The President Problem

As one or two of you may have noticed, our good friends across the pond are getting dreadfully overexcited at the prospect of their upcoming election later this year, and America is gripped by the paralyzing dilemma of whether a Mormon or a black guy would be worse to put in charge of their country for the next four years. This has got me, when I have nothing better to do, having the occasional think about politics, politicians and the whole mess in general, and about how worked up everyone seems to get over it.

It is a long-established fact that the fastest way for a politician to get himself hated, apart from murdering some puppies on live TV, is to actually get himself in power. As the opposition, constantly biting at the heels of those in power, they can have lots of fun making snarky comments and criticisms about their opponent’s ineptitude, whereas when in power they have no choice but to sit quietly and absorb the insults, since their opponents are rarely doing anything interesting or important enough to warrant a good shouting. When in power, one constantly has the media jumping at every opportunity to ridicule decisions and throw around labels like ‘out of touch’ or just plain old ‘stupid’, and even the public seem to make it their business to hate everything their glorious leader does in their name. Nobody likes their politicians, and the only way for them once in power is, it seems, down.

An awful lot of reasons have been suggested for this trend, including the fact that we humans do love to hate stuff- but more on that another time, because I want to make another point. Consider why you, or anyone else for that matter, vote for your respective candidate during an election. Maybe it’s their dedication to a particular cause, such as education, that really makes you back them, or maybe their political philosophy is, broadly speaking, aligned with yours. Maybe it’s something that could be called politically superficial, such as skin colour; when Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe in 1980 it was for almost entirely that reason. Or is it because of the person themselves; somebody who presents themselves as a strong, capable leader, the kind of person you want to lead your country into the future?

Broadly speaking, we have to consider the fact that it is not just someone’s political alignment that gets a cross next to their name; it is who they are. To even become a politician somebody needs to be intelligent, diligent, very strong in their opinions and beliefs, have a good understanding of all the principles involved and an active political contributor. To persuade their party to let them stand, they need to be good with people, able to excite their peers and seniors, demonstrate an aligning political philosophy with the kind of people who choose these things, and able to lay everything, including their pride, in pursuit of a chance to run. To get elected, they need to be charismatic, tireless workers, dedicated to their cause, very good at getting their point across and associated PR, have no skeletons in the closet and be prepared to get shouted at by constituents for the rest of their career. To become a leader of a country, they need to have that art mastered to within a pinprick of perfection.

All of these requirements are what stop the bloke in the pub with a reason why the government is wrong about everything from ever actually having a chance to action his opinions, and they weed out a lot of people with one good idea from getting that idea out there- it takes an awful lot more than strong opinions and reasons why they will work to actually become a politician. However, this process has a habit of moulding people into politicians, rather than letting politicians be people, and that is often to the detriment of people in general. Everything becomes about what will let you stay in power, what you will have to give up to allow you to push the things you feel really strong for, and how many concessions you will have to make for the sake of popularity, just so you can do a little good with your time in power.

For instance, a while ago somebody compiled a list of the key demographics of British people (and gave them all stupid names like ‘Dinky Developers’ or whatever), expanded to include information about typical geographical spread, income and, among other things, political views. Two of those groups have been identified by the three main parties as being the most likely to swing their vote one way or the other (being middle of the road liberal types without a strong preference either way), and are thus the victim of an awful lot of vote-fishing by the various parties. In the 2005 election, some 80% of campaign funding (I’ve probably got this stat wrong; it’s been a while since I heard it) was directed towards swinging the votes of these key demographics to try and win key seats; never mind whether these policies were part of their exponent’s political views or even whether they ever got enacted to any great degree, they had to go in just to try and appease the voters. And, of course, when power eventually does come their way many of their promises prove an undeliverable part of their vision for a healthier future of their country.

This basically means that only ‘political people’, those suited to the hierarchical mess of a workplace environment and the PR mayhem that comes with the job, are able to ever get a shot at the top job, and these are not necessarily those who are best suited to get the best out of a country. And that, in turn means everybody gets pissed off with them. All. The. Bloody. Time.

But, unfortunately, this is the only way that the system of democracy can ever really function, for human nature will always drag it back to some semblance of this no matter how hard we try to change it; and that’s if it were ever to change at all. Maybe Terry Pratchett had it right all along; maybe a benevolent dictatorship is the way to go instead.

