Monday, 7 September 2015

Wizards and goblins

In the fantasy world of J K Rowling, He Who Must Not Be Named is an awesomely powerful wizard.

In the fantasy world of Scott Adams, He Who Must Not Be Named (at least in this blog) is an awesomely powerful wizard.

The difference is that J K Rowling knows that Harry Potter's fictional nemesis doesn't really have superpowers (or even exist), but Scott Adams has an actual theory about how He Who Must Not Be Named is really controlling the people of Realityland with the secret power of his dark arts. His theory is quite entertaining. It goes like this:
According to my Moist Robot Hypothesis (that we are programmable meat) and paired with the Master Wizard view of the world, one can imagine a world in which all the big changes in society are engineered by a handful of living wizards at any given time. The wizards, in this context, have learned the rules of hypnosis and persuasion. This knowledge gives them access to the admin passwords for human beings. And they use it.
Apparently, He Who Must Not Be Named (that title's far too long - let's just call him Oink Balloon for short), is one of these Master Wizards, secretly enthralling the muggles with his amazing mind control powers. Except that a lot of people don't like Oink Balloon very much, despite his irresistible magic powers of persuasion. Scott has an ingenious explanation for their otherwise inexplicable lack of enthusiasm:
People seem to have an irrational hate for the wizard that is not entirely explained by the wizard’s actions. Regular readers already know these unusual reactions are signs of cognitive dissonance. Wizards induce cognitive dissonance often, without trying.  
Only in America would you describe people's dislike for a politician with no coherent policies, whose campaign strategy is to crowd his rivals out of the news agenda by sheer repetitive, noisy obnoxiousness, as 'irrational.' Or imagine that such dislike is fuelled by anything more complicated than people getting hacked off with some guy who's behaving like an arrogant jerk. 

But, no, apparently this is good evidence of Oink Balloon's status as a Master Wizard (I don't know about you, but this sounds to me like the Great Man theory of history, recycled by somebody who spent too much time playing Dungeons and Dragons as a kid).

How do we know that Oink Balloon isn't just some random buffoon, but one of the chosen elect who'd definitely qualify for a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Because he's not a politician (politician bad! Boo, hiss!), but a business person ('Political Reporters Cover a Business Candidate' Hail to the Chief Executive Officer! We are not worthy!). And, as a business person, Oink Balloon must command powerful negotiation magic, denied to mere elected representatives of the muggles:
If [Oink Balloon] were a goal-oriented thinker, or a politician, he would be setting himself up for failure. His plan has zero chance of success as it stands.
But [Oink Balloon] is a systems thinker. He plays the long game. Every move is a negotiation.

[Oink Balloon] wants a wall on the border, and he wants Mexico to pay for it. That is such a big ask that few people think it possible. I can only imagine one way a wizard with [Oink Balloon's] skills could convince TWO countries to do this thing that is amazingly hard to get done.

You start with an opening offer that anchors people’s minds to the most outrageous parts of the plan and then you trade those things away until you get the only thing you wanted: the fence. Negotiators (Congress in this case) will feel that a negotiation happened and all parties met in the middle.

But only [Oink Balloon] decided where the middle is. The debate is already over and [Oink Balloon] won. We’re getting a wall.
O rly? A few points to think about:
  • That 'Business Candidate' phrase is doing so much work you can't move for the unexamined assumptions. Like the assumption that Oink Balloon became an insanely wealthy plutocrat because of his status as a uniquely gifted Master Wizard, as opposed, say leveraging his inherited wealth 'through a slew of corrupt sweetheart deals with local and state governments, eminent-domain boondoggles and business alliances.'
  • Another unexamined assumption is that 'business candidate' and 'politician' are separate and mutually exclusive categories, implying that Oink Balloon must be some kind of plain-dealing outsider ready to take on a corrupt political establishment, Mr Smith Goes To Washington-style. In fact the two categories have a lot in common, the intersection in the Venn diagram being Public Relations, that set of techniques by which the corporate and political followers of Edward Bernays attempt (with varying degrees of success) to control the little people by bypassing argument and rational thought and going straight to the irrational, instinctive reptilian part of the brain. Which sounds a lot like Scott's notion that 'we' (i.e. people less clever and wizardy than, say, Scott, or Oink Balloon), are programmable meat, who can be, and are, controlled by the Master Wizards who have hacked their admin passwords. As a method of subverting democracy, PR is as at home on Capitol Hill as it is in the boardroom and about as antithetical to the idea of the plain-dealing outsider as it's possible to be.
  • Speaking of being a 'systems thinker' as opposed to a goal-oriented thinker, how would that work in a democracy? If the candidate doesn't share his or her goals with the electors, how can they agree or disagree with the candidate's undisclosed programme? Or are they just supposed to agree, like the sheep in Animal Farm, that Napoleon should be in charge because 'Napoleon is always right?'
  • The 'systems thinker' phrase seems to be a variation on the Texas sharpshooter gambit - by not defining the goal, or target beforehand it's always possible to paint a circle round the bullet holes you randomly sprayed into the barn door and claim you hit the target. But if we want a meaningful measure of what a great wizard Oink Balloon is, we should define some goals beforehand. Here are three simple metrics to assess the success of Oink Balloon's alleged wizardry. In order of increasing improbability, 1. Oink Balloon becomes the Republican presidential candidate, 2. Oink Balloon is elected President, 3. Oink Balloon persuades the Mexican government to erect, at its own expense, a wall, chicken wire fence, or whatever, to stop its own citizens from trying to enter the Land of the Free and the Home of the Slightly Deranged (as it will be known, in the unlikely event that condition 2. is ever met). If Oink Balloon achieves any one of these, I'll concede that there's something here that requires explanation.
Until then, I should explain, for those of you who haven't recently been reading anarchically silly books to young children, that Oink Balloon was originally the name of a goblin from at least one of the Mr Gum books by Andy Stanton. The rest of the goblins had almost equally impressive names: Soupdog, Funk-Whistle, Captain Ankles, Yak Triangle and Teenage Loaf (Teenage Loaf was the one with thirteen arms and a head shaped like a radiator). In fact, in their competitive attention-grabbing freakishness, the goblins sound very much like the bizarre circus that is the  race for the Republican Party candidacy. If you're so desperate for attention that calling yourself Jeb! with a quirky exclamation mark seems like a good idea, why not go ahead and call yourself Captain Ankles? It makes at least as much sense as anything any of the Republican candidates are likely to say or do. As does this widely-shared video of the candidates' debate from Bad Lip Reading: