The Death of Expertise

Statler and Waldorf

You all think you’re right, but we know we’re right!

The recent media furore over sick child Charlie Gard was emblematic of one thing, the death of expertise. The desperate and easily-led parents argued with the Peadiatricians at the world-renowned Great Ormond Street Hospital that treatment for their terminally ill little boy should be extended. It duly went to court, the Doctors naturally won, being experts in the care of sick children, but a media storm was ignited by the usual subjects in the UK tabloid media. The extreme right wing NHS haters then fanned the flames, and were buoyed by US Clown-in-Chief Donald Trump who tweeted that America would help.

Mike’s a thick as pigshit knuckledragger

America couldn’t (the US Doctor hadn’t even looked at the boy’s brain scans and turned out to be a publicity seeker) , the kid’s still going to die, and the parents have now ungraciously admitted defeat. It would have been a suitable example for “The Death of Expertise” , a new book by Tom Nichols adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, bemoaning the arrogance and ignorance of the mob.

A good read about how far we have fallen

It’s mainly US-focused, but none the worse for that, and describes the “narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism” currently poisoning the polity, ultimately resulting in self-defeating disasters like Brexit and the Presidency of Donald Trump. The ground he covers isn’t exactly revelatory with the Dunning–Kruger effect, the internet/Facebook and ‘news as entertainment’ highlighted as causal factors. The chapter on higher education was interesting, and all in all, it is well-written and engaging.

I do think he’s left some things out though. In particular the spread of managerialism from the corporate sector to just about everywhere else, the standard of public/state education, the decline of reading fiction, and the infantile nature of popular culture, especially Hollywood.

Daily Mail readers comment on story about some new photos of Hitler that have recently been found. Sigh.

A population that doesn’t read stories can’t empathize with others. A population that can’t concentrate on a serious (non-action, non super-hero) film is unlikely to be able to show common-sense, and good judgement when faced with complex problems. How a mob of mawkish Daytime TV watchers can be so easily manipulated as in the Charlie Gard case is just another example of why public education needs a thorough overhaul and vastly increased investment in the UK and the US. This wouldn’t happen in Holland or Germany, or Canada.

It’s a depressing topic for sure, but this is not a depressing book. Like Statler & Waldorf it’s sometimes nice to wallow in righteousness and it’s a theraputic response to the tidal wave of knuckledragging ignorance crashing over the Anglo-American world.

Fighting Back

“True tragedy, supreme tragedy are not the worst in life, far from it: the squalid morass of un-attempting impotence is the stifling of the soul and hope of man.”
Winston Churchill, quoted in “The Prophet of Truth” by Martin Gilbert

I’m not going to go into a tedious summary of the whys and wherefores of Brexit (I did that before the vote – and sadly have been proved right), so here’s the a simple table to get past that bit. Trump is there as a benchmark. Not sure how many Brits would have voted for Trump but as you can see – in my eyes – we are facing pretty-much the same agenda via the Brexit cabal.

Two sides of the same coin

Most sane, working (ie not retired) people don’t need the matrix above to know which side they’re on. For example while not all Brexit supporters are racist, all racists support Brexit – that’s reason enough not to support Brexit. The question is, what do you do to fight back for democracy against their destructive fearmongering and authoritarian, anti-intellectual agenda?

“The Government’s repeated response, however, even after October 1938, was to continue to attack his motives and judgement, and to seek to minimize the importance of his information.”
“The Prophet of Truth” by Martin Gilbert

Firstly – like Winston Churchill in the 1930s – standing up against fascism means you need to get used to being criticized by simpletons and bullies. Don’t be downhearted – you aren’t the first person to be attacked for explaining reality. That’s why I fight the good fight on Twitter and other social media. It’s not a question of seeking conflict it’s about telling the truth and informing people with relevant facts. Many Brexiters out there know they made the wrong call, but are so far too afraid to admit it, and a drip drip of reality will make a difference at the next General Election.