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The Great Madiba*

I have previously mentioned on this blog that I have a bit of a thing for Nelson Mandela. I try not too bring this up too much, but when you happen to think that someone was the greatest human who has ever lived then it can be a touch tricky. I also promised myself that I would not do another 1 man adulation-fest for a while either, but today happens to be his ninety fourth (yes, 94th) birthday, so I felt that one might be appropriate.

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 as the son of a Xhosa tribeschief, and was originally named Rolihlahla, or ‘troublemaker’ (the name Nelson was given to him when he attended school). South Africa at the time was still not far out of the Boer war, which has been a difficult one for historians to take sides in- the British, lead by Lord Kitchener of the ‘Your Country Needs You’ WWI posters, took the opportunity to invent the concentration camp whilst the Dutch/German descended Boers who both preached and practiced brutal racial segregation. It wasn’t until 1931 that South Africa was awarded any degree of independence from Britain, and not until 1961 that it became officially independent.

However, a far more significant political event occurred in 1948, with the coming to power of the National Party of South Africa, which was dominated by white Afrikaners. They were the first government to come up with apartheid, a legal and political system that enforced the separation of white & black South Africans in order to maintain the (minority group) whites’ political power. Its basic tenet was the dividing of all people into one of four groups. In descending order of rank, they were White, Coloured, Indian (a large racial group in South Africa- in fact a young Mahatma Gandhi spent a lot of time in the country before Mandela was born and pioneered his methods of peaceful protest there) and Black. All had to carry identification cards and all bar whites were effectively forbidden to vote. The grand plan was to try and send all ‘natives’ bar a few workers to one of ten ‘homelands’ to leave the rest of the country for white South Africans. There were a huge number of laws, many of which bore a striking resemblance to those used by Hitler to segregate Jews, to enforce separation (such as the banning of mixed marriages), and even a system to be up- (or even down-) graded in rank.

Mandela was 30 when apartheid was introduced, and began to take an active role in politics. He joined the black-dominated African National Congress (ANC) and began to oppose the apartheid system. He originally stuck to Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent protest and was arrested several times, but he became frustrated as protests against the government were brutally opposed and he began to turn to more aggressive measures. In the early sixties he co-founded and lead the ANC’s militant (some would say terrorist) wing, coordinating attacks on symbols of the Apartheid regime. This mainly took the form of sabotage attacks against government offices & such (he tried to avoid targeting or hurting people), and Mandela later admitted that his party did violate human rights on a number of occasions. Mandela was even forbidden to enter the United States without permission until 2008, because as an ANC member he had been classified a terrorist.

Eventually the law caught up with him, and Mandela was arrested in 1962. Initially jailed for 5 years for inciting workers to strike, he was later found guilty of multiple counts of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment (only narrowly escaping the death penalty, and once turning up to court in full Xhosa ceremonial dress). He was transported to the imfamously tough Robben Island prison and spent the next 18 years, between the ages of 45 and 58, working in a lime quarry. As a black, and a notorious political prisoner, Mandela was granted few, if any, privileges, and his cell was roughly the same size as a toilet cubicle. However, whilst inside, his fame grew- his image of a man fighting the oppressive system spread around the world and gained the apartheid system notoriety and hatred. In fact, the South African intelligence services even tried to get him to escape so they could shoot him and remove him from his iconic status. There were numerous pleas and campaigns to release him, and by the 1980s things had come to a head- South African teams were ostracised in virtually every sport (including rugby, a huge part of the Afrikaner lifestyle), and the South African resort of Sun City had become a total pariah for almost every western rock act to visit, all amidst a furious barrage of protests.

After Robben Island, Mandela spent a further 9 years in mainland prisons during which time he refined his political philosophy. He had also learned to speak Afrikaans and held many talks with key government figures who were overblown by both his physical presence (he had been a keen boxer in his youth) and his powerful, engaging and charming force of personality. In 1989, things took a whole new turn with the coming to power of FW de Klerk, who I rate as the South African equivalent of Mikhael Gorbachev. Recognising that the tides of power were against his apartheid system, he began to grant the opposition concessions, unbanning the ANC and, in 1990, releasing Mandela after nearly three decades in prison (Mandela holds the world record for the longest imprisonment of a future president). Then followed four long, strained years of negotiations of how to best redress the system, broken by a famous visit to the Barcelona Olympics and a joint awarding, in 1993, of the Nobel Peace prize to both Mandela and de Klerk, before the ANC got what it had spent all its years campaigning for- the right for black citizens to vote.

