Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Padang, Indonesia: City of Waterfalls and Dragonflies

Most people will never visit Padang, Indonesia, and that's fine by me. The city includes a diverse mix of accommodations, from the relatively upscale Grand Inna Padang Hotel and The Axana hotel to the mid-range French-owned ibis, plus several RedDoorz and homestays. Beaches with red sunsets and pink skies are common within the city and outside of it. 
There aren't many museums or awe-inspiring mosques, but the two-level Museum Adityawaran will delight any anthropology student or ethnographer, and Masjid Taqwa Muhammadiyah Sumatera Barat boasts a unique modern design. 
As for food, the region has some of the world's best cinnamon as well as two restaurant chains (Lamun Ombak and Malabar) serving traditional fare, including jumbo size shrimp/udang if it's your lucky day. 
Lamun Ombak Pasar Usang
Unfortunately, it's impossible to see the best of Padang without a car, and most unique attractions are 45 minutes to 3 hours away from the city center. GoJEK and Grab apps are great for shorter trips, but in smaller cities and for longer trips, SE Asia tourism currently lacks solutions other than pre-planned tour buses, which I consider the exclusive province of senior citizens and their flag-football-waving leaders. 

I visited four different waterfalls--called "Air Terjun" in Bahasa--all of which were the highlights of my trip, and all of which require a local guide to find. 

Let's start with Baburai Waterfall, the farthest one from Padang's city center. It took 2 hours of driving to reach the jungle reserve housing the waterfall, then an easy 40 minutes walking to the waterfall--as long as you know the way. Sturdy but uneven concrete steps lead down to the waterfall, which will make any tourist wonder why more people aren't visiting. (My guesses are ignorance and a lack of reputable local tour guides and drivers; after all, no one really wants to drive in any foreign country, especially if they've heard stories of corrupt police officers shaking down tourists for bribes.) In any case, this waterfall had a very strong current, so much so that I couldn't get closer than 15 feet. 
After months of complaining about other visitors leaving behind plastic bags, plastic bottles, and solitary sandals, I ended up losing one of my favorite sandals trying to swim closer to the waterfall and gaining insight into the reasons single sandals pollute nature reserves. 

Nearby Baburai Waterfall is Dua Bidadari Waterfall, which requires only a 30 minutes walk on a completely paved path to reach. I call this waterfall a "Mini-Madakaripura" because both waterfalls are similar, though of course the one nearby Padang is much smaller. 
Air Terjun Sarasah (aka Air Terjun Sarosah, Air Terjun Sarasah Gadut--but *not* Air Terjun Sarasah Kuau Rajo) was my favorite. Located one hour away from the city center, a 45 minutes walk on a mostly unpaved path delivered a beautiful waterfall allowing visitors to go directly underneath the source. 
It was here I lost my 20 USD Decathlon plastic glasses when I mistakenly went the wrong way down and ended up hugging a tree branch while trying to free my foot from the damp dirt resembling jungle quicksand. (If you see a monkey wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, tell him I want my sunglasses back.) 

The easiest waterfall to see is Lembah Anai Waterfall (aka Lembah Anai Air Mancur), located by the side of the road. When I visited, the water was freezing cold, so I could only go halfway to the waterfall, but if you dislike hiking and want to see a nice waterfall, this one might be your best bet. 
So there you have it. You won't find much exciting in Padang's city center, but one to two hours' away await some of the world's prettiest waterfalls. I'm no geologist, but I assume the reason Japan, Indonesia, and California suffer horrendous earthquakes and tsunamis is because continents were created when tectonic plates collided around Costa Rica and Indonesia, which is why they and their neighbors have incredibly unique scenery. For me, if there's heaven on earth, it has to be in an Indonesian waterfall surrounded by dragonflies and fast-moving butterflies. 
Come visit before everyone else discovers these "hidden" gems. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (February 2020) 

Bonus: Some tourists don't visit Indonesia because they'd rather go to Australia or the flight (using Garuda Indonesia) is expensive. My suggestion is to fly into Singapore, stay one or two nights, eat the chicken rice, then take Air Asia from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL is a great airport), and then anywhere in Indonesia. You can also try Scoot Airlines, though I suggest using Air Asia if you are flying into Kuala Lumpur, even for a connecting flight. 

Note that I travel lightly and avoid checking luggage. For my Padang trip, I've worn one pair of pants, one cap, two pairs of underwear, one pair of socks, and two shirts for an entire week. I handwash everything each night in the sink with shower gel and soap. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Politics and Intelligence

Empires usually fail because of two reasons: 1) distrust between entities acting as checks and balances on the executive branch, which inspires secrecy and eventually an inability to identify problems; and 2) overextension at any cost, both financial and qualitative, in order to prevent competitors from achieving progress. The second reason is why mainstream media either degenerates or remains staid. 