“The real-world impact of Trump isn’t what drives behavior. In politics as in markets, it’s always the story that drives our behavior, particularly the story we tell ourselves about ourselves”

Secondly don’t expect everyone to change their mind. Opposing points of view, even on Trump are legitimate – as this blog, where the quote above comes from shows. Nevertheless, there are a hardcore of 15%-20% of the population in both the UK and the US who always have been racists and xenophobes, and see both the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory as vindication of themselves and the poison they’ve been spouting since the school playground. If you think I’m exaggerating go visit the laughably entitled British Sovereignty and Heritage page at Facebook. There you can see incredible threads with comments from incoherent Daily Mail-reading retired people with improbable sounding names. Witness this thread about the BBC’s alleged bias…

“Gary Barnacle”


Thirdly – look after yourself. Since Brexit I’ve got my financial ducks in a row, done ok at work (I hope), bought and renovated an apartment in Amsterdam, and tried to think beyond Brexit and make sure I can keep a European passport. Partly that will be down to me. – staying in gainful employment, and improving my Dutch proficiency. We need to thrive if we are to survive and make the best of the advantages like education and tolerance, that we are so luckily endowed. We have to be an example to our knuckledragging, intolerant, cowardly fellow citizens who think life is a zero-sum game, forget all their own privileges, and willingly vote to deny the rights and welfare of others.

“A vigorous culture capable of making corrective, stabilizing changes depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding.” Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (2004)

Fourthly campaign for what you want. I, alongside much of Generation X have been too passive politically for too long. In my mid-teens the threat of nuclear annihilation was lifted, the Cold war ended, Thatcher was bundled out, and when I was 18, Bill Clinton was elected President. I hardly agreed with everything Clinton, Blair etc did, especially their neo-colonial foreign policy, but I was happy in my fool’s paradise believing the world was ‘arcing towards justice’ (to misquote Martin Luther King). However, I remember sitting on a ski lift in March 1999, just after I heard NATO had begun illegally bombing Serbia, and thinking, no good will come of this. I was right, Blair became addicted to murderous military adventures, but I did nothing about it, and the shadows only grew. I opposed the Iraq war, was right again, but again did nothing about it. Well now our chickens are coming home to roost and it will cost us.

So what am I doing? Well the most important part is ,sadly, funding legal cases to protect my rights and those of others. I helped the Article 50 appeal and the GoodLawProject.org with cold, hard cash. I also joined the Liberal Democrat party for what its worth. They are the only party with MPs that are currently opposed to Brexit. Everyone else is too cowed by the extreme right wing media, and blinded by the ‘will of the people’ lie, so it’s important to support the other side. Remember politics in the 1930s was the same – the majority of supine, spineless politicians thought appeasing fascism would bring stability – until events overtook them.

Another form of resistance is to subscribe to independent media. I subscribe to the FT, and I’m contemplating paying for the Guardian. The new UK campaign Stop Funding Hate, targeted at the advertisers that hawk their products and services in extreme right wing publications like the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express, is also worth supporting.

It sounds like a lot of money, and it is, and I know not everybody can afford this kind of advocacy. However if not you, who? And if not now, when? Given the flood of pernicious lies and misinformation being fed people through social media, it’s absolutely vital that the professional media keeps the flame of truth alive for when today’s youth wake from their Snapchat dream.

“I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light.” General Maximus Decimus Meridius, Gladiator (2000)

The US (and now the UK) has plunged into extremism and corporatism, China is well, China,  the Middle East is dominated by Islamo-fascists (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE), Africa wants to move to Europe, and South America is drifting. Europe (you could also argue for Japan, Canada, Australia & NZ)) is the only place where civilized culture survives, money isn’t venerated like a god, education is an end in itself, and environmental policies are starting to match the challenges we face. Europe is the light.

This weekend I’ll be flying to London to support the Unite for Europe march from Park Lane to Parliament. I hope we get a big turnout, but whatever happens, showing up means I’m doing my duty for civilization and at the very least that will make me feel better. Action is better than inaction and the barbarians are no longer at the gates. By knavery and deceit they are in the corridors of power. Time to fight back.

