Saturday, 29 September 2012

Israeli Palestinian Conflict Primer, Part II

This is the second part of my Israeli Palestinian Conflict Primer. Part I is here.
The job of the first part was to grant quick familiarity with the situation and players.

In this second part, I'll weigh in with opinion.

As before, I'm using a Q&A format because asking the right questions is as important as finding the true answers.

1. Okay. You've been verging on neutral and just mildly biased so far. How about some opinions?
What's your take on a pragmatic, practical solution? Keep in mind you're solving for 11 million people, not for 4 million Palestinians or 7 million Israelis.

At a personal level, anyone - even one who is not affiliated with neither side - can:
a. Spread tolerance and curiosity.
b. Promote inquisitiveness and critical thought.
c. Help dispel the mountains of misinformation, dead lies, self-serving propaganda and teachings of hate that are circulated ad-nauseum.

At a national negotiation level (and a lot of this can be helped by US, European and neighbour state mediation):
a. Reach a state of regimes that will back what they sign irrespective of administration.
b. Sign a bloody agreement, with a no-further-claims clause (with incentives if it is kept and consequences for when it is broken).
c. Then, Hard, physical separation (borders) with several years or decades of emotional cool-off and a buildup of security within one's borders.
Then gradual economic re-engagement.

On the issue of land - There is no technical way to solve the full set of problems without two states. This will mean movement of Israeli settlement blocks.

On the issue of Jerusalem - I don't think this is a showstopper. It's just a very hairy issue. Many options are viable, I don't know enough about the considerations today, and nobody knows how flexible the negotiation teams will eventually be. I'll just say - if the rest falls in line, this one will be solvable.

On the issue of right of return - There are no real choices here. The houses abandoned by Palestinians in 1948 no longer stand, city business districts stand in their place today. This is really a no-brainer. Israel will throw money at this problem, compensate the refugees and like it or not, that will be that.
Many Palestinians want this to also translate into an Israeli citizenship, as Israel's GDP per capita and PPP are an order of magnitude higher than that of the PA, and living in Israel opens up far more opportunities. This outcome is not likely to see support from Israel's side. I do believe that if the other issues align and the will to wrap the whole thing up is there, this issue will find a way forward.

On the issue of Iranian influence - I believe the incumbent regime in Iran has to, and will, implode. Turns out you can only run an autarky and wave shiny objects in the face of 80 million oppressed people - while cheating them out of a place in the global economy - for so long. The Arab Spring toppled five neighboring regimes (so far) and it will not spare them either, as the underlying cause - that lava that made them erupt where they did - is boiling in Iran.
Technology allows Iranian people to see the rest of the world. It opens us up to them. They see India and China riding the wave of globalization while all they get in Iran is 20+% unemployment as they get lied to by their leaders.
I'd venture a guess that Iran will be the last to go in the Arab spring (yes, they are not Arabs. Irrelevant.). It will lose its despotic friends first. We got a glimpse of what Iranian citizens feel back in 2009, and just how many of them feel it. They've been silenced, for now. I hold we have not yet seen the last chapter of their story.

I don't know if Iran's nuclear program will lead to a war with Israel, but I don't think such a war would lead to regime-change. Neither side would physically invade the other - to each, the other is both too geographically distant and too well-armed.

A fledgeling-democracy Iran would literally starve the radical camp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once Iran goes, Hamas will simply do what it has always done - it will follow the money. And the only money available will be the same money tap the Fatah uses - a local economy complemented by handouts from the west with be-nice strings attached. To maximize revenue from either, Hamas would need to bring its views in-line with the rest of the world.

If only.

2. Iran aside, is the Arab Spring good for Israel/Palestinians?
Best thing that happened to both in a long time.

Israel has grown very jaded, cynical and unmotivated to ambitiously resolve the conflict, with its secured 3.5 regional partners of old (Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and a long-quiet front with Assad's Syria) and its decades-old "We are the only functional democracy in the middle east" claim.
That landscape is now a distant memory. Turkey and the new Egypt repositioned themselves for a race to lead a new brand of Islamic states far more liberal than the incumbent brands Iran and Saudi Arabia's Wahabis offer. Their goal will not be terror. It will be jumping on the globalisation bandwagon. Each wants to be the "Gateway to the west" and the alpha wolf of the approachable, morally-compatible-with-the-west bloc of Muslim states.
FDI is the name of the game, and is the ticket for their leaders to deliver to their voters and get re-elected.

Mursi, Egypt's new leader has given the NY Times an interesting interview, where he tried to show the world he has a spine and intends to lead the Muslim world by example (for the second time, after rocking up to the Iranian convention last month and telling the Iranians who is top dog). He said he intends to play hardball, and that his 80-million-strong nation intends to lead the pragmatic Muslim world, not follow. Brave words. I look forward to supporting actions. Look out Turkey.

In different ways, both Turkey and Egypt turned a cold shoulder to Israel, signaling it to get its act together. Turkey supported the notorious Gaza Flotilla that ended badly for everyone. Everyone except Turkey itself, who promptly used it as the much-needed excuse to tone down its involvement with Israel and reposition itself more favorably in the eyes of the Muslim world it wants to be a shining beacon for.

