Why Silicon Valley billionaires are prepping for the apocalypse in New Zealand


The long read: How an extreme libertarian tract predicting the collapse of liberal democracies written by Jacob Rees-Moggs father inspired the likes of Peter Thiel to buy up property across the Pacific

If you’re interested in the end of the world, you’re interested in New Zealand. If you’re interested in how our current cultural anxieties – climate catastrophe, decline of transatlantic political orders, resurgent nuclear terror – manifest themselves in apocalyptic visions, you’re interested in the place occupied by this distant archipelago of apparent peace and stability against the roiling unease of the day.

If you’re interested in the end of the world, you would have been interested, soon after Donald Trump’s election as US president, to read a New York Times headline stating that Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, considered New Zealand to be “the Future”. Because if you are in any serious way concerned about the future, you’re also concerned about Thiel, a canary in capitalism’s coal mine who also happens to have profited lavishly from his stake in the mining concern itself.

Thiel is in one sense a caricature of outsized villainy: he was the only major Silicon Valley figure to put his weight behind the Trump presidential campaign; he vengefully bankrupted a website because he didn’t like how they wrote about him; he is known for his public musings about the incompatibility of freedom and democracy, and for expressing interest – as though enthusiastically pursuing the clunkiest possible metaphor for capitalism at its most vampiric – in a therapy involving transfusions of blood from young people as a potential means of reversing the ageing process. But in another, deeper sense, he is pure symbol: less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future, a human emblem of the moral vortex at the centre of the market.

It was in 2011 that Thiel declared he’d found “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand”. The claim was made as part of an application for citizenship; the application was swiftly granted, though it remained a secret for a further six years. In 2016, Sam Altman, one of Silicon Valley’s most influential entrepreneurs, revealed to the New Yorker that he had an arrangement with Thiel whereby in the eventuality of some kind of systemic collapse scenario – synthetic virus breakout, rampaging AI, resource war between nuclear-armed states, so forth – they both get on a private jet and fly to a property Thiel owns in New Zealand. (The plan from this point, you’d have to assume, was to sit out the collapse of civilisation before re-emerging to provide seed-funding for, say, the insect-based protein sludge market.)

In the immediate wake of that Altman revelation, Matt Nippert, a reporter for the New Zealand Herald, began looking into the question of how exactly Thiel had come into possession of this apocalypse retreat, a 477-acre former sheep station in the South Island – the larger, more sparsely populated of the country’s two major landmasses. Foreigners looking to purchase significant amounts of New Zealand land typically have to pass through a stringent government vetting process. In Thiel’s case, Nippert learned, no such process had been necessary, because he was already a citizen of New Zealand, despite having spent no more than 12 days in the country up to that point, and having not been seen in the place since. He didn’t even need to travel to New Zealand to have his citizenship conferred, it turned out: the deal was sealed in a private ceremony at a consulate handily located in Santa Monica.

‘Less a person than a shell company for a diversified portfolio of anxieties about the future’ … Peter Thiel. Photograph: VCG/Getty

When Nippert broke the story, there was a major public scandal over the question of whether a foreign billionaire should be able to effectively purchase citizenship. As part of his application, Thiel had agreed to invest in New Zealand tech startups, and had implied that he would use his new status as a naturalised Kiwi to promote the country’s business interests abroad. But the focus internationally was on why Thiel might have wanted to own a chunk of New Zealand roughly the size of lower Manhattan in the first place. And the overwhelming suspicion was that he was looking for a rampart to which he could retreat in the event of outright civilisational collapse.

Because this is the role that New Zealand now plays in our unfurling cultural fever dream: an island haven amid a rising tide of apocalyptic unease. According to the country’s Department of Internal Affairs, in the two days following the 2016 election the number of Americans who visited its website to enquire about the process of gaining New Zealand citizenship increased by a factor of 14 compared to the same days in the previous month. In particular, New Zealand has come to be seen as a bolthole of choice for Silicon Valley’s tech elite.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, the theme of American plutocrats preparing for the apocalypse was impossible to avoid. The week after the inauguration, the New Yorker ran another piece about the super-rich who were making preparations for a grand civilisational crackup; speaking of New Zealand as a “favored refuge in the event of a cataclysm”, billionaire LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, a former colleague of Thiel’s at PayPal, claimed that “saying you’re ‘buying a house in New Zealand’ is kind of a wink, wink, say no more”.

Everyone is always saying these days that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Everyone is always saying it, in my view, because it’s obviously true. The perception, paranoid or otherwise, that billionaires are preparing for a coming civilisational collapse seems a literal manifestation of this axiom. Those who are saved, in the end, will be those who can afford the premium of salvation. And New Zealand, the furthest place from anywhere, is in this narrative a kind of new Ararat: a place of shelter from the coming flood.

Early last summer, just as my interests in the topics of civilisational collapse and Peter Thiel were beginning to converge into a single obsession, I received out of the blue an email from a New Zealand art critic named Anthony Byrt. If I wanted to understand the extreme ideology that underpinned Thiel’s attraction to New Zealand, he insisted, I needed to understand an obscure libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. It was published in 1997, and in recent years something of a minor cult has grown up around it in the tech world, largely as a result of Thiel’s citing it as the book he is most influenced by. (Other prominent boosters include Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Balaji Srinivasan, the entrepreneur best known for advocating Silicon Valley’s complete secession from the US to form its own corporate city-state.)

The Sovereign Individual’s co-authors are James Dale Davidson, a private investor who specialises in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, and the late William Rees-Mogg, long-serving editor of the Times. (One other notable aspect of Lord Rees-Mogg’s varied legacy is his own son, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – a hastily sketched caricature of an Old Etonian, who is as beloved of Britain’s ultra-reactionary pro-Brexit right as he is loathed by the left.)


I was intrigued by Byrt’s description of the book as a kind of master key to the relationship between New Zealand and the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley. Reluctant to enrich Davidson or the Rees-Mogg estate any further, I bought a used edition online, the musty pages of which were here and there smeared with the desiccated snot of whatever nose-picking libertarian preceded me.

It presents a bleak vista of a post-democratic future. Amid a thicket of analogies to the medieval collapse of feudal power structures, the book also managed, a decade before the invention of bitcoin, to make some impressively accurate predictions about the advent of online economies and cryptocurrencies.

The book’s 400-odd pages of near-hysterical orotundity can roughly be broken down into the following sequence of propositions:

1) The democratic nation-state basically operates like a criminal cartel, forcing honest citizens to surrender large portions of their wealth to pay for stuff like roads and hospitals and schools.

2) The rise of the internet, and the advent of cryptocurrencies, will make it impossible for governments to intervene in private transactions and to tax incomes, thereby liberating individuals from the political protection racket of democracy.

3) The state will consequently become obsolete as a political entity.

4) Out of this wreckage will emerge a new global dispensation, in which a “cognitive elite” will rise to power and influence, as a class of sovereign individuals “commanding vastly greater resources” who will no longer be subject to the power of nation-states and will redesign governments to suit their ends.

The Sovereign Individual is, in the most literal of senses, an apocalyptic text. Davidson and Rees-Mogg present an explicitly millenarian vision of the near future: the collapse of old orders, the rising of a new world. Liberal democracies will die out, and be replaced by loose confederations of corporate city-states. Western civilisation in its current form, they insist, will end with the millennium. “The new Sovereign Individual,” they write, “will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically.” It’s impossible to overstate the darkness and extremity of the book’s predictions of capitalism’s future; to read it is to be continually reminded that the dystopia of your darkest insomniac imaginings is almost always someone else’s dream of a new utopian dawn.

Davidson and Rees-Mogg identified New Zealand as an ideal location for this new class of sovereign individuals, as a “domicile of choice for wealth creation in the Information Age”. Byrt, who drew my attention to these passages, had even turned up evidence of a property deal in the mid-1990s in which a giant sheep station at the southern tip of the North Island was purchased by a conglomerate whose major shareholders included Davidson and Rees-Mogg. Also in on the deal was one Roger Douglas, the former Labour finance minister who had presided over a radical restructuring of New Zealand economy along neoliberal lines in the 1980s. (This period of so-called “Rogernomics”, Byrt told me – the selling off of state assets, slashing of welfare, deregulation of financial markets – created the political conditions that had made the country such an attractive prospect for wealthy Americans.)