Stronger In

Divorce would be messy.

Divorce would be messy.

I’m voting for remain tomorrow. The problems and pain points Leave voters have identified can be solved by better government at Westminster – not by trashing our existing relationship with our European allies. We already control our borders and if the government funded the Border Force properly, to record and filter those both arriving and leaving, the UK would have clarity on immigration. Similarly with the NHS – it isn’t failing under the strain of too many migrants, it’s failing because it’s underfunded. In fact importing nurses and other healthcare professionals from both the EU and non-EU countries like the Philippines is the only thing keeping it running, as this government won’t invest in training the next generation of British health workers.

The strange thing about the leave argument, regardless of all its lies and misconceptions on immigration, is the absence of any post-Brexit plan. Ripping up all our trade relationships and starting over will require investment in a new cadre of of diplomats to negotiate with every trading bloc (EU, US, China) and every other country (the rest) unilitarally over the next decade. This implies a huge investment in the Foreign Office and the Treasury.  Funnily enough I haven’t heard anything about this. Similarly for EU regulations on workers rights, environmental protection, competition. We will need our own regulations to replace them with (assuming we want safe products in our shops, clean rivers and beaches??? – maybe i’m overthinking this!). This again will require significant investment in central government with expansion of both the Treasury and other government departments to replace the functions currently performed by the EU. So I guess taxes will have to rise? Who knows? Because, as I said, there is no plan.

However in the absence of this investment in good government, multinational firms and exporters will leave the UK. There is no way the EU will allow us to continue exporting to the single market nations if we scrap all environmental protections and turn our factories and offices into sweatshops as workers lose all protection. So replacing the status quo with something resembling the status quo is baked in the cake. There’s no avoiding it.

Again, I haven’t heard a peep out of Boris or Nigel about that. Their entire campaign is just hot air about ‘taking our country back’. What they really want is power, and that’s when things will turn ugly. A Boris administration with all his extreme right wing fellow travellers in the cabinet won’t have the strategic nous, the patience or the competence to recast Britain in a post-Brexit world. The economy will falter, knee-jerk, sticking plaster solutions to all the post-Brexit problems will be all they can come up with, and ultimately multinational companies will desert our shores for Ireland, the Netherlands and other countries where they can get on with business. Our great public institutions like the BBC, the armed forces, and the NHS will be destroyed by lack of investment – a process already underway. London and the south east will survive on offshore finance and stashing the wealth of the world’s super-rich, while all the regions beyond will decline further.

Only one winner if there’s Brexit

Only one winner if there’s Brexit

Make no mistake, this means relegating the UK to second tier status, and there is no parachute payment or any way to get promotion back to the premier league. Brexit is a self-inflicted disaster waiting to happen. So vote to remain in the EU.


“Submission” – Best Novel of 2015

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Best seller in France and other literate countries

Submission” by Michel Houllebecq is a triumph. It’s maybe the best novel he will ever write – with his familiar middle-aged male anti-hero finding redemption in the arms of Islam, rather than the destructive spiral down evident in his previous works. The plot has been much talked about in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequently Paris. A middle-aged French academic, Francois, witnesses the Muslim Brotherhood ascend to power after the 2022 Presidential election, and the subsequent Islamization of France, including the Sorbonne where he teaches. The media have used the word “controversial” to describe the book, because they lazily assumed it was a critique of Islam. It is nothing of the sort, it’s a critique of modern consumer society, just like his other books. The depiction of Islam seems to be quite neutral and accurate – a patriarchal, illiberal cult with a political mission to control society via an exclusively male elite. I’m not clear what’s “controversial” about that. The reception to the book has been mixed. There are two camps – those who have read it (very positive reviews) and those who haven’t (he’s an Islamaphobe). In fact the book doesn’t cast any judgement on Islam – it’s just a scenario. A scenario that may suit some (middle aged sexually frustrated blokes) and not others (feminists, jews, gays, people with an education), but could lead to a more stable society, somewhat at peace with itself. Personally I don’t like the idea, but my opinion won’t matter. In the end ‘submission’ might be the easy option, which is exactly Houllebecq’s point.

