30 November 2016

Recreational Drugs and the Law

It ought to be clear by now that people are not going to stop taking drugs recreationally. Prohibition hasn't worked. It won't work. Prohibition never works.

So the question now is, how long are we going to tolerate the supply of, and profit from, recreational drugs being in the hands of multi-billion pound, international criminal gangs? How long do we let our kids and peers buy drugs from criminal gangs, with no standards or guarantees on content or purity, no advice about safe use, and an active discouragement from seeking help with drug problems?

Government policy is supporting the criminal gangs by ensuring that they are the only ones who can supply recreational drugs. Vast amounts of money are wasted on pursuing drug users and drug gangs to almost no effect, since drugs are freely available and we cannot even keep drugs out of our prisons.

Some people advocate harsh prison sentences. This has been tried in the USA where they introduced mandatory minimum sentences. The prison population tripled mainly due to extra sentences given for non-violent drug crimes. The three-strikes rule means that a lot of people have life sentences for non-violent drug crimes. And has drug us abated in the USA as a result? No, it hasn't. In the UK it costs about £50,000 per annum to keep someone in prison. The average wage is just £30,000. Due to budget cuts and privatisation our prisons are dangerously overcrowded and understaffed, and many of the building are suffering from decades of neglect. If we start jailing more drug dealers for longer, where is money going to come from? Where do we put these people? If harsh penalties don't work elsewhere, what makes us think they'll work here? And remember, drugs are freely available in prison.

We've had prohibition for about 100 years. Vast amounts of money (trillions) have been spent on prohibition; hundreds of thousands of people have been killed prosecuting prohibition, millions have been turned into criminals and spent time in jail for trivial drug possession. And nothing has changed.

Governments should be obligated to make rational policies and to abandon policies that are demonstrable unfair, unworkable, ineffective, or harmful.

This does not mean that a small percentage of people who use drugs will not suffer some ill-effects. But guaranteed levels of strength and purity, combined with accurate safety advice, would mitigate most of the accidental harm. Proper education that was practical rather than moralistic would also help. Being able to seek help without fear of criminal prosecution might also mean that problems are less likely to escalate.

Addiction would continue to be a problem for the minority of drug users who get addicted. But such people would no longer be criminals. They could openly seek help. Chronic opiate addicts could be prescribed heroin and past experience tells us that this would be a much more cost effective way of dealing with the problem. Addicts frequently turn to crime to support a habit. Give them drugs that cost us pennies and they stop doing petty crimes that cost us thousands; and we stop locking them up at the cost of tens of thousands. Give them drugs of known strength and purity, clean needles, and counselling if they want it and they most likely stay relatively healthy. They don't burden the health system with serious diseases like AIDS, hepatitis, septicaemia, or accidental overdose. To clean up an addict needs stability and supportive conditions. Not easily found while trying to get money to score drugs from street dealers.

Remove the irrational prohibition from drugs and the therapeutic uses could be explored more easily. Some of these drugs have important effects that could help many people.

Current drug laws are irrational, unfair, unworkable, inefficient, and criminalise a lot of people who are really not criminals. They don't work and cost too much. And there are better ways to reduce the harm from drug use. Not all recreation drug use is drug abuse.

I don't necessarily endorse drug use. Certainly we would still want to restrict children's access to drugs as we do with other things that might harm them. But adults ought to be able to make their own informed decisions about these things. Just as we make our own decisions about who we have sex with, what kinds of sexual practices we enjoy, and who we marry. It's not up to me, or the government, to dictate anyone's lifestyle as long as that lifestyle is broadly compatible with the continued existence, prosperity, and security of society. In the vast majority of cases, no one is harmed by drug use. A lot less people would be harmed if drugs were made safer by being out in the open and regulated. There would be less motivation to seek out alternatives of unknown properties. Make the old favourites freely available and the novelties would be much less attractive.

We've had a century of irrational drug policies and laws. It is time to have rational policies and laws.

29 November 2016

The Aliens are Coming

I went to see the film Arrival yesterday. This review/essay will contain spoilers, so don't keep reading if you want to see the film without foreknowledge (which would be ironic). I don't recommend paying to see it however. The film is dumb and boring.

