Pages

Saturday, 25 November 2017

So, Are You Kiwi?

I don't like using Kiwi as an identifier.

I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. I think a large part of the issue is that it's not a particularly cosmopolitan means of parsing the question of nationality or, hell, even of ethnicity. Yet I also believe that foreigners associate NZ with kiwi more than they do with silver ferns. That means Kiwi has the same meaning within and without our borders. There is something of a resolution to this apparent contradiction.

When you look at Kiwi what it does is tie an individual very specifically to the land through the proxy of an endemic native bird uniquely found here. That the kiwi is flightless means this sense of "land" is evoked very strongly. Compare and contrast the message of the Thor films, i.e. that "Asgard is a people, not a place". New Zealander and demonyms like it do evoke the place but through the idea of the place. That's different. That's not blood of the earth stuff. It's dangerous to start talking about nationality and identity in this way. This is nativism:

An Homologous American Discourse
Look, if NZ were to become a nativist dystopia I'd be absolutely fine. My family, at least on one side, has been in this country since the 1860s... this is quite a long time in the context of NZ. But basically every generation, if not every generation, has married more recent immigrants. My mother's father is English... from Islington (you know, where Arsenal are from)... and my father came here in his twenties too. Some of my mother's cousins have a Danish father and they married immigrants too. My mother's mother qualified for an Irish passport... and so on. This is the story of New Zealand. As the ACT party says immigration is in our DNA (alongside DIY). My family is not at all unusual in this respect... even if I suspect the 1860s bit is rarer. But I do think the normalcy of this is threatened by using Kiwi as a demonym.

The above is the context that I use to read this incident from two months ago (it has taken some time to articulate my thoughts):
"So are you a Kiwi, or what? You don't say much so we can't judge the accent," said Heather from Christchurch, to a round of hearty guffaws from the dinner table.
I think this question is encouraged by using Kiwi instead of New Zealander. I don't think people are thinking of passports when they hear Kiwi but I do think they think of them when they hear New Zealander. This is really important. Anecdotally, people seem happy to think of citizens as New Zealanders but not permanent residents, even though NZ is home to both. Even though so many NZ citizens spend their entire lives waiting for the moment to permanently bugger off.

I just have to know where accents are from when I hear them. I think that's true of a lot of people. I think that's fair. Yet, consider that I spent five years of college being Britishised by, at times it seemed, basically everyone. That was weird, annoying and somewhat hurtful. What made it so unusual was that at primary my "accent" seemed entirely non-notable but 3km up the road and suddenly it's different? Accents and identity are tricky. But it's so easy to treat think of them in terms of "sounds foreign = is foreign". Despite my experiences at school, I sometimes catch myself thinking like this.

One of the things you have to deliberately work on at uni is at making friends, and talking to people in lectures is one of the ways of doing this. Now, there are always a lot of different potential friends in a lecture theatre and choosing someone to make contact with can be difficult. I think in this anecdote it was simply based on the idea that Sarah (not her real name) was the closest person to where I wanted to sit. So I introduced myself to Sarah, who looks Asian. Then I catch myself being surprised that she has a fairly thick NZ accent. Probably thicker than mine, to be honest given the above. Most Asian people my age that I know have NZ accents.. and I know quite a lot. Some of them were even born overseas. My surprise was not justifiable. In that moment I was Phil Twyford. I was Paul Henry. I was Duncan Garner. And we were all a lot more Enoch Powell than anyone is comfortable admitting. And if that sounds an extreme comparison it is, but that's how you've got to be thinking about it... especially when you remember there were people who tried to qualify Twyford but the Herald ran the story anyway.

Intersection in Central Auckland
New Zealand (and Auckland especially) is a multicultural society. There are quite a few people who look "different" to the normative image of the Kiwi (who is NZ European or maybe, but probably not, Maori). Accents may be deeply flawed means of assessing an individual's place in society but if we could get over this surprise that some of us experience we'd be doing ourselves a massive solid. As many have pointed out, the rhetoric around housing and immigration in NZ has been way too yellow. I think that's encouraged by using Kiwi as a demonym. As far as word choices go, I think people choose it consciously if they want to make someone seem more authentically NZ, if they want to lay claim to some kind of national bona fides. But even if I am wrong about the way it's used (and the implications attached, whether consciously or not)... and I don't think I am, look at that headline with the Paul Henry link... we've got to wake up and recognise that the only change in our society over the last couple of years is that we've got more xenophobic. I really don't think using Kiwi helps us reach that kind of emotional maturity.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

English Literature is English Literature?

Another Spinoff article... again not wholly the point of this exercise, more the prompt.
In 2017, it’s pretty hard to mount a defence of whitewashing English literature studies. The novel itself isn’t even a European-born artform – the Indian Sanskrit writers, Arabic writers, Japanese writers and Chinese writers were expanding the scope of the novel centuries before the first major European novel, Don Quixote, came along at the start of the 16th century. If we’re willing to accept that English is the lingua franca of the world while acknowledging the role of colonialism in spreading it, then it’s even harder to dismiss the artistic outputs of non-white peoples.
Brannavan Gnanalingam is just plain wrong here. The task is piss easy. And the reason for this is that Gnanalingam is insistent about talking about English literature studies. I can understand the notion that what is called "English" is really just Literature. It doesn't accurately describe my experience of it as a subject but I can understand it. I can understand that we can use Literature broadly and therefore not include works from the "canon" because, well, what is the point of studying words if you can't use them differently to everyone else? Sure the man on the street thinks, "Ah, Literature, pretentious crap" but that doesn't make him right. Or, more to the point, he is not who defines Literature. What I can't understand is combining the two into English Literature and then suggesting that people read some stuff in translation. I mean, why is that English Literature? It isn't from England.* It isn't even in English if we want to take English Literature broadly. Thus, the defence is piss easy... the vast majority of writers of English Literature were "white".

Now, we might say that Gnanalingam addresses this argument even though being apparently blind to it with that stuff about globalisation. The problem here is that if you stop to think about it for a moment you realise it doesn't change anything. English has only been a lingua franca for 300 years tops. And to be honest I'd put it more like 150 years. The reality is that the British Empire might have been the biggest for longer than that but it wasn't really the undisputable top dog except for a brief period in the second half of the nineteenth century until close to WWI. Certainly not scientifically... ever noticed how German sounding a lot of those famous scientific names are? Well, that is because they spoke German and there's a bit of a correspondence. Of course, this does mean that there would be substantial output in English from non-white authors, right? Well, no.

It's all very well to talk about the recency of the novel in Europe. It's not so hot to talk about this without recognising the significance... when did the novel become a mainstream Thing in the English speaking world? How much education in English did colonised peoples get? How culturally influential was the metropole? And from what points in time? The reality is that there is a reason all of the famous English novelists were born after 1750... it's that the English novel reached its ascendancy in the Victorian era. Except not as we'd know it. These novels were generally serialised. Or, in other words, the graphic novel is more like Dickens than The Luminaries. Which is probably making you wonder how exactly Gnanalingam defines novel. I don't know. Probably weirdly, by which I mean "not a book containing a single fictional(ised) narrative of a substantial length". The first novel is far less clear cut than that quotation above suggests... or Wikipedia is being mangled. The point is that this argument ultimately reduces to the same point as above... the pool of writers in English* is overwhelmingly "white".

To deliberately seek out non-white English literature is to miss the point. It is not a survey of English literature. It is a shopping expedition aimed at finding particular items. It is "blackwashing" or "colourwashing". It is presenting a subject as being of a different broader character than it is/was. At least in the broad case. Naturally in specific areas such as "post-colonial writing" the demographics differ. (Although how post-colonial a text written in a coloniser's language can be is a question I can't comment on.)

There is nothing wrong with Gnanalingam's erstwhile purpose. If you're into pretentious reading lists you might as well explore a whole bunch of options. The trouble is this fixation on English Literature. If it appears at first glance that the English profession is the best qualified to speak on such matters this evidence forces me to dispute this. If Gnanalingam has a coherent preamble** it is only accessible to those who have similarly fallen so far down the rabbit hole. His article is completely incomprehensible or really, truly moronic. I don't believe it's the latter. I think it's just that Gnanalingam has written for a lay audience without making the slightest adjustment for our benefit.

*Where does this leave Thomas More, I wonder?

