Dispatches from the Empire

Israel Knew Hamas’s Attack Plan Over a Year Ago

The audacity of the blueprint, officials said, made it easy to underestimate. All militaries write plans that they never use, and Israeli officials assessed that, even if Hamas invaded, it might muster a force of a few dozen, not the hundreds who ultimately attacked.

Israel had also misread Hamas’s actions. The group had negotiated for permits to allow Palestinians to work in Israel, which Israeli officials took as a sign that Hamas was not looking for a war.

But Hamas had been drafting attack plans for many years, and Israeli officials had gotten hold of previous iterations of them. What could have been an intelligence coup turned into one of the worst miscalculations in Israel’s 75-year history.


On Pneumatic Tires


Tires are saving us — and killing us, too

Elon Musk Doesn’t Understand What ‘Blackmail’ Means

In general, blackmail is a crime where the criminal demands payment from the victim. It does not involve the criminal refusing to give money to the victim for a service they don’t want. Blackmailing somebody “with money,” as Musk put it, is not a thing.

In general, fuck this guy.

Henry Kissinger, Who Shaped U.S. Cold War History, Dies at 100

Firing Line with Margaret Hoover with guests Cornel West & Robert George

I love these two.

Kidulting is tragic

The opposite to rockism is “poptimism”: successful music is often very good, the thinking goes, and should be treated as such. Poptimism has largely taken over music criticism. Pitchfork, a website once synonymous with snooty taste, went from reviewing Kylie Minogue as an April Fool’s joke to putting her in its “Best Songs of the 2000s” list. A lot of pop music, Kylie included, is very good, and it’s good that it can be properly appreciated. Poptimism can also apply to children’s art: for example, the Studio Ghibli cartoons. Plays based on My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away are currently running or scheduled to run in London, thanks to demand from adults as much as kids. And why not, when the works in question are brimming with soul and subtlety?

But poptimism comes with a bias towards celebration rather than critique, which obsessive fans of stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift zealously enforce. When one Pitchfork writer only deigned to give Swift’s album Folklore an 8/10, she got death threats. Another poptimist assumption is more sinister: that might is right. If millions of people like something, then who are you to disagree? When anyone, from Martin Scorsese down, suggests that filming people in tights against green screens isn’t the pinnacle of cinema, they get called elitists. It just so happens that going along with this non-elitist conception of quality makes a lot of rich people in Hollywood even richer. People have sleepwalked into arguing that the LA executive is more a man of the people than the struggling indie film director.

There are no kidults without poptimism. You can only jump into a ballpark aged 30 without shame if you’ve been warmed up on Harry Potter reruns.

Where I agree and disagree with Eliezer

The broader intellectual world seems to wildly overestimate how long it will take AI systems to go from “large impact on the world” to “unrecognizably transformed world.” This is more likely to be years than decades, and there’s a real chance that it’s months. This makes alignment harder and doesn’t seem like something we are collectively prepared for.

Stewarding Black Worlds

I feel like I have more of a home in geography than in planning, because my work is centered in social and cultural geographies. That’s what planning is missing. I recently jokingly (but actually not) referred to myself as anti-disciplinary. I’m inspired to call myself that because I see the possibilities, the growth, the visibility that emerges in discussion of Black places when we work outside our disciplines. It’s through consideration of cultural landscapes that you become better able to center the humanity and complexity that planning doesn’t comfortably accommodate.

The Unsettling Lesson of the OpenAI Mess

I don’t know whether the board was right to fire Altman. It certainly has not made a public case that would justify the decision. But the nonprofit board was at the center of OpenAI’s structure for a reason. It was supposed to be able to push the off button. But there is no off button. The for-profit proved it can just reconstitute itself elsewhere. And don’t forget: There’s still Google’s A.I. division and Meta’s A.I. division and Anthropic and Inflection and many others who’ve built large language models similar to GPT-4 and are yoking them to business models similar to OpenAI’s. Capitalism is itself a kind of artificial intelligence, and it’s far further along than anything the computer scientists have yet coded. In that sense, it copied OpenAI’s code long ago.

…if the capabilities of these systems continue to rise exponentially, as many inside the industry believe they will, then nothing I’ve seen in recent weeks makes me think we’ll be able to shut the systems down if they begin to slip out of our control. There is no off switch.