Thiel’s interest in New Zealand was certainly fuelled by his JRR Tolkien obsession: this was a man who had named at least five of his companies in reference to The Lord of the Rings, and fantasised as a teenager about playing chess against a robot that could discuss the books. It was a matter, too, of the country’s abundance of clean water and the convenience of overnight flights from California. But it was also inseparable from a particular strand of apocalyptic techno-capitalism. To read The Sovereign Individual was to see this ideology laid bare: these people, the self-appointed “cognitive elite”, were content to see the unravelling of the world as long as they could carry on creating wealth in the end times.

New Zealand as Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Photograph: Everett/Rex

I was struck by how strange and disquieting it must have been for a New Zealander to see their own country refracted through this strange apocalyptic lens. There was certainly an ambient awareness that the tech world elite had developed an odd interest in the country as an ideal end-times bolthole; it would have been difficult, at any rate, to ignore the recent cascade of articles about Thiel acquiring citizenship, and the apocalyptic implications of same. But there seemed to have been basically zero discussion of the frankly alarming ideological dimension of it all.

It was just this ideological dimension, as it happened, that was the focus of a project Byrt himself had recently got involved in, a new exhibition by the artist Simon Denny. Denny, a significant figure in the international art scene, was originally from Auckland, but has lived for some years in Berlin. Byrt described him as both “kind of a genius” and “the poster-boy for post-internet art, whatever that is”; he characterised his own role in the project with Denny as an amalgamation of researcher, journalist and “investigative philosopher, following the trail of ideas and ideologies”.

The exhibition was called The Founder’s Paradox, a name that came from the title of one of the chapters in Thiel’s 2014 book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Together with the long and intricately detailed catalogue essay Byrt was writing to accompany it, the show was a reckoning with the future that Silicon Valley techno-libertarians like Thiel wanted to build, and with New Zealand’s place in that future.

These were questions I too was eager to reckon with. Which is to say that I myself was interested – helplessly, morbidly – in the end of the world, and that I was therefore interested in New Zealand. And so I decided to go there, to see for myself the land that Thiel had apparently set aside for the collapse of civilisation: a place that would become for me a kind of labyrinth, and whose owner I was already beginning to mythologise as the monster at its centre.

Within about an hour of arriving in Auckland, I was as close to catatonic from fatigue as made no difference, and staring into the maw of a volcano. I was standing next to Byrt, who’d picked me up from the airport and, in a gesture I would come to understand as quintessentially Kiwi, dragged me directly up the side of a volcano. This particular volcano, Mount Eden, was a fairly domesticated specimen, around which was spread one of the more affluent suburbs of Auckland – the only city in the world, I learned, built on a technically still-active volcanic field.

I was a little out of breath from the climb and, having just emerged in the southern hemisphere from a Dublin November, sweating liberally in the relative heat of the early summer morning. I was also experiencing near-psychotropic levels of jetlag. I must have looked a bit off, because Byrt – a bearded, hoodied and baseball-capped man in his late 30s – offered a cheerful apology for playing the volcano card so early in the proceedings.

“I probably should have eased you into it, mate” he chuckled. “But I thought it’d be good to get a view of the city before breakfast.”

The view of Auckland and its surrounding islands was indeed ravishing – though in retrospect, it was no more ravishing than any of the countless other views I would wind up getting ravished by over the next 10 days. That, famously, is the whole point of New Zealand: if you don’t like getting ravished by views, you have no business in the place; to travel there is to give implicit consent to being hustled left, right and centre into states of aesthetic rapture.

A view of Auckland from Mount Eden. Photograph: Alamy

“Plus I’ve been in the country mere minutes,” I said, “and I’ve already got a perfect visual metaphor for the fragility of civilisation in the bag.”

I was referring here to the pleasingly surreal spectacle of a volcanic crater overlaid with a surface of neatly manicured grass. (I jotted this observation down in my notebook, feeling as I did so a smug infusion of virtue about getting some literary non-fiction squared away before even dropping my bags off at the hotel. “Volcano with lawn over it,” I scrawled. “Visual manifestation of thematic motif: Civ as thin membrane stretched over chaos.”)

I remarked on the strangeness of all these Silicon Valley geniuses supposedly apocalypse-proofing themselves by buying up land down here right on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the horseshoe curve of geological fault lines that stretches upward from the western flank of the Americas, back down along the eastern coasts of Russia and Japan and on into the South Pacific.

“Yeah,” said Byrt, “but some of them are buying farms and sheep stations pretty far inland. Tsunamis aren’t going to be a big issue there. And what they’re after is space, and clean water. Two things we’ve got a lot of down here.”

The following day, I went to the gallery in downtown Auckland to take a look at The Founder’s Paradox. Denny, a neat and droll man in his mid-30s, talked me through the conceptual framework. It was structured around games – in theory playable, but in practice encountered as sculptures – representing two different kinds of political vision for New Zealand’s future. The bright and airy ground floor space was filled with tactile, bodily game-sculptures, riffs on Jenga and Operation and Twister. These works, incorporating collaborative and spontaneous ideas of play, were informed by a recent book called The New Zealand Project by a young leftwing thinker named Max Harris, which explored a humane, collectivist politics influenced by Māori beliefs about society.

Down in the low-ceilinged, dungeon-like basement was a set of sculptures based around an entirely different understanding of play, more rule-bound and cerebral. These were based on the kind of strategy-based role-playing games particularly beloved of Silicon Valley tech types, and representing a Thielian vision of the country’s future. The psychological effect of this spatial dimension of the show was immediate: upstairs, you could breathe, you could see things clearly, whereas to walk downstairs was to feel oppressed by low ceilings, by an absence of natural light, by the darkness of the geek-apocalypticism captured in Denny’s elaborate sculptures.

This was a world Denny himself knew intimately. And what was strangest and most unnerving about his art was the sense that he was allowing us to see this world not from the outside in, but from the inside out. Over beers in Byrt’s kitchen the previous night, Denny had told me about a dinner party he had been to in San Francisco earlier that year, at the home of a techie acquaintance, where he had been seated next to Curtis Yarvin, founder of the Thiel-funded computing platform Urbit. As anyone who takes an unhealthy interest in the weirder recesses of the online far-right is aware, Yarvin is more widely known as the blogger Mencius Moldbug, the intellectual progenitor of Neoreaction, an antidemocratic movement that advocates for a kind of white-nationalist oligarchic neofeudalism – rule by and for a self-proclaimed cognitive elite – and which has found a small but influential constituency in Silicon Valley. It was clear that Denny was deeply unsettled by Yarvin’s brand of nerd autocracy, but equally clear that breaking bread with him was in itself no great discomfort.

‘A Thielian vision of the country’s future’ … The Founder’s Paradox, a board game by artist Simon Denny. Photograph: Simon Denny/Michael Lett Gallery

Beneath all the intricacy and detail of its world-building, The Founder’s Paradox was clearly animated by an uneasy fascination with the utopian future imagined by the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley, and with New Zealand’s role in that future. The exhibition’s centrepiece was a tabletop strategy game called Founders, which drew heavily on the aesthetic – as well as the explicitly colonialist language and objectives – of Settlers of Catan, a cult multiplayer strategy board game. The aim of Founders, clarified by the accompanying text and by the piece’s lurid illustrations, was not simply to evade the apocalypse, but to prosper from it. First you acquired land in New Zealand, with its rich resources and clean air, away from the chaos and ecological devastation gripping the rest of the world. Next you moved on to seasteading, the libertarian ideal of constructing manmade islands in international waters; on these floating utopian micro-states, wealthy tech innovators would be free to go about their business without interference from democratic governments. (Thiel was an early investor in, and advocate of, the seasteading movement, though his interest has waned in recent years.) Then you mined the moon for its ore and other resources, before moving on to colonise Mars. This last level of the game reflected the current preferred futurist fantasy, most famously advanced by Thiel’s former PayPal colleague Elon Musk, with his dream of fleeing a dying planet Earth for privately owned colonies on Mars.

The influence of the Sovereign Individual, and of Byrt’s obsession with it, was all over the show. It was a detailed mapping of a possible future, in all its highly sophisticated barbarism. It was a utopian dream that appeared, in all its garish detail and specificity, as the nightmare vision of a world to come.

