The Dim-Post

December 6, 2016

Reflections on Key

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:24 am

The last media appearance Key made before his resignation was on Radio New Zealand, where he defended Anne Tolley’s decision not to hold an inquiry into historical abuse of children in state care, because it ‘wouldn’t achieve a lot’. He didn’t rule it out though, and if the story persisted over a few days or weeks, we would have seen Key proceed through the now very familiar stations of the National government’s communication strategy cross. (1) Say there’s nothing to be done. (2) Blame Labour. (3) Admit there’s a problem and you’re ‘looking at a range of options’. (4) Hold an inquiry, the findings of which you will probably ignore, but will (5) implement if there’s still heat on the issue when the inquiry reports back a year-or-so down the track.

One of Key’s strengths was an apparent indifference towards his government’s policy agenda. There were no bottom lines, no hills to die on. With the exception of major natural and financial disasters, everything else in the country was pretty much fine as it was but could be changed, preferably slightly, if the public mood seemed to call for it. ‘We think we’ve got the mix about right,’ was Key’s first response to any problem. It gave him enormous flexibility, and he’s leaving his office with popularity and political capital unmatched by any other Prime Minister. It’s an unusual way for a politician to go out, because one of the main reasons they’re in politics is because they have a vision for the country; values they want to translate into deeds; things they want to spend all their political capital on. Key did have some modest policy ambitions – tax cuts and partial asset sales, which he got across the line; in this term it was changing the flag and the TPPA, neither of which he delivered. Key embodied something Rob Hosking calls ‘Kiwi Conservatism’ the central tenet of which seems to be a conviction that National should be in government rather than Labour.

It’s not as if there weren’t problems for a brilliant and popular Prime Minister to solve: housing, child poverty, the broken tax system, carbon emissions, low productivity and long-term fiscal sustainability; these are all issues on which there is a broad consensus among experts that the government needs to address, some of them very urgently, even if no one agrees on how to solve them. Key was always pretty upfront that they were all someone else’s problem. In the immediate short-term the mix was about right, so long as you didn’t listen to any experts that said otherwise, and one of his government’s great achievements is transforming the public service into a giant communications department devoted to saying as little as possible.

Did it all start to seem pointless? Another election campaign. Long days travelling the country, months of retail politics visiting factories and malls, posing for selfies, long nights at fundraising dinners listening to donors and lobbyists, with the spectre of forming a government with Winston Peters at the end of it. And for what? Three more years in Wellington, away from his family, sitting through meetings, hearing people out, listening to advice he probably wasn’t going to take, endlessly assuring journalists that the experts were wrong, or that he hadn’t been briefed, or that he had the mix about right? I played a lot of computer games as a kid, and most of them had a cheat mode in which you couldn’t die; the sense of invulnerability made the game enormously fun for a few minutes and then intensely boring when it became apparent that without challenges the whole exercise was pointless. It feels as if Key found the cheat-mode to New Zealand politics – data-driven, populist flexi-conservatism – but that this is a mode of politics that bored him into ending his career.

What happens next? Key will get his knighthood, and get to enjoy his vast wealth, and sit on the board of various international banks and financial companies. National will either enjoy a smooth transition to English, or it won’t – and English has had a few months knowing this was coming to build relationships he’ll need for the very brief struggle that has come upon the rest of his party unawares.

For the past eight years the left has assured itself that National is ‘nothing without John Key’. It always felt like an excuse to me, because Key was obviously aiming at a record-long term as Prime Minister. He obviously wasn’t going anywhere. Now he’s gone and we’ll all get to find out if that’s true.

December 5, 2016

Breaking up the band

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:23 pm

Here’s something I think it’ll be interesting to watch when Key steps down. Successful politicians are often actually a group of people who happen to cohere together and work well as a team. Key had English and Joyce but also his Chief of Staff and a couple of other influential staffers and advisers who were with him for a very long time. Maybe those people stay on and work with the new Prime Minister and everything runs as smoothly as ever. But maybe they decide now is a good time to take up a job doing something like ‘government relations’ for an Aussie bank for three times their public sector salary, and we see a real change in tone and direction. There will be a lot of focus on new PM, new Deputy, new Cabinet etc, but Key’s senior staffers ran the country and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to them.

Also, I’d love to know who is the first left-wing commentator to insist Key’s announcement is a distraction from something, sheeple.

Exit Key

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 1:59 pm

Via the Herald:

John Key is resigning as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Assuming we can take Key at his word and this is a voluntary decision that we take at face value, is Key the first Prime Minister to step down at a time of his own choosing like this?