Exclusive: OpenAI researchers warned board of AI breakthrough ahead of CEO ouster, sources say

Researchers consider math to be a frontier of generative AI development. Currently, generative AI is good at writing and language translation by statistically predicting the next word, and answers to the same question can vary widely. But conquering the ability to do math — where there is only one right answer — implies AI would have greater reasoning capabilities resembling human intelligence. This could be applied to novel scientific research, for instance, AI researchers believe.

Unlike a calculator that can solve a limited number of operations, AGI can generalize, learn and comprehend.

I really, really, really hope my fears about AI are unfounded.

But we will build it. Humans never don’t build something because it might be dangerous. Nuclear weapons, gain-of function viral research… AI isn’t any different.

But how can we stop it from happening? We can’t prohibit everyone everywhere from building it. It’s inevitable.

I’m a doomer. I’ve long believed that humans will fuck up what we already have because we can’t learn to be content with it. We will do anything other than the hard work of learning to be content with life, to accept that misery and death are parts of it.

That’s all this is, right? Our abiding fear of death being made manifest?

Ironic, then, if it’s our inability to reconcile with death that causes our extinction.

What we’ve learned about the robot apocalypse from the OpenAI debacle

The argument is not that AI will become conscious or that it will decide it hates humanity. Instead, it is that AI will become extraordinarily competent, but that when you give it a task, it will fulfill exactly that task. Just as when we tell schools that they will be judged on the number of children who get a certain grade and teachers start teaching to the test, the AI will optimize the metric we tell it to optimize. If we are dealing with something vastly more powerful than human minds, the argument goes, that could have very bad consequences.

Daring Fireball: Secretive U.S. Surveillance Program Gives Cops Access to Trillions of U.S. Phone Records

Friendly reminder that regular ol’ phone call or green bubble text message is being spied on.

FaceTime, FaceTime Audio, and iMessage are not — they are encrypted.

If an iPhone user needs to communicate with an Android user, download Signal.

Daring Fireball: Background Information on Hemisphere/DAS

Please no more phone calls. FaceTime Audio only.

The location tracking stuff? Sadly unavoidable (if we want to use cell phones). Cell phones cannot work without location triangulation between the nearest cell towers. If you have a cell phone, smart or dumb, your location is being tracked.

And with the legislative mandate that all cellular-capable devices be capable of making emergency calls even if they don’t have a cell account attached to them, every phone, every cellular watch, every cellular-enabled vehicle is trackable.

Privacy is dead. Computers made that all-but-inevitable. But this is not normal.

If we become accustomed to this (which we have), we will have lost something essential to the resistance of tyranny. Let’s hope our government is never run by an autocratic politician with fascist aims.

Secretive White House Surveillance Program Gives Cops Access to Trillions of US Phone Records

…a surveillance program now known as Data Analytical Services (DAS) has for more than a decade allowed federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to mine the details of Americans’ calls, analyzing the phone records of countless people who are not suspected of any crime, including victims. Using a technique known as chain analysis, the program targets not only those in direct phone contact with a criminal suspect but anyone with whom those individuals have been in contact as well.

You’d be a fool to use anything other than FaceTime Audio, Signal, or another encrypted communication service.

No more phone calls.

Apple pushes back against the EU’s Digital Markets Act

Christ, Apple. Have some faith that people use your phones because they’re the best on the market, not because they’re locked into iMessage. 🤦🏼‍♂️

I’m all for security — end-to-end encryption is table stakes at this point, and I won’t use anything without it to meaningfully communicate — but inhibiting innovation solely to protect a monopoly of a marketplace (in this case, the App Store)? C’mon.

Apple, you have the technical expertise to protect people’s data even if they sideload. It won’t be easy, I know, but come on.

Give people a choice.

On the other hand, my work is tech-adjacent and my passions are obviously tech-y. I work with a lot of people — smart, professional people — that don’t know shit about the phones in their pocket, not least of all how to safeguard them.

If smart people can’t be bothered to protect themselves, no doubt sideloading will invite bad actors (i.e. advertisers) to get people to download software that tracks the hell out of them. More than it already does.

So maybe Apple has a point.

But the least they could do is lower their 30% App Store commission. It’s difficult to take anyone arguing the moral high ground seriously when they’re making such an extreme profit from their position.