Thiel himself had spoken publicly of New Zealand as a “utopia”, during the period in 2011 when he was manoeuvring for citizenship, investing in various local startups under a venture capital fund called Valar Ventures. (I hardly need to tell you that Valar is another Tolkien reference.) This was a man with a particular understanding of what a utopia might look like, who did not believe, after all, in the compatibility of freedom and democracy. In a Vanity Fair article about his role as adviser to Trump’s campaign, a friend was quoted as saying that “Thiel has said to me directly and repeatedly that he wanted to have his own country”, adding that he had even gone so far as to price up the prospect at somewhere around $100bn.

The Kiwis I spoke with were uncomfortably aware of what Thiel’s interest in their country represented, of how it seemed to figure more generally in the frontier fantasies of American libertarians. Max Harris – the author of The New Zealand Project, the book that informed the game-sculptures on the upper level of The Founder’s Paradox – pointed out that, for much of its history, the country tended to be viewed as a kind of political Petri dish (it was, for instance, the first nation to recognise women’s right to vote), and that this “perhaps makes Silicon Valley types think it’s a kind of blank canvas to splash ideas on”.

Donald Trump and Peter Thiel at Trump Tower in December 2016. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty

When we met in her office at the Auckland University of Technology, the legal scholar Khylee Quince insisted that any invocation of New Zealand as a utopia was a “giant red flag”, particularly to Māori like herself. “That is the language of emptiness and isolation that was always used about New Zealand during colonial times,” she said. And it was always, she stressed, a narrative that erased the presence of those who were already here: her own Māori ancestors. The first major colonial encounter for Māori in the 19th century was not with representatives of the British crown, she pointed out, but with private enterprise. The New Zealand Company was a private firm founded by a convicted English child kidnapper named Edward Gibbon Wakefield, with the aim of attracting wealthy investors with an abundant supply of inexpensive labour – migrant workers who could not themselves afford to buy land in the new colony, but who would travel there in the hope of eventually saving enough wages to buy in. The company embarked on a series of expeditions in the 1820s and 30s; it was only when the firm started drawing up plans to formally colonise New Zealand, and to set up a government of its own devising, that the British colonial office advised the crown to take steps to establish a formal colony. In the utopian fantasies of techno-libertarians like Thiel, Quince saw an echo of that period of her country’s history. “Business,” she said, “got here first.”

Given her Māori heritage, Quince was particularly attuned to the colonial resonances of the more recent language around New Zealand as both an apocalyptic retreat and a utopian space for American wealth and ingenuity.

“I find it incredibly offensive,” she said. “Thiel got citizenship after spending 12 days in this country, and I don’t know if he’s even aware that Māori exist. We as indigenous people have a very strong sense of intergenerational identity and collectivity. Whereas these people, who are sort of the contemporary iteration of the coloniser, are coming from an ideology of rampant individualism, rampant capitalism.”

Quince’s view was by no means the norm. New Zealanders tend to be more flattered than troubled by the interest of Silicon Valley tech gurus in their country. It’s received by and large as a signal that the tyranny of distance – the extreme antipodean remoteness that has shaped the country’s sense of itself since colonial times – has finally been toppled by the liberating forces of technology and economic globalisation.

“It’s very appealing,” the political scientist Peter Skilling told me, “these entrepreneurs saying nice things about us. We’re like a cat having its tummy rubbed. If Silicon Valley types are welcomed here, it’s not because we’re particularly susceptible to libertarian ideas; it’s because we are complacent and naive.”

Among the leftwing Kiwis I spoke with, there had been a kindling of cautious optimism, sparked by the recent surprise election of a new Labour-led coalition government, under the leadership of the 37-year-old Jacinda Ardern, whose youth and apparent idealism suggested a move away from neoliberal orthodoxy. During the election, foreign ownership of land had been a major talking point, though it focused less on the wealthy apocalypse-preppers of Silicon Valley than the perception that overseas property speculators were driving up the cost of houses in Auckland. The incoming government had committed to tightening regulations around land purchases by foreign investors. This was largely the doing of Winston Peters, a nationalist of Māori descent whose New Zealand First party held the balance of power, and was strongly in favour of tightening regulations of foreign ownership. When I read that Ardern had named Peters as her deputy prime minister, I was surprised to recognise the name – from, of all places, The Sovereign Individual, where Davidson and Rees-Mogg had singled him out for weirdly personal abuse as an arch-enemy of the rising cognitive elite, referring to him as a “reactionary loser” and “demagogue” who would “gladly thwart the prospects for long-term prosperity just to prevent individuals from declaring their independence of politics”.

Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

During my time in New Zealand, Ardern was everywhere: in the papers, on television, in every other conversation. On our way to Queenstown in the South Island, to see for ourselves the site of Thiel’s apocalyptic bolthole, Byrt and I were in the security line at Auckland airport when a woman of about our age, smartly dressed and accompanied by a cluster of serious-looking men, glanced in our direction as she was conveyed quickly along the express lane. She was talking on her phone, but looked towards us and waved at Byrt, smiling broadly in happy recognition.

“Who was that?” I asked.

“Jacinda,” he said.

“You know her?”

“We know quite a lot of the same people. We met for a drink a couple of times back when she was Labour’s arts spokesperson.”


“Well yeah,” he laughed, “there’s only so many of us.”

“The endgame for Thiel is essentially The Sovereign Individual,” said Byrt. He was driving the rental car, allowing me to fully devote my resources to the ongoing cultivation of aesthetic rapture (mountains, lakes, so forth). “And the bottom line for me,” he said, “is that I don’t want my son to grow up in that future.”

We were on our way to see for ourselves the part of New Zealand, on the shore of Lake Wanaka in the South Island, that Thiel had bought for purposes of post-collapse survival. We talked about the trip as though it were a gesture of protest, but it felt like a kind of perverse pilgrimage. The term “psychogeography” was cautiously invoked, and with only the lightest of ironic inflections.

“The thing about Thiel is he’s the monster at the heart of the labyrinth,” said Byrt.

“He’s the white whale,” I suggested, getting into the literary spirit of the enterprise.

Byrt’s obsession with Thiel occupied a kind of Melvillean register, yearned toward a mythic scale. It coloured his perception of reality. He admitted, for instance, to a strange aesthetic pathology whereby he encountered, in the alpine grandeur of the South Island, not the sublime beauty of his own home country, but rather what he imagined Thiel seeing in the place: Middle-earth. Thiel’s Tolkien fixation was itself a fixation for Byrt: together with the extreme libertarianism of The Sovereign Individual, he was convinced that it lay beneath Thiel’s continued interest in New Zealand.

Matt Nippert, the New Zealand Herald journalist who had broken the citizenship story earlier that year, told me he was certain that Thiel had bought the property for apocalypse-contingency purposes. In his citizenship application, he had pledged his commitment to devote “a significant amount of time and resources to the people and businesses of New Zealand”. But none of this had amounted to much, Nippert said, and he was convinced it had only ever been a feint to get him in the door as a citizen.

In a cafe in Queenstown, about an hour’s drive from Thiel’s estate, Byrt and I met a man to whom a wealthy acquaintance of Byrt’s had introduced us. A well known and well connected professional in Queenstown, he agreed to speak anonymously for fear of making himself unpopular among local business leaders and friends in the tourism trade. He had been concerned for a while now about the effects on the area of wealthy foreigners buying up huge tracts of land. (“Once you start pissing in the hand basin, where are you gonna wash your face?”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Man convicted in 1985 Air India bombings released from Canada prison

3 days ago

Inderjit Singh Reyat released after serving two-thirds of a nine-year sentence for his involvement in one of the deadliest airline attacks in history

Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only person to be convicted over the 1985 Air India bombings, has been released from a Canadian prison after serving two decades behind bars.

A spokesman for the parole board of Canada confirmed Reyats statutory release after serving two-thirds of a nine-year sentence for his involvement in one of the deadliest airline attacks in history.

Reyat, a Sikh immigrant to Canada, previously served more than 15 years in prison for making the bombs that were stuffed into two suitcases and planted on planes leaving Vancouver.

One bomb tore apart Air India Flight 182 as it neared the coast or Ireland, killing all 329 people aboard. The second exploded at Japans Narita airport, killing two baggage handlers as they transferred cargo.

