Wednesday, 25 February 2015

John Key and the fight against Islamic terrorism 3.0

Prime Minister John Key on Tuesday confirmed New Zealand defence personnel will deploy to Iraq to assist in an international effort against Islamic State (IS) and to help civil reconstruction in the country.

The upper limit of deployment time in Iraq, according to Mr Key, is set at two years and the government will revisit that everry nine months. He said New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel will not engage in combat inside Iraq. Instead the NZDF mission will consist largely of training local security forces and facilitating provincial reconstruction in recaptured regions of Iraq.

NZDF will operate on the border of Salahaddin and Baghdad provinces where Australian and US soldiers and support staff are already assisting in other non-combat roles. Mr Key also confirmed that New Zealand’s Special Air Service will not deploy under the broader US-led Operation Inherent Resolve command structure.

It would partially be a mistake to characterise the government’s announcement as a commitment of New Zealand troops to a war. The environment NZDF will enter is not a war in the conventional sense; it is more complicated.

The NZDF will be operating in a failed nation-state, in the middle of a religious conflict, implicitly on behalf of one sect of that religion, reporting to a government with more affinity to a neighbouring country than its own, fighting against a non-state militant group operating largely from another neighbouring country and as part of an international coalition of which no two partners share the same goals for the conflict.

This is modern conflict. The campaign in Iraq against Islamic State is part of a new form of warfare in which conventional forces assist local governments in building capabilities to defend against a union of international terrorist groups with transnational criminal syndicates.

The trick will be in figuring out how to fight these groups in specific, legally defined geography. Non-state actors such as IS do not recognise international norms. Short of declaring the abolition of borders to chase a highly mobile enemy around the world, developed countries will struggle to declare decisive victory unless the underlying causes of unrest are addressed.

New Zealand’s recent military history of building rapport with local forces ideally suits it for the complexities of Iraq. The crucial factor for New Zealand’s deployment will be in maintaining a distance from the military actions of the coalition. Local Iraqis will divide those countries killing the Islamic State from those assisting only in humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.

Mr Key’s decision to limit New Zealand’s deployment to a non-combat role is wise, but is only possible because of the choices made by the US to shoulder the bulk of the combat responsibilities.

That the Islamic State acts barbarically is certainly true but it is a poor reason to militarily intervene in another nation. Plenty of militant groups are barbaric but get no attention from international coalitions.
Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria

However, Mr Key’s rationale that fighting IS will help limit its worldwide spread has merit. The group already considers itself a pseudo-nation state and is attempting to delegitimise the states inside which it operates.

Syria is now a country only in the sense that it exists on maps. But the maps will change. In a sense, the government in Baghdad is similar as the country represents a loose collection split along religious and ethnic lines. Given the upheaval in the region over the past 20 years, Syria and Iraq are in the early stages of transition to new representative forms. Both may still occupy seats at the UN in the short term but will fundamentally alter over the long term.

Those transitions will be dangerous and bloody. When a nation state transitions, the central authority of the country often dissolves. This creates a vacuum into which non-state actors such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State arise. What worries strategic planners in Washington and Wellington is not so much the threat these groups pose to local populations as it is the danger of allowing IS safe havens to plan and conduct attacks against transnational targets.

Both Syria and Iraq are teetering on the edge of becoming staging grounds for non-state actors as Afghanistan was and Somalia and Yemen still are. What Mr Key is trying to achieve is the stability of Iraq’s central government. A collapse of Iraq’s government would be directly detrimental to New Zealand’s security.

Mr Key also chooses an opportune time to join the fight against the Islamic terrorism. We are now a long way from the first iteration of transnational Islamic terrorism. The present jihadist movement will offer more observable success for the New Zealand government’s military effort, even if fighting it won’t fix the underlying problems. The evolution of Islamic terrorism has developed through three distinct phases over the past decade.

Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda Prime, pre-2001, can be considered Islamic terrorism 1.0. The group was cerebral, patient, theological and rigid. It practiced highly sophisticated operational security. It was relatively well-funded but did not possess high income flow.