Unsurprisingly Mandela (by now aged 75) won a landslide in the elections of 1994 and quickly took apart the apartheid regime. However, many white South Africans lived in fear of what was to come- the prospect of ‘the terrorist’ Mandela now having free reign to persecute them as much as he liked was quite terrifying one, and one that had been repeated multiple times in other local African nations (perhaps the best example is Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe went from the first black leader of a new nation to an aggressive dictator who oppressed his people and used the race card as justification). Added to that, Mandela faced the huge political challenges of a country racked by crime, unemployment and numerous issues ranging from healthcare to education.

However, Mandela recognised that the white population were the best educated and controlled most of the government, police force and business of his country, so had to be placated. He even went so far as to interrupt a meeting of the national sports council to persuade them to revoke a decision to drop the name and symbol of the Springboks (South Africa’s national rugby side, and a huge symbol of the apartheid regime) to try and keep them happy. His perseverance paid off- the white population responded to his lack of prejudice by turning a boom in international trade caused by apartheid’s end into a quite sizeable economic recovery. Even Springboks became unifying force for his country, being sent off to coaching clinics in black townships and being inspired to such an extent by Mandela and his request for South Africans of all creeds to get behind the team that they overcame both their underdogs tag and the mighty New Zealand (and more specifically their 19 stone winger who ran 100m in under 11 seconds, Jonah Lomu) to win their home World Cup in 1995, igniting celebrations across the country and presenting South Africa as the Rainbow Nation Mandela had always wanted it to be. Despite his age, declining health he would only ever sleep for a few hours every night (claiming he rested long enough in prison). donated a quarter of his salary to charity on the grounds that he felt it was too much, and had to juggle his active political life around a damaged family life (his second wife having divorced from him & his children having some disagreements with his politics).

It would have been easy for Mandela to exact revenge upon his former white oppressors, stripping them of their jobs, wealth and privilege in favour for a new, black-orientated system- after all, blacks were the majority racial group in the country. But this is what makes Mandela so special- he didn’t take the easy option. He was not, and has never been, a black supremacist, nor one given to knee-jerk reactions- he believed in equality for all, including the whites who had previously not extended such a fair hand to him. He showed the world how to ‘offer the other cheek’ (in Gandhi’s words), and how to stand up for something you believe in. But most importantly, he showed us all that the world works best when we all give up thoughts of vengeance, and petty selfishness, and we instead come together as a brotherhood of humanity. Mandela’s legacy to the world will none be of his brilliant political mind, nor the education, healthcare or economic systems he put in place to revive his country, or even the extraordinary dedication, perseverance and strength of will he showed throughout his long years behind bars. Nelson Mandela taught the world how to be a human being.

*Madiba was Mandela’s Xhosa name, and he is referred to affectionately as such by many South Africans

Freedom Bridge

I must begin today with an apology- I’m going to go on about games today SORRY DON’T RUN AWAY IT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME! Instead of looking into gaming as a whole today I want to focus on just one game.

Before I do, I should probably give you the rundown as to what I am getting at. The majority of the population, including (and quite possibly especially) the gaming population, generally views games as a pastime- a relaxation, a release, a chance to take out some of their surplus aggression and stress on an unassuming NPC. However, some people are willing to go further, and suggesting that games be considered something special on the mass-media scale- not just another tool for making money, but a tool of expression and delivery unmatched by even TV or film. In short, some people believe that games are a unique and special form of art.

This is the subject of quite some argument among both gamers, artists and (of course, since they are never ones to let a good contentious issue go to waste) journalists, but to explain both sides of the argument would be long, tedious and biased of me. So instead I thought I would present to you a case study, an example of just what the Games Are Art crowd are going on about. I give you Freedom Bridge.