**In the url you will find "seven-easy-ways-to-make-your-own-reading-a-little-less-white". That is coherent. And with the popularity of listicles, entirely sufficient. It's everything that Gnanalingam includes before the list begins that is written for some other (and despicable) audience.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

How an Article about Hairstyles is about Data

I don't like the Spinoff very much but they'd make for a serviceable magazine in print so I treat them as such. My big issue with them is that there is no real reason (and certainly not their specious reasons) for a website to not have a comments section. Comments sections are important for all sorts of reasons. Yet somehow they're the most loathed thing on the internet these days. I mean, damn, Redditors tell each other not to read the comments section. How did that happen? Reddit is a comments section. It's not even a good one.* But anyway, here's their article and now my response...

The first thing to note about "What does your hair say about you?" is that it's a completely clickbait title. The article has next to nothing to do with that. You can tell that something is going on because it's in their ĀTEA section. That doesn't mean "lifestyle". What that is presumably translated to is "forum," and they use the te reo because what the Spinoff files in there is a bunch of articles on or about indigenous issues. This particular article is talking about a set of traditional Maori beliefs about hair. Its real point is inform people of those notions and validate their place in society. That article is activism, no two ways about it. But I said it was about data!?

Well, yes, it's both. One's hairstyle says sweet FA about one. Here's a "spoiler" for the Punisher (the recently released Netflix series). Frank rocks for a couple of episodes a long hair thick hair combo that makes everyone call him a hipster. I'm sure some hipsters are into judge, jury and executioner, gun-borne revenge fantasies. Some probably even have military training. But Frank's hairstyle says none of that. That ain't what being a hipster is being about. Being a hipster is about criticising conformity by conforming. I don't like hipsters. Frank doesn't like hipsters. What exactly a hipster is is less clear than I am pretending. The truth is, Frank says he's hiding his identity (hey, he is wanted for three dozen murders he did actually commit). Every hairstyle on every single person is this. No exceptions.

Now, I'm not saying that hair can't tell you anything. One of the ways Sherlock Holmes is described is as a Bayesian. Basically, Holmes makes one observation. Say it's about the state of a hat band. He then has a good idea about the likelihood a given characteristic of the wearer leads to that observation. He weights that likelihood by the prior probability of the characteristic (there's a whole set of these) and divides it all by the probability of the observation. This gives the posterior probability of the characteristic. Holmes then makes another observation, say, about the price of the hat. This works in the same way... except now he uses the posterior where he used the prior last time. And he does this for everything that he sees. And the point of Holmes is that he sees a lot. This is a long sequence of Bayes' Box calculations so I'm calling the fundamental idea Bayesian. And having an observation about someone's hair and putting it together with all the other stuff could actually say something about somebody. For instance, notice that our knowing Frank was Frank is an observation.

What headlines like "What your hair says about you" normally talk about is reverse causality. Say someone sees the author of the article and notices his hair. The hair is hipsterish so what do they do? They conclude he is a hipster. Hipsters have hipster hair, he's got hipster hair, therefore he's a hipster. It's bad logic but the term is reverse causality. Or, at least, that's what I'm using. (If you know some better terminology please tell me.) People have a set of expectations which they then read in the hair. It's pretty simple and seems to suggest that "what you say someone's hair means says a lot about you"... or something, anyway.
Unfortunately, the opinions and views of the society that we live in continues to shape the way that others perceive me. Despite the cultural beliefs and ideas that I have about what my hairstyle means to me, the tikitiki that I now wear has been caught up in some hipster trend that categorises me into something that I don’t identify with. Both my Pākehā and Māori friends will take a stab at my ‘man-bun’, but people are yet to understand the tikanga that underpins it. Those moments are a great opportunity for me to teach people about how our tūpuna respected their head and hair, and who knows, maybe I will develop that super-power after all.
Te Miri Rangi is finding personal meaning in his hair. He's writing an article which validates that act. It does do that, although as I reject the meaningness of hair I was always going to agree with this bit. I'm not sold on the superpower thing but even to the extent that wasn't a joke, how is that any more ridiculous than praying, lighting candles, fasting or whatever other crazy religious crap people do? It's just a thing. They can do it but they should shut up about it... religion is exclusively personal. What made me write this is that Rangi is stumbling around on the edge of the true insight, i.e. that hairstyles lack meaning inherently and are given it externally. In this context, you are external to your own hair. If anything, I see the validating material as promulgating the false truth of meaningness. On the other hand, validating isn't meant to do that.

Well, that was fun... a blogpost mostly about a headline for an article that didn't exit. Such is the muse. Rangi provides a frame, not a reference. But also, this is the reverse-clickbait headline. My post is what the title says its about. It's just that what it's about isn't about what it is about.



*After years of trying to develop a comments section here I've given up and now pursue part of my mission statement under a username I'm not going to tell you.

Monday, 20 November 2017

EPL Take Three : Arsenal Beat Spurs

I don't really care about these derbies. I said as much the first time I wrote one of these. So what's going on with this title? Well, simply, it's a comment on expectations.

I think most people probably would have picked Spurs to beat Arsenal or, at least, walk away with a draw. A lot of that thinking would have reflected Arsenal's previous game... their fourth loss of the season which looked pretty decisive at 3-1. That was a "fake" result.

The only real way to judge the feel of a game, i.e. which team is winning, is actually to watch the game. Goals are just proxy representations. Goals For approximates the quality of your attacking and Goals Against approximates the quality of the defending. To be clear, I don't have a problem with using goals to determine the outcomes of games. But sometimes it happens the only reason a goal was conceded was because someone slipped. That's not part of the game. Sometimes a goal is scored because it was offside. That's not part of the game. And, of course, Goals Against doesn't represent the quality of the opposition's defending (and vice versa) which also makes the goal tallies approximate representations of "winningness in the moment".

Naturally you can't watch every game. And a lot of the important things about games, such as whether or not a goal was offside, is quasi-subjective. There are judgemental calls involved. Admittedly off-sides are about the clearest cut sort of foul that regularly leads to a goal but anyone with the faintest knowledge of soccer knows how difficult it is to determine whether or not a penalty should have been given. Winningness is also a pretty subjective quality and it's difficult to use objective measures to try and assess it.

In RTS games it is possible to win a game by turtling. That means using a very defensive strategy, usually accomplished through defensive builds. The way I turtle also involves counter-attacking. Obviously this makes it harder to tell what is going on. I might not have map control but that was a conscience choice: is the opponent's control of the map providing as much information about their winningness as "usual"? Not really. This is why possession doesn't work as a measure of winningness in soccer. Apart from difficulty in converting it into goals or goal potential, plenty of teams sacrifice possession to play in a particular way. There isn't really even a clear link between possession and shots (on target).

I'm sure if you plotted it, on average the greater the possession the greater the shots taken. But every single game is unique. If we wanted to predict the number of shots taken you'd need to take into account formations, the teams playing, which players they've got and whether the team is at home as well. At least, I'd be very surprised to find these features don't help... I have not attempted such a model. After all, there's a reason why people talk about side-ways passing and the boringness of tiki taka. And taking shots doesn't really translate into shots on target properly either. Those are what really grinds an opponent down. And how to engage with different kinds of shot?

I pay a lot of attention to corners when I do watch soccer matches. This is because my mother does when she watches soccer. And this quite reasonable. In NZ following international sport is normative in a way that doesn't seem to be true anywhere else in the world (hyperbole?) and international soccer is reputed to be defensive. That is, corners are surely more likely than in domestic games... and plenty of goals come from corners in domestic games too. But corners are really just a product of possession and shots. That's an improvement on either individually. After all, to get a corner you need to use possession to make the defence do something they don't want to do. Typically the intermediate step is some kind of shot or doing something that will lead to a dangerous shooting opportunity. The problem is that certain styles of play and player can be chosen which disfavour corners. And having a lot of corners may indicate a propensity to shoot at defenders rather than the goal.

Of the usually reported statistics, the one my gut says best assesses winningness is fouls. That's a bit stupid when you think about it, right? After all, I started off talking about the difficulty in discerning fouls. And some fouls mean more than others... think about penalties and the placement of free kicks. But soccer is so into gamesmanship that "professional fouls" are a Thing. As a result, a certain number of fouls in a game are committed based on the players' perceptions of winningness, i.e. the very thing we're trying to measure. I think this is why my gut impression is tenable. Time to put this altogether.