Al Qaeda Prime also did not have a goal to form its own nation state, instead focusing on destabilising Arab states and attacking the “far enemy” of Western nations. The group was small with high mobility, confounding the efforts of Western intelligence for years until after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Islamic terrorism 2.0 was a natural evolution following the degradation of al Qaeda Prime. US and coalition forces broke the jihadist group but also scattered its ideology. Franchise al Qaeda groups subsequently appeared in Somalia, Yemen, Algeria, Nigeria and elsewhere. Linking the franchise groups was the ideology of jihad but that is where it stopped. Very rarely could franchise groups conduct al Qaeda Prime-style transnational attacks, even if they wanted to. They all announced global ambitions but their true focus was regional.
Spread of jihadist phases

Islamic terrorism 2.0 is also characterised by the encouragement of grassroots attacks. It introduced into the movement the leveraging power of social media. As the first decade of the 21st century wore on, the ability to use the internet gave franchise al Qaeda groups a direct line to disseminate propaganda and instructions.

The result was a sharp uptick in small attacks across the world. But this increase in jihadist attacks was offset by a decreasing efficacy and operational success as greater numbers of passionate but incompetent terrorists heeded the call to action.

The current transition is toward Islamic terrorism 3.0 embodied by the Islamic State. The influence of al Qaeda’s message is dissipating. Both al Qaeda and IS use Islam as a political ideology with a utopian goal of converting the entire world. IS sees itself as the usher of Islamic armageddon and will do anything to reach that utopia, whereas al Qaeda considered attaining that utopia a distant goal. IS has built on al Qaeda’s groundwork by attracting the fervour of a new generation of sympathisers.

Islamic terrorism 3.0 is also less about transnational terrorism than it is about militancy and the administration of a pseudo-state. To IS, al Qaeda is its grandparents' jihadist organisation. The battle for influence between al Qaeda and the Islamic State is in controlling the hearts and minds of Sunni Muslims. Al Qaeda and its franchise groups are unlikely to disappear soon but it has been left in the dust.

IS will be easier to degrade than al Qaeda because it presents itself as a semi-conventional target. Battle damage will be relatively simple to assess with exploded tanks and dead fighters. But IS will prove to be impossible to destroy just as al Qaeda was. The New Zealand government should therefore emphasise its focus is on stabilising the Iraqi government. Should the Iraqi government exist after the two-year deployment, Mr Key will be able to boast measurable success.

However, the effort to uphold the Iraqi government may be ethically questionable for many New Zealanders. Already the Iraqi government has drawn criticism from international bodies for its treatment of Sunni citizens after the government recently retook the Diyala province close to where the New Zealand forces will be based.

According to reports, government troops committed atrocities, raising sectarian tensions. The central government remains highly unpopular in northern Sunni-dominated Iraq because it is largely controlled by Shiites. Also, Iran is widely suspected to be manipulating the government of Iraq.
Control of terrain [Syria]: Islamic State (black),
Regime (red), Rebels (green), Kurds (Yellow)

The deployment of NZDF to Iraq will appear to be an implicit support of Shiites over Sunnis. Mr Key’s wish to position a diplomatic contact in Baghdad for communication could be viewed by Iraqis as New Zealand’s legitimisation of the current Shiite government. This will complicate the process of reconciliation and reconstruction in Iraq, hopefully not significantly.

Ultimately the realities in Iraq must be changed. For those people already committed to IS, the immediate strategy for the coalition is to remove them from the battlefield. This means killing or capturing them. The longer they can plan and prepare, the worse the security situation becomes for the world. This is the central lesson of the War on Terror.

The US and its allies has become extremely good at removing high-level terrorists and militants from the battlefield. The most dangerous job on the planet is now a second- or third-tier Islamic jihadist leader. But where the West has been less effective is in affecting the production rate of those people wishing to kill innocents in five, seven or ten years’ time.

Unless the coalition in Iraq change the conditions on the ground, it will be killing people forever. It must work with friendly governments in the region to boldly take on the issues that create groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

This task will be difficult but it will be crucial to ending this fight. What confounds this task is the fundamental differences between the Islamic world and the West. Simply put, the two worldviews have no common language with which to discuss the divide due to radically divergent histories. Stopping Islamic terrorism 4.0 will be largely impossible from the outside. The true change drivers must be local.

New Zealand’s approach represents part of the way forward. It must support and facilitate the fledgling reformative ideas in the Islamic world, no matter how tentative. The government in Iraq may be riven by sectarian and religious divisions but, importantly, it has retained a facade of democracy despite great pressure.

That achievement is rare in a region dominated by monarchies and authoritarian regimes. Egypt is also championing influential Islamic clerics and scholars who wish to reinterpret the central tenets of Islam to better fit with modernity.

