The Dim-Post

January 16, 2017

Talk me through this

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:50 am

RNZ reports:

The country’s two wealthiest people own the same amount as the poorest 30 percent in New Zealand.

I’m always confused by these stories. Won’t the country’s poorest people be heavily indebted, and basically anyone with positive equity own more than all of them put together?

January 14, 2017

In praise of social investment

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 3:09 pm

Simon Wilson wrote approvingly about National’s Social Investment approach to welfare here. Keith Ng responded disprovingly here. I think:

  1. As someone said – I think – of Voltaire, I do not disagree with Keith’s arguments but nor do I find them slightly convincing. It’s textbook ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’ stuff. And I do think there’s a certain amount of bad faith to a lot of the criticism I’ve read. If a left-wing government announced it was introducing an identical set of reforms but instead of ‘Social Investment’ they described it as ‘Tamariki Ora: a whole of government approach aimed at improving life outcomes for high risk children’, would we have all these dire warnings about the risks of data, or ideology hiding behind science, or how (in other criticism I’ve seen of the model) that we’re edging towards a dystopian nightmare state?
  2. ‘Social investment’ constitutes an ideological victory for the left. For at least thirty years there’s been a heated political debate about the role of the welfare state in which the left advocates for its existence and the right advocates for its minimisation or abolition replacing it with a lot of handwaving about ‘personal responsibility’ or, in the case of child poverty and its associated evils ‘parental responsibility’. Social investment is a capitulation in that debate. It accepts that there is a role for the state and the welfare system.
  3. It is a new approach to welfare. I’m fine with that. It’s not as if our current system is  a dizzying success: it is incredibly expensive and incredibly ineffective; it helps many, but entire generations spend very sad and desperate lives trapped in it, with tragic detours into the criminal justice system. If 21st century NZ politics is about left and right wing parties vying to find ways to deliver the most effective and compassionate welfare system, bring it on. And the right might actually find ways to deliver better outcomes to those who need help. You never know.
  4. As Wilson says, It is scalable by future left-wing governments. Almost everything that the centre-left wants to do in the social policy space can be argued for and delivered under the ‘social investment’ argument. Does social investment tell us its a good idea to look autistic kids in rooms, or to give them high quality education? What does a proper mental health system look like under the social investment model? What does social housing look like if we look at it as a long term investment in the life outcomes of the occupants? If the left-wing parties compromise with National on the social investment model it will create a consensus that is hugely advantageous to future left-wing social policy.
  5. I do think social investment is a serious thing, instead of a scam. This is the government that increased benefits and free doctor’s visits for older children, after all. But, like Wilson I have serious doubts about National’s ability to actually deliver the social investment paradigm. How is their housing policy and its outcomes delivering a sensible social investment? So I wouldn’t vote National on the basis of the social investment idea. But I do think it’s a good idea.
  6. I’ve heard some criticism from the radical left – activists, the union comms teams, etc – that ‘social investment’ is evil because its ‘right-wing framing’; it’s reification, or whatever. Well politics is the art of the possible, and if English needs to use the word ‘investment’ to sell this to his caucus and his party, let him call it whatever he needs to. Politics is also the art of compromise, and if you can’t compromise on an attempt to deliver a better welfare system because you don’t like the name, I think what you’re doing is posturing, not politics.

January 11, 2017

What is truth? If you follow me?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 4:57 pm

Everyone has taken time out from bemoaning the rise of fake news to perpetuate this anonymously sourced, unverified story about Donald Trump hiring prostitutes to pee in front of him and this all being filmed by Russian intelligence. There’s an episode of Yes Prime Minister where Bernard talks about irregular verbs:

I have an independent mind, you are an eccentric, he is round the twist.

Likewise, they have fake news, we have stories that ‘might be true, you never know!’, or ‘are funny whether its true or not’, etc. Matthew Hooton has a political adage about rumoured or alleged videotapes: ‘The videotape never exists’.

January 9, 2017

Ohariu

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:13 pm

Via the Herald:

United Future leader Peter Dunne has poured cold water on speculation he could retire from politics – confirming he plans to contest this year’s election.

Former Police Association president Greg O’Connor is rumoured to be interested in becoming Labour’s Ohariu candidate. Nominations close on February 3.

People like me are always complaining Labour should ‘move to the centre’, and that’s what this looks like, I suppose. I live in Ohariu – Wadestown got shifted into it last election. I voted for the Labour candidate, who has moved to Hutt South to be annihilated by Chris Bishop this year. I don’t know if there’s going to be a Green candidate contesting it this time around, but I’m starting to think that electorate voting the National candidate is the strategic move? If the Nats win the seat it knocks out Dunne and his overhang. Not much chance of it, admittedly – Dunne got ~7000 votes more than the Nat last time. But there’s no fucking way I’m voting for Greg O’Connor.

