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Stop killer robots, researchers warn in open letter

By Toby Walsh, NICTA*
July 27, 2015

More than 1,000 of the leading researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics today signed and published an open letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, also known colloquially as “killer robots”.

U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Lethal Presence. Photo by Lt Col Leslie Pratt

U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Lethal Presence. Photo by Lt Col Leslie Pratt

The letter has also been signed by many technologists and experts, including SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Skype co-founder Jaan Talinn and linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

Musk, Hawking and Wozniak have all recently warned about the dangers that AI poses to mankind. Though it has to be said, Wozniak thinks humans will be fine if robots take over the world; we’ll just become their pets.

The open letter urges the UN to support a ban on offensive autonomous weapons systems. This follows the April meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons held at the UN in Geneva discussing such an idea.

The letter argues that the deployment of such autonomous weapons is feasible within years, and will play a dangerous role in driving the next revolution in warfare.

In the interest of full disclosure, I too have signed this letter. My view is that almost every technology can be used for good or bad. And AI is no different. We therefore need to make a choice as to which path to follow.

Artificial intelligence is a technology that can be used to help tackle many of the pressing problems facing society today: inequality and poverty; the rising cost of health care; the impact of global warming, and many others. But it can also be used to inflict unnecessary harm. And now is the right time to get in place a ban before this next arms race begins.

The open letter – reprinted below – gives a good summary of the arguments for a ban. In short, there is likely to be an arms race in such technology that will revolutionise warfare for the worse.

As always, we can learn a lot from history. A recent example is the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which came into force in 1998. The International Committee of the Red Cross argued that the ban was an historic step for humanity, stating that:

It represents the first time since 1868, when the use of exploding bullets was banned, that a weapon of military interest has been banned before its use on the battlefield and before a stream of victims gave visible proof of its tragic effects.

Of course, the technology for blinding lasers still exists; medical lasers that correct eyesight are an example of the very same technology. But because of this ban, no arms manufacturer sells blinding lasers. And we don’t have any victims of blinding lasers to care for.

Similarly, a ban on offensive autonomous weapons is not going to prevent the technology for such weapons being developed. After all, it would take only a few lines of code to turn an autonomous car into an offensive weapon. But a ban would ensure enough stigma and consequences if breached that we are unlikely to see conventional military forces using them.

This won’t stop terrorist and other smaller groups who care little for UN protocols, but they will be constrained on two levels. First, they’ll have to develop the technology themselves. They won’t be able to go out and buy any such weapons. And second, conventional military forces can still use any defensive technologies they like to protect themselves.

With this open letter, we hope to bring awareness to a dire subject which, without a doubt, will have a vicious impact on the whole of mankind.

We can get it right at this early stage, or we can stand idly by and witness the birth of a new era of warfare. Frankly, that’s not something many scientists in this field want to see.

Our call to action is simple: ban offensive autonomous weapons, and in doing so, securing a safe future for us all.

A press conference releasing the open letter to the public was held at the opening of the International Joint Conference on AI at 9pm AEST, July 28, 2015. 

The following is the entire text of the open letter:

Autonomous weapons select and engage targets without human intervention. They might include, for example, armed quadcopters that can search for and eliminate people meeting certain pre-defined criteria, but do not include cruise missiles or remotely piloted drones for which humans make all targeting decisions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology has reached a point where the deployment of such systems is – practically if not legally – feasible within years, not decades, and the stakes are high: autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

Many arguments have been made for and against autonomous weapons, for example that replacing human soldiers by machines is good by reducing casualties for the owner but bad by thereby lowering the threshold for going to battle. The key question for humanity today is whether to start a global AI arms race or to prevent it from starting. If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow. Unlike nuclear weapons, they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap for all significant military powers to mass-produce. It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc. Autonomous weapons are ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group. We therefore believe that a military AI arms race would not be beneficial for humanity. There are many ways in which AI can make battlefields safer for humans, especially civilians, without creating new tools for killing people.

