It was capitalism all along!

In this last semester at Harvard, I’ve been following a class at Harvard, on Cyberpolitics, offered by Ruxandra Paul. For the final paper, the students were quite free to pick a topic of their choosing.
The scope of the course is quite broad, which meant the range of possible subjects was significant. So, I did what I figured was the only sensible option, which of course is to try and make clear that all problems on the cusp of ‘cyber’ and ‘politics’ are caused by capitalism.

Abstract

In recent years, a growing number of analysts and academics have exposed endemic problems in how online and mobile technologies are deployed, ostensibly with the objective of creating value for the end-user, but at obfuscated and not always fully understood costs. The critique which has garnered the most public attention has perhaps been Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. However, though she and others bring up the context of ‘capitalism’ as a driver for the problems they identify, none directly point a finger at capitalism as the actual source of the problem.

Here, I show that capitalism is at the root of tech’s evils.

I will argue that the challenges society experiences in relation to where ‘cyber’ and ‘politics’ meet, are driven by features inherent to capitalism, particularly unrestrained capitalism. I first identify a number of problems residing on the cusp of technology, and politics. I will then look at the features of capitalism, and how they are responsible for these problems.
Finally, I briefly discuss alternative sociocultural systems to replace capitalism.

What is the problem?

There is no shortage of societal problems on the cusp of technology and politics. An abridged list:

  • The extensive, unjustified, and illegal, pervasive surveillance evidenced by the Snowden Leaks, amongst others documented by Glenn Greenwald.
  • Maximisation of the ‘data exhaust’, and the consequential manipulation, if not abuse, of individuals, as described by Shoshana Zuboff. This includes the curation, automated or not, of social media feeds in order to maximise engagement.
  • Soft censorship, as described by Margaret Roberts. Her focus is on China, but the forms of censorship she describes, of ‘friction’ and ‘flooding’, have examples in shadow banning and overloading of hashtags. Shadow banning is actively used by most, if not all, major platforms (Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, etc.). Flooding is practiced by content farms and trolls, often hired to manipulate discourse. 
  • The implicit and difficult to objectively identify bias, and racism, in algorithms and AI, as documented by Sofiya Noble and Cathy O’Neill.
  • ‘Truth decay’, as defined by Mazarr et al, as the combination of increased disagreements on facts, a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, the increasing relative volume, and influence, of opinion, followed by a declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.
  • Exploitation in the gig economy.

I will consider it beyond the scope of this paper to also show that ‘crypto’ and ‘web3’ is, by design, detrimental in every way, while deeply connected to core features of capitalism. This is extensively argued elsewhere, for example by Ledesma et al, Diehl, and O’Reilly.

What capitalism?

Many varieties of capitalism exist. I will use the description below.

Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Central characteristics of capitalism include capital accumulation, competitive markets, price systems, private property, property rights recognition, voluntary exchange, and wage labor.

In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investments are determined by the owners of wealth, that is, property, through the ability to manoeuvre capital or production ability in capital and financial markets, while prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets.

Due to the rapid historical emergence of the internet, and related technologies, and due to lack of regulation, the manifestation of capitalism through technology has typically operated under forms of ‘free-market capitalism’, in which prices for goods and services are set by the forces of supply and demand. Or by those able to manipulate the market with the objective of maximising profit. But, importantly, with little intervention by government policy. This is evidenced by the historical strong pushback against attempts at government regulations by major (western) internet companies such as Google, Facebook (Meta), Twitter, and others.

Meanwhile, particularly since the end of the Cold War, society at large has come to function, at best, under a form of ‘advanced capitalism’, characterised by Habermas through the following:

  • Concentration of industrial activity in a few large firms.
  • Constant reliance on the state to stabilise the economic system.
  • A formally democratic government that legitimises the activities of the state and dissipates opposition to the system.
  • The use of nominal wage increases to pacify the most restless segments of the work force.

Besides that many have argued that this system is at breaking point, evidenced by shifts in political polarisation, stagnated wages, and rising, in some cases exploding, inflation, what needs to be observed is that even ‘advanced capitalism’ is a tempered form of pure capitalism. In essence, ‘advanced’ refers to ‘capitalism’ being adjusted for its excesses, the state regulating those aspects that are the unsustainable features of the capitalist model.

It has been argued, recently by Varoufakis, that the West’s shift towards social democracy, mitigating the worst of capitalist systems, was fuelled by the mere existence of the Soviet Union. The continuous shift away from this model, since the fall of the Soviet Union, supports this.
This could make one wonder whether rise of social democracies in Western Europe were primarily an accident of history.

Though it might be possible to limit the excesses of capitalism through regulation, capitalist society, by design, shifts towards its own extreme, implying that no form of capitalism can counter the excesses we encounter. To meaningfully survive, can we only replace capitalism with a more equitable economic system?

The problem is capitalism

Bhasin, channelling Marx, states that “capitalism encourages monopolies”, and “companies which have monopoly exploit consumers”. Marx, and Lenin, warned against the problems of state-sanctioned capitalist models, through the concept of State Monopoly Capitalism, as a consequence of laissez-faire capitalism, dovetailing with the definition of State Capitalism of more anarchistic provenance.

Noble’s “we are the product that Google sells to advertisers” makes the citizenry the raw material from which a product is crafted which is being sold to advertisers. This is explicitly exploitation of the consumer, the citizen. Zuboff’s “Google, Facebook and Amazon have become modern-day robber barons, bending laws to themselves and their own” invokes the image of 19th century American industrialists who used exploitative practices to amass their wealth.

This positioning of the citizen as raw material in order to abstract profit is at the root of all capitalist abuse of the citizenry. Surveillance and exploitation of the ‘data exhaust’ are abuse of what we as consumers produce. And, as a business has no latent morals preventing them from being exploitative, the sole reason to refrain from exploitation is when meaningful, enforceable, and enforced laws prevent exploitation from happening.

As per Haque, capitalism has taught (Americans) that exploitation is good for them, also showing how productivity and worker compensation became disconnected in their growth trajectories in the 1970s, diverging ever since.
Aggarwal et al sum up the ethical problems, with a particular focus on the gig economy: They are mechanisms of algorithmic control and managerial oversight, through the use of algorithmic reputation and rating systems. These systems permit invasive and unaccountable control of the work force, giving platform administrators unregulated power to manipulate the scoring and matching algorithms that govern the platform and influence job allocation decisions. 

Job insecurity, as per Bhasin, is a feature of capitalist economies, as they see high unemployment as well as underemployment, because rapidly changing requirements of the market make it difficult to match skills with jobs.

As per O’Neill, the use of opaque algorithms can, and do, produce unfair outcomes, with the “best” (highest rated) workers receiving a greater and growing share of available work, while certain groups of workers, particularly women and ethnic minorities, are discriminated against. In addition, gig work is often unsavoury in nature, producing heightened emotional stress, with particularly content moderation, at scale, being known to cause PTSD in workers. The unsavoury nature of the work, and the need for a race to the bottom in terms of compensation, means that, whenever possible, gig work, whenever possible, is outsourced to the least regulated, cheapest jurisdiction.
Because capitalists avoid providing social and legal protection, including the right to a minimum wage, health, and insurance benefits, casting these as external costs, the gig economy explicitly exploits gig workers due to their misclassification as independent contractors, rather than employees or workers, for whom some protection exists under many jurisdictions.
Bhasin underscores this by pointing out that gig workers are paid less (than employees) and that government regulations, if existing and designed to protect employees, do not apply to gig workers, as independent contractors.

Agarwal et al point out that, as per Bill Gates in The Road Ahead, we have moved into a more and more friction-free economy, easily allowing capitalists, as I mention above, to outsource gig work to low-rights jurisdictions, that is, other countries, often in the Global South, in, what Aggarwal calls, ‘ethics dumping’, and, as per Spacey, results in the commoditisation of labour.

Ritchie explains that “capitalism is fundamentally unethical”, and “commodity exchanges on the market cannot be understood without recognising their human consequences”. Hence Aggarwal’s description of this outsourcing of work as ‘ethics dumping’, underscoring the need of ethical decision making.

Varoufakis coined the concept of ‘techno-feudalism’, as the current, next, step in capitalism’s shape shifting history; First from its competitive guise to oligopoly, with the second industrial revolution. Then, when the end of Bretton Woods in 1971 unleashed capitalism’s second transformation, Wall Street functionaries demanded deregulation, and oligopolistic capitalism morphed into financialized capitalism.
After 2008, the G7’s central banks coalesced in April 2009 to use their money printing capacity to re-float global finance, and a deep discontinuity emerged: The global economy is now powered by the constant generation of central bank money, as opposed to private profit. Meanwhile, value extraction is shifting away from markets and onto digital platforms, like Facebook and Google, which no longer operate like oligopolistic firms, but rather like private fiefdoms. This, because digital platforms replace conventional markets as the locus of private wealth extraction: We all produce, for free, the capital stock of these large corporations.
Zuboff calls this Surveillance Capitalism, which Varoufakis explains as techno-feudalism, where the individual is beholden to the institutions for whom he produces. Indeed, under this form of late-stage capitalism, we truly have become the raw material generating profits for the capitalist upper class. This societal model, driven by big tech, explains how, through institutional curation, and censorship, of content, the outputs from these raw materials, our activity, can be optimised.

Similarly, because resource extraction is optimised, the veracity of the input, that is, information, becomes irrelevant. As a consequence of this, we no longer can expect a societal regression to a shared understanding of reality; cohorts are ‘fed’ whatever optimises their output, and, through big tech, we abstract different versions of reality, which brings us ‘truth decay’.

Kwet broadens the exploitation of labour to a concept of digital colonialism, specifically when focusing on the role of big tech in the Global South. Kwet shows that (US) multinationals exercise imperial control at the architecture level of the digital ecosystem, giving rise to new forms of domination: 

  • The monopoly power of multinational corporations, used for resource extraction through rent and surveillance, constitutes a new form of economic domination. 
  • Controlling the digital ecosystem, big tech corporations control computer-mediated experiences, giving them direct power over political, economic, and cultural domains of life, creating a new form of imperial control. 
  • Big tech, through usage of ‘big data’, violates our privacy and concentrates economic power into the hands of large corporations, facilitating a system of global surveillance capitalism. And, with agencies from the Global North dominant in this exploitation, the Global South in particular suffers from imperial state surveillance.

Kwet’s digital colonialism is directed at big tech’s role in the global south, but equally applies to big tech’s role in exploitation of consumers and workers in the north.

So it becomes obvious how, and why, as per Noble, “Commercial control over the internet, the commons, has moved it further away from the public.” and how, for commercial enterprises like Google, “the discussions about [the meaning of words, classification, is] situated under [the rubric of] free speech and protected corporate speech” such that it becomes “impossible with the current commercial practices” to ensure that “underrepresented ideas are included [and] have [big tech’s products] serve as a democratisation tool”.
It’s not the citizenry who steer the discourse, it is the techno-feudalists.

Almost as an aside, Rushkoff, also deals with the perception that modern technology provides meaningful access to a much broader range of content. Originally focussing on the model of Spotify and similar platforms, Ruskhoff points out that “digital platforms amplify the power law dynamics that determine winners and losers. While [they] make space for many more [creators] to sell their [work], their architecture and recommendation engines end up promoting many fewer [creators] than a diverse ecosystem of [record stores] did [in the past]. One or two superstars get all the plays, and everyone else sells almost nothing.”

Per Spacey, capitalism allows for no alternative models operating in the market; Successful businesses control markets such that competition ceases to exist, resulting in higher prices, decreased product quality and unfair terms for the end user. Even more so for friction-free, digital, business models, this results in monopolies, as well as monopsony, when one employer is the only company in a particular geographical area.
So, we see market control with uncompetitive practices as a consequence of market domination.

To the point of exploitation of consumers, Noble points out that “Google is prioritising predatory misrepresentations […] because it is profitable to do so.” As per Zuboff, and mentioned above, big tech does not care if news is fake, as long as it makes a profit. And, as neoliberal policies allow capitalists to disconnect their actions from their social context, they foster societal instability and social inequality.

