The Dim-Post

July 30, 2015

Notes on Seveneves and Aurora

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:44 am

(Warning: contains huge spoilers for both novels discussed).

The last two books I read happen to be sci-fi novels: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. They’re two of the big names in contemporary science fiction, and they happen to have written books dealing with similar themes. And they both have similar problems.

First, the theme. A lot of science fiction is set in space and in it it’s a given that humans will invent space colonies and interstellar space ships and go and live on other planets. When people think about an optimistic distant future for humanity that’s what a lot of us imagine. ‘We were born here,’ Michael Caine croaks in Interstellar, ‘We were not meant to die here.’ So Robinson and Stephenson ask whether that future is remotely likely. What will living in space actually be like?

The answer both of them come up with is: really, really shitty. We’re biological organisms. We evolved on earth over billions of years; we’re tailor-made for terrestrial life, and space is just amazingly hostile to us. It’s a lethally cold vacuum saturated with deadly radiation. The occupants of Stephenson’s ‘Cloud Ark’ in Seveneaves – built because a disaster renders the Earth uninhabitable – find themselves contemplating a perpetual future in which they and their descendents live on a low-calorie diet of photosynthesized algae, have no privacy and a low life expectancy due to the phenomenal cancer rate, micro-meteor strikes and chronic mental illness from the stress of orbital life.

Things are less immediately doomed in Robinson’s Aurora. It’s set five hundred years in the future, and the characters are on a large, far more comfortable starship than Stephenson’s doomed cloud, travelling to a solar system forty light years from Earth to colonise a planet there that has liquid water and breathable air. The journey takes about two-hundred years, so we’re several generations in when the story begins.

Robinson does a couple of interesting things. Firstly, he points out the basic flaw of the ‘intergenerational starship’, which is a beloved sci-fi trope. Starships are closed systems, he explains, and the second law of thermodynamics tells us that entropy will always increase inside a closed system. How’s that gonna work over hundreds of years? Very badly. The soil pathogens on the starship mutate, wiping out crops and leading to famine. Cosmic rays from space damage the ship’s quantum computer. Vital elements bind to plastics in ways that are hard to recycle, leading to resource depletion. Which leads to scarcity. Which leads to violent conflict. Starships ain’t gonna work, Robinson reckons.

The second very interesting thing he does is attempt to answer the Fermi paradox. Given that the universe is old and vast and compatible with life, why isn’t it filled with extra-terrestrial life? Why aren’t there loads of civilizations out there colonising the universe and coming into contact with us?

Because, Robinson says, planets capable of sustaining life will teem with microorganisms that will be deadly to alien visitors.There probably are other intelligent civilisations in our galaxy, the characters decide, but they aren’t reaching us via starships because of entropy and they aren’t colonising because of biology. They’re stuck on their home planets, just like us – only we haven’t figured that out yet.

So that’s an interesting moment in sci-fi. Two of its top writers are basically calling it for space. Sort of. Neal Stephenson is a self-confessed space-nerd. He doesn’t want his book to show that we have no future in outer space, so he does a very odd thing. Two-thirds of the way through his up-to-then very exciting, very bleak novel in which the deadliness of space brings the entire human race to the brink of existence and our extinction is inevitable, he flashes forwards five thousand years to a future in which billions of humans are all living happily in space, somehow.

This end sequence is terrible. Often plot-less, hard to conceptualise, filled with stupid neologisms – Stephenson’s worst habit – and with no proper ending. But my core problem is that I just didn’t believe any of it happened. The first six hundred pages set out with devastating clarity that everything in the last three hundred was impossible.

Robinson doesn’t know how to finish his book either. He gets his starship back to Earth with some of its inhabitants alive and should probably – like Gravity – stop at the moment of landing. They made it! Instead there’s a hundred extra pages of nothing much. He wants to say something else, I think, about how we should enjoy life here; so he ends with a very boring scene in which the main character goes swimming at the beach. For about twenty pages. But he’s already made the same point more effectively by showing us space explorers starving to death or being blasted out of airlocks or dying of alien pathogens. We get it. Space is awful. Earth is nice. We’re stuck here. We should look after it.

July 29, 2015

Nuanced?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:57 am

Fran O’Sullivan is – as always – very excited that her friend Trade Minister Tim Groser is doing high level serious important trade stuff and meeting important serious people during the TPP negotiations. Although . . .

