Wanktivism in the social media age

Or how to promote thought without actually thinking
This is you on a social media high

This is you on a social media high

This piece is Part II of this one

I’m pretty sure you have at least one Facebook friend who makes P.C.U’s causeheads look as lazy and apolitical as The Dude from The Big Lebowski. These people don’t just stick to a cause for a week before picking up a new one, they barrage your Facebook wall with a post about every real or imagined social ill in the world. In real time. 24/7. An infographic of how meat consumption is causing climate change is followed by a Marxist blogger’s post about the IMF and World Bank being root cause of global inequality, followed by a fact-meme reminding you that the West African Grey Lesbian Rhino is now extinct, then a video of (insert left-wing Latin American leader from a socialist wonderland where there are bigger queues to buy toilet paper than for the launch of a new iPhone) denouncing corporate profits, and finally the latest batshit crazy conspiracy theory on how the US is guilty of everything wrong in the Middle East in collusion with Big Oil, Big Pharma, the NRA, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Israel, Blackwater, the Illuminati, the Vatican, and Gap for Kids. Forget that half of what this person posts is factually wrong, and that the other half is of dubious intellectual value because it is written by such a biased source that there’s as much objectivity as a Breitbart book review of The Elders of Zion. This person is on a mission to remind you that they’re saving the world, one meme at a time. And if you dare question them then you’re also part of the status quo, surely hoarding some of the profits of laissez-faire capitalistic greed with your grubby porcine hands.

I have a term for this: wanktivism. It’s the cognitive version of clicktivism, a word used to describe activism with the minimum of effort like clicking the “share” button of something that promotes a cause or signing an online petition rather than actually doing something for said cause. If clicktivism is promoting action without actually taking action yourself, wanktivism is promoting thought without actually thinking. It’s sex without the other person, i.e. wanking. Now, being a leftist myself I genuinely find many of the causes above to be noble and worth pursuing. But for fuck sake, is it that hard to fact check what you share first? In the age of Google and Wikipedia there’s simply no excuse for not doing so, and it’s particularly appalling that people with college degrees, even postgrads and PhDs (and professors are guilty too) feel the internet is a legitimate no-reference zone where the accuracy of any statistic, article, or meme is instantly validated merely by the fact that it conforms to your existing ideological prejudices. Sometimes I feel people don’t even read anything other than the title of what they share. It’s as if our capacity to digest anything that is longer than a 140-character tweet has been lobotomized by our quest for online righteousness. What’s worse it the reaction when they are shamed in public, which as of late has been one of my favorite sports. It would seem to me that if I promoted information that was verifiably false I would feel somewhat embarrassed about it, then be humble enough to accept that it was wrong, then do the common sense thing and delete it so that nobody stupider than I shares it, thereby perpetuating the viral nature of internet misinformation.

But that is not to be. Usually the response is one of the following:

“You’re right, it’s just that I didn’t have time to read the whole piece”. Translation: I was too lazy to actually read the article I posted since the title conformed to the political message that I wanted to spread, and sharing something that someone else wrote would make up for my lack of original opinions and argumentative skills. Indignation level: mild. Likelihood of being defriended: 10-20%.

“Ok that figure may be wrong but the essence is still true.” Translation: You caught me red handed sharing a statistic that is patently incorrect but since the meme supports my righteous cause it doesn’t matter if the numbers are all fudged up. Secretly I also suspect that you are not the liberal progressive/conservative patriot you claim you are since you are pointing this out rather than siding with me by keeping quiet about my mistake. Indignation level: mild. Likelihood of being defriended: 10-20%.

“Just because I share something doesn’t mean I agree with it.” Translation: I have no way of defending what I just shared and since I cannot go back in time to undue this embarrassment, it I’ll just act like I shared it to elicit debate and discussion among my friends. Never mind that nobody actually shares stuff that they disagree with without making it demonstrably clear that they do so. Indignation level: moderate. Likelihood of being defriended: 30-40%.

