Spying Jokes in the DDR: Cold War Humor and Political Resistance

by Jalees Rehman

Great_Dictator_Charlie_ChaplinPolitical jokes were no laughing matter for the East German state security service., The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS, more commonly known as the “Stasi“) viewed humorous quips about the political leadership as a form of political resistance during the Cold War years. The culture of repression enforced by the Stasi in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official name of East Germany) outlawed anti-government propaganda and sedition, and these anti-sedition laws enabled the Stasi to arrest citizens who shared political jokes.

Just a few months after the Berlin Wall was constructed, the Stasi arrested a 32-year old building painter at his workplace in the town of Sassnitz, hand-cuffed him and drove him to an undisclosed location. The Stasi agents provided no explanation for his arrest until late at night when he was lay down on a plank bed in a prison cell, trying to make sense of what crime he had committed. Exhausted and befuddled, he was just about to fall asleep when Stasi prison guards dragged him out of his cell into an interrogation room and informed him that he had been arrested for sedition. A Stasi interrogator wanted to know exactly what his opinions were about the party leadership, the relationship between the DDR and the Soviet Union and which Western radio channels he listened to. The painter provided all the details in a reasonably honest manner, without hiding his critical views.

The interrogator then asked him to write down every political joke he had ever heard or shared. He knew of nine jokes that he had told and wrote them all out for the Stasi. Here is one of the nine jokes:

Three DDR citizens are sitting in a prison cell and talking about why they have been arrested. The first says, “My watch always went ahead, and I would arrive too early to work so they said I was spying.” The second says, “My watch was always behind, I always came too late so they said I was engaged in sabotage. The third said, “My watch always worked perfectly, I always arrived on time, so they said my watch must have come from the West.”

After spending several months in Stasi custody where he underwent repeated interrogations, he was sentenced to three years in prison for engaging in anti-government propaganda and sedition by a penal court. The summary report by his Stasi interrogators was a central piece of evidence in the mock trial and it specifically listed the political jokes as well as the names of fellow citizens who heard him tell the jokes.

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Do the Right Thing and leave Judgment to Algorithms

by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

ScreenHunter_2352 Nov. 07 09.42In Islamic theology it is stated that for each human being God has appointed two angels (Kiraman Katibin) that record the good and the bad deeds that a person commits over the course of lifetime. Regardless of one’s belief or disbelief in this theology, a world where our deeds are recorded is in our near future. Instead of angels there will be algorithms that will be processing our deeds and it won't be God who would be judging but rather corporations and governments. Welcome to the strange world of scoring citizens. This phenomenon is not something out of a science fiction dystopia, some governments have already laid the groundwork to make it a reality, the most ambitious among them being China. The Chinese government has already instituted a plan where data from a person’s credit history, publically available information and most importantly their online activities will be aggregated and form the basis of a social scoring system.

Credit scoring systems like FICO, VantageScore, CE Score etc. have been around for a while. Such systems were initially meant as just another aid in helping companies make financial decisions about their customers. However these credit scores have evolved into definitive authorities on the financial liability of a person to the extent that the human involvement in decision making has become minimal. The same fate may befall social scoring systems but the difference being that anything that you post on online social networks like Facebook, microblogging website like Twitter, search and browsing behaviors on Google or their Chinese equivalents RenRen, Sina Weibo and Baidu respectively is being recorded and can potentially be fed into a social scoring model. As an example of how things can go wrong lets consider the case of the biggest country in the world – China. In that country the government has mandated that social scoring system will become mandatory by 2020. The Chinese government has also blocked access to non-Chinese social networks which leaves just two companies, Alibaba and Tencent, to literally run all the social networks in the country. This makes it all the more intriguing that the Social Credit Scoring system in China is being built by the help of these two companies. To this end the Chinese government has given the green light to eight companies to have their own pilots of citizen scoring systems.

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Scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be

Anil K Seth in Aeon:

ScreenHunter_2351 Nov. 07 09.04What is the best way to understand consciousness? In philosophy, centuries-old debates continue to rage over whether the Universe is divided, following René Descartes, into ‘mind stuff’ and ‘matter stuff’. But the rise of modern neuroscience has seen a more pragmatic approach gain ground: an approach that is guided by philosophy but doesn’t rely on philosophical research to provide the answers. Its key is to recognise that explaining why consciousness exists at all is not necessary in order to make progress in revealing its material basis – to start building explanatory bridges from the subjective and phenomenal to the objective and measurable.