Jewish Celebrities and Influencers Confront TikTok Executives in Private Call

“What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis,” Mr. Cohen, who does not appear to have an official TikTok account, said early in the call. He criticized violent imagery and disinformation on the platform, telling Mr. Presser, “Shame on you,” and claiming that TikTok could “flip a switch” to fix antisemitism on its platform.

How is everyone liking their corporate rule?

TikTok has real power. Facebook (which owns Instagram) has real power. Google has real power.

This is not okay.

I hate these companies, all of whom, at their heart, are advertising companies. They run social media platforms so they can sell you ads. That’s how they make their money. That’s the whole point.

People want to blame their phones, as I am wont to do at times, but the smartphone is merely a tool. You don’t have to use it for social media.


What on earth are people thinking when they use social media?

Oh right, they’re not thinking — their neurology has been hijacked. They’re addicted.

Children. We let children use TikTok. We’ve let our children become addicts, just like us. How is this okay? Why are we not filled with rage each and every time we see a parent hand over their phone to their child?

Yes, I’m blaming addicts for their addiction, but we’ve let our children become addicts, too.

Let that sink in.

For fuck’s sake.

Sam Harris’s Fairy-Tale Account of the Israel-Hamas Conflict

…Harris’s insistence on attributing Hamas’s violence entirely to apolitical motivations reflects a broader tendency to reduce the Israel-Palestine conflict into a simple, “good” versus “evil” binary. At one point in his monologue, Harris argues that “if the Palestinians put down their weapons, there would be peace; if the Israelis put down their weapons, there would be a genocide.” But this is only true in the most facile sense. In the West Bank, which is governed by a secular Palestinian Authority that cooperates with Israel, the Palestinians have largely abstained from terroristic resistance. Yet putting down their weapons has won them repression and dispossession by a Jewish supremacist settler movement, not peace. Of course, if Palestinians gamely submit to indefinite occupation, then there may be “peace” in some sense of the word. But it would not be the sort of peace that any Israeli would find tolerable were they put in the Palestinians’ position.

A counterpoint to my previous post about Sam Harris.

If it’s not obvious, this conflict has long been important to me. Many years ago, it motivated me to take college classes on the region, and not long after, to live in both Israel and Palestine for a lengthy stint.

My allegiance then was firmly pro-Palestinian. I saw this conflict, as many on the Left now do, as a simple binary: Israel has the power, and therefore they are not to be trusted. Palestinians have no power, and therefore I must sympathize with them. This speaks to something deep within me — a near-pathological desire to sympathize with people I perceive as overlooked, ignored, on the fringe, without power. Old dogs, small towns, mountain cabins… I’m not really all that complicated.

I haven’t had a strong opinion about the Middle East in many years. My attention and anxiety are now domestic, and while the events of October 7 changed that to some degree, I’m far more interested in how the effects of that day play in my own country than I am in hashing out the decades- and centuries-long grievances — and the very hard work to be done by all sides of this conflict — in the Levant itself. (In this way, I’m hopelessly American, perpetually gazing at my own navel.)

But since October 7th, I’m stunned by how powerful the Palestinians have become. No, obviously not militarily, but culturally, here on the American Left, support for the Palestinian people is de rigueur. In some ways, I find this thrilling — everything I felt so strongly all those years ago now seems to be in vogue.

Yet any time there’s a big social swing, I’m inherently skeptical. I do not trust the mechanisms of social media and how they magnify or perpetuate certain narratives, and more importantly, I’ve lost faith in the American Left over the last several years to rise above the fray. At risk of beating a dead horse, a political movement I once thought to be grounded in pluralism, liberalism, and equality has become something else entirely, something that feels like a naked grab for power. (And, though I resent having to, I feel obligated to say that my mistrust the Left does not mean I endorse the Right.)

So now that the Palestinian cause is front-and-center on social media, I’m not sure what to think. And I’m horrified by the corollary rise in anti-semitism. Young people on American college campuses calling for the eradication of Israel? Really? Much like Sam Harris, I’m morally opposed to any religious state, be it Jewish, Christian, Hindu or Muslim, and while I think far too many people willfully conflate anti-Zionism (which is legitimate) with anti-semitism (which is not) in order to blunt criticism of Israel’s policies, I cannot fathom how the eradication of the state of Israel seems at all like a legitimate outcome of this conflict.

