of artificial intelligence (AI), and co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AI laboratory; Andy Herzfeld, the father of the Macintosh Operating System; Larry Tesler, the inventor of the browser; acid Guru Timothy Leary; and the inimitable and brilliant genius Richard Feynman, who taught Mr. Lanier how to form geometrical designs using one’s fingers to think about chirality. This phalanx of geniuses and their indelible contribution to the fields of Science and Technology leaves the reader with a sense of awe.
  • The biggest takeaway from the book however, lies in Mr. Lanier’s clamour about the plummeting ethical standards that has become the cornerstone of today’s technology domain. While multinational corporations are flush with wealth, a predominant proportion of such accumulated riches come, courtesy tracking online identities. Cybersecurity firms ubiquitously prowl the unseen digital world compromising the data privacy and security of millions of gullible and unsuspecting people. In the words of Mr. Lanier, “The strange new truth is that almost no one has privacy and yet no one knows what’s going on.”

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now – Jaron Lanier

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After receiving the UEFA President’s Award, former footballer from France, and Manchester United legend, Eric Cantona, delivered, what arguably has to be the most bizarre and cryptic speech ever delivered at an award’s ceremony. An existential rumination, that had at its centerpiece the notions of aging, crime and science, Cantona’s brief talk had his audience stupefied. However, Jarion Lanier might have had no trouble whatsoever in decrypting (no pun intended) the essence embedded within this curious speech. Lanier, the reclusive Karl Popper of the ’Techverse’, has been clamouring for a complete detachment by users from all forms of social media. The man surely practices what he preaches as well. He has completely severed himself from every form of social media usage and hence his renowned reclusiveness!

Now in a blistering book – which is part philosophical and part polemic – plainly titled, “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”, Mr. Lanier, holds forth in an eloquent, erudite and extraordinary manner, on an urgent need to disassociate oneself from all social media accounts. Mr. Lanier’s book resonates deeply with the profundity and power of each of the arguments which he lays down in support of his clarion call, and constitutes a timely, urgent and essential work that highlights the pernicious outcomes of a perpetual immersion in and entanglement with social media. Mr. Lanier should know, being the pioneer in the sophisticated technology of Virtual Reality, himself.

Mr. Lanier’s Bully Pulpit revolves around the acronym, BUMMER – “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” Bummer is an insidious machinery, which, by employing a Byzantine set of algorithms and other complex Information Technology chicanery deprives users of all free will holding their thoughts, actions and deed to ransom. And atop the pile of Bummer companies stands the duo that is Facebook and Google. Mr. Lanier educates us on the six components that constitute the integral part of the Bummer machine by employing an ingenious mnemonic:

  • A: Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy;
  • B: Butting into everyone’s lives;
  • C: Cramming content down people’s throats;
  • D: Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible;
  • E: Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and
  • F: for Fake mobs and Faker society.

Alluding to the takedowns of Facebook, courtesy Sean Parker, the first President of Facebook, and Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-President of user growth at Facebook, Mr. Lanier brings to our attention the manipulative tactics of the Bummer companies. Giving the user a little “dopamine hit” every once in a while, unknown and unseen actors create a social-validation feedback loop into which the gullible user is unwittingly sucked – in perpetuity. Mr. Lanier also elaborates on a hypothesis framed by him about the existence of a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. Using the analogy of wolves, Mr. Lanier espouses that this switch can be set to either the Solitary/Pack mode. “When we are solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance.”  However, as Mr. Lanier cautions us the Bummer machine does not want us to set our switches to the Solitary Mode. It is in the machine’s vested interest to ensure that our switches are always tuned to the Pack Mode. “When the Solitary/Pack switch is set to Pack, we become obsessed with and controlled by a pecking order. We pounce on those below us, lest we be demoted, and we do our best to flatter and snipe at those above us at the same time. Our peers flicker between “ally” and “enemy” so quickly that we cease to perceive them as individuals…The only constant basis of friendship is shared antagonism toward other packs.”

A case in point being the exertion of a mob rule in the domain of theoretical physics as highlighted by the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. Mr. Lanier argues that we are blissfully unaware of the dangerous fact that we are trapped in a vast echo chamber that constantly keeps getting smaller and smaller, just like the deadly trash compactor of the Death Star. This echo chamber also leads to the inculcation of a malignant addiction. “The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments … Because the stimuli from the algorithm doesn’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process – of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage – is addiction.”