BBC Match Report

  • Based on possession we'd be thinking City 1.5-1 Arsenal not 3-1 (so, perhaps, 3-2 or 2-1).
  • Based on shots we'd be thinking City 1.5-1 Arsenal not 3-1 (so, perhaps, 3-2 or 2-1) as well.
  • Based on shots on target we'd be thinking City 1.7-1 (so definitely 2-1 as we'd believe in at least two saved attempts each).
  • Based on corners we'd expect a draw.
  • Based on fouls we'd expect a draw too.
So what to think? Based on all this information we'd expect a tight scoreline like 2-1 or 1-0, more like 2-1 because 60% possession is quite good and these are the premier league's most possession happy sides. The point is, we would not expect a final score of 3-1. Especially remembering my beliefs about corners and fouls we'd actually prefer to believe in a 2-2 or 1-1 game. So how did the scoreline turn out to be 3-1?

Very simply this game finished at 3-1 for two reasons. Firstly, there was a penalty. I haven't seen it again (at least, I remember watching a clip of it) but all the pundits I remember reading broadly agreed with it. Secondly, there was an offside goal. In the Bundesliga it wouldn't have counted. Why? Video Ref. So, what could we expect a game without the offside to finish as? Surely there are more refined measures of performance than my gut driven inferences? Perhaps even some that take into account what I said? Well, there are expected goals. Which, as I understand them, weights all shots by the chance of it going in.

From Here.
Ah, so Manchester City were outperforming themselves by this measure as well. But one of those large circles was the offside.


What this shows is that if you disinclude the offside Manchester City look quite a lot worse than a 3 goal team. In fact, if you remove the penalty we have City 0.79 - 0.34 Arsenal. Or, 1-0. Which is consistent with our impressions from before. 2-0 isn't, however. And while it makes sense to exclude penalties as measures of winningness in an expected goals formulation as they're so likely to lead to an actual goal,* I've already talked about why penalties/fouls make sense. On to the Spurs game!

The way I have tried to get you to read the Manchester City game is that Arsenal didn't put on a bad show... and that was away from home where everyone agrees they've been poor this season. Spurs may be a very good side and easily the most consistently good team in the EPL over the past two seasons, but their record at Arsenal is a bit suspect. So why this?
Well...no one saw that coming, did they? A resolute and determined Arsenal outplaying Tottenham in all departments and securing a fully deserved victory? 
[...]
If they can do it against it Spurs when no one gave them a prayer, they should be able to do it against Burnley and Huddersfield in the next 10 days, shouldn't they? But we've been here before...
And by no-one he means his colleagues.

Based on what we've seen above, Arsenal should have been given a fighting chance. They went to clearly the best side in the division and came away with a misleading result. If we're thinking that a worse team can beat them easily when Arsenal is at home and this team usually doesn't do well away to Arsenal we should probably re-check what we're using to calibrate our expectations. Speaking of which...

2.19 to 0.59
Which suggests it should have been 2-1. But also...




  • Based on possession we'd be thinking Arsenal 1 - 1.5 Spursnot 2-0 (so, perhaps,1-2 or 3-2).
  • Based on shots we'd be thinking a draw.
  • Based on shots on target we'd be thinking Arsenal 1.25 - 1 Spurs (1-1?) or maybe 2-1 (the three shots saved thing).
  • Based on corners we'd expect Arsenal 1.75 - 1 Spurs.
  • Based on fouls we'd expect an Arsenal win... or perhaps Arsenal 1.45 - 1 Spurs (1-1?).
And Arsenal apparently had an offside goal which doesn't actually change the Expected Goals conclusion because it was a very unlikely goal (unusual, I think). But you can see why I like fouls, right?



*To clarify... Expected Goals are still goals. Sure they involve the ideas of winningness that we discussed but they really, really like goals. If we included penalties we would end up inferring teams that were very fortunate to win a penalty were doing well in terms of winningness. That's obviously wrong. You can't have a fortunate penalty if you look like you're winning. Thus penalties have to go because they're something where the goalness comes through so strongly that it crowds out the Expected Goals measure's ability to involve our ideas of winningness. Getting a shot from open play that is as likely to go in as a penalty is guaranteed to reflect a suite of traits associated with winningness. We'd have difficulty reading it over the course of the match, but because the chance isn't 1 we hope it averages out.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Thoughts on Sex Crimes

I'll write about quite a lot of things. You might say that I write about anything that pops into my head until it pops out of my head. Take my last post... Word tells me that clocks in at 4004 words. That's quite a lot. I chuck it on Medium (oh, yeah, I have a Medium account) and it's 16 minutes reading time! Something I don't like talking about is rape. Or related topics like sexual assault (which may or may not be the same thing), sexual harassment and so on. I just don't. It's a heavy topic. And sure I'll happily talk about genocide (not that I have here) but it's just different. The thing is that I do sometimes have opinions about such matters. Here's something I wrote on Medium in response to a post entitled, "What it's like to watch a Harvey Weinstein movie now":
Harvey Weinstein is better known now than he ever was before: that’s how. Producers are nobodies and nothings. They are just more names you don’t really read in the credits.
Of course, in the creation of the film they have a bigger role but this is also true of stunt doubles. The trouble is that producers are much easier to replace than stunt doubles as it doesn’t matter what a producer looks like.
As to the question of what to do when you realise that you know who the “stunt doubles” were in a film? I agree it is difficult to not view the movie as some lasting representation of an event (whether harassment or assault). The film isn’t. Whether or not it is actually possible to convince oneself of this is another question, of course, but it’s a way forwards. Another is to remember that Hitler ate sugar… i.e. a product isn’t bad because of who uses or who made it.
I'm going to briefly touch on the same theme here... how to think about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis CK's body of work in a post-allegations world.

The Allegations

There's a thing that happens in a certain kind of plot. Usually it involves teachers being accused of paedophilia. In the good ones the teacher didn't actually do anything and all the allegations arise from misinterpreted incidents. Often the children are convinced into believing that harmless acts were otherwise by parents who, understandably, are really just trying to look out for them. I'm not sure how often this really happens, but you can see how it could happen. And this sort of thinking creates a certain amount of uncertainty or even disbelief about allegations of this kind in general. It's even worse when the accused is a wealthy man and the accused are women... there's a certain narrative people have in their heads about rape accusations which is disturbingly similar to gold digging. I don't think it applies with Weinstein, Spacey and that other guy... not least of which because they've kind of confessed (but, hey, so did a certain ex-television host).

What's going on in these school plots is that you're not dealing with independent situations. These plots are about single communities and involve people who know each other, often quite well. Forgetting the other guy for now, with Weinstein and Spacey we're talking about years worth of events and different continents. All these allegations are coming out now for one simple reason: when the first emerges you give confidence to the other victims. And maybe some of them use inappropriate terminology or believe things like sexual assault to be attempted rape but I suspect a lot of the time that's because lawyers don't use normal language. How do you fault them for that? Unfairly. But it is why trial by media is a piss poor process. And it's probably one reason I largely avoid these conversations. The important thing to note, I think, is the amount of independence we can assume on the part of the victims (obviously we may infer behavioural similarity between the accused in one instance and in another).

Also, why I am on the broader subject, I am forever disturbed by the Campus Rape stuff that comes out of the US. Universities are a completely inappropriate forum/entity/medium to investigate rape cases (or other criminal cases). Their staff may make sense as people to whom a crime is reported but the whole system needs to make cases end up in the hands of the professionals as soon as possible, i.e. the police. And if the US is that worried about the integrity of their cops? Well, that's where you bring in the FBI. Similarly, it is disingenuous to suggest that the universities are simply dealing with matters of their codes of conduct. They're not. They are defaming individuals at worst and, at best, are achieving correct outcomes, i.e. societal recognition of a rapist as a rapist, from inappropriate measures. You wouldn't accept it if the universities were teaching physics papers with sociologist PhDs (or vice versa) so you shouldn't accept it when these universities basically ask randoms off the street to determine if rapes occurred.