Zuboff points out that the platforms which create value no longer have to own the means of production, as owning the means of behavioural modification, the algorithms influencing our behaviour, has eclipsed ownership of the means of production as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth and power. This, in accordance with Varoufakis’ points, above.
And though Zuboff’s focus is on the tech industry, the same framework increasingly is applicable in other sectors.

Operating outside of a framework of accountability, (surveillance) capitalism is anti-democratic. O’Neill agrees, in that “we cannot count on the free market itself to right these wrongs” and “the free market [can] not control the excesses [of algorithmic abuse]”.

The above dovetails with the capitalist need to externalise implicit costs; Nestle (the author, not the company) shows how food is ‘cheaper’ because costs are externalised. Oxley expands this to a crisis of capitalism, underscoring Bhasin, who establishes that capitalists adopt malpractices without considering their effects on people or the environment. Because they can.
Zuboff points out that the system we currently suffer under is “inherently” and “profoundly” undemocratic; A tyranny with the objective of dominating human nature.

Spacey agrees and explains how this leads to societal destruction through the gutting of the income of the state: It is common for wealth to use aggressive tax structures and strategies to avoid paying taxes, resulting in a high tax burden for the middle class and less resources for those in need, undermining democracy, and undermining the possibility of economic mobilities.

Per Bhasin, and many others, capitalism creates two classes in society; those with the means, and those without. This inequality, by design, helps those with the means to become wealthier, excluding, and pushing down, those who lack these means.
Now, per Zuboff, our current model of capitalism no longer requires political reciprocity between labor and capital for large capitalist entities to flourish; The shift to individualism in western society has combined with the neoliberal economic paradigm of destroying individual agency, and results in a complete disconnect between wealth creation, for the rich, and societal development, for the poor.

With capitalism’s ever-larger reach, national politics, already slow to respond, can not keep up with the quickly changing scope. Nor are there usable global frameworks, nor is there international consensus, on countering the globally destructive influence of capitalism.

Capitalism is the problem. State-lead societal control, under capitalism, is more and more difficult to maintain, while only addressing the symptoms, not the core problems.

Alternatives to capitalism?

Few widely recognised contemporary frameworks exist that are able to ‘take on’ capitalism as a societal model, let alone have been proven to be workable. In communism’s most rudimentary definition, where all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs, is perhaps the most ideal solution, in theory, but so abstract that, in practice, no viable path towards realisation, at scale, appears to exist.

Political anarchists address this challenge of implementing a radically egalitarian society through the conceptualisation of non-bureaucratic systems in which decisions are made by the people. However, this, too, at scale, has not yet been shown to be viable.

A recently introduced post-capitalist model is detailed by Varoufakis in Another Now. With self-regulation, an abolished stock market, and company shares collectively owned by the workers, Varoufakis’ model is interesting, because it mixes elements of classic democracy, and communism, and uses technology to work towards a form of egalitarianism. But, Varoufakis’ model has also not been tested in practice.

What should be clear from my analysis above is that, even if alternative models might be elusive, capitalist society is so detrimental, requiring so much regulation to function, that capitalist society needs to cease to exist, if we want to put societal development, and most importantly people, front and center.

And, more and more clearly, we see that capitalism will not go down without a fight, willing to sacrifice the fuel of their economic engine. My hope is that we will find large enough numbers to fight that fight, and win.

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Regionalism in the Middle East

I’m following a class at Harvard, on The Governance and International Politics of World Regions. I have to write a number of articles for this course, each connected to a particular class, also meaning each connected to a particular region.
I was keen on writing a response to the readings on Africa, but before that, the class on the Middle East demanded I put some thoughts on paper. Somewhat thankfully, the readings on Africa turned out to be primarily focused on the AU, meaning I didn’t think them that arousing.

(Not) predicting the future

Larry Diamond, writing in 2010, in Why Are There No Arab Democracies?, boldly sets the stage: “why is it the case that among the sixteen independent Arab states of the Middle East and coastal North Africa, Lebanon is the only one to have ever been a democracy?”

Iran is, of course, not Arab, but to purposefully exclude it in this context, presupposes some hidden feature of being ‘Arab’, which would not apply to Iran, which both has been a democracy, at least until the US led coup against Mossadegh in 1953, and, to some extent, even today. But, this does appear to be Diamond’s angle.
Though Diamond refrains from mentioning Iran in his article, the country does come up in his conclusion, but only through a reference to the country’s Arab minority.
Admitted, neither Turkey, nor Israel, features in the article, but then doesn’t Diamond’s point come close to simple cherry picking his focus?

That said, Diamond is correct in his observation that here’s a big ‘freedom gap’ between Arab and non-Arab Muslim-majority states. He suggests, though,that religion is not a likely major cause.

Diamond also dismisses ‘culture’ as the primary reason for this democracy deficit, drawing parallels with similar origin stories in multiple African and Asian states. Even if, by Diamond’s own admission, in surveys done between 2003 and 2006, support in five Arab countries was roughly evenly split between those favouring ‘secular democracy’ and those favouring a form of ‘islamic’ democracy, whatever that would mean in practice. Couldn’t this be an indicator for some cultural markers being at the root of this ‘freedom gap’, therefore exactly contradicting Diamond’s claim?

Diamond’s review of how ‘well-to-do’ Arab countries are, as an indicator for favouring, and keeping, democracy, is neither here nor there; Kuwait or Bahrain might be wealthy, but most of the Gulf states thrive on exploitation of a foreign lower class, who are suppressed by the grace of the authoritarian controls the elite thrive on. |
Doesn’t this skewer the impact of what he sees as ‘well-to-do’?

The ‘oil curse’, of course, plays a role: the lack of necessity to tax its citizens, due to high oil revenues, obfuscates the sense of government accountability. And, where oil dominates, there is little wealth creation through investment or risk taking.

Diamond then makes an interesting observation on the ‘Arab pattern’ of ‘managed reform’, where autocrats facilitate a back-and-forth on liberalisation when coming under political pressure, either from within, or without.
True, I suppose, but is this pattern ‘Arab’? Can this not be observed, as well, in more autocratic African states, particularly after the end of the colonial area?
So, where Diamond positions this as ‘Arab’, is it, really?

Thankfully, Diamond does acknowledge the skewering influence the US has in the region, with its military and ‘development’ assistance, Jordan, for example, from 2001 to 2006, receiving 27% of its domestic revenues as foreign assistance. To what extent Jordan does is not in the scope of my review, here, but it’s difficult not to dance to the tunes of your paymaster.
Similar numbers, incidentally, also have applied to Israel, which received 28% of its GDP in the form of American ‘assistance’ in the 1970s, though that dwindled to just 3% in 2000, even if in absolute terms the reduction was small. And, here, the close ties between these two countries are well known and obvious, and hugely influential in the trajectory of inter-regional politics in the Middle East.

Writing before the Arab spring, Diamond predicts change will happen, even if his predictions feel quaint: Looking towards Iraq as a beacon of hope, and to Egypt as an example of adaptive change. And, he predicts that dwindling oil prices, as a precursor to a shift towards renewables, will be the harbinger of the end of Arab political exceptionalism.

Lustick, in The Absence of Middle Eastern Great Powers: Political ‘Backwardness’ in Historical Perspective, puts a lack of integration in the Middle East, in part, at the feet of the former colonial powers’ divide and conquer tactics, as well as petty squabbles between differing factions, within and between countries in the Middle East, dovetailing with much of Diamond, and, then asks why there have been no Middle Eastern great powers, as emerged from Europe from the 1200s onwards.

I believe Lustick is on to something when he recounts, from Cohen, Brown, and Organski in The Paradoxical Nature of State Making: The Violent Creation of Order, that by 1900, there were around 20 times fewer independent polities in Europe than there had been in 1500. They did not disappear peacefully, or decay as nation states developed; they were the losers in multiple protracted wars.

And, even when conflict in the Middle East could emerge (again) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this was under the watchful eye of greater international powers, as well as international institutions and norms, creating a wildly different context for both the conflicts and potential resolutions, compared to pre-modern Europe, bringing us to Lustick’s central claim, that these historical differences in the geopolitical context of European and Middle Eastern state system development constitute not the only but the single most important explanation for the contemporary absence of a Middle Eastern great power.

Or, loosely translated, if only the Middle East had had protracted conflict, earlier, as well as two ‘world wars’, it would be in much better shape, now. As per Tilly, in Reflections on the History of European State-Making and War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, war makes the state, and the state makes war.
Conveying the status of ‘latecomer’ to the countries in the Middle East, Lustick explains they came too late to the international scene to make a meaningful dent in prospects of becoming ‘great powers’, through war.

Lustick recounts three examples to underscore his claim, Muhammed Ali, the once viceroy of Egypt, Gamal Nasser, also of Egypt, and, particularly, Saddam Hussein’s attempt at occupying Kuwait.
Pleasantly, Lustick, writing before 9/11, is insightful, stating that “through the lens of late medieval and early modern Europe and America, the great powers’ aggressive self-interestedness comes into focus”, as “their enforcement of norms of peace and security among sovereign states, norms whose direct effect was to deny Arabs entry into the great power club by the only route ever taken into that club, is visible as a ‘vital interest’ in preserving petrodollar monarchies and sheikhdoms in the Gulf, whose very survival requires the most favourable and intimate of relationships with the Western powers”, so “it is the survival of these countries, in the same neighbourhood as Iraq (and Iran), that is the anomaly, not the Iraqi walkover into Kuwait”.

In other words, Lustick recognises that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, as well as, surely, that country’s invasion of Iran, were attempts, by Saddam Hussain, to establish his country as the regional power.

Gause, in Hegemony’ Compared: Great Britain and the United States in the Middle East, details the changing state of affairs in the Middle East, and shows that Britain was a more successful hegemon during the interwar period than the US, after the war. This because of changing comparative power relations; stronger individual states, through the ‘democratization of violence’, and more demanding, and powerful, international governing bodies.
Through the power exerted by first the UK, then the US, this decreased the possibility of a regional great power emerging in the Middle East. This touches on one of Diamond’s points.

Gause does seem to have a slightly disjointed vision of some of the events that have shaped the Middle East in recent times, claiming that the US invasion of Iraq in 1990 was a moment where the American military invaded a Soviet ally, as evidenced by a friendship treaty dating back to 1972. Besides the fact in 1990, the Soviet Union was on its last legs, it was the US who supported Saddam in the 1980s, in his war with Iran. Whose ally was Saddam, really?

Barnett and Solingen, in Designed to fail or failure of design? talk about the 60-year (now 75) sedate history of the Arab League. The authors are surprised. But, my first impression is that they are not quite as familiar with how societal allegiances under islam are seen to be configured: strong familial connections, and a strong awareness of being part of the ummah, collective islam, less so, at least historically, of being a citizen of a particular country.

The authors do point to the competitive politics of regime survival as limiting national cooperation, showing that national regimes sought legitimacy through Arab nationalism and unity, emanating from the League, while also fearing its influence, in turn limiting the powers of regional bodies.

In addition, as trade between states in the Middle East is limited, in significant part due to the rent seeking behaviour of these governments as a consequence of the extensive oil wealth that a number of them rake in, the region sees very little cross-border economic exchange and, as a consequence, few grassroots calls for integration and unification as a means to reduce economic and social frictions.

Not addressed by either, though I can’t say to what extent this is relevant, is that, for centuries, much of the Middle East was united politically, but under nominal control of an ethnic outsider, the Turkish caliph. When the Arab League was established, this memory was still fresh. Could this have influenced the interest and perceived need of Arab unification?

The authors recognise that, starting in the 1980s, with increasing economic interdependence, and growing nationalism, room for intraregional cooperation saw the establishment of smaller, more active, regional bodies, in the shape of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and others, participating countries recognising the need for regionalism, but not necessarily through an alignment along racial lines. Though of these, only the GCC appears to have staying power.

Barnett and Stolingen touch on the stronger unification among Arab countries, against the American invasion of Iraq. However, writing in the middle of the 2000s, this prefaces the soon-to-follow Arab spring, causing upheaval throughout the region, and a break with the existing trajectory of seeking Arab unification.

Beck, in The End of Regional Middle Eastern Exceptionalism? builds on this, when writing in 2015, observing a renewed interest in empowering the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council. However, does Beck not believe that Saudi Arabia’s leading role in this is anything but a form of self preservation, while perhaps also, as per Lustick, realising that war is what is needed to establish the country as a regionally dominant player?

