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Monday
Feb012016

Last Blue Century

It is a privilege to be writing the foreword to the tenth edition of Dr Eli Chan’s seminal work, “Last Blue Century”. In the public perception of history, the 21st century is often overlooked, the ‘quiet years’ between the World Wars of the 20th century and the technological upheavals of the 22nd. Chan defies this convention in this engaging account of the social, economic and environmental changes of the “last blue century”, making the case that this period initiated the seeds of today’s political structures.

At a geopolitical level, the 21st century was remarkably stable, keeping intact the “nation-state” model, where each region exercised near-complete autonomy over its economy and society. However even without a revolution in political structure, profound transformation was driven by economic change. From our 24th century perspective it is impossible to over-estimate the physical nature of the early 21st century economy. Computers were restricted to one or two primitive devices per household, and robotics was essentially absent, with nearly all mechanical tasks requiring human operation. Currency was largely in the form of physical chips, and most economic interactions were inter-personal. By the end of the century, however, physical currency had been eliminated and class I robotics had permeated throughout the economy. Cities were also transformed, from ultra-low density sprawls characterised by slow transportation networks, to systems that were more similar to today’s cities. The greatest shift was observed in east Asia, where the implementation of the first “directed economy” structure in China resulted in the largest decrease in poverty in global history, followed by similar (but later) transformation in the previously nascent Sinophilic zone.

The social shifts were just as the economic changes. At the dawn of the 21st century, only half the population lived in a democracy, and individual rights were sharply limited. A large majority of the global population was religious, typically advocating external prescriptivism. This progressively shifted throughout the 21st century, with a sharp increase in secularism and the modernisation of mainstream religions (although this process did not occur in the Islamic Crescent until the 22nd century). The social consequence of these changes was first felt in the lifting of discriminatory laws based on sexuality and gender, removing strict penalties (including execution!) against non-conformism. By the end of the century, more than 90% of people lived in democracies and the expansion of individual rights had accelerated. Children started gaining proxy voting rights, and the sole wild-surviving Great Ape gained legal status as a semi-humanoid. While the removal of birth-place discrimination did not take place until the next century (apart from in Scandinavia, to a limited extent), the global public rights charter of the 22nd century can more rightly be considered an expansion of these processes rather than a new phenomenon driven by the synthetic intelligence debate.

It is in the natural world that the most profound changes of the 21st century occurred. While the rate of environmental degradation reached its peak in the late 20th, the cumulative impacts were felt the most in the 21st. Our rainforest preserves once spanned South America, Africa, and even the mega-cities of modern South-East Asia. Damage done to biodiversity was even more extreme in the oceans, with an estimated 90% loss during the 21st century with the death of coral reefs. While genome-sequencing was developed during this time, the rate of destruction was such that only a few iconic species (such as the rhinoceros and gorilla) were given sufficient molecular phenotyping to allow later de-extinction.

It is the titular change to the natural world, however, which proved to have one of the most profound political effects. The startling blue sky shown in historical photographs was a lived reality until the last ten years of the 21st century. Over 200 years of industrialisation based on the burning of preserved organic matter drove a strong Greenhouse effect, causing global warming. The problem was largely ignored due to a political system where individual nation-states had no global decision-making process – in effect, each region had complete authority for unlimited pollution of global resources! Ironically enough, the same “regional independence” that allowed a run-away Greenhouse effect also permitted the dramatic geoengineering response. Major droughts in East Asia in the late-21st century resulted in a single nation-state, China, pursuing a counter-geoengineering process of deliberate atmospheric seeding with sulphur dioxide. This process limited the global temperature rise to 2.5°C, but also resulted in today’s white skies and acidic events.

Chan makes the case that this simple colour switch drove profound changes in our socio-economic system. The direct effects are well known - medical historians have attributed the profoundly low rates of suicide and mental illness in pre-22nd century society to the beneficial effects of constant blue light exposure. However the novel contribution of Chan in Last Blue Century, for which ey received the 2336 Nobel Memorial Prize, was hen theory of the political ramifications of this colour change. The widespread public anger at the unilateral counter-geoengineering was such that at the time serious predictions were made of a third World War. Chan meticulously maps out hen assessment of the resulting series of compensation negotiations and bilateral agreements as the first steps towards the global public rights movement. Ey convincingly argues that while the generation of synthetic intelligence was the proximal cause of the 22nd century turmoil, the modern political structures that resolved the upheaval were the direct outgrowth of the climate debates of the 21st century. This is the lasting impact of Last Blue Century - hen integration of ecological theory into political science. With new-found relevance due to the Mars terraforming project, I welcome you all to revisit the text which launched the Chan eco-political synthesis. 