Says it all

Says it all

Some critics have also poured scorn on Houllebecq’s predictive power, seemingly unaware that by deriding his imagined future, they are implicitly making predictions themselves. As far as I can see his portrayal of a gradual Muslim takeover via the current political process, given a hopelessly divided France, is the only way Islam can succeed. Terrorist attacks certainly help cow the population and encourage division, but the ultimate route to power is through co-opting the existing ruling class, not via violent revolution. The so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims in France, the UK and elsewhere realize that. Only last week Mr Establishment himself, Catholic UK Labour MP Keith Vaz, said that the reintroduction of blasphemy laws would be fine with him. How the mask slips! Houllebecq also has decent form on imagining society’s future. His 2001 novel “Platform” culminated in a Islamist terrorist attack on western tourists in Thailand. That prospect would have been considered far-fetched in mid-2001, ahead of 9/11 and ofcourse the Bali bombs in October 2002.

As with previous Houllebecq classics like “Whatever”, “Platform” and “Atomised”, the main character is a cynical, lecherous hedonist whose life is crumbling around him as he enters middle-age. His satire of modern French society, and modern academia is as savage, accurate and funny as ever. As an expert on nineteenth century French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, Francois retraces some of Huysman’s steps towards his (Huysman’s) eventual embrace of Catholicism, mirroring Francois’s own spiritual journey from despondency and nihilism, towards Islam. Francois comes to realize that the reinstatement of a patriarchal society will actually give men like him social status, and renewed purpose, through continued access to the the only thing that motivates him, sex with young women – via polygamist marriage.

The novel is definitely one to re-read, and somehow I found it uplifting. Well-written, poignant, funny, and a clear warning that simultaneous handwringing over terrorist attacks, while appeasing the nonsensities of “moderate” Islam will only yield one result. I would also recommend his earlier works, especially “Atomised” and “Platform”.
This very good interview with Houllebecq in the Paris Review is also worth checking out.

State of Origin: Haters will hate

The Melbourne Cricket Ground or MCG, looking magnificent.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground or MCG, looking magnificent. Pictures courtsey of the NRL.

The latest match in the 35 years of State of Origin was true to type. A ferocious physical confrontation, thrilling ball movement, repeated swings in momentum and a victory to the (marginal) underdog. The game was played in front of a record crowd of 91,500 at the AFL (Australian Rules Football) cathedral that is the MCG and was easily the most watched TV program in Australia in 2015. Highlights here

Contesting a bomb. The AFL loving Melbourne public might have appreciated this bit.

Contesting a bomb. The AFL loving Melbourne public might have appreciated this bit.

Despite the continued fascination with the annual three match series by the broader public, it still isn’t short of detractors both at home and abroad. The morning after the match the AFL dominated media in Melbourne weren’t keen to talk about the game’s excitement or huge audience, but instead became fixated with some disruption to the minutes silence for the late legendary Aussie Olympic runner, Ron Clarke. Hysterical headlines like “State of Origin overshadowed by minute’s silence disgrace” abounded and the AFL/soccer/rugby union fans joined in full force on Twitter.

Social media adds balance as always

Social media adds balance as always

Instead of blaming the 40 or 50 idiots out of 91,000 that couldn’t keep quiet, or tarring the people of Melbourne, the rugby league haters seized on the one negative aspect of the whole evening to bash the entire sport.

What’s curious about this is that it happens every time. Despite being a relatively niche sport, people actually feel threatened about any success rugby league does have. If it hadn’t have been the disrespect shown to Ron Clarke by a small minority of the crowd, they would have picked on something else.

When a young player is arrested for an off-field misdemeanor, it’s the game that is at fault. When a player is subject to a bad injury, it’s the game at fault. This standard is never applied to other sports, but both in the UK and Australia, negative publicity is magnified for rugby league, by a media that rarely wants to focus on the game itself, for fear rugby league might finally be taken seriously by casual sports fans, and not just aficionados like myself.

