America’s Cup: a Kiwi perspective

First, congratulations to Oracle. After being 8:1 down, they pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in sport, but it is interesting to see what actually happened. How did they get so far behind, and why did Team New Zealand (TNZ) not finish them off? For TNZ did have their chances.

From what I can make out, there were several factors. The first was a change of critical crew, and in particular getting Ainslie on board as tactician. What is remarkable about the USA boat was that it only started winning when there was only one person from the USA on board. There was nothing TNZ could do about that. The second was a major change of the critical parts of the boat design. A triumph for American technology? Well, actually, not necessarily. Many of the changes apparently came from a small boat building enterprise in Warkworth, which happens to be in New Zealand, and is owned by Larry Ellison. It appears that what they gave was effectively the same sort of boat foils, etc., that TNZ had. How did they design that so fast? We do not know, but it may well be that information leaked out from the TNZ designers. Collaboration is being promoted in New Zealand by so-called experts in developing technology, and here it was not an advantage to New Zealand.

There was a further technology advantage to Oracle. It appears from reports that they have an automated means of foil adjustments, driven by an electric motor. The New Zealand reading of the rules prohibited that, but the rules committee permitted it. That was unfortunate, and by the time TNZ found out, when it was deployed half-way through, it was too late for TNZ to design one. What that did was to permit the boat to turn corners faster, and in a race that comprises zig-zagging, that is a huge advantage. What is also notable is that Oracle did not start with it, so I suspect they thought it was against the rules too, but only applied when the situation demanded it. Losing was not an option! The Oracle money meant that Oracle could pursue all sorts of options, just in case.

TNZ were also a little unlucky. For the Oracle crew to go through that many races without making a mistake may have seemed to be something outstanding, but they did make a huge clanger that gave TNZ one race, except it was cancelled because it could not be completed in the time limit, the time limit apparently having been set for TV convenience. Of course both sides knew the time limit before the series started, and maybe TNZ are now kicking themselves for not trying to get it extended earlier.

However, TNZ did have chances when 8:1 up, so what went wrong? The first thing was, they failed to nail it as soon as possible. For some reason, they felt they had it in the bag, and began to relax. That is strategically disastrous. They nearly lost the boat when half the crew thought they were turning and the other half did not. They then started changing tacticians, to “give the new guys experience”. Bad mistake; the new guys had no experience, and worse, by changing them, they were not learning. Then they started making further mistakes, without realizing that their opposition were improving rapidly. Some might be difficult to see. One involved a start: they did something Spithill never saw coming, and it could have been the making of the critical win. The reason it was a mistake was they pulled it off on a race where the wind speed was almost too high, and the race was cancelled effectively at the start gate, and this potential one-off race-winning tactic was exposed. The tactic was great, but the strategy awful, because they wasted a potential race winner on a cancelled race, and that would not work twice.

Once it became apparent that the opposition boat was as fast, they had to stop making mistakes, and the mistakes kept coming. The third-last race was a disastrous start, and the second-last race there was a dreadful extra jibe to avoid Oracle, when they had right of way. Whether it would have made any difference at this late stage is another matter, but it is always right to take whatever rights you have. In the last race, they did not make any, but it did not matter because by now Oracle was faster.

So, what do we learn from that? First, the idea that “the good guys always win” belongs in fiction. In thrillers, the good guys usually win because the writer is on their side. (In my novels, I try to make the winners those that do things better.) The problem with that attitude in real life is that both sides think they are the good guys, there is no writer to bring about the desired end, and the winners are the ones that make the fewest mistakes and bring the most appropriate equipment to the scene. For the second half of the America’s Cup racing that was the Oracle crew, so congratulations.

There is one more thing to learn. Oracle redesigned its boat, and kept a huge technology advantage in terms of computer software, and may have made it almost impossible for someone else to beat them. Given the cost of it, has Larry Ellison priced the event so high that next time nobody will turn up?

Democracy? Do the people have a say?

One of the themes of my futuristic ebooks is to look at different forms of government. We believe, or are continually told, that democracy is the best form of government, but that is merely an assumption. We know Plato did not think so, despite living in something much closer to a democracy. In The Republic he makes the excellent point: if you and a number of others were lost at sea, do you want a navigator or a vote?

