Friday, March 29, 2013

Making Quota, an Underfable

Making Quota

          Once upon a time, Pharaoh visited the Israelites, and he said unto them, “Please will you help Me by making bricks for My temple city?”

          The Israelites were thrilled by this request. They said unto each other, “Let us work long, hard and at great speed, to impress Pharaoh by our virtue and valor.”

          But “Bob” was amongst them that day, and “Bob” said unto them, “Do no such thing; for I have dealt with Pharaoh, and I know his ways too well. He will weigh and measure and count the bricks that you make today; then he will order his taskmasters to extract from you just that quota, every day from now on.”

          The Israelites asked, “So what must we do?”

          “Bob” puffed on his Pipe. He smiled, and he said, “Let there be Slack!”

          So the Israelites labored as “Bob” would labor; and the bricks they made that day were small, askew, and few in number. Pharaoh weighed and measured and counted those bricks; and he ordered his taskmasters to extract from the Israelites just that quota, every day from then on; just as “Bob” prophesized.

          “Bob” knew Pharaoh too well; therefore he prophesized; therefore the bricks were small, askew and few in number; therefore that was the quota; and therefore lo! the Israelites had Slack.

          Moral: Those you have imposed upon know you.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

From Hitler to Pharaoh: 2

From Hitler to Pharaoh: 2

          This year, a meteor and Passover inspired me to investigate our world's spiritual condition. As a result, I have some good news and some bad news. Short version: the good news is that Hitler’s ghost no longer rules the world; the bad news is that instead we are ruled by the ghost of Pharaoh.

          For the long version, I start with the meteor at Chelyabinsk. Dashcam videos impressed me with the cosmic fury of the meteor, but also with the iron nerve of the Russians. Sure there was a mysterious fireball homing in on them; sure it was blindingly bright; and sure it exploded with the force of a 500 kiloton bomb; but they were going to make that turn at the traffic light, and they were going to make it smoothly! What valor! What fortitude! What courage under cosmic bombardment! The people of Chelyabinsk all deserve medals!

          My emotions were not just admiration for stalwart character; they also included grief, horror and shame; for that 500 kiloton airburst stirred up painful memories of the Cold War. Those dashcam videos were like a glimpse into the nuclear holocaust that we didn't have. The nightmare was; you'd be in traffic, and suddenly there'd be a bright light, and it gets brighter, and brighter, and brighter...

          - but lucky us, it faded away, and it was just a meteor, and the people of Chelyabinsk were going to live, hallelujah! Jesus said, love your enemies. I don't agree with everything the rabbi said, but this time I get it.

          This is even though I never thought of the Russians as enemies!  More like fellow victims of collective insanity. Here's something strange; I couldn't hate their rulers, the Communists! Well, maybe a little, because I was told to, but not thousands of megatons worth of hate. Here's something even stranger; I couldn't even hate the anti-Communists! Well, maybe a little, and I didn't need to be told to; but again, not thousands of megatons worth of hate.
          None of the Cold War made any sense to me. Nobody wanted it, everybody hated it, we even called it M.A.D.; but somehow we all signed on passively. Your tax dollars at work. It was as if the world was in thrall to an evil spirit.

          Which brings me to Hitler's ghost. The Cold War was Hitlerian, from top to bottom, inside to out, and beginning to end. Genocide was not a flaw of the system, nor a bug, nor even a feature; genocide was the system. The cold warriors never did the evil deed, though they got close at times; but the threat was deed enough. The Cold War was state-run thermonuclear terrorism; it was psychological abuse of the entire world; it was a crime against mankind. If the Cold War wasn’t evil, then what is?

          Part of the wickedness of the planetary death machine was its deflection of responsibility. Russia played Hitler to America; America played Hitler to Russia; and therefore it was all the other side's fault! No-one was to blame, and anything was permitted! America and Russia; best-worst of frenemies!

          Philip K Dick's, in his science-fiction novel, "The Man in the High Castle", described an alternate history where the Axis won World War Two. A book in that world - also named "The Man In The High Castle" - imagined an alternate history where the Allies won instead. Someone in that world, wondering about this, threw an I Ching hexagram. It read "Inner Truth". I get Dick's point.

          But enough with memories! For it's past now; Gorbachev ruined the whole cozy scheme by walking away. Since then the Pentagon has been scrambling for ways to justify a Cold War budget. They thought they had a winner with stateless terrorists, but frankly this Baby Boomer is unimpressed. I've survived superpower thermonuclear terrorism; an underwear bomber leaves me cold. Yawn!

          I distinctly recall being promised a peace dividend. It didn't materialize. Instead the grinding down of the middle class continued, and continues to this very day. Though labor productivity has doubled in the past forty years, post-inflation wages for the poorest 80% have been stagnant or declining. For forty years. Not only have some of my students never known rising wages; some of them are children of parents who have never known rising wages.

          These past four decades have seen a technological revolution, and an economic counter-revolution. Vast new wealth now exists, thanks to computers; but those gains have gone exclusively to the very richest amongst us. The 10% to some extent; the 1% to a greater extent; the 1% of the 1%, beyond all belief.

          Which brings me to Pharaoh's ghost. The world is now an oligarchy. It is run by malefactors of great wealth. The plutocrats are above the law; they have no loyalties beyond profit; they are accountable to none; their ambition is limitless; their methods are extreme; and they do not know or care about the mass suffering their greed causes. In the security of their rigged wealth, the 1% of the 1% believe themselves immune from the consequences of their crimes and follies. The price will be paid, but not by them; that's the system.