Just as most chemists and biologists have no interest in building chemical or biological weapons, most AI researchers have no interest in building AI weapons — and do not want others to tarnish their field by doing so, potentially creating a major public backlash against AI that curtails its future societal benefits. Indeed, chemists and biologists have broadly supported international agreements that have successfully prohibited chemical and biological weapons, just as most physicists supported the treaties banning space-based nuclear weapons and blinding laser weapons.

In summary, we believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways, and that the goal of the field should be to do so. Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea, and should be prevented by a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.

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Toby Walsh is Professor, Research Group Leader, Optimisation Research Group at NICTA, Australia’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Research Centre of Excellence. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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Magna Carta: British royals return to Runnymede

By Michael Holden
June, 2015

LONDON (Reuters) – Queen Elizabeth will return on Monday, June 15, to the setting where 800 years ago one of her predecessors accepted the Magna Carta, the English document that put limits on the power of the crown for the first time and laid the foundation for modern freedoms.

The Magna Carta, Latin for “Great Charter”, was ratified by King John of England in June 1215, at Runnymede, about 20 miles west of London, after an uprising by his barons. It established certain rights of the English people and placed the monarch under the rule of law.

Not only does it form the bedrock of Britain’s constitutional freedoms, it was the basis for the U.S. Bill of Rights, the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Three of its 63 clauses remain on Britain’s statute book.

“The relevance of the Magna Carta in the 21st century is that it is the foundation of liberty,” said Robert Worcester, chairman of the Magna Carta 800th Committee.

The queen, who is Patron of the Magna Carta Trust, will attend an official ceremony at Runnymede on Monday to commemorate the anniversary. So will other members of the royal family, including her grandson, Prince William, who is second in line for the throne.

A new art installation will be opened and the American Bar Association’s Magna Carta Memorial, which was erected in 1957, will be re-dedicated.

The Magna Carta came into being during a period of great political upheaval in England. Conflict had erupted among King John, his nobles and the English church.

In essence a peace deal, it was sealed by John on June 19, 1215, following five days of negotiation with his barons. The most famous and significant of its clauses were 39 and 40, which stated that not even the monarch was above the law. 


They read: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

Originally known as “the charter of Runnymede”, it was declared invalid shortly afterwards by the Pope. Civil war broke out between the barons and John, who has a reputation as one of England’s nastiest and cruellest kings, portrayed as the villain in numerous films about legendary outlaw Robin Hood.

It only became known as the Magna Carta two years later, when it was reissued by John’s son Henry III. Versions of the charter were then re-released regularly by or on behalf of succeeding English monarchs.

Four original copies of the document, written on a single sheet of parchment about the size of A3 paper, still exist.

An original copy from 1297 sold for more than $21 million eight years ago in New York, when auction house Sotheby’s described it as “the most important document in the world”.

But historians say the long-term impact of Magna Carta was far from the intention of the barons who forced the document on John, and it was by accident that it became so significant.

Researchers who have carried out a three-year study said it appeared that the church, rather than royal officials, was responsible for its publication and preservation.

“Bizarrely enough, Magna Carta is the product of a situation far closer to that which elsewhere in today’s world we might associate with the enemies of modern liberal democracy, with Sharia law, or with those systems in which church and state are indistinguishable,” said Professor Nicholas Vincent.

“It is often said to be about democracy, about ‘freedom’ or liberal values. It says nothing whatsoever of these. But it does assert a principle, due process under law, that is absolutely crucial in distinguishing tyranny from those parts of the world where there is hope of justice and fair trial.” (Editing by Larry King)

Copyright Reuters 2015


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State capitalism is back

By Daniel De Bonis, Columbia University
February 24, 2015

State capitalism, which was considered only a few decades ago a relic of the mid-20th century, is back – with a vengeance.

China has already surpassed the US as the world’s largest economy, after purchasing-power parity adjustments. And together, the economies of the so-called BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – should be twice as big as the American economy by 2018, according to the IMF.

Each of these countries in its own way share an important trait: an interventionist state, whose tentacles spread across economic sectors, exercising direct or indirect control over a good number of enterprises. The weighted average of shares of state-owned enterprises among each country’s top ten firms is 96% in China, 81% in Russia, 59% in India and 50% in Brazil. In contrast, it’s only 17% in France, 11% in Germany, and zero in the United States or Great Britain.