At the negotiating level, broad support has been stitched up in several areas, notably constraining state-owned enterprises from using soft loans to compete against private companies.

But contentious issues critical to New Zealand’s well-being are yet to be addressed.
Top of the agenda is market access for dairy.

Both Groser and John Key earlier signaled that it would be a deal-breaker for NZ if there was not a high-quality comprehensive result on this score. The position has since become more nuanced.

On TV3’s The Nation’s Groser said it was important as it was 25 per cent of export earnings. “It’ll be a bit light this year because of fallen dairy prices, but it’s typically around that. We’ve got very good deals shaping up in the other areas, and the deal on dairy simply isn’t there yet.

So we’ve conceded on IP, generic drugs, investor state dispute mechanisms and government anti-competition clauses, but haven’t quite gotten around to even asking for anything that we want yet.

I sure would like to play poker with Tim Groser. ‘Right. I’ve given you my house, my savings, my pension scheme, my clothes, my boots and my car keys. Now shuffle the deck and let’s start playing.’

July 21, 2015

Politics and the real

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 1:23 pm

There’s a section in The Hollow Men in the post-Orewa chapter in which Brash is about to be interviewed by – I think – Kim Hill, and one of his media advisers tells him something to the effect of ‘If she accuses you of racism, get angry.’ And she does, and Brash does exactly that. Today:

Andrew Little has lashed out at TV3’s political editor Patrick Gower, calling him a “desperate journalist”, as he got angry over questions on Labour’s foreign buyer campaign.

Is Little angry because him and his advisers agreed that getting angry was a good strategy to give the story more legs and generate coverage, or is he angry because he’s angry? We’ll never know, but I think probably the former. What else did he think he was going to get asked about today? This is a way to show the leader being tough and standing up for real kiwis, etc.

It could be that the inside-the-bunker atmosphere in Little’s office is so intense they’re convinced themselves that they really are just trying to have a conversation about foreign investment, and that all the accusations of racism are hysteria or bad-faith, and Little’s indignation is genuine. I doubt it though. Journalists like it when they provoke emotional reactions from politicians. It makes them think they’ve gotten through all the artifice and spin and gotten something ‘real’ – so they often go big on these stories, which is precisely why politicians fake these responses.

July 15, 2015

The racist style in New Zealand politics

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:27 am

I don’t have much else to say about Labour’s Chinese-Housing-Market story but thinking about it this morning reminded me of something an Asian-New Zealand student in my lab said a few years ago about racism and politics (I can’t remember if it was related to one of New Zealand First’s outrages, or possibly Paul Henry’s comments about the Governor General).

Her point was that she experienced racism on a pretty frequent basis, mostly from guys yelling insults at her as they drove past in cars, and whenever politicians indulged in politics about Asian immigration it always felt like they were siding with the guys in the cars over her simply because there were more of them and politics is a numbers game.

I thought about that after reading these columns by Tim Watkin and Chris Trotter in which they confidently decree that Labour aren’t being racist. Because race comes up a lot in our domestic politics. There was National’s Orewa speech, obviously, and ACT plays the race card every single election (last year it was then-leader Jamie Whyte announcing that Maori were comparable to pre-revolutionary french aristocrats). New Zealand First reliably whips up anti-Asian sentiment. Phil Goff gave a speech on ‘Nationhood’ that attempted to replicate Brash’s Orewa speech. One of National’s ‘spin-the-wheel’ distractions whenever there’s a scandal is to warn us that the boat-people are coming. And we’re never far from a debate about eugenics with various right-wing commentators routinely suggesting that we sterilise beneficiaries.

And every time race comes up as an issue all of our pundits – who are mostly white guys, like me, who have never experienced life as an ethnic minority – pontificate about whether the issue is racist or not. The ruling is routinely partisan. Right-wing commentators insist that the debate about eugenics or ‘Maori privilege’ is not racist, but are aghast at Labour’s race-baiting on Chinese property investment. Left-wing commentators who wanted Paul Henry hung-drawn-and-quartered for his comments about the Governor General insist that Labour’s ‘Chinese-sounding-surname’ stunt is just a genuine attempt to talk about the broader issue of foreign investment.

If that’s all it is then why are so many Chinese New-Zealanders so offended by it? Could it be that white people who have never experienced racism aren’t the best arbiters of it, while ethnicities who experience racism on a routine basis know it when they see it, and are pretty damn sure they’re seeing it now?