Tuesday
Jan262016

Australia Day cringe

Often when a European or American finds out I am from Australia they'll comment about how much they like Australia. Countless times in Belgium I've heard, "Australia is the perfect country, I can't imagine why anyone would prefer to move to Belgium". Or from people who have visited Australia - "oh, I had such a great time in Australia, Australians are so friendly!". I find this difficult to take. Yes, Australians are typically very outgoing, you'll be invited to a BBQ at an Australian's house far sooner than you would be invited to dinner at a Belgian's. But friendliness is different to kindness. Australians as a people are not kind. Our country was founded on cruelty, and as an Australian you have to deliberately blind yourself to avoid seeing the cruelty today. The Aboriginal people are right to call January 26th "Invasion Day" or "Survival Day". For 200 years Australia has been intent on breaking them. They can be proud to have survived, but we cannot be proud to celebrate our unremitting war against them. Or how about the disgusting way Australia treats refugees, housed in concentration camps for year after year, children growing up behind bars without hope. Are we a people so cruel as to not have a heart at all? Or have we merely trained ourselves to close our eyes and shut off our hearts?

Perhaps on January 26th, my non-Australian friends can take the time to listen to the forgotten Australians. Then shame us until we listen to them as well.

 

Saturday
Jan232016

Republican definition of a natural-born citizen

The US Constitution only makes a distinction between different classes of citizens in a single place - to run for President of the US, you must be not only a citizen, but also a "natural born citizen". This is not defined anywhere in the Constitution, but at the time it probably meant someone who was physically born in the US as the child of US citizens (interestingly, the foreign-born writers of the Constitution also gave themselves an exception). The issue has never really come up in a legal sense, and exactly who would be a "natural born citizen" has probably changed over time - for example, it is unlikely that many of the Founders would have considered American-born slaves to be natural born citizens, and until quite recently American women who married foreigners would automatically lose their citizenship.

The only time "natural born citizen" has even come up as an issue is for the "birther" Republicans who believe that Obama is ineligible to be President. Obama was born in the US to a US citizen mother, but the lunatic right made up a conspiracy that he was actually born in Kenya. Ironically enough, one of the leading Republican contenders for President this year, Ted Cruz, actually wasn't born in America. Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father. In fact, Cruz is less likely to be considered a natural born citizen than the pretend Obama in conspiracy, since there are doubts that his American mother lived long enough in the US as an adult for Cruz to inherit citizenship.

So, according to some Republicans, Obama, born to an American mother in America, is not a natural-born citizen, while Cruz, born to an American mother in Canada, is natural-born citizen. Confused? This info-graphic explains the rationale:

 

Wednesday
Jan202016

In defence of easy passwords

Oh yes, it is that time of the year when IT people snigger at those foolish mortals who use easy passwords. "I can't believe they used 'Qwerty' as a password!". As someone who sometimes uses 'Qwerty' as a password, I'd like to make a defence:

1. This "world's most-used passwords are terrible" study is... terrible. By definition, the most used passwords will always be terrible. Even if that password was "*£BF&£H$souvbef35", if it came on the most used passwords list then it would be added to the password hacking algorythm and it would become useless. The "study" is just a stupid gimic by a company that is trying to sell password software - it should be treated as advertising rather than an actual study.

2. The IT setup for passwords is usually stupid. Let's force people to use a password that is difficult to remember and then force them to change it every two months. That results in "very tricky password stuck on a post-it note" syndrome, hardly an improvement. Plus short passwords with random characters are actually much easier for a computer to hack than for the person to remember - xkcd said it best.
3. Most passwords are not important. Sure, use a unique and absurdly strong password to protect your email, Paypal, Facebook, etc. But for every single account we use on the 'net? We log onto different accounts dozens of times a day, and the vast majority of these accounts have no personal or financial value. Are you meant to memorise a hundred different complex passwords? Impossible. Or perhaps you should have one super-strong password and use it for everything - nope, that just means that if you make up an account in a password harvester, they'll be able to break into everything. 

Unique passwords are good for your key accounts, but I still think it is reasonable to use a "terrible password" for the hundreds of meaningless accounts we need to access.
Thursday
Dec312015

Comic book walls

Even though certain Belgian politicans seem insistent on selling Brussels as the next Baghdad, it is actually a great city. Here are a few of the cartoon walls that spring up around the city in unexpected places:

 

Thursday
Dec242015

That time of the year...

Wednesday
Dec022015

The Brussels lock-down: how not to respond to terrorism

Two weeks ago we had the horrific attacks in Paris, with 130 innocent people killed. Senseless violence, breeding a senseless response. It is hard to fathom why an attack in France, committed by French nationals, had to result in bombing in Syria, anti-refugee sentiment directed at those fleeing similar terrorism, and the lock-down of Brussels. The lock-down of Brussels was the least of all these events, but it is the one I lived through.