New Zealand’s fight against Islamic terrorism is presently wisely structured. Unless changes occur in Iraq, its contribution will simply advance an evolution to Islamic terrorism 4.0. Right now, it’s all about turning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. But that will be an enormously difficult task.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The mis-framing of the privacy debate and how it affects YOU

Getting out of the system isn’t easy. I don’t claim to have done it, and I probably won’t be able to because one of these days I’ll need to talk to a person or buy something. And right there, I’ll be back inside just like before.

And I’m writing this on the internet, which is a big no-no if your idea is towards minimalism and escape from societal expectations. For those of us watching, you’ll already have heard the main points of the current privacy debate.

I know, this whole debate sounds as boring as watching cardboard exist, and you’re probably correct, but I assure you it’s important. A little refresher:

The National Security Agency (NSA) is the most powerful intelligence agency on the planet, and it is American. Edward Snowden was working there a little over 500 days ago before deciding to tap out and leave. But not before he had stolen millions of documents and begun leaking them to the media for maximum effect. Cue accusations, malice and downright obfuscation everywhere.

Mr Snowden’s plan was to expose the insidiousness of the NSA spying programmes, but I suggest he had it exactly backwards. Instead of taking secret files from the powerful and giving them to the disempowered, Mr Snowden was goaded into stealing from a weakening power (the government) and bolstering the growing power (the internet giants). I don’t think he noticed his mistake, but he certainly made it and almost everyone else did too.

Think about Google and what the company does every day. If everything you’ve ever written on the internet is stored somewhere in its massive server farms, then what exactly does privacy mean? And before I go any further, I’m not blaming Google for all this. I’m using them a shorthand for “Internet powerhouses of the coming feudal corporation system”.

They might tell you that your privacy is secure on Google’s servers, but that’s not the privacy you were asking for in this debate. There’s no power in letting people have privacy on the internet. Yet Google will stand in front of you swearing black and blue your information is safe from the government. That’s not what I’m worried about. What is Google doing with my information? Selling me nicer socks? I don’t think so.

Creating “safe” websites with “untrackable” structures is what we’ve been promised waits for us if we only continue to use the internet for more and more of our daily tasks. The true power is in Google pretending that people actually have privacy but retaining everything or hiring computer coders smart enough to build “safe” programs to access your data instantaneously for whatever purpose they wish.

In this debate, Google and other internet giants want you to swallow the lie that they’re fighting on your side against the tyranny of government data collectors because Google knows only one power base can be victorious here, and it won’t be the government. In fact, the debate is structured like this precisely because the government is so weak in comparison to the internet.

Who would you rather do the job of collecting and storing your digital information? Google or the NSA? “That’s easy, the NSA is basically Orwell’s Big Brother machine come to life! I don’t want that and I can’t believe you would either” Woah, slow down there, Fred the Activist. Notice the form of my question.

Remember that the NSA is the bad guy, so of course you’d say that. Do you want another go? And you can’t snarkily say “both” because I get to do the inventing of hypothetical scenarios around here, so I choose to make it a Hobson’s choice. It’s all about how you ask the question.

Then again, that’s not really my question, is it? That’s the one the media has been asking you for the last 500 days since Edward Snowden released his first files. It’s the one the system already knows how you’ll answer, because it has trained you into giving only one response.

That response will always be in the direction the system is already travelling. The form of the question, without causing so much as a twitch in Glenn Greenwald’s eye, assumes that you’re already putting private information into the internet, and that you will continue to do so.

The question only expects you to answer who you’d rather burden with the task of storing all your precious information? Is it the good guys or the bad guys? Google or the NSA? Both of tonight’s teams proudly brought to you by our platinum sponsors: MSNBC, CNN and FOX News. Give them a round of applause!

The accepted narrative spoken at you by the mouthpiece of the system – the media – knows that no one will choose to return to writing paper letters or, God forbid, sending cute little pigeons (where’s that animal cruelty article I saw on CNN recently…). The question is an assumption structured in such a way that you can’t see what it assumes.

Without wanting to sound conspiratorial, and hey, I’m not the only person saying all this, soon Google is expected to have so much data that they will effectively control our digital lives. It’ll be easier than inventing a money-printing machine because we’ve all been been conditioned in a tireless campaign to ask for a Google machine of some kind. We want this, no, we desire it.

But it wants more than just our digital lives. As useful as it might be, a tool like Google Glass is only the beginning of turning actual, stub-my-toe reality into a “data-filled” feeding tube. The internet is such a part of our lives already that Google has convinced us to ask for Google Glass ourselves, as if it was our idea. Now, if only I could master that trick for the dating world...