What does the rise of state-sponsored capitalism mean for the global economy? According to Ian Bremmer, partner at the Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market, the main risk is that the strong ties between business and government inherent to state capitalism may lead to patronage, cronyism and inefficiency.

Political bureaucrats, in Bremmer’s view, are prone to make bad investment decisions, be it for their commercial inexperience, lack of “skin in the game,” or, more importantly, the temptation to use companies for political gain. Markets in these economies are distorted, burdening consumers with high prices, even as taxpayers are faced with a questionable – and often non-transparent – use of their money.

Is this decidedly bleak view supported by empirical evidence? Reinventing State Capitalism, a new book by academics Aldo Musacchio of Harvard and Sergio Lazzarini of Brazil’s Insper Institute of Education and Research, tries to answer the question. The authors have gathered an impressive amount of data about how state capitalism actually works, mostly from the Brazilian case. Their conclusion can be summarized – perhaps frustratingly – as: it depends.

Yes, state capitalism can lead to inefficiency – on average, most state-owned enterprises perform worse than private ones. Nevertheless, the authors show that there is huge variation in these indicators. What this means is that there are at least as many well run state enterprises as there are badly managed ones.

Understanding the source of this variation is one of the goals of the book. And one of the main arguments of the authors is that, in recent decades, state capitalism has been “reinvented.” For the sake of this article let’s call it state capitalism 2.0.

State capitalism 1.0 was mainly a creature of the post-World War II era. Skepticism about the free-market ideologies that were perceived to have brought the Great Depression, combined with the industrial mobilization demanded by the war efforts, led to waves of nationalization all over Western Europe and the developing world, especially from the 1940s to the 1970s.

Not only were most public utilities nationalized, but governments assumed prominent roles in industries such as coal, iron ore, steel, oil and gas, automobiles, banking, and many others. At the same time, in the communist states of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire, state intervention in the economy was, of course, all there was – except for the ubiquitous black markets.

This first incarnation of state capitalism came to a crossroads in the 1980s, mainly as a consequence of the oil shocks of the 1970s and subsequent liquidity crisis. As the global economy became plagued with inflation and stagnation, state-owned enterprises began to operate at a loss, mainly because governments were imposing price controls on the goods and services they provided in hopes of taming inflation.

The main response was privatization. Prime-ministers Margaret Thatcher, in Great Britain, and Jacques Chirac, in France, presided over massive privatization programs during the mid-1980s, and the rest of Western Europe and the developing world soon followed suit. After the fall of the Communist states in 1989, the trend also reached Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. Privatization reached a peak of 600 transactions worldwide in 1995. Suddenly, it seemed like the interventionist state was being dismantled everywhere.

Except, it wasn’t.

By the late 1990s, a different pattern began to emerge. Most privatizations in places like Brazil, China and Russia weren’t about full transfers of ownership anymore. They were instead concessions, leases and sales of smaller blocks of shares – partial privatizations. State capitalism 2.0 was being born.

This form of capitalism is generally not about governments single-handedly intervening in the economy by creating new enterprises or nationalizing existing ones – what the authors call “Leviathan as an Entrepreneur.”

Rather it is about adopting, according to circumstances, different mixes of public and private capital. In those cases, the state may retain control – “Leviathan as a Majority Investor” – or limit itself to the role of mere shareholder – “Leviathan as Minority Investor.”

At first glance, state capitalism 2.0 has many advantages over its predecessor. Issuing shares to private investors demands improvements in corporate governance: more transparency, professional management, independent boards and more budgetary autonomy. With performance being monitored by boards and shareholders, the costs of political interference should rise, making these companies more efficient.

In a chapter dedicated to state-owned oil companies worldwide, Musacchio and Lazzarini show that governance arrangements might help to minimize political intervention, but not in every case. Simply transforming state enterprises into publicly traded corporations is no guarantee of improvement. It may also be crucial to change the rules that govern board composition, as a comparison of Petrobras, the Brazilian oil and gas giant, and the Norwegian state company Statoil demonstrates. Both are publicly traded.

