November 26, 2017
For your Bits this weekend we get started by taking a look at the career of Christopher Steele and how it led him to unearth the many connections between U.S. President Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the world of spycraft, the credibility of any piece of intelligence depends on the source, and Steele’s career has allowed him to provide very credible information regarding Russia. He began his career serving as an undercover MI6 agent at Britain’s embassy in Moscow during the fall of the Soviet Union. Over the following decades he would become one of the preeminent observers of the Kremlin and their machinations investigating the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko and uncovering Russian corruption of FIFA. By the time his private investigation firm was offered a contract to uncover ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government he was sufficiently well-networked to “stumble upon a well-advanced conspiracy that went beyond anything he had discovered with Litvinenko or Fifa”. A conspiracy to recruit Trump had been in place for five years and by the end of the 2016 election, Steele’s source alleged, “that Trump’s team had co-ordinated with Russia on the hacking operation against Clinton. And that the Americans had secretly co-paid for it.”
~ 30 Minute Read
“Moscow, summer 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev is in power. Official relations with the west have softened, but the KGB still assumes all western embassy workers are spooks. The KGB agents assigned to them are easy to spot. They have a method. Sometimes they pursue targets on foot, sometimes in cars. The officers charged with keeping tabs on western diplomats are never subtle.
One of their specialities is breaking into Moscow apartments. The owners are always away, of course. The KGB leave a series of clues – stolen shoes, women’s tights knotted together, cigarette butts stomped out and left demonstratively on the floor. Or a surprise turd in the toilet, waiting in grim ambush. The message, crudely put, is this: we are the masters here! We can do what the fuck we please!
Back then, the KGB kept watch on all foreigners, especially American and British ones. The UK mission in Moscow was under close observation. The British embassy was a magnificent mansion built in the 1890s by a rich sugar merchant, on the south bank of the Moskva river. It looked directly across to the Kremlin. The view was dreamy: a grand palace, golden church domes and medieval spires topped with revolutionary red stars.
One of those the KGB routinely surveilled was a 27-year-old diplomat, newly married to his wife, Laura, on his first foreign posting, and working as a second secretary in the chancery division. In this case, their suspicions were right.
The “diplomat” was a British intelligence officer. His workplace was a grand affair: chandeliers, mahogany-panelled reception rooms, gilt-framed portraits of the Queen and other royals hanging from the walls. His desk was in the embassy library, surrounded by ancient books. The young officer’s true employer was an invisible entity back in London – SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6.
His name was Christopher Steele. Years later, he would be commissioned to undertake an astonishing secret investigation. It was an explosive assignment: to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets with relation to Donald Trump. Steele’s findings, and the resulting dossier, would shake the American intelligence community and cause a political earthquake not seen since the dark days of Richard Nixon and Watergate.”
“Much of the Soviet Union was off-limits to diplomats. Steele was the embassy’s “internal traveller”. He visited newly accessible cities. One of them was Samara, a wartime Soviet capital. There, he became the first foreigner to see Stalin’s underground bunker. Instead of Lenin, he found dusty portraits of Peter the Great and the imperial commander Mikhail Kutuzov – proof, seemingly, that Stalin was more nationalist than Marxist. Another city was Kazan, in Tatarstan. There a local correspondent, Anatoly Andronov, took a black-and-white photo of Steele chatting with newspaper editors. At weekends, Steele took part in soccer matches with a group of expats in a Russian league. In one game, he played against the legendary Soviet Union striker Oleh Blokhin, who scored from the halfway line.
The atmosphere was optimistic. It seemed to Steele that the country was shifting markedly in the right direction. Citizens once terrified of interacting with outsiders were ready to talk. The KGB, however, found nothing to celebrate in the USSR’s tilt towards freedom and reform. In August 1991, seven apparatchiks staged a coup while Gorbachev was vacationing in Crimea. Most of the British embassy was away. Steele was home at his second-floor apartment in Gruzinsky Pereulok. He left the apartment block and walked for 10 minutes into town. Crowds had gathered outside the White House, the seat of government; thus far the army hadn’t moved against them.
From 50 yards away, Steele watched as a snowy-haired man in a suit climbed on a tank and – reading from notes brushed by the wind – denounced the coup as cynical and illegal. This was a defiant Yeltsin. Steele listened as Yeltsin urged a general strike and, fist clenched, told his supporters to remain strong.
The coup failed, and a weakened Gorbachev survived. The putschists – the leading group in all the main Soviet state and party institutions – were arrested. In the west, and in the US in particular, many concluded that Washington had won the cold war, and that, after decades of ideological struggle, liberal democracy had triumphed.