Despite a lot of people reading these as a "we don't like Jews/Israel" message (as if, for some reason that eludes me, Jews or Israelis are somehow entitled to sympathy without earning any of that sympathy with relevant merit), I believe this not to be such a message at all.
It reads to me more as "Your lazy attitude at resolving the conflict is affecting our prosperity. Get off your bum, stop blaming the Palestinians and get your own house in order.". It's a cleverly-disguised message of cooperation, saying "if you live up to a bar of merit, if you can be a good neighbor conscious of when he hurts those around him and willing to take steps to prevent this, we will come to the party and be your friends".
In the immediate sense, this spells bad for Israel. Less friends in the neighborhood. The radicals inside Israel strengthen as they milk this situation for everything it's worth, harping on about how Egypt is now another Iran because to them "Muslim" has become synonymous with the current Iranian regime and its ways.

However, on a grander scale, I maintain that this is the best thing that could have happened to Israel. I hope it becomes the much-needed shock Israel needs, to realize that its strength, security and status in the world must be a product of something it has control over, such as what it produces - its hi-tech and biotech industries or the academic research that it pours out, not a circumstantial side-effect of a neighbor-state's dysfunction. Israel still has 7 decades of rapid, competent nation-building as a head start on its neighbors, but the Arab Spring spells out the obvious: They can modernize too, and they intend to try and catch up. And they have a lot more resources working for them than Israel does.

In the past decades, Israel was allowed to stop trying to solve the I-P conflict, stop being ambitious simply because the bar of its neighbors was so low.
Well Mursi just raised the bar. Good on'im. Golda Meir, Israel's "Iron Lady" Prime Minister, once said "Israel will have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us".
 Turns out that a dictator and his regime may not love their nation's children, but the people who elected Mursi on a platform of welfare and the people who are walking into wave after wave of Assad's bullets love their children just fine.

And this is a game, in fact, THE game, I'd like to see us all play. Who can do a better job at loving his own children.

Here's to optimism.

3. How do you fit in?
I myself am an Israeli, having lived in Israel two and a half decades of my life. I now live in Australia but have family there.

I make an attempt to view this conflict from a "this is really broken" angle rather than a "we Israelis/Jews are right" one.

I have served in the Israeli Army and in the territories. I was lucky enough to serve during a relatively quiet period however I saw radicals from both sides doing things that I wouldn't be proud of. I did my job, and if required to by my home country - Australia - today, I would again carry out my civic duty as required.

I cut a very clear line between "The state of Israel" and "The administration currently in power in Israel". I hope for prosperity for one, not always for the other. I believe this distinction should be made when looking at any country.

On my education in the Israeli system. I grew up on the notion that the WWII-era Nazis did two very, very bad things. The one that (rightly) gets mentioned most is the fact that Hitler brutally murdered 10 million people. My family alone lost some 50 lives.

But all the documentaries I've watched on the national remembrance day, all the museums I've visited, all the discussions we had in school over the years, focused their attention on another very, very bad thing.

They focused on a moral that needs to be learned, on what the experience has taught us. And this moral bites much deeper than "Murdering 10 million people is wrong" or "Mentioning their murder is sacrilege" or "We Jews will forever after live by our sword".

The moral speaks of human dignity.

All the documentaries, the museums, the curricula that taught this subject focused not just on the killing but on some moment that came before. A moment in that episode of history when certain people stopped being considered human. It didn't start with mass murder. It started with the segregation of the ghettos, of your neighbor or friend or daughter starving to death because you were denied food, of the bodies of children on the streets, of families torn as their loved ones got taken away never to be seen again, all while the propaganda machine on cinema screens harped on about them being equivalent to a rat epidimic.
In Hebrew we say the Nazis lost "Zelem Enosh" - צלם אנוש, a very powerful and broad term that says this is a human being. This term is not rooted in any religion, group or affiliation. It does not tell white from black, a Jew from a Muslim, and Iranian from an Israeli or Capitalist from Communist. It just says human.

Through my life in Israel I was repeatedly taught, by every social circle I took part in bar none, that taking this dignity away from a human, any human, is wrong. I am grateful for and proud of the conviction with which this was taught.

The Middle East of 2012 is not Nazi Germany. I make no comparisons whatsoever between Nazi Germany and any living person, society or organisation today. I find such comparisons offending.
I find this a very hard topic to discuss myself, and only raise it because the highest respect we can give it is heeding the bitter lesson it bears. And this is not merely asking how the lesson applied in the murderous context of then, but how it applies in the deeply-rooted emotions making up the context of the Israeli-Palestinian now.

Solemnly putting Godwin back in his box, I firmly believe fixing anything today must begin with ensuring everyone involved receives that human dignity in full, because in that corner of the Middle East, it has very slowly yet visibly begun to erode.


And now you can see it. It's right here, in front of you.
You are now standing at the very front line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is waged between an Israeli father and his son, over dinner, arguing on the merits of supporting a political party who would punish every Palestinian for the actions of just some, effectively punishing people for being Palestinian. Tomorrow, at the ballot, each will choose a side.

It is waged between a Palestinian father and his son, debating whether the son should spend his life building a prosperous business in the West Bank or move in with family in Gaza and join the militant ranks of the Hamas. The next day, the son will choose a side.

It rages anywhere an Israeli or Palestinian is asked to explain the conflict. When one faces the choice of accusing the other people while ignoring the doings of his own, or being brutally honest towards both. When one throws up his hands in frustrated cynicism or gets back up and tries again.
It is with that choice that one picks his side.


I hope this piece gives people a starting point to understanding the problem better, to learn of the difficulties involved and why very smart, well-meaning people haven't been able to put an end to it yet. I hope to provoke and make those interested ask both sides brutally hard questions, rather than line up with the "Good Guys" as pointed out by either Fox News, Ynet or Al-Jazeera.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Israeli Palestinian Conflict Primer, Part I

This piece originally started with the following question I was presented by a friend a while back - 
"Explain the conflict to me".