While seven out of nine board members at Petrobras are government officials, at Statoil, none are – Norwegian law forbids it. This seems to offer a harsh lesson for Petrobras, a company that has been engulfed in recent months by a multibillion-dollar corruption probe involving politically appointed executives.

Different risks are entailed in the “Leviathan as a Minority Investor” strategy. On the one hand, political interference in day-to-day management is less of a concern. And by providing funding to selected industries, governments can prevent market failures caused by a scarcity of capital due to underdeveloped local markets or to the unwillingness of private investors to pursue high-risk projects.

On the other hand, any criteria for putting large amounts of government money into private companies is bound to be controversial. In Brazil, for example, the government has invested US$4 billion in Brazilian group JBS, financing its acquisition of traditional American brands such as Swift & Co. and Pilgrim’s Pride and helping make it one of the biggest meat-processing corporations in the world. It is far from clear that this has been an appropriate use of Brazilian taxpayers’ money. JBS, as it happens, is one of the country’s main political donors.

So the main lesson from Reinventing State Capitalism seems to be this: governments should act selectively, adopting strategies that are appropriate to the particular institutional and political circumstances of the country, as well as the peculiarities of each economic sector.

This undoubtedly makes a lot of sense. A more skeptical reader, however, might wonder whether it is reasonable, from a political point of view, to expect governments to phase out their interventionist techniques as circumstances change over time.

Even if we can’t say much for sure about the capitalism of the future, it seems plausible that state capitalism is not going away anytime soon, especially in the developing world: the rise of China will certainly inspire other nations to follow their interventionist example. Even in developed countries, the issue can be surprisingly relevant, as the current financial crisis at the US Post Office demonstrates.

In this sense, Musacchio and Lazzarini’s impressive work should be considered a landmark study of the varieties of capitalism in the twenty-first century and an invaluable resource for policymakers and researchers alike.

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

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Rajendra Pachauri: Defended climate science, resigned amid sex scandal

Indian scientist Rajendra Pachauri, who resigned from the world’s foremost body on climate science, oversaw an international effort to highlight the strength of scientists’ conclusions.

By Marianne Lavelle, The Daily Climate
February 24, 2015 

Rajendra Pachauri, who resigned Tuesday from chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change amid charges of sexual harassment, presided over the international effort to forge consensus on climate change during eight years in which the science grew stronger, but so did the attacks.

Rajendra Pachauri: Photo © European Union 2014 - European Parliament. Creative Commons

Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the IPCC in 2007, resigned prematurely in February, 2015, amid allegations of sexual harassment, saying he was unable to provide the leadership the IPCC needs in “the current circumstances.” Photo © European Union 2014 – European Parliament. Creative Commons

At the high point of the Indian engineer and economist’s tenure, in 2007, he accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the monumental effort to bring together the work of more than 2,000 scientists in readable volumes accepted by governments. The low point, before the allegations that face Pachauri now, came in 2010 when the panel was forced to admit it had included in its assessment an unfounded claim that the Himalayas could melt by 2035. 

But perhaps the most difficult issues that the IPCC has faced on Pachauri’s watch have been born of its very mission of delivering “policy-relevant” science, while staying out of politics.

Last year, because of objections by a group of developing nation governments, the IPCC deleted information from a key summary for policymakers that would have made clear the nations’ growing contribution to the global greenhouse gas burden. Although the data still was included in the IPCC’s bulky full report, scientists objecting to the change came forward both in an open letter and in journal articles to question whether the IPCC process needed reform.

Pachauri’s chairmanship began to unravel last week after a 29-year-old female employee at his research institute in Delhi filed allegations of sexual harassment. Pachauri has denied the charges through a spokesman, but said in his resignation letter that “under the current circumstances” he could not provide the strong leadership that the IPCC needs.

Pachauri, who was in his second five-year term as chairman, had earlier announced his plans to step down this coming fall, before the IPCC began its next assessment.

Over the eight years of his tenure, “Patchy,” as he is almost universally known, was a strong voice for action on climate change, even though the United Nations panel’s charge is not to be “policy-prescriptive.” He consistently urged nations to forge a treaty to mitigate fossil fuel emissions.

