May 25, 2015

Fixing F1?

If you want a handle on the current discussion about fixing Formula One, I recommend starting with what David Coulthard and Will Buxton have to say on the topic. Do read Mark Webber's thoughts as well. For the hell of it, I've put my two cents' worth together as well.

There are two problem areas in F1: costs and the perceived quality of the racing. The first is fairly obvious and almost dramatic by now. Several major car manufacturers (Toyota, BMW, Honda) left F1 during the financial crisis, and only one new manufacturer has joined since (Mercedes). The last time F1 tried to expand the grid ended in complete disaster: of the three new teams, two have gone under and the last remaining one went through receivership and barely made the grid this year with a car that's so slow it wouldn't even be in the points in GP2. Force India and Sauber are in dire financial straits, and Red Bull is publicly threatening to withdraw. Everyone agrees that the financial state of the sport is untenable, but no-one agrees why, or what should be done about it.

The other point is fuzzier, but arguably shows in falling TV numbers and empty grandstands. The perennial complaint is that Formula One is "boring", which is something that's been said since the nineties at least. Like the financial situation, there's no agreement whatsoever on why the racing isn't as good as it could supposedly be, much less what ought to be done to fix it. Personally, I'm of two minds on this: we've been seeing some really good racing lately, although I do admit having fallen sound asleep during the Spanish GP. I'm also not convinced that the dearth of spectators at some races is so much due to the quality of the product on track as the obscene ticket prices, driven by the gigantic fees levied by one Mr. Ecclestone, who's unsurprisingly very keen to blame the quality of the racing. But clearly there are some problems that ought to be addressed.

The drivers, apparently, aren't at all happy with the state of the sport either. This, from Coulthard, is key:

They might not say so publicly, but I know that the current drivers are all a bit disillusioned with the current F1 because the cars are so slow compared to previous years, and the drivers are so far within their ability levels during the races.

Similarly, Webber:

“I’m talking on behalf of the drivers at the front of the grid because they can’t say what they really feel. But I’m talking to them now. I’d love someone to do a stat on race pace with the 2015 race compared to the mid-2000s – probably Montoya would have lapped Seb in Malaysia three and a half times! But people aren’t looking at this. In the past, the limitation over the back part of the track in Malaysia used to be balls and how fit you were. Now its ‘save your tyres.’”

Never mind that nonsense about testicles - it's a disgrace that fast and talented female drivers like Simone de Silvestro and Alice Powell can't attract sponsorship - because the point is sound: from a driver's perspective, F1 today is not about pushing yourself to the limit at the pinnacle of motorsport, it's about being particularly skilled at saving tires and fuel. There's really no two ways about this: that's fucking ridiculous.

Why is this? Because of past attempts to fix F1. This is what makes any talk of fixing the sport now so difficult: much of the trouble F1 is in right now stems from things that have been done in the past to make the racing better. What guarantee do we have right now that the changes being mooted won't do the same? Nor can we simply imagine that going back in time to when F1 was "proper" is the answer - not least because we're never going to agree when that was. We have to be aware that change may very well make things worse; in the precarious financial situation F1 is in today, ill-conceived sweeping changes seem more likely to destroy the sport than rescue it. At the very least, cost-cutting has to be paramount. Otherwise the better racing will come at the expense of half the grid going bankrupt.

**

To me, the biggest issue is the one highlighted by Coulthard and Webber: F1 isn't about pushing the limits of the drivers any more. The reason for this is simple: perceived problems in the quality of the racing have been addressed by gimmicks. Pirelli was brought in to make comedy tires for the cars that would degrade artificially quickly. This was done to give us more pit stops, more variable action on track and whatnot. You can argue we've got that, and this is no criticism of Pirelli as they've come in and done exactly what was asked of them, but it's also taken the edge off the driving. The tires also make one of F1's biggest problems much worse, because they make overtaking much harder. The aerodynamics of an F1 car are so finely tuned that the downforce the cars generate is drastically reduced when they're running in "dirty air" behind another car. The airflow to the various aerodynamic elements is disrupted by the car in front, and the trailing car loses grip. This also makes tire degradation much worse, and with the comedy tires, it means that drivers have to hang back and conserve their tires rather than attack the car in front.

To fix this problem, the DRS was introduced. The euphemistically named Drag Reduction System is a rear wing that can be opened on designated parts of the track to reduce downforce and increase straight-line speed. It is completely idiotic. As I said ages ago, the idea of the DRS is based on the notion that overtaking by itself is always exciting and makes for better racing. This is the same kind of nonsense you sometimes hear in hockey, where they claim that more goals means better games. Utter rubbish there, and also in motorsports. A DRS overtake involves no driver skill whatsoever: it simply meams that whenever a car that's faster on the straight finds itself behind a slower car, the faster car will receive a free overtake in a special overtaking zone and speed on by. In other words, the DRS sorts the cars into order by speed more efficiently. It guarantees that if a faster car finds itself far behind the race lead, it has an easy passage up the pack by making DRS passes of everyone in front. There is just no way that makes for better racing.

The real problem with DRS is much more profound. We introduce a gimmick (comedy tires). The gimmick makes something worse (overtaking), so we introduce another gimmick (DRS) to fix the problems with the previous gimmick. This is such a terrible way to run a sport that words fail me. I'm genuinely scared that in order to "fix" F1, they're going to come up with even more gimmicks. Certainly Mr. Ecclestone's suggested some that are simply far too stupid to even contemplate. Every gimmick takes F1 further away from racing, and makes it that much more difficult for the casual fan to follow or understand.

I firmly believe that the era of gimmick tires needs to end. It's beyond ridiculous that the most vital skill needed for a driver to succeed at the top level of motorsports is tire management. The DRS also needs to go. Introducing completely artificial trickery to create false "excitement" is a complete waste of money and effort that cheapens the sport metaphorically and makes it needlessly expensive and complicated in reality.