Beck posits that regionalisation may come as the result of two mutually reinforcing dialectical processes: the emergence of a regional power and the strengthening of regional institutions. Beck refers to Lustick and the need for war to see powers emerge, but suggests that other events of historic significance could also play this role.

Implying this could be the collective of Arab uprisings, Beck rightfully points to the Arab League’s changing role after the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, suspending both Libya and Syria from the League, and calling for votes in the UN Security Council. And, then points to Saudi Arabia as the national power gaining ground regionally. 

This emergence indeed safeguarded the Saudi Arabian elite’s survival, and could also have been a reaction to Egypt’s weakened regional position. In addition, we can now look back at the near-decision of Saudi Arabia to invade Qatar, and the war, lead by Saudi Arabia, in Yemen. Beck seems correct, the Arab Spring might have been a major event prefacing the rise of a regional hegemon, Saudi Arabia is trying to help itself along through warfare, while being supported by the United States, who shifted a lot of allegiance away from Egypt, with the fall of Mubarak, to Saudi Arabia.

In his conclusion, Beck points out that Saudi Arabia’s position is precarious: There’s geopolitical influence from three other major players in the region: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. However, at the moment, Saudi Arabia has managed to strengthen its position in comparison to the historically stronger adversary Egypt, and, globally, is certainly perceived as a major regional player.

Going back to a point made above, Mandaville, in Islam and International Relations in the Middle East: From Umma to Nation State, discusses the ummah, but historically seems to situate its emergence after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, with the eventual rise of political islam. To me, this feels like an inverse characterisation of history; nationalism perhaps surged after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, but, in my understanding, before, regional identity was considered less important than either local, or global identity, that is, being part of the ‘world of islam’, the ummah.

But, Mandaville’s observation of the rise of political islam feels correct. But, as such, this islamism, because it, mostly, does not recognise a single overarching authority, seeks a different kind of universal identification, if any at all.

Mandaville suggests that Khomeini, after the Iranian revolution, competed with the Saudis and Zia ul-Haq for the mantle of Muslim leadership, but this seems like quite a stretch to me. Iran, and Khomeini, still receive credit in the non-aligned world, for their success in withstanding US hegemony, and, for all intents and purposes, thriving as a nation. But, few would consider Iran the flag bearer of Islam as a whole, probably not even Iranian clerics. 

Mandaville does seem to acknowledge that the recent rise of islam-oriented political parties, might be a symptom of the shift towards a kind of cultural islam, even if he does not quite label this as such. Or, islam has become a tool for the ruling elites to entrench their position. Or both.

In the end, Diamond’s observation no longer holds; Tunisia and Egypt have significantly shifted away from autocracy, though the pendulum might already be swinging back. The region is still in flux, and displeasure is still brewing with a younger generation.
It’s a bit of an open door, but recent events suggest Mandaville’s closing note is perhaps as good as our predictions can be at the moment, ‘Islam will remain an important feature of international relations in the Middle East and beyond’. I’ll add that I believe that the trajectory of shedding autocracy in the Middle East has not yet been completed. For one, what happens when ayatollah Khamenei passes away?

Strong civil society weakens weak democratic institutions

I’m following a class at Harvard, on Populism and the Erosion of Democracy. I have to write a critical analysis of the reading material for any one week. I picked one on the further erosion of weak democracies when accompanied by a strong civil society.

Starting with Weimar

Berman, in Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic convincingly argues that a vigorous civil society, in the absence of strong political institutions, can weaken democratic governments. The example on which this argument is based, is the political progress of the Weimar Republic, which eventually saw the entrenchment of the NSDAP under Adolf Hitler.

This makes intuitive sense; if citizens actively associate, congregate, under a weak democracy, there is a possibility that some of these associations will form stronger bonds, goals, and objectives than the pushback they can encounter from weak democratic institutions. 

Berman shows that in Weimar Germany, participation in organisations did indeed mobilise individuals for political participation, and that this weakened democracy as a consequence.

Berman goes further, also showing that the NSDAP did not attract alienated, apolitical, Germans, as is often said, but instead focused on, and was successful at incorporating, highly activist individuals, exploiting their skills to expand the party’s appeal as a political force.

In the run-up to the eventual NSDAP takeover, in part, the weakened political structures were a consequence of political parties struggling to serve their potential constituents within their own organisations, leaving the constituents to look for alternatives to express their social and political aspirations.

Specifically, after the First World War, the weakness of the bourgeois parties and national political structures drove many citizens to look for alternatives in civil society organisations, which were organised as fairly homogenous groups, resulting in highly organised, but vertically fragmented, collectives.

Specifically, private associations were seen to offer benefits that the traditional bourgeois parties were failing to provide, like ‘community’ and ‘unity’.

There are clear modern-day parallels of the emergence of private associations as a political force. In Spain, Podemos emerged from the apolitical, but activist, Indignados Movement. Though, an even better example is probably Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, which became a political force after first building on many, rapidly emerging, local organisations.

Additionally, several political shifts in Latin America, under the Pink Tide, like Morales’ MAS in Bolivia, could also be seen as examples of this.

Berman herself refers to the collapse of Eastern European communism as an example of were civil society lead the way for structural political change.

The NSDAP recognised the benefit of incorporating the active members of these grassroots organisations, and sought to make them an important part of the backbone of the Nazi propaganda policies, eventually creating a powerful electoral machine, while anchoring the NSDAP in the local communities of these activists.

The end was that the Nazis, the NSDAP, managed to bridge the gap between bourgeois civil society and party politics, creating a cross-class coalition.

Reinforcing these findings in Weimar Germany, Chenoweth and Stephan, in Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict show that nonviolent anti-establishment campaigns are twice as likely to succeed compared to violent campaigns. They justify these findings by positing that non-violent campaigns more easily gain perceived legitimacy, while violent crackdowns on nonviolent campaigns run the risk of backfiring.

As with Berman, Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s conclusions seem reasonable, while also not fully considering the context under which their studied cases took place. 

Case in point being that, though the NSDAP did not resort much to violent protests, taking over Germany’s civil society by stealth, it’s not at all a given that, if they had resorted to more violent action, they would not have been successful.

Similarly, it can be imagined that if the state extensively controls the media narrative, the outcome of both nonviolent and violent campaigns can be hugely affected, but not necessarily in the same way, as, particularly in the short term, violent campaigns could be harder to subvert via propaganda.

This is underscored by the example the authors provide on the Philippines, were Cory Aquino’s victory over Marcos was, in part, due to the church-owned Radio Veritas being on the side of Aquino. 

Indeed, in the article’s conclusion, the authors recognise the power of the media in facilitating, or not, ‘backfire’, and point to a related, and fascinating, venue for study: the provision of educational materials, including video games and films, to convey the success of past nonviolent campaigns.

One central observation is on point; campaigns that fail to produce loyalty shifts within the security services of a civilian bureaucracy are unlikely to achieve success, particularly a challenge if the opposition uses violence to try and achieve their goals. Meanwhile, nonviolent campaigns are more likely to gain support, nationally and internationally, which can result in stronger political pressures for shifts in regime policy.

Yarwood, in The struggle over terms limits in Africa: The power of protest, talks about how a number of African national leaders, particularly in the 2010s, have tried to extend their presidential term limits in one way or the other, typically by amending their constitution.

She claims that there is ‘cause for hope from below’, essentially the civil society mentioned in the earlier two articles, even if the people’s desire for democracy is not matched by elite commitment to it.

Yarwood gives a few examples of successful citizen-led movements to remove presidents from power, in Senegal and Burkina Faso, and a citizen-led movement in the DRC that prevented some of the president’s desired changes to the constitution, even though Kabila remained in power for another three years from the moment of this ‘citizen victory’, which was past his constitutional limit.

Yarwood’s cases are relevant, and provide for some hope towards a shift towards more entrenched democratisation on the African continent. I also subscribe to this view, but I’m not quite convinced by Yarwood’s argument. Kabila, as mentioned, stayed in power for another three years. Museveni and Kagame are still in power, Magafuli successfully shifted Tanzania in an autocratic direction before dying in office, Mugabe’s coup was a coup from above, and civil society in South Africa has, forever, neatly (enough) toed the ANC party line.

In Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela, Gamboa takes the view that democratic erosion is becoming more common, also in Africa, seemingly disagreeing with the ‘more entrenched democratisation’ which Yarwood identifies in Africa.

Specifically, she looks at the role of the opposition in Colombia and Venezuela, where, in Venezuela, Chavez managed to shift the country to a more autocratic system, whereas Uribe failed to do so in Colombia. Her focus is on where the opposition fights against the would-be autocrat: inside, or outside, established institutions.

Gamboa makes the case, which rather appears like kicking in an open door, that democratic erosion is ‘a process’. She also distinguishes between ‘strategies’ and ‘goals’, which feels natural, pointing out that extra-institutional strategies with radical goals (like removal of the autocrat) can have negative consequences for democracy.

Oddly, when Gamboa lists, and dismisses, a bunch of reasons, outside of her central argument, that could be the cause of democratic backsliding, as these justifications roughly equally apply to both Venezuela and Colombia, she fails to mention at least two: the personalities of the persons involved, and the fact that Colombia was suffering the consequences of, and was still embroiled in, an effective civil war.

That’s not to say that the role of the opposition, which is what Gamboa focusses on, is irrelevant. But, it’s just one of the many factors that do play a role, while different contexts can also see different results from the factors that seemingly were comparable between these two countries. 

The connection with the nonviolent pushback mentioned earlier is that Colombia’s opposition against Chavez included strategies that were ‘radical’ and ‘extra-institutional’, so, though perhaps technically not ‘violent’, leaning in that direction.

However, this ignores the elephant in the room, Colombia’s FARC, who, violently, had opposed Colombia’s government for decades, such that the playing field, for Uribe and his opposition, was completely different as compared to Colombia.

Interestingly, Gamboa describes, as part of Chavez’ rise, a situation in the early 2000s, where opposition against Chavez was lead by non-political associations, under a weakened democracy. Similar to the situation described by Berman, in relation to the Weimar Republic.  

Though with wildly different outcomes, in both cases, in Venezuela and Germany, democracy was severely weakened, making this narrative nicely come full circle.

Thoughts on East Asia

I’m following a class at Harvard, on The Governance and International Politics of World Regions. I have to write a number of articles for this course, each connected to a particular class, also meaning each connected to a particular region.
The class on East Asia, roughly Japan, Taiwan, the Koreas, with spillovers into China and Russia, to me felt like it warranted a response, in part because of how the US is seen as an influencer in the region. Below, a slightly adapted version of my thoughts.

East Asian integration, and the role of the US

Foot and Goh mention it early in their article The international relations of east Asia: There is good reason to believe that DHC are characteristic of other regions, too. That is, not just, as per what is really their claim, of East Asia.

DHC stands for ‘Duality’, ‘Hybridity’, and ‘Contingency’. Duality for the growing economic integration and prosperity, paired with increased security tensions. Hybridity for the mix of indigenous, western, and global norms and systems. Contingency for the need to balance uncertain outcomes with alternatives, due to duality and hybridity.

A reasonable take, but one that, indeed, in at least some degree will apply to anyone, anywhere, in any situation. The degrees of D, H, and C will just vary from place to place, from sub-region to sub-region, from time to time.

To understand East Asia, they say, we need a study, leaving existing paradigms aside, with a focus on process, not outcomes. And we need research frameworks sensitive to dualistic tensions, or opposing dynamics, where individual actors are driven by conflicting objectives, and norms.

This is done, they say, using a ‘conjunctions analytics framework, with a focus on where the regional/global meets the local/regional, highlighting ‘content’, ‘boundaries’, and ‘change’.

This also seems reasonable, but examples they use to highlight this, like that East Asian states that appear to support US primacy might do so because this is currently useful, seem to be blind to the fact that this kind of realism is, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the norm in international politics. For one, America itself supported, say, Saddam Hussein when it was useful, and did not support him when it wasn’t.