Knowing me for the verbal guy that I am, he challenged me further -  "... in 60 seconds or less".

This is not the 60 second version, but it is nevertheless an undeservedly short one. I will make some generalizations of which I am aware, and for which I apologize in advance. I have avoided making the ones I know are dead-pan wrong.

I will try to give a birds-eye view of the problem, provoke interest and curiosity. I subtly recommend not to buy into any view that makes it sound either too simple, too easy, too biased or too black&white.

Here goes:

1. How many sides are there to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Two. But it's a team sport and each side has several team members.

2. Israelis and Palestinians?

They are the two peoples involved.
They are not, however, the two sides of the conflict.

Here are the real sides of this conflict, a subtlety your favourite news channel will not make clear:

Side 1: Normal people who wish to live a normal, dignified life - have a family, a dog, education for themselves and their kids, career opportunity, and more recently, access to the globalization party.

Side 2: Radicals, who would sacrifice all that for the belief in their gut.

3. And the Palestinians are in...?

4. And the Israelis are in...?

5. So the war is between...?
Those two sides. The radicals and the normal people.

6. Who do you define as radical?

I define radically-motivated people as people who
a. Justify violence today with their "historic rights".
b. Do not propose real, holistic solutions to the full, combined set of problems.
c. Ignore the right to exist or the need for human dignity of the other people.
d. Set technically impossible "win conditions" (a-la "pack up the skyscrapers in Tel Aviv and send the Jews back to Europe" or "pack the Palestinians onto trucks and transfer them to some Arab country")
e. Lump other people's entire political spectrum into one big "them", then accuse the lot of wrongdoing perpetrated by just a slice of that spectrum.  ("All Muslims are Terrorists!", "All the Jews/Israelis are imperialist bullies!").
f. Would put their own children in the way of physical harm to make a political point.

7. So... which of them are right? (historical right over the land, that sort of thing)
Both are.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have an argument to back what they believe to be a legitimate claim, and firmly believe in the validity of their argument.
Both peoples lived on this land at some point in the past.

Weighing their arguments against one another is a dead end that has burned millions (possibly billions) of man-hours of argument and debate, only to leave everyone exactly where they started.

My empiric observation is that each one of us needs to make a choice.

One can choose to walk down the road of immersion in historic rights, get a lot of warm fuzzies, but do it knowing he will contribute absolutely zero to improving the situation.

Or one can detach from that debate without either losing or winning it, and focus on solving the problems of the present, for the sake of the future of those who live there.

Everyone is right.

8. Then who is wrong? Who is doing the really bad immoral things I see on the news?
Both peoples are.

Some of the bad things both peoples do can be morally justified given their situation.
Some of the bad things both peoples do cannot.

It's not clear-cut.
In every situation claimed immoral, you need to understand what happened from the perspective of both sides, think what you would do have you yourself been born and raised to that side and placed in the shoes of those there, then make up your own mind if the action in question can or cannot be justified.

Some of the bad things both peoples do can be morally justified given their situation.
Some of the bad things both peoples do cannot.

Doing this is hard.
Taking the easy out (blaming whoever it's easiest to) entrenches bias and prolongs the problem.

9. Ok. No easy answers, I get it. Who are the players on the "radical" side?

Israeli "Ideological" settlers in the West Bank.
The Israeli extreme right.
The "Israeli" extreme left (quotes because they are often openly anti-Israeli)
The Hamas and those who willingly follow them.
The current regime in Iran.
Other Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah or what's left of Assad's regime in Syria.

10. Hamas and the Israeli settlers are on the same side?! what?!

Yes, very. Though they'd never verbalise it, each one MUST have the radicals of the other people to justify its own extremist ideology to the (non-radical) rest of its own people.
The need to survive - as a radical organisation and/or a radical ideology - makes for some very strange bedfellows.

11. Are you suggesting the Hamas and the extremist Israeli settlers have beers together?

No. But their actions and provocations have for decades been squarely aimed at sustaining the other in its radical form.

12. I'll need to marinate on that strange bedfellows bit. Ok, who are the players on the non-radical side?

Israelis who don't ignore either people's problem and treat both peoples with dignity.
Palestinians who don't ignore either people's problem and treat both peoples with dignity.
Most Israeli governments (keep in mind being on this side doesn't imply being either smart or motivated to lift a finger to solve the problem).
The Palestinian Authority (Fatah) of today.
Virtually all developed countries.
A very large part of the Palestinian Street, who was seen protesting recently against the dysfunction of their own government, and have recently started visibly caring more about welfare and day-to-day living conditions than about the conflict.

Also, looking beyond the populistic "show" some put up, about half the Arab countries in the middle east. Namely the pragmatic ones concerned with their own economic prosperity.

13. The Palestinian war for self-definition is justified. Everyone deserves self-definition. Since that's a no-brainer, how can you defend the Israeli stance?

Good observation. Yes, it is very justified. What defines this war is the "win condition" - establishment of a Palestinian state on a subset of the land, the whole of which must ultimately accommodate two peoples with some serious baggage.
This is the war the non-radical palestinians are in for.
It's no less just than the war the Jews fought in 1948 to re-establish their state.
We'll call the war for self-definition "War #1".
The main obstacle in this war are the combined radicals of both sides.

The radicals are in for a different war.
"War #2".