Michael Wood

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:13 am

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a column or op-ed about the ‘lost generation’ of Labour politicians, but it is a thing people in left-wing politics sometimes gossip about. The premise is that back in the 2000s there was a group of very promising, aspiring Labour Party politicians who were tipped for great things once they got into caucus . . . who never got into caucus. The party vote kept declining, and once safe seats went to National, and none of the incumbent MPs wanted to leave, and when they did they tended to get replaced by student politicians and/or Parliamentary staffers, few of whom were tipped for great things, and have subsequently failed to achieve them. I won’t embarrass/doom any of the rest of the lost generation by naming them, but Michael Wood was always regarded as one of them. Obviously the result of the by-election has  no meaning as an indicator of the outcome of next year’s General Election, but Wood getting into Parliament by the rather symbolic route of Goff finally leaving might mean something.

December 3, 2016

Does this happen to anyone/everyone else?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:26 pm

I’m writing a review of a book, and I needed to find a passage in the text to quote it. And, as always, I remembered the exact location of the text on the page: like, I knew it was on a left-hand side of the page near the bottom, and it was. But I can rarely remember at what point it was in the book. The start? The end? No idea.

And I’ve just checked a couple of books I read a very long time ago (Dice Man and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which gives you a pretty good fix on my reading habits in my early twenties) and looked for passages I remember from them. Same deal. I remember the spatial location with total accuracy, but not which part of the book its from with any accuracy at all (unless there’s some very obvious clue in the passage). Is this a fairly common human thing, or a weird Danyl thing?

December 2, 2016

The end of the world and literary criticism

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 7:54 am

This fucking guy:

In ten years the human race may cease to exist but we can take refuge in the fact Kiwis will be the last ones standing.

At least that’s the prediction of climate change specialist Guy McPherson.

The University of Arizona emeritus professor, who is on a national speaking tour, delivered his prophecy to a room full of followers at the Wintec Campus in Hamilton this week.

Abrupt rises in temperature will wipe out the entire human species by 2026, he said, yet Kiwis are in a better position than anyone else on the planet.

But New Zealand isn’t exempt from McPherson’s initial prediction.

“I can’t imagine there’ll be a human on the planet in 10 years and probably a lot less than that.

“If I die next week I will have only lost nine years and 51 weeks compared to the last person on the planet – tops.”

There’s a great book of literary criticism by Frank Kermode called The Sense of an Ending:  

The anxiety reflected by the fin de siècle is perpetual, and people don’t wait for centuries to end before they express it. Any date can be justified on some calculation or other.

And of course we have it now, the sense of an ending. It has not diminished, and is as endemic to what we call modernism as apocalyptic utopianism is to political revolution. When we live in the mood of end-dominated crisis, certain now-familiar patterns of assumption become evident.

We don’t like to think our lives constitute a brief and not important instant in the history of the world, Kermode argues. It’s much more exciting to think we’re at the end of things. The culmination. It’s why so much literature is apocalyptic and why alarmists like McPherson have such traction. People have always thought the world was just about to end.

The most plausible book I’ve read about the near climate-changed future is Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. It’s set in the American South-West, which is collapsing under a prolonged drought. Major cities and entire regions have lost their water; there are huge refugee camps, massive migrations, hatred and contempt for the refugees, fundamentalism – it looks exactly like our world does today, in other words, only moreso. The climate has changed. The world goes on. It’s really, really horrible for lots of people, but fine for many more. Sometimes when you look at the complexity and madness of the world it seems impossible to think it can continue like this. But it can.

December 1, 2016

Two perspectives on superintelligence

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 12:44 pm

Here is an interview with Intel’s anthropologist:

Western culture has some anxieties about what happens when humans try to bring something to life, whether it’s the Judeo-Christian stories of the golem or James Cameron’s The Terminator.

So what is the anxiety about? My suspicion is that it’s not about the life-making, it’s about how we feel about being human. What we are seeing now isn’t an anxiety about artificial intelligence per se, it’s about what it says about us. That if you can make something like us, where does it leave us? And that concern isn’t universal, as other cultures have very different responses to AI, to big data. The most obvious one to me would be the Japanese robotic tradition, where people are willing to imagine the role of robots as far more expansive than you find in the west. For example, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori published a book called The Buddha in the Robot, where he suggests that robots would be better Buddhists than humans because they are capable of infinite invocations. So are you suggesting that robots could have religion? It’s an extraordinary provocation.

Here is the parable of the sparrows from Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence: 

It was the nest-building season, but after days of long hard work, the sparrows sat in the evening glow, relaxing and chirping away.

“We are all so small and weak. Imagine how easy life would be if we had an owl who could help us build our nests!”

“Yes!” said another. “And we could use it to look after our elderly and our young.”

“It could give us advice and keep an eye out for the neighborhood cat,” added a third.

Then Pastus, the elder-bird, spoke: “Let us send out scouts in all directions and try to find an abandoned owlet somewhere, or maybe an egg. A crow chick might also do, or a baby weasel. This could be the best thing that ever happened to us, at least since the opening of the Pavilion of Unlimited Grain in yonder backyard.”

