Sunday, May 12, 2024

On Our "Virtual Route 66" This Week: Some Mid-Month #RandomThoughts


Our team was in the community this weekend as an image of a local Italian restaurant, Stella's in Dana Point, was captured, which we have the pleasure of headlining this week.    Our team decided to curate #RandomThoughts throughout our web properties as we present a curation of the public policy engagements this week. We hope the community enjoys visiting the Education, Vision, Esperanza, and Ordinary Faces Properties as well.  

We look forward to the continued privilege to serve:

One of the volunteers with the Hospitallers Medical Battalion writes down the medical data of the wounded soldier inside the evacuation bus that brings wounded Ukrainian soldiers from Donetsk Oblast to a hospital in Dnipro city on April 25, 2024. (Serhii Korovayny/The Kyiv Independent)

Military: Russian forces in Kharkiv Oblast contained, fighting continues. A military spokesperson said fighting was continuing in the Lyptsi and Vovchansk directions and Ukrainian forces were hunting down Russian troops he said were hidden in forested areas.

Russia claims capture of five villages in Ukraine's Kharkiv Oblast. In a briefing, the Russian Defense Ministry said Russian troops were now in control of Pletenivka, Ohirtseve, Borysivka, Pylna, and Strilecha, all within two kilometers of the border. The Kyiv Independent could not verify the Russian Defense Ministry's claims.

Kharkiv governor: Heavy fighting ongoing but no threat of ground invasion of city. Speaking to journalists, Oleh Syniehubov said the situation was "fully controlled." Syniehubov claimed fighting was ongoing in four of the five villages claimed by Moscow – Strilecha, Pylna, Borysivka, and Ohirtseve.

Over 1,700 civilians evacuated from Kharkiv Oblast over past day. Over the past day, 1,775 civilians in Kharkiv Oblast have been evacuated from their homes amid renewed Russian attacks on the region, Governor Oleh Syniehubov reported on May 11.

Military intelligence identifies Russian military personnel behind Kinzhal strikes. Ukraine has identified Russian military personnel responsible for carrying out Kinzhal missile strikes on civilians, Ukraine's military intelligence agency (HUR) announced on May 11.

Zelensky: Ukraine defends in northern Kharkiv Oblast, 'extremely difficult' situation in Donetsk Oblast. Battles are ongoing around the settlements of Strilecha, Krasne, Morokhovets, Oliinykove, Lukiantsi, Hatyshche, and Pletenivka, Zelensky said.

US General: 'Russia will not stop with Ukraine unless they're stopped in Ukraine.' An autocratic regime like Russia can readily prioritize the expansion of its defense industries over economic well-being to sustain its military actions in Ukraine, along with help from Iran and North Korea, said Lt Gen. Steven L. Basham, U.S. Air Forces in Europe deputy commander.

Ukraine receives emergency energy supply from Europe amid power shortages. Ukraine received an emergency electricity supply from Poland, Romania, and Slovakia amid an ongoing power shortage following Russia's attacks on energy infrastructure, the Energy Ministry reported on May 11.

Ukraine claims downing of another Russian Su-25. Where the downing occurred was not specified but the brigade that shot it down is known to be operating in the Avdiivka direction in Donetsk Oblast.

Apple launched an artificial intelligence-driven iPad Pro. Photo: Apple

In brief | Apple's iPad finally received a refresh that many analysts and customers had been longing for, but in the process, the company stepped into the anxieties and fears that cross the minds of many when it comes to the topic of artificial intelligence. We'll discuss more on that in a moment.

For several months before the recent iPad launch, some pundits had wondered if the California-based technology firm had lost interest in the tablet product category. They also wondered if Apple had focused too much attention on its Apple VisionPro, and too little on the booming AI sector.

The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Apple's iPads showcase the company's quiet but certain investment and research into artificial intelligence, as well as the CPU technology that underpins all those AI features.