What's the difference?
The "win condition".
Iran's/Hamas's "win condition" for this other war involves being in control of the land graphically outlined at the top of its logo. Yes, that shape is 100% of Israel. The Israeli radicals set the exact same impossible win condition, only with them in control. This "War #2" can neither be rationally justified using any moral code I'm aware of without diving to the depths of hypocrisy, nor can it be won without magically willing away four million Palestinian voters, or several metropolises, an entire first-world economy, a fully-functional state, backed by one of the world's toughest, most experienced armies.
The claim Hamas has to the entire land is right out there with shipping the Australians back to Britain and giving the land back to Aboriginals, or shipping L.A. and New York back to Europe and giving the land back to the Native Americans.

"War #2" cannot be won.

And when radicals don't have enough of it to go on, a proportion of both sides incite new flames through provocation, and the Palestinian radicals take it a step further and fake it for your favorite news channel's appetite for a palywood newsbyte. Radicals need, and will forever need, the war.

14. Doesn't the Hamas know their win condition is not achievable?

Of course they do. The Hamas are not motivated by evil. They're more akin to a drug mafia - a group of people earning top dollar (in this case, coming from serving foreign Iranian interests rather than drugs), who have guns, and are unwilling to relinquish this power.
They cling to power by labeling themselves neccesary to fight a war that can never be won, and brutally suppressing any discussion of national priorities.
They do some of the bad kind of things you'd expect a drug mafia to do, but they are in it for the money and power, not the massacre of Israelis or Jews.
Sadly, clinging to power is... just human.

15. Just how much leeway do the big players have to maneuver to get something fixed?

Like in chess, different movement rules apply to different parties.

Israel is a democracy that lives in a perpetual hung parliament, with small minority parties made kingmakers, holding entire administrations to ransom, else they topple the government and early elections are called. I call this a "minoritocracy", where the minority calls the shots, by design. The big parties have all sworn to fix this broken system. The little parties will topple any government that tries.
This leads to administrations that cannot function for their given term without a small, often extremist, minority party that refuses to change anything.
Sadly, clinging to power is... just human.

Unlike in Turkey and Mubarak-era Egypt, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is not, and never was, a political player itself. It is an accountable, obedient instrument of the Israeli State devoid of political agenda - other than bigger budgets of course.

Like any accountable army made up of humans in any war on record, they mostly do their job, and occasionally make bad decisions that hurt the wrong people which they later regret (homework: listen to Dr Abuelaish from the link above and see if his remarkable perspective - from the Palestinian side - resonates with this article). Like any accountable army, the IDF have an internal prosecutor unit with teeth tasked with maintaining a razor-sharp balance between personal accountability, media exposure thereof and troop morale. I would not like to have their job, because it is hard.

Like any army involved in any conflict ever, the IDF takes pride in achieving their mission, not always in what they had to do to achieve it. War is never pretty.

There have been multiple instances of ultra-leftists (Israeli, Palestinian and foreigners) provoking IDF soldiers whose job was to guard a line in the sand, while blaming the soldiers personally for the mission their government sent them to do. These ultra-leftists sometimes get hurt.
I hold the perpetrators belong squarely in the radical camp - they offer no holistic solutions, they bias themselves to one side, thereby ignoring 50% of the problem. They have no sound advice to offer to make the situation better. And the behavior they display is no different to abusing a parking inspector or harassing a policeman for doing his job.

The best way to explain a soldier's job is to think of, say, Australian troops in, say, Afghanistan. I may not agree with sending troops there. And there are ways to voice that disagreement on a platform of national priority debate. But if I choose to voice that disagreement by trying to march across a red line troops actively get tasked to guard, say a gate to a military base in Afghanistan, I will get hurt.
Israeli courts uphold that the military is a legitimate arm of the government, does not indict them for doing what they were asked to do (morality of the task itself - say, guard an illegal settlement, being largely irrelevant), and holds protesters responsible for the harm they incur upon themselves.

Moving on, in the West Bank, the Fatah runs the Palestinian Authority and manages a collection of pockets of land, where they are attempting to build a democracy.
The Fatah has earned a notorious reputation for being corrupt, but allowed reasonable freedoms and has been setting up somewhat functional institutions and cooperating on security with Israel.
Its ability to change stuff is limited in part by the mandate given to it by the Palestinian street, in part by terms set by its financiers (the PA is not economically self-sufficient and relies heavily on funding by the US, Europe and Arab patrons), and in part by its own corruption and inability to get stuff done.

In Gaza, the Hamas have created a very efficient oppressive police state where voicing an opinion not aligned with Hamas places the life of you and your family at risk. People critical of Hamas policies have plain-clothes thugs come to their homes, they can be jailed, beaten, in some cases killed.

The US State Department calls Hamas a terrorist organisation, and their direct involvement in numerous terrorist attacks on civilians is well established. But they are not merely that. Hamas now run a state and all manner of institutions - education, healthcare, a judicial systems, etc.  They've been building up these institutions for decades, since long before they came to power.

Their take on "serving Palestinian interests" involves taking Iranian money and using it to build and run these institutions. This money, however, comes with strings attached. These institutions must subsequently be used to promote an Iranian-sanctioned curriculum, and teach children from infancy to think like a victim and blame and hate the west.