In my work at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in Brighton, I collaborate with cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, brain imagers, virtual reality wizards and mathematicians – and philosophers too – trying to do just this. And together with other laboratories, we are gaining exciting new insights into consciousness – insights that are making real differences in medicine, and that in turn raise new intellectual and ethical challenges. In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive. In this story, we are conscious ‘beast-machines’, and I hope to show you why.

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What Makes Horror Movie Music So Scary?

From The Sync Project:

Let’s start by looking at a certain musical arrangement: the tritone. Defined in the simplest possible terms, a tritone is “a musical interval of three whole steps.” For those who can read and understand music, the definition of a tritone can get a lot more detailed than that, so it’s best illustrated with an actual audio sample.

We immediately recognize the tritone from its use to create tension in film, or even to act as a marker between scenes in a play. It’s not that the tritone arrangement is particularly scary per se, it’s that it’s lacking in harmony (it’s dissonant) and is somehow incomplete, throwing the listener off balance and leaving you expecting more (or rather fearing the worst) as it’s played over and over again…

In the Middle Ages the tritone was named “diabolus in musica” (devil in music) and the church in fact banned it from being played. It was seen as the very antithesis of God, which the church believed would be represented by beautiful angelic harmonies rather than incomplete sonic dissonance.

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The Simple Logical Puzzle That Shows How Illogical We Are

Brian Gallagher in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2350 Nov. 07 08.48In the 1960s, the English psychologist Peter Wason devised an experiment that would revolutionize his field. This clever puzzle, known as the “Wason selection task,” is often claimed to be “the single most investigated experimental paradigm in the psychology of reasoning,” in the words of one textbook author.

Wason was a funny and clever man and an idiosyncratic thinker. His great insight was to treat reasoning as an enigma, something to scrutinize both critically and playfully. He told his colleagues, for instance, that he would familiarize himself with their work only after doing his own experiments, so as not to bias his own mind. He also said that before running experiments, researchers—quixotically—should never really know exactly why they were doing them. “The purpose of his experiments was not usually to test a hypothesis or theory, but rather to explore the nature of thinking,” a pair of his students wrote in Wason’s obituary. (He died in 2003.) “His aim was to reveal a surprising phenomenon—to show that thinking was not what psychologists including himself had taken it to be.”

The groundbreaking nature of Wason’s selection task may have been a result of his unconventional style. In one version of the task, one subject (always one—he spurned testing subjects in groups) is presented with four cards lying flat on a table, each with a single-digit number on one face and one of two colors on the other. Let’s imagine that you’re Wason’s subject. The first and second cards you see are a five and an eight; the third and fourth cards are blue and green, respectively. Wason liked to chat with his subjects, but he probably didn’t tell them that this logical puzzle was “deceptively easy,” which was how he described it in the paper he would later write, in 1968.

Wason tells you that if a card shows an even number on one face, then its opposite face is blue. Which cards must you turn over in order to test the truth of his proposition, without turning over any unnecessary cards?

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Dalai Lama: Behind Our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded

The Dalai Lama and Arthur C. Brooks in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_2349 Nov. 07 08.43In many ways, there has never been a better time to be alive. Violence plagues some corners of the world, and too many still live under the grip of tyrannical regimes. And although all the world’s major faiths teach love, compassion and tolerance, unthinkable violence is being perpetrated in the name of religion.

And yet, fewer among us are poor, fewer are hungry, fewer children are dying, and more men and women can read than ever before. In many countries, recognition of women’s and minority rights is now the norm. There is still much work to do, of course, but there is hope and there is progress.

How strange, then, to see such anger and great discontent in some of the world’s richest nations. In the United States, Britain and across the European Continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future. Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness.