Most of us understand media is intertwined with public opinion and therefore elections or maintaining the legitimacy of unelected leaders or parties. In turn, media influence is connected with established political entities, usually law enforcement and multinational corporations (e.g., Dutch East India Company or ExxonMobil), because such entities, unlike individual government employees, have no theoretical shelf life and can use their longevity to incur debt, roll over debt, and use funding to gain long-term, reliable sources and conduits of information. In this way, entities are better able to sustain themselves because they can buy loyalty, whereas non-billionaire individuals cannot buy equal influence even if armed with facts and logic. 
James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, Volume 1
As media and advertising have become inescapable, an escalating amount of content is necessary to fill in the time now occupied by new technologies. (One need only review Facebook's or Google's revenues to realize just how much direct and indirect advertising targets our eyeballs and consumer preferences.) If established players do not occupy the content channels accessible to their residents and supporters, they leave open spaces for competitors--some benign, some domestic, some foreign, some hostile. (Military strategists are familiar with these tactics in the physical realm, though none seem able to push back credibly when overextension appears on the horizon.) 

By now, we all know the gist of Edward Snowden's allegations, but Snowden--as intelligent as he obviously is--was a low-level NSA worker. He aims to avoid the surveillance state, no longer possible for an ordinary person without extreme measures. Experienced intelligence assets and agents determined decades ago that influence must be assisted and co-opted to prevent a devolution of content--i.e., fake news, or what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1978 presciently called the "abyss of human decadence." 

Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people... It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counter-balanced by the young people's right not to look or not to accept. -- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1978) 

While intellectuals have been keen to recognize the symptoms of a society in decline, they have not understood the causes equally well. Put simply, as entities seek to control an increasing number of content channels, they are forced to hide truths unfavorable to their paymasters. Censorship being disfavored due to its ability to backfire, most leaders choose to ruin their opponent's credibility, their opponent's finances (the LKY method), or, as a last resort, assassinations (e.g., MLK's murder on the one-year anniversary of his Vietnam speech, 1973's Lillehammer affair). To mitigate blowback from the use of such underhanded tactics, the same entities boost persons favorable to their country's image, especially athletes and minorities, who tend to be popular targets so as to avoid situations like USA's 1968 Olympics Black Power salute. Boosting, co-opting, and "soft censorship" require vast amounts of money, thus entrenching entities and billionaires while disfavoring individuals, even if the aforementioned lack facts, truth, or logic

This financial requirement, if not managed carefully, eventually renders countries and their residents debt facilitators or obligators foremost, bankers and politicians competing for the title of "Most Creative Cash Flow Consultant." (Witness current negative interest rates.) Such propaganda tactics obfuscate decline because the more these entities succeed, the harder it becomes to identify legitimate complaints and issues. Furthermore, most governments able to access debt/funding overshoot in their attempts to maintain social cohesion, whether co-opting too late (e.g., U.K.'s experience against the IRA and Sinn Fein, Russia's relationship with Chechnya) or boosting individuals in ways that harm overall abilities to pursue structural solutions (e.g., affirmative action and racial quotas over tearing down institutional factors supporting segregation). 

As financial burdens--and concomitant superficiality, budgetary mismanagement, and economic inequality--increase, the first reason mentioned in the opening sentence gathers strength. Regardless of where blame is directed for declining social cohesion, law enforcement tacitly or overtly gains more discretion to maintain law and order, weakening mechanisms designed to stop extremism. As lawyers and academics realize their participation (and therefore influence) has waned, their attempts to counter executive force are noble; however, at this point, the executive branch has already created separate modes of operation in a good faith effort to resolve problems in an efficient manner. To the extent such illegal maneuvers can be traced, it is not difficult to destroy evidence and silence witnesses through the same methods discussed earlier. The moment disrespect for legal norms protecting individual rights becomes fashionable, a country's power structure has already shifted from the long-term to the short-term, from the credible and sustainable to the out-of-touch and unbelievable. In such a realm, criticism is a threat to operations, weakening a country's desired image and investor confidence. The more all parties believe outstanding debts will be repaid, the more existing parties gain power and are welcomed by all--except those who have studied history properly. 

© Matthew Rafat (February 2020) 

Update: I wanted to follow up on the difference between a Snowden acolyte and higher-level intelligence analyst. Let's say you have evidence a particular app or website is involved in human trafficking. You can try to go to court and ask for a take-down order, but the company would justifiably argue its website has legitimate users, and as a mere facilitator, it is not responsible for illegal activity between its end users. If you follow Snowden, you would also argue such tactics amount to government censorship and government picking and choosing winners.

But Snowden would have no answer to what might happen next: the government, a mega-church, or a billionaire's employees could, even without a backdoor, create fake profiles on the website and tilt the ratio between real users and sock-puppets however it liked. The company, at first, would be delighted because it could show advertising companies its growth. Over time, however, as real users left the website, it would become difficult for anyone involved to maintain credibility.

A more complicated situation would involve a leak of classified information. In such a case, though censorship could occur, the government could also direct all public (aka mainstream) website searches to websites it had created itself or through its subsidiaries' uploads. Many subsidiaries, such as nonprofits, would not have the technological expertise to determine whether they were reviewing altered or real material, or even whether they were being funded by the very government under investigation.

I often say the 21st century's hallmark is the "bad guys" have become the "good guys," and vice-versa. One reason is that unaltered, legitimate data--the underlying basis for truth--is sometimes only available in the dark web or through secret channels. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

USA's Strategy in Trade War is More Complex than Reported

No one has written a decent article explaining USA's perspective on trade vis a vis China, so I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring. As with any negotiation, whether China "wins" depends on its ability to ascertain USA's ulterior motives. (Lawyers know no matter how specific the final language of an agreement, there is always room for interpretation.) Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, wants to obviate China's usual method of currency devaluation to stimulate its domestic economy. Stated another way, the U.S. is trying to increase domestic Chinese consumer consumption by reducing the two countries' trade deficit. Why is this American objective potentially destabilizing for China? 

With so much else at stake, American "experts" erroneously emphasize China's promises of agricultural purchases, believed to total 32 billion USD over the next two years. Chinese purchases of American agricultural products are the Republican Party's opening salvo aimed at advancing a Trojan Horse reshaping China's entire economy. In reality, America's main goals are to stop 1) China's ability to fluctuate its currency unilaterally, thus limiting its power to assist export-oriented businesses (whether SOE or otherwise); 2) China's "free" technological gains through IP transfers, including software code, thereby increasing the cost of competing with USA corporations; and 3) China's alleged procrastination in reforming its judicial system, which, due to an alleged lack of independence, seems to tolerate a laissez-faire attitude towards trademark and copyright IP violations. 

To understand difficulties in achieving viable compromises, remember that USA's economy is consumer-driven; indeed, some sources say consumer spending comprises a whopping 68% of America's entire economy. A consumer-driven economy allows for higher individual debt, more private enterprise, and less government interference. Though much of China's recent GDP growth is from consumer spending, its path from "developing" to "developed" status has been through non-consumer infrastructure spending and exports. 
China's success thus far should not be overlooked. From Singaporean professor Danny Quah: 


In absolute terms, the average person in the bottom half of the US income distribution today is worse off than the average person in 1980 in the US... [but] the people at the bottom half of China's income distribution today are four times better off than they were 30 years ago.

America desires less restricted markets within China and a less export-oriented economy because domestic Chinese consumption would tilt towards USA/EU products. In other words, it wants to rewrite the rules of the game to favor its own economic model (domestic consumer spending, privatization) over China's (government-driven growth that has taken 750 to 850 million Chinese out of poverty). I don't fault the U.S. Trade Representative's approach. As of today, American Nike is far better than Chinese LiNing, American Ford far better than Chinese Geely, EU-Unilever and EU-Nestlé far better than any Chinese company, and so on. Why the gap in quality and reputation? 
From World Bank
I'll say it again: because China has focused on infrastructure and other government-driven projects rather than domestic consumerism, it is just now trying to move up the consumer supply chain. (It has already moved to the top in ports, roads, trains, solar energy, etc.) In fact, China is well-positioned to compete in the global consumer market because its per capita GDP recently reached the "magic" 10,000 USD number, at which point most people, especially younger people, feel comfortable trying new items and upgrading personal preferences (e.g., pork to beef, the latest smartphone, etc.). 
For its part, USA is trying to impede China's shift into USA's economic specialty of consumerism through tariffs (hurting China's exports), technological blocks (hurting Huawei), legal mechanisms (using Western countries' court systems to threaten criminal charges against Chinese executives), and manipulating oil prices ("In 2018, China had record oil and gas imports and remains the number one crude oil importer in the world after surpassing the United States in 2017 and is the number two natural gas importer, behind Japan"). 