While the Hamas is arguably at liberty to pursue any policy it chooses, pursuing one that will upset its Iranian patron may:
a. Cut Iranian funding
b. Cut the ideological "need" of the Gazans for such a radical organisation,
c. It will mean they must at some point cede their guns and ability to operate a private army (and plain-clothes secret police) to an accountable Palestinian defense force.
d. It will mean 1.5 million Gazans will judge Hamas on the merits of what Hamas has done for them in the time it has been in power. Which is not an awful lot.

So far, the Hamas have not seen this as a particularly attractive proposition. Go figure.

Continued in Part II...

Saturday, 22 September 2012


I'm going to say some harsh things in this post, harsh things some people may not appreciate.

The problems our generation faces are so mind-bogglingly big, that people either can't relate, or lack the understanding of the fractal of issues involved to advocate for and practice sensible solutions. The good news is, technology is giving ever more people the facts, the education, the understanding and sensible platforms for real debate.

We have people advocating for something very Eco-friendly that they can do at home (often at great effort - like grow vegetables, or financial expenditure - like set up a power-self-sufficient home), but the vast majority of us cannot. We hear advocation of such ideas as if they were solutions, and yet they never take off.

Therein lies is my first message:
If your solution is not applicable at the scale of the problem, what you have is not a solution. What you have is a hobby.

As Shai Agassi, Founder and CEO of Better Place points out - Biodiesel is great, if you happen to have the Amazon in your back yard. Despite nearly $100bn the US pumped into using it, it never got adopted past 2%, in terms of miles driven on it. A bucketload of money spent. No solution.

Another example is Hybrids. Less convenient, less affordable. Result? we sold nearly 10 million cars in Australia in the past decade. 16,000 were hybrids (despite having been on the market for the entire decade). That's less than 2%. In as far as our oil dependence goes, they are not a solution.

If your solution to any problem doesn't scale, for any reason - be it the value proposition in the eyes of the consumer, supply issues, whatever the reason, it simply isn't a solution. It's a dud.

If you intend to recommend we stop making food in factories and go back to growing it into our back yard, ask yourself:
It worked when the earth's population was 700 million people. Today we're 10 times that, and live in dense cities. Does my solution scale, without magically "willing away" 6.3 billion humans? Can it be used by millions who live in dense urban environments? Can I pitch a value proposition about it that pragmatic people would buy? Or will I be preaching to the choir, sell to the choir, and it will stop there? Can it be used by everyone? Will it be used by everyone? You better think it's yes and yes and be able to talk to any criticism of your idea and convince people it's the best thing (for them, not for you), since sliced bread.

Once you think you have a solution, you will find there are two roads - the road of begging and the road of doing.

One flavor of ideas goes like this:
"It's not viable, but if the government gives us $100bn, we can do amazing things like connect Australia's East coast electric grid to the West Coast". (The words are mine but they capture the gist of one of the BZE proposals). Don't get me wrong. I look at BZE and I'm astounded by the possibilities we can do using what we know today.

But I want to see these ideas go beyond an expensively-printed booklet and a website. I want to see it happen.

There may be good long-term economic/environmental reason to do these, but the reality is, in proposing them you'll join a queue at the government's door, along with many other beggars, vying for charity money, for a life-support-machine for your idea. The government may be in a phase where it's got some machines to hand out, or a phase where they're on hold for a decade or two, or a phase where someone will get them before you because what he proposed translates into more votes in the next elections. At best, there will be a thousand of people like you, and 10 life support machines to go around. And even if you get it, remember the first rule of charity: It always runs out. And if all that weren't enough, remember it takes government a hundred million dollars to do what a start-up can do with ten million, required rigid organizational structures, cushy government jobs and all.

There is another way.

It involves building organizations that need no life support machinery.
(they can, at times but not always, use a defibrillator tho).

When a thousand of people with such ideas are ready, all thousand can go ahead, so long as the underlying hypothesis their ideas and organisations are based on hold.

(... and don't complain about probability of businesses to survive if you haven't yet read The Lean Startup. Business failure rates assume everyone is driving blind, which in many many cases you no longer have to).

Even and despite business failure rates, we (as a society) will achieve far more things if we try far more things, and we can try far, far more things this way.
The pool of risk-ready available start-up capital (the kind that is capable of taking on risk and is priced accordingly, so we're not creating the second GFC by doing this) is infinitely bigger, directly tied to how sensible your ideas are, and allows us to be far more efficient at the use of this money, money only designed to jump-start you, not support you for life.

When Shai Agassi approached the Israeli government in 2007 with a unique proposal to set up nation-wide infrastructure and begin a consumer-driven conversion of the nation's 2-million-odd car parc to electric, with virtually all associated problems thought out (Yah. watch the links in this piece, I won't go into it here), Ehud Olmert (then Prime Minister) told him "I'm not a venture capitalist. Go find your money elsewhere...". But he also told him "Once you do find it, I will open every door for you to come build it here". Olmert slammed the door of begging in Agassi's face, but lit up the path of doing like a goddam runway. Touche.

Electric Holden fitting the Better Place battery-swap model
taken 14/8/2012 at Swinburne University, Melbourne
Agassi's proposal in itself is inspirational. Not being a career car guy himself, his idea is so rabidly awesome that it's in the process of disrupting a global $10tn/year (that's trillion) market - car, oil and ancillary businesses combined, worldwide. That's a lot of welcome change. Better Place's initial pricing costs in Israel and Denmark do not seem aggressive at first sight, but one has to remember they have borrowed $800mn (and Better Place Australia, the third country to go, is raising $1bn on top of that), and as they return their investors their money, and as the cost of alternatives goes up... they can make their company live up to its name.