“So Google is actually the bad guy in this? I don’t think that’s fair. Haven’t they connected the real world with more information than it ever had?” No, you’re not listening. Google hates the fact that there is a “real world” out there. It sold us the planet-wide connection idea because we all thought information was liberating and empowering. “Yeah, I read an article on MSNBC how the world is more educated now…” Jesus...let me guess, you read that article online?

And don’t think an entire population that believes its personal existence is synonymous with its latest Facebook status update is going to revolt. Revolt against what, exactly? Let’s get this new revolution thing rolling with a strongly-worded, 140 character Tweet.

Remember the Arab Spring? It was neatly packaged by the media as a “Twitter revolution”. The internet was, again, the good guy in that struggle and the government obediently played the villain character with nary a peep from those who should know better (I’m looking at you Noam Chomsky).

Not even democracy, which was supposed to replace the autocratic regimes of the Middle East, emerged unsullied from this ongoing mess. The New York Times tells me that democracy has “failed” to take root in the region. But the excellent news is that Twitter and Facebook are firmly entrenched and ready to change Arab culture for the better!

Then again, ISIS have figured out how to use Twitter as well. Bet that wasn’t in the NYT story. I don’t suppose that matters a great deal to the internet giants that terrorists are Tweeting attack plans because all they see is screeds of juicy traffic reading the nasty Tweets (and advertising)  and maybe the odd purchase of a brand new fire-retardant Koran from Amazon.

Now, if ISIS were to decide to move offline, and convince all their loyal Twitterians (Twitterites? Twitterers?) to follow them, then we might have some trouble. “But ISIS get most of their recruits by using social media, why would they go offline”. Exactly. Wait, you’re not a Google exec are you?

Think about what Google will do with your data. Think about how much someone would know about you if all your movements and thoughts were represented by 1s and 0s. It’s yourself as data stored by a faceless corporate entity convincing you it exists for your own good.

Think about how much control  someone with the keys to that information would have. No wonder the whole game is to get us to continue using the internet at all costs. An extremely small, extremely select group of (white, male) people has never had so much power in the history of humankind.

What was your first thought 500 days ago? Did you think about snapping your iPhone in half following Mr Snowden’s revelations and going off the grid? Was the thought of government snooping overwhelming your brain with no escape and the only way out was going cold turkey on tech? Of course not.

Now ask yourself how long it took before you did another Google search after you heard about the NSA snooping revelations. Oh, you used Google to search for Mr Snowden in the first place? Huh, that’s funny.

What most people don’t realise about the privacy debate is that while they were wasting their time arguing over how much their lives have or haven’t been invaded by the NSA, Google could make all your conversations private right now if it was worth it to them. But they make too much money encouraging your conversations to be on their servers because it brings in the advertising revenue and leads you consume more products.

To see what’s really going on, start from the basics. If a product is free, then that object or thing is not the product - you are the product. Why are you being told that your privacy matters? “Well that’s a stupid question. My life is full of things I don’t want others to know”. Then why do you post all those relationship updates on Facebook? Who convinced you that only your friends could see your trip to the travel agent yesterday?

You’re getting a nice comforting, “there, there”, pat on the head from an enormously powerful internet giant which you’ve been conditioned to trust when it says your privacy is guaranteed. Of course Google doesn’t want government snooping. The NSA would be vacuuming all that tasty data you’re voluntarily giving to Facebook and Google and leaving none for them. The internet companies need you to be as exposed as possible on the internet, so long as it’s in the right direction. So they lie and tell you privacy from the government is its utmost concern.

Advocacy journalists and flabbergasted progressives writing op-eds to the NYT about the privacy debate is all part of the plan by big media outlets to Trojan Horse the public by framing the debate as a “talking point” with a goal of “raising awareness”.

But how exactly is it supposed to help privacy if people are made “aware”? Do those journalists know how much money they’ve made for the media conglomerates with their fire-and-brimstone stories?

And how much actual, real, testable, physical change has come from all this new awareness? You’re still using your iPhone and surfing the internet. We’ve already discovered that you don’t think this is a problem. But take a moment to consider what the system wanted from you the entire time. It bait-and-switched our poor brains suffering from a day spent nose-deep in a waterfall of inane Facebook posts about babies.

Understand that the idea all along was to convince you to accept a narrative leading to only one conclusion - which you’ll feel like you made all on your own - that staying on the internet is the best move right now so long as this website is taking care of my privacy. Complain about how dangerous the internet is, sure, but leave the status quo alone. Unless you’ve got a better idea about how to make insane amounts of money from billions of people, JUST DON’T LEAVE.