I see little chance of success for the United States in the short-term because China still has numerous options (Manila and Jakarta ports instead of HK and Shanghai) and alternate suppliers (oil and otherwise), allowing it to soften the blow of any US trade restriction. More importantly, China's government regularly publishes five to ten year economic plans, and if an American objective runs contrary to stated governmental aims, it seems unlikely China is willing to lose face by acceding to the Americans. 
Over 1,000 pages on governance.
To its credit, China knows it currently lacks expertise building globally recognized, consistent brands and has failed to replicate other countries' branding successes, whether Japan or South Korea. (I dislike K-pop, but South Korea's outsized influence in Asia's entertainment scene shows remarkable prowess in generating consumer demand.) In Chinese-majority Singapore, I have seen zero Chinese Luckin Coffee stores but plenty of Taiwanese bubble tea shops and American Starbucks, indicating China has yet to adapt to operating comfortably within other countries' regulatory systems. Incredibly, replicating and improving global supply chains has proven easier than building products everyone wants and can access within those supply chains. If China has to divert spending that could otherwise be used to attract competitive ad agencies, international legal experts, and other fundamental blocks of consumerism, then it risks being left behind at the exact moment it opens markets to foreign competition and its own consumers can afford to differentiate between domestic and international brands regardless of tariffs. 

The West beat the Soviet Union not because it was significantly different (post-Snowden and Church Committee investigations, we know both West and East are and were surveillance and military-driven), but because it was able to create better stories by leveraging innovation through the private sector and parlaying substantial development risk onto private banks. (See, for example, USA's Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, through which the federal government can allow or disallow bank branch expansion based on geographic and income-based diversity of loans.) 

Ronald Reagan and the West could advance a credible anti-Communist narrative because America's diversity, openness to immigration, bankruptcy rules, and access to oil trumped its inconsistencies. Rather than worry about the U.S. Trade Representative's non-numerical demands, China should be asking itself the following questions: What will China's narrative be? And will it be able to create a stable and credible one if, moving forward, it is forced to increase the value of its currency to support greater domestic consumer demand? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat

Bonus: A few caveats are in order: 

First, a weak or weaker currency does not guarantee a country will export more than it imports. Indonesia--a country with oil, gold, natural gas, and timber--has a relatively weak currency. Bloomberg News reported on December 16, 2019 that "imports of consumer goods surged and exports contracted for a 13th straight month." 

Second, the broad language disclosed so far reminds me of USA's most recent attempt to mediate between North and South Korea. (Regarding China and USA, what exactly are the components of "high-standard commitments to refrain from competitive devaluations" & enforcement "mechanisms"?) A year later, nothing truly substantive has changed between North and South Korea despite the hype around diplomatic efforts. As of last month, according to Reuters' Joyce Lee and Ju-min Park, "The United States is 'very actively' trying to persuade North Korea to come back to negotiations... as a year-end North Korean deadline for U.S. flexibility approaches."

Similarly, I predict these American-Chinese talks will be much ado about nothing and another chapter in America's habit of overreaching post-Vietnam-War. Also, I'd be lying 
if I said I wasn't curious to see if China tries to use its purchasing commitments to influence America's 2020 elections. Interesting times, eh? 

President Xi Jinping (December 31, 2019):

"Human history, like a river, runs forever, witnessing both peaceful moments and great disturbances." 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Homebody Chronicles

Shopping. That's what I do when I'm alone, playing house husband in Singapore. For four years, I've rarely stayed in one place for long, and it surprised me how quickly I met the "bored housewife" stereotype. After two weeks of housesitting from 8:00AM to 7:30PM, I've spent unreasonable amounts of time shopping online and watching Netflix, my generation's versions of Home Shopping Network and daytime soap operas. (Feel free to mock "Peloton Wife," but I understand the Peloton bike's intended audience.) Why are shopping malls doing well in developing countries like Philippines and Indonesia but not in developed countries like Japan and USA? Part of the answer must be the dwindling population of affluent and bored housewives, not just fewer overall births. 

One unexpected consequence of being home alone? Well, being alone. In an era when technology is supposed to make it easier to connect with locals, websites and apps are still driven by advertising and sponsorships, meaning the new "friend" you meet at an event might be getting a commission or other kickback from the venue. (I once tried to buy a book directly from a small publisher and was told I could only buy it if I downloaded the Venmo app.) Instead of meaningful connections, the internet has increased loneliness for many people by providing greater opportunities to make fake friends and yet, we're shocked, shocked, fake news has become prevalent. 