As with the film Contact, I was very disappointed. These are sciency fantasy films, not science fiction. I say this because the laws of physics are simply abandoned, the stories employ multiple deus ex machina devices, and magic is the dominant paradigm, followed by the Romantic myth.

I find the lack of distinction between science and magic irritating and more recently  have become bored with the standard tropes of it: time travel or knowledge of the future, aliens with improbable body plans, faster than light travel, substances impervious to analysis, telepathy, etc. Such fantasies may make for useful plot devices for Hollywood writers, but they are fantasies that have no basis in reality. And they are used so often that they become clichéd and passé. The key aspect of good science fiction is that is has a basis in reality. The best science fiction mostly obeys the laws of physics or breaks them knowingly and makes it clear that it is unusual.

Here's the thing about aliens. If they ever come, which is massively unlikely, it will have taken them centuries or millennia to get here. The necessity of solving all the same engineering problems to get off-planet places strict limitations on what they will be like. They'll be roughly the same size as us. Too big and getting out of their gravity well in the first place wouldn't be feasible. Too small and the ability to develop metallurgy (mining, smelting, forging etc) wouldn't be feasible. They'll be physically strong but capable of fine dexterous manipulation of objects. They have to get around and make stuff, so some kind of analogue of legs, arms, and hands can be expected. They will be intelligent and will use language and writing. They will be social, and thus prosocial, because getting into space requires collaboration on a massive scale. Being social, they will understand reciprocity, fairness, and justice. They will empathise, at least with their own kind and have social mechanism for limiting and managing intra-group conflicts. Still, they may well be hostile to outsiders, just like every other social species.

Their metabolism will be carbon based, because nothing else is feasible. Indeed their chemistry is likely to be very similar to ours because there are only a certain number of elements and only certain conditions where both complexity and continuity over time are possible. If their planet was too cold, too hot, too acid, too alkaline etc, then either complexity or continuity would be impossible. Silicon simply does not allow for the required flexibility and at the kinds of temperatures and chemical environments where complexity and continuity occur, silicon tends to rapidly oxidise and form extremely inert compounds like silicon-dioxide.

Getting out of a gravity well uses up enormous quantities of resources and is a very complex engineering problem. Suitable fuel/oxidiser combinations and cryogenic storage of same; pumps and reaction chambers for freezing cold, but incredibly volatile compounds; materials capable of withstanding extremes of cold and heat. These tasks would only be possible for a narrow range of life forms. No solitary apex predator would ever make it into space on their own, for example.

Space is a vast desert, far more extreme and inimical to life than any terrestrial environment. Getting up there is one thing, surviving for centuries with no pit-stops or comfort breaks in inter-stellar space is another thing all together! Having continuity of purpose over centuries is something we have yet to achieve.

Of course the Arthur C Clark dictum will hold. Any technology sufficiently advanced will seem like magic. But so will the McLuhan dictum that the medium is the message. Technology extends the human senses and sensibilities. I've commented to several people recently that my current mobile phone would seem like magic to my younger self. But when it comes down to it, the device enables me to do things like talk to people, educate myself, make music and art, record and access memories, keep track of time, and so on. The how seems like magic, the what is utterly mundane and predictable. Aliens will also use technology to extend their senses and fulfil their desires for connection and continuity in predictable ways.

In short, the universe places limitations on what aliens will be like. And in all likelihood they will have evolved in parallel with us and not be so very different. Indeed a fish living on the deep ocean floor might be more alien, but precisely because it has solved a completely different set of problems to those of us who live on land.

The other main theme of the film is linguistics. In this, the film follows in the footsteps of books like Babel-17, Children of God, or Embassytown. All of which I recommend reading. The film centres on written communication, which is fine. It's quite a likely scenario. In fact, I have thought of this myself. In my imaginary scifi novel it is the Chinese who make the breakthrough with the aliens precisely because of the way their written language works and how that affects the way they think about language. The Heptapod writing is also logographic, like Chinese, but they seem to have no trouble understanding the English alphabet. In a real encounter a lot of time would have to be spent introducing the signs themselves and the idea that they represent sounds, but this gap in the plot is understandable for Hollywood's attention span. Logographic writing would simplify this process enormously since sound is not inherent in it, the way it is with an alphabet. The actual Heptapod writing is less credible - again it requires magic to shape the ink. Why resort to magic at this point? What does it achieve that a more mundane approach would not have?