The authors refer to Acharya (2014), claiming that Asia’s security is based on a model of ‘consociation’, a fancy word for a mix of power-sharing and mutual accommodation. To me, this sounds a lot like a description of the inner workings of the EU, even if Acharya disagrees, and more so, of many loosely organised cooperations of nation states.
Then, the authors refer back to earlier work of Goh, suggesting a ‘layered hierarchical order’ in East Asia which to me also sounds like a description that can apply to the EU in terms of where ‘real’ power lies within the union. The only difference being, perhaps, that power shifts in East Asia have been more noticeable in the last few decades, than they have been in the EU.

On security, Foot and Goh use the example of China, economically growing but also modernising militarily, used in part to tackle domestic instabilities and humanitarian disasters, and to build regime security, but not necessarily increasing military tension (in the region). Except that Lind, in Geography and the Security Dilemma in Asia, writing five years before Foot and Goh, takes a different stance, highlighting the rising military tensions in the region exactly due to China’s rising military ambitions, which to me seems a more reasonable take.

The article’s final part on how coalitions, perhaps in general, deal with external threats to economic or political survival, states they might crack down, shift to a more international focus, strengthen economic relationships favouring the status quo, or break out in a more globalist direction. 

The authors continue, listing a few examples, including Vietnam, China, and Indonesia, where they are perhaps not wrong, but seem to fail to explain how these countries’ trajectories are uniquely East Asian. 

The earlier mentioned Lind reasonably identifies in the maritime geography of East Asia a powerful defence dominance, with a ‘dark side’ (sic) being that it makes it very challenging for the US to project its power in the region. 

It is difficult for me to presume that Lind would use the term ‘dark side’ to describe the difficulties of, say, Russia, projecting its power into countries in Eastern Europe, suggesting Lind’s mindset is somewhat dressed up with neo-colonial drapes. 

Reading on, Lind talks about East Asian distrust towards Japan for its past aggression and human rights violations, and, through that, the necessity of forceful US power projection in the region. It is hard to not also read this as justification for the broad mistrust and pushback against American activities outside its own borders.

Victor Cha, in an anecdote at the start of Powerplay: The origins of the American alliance system in Asia recounts an example of what sounds like American realpolitik: With the emergence of the EAS, the East Asia Summit, “the first true indigenously created regional institution”, a US official said that it is “a bad idea whose time has come”, there being some realisation that it was time (in 2010) for the US to take a step back in the region from its role as leading an ‘informal empire’.

The US’s realpolitik, if existing, is underscored by Cha’s own analysis that if small powers try to control a great power, multilateralism works, and if great powers seek control over smaller ones, bilateral control is more effective and efficient. The US, in East Asia, ended up with multiple bilateral relationships, the center of a ‘hub-and-spokes’ model, suggesting a policy based on opportunism, not conviction. Cha defines the US approach in East Asia as ‘powerplay’, which is a bit like saying the US wanted to have the most control at the lowest cost, presumably to avoid ‘entrapment’ as their objective.

Interestingly, Izumikawa in Network Connections and the Emergence ofthe Hub-and-Spokes Alliance System in East Asia states does not concur that the US purposefully sought out bilateral relations, stating that “the historical record reveals that the United States desired and sought a multilateral alliance in East Asia until the early 1960s”, more in congruence with European integration.

Izumikawa specifically dismisses opposing claims by others; Katzenstein’s argument that the lack of a collective identity between the United States and its Asian allies (which Cha properly labels as ‘racism’) had been an important cause of the absence of a multilateral alliance; Acharya’s of the region-specific, Asian, norm which prioritises the nonintervention aspect of state sovereignty; Dufeld’s, in that the historical memories of Japan’s atrocities before and during World War II made other states in the Asia-Pacic reluctant; And Cha’s powerplay argument, in that they overlook the Eisenhower administration’s continued efforts to create a multilateral alliance even after establishing bilateral alliances in East Asia.

Specifically, Izumikawa points to Japan’s unwillingness to provide security regionally as a major driver for the US to maintain a strong security-oriented presence based on the multiple bilateral agreements.

To me, Izumikawa’s dismissal of these other theories seems a bit too convenient, as what appears more likely, was that all factors played a role up to a certain level, while perhaps the US’ early ambition to establish multilateral cooperation was abandoned for the lack of feasibility. To me, Katzenstein, Acharya, Dufeld and Cha all make valid points. However, not one of their justifications would likely have been the sole reason for failed multilateral agreements, so shortly after the war.

Either way, none seem to put much emphasis on the relative lack of integration of East Asian states, after the second world war, as well as the vastly different geographical scale, compared to mainland Europe; East Asia has no relevant micro nations, distances are much larger, economic integration at the time was insignificant.
All these could count as justifications for national leaders to not pursue close multilateral integration, so having little choice but to deal with the de-facto regional hegemon at the time, the United States. 

Volt’s political flavour

I’m following a class at Harvard, on The Governance and International Politics of World Regions. I have to write a number of articles for this course, each connected to a particular class, also meaning each connected to a particular region.
One of the articles we had to read for the class on ‘Europe’, included a concept and context that was new to me: disobedient euroscepticism.
The class dovetailed with an emerging minor scandal in Dutch politics, but major, within the political party Volt, new to Dutch parliament, and the party I had voted for in the most recent elections.

Specifically, I voted for the party’s number 2, a Dutch citizen of Turkish decent, Nilüfer Gündoğan, formerly a member of the party I mostly used to vote for, D66.

In a very badly managed dispute, which has only escalated since, Gündoğan was kicked out of the party. Whether justified or not, Volt’s approach was, at best, disappointing, proof of blatant incompetence, but also strongly in opposition to Volt’s self-professed ideals around transparency.

I figured that a closer look at the politics of Volt seemed appropriate as the focus of an article for my class.

Volt’s position in Europe

In Plan B for Europe: The Birth of ‘Disobedient Euroscepticism’?, Vladimir Bortun identifies a previously unclassified type of Euroscepticism, borne out of a series of conferences bringing together Radical Left Parties (RLP), pursuing two, seemingly opposing, strategies: EU reform from within or, failing that, departure from the EU with the establishment of alternate, pan-European, power structures.

The political party Volt Europa (Volt) was established around the same time as the birth of ‘Plan B’, and positions itself as a decidedly pro- and pan-European party. 

Here, I will attempt to identify where Volt’s position on Europe fits in Bortun’s classification, and where on the left/right spectrum they fall.

Classification and the current situation

Bortun expands on earlier classifications in relation to Euroscepticism, specifically as set out by Dan Keith in Opposing Europe, Opposing Austerity. Bortun ads a fourth strain of Euroscepticism, ‘Disobedient Euroscepticism’. The four strands are listed in the table below.

Disobedient Euroscepticism came out of a series of conferences attended by RLP from a number of European countries, with perhaps its most prominent proponent Yanis Varoufakis, a former Greek finance minister, representing SYRIZA. Disobedient Euroscepticism has two strands: It supports future European integration, only provided that practices changes. Otherwise, it promotes the idea of an exit from the EU, but through alternative, more typically leftist, integrations of member states.

Bortun himself questions the viability of this newer movement, as did at least some leftist media, in part because the founding parties are mostly irrelevant in European, and national, politics. However, Varoufakis’ enduring popularity, the broad enough appeal of his newer political endeavours, MeRA25 and DiEM25, the overwhelming pro-Europe vote for Brexit in younger generations, Volt’s own narrative and growth (80 representatives throughout Europe), as well as recent electoral success on the left, in Portugal, and recent reports of electoral growth on the radical left, as reported by Downes et al, Wagner, Tharoor, and others, suggests that the leftist narrative on the scope of European integration has not yet seen its final form.

Volt’s position

With a pro-European agenda and electoral successes in a number of countries, it’s worthwhile to identify what exact flavour of Euroscepticism Volt represents. At minimum for clarity’s sake, but also perhaps to identify the pan-European political camp with which Volt can be associated.

On the Volt website, the organisation positions itself through six agendas: Smart State, Economic Renaissance, Social Equality, Global Balance, Citizen Empowerment, EU Reform. 

It’s immediately obvious that Volt is not rejectionist. Expansion of their six challenges explicitly states that “we want to reform and strengthen EU governance”. Because there is no mention of leaving the EU, or the Eurozone, in favour of some alternative pan-European cooperation, Volt can firmly be classified as displaying expansionist euroscepticism. That is, a desire for stronger, and somehow better, integration between member states. The Volt website explicitly states they pursue a ‘federal Europe’.

This leaves the question as to where on the political left/right spectrum Volt positions itself. Volt was founded in 2017 by Andrea Venzon, Colombe Cahen-Salvador and Damian Boeselager. Boeslager worked for McKinsey for three years, Venzon for two. Volt’s Dutch top candidate in its national elections, Laurens Dassen, worked for ABNAMRO for six years. Both ABNAMRO, a leading Dutch bank, and McKinsey, are typically associated with more neoliberal practices, favouring the elite at the cost of the working- or middle classes, so Volt’s political stance seems a reasonable question.

Close inspection of Volt’s policies, both reported on their own website and in media publications, point to a decidedly left-leaning political position, some reaching further than many other parties on the left; favouring the green economy, a European minimum wage, a more integrated European tax system, increased spending on welfare, support of LGBT+ rights, common management of migration, and defence, as well as a review of Europe’s position within NATO.

Volt currently has national representation in the Netherlands and Bulgaria. Parliamentary voting results for The Netherlands are publicly available, but the source currently does not accept new access requests for API access, which would allow for deep analysis. However, existing research exists, showing strong correlations between Volt and other Dutch leftist political parties (SP, PvdA, GL, Bij1, PvdD) and significant differences with rightist political parties (PVV, FvD, JA21).

On a European level, Volt’s representative in the European Parliament, Damian Boeselager, is part of The Greens/European Free Alliance, composed primarily of green and regionalist political parties. This matches Volt, on a European level, with the Dutch Groen Links and the Czech Pirate Party. Groen Links is also the Dutch party with which they have had the largest commonality in Dutch parliamentary voting.

Conclusion

Volt is a politically leftist party, displaying expansionist Euroscepticism.

The cashew tree of the parrots

The name ‘Aracaju’ derives from the Tupi for ‘the cashew tree of the parrots’. The town is the capital of the smallest Brazilian state, Sergipe. In the northeast of the country, it’s the southernmost of the series of small states above Bahia, the large state with Salvador as its capital.

Far from the economic centers of the country, these states don’t quite look towards São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro for their cultural references, meaning they have a more unique individual character that’s also not well known outside of the region.

One trope we encountered a number of times were ‘parafusos’, or ‘screws’. Black men, with whiteface, dressed in white layered dresses, topped by a conical hat. They’re called ‘screws’ because they do a dance in which they spin around.

Supposedly, this goes back to a story where black men, slaves, dressed as women in order to escape their servitude. But you’d be excused to be reminded of something else; their look, and their dances, are very similar to those of Turkish dervishes.

In a country of beaches, the beaches of Aracaju are stunning. Extremely wide, clean, sandy, lined by a broad strip of dunes. And quiet. 

Multiple times, when going for a swim, we drank beers on the beach, from plastic cups that were inserted in to small glasses. When we asked why they served the glasses this way, the response, consistently, was “it’s good, no?”, without being told the exact reason.
Either way, the glass doesn’t get blown away, and the cup is not previously used. Perhaps that’s it?

Nearby, the previous capital of Sergipe is Sao Christovão, where the main square is a world heritage site for its colonial and religious architecture.

Another claim to fame is that the town, Sao Christovão, was a stopover for the Portuguese king, on his escape from Portugal, when fleeing in advance of the armies of Napoleon.

A full day’s excursion gets you to the far corner of the state, to Xingo, where the creation of an artificial lake has created a navigable canyon with some stunning views.

It’s also fairly close to a somewhat famous submerged modernist church in the town of Petrolandia. But, that one will have to wait for another day.

Also interesting, the city has several very good ice cream parlours. Staffed by deaf people.

Short story: I’m a skeleton

As part of Natalia and my ‘year at Harvard‘ (still remote), we are following a writing class with the wonderful Anne Bernays.

Recently, our assignment was writing a ‘skeleton story’, one of the assignments that’s also in her book What If?, containing exercises for budding writers.