Labour’s latest stunt might work, or it might not – ACT’s never do. But our politicians keep making race a political issue and so long as they continue to do so it’d be nice if commentators based their judgments on whether something is racist or not on how the community affected feels about it, and not our own vague abstractions or tribal sympathies.

July 9, 2015

What is happening inside New Zealand First?

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 5:44 pm

First there was the Deputy leadership coup. Then the comms team in New Zealand First had the gallery churn out puff-pieces about various New Zealand First backbenchers – surely the least newsworthy individuals in Parliament? Yesterday one of their staffers wrote a column about ISIS that ran under Ron Mark’s name in the Herald.

It’s all a bit weird. New Zealand First’s brand is Winston Peters. Why are they diluting it? I have no insights into what’s happening in that party, but my guess is that it is positioning itself for a post-Winston Peters future. Why now? Peters has just won an electorate and he’ll probably have the balance of power after the next election. He has no reason to step down. But people inside his party are behaving as if he might.

Who will replace him? The press gallery have this fantasy that it’ll be Shane Jones. It’s hard for them to trail around behind that great man, sighing wistfully, when his job takes him out of the country most of the time. Imagine if he was back in Wellington and, like, leading a party! That would be the most amazing thing ever!

I’d like to see St Jonesy try and lead a party too, but I can’t see it happening. New Zealand First has been around for over twenty years. It is dominated by Peters but it has a board, staff, MPs, volunteers and donors, all of whom will feel invested in the party they’ve helped build and have ideas about its future. Parachuting in a guy who isn’t even a member and unilaterally making him leader would tear it apart. If Peters steps down before the election then there might not even be a legal way to make that happen.

It’s going to be Ron Mark. But really, speculating about the next leader of New Zealand First is like wondering who’ll take over as lead singer of the Rolling Stones after Mick steps down. A party lead by Mark will not win 5% of the vote. He could conceivably win Wairarapa against its very unpopular National MP and bring some MPs in on the electorate seat loophole. Or St Jonesy could stand in Northland and do a deal with National. Many things are possible if/when Peters goes, but the most likely, I think, is that his party will fail to return to Parliament. With the destruction of the Conservative Party and availability of 200,000 New Zealand First voters our politics could get very unpredictable.

June 30, 2015

Greece, morality and technical challenges

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:28 am

What happened? Roughly:

  • The two main political parties in Greece (PASOK and New Democracy, center left and center right, respectively) spent many years transforming the Greek economy into a unique ‘low tax high public spending’ model, in which there was a generous social welfare state but no tax revenue to pay for it. (Shipping, for example, which is where most of Greece’s very wealthy earn their money, was exempt from taxation).
  • So it was funded through borrowing, mostly from French and German banks. The left-wing government won entry to the EU currency union by defrauding the European Union, partly through paying Goldman Sachs to convert part of its debt into derivatives, which it didn’t have to declare to EU officials.
  • Eurozone membership allowed Greece to borrow money at extremely low rates, so the center-right government went on an insane borrowing binge for four years before the global financial crisis.
  • In the wake of the GFC it became apparent that Greece had been misreporting its economic statistics for years, that its public debt levels were unsustainable and that it was in threat of default. The Greek economy went into a deep recession.
  • Now, normally when countries go into recession they devalue their currency. Greece couldn’t do that though because it was a member of the European Currency Union. And normally when you’re in a currency union you’re also in a political union – like the United States – and wealthy members of the union simply transfer money to poorer regions. But there was zero political will in Germany and France to just transfer money to Greece, for obvious reasons.
  •  Enter the ‘Troika’. The International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission undertook a series of loans to bailout the Greek government and prevent it from defaulting on its debts (which were, remember, mostly to German and French banks). The Troika made the loans contingent on a radical restructuring of the Greek economy.
  • These were the famous ‘austerity measures’. Lower government spending. Wide-scale privatization of state assets. New taxes. The austerity measures would cause some temporary pain, the Troika admitted, but according to all of their forecasts they would lead to a rapid recovery as bond markets rewarded the Greek government for making such tough choices, and business confidence soared.
  • The austerity measures were implemented, slowly, against a backdrop of massive protests, public strikes and rising political support for far-right fascist political parties. The recession worsened. Unemployment increased. More and more businesses went bankrupt.
  • The deepening recession put the Greek government in danger of default again. They went back to the Troika who agreed on another bailout loan on the conditions of even harsher austerity, the first round obviously not having been implemented properly, but the second guaranteed to lead to a recovery and robust growth.
  • The second package was passed through the Greek Parliament, amidst a backdrop of rioting and looting in central Athens. The second round of austerity measures were implemented: the economy continued to collapse. A UK economist described the outcome in 2012:

Since the beginning of 2008, Greek real GDP has fallen by more than 17pc. On my forecasts, by the end of next year, the total fall will be more like 25pc. Unsurprisingly, employment has also fallen sharply, by about 500,000, in a total workforce of about 5 million. The unemployment rate is now more than 20pc. . . . A 25pc drop is roughly what was experienced in the US in the Great Depression of the 1930s. The scale of the austerity measures already enacted makes you wince. In 2010 and 2011, Greece implemented fiscal cutbacks worth almost 17pc of GDP. But because this caused GDP to wilt, each euro of fiscal tightening reduced the deficit by only 50 cents. . . . Attempts to cut back on the debt by austerity alone will deliver misery alone.

  • The social consequences have been devastating. The suicide rate has soared. Youth unemployment is at 65%. HIV rates are up 200%. 20% of the shops in Athens are empty and the city is filled with homeless. 400,000 people in Athens eat at soup kitchens every day; about ten percent of the cities population.
  • The two centrist political parties were voted out of office, replaced at the beginning of the year with Syriza, a radical left-wing party. Because the government is unable to meet its debt repayments Syriza went to negotiate a third rescue package with the Troika, who after careful consideration decided that the Greek economy needs more austerity.
  • Syriza campaigned on an anti-austerity platform, so they’re putting the new austerity offer to a referendum, something that has deeply offended the Troika. A ‘no’ vote seems likely to trigger Greece’s exit from the euro. No one knows what will happen then. One bank estimated the cost to the Eurozone at about a trillion dollars. (Greece is defaulting on a $1.6 billion debt repayment to the European Central Bank).

So there’s plenty of blame to go around here. The politicians who ran Greece from 2000-2009 shouldn’t have borrowed all that money that they couldn’t pay back. The banks shouldn’t have loaned it to them. The EU should have anticiptaed the problem that lack of currency control would cause troubled countries.

But the real blame seems, to me, to be with the Troika. A bunch of the world’s most brilliant economists have contrived to take a moderate sovereign debt crisis and used their expertise to wreck a developed economy, inflict extraordinary misery on millions of people and initiate the break-up of the Eurozone, triggering a global market panic.

Keynes used to say ‘The economy is not a morality play. It is a series of technical challenges.’ Unfortunately, Europe’s economists turned out to be the worst people imaginable at solving this challenge.

June 24, 2015

Defying gravity

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 2:15 pm

No Right Turn documents John Key’s assurance that cutting the $1000 KiwiSaver subsidy ‘will not make a blind bit of difference to the number of people who join KiwiSaver’ and the revelation that KiwiSaver enrollments have dropped by 50% since the announcement was made. Another triumph for our Prime Minister’s much-celebrated business genius.

It ties into something I’ve been mulling over in the past few days: the current political climate feels a bit weird to me. The last two weeks have seen Key’s credibility take a succession of hits. Pretty much every statement out of his mouth is almost instantly disproved, or revealed as a lie, or is just simply risible. Refugee numbers. The explanation that Nick Smith’s development properties in Auckland were ‘conceptual’ and that their legal position with local iwi was solid. Yesterday in question time the Greens revealed that Murray McCully had invited the Saudi businessman at the center of the Sheepgate scandal to sue the New Zealand government as a pretext for McCully to pay him a bribe, and Key explained that he stood behind McCully because it was all Labour’s fault, as would be revealed in the redacted Cabinet papers that Labour then attempted to release, but National blocked.

It feels like everything these guys touch right now is a disaster. Blaming Labour for all of their many blunders is pretty much all they do. It’s doomed, last-term government end-of-days stuff, like Labour’s coalition government at the end of their third term, with all the allegations about Winston Peters and Taito Phillip Field, and Clark’s endless wretched evasions over same. And yet, none of the current blunders and cover-ups have any cut-through. Key and his government are still super-popular.

Yes, I understand that some of this is beltway stuff and Labour looks unattractive to many voters and all the rest of it. But it’s weird that none of this sticks.

June 21, 2015

Colin Craig and the failure of founder-funded political parties

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 10:12 am

Back before the election I was a bit worried that the Conservatives and Internet/Mana were harbingers of a worrying new trend in politics – the overt interference of the super-rich in our democracy, as they realised that buying influence through donations and lobbying were less effective than just establishing their own parties.