“If we allow things to continue unchanged and we don’t take action today, it would destabilize human society,” he warned in a 2008 interview with CNN.

David Victor, a professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego, and an IPCC lead author, said that Pachauri should be credited for his steadiness. The assessment released last year, despite the deletions, benefited from his leadership in forging compromises to maintain some of the difficult language on the obligations of different countries, Victor said.

“He’s been particularly effective at finding ways to defend the scientific part of the organization against governments that want to strip away content from our reports. He can’t defend all of it. It’s structurally set up for governments to meddle huge amounts. And one of the things Pachauri has done very well is navigate his way around that.”

Victor, interviewed shortly before Pachauri’s resignation, added that part of Patchy’s legacy at the IPCC will be his effort to bring his own science of economics into the assessments.

“He’s an economist by training, and while the social sciences are barely represented [in the IPCC reports], economics is now the most heavily represented,” he said. “The attention to economic policy in the design of the assessments has been radically for the good.”

Pachauri became a target for attacks by those who deny climate science and those who oppose an international treaty. They called for his resignation after the Himalayas incident. 

As one of his last official acts as chairman, Pachauri urged that the IPCC venture more boldly into the political realm.

The tone of the battle he has fought through most of his tenure makes it difficult to remember the controversy around Pachauri’s appointment in 2002, with the endorsement of President George W. Bush’s administration. The Natural Resources Defense Council acquired documents under the Freedom of Information Act at the time showing that Exxon Mobil had sent the White House a memo endorsing Pachauri’s selection. (Exxon later said it did not write the memo, but just passed it along.)

In an April 21, 2002 op-ed in The New York Times, former Vice President Al Gore, who would later share the Nobel stage with Pachauri for his advocacy on climate change, raised questions about his appointment.

Pachauri, Gore wrote, “is known for his virulent anti-American statements.” In a speech at Vanderbilt University that month, Gore raised concern over Pachauri’s one-time endorsement of a worldwide boycott of American goods and Pachauri’s opposition to developing countries sharing in the reduction of greenhouse gases.

A number of IPCC scientists reached in recent days said Pachauri’s personal legal woes should not mar the work of the IPCC.

“For me, the IPCC is never about one person,” said Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, and another IPCC lead author. “It’s about harnessing the wisdom and dedication of the entire scientific community. 

As one of his last official acts as chairman, Pachauri made some of his own thoughts known, in a “Chairman’s Vision Paper on the Future of the IPCC.” In the document, prepared for the IPCC session that opened in Nairobi today without him, Pachauri urged that the IPCC venture even more boldly into the political realm. 

In addition to the massive summaries of the science delivered every five to seven years, he urged that the IPCC begin to produce annually “a brief and accurate report.” These reports, he suggested, should indicate how well nations’ official plans for addressing climate change measure up in the effort to keep global warming below the goal of 2 degrees Celsius. The IPCC, Pachauri urged, should keep in mind that its audience is not just governments, but the media, civil society, business, and other stakeholders.

“It is important that this is taken into consideration when deciding on the future products of the IPCC, so that the IPCC moves forward with the times and responds to changing expectations,” he wrote.

Climate scientists hold starkly differing views on the wisdom of such a course of action. Victor said he couldn’t imagine that such a process would be workable, given the IPCC’s current structure. There would be “large error bars,” indicating a huge range of possibilities. Victor, an IPCC lead author who authored one of the Science articles about the flaws in the current process, said he has come to feel there are realms of important science that are too politically charged for the IPCC to take on, because of the need for government sign-off.

Carnegie’s Field cautioned against adding tasks to the panel’s mission. “The unique value that the IPCC adds is not about the individual brilliance of the authors; it is the systematic monitoring, review, and consensus of the scientists with approval by countries,” he said. “We want to preserve it and be careful about adding anything else that would erode its core value.”

Pachauri’s final writings as IPCC chairman were filled his typical rhetorical flourishes about matters both large and small. “For me the protection of planet Earth, the survival of all species, and the sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission,” he said in his resignation letter. “It is my religion and my dharma. 

