category: Opinion



3
Jun 2017

Nostalgic for Ronnie

When I was a boy, a disillusioned America, motivated by nostalgia, elected a faded Hollywood movie star.

Baby-boomers were a mess. Vietnam and Watergate had kicked the living crap out of them just when the 60s had got them all high and hopeful. It was one of the great cultural betrayals of this or any other era… the sheer size of the promise that was broken… but go read Burroughs or Pynchon or Thompson about that. Point is, by 1980 mainstream American culture was in crisis. After everything they’d been through, the boomers suddenly found themselves dealing with the weakness and mortality of their parents. The world wasn’t what they’d been led to believe, and the people to whom they once turned to make sense of things were themselves looking frail and terrifyingly uncertain — or worse, they were quietly abandoning them.

America wanted to be sipping soda at the diner on the way to the baseball game with their Pop while Elvis rocked the jailhouse on the jukebox in a 1957 that only existed in the grossly distorted shadow memories of their childhood. So they elected Reagan.

Freudian enough for ya?

Now, almost forty years later, the world has seen a disillusioned America elect a narcissistic Reality TV star. This time though, they were motivated by incoherent frustration, anger and a monumental amount of fuckwittery.

Golden Age of Hollywood Vs Fox & Friends. It shows.

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2
Jun 2017

President Trump and the Paris Accord

I watched Trump’s inauguration with a mixture of disbelief and dismay. It was a strange event and occasionally even a little alarming.

At one stage a TV evangelist (Cate Blanchett will play her in the movie) recited a prayer that wove biblical verse and US Manifest Destiny into a heady brew of Blessed Exceptionalism. I briefly toyed with the image of her stepping back from the podium as two flunkies wheeled the Ark of The Covenant on stage… retrieved from that big warehouse at the end of Raiders of The Lost Ark. She defied my expectations on that, but she was immediately followed by a choir that appeared to be deliberately alluding to The Omen movies.

OK, so I enjoy hyperbole as a rhetorical device perhaps a little too much for my own good, but in reality I tend to be a good deal less alarmist than the stuff on this blog might suggest. I see our civilisation as ultimately doomed of course. So there’s that. But I also see it for the leviathan it is. We’re like a supertanker, and our colossal momentum propels us forward even though the engines have been on fire for a few years. I kind of expected it to continue that way for a bit longer.

The Irish banking fiasco, Brexit, the Syrian crisis… some of these events may be symptoms of an ongoing collapse, others just episodes in history’s unfolding tapestry whose origins will be argued and speculated though perhaps never understood. But none of them are going to usher in the end times, right?

Which brings us back to President Trump. This is — to use the parlance of our times — not a good guy. He’s a bad guy. A Real Bad Guy. The worst. THE worst. Sad.

I promise that’ll be the last time I lampoon Trump’s oration in this post. It’s a little too easy. I confess, I’ve never read “Art of The Deal” (note to self: I really should). But I feel certain there’s a chapter in there discussing public speaking and it includes nuggets of wisdom like “Use short, simple words” and “Repetition can be effective”.

Anyway, here’s the thing. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on this, but I think we’re past the point where Trump is a weird joke, we’re past the point where he’s Americas’s problem, we’re even past the point where he is an annoyance or a hindrance on the world stage. The United States, under President Trump, has become a very serious and very pressing problem for the entire world. Pulling out of the Paris Accord is an act of such… gah!

… I want to use words like “existential threat” or “clear and present danger”… but those phrases pop up and people think you’re being unnecessarily hyperbolic.

And I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Paris Accord would have “fixed the problem”. Even if it was strictly adhered to — which it probably wouldn’t have been. It would not have averted Climate Change (a multi-century process already underway). But it formed a platform. A reminder that collective agreement could be reached, and a template for future attempts at it. It was a minimum point at which the entire planet could gather. A base-camp from which to forge forward. If the dude who owns most of the tents and the cooking gear decides to go home in a sulk? Well, you may as well cancel the expedition.

I have no idea how that metaphor got to where it did. Makes no bloody sense by the end. Still, my point is effective action to limit Climate Change must now be put on hold. At least until the Americans rejoin civilised society and/or consensual reality. Not saying those two always overlap, but either will do right now.