The attack took place during an Indian crackdown on Sikhs fighting for an independent homeland, and those behind it were allegedly seeking revenge for the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian troops.

Reyat has been ordered to live at a halfway house until August 2018, when his perjury sentence would normally expire, and abide by several conditions set by the parole board, including having no contact with victims families or alleged former co-conspirators, and no political activities.

He must also obtain counseling to address violent tendencies, a lack of empathy and cognitive distortions or what one official described as his exaggerated beliefs.

If at any time, his parole officer feels theres a risk to the community he can return Mr Reyat to prison, parole board spokesman Patrick Storey told AFP.

In 2010, Reyat was convicted of lying while testifying in the mass murder trial of alleged co-conspirators Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, who were later acquitted for a lack of evidence.

He had avoided being tried alongside the pair by pleading guilty to a lesser manslaughter charge.

Prosecutors have said the verdict in the trial of Malik and Bagri would have been different if Reyat had told the truth on the stand when called to testify about the plot, while Judge Ian Josephson called him an unmitigated liar.

Reyats nine-year perjury sentence was the longest ever handed down by a Canadian court.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Turkish police caught in middle of war between Erdoğan and former ally Gülen

10 days ago

Some officers welcome crackdown on shadowy network around exiled cleric but stress it should not serve to legitimise corruption

Trker Yilmaz* was not long into his police academy training when he realised how the system worked. The good jobs, the better pay, the promotion prospects all depended on your dedication to a shadowy Islamic network with its headquarters based in Pennsylvania.

“They kept tabs on every recruit, had a grading system from zero to five five being the ones who prayed, fasted, never drank alcohol,” the policeman said, referring to the movement founded by the Muslim cleric Fethullah Glen, who lives in exile in the US.

“Everything starts in the police schools,” said Yilmaz. “They came to me once, I said no. But it’s very subtle. One day a friend will ask you to go to breakfast at a certain friend’s house, to read a certain book, go for dinner. These appointments become more and more regular. When you’re in school, you have very little money. They organise a few things to make it easier. Free meals, for example, free accommodation. Once you’re inside, they organise your life; you just get sucked in. And once you graduate, you can start working in whichever unit you like.”

The power and the influence of the elderly cleric is the defining issue of Turkish politics. Recep Tayyp Erdoan, the prime minister, has declared war on Glen previously a key ally of his conservative, Islamic ruling party following the eruption of a corruption scandal in December that implicates the government, the prime minister’s closest associates and his family.

Erdoan responded ferociously, purging the police of thousands of officers, transferring prosecutors linked to the investigation and tightening control over the judiciary. A fortnight ago, according to senior officials in Brussels, he told EU leaders that his fight with Glen was a matter of political survival. “He was gripped with this obsession of killing the parallel state, as he called it,” said a well-placed EU official.

In Turkey it has long been assumed that Glen’s network exercised unaccountable influence inside the judicial and security apparatus. The investigative journalist Ahmet k was jailed for writing a book about it, as was Hanefi Avc, a former police chief. But that was when Erdoan and Glen were allies.


In 2009 the then US ambassador in Ankara, James Jeffrey, wrote in a cable to the state department: “The assertion that the Turkish national police is controlled by Glenists is impossible to confirm but we have found no one who disputes it.”

Yilmaz and other police officers who spoke up confirmed the scale and degree of penetration by adherents of a movement that is religious, cultural and educational as well as political.

Ouz Gn* has been working in the Istanbul police force for more than seven years. “Such opaque groups are very dangerous. And [Glen’s] is a group that discriminates against those who don’t share the same values and the same lifestyle. I have seen how they started to mistake sins for crimes, both inside and outside the force,” he said.

He sought transfers to other units: secret intelligence, anti-terror, organised crime. To no avail. Gn was never affiliated with the Glenist movement. “Sometimes they openly asked for a reference. Without it, I didn’t stand a chance.”

Yilmaz said: “If you asked someone how did you manage to get into the secret intelligence unit, they would answer: I prayed and got in. We had friends who spoke six languages, were top of their class, and were standing guard outside police stations. And others who were a lot less qualified got the top jobs only because they were connected with the Glenists.”

The assumption in Turkey and abroad is that the corruption allegations against the Erdoan administration originate with Glen, and that they are likely to be well-founded because of the quality of the intelligence the movement commands. Erdoan is seen to be trying not only to destroy the cleric but also to bury the corruption allegations.

k, the journalist jailed in 2011 for writing a book on Glen’s penetration of the police, highlighted what many see as the problem. “The attempt to purge Glenists doesn’t mean that [Erdoan] is right. There is also a real witchhunt going on. We have massive corruption on the one hand, but the investigation against it also violates democratic and judicial principles. It’s a choice between a rock and a hard place, pest and cholera. One is not better, or cleaner, than the other.”

The officers welcomed the backlash against the network inside the police but stressed that it should not serve to legitimise corruption. “Of course I want those who are corrupt to be punished. I am not defending corruption at all. But these purges were long overdue,” said Yilmaz. “The government knew about this. It was the government in the first place who enabled them, who helped them, they came to power together. Helping them was the government’s biggest mistake.”

Gn spoke of a huge sense of relief among his colleagues that the police were being cleared of the network. “It really was an atmosphere of deep paranoia. Even if it seemed technically impossible for every single officer’s phone to be tapped, we were all afraid of being spied on all the time.”

The pressure was subtle, but constant: “Nobody would force you to pray, or fast during Ramadan. But they kept tabs on all of that, on everyone. Nobody talked about it. Everybody knew, but nobody dared to discuss the issue. This has started to change.”

Erdoan’s offensive represents a sea change. The domination of his Justice and Development party (AKP) for more than a decade was aided by his alliance with Glen, the cleric’s formidable organisation, money and influence.

Those who dared to criticise the Glen movement before were swiftly punished. k was accused of being a member of a nationalist network, although he and his colleagues had previously disclosed plans by the same network to stage a military coup against the AKP government. He was released from jail in 2012, but his trial is ongoing.


In 2010 Hanefi Avc, a former police chief and former Glen supporter, was arrested on charges of being a member of a terrorist organisation after publishing a book in which he described the infiltration of the Turkish police force by the Glenists and accused them of illegally tapping phones and falsifying evidence. Last year the self-described rightwing sympathiser was sentenced to more than 15 years in jail for membership of the armed leftwing group Revolutionary Headquarters.

Erdoan’s current purges are dramatic and far-reaching. But the officers say such purges have been taking place more quietly for years. According to both Yilmaz and Gn, internal investigations have been conducted against tens of thousands of police officers over the past four years alone. “If someone was suspected of going against [Glen] they were often hit with made-up disciplinary charges, transferred to bad posts, or even suspended,” Gn said. “The removals we see today are not new. They just hit the other camp.”

Not all police officers, however, are as happy with the current purges. The Police Reform Group, an organisation campaigning for police rights, tweeted: “How do you know that the officers who were transferred are Glenists and members of an organisation? Do you have a detector? Where is justice?”

EU officials monitoring the drama say Erdoan is deploying an indiscriminate dragnet in the belief that it will catch all the Glen appointments. Yilmaz agrees. “I am guessing that not all of these guys were Glenists. And not all sympathisers were bad, either. And no police officer should ever be punished just for doing a good job.”

Faruk Sezer, a founding member of the unofficial police union Emniyet-Sen, argued that a transparent inquiry into the alleged shadow organisation was indispensable. “If an officer committed a crime, it needs to be brought to light and that person needs to be suspended and punished. But those who were transferred without reason and proof should of course be reinstated.”

Last month Istanbul prosecutors started an investigation into officers who took part in anti-corruption raids in December. Do police officers fear doing their job in such a loaded atmosphere? Yilmaz shrugged: “We have started to tell jokes among ourselves like: oh dear, you caught a shoplifter, you’d better start packing your bags, you’ll get transferred for that.”

“The war between Glen and the government will not end any time soon,” said k. “Turkish people caught in the middle will suffer. We already live in a very oppressive period, and I am afraid that this might get much worse.”

