Monday, 25 September 2017

Dead Cats - Fatal attraction of fake facts sours political debate

Tim Harford in The Financial Times


He did it again: Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, exhumed the old referendum-campaign lie that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the National Health Service. I think we can skip the well-worn details, because while the claim is misleading, its main purpose is not to mislead but to distract. The growing popularity of this tactic should alarm anyone who thinks that the truth still matters. 

You don’t need to take my word for it that distraction is the goal. A few years ago, a cynical commentator described the “dead cat” strategy, to be deployed when losing an argument at a dinner party: throw a dead cat on the table. The awkward argument will instantly cease, and everyone will start losing their minds about the cat. The cynic’s name was Boris Johnson. 

The tactic worked perfectly in the Brexit referendum campaign. Instead of a discussion of the merits and disadvantages of EU membership, we had a frenzied dead-cat debate over the true scale of EU membership fees. Without the steady repetition of a demonstrably false claim, the debate would have run out of oxygen and we might have enjoyed a discussion of the issues instead. 

My point is not to refight the referendum campaign. (Mr Johnson would like to, which itself is telling.) There’s more at stake here than Brexit: bold lies have become the dead cat of modern politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Too many politicians have discovered the attractions of the flamboyant falsehood — and why not? The most prominent of them sits in the White House. Dramatic lies do not always persuade, but they do tend to change the subject — and that is often enough. 

It is hard to overstate how corrosive this development is. Reasoned conversation becomes impossible; the debaters hardly have time to clear their throats before a fly-blown moggie hits the table with a rancid thud. 

Nor is it easy to neutralise a big, politicised lie. Trustworthy nerds can refute it, of course: the fact-checkers, the independent think-tanks, or statutory bodies such as the UK Statistics Authority. But a politician who is unafraid to lie is also unafraid to smear these organisations with claims of bias or corruption — and then one problem has become two. The Statistics Authority and other watchdogs need to guard jealously their reputation for truthfulness; the politicians they contradict often have no such reputation to worry about. 

Researchers have been studying the problem for years, after noting how easily charlatans could debase the discussion of smoking, vaccination and climate change. A good starting point is The Debunking Handbook by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, which summarises a dispiriting set of discoveries. 

One problem that fact-checkers face is the “familiarity effect”: the endless arguments over the £350m-a-week lie (or Barack Obama’s birthplace, or the number of New Jersey residents who celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center) is that the very process of rebutting the falsehood ensures that it is repeated over and over again. Even someone who accepts that the lie is a lie would find it much easier to remember than the truth. 

A second obstacle is the “backfire effect”. My son is due to get a flu vaccine this week, and some parents at his school are concerned that the flu vaccine may cause flu. It doesn’t. But in explaining that I risk triggering other concerns: who can trust Big Pharma these days? Shouldn’t kids be a bit older before being exposed to these strange chemicals? Some (not all) studies suggest that the process of refuting the narrow concern can actually harden the broader worldview behind it. 

Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale, points out that issues such as vaccination or climate change — or for that matter, the independence of the UK Statistics Authority — do not become politicised by accident. They are dragged into the realm of polarised politics because it suits some political entrepreneur to do so. For a fleeting partisan advantage, Donald Trump has falsely claimed that vaccines cause autism. Children will die as a result. And once the intellectual environment has become polluted and polarised in this way, it’s extraordinarily difficult to draw the poison out again. 

This is a damaging game indeed. All of us tend to think tribally about politics: we absorb the opinions of those around us. But tribal thinking pushes us to be not only a Republican but also a Republican and a vaccine sceptic. One cannot be just for Brexit; one must be for Brexit and against the UK Statistics Authority. Of course it is possible to resist such all-encompassing polarisation, and many people do. But the pull of tribal thinking on all of us is strong. 

There are defences against the dead cat strategy. With skill, a fact-check may debunk a false claim without accidentally reinforcing it. But the strongest defence is an electorate that cares, that has more curiosity about the way the world really works than about cartoonish populists. If we let politicians drag facts into their swamp, we are letting them tug at democracy’s foundations.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

If engineers are allowed to rule the world....

How technology is making our minds redundant.

Franklin Foer in The Guardian

All the values that Silicon Valley professes are the values of the 60s. The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberation. Everyone has the right to speak their mind on social media, to fulfil their intellectual and democratic potential, to express their individuality. Where television had been a passive medium that rendered citizens inert, Facebook is participatory and empowering. It allows users to read widely, think for themselves and form their own opinions.

We can’t entirely dismiss this rhetoric. There are parts of the world, even in the US, where Facebook emboldens citizens and enables them to organise themselves in opposition to power. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere, either. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait.

In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules devised by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation. Facebook is always surveilling users, always auditing them, using them as lab rats in its behavioural experiments. While it creates the impression that it offers choice, in truth Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that gets them thoroughly addicted. It’s a phoniness that is most obvious in the compressed, historic career of Facebook’s mastermind.

Mark Zuckerberg is a good boy, but he wanted to be bad, or maybe just a little bit naughty. The heroes of his adolescence were the original hackers. These weren’t malevolent data thieves or cyberterrorists. Zuckerberg’s hacker heroes were disrespectful of authority. They were technically virtuosic, infinitely resourceful nerd cowboys, unbound by conventional thinking. In the labs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) during the 60s and 70s, they broke any rule that interfered with building the stuff of early computing, such marvels as the first video games and word processors. With their free time, they played epic pranks, which happened to draw further attention to their own cleverness – installing a living cow on the roof of a Cambridge dorm; launching a weather balloon, which miraculously emerged from beneath the turf, emblazoned with “MIT”, in the middle of a Harvard-Yale football game.

The hackers’ archenemies were the bureaucrats who ran universities, corporations and governments. Bureaucrats talked about making the world more efficient, just like the hackers. But they were really small-minded paper-pushers who fiercely guarded the information they held, even when that information yearned to be shared. When hackers clearly engineered better ways of doing things – a box that enabled free long-distance calls, an instruction that might improve an operating system – the bureaucrats stood in their way, wagging an unbending finger. The hackers took aesthetic and comic pleasure in outwitting the men in suits.

When Zuckerberg arrived at Harvard in the fall of 2002, the heyday of the hackers had long passed. They were older guys now, the stuff of good tales, some stuck in twilight struggles against The Man. But Zuckerberg wanted to hack, too, and with that old-time indifference to norms. In high school he picked the lock that prevented outsiders from fiddling with AOL’s code and added his own improvements to its instant messaging program. As a college sophomore he hatched a site called Facemash – with the high-minded purpose of determining the hottest kid on campus. Zuckerberg asked users to compare images of two students and then determine the better-looking of the two. The winner of each pairing advanced to the next round of his hormonal tournament. To cobble this site together, Zuckerberg needed photos. He purloined those from the servers of the various Harvard houses. “One thing is certain,” he wrote on a blog as he put the finishing touches on his creation, “and it’s that I’m a jerk for making this site. Oh well.”

His brief experimentation with rebellion ended with his apologising to a Harvard disciplinary panel, as well as to campus women’s groups, and mulling strategies to redeem his soiled reputation. In the years since, he has shown that defiance really wasn’t his natural inclination. His distrust of authority was such that he sought out Don Graham, then the venerable chairman of the Washington Post company, as his mentor. After he started Facebook, he shadowed various giants of corporate America so that he could study their managerial styles up close.

Still, Zuckerberg’s juvenile fascination with hackers never died – or rather, he carried it forward into his new, more mature incarnation. When he finally had a corporate campus of his own, he procured a vanity address for it: One Hacker Way. He designed a plaza with the word “HACK” inlaid into the concrete. In the centre of his office park, he created an open meeting space called Hacker Square. This is, of course, the venue where his employees join for all-night Hackathons. As he told a group of would-be entrepreneurs, “We’ve got this whole ethos that we want to build a hacker culture.”

Plenty of companies have similarly appropriated hacker culture – hackers are the ur-disrupters – but none have gone as far as Facebook. By the time Zuckerberg began extolling the virtues of hacking, he had stripped the name of most of its original meaning and distilled it into a managerial philosophy that contains barely a hint of rebelliousness. Hackers, he told one interviewer, were “just this group of computer scientists who were trying to quickly prototype and see what was possible. That’s what I try to encourage our engineers to do here.” To hack is to be a good worker, a responsible Facebook citizen – a microcosm of the way in which the company has taken the language of radical individualism and deployed it in the service of conformism.

Zuckerberg claimed to have distilled that hacker spirit into a motivational motto: “Move fast and break things.” The truth is that Facebook moved faster than Zuckerberg could ever have imagined. His company was, as we all know, a dorm-room lark, a thing he ginned up in a Red Bull–induced fit of sleeplessness. As his creation grew, it needed to justify its new scale to its investors, to its users, to the world. It needed to grow up fast. Over the span of its short life, the company has caromed from self-description to self-description. It has called itself a tool, a utility and a platform. It has talked about openness and connectedness. And in all these attempts at defining itself, it has managed to clarify its intentions.

Facebook creators Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes at Harvard in May 2004. Photograph: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty

Though Facebook will occasionally talk about the transparency of governments and corporations, what it really wants to advance is the transparency of individuals – or what it has called, at various moments, “radical transparency” or “ultimate transparency”. The theory holds that the sunshine of sharing our intimate details will disinfect the moral mess of our lives. With the looming threat that our embarrassing information will be broadcast, we’ll behave better. And perhaps the ubiquity of incriminating photos and damning revelations will prod us to become more tolerant of one another’s sins. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Zuckerberg has said. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

The point is that Facebook has a strong, paternalistic view on what’s best for you, and it’s trying to transport you there. “To get people to this point where there’s more openness – that’s a big challenge. But I think we’ll do it,” Zuckerberg has said. He has reason to believe that he will achieve that goal. With its size, Facebook has amassed outsized powers. “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” Zuckerberg has said. “We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies.”