          From a Hitlerian Cold War to a Pharaonic New World Order! I suppose it's a slight improvement; being a debt slave is a lesser evil than being a radioactive corpse; but the lesser of two evils is still evil. Also you could argue that Hitler's ghost merely softened us up for Pharaoh's.

          Despite this, I am optimistic. It is Passover now, and the Haggadah teaches us that each generation must regard themselves as personally redeemed from the house of bondage. The slave-driver thought himself a god, but he wasn't. Down he went; and it took only ten plagues.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Legend of Lebab

The Legend of Lebab

Once upon a time, the lord of the galaxy banished billions of the galaxy's rebels and thieves to the planet Lebab. He cast them down its gravity well and left them behind, taking all his ships with him. He said to himself; they will not escape to challenge me, because they have the confusion of tongues.

Indeed it was true that no two of the castaways spoke the same language; for the lord of the galaxy had brought enemies from every star. Because of the confusion of tongues, chaos and poverty reigned on Lebab. Such was the will of the lord of the galaxy.

But then a great and holy miracle occurred. For in the first generation, the people of Lebab somehow settled on a common vocabulary. They did this by themselves, without being told to, by an inborn gift. Their speech had neither grammar nor poetry, but it sufficed for most of their needs. They called their new speech Pidgin.

And then another great and holy miracle occurred. For in the second generation, the children of the speakers of Pidgin somehow settled on a common grammar for the common vocabulary. They did this by themselves, without being told to, by an inborn gift. Their speech was a true language, creative, subtle, and powerful; a speech fit for poets; and it sufficed for all of their needs. They called their new language Creole.

And in the third generation the people of Lebab built a skyhook to orbit, so that they may fly into space, and there meet and challenge the lord of the galaxy. For the people of Lebab said to each other, the lord of the galaxy thought the confusion of tongues would keep us at the bottom of a gravity well; let us tell him otherwise. Let us have a few words with him, in Creole.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From Hitler to Pharaoh

            From Hitler to Pharaoh

            Jared Diamond, in his book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, asks the question; what happens to the losers of tribal warfare? His answer is that it depends on the density of the population and the technical/civilizational level.
            In lands sparsely populated by hunter-gatherers, the losers are driven from the land. The exiles must flee elsewhere for game and foraging. They in turn tend to exile other inhabitants of the lands they invade. I call this the “Jackson solution”, after Andrew Jackson, founder of the Trail of Tears.
            In lands moderately populated by subsistence farmers, the losers are massacred. They need the land too much to simply abandon it and survive; and the victors lack the power to keep the losers under control, except by killing every man, woman and child. I call this the “Hitler solution”, for its finality.
            In lands thickly settled by established civilizations, the losers are enslaved. They stay on the land and are allowed to live, but must labor unpaid for the winners, who keep them under control. I call this the “Pharaoh solution”, after a well-known enslaver.
            The Jackson solution is simple savagery; the Hitler solution is barbaric cruelty; the Pharaoh solution is civilized oppression. These three solutions apply within civilization, to the criminal law. The British used exile (to the Colonies, and later to Australia) when they had land to exile people to; the death penalty is the barbaric final solution; and imprisonment is another name for slavery.
            The Romans attempted a fourth solution to the problem of society’s losers; bread and circuses. The theory is that it’s easier and cheaper to keep the proles fed and distracted than to stuff them into prisons; for if the proles think they’re free, then they won’t cause trouble.
A modern version of this would combine the dole with video entertainment; I call it the “Welfare Matrix”.  I imagine the Welfare Matrix this way; each day the losers enter cyberspace; there they battle demons and bureaucrats, and thus earn game-points, which can be traded for food, clothing, shelter and other goods and services. The Welfare is just enough to live on, if you spend all your time in the Matrix.
Recently we have seen a global shift from Hitler to Pharaoh. The Cold War was all about the politics of genocide. We were all of us, man woman and child, constantly in fear of death by incineration. This infernal threat was pseudo-justified by the most devilish of excuses; namely that it was all the other guy’s fault. America played Hitler to Russia, and Russia played Hitler to America; thus they excused each other’s barbarism. Really it was a perverse alliance of mutual abuse; but in the end Gorbachev ruined the whole evil game by walking away.
I distinctly recall being promised a ‘peace dividend’; a promise which, like moon colonies, never materialized. Instead we have seen the emergence of a global oligarchy; a 1% over-class secure in its privileges, and immune to all law. They don’t plan to kill us, at least not quickly; they just want to keep on top, at all costs; a cost that the 99% shall pay. They justify their crass exploitation by a self-image of inherent superiority. In their godlike perfection, they need never change their ways, except to worsen them; for their wealth and power shields them from the consequences of their cruelty, greed and idiocy. The 1% never corrects an error because they do not know themselves capable of error.
So planet Earth has gone from a Hitlerian Cold War to a Pharaonic New World Order. It’s progress of sorts, from barbarism to empire. Tinpot godlings are a lesser evil than nuclear demons; but we, the 99%, remain losers.
The question I put to you, dear reader, is; what will winning look like? What will be the shape of our liberation? For the 1% will fall; their immunity from consequence is painful to us but will ultimately be fatal to them. Reality will not be denied; that is the doom of all lies, and all empires. Hitler’s thousand years was twelve; and Pharaoh too fell.
My dream is democracy; rule by the people. How do we get there?