Michael Jennings, unlucky to not get Man of the Match was arrested for "obstructing police" on Friday morning, encouraging another torrent of handwringing.

Michael Jennings, unlucky to not get Man of the Match was arrested for “obstructing police” on Friday morning, encouraging another torrent of handrwinging.

In Australia the rivalry between AFL (the main sport in Victoria, South Australia, & western Australia, and rugby league (the main sport in New South Wales & Queensland), and latterly soccer (Association Football – beloved of recent immigrants and a growing section of the self-hating Australian upper-middle class) is the driver of this in the modern era, with the mullet headed boofheads of AFL and the polyglot sporting monculturists of soccer somehow feeling able to claim the moral highground.

AFL - 22 blokes with mullets chasing a seagull.

AFL – 22 blokes with mullets chasing a seagull.

That’s baffling given AFL is a drug riddled, and somewhat rigged sport, while as we all now know, soccer is corrupt from top to bottom.

Anyway, State of Origin game III 2015 takes place on July 8 at 8pm AEST, and no doubt it will be a sell out at Suncorp stadium in Brisbane, and attract another huge TV audience. Being unable to ignore the game, the anti-rugby league media will be sharpening its claws for a fight in the car park, a player’s marital dispute, a boozy night out by the Queensland kitman or some other distraction.

Jonathan Thurston - JT was superb behind a beaten pack in game II. He could be the decisive creative figure in game III.

Jonathan Thurston – JT was superb behind a beaten pack in game II. He could be the decisive creative figure in game III.

I’ll be focused on the game. Some of the world’s best rugby players are on show including the peerless Jonathan Thurston and the phenomenal Greg Inglis for Queensland. NSW have a tough, young forward pack led by the floppy haired youngster Aaron Woods and some talent in the backs including the great Morris brothers. Can’t wait.

 

Richie Benaud – A Civilized Role Model

How i'll remember him. In the BBC commentary box. Picture courtesy of the BBC.

How i’ll remember him. In the BBC commentary box. Picture courtesy of the BBC.

Paying tribute to Richie Benaud is not a minority sport. Pretty much all Englishmen (& many women) & Australians over the age of 30 are united in mourning today as he was hugely popular as a cricketer & broadcaster in both nations, with the BBC in England, and Channel Nine in Australia.

The key to his success was his understated, calm delivery, knowledge and generosity of spirit. He wasn’t controversial or partisan, and crucially he never attempted to be funny. He was very funny though, because the humour came naturally when something amusing happened. He was part of my childhood & youth that I will always treasure, and contributed to my love of cricket a lot more the the public schoolboy silliness of BBC radio’s Test Match Special crew.

He was a great role model for me – and I hope in some small way he was an adult who tempered my youthful attention-seeking mode of conversation. He was the quiet voice of authority and demonstrated you didn’t have to be hysterical, regardless of your strongly held opinions, or which team you wanted to win.

Sadly his legacy has been betrayed by the BBC who have dumped cricket as they search for ratings with non-stop cooking shows and Top Gear-like dross. Channel Nine on the other hand have put more money into cricket than ever before, but have lowered the standard of commentary to unprecedented depths. With the honorable exception of Mark Nicholas, their team of ex-Australian players try so hard to be funny with their non-stop “banter” that they now detract from the cricket. Here’s a superb takedown by the Guardian if you want the gory details about ‘Tubby’, ‘Slats’ and ‘Warney’.

RIP Richie – you truly will be missed.

 

 

 

It’s all Greek to me

There’s a complete disconnect between how the mainstream media reports the Greece debt crisis and the reality. This New York Times report, assumes that for Greece, a sovereign entity populated by 10.7 million with a 25.8% unemployment rate, it’s necessary and desirable to pay back its estimated $250 billion in foreign debt owed primarily to European monetary institutions like the ECB, and European banks.

