DIE ZEIT
Die Zeit ("The Time") is a German weekly founded in 1946 and headquartered in Hamburg. Its political views are considered centrist and liberal. It is known for its very large physical paper format and its long and detailed articles. Die Zeit it is the most widely read German weekly newspaper.
Why The World’s Military Leaders Are Drafting Science Fiction Writers
Future
Meike Eijsberg

Why The World’s Military Leaders Are Drafting Science Fiction Writers

The year is 2056. Decades of war have resulted in constant advances in weapon technology — including one such novelty dubbed the "hypervelocity missile." Moving at six times the speed of sound, these weapons have changed the rules of combat. In order to protect themselves against attacks, armies have designed a sophisticated shield that can protect an entire city. Still it is not impenetrable, and the simmering war worsens when one government tries to break through the shield of another.

What sounds like the premise of a new binge-worthy series is instead the beginnings of an intricate scenario developed by science fiction writers hired by the French military. As Le Monde reported recently, the unusual collaboration between the French Ministry of Defense and the University of Paris Sciences and Lettres (PSL) has just launched the second season of this project.

Science fiction tends to conjure the futuristic and surreal settings of space exploration, extraterrestrial life, and time travel. Fascinating and mindboggingly fun, but not exactly useful in the real world. As an avid reader of science fiction and a student of political science and international relations, I prefer to think of it differently: Almost every scifi tale introduces some kind of scientific invention or phenomenon that changes society in irreversible ways — which doesn't sound so different than something you might find in this morning's headlines.

The efforts like those of the French Defense Ministry raise questions like: How will governments approach a new technology? Some might be diplomatic about it and will want to commence scientific collaborations to discuss the best possible application. But other ill-intending individuals might throw all ethical concerns out the window. And what about the people? Will they be supportive or will they turn on their own rulers?

For now, the French army is devising ways to make the practice as useful as possible: there's a "Red Team" consisting of authors, who have wide freedom in coming up with scenarios. They can put ideas on the table that the French army typically excludes for ethical reasons, such as Autonomous Lethality Weapon Systems (ALWS), or augmented humans.

Infantry battalion commander Jean-Baptiste Colas, 36, explains to Le Monde the goal of this process: "What the Red Team imagines must destabilize us, scare us, blame, or even beat us."

The red team has the option to consult the "Purple Team," which consists of academics working in AI and technology, to make sure their ideas are reasonable and realistic. The military side, or "The Blue Team," provides the finishing touches before the scenarios are officially sequestered with a top secret seal.

The official trailer for the French Defense Military Red Team — Red Team Defense/Youtube

The elected participants were subjected to a thorough investigation to ensure that they did not have any weaknesses that could be exploited by someone from the outside (significant debts, links with a foreign power, etc). The precaution is needed because the teams work with confidential information. "We start with a real threat that the army helps us to make even more plausible, more worrying," explains Xavier Mauméjean, who is part of both teams.

To maintain a somewhat transparent image, a very small fraction of the scenarios is made public. But before they reach our eyes, these scenarios are put under a loop and anything that comes close to reality is removed: people and locations will be replaced by fictional alternatives. When the scenarios are published, the creators go all out: scriptwriters, illustrators, actors, and graphic designers are hired to make the project as attractive as possible. The result is a win-win situation: the public has a new form of entertainment and the army has a fresh set of practice scenarios.

Although mocked by some for this initiative, the army insists that employing science fiction authors is helping them prepare for previously unthought of situations. They say it boosts creativity and makes soldiers and generals more resourceful, something that is needed in an unpredictable world.

The truth is that the practice has long existed, in different forms and sectors. For instance, the famous Frankenstein (1818), a story about a fictionalized scientist obsessed with bringing a monster to life using lightning, was inspired by the limited scientific research into electricity on the human body being done at the time. More than a hundred years after its publication, a young Earl Bakken watched the movie adaptation in 1937. It inspired him to create the first ever battery powered cardiac pacemaker in 1957, a life saving medical device still being used today.

The more "crazy" science fiction out there remains just that: fiction.