And in his vision statement for the future of the IPCC, he urged that panel members guard to reduce their carbon footprints, by curbing the printing out of papers and travel for meetings. Quoting German writer and statesman, Goethe, Pachauri wrote, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.”

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This article is republished from the Daily Climate, published by Environmental Health Sciences. Read the original article here.


Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us by telling others about us, and purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page.

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Siege of Kobane a battle for a stable Middle East

Above, Turkish soldiers and paramilitary guard the border with Syria in September as Kurds seek refuge from Islamic State fighters. Photo by  Heike Hänsel via Flickr, Creative Commons

Above, Turkish soldiers and paramilitary guard the border with Syria in September as Kurds seek refuge from Islamic State fighters. Photo by Heike Hänsel via Flickr, Creative Commons

By Karthick Manoharan, University of Essex
November 15, 2014

The battle against the Islamic State fighters draws in viewers across the world, there has been some attention given to the men and women resisting them in northern Syria. The Syrian part of Kurdistan, or Rojava, as the Kurds would like to call it, has been fighting Islamists for well over two years now but only recently has the battle for the border town of Kobane bought them to light.

And while it’s easy to portray the Kurdish people as pitted against this new terrorist threat, they are actually involved in something far more profound. Kobane is symbolic and the conflict there carries a universal significance. Not only are the Kurds battling the Islamists, but they are also attempting to create a model of democracy that might actually bring stability to a war-torn region.

The Kurdish political vision is not founded on any particular racial, ethnic, regional or religious belief but rather on an idea, or a set of ideas, that should resonate with people everywhere.

Fighters in Kobane claim to be standing up for the freedom of everyone in the region, be they Kurds, Turks, Arabs or anyone else. The way the fighters in Kobane have challenged stereotypical gender roles is just one example.

As far as religious difference goes, Kobane disproves both Islamophobes who believe the Middle East to be incapable of progress and politically correct Islamophiles who push the patronizing idea that religious identity is a top priority for Muslims the world over. In their readiness to defend the Yazidi minority against persecution from IS, the Kurds have essentially been promoting a radical secularism and a vision of tolerance in a region torn by religious strife.

What is novel about the Kurdish struggle for self-determination is its very definition of self-determination. The concept, when applied to nations, is generally taken to mean the right of nations to secede and form states of their own, but the Kurds see it differently. Many believe an experiment in democratic confederalism is what the region really needs.

This is an idea espoused by PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, who is a central intellectual and moral figure for Kurds. The PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has been fighting Turkey for greater autonomy since 1978 and has also trained Kurdish fighters in Kobane. Ocalan’s writing, compiled from within the confines of a Turkish prison where he has languished for about 15 years, has provided a solid ideological plank for the Kurdish struggle. He believes nation states are inherently oppressive. While oppressed groups might have a legitimate desire to form states of their own, even such newly formed states only serve to replace one form of domination with another. For him, the nation state is linked to xenophobic nationalism, sexism and religious fundamentalism.

Democratic confederalism is a system of governance that would be based on greater collective consensus and voluntary participation. Ecology and feminism are seen as central pillars for local self-governance. It calls for an economic system that should be based neither on exploiting human labour nor the unsound use of natural resources.

Kobane has essentially implemented this theory in practice. The ideas might seem utopian and realists may, quite legitimately, question the sustainability of autonomous communes that do not have the political or military backing of a centralised state. But as Oscar Wilde said, progress is the realisation of Utopia. Maybe Kobane’s progress is just that.

The struggle for Kobane is an event of global significance on a par with the Declaration of Independence, the Storming of the Bastille, the Paris Commune, or the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. Success for the Kurds would challenge established intellectual, ethical and political horizons.

At a time when right-wing parties are growing in Europe and elsewhere, and minority fundamentalism is growing in parallel, the Kurds are offering something different and it should not be ignored. In that sense, they are fighting for everyone.