More importantly, Agassi will have shown us what one person with an idea and can do, if the idea is not just technically awesome but can be applied at the scale of the problem, in virtually any country without a dime from government, driven by a living, beating, economic heart of its own. That means they can make it better, more efficient and more eco-friendly with each passing year at the speed we'd expect from, say, Apple products.

It shows how risking doing something new, big, audacious and hairy can be done sensibly, not limited to the small number of such endeavors governments can carefully fund, without putting public money at risk.

And it's there to remind us what any one of us can do if we cast our idea to be both awesome and viable.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The Loudest Voices

A story posted by one of my Muslim facebook friends hit me today. It was a long post by someone who appears fairly religious, on an Islamic website, telling upset people to stop killing innocent ambassadors, stop feeding the hate trolls, and get a bloody grip.

I will admit, the whole issue had me in two minds.

One side of me wants to give in to primal instinct, and accuse the Muslim world of wholesale hypocricy. "We don't insult your Jewish and Christian prophets!", you hear again and again. That's because we don't give a rat's ass about prophets. Prophets are your holy cow. That's cool, but we have ours, which are different, and which we're equally sensitive to. Americans are sensitive about 9/11. Israeli Jews? about the holocaust. Germans are even more sensitive on that same subject, because, as a German doctor who moved to Tasmania put it to me, virtually every German member of our generation found himself at some point rocking up home and accusing grandpa of committing warcrimes. Chinese have an entire string of them. Japanese massacre, British colonialism, opium wars. Everyone has a sensitive spot somewhere. Stabbing anyone in that soft spot is an unnecessary exercise in being sadistic, cruel and insensitive.

I've spent the last 37 years of my life seeing Arab and Muslim leaders maliciously poke knives into my sensitive spot, for some populist gain, because me and my country happened to be the shiny object they needed to distract their people from the dysfunctional way they ran their own.

I used to feel the way muslims feel about this Mohammed film (and I'm sure a fair number of Israelis still do), but eventually I got used to sucking it up. I got used to routine exercises like the annual holocaust denial convention staged and state-sponsored in Iran, produced with every intention to stab us where we hurt.

If you run into an Israeli that doesn't understand what all the touchy feely fuss with the Mohammed thing is about, now you know why. We learned to suck it up to avoid giving cruel people power, by not giving a shit about what they think. I can't recommend this enough to my Muslim friends.

As Tom Friedman wrote this week in what appears to be the first column I've ever seen him write in anger, many people in the Arab and Muslim world need a good hard look in a mirror, if they intend to go demanding western countries get their hate-mongering rabid dogs under control while employing violence against innocents to make the point.

Another side of me says that whole approach is more about ego-rub and less about what's good for any of us. Muslims are no more a one big "they" as Australians or Europeans or Israelis are (you sure do get used to lumping them into a one big "they" when you live in Israel tho). As Friedman writes in his column, "theirs is a complex society". And with the decrease of dictators to rally or hide behind, the Muslim voices saying "this is absolutely crazy, and it ain't doing us no good either" (words mine, gist Waleed's), have grown bolder and louder.

A couple of weeks ago, in a university lecture, we discussed the way corporations attempt to redefine what they're about in Australia, from "We measure ourselves with money" to "We measure ourselves with money, our social impact and our environmental impact". This is commonly referred to as the "Triple Bottom Line".

Our professor called it whitewash.

Being a devout Muslim himself, he proceeded to teach about business backgrounds in middle-eastern countries, particular details of Sharia and the long list of wonderful tenets he believes Islam is all about.

I caught up with him after the class and we had a chat. I said that maybe to the board of big old dinosaur like BHP Billiton, the triple bottom line is indeed whitewash. But to many companies, in particular, an entire generation of greentech and other companies whose corporate culture was founded after environment became an issue, it's a core belief. It's in their DNA. The people who run them and the people who work in them genuinely believe that it's about more than the profit you make.
And if you want these guys to win out, you need to park the bloody cynicism and stop referring to their efforts as whitewash, simply because to a company like BHP it is.

I told him I can do the same to him and his rosy view of Islam. I grew up in Israel. I can run an entire university course about the dissonance between his professed ideals and what I've seen the Muslim world do. Not only to others, but to itself.

We shouldn't do this. Cynicism is giving up on the people with the good ideas, throwing in the towel and letting the people with the atrocious ones laugh at you. Cynicism is a loser's consolation.

For the good ideas to win - ideas like mature, tolerant Islam, ideas like the triple bottom line, we fundamentally need two people.

We need the guy who will say them with a straight face and mean them, and initially this will happen when the reality on the ground grossly disagrees with him. Remember he is the avaunt-guarde of those better beliefs.

Then we need the other guy, who is asked to park the ugly reality he's well aware of, take a leap of faith, transcend his cynicism, and admit the possibility that the first guy stands a chance.

In these and so many of the bigger problems of the world today, we need more brave people who would risk being either of these two guys.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The Ayn Rand Legacy

The BBC recently ran this piece about Ayn Rand:

As always, people either captured the superficial good (and in reality, not so good at all) point about what she said ("regulation" is bad, it leads to communist-like dystopia!), or the dead bad about her (on a personal level she was an unconvinceable, unopen-to-further-debate cult-leader-like fanatic who religiously clung to her views).

And she absolutely said and did all that.