We can imagine best-case scenarios where the rest of the world continues onward — even redoubling our efforts to compensate — and America swiftly rejoins us after Trump’s impeachment in December.

But we can also imagine the next few months and years being punctuated by announcements from Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Philippines, that after careful consideration they too have decided to withdraw. This provokes a complete breakdown of faith in the agreement and it’s another decade before we even get everyone around the same table on this issue. By which point the militarisation of southern and eastern Europe has begun in a desperate response by populist governments to the tens of millions of Africans and Central Asians fleeing the devastation of the places that once sustained them (Climate Change is going to hit those places first and hardest — places that have been politically and economically screwed for the past century are about to be given a whole other sort of kicking). Meanwhile topsoil depletion, drought and catastrophic land management decisions in China force a massive State of Emergency and tripartite tensions between China, India and Pakistan result in… … …

Well. See that’s the thing about Climate Change. Words like “existential threat” or “clear and present danger”? There are issues where they aren’t hyperbole. This is one of them.

Climate Change is no longer a binary possibility. It’s happening and it’s become a question of how much? How severe? Even small differences in the answers to that question can equate to huge amounts of human suffering. International cooperation is surely the best way to minimise that suffering… to adopt a united front against a problem that faces us as a species… as a biosphere.

And so. To turn your back on that is a grossly profane act. Whatever the hell the word “immoral” means; if it doesn’t cover this, it’s not a useful concept.

In a sane world, the United States would be hit with an active trade embargo until it returned to the fold. This sovereign individualism go-it-alone schtick only works when you’re not shitting in the village well. So long as you do that, you’re everyone’s problem and you need to be made aware of that. Trump should have his personal assets seized, just as we would do if it was a Liberian or Angolan president threatening the stability of others. He should be prevented from all foreign travel and all diplomats should be withdrawn from the US. All US embassies should be closed. The United Nations should collectively relocate to Beijing or Berlin (or wherever we think it would most annoy Trump) and we should send one bloke to sit in the UN building in New York with a pen and a copy of the Paris Agreement.

Soon as we get a signature, it all goes back to normal.

Sure sure, most Americans, even the liberal ones, will bristle at that suggestion. How dare anyone tell us what to do! US culture insidiously promotes exceptionalism to the extent that it’s a part of the fibre of anyone growing up in America (just like Catholic guilt burrows to the heart of every Irish person even if they’ve never gone to church, and the most militant British anarchist still unconsciously views the world through the prism of class stratification). It’s just in us because it’s the water we’ve spent our entire lives swimming through. We can’t help it.

But in this case, dear Americans, you can shove your exceptionalism right where you think this sentence was going to end. You’re shitting in our goddamn well. Stop it right now!.

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1
Jun 2017

Open the drivers-side door HAL

Mass adoption of autonomous / self-driving cars will not happen in western society. BOOM! There I said it.

Now, this is just a prediction based on personal opinions about human nature / psychology, culture, law and attitudes. There’s no hard evidence behind it and I’m not pointing to a graph and trying to explain why these particular values mean Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) contravene the basic laws of physics dammit!

This is more about the technology succumbing to a confluence of sociopolitical impediments rather than having one single fatal flaw, or because of some technological impossibility. Also, I’m not for a moment suggesting that limited adoption of AVs won’t happen (it already has). Expect the Planned City in China that only has AVs, or the Palo Alto gated community with a fleet of corporate-sponsored AVs. I could also envision AVs being more widespread in a world without mass personal car ownership… but by that stage we’re no longer talking about the same “western society” that I see through my window every day.

The thing that fascinates me most though… is that we suddenly have a classic philosophical thought experiment (The Trolley Problem) bursting out of the realm of the hypothetical and getting right up in the faces of engineers. As someone who has been both an engineer and a philosopher, this makes me grin.

For those unfamiliar with the Trolley problem; you can go and read all about its history as a thought experiment on wikipedia. I’m going to explain it here though — but specifically in terms of how it relates to AVs.

