Thursday, 22 December 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One review - they should have used railguns


Science fiction isn’t really my thing. Thankfully Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s really a Western.

However, Star Wars: Rogue One is actually a World War II commando movie with lasers. It even had a French partisan as a lead character. And the lasers weren’t lasers. They were colourful bullets.

In science fiction, it's acceptable to magically solve engineering problems (better materials, more precision, no budgetary constraints, faster computers, etc.) but it really gets annoying to ignore the laws of physics. They become fantasy set in space. People moving objects with their minds is just as plausible as jumping to hyperspace.

Rogue One’s robots weren’t terrifying either, and they should be. Pitting a robot against a human fighter would make firefights a turkey shoot. Not only will the robot never expose itself to human weapons, when the robot fires it will also shoot at the 40 places it predicts the human might jump to.

Star Wars is modelled after WWII dogfighting – relatively slow moving and highly manoeuvrable craft. That’s weird because planes operate on the basic principle of flying through the air to create lift. Spacecraft don't need lift because there's no air and they’re in orbit or interplanetary space under constant gravitational pressure.

Star Wars craft are also small, I suppose because WWII aircraft were small. But the age of whaling taught us that small manned craft are inefficient. The only reason we build them that size is because they have to get off the ground. The Saturn V rocket looked big but its job was only to carry fuel to get an orbiter and lander on a trajectory to the moon.

So it’s more efficient to build spacecraft huge. Super-tankers, cargo vessels, cruise ships and aircraft carriers are all enormous because it’s more economical – the only limit is the budget. Dogfights in space would probably mimic the tall ships of the 17th and 18th century.


It’s also really hard to hide in space. The reason submarines are difficult to detect is because of the environment.

The ocean is noisy, light doesn't penetrate, sonar doesn't work well, the water wicks off and disperses heat while the general planet earth puts out so much electromagnetic noise it makes instruments difficult to use.

The main concern in space is radiation (which can be filtered out by frequency) so finding things is simple if you know where to look. Radar works wonderfully. Even 35mm cameras work great in space. We can find planets hundreds of light years away. If a spacecraft is 450 degrees warmer inside than out along with electricity, motors and circuits, it’d be as easy to spot as a floating TV station on fire.

A nuclear detonation would be a pretty big problem though – electromagnetic pulse (EMP), gamma rays, x-rays, etc. The smaller the electronics, the more likely they are to be fried. EMP is why militaries don’t have atmospheric nuke tests anymore. A test in 1962 took out a number of satellites in orbit that weren’t directly affected by the blast.

Also, nuclear blasts release a ton of radiation straight through a craft’s hull into everyone's soft and squishy bodies. The metal then stays radioactive long after the blast is over. The craft could be formed out of lead, but lead melts at low temperatures and nuke blasts are pretty damn hot.

Humans are so fragile and space so hostile that a tiny robot with a power saw could probably kill everyone on board if it started cutting willy-nilly.


Every time you shoot a projectile weapon, it equals thrust in the opposite direction. So the bullet moves forward fast and the ship moves back slowly, but it keeps moving back because there's nothing to slow it down.

Magnetic rail guns would be a great answer. Railguns are the coolest thing ever and they are very real. The operating principle is that energy is energy whether it's kinetic or explosive.

A magnetic rail gun is basically a long rack of electromagnets (ideally on two equidistant sides or three sides spaced 120 degrees apart, like a Y) using a small conductive metal object as a projectile. The magnets turn on and off (or more precisely power up to one pole and switch to the other) in careful timing to accelerate the projectile.

The projectile could be as small as a baseball or a ball bearing and can be fired at insane speeds. It won’t fly at relativistic speeds, but it could easily move a few times the speed of sound, especially without air resistance. Kinetic energy is 1/2mv^2, so velocity is far more important than mass. Doubling the speed quadruples the energy. Whereas doubling the mass just doubles the energy.

Increasing the mass may be better because the projectile will move slower giving the gun more time to pump energy. But increasing mass means the craft has to carry it around all the time. That's more fuel needed to burn in every manoeuvre. What makes railguns appealing is they turn electricity into propulsion, so nothing is stored on board other than the projectile.

In space, an object in motion stays in motion. Turn a rocket engine on for two seconds, then turn it off and the object keeps going. To stop, a rocket has to face the other direction with enough power to cancel the forward momentum. So even today's cruise missiles, relying on vectored thrust rather than wings, would be deadly in space.


Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story about very fast craft (60% of c) moving inside a giant cone of water ice to absorb the impact of small particles that would otherwise be deadly at those speeds.

For a craft getting shot with ball bearings, ice is a perfectly good shield. Also, ice is very light. But a spacecraft is basically screwed with or without the ice if explosives are used.

Which means if you expect explosions, it’s better to use steel or depleted uranium (the hard material coating of armour-piercing shells). Again, these are extremely heavy, requiring a ton of fuel. So if you don’t expect to get shot (as with the Apollo missions) a thin skin of aluminium is fine.

And not to get too picky, but most Star Wars craft have wings (although they hover as well, so wings are pointless). Yet the shape of a spacecraft doesn’t matter. What matters is the centre of mass, because that's the point around which a ship will rotate when it tries to turn.

On second thoughts, it’s probably a good thing that Star Wars’ lasers are actually colourful bullets.

Lasers are a useless space weapon. Laser beams diverge over distance. That’s a fundamental physical limit and cannot be defeated with improved technology. As the wavelength of the laser light is decreased, the angle of divergence decreases. Even with some exotic gamma ray laser beam will still spread out.

The further away the target is, the less energy per surface area will be delivered to it. By the time the craft gets close enough to use its laser, the other guy will probably have already launched a bowling ball at 10,000 kph. Bowling balls don't diverge. Bowling balls win.

In short, a dogfight in space is impossible. Hell, with modern fighter planes dogfights are 40 minutes of chase and two seconds of target and fire.

Ok, tongue has officially been retracted from cheek now…

Globalisation and the flattening of cultures

I feel like the information I receive about Mexico is American at core. As in, anything with a narrative that makes it all the way down here has an inevitable American point of view because it transmits through American media or online.