The idea that the language we speak shapes our worldview is referenced by name in the film as the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. Unfortunately this hypothesis is largely discredited amongst linguists, though it does get an outing from time to time by amateurs and journalists. And perhaps this is nice, becaused technically Whorf was an amateur linguist, in the sense that it wasn't his main job. The WSH was one of the main themes in the novel Babel-17, where a language is used almost as a trojan horse virus to take control of people's minds. The viewpoint angle might have been an interesting one to explore (one day I may even do so in my scifi novel), but again the film introduces a magical element, because learning the Heptapod language somehow allows the speaker to perceive time differently and thus know the future. Again, why does magic trump science in this way? What are the film-makers thinking at this point where they act like genies granting impossible wishes? Who is served by this form of entertainment in which magic dominates reality? (Hint, it's not the workers).

Part of the reason I'm annoyed is that this was a lost opportunity. The ability to see the world through another's eyes, to appreciate their worldview, by learning their language, is full of potential as a story line. And if there was a time when Americans needed to expand their horizons and see the world through other eyes, then it was certainly now. But the simple wonder and value of this perspective is lost in the magic bullshit about knowing the future. As a plot device, knowing the future is about seeking certainty and security in the known, it is the opposite of expanding one's horizons by embracing the unknown. So the opportunity is wasted.

So, Arrival is a bad film because it does not pay enough attention to physics and misses valuable opportunities. It uses magical tropes in order to pursue a Romantic agenda (fundamentally the film is about a couple getting together and having a doomed child). This is no more evident than in the last five minutes, which are overlain by the most intense, extended violin-wanking I think I've ever heard on a film. The film blatantly attempts to wring emotions from the audience by the device of a dying child, had with the foreknowledge that she would die young from a rare form of cancer. Could it be any less subtle? Hardly. It's sledgehammer stuff and at the end of a long film in which science and linguistics are buggered many times, I felt less than charitable about it.

There were a few moments when if I'd had a compass or a sharp object I might well have stabbed myself in the leg to try to block out how awful the film was. The worst moment, perhaps in the whole film, was when, asked if he could have his life over would he do anything different (and this is with the knowledge that they can now know the future) he says that he might express his feelings a bit more. That's his life's biggest regret? Kill me now. Of course he's only saying that because he wants to fuck the main character. Feminism has achieved a lot for women, but it's made many men into contemptible fucking idiots.

I said there were spoilers in this review. But the real spoilers, i.e. the things that spoil the movie, are in the movie itself. The bad plot, the magic, the lost opportunities, the Romantic bullshit.

24 November 2016

Hierarchy of Otherness

In Orson Scott Card's novel Speaker for the Dead, the author invents a hierarchy of otherness, or as he calls it, a hierarchy of exclusion, based on words from Nordic languages. The levels are similar in come respects to the community limits discussed by Robin Dunbar in his work on human evolution, particularly on group sizes (see Dunbar's book Human Evolution)

Card Anglicises the words for the different categories and leaves off the diacritics that would accompany them in the original. Briefly the levels, with restored Swedish diacritics, are:
  • Utlänning  (Swedish 'foreigner'), literally an out-lander is someone who is recognisably human but from a different country. 
  • Främling (Swedish 'stranger') is also human, but from a different world. In the novel there are 100 human colonies out amongst the stars. 
  • Råmän (Probably from Swedish 'crude' + män 'person'; sounds like raw-men) are not Homo sapiens, but are recognised as 'human' and can be communicated with. 
  • Varelse (Swedish 'creature') are true aliens, not human, possibly sentient, but so different that communication is impossible. In the novels, this category also includes animals. 
  • Djur (Swedish 'beast') are beings so alien that we cannot guess what their minds are like. All we can do is fight them. 
Arguably some primates are more råmän than varelse because we can communicate with them to some extent. Also in observing primate behaviour it is not, in fact, that difficult to understand that their minds are much like our own. They are more different from us than any other human, except perhaps a psychopath, but they are more similar to us than has been popularly conceived. Watching them it is relatively easy to recognise emotions and motivations for example. However, a recent attempt to have chimpanzees granted human rights in the USA failed. I don't know, but it was presumably because though chimps do need the protection that such rights might afford them (mainly protection from humans), they certainly would not be able respect those rights in others, nor the obligations entailed in the declaration of human rights. They have their own kind of morality, but it is almost entirely in-group focussed. Killing an out-group person would not trouble their conscience for a second. Nor would infanticide.

