Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Sport of Politics

Some people are into politics the way other people are into sport. For the former, a General Election is the World Cup/Olympics/Euros all rolled into one glorious day of voting. But for people not into politics - just as for people not into sport - the hijacking of the airwaves, pubs and casual conversations by all the talk about the big day and whose going to win can be tedious indeed.

The appeal of politics is pretty much the same as sport: it's a knock out competition, a zero-sum game in which you're either a winner or a loser - though without the compensation of a runners up prize in the case of politics. Appealing, of course, if you're into that sort of thing.

Funny enough - though it might be hard to believe from the growing crescendo of speculation about when we're going to have a general election let alone whose going to win - an awful lot of people aren't really into politics. The European Social Survey in 2014 showed that 29% of Irish adults are 'not at all interested' in politics, the second highest level of 'political ennui' in Europe after the Czech Republic, and twice the average of the countries surveyed.

Nor does it stop there: fewer than 5% of Irish adults have 'worked in a political party or action group in the past 12 months'. Unchanged in more than a decade. Indeed, only a third of adults 'feel closer to a particular party than all other parties', also well below the average in the countries surveyed. In contrast, in 2014 40% of Irish adults 'attend religious services apart from special occasions' at least once a week or more often, 54% attend at least once a month or more often (only Poland has a higher level of religiously active adults).

There are ten times as many people 'actively engaged' in religion in Ireland nowadays as in party politics; and yet we're told it's the churches that are 'out of touch' and 'in crisis'.

The difference, of course, is that - every four years or so - we get to put a number in a box opposite  the picture of a person we didn't choose from a party we don't belong to who, if elected, will vote for policies we may not agree with.  It is a terrible system - except for all the alternatives (or so they say).

Enjoy the match.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


John Gray has written an entertaining review of Dominic Johnson's book God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human. He's quite sympathetic to the author's thesis (that God is on the right side of evolution - 'theo-volution'?), and a lot less sympathetic to the New Atheists addressed in the book. Gray notes:
These “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.
For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.
As the quote above from Richard Dawkins suggests, even some New Atheists are beginning to note that not all religions are created equal.

Elsewhere, Edward Feser provides another interesting review, this time of Gerry Coynes' book Faith vs Fact. Feser has a way with one line put downs that's very amusing, though a little less informative than Gray's approach.  One example:
Indeed, you will find in Coyne’s book more straw men than you would at a casting call for The Wizard of Oz
Then again, Feser doesn't so much do blog posts as essays, so he can be very informative when he wants to (and regularly is).

Friday, January 15, 2016

Dealing from Our Deck

First David Bowie, then Alan Rickman and now PJ Mara! As someone of the same vintage as myself once remarked: 'God is dealing from our deck'.

I think it's more than just a case of 'boomer hysterics' as Laura Perrins describes the (over-)reaction to Bowie's death (though I think she's partly right). No, for me it follows on from the common observation that a year can seem an eternity to a young child because one year is so long relative to his or her short life so far.  Likewise it follows that a year to someone, shall we say, 'past the halfway mark' is also long relative to what remains of his or her life. 

So if it's not too late, let me wish you a full and happy New Year, that is, all 365 366 days of them...

Monday, January 11, 2016

Sliding, Not Slipping

It's not too late for some 'year ahead' prognostications. John Michael Greer offers up his own, summarised succinctly thus:
Thus my core prediction for 2016 is that all the things that got worse in 2015 will keep on getting worse over the year to come.
Based on 2016 year-to-date this one may well be on track.

The Archdruid sets out a few, more specific forecasts:
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the next tech bust will be under way by the end of 2016.
the mass marketing of what will inevitably be called “the PV [photovoltaic] revolution” will get under way in 2016.
Then there's:
the most likely outcome of the 2016 election is the inauguration of Donald Trump as President in January 2017.
Wrapping up with:
I’m going to plop for a date and say that the Saudi regime will be gone by the end of 2016. 
I think he's on fairly safe ground with his first forecast as I don't think there's enough QE wind left to fill the sails of an even bigger stock market bubble - for all stocks, not just tech. Regarding PV, I simply don't know enough on the topic: so I'll pass on that one.