Without knowing it, Zuckerberg is the heir to a long political tradition. Over the last 200 years, the west has been unable to shake an abiding fantasy, a dream sequence in which we throw out the bum politicians and replace them with engineers – rule by slide rule. The French were the first to entertain this notion in the bloody, world-churning aftermath of their revolution. A coterie of the country’s most influential philosophers (notably, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte) were genuinely torn about the course of the country. They hated all the old ancient bastions of parasitic power – the feudal lords, the priests and the warriors – but they also feared the chaos of the mob. To split the difference, they proposed a form of technocracy – engineers and assorted technicians would rule with beneficent disinterestedness. Engineers would strip the old order of its power, while governing in the spirit of science. They would impose rationality and order.

This dream has captivated intellectuals ever since, especially Americans. The great sociologist Thorstein Veblen was obsessed with installing engineers in power and, in 1921, wrote a book making his case. His vision briefly became a reality. In the aftermath of the first world war, American elites were aghast at all the irrational impulses unleashed by that conflict – the xenophobia, the racism, the urge to lynch and riot. And when the realities of economic life had grown so complicated, how could politicians possibly manage them? Americans of all persuasions began yearning for the salvific ascendance of the most famous engineer of his time: Herbert Hoover. In 1920, Franklin D Roosevelt – who would, of course, go on to replace him in 1932 – organised a movement to draft Hoover for the presidency.

The Hoover experiment, in the end, hardly realised the happy fantasies about the Engineer King. A very different version of this dream, however, has come to fruition, in the form of the CEOs of the big tech companies. We’re not ruled by engineers, not yet, but they have become the dominant force in American life – the highest, most influential tier of our elite.

There’s another way to describe this historical progression. Automation has come in waves. During the industrial revolution, machinery replaced manual workers. At first, machines required human operators. Over time, machines came to function with hardly any human intervention. For centuries, engineers automated physical labour; our new engineering elite has automated thought. They have perfected technologies that take over intellectual processes, that render the brain redundant. Or, as the former Google and Yahoo executive Marissa Mayer once argued, “You have to make words less human and more a piece of the machine.” Indeed, we have begun to outsource our intellectual work to companies that suggest what we should learn, the topics we should consider, and the items we ought to buy. These companies can justify their incursions into our lives with the very arguments that Saint-Simon and Comte articulated: they are supplying us with efficiency; they are imposing order on human life.

Nobody better articulates the modern faith in engineering’s power to transform society than Zuckerberg. He told a group of software developers, “You know, I’m an engineer, and I think a key part of the engineering mindset is this hope and this belief that you can take any system that’s out there and make it much, much better than it is today. Anything, whether it’s hardware or software, a company, a developer ecosystem – you can take anything and make it much, much better.” The world will improve, if only Zuckerberg’s reason can prevail – and it will.

The precise source of Facebook’s power is algorithms. That’s a concept repeated dutifully in nearly every story about the tech giants, yet it remains fuzzy at best to users of those sites. From the moment of the algorithm’s invention, it was possible to see its power, its revolutionary potential. The algorithm was developed in order to automate thinking, to remove difficult decisions from the hands of humans, to settle contentious debates.

The essence of the algorithm is entirely uncomplicated. The textbooks compare them to recipes – a series of precise steps that can be followed mindlessly. This is different from equations, which have one correct result. Algorithms merely capture the process for solving a problem and say nothing about where those steps ultimately lead.

These recipes are the crucial building blocks of software. Programmers can’t simply order a computer to, say, search the internet. They must give the computer a set of specific instructions for accomplishing that task. These instructions must take the messy human activity of looking for information and transpose that into an orderly process that can be expressed in code. First do this … then do that. The process of translation, from concept to procedure to code, is inherently reductive. Complex processes must be subdivided into a series of binary choices. There’s no equation to suggest a dress to wear, but an algorithm could easily be written for that – it will work its way through a series of either/or questions (morning or night, winter or summer, sun or rain), with each choice pushing to the next.

For the first decades of computing, the term “algorithm” wasn’t much mentioned. But as computer science departments began sprouting across campuses in the 60s, the term acquired a new cachet. Its vogue was the product of status anxiety. Programmers, especially in the academy, were anxious to show that they weren’t mere technicians. They began to describe their work as algorithmic, in part because it tied them to one of the greatest of all mathematicians – the Persian polymath Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, or as he was known in Latin, Algoritmi. During the 12th century, translations of al-Khwarizmi introduced Arabic numerals to the west; his treatises pioneered algebra and trigonometry. By describing the algorithm as the fundamental element of programming, the computer scientists were attaching themselves to a grand history. It was a savvy piece of name-dropping: See, we’re not arriviste, we’re working with abstractions and theories, just like the mathematicians!

A statue of the mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi in Uzbekistan. Photograph: Alamy

There was sleight of hand in this self-portrayal. The algorithm may be the essence of computer science – but it’s not precisely a scientific concept. An algorithm is a system, like plumbing or a military chain of command. It takes knowhow, calculation and creativity to make a system work properly. But some systems, like some armies, are much more reliable than others. A system is a human artefact, not a mathematical truism. The origins of the algorithm are unmistakably human, but human fallibility isn’t a quality that we associate with it. When algorithms reject a loan application or set the price for an airline flight, they seem impersonal and unbending. The algorithm is supposed to be devoid of bias, intuition, emotion or forgiveness.

Silicon Valley’s algorithmic enthusiasts were immodest about describing the revolutionary potential of their objects of affection. Algorithms were always interesting and valuable, but advances in computing made them infinitely more powerful. The big change was the cost of computing: it collapsed, just as the machines themselves sped up and were tied into a global network. Computers could stockpile massive piles of unsorted data – and algorithms could attack this data to find patterns and connections that would escape human analysts. In the hands of Google and Facebook, these algorithms grew ever more powerful. As they went about their searches, they accumulated more and more data. Their machines assimilated all the lessons of past searches, using these learnings to more precisely deliver the desired results.

For the entirety of human existence, the creation of knowledge was a slog of trial and error. Humans would dream up theories of how the world worked, then would examine the evidence to see whether their hypotheses survived or crashed upon their exposure to reality. Algorithms upend the scientific method – the patterns emerge from the data, from correlations, unguided by hypotheses. They remove humans from the whole process of inquiry. Writing in Wired, Chris Anderson, then editor-in-chief, argued: “We can stop looking for models. We can analyse the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.”

On one level, this is undeniable. Algorithms can translate languages without understanding words, simply by uncovering the patterns that undergird the construction of sentences. They can find coincidences that humans might never even think to seek. Walmart’s algorithms found that people desperately buy strawberry Pop-Tarts as they prepare for massive storms.

Still, even as an algorithm mindlessly implements its procedures – and even as it learns to see new patterns in the data – it reflects the minds of its creators, the motives of its trainers. Amazon and Netflix use algorithms to make recommendations about books and films. (One-third of purchases on Amazon come from these recommendations.) These algorithms seek to understand our tastes, and the tastes of like-minded consumers of culture. Yet the algorithms make fundamentally different recommendations. Amazon steers you to the sorts of books that you’ve seen before. Netflix directs users to the unfamiliar. There’s a business reason for this difference. Blockbuster movies cost Netflix more to stream. Greater profit arrives when you decide to watch more obscure fare. Computer scientists have an aphorism that describes how algorithms relentlessly hunt for patterns: they talk about torturing the data until it confesses. Yet this metaphor contains unexamined implications. Data, like victims of torture, tells its interrogator what it wants to hear.

Like economics, computer science has its preferred models and implicit assumptions about the world. When programmers are taught algorithmic thinking, they are told to venerate efficiency as a paramount consideration. This is perfectly understandable. An algorithm with an ungainly number of steps will gum up the machinery, and a molasses-like server is a useless one. But efficiency is also a value. When we speed things up, we’re necessarily cutting corners; we’re generalising.

Algorithms can be gorgeous expressions of logical thinking, not to mention a source of ease and wonder. They can track down copies of obscure 19th-century tomes in a few milliseconds; they put us in touch with long-lost elementary school friends; they enable retailers to deliver packages to our doors in a flash. Very soon, they will guide self-driving cars and pinpoint cancers growing in our innards. But to do all these things, algorithms are constantly taking our measure. They make decisions about us and on our behalf. The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organisations that run the machines.

Mark Zuckerberg disingenuously poses as a friendly critic of algorithms. That’s how he implicitly contrasts Facebook with his rivals across the way at Google. Over in Larry Page’s shop, the algorithm is king – a cold, pulseless ruler. There’s not a trace of life force in its recommendations, and very little apparent understanding of the person keying a query into its engine. Facebook, in his flattering self-portrait, is a respite from this increasingly automated, atomistic world. “Every product you use is better off with your friends,” he says.

What he is referring to is Facebook’s news feed. Here’s a brief explanation for the sliver of humanity who have apparently resisted Facebook: the news feed provides a reverse chronological index of all the status updates, articles and photos that your friends have posted to Facebook. The news feed is meant to be fun, but also geared to solve one of the essential problems of modernity – our inability to sift through the ever-growing, always-looming mounds of information. Who better, the theory goes, to recommend what we should read and watch than our friends? Zuckerberg has boasted that the News Feed turned Facebook into a “personalised newspaper”.

