Money and Sport

Now the Olympics are over, we can admire what most of the athletes have achieved. Yes, they are professional, and they get paid to do it, nevertheless those there have shown genuine dedication. Whether professionalism is bad depends, I guess, on your point of view. The original games were also professional, and the Greeks designed them to ensure their soldiers were fit and skilled. In those times, throwing a javelin was not for fun. No need to let good ideas moulder away; I pinched that concept in my novel “Miranda’s Demons”, where an insurrection was taking place on Mars. The rebels took time out to hold games, with contests such as cross-country running, throwing and shooting in pressure suits. The objective here was to find the best way to carry out these activities when it became time to fight in the open.

In the earliest revitalized games the contests were for amateurs, but that was not quite as noble as some would have you think. It had one primary purpose: to reinforce the class structure of the time. To illustrate that point, consider the opprobrium deposited on Harold Larwood for his “bodyline” bowling against the Australian cricket team. Larwood came from the “working class” hence was designated a player; a gentleman would not do that. Of course that was quite wrong. His team captain was one of the “gentlemen” and he more or less ordered Larwood to bowl like that. Hypocrisy has always been strong in sport too.

Anyway, while such professional athletes do extremely well in the field, there raises a question about the nature of sport outside the actual events. One example was the vociferous attacks on Russian doping, which I mentioned earlier. This would have been more valid if the loudest voices were not supporting replacement athletes who could only get there if spaces were made available. The concept of conflict of interest is rather weak these days.

However, more publicized was the account of some American athletes who claimed to have been hijacked by Rio police, then as villains dressed as Rio police. Eventually, this was shown to be quite wrong and what had actually happened was that the group who had had far too much to drink had trashed a Rio business. (The details are still somewhat obscure as there have been different versions published.) Why would someone do that, then make up such a silly counter story? Much better would have been to come back, apologize, and offer restitution for the damage, in which case this would probably have blown over, but what actually happened was that the lies continued, in a sequence of watered down versions.

I should add that this sort of behaviour is not restricted to Americans. I know in New Zealand every now and again, a famous sportsman has far too much to drink and does something stupid, and hence hits the headlines, but usually there is at least some semblance of contrition when sobriety returns. The usual explanation is that when such young people are suddenly showered with money outside any of the wildest dreams of the ordinary members of their age group they simply cannot control themselves. It is almost as if some of them need minders on certain occasions.

Sometimes, however, it seems that others need minders, the others being organizers and officials. One of the best-known sporting teams in New Zealand is the All Blacks, the national rugby team, and who currently are world champions. (Yes, it helps that in most countries rugby is a minority sport.) The All Blacks spent all of last week in Sydney, preparing to play Australia on the Saturday. On the Friday (I think) they announced that they had found a bug in the room they used to hold team meetings. An initial response by the Australians was, they must be paranoid to be looking for bugs. Hold on a minute – they found a bug. You are not mad if you have suspicions that turn out to be true. This is particularly the case where there is a clear record of Australians having secretly video recorded team practices prior to games, and not only against New Zealand, as the South Africans caught them out once too. Why do they do these sort of things? Why is a game that important? The answer to that, of course, is money. Winners tend to get far better sponsorship deals.

So, the outcome of this debacle? Well, the All Blacks thrashed the Wallabies. There may be some poetic justice here because after the game was over the All Blacks announced that they actually found the bug on the Monday, but they left it there. I would like to think they managed to concoct up some totally erroneous plans to teach their opponents not to do that sort of thing.

Where to with the European Union?

Is the European Union a grand concept in the making, or merely a muddled mess? I suspect the latter. The British voters have now warned the European Union that Britain will exit, however since then nothing much has happened. One reason that I saw recently is that there will be elections in the next year or so in France and Germany, and the British want to know who they will be negotiating with before they start negotiating. At first sight that seems sensible, except consider how many countries there are in the EU. There is always going to be an election sometime in the near future somewhere. Does that mean that France and Germany are more important? (Yes, they are, but it is not politically correct to say so.) So it appears the first problem with exiting the European Union is there is no actual central part, other than an issuer of regulations conceived essentially by bureaucrats.