The flock was exhilarated, and sparrows everywhere started chirping at the top of their lungs.

Only Scronkfinkle, a one-eyed sparrow with a fretful temperament, was unconvinced of the wisdom of the endeavor. Quoth he: “This will surely be our undoing. Should we not give some thought to the art of owl-domestication and owl-taming first, before we bring such a creature into our midst?”

Replied Pastus: “Taming an owl sounds like an exceedingly difficult thing to do. It will be difficult enough to find an owl egg. So let us start there. After we have succeeded in raising an owl, then we can think about taking on this other challenge.”

“There is a flaw in that plan!” squeaked Scronkfinkle; but his protests were in vain as the flock had already lifted off to start implementing the directives set out by Pastus.

Just two or three sparrows remained behind. Together they began to try to work out how owls might be tamed or domesticated. They soon realized that Pastus had been right: this was an exceedingly difficult challenge, especially in the absence of an actual owl to practice on. Nevertheless they pressed on as best they could, constantly fearing that the flock might return with an owl egg before a solution to the control problem had been found.

I am not too worried about superintelligence. I’m more concerned that we’re slowly entering into a world in which psychology is a science, rather than a pseudo-science, and expert knowledge of how to mislead and manipulate and generally exploit people’s cognitive biases will be asymmetric.

November 30, 2016

Losing faith

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:03 am

The NYT has an article about lack of faith in democracy, accompanied by this graph:

xxint-essential-democracy-jumbo

You could read this a number of ways. A lot of people on the left will say that democracy has failed to give voters an alternative to the neo-liberal consensus so people are losing confidence in it. I wonder if it has to do with the education system in the post-war era being very focused on stopping people from becoming Nazis, and gradually trending away from that towards skills and vocation based training. Also, younger people do tend to be disengaged from the political process. Maybe their views will trend up as they begin to vote and self-identity as supporters of a party and there is actually no problem here, just an artifact of the way the data is presented?

When I was in my early twenties I was a libertarian, and could not see the point of central or local government. Then I went overseas and found myself backpacking around the Middle-East, in places where there was basically no central or local government, and found that the streets were filled with sewerage and wild dogs, because there aren’t free market solutions to those problems. So maybe younger people don’t see the importance of democracy because they’ve always lived in one?

 

November 27, 2016

Fidel Castro is dead

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:23 pm

Via RNZ:

Castro, 90, has been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. In 2008, he ceded power to his younger brother, Raul Castro, who announced his brother’s death on Friday evening.

The bearded Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and ruled Cuba for 49 years with a mix of charisma and iron will, creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War.

“Men do not shape destiny. Destiny produces the man for the moment,” he said in 1959.

Who was the least evil communist dictator? Was it Castro? Maybe Kruschev? I don’t think you can count Deng Xiaoping.

November 26, 2016

Sending the cavalry into the jungle

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 3:00 pm

The editor of the New Yorker has a long article about Obama and Trump’s victory. I thought this was a pretty good summary of the new media environment:

“Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy,” Simas said. “The continuum has changed. Had Donald Trump said the things he said during the campaign eight years ago—about banning Muslims, about Mexicans, about the disabled, about women—his Republican opponents, faith leaders, academia would have denounced him and there would be no way around those voices. Now, through Facebook and Twitter, you can get around them. There is social permission for this kind of discourse. Plus, through the same social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable. This is a foundational change.”

The identity politics debate in the US rolls on. I liked Michelle Goldberg’s take on it, which argues that left-wing politics have to be identity politics, but:

I certainly won’t mourn if the more illiberal aspects of social justice politics wither before the Trump juggernaut. Campus leftists who formerly disdained free speech will learn its absolute importance when faced with a regime that attacks protesters, the media, and dissenting artists. Perhaps progressive activists, newly aware of how many Americans reject their intellectual priors, will stop responding to clumsy questions with a sneering, “It’s not my job to educate you.” I’d like to see the language of privilege jettisoned altogether in favor of civil rights or equal justice, since the number of people who want to see their own privilege dismantled is vanishingly small. Maybe Everyday Feminism, the website that encompasses everything insufferable about social justice culture, will finally be revealed as an elaborate right-wing psy-ops campaign.

It feels to me as if a lot of the backlash against identity politics is about the culture of the movement, not the values. The sanctimony, the intellectual arrogance, the jargon, the sneering, the intolerance; you can’t dump identity politics but you can dump the toxic culture associated with it in a heartbeat. I’m also dubious about the idea that the left revert to discussing class instead of race, gender etc. Nobody under the age of 50 self-identifies as ‘working class’, and economic class has little predictive power when determining how people vote. That feels a lot like fighting the war before the last war.

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