Steele knew better. Three days after the coup, surveillance on him resumed. His MI6 colleagues in Hungary and Czechoslovakia reported that after revolutions there the secret police vanished, never to come back. But here were the same KGB guys, with the same familiar faces. They went back to their old routines of bugging, break-ins and harassment.
The regime changed. The system didn’t.”
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Our next article takes a look mindfulness and the ways it can be used to help raise well-adjusted children while enjoying the process. Practicing mindfulness is as simple “bringing a gentle, accepting attitude to the present moment” and the benefits of calm caregivers begin as soon as a child is born. Infants face an unpredictable world filled with new sensations, like hunger and tiredness, and they instinctively pick up on anxiety projected by whoever is caring for them. By learning to remain calm and focused on the baby (i.e. putting down your cell phone) the caregiver is showing the baby that they can feel safe while they process their emotions. The burden of teaching mindfulness to children continues to fall squarely on parents and other caregivers since kids of all ages internalize the actions and environment around them. As they become toddlers and young children, it is important to guide children through the steps of accepting and coping with their emotions, for example, by asking them “what they feel in their own bodies”. This process continues with school-age children and teenagers who can practice their mindfulness skills to help manage their emotions as they work through increasingly complex social environments. While mindfulness is a helpful practice for people of all ages the speed of neural development in children means learning these practices early in life can help ritualize these habits and allows them to facilitate the complementary development of attention and cognitive control.
~ 19 Minute Read
Don’t make mindfulness seem like something only to be used in times of trouble — present it as a tool to be used in a variety of situations.
BEING MINDFUL EVERY DAY
As children develop into early childhood, they become capable not only of practicing mindfulness with the guidance of a parent or caregiver, but also of retaining some of these skills and turning to them in times of need. “By around age 4 they are able to learn skills that they can utilize on their own,” said Ms. Greenland.
To instill these habits in children, practice is key. Don’t make mindfulness something that is turned to only in times of stress. Instead, make mindfulness exercises a regular part of the daily routine, an activity in and of itself, just like reading, playing outside or making art. And rather than making mindfulness seem as if it is only as an antidote to irritating situations, present it as a tool that can help children explore new sensations, including those that are pleasant, neutral and unfamiliar.
“Use it as a tool to explore kindness and curiosity,” said Ms. Morey. “Ask children what they feel in their bodies.”
Parents can also continue to embody mindfulness, and should feel comfortable meditating in front of their children. “It’s a wonderful practice for parents, too, to meditate in the midst of whatever is going on,” said Ms. Harris. “The children may not have any concept of what we’re doing when we meditate, but they’re mimicking the behavior and they’re interested.”
As children grow older and become more independent, parents and caregivers grapple with a loss of control. When children are in school and out with friends, there’s simply less a parent can do to influence the lives of their children. And when setbacks occur, as they inevitably will, it is important for parents to meet those misfortunes with mindfulness.
Rather than getting hung up on whatever the problem is, note it and address it, but at the same time recognize that it is fleeting and will pass. If it is the child who misbehaved, make an effort to forgive them.
And if the parent or caregiver is blaming themselves, they should work on self-forgiveness, too. “Wisdom doesn’t come from being perfect,” said Ms. Greenland. “Wisdom comes from being present.””
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Your last Bit for the weekend explores the nature of the American psyche and how it has allowed the United States to fracture into a culture without a shared set of facts. Since the inception of United States, Americans have come in two types: “overexcited gamblers” and their “Puritan”-valued counterparts. These two factions of Americans balanced each other until the 1960s when there was a “profound shift in thinking” to “do your own thing [and] find your own reality [because] it’s all relative”. This mindset continued to develop over the subsequent decades as the notion that societal narratives and expectations should be challenged (because they funnel resources and opportunities to those in control of the entrenched power system) devolved into a society where there is no shared set of facts. The next pivot point in America’s descension into relative reality was the “new era of information” where everyone can share their opinions as facts and communities of misguided people establish their own reality. This view on the United States explains the presidency of Donald Trump, a man whose life was a reality show before the concept was invented, who instinctively knew how to “exploit a skeptical disillusion with politics”, willing to promise Americans’ everything they could dream of.
~ 62 Minute Read
“We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.
How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
When I say that a third believe X and a quarter believe Y, it’s important to understand that those are different thirds and quarters of the population. Of course, various fantasy constituencies overlap and feed one another—for instance, belief in extraterrestrial visitation and abduction can lead to belief in vast government cover-ups, which can lead to belief in still more wide-ranging plots and cabals, which can jibe with a belief in an impending Armageddon.
Why are we like this?
The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.”
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