“You’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine. Let’s agree to disagree”. Translation: I’m going to try and extricate myself from the embarrassment of sharing something that is factually incorrect by trying to eliminate the distinction between fact and opinion and since there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion then I can’t be disproven. Indignation level: moderate. Likelihood of being defriended: 50-60%.

“It’s my wall and I can post whatever I want in it. You don’t have to read it if you disagree”. Translation: I have no intellectually respectable way of crawling out of my own bullshit so I might as well just act outraged in order to paint you as being rude and aggressive. Since I don’t go to your wall and challenge your opinions because deep down I know you’ll be able to defend them, I expect the same courtesy on your part so I can erect my wall of stupidity where only people as brainwashed as myself are given shelter. Indignation level: high. Likelihood of being defriended: 80-100%.

Now if you think I’m unfair to lefties, rest assured that’s not the case. Conservatives are way worse in terms of their patent abhorrence for objectivity and facts. In fact, conservatives hate numbers more than Vladimir Putin hates shirts on a Siberian hunting trip. George W. Bush disdainfully called it “fuzzy math” because nobody likes it when numbers are used to disprove their neanderthalic opinions on global warming, minimum wages, the gender pay gap, and taxation. But at least conservatives are honest about being assholes, and they don’t have any intention of urging social change for a better future unless that future is a time warp to the good old days of Victorian poorhouses, Southern plantations, and gender relations that would make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like an episode of Girls. Of course they won’t say that because as explained earlier, we do live in a world where political correctness has consolidated itself to some degree into every day discourse, and appearing as a social retrograde carries risks insofar as you’re not wily enough to hide it through one of many carefully thought out excuses such as “it’s bad for business”, “it’s socialist”, or (my favorite) “it’s French”.

The problem with social media, and Facebook in particular, is that it’s a lose-lose environment for intellectual discourse. That’s because due to the myriad of cognitive biases that cloud our reason and our common sense, nobody ever admits to being wrong in public, and therefore any challenge to someone’s opinions – regardless of how baseless and outright asinine they might be – will be met with an even more entrenched perspective on the same issue, exactly the same case as if they had won the debate. No matter how many times you keep shooting them down, the kamikazes of stupidity keep flying, each one more laden with indignity than the previous one, each time reinforcing themselves more and more. Ask yourselves: have you ever caused someone to change their political opinions on Facebook? I doubt it. So then why do you keep posting an endless barrage of political memes and op-eds rather than take the time to explain at length your positions and open the floor for debate? The answer is wanktivism. You want to change the world, and win the hearts and minds of those around you without doing much effort beyond clicking that “share” button. And you don’t actually want to be challenged when you do. The three litmus tests of the wanktivist are quite simple. 1) Does this person frequently post original material besides shares? 2) Does he or she make an extensive comment on the things they are sharing in order to add value to what someone else is saying? 3) Do they have a blog or do they take some other direct action in favor of their causes such as working for an NGO or participating in protests? If any of these three is true, then this person is probably not a wanktivist, they’re simply very politically opinionated. The rest of you, the ones who reduce your core beliefs about the world to a JPEG image, are.

A similar and perhaps worse social media trait that is similar to wanktivism is virtue signaling. This concept, coined by journalist James Bartholomew of the British conservative magazine The Spectator, is defined as:

“The way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbors or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.”

At least wanktivists (for the most part) appear well intentioned, they just simply don’t have the time to actually save the world or maybe they are even conscious of their own intellectual limitations to do so, hence they just share what others have thought up for them. But virtue signaling involves a subtle egotism and even, dare I say, malice. Those doing it don’t actually care about the issues at hand, it simply fits the personality (online or otherwise) that they want to project. The example above is geared towards the prototypical left-winger, but right-wingers are just as guilty of virtue signaling. They may rile against welfare to show how they believe in individual merit (forget for a moment that daddy paid their way through college, and daddy’s friends got them a job). They may complain about every union strike that made them 30 minutes late for work because they do not want to be identified with dreadlocked college students with Che Guevara posters in their dorm room (imagine them imagining themselves with slicked back hair, suspenders, and a big fat Cuban cigar). And of course, they will openly oppose any move towards gender equality or LGBT rights because, well, that would be so fucking gay, now wouldn’t it? No self-respecting alpha macho should give an inch to the feminazis lest it reveal the true size of their sexual inadequacies.