* Names have been changed.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

The battle for Mosul stalls: ‘we are fighting the devil himself’

14 days ago

After quick early progress, the operation to retake Islamic States last urban stronghold in Iraq is getting more difficult

Heaving on a huge, scorched metal door and covered in engine oil, Sgt Hussein Mahmoud was deep into a mornings work. Twisted hulks of wrecked army vehicles sat incongruously in the coarse dust that was kicked up by still-moving trucks as they crept around Mosuls urban fringe.

Two other soldiers with industrial wrenches joined in, trying in vain to dislodge the door from its hinges. We need it for humvees that still work, said one of them. Were under pressure to provide them with parts.

Impromptu salvage yards have appeared all around the Gogali neighbourhood in Mosuls outer east, the immediate hinterland of the war with Islamic State and the most visible reminder of how destructive, difficult and long this fight is likely to be.

The startling progress of the first few weeks of the campaign to take Iraqs second city, the terror groups last urban stronghold in Iraq, has given way to a numbing reality: Isis will not surrender Mosul, and Iraqs battered military will struggle to take it.

Since Iraqi forces entered Gogali, a light industrial neighbourhood, in mid-November, the advance has slowed. When we started, we were talking weeks, said Hussein. Now, we hope it will be by early in the new year. But these guys are not cowards. They kill as easy as they breathe.

Forces deployed beyond nominal frontlines, marked by heaped piles of dirt, are around five miles from the Nour mosque, where the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself the leader of a caliphate nearly 30 months ago. But every street and sector towards the mosque a highly symbolic target of the fight is claiming an increasing toll in blood and treasure.

Car bombs of the type that ravaged the dozens of humvees in the makeshift wrecking yards continue to take a withering toll on the US-supplied vehicles, which form the staple of the Iraqi militarys armour.

The toll they are taking on morale is more difficult to gauge. Iraqi troops stationed in Gogali and the roads leading to it insist they will win the war, no matter how long it takes. Some however concede that they could still be fighting in Mosuls tunnels and alleyways as late as next summer.

People shopping at a street market in the Gogali neighbourhood of eastern Mosul. Photograph: Cengiz Yar

Weve heard they have dug tunnels and sent boys in suicide vests, said Cpl Mohammed Tawfiq. Stopping them is not what we have trained for.

A slow, grinding fight is not the outcome that Iraqs political leaders were hoping for at such a critical juncture in the countrys modern history. They were expecting this to be over in weeks, said Major Saeed Ali, manning a checkpoint further south of the city, not far from where a lethal clash with up to 50 members of Isis took place in an empty village a week earlier. Well, they are welcome to come here and try.

Iraq has billed the fight for Mosul as a nation-building step after more than 13 years of instability: first an invasion that ousted the Sunni-led ruling class, then a sectarian war that pitched the two rival sects of Islam against each other for more than three years, the rise of the earlier incarnations of Isis and the mobilisation of large numbers of primarily Shia militias, who rival the national military as a power base and who this week were legitimised as a state body by the Iraqi parliament.

The Shia militias are not directly involved in the fight to recapture Mosul, their role being confined to taking up blocking positions to the west of the city. Shia iconography is on ready display in the city though, flying from the back of Iraqi trucks and on top of their outposts. The flags jar among some members of the citys Sunni population, who believe they frame the war in sectarian, not nationalistic terms.

We expected it, said Subhi Jabour, a Mosul local waiting for an aid delivery in Gogali last week. But to be honest, they have not been as bad as we thought they would be. As long as they free us, then leave us alone, we will be happy.

Mosul map

Smoke from airstrikes billowed from the city in the distance. The east bank of the Tigris river, which splits the city, is the only area in which Iraqi forces are operating and was predicted to be the easier of the two halves to take. As Iraqi forces eventually near the river, there is a growing likelihood that Isis will blow the last of the five bridges flanking it US airstrikes have disabled the other four making a push to the west highly difficult and raising the spectre of the Shias on the western outskirts playing more of a direct role after all.

Look at their trucks, said Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed, a community elder, as he sat by the main road leading into the city. They were all given to them by the Americans, and not one of them hasnt been hit by a rocket. All of their windows have been hit by snipers. They look like they have been fighting for five years. It is closer to two months.

Across from him, a mechanic tinkered under the bonnet of a humvee that had pulled into a newly reopened workshop. Someone else tended to a flat tyre. Further out of the city, nine black and obliterated vehicles were on display outside a truck stop. An army technician wandered through them looking for things to salvage. Theres not much, he said. Two people died in this one, and we had three martyrs in that, he added, pointing to almost unrecognisable wreckage.

Two senior officers stood nearby, in immaculately pressed uniforms. Dont take too many pictures of the damage, one of them asked. We would prefer people didnt see that.

Iraqi officials have refused to provide numbers of combat casualties and are uncomfortable with anything that could be seen to give Isis a boost, or to show the militarys losses. We will get there eventually, in our own way, said Maj Rafid Ismael, an Iraqi infantry officer in the nearby city of Irbil. Dont forget, we are fighting the devil himself.

Additional reporting by Salem Rizk

Read more: www.theguardian.com

15 days ago

Michael Puetts book The Path draws on the 2,500-year-old insights of Chinese philosophers. He explains how straightening your mat can help you break out of the patterns that are holding you back

The School of Lifes Sunday sermons could be described as lectures for people who dont believe in God but still like church. They sing secular songs before and after the sermon (when I arrive, the large congregation at Mary Ward House in London is on the second verse of A Spoonful of Sugar), and everybody seems to share an abiding faith in the power of open-mindedness.

On this particular Sunday, the sermon is to be delivered by Michael Puett, professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, and is based on his book The Path, which applies the lessons of ancient Chinese philosophers to modern life. These philosophers may have done their best work 2,500 years ago, but they were trying to answer the same big questions we still ask. How do I live my life? How do I live my life well?

I forewarn you, Puett tells the congregation: At first its gonna sound really bleak.

The back cover of The Path describes Puett as Harvards most popular professor. It is unclear how this distinction is awarded, but the book grew out of a 2013 magazine article written by his co-author, Christine Gross-Loh, about the undergraduate course Puett teaches classical Chinese ethical and political theory said to be the third most popular class at Harvard.

Thats still the case, Puett says when I meet him. No 1 and No 2 are the introduction to economics class and the introduction to computer science class. Third biggest means his lectures are delivered to around 750 students. Puett exposes them to the writings of Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and Xunzi, among others, but he also promises that the course will do more than just fulfil Harvards required ethical reasoning module.

I do give them a guarantee, he says. The guarantee I make is if they take these ideas seriously, by the end of the course, these ideas will have changed their lives.

When he speaks publicly, Puetts voice ranges between a low rumble and an enthusiastic squeak. At first it sounds almost muppet-like, but after a while it becomes a little incantatory you can see why he is a popular lecturer. He doesnt refer to notes, and he has no visual aids. His sermon, like his course, begins by shattering some commonly held preconceptions about the self: there is no self, he says. The idea that we should look within, discover our true nature and act accordingly is, according to Confucius, nonsense. What we really are, Puett says, is a messy and potentially ugly bunch of stuff, a collection of emotions and conditioned responses, with no guiding inner core. We think we are self-determined, but in reality we are so set in our patterns that Google exploits our predictability to sell us stuff without us noticing.

Puetts School of Life audience is very open to this notion I think most of us already figured as much but apparently when he tells this to his students, it blows their minds. Is this, I wonder, a generational thing?

Yes, I think it is very generational, he says. This is a generation that was raised being told: Your goal is to look within. Find your true self, especially during these four years of college. And furthermore the argument is, once you do find yourself, try and be sincere and authentic to who you really are, and then decide your career according to who you are.

Once they get over the shock, however, his students are immensely receptive to Chinese philosophys counterintuitive model. Because theyve spent 20 years looking for this true self and not finding it.

The Path is in part a pleasing debunking of fashionable self-help disciplines there are no quick fixes; improvement is incremental at best, and a lifetime of work. I think of it as sort of anti-self-help, says Puett. Self-help tends to be about learning to love yourself and embrace yourself for who you are. A lot of these ideas are saying precisely the opposite no, you overcome the self, you break the self. You should not be happy with who you are.

