Thursday, May 30, 2013

A brutally political vision of a better tomorrow

There are two kinds of politics. The first is the I have a dream kind - the formulating and propagating of ideas about how the world should and ought to be. Dreams, visions, utopias, better tomorrows - all the good stuff.

And then there's the policy document kind.

Something that most people are either blissfully unaware or all too aware of is the difference between these two kinds. Those who are so lucky as to be unaware can spend oh so many joyous hours in the company of better tomorrows - those tomorrows that follow after the Revolution, the Rapture, the Realization of the Free Market or any other Singularity you might imagine.

Those of the unlucky persuasion are stuck with either the writing, reading or unhealthily close interpretations of policy documents. Which can be just as interesting, boring and hellishly narrowly focused as it sounds - depending on the particular circumstances of who, what, why, and how much money it would cost.

These two kinds are related. But not as a direct line from the one to the other, but rather as a long circuitous series of indirect routes and Chinese whispers. Which, as you may or may not know, means that the intentions that enter into the one end does not necessarily translate into the intended consequences at the other end.

To formulate it in a soundbite: all political visions must survive being translated into policy documents.

Not just a policy document, but many of them. Not just once in order to enunciate and expound the vision for a better tomorrow, but at least once for every institution that is expected to make this better tomorrow happen. At least once in order to make it clear that this particular institution is indeed involved in this betterment, and then an innumerable number of times in order to make it clear exactly how this betterment is supposed to be done.

The easiest way to visualize this is to think from the top down. First word must pass from the top of the hierarchy to the level below it, and then from that level to the level below it - and so forth until we reach the proverbial man on the street, the ordinary people.

Which means that a whole lot of translating, misunderstanding and office politics will have meddled in the political vision by the time it reaches those who are supposed to make it happen. And, unsurpisingly, means that it is harder than it looks to change the ways institutions work, even when the vision of the better world is perfectly clear at the top level. (Be that at the level of central government or the level of theory.)

This difference between the two different kinds of politics tends to be what makes people bitter, cynical and apathetic. On the one hand, the better tomorrow is a better place. On the other hand, the inertia and general indirectness of actually existing political institutions is enough to make even the most bravehearted of idealists lose heart. Nothing ever changes!

The thing is - they do. They are nudged, budged and ever so imperceptibly moved in this direction and that. It's not a big blob of inert political matter that envelopes the lands in a permanent status quo, but rather a vast collection of interconnected and mutually affecting social contexts. Changes in one place has consequences in another, which has consequences in yet another, and so on - and the key to making change happen is to nudge, budge and wiggle at as many of these places as possible at the same time.

Legislation is one of these places. But when it comes to making social change happen, it is not by any means the only place that matters. It is an important place, to be sure, but not the only place. But if you treat it as the only place that matters, you miss out on all that nudging and budging, and all the associated opportunities to affect change.

All political visions must survive the translation into policy documents. And you can help that translation - at all levels. Wherever and whoever you are.

That's a vision for a better tomorrow if there ever was one.

Friday, May 17, 2013

There's no vision at work here

Among all the stupid political goals that exists, the goal to "create more jobs" is among the more stupid ones. Furthermore, it is one of the least visionary, least reality based and least relevant goals that can be set for a society like ours.

The simple truth is that there are a certain number of things that has to be done in order for society to function. Things beyond discussion - keeping the infrastructure working, getting food to people, power generation and such things. Then there are things that makes society better for being done - social work, healthcare, optimization of administration and so on. And then there's all those things that really can't be said to be necessary in any way, but that gets done anyway - public relations, high end insurance ponzi schemes , frivolous entertainment jippos and suchlike.

And then we've run out of things to do. Those things that needs to be done are done, those things that ought to be done are also done, and there's such an oversaturation of those things that really don't either need or ought to be done that we can't even begin to comprehend what to do with it all. After all of that - nothing, zero, null.