Certain sections of Lanier’s book make for form heavy and tedious reading. Metaphysical and philosophical connotations challenge the very limits of the reader’s intellect. In his tenth and final argument, titled, “Social Media Hates Your Soul”, Mr. Lanier attempts to enlighten us on what he terms, “The Principles of Bummer Spirituality.” Lamenting the fact that a ritual engagement with Bummer initially appears to be a funeral for free will, Mr. Lanier states, “So BUMMER intrinsically enacts a structural, rather than an ontological, change in the nature of free will. It will continue to exist, if under a barrage of insults. The important change is that now, you have less free will, and a few people whom you don’t know have more of it. Some of your free will has been transferred to them. Free will has become like money in a gilded age.”

Mr. Lanier, however does not exhort us to abhor all our social media accounts in perpetuity at the drop of a hat. He urges us to engage in an exercise, wherein we can fix a social media detachment period of six months. At the end of this moratorium, we can either return to social media or ditch it forever. As Mr. Lanier had reiterated the same principle in a piece written in The New York Post on 23 June, 2018, “After an exercise in giving up — try six months — you may decide to return to social media. Only you can know what’s best for you. But what you should do — must do — is be extra careful next time an election comes around or you’re about to make a purchase or agree to something. Is the more cranky, paranoid part of you what’s driving you? If so, please, for God’s sake, take a few more days off social media before you make your decision.”

“Ten Arguments.” may be regarded as a dystopian narrative that seeks to demonstrate how unhinged we have become as a society with our obsession towards social media. This obsession has become as preternatural as the smartphone has become a natural and limbic extension of us. Another way to look at this marvelous work is from a perspective of the Big Tech behemoths such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. There exists a golden opportunity for these capitalists to make the digital world a much better, safer and harmonious place to be in and interact. Such a change however can only be brought about if a mirror was to be placed against the conscience of these companies. This, is exactly what Mr. Lanier does, and resoundingly so!

Give People Money – Annie Lowrey

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According to Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, global inequality, has attained damaging and dangerous proportions. In a fascinating piece titled, “How Bad is Global Inequality, Really?” and published on his website, Mr. Hickel observes that, “the poorest 60% – the ones depicted as the “winners” in the elephant graph – continue to live under the poverty line of $7.40 per day (2011 Purchasing Power Parity).” The elephant graph here refers to a famous and popular graph, originally developed by Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner using World Bank data.  This graph charts the change in income that the world’s population have experienced over time, from the very poorest to the richest 1%. Mr. Hickel’s findings paint an extremely somber picture. In his own words, “…the top incomes… well, they have grown by what can only be described as an obscene amount, with millionaires doubling or tripling their annual incomes, gaining some 14,000 times more than the average person in the poorest 60% of the world’s population”.

Whilst umpteen number of measures, ranging from the well intentioned to the ill-conceived have been promulgated over the years to extricate humanity from the pernicious swamp of poverty, there seems to be no ameliorating improvements in so far as outcomes are concerned. While a teeming mass of humanity have been released from the clutches of impecuniosity, the progress has, unfortunately been restricted to a few geographies in general, and the emerging economies, in particular.

A tool for alleviating penury and leveling income inequality, that has recently shot into prominence, is the Universal Basic Income (“UBI”). Annie Lowrey, a journalist covering politics and economic policy for The Atlantic Magazine, in her extremely readable book, “Give People Money”, infuses a new and refreshing breath of life into the concept of UBI. Taking an unbiased, impartial and critical stance, Ms. Lowrey evaluates the merits of UBI as an implementable policy mechanism and concludes that this measure ought to be introduced to supplement – if not supplant – the various means tested benefits that exist by the dozen today. Although a book primarily focused on and having at its core, the American context and economy, “Give People Money” also takes its author to the scorched earth of Kenya and the rural hinterlands of India, as she explores the success and failures of various pre-existing Government sponsored schemes direct benefit transfers.

In Kenya, Ms. Lowrey meets with various beneficiaries and recipients of a UBI experiment instituted by the US non-profit organization, Give Directly. Set up by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, Give Directly remits substantial, and unconditional payments via mobile phones to impoverished villagers hitherto surviving – or gallantly attempting to – on a pittance of 60 cents a day.

She visits rural India, getting herself acquainted with complex poverty eradication schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Schemes (“MNREGA”), rations of reduced price staples such as rice, wheat, salt, sugar etc. distributed via the ubiquitous Public Distribution System (“PDS”) and above all, the sophisticated cloud-backed biometric ID system called Aadhaar, employing which States have started to link their anti-poverty Programme to the system. Piloted and pioneered by Nandan Nilekanan an Indian entrepreneur, bureaucrat, politician and also the co-founder of Infosys, an Information technology behemoth, the Aadhaar system, in the words of the former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Paul Romer, “is the most sophisticated that I’ve seen”. The basic purpose underlying Ms. Lowrey’s travels is to ascertain whether UBI passes muster vis-à-vis the mixed results of government subsistence programmes.

From Maine, Ms. Lowrey brings to us the harrowing story of Ms. Sandy Bishop. A disabled woman, Ms. Bishop narrates in a heart wrenching manner how she keeps losing food stamps, courtesy the maze of paperwork involved. The banal and absurd degree of bureaucracy permeating systems makes it next to impossible for the neediest and desperate to access assistance even when such help is at hand.

In an age where minimum wages ironically mean just that – minimum – Ms. Lowrey demonstrates a strong bargaining power which could be ushered in courtesy, UBI. This is highlighted with a powerful example of how a family ought not to be going about its lives. The Ortizes, in downtown Houston, hustle and bustle their way through a staggering eight jobs at once! The children are not spared even – forced to sacrifice at the altar of a low paying fast food job, the precious benefits of procuring an education. UBI for this family would be an indispensable boon.

As Ms. Lowrey informs us in dangerous detail, the need for a UBI may soon attain an attribute of inevitability than remaining at the periphery as a viable option. With untrammeled progress and frightening advances being made in the complex fields of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Deep Learning, the world is in for a massive job substitution where robots will take over both blue collared as well as white collared jobs. Ms. Lowrey forecasts that self-driving vehicles alone could wipe out between 2.2 to 3.1 million jobs in the US. Hence the prevalent redistribution policies employed by the state would not attain either the requisite level of traction or the desired length of sustainability to pose a formidable defense to this looming threat of structural unemployment.

The proponents of and for UBI are slowly, but steadily making their arguments known and felt in all the relevant places such as Corporate Boardrooms, Parliaments and the portals of renowned and progressive think-tanks. The Economic Security Project, a new UBI think-tank, deliberates thus: “In a time of immense wealth, no one should live in poverty, nor should the middle class be consigned to a future of permanent stagnation or anxiety.” Michael Faye, the co-founder of the intrepid GiveDirectly that is piloting its UBI in Kenya, tells Mr. Lowrey, “We could end extreme poverty right now, if we wanted to.” Philippe Van Parjis and Yannick Vanderborght make an arresting case for the implementation of UBI in their best-seller, “Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy” Adding to an already burgeoning number are stellar thinkers such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the authors of “Inventing the Future”, Rutger Bregman, and Guy Standing, a long standing member of BIEN, the Basic Income Earth Network, a primary body advocating for UBI.

While there is an unhesitating recognition of an urgent imperative to make lives better and obliterate avoidable tragedies, we still seem to be entrenched in the dogma of means testing schemes and benefits thereby shying away from instituting complementary or even competing schemes such as the UBI. An as Ms. Lowrey brilliantly emphasizes, the sooner we change this mind set, the better it will be for humanity.

Life Extension Design – Tassilo Weber

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Combining the known and the radical – with a checklist thrown in between – Tassilo Weber’s “Life Extension Design” is a curious if not intriguing read. Hopping onto the bandwagon that conveys the lure of longevity, Mr. Weber proposes a set of measures that alternate between the logical and the skeptical for leading a life in longevity, if not in perpetuity.

“Clean up your social media channels and start following Peter Diamandis (also subscribe to his Abundance Insider), Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Singularity University, and Futurism. Join Facebook groups around the topics of longevity and life extension. Subscribe to Maximum Life Foundation’s newsletter on maxlife.org. Make forever-healthy.org your life extension Wikipedia. Inform yourself about rejuvenation therapy providers on www.reju.tech. Join meetups with life extension communities in your city if they exist. If not, consider traveling to other places to meet with such communities. Meeting like-minded people is a priceless experience. Also check out the RAAD (Revolution Against Aging and Death) Festival in San Diego. It’s the most important life extension event right now.”