That said, Apple introduced the iPads with a minute-long video, titled 'Crush!', which depicted musical instruments, paint cans, brushes, record players, video game consoles, easels and metronomes being destroyed between two metal blocks, only to later reveal that all the destroyed items were replaced by the iPad.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook later posted the video on X as a way of promoting the new iPads, but his post quickly caused a backlash, with celebrities, creative professionals and others angry about the commercial depicting the destruction of so many instruments and tools.

“The destruction of the human experience, courtesy of Silicon Valley,” wrote actor Hugh Grant on X. Why did Apple do an ad that crushes the arts?“, actor Justine Bateman posted.

Why it matters | Make no mistake, Apple's latest iPad line-up is a technical marvel. The idea behind the ad is that the new iPad is powerful enough to pack all these items into a tablet, and then some.

What caused the backlash? I don't think it's necessarily the destruction depicted in the video, but rather, the timing of the video.

The world is consumed with a sense of fascination equally countered with a sense of fear as to what Artificial Intelligence will do to the creative endeavours that have inspired humans throughout history.

There's already ample controversy and speculation surrounding the human-created content that AI large language models are trained on, and that debate seems to be intensifying.

Quoted | “This will be studied in marketing courses for decades to come as an example of a totally botched ad: how did the creative team and leadership get it so wrong?”

– Cindy Hoedel, X (Formerly Twitter) user


Future in focus

DeepL chief executive Jaroslaw “Jarek” Kutylowski wants the company's translation service to bolster its presence and usage in the Middle East.

Leveraging language | Translation unicorn DeepL is looking to increase its presence in the Middle East

Arab AI representation | Why the UAE has been selected for Hiroshima's AI Process Friends Group

Empathy and action | Zayed Research Centre and the London surgeon on a lifelong heart health mission


Predicting the future: Signal or noise?

TikTok is suing the US Department of Justice

TikTok delivered on its promise to sue the US Department of Justice after President Joe Biden signed a bill that seeks to force Chinese parent company ByteDance to divest the social media app from its portfolio. The China-based company says that its First Amendment rights are being breached.

This is a signal: It might seem odd for TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, to argue that its First Amendment rights are being breached, but the legal system in the US won't necessarily see it as strange.

The lawsuit probably won't be dismissed simply because of the location of ByteDance's headquarters.

It's also worth noting that previous attempts on a smaller level in the US to ban and curtail the use of TikTok have been successfully challenged and overturned.

While there are many examples of exceptions for absolute First Amendment rights, expect TikTok's attempt to overturn this divestment bill to get serious consideration, and potentially be successful.

Israeli Professor on Rafah: “We Are Witnessing an Unfolding Genocide”

Watch a special Zeteo breaking-news town hall with Raz Segal and Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu


After months of threats and speculation, the Israeli military has officially begun to move into the southern Gazan city of Rafah, sending in tanks and taking control of the border crossing with Egypt. The UN secretary-general has warned an assault on Rafah would be a “humanitarian nightmare,” while Joe Biden appears unfazed as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu violates what the U.S. president previously called his “red line.” 

In response to these escalations, Mehdi hosted a town hall for Zeteo paid subscribers with Israeli Holocaust scholar Raz Segal and Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu. 

Zeteo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Segal, who has previously called Israel’s war on Gaza a “textbook case of genocide,” said: “If we finally recognized Israel for what it is, which is a white supremacist settler state, then the problem is that it's not just confined to that. We have to recognize the whole system behind it, its support, its allies, including white supremacy and settler colonialism in the U.S.”

Israeli Historian Raz Segal joins Zeteo for a breaking news town hall on Rafah.

Zeteo contributor Diana Buttu reminded viewers that Israel’s latest escalations in Rafah are, unfortunately, no surprise, stating that the invasion is what “Netanyahu always wanted.”

“He's made it clear since the beginning that they were going to continue to push Palestinians further south,” Buttu told Mehdi. “And the point is very clear, that they want to get rid of Palestinians.” 

One billion dollars. For that bargain price, El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago will sell you this planet and the lives of everyone living on it now, as well as the lives of every generation to come, for as long as there are generations to come. Lost in all the noise in a Manhattan courtroom was this remarkable account of a remarkable meeting between the defendant and the barons of the extraction industries.