Interpreting the Work

Firstly, let's mention what prompted this post, i.e. a Spinoff article entitled, "We should have had a problem with Louis CK long before now." The author doesn't like Louis CK. Well, I go further. To me he is an unperson. Louis CK is just a meme from the internet. He's like Bad Luck Brian except Bad Luck Brian has had an actual impact on my life. Louis CK is a nobody. A nothing. I'd piss on his grave, but it wouldn't register as being a name were I to walk by. I will now return to ignoring Louis CK as I have done my entire life up until this point. If you care about Louis CK's work in any way... well, you're doing something wrong with your life.

Harvey Weinstein is, as I indicated on Medium, an interesting question. Obviously, as a producer, there is some pretty well known stuff that he's been involved with... I believe Shakespeare in Love (a film I have seen at least bits of) is one such example. The trouble is, as a producer, I am clearly not convinced the dude was really that well known. And, as a producer, he was never really that important. An invisible presence, I think. But I do know who Jerry Bruckheimer is so maybe I would have recognised the name Harvey Weinstein three months ago. On the other hand, I have literally seen Bruckheimer's name hundreds of times because he is a big producer of television too. That might make a difference in terms of their notability. Anyway, I think it is at least theoretically possible to distance the Weinstein claims from any associated media. I think that is hard, but it is something we ought to do. And maybe it's time "produced by" went the way of "colour by Technicolor"... still there but now literally the last thing in the film's credits.

With Kevin Spacey things get really difficult. Spacey's been quite a few films that I have seen... The Negotiator (very good film), Pay it Forward (apparently under-rated... it's watchable Oscarbait), K-Pax (good) and some other things too (e.g. the House of Cards remake... not a scratch on the original). As someone who is convinced by the allegations (and, hey, what the hell kind of treatment is he receiving anyway?) this poses a difficult question. It is not possible to not see Spacey. People go on about how great he is at acting but to be honest those three films' characters aren't as dissimilar as you'd expect (they're certainly more similar than the Walking Dead and Toy Story and people compare them). I'm not sure if any of Spacey's films are associated with the acts in the same way Weinstein's are, but if they are the representation thing is much harder to ignore. With Spacey (and allegations involving actors in general... especially the good ones*) it's really difficult to actually live up to what you're saying when you tell yourself, "The film is not the act and the actor is just a talking head". So difficult, in fact, that if I were the investors involved in All the Money in the World, I'd want to protect my investment to the extent of having another actor come in... just like what happened (also, Christopher Plummer is brilliant in The Pink Panther Returns).

Concluding Remarks

I personally think that rape cases should work on the basis of blanket immunity. There isn't really a public interest in knowing someone has been accused. As I have indicated I believe that people reinterpret events in light of new information. That is an entirely reasonable thing to do. The loss of publicity breaking down auras of "there is no way I could accuse them" is lost, but it's gained back by knowing that you, as the complainant, have anonymity on your side. A case can go very far like that. Or, anyway, it should be able to.

This idea of anonymity does raise some questions about what I've done here today. And it does beg the question of what happens when a victim comes out in public. I read once a piece where the author described being raped. I know that author. Not that well, but well enough. It is a terrible burden. Particularly because it's really hard to try and alleviate oneself of that burden by complaining. In light of the event it's so trivial and childish. Until now I've resisted the temptation. But I rather suspect that you could see some of the things I have written as being in somewhat the same vein. Especially given my lack of specifics and oscillating focus... is this about sex crimes in general? the cases of Spacey and Weinstein? the artistic questions raised by those cases? have I talked too much about rape and accidentally been reductionist in my treatment? This paragraph exists to tell you that there are problems here at the meta level. It also tells you about the ones I know about.

Awful things happen. I feel a bit bad about them. Life has an unfortunate tendency to go on, but what people tend to miss is that it's never exactly the same again. Weinstein and Spacey might yet make it back, but remember Mel Gibson was only infamous for saying horrible things... I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to learn about the other stuff but even so. Remember Roman Polanski is almost best known for being that rapist director. He might be free. He might still get work. But everyone knows. That's something.


* Although as the Johnny Depp case shows (and note I don't really take those allegations as being the whole truth or, perhaps, even the big truth) how people react when there had been a different kind of backlash is perhaps informative.

Traffic and Auckland

One of the most interesting and absorbing parts of games like SimCity or Cities: Skylines is their traffic functionalities. I'm not exactly sure how they go about modelling traffic but I do know in the latter game a dude managed to basically have a congestion-less city by following the principles of traffic engineers. He made a guide about it... although I haven't really managed to follow it properly. Over on Greater Auckland, though, traffic engineers seem to have a... problematic reputation. And the transport patronage modelling gets a particularly bad rap.

You might remember that in one of my earliest posts here I talked about the CRL and how the then government had set completely unrealistic targets. As it turned out the unrealistic part was in how quickly the patronage goals would be left in the dust. Aucklanders, reality said, like to catch trains a hell of a lot more than the models said. GA trots out all sorts of explanations for the patronage data. New trains, positive buzz from electrification, double-tracking the Western Line, station improvements, HOP and even the New Network (for bus services) roll-out could be added in insofar as it has pushed people from some bus routes on to the trains. Most of these things have been present for some time now. The New Network is still an ongoing thing but I'm less certain it's been "blamed" for patronage growth. But still the trains grow in popularity. And still the models seem quite sceptical about public transport use by Aucklanders.

At the same time that all this has been going on I think there's been a massive surge in the normalcy of "Auckland has bad traffic". I don't really remember in the last five years traffic having received so much attention. Maybe it's reflecting a real increase in the intrusion of congestion in mundane life. Maybe it reflects that I now commute (albeit by train... this is the only reason I started reading GA after all). Maybe it reflects that I don't remember the sheer amount of complaining that I used to read about. I do know in 2014 when I was explaining the predictability of the trains was a great advantage in a semi-public fashion there was a certain amount of scepticism. I think one of the present people agreed with the notion but thought I was placing too much probability on the chance of a comparably long commute by car. I don't think you'd encounter that now. Certainly not when you only need to balloon the commute from where I'm from by 20 minutes to equal the train's journey. But even if the traffic's being absolutely psycho is a narrative only from 2017, it's still worth a quick chat about it.

Solutions to Mass Traffic Complaints

How one sees the problem will dictate the nature of the solutions that one generates. For example, if you think about the problem as being about the preponderance of very boring complaints about traffic, if everyone hardened up the problem is solved. How to achieve that might be a difficult question, but that's a perfectly reasonable solution. If, however, you see the complaints as a symptom? Well, then, that's when you start to think about things like congestion pricing... and also when you realise that, contrary to what people say about Infosys 110, it actually had some pretty useful stuff in it (welcome to the problem tree concept).

Building More Roads/Lanes

This won't work. There's a thing called Braess' Paradox which I heard about via GA and following Wikipedia it runs thus:
a proposed explanation for the situation where an alteration to a road network to improve traffic flow actually has the reverse effect and impedes traffic through it. The paradox was postulated in 1968 by German mathematician Dietrich Braess, who noticed that adding a road to a congested road traffic network could increase overall journey time, and it has been used to explain instances of improved traffic flow when existing major roads are closed.
The paradox may have analogies in electrical power grids and biological systems. It has been suggested that in theory, the improvement of a malfunctioning network could be accomplished by removing certain parts of it.
Well, okay, it doesn't happen every time but it does happen. And you can immediately see why it happens. Everyone basically thinks, "Well, it's faster now, so driving is worth my time". At the first stage, you get people who choose to drive down the new road because it's logically faster for them. This may or may not make other actors decide to behave slightly differently. At the second stage, you induce more vehicles into the network as a response to the change. This definitely does adjust the behaviour of everyone else. And so, eventually, you end up in a situation where if everyone is making their best response given what they think about everyone else's behaviour the overall outcome is actually more, not less, congestion.

(Interestingly, this is another example of a game where the Nash Equilibrium is not the best social outcome, i.e. the self-interest of the butcher and baker etc. doesn't generally lead to good places.)

Congestion Pricing

I think the basic idea here is that too many people are trying to use the road at the wrong time. That is, maybe John could get to work at 8:30, Paul at 8:00, Ringo at 9:00 and George at 7:30 but ultimately they all end up on the road at the same moment. As do all the Petes, and they could get to work as late as 9:30.