Unfortunately, our friends can do only so much to winnow things for us. Turns out, they like to share a lot. If we just read their musings and followed links to articles, we might be only a little less overwhelmed than before, or perhaps even deeper underwater. So Facebook makes its own choices about what should be read. The company’s algorithms sort the thousands of things a Facebook user could possibly see down to a smaller batch of choice items. And then within those few dozen items, it decides what we might like to read first.

Algorithms are, by definition, invisibilia. But we can usually sense their presence – that somewhere in the distance, we’re interacting with a machine. That’s what makes Facebook’s algorithm so powerful. Many users – 60%, according to the best research – are completely unaware of its existence. But even if they know of its influence, it wouldn’t really matter. Facebook’s algorithm couldn’t be more opaque. It has grown into an almost unknowable tangle of sprawl. The algorithm interprets more than 100,000 “signals” to make its decisions about what users see. Some of these signals apply to all Facebook users; some reflect users’ particular habits and the habits of their friends. Perhaps Facebook no longer fully understands its own tangle of algorithms – the code, all 60m lines of it, is a palimpsest, where engineers add layer upon layer of new commands.

Pondering the abstraction of this algorithm, imagine one of those earliest computers with its nervously blinking lights and long rows of dials. To tweak the algorithm, the engineers turn the knob a click or two. The engineers are constantly making small adjustments here and there, so that the machine performs to their satisfaction. With even the gentlest caress of the metaphorical dial, Facebook changes what its users see and read. It can make our friends’ photos more or less ubiquitous; it can punish posts filled with self-congratulatory musings and banish what it deems to be hoaxes; it can promote video rather than text; it can favour articles from the likes of the New York Times or BuzzFeed, if it so desires. Or if we want to be melodramatic about it, we could say Facebook is constantly tinkering with how its users view the world – always tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats.

But how do the engineers know which dial to twist and how hard? There’s a whole discipline, data science, to guide the writing and revision of algorithms. Facebook has a team, poached from academia, to conduct experiments on users. It’s a statistician’s sexiest dream – some of the largest data sets in human history, the ability to run trials on mathematically meaningful cohorts. When Cameron Marlow, the former head of Facebook’s data science team, described the opportunity, he began twitching with ecstatic joy. “For the first time,” Marlow said, “we have a microscope that not only lets us examine social behaviour at a very fine level that we’ve never been able to see before, but allows us to run experiments that millions of users are exposed to.” Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Alamy

Facebook likes to boast about the fact of its experimentation more than the details of the actual experiments themselves. But there are examples that have escaped the confines of its laboratories. We know, for example, that Facebook sought to discover whether emotions are contagious. To conduct this trial, Facebook attempted to manipulate the mental state of its users. For one group, Facebook excised the positive words from the posts in the news feed; for another group, it removed the negative words. Each group, it concluded, wrote posts that echoed the mood of the posts it had reworded. This study was roundly condemned as invasive, but it is not so unusual. As one member of Facebook’s data science team confessed: “Anyone on that team could run a test. They’re always trying to alter people’s behaviour.”

There’s no doubting the emotional and psychological power possessed by Facebook – or, at least, Facebook doesn’t doubt it. It has bragged about how it increased voter turnout (and organ donation) by subtly amping up the social pressures that compel virtuous behaviour. Facebook has even touted the results from these experiments in peer-reviewed journals: “It is possible that more of the 0.60% growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook,” said one study published in Nature in 2012. No other company has made such claims about its ability to shape democracy like this – and for good reason. It’s too much power to entrust to a corporation.

The many Facebook experiments add up. The company believes that it has unlocked social psychology and acquired a deeper understanding of its users than they possess of themselves. Facebook can predict users’ race, sexual orientation, relationship status and drug use on the basis of their “likes” alone. It’s Zuckerberg’s fantasy that this data might be analysed to uncover the mother of all revelations, “a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about”. That is, of course, a goal in the distance. In the meantime, Facebook will keep probing – constantly testing to see what we crave and what we ignore, a never-ending campaign to improve Facebook’s capacity to give us the things that we want and things we don’t even know we want. Whether the information is true or concocted, authoritative reporting or conspiratorial opinion, doesn’t really seem to matter much to Facebook. The crowd gets what it wants and deserves.

The automation of thinking: we’re in the earliest days of this revolution, of course. But we can see where it’s heading. Algorithms have retired many of the bureaucratic, clerical duties once performed by humans – and they will soon begin to replace more creative tasks. At Netflix, algorithms suggest the genres of movies to commission. Some news wires use algorithms to write stories about crime, baseball games and earthquakes – the most rote journalistic tasks. Algorithms have produced fine art and composed symphonic music, or at least approximations of them.

It’s a terrifying trajectory, especially for those of us in these lines of work. If algorithms can replicate the process of creativity, then there’s little reason to nurture human creativity. Why bother with the tortuous, inefficient process of writing or painting if a computer can produce something seemingly as good and in a painless flash? Why nurture the overinflated market for high culture when it could be so abundant and cheap? No human endeavour has resisted automation, so why should creative endeavours be any different?

The engineering mindset has little patience for the fetishisation of words and images, for the mystique of art, for moral complexity or emotional expression. It views humans as data, components of systems, abstractions. That’s why Facebook has so few qualms about performing rampant experiments on its users. The whole effort is to make human beings predictable – to anticipate their behaviour, which makes them easier to manipulate. With this sort of cold-blooded thinking, so divorced from the contingency and mystery of human life, it’s easy to see how long-standing values begin to seem like an annoyance – why a concept such as privacy would carry so little weight in the engineer’s calculus, why the inefficiencies of publishing and journalism seem so imminently disruptable.

Facebook would never put it this way, but algorithms are meant to erode free will, to relieve humans of the burden of choosing, to nudge them in the right direction. Algorithms fuel a sense of omnipotence, the condescending belief that our behaviour can be altered, without our even being aware of the hand guiding us, in a superior direction. That’s always been a danger of the engineering mindset, as it moves beyond its roots in building inanimate stuff and begins to design a more perfect social world. We are the screws and rivets in the grand design.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The yoga industry is booming – but does it make you a better person?

Brigid Delaney in The Guardian

It was 2010 and the newspaper I worked for in Sydney commissioned me to interview yoga entrepreneur Bikram Choudhury.

He was in town to open the first of a chain of hot yoga studios. Choudhury’s brand of yoga – which he had trademarked and franchised – involved 26 poses in a humid, heated room with mirrors and carpets. When I visited the studio and caught the stench and the robotic instructions from a mic’d-up teacher, I thought: Yeah, this won’t take off.

I had been doing yoga for a decade by the time I met Choudhury. Once or twice a week, I’d go to nice, easy hatha classes, wearing whatever old tracksuit was to hand – just like everyone else in the room. Yet my progress was slow; I had never managed to get beyond beginners’ level. I was always at the back of the class, struggling to get my arm behind my calf to touch my other hand. I just assumed that this pace was my natural limit.





'He said he could do what he wanted': the scandal that rocked Bikram yoga



In his suite with harbour views, Choudhury told me about all the famous people who did his yoga – people such as Madonna and Jennifer Aniston. Then he looked me up and down.

“You,” he said. “You need to do some Bikram. You are overweight.”

“What? Huh?” I said, shocked at this breach in interview etiquette.

“Do my yoga,” he said, indicating a pair of lithe Bikram yoga instructors seated at his feet, “and you could look like them.”

For years after meeting him, I would walk past the fogged-up, vile-smelling Bikram yoga studios and think: screw you, Bikram.

But part of me also wondered if he had a point – could you completely change your body shape by doing his yoga? Should this even be an aspiration when you do yoga?



FacebookTwitterPinterest Yoga has morphed into a physical and spiritual ideal to which you aspire. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Choudhury is now in the sin bin. In 2016, he lost a lawsuit in which a former employee had claimed sexual harassment and wrongful termination – and he was ordered to pay $7m in damages.

But yoga – hot, cold – and all sorts of novelty yoga (including nude yoga, beer yoga and goat yoga) is booming. In the past decade, it has morphed from being an exercise you might do once a week at your local gym to a lifestyle – and a physical and spiritual ideal to which you aspire.

According to a 2016 Yoga Journal report, 36.7 million people practise yoga in the US, up from 20.4 million in 2012. The yoga market is now worth $16bn (£12bn) in the US and $80bn (£74bn) globally. In the UK, “yoga” was one of Google’s most searched-for words in 2016, while the yoga and pilates business brings in £812m a year, and rising.

People are packed into classes, which cost north of £10 a pop, yoga teacher training costs thousands (fees start at around £1,500 and can go to £5,000) and yoga retreats are pricey.

It is not just the studios. Take a look at the market for yoga mats. According to market research company Technavio, the US yoga and exercise mat business is expected to climb from $11bn (£8bn) now to $14bn (£10bn) in 2020. Sales of athleisure clothing, generated $35bn (£25bn) in 2015 – an all-time high – making up 17% of the entire US clothing market, according to market research firm NPD Group. Yoga pants by Lorna Jane cost $110, while GQ magazine has described Lululemon’s yoga pants as a cult obsession among “a certain set of gym-minded women and busy moms across the country”. You can even buy Lululemon prayer beads for $108 (£80).