While Puetts students are obliged to get to grips with the primary sources, The Path was written for people mostly unfamiliar with the history of eastern thought. It is no simple matter to create a modern-day guide to living boiled down to 200 pages from writings that are often ambiguous, if not downright gnomic. In The Analects, a collection of the teachings and thoughts of Confucius compiled by his followers after his death, one typical passage reads: He would not sit until he had straightened his mat. You could draw a lot of contradictory conclusions from that.

Puett is also aware that there is some risk in extracting an overarching message from a number of different philosophers who often disagreed with one another.

They do share a generally common vision of human psychology, he says. That we have a tendency to fall into patterns and ruts in our existences. The Confucian strategy for disrupting these patterns was the judicious observance of ritual coded behaviours that force people to operate outside their normal roles. This has often been misunderstood as a call for conformity and a slavish adherence to tradition, but, according to Puett, Confucius meant no such thing. For Confucius, he writes, the ritual was essential because of what it did for the people performing it.

Confucius, who apparently would not sit until he had straightened his mat. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images

Clearly there is a limit to the benefit a 21st-century human can derive from a ritual such as, say, ancestor worship. To apply the idea to ones own life, Puett suggests slightly altering how you interact with people saying something different to the bus driver or the man at the shops till every morning, thereby disrupting the patterns that comprise your daily life. I put to him the possibility that you might merely freak out the bus driver.

Part of what [the philosophers] are getting at is that its the break that really matters, Puett says. You may say it in a way thats actually very offputting to the driver, but youll be better at sensing that, and therefore altering it, if it isnt just a rote way of talking. By gauging the change you effect, you can teach yourself to become more emotionally intelligent about your dealings with other humans.

If this technique doesnt sound wholly alien, it is probably because modern psychology shares some of its strategies. The therapists room, Puett argues, is a kind of ritual space, where you shed your normal self for a while, and talk about things from a different perspective.

Puett studied western thought almost exclusively at university. He had been reading eastern philosophers on the side since high school, but it wasnt until he began a masters degree that he decided to learn Chinese in order to pursue it exclusively. Did it change his life the way he promises his students it will?

Im sure I have a long way to go, to put it mildly, he says. But yes, I would say I am a radically different person.

I can testify that Puett is one of the nicest people if not the nicest person I have ever interviewed: attentive, generous and patient. He seems unutterably pleased to be where he is drinking coffee with a journalist in the noisy atrium of a building in Kings Cross and he is a font of positive reinforcement. All my questions are great, and my every summary, surmise and speculation meets his approval: Exactly! Precisely! A perfect example! By the end I feel hugely intelligent, which is weird, because when I later listen to the recording of our conversation, I sound far from it.

Confucius developed his ideas against a backdrop of political upheaval the last great bronze-age dynasty, the Zhou, was in decline, and old certainties had dissolved. Confucius decided to concentrate on teaching the next generation, in the hope that they could make a better world. I ask Puett if he believes we have reached a comparable cultural crossroads.

Im sure that every generation feels that way, he says. That being said, with this generation, it really is the case. He and I, he points out, come from a generation that thought the big wars over isms socialism, communism, liberalism were over, and a vision had won that was kind of right. The generation below his students feels betrayed by us, and quite rightly. Suddenly, theyre realising that we were horribly wrong.

So, what are we supposed to be doing now? Straightening our mats?

In a weird way the answer is kind of yes, says Puett. What youre trying to do is train yourself to become incredibly good at dealing with this capricious world.

At the end of his Sunday sermon, Puett takes questions from the congregation. At one point, a man in my row raises his hand. If people are just an assembly of patterns, he asks, what does it mean to love someone? In a way, it seems the bleakest moment of the hour, but Puett is beaming.

Great question! he says.

The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh is out now in paperback.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Bikers for Trump: ‘He’ll get my election because he’s off his goddamn rocker’

15 days ago

Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, Adam Gabbatt went to the Chop Shop Pub in Seabrook and found out that the locals dont mince words when asked why theyre rooting for The Donald

Theres a guy here whos not like us.

It is Super Bowl night at the Chop Shop Pub, a biker bar in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Bill The Boss Niland is addressing the crowd over a microphone. They call him the Boss because he is the boss of the bar.

He talks funny, Bill continues.

The clientele look at each other, wondering who this interloper could be. Im standing near the front. Im curious too. I look over my shoulder.

His names Adam, Bills says. He is talking about me. He calls up here and says: Do we have any bikers here?

This is true, I did.

Well, do we?

There are cheers and calls of: Yes!

The Boss drawn attention to me. Hes with the Guardian, he says. He has a thick New England accent and it definitely sounds like Gahhhhhdian.

I wave. There are a couple of cheers.

Im at the Chop Shop to mingle with some bikers ahead of Tuesdays primary. New Hampshire has the second most motorcycles per capita of all 50 nations, so I would be remiss not to expend some time with the biker demographic. The bar is a one-story house with a small fish pond in the entryway region. There are nine gnomes all over the pond and several goldfish in the pond. There is also a skull in it.


Bill Niland outside the Chop Shop Pub in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Photo: Kim Hebert for the Guardian

Introduction over, Bill puts the microphone down. The TV volume is turned up for the Super Bowl. A human with a long greys ponytail leans over.

Any politician who thinks weve got to be disarmed needs to be strung up and killed. Write that.

The humen name is Bobby King. Bobby has an interesting voting history. He usually votes for himself, as a write-in nominee. He is yet to win an election. There was a three-year period where someone else had his election, however.

And I voted for my daughter from when she was 10 to 13.

Bobby, 49, is at the bar with his girlfriend, Cherie. They have been dating for five years, although Bobby says it has been on and off. Cherie is noted in the biking community for her ability to fall asleep on the back of Bobbys motorcycle. It is a large motorcycle, an Ultra Classic.

Its the biggest Harley. Its like a fucking Winnebago. I think its got three bedrooms, two bathrooms, that kind of thing.

This election there is one candidate, Bobby says, who might convince him to extend his referendum beyond his immediate household. That candidate is Donald Trump.

Trump is the only one whos going to have my vote because hes off his goddamn rocker, Bobby says. Hes right, build a goddamn wall. Hes got the right ideas.

A big sandwich arrives and Bobby starts feeing it. I go to buy another drink because bottles of beer are$ 1 each before 6.30 pm and it is currently 6.29 pm. Lady Gaga has just finished singing The Star-Spangled Banner and video games is about to start. Everyone stood up for “the member states national” anthem, facing a US flag on the wall. There is another US flag on the ceiling, and US flag bunting draped along the bar.


Hank( far left ), Bill( centre left) and friends at the Chop Shop Pub. Photo: Kim Hebert for the Guardian
Things got a little hazy, later on.

I get chatting to a woman wearing a leopard-print scarf and grey leather boots. I ask her what her name is.

Its Cooky, she says. With a Y, because Im not a food.

Cooky, 65, explains her political faith. She likes Trump. She likes Trump because he will create jobs and safeguard our borders, hes gonna have good taxation scheme and hes self funding so nobody can buy him.

The other thing I believe Donald Trump would be good for is the veterans and Ive read up on him and he is very generous and has helped a lot of people.

But he doesnt boasting that about himself, Cooky adds, of a man who has spent the past week boasting about how he has helped veterans.

Cookys husband Paul likes Trump too. Everyone likes Trump here.

He has a big heart and at his age he realizes that were going in the wrong direction, Paul says. Paul is wearing a New England Patriots sweater. He depicts me a picture of his motorcycle, a Harley Electra Glide. Its a big motorcycle.

You press a button and the windshield goes up and down, Cooky says. The Electra Glide also comes equipped with a heated seat and heated handlebar grips. The pair like to blast music out of the Electra Glides speaker system as they ride. They like country music, but also the Cure and Depeche Mode.

We start talking about the Cure but my introduction from the Boss has built me quite popular, and a man called Rick Sargent is hovering. He is another Trump supporter, although he is concerned what might happen should the businessman become president.

If Trump gets in office I candidly think hell be assassinated, Rick says. He doesnt offer a great deal of proof for his theory but he certainly says it with conviction.

Political insiders are frightened shitless of someone like him get in there, Rick says, gravely. And accurately. He says he will vote for Trump in the primary, to send a message that something needs to change.

Its getting towards the end of the second quarter by this time and people have been buying me drinkings for some time. Its getting lively in the Chop Shop.