Despite expecting routine, I didn't anticipate the steepness of my productivity decline. By week two, staying inside all day in my underwear was an acceptable schedule, and going out became an event worthy of careful color-matching. When younger, I noticed stay-at-home dads and moms tended to be nice and well-dressed. It's that way when you're always looking for friends around the corner until eventually, you start nibbling any bait in front of you. Those jokes about sleeping with the mailman or delivery agent? They're not jokes. They're the realistic output of a silent-suffering society starving for connection. I've heard of older women taking part-time jobs at retail establishments like Williams-Sonoma for the employee discount, but now I know the real reason for Williams-Sonoma and every other "upscale" retail establishment--they, like every other successful business in America, peddle cures for loneliness. 

Thankfully, it's not all snake oil. Relationships thrive on routines. Give your girlfriend her favorite Starbucks drink at the end of a long day for a week, and you might have added a full year to your relationship's probable longevity. As for online discourse, it degenerated the moment we no longer had to expend paper, ink, and a stamp to deliver our thoughts, but the joy we feel when a verified user (or his or her PR team) responds to a tweet or comment is legitimate. 

Speaking of relationships and online messaging, the ability to instantaneously connect with one's spouse during the working day has probably increased divorce rates. In the first week of my isolation chamber, er, stay-at-home vacation, I snickered at a NY Times' piece about a husband's failure to put away a shirt. By my second week, I snickered no more. When alone, everything is magnified, and your life revolves around finding interesting things to say, do, and see, a battle you don't always win. So if a friend says she's going to bring or mail you an item in three days, the related anticipation might be the highest of highs--and, if she happened to forget, the lowest of lows--in Day 3. 

If someone was visiting, I'd jump in the shower and freshen up better than any desperate housewife. I've bought cologne and pomade exactly twice in forty years, but had I seen the right discount online, you'd better believe my inner "metrosexual" was making a comeback. Given such efforts, I expected similar levels of effort on the other end. Did a full minute pass between my text and a response? By the second minute, I'd already contemplated a hundred scenarios in which my friend had died, preferably via self-immolation--oblivious to my own unreasonableness. Husbands and wives, take note: what you and the rest of the world consider reasonable does not apply in the vacuum of an adult-free home, with children or without. 

Ever wonder why America has so many churches? Stay-at-home parents need places to go, and the American government has failed to adequately promote affordable childcare or child-friendly policies. Last I heard, Congress tried to prove it cared about taxpayers by passing a law giving federal employees--and no one else--paid family leave. As someone who favors small government, I am always surprised to learn the true extent of religious institutions' influence--almost all my local city and county council-members went to private Catholic schools and/or Catholic universities--because I am single and childless and try to avoid hospitals, schools, and "nonprofits." In context, once one sees an invisible mass of humanity alone at home, struggling to make meaningful human contact, the political picture becomes clear: if government does not actively enter the transportation, healthcare, and childcare markets, voters and non-voters are asking to have their public institutions supplanted by anyone peddling snake oil--as long as there's free food at the 3pm event. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I hear a knock at the door. I need to practice my flirty face. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (December 2019) 

Friday, December 13, 2019

Thoughts on Britain's General Election 2019: Greed is Good

I'm disappointed but unsurprised by the U.K.'s general election. Though neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn (Leader of "Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition") are inspirational, it would be a mistake to credit or blame either man for tonight's results. Personally, I don't understand why Labour fielded a candidate who, in 2016, suffered a no confidence vote in which 172 of his 229 fellow Labour MPs opposed him, but that's another topic. Gaffes aside, we must finally admit the public's loss of faith in government's ability to advance public goods. How did we get to this miserable spot, with an out-of-touch millionaire union organizer battling an inept pro-American twat for the mantle of British leadership? I shall offer some clues. 
Voter turnout was between 50 to 75% with an average of 67%, meaning
over 1 out of every 4 British adults has lost faith in their political system,
despite having the numerical power to swing elections.
1. Surveillance Capitalism Tilts the Playing Field against Individual Autonomy and thus Shared Liberal Values

The most surveilled cities in the world are in China, U.S, and the U.K. In the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu reportedly said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." (As a European Catholic, he ought to know.) In 2006, Bruce Schneier echoed his sentiments: "Watch someone long enough, and you'll find something to arrest -- or just blackmail -- with." What, you may ask, does general surveillance have to do with general elections? 

By the time a country has achieved capacity--and insufficient political resistance--to spy on most of its citizens, a security state (aka a police state) is already in place. The best propaganda comes from police states, because in police states, the security apparatus controls information, an advantage promoting aligned media operations through which authorities can use information to arrest, frame, and blackmail opponents with impunity. In contrast, non-police states allow lawyers and journalists to gain information on equal footing as private and public security forces, building loyal audiences independently. Only the latter dynamic allows voters a reasonable chance at seeing honest, non-biased information. (The truth may be out there, but sometimes it hides well enough to never be found.) What happens to accountability without unbiased information? Politicians and academics, responsible for crafting legislation protecting their fellow residents, receive distorted information, guaranteeing failure. 