January 6, 2017

A couple of links and thoughts

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:48 am

A column in the Guardian – No! Wait! Hear me out! – argues that we’re living through the ‘first world cyber-war‘. How far into the Cold War were they before they figured out they were in the Cold War? Churchill delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech as early as 1946. Kennan delivered his Long Telegram the same year. Maybe we’re slower to figure things out than the postwar generation?

Kim Dotcom has recently announced ‘2TB Of Leaked Government Data Will Stun New Zealand In 2017′. Because this worked so well back in 2014. I think the dawning revelation that leaks and dumps are a tactic used by hostile nation-states to destabilise western democracies is going to discredit this type of political tactic, moreso than it already is.

I’ve seen plenty of columns in social media about ‘what the left must do in 2017’. None of them are worth linking to – in every case the summary is ‘What the author always thought the left should do’. It’s worth remembering that the great upsets of the year also wiped out David Cameron and his clique, and the US Conservative movement, although it is true that globally the left is in dire straits. I still think the main problems with left-wing parties in New Zealand are organisational and cultural, rather than ideological.

 

 

January 4, 2017

Sentences and Foucault Dreams

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 6:13 am

It’s been raining pretty much all holiday, so I’ve been reading Nick Bostrom’s book Superintelligence. Short summary: he thinks we should be worried about AI research, because as soon as we construct a complete artificial intelligence, it will probably be able to iteratively increase its own intelligence until it dwarfs human intellects by many orders of magnitude, and we’d be unable to stop it from, say, turning the entire galaxy into computational resources, exterminating our species in the process. There are many good sci-fi ideas in there: creating superintelligent transgenic cows or whales (because of their larger cranial capacity) is a favourite. He takes a long term view. I quite liked these sentences:

Assuming the observable universe is as uninhabited as it looks, it contains more than one vacant galaxy for each human being alive. Most people would much rather have certain access to one galaxy’s worth of resources than a lottery ticket offering a one-in-a-billion chance of owning a billion galaxies.

I’ve also been reading Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Last night I dreamed about a TV show in which Foucault solved mysteries. Every time he went to a museum or a hospital someone had been killed there, and Foucault would show that the hidden conceptual framework that created the institution had committed the murder, and then concealed its role to mask its power. Obviously he wore a turtleneck.

December 28, 2016

Notes on George Michael and a theory of (some) celebrity deaths

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:12 am

Via the New York Times last November:

Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.

That finding was reported Monday by two Princeton economists, Angus Deaton, who last month won the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, and Anne Case. Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.

Maybe what we’re seeing in 2016 is an acceleration of this trend and its impact on beloved celebrities who happen to be members of the wider cohort? (I know, George Michael was British: my theory is that being a celebrity makes him a kind of honorary American. Swap in Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose in 2014 if you like).

My attitude towards George Michael changed a lot through the years, almost totally dictated to me by peer attitudes and shifts in the culture. I liked Wham! when they first came out, when I was about ten years old, although not enough to buy their album. Then, in my early teens there was a widespread perception that Wham! was gay (long before Michael was outed) so all my friends and I competed to see who could hate Wham! the most, because obviously that proved we weren’t gay. (And somehow, in the midst of all this homophobia, Queen was an acceptable band to like; the 80s were confusing times, musically, for young straight boys).

Things got more tolerant in my late teens/the early 1990s, but at the same time there was a general backlash against popular 80’s music, epitomised by Wham! (and Duran Duran), and the hatred intensified. Then in the late 1990s it became acceptable to like that stuff in a kitschy ironic way. ‘So bad its good!’ Gradually, as Gen-X nostalgia deepened, that’s transformed to just a general unironic love of popular 80s music. And Michael’s status as a gay icon added a weird kind of substance to his mostly-not-very-substantive songs.

December 24, 2016

What I’ve been reading and not reading and thinking about in 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:51 am

One of my worst reading habits is to start a book and then get distracted by a new book and start that, and then get distracted by something new again, until I have a big pile of half-read books by my bed. This pile can stay there for years. So this year I’ve tried to finish the books I started. I have been mostly successful. It means I’ve started reading far fewer books this year but have finished a lot more.

The best novel I read in 2016 was Under the Skin by Michael Farber, published back in 2000. (It inspired a pretty good, quite odd film of the same name, notable for being a movie in which Scarlett Johansson takes off all her clothes and the effect is unsettling and unpleasant and weird). All of Farber’s books seem to be very unalike, so if you’ve read The Book of Strange New Things (which I enjoyed) or The Crimson Petal and the White (which I didn’t) you’ll probably have a different reaction to Under the Skin.