We are so intertwined with the system that the actual privacy problem sits right inside our precious iPhone. Even when we know it to be true we still blame the government. Which is exactly what Google wants us to do.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Islam and Christianity: spot the difference

US President Barack Obama is often easy to understand. He speaks clearly and precisely with a good grasp of most topics. Then he goes and compares the crusades with the militant group Islamic State (IS) and leaves many wondering if he understands this at all.

“Unless,” said Mr Obama at a recent speech, “we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the crusades and the inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Both Islam and Christianity do share a common ancestry, but their differences are profound. They are also impossible to notice if Mr Obama continues to insist on playing “who’s the worst killer?”.

The path each religion took diverged in early and important ways. There is a reason why Christianity is associated with the dominant system and Islam is not. That reason is reason. Christianity gained it, while Islam did not travel north. Let me explain.

Why do we still talk about Christianity today, fully 2000 years after it began? It is not because Christianity is objectively true, rather it was Christianity’s phenomenal ability to subsume the existing Greco-Roman system that made it so successful.

There were three successful ‘Desert Religions’: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Despite being older, Judaism could not influence the Roman system because its structure does not compel adherents to proselytise. To become a Jew is difficult unless one is born into the religion. Conversion was never an overriding priority.

By the time Western civilisation developed, Judaism was a marginal religion spread across the known world in small, isolated societies keeping mostly to themselves. It has remained largely that way ever since. However, both Christianity and Islam focused on conversion to thrive.

Each used the concept as central to its existence, instructing its followers to proselytise to the entirety of humanity. Those instructions spurred believers to experiment with the two religions, trying to fit them into the wider Greco-Roman culture. Christianity wasn't the best, but it went the right way.

Because more important than conversion was Christianity’s historical direction. It spread north into the Roman Empire by, crucially, stopping just long enough in Greece. In Greek culture, the concepts of rationalism and logic had already become part of the larger Roman system.

Greek logic was heavily influential on early Christianity with the writings of St Paul in the New Testament who repackaged the religion from an abstract mythology of pure spirituality and hero worship into a religion that could operate with the existing Roman system, rather than against it.

Paul argued for Christianity’s veracity, a simple process not repeated with Islam and Judaism. He knew how to speak the hegemonic language of the Roman and Greek cultures and how to manipulate those cultures to spread this new idea. Without Paul and his application of rationalism, Christianity could have floundered in its infancy. But there is a parallel to Christianity’s success.

Emperor Flavius Constantine was renowned for his superstition, experimenting with an allegiance to various gods in attempts to bring good fortune to his armies. His bouncing process of elimination is itself an artifact of the influence of Greek logic and rationalism on the dominant Roman system.

Constantine became emperor of Rome by defeating competitors Maxentius and Licinius in 324 AD. The crucial moment for Christianity was when the emperor expediently adopted the religion after the battle of Milvian Bridge where he fought rival emperor Maxentius’ much larger army.

Before the battle, Roman historian Eusebius describes Constantine’s hallucinatory vision, where, while marching at midday, "[he] saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces, or ‘with this sign, you will conquer’ ”.

The battle was brief. Constantine’s army broke Maxentius’ forces and the rival emperor drowned in the waters of the Tiber while attempting to flee. Following the battle, the new emperor of both the western and eastern Roman empires attributed his victory to his coincident belief in Christianity and began amalgamating the religion into the state.

At the time Constantine chose the symbols of Christianity, the small religion was a growing political force in Rome. As an already heavily superstitious emperor he fixated on a comforting and familiar idea. Milvian Bridge offered confirmation bias and, coupled with the stress of controlling a temporarily united empire, Constantine needed a popular idea. Christianity ticked the boxes.

It was malleable and impressively complementary to the existing system and most importantly it did not threaten the emperor’s rule. St Paul’s early insistence that Christians follow Jesus’ instruction to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s” gave Christianity powerfully adaptive attributes for inclusion in a much stronger system.

Had the religion retained its early concept of forcible change in society (Jesus once said, “I come to bring a sword”), the idea may never had taken root.

Other religions which did preach forcible changes had been considered enemies of the state by the Romans which constantly suppressed them. Christianity, with its connection to logic and rationalism and an explicit command to be conciliatory to the existing system eventually led an emperor to include it in the dominant society as a tool of his power.