You can see how that might happen, right? You get a bunch of Pauls who think that they need to be early, so they get on the road and in the way of Georges who are aiming to arrive at their "optimal" time of 7:30. This slows everyone down, giving these Pauls an incentive to leave earlier in the day as well as the Georges. The trouble is that some Johns also want to get to work early so they enter the traffic at the right moment to be floating around with Pauls... and so on. The traffic created by the behaviour of earlier actors changes what seems to be the right thing to do for later actors. And it's all compounded by where people leave and arrive from. In real life we would leave at about 8:25/8:30 for school all the time to arrive at 8:40. On a normal day this was a journey of 3-4 minutes (40 if I walked... which I often did, at least going home), but sometimes the Great South Road was clogged with bumper-to-bumper cars at this time so we'd be late. The point is, people making longer journeys get in the way of people making shorter journeys inducing more behavioural changes.

With congestion pricing, at least if managed well, you would create incentives to leave at better times. If you priced people coming into an area during 8-9 say, you obviously discourage people who don't need to be in that area from joining the party... here, the Petes. You also create a tradeoff. The Johns and the Ringos could leave quite a bit earlier to avoid the pricing but in doing so they have massive amounts of down-time before they actually start work... which isn't desirable. And if they've got to drop off Judes on the way to school as well, they may actually be told not to have anyone at school too early in the day. Thus, Johns and Ringos have incentives to try and find other ways of travelling that avoid the pricing. In my example, it's not clear what would happen with the Pauls and Georges. I have actually made it more attractive for the Pauls to leave early... which suggests that the pricing needs to be adjusted (maybe from 7:30-9).

Now, I think I have brought up one of the issues with congestion pricing... you have to do it right. Don't get me wrong: it's definitely an attractive mechanism for reducing the amount of people travelling in private vehicles or, at least, for reducing the number of single-person vehicles. But you also need to think about the equity implications and the lessons of Braess' Paradox. That is, there are people who can afford to pay congestion prices and there are people who can't. Yet, the need to make trips into congestion priced areas is distributed across these two groups without consideration of fairness. And what about the sorts of behavioural choices we'd induce? How do best responses change? Pricing traffic entering in an area seems to me like a "soft" version of closing a road... which means that we ought to be thinking about Braess' Paradox's central point: the systemic implications of local changes. Or, in other words, doing it right is quite complex and needs to involve a certain amount of... ah... nuance? empathy?

Cost Internalisation

Another idea that I have encountered in reading GA over the last three years is the notion that automobile transport is heavily subsidised. This probably doesn't seem obvious to the consumer what with all the associated vehicle costs and taxes for roads, but it's true. Roads don't pay for themselves: they are built at and run at a (financial) loss. When you think about it, this is one of the reasons why governments are in the business of road building in the first place... it's very difficult to get a private entity to do so for a public road. But the subsidisation is broader than this. It's reflected in artificially cheap parking. It's reflected in the non-internalised health and environmental costs that car travel and resultant pollution cause. It's seen in the failure to price in the costs of all the space that cars occupy. Think of the complaints about the Ports of Auckland's waterfront carpark. That exists for every single item of car infrastructure... from your garage that could've been a house, that overly wide road that could've been part of a house, that carpark which could have been... the list is extensive.

The trouble with thinking about trying to make drivers internalise the costs of their "habit" is that there are so many different costs to internalise. Making developers pay for the infrastructure for greenfields development kind of helps, and maybe boosting some of the taxes would work too (but they'd need to be ones specifically tied to vehicles because internalisation requires seeing driving as the cause/origin/root of the costs). Charging for parking more intelligently is probably the biggie.

I know the issues with paying to park. I hate paying to park. Indeed, it's probably one of the problems I have with cities. I come from a part of Auckland where it doesn't happen at all. That's my normal. It's how I judge things. But I also know that where I live parking isn't scarce and traffic in the town centre isn't at issue. Sure, there's some traffic problems along the Great South Road these days but that's largely caused by "big box stores". In Auckland as in the CBD it's a very different matter. A hell of a lot of the trips through and to Central Auckland don't need to be made by car. Some of them probably don't even need to happen at all. This kind of traffic is what would disappear if car parking was priced to reflect the demand for parking and the social costs of parking. The trouble is what happens to the family trip to the Museum?

The Domain/Auckland War Memorial Museum is not an amenity for people who live within a kilometre of it (as seems to be the thinking of GA) but rather for all of Auckland (really, the country). And however convenient you make public transport options, visiting the Museum as a family isn't just a matter of moving prams and walkers and the like up the hill. It's not even really a question of frequency and timetabling... although, obviously, that helps. The challenge is that it costs about $10 return for a single adult to get from the outer zones of Auckland to the Museum. That's quite a lot of money... for just one family member. Pricing parking at this rate (i.e. cost equivalency between commuting and driving for the sole-worker) is one idea, for sure, but I think it really breaks down for non-commuting traffic. Going to the Museum is just one example of such a trip.

Sure I'm ignoring some subtleties here. Hell, maybe you're thinking, "But Harry, that $10 parking or whatever is spread over all family members in the vehicle," which is a good thought. A supermarket shop doesn't need to be massive shopping binge with the whole family. You could change that behaviour. Many miscellaneous trips (e.g. appointments, visiting friends) could be done differently too. But there is another truth here: $10 is a lot. If you think it isn't, regardless of whatever personal status you like to bring up in Oppression Olympics, you're privileged: $10 can be a lot of different things. Growing up we'd have never had gone to the Museum as often as we did if we had to pay $10 to park on top of everything else. And while I have mentioned my mother was often a WINZ client, there were (and are) far worse off families than us. The trouble is that preserving "free" parking for these kinds of trip is problematic... even now the Domain's roads see a lot of commuter traffic. I think, in principle, if you paid to park with a HOP card (currently not a possibility) and then tagged on with that HOP card at the amenity you could do it. Visiting the Museum, to the HOP Card, would count as a trip, and provided the time between tagging off at the Museum and tagging out of the parking was less than, say, 30min the journey as a whole would be free.

Also, if you're thinking, "But think about the people who can't afford a car, Harry". Well, hey, if it's possible, ain't no reason why that HOP card idea couldn't save you money on your last public transport trip... provided you tag on within 30 minutes and stay for at least 30 minutes. But I'm glad you raised this point, dear reader, because here comes...

Investment in Public Transport

Public Transport also doesn't solve congestion... unless you start using it. It's fairly similar to Braess' Paradox, I think. Because you get more people, say, catching a train, you create a "void" in the traffic system which people interpret as, "Hey, traffic is good enough that I can actually drive!" Which means that public transport is probably fairly traffic neutral in the long-term. Unless, as I have said, you're on it. Which you should be. Remember? Too many trips in cars that don't have to be in cars.

GA's Congestion Free Network is called such for the idea that congestion isn't a reality on the routes they plan. At the moment if you want to catch a 33 bus from Otahuhu to Manukau you're going to get stuck in traffic during many parts of the day. Why? Because those busses have very limited access to bus lanes. The Congestion Free Network's busses will be on bus lanes, the light rail will have as much grade separation and right of way as possible and the heavy rail lines will include network improvements like fewer at-grade crossings (i.e. one of track or road will go under the other). This will allow for greater reliability, especially for busses. It won't help as much with the sardines problem but more frequency and better services will spread passengers over more services rather than what can happen now where it's possible that everyone who finishes between 2:30 and 3:15 can end up catching the same train depending on walking distances.

However, even if a public transport trip is compromised by traffic congestion or the service being at capacity many of the issues of congestion are avoided. After all, you can feel like you're doing something useful like reading a book (even standing up in crowded trains this is possible) and you also avoid the stress of being the driver who gets to inch forwards only to stop suddenly. By choosing to sacrifice the control at the start of the journey, you don't suffer a loss of agency in the way that a traffic jam takes the power out of your hands does... except when something unpredictable happens (such as some prick killing themselves by public transport... there are much less selfish ways of committing suicide and what's the point of writing a blog on the internet if you can't be insensitive). To be honest, that may even be okay as long as you get told what is going on (which is not something AT is good at, like at all... they are, in fact, terrible at customer updates).

