Friday, 15 September 2017

On sin

It’s the framing of the concept of sin that intrigues me. Give me some rope here. This isn't canon, I'm just playing with ideas. Take it easy...gees.

First, we have to see how “missing the mark” assumes there is a mark, and that exists a goal towards which humans should stretch. It’s important to remember the story of Eden where the human animal became the possessor of a specific understanding of life. Perhaps better than any other ancient origin story, the Genesis tale explains how humans were at one point in bliss, and then came the Fall, whatever that means.

My interpretation is that the story can’t be understood without realising that humans weren’t always humans. Endogenous retroviruses and other DNA evidence point clearly to common ancestry, which means as natural, evolving organisms we have to grapple with a time “before-human.” Back then, whatever creatures we were fit neatly into the world, silently like all the other animals. They all lacked human higher consciousness (although it’s impossible to say what kind of consciousness animals have). An animal life is like a cart on tracks, trundling along from food to sex to sunbathing to water to death – not necessarily in that order. This animal life is what is painted in first part of the Garden of Eden. Neither good nor evil. It just is.

Animals and the before-humans are said to have been close to “God,” before eventually falling away from that closeness. Genesis is one of humanity’s first attempts to explain how it came to consciousness, told through the eyes of a group of scared and cold people who had no way of knowing about DNA or archaeological evidence for life prior to human consciousness. To those quivering people, it seemed strange how they existed alongside animals but had no memory. It demanded an explanation, not least because humans are pattern-seeking animals by nature. It sounded perfectly reasonable that some magic force pulled them into existence out of non-existence. They then applied that logic to the rest of the animal kingdom and universe. After all, if you’re the only conscious being around, wouldn’t you assume this whole world was centred on you? It's the most obvious (false) pattern ever devised.

I find the early idea “closeness to God” intriguing because it seems to point not to an anthropomorphic entity “out there,” but instead to some amorphous Ultimate concept lacking specific boundaries – except for the boundaries inherent in being an animal. That’s really interesting. This is the concept of God, and it seems to be the early human’s attempts to define and locate the nature of reality. It’s an unsophisticated way of saying “now that we’re no longer simply animals cycling through our lives, what must we do?” God in the Garden is the comprehension of those limitations, “that which cannot be manipulated by action.” God is simply the nature of reality.

The Fall is a story about the emergence of consciousness. Up until an organism's specific brain matter clicked “on,” the world of animals was rolling along, unthinking and undirected except by their genes. And then it wasn’t. The human animal was suddenly confronted with the three Basal assumptions: the world exists, you can learn something about it and ideas with predictive quality are better than ideas without. It’s much easier to be a cat.

The Fall is a story of when an animal jumped the tracks. Suddenly, death/good/evil/suffering all manifest in human lives, yet kept hidden and unavailable from other animals. Humans could comprehend their own mind, and therefore other minds. Humans now know what hurts them, which means they know what hurts others.

And that is sin. 

Missing the mark is what happens when people act in a way that doesn’t comport with the nature of reality. Every religion has its own way of describing this, and ways of aligning and harmonising people with the nature of reality. Some get close, while some are terrible attempts. And many continually update their proscriptions and admonishments as technology and times advance. All have the same goal: to reduce suffering. Primitive people said sin was not doing the will of God. They know there is a box around humans, and that the box is called suffering. Suffering is something humans cannot remove, only reduce. You can’t defeat reality. Harmonisation is the only option.

Which means that sin is best understood as the unnecessary exacerbation of natural suffering. To commit sinful acts requires that an individual understand that good acts exist and that there is a mark. When you increase suffering, this is sin. It is missing the mark.

I think the point of life, broadly speaking, is to discover as many of the parameters of the nature of reality as possible, in order to reduce suffering in your life and the lives of others. It’s about finding the edges of the box, to understand both your limitation and freedom. Without an appreciation of the nature of reality, people will drown in their freedom. With too much limitation, people feel enclosed and constrained. The balance between freedom and limitation is bound up in the concept of a garden (nature balanced in a human-controlled space, order/chaos).

In the Garden of Eden, humans ate from the tree of good and evil and discovered they were a) vulnerable and b) limited. Animals don’t know this. That’s the human story. Being vulnerable and limited means axiomatically that actions are limited. Gods can act in any way, without consequence. Animals also can act in any way, but don’t appreciate the consequences. Human consciousness supplies the ability to challenge and transgress the limitations of reality, with a full apprehension of the consequences. In so doing, we discover we are neither Gods nor animals. That is our curse. That’s what it means for sin to "enter the world." It is knowing that the only thing screwing up your life is your bad decisions. It's on you. Find the edges of that damn box before it's too late.

What does this mean for us? 

Humans must work to hit the mark. To do this, they first must know there is a mark. They must then try to discover that mark and organise their life to comport with it. You do this by learning the reasons behind why boundaries were created by those who came before. This means appreciating why the nature of humans and the nature of reality led to the decision to create laws and restrictions, or permissions. Why is it that I am being encouraged to act in this way?

(A burqa, for instance, wasn’t invented to oppress women but to protect them from the nature of male sexuality in a world without police or a social contract. If you take those away, women return to being their natural state as a protected resource. The nature of maleness resides beneath our social contract. It has not gone away. The nature of reality can only be diluted, not abrogated.)

(A second example is a law against eating bacon. I suspect the law was enacted when human culture was attempting to increase sections of the social contract. All human cultures practiced cannibalism and the historical evidence is clear in this. The dietary habit regresses the mind, making the consumer more animalistic. To pull us out, elders restricted the eating of pork because when cooked bacon smells like human flesh. My uncle served for years in the fire brigade and to this day can't eat bacon, the memories are too vivid.)

Sin is a message. It is an encouragement to strive for existential power to control our lives and minimise suffering. It is a warning that the box (the nature of reality) will always exist. 

Listen here, Wildman. Figure out the edges of the box and harmonise yourself with them. Like Kung Fu, your life will be spent trying to figure it all out, but you never will – and then you'll die. That's fine. It's supposed to be that way. But make sure to turn around so younger people don’t fall into the same traps as you did. Your job is to remove suffering. it's to leave this earth a bit better than you found it. 

Now start reading old books!

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The West is full of skyscrapers

When US President Donald Trump recently ordered troops to Afghanistan, people remarked that some soldiers will be too young to remember September 11, 2001.

Everyone else knows where they were on that day, and what they felt. Fear is exhibited differently person to person but I desperately wanted to see a country of adults, not five-year-olds. Instead, all I watched was a lot of crying and sadness. Where were the fists banging on podiums? I was told anger wouldn’t prevent it from happening again, but I'll take my chances.

The attacks were the only time the 24-7 news network worked at full steam. Every single day since then has been a desperate attempt to recapture that moment of constant and important coverage. It might have been a clear blue sky, but the fog of war blanketed the US that day.

Even today, it’s still difficult to parse what happened. The Oklahoma bombing was simple: a right-wing neo-Nazi did it. We have always found it difficult to classify Islamic violence. The attacks are dismissed as “they attacked us,” with little analysis or introspection before the camera quickly pans to capture the victims and the sadness.

Everyone knows Timothy McVeigh, but who can name even one of the 19 hijackers other than Mohammad Atta? Mr Atta was called the ringleader because his was the only name the media could pronounce. We don’t even know what to call the attacks other than “9/11.” A date allows us to remember how we felt. To wrap it around back to us, me. No analysis required, just self-indulgence.

Sixteen years later, the puzzle of the attacks is a bit clearer. Supertankers full of ink have been spilt to understand why, when the world was finally calm after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a group of Arab men could be so angry to lash out. It seemed so disconnected.

Wise professors said the strike came from a latent grumbling stirred to a crescendo by centuries of Western imperial oppression. Like the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back, the hijacker’s reaction was expected, and anyone who disagreed with this analysis was deluded and parochial. At the same time, the wise professors expounded about the importance of championing human rights.