There's no recourse to the argument that more things needs to be done. It's already being done. There's also no recourse to the argument that more things ought to be done - same story. And we can't well take recourse to the argument that we need to make more things we don't need - that is a self-contradiction if there ever was one.

To make a long story short: the goal to create more jobs is undermined by the fact that we really don't need, desire or even want more of what jobs bring us. Under these circumstances, to portray job creation as the highest - not to say only - political goal worth having -


It's an insult to any and all intelligent beings you care to associate with.

People need to eat, sleep and be sheltered from the elements. They desire community, meaning and worthy things to do. And they need and desire these things regardless of their status on the ever shrinking job market. A market that shows every imaginable sign of neither wanting nor needing more people.

It may not be not be visionary to want a society where people can eat, sleep and feel safe in their continued beings. But compared to the main competing vision, it is an all the more realistic one.

Give people what they need, not what an outmoded political system wants.

Originally published June 28, 2012

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sometimes, said and done are the same thing

I recently read the last book in the Wheel of Time series. I won't spoil, comment or say anything about anything in it. Just quote one particular line, by virtue of its particular quotiness.

"Knotai?" Knotai said.

This line, in and of itself, does not tell us anything. In context, however, it does literary magic. In several ways.

The context is that one of the characters all of a sudden is given a new name. Very literally, brutally and suddenly. Up to that point, the character had all through the series been referred to as something else. As readers, we could reasonably expect that this name would stick around to the end. And then, suddenly -

Your name is now Knotai.

Two things happens in our quoted line. The first (and most obvious) thing is that the question "what in the name of Hunter S Thompson kind of name is Knotai?" gets asked. Which is a valid question - absolutely nothing up to this point in any of the preceding thirteen books gives any hints whatsoever that this will happen, and no explanation is given. At all. We are left in bafflement, confusion and general flabbergastedness at what just happened. Much like Knotai.

The second thing that happens is that the new name is established as a fait accompli by virtue of that one quoted line. Notice who it is that's wondering about the new name - it is, indeed, Knotai, the bearer of the new name. The name change happened, and it happened. All through the rest of the segment, Knotai is Knotai - and no two ways about it.

All of this happens in just three words. Said and done.

As if by magic.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hacking all the things

For some reason, the notion that hacking is something done on and with computers has taken a very firm hold on the popular imagination. The reasons for this are many and interesting, and I might very well return to them in the future. Right now, though, I just want to turn your attention to the fact that you can hack pretty much everything that has sufficient complexity to be hackable.

Tautologies. Love 'em.

One example of this, which is on my mind due to it being in the local media at this moment, is the tax code. In particular the tax code regarding the construction and renovation of houses. As you might imagine, these can be rather expensive propositions, and as a means to get people to (re)build things anyway, a deduction was introduced. The short, easy to grasp version is that you can deduce costs relating to labor, and only labor.

This can be hacked, if you put your mind to it.

The way to go about this is to say - okay, labor is deductable, material items are not. How do I make sure that I can get the most out of these particular circumstances?

By transferring costs from material items to labor. Or, in more concrete terms: by selling the material items on the cheap, and then charging loads and loads of money for the work of turning these items into buildings. In a manner such as this:
Big hulking machine: $5
Installing the big hulking machine: $7000/hour

By manipulating the numbers in this way, you can maximize the deduction while at the same time still charging the same price for it. (Or less, should you want to compete with someone else.) Which translates into profits, all legal and proper.

This, dear readers, is an act of hacking. And it is not quite as related to computers as one might imagine hacking to be. Rather, it takes advantage of the complexity of a system. Not a computer system, but a system in general.

All systems are hackable. All systems have parts that can be bent in certain ways to produce an outcome that is something other than the intended one. All you have to do is to put your mind to it and say - okay, this is such, that is thus. How can the working of the one affect the working of the other?

As the players of computer games are so wont of saying:

Good luck, have fun!