Herein lies a great problem for the EU. By permitting individual countries to have their own political systems that are nominally subordinate to a number of regulations from Brussels, and this is a very large number, there is a chaotic situation in terms of economies. The Union may have started as a common market, but it has changed considerably since then, and not in any clear direction. This was made worse when the European countries decided to move towards union via a common currency, apparently hoping that the various countries would adopt common economic policies. However, in representative systems of government, where politicians have to win elections, a common policy is very difficult unless there is some overall federal government. Thus in the US, while the various states can carry out independent actions to a certain degree, Washington still has overall control. That is something the EU has seemingly rejected, even though its structures seem to be heading that way by stealth. And it may be the stealth that has annoyed the British voters.

When the Euro came into being, there were marked structural differences between the various economies, and there was never a plan to harmonize these. Going further, the concept tended to involve a right wing economic view that markets were rational and would self-correct themselves. Just leave it to the market. So they did, and in 2008 there was chaos with a number of casualties. The ordinary Irishman had to pay, under edict from the European Central Bank, to rescue the corrupt Irish bankers. It continues with Greece. There is no plausible mechanism I can see how Greece can get out of the mess the German bankers got them into. It is true that the Greek politicians made the situation much worse, but why should the average Greek have to pay for their politician’s inability to accept policies that might lead to their being voted out?

The question then is, what can the European countries do? Superficially, the simplest “cure” would be to restructure debt and adopt countercyclical measures to fix productivity. The fact seems to be that you can have all the austerity you want, but you cannot have increasing productivity at the same time. It would also be necessary to heavily regulate the banking sector. However, none of this is going to happen. Germany wants to focus on price stability because its economy is, on the whole, doing much better than most. Further, it thinks that austerity on others is the only way its big banks are going to get their money back. That is unlikely to be true, because with economies like Greece, austerity has led to a major contraction, and it is difficult to get more money out of a severely contracting economy.

I suppose there is also the question of whether economic measures can increase productivity. They can certainly destroy it, but increasing it requires more than investment, although investment is certainly critical. The point is investment has to be the right investment. A machine might do the work of ten people, but if it makes something nobody wants, it is actually destructive. So the problem now reduces to finding the right people in the right place at the right time to see what the right things are to do, and then ensuring that there are adequate resources so that these things actually get done. It is here that Germany shines. The problem then is, while it is great that Germany shines, if the rest of Europe does not then Europe as a whole performs indifferently, none of which is helped by a prolonged uncertainty about the position of Britain. This would not matter if the rest of the world was vibrant, but it is not. Now the world has become so interconnected, we cannot have various parts of it performing poorly because it is highly likely that there will be serious difficulties at some time in the future. Economies always seem to go in cycles, and we cannot seem to get ourselves out of the 2008 downturn. We need to put that behind us before the next downturn arrives.

So where to for Europe? In my view, it has to make a clear decision. Either it should revert to a common market, or it should aim to be the United States of Europe. It has to get off the fence; it cannot succeed by being something in between.

Election Hazards

One of the curses of the Republic form of government that we have, where we elect representatives to govern us, is that politicians have to make statements on what they are going to do, and much of the time this tends to be made “on the hoof” so to speak, without proper consideration of the consequences. For most countries, this is annoying for the citizens who may suffer, but for America it is worse because everyone else suffers as well. We might hope that America with its greater population would produce more suitable politicians, but this may not be the case. It does not help that the American system is so prolonged, and this year it is so bitter.

What sparked this post was an item in our newspaper about Syria.

The situation is, the Russian air force is assisting the Syrian army in its advance on Aleppo, and if Assad can retake it, then he controls most of the population centres. Thirty percent of the country would be still controlled by ISIS, but that is mainly desert. What started as a sort of revolution to oust Assad, helped mainly by Saudi Arabia and the US, instead turned the county upside down and into a happy feeding ground for ISIS, helped by the fact that many of the rebel groups are essentially al Qaeda offshoots. Of course al Qaeda does not particularly support ISIS, but the rebels are indirectly helping ISIS, and there is no evidence they are doing anything directly to oppose it. They may have a different version of Islamic terrorism, but al Qaeda is still a terrorist grouping.

