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The arrival of GPT-4, Russian warplanes destroy a US drone, and the nostalgic resurgence of vinyl re͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌  ͏‌ 
cloudy Islamabad
sunny Bamako
cloudy Taipei
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March 15, 2023


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Tom Chivers
Tom Chivers

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The World Today

  1. GPT-4 is here and it’s smart
  2. US drone downed near Crimea
  3. VW doubles down on electric
  4. Khan defies arrest in Pakistan
  5. Junta delays Mali referendum
  6. Honduras drops Taiwan
  7. Fed expected to raise rates
  8. DeSantis decries Kyiv support
  9. Salvadorans back Bukele
  10. EPA’s ‘forever chemicals’ ban
  11. Vinyl sales outstrip CDs

PLUS: Silence replaces noise in Hong Kong, and a graphic novel about a possible assassination attempt.


OpenAI releases ChatGPT successor

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

GPT-4, the latest OpenAI artificial intelligence, has arrived, and it’s remarkable. It outperforms its predecessors on every metric. It passed a bar exam, along with advanced high-school history and math tests, better than 80% of human entrants, and can create working websites from napkin drawings. OpenAI says it “hallucinates” less than earlier models, making fewer reasoning errors and providing fewer fake facts. It can assume different personalities too, such as a “Socratic tutor” who guides students with questions rather than handing them answers. Arguments over whether it’s “really intelligent” are increasingly academic.


US drone downed

Air National Guard/WikimediaCommons

The U.S. said one of its drones crashed after being hit by a Russian warplane over the Black Sea. The unmanned Reaper surveillance aircraft was flying near Crimea when two fighter jets intercepted it, “recklessly” flying close and dumping fuel over it, according to the Pentagon. One fighter then collided with the drone, clipping its propeller. The incident — the first reported physical contact between the U.S. and Russian militaries since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year — raised already high tensions: The U.S. and its allies have given Ukraine billions of dollars in military aid, but avoided direct confrontation with Russia. The Kremlin denied a collision, saying the drone crashed after banking sharply when the fighters approached.


VW goes big on electric cars

REUTERS/Matthias Rietschel

Volkswagen will invest $190 billion in electric vehicle technology over the next five years. The money will go to making battery cells — not just assembling the batteries, as its rivals do — and updating in-car software and smartphone connectivity. It follows a $10 billion plan to build an electric vehicle plant in the U.S., taking advantage of Inflation Reduction Act green subsidies. VW will also strengthen its position in China, despite pressure to diversify its supply chains, the Financial Times reported. VW’s boss said that it would “listen to the Chinese customer more strongly,” specifically by adding in-car karaoke machines.


Clashes as Khan defies arrest

REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Pakistani authorities failed in their attempt to arrest opposition leader Imran Khan after clashes broke out with supporters outside his residence. Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote last year, but remains popular and could win elections due in October — if he is allowed to run. A litany of legal charges have been filed against him, and a conviction could bar him from office. Pakistan’s political turmoil is one among a series of huge challenges facing the country: It will likely fall into recession this year, according to a Bloomberg survey, a number of major companies have halted operations there because they lack raw materials or foreign exchange, and hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are fleeing the country.


Mali postpones referendum

Mali’s ruling military junta postponed a constitutional referendum which would have been the first step towards a return to civilian rule. The military took command of Mali in 2020 in the first of several coups: Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew the previous “transitional” president last year. The public was supposed to vote on the new constitution on March 19, but the junta says the referendum is “slightly postponed.” It says elections, scheduled for next year, will still go ahead, although previous deadlines have come and gone. Mali is struggling with jihadist violence and food insecurity, and the junta has struck a deal with the Russian Wagner mercenary group, which has been accused of civilian massacres.


Honduras switches to Beijing

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins.

Honduras’s president said her country would switch diplomatic allegiance from Taipei to Beijing, the latest success in China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan. Beijing demands that countries with which it has diplomatic ties forego official relations with Taiwan, which it claims as its territory. Honduras becomes the 19th country to opt for Beijing since 2001, leaving just 13 that continue to recognize Taiwan. More may soon follow: Paraguay’s opposition has said it will choose Beijing if it wins next month’s election. But Taiwan’s official isolation doesn’t mean it isn’t winning friends. The island has prioritized a kind of “unofficial diplomacy” that has seen it deepen ties with the U.S., Japan, and European countries, Nikkei noted.


Expected US rate hikes

Traders bet the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates when it meets next week. American central bankers have relentlessly hiked rates over the past year, and data yesterday that showed core inflation, which strips away volatile indicators such as food and energy, was higher than expected would normally make it a no-brainer that the Fed would raise them again. But following Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse, some investors and economists speculated the bank could even cut rates, worried that further increases could choke off a fragile economy. The banking turmoil has had other consequences, too, piling particular pressure on climate-tech startups that already faced an array of economic headwinds, Semafor’s Climate & Energy Editor Tim McDonnell writes.