Freedom Bridge is a free-to-play online Flash game (I’ll include a link to it at the bottom). It takes all of a minute or two to play (depending on how you play it), and it’s generally about as simple as games come. You play as a single black square on a white background, able to move up, down, left or right using the arrow keys. Your movement is somewhat restricted- you cannot move up or down beyond the dimensions of the playing screen you start with, and cannot move very far to your left either. Your only choice to progress involves moving right, towards a curly line that stretches across the screen in front of you. You cannot move to either side of it- your only choice is to go straight through. As you do so, your movement instantly slows- your block is struggling to move through, and when it finally does, it is leaving a thin, sparse trail of red spots behind it. The spots are blood, and that curly line is barbed wire.

Your direction is still limited to moving right, through a large expanse of white screen broken only by you and your trail. Stopping for a while causes the spots to build up into a bigger red mass- your blood piling up. As you continue to move right, another length of barbed wire appears in front of you, and you once again have no choice but to go through it. Once again, your motion becomes painfully slow, only this time, when you’re on the other side, some of your loss of speed remains, and the trail of blood is thicker and more obvious. You may turn back if you wish, but will not find anything new- your only real choice is to press on right. All the time the sound of rushing water, playing since the start, is getting slowly louder. Another length of barbed wire appears and, beyond it, the source of the sound is revealed- a fast-flowing river, with a bridge crossing it. Once again, your sole choice is to go through the wire, and once again you are slowed still further, and your bloody trail becomes still thicker. Your movement is laboured now- but the bridge awaits. You cannot travel up or down the river, so your only choice is to cross the bridge. As you do so, your movement now slow and bloody, a shot rings out, and you disappear into a splat of blood. That’s it. The game doesn’t even fade out (well, not for a while anyway). There’s just the sight of the blood, and the sound of the flowing water.

At first glance, this barely warrants its description as a game. This is a game that makes platforming look open-world, has no levels or sub-divisions- hell, there aren’t even any characters, or clearly defined plot for that matter. There are no options, no way to win. And that is the secret to its effectiveness.

The game does, in fact, have a plot, but it’s hidden amongst the detail. Think of the title, Freedom Bridge- that bridge is the embodied representative of freedom, of escape, of liberation, whilst the barbed wire and your side of the river in general is symbolic of restraint, or oppression. Think of the wire itself- used to guard borders by oppressive regimes who don’t want their citizens leaving. This bridge could be in Korea (where it is actually based on), cold war-era Germany, Zimbabwe, wherever- it represents them all. The white landscape itself is symbolic of the bleak emptiness of the borderlands, devoid of care and emotion. Think of the way it ends- the sound of the water very gently fades out to nothing, but for a long time the scene doesn’t change (and when it does, it’s onlt for some rather poignant context). Your death doesn’t change things, doesn’t make the world a different place. The world is uncaring, you appear immaterial, and all your sacrifice has done is coloured the earth red. And then, think of the game element itself. If you were to just hold down the right arrow key, you could replicate the experience almost exactly by watching a short video. But the effectiveness of that video? About zero. The important detail is that you have a choice of how to proceed. You can, if you want, go up, or left, or down, you can try to look for the thinnest points in the wire, you can try to see if there’s another way across the river- if you wanted to, you could draw pictures with your own bloodstained trail, or even (if you had rather too much time), turn every spot of white on the map red with it. The point is that you have all this choice, unavailable if this were simply a film, but it doesn’t make a scrap of difference. No matter what you do, the game is still going to end with you as a splat of blood on that bridge. This is a game about inevitability, and whatever you do in it, you are only delaying the inevitable. Death is inevitable. For the poor soul trying to escape their oppressive regime, there is no way out- only the icy grip of death awaits them.

Without the element of choice that the game offers, this message simply cannot be delivered with the same effectiveness. The experience of it cannot be replicated by a film, or even a piece of art- this is a an experience which, when thought about, can be immensely harrowing and poignant, and yet cannot be replicated in the same way by any classical art form- only the interactivity of games allows it to be quite so special. Some people argue that this kind of experience cannot really be called a game. But even so… if the experience that delivers isn’t art, then I don’t know what is.

To play Freedom Bridge, follow this link: http://www.necessarygames.com/my-games/freedom-bridge/flash

Money, part II

OK, and so I return from the heady excitement of a weekend’s rugby to the more confuzzling realities of base level economics- here comes the second (and hopefully final) part of my description of the precise way money works in the economic system. For those who haven’t read part one, do so (post before last), otherwise this will get confusing.