OSC's books explore the råmän/varelse distinction following, in the book, Ender's Game, the apparently completely destruction (the xenocide) of the "buggers", an alien species by earth's military with child-soldier Andrew "Ender" Wiggin as commander. The buggers were considered varelse, with no possibility of a political or negotiated settlement to the dispute between them and earth. To earth's leaders, killing them all seemed to only possible approach, so they took the brightest children and gave them intensive training in strategy before getting them to play war-game "simulations", which turn out to control real fleets of spaceships in real battles with the buggers. Ender's subsequent discovery of an egg containing the germ of a hive queen of the buggers and her consciousness is the starting point for a number of sequels. In making psychic contact with the Hive Queen, Ender realises that the buggers are not varelse, but råmän and that the xenocide is in fact a mistake, a crime of unprecedented proportions. And of course he feels responsible.

22 November 2016

Life After Death and All That.

What is life?

Life is a collection chemical reactions in an energy gradient across a membrane. Fundamentally, what drives life is the reduction of CO₂ by hydrogen. This results in the production of complex carbon compounds, which I call macro-molecules. Life as we know it involves four main kinds of macro-molecules: proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and organo-metallic complexes. We are ~90% water, and ~9.9% macro-molecules and ~0.1% salt of various kinds. Some of the macro-molecules, particularly the nucleic acids, have the ability to self-replicate. Self-replicating molecules function as structural elements, catalysts, or as templates for the production of the first two.

The original energy gradient was probably hydrogen and methane gas bubbling up from warm alkaline undersea vents into cold acidic, CO₂- and iron-rich sea water; through porous structures made of precipitated calcium-carbonate. Nowadays the most important energy gradient is provided by sunlight falling on the surface of the earth.

The dominant form of life is bacterial (taking in the Kingdoms of Bacteria and Archaea). It has been for at least 3.5 billion years and probably nothing will change that. Eukaryotes (all other forms of life) are certainly everywhere, and multi-cellular eukaryotes certainly make a lot of fuss, but bacterial life is more numerous, more diverse in form and genetic variation, adapted to a greater range of ecological niches, and greater in biomass.  Furthermore, all other forms of life rely on bacterial symbionts to survive: from mitochondria and chloroplasts within animal and plant cells, to our gut microbiome. Without our bacteria symbionts, we'd be dead. And the next most dominant form of life are fungi. 99% of life on earth is bacterial or fungal. And 99% of eukaryote life is plants. 99% of animal life is invertebrate. 99% of vertebrates are fish. Whatever led humans to consider themselves the dominant life-form on the planet?

Life is intrinsically interesting because it is exceeding complex and self-sustaining. Life modifies the environment to make it more suitable for life, consuming resources and converting them into waste products, which in turn become resources for some other form of life. Life shifts the environment far from its natural (or chemical) equilibrium. Life is all interrelated and interactive. Everything relies on everything else.

In this age of individualism, winner takes all, and survival of the greediest, the fundamental themes of life—interconnectedness, communities, cooperation, symbiosis, ecological networks, recycling, equilibrium (or homoeostasis)—give us an alternative starting point for thinking about how we understand the world, our place it in, and how we ought to live. In the long term, our birth and death are simply short cycles of resources being used to create structures and then being returned to the pool for reuse. Ideally how we live will be conducive to life generally, but life is incredibly adaptive and it won't matter how we live in the long run: life will adapt. And when we die, our molecules and elements will be recycled just the same. We are waves in a field of resources; rising, falling, rising.

But what we mean by "life", in the context of life after death, is usually tangled up with notions of conscious life. When we talk about "life after death" we don't mean life per se. We don't mean the chemical reactions. We mean life in the sense our conscious existence. What we seek in talking about life after death is continuity of our inner lives. Life after death plays on the ambiguity of the word "life". To be more accurate we ought to say "consciousness after death", rather than "life after death".