A pre-dinner drink in Athens in 2015

A pre-dinner drink in Athens in 2015

The reality is that it isn’t necessary, and definitely not desirable – a nation like an individual can declare bankruptcy and renege on some or all of its loan agreements. There would be nothing ground-breaking about this process that has happened to sovereign entities hundreds of times before. The only historical footnote would this would be the first country in the euro currency bloc (since it was formed all the way back in….drum-roll….2002!!) to declare bankruptcy, and as a result would be the first country to leave the bloc and return, presumably, to the drachma (the old Greek currency). In global terms there are dozens of examples of partial or full sovereign defaults since 2002, with Argentina, Iceland and Zimbabwe probably the pick of the bunch. Private creditors took a 53% haircut in the on their Greek bond holdings in 2012 but this was never going to be enough with much of the write-off being replaced by new emergency loans from the ECB and IMF which sent the country’s debt to GDP ratio back to its current unsustainable level of 175%.

Short of physically invading Greece, seizing its assets and enslaving its citizens, there is nothing the rest of the EU can do to stop Greece simply refusing to pay.

The Germans have been to Athens before....

The Germans have been to Athens before….

In fact enslaving the population though austerity (low government spending, with high tax to generate a surplus for the creditors) and seizing national assets via “reforms” (in the shape of a privatization program) is precisely the effect of the current debt payback terms. These terms are being policed by the “troika” made up of the EU Commission (unelected Supra-national executive body), IMF (unelected Supra-national financial regulator) and the European Central Bank (unelected Supra-national central banking entity), at the behest of their own balance sheets and some private creditors (think banks and hedge funds).

So really Greece has nothing to lose, and any extension of credit terms under discussion is simply kicking the can down the road. This is clear from the NYT article (emphasis is mine) “There is little doubt that the lenders will continue to scrutinize Greece’s finances, and they could make additional demands on Athens before making the next loan disbursement, which would be €7.2 billion, or about $8.2 billion — money the Greek government needs to meet its debt obligations.” So let’s get this clear – they (the ECB via other EU governments) are lending Greece more money to satisfy an existing debt repayment stream to European institutions and private entities. There is no aid for Greece’s impoverished middle class or unemployed youth. All the so-called “bailout” cash returns to northern Europe. It’s an accounting circle-jerk to keep the lunatic ‘European project’ on track.

So why are the new Greek government even negotiating? One would hope it’s to buy time as they plan their Euro exit, and the adjustment process to follow – a possibility that is completely ignored by the NYT article.

Polonius had it right. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend."

Polonius had it right. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”

What the ‘pay your debts’ scenario completely ignores is the moral obligation on lenders/creditors to take responsibility for their own credit exposure. In this case multiple institutions kept lending money to a small country, with a clearly dysfunctional tax collection system and a (previously at least) corrupt government, on the tacit assumption that the mechanisms of the single currency would somehow guarantee repayment. Well the new Greek government should call their bluff. And the lesson for Europe and the world is that you can’t expect private financial institutions to behave responsibly if they believe they are shielded from risk by a mishmash of bonkers political accommodations, like those that underpin the EU.

German Fin Min Wolfgang Schauble. I guess he thinks he's doing the right thing but his moral compass is confused.

German Fin Min Wolfgang Schauble. I guess he thinks he’s doing the right thing but his moral compass is confused.

What the financial markets most fear is a government actually following up on its democratic mandate and who can blame them given they typically have their own men in the positions of power. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, said in late December ahead of the Greek elections that “New elections change nothing about the agreements that the Greek government has entered into.” An interesting interpretation of democracy and one to be pondered by German voters!  This is a reflection of the bloated size of the financial services sector in modern developed economies and their consequent influence over public policy and the regulatory climate they operate under. Often politicians confuse the interests of the financial sector with the interests of the country or body politic as a whole.

Thus the German, French, Dutch, UK etc governments are dead against  a Greek euro exit knowing a default would impose massive costs on huge private institutions that form a significant sector of their own economies. But why should a Greek taxpayer care about that? The average Greek does not have $23,700 (the external debt divided by the population) to simply pay back and won’t work for the rest of his life to make up the shortfall, so they logically and legally voted for a Government that would tell the shylocks and spivs in Frankfurt, Paris & London to go and stick it.