Government failures have consequences, of course. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden once asked, "What do you do when the most powerful institutions in society have become the least accountable to society?" To reach a point where this question holds weight, first there has to be "a system that makes the population vulnerable for the benefit of the privileged." One path leading to certain dystopia involves a system of widespread surveillance rendering the general population dependent on biased information, allowing security and intelligence entities to manipulate voters. The British series Black Mirror, in "Waldo Moment," aptly illustrated where we are heading: through selective editing and enough spending on advertisements and carnival barkers, anyone honest can be made to appear dishonest--and vice-versa. In such topsy-turvy environments, even the most earnest citizens eventually give up trying to ascertain the truth. After all, the truth is rarely profitable, whereas propaganda is inherently profitable because it is a form of marketing and therefore financed from birth. 

It was not always this way. In the pre-surveillance age, if a government, billionaire, or corporation wanted to tar your reputation, invade your privacy, or remove you from influence, they'd have to physically reveal themselves (e.g., arrest, spying) or leave evidence behind (e.g., a paper trail, a frivolous lawsuit, a body). The existence of a physical trail checked abuses of power--as long as lawyers and journalists had credibility with the public. Absent this credibility, voters logically favor short-term over long-term results, and any government spending decision can appear suspicious. Worse yet, distortions tend to multiply because biased information favors groups over individuals in the same way propaganda overwhelms truth, and in times of suspicion, humanity's herd instinct believes in safety in numbers. The intangibility of the decay caused by dishonesty accelerates entropy as people with resources try to create estuaries apart from the mainstream to better control their flow of information, a tactic that entrenches existing corruption while allowing the Establishment to slander separatists with charges of insufficient patriotism. 

And thus modern times have brought invisible and intertwined plagues: the diminution of the individual; greater difficulty achieving mutually-beneficial political changes; and the loss of faith in collective action. Powerful entities can seemingly be stopped only by other large powerful entities--not the ballot box or determined individuals. Within this paradigm, entities able to afford surveillance or protection from it can better protect their preferred people, including political players, who are often egotistical fronts distracting from or justifying previous economic and banking decisions. As such, we know about Jamal Khashoggi's murder not because of independent journalism or lawyers but because a state with surveillance and military power comparable to Saudi Arabia disclosed its investigation. 

In a world where groups are advantaged a priori over individuals, constant surveillance means supposedly "free," democratic Britain eventually becomes fundamentally similar to so-called repressive, totalitarian China--with almost everyone lacking time, legal knowledge, and translation skills to escape a fishbowl existence where most information is controlled or provided out of context. 

[Bruce Schneier: "If we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness... Too many wrongly characterize the debate as 'security vs. privacy.' The real choice is liberty versus control."]

2. Misinformation Means Democratic Representatives are Less Effective and Less Responsive

If elites and politicians do not receive accurate information, they cannot fix or even identify existing problems, much less future ones, and the public tends to shift allegiance to the executive branch (aka the police and military), who are closer to the ground and who have the necessary technology to gather the best information. 
Meanwhile, in Singapore, a former British colony, the PM is sharing math formulas on Twitter.
There's a reason misinformation affects so-called totalitarian states less--as long as they value technology, which allows efficient tracking of tangible items, they operate from an advantageous starting point by not placing abstract ideals above concrete economic gains. The more government becomes corrupt or inefficient, the more selling your soul becomes logical under a cost-benefit analysis. 

[Meanwhile, in Scotland, where politicians are still respected and respectable: 

"I don’t pretend that every single person who voted SNP yesterday will necessarily support [Scottish] independence, but there has been a strong endorsement in this election of Scotland having a choice over our future; of not having to put up with a Conservative government we didn’t vote for and not having to accept life as a nation outside the EU." -- SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon] 

3.  Personal Gain Trumps Collective Concern as Politicians Become Increasingly Out-of-Touch

The world's economic engine isn't as complicated as it seems. Countries that successfully provided viable alternatives to entrenched interests using immigrants, private sector competitors, and/or uncompromising political leaders (e.g., M. Thatcher) minimized self-serving corruption. But as technology became essential and the cost of competing in larger markets increased, traditional methods of exacting honesty on corrupt groups dissolved. As I wrote earlier, no matter how true one's outrage, power is now necessary to combat power, and too often, power tends to bargain with itself, making compromises further violating the individual.