So how do we deal with the overtaking problem? In David Coulthard's words:

It was quite striking to hear Lewis Hamilton of all people saying to his Mercedes team during the Spanish Grand Prix that he could not get close enough to Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari to try to pass him.

I don't have the answer, but surely there must be a way to design the aerodynamics of an F1 car so this is not such a problem, whether it be by having more of the downforce created by the under-floor or whatever.

It is not beyond the F1 designers to come up with a solution to this

After all, IndyCar racing must have found a way, or their cars would not be able to run so close together on oval tracks.

There is widespread agreement that the difficulty of overtaking is, as said, due to the aerodynamics of F1. The answer here seems to be an obvious combination of better racing and saving money: restrict aerodynamics. As a start, I'm with Sean Kelly: restrict the front wing drastically. Making front wing aero much less complicated should dramatically reduce the difficulty of closely following another car. To run with David Coulthard's Indycar analogy, take a look at Indycar front wings compared to the F1 spec ones. The changes so far would all support each other: proper tires mean increased mechanical grip, which means less need for extensive front wing aero, which means more overtaking opportunities, removing the need for the DRS. To me, it seems that these changes would not only improve racing but also make F1 less expensive, so everybody wins.

**

And along comes the Strategy Group. Made up of the five biggest teams (Mercedes, Ferrari, Williams, Red Bull and McLaren) and the best of the rest by constructors' standings (Force India), plus the FIA and a gnomish demilich, the Strategy Group essentially exists to exclude the smaller teams from decisions concerning the sport. They met a week ago on Friday to fix what ails F1 and create a new formula for 2017, and what they came up with is awful.

The 2017 changes address three main issues. Firstly, the engines will be make to rev higher so as to generate more noise. From a TV viewer's perspective, all the moaning about F1 cars making less noise with the new V6 engines is completely ridiculous. At one point, the whining got so terrible that they actually attached a fucking trumpet to the exhaust. A TRUMPET.



That is the stupidest thing I have ever seen on an F1 car. I'm sure there's a market somewhere for a dadaist motorsport series where the cars look like Terry Gilliam animations propelled by flatulence, but surely F1 is not it.

The engine non-issue is being addressed in a vaguely more intelligent manner now, but it all seems completely mad. The new engines are technologically brilliant and road-relevant, which is why all the engine manufacturers refused to change them despite Bernie Ecclestone's inexplicable continuing campaign against them. Lately I've been completely unable to understand why Mr. Ecclestone does the things he does; from his persistent lies that the V6 engines aren't relevant to seeming to do his best to drive the smallest teams out of the business, the outside observer cannot fathom whose interests Mr. Ecclestone is acting in. They don't even seem to be his own. At least he didn't get his way with the engines.

The other major issue is that the cars are to be made considerably faster. F1 cars right now are several seconds a lap slower than those of some previous formulas, which is hardly surprising with the smaller engines, tighter aero restrictions and gimmick tires. The Strategy Group wants to fix this by increasing aerodynamic downforce, so the cars go faster. As James Allen points out, this seems likely to not only fail to increase overtaking, but rather undo much of the work done over the last few years to increase it. Certainly as I understand it, increasing aerodynamic downforce will make the "dirty air" problem much worse than it is now. So in terms of race quality, this change should lead to less overtaking and less battling on track.

**

The third innovation grabbed the biggest headlines: refueling is coming back. This is basically a terrible idea. Now, in theory I like the idea of introducing more strategy variables into the F1 equation, but refuelling generally made for boring races where drivers would overtake each other on pit stops, not on the track. The combination of refueling and increased aero would seem to pretty much guarantee this. Refueling is also dangerous: F1 pits are something of a fire hazard at the best of times, even when you're not pumping high-pressure gasoline into a running engine.

So the Strategy Group's ideas seem to be terrible from a racing viewpoint. They're even worse because they are literally the opposite of cost-cutting. Every team will have to invest in extra personnel and refueling equipment - equipment that was discarded partly because lugging it around was so expensive! As before, all cost-cutting proposals were rejected. Instead, the idea of customer cars was raised again, which in prctice mens tht instead of developing their own crs, smaller teams would buy ready-made cars from the bigger ones. The idea was studied s one way of controlling costs for smaller teams, but it has significant drawbacks: customer cars would effectively divide the grid in half into the constructors and the "B-teams", and it's not at all clear that this kind of racing would make any sense from a sporting or business viewpoint for either the smaller constructors or the B-teams. While I think that something like a co-constructor model could work, the current customer car proposals do seem to confirm the worst fears of the small teams about the Strategy Group.

On the whole, then, in terms of the two perceived main problems of F1, the Strategy Group's suggestions would seem to have the net effect of making everything worse. There are very few reasons to think that what they've come up with will improve the quality of the racing. It seems absolutely impossible that costs would be reduced.

**

The Strategy Group doesn't get to make regulations on its own; everything it suggests will have to be approved down the line. It's already been said that if refueling turns out to be too expensive (if?), it'll be abandoned. But even if none of the proposals outlined above ever see the light of day, they're still profoundly worrying, because they very strongly suggest that the major teams, the commercial rights holder and the FIA have terrible priorities. Apparently none of them care one bit about any kind of cost control. The return to refueling seems to be a perfect example of their decision-making process: it's pointless, seems by all indications to be more likely to only make everything worse and more dangerous, and the only thing we can be sure if is that it will make F1 more, not less, expensive. The Strategy Group has certainly made it clear that the smaller teams' interests mean nothing to it. Similarly, the focus on making the cars faster and louder seems to be counterproductive to improving the actual quality of the racing.

I'm very concerned by the future of F1 right now. Unless the world economy suddenly booms, it's difficult to see how the smaller teams can stay afloat. Customer cars may well be their deathknell. It doesn't seem farfetched to thinl that in a few years' time, the F1 grid will be made up by the current big teams and a couple of marketing ventures like Lotus and the incoming Haas F1 team. This is not to in any way denigrate the current small teams; on the contrary, they're pretty much heroes of motorsport for sticking in there. But if things go on like this, they'll be forced out.