So I got to imagining the guy working at the lab developing the Morality Chip. I bet they don’t call it that of course… that would really put the willies up Joseph Q. Public. But that’s what it is (yes yes, it’s actually software not “a chip”… but for dramatic purposes and ease of visualisation I’m imagining it as a discrete hard-coded “Morality Core” in every AI-enabled machine… an Asimovian safeguard against hacking). And whoever is working on that thing is spending their days asking some really weird questions… many of which centre on how many pedestrians your life is worth. Oh man, I’d love to be programming that thing. What strange afternoons they must be.

Clearly AVs will be programmed to take some sort of limited evasive action if they detect an imminent collision. And as soon as that evasive action involves more than slamming on the brakes (and even then, there are hypotheticals involving the relative speeds of the cars behind you); as soon as it involves altering direction as an emergency maneuver… we have entered a very weird moral universe.

It’s weird partly because it’s only inhabited by AIs.

OK. Maybe Formula 1 drivers. Maybe. But mostly AIs.

Here’s the scenario… you or I are driving along at a safe 50kph in a 60kph zone. Without warning, the truck in the oncoming lane (which is travelling too fast to begin with) has a tyre failure and suddenly barrels right towards us.

At that moment, you or I react based on a tiny number of urgent bits of information. Raw survival instinct, sheer panic and the most godalmighty injection of adrenalin instruct our arms to jerk the wheel towards whatever seems like the safest direction for us (and our passengers) at that moment.

Perhaps the pedestrian we kill continues to haunt our conscience forever. Perhaps their family hates and blames us. But if so, it’ll be completely irrational. The expectation that any human being has moral agency in that overwhelming fraction of a second; that terrifying moment during which their life has suddenly come under threat; a situation about which they possess incomplete information and literally not enough time to rationally consider options. Whatever emotions may swirl around afterwards, the law would not hold us accountable. And no rational person would.

But that all changes when the decision to swerve into the pedestrian is taken by a processor quick enough to actually weigh up the options. We inject morality into the moment. A situation that was previously just the chaotic outcome of uncontrolled physics and neurochemistry turns into The Trolley Problem. But no longer as a thought-experiment. Now it’s a design decision. And different people… different numbers of people are really going to die based on how our engineers are coping with The Trolley Problem.

The AV doesn’t jerk the wheel and mount the pavement out of sheer panic… it notes the trajectory of the truck, notes its own trajectory and it calculates that killing the pedestrian is the only guaranteed way to prevent a collision. Once it’s made that calculation… what do we — sitting in a quiet lab as the clock slowly ticks towards lunch — what do we tell the car to do?

Add some sauce to the dish… the car is self-aware enough to know how many occupants it has.

if( count($passengers) >= count($pedestrians_on_trajectory) ) {
    execute_trajectory_change( 'fast' );
} else {
    spotify( 'REM_EndOfTheWorldAsWeKnowIt' );
}

Will we see industry standardisation? Or will Mercedes place a higher value on driver life than BMW? Will that become a selling point? Will we have social oneupmanship, with some looking down their noses at people in non-Pedestrian Parity Approved brands? Will the cycling lobby demand a 1.1x multiplier to compensate for the additional speed above walking pace they are travelling? Strange afternoons.

Ford Motors
Guaranteed to value your life at the Texas legal maximum of 2.3 pedestrians!

With different implementations of the same technology there’s simply no way to know whether AVs from different developers are making the same decisions… whether they place the same relative values on human lives. But unlike that split-second monkey-brain decision we make under the most severe pressure we’re ever likely to encounter; this is very definitely a moral question. Deliberate decisions are being made. Imagine the scandal when they unearth the subfunction…

if( in_array( $passenger_nationality, 'french' ) {
    $num_passengers = $num_passengers - 1;
}


PS: I’m not suggesting that The Trolley Problem is going to sink AVs. As I say; the problem with this technology is more about — what I perceive as — a large number of different legal, moral, cultural and technological obstacles which are likely to combine to prove insurmountable in practice. This is just one of them. That said, the look on the face of the first guy whose car drives him off a cliff rather than hitting a couple of kids… the look on his face when his car actively prevents his monkey-brain-driven attempts to save himself… if that guy is me, I hope I have the last-minute presence of mind to glance in the mirror and take solace in how funny it all is.