In my local area of Sydney, upmarket yogis have colonised the high street. Most people I see walking around the city’s Bondi suburb have stopped wearing proper clothes. Unless you are around the bus stops in time for the morning commute, people dress almost exclusively in exercise gear – yoga pants, vest top and hoodie, flip flops in the summer, trainers in winter. They loiter in the aisles of the organic fruit and vegetable shop, their yoga mats hitting me in the face when they turn around. They zip around the narrow streets by the beach on mopeds or bicycles and, after class, gather around the large communal tables of cafes, sipping $10 juice in mason jars or almond milk chai.
FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘After class they gather around sipping $10 juice.’ Photograph: Alamy

Secretly I wanted to be them. But it was more than just a look. Every yoga class I tried out in Bondi had a semi-spiritual element that I found enticing. At the start of class, the teacher might read some Sanskrit verse, or play sitar music while reading from a spiritual book – such as Eckhart Tolle. In increasingly non-religious countries such as the UK and Australia, this is where a lot of young people receive their moral or spiritual teachings.

In many respects, yoga is the perfect pastime for our age – the meditative elements give us the opportunity to find peace and stillness in a time of increasingly hectic and crowded information, the instructional bits give us moral lessons in the absence of traditional religion, while the stretchy, bendy, sweaty physical stuff is a great way of countering eight or more hours a day spent hunched over a computer. But is any of this yoga making us more enlightened or more compassionate? Or is it just another wellness industry trend that only the rich and idle can afford to properly indulge in?

One day last year, after my usual weekly class in a studio full of part-time models, I came across a flyer. It promised that in six weeks I could become a “modern yogi”. All I had to do was to attend classes six times a week, meditate daily, keep a journal and take part in weekly meetings that are part tutorial on mindfulness and part group therapy. The programme promised that “an exciting transformation will occur”. Could I become one of those people I saw walking around Bondi – yoga mat strapped to my back, my Instagram feed full of downward dogs on the cliffs, with a Pacific Ocean sunset in the background?

I started the $600 programme, stuck with it and found things started to shift. After doing yoga and meditation every day for six weeks, my body felt looser, more pliable. Getting up during cold winter mornings and bending down to pick a sock up off the floor became a lot easier. Physically it was tough, and it took a month to really get my fitness level moving, but gradually I was able to keep up with the more athletic Vinyasa classes. At the end of 90 minutes, I would be covered in sweat and felt a curious mix of exhausted and blank. The repetitive sequences became a routine that I did robotically, without thinking. I was bored in class, but I also turned off my mind and the classes themselves became like a moving meditation.

As for the spiritual aspect, occasionally the weird speeches the yoga instructors gave hit home. On Friday in my first week, in a move that shocked just about everyone, Britain voted to leave the European Union. The teacher, an Irishman, referenced Brexit in his sermon about 45 minutes into the class. “You might not like change. You may resist change,” he said, walking around the heated room. “You may not agree with it. You may think the change is a bad thing. A very bad thing. But change has happened. It has happened and you can’t do anything about it. To resist it is pointless.” His voice was heavy, sorrowful, and he sighed. “It is what it is.”

There was a feeling in the class that we needed to hear things like this – but afterwards, I thought: Is this going to be the extent of our resistance and our protest against political situations that we don’t like? We stretch and get a sermon, go and have a juice – and that’s it?



FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘Occasionally the weird spiritual speeches the yoga instructors gave hit home.’ Photograph: Getty Images/Topic Images

I started thinking a lot about yoga and so many activities that are part of the wellness industry, and how so many people pour energy into their bodies when perhaps they should be trying to pour energy into the people and politics around them. Self care is great – but what if there’s no energy left to care about anyone else?

In the New York Times, American writer Judith Warner noted a disturbing social trend. Just as the women of the mid-70s took flight into consciousness-raising groups, the workforce, divorce and casual sex, their daughters are also taking flight, but that flight is inwards. “They’re fleeing to yoga,” she writes in the Times, “imitating flight in the downward-gazing contortion called the crow position. They’re striving, through exquisite new adventures in internal fine-tuning, to feel more deeply, live more meaningfully, better inhabit each and every moment of each and every day.”

Warner glumly, but correctly, concluded: “There is no sense that personal liberation is to be found by taking a more active role in the public world.” In fact, “such interiority seems to be a way to manage an unbearable sort of existential anxiety: a way to narrow the scope of life’s challenges and demands … to the more manageable range of the in-and-out of your own breath.”

The more yoga I did, the more compliments I received. My hair was shiny – people commented – and my skin glowed, my clothes were looser, and, like so many others, I began wearing athleisure gear to work. After all, work was just a pit stop on the way to another yoga class. Maybe Choudhury was right after all – maybe I could look different if I did a lot of yoga.

I wrote in my journal, I went to the Monday-night tutorials, I meditated, I drank cold-press juices, I did all the right things to become a modern yogi. I was on the way to achieving the ideal of the glowy person in the organic shop. I was almost there before I started wondering – is this really what I wanted to be?

The answer was, of course, no. I was a yogi for about two months before the narcissism of the whole enterprise got to me. There were other things, it turned out, that I had to do
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Mr. Apologist, excuses are not enough

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

It has been a fortnight of shocking tragedies in India and abroad — and of excuses by you, Mr. Apologist.

You have told me that I should not overreact: journalists get killed all over the world, and sometimes on their own doorsteps; the Rohingya are just suffering from an internal law-and-order problem; the hurricanes ravaging the Caribbean these days and the floods ravaging India are just natural phenomena, and not due to climate change; and as for the Dreamers, poised earlier to be kicked out of U.S., oh well, that’s all politics, you know, and such things happen in politics (you know). Calm down, you tell me.

Let me reassure you, I am calm. So calm that I am willing to accept all your above positions, though I disagree with them either entirely or in part. I am calm enough to concede that in holding these positions you are establishing a certain political perspective. I differ from you, but as long as you do not elaborate into a justification of murder or genocide from your preliminary positions, you have the grounds to think as you do.

Cracks in society, in humanity

But are you calm enough to realise that my main objections arise from other (related) aspects of all these cases, as elaborated by you?

Are you calm enough to concede that a brutal murder shakes the foundations of society, and its perpetrators can be allowed to go scot-free only if you want hairline cracks to develop further in your society? When the murder is that of a besieged public figure and one with whom you (Mr. Apologist) disagree, the cracks run deeper — and you owe it to your own society to hold the culprits accountable. Cracks in a society and a state often seem to remain superficial until it is too late and the entire edifice starts crumbling — as we have seen and are seeing in many countries. Are you calm enough to concede that the least you can do, out of common decency if not patriotism, is to ‘unfollow’ those of your social media ‘friends’ who justify a murder and vilify its victim?

Like you, I know — for I am not what you will call an ‘idealist’ (alas) — that states need to exercise authority, and more so when faced with insurgency and extremism. I am calm enough to say — though many leftists and Muslims will berate me for it — that the Burmese state might have needed to act against some form of Islamist insurgency. But when such actions lead to the killing of children and force more than 300,000 villagers to flee for their lives, then surely we are talking of an extreme abuse of authority, surely we are talking of genocide and ethnic cleansing? Are you calm enough to concede that we cannot justify such horrors without hairline cracks developing in our very humanity, so that one day, it too, like society or state, crumbles into dust?
Hurricane Irma or the devastating floods in Bihar, you tell me, these are natural disasters. You dismiss climate change: calm down, you tell me, Earth was even hotter thousands of years ago, when there were no polluting industries.

Dumping our refuse

But — unlike most people who are fighting to stop climate change — I am willing to concede that I can never convince you of climate change. If I point to an extreme winter this year, you will point to a moderate winter another year. Climate change cannot be proved in a laboratory: there is evidence that it is taking place, but all of it exists at a very high scientific level (for instance, projections of CO2 emissions and their effects) or at a degree of theoretical abstraction. You can always refuse to accept those conclusions. I am calm enough to accept that.

But are you calm enough to acknowledge that you do not dump your refuse — most of it biodegradable — in your own house, but we, as a species, are dumping our refuse (much of it not even biodegradable) in the only house we know, planet Earth? Are you calm enough to concede that if the former is bad for you, the latter must be bad for all of us?

As for the prospective expulsion of the Dreamers — young men and women, almost entirely educated and employed today, who grew up in the U.S. and have often known only that country, these are people whose parents entered the U.S. illegally when the Dreamers were two or ten years old and in no condition to have a say in the matter. These are people who pay extra to society for living there and who came out and disclosed their status in response to a promise by a previous government. Are you calm enough to concede that we cannot punish children for the crimes of their parents, and that people who have grown up, contributed and committed themselves to a nation have earned the right to stay there? Are you calm enough to realise that politicians cannot be allowed to arbitrarily tinker with established governmental policies affecting ordinary thousands for unclear, personal, vindictive or racist reasons?

Are you calm enough to face the fact that we owe our children much more than mere excuses, Mr. Apologist?

Friday, 15 September 2017

Pakistan's Intelligence Agencies: The Inside Story

Abbas Nasir from the Dawn archives of 1991


Over the last two decades, the role and scale of Pakistan's intelligence agencies has grown over and above their prescribed functions, to the extent that their operations, often undercover and at odds with even each other, have earned them the reputation of being a "State within a State".

Expanding the theatre of their operations to cover major foreign and domestic policy areas, the workings of the three key intelligence agencies, the ISI, the MI and the IB, have assumed more controversial proportions than ever before.

On a freezing December day in Islamabad, MNA Dr Imran Farooq, ordered the maintenance staff of the MNA hostel to service his room heater. The staff took down the gas heater, only to discover a device that didn't belong there taped to its back. Noticing that there were batteries attached to it, they immediately became alarmed and summoned the bomb disposal squad.

Being experts at their job, the members of the bomb squad soon allayed the perturbed MNA's fears that the device was not a bomb of any sort. Instead, they said, they had discovered a powerful transmitter that was being used to bug the MQM MNA's room.