One thing I find bitterly amusing in the continuing fan debate on what's wrong with F1 is the insistence that the teams cannot run the series, and a higher authority must be brought in to make them do what's good for them. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, who's publicly admitted to admiring Adolf Hitler, has more kindred spirits in motorsports than you'd think. Certainly the idea of excluding the smaller teams from important decisions is absolutely terrible, but it's just complete nonsense to suggest that competing teams can't run a sports series. Anyone who says this has to be completely ignorant of how almost all of the world's major sporting leagues work. Hankering after an FIA dictatorship is pure stupidity - unless you genuinely think that F1 would be better if we could only resurrect Jean-Marie Ballestre. Especially given how well the FIA's strongarm tactics worked last time.

What is it with fascism and motorsport, by the way? Former FIA president Jean-Marie Ballestre was an SS man during the war, and he was succeeded by Max Mosley - son of Oswald Mosley! And then there were Bernie's Hitler comments. He also dismissed the Strategy Group, saying he "doesn't like democracies. Given that only the wealthiest half of the grid is represented, the Strategy Group hardly qualifies as anything like a contemporary democracy, but that isn't stoppig both fans and pundits from, without a shred of irony or indeed any kind of awareness whatsoever, getting starry-eyed over a "benevolent dictatorship" to run F1. It's amazing.

Speaking of dictatorships, I strongly feel that one particular problem that was completely ignored by the Strategy Group does need to be addressed: the circuits. Far too many of the new circuits have been rubbish. Has there ever been an interesting race at Abu Dhabi? There certainly never was at Valencia, which suffered from the main problem of modern street circuits: no matter how pretty the environs, once the racing starts it's just cars hurtling down a stupidly narrow concrete-lined canal. Even Singapore, which always draws fanboylike oohs and aahs from the TV presenters, is a rubbish circuit, and the racing not only looks terrible but is incredibly boring. The only time Singapore has ever been even remotely interesting was, well, that one time. Sochi is worse: as if having to watch everyone kowtow to a diminutive megalomaniac dictator wasn't bad enough, then Putin shows up. With perennial snoozefests like Barcelona and Hungary stuck on the calendar alongside them and locations like the Nürburgring and Monza dropping out, the circuits are also becoming a real problem. Putting on a good race becomes exponentially more difficult when your circuit is not only designed to stop the drivers from overtaking but also to put every viewer to sleep. Maybe I'm just a pessimist and Azerbaijan will be brilliant. Somehow I doubt it.

I'm genuinely scared that F1 is in peril. The terrible irony of it all is that the new engine regulations were supposed to provide the sport with long-term stability, which it badly needs. Now that's being completely undone in a frantic effort for change for the sake of change, which is simultaneously ccelerating the financial self-destruction of the sport. The (few!) people making decisions in F1 today would do well to remember that it's not a law of nature that there needs to be such a thing as Formula One at all. If the number of teams keeps dropping and the racing gets worse, how interesting is something like the World Endurance Championship going to start looking? And how many peope will tune into that thing with the motorized bicycles instead of F1? The fantastic success Formula One has had can't be taken for granted.

May 4, 2015

Let's Read Tolkien 8: Flies and spiders

They walked in single file.

I talked about Tolkien's attention to geography in an earlier installment. It's generally agreed that mountains were a bit of a thing for him, and this chapter is our first encounter with another major theme: forests. Mind you, there have been plenty of trees earlier: the trolls' camp was on a wooded hill, there were trees and forested valleys on the way to Rivendell, as well as on both sides of the Misty Mountains. But those were forests; Mirkwood is a Forest. As anyone who's read the Lord of the Rings knows, a forest is just a place with some trees, while a Forest proper is a dark, foreboding, awe-inspiring place. Entering one is an occasion and a considerable, and very dangerous, undertaking.

As a personal aside, I should point out that I come from a culture that fondly harbors utterly pseudo-historical notions (pdf) of its supposed recent descent from some kind of moody Cimmerian forest-dwellers and eagerly deploys these to explain everything from our political beliefs and imagined military prowess to our drinking habits. Part of the reason this series of blog posts is progressing with such glacial speed is that I'm working on a Master's thesis on the military ramifications of these notions. But for that reason, and I suspect ultimately because of the small stretches of woodland near where I grew up, forests fascinate me. Having been born in Switzerland, I'm also somewhat subject to Tolkien's romance with mountains, but in the Hobbit at least, mountains aren't nearly as spectacular as forests.

Indeed, if you compare the mountains in chapter 4 to Mirkwood, the mountains are basically benign until a thunderstorm strikes. The forest, on the other hand, is unequivocally hostile: a hateful, dark place.

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. But they had to go in and on, long after they were sick for a sight of the sun and of the sky, and longed for the feel of wind on their faces. There was no movement of air down under the forest-roof, and it was everlastingly still and dark and stuffy. Even the dwarves felt it, who were used to tunneling, and lived at times for long whiles without the light of the sun; but the hobbit, who liked holes to make a house in but not to spend summer days in, felt that he was being slowly suffocated.

Seriously, by the description, it is worse than the goblin-tunnels! But on they trudge nonetheless. I've pointed out before that on re-reading the Hobbit, what's really striking is how badly this entire dragonslaying caravan seems to be organized, and last time (admittedly a while ago!) I felt that Gandalf leaving the dwarves on their own seemed like an absolutely terrible idea. As the dwarves and Bilbo make their way deeper into Mirkwood, they're not only constantly spooked by the woods, but their provisions start to run out, most crucially the water. Eventually they arrive at a stream, have a hell of a time getting over as the bridge is gone, and Bombur falls in and drops into some kind of magical forest coma. So now they're hauling along a sleeping dwarf, their food is running out, and they've wasted all the arrows Beorn gave them firing mindlessly after various animals they've run across.