Jules Verne's 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, went a step further and indirectly influenced politics and military decisions in the United States. The story is about a group of men who decide to launch themselves to the moon in a cylinder-shaped projectile. This fictional shell has striking similarities to the Apollo 11 command module used to bring the first humans to the moon 104 years later: it was hollow, made mostly of aluminium, crewed by three people, launched from Florida, and it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Verne's tale inspired real people to work on the challenges of space travel, eventually prompting the 20th century space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

We know now that an all-out space war was avoided due to international space treaties prohibiting the use of outer space for military aspirations. But the years leading up to these events were tense and characterized by politicians frantically debating the influence of this new, potentially disruptive, technology. Not fictional at all!

Instead of hiring science fiction writers, the German military has therefore opted for researching existing literature and in 2018 teamed up with a handful of academics. Their plan is to use novels to pinpoint the world's next potential conflict. As German weekly Die Zeit reports, this collaboration, dubbed "Project Cassandra" after the Trojan priestess of Greek myth who had the gift of foresight, doesn't solely focus on science fiction and future technologies, but takes into account human behavior. They look for social trends, moods, and conflicts that arose in response to political decisions and technological breakthroughs (whether real or fictional).


SF literature, the new Art of War? — Photo: scifi.book.club via Instagram

Jürgen Wertheimer, a literary scholar who set up the project, emphasizes the seismographic function that novels can have and why States should learn to understand it. "There are authors," he said, who "who are extremely sensitive to changes and mood swings in society and put that into words."

Just like the French army's science fiction writers, the German literary academics work with AI. But where the French use AI to improve their scenarios, the Germans are consulted to improve AI. This is because the already existing German AI computer Watson, which is used to predict conflicts, isn't able to read between the lines and pick up on social cues. That's where Wertheimer and his team come in. They look for literature that "hits a nerve," whether it wins prizes or ends up censored. The multi-year analysis ensured that officials can now, with quite a bit of accuracy, predict a conflict five years in advance, instead of just one.

Movies are also a source of inspiration. In fact, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Pentagon reached out to Hollywood filmmakers, such as Die Hard screenwriter Steve de Souza. This was supposedly a reaction to the belief that an attack of this scale could have been anticipated if the CIA had a bit more imagination. The group of screenwriters and filmmakers were commissioned to brainstorm with Pentagon advisors and officials over several days, in a secure location, using declassified intelligence reports. The meeting could have been a movie scene: Souza described how they were sitting in a dark room, being talked to by someone on a screen "like Captain Kirk" from Star Trek. Although the exact content of these sessions is shrouded in secrecy, it is known that they asked for "left-field, off the wall ideas" and participants were encouraged to share the most insane things that came to mind.

The more "crazy" science fiction out there remains just that: fiction. It's highly unlikely that an alien race will destroy our planet because it was blocking plans for a new "hyperspatial express route," as was the case in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nor is there any real chance of entering a time-traveling war like in This Is How You Lose the Time War. Instead, the apocalyptic scenario we really have to fear can already be seen this summer in (non-fiction) stories of California wildfires and European floods: it's called Climate Change.

Christian Drosten, Director, Institute of Virology at Campus Charité Mitte
DIE ZEIT

Showtime For Epidemiologists: 5 Virus Gurus Around The World

Not since George Clooney was walking the halls of E.R. have doctors gotten so much air time. More particularly, virologists and epidemiologists are taking the lead in guiding us through the coronavirus crisis, both those offering explanations on news outlets and those holding increasingly vital positions of authority who help set national policies in response to COVID-19. Here are some of the highest profile MDs:

  • Massimo Galli: As the first country hit in Europe, Italy was also the first in the West to develop a near daily attachment with an expert of infectious diseases: Dr. Massimo Galli, director of the infectious diseases department at Luigi Sacco University Hospital in Milan, became a household name as his stern, no-nonsense assertions began to fill the Italian media two months back. As the recognition of a true crisis was still impending in less-affected countries around the world, Galli issued sharp warnings to both neighboring France and Spain as well as the U.S., saying that "we're only at the beginning" and that the virus could spread undetected in California and New York as it has in Italy. With a new virus, there are no certainties," he told Corriere della Sera.

  • Anders Tegnell: Leading an approach to the pandemic that stands virtually alone in Europe, Sweden"s state epidemiologist has attracted worldwide attention for the decision to refuse lockdowns even as the virus has spread at a faster rate than in Denmark and Norway that were quick to impose heavy restrictions. But the soft-spoken Swede has received the criticism with composure, saying to Swedish TV4 that "we are flattening the curve, and the healthcare system is working — our strategy has worked the way we intended."