The reasons to invest in public transport have little to do with easing or avoiding congestion. If that's the private benefit you personally get from it then power to you... I'm not here to take away that personal victory. We want to invest in public transport for a bunch of reasons. I've talked before about the choice angle. I obviously believe in the equity angle. But public transport is also a great way of pedestrianising urban spaces. That's great for shops. That's great for health. That's great for the feel of the city, which is good for tourism. Public transport (despite its ability to enable sprawl) also helps cities develop density which is good for the economy, house prices and environmental sustainability. After all, if you don't need to use a car, you don't need as many car parks and you can have smaller roads and so on. And of course it does matter, on some level, that the man on the Clapham Omnibus doesn't experience congestion. (I'm hilarious.)

Density & Broader Systemic Change

Wait, didn't I just talk about this? Well, yes, but that was more a mention. I feel like there is more I can say about density... in particular its relationship to systemic change, which I feel is a topic we've been dancing around since I brought up Braess' Paradox.

The thing with Auckland is that it's not a particularly dense city. I remember talking to a German au pair once who was explaining how it seemed odd to her/her parents that moving 30km away left her in the same city. I'm not sure that's an entirely rational point of view given that Auckland's area is a lot smaller than a lot of places, but it does give perspective. And the perspective that it should be giving is that Auckland is an inefficient user of space. In fact, NZ as a whole is inefficient if all these people who claim to care about population growth feel NZ is a full country. Good God. This is a place the size of the UK and Japan with a population oh so much smaller. 20 million people could fit here easy. But only if we start seriously waking up to the possibility of about 7 million people in Auckland. To do that now I daresay would solve my problem with Wellington... it'd just be a jumped up suburb rather than a city in its own right.

With density Auckland would be a very different place. One of my friend has a habit of looking at Auckland and wondering where all the tall buildings are. I kind of agree. Somewhere I have a photo of Auckland that shows the ports cranes... as a major part of the skyline. I don't think that should happen. Auckland would benefit enormously by having density radiate out from its suburban train stations. I live 10 minutes from a train station. There isn't even a two-storey house anywhere near me! These sorts of areas would gain a lot from having human-scale density. That's terraced houses and buildings no more than 7 storeys tall and the like. Sure, there'd need to be improvements in the bus network and maybe a couple more public spaces... perhaps involving a metro school type situation... but I am suggesting radical change here.

Density brings more people and with the way things are now that would mean a lot more cars. But if you didn't build places with the expectation that every resident could have a vehicle then you'd help normalise not owning a car. Here Google reminds of a Discworld quote from Moist von Lipwig, "Make the change happen fast enough and you go from one type of normal to another." In other words, expectations are a product of conditions. (Trouble is it works the other way round too.) But density also enables more public transport... and different types of it too... and helps facilitate making walking are more visible part of mundane life. This would normalise... that's right! other kinds of not driving behaviours. I remember when Chloe Swarbrick was gunning for mayor... someone suggested she would make a poor mayor because her friends catch busses (I'm pretty sure in a comments section). Perhaps the most important change that density would bring is in the way space is visualised.

This semester I've been taking Geography 104G (Cities and Urbanism) and while I have broadly been disappointed with what is an arbitrary and capricious course a lot of the readings have been really interesting.1 One of the ideas that those readings drive home is how automobile-centric cities are and urban planners' modes of thought have been (and possibly still are). Obviously these ideas did arise in a situation where cities were dense but I think if you had a space that didn't look like it was intended for a car you'd end up with a sort of disconnect. The idea here is that if you stop designing for cars, and assist this through density, you'll end up improving traffic for cars... because you will have fewer cars on the road. If you don't induce the demand, you don't induce the demand.

Also, if you've got a dense city, you physically don't have to drive places... you can walk to your destination so much more easily.

Better Driving

Bad drivers cause traffic jams. Not because they're causing accidents (obviously they do) but because they're bad. If you can stop a friend from driving badly, legend. Shame there isn't really anything else we can do to improve driving.

Concluding Remarks

I don't want to be that guy so I'll be that guy anyway: save the cheerleader from being stuck in traffic, save the world. The stakes are pretty high when it comes to traffic. Perhaps not as high as saving the world, but the fumes from traffic jams certainly doesn't help anyone. So maybe. But we need to seriously think about how we're creating traffic and what exactly the problems with traffic are. Luckily I'm not the only one talking about this. Here's an example of a piece with a much wider audience (sadly). It's got less detail on more options! More! Less! At once! Exactly what we want to achieve. More not driving is fewer bad driving experiences. Fewer cars! More movement! The trouble is, as we discussed, when you make driving better, you make people want to drive more. So you have to do it all. No half measures. Well, okay, here's my action order (for my list):

  • Phase One: Don't build roads. Price parking appropriately. Continue improving public transport. Allow for Density.
  • Phase Two: Accelerate Public Transport investment. Bring in Congestion Pricing.
  • Phase Three: Get ambitious with public transport. Enjoy benefits of density.

Remember, I'm talking about Auckland.

Partly because they are interested in "save the world" moralising... lecturers if you don't want students to write such things, give them different readings and completely change the third section (this is what I mean by arbitrary). Hey, look, another application of this expectations/conditions dialectic (God that course loves that word).

Friday, 10 November 2017

Piss Off, Wellington

I've been to Wellington a couple of times. We've driven down every time so I've seen quite a lot of the North Island between Auckland and Wellington. Normally we take a more central route, but we've even drifted out to go via Wanganui. I like Wanganui. It reminds me of Pukekohe. I really don't like Wellington.

In the past I've talked about how National used the Super City to abrogate its responsibilities to Auckland. Labour's not doing that. Instead, they're forcing us to swallow that stinking rotten fish known as urban sprawl. That's worse. It's one thing to be lumbered with pointless and wasteful roads. It's one thing to just do nothing and wait for Auckland to become some kind of urban hell. It is quite another to use your power to decide some of the most fertile land in New Zealand (and thus, the world) ought to be concrete. I'd rather see the Council struggle to not be able to do much than have the Government force it to do away with core parts of plans synthesised from democratic and expert input. It's not the role of government to reject these things.

You know, I guess I thought the Labour government would let the Super City do its thing. That is, the role would be, "Phil, you bring an idea to Phil and he'll tell us about it and we'll probably facilitate it." What is the point of having a Super City if you're going to micromanage Auckland from Wellington? Isn't local government like the AI in games like Age of Empires? I, as the player, set up my town and the AI does certain things within it. I don't have to tell my villagers which animal to hunt next. I don't have to show them how to get from A to B. I don't have to, but I can. And the way the game is set up is to make it so I do when I think it's doing something wrong. The AI lets me go along as long as I think things are following my macro/grand (national) strategy. That's what Local Government does too, right? It deals with things like resource consents, libraries and bylaws that are too fiddly to have people who think about, say, Invercargill, Taihape and Napier too be mucking about with.

Now, I guess Phil "Chinese Sounding Names" Twyford is stupid enough to think that the Rural Urban Boundary is part of the problem. That would make sense. This is a man most famous for thinking that just because your surname is Lee you're not a NZer. You're only not going to blink twice at this if you're really, really convinced the problem is demand. And if you're thinking the problem is demand, you're thinking the supply problem is simply that there isn't enough of it. This is even kind of true. The problem is it was never the houses: it was the system. It doesn't make sense to let people build more houses in more areas if you're not going to change the system. It doesn't make sense if you're going to try and shake up the incentives if you give them a way of doing what they were doing before. That's all removing the Boundary does. It just lets developers pursue the quick and easy buck like they've always done, even though now you're letting them build apartments. Have you really changed anything if nothing has changed? No, you haven't. A sprawl mentality created Auckland's problems and letting more sprawl happen is just enabling.