While the federal interior minister was quick to order an inquiry into the affair, the MQM blamed the former PPP government for bugging Dr Farooq's room. The real culprit, however, is still to be identified.

A few days earlier, a heated debate in parliament had focused on the activities of our intelligence agencies as being "rather over-extended”. As the range of intelligence operations came under discussion, the fact that their agencies were maintaining files and tapes – not only on all politicians in the country, but many non-political civilians as well – drew the wrath of many MNAs of all political shades. Finally, Speaker Gohar Ayub tried to round up the debate, not only by ordering a select committee to look into the matter, but also admitting that “we have all been the target of intelligence agencies.” He even quipped that in the seventies, he knew that he had been code-named ‘Sabra-7’, by the intelligence agencies, which were constantly shadowing him.

Clearly, one constant factor emerged from all the grievances aired in parliament — everyone, under every regime, had either ordered spying on the opposition or had themselves been the target of such ‘special attention’. What was debated in the open forum of the National Assembly, however, is only the tip of the iceberg, as far as the scope and direction of the operation that the intelligence units now take under their purview.

The other thing that can be said with certainty about them is that the intelligence set up in the country is one of the best organised in the business, functioning like a well-oiled, super-efficient machine.

National security theorists in Rawalpindi argue that such a setup is vital to any country which is placed in Pakistan’s strategic geo-political situation. “Given the hostility that the very creation of the country generated and the consequent environment in the subcontinent, Pakistan’s security concerns are legitimate and genuine,” says a retired officer who has served in one of the key intelligence cells of the country.

While this view links the country’s security, and even survival, to the efficiency of its intelligence agencies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the civilian psyche on the other hand, can never appreciate the thorough institutionalisation of these agencies in the running of foreign and domestic policies. One of the reasons for this is because, by their very definition, secret intelligence agencies do not subscribe to the open way of consultative or accountable operation that is central to any democratic system.




The mushroom growth in the size and scope of intelligence agency activities may be linked, to some extent, to the role they have been assigned in Pakistan’s short but eventful history. The events of the last 43 years teach us that the line between the concession of an inch and the taking of a mile has become very thin in this country.

The evolution of the ISI (the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate) in its present form can be traced to the assumption of office by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He took over power after the disastrous 1971 war with India, which saw the Pakistan defence forces take a humiliating beating, followed by the creation of Bangladesh.

"You see, Bhutto had served as Ayub’s foreign minister. His education and orientation made him develop an international vision. He realised that an intelligence agency organised on modern scientific lines would enhance foreign policy options at his command,” says an ex-army officer, as he explains the rise of the ISI from his viewpoint.

“Although the ISI existed well before Bhutto came to power, it grew tremendously at that point, because the prime minister sought a greater role in the region for Pakistan. In fact, as the country embarked on its nuclear programme, more and more funds and leeway came the ISI's way," says another officer who served in a senior position during the Bhutto years before retiring in the late seventies.

Another interesting insight is offered by a defence expert. According to him, Bhutto chose the ISI to be the premier agency because he could accomplish two tasks with it. The first related to the country's foreign policy and the second to self­ preservation, as only a services intelligence agency could look into the army itself and keep Bhutto abreast with the mood and the sentiment in the forces.

This part of history also had its ironical twists. It is widely believed that Bhutto promoted General Zia as the army chief, superseding several far more senior and well-reputed lieutenant generals, because the DG of the ISI had recommended him as the most “reliable and loyal” choice for the coveted post.

It was no coincidence then, that when Bhutto was overthrown, Lt General Ghulam Jilani was retained as the DG of the ISI. Jilani remained one of the most trusted Zia lieutenants for a number of years, both as DG and later as the governor of Punjab.

While Jilani was the governor of Punjab, he made a decision that would create obstacles in the path of the PPP for years to come. He plucked a young industrialist from relative obscurity and nurtured him as a civilian alternative to the PPP leadership. The young man would be prime minister one day. To this day, Jilani remains Nawaz Sharif’s key mentor.

However, many army officers agree that much of the disrepute that came the ISI's way also dates back to the post-Bhutto years. General Zia naturally saw the PPP as an arch enemy which had to be contained at all costs.

Consequently, the whole state apparatus, and the key intelligence agencies in particular, were all geared up to attain this objective. To this end, the agencies were given a full clearance to operate as they chose, so that very soon their reputation as 'surveillance agencies' catapulted to that of a much higher-profile operation that came to be labelled and feared as 'the state within a state'. Midnight knocks, arrests, extorted confessions and phone taps became the order of the day.

The man who directed a major part of this operation from his relatively modest and obscure office in the ISI headquarters in Islamabad in the eighties was a certain Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad, better known in the army circles both for his cunning and the colour of his eyes, as 'BiIIa' (the cat).

As a young colonel, Imtiaz Ahmed was in charge of the ISI Karachi Det (detachment) when Bhutto was overthrown. He led the famous raid on Bhutto’s 70 Clifton residence, which led to the discovery of some ‘‘important and incriminating” documents. Imtiaz, belonging to a family from Mianwali that was close to General Jilani, reportedly soon earned Zia's admiration and trust.

He was elevated to the influential position of assistant director-general (internal security) at the ISI and headed the dreaded political cell there for several years. Imtiaz wielded enormous power and at times was said to have even bypassed his own DG to report directly to Zia.

Knowledgeable quarters credit Imtiaz with masterminding the idea that would later cause irreparable damage to the PPP. Slowly but surely, he built up an image of the PPP that would convince the whole defence set-up that the Benazir Bhutto-led party was a national security threat. In fact, it has often been said in army circles that it was his national security threat perception, coupled with the blundering style of government, that resulted in Benazir's sacking as the prime minister years later.

ISI observers claim that for many years Imtiaz remained the eyes and the ears of the establishment and watched every move that Benazir made. In fact, sources close to General Zia say that Imtiaz, a master at fabricating evidence, once even sought the general's permission to plant certain photographs in the newspapers that would bring the PPP leader into disrepute. Despite his known antipathy for the PPP, Zia was reportedly firm in denying permission for this excess and did not allow manufactured photographs to be published.

The growth of tile ISI, however, did not remain restricted to the regional role that Bhutto sought for it, nor did it expand solely on the basis of the role that Zia assigned to it in domestic politics. In 1979, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan, and Pakistan suddenly found itself as a frontline state in the US-Soviet Cold War.

With the exit of Democratic President Jimmy Carter and the arrival on the scene of Republican Ronald Reagan, the US stepped up a covert operation to organise resistance in Afghanistan. By the mid-eighties, this operation had become a multibillion dollar exercise. Although the CIA was solely handling the Washington end, the ISI became actively involved at the Pakistan end of it and neatly transformed itself into a major conduit for arms and money earmarked for the mujahideen.

But again, it was not only these changed circumstances that propelled the ISI into this task. To some extent, the agency was prepared for it already. During the Bhutto years, for instance, after the prime minister had identified the western neighbour as a threat that had to be addressed, the ISI had found and nurtured a young Kabul engineering graduate named Gulbadin Hekmatyar. The ISI not only funded and armed Hekmatyar, but also organised his line of communication inside Afghanistan.

All this manoeuvring was to be used to exert pressure on any Kabul government that harboured any wish of rekindling the Pakhtunistan issue. And these pressure tactics had worked wonders when they were applied to President Daud in the seventies. In a quick volte-face from the belligerent posture he had adopted, Daud had rushed to Murree for talks with Bhutto and had promptly made very conciliatory noises.

However, when the CIA-ISI tie-up went into effect, the Pakistani agency slowly acquired a far more sophisticated and scientific outlook. It is said that some officials, including the then DG, Lt General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, benefited in more than one way from the covert operation. In fact, the explosion at Ojhri camp (the munitions depot for the Afghan resistance in Rawalpindi) was described by some quarters as having occurred because 'stock taking' measures were on their way after charges of pilferage.

The inquiry ordered by the then prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, into the incident, according to knowledgeable quarters, was one of the reasons for his undoing. The major factor, perhaps, was the very system that General Zia had visualised for the country in the mid-eighties. This system not only created friction between the parties that shared power in the country, but also contributed to the growth of intelligence agencies which worked at cross purposes with one another.

Although Junejo was handpicked by Zia to be the prime minister, the man soon showed that he had a mind of his own. As Junejo's ambitions grew, so did the Directorate of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB), the civilian intelligence agency which had previously played second fiddle to the ISI. Although the stated functions of the DIB assign it an important role, for years it had suffered neglect both in terms of staffing, funding and orientation. All that the rulers, including Bhutto, assigned to the DIB was the policing of opposing politicians.

Under Junejo, the DIB chief, Rathore turned the once sleepy agency into a vibrant organisation, but all its counter-intelligence was restricted to looking out for anti-Junejo government moves rather than anti-state actions. The irony, of course, with intelligence agencies the world over, is that, though they work for the same country, they often become each other's bitterest rivals. The same was the case with the DIB. It embarked on an ambitious exercise in which it started tapping the telephones of the Army House – where General Zia lived – to the extent that the DIB was monitoring every move made by Zia and the members of government close to him.

For its part, the ISI was monitoring Junejo and his cronies. And though by the time the Ojhri blast took place, General Rehman was serving as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, he still wielded considerable influence over the ISI. Even though Major­ General Hamid Gul had been appointed as DG of the ISI, General Rehman was still running the Afghan wing of the ISI. Therefore, Junejo’s inquiry into the Ojhri explosion so angered Rehman that, apparently, he presented Zia with doctored tapes of Junejo’s alleged phone conversations. Sources say that despite the fact that until then Zia had been willing to tolerate Junejo, these tapes quickly changed his mind and he finally decided to get rid of his prime minister.

