Three Notes in the News: The Sound and Music of Geopolitics

A few weeks ago, we looked at three stories about the geopolitics of springtime. Now that the season is in full bloom, here’s a handful of stories in which music, sound, and technology set the score for three big geopolitical issues today.


Better than a singing telegram — Authoritarian regimes are quick to crack down on social media and messaging apps, but more hesitant to target broadly popular and largely apolitical music streaming apps. So the German branch of Reporters Without Borders came up with a melodious solution to beat censors in five of the world’s most restrictive regimes: they hired musicians to work with local journalists in China, Egypt, Thailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam to turn their reporting into songs, which have soared to the top of playlists on Spotify and other streaming apps. Have a listen here.

USB vs DMZ — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be on a charm offensive these days, but his regime is still the most repressive on earth. One small thing that is piercing the veil of his totalitarian state: the lowly USB flash drive. Smuggled across the Chinese and South Korean borders, drives containing hundreds of hours of outlawed K-Pop music and South Korean TV shows are a hot commodity for those willing to take the risk. To put the technological progress of dissidence in perspective: in the Soviet Union, people hungry for the sounds of banned Western pop and jazz once had to rely on “bone music” — homemade 78RPM records fashioned out of discarded x-rays (skeletal images still on them, hence the name).

Sound(less) underwater — We’ve written a lot about the scramble between the US and China to control the heights of technology, but there’s also growing competition to control the depths of the ocean. While the US is still the world’s only naval superpower, China has rapidly increased its naval forces over the past decade, in a bid to challenge that dominance. Submarines are one area where Beijing is making the fastest progress, and so Chinese and American researchers are racing for the holy grail of underwater naval power: a submarine that is undetectable by sonar. Get your three-dimensional underwater acoustic carpet cloaks out of storage, folks…

Scientists, engineers and technologists are turning to nature in search of solutions to climate change. Biomimicry is now being applied in the energy sector, medicine, architecture, communications, transport and agriculture in a bid to make human life on this planet more sustainable and limit the impacts of global warming. New inventions have been inspired by humpback whales, kingfishers and mosquitoes.

Learn more at Eniday: Energy Is A Good Story

The drumbeat for regulating artificial intelligence is growing louder. Earlier this week, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet, became the latest high-profile Silicon Valley figure to call for governments to put guardrails around technologies that use huge amounts of (sometimes personal) data to teach computers how to identify faces, make decisions about mortgage applications, and myriad other tasks that previously relied on human brainpower.

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January 27 marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi extermination camp. But even as some 40 heads of state gathered in Jerusalem this week to commemorate the six million Jews who were killed, a recent Pew survey revealed that many American adults don't know basic facts about the ethnic cleansing of Europe's Jews during the Second World War. Fewer than half of those polled knew how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and close to a third didn't know when it actually happened. Here's a look at some of the numbers.

1: The Greek parliament has elected a woman president for the first time since the country's independence some 200 years ago. A political outsider, Katerina Sakellaropoulou is a high court judge with no known party affiliation. "Our country enters the third decade of the 21st century with more optimism," Greece's prime minister said.

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A quarantine in China– Local authorities have locked down the city of Wuhan, the source of the outbreak of a new and potentially deadly respiratory virus that, as of Thursday morning, had infected more than 540 people in at least six countries. Other nearby cities were also hit by travel restrictions. Rail and air traffic out of Wuhan has been halted. Public transportation is shut, and local officials are urging everyone to stay put unless they have a special need to travel. Wuhan is a city of 11 million people, many of whom were about to travel for the Chinese New Year. We're watching to see whether these extraordinary measures help stem the outbreak, but also to see how the people affected respond to the clampdown.

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