Anders_tagnell_2020_epidemiologists

Anders Tagnell outside of the Karolinska institute in Stockholm, Sweden Frankie Fouganthin

  • Christian Drosten: Another unlikely hero has emerged in Germany, as Drosten, chief virologist at the Charité university research hospital in Berlin, has become a regular in TV morning show studios. Asked about his sudden fame in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit, he said he "sort of slipped into it." Now, he's even got a podcast Das Coronavirus-Update which, by its second episode, was already the most popular in Germany.

  • Didier Raoult: The flamboyant Marseille-based physician Didier Raoult sparked both hope and criticism in France when claiming his research proved the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine can help fight COVID-19 in late February. But scientists were quick to point out major flaws in the trial, and the journal that published the study announced on April 3 that it did not meet its standards. Academic standards aside, Raoult has become something of an online phenomenon, attracting some 400,000 Twitter followers since he set up an account in early March, and the Facebook group Didier Raoult Vs Coronavirus has gathered some 465,000 members in one month.

  • Anthony Fauci: Much of the intellectual acumen of the leading member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force is applied to fending off the very unscientific ravings of President Donald Trump. But Fauci, the longtime director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has managed to keep both his calm and scientific credibility as he navigates the delicate experience of regularly sharing the stage with Trump. "You stay completely apolitical and non-ideological, and you stick to what it is that you do," Fauci told The New Yorker. "I'm a scientist and I'm a physician. And that's it."

That TV set has the biggest button
Sources

The Trump Presidency: Tune In Or Tune Out?

PARIS — "Previously on President Trump …" We have gotten used to following the news from the White House as we would a prime-time television drama. This week's plot includes the long-awaited boot for Big Rex. Did he know it was coming? Who said what to whom, and when? What does it mean for Vlad? For Xi? And Kim??

The current Foggy Bottom plot line follows last week's installment of metal tariffs for our allies, with Trump boasting that trade wars are "good and easy to win." That was followed by chief economic advisor Gary Cohn resigning, just hours after the president said that "everybody" wanted to work with him at the White House. And, for an end-of-the-week cliffhanger, there was the surprise announcement of historic talks with North Korea, a country Trump had threatened a few months ago with "fire and fury." Oh, and don't forget Stormy Daniels, whose breakout performance could turn her into a recurring character.

None of this should surprise us, of course, coming from a president who is also a former reality television star and who reportedly told his top aides that they should "think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals."

As for the rest of the world, where Netflix series are the vehicle of choice for spreading American culture, the search for show business metaphors is on. "During his election campaign, Trump coined the image of Washington as a "swamp," a picture that looks less like reality and more like the scripts written in Hollywood — probably because the candidate knew Washington mainly through such works of fiction," Adrian Daub wrote last year in the German weekly Die Zeit. "Could it be that the all-pervading cynicism conveyed on such shows as House of Cards has contributed to Donald Trump overtaking fiction?"

None of this should surprise us coming from a president who is also a former reality television star.

Columnist Jean-Pierre Robin of the French daily Le Figaro landed upon a more dated analogy, after Trump announced the heavy steel and aluminum tariffs last week. Robin likened Trump's America to the 1965 movie La Vieille Dame indigne (The Shameless Old Lady), based on a story by German playwright Bertolt Brecht. In it, an aging woman, having raised her kids, proceeds to spend all her money and do whatever she damn well pleases.

There have been other, more colorful attempts to draw comparisons to this new peak in presidential theatrics, particularly in light of developments in Italy, which has its own national drama playing. There, an inconclusive election last week saw the return of Silvio Berlusconi, a former prime minister whose biography (and behavior) may be more similar to Trump's than any other global leader.

Yet the hotspot where the stakes right now are highest is North Korea, after last week's surprise announcement of an unprecedented meeting planned between Trump and dictator Kim Jong-un. It was only few months ago that Kim pulled out his own evocative image of Trump, calling him a "dotard" — an obscure word used by the likes of Herman Melville, William Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien. Perhaps that was something he found in translation.

If the search for hope and meaning in the Trumpian world feels futile, you may want to follow the lead of Erik Hagerman, a 53-year-old from Ohio who decided to shut out all news from his life since Trump was elected. "It's not like I wanted to just steer away from Trump or shift the conversation," he told The New York Times. "It was like I was a vampire and any photon of Trump would turn me to dust."