But these pieces fail to explain the two fundamentally good things that she said, and why her books are, in fact, so popular -
1. She is the modern-day mother of meritocracy. The philosophical root of any young, go-get'em startup that survives by merit rather than inertia, that challenges conventions and gets mind-blowing stuff done simply by being right and smart, whether it's the Google of 10 years ago or Atlassian - that sentiment of making the world better using things that work is the guts of the Randian belief system.

2. Any Rand offered a method of thinking - rationally and objectively.
She then plugged in the "world she knew", which is two options really - radical communism she "experienced" (read: was persecuted by) in the Soviet world and radical laissez-faire capitalism of the 50's/60's US, and came out with the result - "Communism BAD, Capitalism GOOD". And in her time, that may have seemed to be the right answer.

So we put Alan Greenspan in the Fed reserve, put the pedal to the metal.... and proceeded to learn just how messed up the world becomes when you give people huge incentives for reckless driving after having disassembled all the seatbelts. Four years on, we're still pulling European corpses from the GFC trainwreck.

So I propose we go back to the start - that same way of thinking exactly. Being rational. Being objective.
And rather than accepting Rand's answer from that equation using 1950 parameters, we use the same equation and plug in what we know in post-trainwreck today.
We know today that most of the time, It's not the noble John Galt, Hank Reardon, Howard Roarke or their real-world analogues like Henry Ford, Bill Hewlett, David Packard, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Bryn or Shai Agassi who ultimately always win out. A lot of the time it's those who externalize their costs to someone else, who win by taking the cheaper route of dumping their waste in a river so the widget can be made a dollar cheaper.
It's organizations like Monsanto, like Lehman Brothers, like AIG, like BP, like the entire climate-change-denial lobby, those who cut corners and make a dollar later to cost someone else two dollars in the ensuing cleanup. Does anyone other than their shareholders (and perhaps their employees) think what these guys are doing is awesome?

What's more important to us?
Do the taxes they pay into our national coffers justify the world-scale breakage they bring? Would we feel the same way towards taxes from blood-diamond enterprises in Africa? Slavery and human trafficking? Selling guns to Assad that we know will be used to shoot children? Do we care?

We'd come to the obvious conclusion. We'd say "Wait. It's not rational to have a system that rewards cutting costs by sweeping shit under the rug for everyone else to pay later". It's not rational to idealize unrestrained Capitalism when its direct result is making grandchildren pay for the party we had, and destroy the planet we live on in the process.

Suicide. Is. Not. Rational.

And this is where I come full circle to the second thing Ayn Rand argued, early, in her youth.
That you need to embrace stuff not solely on the merit of how sexy the idea is, but on the merit of "does it actually work?". She may have applied it to communism, but I think it's time we apply it to Laissez-faire and fanatic deregulation too.

Ayn Rand is dead. 
We know today that her ANSWERS were wrong. Perhaps less wrong than a communist system that imploded upon itself. But nevertheless wrong.
But her QUESTIONS were right.

She can't answer those questions anymore for us like the Tea Party mob in the US think she should, and in her later years, she would have probably been too much of a fanatic to objectively do so anyway.

We need to let Marx and Adam Smith go, and come up with some new answers ourselves.

First off, we do need a merit system. Total equality doesn't work.
We want to build on the old ways that do work, but we want them challenged. We want the Googles and Facebooks, Wikileakses, Wikipedias and Better Places to come around and lend a shoulder to fix our world. Whatever sentiment you have towards corporations, these guys are the only heavy artillery we really have, and we're lucky to have them. And we need more. We want people to WANT to start them. We need to tell our 6 year olds that "If you put yourself to it and do awesome, impossible things, the universe will appreciate, support you and give you more rope". We absolutely need to incentivise merit.

We need equality of opportunity, but not equality in everything, because the Robin Hood necessitates a bully with a club, who usually resembles Assad or Putin more than good'ol Robin, who is not himself quite equal to everyone else by merit of his club.

We need to fix big problems. Not some of. Not one of. All of. Climate. Economy. Dictators. Opening up a base set of services we enjoy (food, clean water, a light bulb, mobility, security, education, opportunity) to the part of the world where they're not taken for granted. Tall order, because the way we "make" stuff today doesn't scale to those levels of demand. We don't know how to make that much stuff (at all, or without some world-destroying downsides).

I hope everyone agrees that planetary suicide is bad, and that any person deserves dignity irrespective of group affiliation.

I'm of the genuine belief that everyone - from the hippie who will remind us we're humans, not robots, to the tycoon that will open up the next wave of societal possibility - is trying to solve the same problem. A world filled with air to breathe, possibility, openness, health and people busy creating awesome. My charge will be to convince you the entire gamut in between (or vast majority thereof) is on the same side. 
Objectively. Will a communist approach achieve our goals? I'd argue that's not likely. More likely, it will destroy the economy, dry up the capital markets that businesses need, create more unemployment than we've ever seen, and let other countries pick up the slack we left off, their entrepreneurs making things more competitively than our government-owned industries, becoming wealthy and powerful in a globalised world as we become poor and weak.

Objectively, will a pure capitalist approach achieve them? Sure. And we'll be pretending to be rolling in money when the oceans rise and we run out of air to breathe, while using every penny we have to pay for wall street gambling gone south and a higher incidence of natural disasters.

So Objectively, what will?
A carefully engineered balance of the good from either side, where a single word like "Capitalism" or "Communism" or "Socialism" can never capture the subtleties of the delicate balance needed for the good from both sides and the bad from neither.

A system that carefully balances the importance of the individual, the importance of a merit- rather a prescribed-right-way system. A system that allows you to make a killing doing awesome, and the importance of making sure that everyone in that system is wearing his own costs, and playing by the rules.