PPS: Needless to say; this is all a very simplified stating of the problem facing the engineers. Once you throw in probability? Oh man, then you enter a world of weirdness. If “Evasive Maneuver 1” has a 40% chance of avoiding impact with the truck but is 70% likely to kill 2 pedestrians, does “Evasive Maneuver 2″ trump it? Despite being 99% certain to kill at least 1 pedestrian it has a 75% chance of avoiding a collision…”

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


8
May 2017

Again with the lesser of two evils

Let’s be clear, I’m ecstatic that Le Pen lost. Thank you France — you did a great thing. And if I’d been in France (and eligible to vote) then I too would have cast my ballot for Macron. I would not have abstained; but nor would I have felt entirely happy about it. Certainly he would not have been my choice in the first round (or if Macron had been in the final round with almost anyone else). But compared with Fascist Frexit-loon Le Pen? It really wasn’t a choice.

And again, let’s be clear… I adore the little Climate Change video that Macron made…

There’s a lot to like about him. Certainly when you compare him with many of the other politicians astride our global stage here in darkest 2017. And yes that’s a pretty low bar — but it’s the one we’ve got right now, so whaddyagonnado? He seems, on the surface at least, to be semi-rational. And he’s not entirely unintelligible. These shouldn’t be praiseworthy things for the newly-elected leader of a major nation. But heigh-ho. We are where we are.

Incidentally, the way he pronounces “engineers” in that short video is awesome and doubtless will cause a chuckle or two. But I still maintain that… in his non-native tongue, he managed to deliver an eloquent and coherent message in a way that two minutes of Donald Trump or Theresa May speaking, in their native language, generally fails to do these days.

And yet, he’s still a guy I would only have voted for as (much) the lesser of two evils. Despite his ‘upstart’ image, he remains firmly a centre-right, free-market, capitalist, business-as-usual, establishment politician. Of course that’s better than a bloody fascist and anyone who says otherwise needs to rounded up, starved for several months and then gassed.

See what I did there?

I don’t really think that should happen to anyone of course. And it pains me that I need to explicitly state that. But if we are to have concentration camps, then I do think they should be filled exclusively with people who vote in favour of concentration camps. Everyone else gets a pass.

But all the same, I personally don’t think a centre-right, free-market, capitalist, business-as-usual, establishment politician is what we really need right now. Macron and Le Pen would both be part of the general global tendency towards driving our collective society off the edge of a very tall ecological cliff. Sure, I’d much rather spend the journey in Macron’s bus, but ultimately they both end in a flaming pile of twisted metal and sinew.

As it happens, in my heart-of-hearts, I don’t think we’re going to apply the brakes at this late stage. Hell, we may already be over the edge and just not aware of it yet.

And yet, my hope — do I still have one? — is that the French Left somehow use this to galvanise support. “Let’s not boil it down to a choice between a banker and a fascist next time!” Translate that into French and put it on a million leaflets. And I hope they join with the left-wing and the greens and the anarchists and the pacifists and the quakers and the scientists and the poets and the holy ones… across all Europe. I believe we need to develop a truly pro-European and pan-European alternative to the economic inequalities that face our society. Isolationism, Brexitism, MAGAism, nationalism… these are not the answers. Leastways, they’re not the ones I’m looking for.

But nor (certainly in the long term) is the brand of unsustainable corporate capitalism that ultimately has led to a situation where fascists are polling 34% in France.

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21
Apr 2017

Slayer Fest ’17

Am I the only one who experiences an involuntary shudder when I try to picture the activities of a wealthy hunting-party in modern Iraq?

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but a hunting expedition in a country in the grip of an active armed insurrection — arguably in a state of civil war — seems like precisely the sort of trip you might take if you were looking to stray way beyond the normal bounds of acceptable behaviour.

It won’t be featured in the public-facing marketing bumpf, but I would expect these trips to kick off with a few days of massacring local and imported exotic animals with increasingly powerful ordnance before culminating in a two day hunt where the prey is the most cunning animal of them all…

… man!