I’ve mentioned them before but I also enjoyed two early Ballard novels: Vermilion Sands and The Drowned World. 

The least interesting books I read this year were celebrated/award-winning contemporary literary novels. A few literary people I talked to at end-of-year parties admitted they found contemporary literature incredibly boring at the moment, and that they’re reading more genre and non-fiction. I’m the same. Other than Mantel I struggle to think of a single contemporary literary novelist who’s work I’m buy-on-sight interested in.

Two of the best non-fiction books I read this year were Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of all Maladies and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. (both authors have new books out this year which I haven’t read yet). The most important, for me, was Mukherjee’s book, which is ‘a biography of cancer’. It’s about a lot of different things, but the strongest message I got out of it was the deep fallibility of medical science through much of the twentieth century. I intend to re-read Sapiens. Lots of good insights: I especially liked the bit on the value of gossip in human societies and its role in the evolution of language.

I think the worst book I read was Justin Cronin’s City of Mirrors. Best popular novels: Peyton Place and Stephen King’s Firestarter. Most upsetting book: Silberman’s Neurotribes, a history of autism, often a history of psychologists and other scientists torturing autistic children.  Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction was also very depressing. (All of the animals are dying.)

The largest book was the Figes book about the Russian Revolution A People’s Tragedy. I’m a slow reader so this took me much of the winter. Recommended. This lead to a whole lot of secondary reading about Marxism and Critical Theory and Trotsky. I’m not sure I’d recommend any of those books, except perhaps the Peter Singer book about Marx. It’s all nonsense, I think, although when it came to Critical Theory I must admit I simply couldn’t understand an awful lot of it. There’s a widespread perception outside (and sometimes inside) the humanities that Critical Theory is an intellectual hoax, designed to sound complex to conceal a lack of substance, and this is my impression too.

Favourite book overall: Path to Power, the first Caro biography of Lyndon Johnson.

I have a large stack of books I planned to read over the break, but for the past couple of days I’ve just been baking and cooking, and watching movies and going for walks, and have barely read anything, so that might not work out.

I also spent the year reading less commentary on the internet, or at least trying to. One quote I picked up this year which really stuck with me is from William James: ‘Our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.’ I think that’s true. The internet gives you the ability to pay attention to a wide range of superficially amusing, distracting nonsense, but if you let yourself pay attention to it all day, every day, your life will amount to distracting nonsense. Giving up Twitter was the best nonsense-minimising step I took this year, although I undid some of that by getting way too invested in the US election, only to find out with the outcome that almost all of the commentary I read about it was worthless.

Ballard once observed that sex and paranoia were the leitmotifs of the twentieth century. It feels as if anxiety and outrage are the motifs of the 21st, possibly because they’re the most effective ways to monetise our attention for clicks and ad impressions. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be anxious and outraged (All of the animals are dying!). But my goal next year is to be more selective about the things I pay attention to, and to try and be anxious and outraged about things I can do something about.

Hope you all had a good year, and thanks for reading.

Danyl

December 20, 2016

Feminism!

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:56 pm

Via the Herald:

Prime Minister Bill English says he wouldn’t describe himself as a feminist and isn’t bothered if his new Minister for Women does, either.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist. I don’t quite know what that means,” English told reporters today after his new ministers were officially sworn-in at Wellington’s Government House.

English was asked if he would call himself a feminist after new Women’s Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett said on Radio New Zealand that she would claim that title “most days”.

I guess I know what twitter and all of the Green and Labour Party MPs have been talking about today. This poll conducted by a Feminist charity in the UK is a pretty typical example of the various surveys about public attitudes to feminism (I’m not aware of any similar work in NZ). Most people will say they believe in gender equality but very few people will self-describe themselves as feminist:

When split out by gender, women were more likely to identify as feminist, with nine per cent using the label compared to four per cent of men.

But men were more supportive generally of equality between the sexes – 86 per cent wanted it for the women in their lives – compared to 74 per cent of women.

Sam Smethers, the charity’s chief executive, said: “The overwhelming majority of the public share our feminist values but don’t identify with the label. However the simple truth is if you want a more equal society for women and men then you are in fact a feminist.

I suspect the results are similar for New Zealand, and that National knows this which is why we’re having this little sideshow. There’s a more general lesson in here for the left, I think, which is that you really want to be talking about values and problems that people understand (equality) rather than abstract intellectual concepts (feminism) that they don’t.

December 19, 2016

Reshuffle thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:06 am

Via RNZ:

Ms Collins has lost Corrections and Police and has been given Revenue, Energy and Ethnic Affairs: portfolios that require some work but will not give the outspoken minister the headline-grabbing opportunities she had before.

These are key fundraising portfolios, though. Seems odd to concentrate them all in one Minister who you then demote.

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