Months after Junejo's sacking, both Zia and Rehman died in the Bahawalpur crash. But their legacy remained, to the extent that the system that Zia had evolved continued to remain intact, in the sense that the intelligence agencies continued to transcend the parameters of the growing role assigned to them.

Although Brigadier Imtiaz had operated in obscurity until then, his name exploded to the fore as he became instrumental in the formation of the IJI before the 1988 polls and pioneered the concept of one-to-one contests in the elections. An expert in ‘psych-war ', he was the main architect of the IJI election strategy, to the extent that image-building slogans such as “jaag Punjabi jaag, teray pag noon laga daag” were attributed to his genius.

When Ms Bhutto took over as prime minister, she insisted on the removal of Brigadier Imtiaz from the ISI. Naively perhaps, she forced the appointment of a retired Lt. General, Shamsur Rehman Kallue, in place of Hamid Gul, who was promoted and given command of the prestigious armoured corps in Multan. Having a man of her choice posted as DG of the ISI and naming a retired major, Masud Sharif — who was described as a "blundering fool" — to head DIB, she relaxed. Obviously, she had not realised that the agencies that had been described as a 'state within a state' could hardly be neutralised through a couple of postings and transfers.

Moreover, she was never even chastened by the fact that, instead of her nominees, a couple of serving officers nominated by the COAS General Mirza Aslam Beg, remained in charge of the Afghan and Kashmir policies.

Subsequently, whatever was removed from the jurisdiction of the ISI after Kallue took over, was soon thrown into the lap of the military intelligence. The military intelligence immediately expanded its theatre of operations, as Benazir sought to cut the ISI to size. In effect, therefore, no qualitative change really occurred in the system of the intelligence units that had become used to conducting independent foreign, and to some extent, domestic policy operations.

However, the Benazir Bhutto government did make one decision of real consequence. It appointed a committee headed by a former chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal (retd) Zulfikar Ali Khan, to look into the working of the intelligence agencies, and to suggest measures to delink them from politics as well as to improve their functioning. But the report of this committee, which was reportedly compiled after the air marshal interviewed scores of intelligence personnel, is now unlikely to see the light of day in the changed circumstances.

In the present situation, however, it is not clear what roles are being assigned to the three major agencies. But with the appointment of Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad as the chief of the IB, it can be surmised that the establishment still sees the PPP as a major threat.

What one can hope for is that the days of the midnight knock do not return to Pakistan. The intelligence agencies, which now have to counter the Raw-Mossad nexus – particularly in the regional nuclear context – could do well to draw a clear distinction between anti­-government and anti-state activities.

The crucial question that still needs to be addressed is whether these agencies operate under the watchful eyes of an elected government or are they still so strong that they are themselves instrumental in installing or toppling such governments.

How a tax haven is leading the race to privatise space

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian


On a drizzly afternoon in April, Prince Guillaume, the hereditary grand duke of Luxembourg, and his wife, Princess Stéphanie, sailed through the front doors of an office building in the outskirts of Seattle and into the headquarters of an asteroid-mining startup called Planetary Resources, which plans to “expand the economy into space”.

The company’s engineers greeted the royals with hors d’oeuvres, craft beer and bottles upon bottles of Columbia Valley rieslings and syrahs. In the corner of the lounge stood a vintage Asteroids arcade game; on the wall hung an American flag alongside the grand duchy’s own red, white and blue stripes. Between the two flags was a prototype of a spacecraft designed to roam the galaxy, prospecting asteroids for precious natural resources that would someday – at least in theory – make the shareholders of Planetary Resources very wealthy earthlings indeed.

The nation of Luxembourg is one of Planetary Resources’ main boosters. The country’s pledge of €25m (£22.5m) – which includes both direct funding and state support for research and development – is just one element of its wildly ambitious campaign to become a terrestrial hub for the business of mining minerals, metals and other resources on celestial bodies. The tiny country enriched itself significantly over the past century by greasing the wheels of global finance; now, as companies such as Planetary Resources prepare for a cosmic land grab, Luxembourg wants to use its tiny terrestrial perch to help send capitalism into space.

Space exploration has historically been an arena for grand, nationalistic operations that were too costly, dangerous and complex for civilians to take up without state backing. But now, private companies now want in, raising questions that, until recently, have seemed like mere thought experiments or hypotheticals: who can lay claim to an asteroid and all of its extractive wealth? Should space benefit “all of humankind”, as the international treaties signed in the 60s intended, or is that idealism outdated? How do you measure those benefits, anyway? Does trickle-down theory apply in zero-gravity conditions?

Space is becoming a testing ground for these thorny ethical and legal questions, and Luxembourg – a tiny country that has sustained itself off of regulatory intricacies and tax loopholes for decades – is positioning itself to help find the answers. While major nations such as China and India plough increasing sums of money into developing space programmes to rival Nasa, Luxembourg is making a different bet: that it can become home to a multinational cast of entrepreneurs who want to go into space not for just the sake of scientific progress or to strengthen their nation’s geopolitical hand, but also to make money.

It already has a keen clientele. Space entrepreneurs speak of a new “gold rush” and compare their mission to that of the frontiersmen, or the early industrialists. While planet Earth’s limited stock of natural resources is rapidly being depleted, asteroid miners see a solution in the vast quantities of untapped water, minerals and metals in outer space. And the fledgling “NewSpace” industry – an umbrella term for commercial spaceflight, asteroid mining and other private ventures – has found eager supporters in the investor class. In April, Goldman Sachs sent a note to clients claiming that asteroid mining “could be more realistic than perceived”, thanks to the falling cost of launching rockets and the vast quantities of platinum sitting on space rocks, just waiting to be exploited.

“[Mining asteroids] is not a new idea, but what’s new is state support of the idea,” says Chris Voorhees, the chief engineer of Planetary Resources. “Everyone thought it was inevitable but they weren’t sure when it would occur.” Now, he says, Luxembourg is “making it happen”.

The grand duchy – which has all the square footage of an asteroid and, with a population of half a million, not all that many more inhabitants – has earmarked €200m to fund NewSpace companies that join its new space sector; to date, six have taken it up on the offer. It has sent officials to Japan, China and the UAE to talk about space exploration partnerships, and appointed space industry veterans, including the ex-head of the European Space Agency, to advise them. In May, it took out a glossy supplement in Scientific American magazine to signal it is committed not just to helping businesses, but to advancing research as well.

And in July, the parliament passed its law – the first of its kind in Europe, and the most far-reaching in the world – asserting that if a Luxembourgish company launches a spacecraft that obtains water, silver, gold or any other valuable substance on a celestial body, the extracted materials will be considered the company’s legitimate private property by a legitimate sovereign nation.

The presence of royalty at Planetary Resources HQ ahead of the passing of the law was a canny part of the country’s space incursion. The young couple was there to dazzle, charm and lend gravitas to the operation – European aristocracy doesn’t show up in suburban office parks any old day – but the mission’s greater aim was to impress upon Silicon Valley executives, the bemused Luxembourgish press and space scientists around the world that mining asteroids was no longer science fiction. To that end, the royals were accompanied by about 40 of their subjects, all of whom had a role to play in this emerging industry.

Etienne Schneider, Luxembourg’s congenial deputy prime minister, led the delegation. With his easy manner, excellent English and penchant for fancy cars, he cuts a Macronian figure: a product of European socialist political parties, sure, and a social liberal to his core – Schneider is married to a man – but one who will willingly play handmaiden to global capitalist interests should the right opportunity arise. He announced recently that he would be running for the role of prime minister in 2018.

With Schneider came a delegation of scientists, trade attaches, bankers, lawyers and local journalists who switched between German, English, French and the local language, a consonant-heavy mix of Flemish and German with the occasional foreign word thrown in to supplement: “meeting”, “framework”, “brunch”. (“We don’t have all the words,” a member of the delegation told me sheepishly.) In French, the language is known as Luxembourgeois, which pretty much says it all; the duchy’s 500,000 citizens, who have a GDP per capita of $104,000 (£78,800), are the wealthiest in the world after Qatar’s, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The Planetary Resources team took their benefactors on a tour of the labs where its hardware is built. The company isn’t mining asteroids yet, but to benefit from Luxembourg’s concessions, it opened an office in the grand duchy this year. Up close, its Arkyd 6 spacecraft – which is ready for launch – looks just like satellites look in the movies, only smaller. It had multiple flaps and appendages, including an infrared sensor, a star tracker to orient the craft in space and a GPS unit, which works only in the earth’s orbit.

Once the tour was complete, cocktail hour began. Schneider, who owns a vineyard, bounced from one conversation to another, brimming with enthusiasm. To end the visit, Chris Lewicki, the CEO of the company, gave a toast praising Luxembourg’s contributions “to an abundant future for all of humanity”. As a parting gift, he presented her royal highness with a necklace. Instead of jewels, it was studded with tiny fragments of asteroids.

It is reasonable to wonder what, exactly, a marginal European monarchy, egged on by a vivacious gay socialist, was doing telling American entrepreneurs on the cutting edge of innovation that their hamlet-sized state could propel humanity – and capitalism – into deep space. The grand duchy has no national space agency, no launching sites, and only modest research capabilities. It opened its first and only university in 2003 and its military consists of 1,008 troops. Luxembourg does not fit the image of a spacefaring nation; in fact, some have questioned whether it should even be a nation at all.

Yet Luxembourg’s very essence – as a speck in the heart of Europe – allows, even requires, it to partake in such ambitious ventures. Its national motto is “We want to remain what we are” and, over the centuries, this independent spirit has endured occupations by the dukes of Burgundy, the kings of Spain and France, the emperors of Austria and the king of the Netherlands. Today, the state, which only gained full independence in 1867, occupies a curious position in the global imagination: a country with an outsized economic influence that everyone has heard of, but that no one can quite locate on a map.