Nobody forced these besuited, MBA cradling, ivy-league baboons to buy Greek bonds so why shouldn’t they share the responsibility for their own catastrophic misjudgments?

The note should be a Euro but you get the idea.

The note should be a Euro but you get the idea.

If Greece goes, its economy would crater in the very short term (6 to 12 months) with runaway inflation as the price of imported goods soars on the return of the drachma. This would undoubtedly be painful on a collective and individual level with a short term fall in living standards from even the current low levels, but the end of the pain would already be in sight. Overnight there would be a boom in tourism (as well as being the best place to holiday in Europe it would now be the cheapest) and traditional industries like agriculture would benefit from a leap in productivity (people would have no choice but to work harder). Unemployment would fall, tax revenues would start to rise faster than expenditure, and a very rapid return to growth would follow, as in Iceland post 2008/2009.

All this could be yours for not a lot and the Greek economy would finally recover!

All this could be yours for not a lot and the Greek economy would finally recover!

Ofcourse once that happens the international credit markets would reopen and Greece would be able to borrow again, just as Iceland and Argentina found – although presumably the lending institutions would engage their brains this time and price the debt according to the real risk of default, rather than putting their faith in a daft twentieth century Franco-German inspired political agreement.

The problem with this rosy scenario for the rest of the Euro zone is that the citizens of other indebted nations like Portugal would likely follow Greece’s lead and seek exit, which would impose more losses on the aforementioned Gnomes of Frankfurt. That’s the nightmare scenario for bankers, but is what should and can happen. You can only buck the market for so long and it’s time the Euro’s debt ponzi was laid bare, and the rich of northern Europe started paying the price for their political naivety and avarice.

The Apple Masquerade

It’s commonly understood among those closest to me that I don’t like Apple. Some people assume it’s because I work for Lenovo which competes directly with the Cupertino cult, but that wouldn’t be the real reason. I’ve been an Apple skeptic for way longer than that – almost as long as it’s taken them to move from niche computer maker for desperate hipsters to global behemoth with a near $180 billion cash pile. Nevertheless, I’ve bought two Apple products in the past three years, an Ipad for my Mum and a Macbook Air for my girlfriend. It’s what they wanted, and who am I to argue? And I like FaceTime, let me state that upfront.

Here's my Dad Facetiming on a real Macbook Air. me = #fanboy

Here’s my Dad Facetiming on a real Macbook Air. me = #fanboy

However, being truthful there’s something about the brand that I find rather off-putting. Apart from the bulbous Imac – a favorite of internet cafes in London – I had no exposure to Apple until the early 2000’s when I worked in Taiwan at a semiconductor company. I noted the grossly overpriced desktops and laptops (driven by weak, power hungry IBM CPUs) that graphic designers used for the software, but it’s fair to say I didn’t notice what Jobs was up to until the Ipod arrived. A friend started waxing lyrical about the device, but nothing he said made much sense to me as I already had an mp3 player made by Creative, a Singapore digital audio brand. Everything the Ipod could apparently do, the Creative could do, so I assumed it was a passing fad.

creative-muvo-thumb-130x109

The Creative Muvo – small and functional even if it isn’t the Sistine chapel or something!

 

The success of the Ipod was hard to ignore though, with Apple’s stock finally starting its long climb to the stratosphere, and the company making its ignominious late switch to the Intel x86 CPU platform it had always resisted, so its laptops could finally compete on a level playing field with a Dell.

So what’s was the secret? How did this company that was perennially a follower in terms of hardware gain so much market share and prominence? The best recent analysis is from CNET writer Chris Matyszczyk who published a subtly satirical thought piece entitled “Why Apple keeps winning in style” After gently poking fun at Jony Ive’s absurd pretensions (the Iphone 5C was “unapologetically plastic”), his key observation was this: “what real people see, the minute they set eyes on an Apple product, is something that they might not be able to define. But it’s something that their hearts and souls identify with style. It’s something they want to be a part of.” Apple products are perceived as beautiful because people want them to be beautiful, and people pay more because they want to pay more. It’s nothing more than a fashion brand.  This despite the fact that the Iphone 6 resembles what Samsung were producing three years ago. It’s a giant con trick, masquerading as design leadership, and no matter how often the “Apple is beautiful” mantra is repeated, it simply isn’t true.  All you can say is that the design philosophy is simple and consistent. Every Apple product is unmistakably Apple and that’s all that matters, because it’s what people absolutely want to identify with. It’s not form or function, it’s a feeling, and people want to belong.