Consciousness After Death

On one hand life does continue after death. Our bodies become food for a host of bacteria and fungi which recycle everything we are made of and return it to the environment to be used by other forms of life. Nothing is wasted in life. Indeed some people have observed that most of the molecules that make up our bodies all came from other living things originally. Even the air we breath is recycled. 99% of the oxygen in the atmosphere is excreted by plants and algae.

But this doesn't solve the problem of our attachment to our mental survival. Most people don't care about physically coming back after death, though zombies are a very popular meme at present. Most people accept that their bodies won't last, but want their memories, their personality, and their opinions to survive.

This way of thinking is only possible because we routinely divide the world into two: physical and mental. It is true that we know about the world in two main different ways, that for convenience we may label "physical" and "mental". But to generalise from this that there are two corresponding modes of being is a leap of faith. And it's not one that is supported by our systematic investigation of the nature of the world. Everything points to one mode of being, of which there are various manifestations and we which experience in a variety of ways because of the windows we have on the world, i.e. our senses.

The idea of a dual mode of being continues to appeal for a variety of reasons. Since our knowing seems to come in two varieties, the idea that the world is literally divided in this way seems plausible. There are a number of experiences, including dreams, sleep paralysis, out of body experiences, and so on that make a non-material mind seem highly plausible and almost certain to exist. We are predisposed to confirmation of our opinions and tend to stop seeking explanations once we have one that is even vaguely plausible. So dualism is the norm. It is wrong, but the reasons for this are subtle, complicated, and counter-intuitive. So it's hard to convince most people on this score.

Also we see the dissolution of bodies at death. The sights and smells of putrefaction elicit disgust because the by-products of this process are poisonous to us. Disgust protects us from eating poison. The naive view, however, sees the putrefaction of the body and rebels from the idea that the mind goes the same way. We deeply desire for our inner lives to continue. And the certain knowledge of death creates a cognitive dissonance.

So humans mostly create this split in their minds. They divide the world into physical and mental; or into matter and spirit. Each has strong associations and metaphorical entailments with the two modes of being. Physical is cold, hard, heavy, unresponsive, lifeless, typified by rock and by putrefaction. Mental is warm, soft, weightless, responsive, living, typified by light and renewal. Metaphorically spatial metaphors are important: we are standing, upright, and up when alive and well; prostrate, flat, down when asleep, ill, or dead. Physical is down; mental is up. Punishment is bad, hence down; hence Hell is the underworld. Reward is good, hence up; hence heaven is up. Matter is corrupt; spirit is pure. Matter is temporal; spirit is eternal. And so on. There is a net work of entailments and associations that make up a self-consistent worldview. It's just inconsistent with reality.

Dualism is False

Dualism is intuitive and its consequences are desirable. It implies that we can escape the fate of our bodies, escape putrefaction. We can in short survive death and live forever. Hallelujah. On its own this is too simple. But we are social animals, hierarchical, and moral. We are also biased towards perceiving things as conscious: animism is the most widespread belief there is. According to one survey I read, 100% of modern hunter-gatherers are animists, while only 80% also believe in an afterlife. If life really resides in the spirit side of things, the disembodied living things become plausible, and our bias towards seeing consciousness in the world reinforces this. So most pre-modern humans live in a double world: a world of matter, with beings made of matter but enlivened by spirit; and a world of pure spirit. Special people, shamans, can bridge the gap and communicate between worlds. In civilisation shamans become priests.

As intuitive and plausible as it seems, dualism is false. The two ways of knowing create the illusion of two kinds of world, but in reality they are two kinds of window on one world. All the reliable evidence we have about the world points to this conclusion. There is in fact no distinction between mental and physical being. We live in one world, at most. So none of the stories we tell that are based on duality are true: God, ghosts, spirits, the afterlife, ESP, rebirth, karma, etc. None of it is true. This is a tragedy. A wrench. A blow. A crisis. A source of cognitive dissonance. Most people will not accept this argument because it conflicts too much with what they think they know.

Even atheists often accept this intuitive dualism. Scientists tacitly accept the dual nature of the world even though they argue that only the material is real. You cannot have an argument over which are real (or more real)—mental phenomena or physical phenomena—unless you first accept that the distinction is valid. If like me, you reject this distinction, then the scientific materialism argument starts to look as suspicious as any religious argument.