At this point the reader is wondering how anyone could have thought it was a good idea to let these morons out on their own. The narrator helpfully points out that if the dwarves had only persevered a bit longer, they would have made it to the edge if the woods. Surely someone could have told them this? Although one also wonders why it matters, since based on what we've seen of the party's wilderness survival skills so far, they'd still have been far from civilization and starving. Looking at the whole thing from the outside, so to speak, the whole project just seems completely absurd.

They get Bilbo to climb a tree to have a look around, but he can't see the edge of the woods because they're actually in a valley at the moment, so when he comes down and the food runs out, the dwarves are feeling a bit desperate. Again, it's slightly difficult to square the abject misery of Mirkwood with the notion of Tolkien's stories as happy-go-lucky Boy's Own adventures, but this is a recurring problem anyway. Bombur eventually wakes up and starts talking about the magical woodland feast he'd dreamed about and the various foods on offer there. It's a miracle they didn't strangle him. As night is falling, they spot a glimmer of light in the woods, and drawing closer to it they see torches and fires among the trees. You remember what Gandalf and Beorn reminded the dwarves to never ever even think about doing? That's right, leave the path. But honestly, at this point they're pretty much facing starvation because they ventured into a giant goddamn haunted magic forest with far too little food, so I don't really blame them for thinking "fuck those guys, let's eat".

As it turns out, though, elven parties aren't that easy to crash. Every time Bilbo and the dwarves make it to the elves' torchlit forest party, the lights go out and the elves vanish. After their third attempt, the dwarves get hopelessly lost and separated from each other and Bilbo, who's left by himself in the middle of the pitch-black Mirkwood. Figuring, unlike the dwarves, that running in a random direction and screaming might not be the best wilderness survival strategy, Bilbo decides to settle down and wait for dawn to get his bearings. If it's more than a little surprising to find Bilbo making better outdoor decisions than the dwarves, it gets plenty more surprising when he wakes up from a snooze to find a giant fucking spider trying to coccoon him in a web, and promptly kills it with his sword.

Somehow the killing of the giant spider, all alone by himself in the dark without the help of the wizard or the dwarves or of anyone else, made a great difference to Mr. Baggins. He felt a different person, and much fiercer and bolder in spite of an empty stomach, as he wiped his sword on the grass and pit it back into its sheath. "I will give you a name," he said to it, "and I shall call you Sting".

This is very much the moment when Bilbo makes the transition from screaming and fainting bourgeois Mr. Baggins to the world of Norse epic, monster-slaying and naming ancient magic swords. Again, because things aren't that simple with Tolkien, the transformation is anything but complete and irreversible, but a pivotal moment is had nonetheless. Feeling dead butch, Bilbo promptly goes off and rescues the dwarves from certain death by outwitting the entire local population of giant spiders with an invisibility ring, some thrown rocks and a mocking song. I have to take a moment to quote one of my favorite sentences in all of Tolkien:

Quite apart from the stones no spider has ever liked being called Attercop, and Tomnoddy of course is insulting to anybody.

Attercop, it turns out, is an Old English word for spider, as are Lob and Cob, the two other insults Bilbo hurls at them. Somehow I just thoroughly enjoy the fact that we've been told which nickname spiders particularly detest.

Having freed the dwarves, Bilbo then distracts the spiders again to let them make their getaway, and they all succeed in escaping. Bilbo's definitely moved up in the world from useless, occasionally screaming baggage. The dwarves gain a new respect for Bilbo as they press him for details of his escapade and the magic ring, and eventually they fall asleep sheltering in one of the elves' clearings, which the spiders seem unwilling to enter. But in the meantime, Thorin has been captured by the Wood-Elves, who very much want to know why there are suddenly dwarf hobos in their woods. As Thorin dwarvishly refuses to tell them why, exactly, it is that he's come all this way to starve in a forest, they lock him in a cell until he talks.

**

There's a lot going on in this chapter, which I'd also like to use as an excuse for having taken ages to finish this post. We go from dreary forest-slogging to elf-chasing and spider-fighting, and end up with an extended description of the Wood-Elves and Thorin's interrogation. It's difficult to not think that the elf-exposition at the end of the chapter couldn't have been saved for the next one. But there's action, an excellent mocking song and starving despair in a horrible forest. I don't think I'd ever properly realized just how awful Tolkien makes Mirkwood; if you accept the logic that the biting cold of The Mountains of Madness arose from Lovecraft's terror of freezing temperatures, then surely Tolkien must've had some truly terrible arboreal experiences at some point in his life.

Next time: elves, burglary and barrels.

Mar 2, 2015

The trouble with Russia

So far, the most likely explanation for Boris Nemtsov's death is Mark Galeotti's, and unfortunately it's also the scariest. I agree that it's highly unlikely Putin directly ordered this. Nemtsov is no Kirov, nor does Putin seem to need this kind of excuse for whatever it is he's planning. Instead, Galeotti raises the frightening possibility that Nemtsov, repeatedly denounced by the Kremlin as a traitor and a fifth columnist of the west, was killed by someone taking the law into their own hands - either rogue elements in the security forces or someone else entirely.

Before the assassination, I had planned to title this blog post "The trouble with Mr. Putin". I was going to make the argument that the trouble with Putin's Russia is that we don't know what he wants. To take an extreme example, if we knew - literally knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt - that Putin plans to start World War III when he feels his military is strong enough, then we - the West - should attack Russia now. The odds are only going to shift in his favor, and even now, NATO decisively outnumbers and outguns Russia, especially at a time when Russian forces are tied down in the Donbas.

But of course, we don't know beyond the shadow of a doubt that that's what he intends. I'd bet very few sensible people would even consider that remotely likely. The whole scenario is a complete fantasy, because we'll never know with total certainty what another person intends, much less a whole state apparatus.