Even though the aforementioned paragraph appears at the fag end of the book, they more or less set the theme for the reader. A visible pattern emerges as Mr. Weber enthusiastically feeds off the effervescence (some would argue far-fetched) of the 71-year old American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Whether it be citing the fact that Mr. Kurzweil consumes an astounding seventy-seven supplements per day (yes you read that right) or deifying him as being one of the pioneers in the quest for extending lifespans, Mr. Weber leaves no room for guess work as to hi predilections and inclinations.

The appeal and novelty of Mr. Weber’s book lies in the sequential steps which he charts out for enabling the reader to lead a healthy, stress-free and contended life. These steps would pave the way for the ultimate extension of life when the concept ultimately fructifies. Based on the concept of Design Thinking, these steps are:

  • Capture: “Start where you are by interviewing yourself about the basic life extension areas”
  • Jump start: “Get some inspiration for your first steps of self-improvement”
  • Plan: “Learn to use the first design tool to navigate yourself towards health optimization”
  • Experiment: “Internalize an experimental approach to life and learn to use the according tool”
  • Orchestrate: “Get to know the advanced areas of life extension and manage them with the

orchestra frame”; and

  • Master: “Program yourself for long-term success and constant self-iteration.”

Three key elements in each of the aforementioned phases according to Mr. Weber are Open, Experiment and Working. “Open means that you haven’t started to tackle it yet. Experiment means that you filled out a Self-Improvement and an Experiment Frame and are in the process of experimentation, while there is still an existential gap between present you and future you. Working means that this gap is more or less closed, and for now you’ve found a set of habits that makes you the life extender you want to be in that area.”

Found within each of these phases is a set of to-do things that holistically go towards improving both the physical and the mental well-being of the reader. While usual suspects such as Yoga, Meditation, exercise and dietary regimen make the obvious cut, more unconventional are some of the “Kurzweilian” proposals. For e.g. “For advanced prevention, or rather an emergency back-up in case you don’t make it till the point when rejuvenation technologies are available, you can make a cryonic preservation contract with Alcor or Cryonics Institute. To cover the costs, you have to take out a life policy and pay an additional yearly membership fee to your supplier of choice. It is a somewhat laborious back-and-forth process to set up a contract and make all the arrangements to ensure your head will be frozen right in time after your heart stands still, but it’s absolutely doable, even if you live outside the United States where both suppliers reside.”

To the credit of Mr. Weber, the more sweeping and non-traditional measures are not suggested as either sacrosanct or uncompromising. He along with the more widely followed approaches, refers to these as ones that are available.

On the whole “Life Extension Design” is a book that has elements of surprise as well as sense.

 

This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Realty – Peter Pomerantsev

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We seem to be inhabiting a world whose functioning we seem to be blissfully unaware of. A greater point of concern might be the dangerous reality that we are not aware of the very fact that we are unaware of the true levers that are responsible for the behavior and actions that consume the lives of close to 7 billion human beings on our Planet. An era of digitization has resulted in us being swamped by a deluge of information. A ceaseless, shapeless, and remorseless alpha numeric cascade assails the recipient instead of informing. Conflicting, Contrasting, Condescending and Chaotic, the barrage of information flow competing for our attention makes for some exasperating and most of the times, indiscriminate choosing. Taking advantage of this confusion are spin doctors, chat bots and ‘psy op’ experts who, operating from within the confines of hidden ‘troll farms’ and invisible technology networks feed, instigate, incite and institutionalise dogmas, agendas, beliefs and perceptions that desire a specific motive or outcome.

Peter Pomerantsev, best-selling author and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Global Affairs at the London School of Economics, in his book, “This is NOT Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality” highlights in a devastating manner the implications of instituted campaigns against facts. Mr. Pomeratsev in his quest to understand the pervasiveness and perniciousness of this ‘information war’, crisscrosses the world visiting the most unobtrusive of places responsible – paradoxically – for spreading some of the most influential propaganda,

In one of the “oases of malls next to sky-blue-windowed skyscrapers”, Mr. Pomerantsev meets ‘P’, a teen desperate for recognition and responsible for distilling the meteoric rise of Rodrigo Duterte, to the highest echelon of office in the Philippines. A perfect embodiment of what Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong of the University of Massachusetts terms “Architects of Networked Disinformation” ‘P’ directed a continuous torrent of spiel making the optimal use of a ‘disinformation architecture’ thereby bolstering Duterte’s claims of an urgent need to deal harshly with a surging drug peddling epidemic.