Read More


What happens when a country with triple-digit inflation and chronic fiscal deficits elects a chainsaw-wielding populist with a dead dog for chief counsel as president?

Back in November, following the unexpected triumph of the self-styled “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei in Argentina’s presidential election, I expected the economy would further collapse in short order.

Thankfully for the people of Argentina, that didn’t happen. In fact, since taking office in December, President Milei’s economic team has seemingly achieved what I (along with most political analysts and economists) thought impossible: Monthly inflation has come down every month for the past three months, from 25% in December to nearly 10% in March, with forecasters expecting the April figure to come in at single digits. The government did this by turning the 5.5% budget deficit it inherited into the country’s first surplus in over a decade, while boosting the central bank’s reserves, lowering its benchmark interest rates, and reducing the money supply – all without destabilizing currency and financial markets.

That’s not to say average Argentines are having a good time (more on this below). But this is a big deal nonetheless, and it’s one that I’m very happy to have been wrong about – just as I’ll be happy if I’m wrong about Ukraine eventually getting partitioned (although I’ll take the under on that).

Why didn’t the economy collapse?

One key reason is that President Milei turned out to be significantly more sensible and moderate than candidate Milei, to most everyone’s surprise.

Unlike Argentina’s last several administrations, which were known quantities to anyone who covered the country, Milei and his inner circle were completely untested outsiders with a reputation for intransigence and ideological dogmatism. Absent a better first-hand assessment of him and the people surrounding him, I was more willing to take his campaign promises and stated views at face value than I would have otherwise. And let me tell you, some of those were … pretty out there.

Upon taking office, however, Milei proved himself more willing to listen, engage, and compromise than I expected. Despite his combative rhetoric, the most institutionally weak president in modern Argentine history – with little support in Congress and among governors – went back on his promise never to negotiate with the so-called “political caste.” He quickly backed off the most outlandish/ambitious (depending on who you ask) libertarian economic policies he and his original advisors had run on – at least for now. The most notable of these were dollarization (aka replacing the peso with the greenback as the local currency), abolishing the central bank, and lifting currency controls, which if implemented on day 1 as pledged would have caused the sharp and immediate crisis that I predicted.

Instead, Milei appointed a strongly pragmatic economic team that has been well-received both by markets and the IMF – two essential players in Argentina’s economic stabilization. Led by the experienced ex-banker Luis Caputo, whom former President Mauricio Macri nicknamed “the Messi of finance,” the government embarked on a sweeping shock therapy agenda consisting of a 54% devaluation and draconian fiscal and monetary tightening. Wisely (but contrary to economic orthodoxy and Milei’s campaign rhetoric), they decided to keep currency and capital controls in place to prevent a disorderly run on the peso from wreaking havoc on markets. The gamble has paid off thus far, with investors, businesses, and the IMF all welcoming Milei’s steps with open arms.

Can it last?

While shock therapy has been successful at balancing the budget and slowing inflation, it has come at a great social cost. The fiscal and monetary austerity has caused a deep recession, with economic activity shrinking more than 10% year-on-year in March, unemployment rising, and real salaries hitting their lowest point since 2003. The government is hopeful that all the sacrifice will soon give way to a V-shaped recovery as output expands in the second quarter thanks to agricultural exports. However, most economists are skeptical, and it’s unclear how much more pain Argentines will be willing to take before they turn on the president’s policies.

Caputo’s original deficit reduction plan envisioned a mix of 60% spending cuts and 40% tax increases. That plan, however, was blocked by Congress earlier this year, leaving the government with no choice but to rely on unpopular spending cuts for the bulk of it. While Argentina's public sector is without a doubt excessively bloated and in need of a good trim, many of the real-term cuts (referred to as “blending” in Argentina) to social spending that the Milei administration is banking on to balance the budget are regressive, recessionary, and therefore socially and politically unsustainable.