Key Points Because I Ramble:
  • Central Government is trying to do something that Local Government both normally does and is actually better placed to do. There's also a moral hazard problem here because which level of government actually has to reach out to these places to build, maintain and look after them? That's right, local government... the level disagreeing with the move.
  • Sprawl is inherently bad... it degrades environments, it induces traffic which harms mental and physical health and it ultimately pushes the poorer members of society outwards... further from amenities. Sprawl makes it more expensive to provide key parts of social infrastructure (e.g. schools, WINZ) or makes it less accessible (because it is further from residents). All of these points make it unsustainable and economically illiterate to pursue.
  • Removing the Rural Urban Boundary won't increase the available land because the real constraint is the provision of infrastructure so land prices won't become cheaper. It doesn't reflect that the problem with land prices is (a) land banking artificially limiting the supply and (b) density controls prevent efficient use of land meaning developers' land costs are made-up in fewer units, i.e. the typical unit price has more land costs in it than there should be (think: $502,000 for a plot spread across one versus two versus four versus ten units...).
  • Removing the Rural Urban Boundary encourages the provision of infrastructure when the money would be more efficiently spent on allowing/assisting brownfields development (from point two). It also, greatly problematically, encourages asking for infrastructure provision... which is going to happen because it's now obvious Moar Houses is all Twyford thinks about.
  • Removing the Rural Urban Boundary will only result in cheaper units if the subsidisation of sprawl is continued. Internalising even some of the costs of sprawl isn't going to achieve cheaper housing, so it must not be part of the plan. Thus, why are you, as a developer, going to pursue the riskier brownfields programme we need (or even just building up which is something few contractors in NZ have experience doing) when you're able to do what is less risky and everyone's been doing for donkey's years? That is, single unit detached houses. Or, put another way, all these new building forms one is allowed to use won't actually be built.
Labour did something good with the trains, but I'm rather beginning to think that the East West Link was a better use of tax payers' money than whatever regressive, unsustainable and demented schemes Twyford has for housing in Auckland. I knew Labour were pro-sprawl but I really, honestly, didn't expect them to be going this far.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

When You're Not Like Trump

Back in September there was a discussion about a Tweet that appeared on The Wall Street Journal's page (whatever they call it on Twitter) which ran, "Meet New Zealand's Justin Trudeau—except she's more like Trump on immigration." I defended that comparison. Both in the sense that it was on a specific area where there was policy alignment and in the sense there were other things we could say. I could also have talked about (and should have) talked about the restraint shown by the Tweet's author. Today I read a Spinoff piece about an actual article published by the Wall Street Journal entitled, "How the far right is poisoning New Zealand". I'm not going to defend this comparison.

In History there is an idea that I remember as, "Show me the historian and I'll show you the history." That's a corruption of the advice given by E. H. Carr, "Study the historian, before you study his facts." It's an interesting idea but it is problematic as Richard Evans has written,
[...] it is perfectly in order to point to historians’ origins, upbringing or personal circumstances to explain how they have reached the conclusions they have. [...] However... engaging in this exercise does nothing in itself to tell us whether the arguments the historian in question puts forward are right or wrong. They have to be taken on their own terms. [...]
And you see, I actually have some experience with Ben Mack. Now, a cynic might argue that repeated publication in the NZ Herald is a problem but the Herald has published the likes of Gwynne Dyer on several occasions so appealing to the clearly skewed thinking of the editors at the Herald can't be said to say much. But if you've read anything published from Dyer or Mack you'll see quite a stark difference in both what they normally talk about and the quality of the discourse. The main reason for this is that Mack is a lifestyle columnist as opposed to a journalist. Reading their stuff indicates several things:
  • Mack's not very perceptive. In this piece they spend a while talking about American media, they even mention American cultural imperialism. What Mack doesn't mention is that it is literally impossible to avoid American cultural productions in NZ. At least, if you speak English. It actually crowds out our own media and is probably one reason why we don't produce much. Perception is about recognising you have grasped an idea and seeing the whole of it. Mack doesn't.
  • Mack's often wrong. Is it because they're not well informed or don't do proper research or are clearly writing for an angle or some combination of these things is unclear. You can see that clearly here. Notice how they have no idea what "winning" an election means?
  • In lieu of research Mack ties together talking points from several discourses, but doesn't notice that this isn't really logical. Analogies are problematic because they're about correlation... something that shares similarities without necessarily sharing a fundamental cause. In this one there are again some ideas but the reasons for uniforms are obvious, not at all inconsistent with the talking points Mack raises and require research to be linked to uniforms. For Christ's sake, choosing clothes is a well known stressor!
  • Mack's neither a complete idiot nor idiomatic. That is, Mack's neither a moron nor really in tune with the way things are in New Zealand. Indeed, that last bit seems to pervade their writing. It is as if Mack is unable to escape it. That's fair (Mack is an immigrant) but it's a problem if you want to provide commentary about what it really going on. Having outside perspective is useful only, I argue, if you also know how the asylum thinks.
  • Mack is very definitely a lifestyle columnist. All the above examples are all just conversation mint type things. That's what Mack is paid to write and that is what Mack has written. But you can write about these topics in different ways. And Lifestyle-columnism doesn't excuse the errors of fact that exist in, for instance, their election piece.
  • Mack's body of work bodes ill. It is an ad hominem argument to say that someone is wrong because of [personal characteristic]. It is not an ad hom to suggest that Mack's life's work (well... as judged by these publication in the Herald, although I didn't read the whole list, anyway) indicates their inferences tend to be off or that if multiple interpretations of some phenomenon/object/event exist the one Mack will run with is likely to reflect an inappropriate sensibility. If we're looking at predicting model, we need to know about that model. I suggest that this is a surprising appropriate analogy for what people making evaluations do.
There isn't really much that I can add to the Spinoff's criticisms of Mack's work on a factual level. Which does beg the question of what I am doing here, right? I mean, I could continue with my character assassination but I don't know anything else about Mack so I've already run out of material. Which leaves, what? Well, I think I can extend the Spinoff's response in the sense is that there are some places where I think Mack has chosen...  the wrong interpretations. As a reminder, here's the link to the article again.

Place One
A shadow is poisoning Middle-earth.
I absolutely loathe these comparisons of NZ to Middle Earth. Why do we insist on the association just because there are these movies? This is the kind of thinking that leads people like Duncan Garner to say crap like this. It leads to really cringey meme-ified nonsense from Air New Zealand. It has played a massive role in NZ's apathy towards our environmental record. And it's a ludicrous image of NZ. The images below from various places I've walked in and around Auckland is the place I inhabit more than this is.

Graffiti

Synecdoche

Rush Hour

Station

Also, pick up the books... they are classics of the fantasy genre for their world-building not the quality of the work... and all that world-building? It is seriously English. Tolkien was literally a professor of Anglo-Saxon. My nationalist sentiments find this an affront both from the perspective of NZ and England.

Place Two
the fact that the heads of the three branches of government are all women.
This is actually an ad hominem. The women-ness of Ardern, Reddy/the Queen or Elias has absolutely nothing to say about their appropriateness for the role. But more to what I was doing with the bullet points is that this isn't the first time this has happened in New Zealand. Mack has chosen to talk about a facet of contemporary New Zealand that is way more mundane than Mack, as an American, could possibly be expected to appreciate. Mack, as a thinker, needs to appreciate this.

Place Three
Led by veteran politician Winston Peters — who has made racist comments toward immigrants and people of Asian descent and Trumpian abuse of the press — New Zealand First has traditionally been an afterthought in New Zealand politics. That all changed this past September, when the two largest parties finished close enough in the general election that whichever party New Zealand First decided to enter a coalition with would control enough seats in New Zealand’s German-style MMP (mixed-member proportional) parliament to govern. In other words, a far-right party that received just seven percent of the vote had the power to decide who would rule.
The reality is that Peters isn't Trumpian. He is basically as establishment as it gets. In fact, many people think (and the Spinoff agrees here) that Peters is ultimately a Muldoonist. State intervention is, to be sure, a reality of many far right positions (or, at least, those in the vein of Fascism, e.g. Nazism)
but Trump? Well, his rhetoric does appear to have big government elements to it... at least scanning these four links suggests that... but he was part of a campaign to get rid of the exact kind of "government looking after people" stuff that Peters loves, i.e. govt. supported healthcare. So, maybe, in this sense NZ First is far right... but we'd expect this sort of thing from centre-leftists! Or, you know, the largest party in NZ's governing coalition. What makes NZ First far right? Is it its position on immigration? Well, White Australia was a socialist position back in the day. And Labour were basically just as anti-immigrant as NZ First was this election... I have lamented this many times. NZ First clearly has a populist agenda and has been a key part of politics in NZ for more than twenty years. Mack doesn't say why NZ First are far right... they seem to rely on us thinking NZ First are Trumpian to make that leap. The reality is that NZ First, in NZ to NZers, isn't Trumpian... here, Trump is somewhat reminiscent of NZ First.