According to Gabriel Zucman, assistant professor of economics at UC Berkeley, the country is hard to miss in the financial world. “Luxembourg has private banks like Switzerland, it has a big mutual fund industry like Ireland’s, it’s used for corporate tax avoidance like Bermuda or the Netherlands, and it also hosts one of the two international central depositories for securities, so it’s active in euro bonds,” he says. “It’s the tax haven of tax havens, present at all stages of the financial industry.” Tony Norfield, a former banker in the City of London who now writes on global finance, has described Luxembourg as “a paragon of parasitism”.

The story of how a marginal and relatively powerless country has survived world wars, economic crises and cataclysmic technological advances to become a banking and finance powerhouse tells us a lot about how far a small country can go if it devotes itself to anticipating and accommodating the needs of global capital. It’s a contentious business: for every happy shareholder praising Luxembourg’s business-friendly rules and money-saving loopholes, there’s a critic condemning Luxembourg’s willingness to expedite the regulatory “race to the bottom”.

 
Luxembourg City. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Rex/Shutterstock

Then again, there aren’t many options for a country like Luxembourg besides exploiting its most valuable resource: its national sovereignty. And Luxembourg has done this more and better than any other country in the world. By crafting innovative rules, laws and regulations that only it could (or would) put on offer, Luxembourg has attracted banks, telecommunications companies and consulting firms before any of these industries came to dominate the global economy. Now, by courting asteroid miners before anyone else takes them seriously, it may very well end up doing the same thing for the commercialisation of space.

Luxembourg’s first significant attempts at liberalisation began in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As radio grew popular, the grand duchy decided not to create a publicly funded radio service like its neighbours. Instead, it handed its airwaves to a private, commercial broadcasting company. That company – now known as RTL – became the first ad-supported commercial station to broadcast music, culture and entertainment programmes across Europe in multiple languages. “By handing the rights to a public good to a private company, the state commercialised, for the first time, its sovereign rights in a media context,” notes a 2000 book on Luxembourg’s economic history. The title of the book, published by a Luxembourgish bank, is, tellingly, The Fruits of National Sovereignty.

Then, just three months before the stock market collapsed in 1929, Luxembourg’s parliament passed legislation exempting holding companies – that is, parent firms that exist solely to own parts of or control other companies – from paying corporation taxes. In the first five years after the law’s passing, 700 holding companies were established; in 1960, there were 1,200, and by the turn of the century, some 15,000 “letterbox” firms – one for every 18 citizens – were incorporated in Luxembourg. (In 2006, the European commission found that this exemption violated EU rules, so Luxembourg promptly created a new designation, the “family estate management company”, that complied with the country’s EU treaty obligations while offering many of the same money-saving advantages.)

Throughout the first half of 20th century, Luxembourg’s main industry was steel, but by 1980, that business all but collapsed. Even before its iron ore mines shut down, though, the grand duchy came to represent a discreet but powerful regulatory freedom. A homegrown economic model began to take shape: over the next decades, it would make a name for itself by passing legislation “designed to tempt the world’s hot money,” notes the Tax Justice Network, an anti-tax-evasion advocacy group.

The country’s policymakers also realized that less could really be more. According to Georges Schmit, a lifelong civil servant who has played a big role in shaping the country’s economy since he joined the ministry of the economy in 1981, a key component of Luxembourg’s early success was the fact that it did not have its own central bank. The country had been in a monetary union with Belgium since 1921, and didn’t impose reserve requirements on financial firms. This meant banks could lend or spend the money that they would have had to keep on deposit in other jurisdictions. In Schmit’s words, Luxembourg’s biggest draw “wasn’t our doing; it was the lack of our doing anything”.

Over the years, the government managed to coax over foreign financial institutions, from complex securitisation vehicles to Islamic banks. And on the consumer level, the state’s low taxes drew Europe’s tax-averse petty bourgeoisie. Starting in the 1960s, “Belgian dentists” and “German butchers” – the prevailing stereotypes cited in the international financial press – began taking daytrips to the grand duchy to deposit money to avoid tax at home. The Luxembourgish state even lowered fuel costs to attract the daytrippers, and in 1981, introduced legally binding bank secrecy comparable to Switzerland’s.

In the next century, the dentists would give way to Qatari princes, Chinese princelings and other global members of the global super-rich – or at the very least, their investments. “When a country is small, the rest of the world is big,” says Schmit. “Since independence we needed to find larger economic spaces, be they regional or continental.” By serving as a hub for investors, companies and markets during decades of rapid deregulation and globalisation, Luxembourg turned itself into an indispensable cog in the machinery of international finance.

In 2009, Schmit embarked for California to continue his life’s work: finding new ways for his country to attract money, this time as the general consul and trade envoy in Silicon Valley.

Since he had joined the ministry of the economy to devise new innovation strategies almost three decades earlier, his country seemed to have defied all odds and made virtues of its apparent weaknesses. Its small size had not prevented it from becoming the largest centre for investment funds in the world after the US. Its tiny population had not deterred multinationals and EU institutions such as the court of justice from basing their headquarters there. It had parlayed its status as a neutral country and founding member of many European organisations into sending three of its politicians – more than any other country – to preside over the European commission. And by marketing its easy access to Europe, an educated workforce, bank secrecy (which it voted to ended in 2014 under pressure from other countries and the OECD) and myriad regulatory advantages, the country built an outsized financial sector.

Crucially, Luxembourg never seemed to let an opportunity pass it by. Following its support for commercial radio 50 years prior, the country was the first in Europe to privatise satellite television. In 1985, the grand duchy granted a company called Société Européenne des Satellites (SES) the right to broadcast TV directly to viewers’ homes from a satellite positioned in space. “The big innovation is that this was a privatisation of space,” says Schmit, who served for 17 years on the SES board. “All the other operators were owned by governments through international agreements. This was the first commercial company that set out to use space for broadcasting.” When SES grew profitable, Luxembourg’s bet paid off: the tiny country became home to a telecoms giant, and, as an early investor, received a piece of the pie.


FacebookTwitterPinterest Prince Guillaume and Princess Stéphanie of Luxembourg. Photograph: Didier Baverel/WireImage

In the early 2000s, Luxembourg pounced at the chance to court retailers such as Amazon and Apple with tax incentives. There were the perks the state was happy to publicise – the lowest VAT in Europe, for instance – and there were case-by-case deals with large companies that it kept rather quieter. The companies flocked in, but in the aftermath of the financial crisis, with awareness of wealth inequality growing and austerity measures bruising ordinary Europeans across the continent, Luxembourg could only keep these arrangements under wraps for so long.

In late 2014, the grand duchy went from relative obscurity to complete infamy when the details of these “tax rulings” – versions of which were also carried out by Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands – were disclosed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Known as the “Lux leaks”, the massive trove of leaked data revealed that, from 2002 to 2010, the country’s tax agency approved a series of confidential deals that allowed AIG, Ikea, Deutsche Bank and more than 300 other large firms to save billions of dollars they might have otherwise owed to other countries.

The rulings weren’t necessarily illegal, and they weren’t unique to Luxembourg, but they did cause a scandal, provoking damning reports in the media, protests around Europe and promises for tighter regulation from within the EU. Investigations on both sides of the Atlantic on related matters followed, and lawsuits revealed information on more companies still. (One memorable detail: Amazon’s 28-step tax-restructuring arrangement in Luxembourg was named Project Goldcrest after the country’s national bird.)

Around this time, Zucman, a recent Paris School of Economics PhD who studied with Thomas Piketty, began looking into Luxembourg’s role in international tax avoidance and evasion. His focus was not on the multinationals, but on Luxembourg’s thriving fund industry, which through niche regulations and loopholes allowed investors to avoid certain taxes, too. Luxembourg was a well-known financial centre, but the statistics Zucman dug up while researching his book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations, took him aback: in 2015, national data showed $3.5tn worth of shares in Luxembourgish mutual funds were domiciled in the grand duchy, while data from other countries accounted for only two of those trillions. The missing $1.5tn suggested to him that the money – which, he notes, was probably accumulating interest by the day – had no identifiable owner. That meant the countries to whom tax was owed on these ungodly sums were unaware of their existence.

Globally, Zucman calculated almost $8tn in financial wealth – which does not include real estate, luxury goods, gold or other commodities – has been stolen from countries and taxpayers in this fashion thanks to “secrecy jurisdictions” such as Luxembourg, the Virgin Islands or Panama working “in symbiosis”. In his book, Zucman described Luxembourg as an “economic colony of the international financial industry” and challenged its right to its greatest asset: its sovereignty.

“Imagine an ocean platform where the inhabitants would meet during the day to produce and trade, free of any law or any tax, before being teleported in the evening back home to their families on the mainland,” he wrote, referring to the country’s unusual demographics: 47% of Luxembourg’s 500,000 residents are foreign, and 44% of the workforce commutes in across nation-state lines each day for work. “No one would dream of considering such a place, where 100% of its production is sent abroad, as a nation.

“The trade of sovereignty knows no limits,” Zucman continues. “Everything is bought; everything is negotiable. Luxembourg is not the only country that has sold its sovereignty, far from it … but it is the one that has gone the furthest.”