For the rest of us, the only option is to keep watching, closely or loosely, as Trump prepares for the next episode. Reality is not (just) a show.

Downtown Miami on Sunday
Germany
Stuart Richardson

Miami To Mumbai, Can 'Sponge Cities' Save Us From Global Warming?

Miami's beaches and boardwalks have become waterways. Houston's highways looked like lakes just two weeks back, while halfway around the world boats were replacing buses as the streets of Mumbai were turned into rivers.

The scientific literature has a clear explanation for these dramatic images: global warming is bringing more rain and more floods, and is bound to leave certain cities — both on the coast and in river basins — particularly vulnerable. Back in June, Berlin, which sits on the Spree river faced a once-in-a-century meteorological event when heavy rains hit. According to the spokesperson of Berlin's municipal water works, more than a quarter of the city's average annual rainfall fell in the course of just 18 hours, German daily Die Zeit reported.

Cities have increasingly recognized the necessity of adapting to a wetter climate. Berlin authorities are set to adapt the city's infrastructure to better handle increased rainfall with new techniques to transform buildings and green spaces into "sponges' with the ability to absorb large quantities of water over a short period of time. This will include planting rooftop gardens, creating more public parks, and installing swales. As another German daily Die Welt reports, the principle behind this movement is to move away from traditional practices of channeling water and toward draining systems.

The so-called "Sponge City" is not a German invention. The Chinese government first conceived the idea in 2013 and is now applying it in some 30 of its cities. Melbourne, Australia has invested heavily in a plan to build thousands of "raingardens" that will absorb excess precipitation and coastal flooding, while New Orleans has made the approach central to its latest rebuilding plans after Hurricane Katrina. "The objective isn't just to protect yourself but to know the risks, accept them and adapt," says Isabelle Thomas, an urban studies professor at the University of Montreal, told French daily Le Monde.

If successful, Sponge City practices are just one way to help reduce costs and even casualties as freak storms increasingly become the norm. The multi-billion-dollar investments are necessary to allow the globe's metropolises to remain productive and profitable in the hope that the entire planet can begin to tackle the bigger challenge of reducing global warming. A sponge, after all, can only hold so much water.

Germany

One Year After Paris Attack, Zeit Puts Bataclan Ticket On Cover

German magazine Zeit Magazin has made this week's cover an image of at ticket to the fateful concert of the rock band Eagles of Death Metal at Le Bataclan in Paris on November 13, 2015.

The cover marks one year after the attacks in Paris, which killed 130 including 89 at the concert. The venue will reopen for the first time in a year with a concert Saturday night by English musician Sting. The proceeds from the show will be donated to two associations for the victims of the attack, most notably Lifeforparis.

Migrant Influx Pushing Germany To Learn Arabic
Germany

Migrant Influx Pushing Germany To Learn Arabic

HAMBURG — Few will deny that the influx of migrants in recent months, mostly coming from Syria and other Arab countries, has shaken up German society. Reactions have ranged from pride in Germany's ability to welcome refugees to outrage at the New Year's Eve attacks against women by mobs of mostly North African men.

But now, some are looking at practical, long-term ways of adjusting to the new reality. Writing in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, one university president said it should be compulsory for German students to learn Arabic.

Thomas Strothotte, President of the Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, writes that the introduction of Arabic in German classrooms could make Germany a leader in gaining access to comprehension of the Arabic world. If Arabic were a required subject for all students, Strothotte writes: "This would prove that we acknowledge being an immigration country with a multilingual society."

An even superior act would be put the two languages on the same level, as languages of instruction, says Strothotte. This would make it possible for children to start preparing for the profound transformation process that has already started in the Middle East.

By pushing to learn Arabic language from a very young age on, Germany would present itself in the Middle East as a valuable economic, cultural and political partner, ready to accompany those countries in their transformation process.

In the meantime, broadcasting companies under public law are planning on adding Arabic programs. Considering the strong influx of refugees coming from the Middle East, the country's ARD network announced the support of the Deutsche Welle TV channel DW Arabia.

Further, broadcasting of documentaries and news coverage for an Arabic audience is scheduled. ARD chairman Karola Wille calls the cooperation "an important signal, in difficult times." Since December 2015, DW Arabia has been reporting 24/7 on recent events and evolutions, from a German and European point of view.