Armoured personnel carrier on the streets of Brussels. And a waffle wagon - it is still Belgium afterall

A week after the Paris attacks, the international media was slamming Belgium to an absurd degree. The US media called Belgium a "failed state", something so patently absurd for the 14th safest country in the world that the ex-US ambassador called them out on it. And as for the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek, well, in the words of the Australian media:

Molenbeek is a bleak hellhole that is exporting bigotry and hatred beyond Belgium’s borders. The area has become notorious as a breeding ground for jihadis and was home to several of the terrorists responsible for the latest attacks on Paris

Patently absurd. Yes, Molenbeek is one of the poorer and rougher neighbourhoods of Brussels, which would make it... safer than the safest part of New York? Our babysitter lives there, and our son sometimes goes over her house to play with her rabbit. Think we would allow that if Molenbeek was a bleak hellhole?

There are problems in Belgium. As in the rest of the world, Belgian immigrants are shut out of the economy in hundreds of subtle (and some not so subtle) ways, leading to poverty. In Belgium, for historical reasons most of our immigrants are Muslim, and most live in the poorest neighbourhoods of Brussels, so these economic problems are concentrated in places like Molenbeek. Show me any neighbourhood in the world with a young population and high youth unemployment and I'll show you young men getting into trouble. Belgian Muslims are generally less religious than Belgian Catholics, but out of a lot of angry young men with no jobs and little prospect, yeah, you'll get some radicalisation. 

Want to hear my one-step solution to Molenbeek? Jobs. Make jobs for all the youths. Young men with too much time and nothing to do? Give them jobs. Young men start spending all day at work and all night spending the money. Trash-talk on the streets is much less fun then drinking or taking your girlfriend out for dinner. Young women with jobs are now financially independent and harder to impress. The actual jobs don't matter, but why not have them improving the place? People are much less likely to destroy things they built. Or employ them to give Arabic lessons to public servants such as police? So many advantages - upskilling employees, building relationships, just conversations leading to people recognising each other as people. Sure, it would be expensive, but cheaper than what we actually did, and more effective.

Which brings me to the government's response to the Paris attacks. The Belgian government is currently led by the anti-immigrant xenophobic side of politics, and don't miss many chances to slam immigrants. I mean, seriously, we had to pass regressive new legislation to make sure an estimated five Belgian women don't wear face-coverings. These are people who shut down a Syrian refugee camp calling it "almost a music festival". So rather than try to inject some sensible calmness into the conversation after Paris, we had the Belgian PM say "Now we’ll have to get repressive". There were serious proposals to shut down mosques and put electronic tags on young Muslim men. A week later, Brussels went into lock-down.

#catphotos #notusinghashtagscorrectly

Repression. Let's talk about that word for a minute. Repression means that what is going to come next is going to be excessively harsh, because part of the point is to inflict pain on you, to crush you, to beat you down. Repression is invariably the response of tyrants to any dissent, and in turn repression acts as the pressure cooker that extremism is forged in. I challenge anyone to give me an example, one single example, where repression has solved extremism. Why not ask Assad how repression has worked for him? He certainly inflicted a degree of repression on Syria that would be unthinkable in Belgium, and it just bred ISIS. Gaddafi? The Saudis? You don't think all of them tried brutal repression to stamp out Islamism? Each generation they stamped out just bred bigger resentments and more radical extremism. Repression is not only immoral, it is stupid

After annoucing the government was trying for repression, Brussels was put into lock-down. Military flooded the streets, the metro and schools were shut-down, tanks were driven into the city. Completely unprecedented. Why did this happen? The stated reason was that one of the French attackers, Salah Abdeslam, was thought to be in the city. Certainly there was a security situation, but we would be naive to assume that the international media frenzy and the domestic agenda weren't also at play. Governments love to look "strong" after a terrorist attack (think: George W. Bush getting 90% approval ratings after 9/11), and this government had already announced its plan to get repressive. The timing at least was unusual, starting a week after the Paris attacks, and ending four days later without Abdeslam being found. The response was also patchy - the metro was shut down, but train stations and parliament were not, despite this being the highest possible threat level Belgium has. Now level 4 is gone, but the military remains. Until when?

The scene outside our house during lock-down

We have to ask, was the massive response proportional and was it wise?