The good news for Assad is that Turkey is now not so eager to help the US in its efforts to get rid of Assad, the reason being that Erdogan now considers that there was US assistance to the recent coup effort to oust him. Given the US involvement in a number oustings of established governments, he is hardly likely to give the US the benefit of any doubt he might have. That there may be no real evidence to support the assertion is beyond the point, especially since the US and Europe have been heavily criticizing Erdogan for his purge following the coup attempt. They may well be right that most of those purged were innocent of the coup attempt, but being right does not mean anything to Erdogan as he cannot afford plotters. From Erdogan’s point of view, if the US wants to get rid of Assad and is prepared to even support al Qaeda affiliates to achieve that, then maybe the US is playing the same game with him. Can you blame him? When the facts are unclear, track record counts. The net result of this uncertainty is the supply of weapons etc from Turkey to the rebels in Aleppo is drying up.

So, where does that leave the US election process? Apparently both Trump and Clinton have stated that a major alteration of strategy is required, and I think that up to this point they are both right. The problem is, alter to what? According to the report in our newspaper, Clinton would order a “full review” of US strategy to get the “murderous regime” of Assad out, while escalating the fight against Islamic state. It quotes an advisor, Jeremy Bash, as saying Clinton has promised to establish a no-fly zone over Syria.

That, to my mind, is a potential disaster. What would Russia do? If Putin simply walks away, that would be the next best thing to a disaster for him. If he flies, do US planes shoot down his aircraft? The US air force would probably win any given combat, but that effectively triggers a major war. The problem is, where do the US planes come from? If they come from Turkey, and Russia attacks the base, then NATO is drawn in, and Russia has to do something about the ,missiles pointing at it from its western borders. WW III is underway. If Turkey bans them, the US has to resort to a carrier. Suppose the Russians sink the carrier, now what? At first, each side finds out how good their forces are, and the Russians may not be very happy with what they discover. On the other hand, it is unlikely to be a free shot and there will be US casualties. The next problem is how to contain this? Is getting rid of Assad really worth the risk of triggering world war three?

Trump apparently has stated (correctly in my view) the US has bigger problems than Assad, and he would assist Putin in getting rid of ISIS. On this point at least, I think Trump is right, but being right does not win votes. Now, Trump is accused of being a Putin plant. This is bad, because it means that anyone who tries to be reasonable with Russia is going to be accused of being . . . What? Is this a return to McCarthyism?

None of this is very encouraging.

From the Debt Mountain to Where?

Most of us cannot help but ask, what does the future hold? Now, any guesses are obviously fraught with difficulty because the future is not all that obliging, but since my novels are set in the future, I still have to make guesses. About 2005 I started writing a nearer to now novel (Puppeteer) and I made two guesses: terrorism would continue and grow more serious, and the economies of the world would be in trouble because of excess debt, insufficient tax collection, and the constraints of resource depletion, and in particular, oil. When I finished that, while I was trying to get an agent, I started another (Troubles) where the world economies had collapsed, and the planet had the extra problem of sea level rising. This novel was about recovery, because suddenly fusion had been developed, and energy would be plentiful. In the first chapter of that I pointed out a lot of money would be made, largely through “financial products”. (The story is essentially one of greed.) Somewhere while writing that we had Lehmans, but I decided that did not change much.

So, how good were these guesses so far, bearing in mind we have a way to go before the setting of the first story? I never saw fracking coming, at least to the extent it has, so the oil shortage is somewhat questionable, but what is interesting here is that while the price of oil has collapsed to some extent, it has not helped the economy.

In New Zealand there is a real economic problem, at least in my opinion. Statistics show that the economy seems to be doing extremely well, but it is largely due to the construction sector. The earthquake sequence wiped out about a third of the houses in Christchurch, and most of the rest needed some fixing. The central business district had to be largely demolished. (In terms of energy, the quakes were only modest, at about 7 on the Richter scale, but it was their location. The lump of basalt known as Banks Peninsula reflected the waves, leading to odd wave interference patterns and very large momentary accelerations.) Rebuilding that has strongly helped the economy.