Christianity’s success is in its adaptability to whatever existing societal structure it enters and its finely-tuned framework of separating church and state by maintaining the distance between those in power from those without.

Islam, however, did not travel north. It traveled south.

Part 2 here

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The maintenance of university entrance as fetish

Today I’m bringing up university entrance (UE) because the latest entrance figures read like a bleak end-of-year financial report. You have to decide whether that’s a bad thing.

When I read the report I noticed how the universities want me to think it cares about school leavers, but it’s only concerned about income because it’s a business. The report sounds like the product for sale is university entrance, not university success. No one else finds this suspicious?

The public furor arises from an unconscious realisation that the average job never required a degree in the first place.

Managers don’t see your A+ on French Auteur theory, all they care about is whether you can push the buttons in the right order without spilling coffee on the keyboard. They only care if you can make them money, a detached sense of irony isn't a prerequisite for button-pushing.

The principals of private schools were a little shocked at the public’s response to the UE figures. The statistics didn't really bother me. An entrance rate of 70.6% was probably far too high anyway, and I’m not convinced a drop to 58% this year is low enough. Commiserations to all the angry parents, but your rage is making me curious: why did you set your measure of success on children going to university?

Try as I might, I can’t expiate the figure proudly quoted to me of a 99% university entrance rate from private schools. That figure is phenomenally high. I've actually got a recording where I ask if that statistic is legitimate, because it sounds like a joke number people invent for the proportion of people who enjoy breathing.

The principals were fully aware of the unpredictability of post-university employment. They claim (correctly) that it always has been difficult to land jobs, regardless of educational level. And yet they were happy to throw statistics at me of a 50-100% higher earning rate for graduates and how the “knowledge economy” still needs people with certifiable skills.

If every unemployed graduate had their way, they’d blame their days spent languishing at home trawling through terribly crafted job sites squarely on the poorly-performing economy.

Between clicking on part-time marketing assistant job ads and alt-tabbing to Facebook every few minutes, unemployed people like to brush up on the latest Illuminati and Goldman Sachs conspiracies.

So of course they know what a broken economy looks like. It’s all over the “alternative media”. The economy has to be the problem, it can’t be them.

But the economy didn't tell them to go to university, their teachers and parents did. Just because you have a degree, doesn't mean you’re smart because of it. You were tricked, your parents were tricked, your peers were tricked, but your employers weren't tricked at all. Which is why they spend an average of two to five years following university finding employment on the desired career path (don’t yell at me, those are the figures I was given by universities).

I’m all for a proper education, I went to university. I just think there’s zero chance of getting one at university. At 17-years-old, kids are expected to decide on a lifelong career path and sign away $30,000 of post-tax, pre-interest credit for the opportunity. A 17-year-old can kill three people and avoid jail, yet no one tells them how to separate vocation from avocation.

Every student from day one has been filled with advice imploring them to attend university if they want a job. Not for some jobs, any job. Earn a degree so you can start contributing to society.

But the system wasn't designed to raise producers, it was designed to raise consumers. In fact, the entire structure convinced young people that the whole point of primary and secondary school was not the education, but as certification fetish for an inevitable tertiary degree.

Blaming the twenty-something for holding a useless degree in community dance (yes, that’s a course), kind of misses the problem. The economy didn't ask for degrees like that. The better question is why people feel compelled to choose between university courses in the first place. As if the option of not choosing one doesn't occur.

Most teenagers suspect attending university for something they know in advance will make them largely unemployable sounds like a scam. The part that feels great was being told by teachers and coddling parents that “following dreams” should set the framework of their educational decision.

Some even notice their unemployable educational choice costs them exactly the same as the employable choices, i.e. too much. But this suspicion is beaten out of them early. The entire system is geared towards kids attending university as default.

University degrees are part of the larger middle-class dream we've been sold about entering the corporate ladder, earning annual promotions like clockwork, owning a house and finally a retirement fund.

The student’s consumer freedom to learn community dance was predicated on the idea that every generation does better than the last. Safety nets, bailouts and inevitable future happiness are waiting if you only follow your dreams. But the keyword in student loan is: “loan”. All those university courses orthogonal to economic reality can exist only because credit allows them to.

Let me make this a little clearer. The mere fact that an economy allows a course in community dance as a Masters-level qualification is because of Visa. The message of the credit collapse in 2008 was that something is fundamentally wrong with making a $10,000 per year university cost feel the same as free.