Proportionality. The simple fact is that the Brussels response to the Parisan attacks was bigger than the Parisan response. It was bigger than London or Madrid after their major terrorism attacks. Scratch that, it was more extreme than New York City's response after 9/11. Was the risk in Brussels really the biggest risk that any western city has been exposed to since WWII? Most likely, the government over-reacted. Deliberately or in a panic, we'll never know. Governments never like to admit when they are wrong, and with security issue they never have to - they can just claim to have prevented attacks and say the records are sealed for security reasons. The Bush administration still won't admit that invading Iraq and torturing innocent prisoners was a mistake, so don't hold your breathe waiting for the Belgian government to fess up. I hate this idea of giving the government the benefit of the doubt. It is something we only do in the realm of security, even after we see incompetence or mean-heartedness in the less shadowly aspects of their job. I mean, this is Belgium - even loyal Belgians would be forced to admit that we probably did better when we didn't have a government for a few years, so let's not pretend sinners turn into saints behind closed doors.

Wisdom. What did ISIS want from the Paris attacks? Quite simply, they want to radicalise the Islamic population of Europe. They want European governments and the general public to turn against the local Muslim communities. They want harsh repression to foster resentment. They want the next generation of Muslim youths to feel like every non-Muslim hand is against them, to see an Islamic state as their only saviour. Unfortunately, the right-wing pant-wetters always respond exactly as terrorists want them to after each attack.

Let me tell you about my experiences during the lock-down. I love being able to walk through Brussels. We resettled here from America to get away from guns. The day of the lock-down I walked outside to find a military camp, complete with armoured cars and machine guns. I then waded through security theatre at the train station, everything slowing down to a crawl as armed police checked train tickets but not bags. When my little boy was finally allowed back to school I was blocked at the gates by an armed guard. My son is used to me taking him to his class and giving him a hug and a kiss; he started crying when led off instead by a guy dressed in black carrying a gun, and who can blame him? I walked through the city to find no-one, my vibrant home turned into a scared wasteland. Today on the train I saw a teenage boy led off the train by armed police - it was probably just due to not having a ticket, but the boy was almost wetting himself, like he expected to be executed on the platform. This is not my city. I feel anger, resentment, confusion. Now multiply that by a 100 and imagine how young testosterone-filled Muslim men are feeling right now in Brussels. This was not a wise move to make. 

Opening evening of the Brussels Winter Markets

The lock-down is over, but Brussels still doesn't feel the same. The city lost €200 million due to the shutdown, and the long-term economic effects have just begun - tourists are cancelling trips to Belgium in droves, we even had guest professers cancel on giving university seminars because of the perception of threat. People feel isolated, they look over their shoulders. When the metro broke down today you could see the nervous glances people were making. ISIS was responsible for the Paris attacks, but the Belgian government was responsible for the impact it is having on our society. Sadly, I don't see this government making any effort to repair the damage it caused. 

Sunday
Nov082015

Bush vs Obama

Kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it? Bush inherited an amazing economy from Clinton, and managed to run it into the ground, while Obama inherited a collapse from Bush, and managed to repair it.

Saturday
Oct032015

Conversations between a boy and his bike

More of a monologue, actually:

"Bike, you gave me an owie, but that's okay. Bike, I love you."

"Bike, my mummy's name is Lydja, my daddy's name is Ajun, my name is Hayden but some people at school call me Aden."

"Bike, do you like my friend Pram?"

"Bike, let's be first and win the race!"

Thursday
Oct012015

Travel milestone - 100 countries visited

On our trip I reached a personal travel milestone - 100 countries visited. It is the experience that matters rather than the number, but I do appreciate being able to experience such a diverse set of places. The world is enormous, and even to get the smallest inkling of the diversity you need to travel far and wide. Despite more than a decade of fairly constant travel, I have been to fewer than half the countries in the world, and I still haven't visited sub-Saharan Africa and have barely touched South America. I can only look forward to the education the next 100 countries gives me.

Sovereign states (85)

Australia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Finland, Estonia, Russia, UK, US, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, South Korea, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Mongolia, China, Sweden, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Albania, Austria, France, Ecuador, Netherlands, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, Ireland, Ukraine, Moldova, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Vatican City, Slovenia, San Marino, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Malta, Cyprus, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Monaco, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Hungary, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Japan, Sri Lanka, Andorra, Romania, Jamaica, Bahamas.

Countries (100)

Australia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Finland, Estonia, Russia, US, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, South Korea, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Mongolia, China, Sweden, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Bulgaria, Germany, Mexico, Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Albania, Austria, France, Ecuador, Netherlands, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, Ireland, Ukraine, Moldova, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Portugal, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Vatican City, Slovenia, San Marino, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Malta, Cyprus, Singapore, Indonesia, India, Monaco, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Costa Rica, Tunisia, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Japan, Sri Lanka, Andorra, Romania, Jamaica, Bahamas, Hong Kong, England, Puerto Rico, US virgin islands, Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, Northern Ireland, Independent Republic of Uzupias, Autonomous Republic of the Crimea, Wales, the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta, Autonomous Republic of Adjara, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Gibraltar, Scotland, Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, Guernsey, Svalbard, Cayman Islands.