I don't want to define this system by negation, by what it's not. It has enough merit of its own.

I don't want to call it "Sane capitalism", "Corrected capitalism" or "Fixed Capitalism", because what separates Monsanto from Wikipedia is not how much capital they make. It's how awesome they are. How do you define and quantify awesome?
I don't want to name it by where it is relative to other ideas, like "Radical Centrism".
I don't want to call it a form of communism, because the creativity to fix the world cannot and will not come from a communal organisation committee. It'll come from a million creative guys in a million garages, with and idea and balls of steel to challenge the world with it.
And to fix the world of its problems, to make stuff in new ways that are sufficient for an unfathomably larger number of earth populants than we ever supplied (because they deserve dignity too) and not kill the planet in the process, we will need  to unleash millions of these creative guys, not Ayn Rand's handful or the meager few any single organisation, government or political party can centrally feed, resource, evaluate, and manage and wear their startup risks.
It's about creating awesome engineered to have and run on its own economic steam, and rewards its maker with more capital to make more awesome of his own choosing.
This is the Viable Awesomism core.
Let'em be Awesome, and Let'em be viable. And get the bloody hell out of their way.

Look around you, at companies big and small, at your government's policies.
Ask which ones create awesome viably. Which types you would want to see around in a better world.
Ask which ones can be turbocharged by unplugging them from government and/or charity dollars.
And maybe, if we showed a 25-year-old Ayn Rand our 2012 world, what Laissez-faire did and what our Viable Awesomist organisations today have already achieved, she would have thought so too.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


I bring no dictionary definition of the word Awesome. This is deliberate. Despite multiple dry definitions across a number of literary sources, not one comes close to capturing the sheer magnitude of what this word has come to resemble.

It is an adjective that has moved beyond the concept of the mere ‘awe’ that serves as its linguistic root, and has come to mean something broader that makes the universe better in a way we approve of, or perhaps narrower, no longer being applicable to the kind of thing that would make one tremble with the fear-driven form of awe. A barrel of a tank pointed at a live human being may strike awe, but in no way is it awesome.

Sure, it's opinion. Yet it is with this realization that I’ve started noticing the unique list of ingredients used by so many people when pronouncing this word.
It’s not just the ever-positive context.
There are two cups of gut-wrenching emotion in the use of this word. Three pints of having received inspiration. A small Everest-top of an achievement that using it directly points to. An implicit acknowledgement of the responsible party. A statement that reads “I care”, that also reads “I matter” between the lines (as some like-minded T-shirts spell out, "I support X, and I VOTE.").
And there's an attribution of value to something. An admittance that this has meaning in life.

Best of all – using it demonstrates a desire to share this entire compendium of values with a fellow human being. We don’t say “awesome” to ourselves in our head. We say it to the person standing next to us. Awesome comes with its own built-in viral growth engine.

Its vibe comes from sanctifying something with our attitude. Be it an item or a song, an action or an outcome, this word is our way to tell the people around us that this thing has just made the universe one notch better by being.

Awesome is an entire belief system conveniently packaged in this one word. It needs no holy books or sacred places. It is omni-applicable. It may well be the most practiced religion in our world today.

This would have been an interesting semantic observation, had I not been struggling to find the one thing that seemed unfindable. A new word, a word that is none of the usual social, communal or capital suspects to identify what really drives us fleshy humans, and name the entire civilized world’s emerging philosophy.


Capitalism sounded weird too the first time it was used. Suck it up.

Awesomeness, and the ongoing, systematic understanding and creation thereof, is what I reckon it's all about.

First Post

I think it's time I start putting my thoughts into something more concrete, and more importantly, more sharable, than my facebook timeline (the texts in your FB posts, in case you weren't aware - and I wasn't until recently - cannot be shared).

So here goes.

I've called this blog Viable Awesomism, this being the thread that runs through my life and my ramblings on any topic ever.

Viable Awesomism (or V.A.) is a name I've given a philosophy. I have not invented any of it. It's not just a philosophy I believe should be practiced, but one I believe already is practiced by most developed societies, except that they all still call it capitalism or variations thereupon, which leads to everyone trying to solve the same set of problem but not always realizing that virtually everyone is on the same side.

Viable Awesomism is capitalism to the same extent as being human is digestionism.

You need to eat and digest food if you intend to stay alive and healthy. Debating that is a waste of time. It's facts. But your intestinal action doesn't cover what you're all about as a person.

When it comes to describing where this whole thing around us is all headed, I have always found the two poles of capitalism and socialism (or communism, if you're thus inclined) lacking. Not unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we've seen in the past century and in this one that both sides were right, both were wrong, and nobody was busy elaborating a clear idea that would capture the best of both and the vices of neither, so we can all move on and go solve the next set of problems.

I'm not going to try to limit it to the specific things I may believe society should be doing. I recognize the miniscule angle any one person can ever represent relative to everything millions of people collectively do.
That has never worked. No-one can "decide" on human creativity. It's circumstantial, subject to zeitgeist and opinion and inevitably ends up outdated and wrong.
I will, however, attempt to ramble about some of the qualities that capture the breadth of current and future human endeavor better than either 'capital' or 'social' does. And in my wildest dreams, get others to share the idea.

This semi-philosophy, semi-foreign-affairs, semi-technology, semi-environmental and semi random shit blog is my humble yet optimistic attempt to say - we're all trying to solve the same problem.