The Boss comes over and puts a plastic Viking helmet on my head. I have my picture taken with a former marine called Hank , noted for his bushy brown beard. A human called Timothy invites me to come back in the summer for a bar crawl. I construct three new Facebook friends.

I take the Viking hat off but am told only Bill can decide when someone can stop wearing the Viking hat. Theres a shop in the corner of the bar selling Chop Shop merchandise. A woman helps me try on a skull ring, which is far too big for what she describes as my little hands.

Im sitting on a stool, still wearing the Viking helmet, trying to describe the bars interior in handwriting that I will be able to read the next day when a man called Bubba simply Bubba comes over.

Its a really nice place, he says of the Chop Shop. Its like a big family.

Bubba is a Trump supporter: Hes bringing a point of view that isnt common in politics.

Also appealing is the concept that Trump is a businessman, hes not a career politician. Everyone likes that. Bubba says some other things too, but the generosity of the Chop Shop household is beginning to take its toll, and when I look back at my notes it looks like Ive been drawing pictures of a rough ocean.

I go looking for Bill and find him in a back office wearing a top hat. He offers no explain for the top hat. He says he is known for wearing it and I am about to ask why when my phone rings. Its a cab driver I called 20 minutes ago. Hes outside and hes angry that I am nowhere to be seen.

Bill bodyguards me out of the bar and I get in the taxi. Its only then I realise a) I never even asked Bill who he is going to vote for, and b) I didnt say goodbye to any of my new, Trump-supporting biker friends.

Oh, and c) at some phase I managed to shed the Viking hat.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Scientology criminal enterprise lawsuit hurled out by Belgian judge

16 days ago

Investigators and prosecutors criticised after trial of 11 members of church and two affiliated bodies that could have led to ban

A court in Brussels has hurled out charges that could have find Church of Scientology banned as a criminal enterprise in Belgium, after a magistrate said the defendants were targeted because of their religion.

Eleven members of the celebrity-backed, US-based church and two affiliated bodies had been charged with fraud, extortion, the illegal practice of medicine, running war criminals enterprise and infringing the right to privacy.

The entire proceedings are declared inadmissible for a serious and irremediable breach of the right to a fair trial, the presiding judge, Yves Regimont, said on Friday.

He criticised the examiners involved in an 18 -year inquiry into Scientology in Belgium for what he said was racism, and prosecutors for being vague in their case against the religion.

The defendants were prosecuted principally because they were Scientologists, Regimont added.

The case was the subject of a seven-week trial that objective last December.

Its a relief, Scientologys spokesman in Belgium, Eric Roux, told reporters outside special courts. When you have had 20 years of your life under a pressure that you know is unfair, where one attacks your notions and not something you have done, the working day when the court says it officially, its a big relief,.

Defence lawyer Pascal Vanderveeren denounced the suit as careless and prejudiced, adding that it was aimed at assaulting Scientology and not those who are part of it.

Marie Abadi, a former Scientology member who has become a strong foe of it, told me that she expected an appeal, adding: We are evidently very disappointed. Either the facts are too old, or not precise enough. We are certain the prosecutor will appeal because things must budge.

Championed by famous members such as Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology stirs up sharp divisions. Critics denounce it as a cult and a swindle, while advocates say it offers much-needed spiritual subsistence in a fast-changing world.

Prosecutors had asked for the court to completely dissolve the Belgian branch of Scientology and the affiliated European Bureau for Human Rights, and for them to face a fine.

The defence team said the charges were nothing more than an attempt to blacken Scientologys reputation.

The Belgian authorities launched a first investigation in 1997 after several former members complained about the churchs practices.

A second investigation followed in 2008 when an employment agency charged that the church had attained bogus job offers so as to draw in and recruit new members.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, the Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by science fiction novelist L Ron Hubbard. It is recognised as a religion in the US and in other countries such as Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden, and claims a worldwide membership of 12 million.

But it has come under recurred scrutiny by authorities in several European countries, particularly in Germany. Several German regions have considered banning Scientology, while Berlin initially banned the cast of the Cruise Nazi-era movie Valkyrie from filming at historical locations but subsequently relented.

A court in Spain in 2007 annulled a decision by the Spanish justice ministry to sremove it from the countrys register of officially recognised religions.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Rare victory for persecuted journalist highlights Mexico’s press freedom crisis

18 days ago

Pedro Canch has finally won an apology for being jailed after he criticized a state governor. But, he asked, what about the 104 journalists killed since 2006?

Pedro Canch, an indigenous journalist and activist in the southern Mexico state of Quintana Roo, had a hunch the local authorities were closing in on him for his coverage of angry protests over rising water rates in local Mayan communities.

So he filmed a video criticizing the intensely image-conscious state governor, Roberto Borge, and uploaded it to YouTube in August 2014. Just a few days later, police pulled Canch from his car and threw him in prison on charges that he had sabotaged a local waterworks.

The charges were eventually thrown out after nine months as a judge ruled no damage had been caused, and Canch had no relationship with the protest ringleaders.

The National Human Rights Commission later ordered the state government to publicly apologize to Canch and pay compensation, but Borge refused.

This week, a new state administration apologized to Canch who took the opportunity to highlight Mexicos ongoing crisis of press freedom, and the unpunished murders of scores of journalists.

Who will ask for public apologies for the 104 journalists killed [since 2006]? Canch asked. The Mexican state owes them and their family an enormous debt.

Canch became a cause clbre in Quintana Roo and across Mexico as yet another symbol of the countrys struggle for a free press.

His is one of the few positive stories: four journalists have been murdered in Mexico in 2017, including Miroslava Breach, who covered organized crime and drug cartels and was shot dead in March as she drove her son to school in the northern city of Chihuahua. Norte, the Ciudad Jurez newspaper she wrote for, decided to close after her murder, citing journalist safety.

Journalists in Quintana Roo a state popular with tourists visiting Cancn and Playa del Carmen complain that the harassment against them came from politicians, who control the press through agreements to provide newspapers with advertising, but allow the government to control their editorial line.

In the case of Quintana Roo, media harassment always came from the government, not organized crime, said Vicente Carrera, founder of Noticaribe, an online news organization in Quintana Roo.

Carrera speaks from experience. Noticaribe caught Borge lying about his whereabouts and not disclosing he travelled to the 2011 Champions League final at Wembley. Noticaribe was hit by denial-of-service attacks for the rest of Borges term in office, which ran from 2010 to 2016.

Luces del Siglo, a muckraking magazine in Cancn, had its covers cloned during Borges administration, with covers featuring negative headlines replaced with covers featuring positive headlines and spread online. Staff say stores selling the magazine had their liquor licenses threatened, leaving them few places to sell copies.

Sergio Caballero, Cancn correspondent with newsweekly Proceso, was hit by accusations of being involved with a drug dealer charges quickly disproven.

They invented crimes rather than killing you, Caballero said of the situation in Quintana Roo, where corruption has grown rife as construction in a tourist mecca mushroomed.

The Quintana Roo coast is a jackpot, he said. They tried to present their government as impeccable. Anyone questioning that was persecuted and attacked.

Canch started a news website after his time in prison and started fighting for compensation; he had a business manufacturing deck beds and outdoor furniture for hotels in the state, which ceased operating while in prison.

His notoriety led to people slipping him information on scandals. He says it also prompted Borges Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to try striking a deal: the PRIs 2016 gubernatorial candidate would publicly apologise and indemnify him so long as Canch publicly endorsed the PRI.

Canch declined.

Its complicated practicing journalism in a corrupt place, he said. They corrupt you and pay you off and eventually you stop pointing out their mistakes This is what has allowed the government to be corrupt as it is.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

What the rest of Europe thinks about Londoners picking a Muslim mayor

20 days ago

People living outside the UK give their views on Sadiq Khans win and whether a Muslim would be elected where they live

As Europe grapplings with the rise of anti-immigration parties, Sadiq Khans appointment as the first directly elected Muslim mayor of a western capital city is important. According to those who responded to a Guardian callout, people living in the rest of Europe welcome the choice Londoners have made.

Sadiqs appointment sends a great message to the world. It reflects Britains state of mind which, as a French person, I think is more open-minded than France, said 18 -year-old Mathilde from the south of France. It tells me that Londoners see above the religion or the race of a person.