It hasn’t played out like that. Both parties are now effectively dead for similar (underlying) reasons. The founders of both parties were also the primary funders and that meant they they got to do pretty much whatever they wanted – just like they did with their private businesses – because they were paying for everything.

In a business it doesn’t matter much if the CEO is a jerk. Selfish, grand-standing malevolent behaviour is routine, but no one outside the company cares. There’s minimal public interest in the private lives or conduct of business leaders. And in a political party if a leader misbehaves then there is public interest, but you can dump them and get a new leader. In a founder-funded political party there is (a) intense public interest, as Internet/Mana found out with Kim Dotcom’s ‘fuck John Key’ rallies and tendency to make provocative public statements then refuse to answer media queries, and (b) no party without the founder-funder, as the Conservatives are about to discover.

June 15, 2015

Just lookit all that prudent sensible economic credibility

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 1:20 pm

Via a Matt Nippert story (based on OIAs from Phil Twyford), which got a bit overlooked when it came out a week ago:

Housing New Zealand paid an investment banker $1.6 million to help it sell state houses, official documents show.

Low-profile Auckland banker Andrew Body gave advice to the Minister of Housing and secured lucrative contracts to implement the policy while also advising potential buyers of state housing stock – a dual role attacked by the Labour Party as a conflict of interest.

Housing New Zealand (HNZ) and Mr Body say correct procedures were followed, and conflicts were declared where required.

Mr Body was appointed in 2010 by then-Minister of Housing Phil Heatley to the housing shareholders advisory group, then later to an advisory panel to help form government policy on social housing.

And today we’ve learned:

Figures compiled by Labour showed that 443 state houses were sold in 2014, at an average of 13.3 per cent below the Government Valuation.

Labour claims Housing NZ has “lost” at least $13 million on the sales, with the total proceeds from sales where valuations were available raising $71.8m, compared to the $84.9m the houses were valued at.

Five state houses sold in 2014 raised more than $1m, including a $1.36m sale of a property in Devonport, about 5 per cent less than the property’s GV.

So Housing New Zealand is paying consultants millions of dollars to help it sell houses for less than the government valuation in the middle of a property boom to buyers advised by the same consultants. Meanwhile the quality of the homes still under care by the state are so poor their occupants are literally dying. This is just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Progress

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 8:47 am

It’s no secret the Labour Party has problems. The factions. The leaks. The bitter internal rivalries. Happily a group of centrist Labour members have decided to rescue the party from these woes by forming a think-tank called ‘Progress’, and if you want to learn more you can read this account leaked to Matthew Hooton of Progress’s founders having an argument with Labour Deputy Annette King (paid).

On one hand: every other demographic within Labour has its own voice in the form of a formal advocacy group, so why shouldn’t the centrists get one? On the other hand: because they’d almost certainly use that voice to conduct a sustained PR campaign against their own party membership, releasing populist policies designed to wedge the members and the public.

More broadly, I have two basic problems with the idea that Labour should be a centrist Blairite ‘third-way’ party. First: the left’s great intellectual struggle over the past eight years has been about how to reposition ourselves after the catastrophic failure of Blairist third-way centrism. The deregulated free markets that were supposed to fund generous social welfare states worsened inequality, even when functioning, and then they crashed and needed to be bailed out. The centrist argument boils down to ‘Let’s go back to that system that failed!’ It is not intellectually serious.

Secondly, we already have a Blairite centrist third way party in New Zealand. It’s the National Party. If you take Labour and nudge it slightly along the political spectrum while taking away the identity politics and token environmentalism you have a smaller less popular version of John Key’s National.

‘But that’s the point!’ Progress would probably say. ‘National is popular! If Labour wants to be in government it should be more like National. Then it will be popular too.’ But popularity in politics doesn’t work like that. It’s complementary. The trick is to make National unpopular. People just aren’t going to switch their vote to a less credible version of the thing they already like.

I do wonder why more of these people don’t forget about their quixotic mission to change Labour, and just support National? I don’t mean that in a glib way. National are pro-business and ‘aspirational’ but they’re doing loads of social democratic stuff like free doctor’s visits for kids and increasing benefits to poor families, plus they really hate identity politics and the environment. That is basically the centrist manifesto. Shane Jones is the patron saint of these folk and he’s crossed the aisle. Why not follow him?

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