Here are the rough requirements of a skeleton story:

  • The action takes place immediately.
  • The main character wants something, making the reader want it to.
  • The story is concrete, not abstract.
  • There’s an obstacle, which has to be something tangible.
  • The main character overcomes the obstacle through something like magic.
  • There’s a conclusion.

In addition, we were giving 550 words to write the story.

This was not my first exercise, but this one flowed from my hands like blood from the wounds of a haemophiliac, so to speak. It was fun to write, and I believe it’s fun to read, if you get at least some of the references.

Ada and Guido

“You remind me of the babe.”

“What babe?”

“The babe with the power.”

“What power?”

“The power of voo…”

With one slash of her sword, Ada chopped off the head of the self-proclaimed Goblin King. She would have played his game for longer, if it weren’t for his horrible David Bowie references. No-one messes with David Bowie.

She picked up the orbs-of-clarity he was playing with, and, their power rushing through her, immediately knew what she needed to do next; Slay Guido the Python, and collect the next-js compiler, without passing through Start, first.

Ada sheathed her trusted sword, and started running down the Goblin King’s mountain of code. She knew Guido, and she knew him well. After critical acclaim for his work, decades ago, Guido had more recently joined the dark side. First with Google, which had just come out of it’s “Don’t be evil” phase, but now with, she would never be able to get over it, Microsoft. Worse, Guido had started wearing the t-shirts of Doom, invoking that hated Windows95 catch phrase, “Start me up”. 

She had not expected to have to deal with Guido this soon, but the orbs-of-clarity left no doubt about it; Guido needed to be slain. The next-js compiler needed to be safeguarded from Guido’s abuse and bring programmatic peace to the world, finally heralding the true age of write-once-run-anywhere. 

Ada would prevail.

Increasing her pace, Ada ran past the pits of VB-Basic, took a left turn at the bowels of Shell, and was approaching the pointers of Pascal. She expected Guido to be just around the edge, right behind the Sea of PlusPlus. But, Guido had sniffed out her speed run, managing to surprise Ada by inserting a breakpoint in her rolling approach.

Ada, though, was quick to respond.

“You think you can stop me, Guido?”

“I don’t think, Ada. I know. You are no match for my compiler!”

“Let’s find out, Guido.”

Ada started clearing Guido’s breakpoints, much faster than Guido had anticipated. But, the next-js compiler he had brought softened the blow; quickly inserting strings where there had been floats, he managed to wrong-foot Ada, but only temporarily.

“I understand your strategy, Guido. You are doomed.”

“Never!” And Guido inserted what he thought was a surefire way to stop Ada from advancing; the Dropbox DDOS would surely stop Ada in her tracks.

“Haha, Guido! I knew you would rely on your shady past at Dropbox. I came prepared!”

Ada reached into her vest pocked and grabbed the bundle of CloudFlares she had been hiding there all this time.

“Take that, you snake!” And threw the almost invisible flares at Guido. They hoovered between the two of them, mitigating Guido’s advances, before completely extinguishing his attack.

Surprised, Guido fell back on his Dutch vernacular. “Nee, niet de cloud flares….”, but was only just able to finish his sentence. The flares had done their job. Guido was no more.

Ada picked up the next-js compiler. 

“At last, I can finally build my own web apps!”

The return to the cheese

Natalia came down, from worldly Boston, to humble Carapicuiba, to spend the Christmas break in warmer climes. We both got COVID, though not from each other, and spent a week in Minas Gerais. For one, we revisited Alagoa, the cheese capital of Brazil, and then went on a larger cheese-hunting trip. Successfully.

We ended in Ouro Preto, a lovely and lively colonial town in the middle of Minas Gerais, and made a stopover in Congonhas, a World Heritage Site for its church and square.

On the trail of the Iran-Contras

Costa Rica is one of the original banana republics, together with Honduras and Guatemala. Virtually fiefdoms of the United Fruit Company (UFC), later rebranded to Chiquita, perhaps in part to more easily wash away the bad taste their neocolonialist practices had left behind, these countries were ruled like large scale corporate towns, where the Jeff Bezosses of their day controlled part and parcel of the lives of those in their… ‘care’.

Funnily enough, the UFC had started with the building and operation of a train line from Costa Rica’s capital, San José, to Limón, on the Costa Rican Caribbean coast. Proving not very successful, but, receiving lots of land as a gift for successfully restructuring the company’s, and the country’s, debt, the company’s director used this land to grow bananas for his workers, which turned out to be a much bigger, and much more reliable, commercial enterprise, as well as source of profits.

So, by 1930, the UFC had become the largest employer in Central America.

In Guatemala, the United fruit company was the largest single landowner, and by 1952, the Guatemalan government started expropriating unused land from the UFC to hand it over to landless peasants.

The company retaliated by lobbying the US government to intervene, painting the democratically elected Guatemalan government as communist.

By now a familiar kind of story, in 1954, the CIA deposed the Guatemalan government and installed a pro-business military dictatorship.

The UFC is the only company known to have a CIA cryptonym, a code word typically used to describe high profile politicians under CIA protection. ‘Renegade’ and ‘Renaissance’ for the Obamas, for example.
That said, the cryptonym was UNIFRUIT, which is really just a shortened version of the name of the company.

Reportedly, the UFC also was working with Batista supporters to overthrow Fidel Castro, who had expropriated some of their farms, too, but had warned that ‘Cuba is no Guatemala’, before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

But, the UFC’s influence in Central American affairs didn’t stop there. The ‘Banana Massacre’, on the Colombian Caribbean coast, ended in the deaths of perhaps 1000s of workers, and, according to some, set the stage for ‘La Violencia’, the ten year Colombian civil war.

Even as late as 2007, UFC’s successor Chiquita pleaded guilty in a United States Federal court to aiding and abetting a Colombian terrorist organization.
Can’t learn an old dog new tricks, or so it seems.

Spheres

Back in Costa Rica, one of my earliest prehistoric fascinations was with the large stone balls (really) of Costa Rica, the Diquís Spheres. 

Back in 1971, Erich von Däniken popularized these, and other spheres from elsewhere around the world, as proof that the gods truly were cosmonauts. Sadly, much of von Däniken’s work has been discredited, though it’s impossible to also prove a negative, but, back then, there was the wonderfully juicy potential of the spheres’ mysterious, proto-civilization’s provenance being true.

Not so. It’s now quite well established that the spheres, fascinating, and still quite a bit mysterious, were made at the hands of the people of the Diquis culture, a pre-Colombian civilization that was wiped off the map with the arrival of the Spanish, another kind of UFC, if you will.
Still, amazingly, there is almost nothing known about why the spheres were created, nor how. Though technically it’s not overly complex to polish pieces of rock, even some 2000 years ago, it’s still incredible to see the near-perfect roundness of the spheres.

In some fairness to von Däniken, it was less than a decade before he published his book, that really only the first, limited, scientific research had come out, on the stones. The slow nascent globalization that had started after the Second World War created a realization of apparent disjoint observations on a global scale having some hidden connection.

And, we are now much clearer on that not all was conjecture, hyperbole, or fake. Just one example being Thor Heyerdahl’s journeys across the oceans as suggestive proof of prehistoric cross-oceanic contact between Asia and the Americas.

In Costa Rica, the stone spheres are regarded as a national symbol and part of the cultural ethos of Costa Rica. It’s good to be all-round, I guess.

One activity to keep you busy while on the road in Costa Rica, is to be on the lookout for stray balls.
There are some 350 identified historical stone spheres throughout the country, and legislation states that, if you are in possession of a stone ball, you do not have to hand it over to the state, but you do have to make it publicly accessible.

At the same time, this is not completely true, perhaps in a similar way as to how Uber is technically illegal, in Costa Rica, but also widely available; one of the locations that are part of the World Heritage Site representing the stone spheres, and the one which contains the largest stone sphere discovered, around 2.6m in diameter, though I’ve also seen a mentioning of 2.9 meters, is on a farm that’s off-limits to visitors.

A Contra legacy

Before visiting the balls, we headed to Manuel Antonio, a popular national park with sloths, capybaras and pretty beaches. 

We missed the sloths, but did find a restaurant who’s central feature is an airplane which, according to the restaurant owners, was used to smuggle weapons into the Nicaraguan jungle as part of the Iran-Contra affair.

How the plane ended up within a restaurant on the Costa Rican coast is a bit of a mystery, as it was shot down some 35 miles within Nicaraguan territory.
The crash’s only survivor, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured, confessed, and started the ball rolling on the Iran-Contra affair. Sentenced to 30 years, he almost immediately received clemency and was shipped back to the US where, oddly, in the 2000s, he was repeatedly arrested for indecent exposure and, for this, even locked up.

This article states that the plane that ended up in the restaurant is actually not the one that was shot down, but one of the other planes used in the operation, which had been idling its time away at San José’s international airport. A much more plausible tale, even if shipping it from the country’s main airport to the restaurant in Manuel Antonio is still no mean feat.

Interestingly, Costa Rica, as has Panama, abolished the military in the late 1940s, after emerging from a civil war. Now, the most populous country without a standing army, at least one advantage has been that the US can not massage the country’s military to foment a coup against any left-leaning government.
And, indeed, Costa Rica has been pretty stable over the last 60 years, taking pride in its long democratic history. They remember the time in which the UFC lorded it over the country, by publicly referring to it as ‘the banana period’.

Of travel and tests

If there is a ‘new normal’, it’s that society is encumbered with an unbalanced fear of the consequences of COVID. Knee jerk reactions, while conveniently ignoring the real risks of particular situations and the half-assed measures to combat them, mean that the COVID response, similar to how the tightenings of security after 9/11 have, is quickly becoming theatre; a real concern is responded to disproportionally with dubious effect.

Particularly, when ‘vaccine’ rates are high, the necessity for also providing a negative COVID test when traveling is, predominantly, just another tax on international travel.
A few weeks after this trip, I went and met Natalia in Costa Rica. To fly back (me to Brazil, she to the US), we both had to get a test, which conveniently we could arrange to have done at the place we were staying at, at only a marginal extra fee. The nurse that took our tests told us that, in the last three months, while doing about a dozen or so tests per day, not a single test had come back positive.
This seems very improbable, but either way shows the pointlessness of requiring a 50 USD negative COVID test for traveling.

Now, for me, this was the first time crossing a border in two and a half years. I had to bring a negative COVID test, a health declaration, proof of vaccination, and a quarantine declaration. But, at least I no longer had to go into self quarantine when arriving in Holland. Even though, apparently, that’s neither been strictly followed by returning travellers, nor strictly enforced. In practice, how could they?

My initial plan was to get tested at the airport, in São Paulo, not really realizing that receiving the results takes several hours to come in. Assuming it would also be more expensive, my second plan was to get tested at this road-side testing booth within cycling distance from home. 

But, as their opening times on weekends were not really clear, I realised I could just get away with getting tested on a Friday afternoon, making that my plan. Except that Friday morning, our cleaner showed up unannounced.

So, Saturday morning, I got myself to a nearby clinic instead, arriving at their door at a rather early 6:30, but on a beautiful day. They could do the test, send over the results in time, but, I eventually discovered, were more expensive than what they charge at the airport. 

If anything, it meant my Saturday was going to be more chill. More time spent with the catties, as well as more time to participate, remotely, in the Wales Photomarathon. It’s uncanny how the cats always can smell something it’s afoot, even before I start packing my bags.

On remote participation in events that were previously presential, the pandemic has been a huge global leveller in opportunities. I find it unlikely that we will return to the same level and perceived necessity of in-person meetings soon, if at all. This is both sad, after the necessity for in-person presence on global projects, beginning in IT, was abandoned years ago, but also fantastic for the chances and opportunities for those in places less well connected, physically, throughout the world. (Though, as a downside, this could actually result in a depression in real wages for jobs that can be executed remotely.)

Back to my trip.
Planned to arrive in time for the World Cup soccer, but delivered late, São Paulo now has a very convenient urban train which connects the city with the airport. 
The whole journey, from our house, by public transport, is perhaps a tad slow, at 2 to 2.5 hours, but you also don’t get stuck in traffic, while traveling by car, at the worst of times, can also take up to 2 hours.
But, perhaps not surprising, very few travelers, noticeable by the lack of luggage on the train, take public transport to the airport. Taxi, or Uber, is still king.

The process of getting airside at the airport underscored that the processes around COVID and travel are a bit of theatre.
Arriving near my check-in desk, the extra in-person check before you queue up, which has been standard practice for years, even if there doesn’t seem to be a real purpose for it, asked me for proof of vaccination and my negative COVID test.
At the check-in desk, I was asked for my negative COVID test and my health declaration, which is in Dutch. Obviously, the clerk could only confirm if this declaration looked ok, him not speaking, or reading, Dutch.
Meanwhile, as all these required documents are just PDFs on my phone, it would be trivial to amend existing documents to make them look valid, and be accepted for travel.

But, one positive change brought on by COVID, is that passengers now consistently show up way too early. Perhaps surprisingly, there seems to be less stress in the air.

Then, arriving in Istanbul, before being allowed to enter the terminal, all passenger passports were checked, by two guys, against a small piece of paper with a short list of names. By the time I was checked, I noticed a number of names had been crossed out. When they saw my Dutch passport, I was waved on.
What (who?) were they looking for?

Inside the huge new Istanbul terminal, a whole one hour of WiFi is free. To get access, you have to swipe your passport at a terminal, which then gives you a voucher.

As ridiculous a money grab that is, perhaps inspired by Schiphol, the Istanbul airport now also has an on-site museum, which is quite a bit more than enjoyable.

On my final flight, I had to fill in two forms, one a vaccine statement, the other a health declaration. These were the same ones I had needed to be able to show to be allowed on the plane in the first place, as particular answers to some of the questions in these forms should bar you from being able to board.
At arrival, no one asked for these documents.

Shock

Before entering the airport in São Paulo, as I was early and it was a beautiful day, I spent time lounging on a grassy patch, close to the train terminal.

When finally heading to my terminal, then, from entering the airport, to, some 18 hours later, leaving the arrivals area of Amsterdam airport, I had been wearing face masks non-stop. (Kudos to Turkish Airlines, which provides a ‘sanitary packet’ with alcohol wipes, alcohol gel, and multiple masks.)
In Amsterdam, walking through the sliding doors and entering the public, but covered, space, of Schiphol, literally no one was wearing a face mask. And it took another three days before I would see anyone wearing one. In São Paulo, and Brazil in general, pretty much everyone, in-doors, wears a face mask.

Silly walks

One momentous event during my trip to Holland was that the management team behind walk · listen · create physically met for the first time since we started working together some three years ago, in Eindhoven. Andrew flew from London, Geert took a bus from around Brugge, and I took a train from Delft.
Appropriately, one of the quirky sites in Eindhoven is a ‘silly walks tunnel’, a tunnel with murals depicting John Cleese doing his famous skit. We posed with John.

The end of an era

Besides seeing my mum for the first time in 18 months, the last time her visiting Brazil, just at the start of the pandemic, I also finally, formally, emigrated from The Netherlands. I am now officially, and only, a resident of Brazil.

In which I extricate myself from Facebook

I’ve been eyeing leaving Facebook for a long time. A challenge if you also use Facebook professionally. That is, if you are involved in the managing of Facebook pages that represent businesses.

But, early October, I decided that enough was enough. I announced I would try and get my Facebook profile to ‘go dark’, while, at least for the time being, keeping my Facebook page alive, while still able to access other pages I manage.

First, some good news. A while ago (years?) I had downloaded the data Facebook had on me, and was not overly impressed, nor shocked, for that matter. Now, the same process also allowed for transferring some of your data to other services, including Google Photos, Dropbox, Blogger, and others.

The copy of my data which I requested, of all my data, told me this was going to be all data between January 1, 2004, and October 7, 2021. It arrived just a few days later, surprisingly small, at some 250MB.
While waiting, I deleted all pending friend requests and removed all ‘people I may know’. The latter, as a list of suggestions, keeps coming back, but either process was easy.

Then, I went and unfollowed all my friends. This was trickier, as the list of friends Facebook now presents you with, requires you to click on a menu for each friend, where there is an ‘unfollow’ button. But, there’s a Chrome extension that is your friend for this. You might want to get it while it’s there.

This process was a bit glitchy. Some friends and pages required multiple removals.

Next was to make sure group notifications would also no longer show in my feed. This, I could only do for groups I had not joined as a page (but with my personal account). For those I had joined as a page, the ‘off’ option was available, but did not work.
Yet, when I was done, notifications of pages I had joined as a page also no longer seemed to show up.

I then left all groups I could not join as a page.

I locked down my profile and posts to friends-only. This seemed to not fully work, as I still received a friend request after having done so.

Now, my feed was quiet, but not empty. A few groups needed to be left a few times extra, a few ads showed up, and, oddly, a few posts notifying me that some people had posted on other people’s posts, neither of whom I was now following. And, after a note saying “You’re All Caught Up For Now”, a bunch of regular posts by friends, which I suspect was some caching artefact.
On mobile, my feed was already completely empty. Such bliss!

A few interesting (enough) takeaways from my data download:

  • Facebook claims I’ve only interacted with 3 advertisers.
  • 1183(!!!) advertisers uploaded a contact list which included my details. This included a few obvious ones, like 500px and Amazon, but also a large number of car brands (Alfa Romeo, Audi, Mercedes Benz, etc., all split up in multiple branches, identified by their geographical location, on a municipal level). The car sellers were the majority of the 1183 advertisers.
  • Going through the websites and apps I had logged into, using Facebook, was like going on a trip to memory lane. As was ‘posts from apps and websites’.
  • My ‘off Facebook’ activity was surprisingly limited. Either Facebook is holding back information, or my Facebook-shield and ad-blocking has been working well.
  • My first comment on Facebook dates back to 15/05/2007, 10:04:45.
  • Oddly, apparently, my first LIKE dates back to only 28/04/2009, 14:26:17.
  • The first event I posted, I posted on 28/07/2013, 05:57:23.
  • I have removed one friend, ever. The name of whom I do not recognise.
  • There’s an entry on ‘secret groups’, but it contains no data.
  • I was ‘poked’ four times. The first time on 07/02/2012, 20:32:07, the last on 16/10/2015, 08:39:41.
  • I’m matched with 160 ‘ad interests’. They are mostly somewhat appropriate, though some are wildly off the mark, like “Tarot”, “Christian hip hop”, “Wrestling”, “Hilo, Hawaii”, and “American football”.
  • My ‘friend peer group’, apparently, is “Established Adult Life”.
  • My oldest recorded search dates back to 16/10/2015, 08:39:41.
  • I’ve got an entry for ‘Account deactivated’ on 10/04/2021, 04:02:08, which makes no sense to me.
  • My oldest post dates back to 14/01/2004, 06:00:00. Though I suspect some backdating might be involved.
  • I’ve put a total of 10442 posts onto Facebook.
  • The export of all my data does not contain nearly as much information as what I can access through Facebook itself. For one, the data on content posted from other websites is only metadata.

I made a compilation of all my (direct) Facebook posts, ever, and a compilation of all my Facebook posts made from apps and websites.

I then wanted to delete all my personal Facebook posts. Facebook has a page where you can manage your posts, but bulk deletes were not available to me, only the ability to delete posts one at-a-time. Besides that, pages that provide Facebook users to manage their content are awfully buggy, regularly not working for me at all.

Then, I discovered this plugin, which helps you to delete your stuff. But, it doesn’t work. There’s another one, which is a bit glitchy, though at least in part Facebook is to blame for that, but, mostly, works. But, is not free. I paid the 5 USD.
Seeing it work, simulating human interaction in the browser to circumvent Facebook’s restrictions on bulk-deleting content, removing my 10000+ posts, was awfully satisfying.
Well. I did so in short batches, interspersed with glitches.
All in all, it took a few days of background processing, regularly restarting the deletion process, to trash all posts to my personal profile. And, eventually, I found the sweet spot at slowing down the automation by a factor of 2.5, to minimise Facebook hiccupping on the deletes.

This process also showed that, on the face of it, Facebook does not include all my Facebook posts in my export; According to the plugin deleting my posts for me, just in 2013 it deleted over 10000 of my posts. With, according to my Facebook export, my having posted a total of some 12000 times, one of the two can not be correct.

A week, or so, after I thought I had removed all my posts, some that had been deleted returned, showing that Facebook’s tools for deleting your own content are not only buggy, but also unreliable, first reporting success, then proving failure.
Caching and synchronising can do funky stuff to your data, but Facebook is not a one-man operation. They should do better. (Then again, no one doubts that latter statement.)

I then went on to remove all my comments. These were not part of my Facebook export. This was process was slow, and, often, individual comments needed to be removed multiple times before they were actually removed.

Not really a surprise, but still annoying; earlier this year, I deleted my Instagram account. All my Instagram photos were still on Facebook.

Being tagged in other people’s posts and comments is not something you can delete. But, you can hide this. There appears to exist no automation for this. I gave up on trying to achieve this.

I can apparently delete my posts on other’s timelines, but also other’s posts on my timeline. This probably explains why neither were in my Facebook export. It also means ownership of these kinds of posts is not obvious; it seems both parties can remove this content, while Facebook does not consider either the owner.

Next was unfriending everyone.

Facebook also makes this a painfully slow process.
There are a few plugins that claim to be able to automate this, but I didn’t consider them trustworthy enough. So, I spend an hour or two unfriending my 1500, or so, friends.

In the process, I found that an estimated 3-5% of my friends had, at some point, deleted their own Facebook profile, with a few more who had clearly just stopped using the platform altogether.
Those that have blocked me, even if I never unfriended them, do not show up in this list.

Now, I was as free of Facebook as I could be, without actually deleting my Facebook account.

More Facebook malarky

Early in the year, I was asked to participate in a paid Facebook user study. Specifically, I was interviewed to discuss potential upcoming functionality changes and possibilities for changes to the UI, related to event promotion. I had to sign an NDA, so, my lips are (somewhat) sealed.

Before agreeing, I was told that I would be paid 100 USD, or the equivalent in my country. Turns out, this did not mean the equivalent in my currency, but a value connected to some kind of indexing against purchasing power. I was offered 85 USD. An annoyance.

Then, the payment was made available through an online platform that is exactly designed for these kinds of things, giving you credit, then allowing you to redeem the credit for gift cards. I’ve gone through this in the past, and this is really just an annoyance, as typically you can only redeem your credit at a limited number of retailers, in a limited number of jurisdictions.

I suspect this is designed to avoid taxation in one way or the other.

Surprisingly, this one seemed a bit better, as, besides transferring my balance to a bunch of charities, I could also redeem my balance in virtual Visa cards. 

But, exchanging my balance for virtual Visa cards meant the Visa card was issued on yet another platform.
When I had jumped through those hoops, I was told that “This card can be used everywhere Visa® debit cards are accepted.” A seemingly positive note.

So, I went and added this balance to my Apple App Store credit. Only to be told that “The payment card you entered is not valid in Netherlands”. Another annoyance.

I figured that, as I was expecting to move to the US, I’d wait and use the money over there. This would be a somewhat tight fit, as the validity of these virtual Visa cards was only 6 months, expiring shortly after I was set to arrive.
Yet another annoyance.

I didn’t move to the US, but Natalia did. So, I used the virtual card to order goods off Amazon and have them sent to her address. To discover that, with the limited value of these cards, Amazon has no way to max them out, then charge more through a separate payment method, meaning that the only way to redeem these on Amazon (and, presumably, other platforms), is to order something that costs less than the value of these virtual cards, and give up on the remainder. Yet another annoyance.

Wales photomarathon 2021

I blame, or should I say ‘thank’, COVID; people crave social outdoors activities, but congregating still is a problem. So, not only does it seem more photomarathons are being scheduled, they are also more often ‘online’.

In August, I participated in the Denmark photomarathon. Due to prior commitments, I couldn’t participate in the Vienna photomarathon, also in September, and a photomarathon in Cyprus was, somewhat surprisingly, in-person.

Not so the Wales Photomarathon. Virtual, and only six hours. And although this was scheduled for the day I was flying to Europe from Brazil, as I had to get up early to get myself a COVID test in order to be allowed to fly, I figured I’d have enough time on my hands anyway.