Last year, a YouGov poll procured that 31% of those living in the capital would be uncomfortable having a Muslim mayor, and 13% are still not sure. But the 1,310, 143 people who voted for Khan have boosted Londons reputation as a multicultural, multi-faith and liberal city.

Mathilde lives in Alleins, a village not far from Marseille, which is home to 250,000 Muslims, the second largest population in France. In the 2015 regional elections Alleins citizens voted for the rightwing party Les Rpublicains( 52% ), and the far-right Front National( FN)( 48% )~ ATAGEND. In the first round of the local election Front National led, losing out in the second round to Les Rpublicains. I live in an area where, ironically, there are many Muslims but where the FN has the most success. There are definitely discriminations against Muslim people, even though its often in discreet forms.

I tend to be pointed out that Muslims are not really integrated in society but left in a corner. I guess the Paris attacks helped the rightwing parties, especially the far-right party, to become more important. In fact the regional elections happened a little while after the attacks she said.

Louis, 18, who also lives in southern France, feels that Muslim people are more integrated into society than Mathilde describes but doesnt ever expect to see a Muslim political nominee in a similar position to Khan.

For me, it doesnt matter what his religion is or where he comes from as long as hes qualified and skilled. I guess[ Khans win] highlights Londons ethnic diversity and that he won thanks to their vote, he said.

Rafiq, 70, from Switzerland, has positive experiences of Muslim people standing for local government elections and gaining referendums, despite the populist rightwing Swiss Peoples party( SVP) winning the biggest share of the vote in Switzerlands elections last year.

It seems that acts of Islamophobia are not as widespread as are sometimes reported. Like most places Switzerland has all kinds of people, but many are open-minded and friendly with neighbours who are polite and kind to my hijab-wearing wife. Several Muslims are standing during the elections and some of them get a good number of referendums, but not quite enough, he said.

Ursula, 62, from Munich believes that despite some visible rightwing sentiment Germans would vote regardless of religion.

I think that convincing characters would have equal chances , no matter their religious beliefs. I was surprised by Sadiq Khans appointment. I had expected that the non-Muslim majority would not like to be represented by a Muslim major. Maybe such a big city attracts people with an open mind?

The Muslim part of society is not very active politically. I suppose the majority still keep their distance, feeling that they should not get involved, she said.

Wolfram, a 67 -year-old from Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler in the west of Germany, has considered anti-immigration sentiment imbue where he lives and cant insure a Muslim politician being elected any time soon.

It seems that Londoners accept their history and the consequences of the empire, and the outcome dedicates hope that people with different religions can live together peacefully.

Wolfram said he could not imagine a Muslim politician being elected where he lived, certainly not in the near future. Theres a instead deep split between those who are afraid of the rise in the number of Muslim people and the other citizens who are open-minded, even about open borders for refugees.

Hanna, 24, from Helsinki, believes Khans win is important given the loathe speech and discrimination facing Muslims in Europe, the rise of rightwing parties, and what she describes as openly racist legislators in Finland.

The anti-immigration party Perussuomalaiset[ known as Finns party, or PS] got into government and people attitudes have become harder towards refugees, especially to Muslims. The foreign minister, Timo Soini, who is party leader and co-founder of PS and a Catholic, even suggested we should prefer Christian refugees.

As we took more refugees in than ever, the PS are losing advocates. But this entails some people are going for even more rightwing politics like Rajat Kiinni!( Border Shut !). On their Facebook page they openly call all Muslims rapists and terrorists.

For this reason Im happy about Khans appointment, but mostly because of his politics , not just his religion. I dont really like any organised religions, but everyones free to believe what they want. It seems to me that Londoners suppose politics are more important than what religion someone believes in. They are wise, she said.

Many respondents to the callout hope Khans win will raise the status of Muslim people living in their own towns and cities across Europe, and help to involve them more in political life.

Nesi, 44, a secondary school teacher who lives in a small city outside Madrid, hopes Khans win will go some style in contribute to improving Muslim peoples opportunities.

For the child of an ethnic minority to go into higher education, take part in politics and become a mayor, a lot of things in Spain have to change and improve. I think there must be some occurrences, but society doesnt provide equal opportunities for all children.

Political posts of any relevance are largely merely for those who go to university or belong to a rich traditional household. And certainly not for a Muslim, I am afraid to say. Spain is too conservative in general to allow a Muslim to take part in politics.

Sadiqs appointment shows that politics and important issues in the world should be about people , not religion. It also shows that a multicultural society living in peace is possible. And of course it shows what a fantastic place to live London can be, sometimes.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

One Facebook ‘like’ is all it takes to target adverts, academics find

24 days ago

Online ad campaigns based on smallest expressions of preference reveal effect of mass psychological persuasion

Online ad campaigns created by academics in Britain and the US have targeted millions of people based on psychological traits perceived from a single “like” on Facebook – demonstrating, they say, the effect of “mass psychological persuasion”.

More than 3.5 million people, mostly women in the UK aged 18-40, were shown online adverts tailored to their personality type after researchers found that specific Facebook likes reflected different psychological characteristics.

The bespoke campaigns boosted clicks on ads for beauty products and gaming apps by up to 40% and sales by as much as 50% compared with untargeted adverts, according to the researchers, who did not benefit financially from the campaigns.

The work, carried out for unnamed companies, was designed to reveal how even the smallest expressions of preference online can be used to influence people’s behaviour.

“We wanted to provide some scientific evidence that psychological targeting works, to show policymakers that it works, to show people on the street that it works, and say this is what we can do simply by looking at your Facebook likes. This is the way we can influence behaviour,” said Sandra Matz, a computational social scientist at Columbia Business School in New York City.

“We used one single Facebook like per person to decide whether they were introverted or extroverted, and that was the minimum amount of information we can possibly use to make inferences about people’s personalities. And yet we still see these effects on how often people click on ads and how often people buy something,” she added.

The work has raised concerns among some in academia. Gillian Bolsover, who studies online manipulation of political opinion at the Oxford Internet Institute, said she was concerned about whose hands publicity of the research might play into.

“Does coverage of the work primarily serve as an advert to the companies that might do these things? Or does it serve to inform the public about something going on in our society that we might not be happy with and want do something about?” she said.

“If people are worried about the way technology is going, there are lots of little actions they can take to reduce the amount of data that is collected about them and to avoid supporting the practices and companies that they might feel are detrimental to society.”

Matz teamed up with researchers at the University of Cambridge who had previously created a database of millions of personality profiles of anonymous Facebook users and items they had liked. The data reveals how, on average, specific likes reflect certain personality types. For example, a like on Lady Gaga’s Facebook page is broadly the mark of an extrovert, while a like on Stargate’s page flags users who are more likely to be introverts.

The researchers then used graphics designers to create adverts aimed at either extroverts or introverts. They showed these via Facebook’s advertising platform to people who had liked a single item identifying them as one personality type or the other.

The first field experiment targeted more than 3 million UK women aged 18-40 with adverts for an online beauty retailer. More than 10,000 women clicked on the ads, leading to 390 purchases. Matching the ads to people’s personalities led to 54% more sales than mismatching them. Two further campaigns for a crossword app and a shooting game had similar results, the researchers report in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“I was surprised that we got the effect with so little information,” said Matz. “We don’t know that much about people, and yet it still has a pretty big effect. You can imagine if you were using the full Facebook profile to make individual level predictions about people’s personalities, the effects would be even bigger.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

Matz believes that such mass persuasion could be put to great use – for example, by helping people to save, get a pension, or lead more healthy lives. But it could also be misused, she said. “It has the potential for abuse where you exploit weaknesses in a person’s character to make them do things they don’t want to do. We want policymakers to focus on the positive uses. If you just shut down this technology, you would lose so much potential for helping people.”

But the approach is controversial. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating whether voters were unfairly influenced online by political campaigners in the run-up to the EU referendum in 2016. The ICO’s report is expected before the end of the year.

“In a sense, it’s a natural extension of capitalism as it moves online. Of course corporations will do this,” said Bolsover. “But the increased use of corporate advertising techniques in the political system is something I think we should be worried about on a broader level.”

“Political campaigns [are] probably somewhere you don’t want it to be used,” said Matz. “We want to open it up for public discussion so people can have an informed discussion about what we want to do with our technology.”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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