But no one listened because the alternative was paying up front or not at all. Neither of which the system wants. If people were forced to watch their hard-earned $30,000 evaporate at the swish of a touchscreen they’d immediately choose engineering over community dance no matter how much they hated maths. Or, even better, they’d walk out of the university reception $30,000 richer.

We know every dollar spent on those useless degrees doesn't actually exist, which is why universities and private schools are so frightened of the low pass figures this year. Even worse for them, now lesser amounts of that “money” will be flowing into academic pockets.

Standards be damned, lift them all you want. But the system needs dance courses or English as a major because once students leave, they’re no longer the university’s responsibility.

At the conclusion of the course, the student will show proficiency in…” Yeah, of course this is in the fine print. Try requesting a refund for a defective product that only exists in your mind.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

All that dastardly office sex is upsetting my repression

So I’m told by the media that the nation went “berserk” over two people having sex in a well-lit office. I’m less interested in that story - because let’s be honest, it happens all the time - as I am in the public reaction.

The first thing people asked was whether the couple would get fired. We said it in a way that reminded me of the looks I get when I cut in line at the supermarket, “he can’t just do that, can he?” With everyone looking around desperately as if some omnipotent power will smite me in the back as I self-scan my yoghurt box.

In other words, the first thing people asked is whether something bad would happen to the loving couple. Leave aside for the moment that they were seen in an office building (aka. someone else’s property), because that seems to be a red herring. And leave aside, if you can, the question of whether this is simply pack cyber-bullying, that’s important but not for today.

Where the real money sits is asking why the public reaction was not simply to shrug and say, “oh well, I guess people have sex all the time. What a surprise. Now hand me some more Lewis Road Creamery chocolate milk, I heard it’s incredible.”

When you see an explosion of vehemence from the crowd it’s like a red flag that something in the deep unconsciousness of society’s brain is under threat. And when the reaction expresses itself in rage and a desire to do harm, then that twitch you’re feeling probably comes from decades of institutionalised narcissism.

At first glance, and I don’t want to dig any dirt on the couple, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with two lovers. They held down a job - well, up until now anyway - and presumably produced lots of goods or services for their boss and by extension the GDP.

They both look healthy and at least smart enough to have been working in an office. But the two decided they wanted to take the weeks of repressed sexy glances one step further that night.

Now the two might be facing legal problems and both of them could lose their jobs over the incident. The female sounds quite distraught about the whole episode, and I guess the male probably feels a bit bashful as well, but no one really cares about him.

Which is all good news from the public’s perspective. If you open the window you can almost hear New Zealand breathe a collective sigh of relief. “Thank god their lives are falling apart.” Because if the couple isn’t crazy, and there’s no such thing as objective morality, then what rationalisation are we all using every day for not following the couple’s lead?

We all want to work alongside attractive people and we love watching celebrities frolic with their co-workers in offices on TV, but the narrative has to include a built-in reason why we can’t imitate them. Something like divorce, bankruptcy, or rehab - but definitely not genetics, lack of commitment or social awkwardness.

“But why were they having sex in the offices in the first place?” Seriously? What’s the answer you’re waiting for? I mean, that kind of thing might not be safe in certain workplaces, but with all this levelling of gender roles in the modern era, the question kind of answers itself, right?

The couple may eventually be interviewed by some niche internet blogger or a small magazine that never gets to see other magazines on Paper Plus shelves, but most of the mainstream media probably won’t talk to them directly.

It’ll use the weak explanation of “respecting their anonymity/privacy”, as if it suddenly remembered what that word means. This will create a nice artificial widening of the distance between the couple and the public. The couple becomes more important and less accessible.

But this critique is backwards, especially given New Zealand’s reaction.

It assumes the mainstream media is trying to trick its audience. This is wrong, the audience is using the newspapers and television bulletins to trick itself. The audience wants this distance. It wants heroes, celebrities and people who look like they can do whatever they want. We need a certain percentage of magic “beautiful people” and the upper class. And most importantly for the audience’s sanity, it wants those beautiful people and the upper class to be inaccessible.

This isn’t envy. Envy is for advertising, this is the “broadcast news” of our window through which we choose every day to see the world. This is what happens when two generations of narcissism is threatened with injury.

Since you’ve been told for decades that everything is possible, why aren’t you enjoying everything? The whole structure became spontaneously defensive when it saw normal people (just like you!) enjoying something we’d been told was reserved for a particular class or crazy people with a social death-wish.