An additional factor explains our amoral political arena. In the post-Thatcher and post-Reagan world, elections are "winner take-all" contests, with losing districts certain to receive less or same government funding at the same time as winning districts receive more. Within countries where government is directly involved in medical care, education, and transportation, elections matter greatly in terms of employment growth and therefore economic success. Not swimming with the tide may mean economic stagnation, and as consumer debt soaks the world, the promise of a dollar means more than the promise of hope, justice, or equality. 


4. Conclusion

To summarize, as power and information consolidate and promote biased information, most people lose faith in public institutions. Consequently, voters are unable to depend on abstract ideals and whichever candidate convinces a majority they will have more money will usually prevail--even if voters don't tend to understand inflation

Do you have enough clues to solve the mystery yet? 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat 

Bonus I: "The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn't seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn't know that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber, and, worst of all, corrupt officials." (From 1988, paraphrased, "Terra Nossa: Newsletter of Project Abraço, North Americans in Solidarity with the People of Brazil, Τόμοι 1-7") 

Bonus II: as you can see from the charts below, the British pound increased 3% relative to the US dollar once it was clear the Conservative Party would gain substantial seats. This currency increase helps the British government, which settles debt in USD, as well as British multinational corporations, which have debt denominated in US dollars. Seen one way, though British exports may become more expensive, voting Conservative or creating propaganda in favor of Conservative votes has generated a paper return of billions of pounds. 


Bonus III: Dave Chappelle, playing host of fictional show, "I Know Black People" on Comedy Central.

Chappelle: "How can black people rise and overcome?"

White Contestant: "Get out and vote." [buzz]

Chappelle: "That is incorrect, I'm afraid."


Bonus IV: re: my comment above on gender influencing the election, please see the following graph. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sharjah: A for Effort, C for Vision

If you are a shaikh, sheikh, emir, sultan, or king in Sharjah, you probably tear out small clumps of your hair at the end of each day. While Dubai, your flashy neighbor 20 minutes away disregards every hadith and Quranic surah about materialism, you have done everything according to the book—whether academic or religious—and it’s still not enough.

Part of Sharjah’s aversion to ostentation may come from being the preferred location for British elites since 1933. Today, no one doubts Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the richer and more influential of the seven different kingdoms, but once upon a time, pre-oil, the UAE was nothing more than desert and fishermen—and Sharjah its crown jewel.
That’s why Sharjah, not Dubai, is home to the UAE’s first cinema (founded in 1945), 
first commercial airline (Air Arabia) and first airport. Air travel and distant military alliances soon require services, including mail delivery (email and cell phones did not always exist), restaurants, translators, banking, wire transfers, telecommunications, and other commerce. The 1932 contract giving the British permission to use Sharjah as a de facto military base is astoundingly simple—11 years of straightforward obligations summarized in just a few pages, referring to “Sharjah and its villages” and prohibiting “evildoers.” 
The British needed Sharjah to ensure access to its most important colony, India, and Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi II wasn’t averse to modernizing his sultanate, creating a worthwhile alliance. 
British influence continues to this day, with almost everyone in Sharjah fluent in English and the UAE’s aviatory knowledge having evolved into a successful space venture.
As a testament to the UAE’s Islamic-based tolerance, Sharjah is spectacularly diverse, with Filipinos, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Africans, and many other nationalities living side-by-side. At least half of any cinema’s movies are Indian in origin, involving dialects I’ve never seen before. 
It may be one of the few places in the world an African immigrant and his/her children can experience zero racism merely by donning the local dress. Much credit must be given to Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, the UAE’s most distinguished scholar. Many pitfalls existed on the way from fishing outpost to trading middleman to pearl diving to gold broker to oil producer (in 1958), and the Al Qassimi family committed few errors—except ones made by all other well-meaning politicians. Dr. Al Qassimi’s charity is everywhere in Sharjah, and therein lies the rub: every action taken to re-shape and modernize Sharjah while reducing poverty has also held it back, because what works for cold Britain and vast America does not address the needs of a small, scorching hot kingdom.

Instead of building asphalt roads—which, being oil byproducts, absorb heat and increase temperatures—Sharjah should have built trams or a subway. (Even relatively poor Casablanca, Morocco has a European-built tram.) Instead of making Sharjah unwalkable due to its street designs and absence of widespread beverage vending machines, the Sheikh should have known if people cannot walk in a city, they will stay inside and increase their chances of diabetes. Rather than install air conditioning everywhere—which increases overall temperatures by pushing hot air outside—the kingdom should have considered how to better utilize wind and shade. Above all, rather than rely on Western and Indian technology—which binds them to foreign security practices—the UAE should have invested in domestic technological development so its apps were more than just copies of Uber (Careem) and Zomato (Talabat). (By the way, even Sharjah’s tourism sector is out of sync—it offers a slick handbook to download, but many of the recommendations, such as “Al Arsaha Public Coffee Shop,” are not listed on Google Maps, making them impossible to find.)