As for President Trump, I agree. If you've been following Scott Adams' blog it's hard to see how Trump can be stopped (and if there's anything in rumours about Hillary Clinton's health issues she might not even end up in the frame against him).  Even 'Democrat Defectors' are turning Trump, shown in this fascinating 'dial test' among voters of Trump's first TV ad.

Finally, I don't think the Saudi regime will be gone by the end of 2016 - they have enough reserves to buy their self-preservation for another year or two. At least I hope so, otherwise we might all be checking out photovoltaics...

And on the sad day that's in it - here's a different kind of forecast from The Man Who Fell to Earth:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Future Repugnant

Some advice for 2016 - hold your nose:
...the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.
John Maynard Keynes
ht National Intelligence Council

Thursday, January 7, 2016


Paul Graham - cofounder of Y Combinator among other things - recently penned an insightful essay on The Refragmentation looking at how a world of 'big is beautiful' corporations, media and even churches gave way (fragmented) to a dynamic new world of start ups and greater choice in most spheres of life. He observes:
In the early 20th century, big companies were synonymous with efficiency. In the late 20th century they were synonymous with inefficiency. 
Graham speculates about how this came about: technology is deemed to have played a key - if not the key - part. It's a compelling narrative (set out at 70 characters per line because he thinks this makes the text more legible, and he may be right), so do read it.  Graham does see a downside to the end of the behemoths that shaped much of America when he was growing up: income inequality and job insecurity, for example. So he's no Panglossian.

But I think he's wrong at a fundamental level. He also observes:
The companies in the S&P 500 in 1958 had been there an average of 61 years. By 2012 that number was 18 years.
Which sort of supports his point, but also contradicts it. The point is: there's still an S&P 500 - and then there's the rest. Last time I looked, Apple, Goldman Sachs, Google and Facebook were fairly large companies: on some measures more dominant in their respective markets than the likes of General Foods and General Motors were in Graham's youth.  They just don't (need to) employ as many people as the 'big businesses' of the past (thanks to technology and the global supply chain it enables) - but they're still 'big' on all the same measures of economic power, influence on government policy, and barriers to entry (albeit different ones) as before.

But that's not my main gripe with The Defragmentation hypothesis.  For all the undoubted breakdown of corporate, media and cultural behemoths in the last two decades of the 20th century, there's one that's gotten bigger and less fragmented, namely: Government.

Government's share of the economy has risen in just about every developed country since the middle of the 20th century, after a brief decline in some countries for a short time (including Ireland). If anything, the technologies that drove The Refragmentation may well enable further growth in Government's share of economic activity, and not just in the West.

China's total debt is now half the world's entire debt, adding 61% percentage points of debt to GDP in just the last five years.  A case of Defragmentation perhaps (until it all goes pear-shaped, of course). Technology has also enabled China to gamify social control (through schemes like Sesame Credit).

It seems even Americans are waking up to the Defragmentation of Government issue: Government has just been named as the top US problem in a Gallup poll for the second year in a row.

Nevertheless, here in Ireland the recovery might witness a declining role for Government in terms of both economic activity and its overall influence in citizen's lives. Breath in, hold... keep holding............

still holding?

Sunday, January 3, 2016


It's that time of year: a time for forecasts, predictions and prophecies.  That said, I don't think one year makes much of a difference on the scale of 'change that matters'.  Most of what occupies the headlines (and the commentaries I read) is the stuff of 'sound and fury, (usually) signifying nothing'. But entertaining nevertheless.

Maybe we need to take a longer term perspective (like the xkcd cartoon opposite)?

Of course, the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising provides an opportunity to widen our temporal horizons a little (I even wrote an entire book on the subject once).  Though anniversaries have a way of becoming a Rorschach test onto which we project very contemporary (and therefore transitory) concerns and anxieties. Just as the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 was an exercise in 'didn't we do well' self-congratulations (all evidence to the contrary); so 2016 is shaping up to be an exercise in 'let's create a real secular Republic' just like the Rebels wanted (again, all evidence to the contrary).

Instead of using the past to explain the present, we often tell stories about the present to explain the past (the 'Politically Correct History' trope). While the stories we tell about the future (whether a year ahead or a century ahead) always bear an uncanny resemblance to the present (the 'Society Marches On' trope).

So I expect lots of 'headlines' in 2016 (both the predictable and unpredictable kind), but not a lot of change (other than a further leftward shift in Ireland's Overton window after the General Election... or maybe after the second one later in the year).

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