Unfortunately, this insight into the true nature of the world, the one world, means that the life after death that we crave is not possible. This is because what we think of as mental is not separate from what we think of as physical. To put it another way, the part of the world that we view through the window we label "mental", is not different from the part of the world that we view through the window we label "physical".

A dramatic demonstration of the oneness of the world and the relation between mind and matter can be found in the aetiology of Alzheimer's Disease. In this disease, protein plaques form that disrupt the connections between neurons and eventual kill them, especially in the hippocampus where memories are made and stored. As the connections in the brain as disrupted the person progressively loses their ability to function in the world. New memories stop forming, then older memories are lost. One gradually loses the ability to recognise people, places, and things. One's sense of identity, which is based on memory, is degraded and gradually lost. Sufferers have increasing problems with reasoning, concentration, and orientation. Changes in personality such as aggressiveness may appear. Eventually a person with Alzheimer's loses the ability to do basic functions like eating, and they die.

The progressive destruction of the brain destroys everything about a person that makes them unique and special; it destroys everything it makes them a person. It destroys their inner life, their personality and their opinions. And it does all this before it kills them. Presuming they survive long enough for the disease to progress that far, the person is gone long before the body finally stops metabolising. A more tragic end for a person is difficult to imagine. If one believed in a God, one would be tempted to conclude that a God who included Alzheimer's in their creation was incorrigibly cruel.

Dualism would predict that a disease like Alzheimer's would have no significant effect on the mind, because the mind is not dependent on the brain. Monism, the one world theory, predicts exactly what we see. Modified versions of dualism exist which try to offer workarounds for cases like this, such as the brain as radio antenna theory, but these fail to explain other aspects of mind functioning. Monism is the only worldview which correctly predicts the effects of Alzheimer's.

One World, One Life.
The hard truth is that we only live once and we live that life in one world. But the way we evolved makes us susceptible to all kinds of belief about life and the world that are not true. So weirdly, most of us live out a delusion. And many people are happy to exploit that susceptibility to delusion for their benefit. Some even sincerely believe that their delusion is a better delusion than your delusion. The thing about genuine delusions is that they are compelling. A genuinely deluded person has no conception that they are deluded. They understand themselves to be seeing things as they are. Given that delusion is the norm, it's better to assume a sceptical stance and assume that one is not seeing things as they are. There is always room for improvement.

I tend to state things as I see them, since it is only by doing this that one can be clear about what one thinks at any given moment. But I think one can see that my thinking evolves over time. I'm prepared to accept new information and to change my mind.

11 November 2016

Day Three

Day Three of the Apocalypse

What is that smell? Perhaps people should take a break from flinging turds and wash their hands!

Empathy at its most basic level is emotional contagion. We unconsciously just pick up on the level of emotional/physiological arousal of our peers and tend to match it. If they are alert, we become alert. If they are relaxed, we relax. Everyone is responding to everyone else. When we become aroused or alert, we scan the environment for threats or opportunities and what we find, or think we find, becomes the rationalisation for how we feel. How we feel is pretty much a function of how the people around us feel. This is why there is truth in the meme:
"Before you diagnose yourself with depression, make sure you are not surrounded by arseholes!"
At the moment, a lot of people I know feel threatened by Donald J Trump, though really they seem to be picking up on the media hype about him, i.e. suffering from emotional contagion planted by companies that trade on stimulating negative emotions. They are pouring out emotional signals of distress and arousal. Threat signals. There's a kind of hysteria. This is not new.

When Obama won the Presidency the first time the same kind of thing happened, but it was jubilation for the people I know. Everyone seemed to catch it. But I just said, "He's a politician. You cannot judge him on what he said he would do, you have to judge him retrospectively on what he did." For example, Obama said he would close the Guantanamo Bay prison in the first 100 days of his Presidency. Eight years (~ 2900 days) later it is still there. With a hostile Congress the whole time, Obama was mostly pretty ineffective. Some of his acts, like the systematic assassination of US enemies by drone strikes, seem far from the optimistic, morally upright figure than made everyone so jubilant 8 years ago, with his "Yes, we can!" slogan.