There is also a lot of house construction going on elsewhere, but herein lies a problem: house prices are rising because of a shortage, but exacerbated by low interest rates. The low interest rates have led to an awful lot of borrowing, and that is not restricted to us. I see the national debts of the US and UK are not exactly small, at about 80% GDP (If you look at Wikipedia, there are various fudges that make an exact total impossible.) Most other European countries are somewhere around this, but Russia, interestingly enough, lies at 15% GDP. Japan gets in at 218%. Now, the question is, in the event of a major economic crisis, what happens?

In principle, with very low interest rates people could afford to invest and grow the economy, but that does not seem to be happening, at least here in New Zealand. People are borrowing to spend, and while that keeps the existing economy bubbling along, it is not getting the virtuous economic growth that is desired. Nor will it if the current philosophies towards money remain the same, and money is created at will to support debt. What happens is eventually far too many people have all of what should be disposable income devoted to repaying bank debts. Everyone works for the bank! The problem then is that they cannot purchase, and if they do not consume at all, there is not much point in producing, which leads to massive unemployment, which in turn leads to the inability to pay the interest on the debts. Now what? A major depression seems to be the minimum that could happen.

The US is a rather odd position as its dollar is also a world reserve currency, so it has gone out and printed a lot more. That should stimulate the economy, or lead to inflation, but it seems to have done neither to any serious extent, the reason seemingly being that tax avoiders are secreting away large dollops of it in tax havens, where it sits doing nothing, and is effectively being taken out of circulation. It would be a bit scary if it all suddenly reappeared.

The problem is, in my opinion, that either interest rates must eventually rise to a more normal level or they will stay where they are in perpetuity. If they rise, then all those who have taken on the maximum debt at the low rate will become insolvent because they cannot maintain the interest repayments. If they stay the same, then saving becomes somewhat foolish, particularly if the currency starts to inflate, which in principle it should be doing with all the printing, were it not for the tax evasion, and surely it cannot be in the governments’ interests to support tax evasion? So, how do we get out of this mess? The needs for plot in my two novels led to a fragmentation of society. As governments had less to offer, it became every man for himself, so to speak, and those with wealth went into enclaves to protect themselves and their wealth from the masses. Obviously that is hardly the only outcome, but what do you think will happen?

Russian athletes and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games in Rio are approaching, and despite a number of protests, some Russians may be present. The International Olympic Committee has been heavily criticized for not issuing a blanket ban on Russian athletes because of widespread doping there. Let me say at once that I cannot condone doping, but there is also a question of natural justice. Basically, the logic says:

Some Russian athletes doped

Doped athletes should be banned from competing.

So, what is the logic conclusion? Mine is, some athletes, and specifically the ones who doped, should be banned, and that includes athletes from any country who have doped. As it happens, the initial call for a total banning of Russian sportspeople has been rejected, instead relying on a dubious procedure in which various sports federations will be required to produce a list of Russian athletes they believe to be clean, which will be checked by an arbitrator from the IOC and a court of arbitration. Any Russian with a doping conviction will automatically be banned, including Stepanova, who has finished her punishment for previous doping. Fair? Then why will there be many athletes in Rio who have previously doped but have completed their punishment. We have uneven rules here.

At one point, the Russian athletes were given an “out”. All they had to do was to prove they had been clean through a sequence of tests in non-Russian laboratories that were run during the last few months. That is impossible to comply with, because nobody can go back in the past and do what has to be done. So why put in such a silly rule? My guess is quite simply there are a number of Russian athletes who have been residing or training in the US, and to include them in the ban would leave whoever issued the ban open to a serious law suit in US courts, and my guess is that there would be a number of major law firms just queuing up to take on the contingency case. That sort of ban could easily cost tens of millions of dollars at a minimum. So the rule was not there to be helpful; it was there to cover backsides. Whatever you think about that, the IOC, by passing the buck down to various sports organizations, has opened those up to the same lawsuits.