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Karthick Manoharan is a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in politics at University of Essex, England. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation

Further reading on Facts and Opinions:

War on Islamic State caliphate boosts the birth of Kurdistan  By Jonathan Manthorpe, International Affairs columnist

Before going to war it is always a good idea to have a clear purpose and outcome in mind.  Yet six Royal Canadian Airforce CF-18s are set for bombing missions in the Middle East without any clear vision of what victory will look like. The whole thing is depressingly reminiscent of the Libyan campaign in 2011 when allied warplanes enabled rebels to oust and kill dictator Moammar Gaddhafi. But then they all declared “mission accomplished,” packed up their kit and headed home. Meanwhile Libya has turned into bloody chaos and a killing ground for rival Islamic factions, tribal fighters and would-be new dictators. There are many days when Gaddhafi, for all his evil, looks a lot better than what Libyans have got now. … read more (paywall)

Who are the Yazidis? By Christine Allison

In 1918, the Yazidis of Sinjar mountain received an ultimatum from Ottoman forces – to hand over their weaponry and the Christian refugees they were sheltering, or face the consequences. They tore it up and sent the messengers back naked. The Sinjaris are the “Highlanders” of the Iraqi Yazidis – tough and proud. After suffering terrible casualties and appealing to the allied forces for help they were able to survive the subsequent attack and live out the war in their mountain homeland. … read more

Further information:
Twitter’s #kobane hash tag offers images and updates in real time.


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Children born just the Berlin Wall fell were lower achievers

Two sides of the Berlin Wall, in 2011. Photo by Osamu Kaneko via Flickr, Creative Commons

Two sides of the Berlin Wall, in 2011. Photo by Osamu Kaneko via Flickr, Creative Commons

By Arnaud Chevalier, Royal Holloway and Olivier Marie, Maastricht University
November 8, 2014

Germany and the rest of Europe are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the associated communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

This event had colossal repercussions in the economic development of the region but also, and maybe less obviously, on its demography. Following the collapse of the Communist regimes, fertility in Eastern Europe went into a sharp decline.

This was especially marked in East Germany which over a short period experienced a 50% drop in births (Figure 1) which was dubbed the “most substantial fall in birth rates that ever occurred in peacetime”.

Figure 1. Annual crude birth rate per 1,000 women from 1950 and 2008. Calculations from population data from the Federal Institute for Population Research. Arnaud Chevalier and Olivier Marie, Author provided

Economic uncertainty was one of the main reasons for the fertility drop. But who were the parents that, despite the distressing level of economic uncertainty, decided to have children? And does this parental selection matter to how their children fare later on?

Theoretically, an economic downturn has two opposite effects on the demand for children: it reduces household income (something called the income effect) but it also reduces the opportunity costs of having children (the substitution effect) where the prospects of finding a job are low, and being out of the labour market and raising a child is not as costly in terms of forgone earnings.

Which of these effects dominates is ambiguous. In fact, it is likely that the relative size of the substitution and income effect depends on family characteristics, which lead to differences in parental composition throughout the economic cycle. For example, for richer families the income effect is likely to be the more important while for less wealthy ones, the substitution effect is likely to dominate.

The fall of the Berlin Wall provides a unique “natural experiment” to study this question. In our research we defined the cohort of children born in East Germany between August 1990 (conceived just after the collapse of the wall) and December 1993 as the “children of the wall”. We provide evidence on parental selection based on the average criminal activity of these children as they grew up, their educational attainment and detailed individual-level data on both mother and child, regarding parental skills.

Using state-level statistics on contact with the police by age group over the period 1993-2011, we found that the arrest rates of these children were at least 40% higher when compared to older cohorts and to their West German peers. This is true for all types of crime and for both boys and girls.

Importantly, these differences in the frequency of contact with the police started appearing as early as six-years-old (Figure 2a). This is despite being part of a numerically smaller group, which is usually associated with positive outcomes and is indicative of a strong negative parental selection; the children of the wall are clearly behaving differently from their peers from a very young age.