The way Mack talks about NZ First deciding who would be in government is also off. Yes, it appeared that with 7% of the vote Peters was basically dictating what was going to happen. The reality was everyone was talking about who'd give him the better deal: National or Labour. It was a weird situation. NZ First had to be bought, but it was being bought by two opposing blocs. Peters never had more power than the 9 seats NZ First won in the election. Not when it came to making a deal, he could always push too far, and not now that the deal is in place (logically it reflects the deal that was made... and because he is drowned out by 46 Labour 8 Green seats). Well, okay, he had more power than 9 seats strictly deserves but that was because there was no other option. In a world where Peters was on 6 seats and another party with 3 seats (2.5%... about what TOP got) were required (and National had a few seats less) a fairer representation of what those seats were worth would have eventuated. This is part of the issue with the 5% threshold. But Peters is a 9 seat man, and while he might be Deputy PM, does Cabinet make it look like Peters won more than 9 seats? No, it doesn't. And Cabinet is enormously powerful in NZ.

Place Four
The effects of the far right’s influence are already being felt. Amid pressure from New Zealand First, the government has vowed to slash immigration by tens of thousands
At this point, Mack links to an article from 20 October... talking about the enormous power of Cabinet, not imminent policy. Here's one from the other day, headline? "Ardern: No cuts to immigration coming just yet". Probable cause? We're wondering if maybe the brain drain is back. Or, you know, the immigration issue that occupied our thinking back in those ancient days when Key was elected the first time. Or maybe because Peters has always cared more about Grey Power than immigration and thus dogwhistles about immigration were vote winning tactics for both parties. It doesn't really matter. For now, it's not a concern. Trump jumped straight in with #immigrationban if you're wondering.

Place Five
All this flies in the face of Ardern and her “more compassionate” government’s outward progressiveness. But Peters — who took the roles of deputy prime minister and foreign minister as a condition of working with Ardern — and New Zealand First can end the coalition agreement, which would trigger the need for new elections. Put simply, while Ardern may be the public face, it’s the far right pulling the strings and continuing to hold the nation hostage.
I'm not sure we'd have to have a new election, but that's actually the point of the system... that snap elections and changes within parliament prompt a return to the electorate. Imagine if, in the US, the Obamacare-Repeal failures or all the cock-blocking by the Republicans during the Obama years or the reveal of the WMD lie had led to another election? A general election, i.e. getting rid of everyone at once? These kinds of mass changes in the way their government is being run ought to be subjected to electoral approval. And here's the kicker... if they were the parties would face different incentives. Were Peters to throw a hissy fit odds are he'd be blamed... and this would be reflected at the polls. The non-starter of a sex scandal with Len Brown blamed the whistle-blowers and Peters was thrown out of parliament entirely only a few elections ago after being blamed for its problems. An idiomatic commentator would understand how these points are different... and thus, unlike Mack, they would come to a different conclusion about what they mean.

Place Six
Appealing to ethnically homogenous, overwhelmingly cisgender male voters with limited education and economic prospects who feel they’re being left behind in a changing world is nothing new for the far right. 
Mack should know that Peters' voters are old people. I don't think this is the group NZ First targets at all...
But what is new is its savvy at exploiting democracy by doubling down on these voters while mostly allowing larger political parties to attack each other on their own, thus positioning themselves as “kingmakers” who can demand concessions from those larger parties before carrying them into power.
Of course, what actually happened was that in different electoral environments the big parties have explicitly refused to work with Peters (another problem with the previous place). And, on top of that, a good amount of thought was put in about Peters in the run up to the election. This part of the paragraph only makes sense in a very specific way... if you work from the same flawed premises of Mack, i.e. that NZ First are far right, generally neglected in NZ politics and that immigration was made a concern by NZ First, not Labour.



Now, it's pretty obvious that Mack is way off the mark here. But there were some trivial points of similarity. I mean, Trump and Peters really are both (elderly) political opportunists and populists. That's quite a reasonable comparison to make. It works. The problem with taking it further, and it is fairly big, is that Trumpism is all about rejecting the establishment... Peters has been a politician for decades. The problem with taking it to "far right" is that it's been done by an analogy, right? Peters is anti-immigrant and attacks the press. This is like Trump. It's like Trumpism! Well, yes, but it doesn't make it Trumpist. Everyone should attack NZ's press. It's bad at journalism and even worse at spelling. Winston Peters was making a specific criticism of the way the media covered the build up. Hell, parts of the media agreed with him! And being anti-immigrant isn't just motivated by racism... even here it is motivated by racism through house prices, which is quite different to the kind of anti-immigration rhetoric you get from Trump. NZ's election was, really, quite mundane. The immigration stuff was concerning but there is no bigger picture to link it too... except previous elections in NZ.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Overpopulation and Dystopia : Snap Take

Dystopias are a nice favourite of mine in some sense. I'm not a dedicated fan nor even really a dilettante. What I mean is that if I read or watch a dystopia I generally like it. Some favourites in the genre are Watchmen, Jennifer Government, Brave New World and Children of Men (the film; I have not read the book). Today before the internet conked out I watched about half of What Happened to Monday.

The basic idea of this particular film is that a one child policy has been seen as the solution to a crisis of overpopulation. There is one enormous glaring problem with this idea however: overpopulation is a local condition. The reason a one child policy was pursued in China was because a geographically restricted state isn't able to leverage global systems. Thus it makes sense to limit population growth for a couple of decades. In a globalised world, such as the one in the opening montage of WHTM, especially one with a certain looseness for human dignity (basically all dystopias), efficient allocative measures are available. Food can be grown in one place and transported to another. It can be grown in all sorts of inventive ways. People can be housed in all sorts of inventive ways. People can be shifted out of overpopulated areas into regions that can have population. This latter notion is actually part of the early 20th Century demographic thought on the matter. In other words, it is probably the go-to solution.

Some of these ideas kind of come up when you're watching that montage. They talk about GMO food and how there have been all sorts of side-effects. This is unlikely. The truth about GMO food is that it is basically the only thing in the modern world where government shows a spine and regulates. And they regulate the crap out of GMO food. The chance of some kind of unexpected side effect arising from GMO is low... don't worry about it. Now I haven't seen all of the movie so this could be part of the plot rather than a flaw but even so. What I do know for sure is that WHTM takes a very food shortage angle on overpopulation... but still depicts the haves and the have nots. And, critically, both are commonplace.

If you're dealing with an issue of food shortage and have the political capital to operate the way the Child Allocation Bureau does there are much more intelligent responses than a one child policy: involuntary simplification... otherwise known as rationing. A lot of the literature on sustainability issues comes down to one main problem: consumerism... or "enough, is never enough". Now, I've got quite a lot of stuff myself (including two laptops) but a lot of this is because I don't throw stuff out, I just keep it all... as a result I actually don't have enough shoes and I wear 90% of my clothes within an 8 day period. With a dystopic big government you can make everyone me.

Dystopias can control how much stuff is owned and also how it is produced. It may not be the most economically, or at least financially, efficient way of doing things but to be honest I rather suspect Stalinist communism failed mostly because the whole world wasn't Stalinised so I can believe it is long-term possible. And even if this isn't so, you've got, what, 40-50 years or more to figure out a better system. But with food it's relatively easy. It's called rationing and the Western world did it in a big way during both world wars. With technology like that of WHTM you could get even more out of the system. You would simply have to have guards stopping people from cheating self-serve machines... the rationing system would be administered through their wristbands. Or something. As I said, the regime of WHTM is not pro-dignity.

The thing with dystopias is that they ultimately rise and fall on how realistic they seem. Jennifer Government and Brave New World are truly terrifying novels. Neither is very long but all the same both present societies highly plausible and very flawed evolutions of the world we know. Nineteen-Eighty Four is probably the most famous dystopia out there but it lacks this edge of "Dear God, I could see this happening"... when it was written this complaint was less true. Watchmen is obviously fantastic what with Doctor Manhattan running around both starkers and omnipotent (real gods wear clothes, dammit!), but it seems to operate on a plane where "could this happen" seems an unfair criterion. The also fantastic elements of Children of Men differ in that, unlike overpopulation, there is no immediately apparent lay explanation for why mass sterility couldn't occur. WHTM seems to me an entirely enjoyable film and I will finish it tomorrow, but it's not the world's best situation (even if the premise is quite delightful... not that I told you what it was).