So if nobody will change their opinion regardless of how many facts to the contrary to array against them, why even bother? Does this mean that any form of online debate necessarily descends into sheer trolling? Because if you know – like I do – that arguing leads to nothing, then it’s done solely for the sake of arguing. Which is kind of the definition of trolling, albeit of a higher intellectual standard than the average 4Chan forum discussing Gamergate. But a part of me thinks that wanktivism or virtue signaling or simply every form of misinformation that people are guilty of on the internet should not go unresponded. Because as stupid and gullible as these people are, sadly there are even stupider and more gullible people out there but who just might be swayed by your argument more than theirs. And maybe after enough embarrassments and humiliations these people will think twice about posting so much bullshit, assuming of course, they don’t defriend you first. In which case, you won. Maybe just one out of a thousand online battles, but if one Facebook or Reddit soul could be saved from the fires of intellectual damnation, it was worth it. It was truly fucking worth it.

Fellow economists, we’re mostly to blame for this mess

Brexit, Trump. We built the world that let extremism thrive
This is on us

This is on us

Dear world, on behalf of economists I offer an apology. More than anything or anyone else, we are responsible for the clusterfuck that has been 2016.

Since the 1980s we said that inequality didn’t matter. That working and middle class people would be fine if their incomes didn’t worsen even as those in the top 10% (and especially 1%) saw their own income and wealth skyrocket to levels not seen since the Gilded Age. We did not see that people did not view their lot in absolute but in relative terms. We expected them to accept our logic, and acted dumbfounded when they didn’t express gratitude for the few tiny drops of prosperity that trickled down. We never imagined that they’d be rightfully pissed. Then we blamed them for living beyond their means to catch up with the Joneses, for being irresponsible for maxing their credit cards and taking out mortgages on houses they couldn’t afford. We never saw inequality as a psychological problem as much as an economic one.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

Around that same time, we said that free markets were a panacea for growth. True, many countries did benefit heavily from globalization and certainly those countries that did not follow certain basic rules of market logic have fared terribly (Venezuela being a case in point). But globalization was not a panacea for the working and middle classes of the developed world. In our smugness, we said that the lost jobs either to China, Mexico, or technology were a necessary evil for continued productivity growth. We acted like it was their fault that they did not have the skills needed for the new economy, and that it was nobody’s responsibility to find them those skills either. In the dog eat dog world of neoliberal economics there are losers, and we could afford not to be those losers becomes economists are still not being outsourced to India or replaced by robots so we had little empathy for those who were less lucky. We applauded that unemployment fell and didn’t care that it was because people lost stable, salaried jobs and became self-employed with zero benefits. We cared more about the Dow Jones than the Gini index.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

We also assumed that everyone was rational. We even had a name for this species of humanity that always took decisions based on all available information, weighed all options, and picked the one that maximized their utility: homo economicus. Since we thought psychology, sociology, and all the other social sciences were inferior disciplines because they could not prove their hypotheses with econometrics, so we never bothered to accept their insights into human behavior. The result is that we thought markets were self-correcting, industries were self-regulated, and markets punished those who took decisions against the public interest. We saw the “irrational exuberance” of the dot-com bubble and then did nothing when a bigger bubble, the subprime housing bubble, sprung up almost immediately after the first one popped.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

And finally, we assumed we had all the answers. We took the view of Noble laureate Robert Lucas that the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades”. This was just five years before the global financial crisis. We also poisoned the minds of politicians, who adopted our elegant yet simplistic neoclassical view of how the world worked. We flooded bookstores with titles like Freakonomics and The Economic Naturalist: How Economics Explains Everything to educate the masses on why we knew better. We were conceited, arrogant, and frankly, fucking annoying.

We called anyone who disagreed a socialist.

Then on June 23rd we wondered how the British could be so stupid as to want to leave the EU. On November 8th we were even more perplexed on how Americans could be dumb enough to vote for someone like Trump. From our little intellectual ivory towers, the framework in which we understood the world was perfectly fine. We didn’t get that we didn’t get it.

And now with the twin shocks of a global crisis in 2008-09 and a political crisis in 2016, our world has been shattered. Probably irremediably. But we don’t know it yet. This will still be blamed on people (deplorable as they may be), rather than the structures that conditioned them to be that way. And we’ll be scratching our heads into oblivion by failing to understand why a laid off steelworker from Pennsylvania or miner from Yorkshire won’t be voting with rapturous joy for the man or woman who promises free trade agreements, minority rights, and open immigration in place of the only thing that really matters to them: dignity.

(The author wishes to note that he has stood against everything that has been criticized in this piece since his days as an undergrad. And if you think he is a socialist, well, you’re pretty much the type of person he wrote this for)

The Donald Trump fascist experiment

Think the Trump-Hitler comparisions are exaggerated? Think again
Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Is Donald Trump fascist?

The knee-jerk reaction by his opponents makes this an easy answer: yes. He has made borderline racist comments about Mexicans, black people, Muslims, and as the recently leaked 2005 Access Hollywood recordings have made all but clear, is an appalling sexist as well (although this was pretty obvious back when he said he would date his own daughter who by his own admission is “a piece of ass”). But his defenders would cringe at the idea that he is an American Hitler. Hitler, after all, killed 6 million Jews (among millions of others) and launched a world war. Yes, Trump is a bully, a sleazeball, and a demagogue and seems to not care much about institutions as evidenced by his wanting to jail Hillary Clinton. But there is a pretty big gap between that and genocide. It’s kick the foreigners out, not murder them (at least yet).

Furthermore, even many people who dislike Trump feel uneasy by the fascist/Nazi/Hitler comparison. Godwin’s Law, for example, famously affirms that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1”. Indeed, the left (and also the right) uses comparisons to fascism, Nazism, and genocide to such an extent that in many cases they have pretty much lost their value. It is an argumentative cop out for the simple reason that nobody in the history of humanity has been as bad as Hitler (except possibly Stalin or Mao but they mostly killed their own people which seemingly carries less of a stigma). Trump is not even in power yet, and he has not started a world war or a genocide.

Although Godwin’s Law has its merit, I feel in this particular case it is a very weak defense of what Trump would be willing to do and how far his supporters would be willing to follow. And there’s one very easy thought experiment to find that out. Just ask yourself the following two questions:

Would Trump have behaved any different to Hitler had he been in Hitler’s position in 1933-45?

Would Trump’s supporters have behaved any different to Hitler’s in 1933-45? Continue reading

Dear Brexiteer, answer me this one simple question

If this question provides unease, you should start rethinking your vote
Keep calm and vote with your head, not your arse

Keep calm and vote with your head, not your arse

Dear Brexiteer,

I am perhaps the most unlikely of persons to care about the upcoming Brexit referendum on June 23rd. First of all, I am a foreign national here by will rather than by need, which means that if a post-Brexit Britain doesn’t suit my fancy, I can flee this island in a heartbeat. I am also a UK resident, which means that I am not going to get kicked out in case your side wins. In other words, I’m pretty much immune and indifferent to the whole thing although I definitely side with the Remain camp for the simple reason that I prefer reason, logic, and facts over ignorant or self-deluded sentimentality.