But in Putin's case, we're really struggling. It's dauntingly difficult to interpret even a single act of the current administration. Why did Russia invade the Ukraine? To create a "frozen conflict" on their border? To cement the annexation of the Crimea? To carve up the Ukraine into smaller territories? To occupy the whole country? Or was it just to get the Russian people excited about his courageous stand against the nefarious West and restore Russia to her rightful place in the world hierarchy? I don't know, and neither do you. We all have guesses, and certainly some guesses are much better informed than others, but they're still guesses. I don't believe for a minute that anyone can reliably tell how much Putin's actions are aimed at his domestic audience, or perhaps audiences would be better, and how much they're part of a strategy directed outward. Certainly they're always to some extent both.

It's similarly impossible to understand what Putin's strategy toward Finland is. We've had him send over a general to threaten us and question our right to hold military exercises inside our own borders, and present a 2010's version of the Molotov-Ribbentrop accords masquerading as a missile defense arrangement (against who? Ze Germans?). There's a particular Finnish docent, better known locally as the десант, accredited both by some Russian institutions and the Donetsk People's Republic as their official representative, given to spinning ridiculous tales about the imaginary atrocities inflicted by the fascist Finnish authorities on innocent Russian children. There are the airspace violations, too clearly periodical to be accidents. What are we to make of all this? How much of Comrade десант's fulminations are aimed at discouraging Russians from moving to the Finnish near abroad, and how much are they an attempt to build a case for action against Finland? Clearly many of the actions of the Russian state are meant to frighten us - but into what? Is all this happening because Putin wants to maintain a level of tension on his northwestern flank, or in preparation for some strategic move here? If so, what move?

Again, we don't know. And the trouble is that if something that goes beyond the kind of provocations and testing of the guard that we've experienced so far does happen, we still won't know for a good while. Certainly keeping us on our toes and guessing seems to be part of the plan. But really, we have no idea what the plan is.

I firmly believe that the most dangerous aspect of the entire situation is that no-one in the West seems to know what Putin's plan is. Or even if he has one at all. This opens the door to all kinds of disastrous possibilities, the worst of which by far is that the West may dangerously overreact to one of Putin's provocations. Perhaps he'll pull some kind of stunt on the Baltic countries, hoping to score some easy political points at home through a largely symbolic action, and through some combination of mistakes and unfortunate coincidences, NATO interprets his provocation as an actual attack. Shots are fired, people are killed, a counterattack is mounted, and all of a sudden the world is at war. Think back to 1914. Putin's strategy of escalation and misdirection is a phenomenally dangerous nuclear gamble.

But maybe the problem with this analysis is that it may not be Putin's gamble. We see that Russia cannot be described as a democracy. We see the strongman's shirtless posturing, the nostalgic references to the Georgian fellow with the moustache. We identify this as a dictatorship. But is it really? Nobody, not even Stalin, ruled through personal force alone. And do we really believe Putin commands a cult of personality to rival Stalin's? Hardly. His pseudo-fascist program of national chauvinism, order and war on the weakling outsiders has become popular enough to sustain the regime - but is he himself necessary to it? Even the most merciless totalitarian dictators of the 20th century had to rule through a system, and had to game the system in order to remain indispensable to it: to stay in charge. How good is Putin at gaming the system? It's believed that some time ago he purged most of the remaining oligarchs from his inner circle, and relies on the siloviki: the alliance of the security services and organized crime. How well does he really control them? Or for that matter, the armed forces? If the murder of Boris Nemtsov was carried out against his wishes, what else might be?

At one point during the Cuban missile crisis, when two seemingly conflicting letters from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev arrived in the United States, the US leadership had to seriously consider the possibility that they were no longer actually negotiating with Khrushchev but that there had been a coup and he had been replaced; only they had no idea by whom. Nor do we know now to what extent Putin is actually running the show. It's bad enough to think that we're facing a revisionist Russia run by a ruthless chekist determined to regain his country's pretended superpower status at the expense of its neighbors. What might be even worse is a Russia whose population is starting to feel the bite of the declining economy, becoming increasingly hostile toward foreigners and especially the West - and slipping from Putin's grasp.

It's the uncertainty that gets you. We don't know who killed Boris Nemtsov, or why, nor will we. We don't know what Russia intends to do next, let alone why. Nor do we know who, exactly, Russia is at any given moment. We have to prepare for the worst, but in doing that, we run a terrible risk of making the worst a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if we fail to prepare for the worst, we leave ourselves weak, which gives Russia all the more incentive to push us harder. All our options are bad. But some are worse than others.

None of this would happen if our current world system wasn't based on the idea of an anarchic collection of states all keeping their populations in line by scaring the crap out of them with both external and internal threats. Not to mention actually creating such threats with their behavior, both to themselves and others. The logic of this system of international politics is absolutely fucking terrible, but apparently we're stuck with it for the time being. And the only reasonable way to safeguard our rights and safety is to play along with it as best we can., because there's no opt-out clause. Neutrality is great if you're surrounded by mountains and lubricated by the most influential banking system in the world. We aren't. All we can do is prepare for the worst and do our damndest to avert it. I just wish we knew what that damndest was.

Jan 9, 2015

Non, je ne suis pas Charlie

I absolutely and unequivocally condemn the murderous attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. I also absolutely condemn any and all victim-blaming on the subject, if there's been any: the cartoonists weren't asking for it, they were exercising their rights to free expression, and nothing they wrote or drew in any way justifies an attack on them.

At the same time, I will not stand in solidarity with a racist and homophobic magazine. Charlie Hebdo was never just satire: when they satirize Islam, it's satire that directed against a small immigrant religion whose members face systematic racism in a country where the xenophobic extreme right is on the rise - funded by Putin, no less. Satire and humor can be powerful weapons with which to challenge oppression, but also means of oppression themselves. I refuse to accept the notion that racist mockery of less privileged minorities is an inherent social good whose producers must be valorized and stood in unquestioning solidarity with.