To summarize, modernizing the UAE by hiring American and British companies and adding Arab and Muslim charity/zakat has proven problematic. 
Neither the British nor the Americans still view the UAE—or any other Arab country—as an essential port or aviation hub, shifting the relationship from long-term partner to mere oil supplier. Meanwhile, India’s focus on homegrown technology has made it the desired partner of both the West and the East, despite its rapidly declining natural resources and its questionable track record on the environment and physical infrastructure.

Aside from the UAE’s poor city planning due to accepting developer plans initially tailored for other cities and countries, most of its small businesses make little sense. While London has numerous small bookstores surrounded by cafés and one of the world’s most innovative libraries, the United Nations has never designated it as one of its “World Book Capitals.” In 2019, consistent with its desire to be seen as the UAE’s cultural capital, Sharjah became a so-called “World Book Capital” and “City of Books,” but other than a single oversized book display in my nearby McDonald’s, I have yet to see an actual bookstore worth visiting. 
One gets the sense UNESCO and other UN-affiliated organizations often bestow awards out of political reciprocity rather than merit, and without doing any research, I’m certain the UAE has contributed to the UN more than most nations. Furthermore, many of the small businesses I do see must be supported by the king’s beneficence, because while useful ten years ago, they are no longer viable—unless you think printer cartridge replacement, typing centers (not internet cafés), or document copying are the future.

Like with most problems not solved at their root, poor city development segues into other bad decisions, throwing politicians and kings straight into the hands of shopping mall and condominium developers—worsening sprawl, destroying local flavor, corralling imagination into mere building exteriors, and cementing the unsustainable. Ideally, the UAE’s most valuable partner would be Japan, which has a similar climate and the world’s most advanced city in Tokyo. Yet, what is the one major country in Sharjah I see having little to no influence? If you guessed Japan, sadly, you are correct. Political idealists despairing at globalization’s backlash should ask themselves: what is the point of globalization if you have money but can’t figure out which city makes the most sense to emulate because your politicians and students haven’t bothered learning Japanese and can’t free themselves from a post-WWII economic framework in which their natural resources are traded under a Western financial system?

Egyptian leader Gamal Adbul Nasser must have seen all these issues when he founded the Arab League in Cairo in 1945, bringing together Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. When he died in 1970, the Arab world lost its best visionary a year before Britain promised its citizens it would withdraw all forces east of the Suez. Coinciding with British withdrawal was the birth of the UAE in 1971, then referred to as the “Trucial States” (per an 1836 treaty with Britain).

Imagine being Abu Dhabi-born Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan on December 2, 1971, the UAE’s first president, knowing since 1968 he would no longer receive British protection or revenue from use of its facilities. Who would protect the UAE’s oil shipments? How would his country access reasonably-priced shipping insurance? Whom could the UAE trust? Then imagine one year later, Sheikh Khalid bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, one-time ruler of Sharjah, attempting one of many coups in the Trucial States’ history, in this case, failing. The number of assassinations and coups in the Trucial States from 1926 to 1972 are too many to recount, but as far as I know, no coups or assassinations occurred after 1972 or during Sheikh Zayed’s rule. Like the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Sheikh seems to have united different Arab tribes, ushering in an era of peace and forward-thinking views on women’s rights, one reason the UAE is more tolerant than many other Arab countries.

With Gamal Nasser’s death in 1970, Sheikh Zayed’s death in 2004, and Lee Kuan Yew’s death in 2015, the East may have lost its most astute political leaders. In the modern era, where trade, technology, and debt link all countries’ economies together, the absence of leaders like Sheikh Zayed is showing across the Islamic world, as too many politicians with too much money fail to forge a path on their own and choose alliances with countries and politicians out of historical habit. Who will be the UAE’s next Sheikh Zayed? Who will be the Arab world’s new Nasser, who negotiated a peaceful return of the Suez Canal back to Egyptians and who saw the Muslim world's potential for trade agreements earlier than most? Until we know the answers, expect more political instability not just in the Arab world, but in all countries that no longer have the wisdom to move forward in ways individually-tailored to their own citizens’ needs. As Shakespeare might say, “A decent politician, a decent politician! My kingdom for a decent politician!”

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2019)

Bonus: 1) every "Union Taxi" cab I hailed tried to cheat me--use another service if you can; and 2) if you visit, don't forget to try kanafeh and other Arab sweets.