Now, I am directing this little essay not to the vile, racist scum that conform part – but not all – of your ranks. Not all of you vote UKIP, or are members of the EDL or Britain First although the moral laxity which allows you to side with these people without feeling revulsion is frightening. It is not a feeling that I could possibly identify with since I cannot find a single political or ethical issue where I would be at ease in being on the same side of the fence as these people. It therefore makes me wonder whether the frustration and rage of a Remain win on Thursday will be the remaining trigger to cross the event horizon of fascism, an ideological black hole in which civility no longer can escape. You may loathe to be associated with these scumbags, but knowingly or not, you’re on the same track and riding in the same direction.

So you “moderate” Brexiteer, the kind who argues that he/she is 40% Remain and 60% Leave or some variation of this, I will only pose one single question for you to consider before heading to the polls on Thursday. No, it’s about any numbers or statistics; I know you have surrendered to emotion and no amount of facts will convince you otherwise. In fact, I find it cringe-worthy that at this stage some otherwise reasonable people still think that pointing out “the truth” and barraging their Facebook and Twitter feeds with fact-memes or Guardian articles serves any argumentative value (if anything it’s counterproductive and leading you to entrench your views further). Rather, It’s a very simple logical question and I venture to guess that you won’t have an answer for it. Name me a single EU-related grievance that you are using to justify your Leave vote that could not have been addressed and corrected by an appropriate British government policy.

Stop and think about this. Continue reading

How anti-political correctness is breeding a new style of asshole

The gateway drug for for smart people turning right-wing
Political correctness is not the root of all evil

Is political correctness really the root of all evil?

Are you a causehead? For those of you have not seen the cult classic 90s college film P.C.U. (stop reading this NOW and go see it), causeheads are people who “find a world-threatening issue and stick with it… for about a week”. This was probably the precursor to the internet-era’s social justice warrior; people who act like progressives purely for self-gratification and do so with the minimum possible effort. Admittedly, a causehead had to a bit more work than simply barraging their Facebook profile with anti-austerity or pro-LGBT (I am probably missing a few letters in this ever-expanding acronym) internet memes; they actually had to make signs with catchy slogans that had to be written by hand and do a modicum of research on the political issue du jour rather copying stuff from someone else’s wall. And yet, as annoying as causeheads and SJWs are one has to reluctantly admit that their hearts are in the right place even if their brains are stuck a few feet up their ass. And if their biggest sin is being too politically correct for their own good, well, one has to weigh their damage to society besides that of their polar opposite, the anti-political correctness asshole.

I should start with the disclaimer that I’m not particularly a fan of political correctness for political correctness’ sake (that bit should have been pretty damn obvious for anyone who knows me personally); if there is no apparent benefit deriving from an act of political correctness, or the harm avoided is disproportionately low compared to the inconvenience or disruption caused by it, then what’s the point? Sometimes, the PC terminology is even more questionable than the non-PC, for example the recent attempts to use of the term “people with different abilities” to replace “disabled” people. Yeah, I can see how disabled can be taken the wrong way. Just because someone lost some abilities doesn’t mean they’ve lost them all which is what the dis- suffix could potentially imply. But “people with different abilities” describes every single human being that exists. Last time I checked, not everyone who still had their two legs could run like Usain Bolt, who in turn cannot play the guitar as good as Slash, the latter who can’t write as good a horror novel as Stephen King. And if “people with different abilities” isn’t bad enough, let’s not forget the even more patronizing “handi-capable”. Whenever I hear the word “handi-capable” I imagine some cheerfully smug American middle aged idiot saying it with a high-pitched voice and an ear-to-ear smile, the same kind of idiot for whom the phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions was coined for. Continue reading

On the atomic bombing of Japan

The bombs were justified, but this doesn't make it any less of a tragedy
The debate rages on 70 years later

The debate rages on 70 years later

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the first time that a nuclear weapon had been used in combat. According to the most reliable estimates, around 90,000 people – most of them civilians – were killed (70,000 died three days later when Nagasaki was bombed), and thousands more would suffer from the effects of radiation in the years/decades to come. The sight of a massive mushroom cloud over a completely pulverized city has since been etched into humanity’s collective consciousness, serving a terrifying reminder of the horrors of war and of the apocalyptic potential of nuclear warfare. But the most uncomfortable questions remain: was it necessary? Was it justified? These questions have divided opinions for decades. On one hand, there are those who believe that dropping the bomb was essential for bringing World War II to a quick end, thus saving countless more lives. However, there are those who believe that the use of such a powerful weapon against a defenseless civilian population is a crime against humanity irrespective of anything else.