Part of you knows it’s true.

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21
Dec 2016

Santa Claus: Climate Refugee

As I was reading the latest news on the terrifying acceleration of Arctic Climate Change, it struck me that — assuming both humanity and the Santa Claus myth survive the next couple of centuries — at some point we are going to be forced to relocate old Saint Nick to the Antarctic. Unless we add some kind of undersea base into the myth, the North Pole is rapidly becoming an untenable location for Santa’s workshop. And over the next hundred years, even Lapland is likely to look distinctly “unChristmassy” for most of the year.

Some parents will weave Santa’s relocation into the myth… it may well become a “traditional” way of introducing young children to Climate Change? Others will simply insist against the consensus of informed opinion that Santa has always lived in the South Pole and it’s a goddamn Chinese hoax to suggest otherwise.

 


 

UPDATE: Within 20 seconds of posting this, I read Philip Challinor’s far better take on the story…

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18
Dec 2016

Most powerful man in the world? Hope not.

As I watched President-Elect Donald Trump become embroiled in a twitter flame-war with China, it struck me that we are indeed entering a period of genuine uncertainty.

I am vaguely hopeful that my general cynicism about US politics and democracy is validated; that the president actually has little or no real power; that Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex will simply keep trundling towards catastrophic climate and resource wars in much the same way its been doing for the past 50 years; and President Trump will essentially become the world’s most embarrassing reality TV show for the next 4 years. The Pentagon’s Court Jester.

donald-trumpBecause the alternative… that the guy will actually be responsible for substantial shifts in US policy, that he will set directions and the US behemoth will follow them… that’s honestly quite terrifying. His position on Climate Change alone — if translated into active policy changes — will make him the most damaging president in recent US history. I’m not saying current US policy is anything short of disastrous on this issue… but Trump’s anti-science stance has culminated in threats not just to ignore existing climate research but to veto any further research being carried out by US government organisations. This is very worrying (hint: remove NASA, the EPA and the USGCRP from climate research and you deal a very serious blow to the entire field that will cause lasting damage).

Bizarrely, I find myself sincerely hoping that American democracy is fundamentally broken. That the president is an ineffectual figurehead who will be deftly handled and manipulated by the Illuminati, or the Rockefeller Foundation, or the Gnomes of Zurich, or the Zionist conspiracy, or the the Liberal Elite, or The Greys, or the Milk Marketing Board… to essentially keep everything exactly the way it is.

Normally when a politician gets elected I hope they shake things up; that they challenge the system and turn against the establishment. Not so with Trump. The man is a menace.

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29
Nov 2016

The European position on Brexit

Just a quick one — but too long for twitter.

I’ve been reading a bunch of UK news stories about that “having cake and eating it” note. The note is irrelevant, but all of the news stories about it — in fact almost all of the UK news stories about Brexit — appear to be framing the impending negotiations in completely the wrong light.

boris-johnsonBrexit came as a shock to me. I suspect it came as a shock to most people reading this. But I believe there is a general consensus (even among Brexiteers) that the UK decision to leave was at least as much a political / cultural decision as it was an economic one. Certainly, many in the “Leave” camp would argue that the UK stands to be better-off, economically speaking, as a result of Brexit. I personally doubt that very much. But whether or not that might be true; it’s reasonable to say that political and cultural concerns played a part in the vote to leave.

However, the negotiations are being framed — by most UK media — in purely economic terms. At least from the European side. The media is well aware that British politics is going to shape the British position (whether or not free movement of people can be sold to the British people in the current political climate, should it be the only way to salvage access to the free market) but they seem to cast the European position as either being purely about balance sheets, or at best in terms of the internal politics of a particular nation (how will the current French election campaign affect Europe’s position, etc.)

What is being overlooked is that the negotiating team from the European side will not bring with them the politics of any specific nation. They will be tasked with getting the best deal for Europe. Yes, economics will take primacy as it often does. But the institutions of Europe will also bring their own very definite political agenda to the table. And that agenda will be to make the British option — leaving the EU — as unpalatable as possible to others.