Not once did they stop to ask if human rights are, actually, universal. Not once did they pause and consider, that maybe – just maybe – the Western story isn’t the only narrative floating around the third rock from the sun.

Western history described the 20th century as two interlinked questions: what should be done about a unified, industrial Germany? And which form of democracy should be preeminent across the world? The questions caused perhaps a hundred million deaths and the final answer was only found in 1989 – some would say it remains unanswered.

In 1989, the final democratic competitor collapsed, leaving only the American version standing. In the closing decade of that bloody and radioactive century, everyone who mattered assumed no further obstacle blocked the way to global peace and stability. History was over. The story of the world entered its denouement. But they were wrong.

On 9/11, the West violently discovered that its narrative of history was not alone after all. All those centuries of Western infighting and rivalry, we forgot that Islam had its own story. Then with a roar, Islam emerged from that blue sky, acting with full agency in the pursuit of its own global goals. It moved confidently as if it, not us, was the main character of its own movie.

The skyscrapers fell, but sixteen years later few parochial ideas held by Western elites are damaged. From a power perspective, it is perfectly acceptable to say the 19 hijackers were reacting to Western imperialism because at least this sets up the default assumption that Western imperialism exists and is dominant.

Yet it is another thing entirely to deny Islam its own narrative and to say it is utterly dependent on Western actions, to deny its agency. The lesson of 9/11 is that Muslims see themselves as acting and the West reacting, not the other way around.

Following the attacks, the French newspaper Le Monde ran a headline saying: “We are all Americans now.” Even then I knew this was precisely backwards. The attacks proved we are not all Americans, and that no amount of narcissistic projection of Western desires and parameters for the good life will create that reality.

Mohammad Atta is the only hijacker anyone remembers because no one cares about supporting cast. We continue to treat Islam as the “crazy ex” in the West’s own movie. The attacks had meaning, but it wasn’t ours alone. The meaning was shared with Islam’s specific apprehension of the world, a narrative totally hidden from our eyes and ears by ourselves.

Mr Atta’s photo is known by many readers, but who has read a biography of the man? The symbol he represents ceases to be a symbol the moment he violates his own symbolism – it disappears the moment you get to know him as a person. The attacks of 9/11 showed us all that an entire religion was being treated as supporting cast to the West’s story of history, just like Mr Atta.

The truth is, we are all skyscrapers, living in proximity but not connection. Not even tumbling towers and 3000 dead was enough to convince us we aren’t alone on this planet. What will it take? Change is only possible when you say: "I want to stop making everyone cry." Change is only possible when you stop treating others as supporting cast.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The backwards thinking of Winston Peters and anti-immigrants

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says the country is “being overwhelmed by migrants,” but what he calls multiculturalism is really just homogenisation.

Being in opposition to something you hate is powerful branding in New Zealand. Like Marshall McLuhan once yelled, there's a war going on out there, and it isn't between liberals and conservatives or atheists and believers, it's between us and them, where them is defined as everyone who is not us and us is defined as me. You lose.

NZF doesn’t want to import cultural traits from the 15th century – oops, I mean the "Muslim world.” But here's the thing: the way to defeat an enemy is to get them to agree with your version of the good life, to capture their psychology.

That’s why anti-immigrant ideologues are thinking backwards. They should be championing any policy that homogenises the world under Western assumptions. The policy of invading and inviting the world has been so successful that today every piece of dry land is both a nation state and a democracy.

Mr Peters, presumably, thinks this is what failure looks like. Actually, it’s what empire looks like. Al-Jazeera isn't the "Islamification" of the West, it is the westernisation of the Middle East. The news channel reports in English, they have western values, and, most importantly, accept ads – Western style aspirational ads, not representational. "You know, these immigrants aren’t so different from us, they want the same things we want." Yes. Why do you think that is?

The moment you have the other people's ideas, you cannot shake that information. Any "independent" idea necessarily includes that idea in some way. You can't unlearn it. Either your idea converges towards the herd, or your idea is classed as against the herd. Either way, the dominant herd affects your thinking in ways you don't fully comprehend. That you don't want to be part of it ensures you are part of it.

Every time you hear a jihadist bomb, you should see it as proof the West still controls the concept of the good society. By attacking us, they are confirming that we are dominant, otherwise, why attack us? The acts appear personal and individualised but conform beautifully, they are no threat.

New Zealand First should welcome people. It should campaign to increase the level of education about Western freedoms among immigrant children. It should be soaking them with advertising to desire a consumption lifestyle and to get a job and start producing and consuming like good little Westerners. Plug in, baby.

Power never thinks of you as an individual. Power never thinks of you at all. Western culture is winning because Muslims choose to come here. They accept the default assumption that the major tenets of New Zealand’s culture are categorically better than theirs. That's what immigration means.

New Zealand First should also convince immigrants to create political parties of their own so that they are absorbed further into the system. It should encourage immigrants to ask for greater representation because when the system protects them, the system has power over them. It gives them the trappings of power so they don't take actual power.

I'm always bemused by people who expect there to be some third way between the “market” and central planning.

Either people do whatever they want and create a legal system in which everything which is not prohibited is permitted or you have an official authority. The former is called liberalism. The latter system is called totalitarianism. It’s as simple as that.

In totalitarianism, there are no individual acts. That's the whole point of the structure, that's what it wants, what it wants you to become. The essential ingredient is psychological capture. It’s very hard to call a society totalitarian if it includes different subcultures with their own beliefs and perspectives. We all need to think the same things at the same time in the morning. In other words, a reasonable definition of totalitarianism is the absence of intellectual diversity.

Instead of complaining, Mr Peters should be asking: how do we get from here to there? How can the State get everyone to think in step? One way is to send all the intellectuals to camps. Let’s call this the Orwell approach, and you can’t say it doesn’t work. But a better way is the Huxley approach.

For Huxleyist totalitarianism, you start with the perspective that’s already the most fashionable view among the intelligentsia. The natural flow of intellectual fashions, just as in clothing, is from hieratic to demotic: from high-status people to low-status people. When you try to reverse this, you get things like Nazism, which was hardly a success.

Marxism should not be mistaken for a demotic movement, and it was very fashionable among intellectuals. It still is. But when it actually gains power, it tends to alienate them quickly. If you want your totalitarian system to work smoothly, you need an intellectual framework people can live their whole lives inside without ever feeling the need to violate its bounds.

Marxism and Nazism, although they certainly had their Huxleyist moments, are not good examples of this kind of successful totalitarianism. Catholicism, Judaism and Islam are much better.

The traditionalist version of Christianity is extremely weak in New Zealand and is being outcompeted by Islam. But Islam stands no chance against the new version of Christianity – American progressivism. You can see it infecting the psychologies of Muslims when they say concepts like freedom of speech, human rights and equality are universal human aspirations, when in reality they are core Christian ideas.

Persuasion is the only weapon that can make a difference. And to persuade, first, you must control the conversation.

If Mr Peters is concerned about political correctness, he should read Roland Huntford's insightful observations about Sweden.

First, he notices that party of the Social Democrats had achieved a level of intellectual conformity unique in the Western world using the mechanism we now call political correctness.

Second, he notes that organised intellectual conformity is really nothing new in Sweden. It is simply a continuation of the close ties between Church and State that have been a Swedish phenomenon since the Reformation. Protestantism, and specifically Lutheranism, have always been political religions with a strong collectivist bent. The only change is a doctrinal shift away from belief in the supernatural, and an institutional shift from the church to the universities.

But Sweden has forgotten Machiavelli. There are now two cultures in Sweden. One is Swedish and the other is Euro-Islamic, relating to each other like Eloi and Morlocks. This was not true in Mr Huntford’s time and it is interesting to see how completely and successfully the Swedish state religion has suppressed the innate human talent for xenophobia. I seriously doubt either the Soviets or the Nazis could ever have gotten this far toward creating the new socialist man.