There is a further interesting thing about the Russian doping allegation: the criticism is the dopees (if that is a word) escaped notice because the second samples got “lost”. Sure, that stinks, but what is of interest here is that nobody has questioned the laboratories’ analyses (as far as I know). What that means is that Russian athletes that have always had clean first analyses should be in the clear. This is of relevance because the IOC has argued that it must make sure all athletes play on a level playing field. Well, the level playing field means that everyone else should have to go through the same vetting process. That is not happening.

Exactly what went on in Russia is unclear. The fact that a Canadian Professor produced a report, commissioned by an antidoping agency, which accused Russia of state sponsored doping does not mean that the report is accurate. The losing of second samples is indicative of something going wrong, but that does not mean the state ordered it, nor is it obvious that the state had the power to do so. Serious corruption would suffice. The problem is evidence, and what is remarkable about this report is that the details do not seem to have made a significant public appearance. We are told what it concluded, but that does not make it so. I seem to recall high level government “reports” that Saddam Hussein had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction, and could attack London with a fifteen-minute warning. The existence of a report is irrelevant; it is the evidence backing up the conclusions that is important.

Another point that I would like to see is that if Russians are banned, nobody else can take their place. The reason I say this is that the most vociferous calls for all Russian athletes to be banned appear to have come from callers who could reasonably be considered to have friends, acquaintances, or athletes from their own country on the verge of qualifying. If there were a blanket ban on replacements, other than for clear sickness or something unavoidable, then that would mean that any potential conflict of interest would be removed from those calling for the ban, and even more importantly, from those voting.

To summarize, I have a simple view. All athletes should play by the same rules. Guilt should be personal, and based on the evidence against that person. The judges should be independent of the outcome. Rules should not be backdated. If testing organizations are found to be corrupt, then they should be disqualified and from that point, other independent organizations should be used.

A Turkish Coup

As if the Middle East was not complicated enough as it was. While a lot of things have happened there recently, probably the biggest one was the coup attempt in Turkey, and interestingly enough, it was probably starting at the same time I was watching an interview with the Turkish Prime Minister on TV. The interview was almost certainly recorded, but nevertheless it was somewhat ironic that he was talking about the stability of democracy in Turkey, amongst other things.

There is one thing about this coup attempt that interested me, and that was the way it happened. In my ebook novel, “Miranda’s Demons”, I had a prescription for what should be in a coup. I am not saying that this prescription is sufficient, but I thought at the time it was at least necessary, and it appears that the Turkish generals who organized the coup broke all the items in this prescription. They should have bought my book J. Cheap at the price, the alternative being either the death penalty or a very long time in a Turkish jail.

In any coup attempt, the incumbents have many advantages, including being there, and having a significant machinery to enforce the law. Recall, coups are generally considered illegal, at least until they are successful. So, how to succeed? Obviously, the first requirement is to prevent the incumbents from organizing a response. The one big advantage to the plotter is, as long as they can maintain secrecy, surprise. They have to achieve as much as they can before a response can be started. That means taking and controlling the centres from which a response might be organized, and in particular, controlling communications. As far as we can make out, these plotters failed to appreciate the importance of communications, and so Erdogan was able to call out the population onto the streets and organize other responses.

Erdogan happened to be out of the country at the time. Accordingly, a prime requirement was to keep him there. That meant an important first strike had to be on airports, and if possible, keep the fact that you now controlled them secret. If Erdogan wanted to return, have a welcoming party awaiting him. But the plotters seemingly had overlooked this as well.

Suppose they had achieved that, there was a very important next step that was overlooked: why should people accept the coup? Just saying they don’t like the government is not good enough; at times I don’t like my government, but a coup is hardly an answer. What they need is a cause, and as soon as they control the communications, it is important that that cause is announced, and it is most desirable that the cause is one the population will appreciate. We don’t know why they tried to carry out this coup, but it is unlikely that they would have had a strong following because the coup collapsed through people power. Not good for the plotters.

