Archives for posts with tag: USA

This election has been the most amazing one in my lifetime. From day one, the Trump campaign has been extraordinary, with regular candidates tossed aside like bowling pegs, one after the other. I do not yet know the outcome of today’s election, but I’m hoping fervently that Hillary makes it across the finish line today – finally stopping this runaway dumpster truck from seizing the highest office in America.

Normally, the dissection of a political battle involves picking through what the winning candidate did right and what the losing candidate did wrong. Should Clinton win, the story should be about how she fought an effective media battle, how she decisively won the debates, how she courted celebrities and rock stars, fought a well-financed ground war and made effective use of analytics. It should be about the long succession of Trump scandals, fiascos and unforced errors, from the Khans to Pussygate, to his atrocious debate performances; his alienation of Latinos, African Americans, women and Muslims; his unedifying spats with his fellow Republican politicians. In ordinary times, you could write a story of these last few months in terms of what was done right by Hillary and wrong by Trump. But these are not ordinary times. The real story of this campaign is how, despite all the errors and disasters, Trump remained in contention and how seemingly smaller setbacks and mistakes sent Clinton’s campaign into a nosedive. Trump survived a video laying his misogyny bare for all to see. He survived a leak which suggested that he paid no tax for decades.  He survived, despite being called out on lie, after lie, after lie. Any one of these should have been enough to put paid to his political aspirations. And yet, when Clinton suffered a bout of pneumonia, or called his supporters ‘deplorable’, or had the FBI resurrect the email investigation, she quickly found herself on the back foot, fighting a desperate battle to maintain her lead.

The story of this election was how, among a large number of supporters, Trump was treated like a demigod, while Clinton was treated with extreme scepticism, bordering on disgust. Trump effectively used hatred, anger and his charisma to marshall powerful forces in his favour, sending out a clear signal that America is extremely vulnerable to demagoguery. How the country recovers from this frightening state of affairs will be a whole other story.

I’m not so worried about Donald Trump becoming the next president of the United States. 

Back in 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign was not in good shape. Obama had just presided over four of the toughest years in America since the Great Depression. Unemployment was high. Morale was low. Obama could not call on the magnificent rhetoric that brought him to victory in 2008. He had a record of tenure now, and the indications were not good.

The Republican Party, sensing blood, organised a well resourced campaign to throw him out of power. Their candidate, Mitt Romney, was a fair choice, as he had a better chance of appealing to swing state voters than anyone else on the ticket. The Republicans threw everything at Obama. They fueled their core voters. They tried every trick in the book to dissuade potential democrat voters from turning out. They sent millions on clever attack ads. It was a masterpiece of campaigning and it failed. Obama regained the presidency by a comfortable margin.

In the aftermath, it was clear what lost the Republicans the presidency: demographics. The Republican core vote, appealing to white, self-employed, evangelical, rural and libertarian voters, was no longer enough to win, compared to what was now a majority of minority groups. The Democrats, with their particular appeal to urban, multi-ethnic and well educated voters, had the numbers. Republican Party strategists sensed this. They talked about making their message more appealing to a wider cross section of American society. 

None of this happened. Instead, they got Trump.

Donald Trump is the most divisive candidate America has seen in the last 50 years. His only real achievement, since starting his campaign, has been to crystallize a large segment of the Republican base into a red-hot mother lode of fury. He has alienated, not just the target Democratic constituency, but many Republican and evangelical voters, to the point that many of them may well stay home on election day.

Meanwhile, the demographics continue their glacial shift away from the Republican worldview. Bad and all though the numbers were in 2012, it’s worse for them now. They have done nothing to reverse the decline, in fact the opposite is the case. Despite Hillary Clinton’s apparent weaknesses as the Democratic candidate, she has not alienated potential voters in quite the same way and she has given waverers little reason to vote Trump.

It’s hard to see it any other way: the Republican Party are going to lose on an epic scale this year. A Democratic House, Senate and Presidency? It’s on the cards.

With the rise and rise of Donald Trump (and his pal Cruz) in some parts of the US, it seems that an amnesia has settled over conservative America about what conservatism means. 