In Russia, Mr. Pomerantsev acquaints himself with ‘Lyudmilla Savchuk’, an intrepid woman who ‘infiltrated’ the innermost recesses of the by now notorious Internet Research Agency (“IRA”). Working within the ordinary confines of a “troll farm” – an “office in a four-storey new build with square pillars propping up the second floor and narrow black-framed windows”, Ms. Savchuk gets a first-hand experience of the remarkable workings of an industrial level disinformation armada. The farm had its own hierarchical structure. As Mr. Pomerantsev describes, “the most looked down upon were the ‘commenters’, of which the lowest of the low were those who posted in the online comments sections of newspapers; a level up were those who left comments on social media. The more senior editors would instruct the commenters on which Russian opposition figures to attack, and they would spend their days accusing them of being CIA stooges, traitors, shrills.”

The disinformation machinery such as the one described above is almost institutionalized in many parts of the world. Most of these initiatives are ‘state-directed.’ For example, in Azerbaijan, there is Ireli, a creation ‘to produce young people who can take an active part in the information war.’ Mr. Pomerantsev also meets indefatigable and determined dissenters renowned for their resistance to the online disinformation campaign. Srdja Popovic, a political activist from Serbia who was a leader of the student movement Otpor! that went a long way in unseating Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, is a much revered and respected figure in the global resistance brigade. Popovic established the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in 2003 Through the medium of CANVAS, Popovic, teams up with pro-democracy activists spanning more than 50 countries, with an avowed objective of promoting the use of non-violent resistance in achieving political and social goals. Srdja trained activists in Georgia, Ukraine and Iran. These activists were the ones who went on to participate in the popular ‘colour’ revolutions such as Rose, Orange and Green respectively. But even the normally undaunted and determined Srdja acknowledges the perils of the disinformation brigade. “The problem we are facing today is less oppression, more lack of identity, apathy, division, no trust…There are more tools to change things than before, but there’s less will to do so.”

As Mr. Pomerantsev chillingly illustrates not all movements against reigning in trolls, sock puppets and peddlers of deep fakes end on a positive note. The tragic case of a fifty-something physician in Mexico, Maria Del Rosario Fuentes Rubio is a classic case in point. Tweeting under the account handle @La Felina, Maria took on the narcos by demanding their arrests and even posting their pictures. Ironically she was caught by the narcos while treating one of their own gunman who was caught up in a shoot-out. Maria was murdered and her execution was live-tweeted. Her Catwoman Twitter avatar was replaced with her blown-off head.

Mr.Pomerantsev intersperses his adventures with autobiographical tidbits. These principally involve the exploits of his writer father and documentarian mother. His parents themselves had experienced more than a fair share of state-directed ire. Igor, Mr. Pomerantsev’s father was interrogated by the dreaded KGB for distributing “harmful literature” before being exiled to London. He found his voice – literally – in the capital when he became an integral part of the BBC World Service’s Russian department. Lina, the mother of Mr. Pomerantsev ended up producing documentaries that elaborated on the legacies of the Soviet police state, including the award-winning Gulag.

At the time of writing this review, America is left reeling from two more mindless and reckless bouts of mass shooting. On the morning of 3rd August, 2019, 21-year-old Patrick Wood Crusius walked inside a Walmart outlet at El Paso and mowed down 22 shoppers using his Automatic Rifle. Crusius who drove more than 10 hours to the Texas Border City, published a white nationalist, anti-immigrant manifesto on social media immediately before the attack warning readers of a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas. The post cites inspiration from the Christchurch mosque shootings and refers to the white genocide conspiracy theory. Barely 13 hours into this gruesome act, America was rocked by yet another manic act when a gunman wielding an automatic weapon sprayed the public in Dayton, Ohio. While 10 lost their lives, 27 others were injured. The perpetrator who was killed by the police possessed writings depicting an interest in murdering people.

As part of a recent campaign rally in the Florida panhandle, US President Donald Trump employed the word “invasion” seven times in less than a minute in a rant about illegal immigrants. Such Dog whistle rhetoric transcends from mere pabulum to influenced actions that have dangerous unintended consequences.

“This is Not Propaganda” – a grim reminder of the portents to follow if man does not mend his ways.

The First Wave – Alex Kershaw


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2019 marks the 75th Anniversary of one of the most storied and epochal events dotting the annals of global and military history. The colossal Allied invasion at Normandy (“D-Day”) that set in motion the defeat of the greatest racial bigots that humanity had the misfortune to be associated with, has become immortal not just for the supreme sacrifices made by thousands of brave soldiers, but also for the lessons it imparted for the very future of mankind. As may be expected this momentous Anniversary has spawned a deluge of books on the subject. One book that stands apart for its unsparing prose and distinctiveness is “The First Wave – D-Day Warriors Who Led the Way to Victory in World War II” by Alex Kershaw. Mr. Kershaw views the invasion of Normandy standing upon the shoulders of a unique set of individuals. The first wave of soldiers to be air dropped, flown and shipped to the Northern French region to face the merciless onslaught of Hitler’s abominable albeit powerful Nazis. These are the shoulders that neither drooped nor sagged nor complained. They may have creaked with the physical burdens entailed by the rigours of a ruthless combat, but creak was all they did.

On the 6th of June, 1944, an armada the likes of which was never seen before and has never been spotted since set sail from the shores, and took off from the skies of Britain. Destination: France. Mission; to liberate Europe from the clutches of the sadist Adolf Hitler. The phalanx consisted of 5,333 Allied ships and landing craft embarking nearly 175,000 men. The British and Canadians put 75,215 troops ashore, and the Americans 57,500, for a total of 132,715. Adding to this tally were 20,000 Airborne troops. Waiting for these troops on the highly fortified beaches of Normandy were steely German soldiers all set to mow down the invaders.

Kershaw’s heroes make for an eclectic mix of the refined and the rough; the grizzled and the gentle and the rustic and the refined. But all of these indomitable warriors were bound as brothers in their objective, intent and action. The fast paced, adrenaline pumping and extraordinarily emotional book recounts some of the memorable heroics that will forever stand the test of time. Staff Sergeant Jim Wallwork, of the British Glider Pilot Regiment, demonstrated incredulous feats of airmanship. With only a stop watch, map, and compass as navigation tools, this legendary pilot landed his glider with a precision bordering on the perfection right next to a bridge whose capture was the objective of Major John Howard and his company. Captain Frank Lillyman of New York and the 101st Airborne Division executed his duties as a ‘pathfinder’ and during the course of discharging his duties faced some hair raising trysts with mortality. Then there was the incredible Brigadier Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat and 4th Baron Lovat, DSO, MC, TD, JP, DL. Lord Lovat, described by Winston Churchill to Joseph Stalin as, “the mildest mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat” was one of the most endearing, enduring and egregious characters to have participated in the Normandy offensive. Assuring a green eared twenty-one-year-old bag-piper Bill Millin that the latter would be a part of the “greatest invasion in the history of warfare”, Lord Lovat rendered friends and foe alike dumbfounded when he ordered a dazed Millin to play the pipe while carnage was being wrecked on the beaches of Normandy. For his exploits, Lord Lovat was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de Guerre by the French in addition to a Distinguished Service Order (“DSO”).

The Allies concentrated their assault on five beaches code named Utah, Omaha, Juno, Sword and Gold. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt exhibited a degree of unparalleled courage and composure at Utah Beach. Wielding a cane and a revolver, Roosevelt ailing from heart disease and arthritis, admirably helped his troops from being maimed and mutilated by the German gunners.

While the British troops along with their Canadian counterparts landed at the beaches of Gold, Juno, and Sword. But as Mr. Kershaw points out, the most abysmal carnage was reserved for Omaha Beach. “In all, the United States had landed some 55,000 men on D-Day. By far the greatest losses had been suffered on Omaha, where more than nine hundred were killed. For their heroism on Omaha beach, 153 men would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest award for bravery.” The losses would have been much higher, but for the breathtaking feats and razor sharp decisions made by the likes of Lieutenant John Spalding, Captain Joe Dawson and Sergeant Streczyk. Mr. Kershaw also highlights in agonizing detail the political shenanigans that deprived many a brave warrior from getting his due accolade. “Some of the medals received for extraordinary courage on Omaha should have been Medals of Honour – without doubt in both Spalding’s and Streczyk’s cases – but army officials far from the maw and horror on the front lines worried that ‘too many men would get the highest award for bravery and its significance would somehow be diminished.’” Blood boiling travesty! The failure at Omaha Beach was courtesy an astonishing intelligence blunder. The attacking forces were blissfully unaware of the fact that the 716th German Division was replaced by the more formidable and experienced 352nd Division.

To rub salt into the wounds, Omaha Beach also boasted some of the best prepared defenses of the entire Normandy coastline, with massive fortified bunkers filled with artillery, mortars, and machine guns that could sweep the landing areas with a vengeful crossfire.

But Mr. Kershaw’s best and most haunting narratives are reserved to describe the agonizingly lingering combat state of mind for many of the survivors. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (“PTSD”), survivor’s guilt, unfortunate suicides and restless bouts of living all constituted a heavy price to pay for these patriotic lion hearts who gave it all for humanity in an uncomplaining, untiring and undiminishing manner.

Mr. Kershaw does a yeoman service by bringing to our attention the sacrifices made by those who survived as well as those who were scythed down, just so that generations in future can lead a life of tranquility, peace and bliss. History however would never allow the unsuspecting to remain that way, and rightfully so. There would be intrepid souls like Mr. Kershaw to revive the spirits of the dead and bring to light their thrilling and selfless exploits. Exploits in performing which these magnificent men and women adopted an attitude that was chillingly eschatological!

The world is perennially indebted to these incomparable souls. LEST WE FORGET!

Love Is Blind – William Boyd

Boyd

The word apogee is not normally employed to describe a book that constitutes the 15th in a long line of illustrious pearls dexterously strung together by an author of acclaim. Yet, this is exactly the word to describe, “Blind Love” by William Boyd. Incandescent, Irrepressible and Irreverent, “Blind Love” is an apotheosis of dare, deceit, despondency, despair and dangerous delights. Brody Moncur is an affable young man who possesses a singularly spectacular talent for tuning and fine tuning pianos. Escaping the inexplicable wrath of a preacher-father who detests Brody’s very presence – “Black Bastard, Octaroon among others, being the Nouns of choice which Malky Mancur prefers to address Brody – as well as an idyllic but unappealing Scottish manse, Brody sets out to make a career tuning pianos for Channon & Co, a prestigious firm purveying pianos.

Expertise and Encomium sends Brody careening towards higher aspirations as Ainsley Channon, his employer and proprietor dispatches Brody to Paris to embellish the Channon family business there.

Brody strikes gold in Paris when his persuasive efforts succeed in signing on “the Irish Liszt”, John Kilbarron as Brand Ambassador for his company’s pianos. But in the process, Brody also signs up for a malevolent and unenviable bargain. Beginning a dangerous dalliance with Kilbarron’s dazzling, lithe Russian lover, Lika/Lydia Blum, Brodie realises he has inadvertently chewed much more than he can just swallow. Things reach a crescendo when Malachi Kilbarron the wrathful brother of John catches Brody In flagrante delicto with Lika in a modest hotel in Russia. When John Kilbarron challenges Brody Mancur for a duel to resolve the blotch caused to his honour, Brody stares unblinkingly at an existential crisis.

Thus begins for Brody a perilous sequence of journeys spanning countries and subterfuges transcending the subtle. From the cafes of Paris to the theatres of St Petersburg, from the warmth of Nice to the blazing hot tropical environ that is the preserve of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Boyd’s book thrills, humours, angers and hurts the reader in equal measure. Raw and resurgent passions find an invariable connect with inevitable causal consequences as a phalanx of characters both revered and reviled weave in and out with pace and panache. Malachi Kilbarron’s relentless pursuit of Brody keeps both the plot and the reader on a knife’s edge. While the hunter takes on an almost supernatural visage, the hunted makes an admirable and adroit effort to rise above his innate vulnerabilities to always stay one step ahead. The predator and prey engage in a deadly game of hide and seek with neither an inch yielded or quarter seized.

Some of the most mesmerizing bits of the book make for some of the most complicated albeit fascinating reading. For example, Mr. Boyd remarkably takes his readers through the convoluted workings of the piano as seen through the expert eyes of Brody in a manner that is technical yet absorbing. “Now all the moving parts were visible beyond the black and white keys – the hammers, the rockers, the jacks, the whippens, the dampers – its innards were exposed like a clock with its back off or a railway engine dismantled in a repair shed. Mysteries – music, time, movement – were reduced to complex, elaborate mechanisms. People tended to be fascinated.”

Mr. Boyd’s stupendous novel however reaches its elevated climax in the form of a heart rending, blisteringly original, hauntingly indelible, and extraordinarily elegiac Scottish ballad titled “My Bonny Boy:”

 “My bonny man has gone tae sleep,

His journey o’er — he’s heard the call.

Birth tae death is the shortest leap,

The grave is waiting for one and all.”

 “Blind Love” – Mr. Boyd at his Boydian best!