I must begin with a correction and apology for the end of the last post I did on this subject- towards the end, I began referring to the actual production of money & value in an economy as inflation, rather than what actually causes it- devaluing the effort inputted by the worker so as to create a profit margin for the company boss. This is very much NOT inflation- I was, once again, getting ahead of myself.

Just to clarify this, I thought I might begin on a slight tangent and define what inflation actually is. Inflation is the process of everything in an economy getting a little bit more expensive over time. Cat food, washing powder, the cost of your boss employing you (ie your salary)- over time, this all rises slowly, at a rate of a fer percent a year. This is why, if you read old books or hear people talking about days gone by, people seemed to be able to get things incredibly cheaply in the past. Case in point- when I was at primary school, my teacher used to tell us about this shop her son (several years older than us) used to go to to buy sweets. At this shop, there was a row of sweets worth a few pennies, ranging from 10 down to 1p in price. Nowadays if I go into my local newsagents, the cheapest sweet I could buy costs 12p, and most cost quite a bit more. Why? Inflation.

The reason I was getting inflation confused with the production of value (for want of a better term), is partly because it, superficially, appears to be the same basic idea. I mean, if everything’s worth more money, the value of everything must be going up, right? Wrong- remember that money is only an arbitrary construct to give us an idea of value. Everything might be getting slowly more expensive, yes- but everyone’s salary will also be increasing at, on average, the same rate. So, for example, while your groceries bill may be getting steadily more expensive as the years go by, it will still remain roughly the same proportion of what you earn (presuming you stay in roughly the same job), so will not actually be putting any greater strain on your bank account.

So why do we have inflation, then? Why do our economists and politicians always try to ensure a low,  steady rate of inflation is always ticking over? After all, hyperinflation like what occurred in Germany in the chaos after the First World War can devastate a country, and its economy ( I heard a story once of someone at the time whose coffee went up in price by a quarter in the time it took him to drink it). Simple answer- it promotes growth, and is inherently linked to the process of ‘creating value’.

To explain: imagine a company makes cars. Because there is a differential between how much the car’s value is increased by people working on it, and how much said people get paid, the head of the company makes money. This means he is able to go out and buy things from his friend’s company, who make motorbikes. This makes his friend some money, which he spends on something else, etc. etc. until eventually more people are able to buy the first guy’s cars. This increases the demand for his cars, and thus the price he can get away with charging for them (no.1 rule of economics- when demand exceeds supply, price goes up, and vice versa, because there will always be someone willing to pay a bit more to ensure he gets the car and the other guy doesn’t). This increases his turnover. At this point he thinks “hmm, I’ve got a bit more money now, so I’ll pay my workers more. That way, people will come to work for me, not the guy next door”. So he raises his wages. To combat this, the guy in the factory next door raises his wages so all his workers don’t leave him, and all the other factories do too. Thus everyone’s wages increase, all the prices increase and hey- inflation. Notice how this process has lead to more people buying things (in reality this  is not just the bosses who do this, but reality economics is heinously complicated), and thus growth. This is, therefore, the basic cycle of economic growth.

However, the same is not so true for hyperinflation- when inflation gets out of hand. Since inflation leads to everything being worth more money but having the same value, it, over time, leads to the gentle devaluation of currency. If this process happens too quickly, and money becomes rapidly worth less and less, everyone gets terrified of the economic situation and uncertainty (how would you feel if you had no idea how expensive the milk would be when you got to the supermarket, and had to carry a wheelbarrow full of notes to pay for it), so people stop buying things and the economy ceases to show any real growth. This is why the situation is so bad in countries like Zimbabwe at the moment, where a mixture of corruption in the political system and generalised chaos everywhere else has lead to idiotic economic policies that cause inflation to soar upwards just as the real economy plummets downhill. In summary, therefore, a low, steady rate of inflation is the best thing for all concerned.

Right, that’s inflation covered, now onto… ah, right, 950 words already. Damn, I really need to get less into this. Either that or economics has got to become a lot easier to explain. Either way, I’m probably going to need another post to actually make my point on this (yes, I did intend to make a point at the start of this but have got somewhat bogged down, it seems) if not more, so think I will sign off for tonight. Saturday’s post will contain the third instalment of what I hope ends up just being a trilogy of economics, and I may actually get round to going beyond an anatomical description. Although please- don’t hold me to that.