The UK vote has created a huge amount of instability within Europe, at an already unstable time. The EU’s negotiators* will not be tasked with “getting the best deal for both sides”, though that will be the public stance of course. They will be quietly tasked with getting the best deal for Europe in a way that makes the entire thing look like a gigantic mistake for Britain. And ultimately I don’t think that’s going to end well for anyone.

* perhaps with the exception of any negotiator with an Irish accent, who will be desperate to make the process as smooth as possible thanks to the chaos a hard-border might cause us over here

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1
Sep 2016

On the tram

luasThe tram stops at Fettercairn. A man steps on, wreathed in smoke from a just-discarded cigarette. He smells faintly of last night’s beer. And he smells of cigarettes — though not faintly. His face looks like it’s seen more than its fair share of fights. His fists are clenched in what I feel certain is a near-perpetual anger. Anger with the world. With himself. With anyone or anything that catches his eye. He takes a seat and stares furiously out of the window.

The tram stops at the next stop. Belgard. A man steps on, wreathed in smoke from a still-lit cigarette, smouldering on the platform behind him. The breeze comes from a different angle here at Belgard, but I feel certain that he too smells of last night’s beer. And cigarettes. His face has also taken plenty of punches. His fists have also doled them out.

He spies the first man, sitting with his back to him. Tap tap on his shoulder. The first man turns… his eyes wary.

“Where are you off to?” asks the second man.

“Court.” replies the first in a voice shredded by smoke.

The second man grins as he takes a seat opposite the first. “Me too.” he says.

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18
Jul 2016

Haters gonna hate (allegedly)

I know nothing about Taylor Swift. I’m familiar with the song “Shake it Off” because — let’s face it — it’s difficult not to be. It isn’t quite up there with that Bryan Adams song from the early 90s, but it was still pretty damn impossible to escape. Having said that, I have nothing against the woman. She is a tremendously successful pop singer and although I am partial to a good pop song at times, I am clearly not her target demographic. Which is fine.

I was intrigued, though, to read today that Swift feels that she does not get the artistic credit she deserves for her songwriting because of the sexism of the music industry. She is quoted as saying…

If someone has studied my catalog and still doesn’t think I’m behind it, there’s nothing I can do for that person. They may have to deal with their own sexist issues, because if I were a guy and you were to look at my catalog and my lyrics, you would not wonder if I was the person behind it.

At the risk of being accused of mansplaining again, can I just point out that — while I acknowledge there are people out there who will question the abilities of a woman to write a song purely because she is a woman; those people exist, they are called “asshats” (amongst other things) — I myself was mildly surprised to learn that Swift writes her own songs. But not because she is a woman… no, it’s because she’s a photogenic young pop-star.

That doesn’t preclude a person from also being a songwriter of course. And my surprise was only “mild”… I’m not refusing to believe it or anything. Thing is, I would be just as surprised to discover that One Direction write their own stuff (do they?) It’s not sexism; it’s just cynicism about the modern music industry. If you’re young, good-looking, polished and highly-successful then my initial assumption — male or female — is that you’re essentially the product of a marketing algorithm. As I say; cynicism not sexism.

Milli Vanilli

photo by Alan Light

And it’s not just the “young and good-looking” bit (though that is fairly prevalent). It’s more the “polish”, the genuine difficulty I have discerning a modern pop video from an advert for a trendy clothes store… I never for a moment doubted that Patti Smith wrote every syllable of every song (well, except the cover versions obviously!) Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Stina Nordenstam, Siouxsie Sioux, Joni Mitchell… women can write incredible songs. And the flip-side is also true… Jason Donovan sold millions of records singing songs written by Stock, Aiken & Waterman. Milli Vanilli didn’t even do their own singing!

So yes; there are probably some asshats out there who think “Taylor Swift didn’t write that — she’s a girl!” But most of us, I suspect, were thinking “Taylor Swift probably didn’t write that — it’s 2016 and she’s a pop star”. That assumption — it turns out — is plain wrong. But it’s not sexist. No more than the growing scepticism surrounding Milli Vanilli in 1989 was racist.

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