Mass protests against budget cuts to public universities two weeks ago drew more than 400,000 people, and labor unions called for a nationwide general strike tomorrow. Public discontent can only intensify as the austerity measures cut deeper, further undermining the president’s ability to pass legislation and limiting his room to maneuver. With the president’s approval ratings starting to trend down (albeit from honeymoon-level highs) and opposition to his policies mounting both on the streets and in Congress, this is the greatest risk to Milei’s plan.

Will Milei and Argentines have what it takes to stick with the treatment until the patient is cured? Or will they let this painful fiscal adjustment and recession go to waste even though their best chance for success in decades could be right around the corner?

As a fan of Argentina (and, you know, people in general), I know what I’m hoping for. But as they say, hope is not a strategy.

Russian defense officials announced plans for tactical nuclear weapons drills at an unspecified future date. The idea is “to practice the preparation and use of non-strategic nuclear weapons,” the Defense Ministry said Monday on Telegram. 


They’re also being planned “in response to provocative statements and threats of individual Western officials against the Russian Federation,” the military said on social media. 


The Kremlin blamed the drills on “a new, unprecedented round of tension in Ukraine, which requires Moscow to respond,” according to state-run TASS. A Ukrainian intelligence official referred to the drills as “nuclear blackmail,” as Axios pointed out Monday. 


But don’t reach for your anti-anxiety meds yet: “First, there is no indication that nuclear deterrence is eroding or that Russia would actually take credible steps toward using nuclear weapons,” said researcher Fabian Hoffman of the Oslo Nuclear Project, writing Monday on social media. “The costs of nuclear weapons use still far outweigh the benefits,” he said. “Second, contrary to public statements made by Russian officials, they are fully aware that using nuclear weapons cannot guarantee desired outcomes.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) speaks during an interview with POLITICO in his office suite at the U.S. Capitol.

Speaker Mike Johnson is deferential to Donald Trump but he also shows a willingness to buck the former president — or at least a desire not be seen as his puppet. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

THE PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: MIKE JOHNSON — We spent over an hour with Speaker MIKE JOHNSON on Wednesday night after the failed motion-to-vacate vote, and while he made a lot of news, we were most struck by how Johnson seems to be wrestling with a split personality.

There’s MAGA Mike, who is a loyal DONALD TRUMP lieutenant and social conservative warrior. But there’s also Speaker Johnson, who takes governing seriously, is eager to find consensus and heap praise on adversaries, and is ready to critique — gently — the former president’s bad ideas.

Johnson looks back fondly on the relationship between his predecessor TIP O’NEILL and President RONALD REAGAN, who he recalled “famously had this great relationship.”

After Reagan was shot in 1981, “Tip O'Neill goes to the hospital and kisses him on the forehead,” Johnson said. “You know, like they didn't agree on almost anything, but they had respect for one another. And I think we got to get back to that.”

The way he talks about Minority Leader HAKEEM JEFFRIES suggests a genuine Washington bromance. Hakeem is “a good family man,” “a man of his word,” and “we have a lot more in common than people might think.”

Johnson sounds serious about how polarization and negative partisanship are making governing impossible.

“The person on the other side of the aisle is not an enemy, they're a fellow American,” he said. “The Founders anticipated that you have people with very different philosophical ideas, very different principles and ideas about government. But the point was that we would come here, sit around a table and arm-wrestle together and kind of get to a point of consensus so that we can govern the country.”

When he said that these ideas “are lost on people now” and that “this system doesn't work unless you understand the principles that undergird it,” it wasn’t hard to figure out who he was talking about, especially since we were chatting just hours after Rep. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (R-Ga.) forced a vote on his removal as speaker.

In general, he sounded very much like someone who had (1) spent the last few months cutting bipartisan deals to keep the government open, (2) worked with Biden officials to get a clear-eyed view of the Russian threat before pushing through an aid package embraced by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, (3) lost any respect he had for the far-right agitators who don’t seem to believe in governing and (4) come to admire the House Democratic leader who saved him from his own party.

But Johnson in our interview was also quick to accuse President JOE BIDEN of having “a senior moment” on Israel policy, and agreed with characterizations of the president as essentially too old and senile to govern.

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