Conservatives prefer the old order, the existing order of things. They want to conserve this, thus the meaning of the word. It implies that the current situation has value, whether that be law and order, economic order, education, healthcare, administration, whatever. Progressive moves to change these things are seen as dangerously experimental. This is not such a silly thing: look before you leap, etc. Boiled down, it’s an avoidance of unnecessary risk, lest it create more problems than it solves. I sometimes think that if the existing order were more secular, more tolerant of diversity and more evidence-based, I might tend towards conservatism myself.

Trump and Cruz, the darlings of the non-establishment right, are dangerously radical. They are not about maintaining an old order, unless that order is some sort of mythic 1950s amalgam that never existed. Trying to turn the clock back 60 years, in a networked age of global trade, greater equality, fluid labor and international competition, is not something you can just push back in a box. It is not conservatism. Bringing back white male dominance, fanning discord, creating barriers and fomenting war, is not conservatism. Setting aside the US Constitution, to do to their enemies what they badly want to do, is not conservatism. Pushing the poor to extremes is not conservatism, lest you wish to hark back to middle ages feudalism.

Meanwhile, the hated Democrats have stolen the middle ground. Obama, with his focus on improving the economy, better international cooperation and sensible changes to a broken healthcare system, made few great risks during his presidency. He was no radical progressive. History might see him as a conservative politician in the true sense of the word. I expect that Hillary Clinton might appeal to conservatives in much the same way. If you are risk averse and you have to select someone to lead your country into the next decade, who are you going to vote for? Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? Seriously?

The latest verbal outrage by Donald Trump has everyone talking again. Every day his rhetoric gets worse. Every day, he stokes the fires of racist and sectarian hatred, all in a frantic bid to become the world’s most powerful man. By appealing to the most regressive and darkest mindsets in American life, it is inevitable that his statements will result in innocent people being injured and killed.

I do not believe he has any chance of becoming the next President of America, even if there were to be a major event between now and the election. He has alienated too many people. Liberal, minority and moderate voters can’t stand him. I reckon that a sizeable number of Republicans would, if push came to shove, vote Democrat even if they would only do it with their noses pinched. Trump is promoting values that have nothing to do with America and nothing to do with how it achieved greatness. Throughout its history, people came to America because it was a free and fair country, not a fascist dictatorship. Americans fought world wars and spilled blood against fascism. American history and the history of America’s place in the world, is the strongest guarantor that Trump’s bid will go nowhere.

Even if Trump, by improbable good fortune, did become the next US President, it’s hard to see how he could have any success at all. In his zeal to enact his policies, he would start battles that would render effective government impossible. Since his greatest enemy, at times, appears to be the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights – he can expect fulsome and ferocious opposition at every turn; not just from politicians but from the many thousands of people – police, soldiers, doctors, officials and ordinary citizens – through whom he would expect his edicts to be enacted. They would find ways, overt and covert, to thwart his policies. Unless he was determined to turn the country into an autocratic police state (even more improbable), his presidency would be an utter shambles. I doubt if he would even make the full four year term.

If Trump has created a legacy, it is to revive a tradition of bigotry and hatred, mainly among the entitled cadre of white, elderly elitists who have seen their country become more diverse, more tolerant, more secular and more globally integrated, despite all their efforts to the contrary. My worry is, that as their numbers and influence wane ever further, we can expect greater extremism and violence from these quarters. They will not go quietly.

Despite this, I am optimistic about America. I think the chances are good that the moderates will win out. The recent success of progressive laws, such as same-sex marriage, is an indication that the forces of deep conservatism are on the retreat. I think a tipping point is near, if it has not already passed. What we are witnessing with Trump is the rattle of a mortally wounded snake – ugly, venomous and vicious. but doomed nonetheless.

Another week travelling, this time in the opposite direction. Over the last three weeks, I’ve been in three equally sized corners of the world. I still miss Shanghai.

I’m in Silicon Valley: an endless suburbia straddling San Francisco Bay, and home to some of the brightest technical minds on the planet. Photographic opportunities are somewhat limited, but there are some wonderful gems, not far from the hustle and bustle.