Figure 2a: arrest rate per 1,000 population in East and West Germany age 6-7, from Federal Criminal Police Office data. Chevalier and Olivier, Author provided

Figure 2b: arrest rate per 1,000 population in East and West Germany age 10-11, from Federal Criminal Police Office data. Chevalier and Olivier, Author provided

Figure 2c: arrest rate per 1,000 population in East and West Germany age 16-17, from Federal Criminal Police Office data. Chevalier and Olivier, Author provided

Similarly, the children of the wall also had worse educational outcomes. Compared to their class peers who were conceived before the fall of the wall, they had lower scores in international tests such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (2001) and PISA (2006), and were over-represented among low achievers. As such, they were 33% more likely to have repeated a grade by age 12, and 9% more likely to have been put into a lower track.

To explore if these negative outcomes are driven by differences in parental characteristics, we looked at very detailed survey data from the German Socio Economic Panel (SOEP) – a longitudinal survey of about 11,000 private households in the Federal Republic of Germany from 1984 to 2012, and eastern German states from 1990 to 2012 – and the Deutsches JungedInstitut survey (DJI).

We found that women who gave birth in East Germany just after the end of the communist regime were on average younger, less educated, less likely to be in a relationship and less economically active. Importantly, they also provided less educational input to their children.

In these surveys the children of the wall also rated their relationship with their mothers and the quality of parental support they received by the age of 17 much less favourably than their peers. Both children of the wall and their mothers were also more risk-seeking than comparable individuals who were not born in East Germany between August 1990 and December 1993.

While these results are in line with negative parental selection, they could also have been driven by biological factors in the timing of their birth: due to the economic turmoil prevalent at the time, these children may have experienced higher levels of maternal stress as a foetus and during early childhood, which may have shaped their future behaviour.

To find out more, we examined the same outcomes for the older siblings of the children of the wall. They also similarly reported having a poor relationship with their mothers and lower educational attainment. So this rejected the possibility that the children of the wall had worse outcomes due to being born in “bad times” and we instead concluded that the negative outcomes observed in this group was explained by the lower parenting skills, on average, of those who decided to have children during a period of high economic uncertainty.

A possible reason for this negative parental selection is that the fertility decisions of these women were not strongly swayed by changes in economic circumstances. Indeed, further analysis of the SOEP revealed that less educated mothers were far less likely than more educated ones to reduce their fertility when they perceived a bad economic environment (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The probability of having a child measured by economic worry and education level over period 1991-3. Chevalier and Olivier, Author provided

Our findings confirmed that parental selection may be one of the best predictors of the future outcome of a group, and that this most likely works through quality of parenting.

These conclusions have potentially important policy implications. First, the provision of public services should not only be based on the size of an incoming group of children – and more attention should be paid on its composition. And second, that interventions need to start from a very young age and should also aim at improving non-cognitive characteristics such as the risk attitude of expecting mothers or children.

Creative Commons

The Conversation

Arnaud Chevalier receives funding from The British Academy

Olivier Marie received a Veni research grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). In addition to his position in the Department of Economics at Maastricht University, he is also linked to the CEP at LSE, IZA, and CESif

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Obama: The American people sent a message

Senate leader Mitch McConnell earlier this year at a Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr, Creative Commons

Senate leader Mitch McConnell earlier this year at a Conservative Political Action Conference. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr, Creative Commons

The United States, which from afar seems to be in a frenzied, polarized and non-stop election battle, saw the Republican party prevail Tuesday over the Democrats in mid-term elections. The Republicans will now control both houses. For the country that often claims to lead the democratic world, voter turnout was shockingly low: slightly more than 25 percent of citizens bothered to show up at polls in Los Angeles County; only a few places roused more than 40 per cent. Nearly 60 per cent  of Americans cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election. However, as a historic chart from the Center for Voting and Democracy shows, low participation is common in mid term elections.

What does Tuesday’s election result mean?

“This is not a “Republican Revolution”, although it is clearly good news for conservatives and bad news for President Obama,” writes Tom Packer of the University of Oxford. “And yet, in some areas – particularly trade – there is a very real possiblity that the new majority may prove more helpful for President Obama than the divided Congress it succeeds.” …. read (at no charge* America’s midterm election: the view from Oxford.

Here is United States President Barack Obama’s full press conference responding to the election from the White House.


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Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in the form on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

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