The right to mock religion in Europe is not threatened, and certainly not by Islam. In the few European countries where blasphemy is illegal, like Finland, the legislation has nothing to do with Islam, but is based entirely on Christianity. If there is a real threat to the freedom of expression in Europe, it comes from Christian political parties, not Muslims. So Charlie Hebdo's caricatures of Islam aren't defending some fundamental European rights that are under threat. It is inconceivable that terrorist attacks on cartoonists will change that.

After the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices, there have been several attacks on mosques and Muslims in France. The attack was a boon for Europe's islamophobic far right, which uses incidents like these to bolster its claim that Islam is an alien ideology fundamentally incompatible with European values. This is nonsense: Islam is no less compatible with human rights and the European political system than Christianity or Judaism. Islamists, on the other hand, use the attacks on Muslims and Islam that their terrorism provokes to bolster their claim that the West hates Islam and is trying to destroy their religion. It rather helps their case that Western countries continue their indiscriminate violence against Muslim communities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and a number of other places, in the guise of the "war on terror".

It speaks volumes to the enlightened principles we are standing up for all across the social media that the right to draw racist cartoons is universally supported, but the rights of French Muslims are completely ignored. Media outlets are recycling racist collective blame by demanding that "moderate Islam" - as if some such monolith exists! - condemn the attacks. Yet no-one demands that Christian and secular Europeans condemn the attacks on Muslims. Whose freedom, whose speech?

The aim of the attack on Charlie Hebdo - if it was committed by Islamists - is not to stop us from mocking the Prophet. This is a ridiculously stupid narrative, based on racist notions of Muslims as irrational savages. The aim of the attacks is to sharpen contradictions: reinforce the notion that the West and Islam are implacable enemies. Both the Islamists and Eueopean fascists are followers of an apocalyptic faith. They want an existential war between civilizations, and they do their utmost to spread hate and violence to bring it about. Both champion an ideology that is threatened by peace, prosperity and mutual understanding, so their mutual objective is to attack those underpinnings of Western liberal democracy.

The terrorists don't win if we refrain from publishing racist caricatures of Muslims. The terrorists win if we subscribe to their narrative of the profound and inevitable clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world. I refuse to do that. The murderers who attacked Charlie Hebdo are criminals. Anders Breivik was a criminal. The men and women of Western armed forces who murder civilians in the Middle East are criminals, as well as the members of ISIS who do the same. I condone no murder of innocents, in uniform or outside it, for any ideology. I stand for free expression, but I refuse to stand in solidarity with racism, islamophobia and oppression.

Dec 29, 2014

Finland's security future

The next parliamentary elections are coming up in April, and the big story leading into them is how the Stubb cabinet has effectively destroyed the Coalition Party's popularity. After their victory in the previous elections, the Coalition looked unstoppable, but they've since fallen behind the agrarians and in one recent poll, even the social democrats. I personally think the main driver of this has been the complete failure of the governing party to communicate to the electorate. Simply put, their economic and EU policies seem to make no sense, so they really could do a better job selling them. There's also been a surprising dearth of leadership: prime minister Stubb was one of the stronger anti-racist voices in his party around the time of the previoud election, but now that he's PM, we've had a moronic episode where one of his MPs went on national television to whip up a racist frenzy over immigrants supposedly getting money to buy new prams from social services. The thing in itself was ridiculous; what wasn't ridiculous but deeply distressing was the way in which she was allowed to carry on a completely demented racist campaign based on absolutely nothing without the party leadership interfering in any way whatsoever. Similarly, although Finland for some reason pretends the incumbent President has no party affiliation, the current head of state is a Coalition man, and his leadership has also been deeply disappointing, especially in foreign and security policy, which is supposed to be where the president exercises leadership. Ceterum censeo, I think it's high time we abolished the entire presidency.

The idiotic pram incident was transparently an attempt to get in on the explosion of populist racism that ushered in the tragicomical party that actually has the nerve to insist that its proper English name is "the Finns". That particular racist and agrarian populist party made a deep dent in the agrarian Center party and the social democrats last time around, which both have seemingly recaptured with a vengeance. Indeed, the rise of the agrarians is largely due to their current chairman Juha Sipilä beating the "Finns"' Soini at his own populist game. Sipilä basically promises to fix the Finnish deficit with populist slogans that compare Finland's supposedly high levels of bureaucracy and regulation to the German Democratic Republic. Economically, his few actual proposals are utter nonsense, but the media has ratched onto his theme of "regulation gone mad", just like last time around they fed Soini's "immigration gone mad" nonsense, and an agrarian victory looks like a sure thing.

It's psychologically interesting how so many Finns seem eager to believe that the state is completely irrational, literally "gone mad", on some subjects like alcohol legislation and immigration, yet totally uncritical of the same state when it comes to the blunt end of state power: the vast majority of Finns have a completely unrealistic view of the inherent goodness and incorruptibility of the police and judiciary, and a childlike faith in a mythical national defense.

Given the fall of the Coalition and the fading out of the "Finns", an agrarian-social democrat cabinet seems very likely. In terms of foreign and security policy, this is going to be a real blast from the past. Finland's NATO membership has effectively been stalled by the way in which the Left has created an entire myth of a supposed plot to smuggle Finland into the alliance, seemingly paradoxically feeding on both a powerful kneejerk anti-Americanism and the aforementioned faith in the magical effectiveness of Finland's so-called independent defense. Finns widely and completely incorrectly believe Finland was neutral in the Cold War, and that this neutrality was created and maintained in the face of Soviet pressure by the exceptional cleverness of our trickster-like autocratic president Urho Kekkonen. This is complete nonsense, but that's nationalism for you. Kekkonen was an agrarian, so that party is quite strongly committed to this version of history as well.