The rules were a bit fungible; it was not explicitly stipulated that photos had to be shot in sequence, and no mention was made of whether image manipulation was allowed.
I shot the images in sequence, which I believe is paramount for participating in a photomarathon. But, realities as they are, I did touch up the images I shot; I cropped them, rotated a few a bit, and adjusted some colors. One of them, quite obviously, I threw through a somewhat bigger wrangler.

Turnaround was amazingly quick. Just four days later, winners were announced and all submissions were made available through a group exhibition at the National Library of Wales. (Where, it seems, they switched my submissions for themes 2 and 3, but, hey.)

Another year, another WSA

The World Summit Awards selects and promotes local digital innovation to improve society. It’s an international platform for cutting edge examples of how ICTs can impact society in a positive way.

Back in 2012, I won the award in the Culture & Tourism category for Dérive app, together with Eduardo Cachucho. In 2017, I won it again, for The Museum of Yesterday, this time with Agência Pública.

After that, I became part of the online jury, pre-selecting the world’s submissions into a shortlist from which the year’s winners are selected.

Last year, or rather, this year, the yearly WSA conference moved online. I was hoping that next year’s conference, with this year’s winners, would see a return to a physical gathering. But, sadly not.
On the other hand, the online conference this year was quite well put together, and makes the event much more inclusive. On top of that, flights no longer having to be purchased for the many attendants, it’s probably also a much cheaper affair.

The activist in me advocates for completely moving this online. The traveler in me is sad for it.

Last year’s submissions did not suffer from the COVID pandemic, surely because, by the time submissions needed to have been wrapped up, COVID restrictions had not yet wreaked havoc on society at large.
This year, however, the effect is palpable. The total amount of submissions for this year has noticeably dropped, with particularly the Culture & Tourism category suffering.
Understandable, as travel has taken the biggest hit because of the pandemic.

Nevertheless, there are several interesting submissions this year. Here are the projects I would like to see in this year’s shortlist. There are other nice enough submissions, but these particularly stood out, in one way or the other.

  • MyWonderbird (Lithuania)
    A kind of Tinder for local travel, with the added feature that you can have the app generate a walking route along places you are interested in visiting.
  • Rutopia (Mexico)
    A concierge travel service, matchmaking you with operators throughout Mexico, where the operators are hyperlocal providers who are so small they rely on Rutopia as a service provider, unlocking otherwise inaccessible experiences.
  • Jooki (Belgium)
    A portable speaker designed for kids, which they operate with NFC-based physical tokens.
  • Placecloud (Netherlands)
    Location based podcasts. Yes, that’s right, Placecloud is the Dutch submission to this year’s WSA. Fingers crossed.
  • The live green co (Chile)
    The user-facing company for an AI engine which claims to be able to identify plant-based alternatives for industrial and animal ingredients used in the large-scale production process of foods.
  • Stobi VR (North Macedonia)
    An immersive VR experience, designed to be consumed in an amphitheatre in North Macedonia, which recreates a gladiator battle in front of your eyes.

The winners will be announced, probably, in January next year.
They will battle to take home the ‘Champion’ trophy.

The 900km train ride into the Amazon

As in the US, the automobile lobby all but killed rail-based infrastructure in Brazil. Very few cities have urban train networks, the only tram I’m aware of is a modern one, in Rio, though plenty of older towns carry the scars of ancient trams, including the city I was now traveling from, São Luís.

Intercity trains are virtually absent. Throughout the country, a very small number of trains still run, but these are primarily a tourist attraction. The easiest accessible of these is the weekend train that runs between downtown São Paulo and the village of Paranapiacaba, from where the Brits ran much of the train network in the state of São Paulo. Here, the train station has a clock tower which was designed as a scaled-down replica of the tower of Big Ben.

But, there is at least one intercity train service that does run, even if it’s a fairly recent addition.

Vale, a large mining company, runs a huge iron mine, the largest in the world, close to the town of Parauapebas, in the state of Pará. To get the ore out, they transport the material by train, to the coast, at São Luis, which has the second deepest port in the world. Also, three times a week, it runs a passenger train in each direction, over the 900km stretch of tracks.

Reminding me of some more distant Russian settlements, the train station is sone 10km out of São Luis. And, also similar, when I got myself to the train station to buy a ticket, I found the station closed, and was told by a street sweeper that I had to get my tickets from a small office in town, instead.

Earlier, back home, I had tried to buy my tickets online, several times, but each time, the purchasing process failed, even before entering any payment details, which could point to the train no longer running.

A phone call proved otherwise. “How do I buy tickets”, I asked. “Online”.

Or in São Luis.

Two types of tickets are available, the cheaper one of which was sold-out when I got my ticket. 

On the train, curious as to the difference between the two classes, as half the seats were kept empty because of COVID, I was not able to check the lower class trains, as passengers were disallowed from roaming, also because of COVID.

The food wagon, was also off-limits, though had been replaced by a fairly smoothly operating rolling cart with cheap and decent foods, and staff taking orders for lunch and dinners, serving very reasonable food at very reasonable prices.

The train ride itself was pleasant enough, the layout and fixtures of the train striking me as having a strong resemblance with many common German trains. It’s a real loss that Brazil does not have a trans-national rail network. It would be an economic boom for the country.

A decade ago, there was a white-elephant promise of building a high speed rail connection between São Paulo and Rio, in time for the World Cup. It’s hard to imagine a rail connection, along much of the Atlantic coast, to not be financially viable. But, car is king.

The train trip is long, uneventful, and on time, and with very monotonous views from the windows. Almost all train stations are in the middle of nowhere, making it extra amazing that passengers get on and off at every stop. Where do they come from? Where do they go?

The train’s air conditioning is maxed, requiring people to wear sweaters, with several wrapped in blankets. Meanwhile, outside, the temperature is trying to reach 40 degrees.

The journey starts at dawn and ends close to midnight. I never appreciate arriving in a place I don’t know after dark, or worse, in the middle of the night. But, sometimes you don’t have a choice.

My most fascinating late arrival was in Murmansk, in summer. The weather was overcast, the flight was a rocky ride, navigating through the clouds, until we went in for the landing. Dipping below the clouds, the sun was shining, it was the middle of the white nights.

But, in Parauapebas, at night, any day of the year, the sun does not shine. However, perhaps to compensate, the street lights are bright.

Parauapebas’ train station, like all stations along the line, is quite away from town.
Before boarding, I had asked my hotel how to get from the train station to the hotel. “In that place and at that time [midnight], you will have to take a taxi” it would cost about 70 BRL and would be on the meter.

Plenty of passengers on the train we’re going to the end of the line, which was a good sign, but it still could mean anything. Perhaps there were only going to be a few taxis, perhaps everyone was going to be picked up by family.

I was one of the first to leave the train, being welcomed by many, many, private cars, heavy beats, and, just outside of the train station, many taxi drivers offering rides, as well as two buses. 

The buses were going to nearby towns, 50-100km away, and all taxis were shared; four people per taxi at 30 BRL each. 

Eventually, my taxi was one of the last ones to leave, but then, the formula-one ride to my hotel revealed a well lit, clean and neat town. A small surprise, as towns that spring up on the edge of large mines run by big international companies often have a certain seediness hanging over them.

My room was tiny. No cupboards, no hooks to hang anything on, and a single bed. But, WiFi and breakfast.

Because of the iron ore mine, Parauapebas, and the nearby town of Marabá are reasonably prosperous.
In a referendum held in 2011, the residents of the entire state of Pará were asked to vote on a proposal to split the state into three new states: Carajás in the southeast, which would contain Parauapebas, Tapajós in the west, and a rump Pará in the northeast, containing the state capital Belém. Voting was highly polarised regionally, with citizens of the two future states heavily voting in favour of separation. But, as Belém and its surrounding area comprise over half the population of the original state, the proposal had no chance of passing.

Parauapebas is a capable little town. It’s neatly organised, has several very decent places to eat and drink, and a lovely river on its edge that’s not really utilised for its views, except by one cafe and, yes, brew pub. 

The nearby tiny airport is inside a national park. You need to purchase authorization to enter. Though not if you take the bus to the airport.
My 30 minute stopover was in Brasilia, where I wolfed down a double quarter pounder, only just managing to catch my connecting flight home.

Sand in my ears, and everywhere else

Lençóis Marenhenses has a bit of a legendary status for Brazilians. Mention it to almost anyone, and they’ll start to swoon. It’s pretty, yes, but not completely unparalleled.

‘Lençois’ is a national park, within striking distance of São Luís, and is filled with rolling white dunes as far as the eye can see. Then, with the rains starting in January, the valleys of the dunes fill up with lakes, until the water evaporates, typically towards the end of September. Before the pools dry up, this can make for some stunning scenery.

In fact, so stunning that, for two Avengers movies, the dunes were cast as the scenery of some planet.

In the last few decades, a thriving tourist industry has sprouted up around this. Though some people do live very close to the park, the urban base for visiting Lençois is the town of Barreirinhas, a five hour drive from Sao Luis.

I visited during a long weekend, close to Brazil’s Independence Day celebrations, and as a consequence, the busses traveling between Sao Luis and Barreirinhas were fully booked, though this might at least in part be because the amount of daily busses is very limited.

Because of the latter, besides the semi-public bus service, there are also private vans, as well as private cars that shuttle between the two cities. I found this odd, as the long-distance bus network is very well developed in Brazil, and well priced, typically obviating the need, or even commercial viability, for private, small-scale, operators on long distance routes.

The manager of my hotel in Sáo Luís had arranged for one of the private vans to pick me up from my accommodation. With the bus station being on the edge of town, and my travelling on a Sunday, the higher price seemed justified.

Except, the van never showed. When called, 2 minutes after they were supposed to have picked me up, and some 30 minutes since I had been waiting, they claimed they had come to the door, knocked, shouted, and found no one answering. Apparently while I was hanging out of one of the front windows, admiring the street, exactly where the van was supposed to have been.

I then managed to get myself to the long-distance bus station, where I found the two bus companies doing the trip to Barreirinhas, only to find all four busses for that day booked. Private vans apparently left from in front of the bus station, but, a hustler trying to arrange this, by now it was still only around 8:30am, quickly gave up, as he could no longer scrounge up a van. He asked if a car was fine, instead, but he couldn’t get one of those either.

I had to get myself to a prominent roundabout, about two kilometres away, from where private cars might still be leaving for Barreirinhas. Might, because it was already getting ‘late’, it was already approaching 9am, after all.

But, I got myself to the roundabout, while during my walk, a cyclist warned me for thieves coming in from the woods I was walking alongside of, squeezed myself into a car with three other passengers and lots of luggage, and we were off.

The cost of the car is twice the cost of the regular busses, with the cost of the vans holding middle ground between the two. The vans have the feature that they pick you up and drop you off wherever you want, but if you’re the first to be picked up, and the last to be dropped off, this can add a solid chunk of time to your journey.

Then, in Barreirinhas, the hostel I had booked, via AirBNB, claimed they had no record of my booking. Unlikely, also because one has to pay AirBNB before receiving confirmation. However, the ‘hostel’ no longer operated, the household’s matriarch now running a pousada in town. Instead, someone else had hijacked their listing on AirBNB, and was now renting it out, without actually managing the place.

Still, she eventually, and thankfully, relented. Someone was kicked out of their room, and I was given an adequate-enough room to stay.
The house’s odd feature was perhaps a pet chicken that ran throughout the kitchen area of the house, but didn’t let itself be petted. The next morning, the chicken was pecking at my feet. Perhaps I was not quite as welcome as I thought? But, with Independence Day, it would have been completely impossible to find any other accommodation, anywhere, so I was thankful enough.

The town has a huge rogue dune, smack in the middle of town, almost hanging over the buildings, as if it’s about to eat the town, whole. I could have slept on its beach, perhaps, but that didn’t strike me as wise.

The town, Barreirinhas, and the national park, both reminded me of Alter do Chao, a kind of Caribbean hotspot in the middle of the Amazon. Visitors come because it’s known for the natural beauty, and end up partying, eating, drinking, dancing, with every street corner providing pounding loud music.

It’s not surprising, but interesting, to experience the absence of foreign tourists in a highly popular tourist destination like this. Lençóis is no Rio de Janeiro, quite off the beaten track, but it’s quite popular.