I saw a few curious things on my flight over from London. While travelling past Iceland, I noticed a dark line of shadow imprinted on the clouds far below. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was caused by our own plane’s vapour trail – a shadow cast from far above. What was even more interesting was that the head of the shadow – where the plane should be – was surrounded by a small rainbow. It’s called a “glory” – an optical phenomenon caused by the reflected rays’ passage through tiny water droplets.

Plane Shadow 1

Plane Shadow 2

Greenland was uncharacteristically bereft of cloud, so I could see clearly the high snowy mountains of the coastline. Deep in the valleys, I could see massive glaciers grind their way to the sea. As the plane headed inland, these glaciers began to engulf the mountain tops, until the mountains themselves disappeared under the enormous ice-cap.

Greenland Ice Cap 1 Greenland Ice Cap 2

We arrived into San Francisco early, and with time to kill, we headed towards the Pacific Coast Highway, one of my favourite spots in Northern California. Thick sea fog was assaulting the coast, lending a certain dullness to the scenery. We wound our way South from Pacifica to Santa Cruz, past driftwood strewn beaches and high cliffs. It’s a relaxing part of the world.

great-circle

When I was younger I used to get very confused about how, if you were travelling to San Francisco from Ireland that you need to travel over Greenland and the cold wastes of Northern Canada to get there. Hold on, isn’t San Francisco to the south of Ireland? So why the hell do planes need to fly north to get there? It didn’t make much sense to me.

What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that spherical geometry is very different to planar geometry, and the fastest way to get from one location on the planet to another is a great circle – a ring around the centre of the earth connecting both points. Great circles do not care about arbitrary definitions such as North and West, only the shortest distance between two points, and if that line crosses over the North Pole, so be it.

Anyway, a few years ago I came across a mapping program on the Web called the Online Map Creator. The program produces maps of many different shapes and sizes in multiple projections. The one that captured my imagination however was Azimuthal Equidistant Projection. If you imagine drawing ever increasing circles around a chosen location on the planet you will get the idea. Consider, for instance, where you are right now. The 10 km circle represents all locations 10 km away, the 1000 km circle represents all places 1000 km away, and so on until you can’t go any further, i.e. the other side of the planet, about 20,000 km away from you. Each point on each circle represents objects that you would come across if you were able to point a telescope at a particular compass angle and see everything on the surface of the globe in that direction. It’s the route an airplane would take, if it didn’t need to worry about atmospheric currents and headwinds etc. Areas tend to get more distorted the further away you go. The extreme is other side of the world from you. No matter which direction you go, you will end up at that point eventually, so every point on the edge of the circle is actually the exact same location on the far side of the planet.

Here are a few maps I made using the map generator.

1) London, England.

London Azi

Notice that if you start out due west from London, you will end up, not in Canada, but flying across Cuba and Mexico. To get to Japan, you need to travel across the Arctic Ocean and northern Siberia. Also note how huge Antarctica and Australia are compared to everywhere else, and if you look closely you will see an enormous narrow island taking up nearly 70 degrees from North to East – that land is New Zealand, on almost exactly the opposite side of the world to the UK.

2) Chicago Illinois

Chicago Azi

This map shows that if you wish to travel from Chicago to Thailand, you need to cross over the North Pole, even though Thailand is close to the equator. It also indicates a considerably northerly path for Japan and China. To travel to Mozambique in southern Africa, you need to set out due East. Australia and Antarctica are enormous, again because they are furthermost from Chicago.

3) Sydney, Australia.

Sydney Azi

Look at how West Africa is distorted! West Africa is now gigantic compared to the rest of that continent, again owing to the fact that it is nearly on the other side of the world. The Iberian peninsula is similarly disfigured. To reach Chile, you need to travel South East, and traveling to parts of eastern Brazil requires a southern journey over the Antarctic ice cap.

4) Beijing, China

Beijing Azi

This is an interesting map. Most of the globe is recognisable and relatively well proportioned (OK Africa is a bit oversized, but we will ignore this). But look at South America! If you look closely, there is a ring of yellow encircling this map. Clearly the furthest point away from Beijing is in Argentina and as a result the mapping severely distorts the continent, The black lines are a bug that I can’t quite explain. In addition Hawaii looks a lot bigger than it should look, given it’s distance from China. I have a feeling that more gremlins are at work here.

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