The parallels to New Zealand's intellectual history are obvious and I have a bit of sympathy for Mr Peters' viewpoint. The idea that liberalism in the 19th-century sense of the word is outdated was the predominant mechanism for deprecating it before the rise of political correctness.

Political correctness has a bad habit of changing its name, but it goes back to Calvin and Luther, and I think it is perfectly legitimate to regard Christianity itself as a sect of collectivism. In other words, Communism is best understood as applied Christianity.

That's the rub.

If Mr Peters considers his way of life represents some universal nature of the "good society," then psychological capture is a great strategy. Rather than punching the wave, he should ride it all the way to the shore. Think of all the Muslim children just waiting for some tight Western propaganda and "state education." Ride that wave, Mr Peters.

Don't misinterpret me, there is no plot. The Illuminati is not involved. The miracle of social evolution is that its results are indistinguishable from the product of an intelligent designer. Or, in this case, an intelligent conspirator.

Even though his ethical views might be much the same as Murray Rothbard’s, or John Locke’s for that matter, it doesn’t follow that those ideas are universal. But thinking they are is an excellent idea if your game is to secure power on a global scale. Ride the Progressivism wave, Mr Peters. The religion is healthy and vigorous.

But you may have a different opinion. Do you see it jumping the shark perhaps? For example, do you see environmentalism (as a political religion) as something with centuries, or decades, or years to live? Is it a permanent occupant of the brain’s religion module? Or will something else displace or replace it?

Who knows? But right now, if Mr Peters is actually playing the power game, it's much better to stand on the side of the big battalions, don't you agree?

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The homogenisation of America

Let’s get one thing straight: politics in the US isn’t more volatile today. No one’s assassinating rivals and the National Guard isn’t shooting students. But I won't deny there’s tension and it's worth asking where it comes from.

The human inclination to separate “them” from “us” is an essential quality of civilization. Pockets of uniqueness are pockets of variety, not pockets of evil. What progressives refer to as “diversity” or “multiculturalism” is, in fact, its opposite – homogenisation. That’s the sort of thing you can’t hide from people who are good at painting what they see, and not painting in symbols.

Mr Paul Bourget himself
If you want to know what America was like before the progressive movement, read a travelogue by a European visitor – such as Paul Bourget’s Outre-mer. If you have any actual liberal conscience, you will be shocked and saddened at the rich social tapestry that the last century turned into mulch. And other countries, too, had their own cultures – before America conquered everything.

Most of the hurt seems to come from the US Heartland, while the greatest noise emerges from progressive camps. You can pretty much ignore any “problems” from the latter side. Yelling is far less impressive by someone on the side of the big battalions.

The reason American conservatives believe the things they believe is that those things seem obvious to them, and no one has yet succeeded in convincing them otherwise, despite the concerted attempts. But over the long term, it's pretty obvious there's been a gradual retreat of traditional conservative thought, as you can see from evidence like this.

(Yes, in 1963 it seemed obvious to an overwhelming majority of Californians that segregated housing was a good idea. Fortunately, the new enlightened Californians have proved them wrong with the enlightened rainbow society. If only 1963 could see how great California is today! Ha, ha, ha.)

Fox News is an entirely demotic, grass-roots organisation. Its goal is to make money, and it makes money by showing its viewers a reality they find credible. You could say it reinforces their existing beliefs, but even this would be ascribing some conspiratorial intent beyond making money. And Murdoch sure does make a lot of that. When you watch Fox News, you're eating very, very low off the hog. No, I would not recommend Fox News as an introduction to conservative thought – try Burke. Or better yet Maistre.

It's only the American left that has genuine leadership institutions working to frame the debate. There is no right-wing Harvard. There is no right-wing New York Times. There are only various small scattered circles of intellectuals, generally poorly funded. The only professional conservatives are neoconservatives, in other words, post-Trotskyists. Nothing at all survives of either McCarthyism or isolationism, the two even remotely effective oppositions to the New Deal heritage – both comical by pre-20th century standards, American or European. In short, American conservatism is a pathetic joke, and any liberal who worries about it is paranoid.

Why do so many progressives have this vision of Dr Evil cleverly twisting the minds of innocent Ohioans? In a word, projection. It is simply impossible for the progressive to fathom how pathetic and inept his so-called “opponents” actually are. In part, this is because he wants to think of himself as the oppressed underdog, rather than the ruling establishment. Which he most certainly is (re: the link above).

Progressives think that just because affirmative action is a lonely and isolated victory doesn’t mean they should abandon it. Fighting for other lonely and isolated victories is the best they can do. They know they won’t get the apathetic white moderates on board with a radical change, but they can hope to somehow create a new more radical status quo and then over time get those apathetic white moderates on board with what’s now the status quo.

So each policy progressives manage to enact is shaky and not well-supported for, like, 50 years. Then it will become normal enough that they can repaint the landscape. The policy will probably still be contentious, but if they gradually repaint things, it will be the people trying to undo the policy that will look like radicals.

Rinse, repeat.

You can see the same thing happening in New Zealand. National has been stealing Labour's policies for years and now Labour just looks like a me-too bit player. This is the 20th-century progressive mind. They are playing 3-D chess. Their “opponents” are playing tic-tac-toe, and not very good tic-tac-toe at that.

The same thing happened in Europe last century. Although, whatever it is the enlightened citizens of those countries believe today, they were far more right-wing than America until (approximately) 1945. For the last millennium, these ideas were considered normal and only a few people doubted them. That’s what I mean when I talk about a power transition. Reactionary ideas are the default for most people in the Western world because they reflect the nature of reality.

I can't be sure whether Germany’s collective mind was changed by the US Eighth Air Force, or by Washington's close allies in the Red Army. Perhaps the first seeds of "change" were planted even earlier, by the British Navy. And of course we can't forget about Napoleon, now, can we? What's certain is that with the right application of military force, this same enlightened populace could be compelled to either return to its old views or adopt new ones even more enlightened. That’s the kind of tension you want to watch closely especially as the vice of force multiculturalism is squeezed on the traditionalist white men in Europe. Those guys don't make a fuss very often, but when they do the whole world burns.

If an American communist ("liberal" and “progressive” being, of course, euphemisms) tries living abroad they'll discover just how many cultural tropes they share with American traditionalist Christians and don't share with European communists. It's funny to see them squirm.

(Also, if you think there's a meaningful difference between American communism and "socialism" or "radicalism" or "progressivism" or "liberalism," I suggest the following exercise: pick an arbitrary NYT obituary of anyone over 80, i.e. anyone who was an adult in the 1940s, and try to classify your subject as "communist," "socialist," "progressive" or "liberal." Unless you say that only a card-carrying CPUSA member can be a "communist," which is an abuse of the English language, you'll find no basis for any such distinction.)

The tension we’re all seeing in the US it is more accurately described as a slow process of one power structure being defeated by a rival. The chaos of transition can feel overwhelming for anyone even marginally connected to the old structure – like the folk in Ohio. It doesn’t mean they’re being targeted. It just means the new structure is consolidating and the fading structure no longer has their back.

This political game manifests as dissipated energy as people pointlessly lash out at whatever symbol they feel is responsible for their plight – it doesn't matter if their frustration is over a burst tire, late payment fees or comments on Twitter. The key point is violence is never directed against those who are actually causing the tension. Power won't allow it. That's what pawns are for.

I just hope the emerging elite (not Trump, obviously) speedily assumes responsibility/power. The only important role of government is to provide security. You can’t do that during a transition. They need to hurry up and be honest that the fight is over and the traditionalists have lost utterly, so they can start governing the US.

The GFC (almost) a decade later and nothing changes

On September 15, it will be ten years since the first major bank, Lehman Brothers, collapsed in Global Financial Crisis. If you had known about that crash seven days prior, would you have done anything differently? I don’t mean changing an investment portfolio. Would you have changed your consumption habits?

Baby Boomers and regulators got the easy blame in 2007. But economies work better when consumers aren't overgrown children with more money than sense. We all know this, deep down.

I

The era of easy money and the culture it formed is over, forever. Gone is the Wall Street i-banker. Gone are the days of trust fund welfare start-ups that can't possibly make money. Gone is the blissful oblivion married to entitlement that masqueraded as youthful optimism. Gone are the endless subsidies from mum and dad to support your actor/reception lifestyle.

See, the conventional wisdom before September 2007 was that the old school guys were dummies. They didn't get it. They didn’t understand the crowdsourced social network effects of the Economy 2.0 in which Japan and South Korea invent everything, China builds it and the West consumes it all exclaiming "Isn't it cool?!" like 10-year-old schoolgirls.

Real estate was the trigger but the Great Unwinding extends beyond that narrow field. Who is to blame for the rest? The consumer. You. With your infantile psychology and addict's attitude toward money waiting in line to buy an iPhone with a credit card, only to do the same a year later while still under contract on the first device. Hordes of so-called adults who can't resist buying new toys.

No rigour. No seriousness. No sober attitude or humility. No respect for the time value of money – which is what Einstein called the greatest force in the universe. We had too much easy money. Too many "get rich tips" and not enough number crunching. Too much PowerPoint and not enough Excel. Too much spending or speculation and not enough saving or investment.

I blame the 4KTV early adopters, the Lexus drivers and the purified water drinkers who think they're guzzling spring water because they can't be bothered to read the label. Throw in the Tumblrs, TechCrunchrs and Twitters who spent more time in the office playing foosball and taking naps than learning how to read a balance sheet or make a sales call, along with the owners of sub-zero fridges, Wedgewood hardware or crown moulding. I'm sure at the ripe old age of 28, you earned it.

A flashy car isn't a goal. Why do people want flashy cars? To impress others, project status or convince themselves of something. Perhaps that they are rich and successful, or that they aren't sure they believe in all this in the first place. The problem is not the car, the house, the mortgage or the professional grade whatever. It's the psychology behind desiring those things above and beyond one's need for them.

The blame for the GFC should properly go to those who wasted money when the exact same product or better could be had for a fraction of the price in the next store. In almost every circumstance, you don't need the best. The thing you have isn't broken, so why are you replacing it? Did you ever stop to ask why so many products aren’t good enough for you?

II

You wanted that Starbucks latte. You wanted T-shirts from Huffer instead of Farmers and the TYPO notebook for $12.99 instead of the Office Depot version for $1.29. I hope the jotted ideas earned you at least $11.70 because you bought the mass production niche marketing hook, line and sinker. We all agreed to be unique in exactly the same way. Follow the crowd, chase the trend, run rabbit run.

Everyone who read Tipping Point rather than Trading Up takes the blame. The former is a fairy tale but the latter is your biography. You read Malcolm Gladwell but never Hidden Persuaders, because then you'd realise you’re a sucker.

We love deregulation when it means IPOs, day trading and interest-only mortgages. But the moment we actually have to pay some bills, we want socialism. The GFC is the fault of everyone – big or small, corporate or individual – who bought now and promised to pay later. Guess what? Now it's later.

Ten years since and everything is more expensive but paradoxically money is harder to get. The same crisis is happening again across the developed world. You can smell it. That’s what cycles do. That’s why they must be broken. And yet still we blame the system.

People still think they should own a million dollar house on a $100,000 income. They deliberately choose not to learn how to crunch the numbers themselves, because subconsciously they knew it wouldn’t add up.

You can't blame the people who hooked the suckers. The street corner hustler is always there with his table and three-card monte game promising big money. At some point, you have to stop blaming the hustler and level with the arrogant fool who thinks he's better than those who came before, that he can beat the game. It doesn't matter if the hustler is a travelling carny, a magazine or David Ross. The hustler always wins. The hustler always makes the rules, handles the money and runs the table.

Stop being hustled. Stop being conned. Stop being the mark. Stop playing their game. There will be no saviours or heroes to rescue us. Get a job, and then get a second one. And save 25% of everything. We need to work harder and be more competitive just to minimise the effects of the next crisis because clearly, no one's willing to do what's necessary to stop it from happening. Which means the answer to the opening questions is: “look at the shiny new money!”

III

It might be easier for young people to kick the bad consumer habits because they aren't as entrenched. But that doesn't mean they can do it.

They seem to all want to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. A worthwhile goal. Does that mean we’ll get tens of thousands of millennials pouring into mechanical and electrical engineering programmes to learn how to solve this problem? Or do they think that by sitting in their bedrooms making YouTube videos they'll convince enough businessmen there is a large enough market to hire Indian engineers and to get Chinese manufacturers to mass produce the solution?

Everyone needs to get serious. Students need to study mathematics and science, learn how to write coherent and persuasive essays and to communicate efficiently and effectively. They need to learn that not everything is a "matter of opinion" and that even when it is, not all opinions are equal.

You know who's vulnerable? All those brats who questioned why they were learning algebra because it was boring. These same people drive new cars, shop at expensive stores and carry crippling personal debt. It's called compound interest, and it rules the world. They would know that if they stuck at algebra.

Consumerism is approaching the level of a disease. Adults need to stop buying junk. It’s possible to go through a whole adult life owning a total of no more than three televisions. If it isn't broken, don't replace it. That means no new TVs, computers, or cars every few years. No "fast casual" dining. Swallow your pride. You aren't too good for McDonald's or scrambled eggs. Learn to cook from basic ingredients. And learn to do it on a normal stove. You don't need to trade up, you need to buckle down.

Businesspeople need to relearn that marketing and branding aren't everything – they are the last thing. Survival means your widget has to be cheaper, better, faster and do more, not be outside the group of all other widgets. Buy, buy, buy your widget just means buy, buy, buy more of every widget.

People need to learn how to shop again. Identify the things you need and hunt for the best price. That means no paper towels from supermarkets when cleaning supply companies are much cheaper. We can’t keep acting like it’s still 1980-2000 when if you wanted something you bought it on the spot.

We need to learn the colossal differences between the terms "thrifty," "frugal" and "cheap."

IV

Don’t be Edward Norton's monologue from Fight Club. Don’t be Jack’s overworked amygdala.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously said living in New York is a luxury good. People pay a premium to live there and in the eyes of the people who run the city, living is just another form of conspicuous consumption. This is what I mean by disease.

Wine. Swiss chocolates. Estee Lauder skin creams. Kids’ clothes! Why are people dressing their kids like Johnny Depp and Kate Moss? Are all of us are being pulled into this slipstream of pseudo-wealth?

Those things are not wealth. They are not even indicative of wealth. They signify only consumption preferences. I don't know what a DeLafée chocolate is. I had never heard of Estee Lauder skin creams until I looked it up on Google. And yet based solely on their appearance I know with 100% certainty they are upscale luxury class goods marketed to middle-class aspirational suckers desperate to surround themselves with the trappings of success and class.

Wealth is assets – stocks, bonds, cash, gold and real estate owned outright. It's not brand-names. It sure isn't skin cream or white electronics. Ed Norton’s monologue in Fight Club might be running in the background of your mind, but it’s time to listen to Tyler Durden saying, "the things you own end up owning you."

At some point, we have to learn 1) that we are for the most part stupid, and 2) accept we will never be able to afford certain things.

Not every thirty-something deserves a BMW or a Mercedes. Not every married couple deserves a house. Not everyone deserves the "professional-grade," "deluxe" or "elite" versions of products. Most of us can and should do with ordinary. A product or service isn't "exclusive" if you can buy it. A truly exclusive product is supposed to exclude people like you.

V

The trap is thinking that going without luxury skin cream is some sort of a sacrifice. The trap is thinking that one has to be comfortable with less. You must defend against this. Consumption does not equal wealth. Consumption is the antithesis of wealth.

Lacking skin cream is not a sacrifice because having it confers no added benefit. Before it existed, no one had it. Does everyone sacrifice for not having a thing which does not yet exist? That notion is absurd. The idea that failing to buy something that is in no way essential constitutes a sacrifice is wholesale surrender to the trick that consumption is a process – that you must purchase the newest highest-class goods.

You want to see the trap? Look at the list of replacement products suggested by magazines to "tighten your belt" – scotch, champagne, cashmere or even an $800 watch (even the poor need status!). All marketed as “cut-rate luxuries.”

Do you see? The trap is an article that ends with a fantasy vision of a world that no longer chases conspicuous consumption (note that it's the world that does the chasing, not the people reading the article) and then shifts gently into telling you that buying champagne and $800 watches counts as belt-tightening. The trap is the entire magazine. It is proof positive that wealth is independent of class.

I refuse to fall into this trap. And I'm sick of having it broadcast to me at every turn. I am tired of companies trying to teach me that I'm obliged to give them my money.

I am enraged by a government that tells me after every terrorist attack, that instead of sacrificing and pulling together our job was to suppress our outrage, sublimate our grief and go right back to work the next day to make more money, pay more taxes and spend whatever is left at the mall.

I am disgusted that nothing has changed when we collectively and individually had an opportunity to change and become great. We aren't "emerging from 2007." We are smack bang in the middle of the Great Depression version 2.0.

VI

Consider all the things you own. Not investments, but things like bed linen, electronics, cars, houses and all the rest.

Assign a value of zero to those things, because they are worth nothing. If you factor in the cost of time spent trying to sell a used product for a few dollars, it's a net loss. You’d save more money by giving it away or leaving it on the side of the road.

If all these things have zero value, how wealthy are you? Add up your cash and liquid investments, subtract your debt. That's your wealth. Every time you buy something, you take money from your pool of wealth and flush it. The things that surround you do not enter into the equation.

Now, look at those things. Why did you buy that particular one? I don’t care why you bought a bar of soap, but why did you buy that brand? Do you even remember? Does it still meet the psychological need or satisfy a desire that initially drove you to purchase it? If you bought $5 luxury soap instead of $0.33 soap, the answer "it keeps me clean" is not satisfactory. The cheaper version keeps you clean as well.

Yes, we all can and should do with ordinary. Unless you specifically require the superlative features of some product, to buy it just wasting money. Happiness is not found in things. It's found in people, experience and memory.

Whether one values an object enough to pay its market price is a matter of personal choice, and I'm not dictating people's choices. I am saying that the same consumption mind-set of the last thirty years that drives people to demand the top-end of everything is precisely the same mind-set that leaves them vulnerable to interest-only mortgages and other cons.

In other words, it's not only that people want the house it's that they want to think they can afford it and it is a matter of shame or embarrassment to them to admit they cannot. That's why, I think, so many people are willing to briefly forget the maxim: "There's no free lunch."

The cognitive dissonance is that people want things on one hand and recognise the objective state of their finances on the other, but they refuse to reconcile the two. By and large, the huge levels of personal debts many people carry aren't due to "unfortunate circumstances." It's because they buy things they can't afford.

Yeah, I'm a true Soviet for saying this, blah blah blah. It's getting pretty crowded on this soapbox, what with all the personal responsibility and work ethic being crammed in here...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Tough to separate signal from noise in music industry

It’s hard to tell if the music industry is failing or booming.

Goldman Sachs latest” Music In The Air” study predicts the global record industry will jump 500% to reach $US41 billion by 2030. Online streaming will account for $US34 billion of that pie, of which $US28 billion will come from paid subscription while $US6 billion will be ad-supported.

New Zealand is showing a similar breakdown. According to Recorded Music New Zealand, the industry grew in 2016 by 16%, following a 15% growth in 2015 – the first rise in a decade – of which streaming makes up half the total revenue.

I

Yet it isn’t all roses. It is still hard to make money streaming, evidenced by Pandora’s choice to shut down its Australia and New Zealand service this year. Even SoundCloud is reportedly running on the smell of an oily rag, recently saying it might only stay solvent for 50 days.

Without money and the old infrastructure, how will music become part of the culture? The only reason we know of Stevie Nicks is that a record company risked millions of dollars to get her airplay, make music videos and advertise the band. Barely any of this infrastructure exists for new acts today.

Thankfully, the decline of the record industry hasn’t led to the death of music. The internet has plenty of room for bands and listeners. But if the record companies aren't making money, they won't be able to turn music into a central part of youth culture and identity as they did in the past.

Maybe this is a good thing, maybe not. Yet it will probably be a net negative for people creating new music. To younger people, all music is unheard music. Classical, country, folk, rap, jazz or rock from any era is all new to them. The music industry used to spend millions on marketing in shops to ensure people at the very least bought newly produced music.

This biased the market in favour of newer artists. New artists today don't have that marketing and are competing against decades of back-catalogues of bands on Google which did have that advantage.

II

The social networking phenomenon is probably a subconscious attempt to restrict the size of our own world and limit cultural experience to something workable, thereby manufacturing the collective cultural experience that sheer numbers have obliterated from the larger work.

For example, take Instagram. It is a series of links (pointers to units of culture such as videos, audio files or articles) and opportunities to have a common cultural experience. A subscriber clicks on a link knowing other subscribers click as well. To the extent that participating requires at least reading the comments or commenting yourself, there is a shared experience. It may not be shared in time, but it establishes a common micro-cultural Instagram vocabulary.

There is an incentive to click on Instagram links, even if the post in isolation wouldn't interest you, because you know that other people will be watching. Just like a teenager sits through 50 Cent videos on MTV even if they hate rap. Everyone watched MTV which made it more than the sum of the videos. It informed the culture and tastes of others in a community and therefore had value.

Instagram isn’t so much about finding a community of like-minded people. It’s about finding a smaller community of a manageable size in order to have a more fulfilling cultural experience which is an innate human need.

III

Youth culture is simply different now. People discover new music through friends, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or other channels.

If you grew up watching MTV most of your friends did so as well. It was the common experience. Even if you hated the music, at least you knew what it was. These days, video games and social networking occupy the centre of youth culture. Music is largely peripheral.

For example, we know music has a high penetration among teenagers. But if each band is a cultural unit, hundreds of thousands of bands exist in the total musical catalogue. So unless the band falls within the 20% that gets 80% of the total attention, it isn't likely to have any great impact. The total number of bands diminishes the total cultural impact the medium can have (a high impact unit – pop-star – supports the impact of the medium, and stars rise higher with fewer units in total).

By comparison, perhaps two or three hundred game titles are released annually and all have a built-in technological obsolescence preventing people from choosing old games over new ones. While fewer people play video games compared with listening to music, the total unit count in low enough that the relative impact of a video game is much higher than for a band. Movies probably fall somewhere between music and video games.

I suspect the cultural impact of motion pictures, music, television and movies has already peaked, and they peaked in the order I listed. However, the cultural impact of video games as a medium is still rising from one year to the next. But nothing is guaranteed anymore in a digital environment.

IV

What if you could make anything from a clump of dirt?

Sticking with music for a second, why couldn’t one album be made for every person on the planet? Or maybe one version can be copied for every customer who wants to listen. At this point, why should music shops exist at all if a customer can go straight to a record company and "lend" copies to all of his friends?

But then why do we need record companies if we can buy songs directly from the artist? And once the first digital copy is available, why wouldn’t everyone download it for free? After all, it only costs the artist an upfront cost to record, after that, every subsequent digital copy costs exactly $0 to reproduce – forever.

Now we get to the root of the dilemma. The music industry isn’t facing this problem alone. As more goods are digitised, society moves closer to a post-scarcity world. Buildings full of employees, storefronts, mines and factories will vanish as a result. And what about all those luxury goods the music artists would have purchased with their singing money? They disappear too.

This problem collapses down to one, central, critical question: is it possible to value a product which is infinitely reproducible?

This affects you, directly. Everyone’s betting on service jobs to replace manufacturing jobs, but if skill itself is digitised it becomes worthless. If this doesn’t make you worry about civilisation, you’re not paying attention.

V

When Lou Gerstner took over IBM as CEO in April 1993, Wall Street speculated it was going out of business.

Microsoft owned the software market, Dell owned the PC business and both Sun and HP were churning out workstations as big iron mainframes fell out of popularity. The ex-tobacco executive Mr Gerstner was seen as an outsider and was seen to be shepherding IBM into the sunset.

One of his first acts as CEO was to gather the top vice presidents of every IBM division to write in one sentence what IBM's business was. The result? No two VP's gave the same answer. None could articulate the vision, and there was no understanding of the company's business from people who had been in the business their entire careers.

IBM was being left behind because it wasn’t innovating and no longer knew its business. Huge companies that don't innovate get replaced by companies that do, but innovation doesn't have to come from small companies.

The record industry is the same. It’s trying to find a way to protect its business from ten years earlier, instead of trying to figure out how to recreate its business for success in the next ten years.

Instead of focusing on what they really do – which is understanding listener's tastes, seeking out music to meet those tastes and supplying it – they still think their business is pressing CD's and shipping them in plastic cases to record stores or downloading a digital copy to a hard drive. They focus on shipping the music as a thing, instead of enabling people to listen to it.

The problem in the record industry is not a technological problem, it is a vision and marketing problem. "What do I sell? To whom? How?" Music still needs promotion of some kind, but maybe not videos and heavy FM radio rotation. Money doesn’t have to be made from every song play to make enough profit to record more songs. So think outside the box, whether that box is a huge department store, a CD case, or an iPod.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Charlottesville problem or, the only salvation is less freedom, not more

History shows the left employing coordinated subversive techniques across the world to advance its cause, and it was extremely successful. Now, it seems the right is doing the same thing, though on a smaller scale.

This is a terrible idea. Let me explain.

A mob tore down the monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, NC, this week. Up to eight people now face charges. Since statue desecration is what the original protests from people who call themselves the right was all about, it's more important to understand the significance of real-life deconstruction than whatever else happened last weekend.

We first need to appreciate that 41 of the 56 writers of the US Constitution were slaveholders. This is the history of the US. Slaveholders throughout history have invented things. Does their slaveholding make technology morally disgusting? Are Plato's ideas less instructive because he owned humans? Does the fact that US founders held slaves make what they wrote illegitimate?


That's an important question, perhaps the most important, especially if that question is transactional. What’s going on here is the creation of a popular movement by way of denigration of anyone who once held slaves. The goal appears to be to undermine and delegitimise the constitution of the United States of America. Quick, someone call Nicholas Cage.

All crimes need a motive. So what's the incentive for this seditious goal? Simple: No matter how much they claim otherwise, progressives can't stand the constitution. They hate it. To progressives, freedom of speech isn't a right, it is a tool. It was useful for progressives when they needed to capture power but now that they have power they strategically deny those rights to their domestic enemies. This is what people in power do.

But, because there are still plenty of Americans who were brought up believing in the foundational texts of the constitution, the progressive movement is always stopped just short of consolidating its control over the entire American polity. Capturing the Supreme Court (the seat of actual power in the US) has proven bittersweet because traditionalists can still enter and legitimately occupy permanent positions to slow "progress" down.

And there's only so much power in the civil service (the seat of formal power in the US), which is also under progressive capture. Although the civil service has less oversight than the Supreme Court due to the sheer volume of policy flowing out of Washington, few people have the time or inclination to check whether its actions are allowed under the constitution. The civil service gets away with a lot, believe me.

The Constitution is the only thing stopping the US from collapsing into an outright progressive/top-down/socialist state. To fix this conundrum, progressives are demonising anyone in America's history on moral grounds - based on today's concept of morality - if they held slaves. This is a clever move and I'd be impressed if it weren't so insidious. Once this propaganda starts to run by its own steam, the progressives can create a set of victory conditions by which the US populace actually considers the Constitution null and void. The path to revocation starts with morally vilifying slaveholders, which leads to corruption of the authors in the minds of the populace for whom the logical connection is then made to destroy the document so they can collectively reach absolution. If the Constitution is for the people and by the people, then only the people can destroy it.

Progressives know that if they were to unilaterally abrogate the founding document tomorrow, there would be blood in the streets, and not just from the people wearing tinfoil hats. Classical liberals would sharpen pitchforks too. It would be a terrible optics. The game is to use the tool of democracy to get the people themselves to rise up and remove the only thing protecting them from tyranny and horror of a totalitarian ideology. This kind of thing has been done before, ain't no reason to think it couldn't be done again.

This is why protesting and acts of terror are such a silly ideas for those who consider themselves to be on the actual right. By the way, don't confuse the actual right with "conservatives." The latter are merely laggard progressives defending everything the progressive movement agitated for 30 years ago (what conservative would dare propose revoking gay rights, for instance?). Conservatives don't deserve your energy. America's ruling class shops at Whole Foods. If this totally rocks your world, maybe your world needed a little rocking.

One synonym for "ruling class" is "policymakers." The people who rule are the ones who formulate the policies which the government carries out. These are not the people you see on TV. The people you see on TV are actors. Their job is to read lines. There is a small Republican policy-making machine offering mild dissident ideas on a variety of issues. Sometimes in exceptional circumstances, these ideas are even adopted - as with the "neocons" last decade - because they help spread the progressive gospel further across the planet. The rest of Washington then exerts its considerable influence to make the remaining policies fail, as of course, the "alt-right" will eventually too.

In general, public policy is formulated in universities by people who are exclusively of the liberal, Democratic or progressive persuasion. It is broadly accurate to speak of this caste - H.G. Wells called them "Eloi" - as the ruling class. And they certainly do shop at Whole Foods, drive Priuses, do yoga, go jogging, etc, etc. They can be white, black, Asian, Indian, and blah blah blah. It doesn't matter. What matters is the synopsis.

Every time I watch a leftist street march in the US I laugh at the huge numbers of black people (and the "ally" white people, but don't get me started...). Progressive philanthropists say they are Great Friends of the Negro, treating him as "a man, and a brother." In reality, progressives don't like actual black people any more than they like democracy. They have no love at all for the poor. What they love is to pick them up, turn them into feral barbarians, encourage them to devastate civilised society, and provide millions of jobs for fellow ruling class members caring for the animalistic, burned-out shell of what was formerly one of North America's great cultures - the African-American culture. Compare the cultural contributions of black people before and after the "civil-rights movement" and you'll see the difference.

"Now you're just being racist!" Calm down, wildman. It's not Jews, Niggers, or Fags I despise. It's philanthropists and liberal missionaries who, in the old Russian saying, "pretend to be the doctors of society, but are really the disease." Have fun curing juvenile delinquency in the slums with that planned housing project of yours, Sister Wolf.

Professor Venkatesh's little book was intriguing in many ways, but perhaps the most interesting is that none of the other people working at the University of Chicago's "sociology" department had ever come in contact with the inhabitants of the Robert Taylor Homes, nor did they have any idea what their lives were like. This is because the civil-rights movement, whose real goal was simply to put progressive party members into power, has no more use for its black playthings - except to pay them to vote every few years or march in BLM and Occupy protests.

If I had one message for the protesters at Charlottesville, it would be that leftist tactics do not work in general for the right.

There is no symmetry at all. The actual right (and conservatives, too) shouldn't believe in fair play, democracy and winning by convincing their opponents through argument because progressives have never believed in any of these things. Progressives hate democracy like the devil. That's why they're always accusing their enemies, the "populists," of "politicising public policy." Translation: it allows democracy to interfere with the progressive party line. I'm aware politics is what democracy says on the box, but hey, sometimes marketing is full of bullshit. Is this new information to you?

Progressives throughout the last two centuries always bowled the hardest ball they could get away with. They believed in winning by any means necessary. And in the cases where their victories have been absolute, the result has been nothing but destruction, disaster and death for most of the people who were tricked into supporting them.

Tocqueville had a useful way of explaining it: the right wins when it strikes hard, fast and decisively. Otherwise, it is playing Calvinball with Calvin. The left wins slowly; the right wins in one blow. For the same reason the right is basically, well, right, it will never be as good at lying, cheating and general hypocrisy as the left. So it shouldn't try, which means it shouldn't use leftist tactics. Terrorism, for example, works amazingly for the left and almost never for the right because terrorism is the destruction of order, not the maintenance of it.

The only solution involves some kind of political discontinuity. For example, in an America in which the right had actually defeated the left, the number of streets named after Martin Luther King would be equal to the number of Goering Avenues. I'm not sure my computer has enough memory to express the number of years this would take the "alt-right" to achieve.

The whole alt-right thing proves the pathetic limpness of conservatism when it sets a laughably low bar by historical standards and then fails to meet it. Conservatism is a disaster. What the actual right needs is full-on Bourbon reaction - offence, not defence. The Pentagon needs to grow a pair. Whatever is eventually done, it needs to eradicate progressivism, not just ameliorate it or try to slow it down. You don't argue with cancer. You cut it out.

None of this will happen until the American right wing quits its silly insistence on clinging to the sham of democracy, which is the creed of its enemy. It starts with a traditionalist voter base and tries to devise a programme that is maximally effective given that it needs voters to support it. Meanwhile, the left controls the press and the educational system and is slowly "educating" the backwoods Americans out of their last drops of sanity. (The sheer amount of "anti-racists" in Charlottesville is a good example of how far the line has been pushed in our lifetimes alone.)

Real success against the left can only be achieved by starting with a programme which, if enacted, would actually work. It will be impossibly radical and unpopular - in short, unworkable from a democratic standpoint. To win, either you have to change this, or you have to think outside the democratic box.

And if you don't suspect the danger is real, perhaps the New York Times will enlighten you. Suffice it to say that the behaviour of the alt-right is pretty much a case study in what not to do. The left cannot be appeased. It can only be smashed.

Progressivism is a ruthless, power-hungry death cult, just like Nazism. Someday the two will be remembered in the same breath.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

How to prove a conspiracy theory

Here are the ground rules for claiming proof of extraordinary phenomena in 2017.

1. Any video must be shot using a tripod or with the camera supported on some fixed object, like a big rock. If you make me watch another stupid video of some spectre and the camera is shaking all over the place, you are, in my eyes, subhuman. Go get a tripod or you'll have a video of the inside of your butt.

2. Videos must be in focus at all times. It's 2017, if they actually built lenses in the Sahara, they would have autofocus too. Blurry video = slap in the face.

3. Your video cannot show something that "could either be the Loch Ness Monster or a log." That just means you videotaped a log, and now you want to be famous for your log video. That makes you an asshole. Logs aren't interesting. They are super common, just lying around all day like a bunch of logs. If you make me watch an log video under false pretences, I will go Clockwork Orange on your ass. In the name of science.

4. Same with photos, I'm not even kidding you. I see a blurry photo of a hubcap you claim is a UFO, and my fist will rocket across the surface of the earth of its own accord, dragging my limp and helpless body behind it, until it smashes into your face.

5. Photos must be 8 megapixels or above, and if you claim more than one photo, one of them had better be in TIFF or raw format, with the exif data intact. An alien craft travels thousands of light years to get to earth, it's going to stick around for the three seconds necessary to switch to raw. You show me a compressed JPG with visible artefacts, I throw you into a pit of logs where you will be bored to death. See 3.

6. If you claim a photo of an alien spacecraft, and it has any writing from a science fiction movie on it, I am going to force you at sabrepoint to return to high school where you will attend gym class seven times a day, alternating between bullrush and paintball - without a mask. Wookie? Not on my watch.

7. Photos must be posted to Flickr and videos to YouTube, with the high-res uncompressed originals available as torrents on the Pirate Bay. If you link to a Tumblr site or, God help you, 9Gag, I'm going to glass you.

No-confidence in South Africa?

Now it’s a streak. Seven times in seven years members of South Africa’s parliament have tried and failed to remove President Jacob Zuma by a vote of no confidence. On August 8, they failed again and he remains in power to continue poorly managing the struggling state.

The general explanation for South Africa’s woes is to fault the leadership, but also the inability of its citizens to pull themselves out of a situation created, or at least exacerbated, by generations under apartheid. This is like saying if it looks, walks and talks like a duck, it's actually an armadillo.

Yet if I claim it's a duck, the burden of proof is on me for proving it is not an armadillo. Happy to do so. South Africa has symptoms similar to those of Haiti, Jamaica and Nigeria which are also struggling to emerge from generations under apartheid. Oh, wait, no they're not... Maybe the problem is something else? Let’s find out.

In 1994, the Republic of South Africa held an election. It was the last internal election of the three-centuries-old white tribe of the Cape, who considered a political separation from the Xhosa and Zulu people natural and obvious, just as the political separation between Italy and France was natural and obvious.

The Afrikaners felt the fundamental theory of apartheid was that South Africa was several nations in one territory, a perfectly reasonable design for government. The assumption mirrors the Ottoman millet system, which made the Middle East functionally multicultural – compared with its modern rabid, murderous, irredentist nationalism (which progressives have done so much to sustain).

Anyway, in 1994, about two-thirds of white South Africans voted to dissolve the white polity, surrender their old republic, its constitution and flag and succumb to State Department pressure which had used every instrument short of invasion to depose the Nationalists and install the ANC. The votes were binding and final and old South Africa, like Rhodesia, is gone. However, those who voted, yes or no, are now voting with their feet.

There were two schools of thought on the election. The first predicted a transformation of the strife-ridden tip of Africa into a Rainbow Nation in which the unity of humanity would be displayed. Others thought it was a terrible idea to turn the last developed country in Africa over to a mafia of Communist mass murderers, predicting South Africa would soon mimic Haiti, Jamaica, Nigeria or Zimbabwe. Obviously, there was not much middle ground.

In general, the South African whites of British descent or affinity (early 20th-century South African writings often mentioned a conflict of races, but they meant the English and Boer) voted yes in 1994, because they subscribed to the first school. This, of course, is the party line of the international intellectual elite known as American progressives.

On the other side, the Afrikaners were divided. Some, called verligte or "enlightened," followed the internationalist party line and voted yes. The others, called verkrampte (I'm not sure about the precise translation, but it looks onomatopoeic) subscribed to the second school and voted no.

They were correct. But imagine how hard it would have been to correctly predict the result of a glorious victory of liberation in South Africa, and endorse the verkramptes and their bitter, bigoted cynical racism. The verkramptes made some people in the Donald Trump fan base look inclusive. It’s always tough being wrong, but it’s really tough having to admit others are right.

Few people, however, would say the Nationalist era was a period of ideal government. If the Nationalists had operated a good government, South Africa would still be a First World country today. It had nuclear weapons and nuclear power, as well as healthy arms and energy industries. No country on earth, not even the US, had the power to coerce the RSA back then.

But, like most bad governments it was weak and therefore brutal. Comparing Singapore to the old Broederbond Boerocracy, the difference between effective and ineffective authoritarian states becomes clear. A strong government executes firmly and decisively. A weak government is fickle and inconsistent, and needs to be much more vicious to achieve any level of security.

Looking back, the fate of the RSA was sealed after it flinched at the outcome of the Rivonia trial and refused to hang Nelson Mandela for crimes which everyone now agrees he committed. This one death probably would have prevented many others, on both sides of apartheid’s fence.

Are South Africa’s problems due to the inability of Africans to self-govern, or of “inequality” and universal human greed? Ask the same question for Haiti, Jamaica or Nigeria. Depending on what you answer, ask again why aren’t Finland, China, Croatia, Malaysia and New Zealand also afflicted? Maybe the propensity for greed isn’t quite that universal after all.