Here is my view regarding some of the most common arguments.

The atomic bombings ended the war quickly and saved more lives

It’s quite hard to counter-argue this point. At the time of the bombings, the US and its allies had already planned a two-part invasion of the Japanese home islands, starting with Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1st 1945 (X-Day). The forces assembled for this operation dwarfed those that took part in the Normandy landings a year earlier: 42 aircraft carriers, 24 battleships, and 400 other warships would cover an invasion force of 14 combat divisions. Before this, the Japanese islands would be relentlessly pounded by air attack (aided by the re-deployment of many of the air forces based in Europe), increasing the devastation compared to what Japan had already experienced. In fact, the deadliest single aerial bombardment in history was not Hiroshima or Nagasaki but a conventional attack against Tokyo by 334 B-29 bombers on the night of March 9th 1945. The ensuing firestorm destroyed a large part of the capital and killed at least 100,000 people (and left a million homeless). Continue reading

The economics of Mad Max

All societies need an economy, even post-apocalyptic ones
There are markets, even in the Wasteland

There are markets, even in the Wasteland

I am not exaggerating when I say that Mad Max: Fury Road is possibly one of the best movies I have seen in my adult life. The high-octane adrenaline-fueled frenzy of non-stop car chase action would be spectacular in itself; that it is also makes emotional, political and philosophical statements in its two amazing hours absolutely shatters the idea that action movies are necessarily mindless and superficial. Its overt feminist undertones have been well documented, and like all the previous Mad Max movies delivers a powerful message about humanity and redemption. What more can you ask for in a summer blockbuster?

Could Mad Max also be a sublime statement on economics? One of the key elements of any dystopian/post-apocalyptic film is that it has to be somewhat believable, and for this to be achieved, there needs to be a realistic depiction of the way society arranges its economic exchanges. After watching Fury Road and then re-watching the original trilogy, it has struck me that each film has a progressively complex economic structure that could well be a coincidence. But with George Miller coincidences rarely exist and perhaps the old man has put even deeper meaning into the franchise that most people have thought.

Here’s an analysis of the economics of each Mad Max film. Continue reading

The god arguments

Why god as described in most religions makes no sense
God does not approve of this post

God does not approve of this post

Does believing in god make sense? For atheists like myself, the answer is clearly no: from scientific, logical and even theological perspectives, the arguments in favor of god simply do not stand the test of scrutiny. Belief therefore boils down to an issue of accepting dogmatic ideas and ignoring those that even to believers will appear contradictory, unethical, or just outright false. Often, we debate these ideas where they relate to specific religions. For example, arguing that Noah could not have conceivably built a wooden ark to save every species on Earth is specific to Christianity. But proving Christianity wrong doesn’t prove all religions are wrong. As a result, I have tried to summarize some arguments against god that could be seen as somewhat universal. Admittedly, most o these are biased towards the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as they are the ones most familiar to me. But to some extent, they apply to any belief in an omnipotent deity that looks over us and that who we must worship to achieve salvation.

Here are the reasons why I think this concept of god is impossible.

The omnipotence argument

“Since power is said in reference to possible things, the phrase, ‘God can do all things,’ is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)

Let’s start off with imagining what god actually is. It seems to me that god cannot be anything other than a being that features the three “omnis”: omnipotence (can do everything), omniscient (knows everything) and omnipresence (is everywhere). Indeed his power, knowledge and presence could not be conceivably limited because that would imply that there is some other force or condition in the universe that could limit it. Omnipotence, however, does have to be logically consistent: god cannot make a circle a square. There is also the omnipotence paradox which is illustrated by the case of whether god can create a stone so heavy that even he cannot lift it, so it is clear that any sensible definition of omnipotence needs to be less than absolute lest we end up in a logical quagmire. Continue reading

To Trident or not to Trident

The dilemma of nuclear deterrence in the age of austerity
The last line of defense?