Both the agrarians and the social democrats are opposed to NATO, unhappy with the sanctions on Russia or at the very least willing to pander to an unhappiness about them, and have thoroughly unrealistic notions of Finland's diplomatic capabilities vis-a-vis Russia. What this means in practice is that the slim chance that Finland would actually do the sensible thing and seek NATO membership will effectively vanish with the coming election. It's symptomatic that agrarian stalwart Paavo Väyrynen, once groomed as Kekkonen's successor, recently published a blog post that parrots the Kremlin's narrative of a post-1991 Western assault on the rights of Russia and Russian minorities in Eastern Europe. That an old Finlandization hand like Väyrynen is - at least figuratively - still going to the Russian embassy on Tehtaankatu for his marching orders is hardly surprising, but unfortunately, also a sign of things to come.

Although they like to pretend they're in favor of a strong "independent defense", in reality the agrarians are incapable of addressing the ongoing collapse of the Finnish military, because the independent defense myth cannot be questioned: the actual state of the Finnish defence forces is such a powerful argument for NATO membership that it cannot be acknowledged in public. So the collapse will continue.

Overall, the likely result of the April elections will end any hopes of Finnish defence reform and a sensible security policy, and leave us at the tender mercies of Mr. Putin for at least four more years. The only thing stopping a new Finlandization seems to be Putin's overaggressiveness and the potential collapse of his economy, but four years of Center-social democrat stagnation and propaganda will go a long way toward dispelling any notions that Russia might be a threat and lulling the nation back into the security and defense complacency that has become our 21st century norm.

Dec 26, 2014

Seventh anniversary

I cannot believe I've had this damn blog for seven years. What's wrong with me? By my count, this is the 858th post published on this blog since 2007. You'd think I'd have had better things to do.

The truth is, I haven't. Back in 2007 I was still a dropout with no life whatsoever. I started my university studies in 2002, managed three years and then just sort of dropped out. I can't really remember anything from, say, 2005 to 2008 or 2009. I don't remember starting this blog. It's just here. I think it was because I'd lost my job writing, and wanted to keep my hand in at least a little. I'd also fallen out of the habit of writing in English. Having a blog also let me pretend I was doing something. I was suffering from fairly severe depression and social anxiety, and being able to put together a blog post was an achievement. I very badly needed achievements. Of any kind. But this is speculation; I genuinely can't remember.

I do remember that I've always felt I've written for an audience of two people. Looking at the statistics, that's still pretty much true, and I'm actually quite happy with that. My opinions on current affairs tend to be wildly unpopular; I can't even begin to imagine what would happen if I told people what I think of the TTIP treaty, for instance. As I do think it sharpens the mind to work out one's opinions in writing, and I wouldn't take writing seriously if it wasn't at least nominally public, I've appreciated having an opportunity to air my views to an audience that barely qualifies as one in terms of numbers.

At times, I have actually managed to reach wider. I continue to be amused that people are still coming across my Ancient Aliens post; given how short and limited in scope it is, I'm a bit surprised it elicited even that much comment. In the early days of the blag, I also got into a bunch of fights with people over racism, because back then that was what you did if you were Finnish and on the internet: get into fights with strangers over whether Muslims are people and does it count as racism if you make up a fancy word for it. Then we had an election and something like 20% of us voted for a vaguely anthropomorphic Catholic Innsmouth frog and his party of gibbering racists, so apparently this is a thing for us now. The gibbering racists are opposed by a cabal of left-wing loonies who think that Finland's multi-billion euro deficit either a) doesn't exist or b) will go away if we print enough money. You see why I don't like to talk about current affairs.

I also find it harder and harder to see the point. I think Farhad Manjoo hit the nail on the head in True Enough: the Internet does allow for an unprecedented transmission of information, but also gives people the ability to seek out information that matches their pre-existing biases and create ideological echo chambers by networking with the like-minded. When someone momentarily leaves their echo chamber and encounters someone who disagrees with them, the echo chamber has so completely naturalized their ideology that they simply cannot deal with any dissent and immediately resort to strawmen and childish vitriol. Having mentioned the gibbering racists, it needs to be said that there are people with whom it is not reasonable to have a civil discussion. I don't feel it's morally defensible to have a nice, calm, and friendly little chat with brutal neo-Nazis advocating white supremacism, or the particular variety of antifeminist who thinks the real problems in society all have to do with his dick. Fuck those people. But even with perfectly reasonable folks, it feels almost impossible to have a civilized exchange of opinions. It's as if we treat the Internet as some kind of collective subconscious where none of the conventions of ordinary society apply and we can give free rein to our thymoeides, which I suppose is geographically appropriate, but hardly makes for good conversation. If C. G. Jung traveled in time to today and saw the comments section of a major newspaper, he'd be astounded that we've invented a machine that prints out the id.

So my impression increasingly is that one can either preach to the choir or argue at people who aren't even listening in the first place. I'm sure they feel the same way about me. So I don't really see the point. I'm not sure I ever did; years ago, I think I got into this business of arguing with people on the Internet out of sheer loneliness and a burning need for anything even vaguely meaningful to do with my life. I think I can safely say that online arguments weren't very meaningful. People don't usually believe me when I say this, but I don't like to get into fights. I'm very conflict-averse. Being raised as a boy just means you have to get good at pretending you're not. This is also what has led me to question my use of the social media. I increasingly feel that there, too, you can toe the party line in terms of acceptable political and cultural opinions in your particular circle of online acquaintances, and get your likes or your favs or your whatnot, or break with consensus and suddenly the same people who seconds ago were liking your posts and recommending you to their friends want nothing more to do with you. I genuinely worry that we're becoming less tolerant of diversity, in ways far more commonplace than fascists with torches. Which, of course, we also have in Finland again these days.