History shows that majority-rule democracy is probably not the best political design for a population of predominantly African descent. I’d also say majority-rule democracy is probably not the best political design for a population of predominantly European or Semitic descent, either. Does this make me more or less of a racist? Clearly, I should apply to the Waffen-SS. The Indian Raj was much more similar to Moghul India than the postcolonial democratic welfare state. It also worked a lot better – surprise!

And besides, "inequality" is so easy to deconstruct: What is the precise mechanism by which the presence of wealth in one's geographic proximity causes suffering and poverty? "Inequality" is simply code for support of a political movement that survives by extorting rich South Africans and using their money to buy votes from the poor. Mr Zuma talks about it as a threat of violence: the poor are envious, he says, and if they get more envious we may not be able to control them. Pay us off, we'll pay them off, and everything will be fine. How progressive indeed.

Most people think South Africa’s problems are a result of apartheid. No shame in that. They barely have time to learn the official excuses, let alone dig around for the actual story. But Occam has a simpler explanation: the trouble is actually the result of decolonialisation, which is the process by which the British, French and Belgian empires were confiscated by the US after WWII and transferred from colonial administration to a post-colonial aidocracy.

But I won’t hold my breath for aidocrats to take responsibility for the vast increases in suffering across South Africa and the rest of the continent. That wouldn’t be very progressive at all. Mr Zuma has friends in high places, so to speak.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Back to square one with the Islamic State

The Old City in Mosul, Iraq has seen its fair share of destruction over the centuries. Right now the city is recovering from months of protected house-to-house fighting between Iraq Security Forces and the Islamic State (IS).

The militants are also being squeezed across the border. Syrian government troops and allied forces have taken the town of al-Sukhna, the last major Islamic State-held town in Homs province. Under cover of US airpower, Kurdish forces – much to the chagrin of Turkey – are methodically clearing the outlying villages near Raqqa in eastern Syria in preparation for a main assault on the IS capital.

It’s hard to tell if IS lost the battle in Mosul. Even if it did, it wouldn’t be the first time the jihadists melted into air. Guerrilla groups tend to do that. The Islamic State is neither a terrorist group nor a conventional military force. It acted like a militancy and often used terrorism, but it was hard to classify. As it washes away now, it jumps back into a frustrating grey zone of jurisdiction.

Terrorism – the random killing of defenceless civilians – is the normal mode of warfare in our charming post-WWII world. In other words, it is the most common way to use force to achieve political objectives. Terrorism, left or right, is a legitimate military tactic and it needs to be judged by the laws of war, not the laws of peace. Generally, however, it is treated as a law enforcement or intelligence problem because international law still hasn’t figured out what to do.

It’s great that IS is being crushed in the Levant, but at least while it holds Raqqa and Mosul it is limited by time and space – and susceptible to JDAMs and indirect fire. Once the group is kicked out, like a hammer blow to a puddle, it simply flows towards other places rather than disappearing. Afghanistan, for instance. So the real trick is to find a way to dry up the water.

IS fighters will once again choose to disguise themselves as and mingle with civilians – violating the laws of war and the Geneva Convention. So how should they be dealt with upon capture? That’s a tough question for Washington, which will continue to carry the heavy counter-terrorism load for the international community as the militants return to their underground terror roots.

An IS fighter can be put on criminal trial in the US, but there may only be an intelligence (CIA) level of proof, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt (district attorney). He is not a prisoner of war, so what is he? The US uses the term "unlawful enemy combatant" which for all intents and purposes they invented without any legal foundation. Despite a decade and a half of constant low-level warfare, none of this is much clearer.

Laws against international terrorists were always vague, but it didn't matter because they didn’t attack the US before 1993. Here, the planning and execution was done within the US so the law prosecuted the terrorists criminally in New York. The real problem never ripened until 9/11. Before that, there was no situation (that was made public) where an attack was ordered and organised overseas and then only the grunts sent to the US to carry it out.

Taking the fight to the terrorists isn’t straightforward. If the CIA captures a person overseas, does it really make sense the person should have the full spectrum of US constitutional rights? Does it really make sense that a prisoner of the CIA in Afghanistan should magically have more rights than a prisoner of the Afghan government in Afghanistan?

Think about this really hard for a moment. If the CIA detains, say, 12 IS members in a terror cell in Saudi Arabia, what should it do? Give them to the Saudis to disappear? Put them on trial in the US without witnesses, without a reliable chain of custody of evidence and without national security rules preventing the disclosure of what scant evidence there is? Should the CIA put them in a hotel? What should happen? The terrorist might have crucial information and the CIA needs that. Please tell the CIA how it should get that information without stepping on legal toes.

The CIA is not the United States’ foreign police force. What the CIA does is kidnapping. It doesn't have the legal authority to take people into custody. Not to get into a legal argument over the Geneva Conventions, but those don't fix the problem. Protocols 1, 2 and 3 were never adopted by the US, and neither IS nor al qaeda prisoners are prisoners of war. They may be prisoners taken in a war, but that's not the same thing.

The irony is that if Islamic State actually created a state these issues would disappear because IS fighters would then be considered as acting on behalf of a hostile state and entitled to POW status. Smashing IS will feel good for the US, but it doesn’t dissuade its fighters from returning to transnational terrorism. We’re about to go back to square one.

There are two possible responses to terrorism: the natural and the unnatural. The natural response is to take revenge on the terrorist and everyone even remotely resembling him. The unnatural response is to address the grievances of the attackers. Hopefully, Baghdad has been thinking about conciliation, rather than mass execution (although this is reportedly already happening). The alternative for the West is to kill and capture these people forever.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Commonwealth Bank and holding power to account

Talking to one of my far more experienced colleagues, his advice about Australia’s Commonwealth Bank money laundering scandal is to wait for the investigation (which is in process) both internally and potentially by the regulators before asking for scalps from the C-suite. It’s hard to believe their excuse of coding errors. Someone must have noticed. But the relative lack of media coverage in Australia is intriguing for other reasons.

Over in New Zealand, people I talk to are discussing the imminence of a recession. Why? Because Australian banks are running out of money. So for something like this to happen at one of the larger banks, and for the reaction to be relatively muted, bolsters my initial suspicion that journos are trying to maintain fiscal stability first, and encourage prosecution second.

But as a wise man once said, "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Keep in mind the average age of journalists in NZ and AUS can’t be much higher than 26-27. Simply put, most journos may be avoiding this topic because they have no idea what’s going on. This is why when Trump and his wife travel overseas, a group of stories emerge about his dinner menu or her “beautiful clothing.” A25-year-old has no idea how to parse the complex geopolitical problems, so they collapse back to what they do know, which is nothing.

One thing that does bother me is how journalists pat themselves on the back about “speaking truth to power” but don’t realise that in the modern world, it’s not politicians who have power, it’s the civil service tied with the corporate world. I don’t mean a “who has the money” kind of power, but the ability-to-change-the-world kind of power. Journos are, of course, susceptible to influence from corporates due to advertising support. But the real problem is journos actually don’t comprehend that formal power has shifted.

I think if you claim to be “speaking truth to power” then the default assumption is that power manifests in a specific way, which makes anyone who says that phrase an instrument of that power. Because executives aren’t held to the same scrutiny as politicians, even though they have more power, implies journalists do not apprehend where the new power is. Hence, traditional or legacy media is failing as an institution because it is no longer a useful tool. So what has taken media’s place? Social networks (notice how these magically became social “media” within the last five years).

Social networks are emergent properties of online corporates, in the same way broadcast media was an emergent property of democratic government. As with any power shift, the old controllers of the institutions and their instruments are sidelined, but the concept of the institution remains. The dynamic is a flowing of power, which you can always tell has occurred when the names of an institution have changed.

Why am I bringing this up? Because the most interesting question to ask is whether social networks would have brought this Commonwealth Bank fiasco to your attention if traditional media hadn’t.