This didn’t happen overnight and resulted from an incredibly clever marketing campaign masterminded by Steve Jobs who literally lived the brand with his garage start-up story, black polo necks, simple haircut and constant repetition of key themes like “design” and “innovation”. The mythology surrounding Apple is simply astonishing with otherwise intelligent people often repeating statements that don’t stand up to any critical scrutiny (Apple invented the mp3 player, Apple invented the smartphone, IOS is easy to use (ofcourse it is – you just paid $1300 for a $500 laptop – it has to be easy!!) and not vulnerable to viruses or malware (sigh!)).

Apart from the cult of Jobs himself, it was product placement that sealed the deal.  Bloomberg Businessweek laid out Apple’s ongoing strategy in a 2012 article saying, “Apple has spent decades strengthening its subtle but powerful grip over Hollywood.” The company has become synonymous with the aspirational Northern California lifestyle and if you just watched contemporary TV or movies you would be unaware that there are any competing brands at all. You could say that other global brands have achieved the same effect, with Nike synonymous with a can-do attitude and sport success the world over. However consumers that like Nike will typically also wear other brands too, while with Apple it is all or nothing it seems. Apple’s market dominance is something unusual with consumers acting as a herd and outright rejecting competitors, especially at the high performance end of the market where ironically Apple’s products are always one or two generations behind.

Assisted by a compliant press, who along with the advertising sector formed Apple’s original core customer base of hipsters and contrarians (the irony!!), very little even -handed media coverage of Apple products exists. Apple products are better because they are Apple, a tautology best demonstrated by UK newspaper The Guardian where any review of a tech product, be it a tablet PC or an electronic toothbrush is tempered the by refrain that “it isn’t Apple”. Witness this article about the new Iwatch. It couldn’t be any more slavish if it tried including this bizarre quote from an ‘analyst’ – “Even if it only told the time, Apple is likely to sell millions of them with the first launch,” said Ben Wood, head of research at analysts CCS Insight. “Apple makes beautiful things and the Watch is beautifully engineered. Combined with its brand credentials it’s going to be a fashion statement and a status symbol with a much broader appeal than current smartwatches.”  So basically it’s an Apple, therefore it’s a winner and there’s no debate about its beauty – none at all!

The scary thing is that according to Matyszczyk’s article in an August 2014 survey, 73% of teens (presumably US teens) said their next phone would be an Iphone. Combined with their closed ecosystem, centered on Itunes, which is designed to skim rents and ensure customer retention by making it difficult to move owned content elsewhere, Apple’s success could run and run.

Add their $180 billion of legal muscle to defend their US patent bank, and emerging services like ApplePay, and you get disturbing visions. Apple could conceivably start to control larger and larger portions of the economy, influence government policy, and ultimately become the uber-monopoly everyone used to fear at the end of the nineteenth century when the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil was the bad guy.

Happily they might well screw up and lose their reputation for ‘cool’ well before this happens. As the Icloud fiasco proved they are no less vulnerable to security concerns as any other big company or government. Secondly their penchant for making “beautiful” products has surely reached its Waterloo with the Iwatch.

What a beauty! Bling Bling!!

What a beauty! Bling Bling!!

The emperor has no clothes with this one and I don’t think Patek Phillipe will be quaking in their boots at the tasteless gold plated version. I can’t wait to see the Singapore fashionistas counting their steps down Orchard road with chunks of vibrating plastic hanging off their slender wrists. That said, I’ve always been wrong about Apple before so maybe my opinion shouldn’t carry much weight. I’ll be right at some point though. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.