Similarly Trump is unlikely to be as bad as the hype currently going around. He'll also face a hostile Congress and Senate full of people he climbed over to get to the top. But we won't really know what he does or can do until he's sworn-in and starts being President. He has yet to name his cabinet, let alone have it approved by the Senate.

I wish everyone would calm the fuck down in the meantime. You're driving me nuts! Can't we face the apocalypse with some dignity?

10 November 2016

Day Two

Day two of the Apocalypse. Donald Trump confirms that he is indeed the Anti-Christ. The head of the US Treasury is yet again going to be from Goldman Sachs, who brought you such diabolical events as the 2008 global financial crisis. Remember when people voted for Bill Clinton but got Alan fucking Greenspan? Happy days for the spawn of Hell.

So right now, Hell is ahead on points and Heaven is scrambling to catch up, having been caught out by the misleading polls. So much for the much vaunted omniscience of Yahweh! These are the most exciting End Times since... well, since time began! Who will win?

09 November 2016

Dear America

Dear America,

Congratulations on holding your elections without large scale violence, corruption, or electoral fraud. That's really something to be proud of.

We all knew that the consensus form of politics that has dominated not only your country, but the whole of the industrialised world, was not working. Millions of people lost their jobs, homes, and savings in the bonfire of vanity that was the Global Financial Crisis. Some of us hoped it might be a left-leaning candidate who got the protest votes, and Sanders had a certain appeal. But America does not elect socialists, so Sanders was never going to become president. So Trump got the protest votes. See it for what it is. Not an endorsement of Trump, but an indictment of Neoliberalism (especially so-called "free markets" and globalisation).

While middle America was desperately clinging to what they had acquired and managed to hold onto during the financial crisis, the rich prospered as never before, and a lot of poorer Americans lost everything and any chance of ever getting ahead. Too many Americans live in poverty, too many are trapped in minimum wage jobs. Of course these people are angry at the government when it allows their jobs to be exported to South-East Asia (or Mexico) and when it allows banks to parasitise the economy. Of course they were desperate for change. How do you feel when you look down and see a mosquito, bloated and red from gorging on your blood, about to fly off and lay thousands of eggs to produce more of its kind? Most people have a visceral urge to swat the little bastard. Voting for Trump can be seen as an attempt at swatting those parasites. Just as voting for Brexit was here in the UK.

In any case, you seem to have elected Donald J. Trump as President. And now he gets to form a government. Trump will change his tune now. You can hear it in the speech he gave on accepting Clinton's concession (what a phone call that must have been!). It's all about coming together and all that. He even praised Clinton's long years of service to your country. Taken in isolation, it was quite statesmanlike. Of course it ought not to be taken in isolation, but seen in the context of his campaign (at least). And of course Trump wants all the hostility to his candidacy to go away, along with all the rape allegations. The point is that he has shifted gears already (something that some left-field commentators predicted he would do). Campaigning is over and now he has to face being President, with everything that entails. "The American people have spoken", as they say.

Something that seems to be being overlooked is that the Congress is still solidly Republican, i.e. conservative and authoritarian. Consider that Trump climbed over those people to get where he is. He hijacked their party and has no regard for their values and traditions. And these are the people who have to pass his budget and his legislation. Like Obama, Trump will not find it easy to proceed without offering major concessions to Republicans in Congress. Even now the machinery of Washington is winding up to prevent Trump from achieving anything in office. They loving having this power and will exercise it with glee.

Some would argue that tying the hands of politicians is exactly what the disenchanted and disenfranchised electorate wanted. Disrupting the system is the best they can currently hope for, because a candidate who genuinely shares their concerns is not an option any more - only millionaires can afford to run, and millionaires will never share the concerns of the average American, let alone Americans working on minimum wage and living in a crime-filled neighbourhood.

In the USA you have a distrust of government that exceeds even many of those who live in totalitarian states. You seem to resent paying taxes at all, let alone with representation. You know the govt spies on you, often illegally (thanks again Edward Snowden). And you know that many of the institutions of govt are systematically discriminatory. Americans seem to fear and resent government telling them what to do. Many people believe something along the lines of one of Frank Zappa's aphorisms: "Government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex."