Now that I'm on the topic, I really must add that I harbor a special dislike for the kind of people who use the social media for nothing except complaining and finding fault with everything. If every single social media post you make that isn't a vacation picture or an inanity can be fairly summarized as "look how much smarter I am than all these other people", consider the probability that you are an asshole. (A blog, in case you're wondering, doesn't count as a social medium.)

Since 2007, I've gotten a lot better. I went to prison, lost quite a bit of weight, got to collaborate with my brother on his game, returned to university and got a bachelor's degree - in theology, of all things. Comparative religion, to be exact. I studied conversion narratives on Finland's biggest online racist forum for my bachelor's thesis, and I'm currently working on a master's in contemporary history, with my thesis there on the development of Finnish armored doctrine in the 1920's and 30's. So in a sense, I'm now writing things that feel meaningful, and they're taking up quite a bit of my time. I also finally managed to get a pen-and-paper roleplaying campaign started again; I'm running a Rogue Trader game, and so far, it's been a terrifying, but rewarding, experience.

When I say I'm better, I don't mean that I'm well. Returning to some semblance of normal life has been very difficult, and although recovering from my near-debilitating social anxiety has gone better than I had ever hoped it would, it's still massively stressful for me to go through a normal university semester. On top of that, I got into a relationship last spring that made me happier than I ever remember being, and that was then ended brutally and suddenly by the other person. I still don't understand what happened or why, and it still hurts. A lot. I may be up and about and at times managing to pretend I'm something like a normal person, but my mind was completely unprepared for the level of emotional violence that that breakup was for me. I'm not remotely over it.

I still struggle with depression and a deep feeling of loneliness. I feel so petty complaining about that, as by just about any criteria I have a whole bunch of friends and some loved ones, but I have an incredibly hard time being able to accept that people care about me. Especially since the last time I did, I got hurt very, very badly for it. In retrospect, I suppose I expected too much from my recovery. My life is now so much better than it was when I started blogging, and I'm far less depressed than I was then. But I'm still not well, nor do I think I ever will be. I vacillate between wanting to engage with the world and feeling thoroughly alienated from it. In many ways I think trying to be socially active is futile, but I'm haunted by a desperate loneliness that I don't know if I can live with. I keep going, not from any sense of purpose or meaningfulness, but because I don't know what else to do. I hope things will get better. I try to make them better. I'm just really bad at, well, everything. Nor do I know what to do if things don't look up.

So, to sum up, I'm very much in the middle of re-examining my relationship to society and public life in general. Right now, everything feels so completely pointless that I despair. In politics, we face a continuing European economic crisis and the rise of fascism, along with an aggressive and increasingly desperate Russia. While our economy and defense decay, our public debate consists of hordes of wingnuts and moonbats locked in a race to the lowest common denominator of moronic populism. I don't believe there's anything I can do to make a difference. In terms of my personal life, I'm finally getting somewhere, but none of it feels like it means anything. I'm still desperately, at times unbearably, lonely, and that doesn't seem to be changing. But I don't feel quite ready to give up, either. So I have no idea what to do. I guess I keep going. But I have no idea how much longer I can do this.

Aug 25, 2014

Comparative religion: the Daedric Princes and the Chaos gods

Now that I've got a degree in comparative religion, I feel I ought to do some. Let's get the easy ones out of the way first!

Hermaeus Mora = Tzeentch

The Daedra of fate and knowledge, Lord of Secrets, is clearly Tzeentch.

Sanguine = Slaanesh

Similarly obvious is the connection between the Daedric Lord of debauchery and the Prince of Pleasure.

Namira = Nurgle

The Lady of Decay is most definitely Nurgle.

**

The Four Corners of the House of Troubles

It would be extremely pleasing if each of the Four Corners could be matched to a Chaos God. And they can!

Malacath = Khorne

Malacath, who spurns physical weakness and is depicted holding a very large weapon, suggests Khorne to me.

Mehrunes Dagon = Tzeentch

Mehrunes Dagon, like Tzeentch, represents change.

Sheogorath = Slaanesh

I chose to identify Sheogorath with Slaanesh mostly because Dark Seducers serve Sheogorath, and because Slaanesh was the one Chaos god left over after the three easier matches.

Molag Bal = Nurgle

His realm is desecrated and ruined, his enemy is Boethiath.

**

The Anticipations

Azura = Tzeentch

The goddess of the magical realms of dusk and dawn, who interferes subtly in the affairs of mortals: Tzeentch.

Boethiath = Tzeentch

The Daedra of secret plots and conspiracies has a fairly easy match in Tzeentch.

Mephala = Khaine = Khorne

Mephala has aspects that could easily be matched with Slaanesh or Tzeentch, but founding an order of elven assassins to serve her makes her very much Khaine, and therefore Khorne.

**

Clavicus Vile = Tzeentch

Pacts and machinations are hardly alien to any of the Chaos gods, but are most emblematic of Tzeentch.

Hircine = Khorne

Hunting and werecreatures are something I would associate with Khorne, as one of the characteristics of werewolves is their inability to control their rage.

Jyggalag = Nurgle

As Tzeentch is the Lord of Change, so his opposite is the equivalent of the Daedric Prince of Order.

Meridia = Tzeentch

Meridia, Lady of Infinite Energies, has no direct counterpart in the Chaos pantheon, but if I had to associate the undead with a Chaos god, it would be Nurgle. Therefore, the enemy of the undead is Tzeentch.

Nocturnal = Tzeentch

For want of a Chaos god especially dedicated to thieves and the night, Tzeentch's interest in deception is the best match.

Peryite = Nurgle

Peryite's spheres are pestilence and order.

Vaermina = Slaanesh

This one isn't so obvious, as dreams aren't the exclusive sphere of any Chaos God; in the fluff, they all use dreams to communicate with their followers. Based on her relationships to the other Daedra, however, Vaermina can be identified with Slaanesh: her only ally is Sanguine, previously found to be Slaanesh, and her enemies include Ebonarm, Peryite and Hermaeus Mora, i.e. war, pestilence and knowledge.