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Buck to the future

Samanth Subramanian in Aeon:

SIZED-wikimedia-Biosphère_MontréalThe old mill town of Winooski in Vermont gets an average of 75 inches of snow per year, and temperatures in January fall below -10ºC. In 1979, in the clutch of a global oil shock, Winooski’s 7,500 citizens found themselves paying an annual $4 million for heating – around $13 million in today’s money. Desperate to spend less and still keep warm, the city council approved a tremendous plan: to build a dome over Winooski. Manufactured out of clear plastic, and held aloft by metal cables, the dome would enclose a square mile in area. Fans would pull in fresh air, to be cooled or heated as necessary. To leave or enter, cars would have to pass through a double-doored airlock, as if Winooski had turned into a space station. Within the controlled climate under the dome, heating expenses would fall by 90 per cent; you could, one planner exulted, ‘grow tomatoes all year round’. A federal government agency promised research funding. The next year, R Buckminster Fuller, the designer and inventor who had popularised the geodesic dome, came to Winooski to bless the project.

Through the preceding decades, Fuller had become a darling of the counterculture. He defied disciplinary boundaries, describing himself as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ working across architecture, science and economics. Marshall McLuhan, that other great hippie hero, heralded Fuller as ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of our time’. It wasn’t just in his work that Fuller described a famously eccentric orbit. He wore three watches, and his diet consisted for years of steak, prunes, Jell-O and tea. He compiled many of his sage-like musings – as well as his laundry bills and other irrelevancies – in 4.5 tonnes’ worth of scrapbooks, known as the Dymaxion Chronofile; in this manner, he recorded his life in 15-minute chunks for more than 60 years. Fuller wasn’t the first person to dream of domed cities – they’d featured for decades in science fiction, usually as hothouses of dystopia – but as an engineering solution, they feel thoroughly Fullerian. Implicit in their concept is an acknowledgement that human nature is wasteful and unreliable, resistant to fixing itself. Instead, Fuller put his faith in technology as a means to tame the messiness of humankind. ‘I would never try to reform man – that’s much too difficult,’ Fuller told The New Yorker in 1966. Appealing to people to remedy their behaviour was a folly, because they’d simply never do it. Far wiser, Fuller thought, to build technology that circumvents the flaws in human behaviour – that is, ‘to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions’. Instead of human-led design, he sought design-led humans.

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Interview with Harriet Harris: Tony Award Winner and Parrot Mom

Ryan Leeds in Manhattan Digest:

Harris1__140308030119-640x703Harris, known to television audiences as Frasier Crane’s manipulative agent, Bebe Glazer on Frasier and the slippery Felicia Tilman on Desperate Housewives, is also a familiar face to New York theatergoers. She was the Evil Stepmother in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and recently, was featured in the musical comedy It Shoulda Been You. She scooped up a Drama Desk and Tony Award in 2002 for her role as Mrs. Meers, a nasty white slaver owner in the long running hit musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The Texas native has donned the mantle of malevolence for many roles, but she couldn’t be more soft spoken and genteel as a human being. She’s currently starring in the late Horton Foote’s quiet and beautifully acted play, The Roads to Home. Set in 1920s Houston, the play explores the intimate, day to day conversations between three women and the men in their lives. Michael Wilson, who was Foote’s longtime collaborator, directs Primary Stages’ critically acclaimed production.

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Sunday Poem

“Oh, nation, think hard on which who of you
you choose to rule the house
because it is not easy (once it's in)
to evict the soul of a louse.” —Roshi Bob

The Double Voice

Two voices
took turns using my eyes:
One had manners,
painted in watercolours,
used hushed tones when speaking
of mountains or Niagara Falls,
composed uplifting verse
and expended sentiment upon the poor.

The other voice
had other knowledge:
that men sweat
always and drink often,
that pigs are pigs
but must be eaten
anyway, that unborn babies
fester like wounds in the body,
that there is nothing to be done
about mosquitoes;

One saw through my
bleared and gradually
bleaching eyes, red leaves,
the rituals of seasons and rivers

The other found a dead dog
jubilant with maggots
half-buried among the sweet peas.

by Margaret Atwood
from Selected Poems
Touchstone Books, 1976

The GOP’s Dysfunction Is Our Dysfunction Now

Scott Lemieux in The New Republic:

A0ba69897acc4636f695d404e3635398f5c74e0e9The next president will enter office with a potentially pivotal Supreme Court seat vacant. It’s an issue that may pale next to such world-historically important questions as Hillary Clinton’s email management, but it’s still very important. If Clinton captures the White House but Republicans retain the Senate, it is extremely likely that the Supreme Court blockade the GOP started in March will persist for four more years. Just as congressional Republicans have reconciled themselves to Donald Trump, they have already convinced themselves that the only principled course is to deny Clinton the ability to nominate anybody to the Supreme Court. The result would be the hobbling of an entire branch of government, which is just one example of how the chaos of Trumpism will live on even if he loses the election on November 8.