“If I was that man/woman, then I would be able to have fun in the office just like that!” That statement is not envy. By enforcing a distance between the public and the couple (making them anonymous and placing them on a pedestal for our gaze), the media reassures us that we are the sane/secure/not reckless people because we’re repressing our desires in the office. Five stars for us!

But grab that quote above, spin it around and read the obverse: “Only those two people can have fun in the office, therefore it’s not my fault that I can’t!” Everything’s fine, the show’s over, go back to your workstations and fit in. The crazy office sex people have been bullied into obscurity, so there’s no reason to throw any more repression tomatoes.

Thanks for coming. Now, where’s that chocolate milk?...

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

US weapons to Ukraine risk dangerous signalling

A heavy artillery barrage on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in late January killed around 30 people. At the time, NATO commanders thought the strike presaged a new offensive into the city, but a concerted attack never materialised.

Russian regular forces continue to occupy staging positions on the borders of south-eastern Ukraine, but neither the Russian-allied separatists nor the Russian military appear to be willing to escalate the crisis. The region is in the middle of northern hemisphere winter, so until the spring arrives heavy fighting will be difficult to conduct.

However, NATO has long suspected that Russian troops are in position to secure a land corridor between Russia and the Crimean Peninsula. Whether the rebels currently possess the capability to take and hold this corridor is unknown. But Russia has been moving regular forces, including some elite units, into nearby Donbas for months.

A strike towards Crimea would be possible, and likely successful, should the rebels choose to take it. The timing would have to be exactly right, because it is a long drive through a mostly hostile countryside which would stretch supply lines.

Russia could sell the move with a narrative meant to “assist” Russian-speaking “citizens” in Eastern Ukraine. But it would be a significant escalation of the conflict, which has been confined to low-level border skirmishes.

NATO commanders have probably thought about the possible moves Russia can make in Ukraine and know how truly weak Moscow’s long-term hand is.

The US and the European Union have chosen the sanctions and humanitarian aid pathway to counter Russian bellicosity, but have conspicuously – to the frustration of many – refrained from assisting Ukraine with military aid.

Yet all that could be changing with the announcement on Tuesday that NATO’s military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove now supports providing defensive weapons and equipment to Kiev’s forces operating against the rebels.

President Barack Obama has made no decisions on providing lethal assistance, but Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Kiev this week and is reportedly open to discussing the idea. National security advisor Susan Rice is also “prepared to reconsider the issue”.

The United States is not about to send a Marine Expeditionary Unit into eastern Ukraine, neither is NATO likely to reposition troops to confront Russian regular forces. Weapons will only bolster the Ukrainian military, say White House advisers.

However a cost-benefit analysis suggests the decision is all about timing and semiotics. The fog of war complicates the ability to understand an enemy’s movements, but it also obscures one’s own signals making it difficult to ensure the message is read correctly by the other side.

In announcing lethal aid, NATO is trying to create a situation in Ukraine in which the Kremlin considers the option of further military action in or against Ukraine too costly to pursue.

The end game is to force Moscow to hesitate too many times while Kiev and NATO use the openings to buttress Ukrainian positions, which will result in further hesitation and hopefully force Moscow to negotiate a genuine settlement. NATO commanders suspect that Russia is already taking advantage of the situation further than it originally planned.

Yet the question is not whether the arrival of lethal aid change the military calculus - it almost certainly will. The question is whether that endgame can be reached simply by bolstering Ukrainian defence. That part is improbably at best.

First, it is unclear whether Russia truly desires peace in eastern Ukraine as this would essentially revert the country onto its original path of becoming pro-Western. Second, the delivery of military aid sends the signal that this is as far as NATO and the US are willing to go in defending Ukraine.

Whether that second factor is true or not is exactly what Moscow will see. Supplying just enough lethal aid to Ukraine may deter Russia from launching a new offensive to counter the new weapons, but how much aid is “just enough” exactly? And how much deterrence would 40,000 Russian troops and aircraft need to stand down?

Couching the weapons delivery as NATO-supplied paints the decision as multilateral. But should other US allies such as Canada or Britain not assist, then it will begin look very much like the United States is fighting Russia via Ukrainian proxies. So after all this time, Mr Putin’s claim that the US is behind all anti-Russia movements in Ukraine will be hard to counter.


Lethal aid without US military assurance is bound to make the Baltics and Poland nervous too. Because if Russia thinks it can get away with securing a corridor from Mariupol to Crimea while the new weapons take six to eight months to arrive - and the NATO certainly won’t intervene - might it take the chance?