The last line of defense?

How does a middle power remain relevant? One of the most important aspects of global power in the post World War II period is the possession of nuclear weapons. Although only two nations on Earth – the US and Russia – possess nuclear arsenals capable of practically annihilating the planet, the nuclear arsenals of the UK, France and China are large enough to deter any potential adversary from daring to attack it with nuclear weapons itself. Such an exchange between the US and Russia was known as MAD: mutally assured destruction. Although a country like Britain could not conceivably assure the destruction of a country as vast as Russia or China, it could indeed wipe out most of their large cities and lay waste to a significant part of the country’s economic and military infrastructure…

…with just one submarine.

We’ve all heard of Trident but few people really understand the way it works. The Trident is a US-designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that is carried on the US Ohio-class subs as well as the UK Vanguard-class. Each sub carries various silos (16 on the Vanguard, 24 on the Ohio) that launch the missiles while submerged. The missiles the rise out into orbit like a rocket to the moon, at which point the tip of the missile opens and lets out a number of independently-targeted warheads (known as MIRVs) fall back to Earth. There are 8 British-designed MIRVs on each Trident carried on the Vanguard subs (the US Tridents carry up to 12) which means that each Vanguard sub armed with a full complement of 16 Tridents can theoretically destroy 128 targets from practically anywhere in the world. Continue reading

The architecture of unhappiness

How the Docklands style is ruining Britain's urban fabric
Bland, boring and ruining the city

Bland, boring and ruining the city

The “Docklands style” is the quintessentially British architecture of the 21st century. It is not easy to describe although anyone living or familiar with London today will find it instantly recognizable. Perhaps the best way to identify it is not for what it is but for what it isn’t. First and most obvious, it is not the classic Victorian and Georgian terraces and mansions that still can be found in abundance in most British cities. Secondly, it is not the grim, monolithic council estates that were designed as modernist utopias after World War II but slowly fell into disrepair and squalor. Take these two out of the equation and you’re left with the Docklands style, which on the surface seeks to emulate the wharf and warehouse conversions that have become ubiquitous in over the past three decades, first in East London but later spreading like an unholy urbanistic plague across much of Britain.

Indeed the Docklands style stretches back to the Thatcher era when large tracts of unused land in what used to the be the Port of London (the world’s largest up to around World War II) were revitalized as part of numerous development schemes, the most notable which was Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs. Canary Wharf was at the time the single largest commercial development project ever attempted, so ambitious and yet so untimely that it resulted in the bankruptcy of its Canadian developer, Paul Reichmann. Yet despite its near-death experience, the relocation of various key banks into the area (notably HSBC and Citigroup) in the early 1990s saved Canary Wharf from turning into an embarrassing financial flop. Although Canary Wharf is almost entirely commercial, its surroundings were transformed in tandem into new residential areas, which included Canada Water and the southern tip of the Island of Dogs as well as Limehouse to the west. To the east, the Docklands territory spread across the River Lea and into the Royal Albert and Royal Victoria docks where a massive convention center and an airport were built.

Despite the colossal sums of investment in reshaping what was once one of London’s most downtrodden areas, ask any Londoner what is the dullest and most boring part of town and they’ll say without hesitation: the Docklands. Although it’s architectural style, now referred to generically as “new builds” are the ambition of the middle classes (and have now spread beyond London to most major British cities), as an experiment in urbanism the Docklands style must today be qualified as an unequivocal failure. It created soulless communities, far from the amenities of urban life, and seemingly segregated into their own gated little utopias of key card entrances, private gardens (which nobody used) and the promise of a better life away from some imaginary threat from the streets. This is what it got wrong: Continue reading