Scrutiny of Luxembourg’s tax practices – from the press, the public and the EU – spread at an awkward time. At the end of 2013, the country elected a new prime minister, Xavier Bettel, whose coalition government of democrats, socialists and greens wanted to distance themselves from the economic policies of former prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker and play by the EU’s rules. “Honestly, I am fed up with being accused of being a defender of a tax haven and a hotbed of sin,” Bettel said in a speech to the Luxembourg Bankers’ Association shortly after taking office. “We need to work on our image … we have much changed in the last years, now it is time to make sure that everybody knows.”

Etienne Schneider, then economy minister, was part of this effort, too. But instead of being applauded for breaking with the past, from the moment they took power the politicians were constantly reminded of their country’s indiscretions. The new government needed to square the Luxembourgish model of economic development with new political realities. It had to keep looking ahead. Most of all, it wanted to change the conversation.

A curious possibility had emerged the previous summer, when Georges Schmit visited Nasa’s Ames research centre in Palo Alto and found himself in conversation with Pete Worden, a former director of the centre. Over coffee, Worden told Schmit about the emerging NewSpace sector and about his dream of finding life on other stars and planets.

Schmit sensed Worden would hit it off with Schneider, so he introduced them. At first, asteroid mining struck Schneider as crazy. “I listened to him and wondered what this guy might have smoked this morning; it sounded like complete science fiction,” he recalled. But the more he listened, the more it made sense. Worden persuaded Schneider that “it’s not if it will happen, it’s when it’ll happen. And the countries who’ll be the pioneers will be the ones that’ll get the most out of it later on.”

From 2014 to 2016, a series of meetings between the Americans and the Luxembourgeois took place. If they resembled April’s trade mission, they will have involved tedious tours of technology companies, self-aggrandising speeches about how space would bring about Earth’s “third industrial revolution”, and many hours stuck in traffic – but also genuine wonder at what might happen if humankind made space their own.

Schneider hung his hopes – and his political future – on the stars. Here was a chance to change the conversation away from taxes and towards space; to establish an industry for Luxembourg’s future; to contribute to science and human knowledge, even. Besides, in such trying times, who didn’t like talking about the wonders of exploring the great unknown? NewSpace companies were certainly eager to work with Luxembourg. They were thirsty for funds and attention, and felt invisible in the US. Luxembourg was a place where they could get meetings with high-level politicians in minutes; where everyone spoke great English; where the bureaucracy was minimal, and the promise of low taxes remained. As one NewSpace executive told me this year: “We just want to work with a government who won’t get in the way.”

The only catch was the ambiguity of space law: companies wanted assurances that the fruits of their extraterrestrial labour would be recognised here on Earth. This is not a given. Unlike on Earth, where a country can grant a company a mining concession, or a person can sell the right to exploit their land, no one has an obvious legal claim to what’s outside our atmosphere. In fact, the Outer Space Treaty, signed by 107 countries at the UN in 1967, explicitly prohibits countries from claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies. The question now is: if nobody owns or governs the great unknown, who is to say who gets to own a little piece of it?

Since the emergence of the NewSpace sector, individual countries have attempted to lend some clarity to eager entrepreneurs, reasoning that the prospect of private property in space will encourage hard work and innovation. The American Space Act, passed in 2015, is the first “finders, keepers” law that recognises ownership of space resources, but it only does so for companies owned by US citizens.

In October 2015, Luxembourg commissioned a study on whether it could fill that legal void. The report, completed in 2016, noted that “while legal uncertainty remains, under the current legal and regulatory framework, space mining activities are (at least) not prohibited” and concluded that Luxembourg should pass legislation that gives miners the right to keep the extraterrestrial bounty they extract.

Such a law was drafted shortly after the study’s completion, and on 1 August 2017, it went into effect. Luxembourg’s bill does not discriminate by nationality, or even by the location of a company’s headquarters. In fact, the law indicates the country’s willingness to serve as a sort of flag of convenience for spacecrafts, allowing them to play by one country’s futuristic rules in the absence of universal, binding agreements. Rick Tumlinson, of Deep Space Industries, another space exploration company in which Luxembourg has invested, told me that there was value in Luxembourg’s law because it saw no citizens and no borders: just one blue planet from high above.

Six weeks after the trade mission in California, I disembarked from a tiny plane on the runway of Luxembourg City’s airport in a melee of grey suits and black carry-on roller bags. I walked past large wealth-management and equity-fund advertisements into the car park, where I caught the bus into the city centre, passing dozens of huge new building projects, a tramline under construction and two enormous yellow towers that, in the afternoon light, resembled twin gold bars reaching for the sky.

Luxembourg City. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Within an hour, I was sitting at a table outside a dive bar opposite the old city’s bathhouse with Lars Schmitz, 29, and Gabrielle Taillefert, 21, two members of a local theatre and art collective called Richtung22 (Direction22). Over the past few years, the group has staged a series of performances lampooning their country’s mercenary modus operandi. Instead of writing their own scripts from scratch, the collective makes dramatic collages almost entirely out of primary documents: laws, press releases, speeches, transcripts from parliament, promotional videos and so on.

One of Richtung22’s early works satirised Luxembourg’s nation branding committee, which was set up in March 2013 to promote the country abroad. The play, which was financed in part by the culture ministry, was entitled Lëtzebuerg, du hannerhältegt Stéck Schäiss (Luxembourg, Vicious Pile of Shit). Since then, Schmitz says, state funds for Richtung22’s work have dried up.

In his spare time, Schmitz, who is slight of build with cropped blonde hair, works on antifascist and anti-capitalist organising. He has the droll resignation of a leftwing activist operating in a country whose politics are so abstract and so global that grassroots resistance must necessarily come in the form of farce. Richtung22’s latest play savages the country’s efforts to attract the NewSpace industry. Its title is Luxembourg’s Private Space Explorevolutionary Superfancy Asteroid Tailoring. Schmitz sees space mining as a high-tech spin on an age-old scam: selling sovereignty. “The country’s business model is hidden,” he said. “It’s making laws that companies want, and taking a risk on those companies. But the government uses it to say ‘This is how modern we are! This is something new!”

Zucman shares Schmitz’s view. “Adapting this strategy to the business of space conquest is what being an offshore financial centre means,” he says. “It’s not diversification. It’s just extending the logic of being a tax haven to new area.”

On stage, the entire space enterprise is portrayed as a cynical, money-grubbing, reputation-redeeming debacle dictated by private-sector interests. “We feel bad that our country does this to the world, and no one else here talks about this stuff,” Schmitz told me. He ran off a dozen or so Luxembourgish transgressions, including but not limited to aiding and abetting tax evasion and weaseling its way out of EU banking regulations. In such a small country, it’s hard to be so outspoken against the national interest. “People think we’re traitors,” he said.

Was there anything good about his country, I asked. “It’s beautiful,” Schmitz conceded. He was right: Luxembourg is beautiful, and was particularly charming on that balmy May evening. The city rests on two levels; the smaller “low” city’s quaint little streets and sidewalk cafes skim the river, while the “high” city centre is home to a lively main drag with pricey boutiques, fancy chocolate shops and chains such as H&M. Cafes advertise crémant – a local bubbly wine – and local dishes that borrow their richness from the French and their stodginess from the Germans.

The next day, I went to meet Marc Baum, an MP from the democratic socialist party déi Lénk (the Left). He handed me a policy paper his party published criticising Schneider’s space-mining proposal: they believe his law is inconsistent with Luxembourg’s outer-space treaty obligations, that it creates opportunities for billionaires to further enrich themselves and could be harmful to the environment. Even worse, it enshrines the notion of “competition instead of cooperation” between states. “It’s infinite capitalism!” Baum exclaimed over a cold beer on a terrace.

Baum, as it happened, is an actor, too. When we met, he was preparing to perform Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, an absurdist play about a town whose protagonists speak exclusively in cliches and end up turning into rhinos on account of their unquestioning conformity. Over the course of the drama, the townspeople justify their decision to “go rhino” by declaring that “humanism is dead, those who follow it are just old sentimentalists”. The play’s sole hero, Berenger, resists succumbing to “rhinoceritis”, but fails to save anyone else: he ends up being the only person in the whole town who does not grow a horn. The analogy between that and Baum’s own predicament seems a little on the nose. He was one of just two politicians who voted against the space law in July.

In June, about a month before his signature legislation was passed by the parliament, Schneider and some of his associates flew to New York for yet another sales pitch – this time, for the benefit of venture capitalists on the east coast.

His speech focused on the financial aspects of Luxembourg’s space race, and the country’s intention to get in on the ground floor of commercial space exploration. “Under the US Space Act, your capital has to be majority US capital,” he said, referring to US willingness to recognise property rights in space for its citizens. “We don’t really care where the money comes from in our country, as long as the money is clean.”

On Schneider’s telling, Luxembourg could do for the space-resource trade what it had done for the eurodollar market, international holding companies and multinationals: provide a safe, reliable base where they could operate in tandem with a keen and cooperative – or, by his detractors’ assessment, pliable and sycophantic – state. Schneider announced that after passing its law, Luxembourg would create its own space agency. This would not be a copy of Nasa, but would instead “focus only on commercial space resources”. He told the audience that Luxembourg would solicit private funding to capitalise NewSpace companies, and seek the advice of venture capitalists to decide what companies to invest in. If asteroid mining does, in fact, take off, Luxembourg will be what Schneider’s friends in Silicon Valley might call an “early adopter”.

It’s a gamble, for sure. But it’s difficult to imagine where Luxembourg would be had it not deployed this ingenious development strategy continuously over the past century. The global economy offers few alternatives than to serve it, and rewards its enablers richly. Perhaps a mercenary spirit is what it takes to succeed as a small country in the world – and that “we want to remain what we are” is just Luxembourgeois for the old French saying: plus ça change.