The US is my absolute favourite place, but they do have a tendency to look for problems. And their consideration of Mexico as a warzone (America is a martial culture after all, so everything is filtered through that lens) makes it tough to see their southern neighbour as anything else. My Spanish sucks, so I can’t read primary sources on the Mexican narrative. I would like to, though.

Maybe it’s because I see the world in funny ways, but I worry about what happens when a country like Mexico develops. If there’s one constant over the past 50-60 years it’s that every country that tries to increase its prosperity also makes an insidious trade. As it gets wealthier it carves off little pieces of itself – pieces that made the country unique.

It enters the international community, sure, but it homogenises itself alongside that internationalism at the same time. For instance, all the men start wearing suits, the women cut their hair in a certain way and every interaction is mediated by, well, the media.

And then it seems like the country you think you remember and miss no longer exists. You go back to visit, but things have changed along one cultural track, rather than scattering along evolving and interesting cultural paths as it did for generations. I see this all the time. Mexico might become safer and more developed, which is a good thing. But at what cost? Can its essential “Mexicanness” survive? Or will it succumb to the fate of every other developing country as it chooses integration?

New Zealand succumbed. In fact, I don’t think there is a “New Zealandness” because we never really considered the implications of joining an international community before sorting out who we actually are, and what makes us different. Everything we do is someone else’s idea: British, French, European, American, etc. There’s barely anything about this country I can point to and say “this is New Zealand.”

Even the Maori culture is commoditised, packaged and sold as a product. When people call themselves Maori or Kiwi, they say it as an thing, an identity. They want to put a name to who they are, a name they didn’t invent, because that’s how they’ve been trained to think – with branding. But surely to be part of a unique culture requires only that you be. Not to name it, package it up and wear it as a badge. It just is. It just is.

This “development” gives us all a deep anxiety. And because anxiety is the only emotion that never lies, we know something’s wrong.

One of my friends said recently, “I take it with me everywhere I go, in some form or another” referring to their culture of birth. This “it” is precisely what I’m worried about Mexico losing. Its people will be subjected to waves of murmuring forceful signs and signals about what it means to live correctly in the international community.

All of those messages will be broadcast in opposition to her home culture. They will be bright and exciting signs, full of aspiration. And without actually saying Mexican culture is inferior, her countryfolk will receive that message loud and clear. That message will of course be wrong, but it won’t matter and it will be too late. Pieces will start to carve off, small at first.

And then one day, perhaps 40 years from now, her own generation might notice how few people act Mexican anymore, and they’ll worry. They’ll start working to wedge Mexican traditions and rituals into school curriculums and legislating for "Mexican language week" or some other.

The whole enterprise will look artificial, contrived and desperate. Children aren’t stupid. They will only notice their normal schooling and won’t take “cultural studies” or whatever it’s called being forced on them seriously. A parent's final hope will be to hold onto some traditions at home – at least the ones they can remember – but they’ll get busy at the office or wrapped up in anxiety over the bombardment of images and eventually forget about it all.

Slowly, like water eroding rock into sand, there is no more Mexican culture, just as there is no New Zealand or Maori culture anymore. The default becomes this strange amorphous, international, homogenous, vanilla “way of being” which exists without a name. Only history books will show the edges of what used to be Mexcianness. Even her own mind will start playing tricks about what she remembers as Mexican, mixing it with the imported international traditions until she just doesn’t know the difference anymore. It will feel desperate as she rushes to repair the damage and more will only slip out the door.

All this wonderful stuff she cares about is so hard to hold on to. The idea that everyone will eventually be the same is a kind of hell, I think.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

A long year of reactionary change – or was it?

Let’s do this right. If Trump, Brexit and Le Pen are a reaction, then the movement’s purpose is to change something. But unless I’ve missed something, reactionaries haven’t outlined their victory conditions. That’s why, as much as it pains me to say, the movement won’t win.

To change the world, it is not necessary to promise a better world – only to demonstrate that this world is not real. Specifically, to show what people consider to be real is not, in fact, reality but rather a construction; a narrative of reality that is demonstrably false.

For the past 200 years, democracy has been the only game in town. Every other form of government has been steadily crushed or subsumed into this world-eating blob. So to say the world is bending or breaking is to say something is wrong inside democracy.

In a modern democracy, the rules split citizens into progressives or conservatives. What’s fascinating is that both progressives and conservatives hate their government; they just hate different parts of it and cherish others. But none of them hate their government as a whole, so they can never unite to destroy it.

As Machiavelli put it: if you strike at a king, strike to kill. For a reaction to succeed, you must oppose the actual government. The first step is to find a way to stop being a progressive without becoming a conservative – or vice versa. At the very least, you might see how none of these politicians, movements or institutions is even remotely worthy of support.

But that’s not what’s happening. The difference between criticising democracy and criticising government is the difference between criticising Lutheranism and criticising Christianity. You can't doubt democracy only a little bit, dear reactionary. You have to doubt it on a grand scale so your doubt exposes the actual government.

Otherwise, the people with megaphones will yell and scream about change, while using the energy of the movement to secure their own power within the system. These people will simultaneously count you among their numbers even as they ask you to die for their goals. Or kill, depending on how much power they get.

The reactionary wants liberation from progressive tyranny and progressives want liberation from reactionary tyranny. But to be liberated is to be free of rules. Or to alter the rules. These people are merely breaking the rules. They haven’t cast them off or erased them. This is democracy’s equivalent of a car’s crumple zone: the actual government is always safe.

Consider what would happen if reactionaries were successful. When a view of reality is shown to be wrong, that view must adjust or collapse. If the state-controlled press is that nation’s “spectacle” – a combination of signs, symbols and messages representing reality and truth – then anything challenging that spectacle directly undermines not only the spectacle itself but also the state that sanctioned it.

To put it differently, by carefully controlling what people see or read, either as news, pop culture, literature or art, the state regulates, constrains and defines a single universal narrative all activities, thoughts and events and thereby reinforces its power over them.

When it came to crafting narratives in the 20th century, television was a government’s force multiplier of choice. Controlling television meant controlling what people thought was reality. The form of state control places all interactions into a rigidly bound cognitive space of permitted activity.

This is why state-controlled media always exists alongside a secret police apparatus. The former defines the acceptable reality and openly glorifies it; the latter exists outside of it but brutally and secretly imposes the acceptable reality. We saw this play out in Egypt in 2011.

Facebook and Twitter allowed Egyptians to see a version of reality different to what state-controlled media presented. It did not matter whether this new version of reality was true or simply a skewed narrative of another order and origin. What mattered was simply that it was (a) different and (b) not included in the narrative told by the state.

Middle Eastern states were once able to reconcile the openness of the West with their regimes by labelling the West as corrupt or decadent – the two things those states swore to defend against in the name of Islam or Arab socialism. They achieved this because the West’s narratives came primarily through the easily controlled, restricted or re-contextualised cultural dominants of film and television.

The problem for Egypt was it couldn’t reconcile its narrative with the uncensorable Facebook and uncontrollable Twitter. So it did what autocratic governments do best: panic and pull the plug. But the instant it blacked out the internet the curtain was also pulled on their illusion of power. It was an explicit admission by the state to the people that its media were pushing a false version of reality.

The inability to reconcile disparate narratives is the greatest problem for governments. So if the reaction is to change anything, all that matters is its narrative be different in a way that the existing narrative cannot be amended to contain. Has it done this? Of course not.

Reactions without control of the narrative gets the problem exactly backward. Governments adore mass media because they project the governments' messages to the masses. Twitter and Facebook allow people to choose to ignore those messages and receive entirely new and different messages. Here is where the reactionaries are failing.

Their complaints are made within democracy’s narrative of reality. They are tricked into debating a better form of democracy rather than asking if it is really the answer at all. The former allows the system to crumple in a safe way, while the latter would be to accept that our world isn’t real. If reactionaries knew this, protests would be the least of the government's concern. Real change would soon follow.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Fake news and awkward questions

Which entity is more powerful, the CIA or the New York Times? It’s a bit of a trick question because the CIA is a government agency, whereas the NYT sincerely believes it is serving as a nonpartisan watchdog in the public interest. I ask because I worry what happens when media reports and intelligence gets muddled up by “fake news.”

US President-elect Donald Trump says he doesn’t believe the CIA’s story that Russia hacked the Democratic National Convention and helped him win the office. The CIA is adamant, and won’t relent. But the NSA isn’t so sure either and suggest a disgruntled intelligence insider was the source.

Here again, we see the shadow battle between State and Defence – take note of these moments. The State Department smelled blood in the NSA after Edward Snowden’s leaks and tried to use the controversy to shave the signals intelligence agency away from the Pentagon, just as it did with the CIA decades ago. The debate about Russia shows NSA very much inside Defence.

Staying objective in the US spy agencies must be hard these days. Politicisation of intelligence has been a feature of President Barack Obama. He leant on analysts to doctor Islamic State battle-damage assessments. He also leant on analysts to avoid concluding the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. So what difference does it make if Russian hacking claims are unverifiable?

Well, the problem is with verification itself, and more importantly, who has the specific power to speak the truth to change events. By now, everyone has heard about the “fake news” hysteria. But the CIA consumes the same media as everyone else. It has its own human sources, but intelligence analysts read newspapers too.

The rule of thumb is if you find yourself agreeing with people you wanted to murder during the last election, then it pays to look closer at the message. Fake news forces us to accept the form of the question (that some news is more real than others) while only allowing us to debate the conclusions (fake news must be stopped).

And if you're playing that game, the next step is to request for lines to be drawn. The trick won’t be the lines, the trick will be that a person will be given power to draw those lines. And you're not going to be happy about who gets to do that.

If fake news is a problem, how can people know if the news they’re reading is real? We’re supposed to trust journalists and intelligence agencies. So when even they can’t agree, it doesn’t leave the rest of us with much confidence.

“Fake news” is being discussed because the traditional media never figured out how to monetise internet journalism. In the process it lost the initiative and is now trying to claw back legitimacy. How successful it will be is anyone’s guess, but media now competes against individual citizens with no overheads and the potential to reach tens of millions of eyes with a well-timed viral blog post. Those aren’t good odds.

The reason people believe journalists had access to real news was because, well, journalists told them so. A masthead helps as well. Traditional media is failing because it lacked the creativity to think about all the possibilities for publishing online. It could have evolved in astounding ways. Instead, every outlet simply reproduced the newspaper in digital form. That’s laziness and now they’re panicking.

So calling some news “fake” achieves two things: it maintains the concept of superiority of traditional media while it pulls traffic away from other sites. The internet is an attention economy, after all. A minute spent on one site is a minute which cannot be spent on any other site. So you can get angry at fake news, but it has to be in the comments section of the New York Times.

I can’t help but feel all this yelling is uncovering some awkward questions. My friend says he doesn't worry about fake news because he balances his news intake with multiple websites to get the full story.

He knows journalists lie by omission, not necessarily because they purposefully leaving things out, but because they can't know everything about a story. They probably have their political biases as well, so some purposeful omission is probable. But his discipline is presuming there’s no such thing as an objective journalism.

This is a very smart insight. But it is still wrong, and wrong in a very specific way, the only way that matters: pro-status quo. It is wrong, to ensure that things do not change. My friend has it backwards. The issue isn’t the “fake news,” it is all of the correctly produced news.

If that seems abstractly unrealistic, consider that propaganda doesn't teach us what to think, it teaches us how to act. The message of the controversy is that some news is more real than others, and the NYT has the truth. But if our fail-safe is to "balance" our media intake, how much propaganda are you willing to ingest? And second: would you know propaganda if you saw it? Are you sure?

How you answer these questions will also be the answer to the question at the top of this article. The danger of the CIA and the NYT decrying “fake news” is that people might start asking why it is they ever believed the CIA and NYT. It’s supposed to be axiomatic that journalists have access to the truth. But what if they don’t? How would we know what’s true?

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Reality of Child Trafficking Rings - a response

It's tough to say but, thanks for this video Sargon of Akkad. Suffering is part of being. If you want to live a full life, then obviating suffering isn't the way to go. People learn things from suffering. But evil is different. Evil is taking the parts of life in which we suffer and wrenching them to ridiculous levels while making the suffering pointless. Evil perverts the very essence of being, it poisons suffering. Evil is not a thing, it is a lack of a thing: harmony. One of my favourite people, Professor Jordan Peterson, says you have to fully understand how you too are perfectly capable of doing the disgusting sorts of acts Sargon talks about in his video. That travelling along a particular path, you too would become a Nazi prison guard, a Gulag officer or one of those in a paedophile ring. In each of us lies the capacity to do the worst evil. Only once you fully comprehend this, really let it sink in, are you able to move towards goodness.

I interpret Prof Peterson's ideas as setting the left and right-hand boundaries: if you know what can happen on one edge of the spectrum - how far you can and might go - you will be under no illusion about what that path looks like at the beginning. So don't go down that road. You don't yet know the most good action you can undertake, but you know you're capable of doing the worst possible thing. That is an extremely important concept, and it goes to the heart of what I mean when I say power over other people is magnitudes inferior to existential power - power over yourself.

Every small step in that terrible direction, even steps innocuous or quickly disappeared, pushes the world (yours and everyone else's) closer to terrifying destruction. But any step no matter how small in the direction of doing good pulls the world a tiny bit away from that horror. The point is: there are right and wrong actions AND YOU KNOW WHAT THEY ARE. Stop using silly post-modern deconstructed excuses and moral relativity. Kierkegaard says you have to resign yourself to the infinite in order to make the correct steps in the finite. This requires putting your faith in a power or concept - the eternal - higher than you and society, some omnipotent other. It doesn't matter what that is, it must be larger than anything man-made. And it must be outside of you. Failure to do this means enslaving morality and that path only leads to destruction.

According to Kierkegaard, this resignation to the eternal is crucial. Kierkegaard was not an atheist but a super-strong Christian. He believed when a man resigns himself to the eternal, to existing in eternity and gives up everything that ties him to this world he then becomes a "knight of faith" capable of great Christian acts (like self-sacrifice). When Kierkegaard wrote about a Knight of Faith, he contrasted the Knight of Faith to the weak Knight of Infinite, the "God botherer." What did Kierkegaard say the Knight of Faith looked like? Like this:
Why, he looks like a tax-collector!" However, it is the man after all. I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether there might not be visible a little heterogeneous fractional telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which betrayed the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite. No! I examine his figure from tip to toe to see if there might not be a cranny through which the infinite was peeping. No! He is solid through and through. His tread? It is vigorous, belonging entirely to finiteness; no smartly dressed townsman who walks out to Fresberg on a Sunday afternoon treads the ground more firmly, he belongs entirely to the world, no Philistine more so. One can discover nothing of that aloof and superior nature whereby one recognizes the knight of the infinite. He takes delight in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work. So when one looks at him one might suppose that he was a clerk who had lost his soul in an intricate system of book-keeping, so precise is he.
Kierkegaard's faith is a submission into a paradox. When you move beyond the ethical stage, you move beyond rationality and give yourself completely to absurdity (meaning, not reason) and passion. It is not an expectation, it is a driving force. It is what allows you to disregard the ethical (the juridico-communal ethical) without doubt or hesitation. It is Abraham drawing the knife without despair.

The "absurd" for Kierkegaard isn't quite the lack of objectivity, but more of an acknowledgement that Christian beliefs (an infinite God incarnated as a finite being) go against reason. Unlike other religious writers, Kierkegaard doesn't try to mediate human reason and faith, he acknowledges that faith is absurd.

Passion can be thought of in opposition to reflection. In another book of his, Two Ages (there is also an excerpted version out these days marketed as The Present Age: On the Death of Rebellion), Kierkegaard compares the "reflective age" with the "passionate age." Here's a sample:
The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence. ...whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up, and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.... In antiquity the individual in the crowd had no significance whatsoever; the man of excellence stood for them all. The trend today is in the direction of mathematical equality, so that in all classes about so and so many uniformly make one individual.... For leveling to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of leveling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage—and this phantom is the public.... The present age is essentially a sensible age, devoid of passion and therefore it has nullified the principle of contradiction.
Passion is used to denote a kind of driving force. Something which drives you to act rather than reflect so much that you never act at all. Kierkegaard is responding to the Hegelian idea that one must resign their subjectivity to be a cog in the machine, an idea he believes leads to complacency and spiritlessness. Why won't people act against the foulness of the deeds in the video? They can't give up the power this world has over them. They remain the Knight of Infinite, a sham. Rather than commit literal suicide, you must commit it metaphorically, by giving up and saying goodbye to everything to take on the very institutions that define your identity.

Watching that video suggests the other infinite: your own capacity for evil. If you fail for any reason to remember that Jung's shadow lies just ahead, you bring this world one step closer to implosion. Forget those pathetic people who say nothing is real, nothing matters. Throw away your Derrida. Grasp resignation to the eternal, understand that you do matter. Do this, do it in the teeth of evidence and argument. Because if you have faith in the infinite, then everything you do really, really matters. Your narcissism already believes this, but now it's time for the actual you to believe this.
And if you ever catch yourself saying, "I know this is a bad thing to do, but in this case..." really think about what's about to happen. You cannot enslave morality. Everyone else on this planet depends on you knowing that.

It's not Russia that's making the CIA so angry

Here's what no one is asking about President-elect Donald Trump's scuffle with the Central Intelligence Agency: why didn't the CIA just pull Mr Trump aside for an hour and show him the evidence about Russian cyber manipulation?

Did you have this thought? If not, it's ok. Some people are trained to have it, while some people are trained not to have it.

To see why this is the only question worth asking, look at the recent history of Mr Trump's life. The Clinton campaign knew it was staring down a massive persuasion competition to win the White House, and her campaign didn't have the skills. So it created a false narrative of his connection with Putin and the Siberian nastiness of everything Russian. They ballooned it to wild proportions, trying to connect him to authoritarians and Nazis so Mrs Clinton could win the election.

But Mr Trump won the election. And the first thing he hears from the preeminent intelligence agency which acted on behalf of this false narrative is: we think Russia helped you win the election. If you were Mr Trump, what would be your reaction? More importantly, what would your reaction be if the CIA went not to you to tell you about all this, but went straight to the media, looking for all the world like they were trying to politicise their intelligence? And what would you think if the agency then had the gall to turn around and feign indignation when Mr Trump says he's sceptical?

Washington is not a simple place. The first step is not to believe what you hear in the media because the media is best described as the extended civil service. There are real geopolitical rivalries between nations. No one is disputing that. What people don't seem to realise is that the only game every branch and agency in the US is playing is to win influence over Washington.

Just like in Roman times, generals and senators framed their foreign actions as "quelling a rebellion" in Gaul or "border protection" in Germany. But their every action was about influencing politics back in Rome. In an empire, the only city that matters is the capital. And the US is an empire, whether it wants to admit that or not.

If you can't see the same thing happening in Washington today, then you won't understand why events play out as they do. And you certainly won't understand why you're seeing certain events, but not others. The game in Washington is always about who has access to policy-making power. The Trump vs CIA debacle is actually the oldest game in the Western world - politics vs government. Elected officials barely ever win fights with permanent government officials.

The CIA doesn't trust Mr Trump because he's an outsider. Not a political outsider on the pretend "other side" of the ruling class, but a member of the ruled class. He's not supposed to be there. So he has to be shown his place. The agency used its opening move to call in the media shock troops to prove to him who is boss. You can expect every other agency and department in the Washington to work on him in similar ways.

Mr Trump is not even president yet and he's already being shown the score. If he pays attention, he will learn the weakness of the presidency and how the score will never be in his favour. Then, if he's smart, he will turn over and let the tide carry him. No elected official can swim against the wrenching current of the civil service forever.

It's not pretty to watch, but he will learn his place. Even if he has to do it the hard way.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Is 'left' and 'right' politics really finished?

Aside from the pearl-clutching distraction of complaints about a "post-truth" world among the elites (as if they haven't been dabbling in the dark arts of narrative creation for decades...), the other main talking point bubbling up everywhere from The Economist to your local wine chambers is the disappearance of the "left" and "right" political spectrum in favour of, as the glorified opinion weekly called it, "open and closed" or nationalism versus internationalism.

The idea pivots on a new trend inside advanced, Western countries in which the good guys have the world as their concern while the bad guys think their neighbours' well-being is more important. This debate reached disgusting levels during Brexit and the US election when the internationalists (the "open") declared any disagreement with their righteous goal as equivalent to racism and being "literally Hitler."

And I don't use 'righteous' out of vocabularic boredom. I mean it specifically: the internationalist argument is religious through and through. The changes we are seeing are not fundamental at all, despite how they look. This is simply an iteration of the same Christian battle that's been raging for millennia.

It's a battle between sects of Christianity which began in Europe and sailed to America. Europe has plenty of Christian infighting but for America, the intra-Christian battles needed the departure of the Puritans and Calvinists from Britain to get started. They people brought with them the tenets of what they thought was perfect Christianity: 'the equality of all people', the need to 'live by good example', the 'moral arc of history', and - most importantly - the importance of 'spreading the Christian message' around the globe until everyone believes.

If progressives are Christians, “political correctness” is religious orthodoxy. The only reason we don’t think of the progressives’ descendants as Christians is that they don’t want us to. In fact, their ideology, progressive idealism, is the leading modern descendant of the most powerful American Christian tradition, the “mainline” Protestants, who entered New England in the early 1600s

These are the Roundheads, the Puritans, whatever you want to call them, and after their defeat of the last Cavaliers, they have ruled unchallenged in North America and outside it. If they feel some occasional spiritual pang, they sometimes call themselves “Unitarians.” They are also tolerant to branches of other religions which they have taken over, such as Reform Judaism or “moderate” Islam. And what are “multiculturalism” and “diversity” but religious tests for office?

Over time and due to technological advances and constitutional law evolution, the American philosophy of Puritan/Calvinist Christianity splintered as some sections held to its traditions, while others upgraded those beliefs while retaining the spiritual. Still others dropped the spirituality of Puritanism altogether but kept all the tenets (including others such as the 'stewardship of nature' - leading to the environmental movement, and the all-powerful Christian idea of weaponised shame). It is these latter people who are today considered the modern "left."

The older versions of Puritanism/Calvinism are what we would call on the political "right" - they just lag behind the progressive post-Christian ideas by a few decades.

The key is: it's all the same Christianity. The political spectrum of left and right was never an ex nihilo concept. It was an evolution of a conflict within and amongst Protestant Christianity for control over that doctrine. In the same way the Catholics and Protestants fought for theological supremacy (which translated also into power), when the Protestants eventually took the initiative in that battle, a fresh conflict began amongst them too. And that's what we mean when we talk about left and right today.

So there certainly is a battle occurring for your mind. It's the same one the West has been fighting for millennia. It just so happens that because of technology and various super-spreading opportunities like World War, this battle ate the entire planet, bringing everything into its orbit (observe that every piece of land is organised into nation-states, which is a Western idea). Now everywhere is the battlefield setting up how Christianity will look in the new millennium.

US President-elect Donald Trump's election is a story of people who consider themselves belonging to the older version of a quintessentially Anglo-American, post-Christian, non-theistic sect, stemming from the early days of the colony, who grabbed back control of parts of the Washington machinery. But those post-Christians are not much different to their rivals in Washington, the newer post-Christian progressives. What makes them different is how they define the edges of their beliefs and what they consider extreme and "good."

The only battle worth watching in the 21st century is the one whose end goal is the complete subjugation of the entire planet. It's the only game in town. The question is not "if" this battle will be won, it's actually: "since the entire planet has already been conquered by this non-theistic, post-Christian ideology, which faction will control the strings?"

Thursday, 8 December 2016

North Korea will be Trump’s first problem

What will be the first thing to go bump in Donald Trump’s opening four years? North Korea is my pick. The US strategy of “strategic patience” is leading inexorably to one end point: either North Korea builds a nuclear weapon or the US forcibly intervenes.

By the end of Mr Trump’s first term, North Korea will be able to reach Seattle with a nuclear weapon on board an indigenously produced intercontinental ballistic missile. It probably wouldn’t be a clean shot due to technical issues. But then again, what kind of odds is Washington comfortable with when it comes to Pyongyang?

How did we get here? We’re here because Korea is of our making. North Korea is not the inverse of revolution, it is the product of revolution – exported overland during the Age of Revolution from the West, through Moscow by the socialist activist and journalist John Reed.

Korea was a successful and flourishing nation before the West’s ideas entered the peninsula. If anything of Korean culture remains after the devastation of the 20th century, it is the culture of the Joseon Dynasty. This empire wanted to preserve Korea as Korea, adopting a policy of isolation similar to the Tokugawa in Japan and the Qing in China.

But they all failed, or we'd have a Japan, China and Korea that actually is Japanese, Chinese or Korean in anything other than language, writing and genetics. In other words, an actual non-American civilisation. Instead, after a century of violence, largely through bizarre games that no one understands yet, we end up with an American puppet state in the South and a Communist prison state in the North.

North Korea appears to be at war against the entire civilised world. At least, the entire international community would love to replace its regime, which is pretty much the definition of "at war." If Washington doesn't try the Korean equivalent of "Qaddafi must go" or "Assad must go," it's only because it doesn't think it will be obeyed. And if Pyongyang has deliverable nukes compliance will become much more difficult.

The Anglo-American tradition created the monster of revolution and unleashed it on the world. We still export this monster, of course, and it just burned down the entire Middle East. No wonder the regime daring to oppose the universal revolution – and actually preserving some of itself – became looks a bit insane.

In a world willing to tolerate the Joseon Dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty would still exist. It died because it couldn't secure itself against a hostile world. Revolution created North Korea, but the state has an obvious desire to evolve into something like the Joseon Dynasty – the general process of recovering from revolution.

If Americans actually cared about North Koreans, rather than using them as rhetorical pawns, or drooling about their chances of causing yet another revolution or civil war, Washington would see the easiest way to let North Korea heal is to acknowledge the Kim dynasty as what it is: a monarchy.

So rather than exporting revolution, if US foreign policy respected, supported and secured its sovereign peers following classical international law, the fun-loving Kim family would have no need for prison camps. Instead, the Kims believe – probably correctly – they won’t survive without being a nuclear power.

Emperor Gojong
The North Korea’s problem now is if it relaxes its grip it explodes. The international community can solve this problem by removing the Kims by force, or accept and support them in their stabilisation efforts. Consistent with Washington’s current definition of acceptable risk, it will soon be in range of nuclear-tipped missiles. The question is: what is the definition of acceptable risk?

Washington could be tougher on the North Koreans. For instance, if its satellites spot a Taepodong ICBM preparing on the launch pad, the Americans would destroy it. Or the CIA could act covertly to break the hold of the regime on the population. The Anglo-American tradition is exporting revolution, after all.

Washington could also change its definition of risk to accept North Korea as a nuclear power. But this would come with unacceptable concessions for the US – namely, its troops would have to leave Pyongyang alone. And if that is what Washington wants, it would have already happened. So that’s a dead-end too.

Another option is to goad the Chinese into acting as the bad cop. After Pyongyang’s last missile test, the US sent the THAAD (terminal high altitude area defence) missile defence system to South Korea. It drove the Chinese crazy because the fans of the radars sweep in most of Manchuria.

So taking this one step further, Washington could station its nuclear weapons to South Korea, give THAAD to Japan or send its nuclear-capable ships through the Yellow Sea more frequently. China would need calm convincing that these aggressive actions aren’t directed at them and maybe then Beijing would get the message that their North Korean toothache is getting really bad.

Of course, none of this would be necessary if Washington just stopped exporting democratic revolution and accepted classical international law. I don't see anyone proposing this, which means America doesn't care very much about the North Koreans at all. So expect a North Korean bump in the night, and expect Pyongyang  to be blamed for the whole ordeal.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

The market state and John Key's true legacy

Plenty of commentators say John Key was the “best politician New Zealand ever had.” I’m not sure I accept that. Helen Clark was our best politician. But I don’t think this battle is worth fighting.

In his resignation speech, Mr Key specifically said he never considered himself a politician. He was brought on (or chose to enter) for the precise reason of steadying New Zealand’s economy to guide it through a tough time after the 2008 recession.

He didn’t expect the recession – no one did. But the skills needed to steady this country could only have come from outside politics, which is why appointing a successful financier and businessman made sense.

The true critique of Mr Key is that he was our best administrator. When thinking with the lens of modern statecraft, that’s exactly the kind of person you want in front of an advanced state.

I’ll give this one more turn of the wheel. History may just show Mr Key’s appointment representing the moment when it was clear we were in the beginning of world in which politics was considered bad, but government considered good.

This is a very different world to the one in which my parent’s lived. Already young people in my peer group complain about the left and right political spectrum, rolling their eyes whenever someone says they’re “conservative” or “liberal.” They get this idea not from deep personal thought, but from training at universities and school. And to a great extent from the media.

Their teachers tell them, for instance, that it doesn’t matter what a politician says about climate science, security or economics, if the scientists, generals or wonks are sure about those things, then that’s the way things are. My peers are implicitly and explicitly told to expect the creation of policies to reflect that reality.

Mr Key represented a bridge between that old world of politics and a new world of centrist government, in which the “science” of government is lauded higher than any opinion or even constituency.

Underneath this lies a sneaky trick: a shift irreparably away from democracy, while retaining the name. But if the leaders my fellow citizens elect cannot alter every policy in front of them with confidence, then what’s the point of voting?

And if votes we cast have no effect on long-term government, then why is the message of people-power as the ultimate of checks and balances in society still useful? Democracies don’t like those questions, so why am I allowed to ask them?

Consider that Mr Key’s stewardship of New Zealand is envied by Australians living in an outdated political system with no administrator role. Voters across the Tasman consistently say they’d love if Mr Key resided in Canberra. Why? Because he isn’t a politician, and he doesn’t try to be.

He’s like a CEO called in to put the country (company) back on track before choosing voluntarily to walk away once the job is done. He now chooses to leave power behind because he knows being a politician isn’t a powerful job in this emerging world – being a leader of industry is.

I’m not saying this evolution is at all a bad thing. I have no problem with letting government govern and ending this strange, unworkable and largely pretend theatre we call democracy. But this is precisely what’s happening.

Mr Key is best understood as a technocrat wearing the clothing of a politician. Clearly, that isn’t as terrible as most would have us believe because by almost every measure New Zealand is doing better as a result of his leadership.

I do however think it’s well past time to talk about 21st-century government by the language of its reality, not as it is presented to us. In a world of naked power-grabbing perfectly attuned to and facilitated by a corrupted political process, the kind of administrator he represented is a positive glimpse of the future of the emerging market state.

Developed countries will continue to evolve in the direction of becoming market states and companies will continue to collect economic power equivalent to nation states. So wild swings between political poles every few years will be as deadly to this stability as outright warfare.

In the Game of Nations, each player wants not so much to win as to avoid loss, all players have no objective expect to keep the Game going because the alternative to the Game of Nations is destruction. As the rules of the Game change, no one with actual power will want destruction, which is why Mr Keys model of government will be replicated.

It’ll take at least another generation for enough people to be taught to think about politics as bad but government as good, but it will happen. In the meantime, the message that people-power democracy still functions must be maintained.

Too many people are walking around with this assumption to simply flick a switch and start a new government structure tomorrow. Scared and confused people do not make good democrats, whether you capitalise that word or not.

But if we are entering a new governmental era, let it be with eyes wide open. Leaving the sham of operational democracy behind requires an adult discussion across society. If we can do that, then there’ll be no trouble.

Perhaps Mr Key’s real legacy is serving as a framework for how leaders of this new era might look.

What Trump's phone call to Taiwan means

In a break with decades of US foreign policy and diplomatic protocol, President-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone December 2 with Taiwan President Tsai Ying-wen. The United States cut official diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979 after recognising the communist government in Beijing as the legitimate government of both China and the republic.

No US president (or president-elect) has had formal contact with a Taiwanese head of state since, though the two countries maintain an unofficial relationship. Mr Trump and President Tsai reportedly discussed the "close economic, political, and security ties" between the two countries. The call angered China.

But it is important. Throughout his campaign, Mr Trump spoke about marginalising NATO (the utility of the grouping appears to be a concern of NATO itself) and of allowing regional allied powers in various places around the world to have more autonomy in security (even to the extent of building nuclear weapons, which probably isn't a good idea).

This alarmed many US allies because they were already concerned with President Barack Obama's post-9/11 shift to a new strategic reality of creating a balance of power in particular regions. That balancing effort can look like US isolationism to the untrained eye. This strategic shift will continue forming throughout Mr Tump's administration because the civil service is planning for decades, not eight years - but that's beside the point.

The point is: America's allies are concerned about an acceleration of this strategic shift at a rate for which they aren't quite ready. All of them have their regional competitors and oppressors, which they fear will take advantage of a hasty US vacuum. They don't like those odds and are making preparations for this possibility. From Washington's perspective, that's not a good sign and it needs rectifying.

So a phone call to or from Taiwan is a signal to everyone else that the US won't abandon its commitments precisely because it chose to talk to the most controversial rival of the second-largest country on the planet. Allies will read the message loud and clear: If the US is willing to break protocol and risk annoying its near-peer China, then maybe they can be comfortable with a bit of rhetoric from the president-elect because the US isn't going anywhere.

Friday, 2 December 2016

My working-theory on the counter-revolution

The left/progressives back in 1900 were shoved out on the edges of society. Mostly they congregated in the universities or as radical underground groups dreaming of overthrowing the establishment.

Their ideas were malformed and incoherent, but everyone had will to fight the “oppressors” and bourgeois. What they needed were clever arguments and robust criticism. And definitely tactics. They decided on using revolution by the working class as the process, and deconstruction and scepticism as the weapons.

So a number of people worked to organise their ideas by rhetorically fighting the status quo ideas of the West (not exactly capitalism, but not quite royalism either. The status quo was itself changing at that time as a result of the industrial revolution). Those great minds of the status quo weren’t easy-beats, so the left's arguments needed to be tough just to receive attention.

The left ideologues practised and practised until they knew all the tricks to defeating the status quo and could beat them at their own game. This didn’t make the progressives/left correct because they had discovered “the truth.” There is no truth in politics. The status quo doesn’t fear the truth, it only fears people believing a more effective lie.

And progressivism is a very effective lie inside a democracy – perhaps the most effective. After all, socialism will always be the ultimate end point of democracy. If power comes from getting the majority on your side, then doing what the people want will always be the goal. Democracy unbounded becomes the tyranny of the majority, even if the majority is an amalgam of thousands of tiny minority groups. If you can control those groups by pretending to give them what they’ve been told they want, then you will secure power. Actual power. None of its pathetic nominal power.

As the progressives/left gradually took ideological control over the Western system (their revolution was a guise to take power, not introduce real change), their enemy royalist ideology vacated their positions until no opposition remained. What’s the point in practising for combat, or keeping your rhetorical weapons sharp when your enemies are either in the dungeon or co-opted to believe in your ideas anyway? In effect, the left’s verbal weapons armoury doors are shut by chains, forgotten to quietly rust in the dark.

In its place was delivered a sort of ideological equivalent of a police force. It looks scary and full of authority, but underneath the blue uniform and the glove holding the blunt truncheon is just a man. A man with fears and vulnerabilities. So long as enough people believe in the law – as an analogy, speed limits only exist because people agree a car travelling 50kmph is cool but a 55kmph is not cool – then the ideological police force doesn’t have to do much to keep everyone under control. People control their own behaviour because the threat of police consequences is sufficient to keep them docile.

In 2016, it’s clear the post-Christian progressives have become the establishment. We can argue whether this was their original goal, or if the movement was corrupted. But it is irrelevant. One of their main thought-police tools is the idea of human neurological uniformity (HNU), or that all humans share the same intelligence levels.

It is so ingrained in everyone by schools that calling someone a racist is enough to scare someone into silence forever. It’s precisely as powerful as a Christian society calling someone a heathen or a witch. It ostracises and marginalises, and if the accuser wants to take it further they can call down the fire of heaven on the thought-criminal in the form of mob violence. It doesn’t take much to whip a frenzy against racists. In this world, being racist is the worst possible thing.

But if you called someone a heathen today, they’d laugh at you. Or, they’d agree with a smile and wear it as a badge. They certainly wouldn’t cower. That reaction is because the spell of traditional Christianity is broken and it is just another ineffective lie on the scrapheap of ideological history – the psychology of Western society was captured. And it’s happening again to the progressive movement.

A growing number of people now look at the ideology controlling their thoughts and push back. They don’t think they’re racist or homophobic or Islamophobic so those words aren’t having a silencing effect. They see the establishment as old soldiers or policemen, wielding a truncheon and scowl. If enough people stop believing the thought laws, they’ll start seeing policemen as just men. The progressives/left will then have three options: concede, ramp up the propaganda or grab the bolt-cutters.

But the progressive’s weapons of rhetoric are no longer sharp. They haven’t had a real enemy in decades, and no matter how much muscle memory you have, you can’t expect the brain to kick in if you’ve had zero practice. Even worse, if you’ve been fighting amateurs for years and a professional enters the ring, I know who’s getting a bloody nose.

If the game of society is the never-ending flow of psychological capture of the people, then the progressives/left have a problem. They are no longer the voice of change. They have become the status quo. Their vanguard ideas revolve around outdated oppressor versus oppressed narratives, and those targets are imaginary.

Racists, misogynists and homophobes are rare – the demand far outstrips the supply. Even when they're found, they are caricatures, ballooned to Godzilla-size. When we look at the evidence for racists, the numbers are minuscule and hardly worth worrying about. The progressive witch-hunters are stuck in the golden era of radical leftism back when the enemies were clear and their rhetoric sharp.

They cannot fathom how the ideological battlefield has shifted in the meantime. We saw a bit of this with Donald Trump. His supporters are, admittedly, reactionary which means this amorphous, shifting, whatever-it-is counter-ideology lacks the initiative (if you are reacting to something, you are not in control). As an aside, the longer a movement goes without naming itself, the stronger it becomes. To name a force is to own it. So when a movement enters the media, it no longer exists. The key for this shifting whatever-it-is will be to avoid the temptation of spreading its message in a media they do not own. Remember the first two rules of Fight Club, guys…

Today the people with the sharpest rhetorical weapons are the ones forced outside of the establishment. They are in the same position as the leftists in 1900. Their enemies have become fat and lazy in victory. Even while, more than anyone, the left should recognise how dangerous an insurgent ideology is for an establishment structure – especially within a populace primed to be receptive to insurgent tactics. The twin tools of grassroots activism and the reach of the internet are creating conditions for open-source insurgency. The insurgency will flow around establishment obstacles like water, just as the progressive movement did a century ago.

The game of power is about psychological capture, and in an age of globalisation whoever commands this open-source insurgency will command the world. But first, it is imperative to start at home: in the digital domain. Protest outside all you want, but it won’t change minds if people's social network echo-chambers aren’t penetrated. If you can’t break into the compartmentalisation created by Google and Facebook algorithms, you won’t stop the tide of open-source insurgency.

This counter-progressive whatever-it-is seems to understand this at an operational level. Fewer people are afraid of the ideological police, choosing to stand still when they are told to move. If this whatever-it-is follows the right steps, power will flow to them as the psychologies of the majority of progressives are captured, just as their psychologies were captured by earlier in their lives. There's no need take the establishment behind the shed to Castro their asses. Most of them believe in progressivism not because they think it's the truth, but because that's where the power is. Change the power, change the beliefs.

The left’s rhetorical weapons aren’t going to be re-sharpened. The best thing about a status quo getting fat and lazy is they believe there's no need for weapons anymore. I don’t even think they remember where the armoury is.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

So how's Trump doing?

Well, it’s one president at a time, and Obama still has more than a month left in office. So there’s not a lot I can say about The Trumpocalypse yet. But, two things are becoming clear: he is far more amenable to facts and data than everyone was led to believe. And, his cabinet choices reflect a seriousness about running government that, again, no one thought he would be.

He seems to be parsing every decision through the lens of whether it will help make America great again and he discards facts and data if it won’t. In saying that, there’s a clear progressive ideology to his decision-making process. That connects with my understanding that Trump isn’t a traditional conservative, rather he’s a progressive from the 1970s. All his ideas for liberal America come from then, so he’s considered old by the new progressives, and therefore unsupported.

Anyway, from what I’ve noticed, Trump is still using his persuasion to be an effective leader. It got him to the White House, but now he needs his other skills to organise the executive to a useful standard. He’s showing ability and listening skills reflecting intelligence and experience in the business world.

But you’re going to hear nasty and vindictive press reportage on his administration throughout the entire four (eight?) years. I am telling you that all this criticism could have (and should have) been leveraged at Obama or Clinton. But it wasn’t because the Democrats represent the Centre Party so their screw-ups are suppressed because they’re part of the ruling ideology.

Trump and Bush 43 are part of the “opposition” (a straw man Outer Party), representing a punching bag for the sole reason of showing a pretend counterpoint to the Centre Party. Attacking them for everything and portraying them as silly, bumbling, dangerous and “literally Hitler” is all part of the game. They need the Outer Party to exist to blame everything on so America doesn’t look like a one-party state (which it is).

Trump just got himself elected as part of a pretend opposition, into a position with the least power of any leadership in the Western world, surrounded by people operating with a more developed progressive ideology than his and with far more power and longevity than he will ever have. If the civil service can’t convince him to do what they want, they’ll simply delay a decision for the next four or eight years until a new president comes in. The civil service can wait for 50 years, the president only has eight at maximum.