What better way to disrupt the machinations of government than by electing a combative outsider who ran in order to be disruptive of the status quo? The fact that he might be an asshole or even a criminal is secondary to the very real desire for substantive change. Since substantive change is not on offer, the next best thing is disruption. A restive electorate will do anything to kick an unresponsive government into paying attention to their concerns. In the UK it was the Brexit referendum - which cost most of the government their hand on the ouija-board of power, though they all still have government jobs!

Trump has promised to invest heavily in infrastructure and to aim to have the best infrastructure in the world. To my mind this is the best possible policy. I only wish UK politicians had any plan to invest in the UK, but they don't. Investment creates jobs and returns that can ease the tax burden. It remains to be seen what Congress will allow him to do in this line.

Trump understands investment because its the core of what he does as a businessman. Yes, he is guilty of cutting corners on many occasions and ending up in court on many occasions, but he's an American libertarian who resents government interference, so a disregard for the government's rules is more or less what you expect. It seems that it was exactly his disregard for the rules, and for etiquette, that made him appealing to voters.

The big question now, after "Who will be in his cabinet?", is "Will Trump get his spending plans approved by Congress?" There has to be serious doubt about this. Congress is still dominated by the kind of old-fashioned conservatives who set up the current system and who benefit from it. They won't be in a hurry to disrupt it, and most of them probably hate Trump.

Clinton is history now. Given that she actually lost to Trump, that makes her probably the most unpopular candidate ever to run for President. A lot of people are trying make out that it was a gender issue, but it wasn't. Had her reputation been for scrupulous honesty, and had she not been seen to be far too close to Wall St, she might have done a lot better. Remember that Wall St effectively planned, engineered, and caused the 2008 financial crisis. And they got away with it because they themselves, in service to successive governments, had drafted the regulations that determined what was legal and what was not. Wall St made a lot of money from betting against those people who lost everything. Clinton was too close to the bonfire and was burned by it. Yes, I know it is ironic that the biggest liar, Trump, had the reputation for honesty because he appeared to just say whatever came into his head. But reputation is very important with social primates and hard to shift.

When Obama was elected, there was jubilation to match the wailing and gnashing of teeth today. But Obama was stymied and unable to do much because Congress opposed him at every step. In the end he was an OK president, and came out of his time seeming like a nice guy. But he also made assassination of America's enemies in the Middle East by drone strikes routine and systematic. The man is a stone cold killer. This is the thing about politicians. They are never the best of us. Sometimes they are the worst. To rise to the top in any country is difficult, but the US seems to produce an array of dubious figures, until you see them as entertainers who distract from the exercise of power throughout society and the world. Obama poses with his family, rails against Trump, and emphasises his concern for ordinary people, but every day he is authorising drone strikes to assassinate his enemies. You have to see politician in the round. The same will be true of Trump. Most of the predictions of doom and disaster will not come true.

Obama changed very little, he made little or no different to the lives of African Americans for example. In the end they tried to help themselves by starting the Black Lives Matter campaign to dissuade the police from shooting them on sight. Clinton would not have made life better for women, either. Nor have either of them made it easier for those who come after them. You still have to have enormous privilege and wealth to start with, to do what they did. And most of the people who have the privilege and wealth are white men, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Obama did not change this. Clinton would not have. Trump won't (though since he's a white man we don't expect him to).

America voted against the status quo. That's the take home message. They only had one effective choice to do this. Though of course, there were other candidates in the race, they received almost no media coverage and were not invited to appear in TV debates. Had the alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats had a higher profile, had they been granted the kind of saturation coverage that the media gave to Trump, the result might have been quite different. It's one of many things America needs to think about this morning. Mind you, the system where I live is also deeply flawed and in desperate need of reform. Our House of Lords (= Senate) is not even elected, but most members are government appointees, inherited the privilege from their father, or are appointed by the Church of England! Although we were the first modern democracy, we have yet to fully embrace the concept!

We have now to wait and see what comes next. But the media cycle cannot wait. Twitter is flooded with anxiety (and I only follow 23 tweeters!), the papers and TV news will be constantly hyping everything about the events of yesterday and ruminating wildly on what might come next. Beware of hyper-stimulation in the next few days. The come down is a bitch.