There are scenarios in which we could see the confirmation of a ninth justice to fill the seat left vacant by Antonin Scalia’s death. If Trump pulls off an upset victory, it would almost certainly come with a Republican Senate. This would lead to generic Republican nominees being confirmed to the federal courts. Some conservatives have been skeptical that Trump would reliably nominate conservative judges because of his less-than-robust commitment, historically speaking, to social conservatism. But such doubts are almost certainly misplaced. Even if Trump secretly wanted to appoint moderate judges, it’s not clear where he would find them (David Souter, one of the last of his kind, is not going to come out of retirement). And as George W. Bush’s failed nomination of Harriet Miers showed, Senate Republicans would reject any Supreme Court or crucial circuit court nominee who doesn’t have a demonstrable record of conservatism.

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How Obama’s presidency provoked a white backlash — and rekindled a spirit of black resistance


Adam Shatz in The LA Times:

He had inherited the catastrophic wars that his predecessor had launched in the Middle East, and just before he entered office, came the financial crisis. But the hope that Obama’s presidency would be (as he himself put it) “transformative” also reflected an older longing that he might help the country to overcome its racial divide and become genuinely united.

Hand in hand, we would follow him to the “post-racial” Promised Land, as if he were one of those “magical Negro” characters in Hollywood films who devote their lives to solving their white friends’ problems. There was always something a bit kitsch about this dream, which was mainly expressed by whites; for obvious reasons, black Americans tend to have a far more sober view of the country’s ability to address, much less transcend, its racial divisions.

As it turned out, the Obama era would supply only one racial miracle: his election. Determined not to be seen as the “president of black America,” he studiously avoided the subject of race; when forced to address it, he succumbed to banalities about the need for a “national conversation.” Faced with the deepening crisis in black America — police killings of unarmed civilians, including children; the epidemic of mass incarceration; economic and political disenfranchisement — Obama seemed unwilling, or unable, to respond with the sense of urgency that once had led him to become a housing organizer in Chicago.

As late as July 2014, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy wrote that for many black Americans, “the thrill is gone.”

In the last two years, however, Obama has finally assumed his historic role with moral seriousness, in part, one suspects, because he accepted the fact that his presidency would not be transformative, and that he could, at best, be a bulwark against the racist furies that it unleashed; a civilized counterpoint to the vengeful white noise of the red states. As Régis Debray famously argued, “Revolution revolutionizes the counter-revolution.” And so it has been with the racial counter-revolution in America, a know-nothing white nativism that has found its führer in Donald Trump.

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The Anti-Democratic Heart of Populism


Andres Velasco in Project Syndicate:

Many of the men and women who turned out for the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in early October were saying something like this: “Imagine if the Republicans had nominated someone with the same anti-trade views as Trump, minus the insults and the sexual harassment. A populist protectionist would be headed to the White House.”

The underlying view is that rising populism on the right and the left, both in the United States and in Europe, is a straightforward consequence of globalization and its unwanted effects: lost jobs and stagnant middle-class incomes. Davos men and women hate this conclusion, but they have embraced it with all the fervor of new converts.

Yet there is an alternative – and more persuasive – view: while economic stagnation helps push upset voters into the populist camp, bad economics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for bad politics. On the contrary, argues Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller in his new book: populism is a “permanent shadow” on representative democracy.

Populism is not about taxation (or jobs or income inequality). It is about representation – who gets to speak for the people and how.

Advocates of democracy make some exalted claims on its behalf. As Abraham Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, it is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But modern representative democracy – or any democracy, for that matter – inevitably falls short of these claims. Voting in an election every four years for candidates chosen by party machines is not exactly what Lincoln’s lofty words call to mind.

What populists offer, Mueller says, is to fulfill what the Italian democratic theorist Norberto Bobbio calls the broken promises of democracy. Populists speak and act, claims Mueller, “as if the people could develop a singular judgment,…as if the people were one,…as if the people, if only they empowered the right representatives, could fully master their fates.”

Populism rests on a toxic triad: denial of complexity, anti-pluralism, and a crooked version of representation.

More here.