And yet…

I was once twenty-one. I had strong opinions about this region, some of which were grounded in reality and others born of emotion. To my credit, I traveled to the Middle East and lived there, living in both Palestinian refugee camps and on Israeli kibbutzim. I saw things with my own eyes and came to some conclusions. If I didn’t have the restraint to admit that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, how can I expect anyone else to do the same?

I want so badly to trust my fellow humans. The young tend to be open and the old tend to be wise. In my middling age, I’m not sure where I fit anymore.

Hamas Cheerleaders Are All Over Instagram

Instagram has become a particularly active arena for pro-Hamas propaganda. At last count, the hashtag #freepalestine had appeared on over 5.8-million posts, exceeding #standwithisrael’s 220,000 by a geometric factor of more than 20. Similarly, #gazaunderattack has amassed 1.8 million instances, an order of magnitude more than #israelunderattack’s 134,000.

I used to think numbers like this were bullshit. “Likes” and “views” and “engagements” have never felt like salient measurements of, well, anything but the ego of some large social media companies.

Of course I was wrong.

I love when people tell me that advertising “doesn’t work” on them. As if their mind is so strong that it can’t be swayed one way or the other.

In response to their claims, I yell, “HOT DOG!

“What are you thinking about now,” I then ask.

Surprise: they’re thinking about hot dogs.

Advertising really is that simple. Our neurology isn’t that complicated. We like to think we’re exceptions to rules, but rules are rules for a reason.

A few friends that lived through the 1960s and 1970s like to say “advertising is propaganda.” I’m inclined to agree. Of course it is.

Yet if all advertising is mere suggestion, then it makes absolute sense that in capitalism, the money flows to the most persuasive, even if those of us being persuaded don’t fully understand how persuasion works.

The Bright Line Between Good and Evil

Some welcome lucidity from Sam Harris.

Sphere and Loathing in Las Vegas

Such is the power of the Sphere; at the exact moment you ask yourself What exactly are we all doing here?, the building morphs into a Dali-esque rendering of Elvis, your brain floods with dopamine, and you lose your critical faculties.

And what an excellent title.

The Perils of Affective Polarization

A few years ago, I was a hardcore partisan. I spent most of my day surrounded by very smart people—lawyers, economics professors, successful businesspeople, and philosophers at Yale—who agreed with me and echoed everything that I wanted to hear about the dangers of big government (I’m a libertarian). My social media feeds, the news I consumed, and the books I read were full of the world’s smartest takes on why I was right.

Yet I was miserable. I was consumed by fear and anger towards the other side—all the progressives and conservatives who refused to see what was so blindingly obvious to me. My friendships suffered because I saw each conversation as binary: had I managed to move people towards libertarianism or not? If not, I judged the interaction a failure. Luckily, I didn’t lose any close friendships, but many of my relationships were fraying; and none of them had the intimacy that I yearned for.

I could have written these paragraphs.

I’ve lost more than one friend in the last few years. At first, because of my dogmatism. More recently, because of theirs.

I’ve watched family members drift away. I’ve watched people much older than I lose life-long friends over politics. I once thought that was admirable, but I’ve changed.

I feel called to write about these social dynamics because I’ve been on both sides. It wasn’t long ago that I hated all conservatives. But I’ve watched that hate infect people I love and care for… and it’s heartbreaking.

Airbus Launches Device to Prevent Dead Satellites from Tumbling

Detumbler is a magnetic damping device that’s meant to be attached to a satellite that’s nearing the end of its life, according to Airbus. Weighing around 100 grams, Detumbler has a central rotor wheel and magnets that interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, which prevents unwanted motion when defunct satellites start to tumble. The device is designed to behave like a compass when the satellite is flying normally in its orbit, aligning with Earth’s magnetic field. If it begins to tumble, however, the movement of the rotor will trigger eddy currents (loops of electrical current within conductors induced by a changing magnetic field) and cause friction to slow down the motion.


Will the Stock Market Crash? This Hedge-Funder Thinks So

Look, the only way to get us out of this is to tear the Band-Aid off. You know, it’s cold turkey. But of course, that’s a big, big problem, and I do not think we have the societal temperament for that. So who knows? Who the hell knows? I wish I could give you something, but I can’t give anything. And I don’t think there is anything, frankly. I think it’s a moot point anyway because they’re just going to have to do more and more and more. Powell has been talking a big game the past year or so, but it’s all a big bluff.