The oldest whipping post in the country

Across the bay from São Luís is the hamlet of Alcântara. It has the dubious distinction of being the home to the oldest pelhourinho in Brazil.

A pelhourinho is a pillar, typically erected on the central town square, which slaves were tied to, to be publicly flogged; every slave driver’s favourite pastime. So, it’s a whipping post.
For some reason, the former Portuguese colonies have left many of their pelhourinhos standing, almost as a kind of threat, perhaps?

The municipality is also home to a rocket launching center, but that is not getting too much action, even if it’s geographical location, nearly on the equator, is convenient.

The town itself is simple, but clearly manages to survive well enough, though in part that’s because it’s actively being developed as a one-day tourist destination. It’s prominent ruins betray a grander past.

Driving around the bay is not really an option, but possible. The ferry takes some 90 minutes, on choppy waters, but, perhaps depending on the tides, only gives you some two hours in the settlement.

The home of Brazilian reggae

São Luís is the only Brazilian state capital that was founded by the French, as part of what they called Equinoctial France, ‘equinoctial’ because, on the equator, the nights are roughly as long as the days. They had done so, in violation of the the papal bull of 1493, which had divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal.

Either way, though the French did control what is now Rio de Janeiro, which they saw as part of Antarctic France, for some 12 years, São Luís was only under French control for about three years.

The French took over from a local Indian tribe, and built a fort, Saint-Louis de Maragnan, after King Louis XIII as well as his ancestor Louis IX, and the Portuguese conquered the settlement in 1615, three years later.

The Dutch then took control in 1641, but they left, also after only three years, retreating further down the coast, where they centred Dutch Brazil on Recife.

In 1684, at the end of the ‘Beckman revolt’, an uprising against slavery and bad treatment by the Portuguese, the Beckman brothers where hanged, drawn and quartered, before which one of the brothers declared “Pelo Povo do Maranhão morro contente”, or “By the hands of the people from Maranhão, I die happy”. The slogan, today, decorates the main hall of State Council Building, which I find a tad odd, considering it was the Portuguese, the predecessors of the very councillors operating from said building, that did the quartering. 

Perhaps the irony is lost on them. Or perhaps the irony is on purpose?

São Luís went through an economic boom during the American civil war, when it started supplying the UK with cotton, for a while becoming the third most populous city in the country. But, from the end of the 19th century, the city entered a long slide into decay, which as yet, at least for the colonial old town, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, is only slowly turning around, though it is turning around.

Walking through the old town, the buildings seem in a dire state of disrepair, the streets quiet, after dark almost post-apocalyptic, with many of the once-grand buildings either empty, or being occupied by small workshops, copy-shops, a little bar here and there, and perhaps a stationary store or two. 

The old town seems to give off a sense of poverty. The kind, and in a setting that reminds of places like Zanzibar, Channai, or Maputo; a once-rich colonial, or in this case post-colonial, past, where the economic tide has turned and the people occupy the decrepit shells of their former success with shadows of economic activity.

But, things are not quite what they seem. Accommodation prices are surprisingly high. The place I stay at, in the old town, looks a bit shabby on the outside, but inside is gorgeous, resembling, in a way, a North African or Central Asian caravanserai. The owner tells me there are more and more places like his in the old town. And, with the extensive work the municipality is doing on urban regeneration, it’s a safe bet that, in a few years, São Luís will be a solid alternative to Salvador.

The current governor, a socialist, broke 60 years of oligarchic rule, bringing development to the people. And, it is starting to show; From the old market outwards, the city is undergoing lots of renovations, making the town feel like an undiscovered gem.

And how can you not love the bountiful amount of felines. With little heaps of cat food on many street corners. These are my kind of people.

Then again, in the evening, a next door neighbour blasts MPB from what sounds like a tinny cellphone, but the heavy beats make the furniture perceptibly move. On a Tuesday.
And there’s a rather continuous faint smell of pee, hanging in the air.

Yet, money is flowing through the city. The next-door Port of Ponta da Madeira, is the second deepest in the world, after only Rotterdam, and is one of the busiest in the country. A railway transports iron ore from within the Amazon to the coast.

Across the bay, there’s a space center, but this seems to be more a matter of wishful thinking, with only a handful of launches in the last five years.

A fascinating cultural tidbit is that São Luís is the center of Brazilian reggae. The city has the only Reggae museum outside of Jamaica, but it’s closed, even though several of the city’s cultural offerings have been revamped in preparation for the city’s birthday, the showpiece being a set of disco balls (yes, really) in the center of town, which, at night, give the city a truly magical (yes, really) feel.

Odd is the noticeable prevalence of Vietnamese conical hats. The sun, São Luís is close to the equator, can be brutal, but the conical hats I’ve not seen elsewhere in the country.

Denmark Photomarathon 2021

Back in 2005, I participated in the Rotterdam photomarathon. In 2007, I brought photomarathons to Africa, and put together photomarathons in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The general consensus is that Madrid hosted the first photomarathon, back in 1985 (here’s a poster of the second photomarathon in 1986), but Denmark soon followed, in 1989, hosting a photomarathon every year, since.

Last year, I participated, remotely, in the Denmark photomarathon, doing it remotely being a forced requirement because of COVID, though it also meant everyone, anywhere, could participate. But, though I was never notified of this, my submissions were probably disqualified, as, this year, I somewhat accidentally stumbled on the entry requirements, which stipulate limitations I had not considered.

The team behind the Denmark photomarathon could improve their communication plan somewhat, for example by notifying registrants by email, including explaining, oh, say, the rules, but, either way, the essential requirement is that all manipulation of submitted images can only happen ‘pre-click’. That is, anything you want to manipulate, you have to manipulate before recording your image.
So, no post-processing.

This is a nice requirement, as it somewhat captures the idea of shooting analogue, with what you capture with the camera being your actual submission.
On the other hand, since the days of analogue, image manipulation has so become a part of how we consume media, now pretty much exclusively digital, that this is a throwback to different times, and perhaps even anachronistic.

Last year, I post-processed all my submissions, and cropped them to square. This year, I made no adjustments ‘post-click’, and also avoided cropping, all photos being required to be rectangular (which is a tad odd, because even when shooting analog, depending on your camera, you might be shooting in a square format).

What was great about the event, participating in the 24 hour photomarathon, was that, although photomarathons have been held regularly over the last few decades, almost none, if any, host 24 hour events, most max out at 12, with some, like the Canon-sponsored ones in East Asia, at some point only required participants to shoot… three photos.

I shot mine in a time frame of about 15 hours. I woke up at 6:30, with the event having started at 5am (10am in Denmark), and shot my last photo at around 9. Possible, because the final 12 themes were all communicated in one batch.

And, I purposely had scheduled my being in Praia da Pipa, a popular beach resort, some 80km from Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, in Brazil.

A small win

My photo for ‘Endurance’ was picked as the ‘topic winner’.

The largest cashew tree in the world

An important crop in the north of Brazil is cashew.
And, perhaps not so surprising that these things are being tracked, but the largest cashew tree in the world is a known entity, and it’s just a few kilometres from the center of Natal.

This sprawling tree has a circumference of some 500 metres and occupies an area of 7,300 square meters, making it 70 times the size of an average cashew trees. The reason for its sprawl is a genetic mutation; the branches of this tree grow outwards rather than upwards.

Between Ponta Negra, the tourist hotspot of Natal, and the largest cashew tree on the world, there’s a military base that’s occasionally used for rocket launches. Close to the equator, it’s a good spot for jettisoning something into geostationary orbit. But, the entrance area is sedate, the reception building shut down. A few small rockets, and some military equipment, are littered around the parking lot, as a show of intent, perhaps.

The last 20 minutes of the 15km bike ride, on a continuously more and more wobbly bike I had rented from a nearby hostel, I had seen the clouds and drizzle make way for equatorial sunshine. Arriving at the tree, I first enjoyed a fresh coconut, then what is perhaps my favourite juice, cashew (the fruit, or, technically, the pseudo fruit) with milk… made from a packet of processed pulp, with the largest cashew tree in the world within view.
If trees could cry, this one probably would do so regularly.

As unique as the tree is, as limited appears it appeal; the site closes for lunch, early. I arrived five minutes before noon, but the lady at the ticket office had already bolted for her break. 

What I find the funniest of this: the cashew tree is circumscribed by a fence. But, on two sides, including the side you approach the tree on, when coming from Natal, the tree has grown onto the road, taking up literally half of the road itself, along its full perimeter.

In true Brazilian laissez faire style, no one seems to mind; if this is what the tree wants, it should be allowed to do its thing.

On a third side, the municipality built a large overhang, to prevent the tree from spilling onto this road, too. However, in various parts, the tree is now crawling over the overhang, starting to reach down for the road below.

There’s more nature to be had in the city.
After my return from Pipa, I was staying in the very touristy part of the city, but managed to stay away from the crowded beaches.

But, there’s more; Natal has two prominent city parks. The first is on the shore, and preserves the city‘s characteristic dunes. 

The second is a bit inland, and combines the dunes with ‘Atlantic forest’.

This one also contains a significant piece by architect Oscar Niemeyer.
Built in 2008, the year of his 100th birthday, it’s a 45m tall viewpoint, resembling a large single eye on a pillar. 

After the viewpoint was made accessible to the public for several months, it closed in 2009, supposedly due to financial problems, not to open again.

There seems to be a bit of trope, that Niemeyer’s work suffers from a history of not being used to its full potential. For one, Niemeyer‘a ‘Estação Ciência’ in João Pessoa also was not accessible on a recent visit, and when you take a close look at many of his buildings in Brasilia, often they seem in need of some tender lovin’.

But, much of Niemeyer’s work is awfully photogenic.

I entered the park and started taking pictures, and was quickly approached by security; was I taking pictures for myself, or in a commercial context?

Then, minutes later, as I stepped off the trail to get a particularly good angle, I was approached again; I could not stray from the path, supposedly for the many cobras hiding in the vegetation.

Over a barrel for a photomarathon

Pipa, literally ‘kite’, but when the beach was named, the word referred to ‘barrel’, referencing a barrel-shaped rock the Portuguese meant to see on the coast, was a sleepy beach-town until it was discovered by that kind of international travel community which, when it descends on something it likes, turns everything into the uniform, if pleasant, bespoke tourist experience. Whether in Thailand, Turkey, or Brazil.

The beaches are indeed lovely, the water is gorgeous, and, of course, the hotels are boutique, the food nice, the staff multilingual, the imported beer cold.
There’s a Subway, Pipa is lovely, and you have probably been there.

Perhaps the strangest was that, while my visit was still during the pandemic, even though it was a weekend, the shops and restaurants felt at normal capacity. Granted, the vast majority of people were still wearing masks, outside, though not inside, as these were mostly bars and restaurants.

Too busy and too touristy for me, I made sure I had ‘dinner’ by ordering a X-tudo off a street-vendor, adding a beer or two, and heading to the surprisingly quiet, at night, beach.

A X-tudo is pronounced [sheesh-toodo]. ‘Tudo’ means ‘everything’, the sheesh, supposedly, is a bastardisation of ‘cheese’, as Brazilians struggle with the opening sound of the word ‘cheese’.
A X-tudo varies from place to place, but it does tend to have ‘everything’; beef, ham, cheese, bacon, egg, lettuce, and a host of toppings, which can be mushroom, little sticks of potato, more egg, corn, peas, topped off with a range of sauces.

I had come to Pipa to participate in the Denmark Photomarathon.

With the pandemic, the 2020 Denmark photomarathon had moved onto the virtual plane, which had seen the competition receive a healthy number of participants, including myself. This year, still suffering from the pandemic, the competition again was virtual, allowing anyone, anywhere, to participate.

Last year, I ‘did’ the 12 hour marathon. This year, I had opted for the 24 hour event. A tough call, with the last time I participated in a 24 hour photomarathon having been 2005, in Rotterdam.
But, due to the time difference with Copenhagen, 5 hours, and the announced release schedule of individual topics, I had anticipated that I could start late and finish early, resulting in a long day, but without having to skip a night’s sleep on either end.
I was right, and even ended up winning a small prize.