But that leaves open the question, do our forms of government really have democracy, and if so, to what degree? Two events have sparked this thought. The first involves military action against Syria. There were good signs, in that in the UK, while the Prime Minister was quite gung ho over action, parliament turned around and voted against it. There are also less good signs. When President Obama suggested that Congress should vote on the issue, John McCain immediately implored the Republicans to vote with the President so as not to weaken the US image overseas. That might have been the right thing to do, but surely the decision as to whether to kill so many people should be made on grounds better than, “Let’s keep our image strong!” Surely a decision like that should be made on the basis of whether the situation will be better with the act than without it, and whether there is something else that could be done that would be better still. Logic says that at the very least, if you are going to do something, there should be a net benefit, not a net liability.

The second event was local to New Zealand. There is a question as to whether the government should partially sell infrastructural assets that it owns. There are a variety of views on this, the government saying it will give it more cash to do more, to which the cynic might suggest that it is selling assets to do things that make it look good at the next election, which is essentially the government trying to buy votes. The reality is that the government has latched onto the right wing “privatize everything” theology. Now, in an effort to get some democracy, some citizens have initiated a referendum, which, unfortunately, is not binding on the government. The government has said it will ignore the referendum, which it is legally entitled to do, but what message about democracy does that send to the citizens? The government says it was elected, and that gives it a mandate to sell the assets, since it mentioned this in its electoral policy statements. Is this argument valid? 

In my opinion, the answer is, “No.” In any such election, there are a number of issues, and in my opinion, the real reason why it got elected was that it had lowered income tax rates, and those that voted for it wanted to cement that in. It is funny how a little extra for the wallet leads so many to overlook so many other things. A subsidiary reason was that the opposition was still somewhat unpopular, having previously earned some ire during nine years in power. As for the tax, only too many overlooked the fact that those taxes had been made up with other taxes, such as an increase in the goods and services tax.

The problem with an election is that everyone gets one vote, but they have to spend it on a politician. The net result is that the people can choose their temporary autocrat, but they cannot selectively vote on policy. The referendum concept gives the people the right to vote on an issue, but autocrats tend not to like that. Yes, I know it would end up being messy, with everyone voting for mutually incompatible policies, but surely there must be some level of policy that citizens could vote for?

From whence international law?

One of the more curious aspects of the recent Syrian issue is the question of whether Syria broke international law. The curious part arises from the issue, what is international law?

As far as I can make out, prior to 1940 there was no international law. The reason is simple. One of the fundamental principles of law (e.g., read the Magna Carta) is that a sovereign authority can write law that informs those subject to it what they are not permitted to do. That implies that there is a sovereign authority, and prior to 1940, each nation was its own sovereign authority. However, by 1945, the sight of the German concentration camps was so horrifying that it seems everyone thought that something had to be done. The Russians would probably have simply taken away the leading Germans and killed them, but the Americans decided to put them on trial. The problem was, the Germans had technically not broken any law, because the Reich was not technically subject to any law. Never mind! The Nazis were tried for what should have been law, and duly executed, and because what they were accused of was so vile, nobody objected (and nor do I object. I think one of their own concentration camps would be just about right). But let us take a deeper look at what followed.

First, for some reason the Japanese got off more lightly, and ex-Nazis that were useful got a sort of immunity. Subsequently, in the Balkans, the West has complained about ethnic cleansing, but at the end of WWII, millions of Germans were ethnically cleansed. The German army of von Paulus surrendered, and the great majority of those soldiers died in captivity, but that, apparently, was not a crime. At a somewhat lower level, the family of my son-in-law were Poles, and the Russians simply took their land and sent the family to Siberia. They eventually managed to get to New Zealand, but there was never recompense for their lands. Justice at this level is hardly blind!

This brings me to the current US complaint that Russia is vetoing action against Syria in the UN. Accordingly, the US wants to let fly with cruise missiles to “teach Assad a lesson”. The first thing we can say about that is that previous such lessons have never ended well, and nobody, least of all the US government, seems to have learned anything. The second thing is that Iraq went ahead without UN authorization, so in many ways that was unlawful, unless international law is reduced to, he who has the most sophisticated forces is right. Then there is the argument, what has Syria done that is illegal in international law? Here the problem is, there is no international law, but even by treaty, as far as I know, Syria has not signed any treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons. Killing its subjects cannot be good, but by some estimate there have been about 100,000 deaths so far, and nobody got too worked up about that. Of course the US claims that its cruise missiles will be surgical and will not kill anybody. Yeah, right!

The question now is, do you believe two wrongs do not make a right? If you do, why is sending cruise missiles into another country and blowing stuff up right? Why is it even legal, apart from the fact there is no real international law? I think there should be international law, but I also think it has to be put in place by an entity that is given the right to enforce such law. In my ebook trilogy “First Contact” I wrote in a federation of nations with Federation armed forces, even though most countries also had their own, and generally did their own policing. I shall enlarge on this federation is subsequent posts.

All of which leads to the question, what should be done in the near future about Syria? As far as I can see, the only way that is likely to end the killing is to partition Syria and permit and assist significant ethnic movement. It is not a great solution, but can anyone think of anything better that has a realistic chance of success?

Leaders; do we get the best?

How to select leaders is of particular interest here (New Zealand) at present because the Leader of the Opposition has resigned, and the race is on for a replacement. The resignation came because the previous man, while he had a great record as a reasonable negotiator, was not an incisive speaker and he had a poor command of television appearance. He did not look good, he was picked on by the commentators, so he had to go. Quality was irrelevant! Whether that is good for democracy I leave to you to decide, but this issue of leadership is one of the themes of my ebook trilogy First Contact, which, while nominally about contact with aliens, it also looks at governance in a dystopian future. One of the advantages of fiction, and why I write it, is that one can construct scenarios to make specific points without embarrassing a specific person, and without starting a feud with someone. The idea is to give things to think about for those who wish to, besides also entertaining.

The first book (A Face on Cydonia) starts by showing how governance has failed to eliminate blatant injustice and corruption, how one character becomes devoted to stopping that while another evolves into taking advantage of the situation and becoming a significant part of the problem. In the second (Dreams Defiled) the characters advance, and one becomes in a position to “fix things”, while the other evolves into an even worse character and sabotages the first, only then to be constrained by other forces. At the end of the third (Jonathon Munros) the main surviving character notes that the set of skills needed to get to a position of power through a vote have nothing in common with the set of skills required to do the job the candidate is standing for.

This particularly applies to politicians, but in Jonathon Munros it also applies to some extent to the election of the head of a corporation. For a corporation, the voters were restricted to Board members, and the candidates were, perforce, senior directors and so to some extent many of the skills could be assumed to be present from all candidates. In the novel, the problem was, if a candidate simply wanted to stand on his or her reputation, the candidate would lose. Winning required some additional pressure, which opens the way for bribes and threats. In other words, the skill required to get to the top was to be more cunning than the others. What happened was, of course, is simply fiction, but I believe the problem is real. Sometimes the best person really does get to the top, but in other cases it is someone less than adequate. Recall the time when Apple Computer hired as CEO the man from Pepsi? As someone remarked, the biggest technology challenge he faced previously was to change the colour of the can. In a period of years, Apple went from the most promising and advanced personal computer company to a near basket case. That it survived was almost entirely due to picking Steve Jobs as CEO, and I suspect that only happened because the company finally realized it had done so badly it needed a near miracle.

The case for politicians is worse. I recall once being in such a candidate selection meeting. There were seven votes. Three came from votes from the floor, i.e. party members who would cast their individual vote after hearing the candidates speak. Three came from a branch committee of the party, and I have no idea how they were selected. Finally, one came from the party head office, exercised by a representative. In principle, all votes were supposed to be decided from the candidates’ speeches, but in practice, the head office vote would be predetermined. So, did the best candidate win? What happened is one candidate got the three from the branch committee, who were presumably his friends. Because two of the other candidates were of reasonable quality the floor votes went to them but were divided, and the three branch votes produced a majority over the others. I have no idea how the final vote was decided but the three votes won. Only too often candidates win positions in safe seats because they have been loyal party members, or because they have friends on the selection committee.

Another issue is the minority card. The argument seems to be that we need more of the minorities. More women, more gay people, more minority races, more indigenous people, then there is the religious card. A Jewish lesbian of mixed Chinese/Maori descent would seem to tick a lot of boxes here. I do not have anything against any of those groups, but I do think that if they ask me to give them the right to run the country, they have the obligation to show they have some chance of doing the job. What do you think?