The next thing they needed was enough men to do this quickly and discreetly, and oddly enough, they failed here too. Driving tanks through a city merely irritates the population, and begs the question, what are the tanks going to do about opposition? Unless the tankers are prepared to machine gun down opposition, a tank is counterproductive, and these soldiers were not prepared to do that. If you want to do it by sheer power, you actually have to demonstrate the willingness to use it. Either you have to get the population behind you, or you have to make them too afraid to oppose you. Since the two are mutually exclusive, you have to choose early, and follow through with vigour.

So, democracy is restored? I am not so sure. What I think this may have done is to cement in the authoritarian rule of Erdogan. I gather that over 2,000 judges have been arrested or dismissed. Why? Presumably because they might give judgments that Erdogan does not like. It is most unlikely that many judges could be part of a military plot. This will be giving Erdogan a chance to clean out those who oppose him personally, and the last I heard was that over 50,000 government employees, including teachers, have been fired and are under investigation. They could not be part of the coup, otherwise the secrecy would have been lost. Fifty thousand people can’t keep a secret, or if they can, there were easily enough people available to take all the key positions. Interestingly, in Turkey the power is supposed to reside with parliament, not the President, but in the interview I saw the Prime Minister effectively stated he was going to hand over power to Erdogan because Turkey needed a strong leader who could get things done, and this was before the coup attempt. For me, that is not very encouraging.

We need fact-based decisions – or do we?

Do you often wish that politicians would base their actions on facts? I know I have from time to time, but facts are slippery little things, and in the hands of politicians, they take on a whole new degree of slipperiness. You may recall back in 2003, the “facts” as presented to the world included that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he could launch on Europe or the UK in a matter of hours. In fact there were no such weapons. Further, at the time there was no evidence at all that anyone who could be described as reliable had seen any such weapons, and further, the UN weapons inspectors at the time kept asserting that they had not seen them, and they were convinced there were no such weapons. At the time even I was convinced there would be no such operable weapons. The reason for that is that something like anthrax needs a dispersing agent, and there was no such fresh agent entering Iraq since the Iraqis were ejected from Kuwait. Had there been weapons from that time secreted away somewhere, with no special preservation conditions, the dispersing agent would have clogged up. Similarly, any of the phosphorylating nerve “gases” would have condensed, and border controls should have been able to stop the importation of a chemical such as methylphosphonyl difluoride. Iraq could not make such a chemical without giving evidence that it was doing so. So we could safely assume there were no chemical weapons, or if you did not believe that, the onus was on you to provide evidence. There was no evidence, nor weapons of mass destruction; merely politicians with an urge to go to war.

It appears that in the recent Brexit campaigning, there were many “facts” floating around that simply were not true, or at best they were misleading in the extreme. Apparently there were also facts that were concealed. I saw a TV interview with Major General Julian Thompson, and he asserted that the EU was floating the idea of an EU army, in other words the EU was taking a further step towards becoming a federation of states as opposed to a collection of countries. The General was in a position to know, so it is reasonable to assume this has some basis. We shall have to wait and see.

A classic example of politicians behaving loosely with facts was recently exemplified here. There was a program proposed in parliament that involved the creation of new social benefits. The Minister of Finance jumped to his feet and vetoed it, on the basis that the cost he quoted would exceed the budgetary limitations. Some time later he was forced to admit the number he came up with was the estimate for a period of four years, not the one year implied by the veto.

One that annoys me is the irrelevant fact. As an example, I recently saw a statement that “enough sunlight strikes the earth in an hour to supply our energy requirements for a year”. The first problem is the undefined “our”, but let that pass. What is proposed? There are 8766 hours in a year, more or less, so for continual supply, we need an area of solar panels normal to the solar radiation equal to the cross-sectional area of the earth divided by 8766, which comes out as about 14579 square km. A square solar panel of 121 km along its side would do nicely, provided it was always at right angles to the solar radiation, and provided it was 100% efficient. Now, I am fairly sure he was not proposing that, so why put up this proposal anyway? It is a startling figure that promises unlimited energy, until you actually put some figures on what has to be done to get it. Politicians let loose with facts are quite a menace unless there are independent agencies with the ability to check them.