— To read Tim’s story, out later today, subscribe to our newsletter, Net Zero.


DeSantis cool on Kyiv backing

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Ron DeSantis, expected to run for the Republican nomination for United States president, said that protecting Ukraine was not one of the U.S.’s “vital national interests.” Speaking to Fox News, DeSantis warned against becoming “entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.” Former U.S. President Donald Trump, another frontrunner for the nomination, agrees with him, but their party does not: Senate Republicans are broadly in favor of military backing for Ukraine. A majority of Republican voters also back current levels of support for Kyiv, although that majority is shrinking. David Frum, a speechwriter for ex-President George W. Bush, argued that Trump and DeSantis are fighting for the “Fox News primary,” but alienating the electorate.


El Salvador’s popular leader

Secretaria de Prensa de la Presidencia/Handout via REUTERS

Almost 70% of Salvadorans favor President Nayib Bukele’s reelection, defying critics who say his government’s hardline fight against gangs has led to a litany of human rights abuses. Though Bukele cannot at present run after his current term expires next year, El Salvador’s Supreme Court — packed with Bukele-backed judges — has left the door open to him continuing to hold the position. Bukele is among the world’s most popular leaders: His approval rating of almost 90% is driven largely by the government’s crackdown on once powerful gangs, which has led to a sharp decline in homicides but left nearly 2% of the adult population — the highest proportion in the world — in prison.


EPA wants to limit ‘forever chemicals’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed legal standards on concentrations of man-made “forever chemicals” in Americans’ drinking water. Perfluoroalkyls and similar compounds are found in many plastics and cosmetic products. They take years to break down in the environment and cause illness in lab rats at high doses. Whether they are a danger at the levels people are exposed to is unclear: They have been linked to cancer and ecological damage, as well as to lowered testosterone levels and declining sperm count in Western males, although those findings are controversial. The EPA wants a limit of four parts per trillion in drinking water, the lowest level detectable.


Vinyl outstrips CDs once more

Sales of vinyl albums in the United States overtook CDs last year for the first time since 1987. The shift is mainly driven by streaming, which represents 84% of music revenue in the United States. But it’s also about nostalgia for pre-smartphone tech: Single-purpose cameras, Game Boys, and typewriters are popular with high schoolers. “There’s something appealing about the tactility of physical objects in an age where media is increasingly ephemeral,” wrote Andrew Cunningham in Ars Technica, and vinyl records are beautiful objects. Even the landline telephone has a hipster appeal, says Lifehacker, although the idea of phoning a building instead of a person must seem weird to the under-30s.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad in Moscow.
  • Trade unions in Sri Lanka protest against the rising cost of living, high taxes, and the postponement of local government elections.
  • The Cheltenham Festival, one of the U.K.’s biggest horse-racing events.
Guest Column

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a historian of modern China. His latest book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.

Hong Kong used to be associated with noise. In recent years, in ways first poignant and then simply sad, I have come to associate it with silence.

First the moving moment of silence at the annual June 4 vigil, then after the National Security Law was imposed, silent protests by those holding blank sheets of paper (a technique that later resurfaced on the mainland), and later still, the silencing of voices via imprisonment and intense pressure, and finally, the relative silence of the international press about ongoing repression.

Of course, a major hub like Hong Kong is never characterized only by silence. In 2016, the singer Denise Ho held a community concert after a sponsor-backed one was canceled under pressure from Beijing over her outspoken support for democracy. There were even moments after the banning of the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” when people daringly sang it in public.

Still, I can’t help but notice how many once-vibrant discussions have been silenced, including ones on social media: Those who were once actively posting from Hong Kong have stopped engaging in political commentary, unsure what will make them vulnerable.

Even when people there still make noise, it is as if they had stayed silent. The world’s attention has moved on. Beijing’s strategy of slowly strangling Hong Kong’s civil society, avoiding the kind of iconic images of blood on the streets that not only gets but sustains headlines, has been effective.

Taha Siddiqui/Instagram

A Pakistani journalist who fled to Paris after surviving an abduction and possible assassination attempt turned his story into a graphic novel. Dissident Club opens with the moment armed men pulled Taha Siddiqui, known for his critical reporting of Pakistan’s powerful military, out of his taxi and into another car, an attack he believes was orchestrated by the army. Of his novel, co-authored with illustrator Hubert Maury, he told AFP: “I wanted to take control because when I was attacked I lost control.” The award-winning reporter, whose book is published today, is now planning a follow-up that explores the stories of others living in exile.

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