kenny hodgart


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Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.


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Tokyo’s Olympic organisers are smarter than the PR hustlers think

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

You have probably noticed that there is something of a backlash underway against the free movement of money. In America and Europe, even people who were for it have looked at how the wind’s blowing and are suddenly against it. Borders and barriers and sounding like you’ve read a Noam Chomsky book are in vogue. Free trade is being spoken of in tones usually reserved by conspiracy theorists for the Jesuits or the Bilderberg Group.

Some aspects of globalisation are likely invulnerable, though. However far the nations of the world opt to go in protecting their own industries against foreign encroachment, or in turning the screws on capital flows, the universal triumph of branding seems a fait accompli.

Branding has gone viral – in the way that pathogens are viral. It is both a pollutant and a parasite. Every organisation under the sun has been hoodwinked into adopting a “vision”, and a “mission”, and “values”. It is all so much tumescent mumbo jumbo, but the hubris of the so-called creative industries has conquered the globe.

That is why when the PR and marketing monkeys mess up, it becomes news. On the face of it, this is what has happened with the Tokyo Olympic Games over the last year. First the British architect Zaha Hadid’s winning design for a new stadium for 2020 was thrown over due to exorbitant costs and another bid hastily selected. Then along came a plagiarism controversy over the logo. I am not so sure, though: I think perhaps the Japanese organisers are smarter than all the PR hustlers competing for their largesse give them credit for.

The original winning proposal for the Games emblem, by Kenjiro Sano, was withdrawn late last year. A theatre in the Belgian city of Liege had said it must have been copied from their own logotype and threatened to sue. Sano’s design, an assortment of shapes arranged to form a “T”, certainly looked like something you had seen before. Quite possibly a “T”. At any rate, it hardly rivalled Caravaggio in its originality.

A few days ago, a new design shortlist was revealed. The selection process had been opened to the public and the 15,000 entries received have been whittled down to four. Stressing their “outstanding” qualities, Ryohei Miyata, head of the Tokyo 2020 emblem committee, told journalists: “I’m proud to say that these are the best works at this point.”

I have long believed having a sense of humour to be among the most vital qualities in a public functionary. Mr Miyata is therefore to be congratulated. Unkind appraisals of previous Olympic logos have likened them to drawings done by slightly backwards children. At least two of the four presented for public consultation by Miyata et al fall into this category, which may or may not be explicable by the fact that over a thousand Japanese schoolchildren entered.

In any event, the important thing is that throwing the contest open has irked the creative wallahs. The American Institute of Graphic Arts says the design profession has been “disrespected”. I don’t know; maybe they’re miffed about the money. The emblem for the London Olympics, which looked like some pieces of broken glass, cost the British public £400,000 (HK$4.5 million). The winning design in Japan will be awarded ¥1 million (HK$70,000) and a ticket to the opening ceremonies of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Same result, fraction of the cost.

The joke gets even better, though, when you consider the stress put on the committee’s rigorous “international trademark verification procedures” to ensure that the designs were all original this time. According to a statement on the subject, applicants were referred to the Tokyo 2020 Games Vision and “key concepts” for inspiration.

Alas, there is nothing original whatsoever contained in these sources of inspiration. They tell us that the Games are “innovative”. There is some drivel about diversity (“Accepting one another”) and some equally nebulous stuff about legacy. And there is a derisory nod to actual sport: “Striving for your personal best”. One could be reading about Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department of the Hong Kong government, or hell, who knows, the Bilderberg Group.

It’s conceivable that I’m wrong about this but what I’d like to believe the Japanese are saying here is that all corporate emblems are rubbish, modern corporate branding is stupid and we hope you enjoy the Games, lol. As with the stadium, they’re just not up for being rinsed financially. Fair play to them.


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Are we training students for a world where robots work for free?

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

According to research, levels of happiness among Hong Kong schoolchildren have plummeted to new lows. Homework and extra lessons are eating into students’ time for sleep and exercise and are held to be their chief source of distress. The findings follow a spate of recent suicides that have made the mental well-being of young people an especially vexed issue. It is all very alarming – but don’t expect to see attitudes changing any time soon. The educational stakes are just too high.

In a competitive society, the imperative not to set one’s children at any disadvantage is an understandable one. A minimalist definition of aspiration might be the desire for your loved ones not to have to end up working until they drop.

What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

What, though, if everything we thought we knew about getting ahead, acquiring knowledge and expertise and securing an attractive career was being shaken up? What if technological change were happening so quickly that even the specialised skills we’ve convinced ourselves will power economic growth in the coming decades become irrelevant in the space of only a few years? These things are starting to happen, and with profound implications for jobs and education.

At some point in the present decade, we entered an age of drones, 3D printing, robots and artificial intelligence. Such marvels, it is a fair bet, will eliminate millions of low-skilled and unskilled jobs involving everyday tasks from cleaning and washing up to driving vans, sorting mail and serving food. In the United States alone, the predicted wave will make the offshoring of the country’s manufacturing in recent years look like small beer. Skilled jobs will be at risk, too, though.

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, said recently on BBC radio: “In the industrial age we automated a lot of physical work, the work of our muscles. In the new machine age, we’re doing the same things for mental work. This is having as big an impact on humanity as the industrial revolution did.” Machines could end up doing the jobs of surgeons, teachers, firefighters, entertainers – even, one imagines, bankers.

Beyond that, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have all warned about an existential threat arising when super-intelligent computers become capable of designing and building machines smarter than themselves – a moment that is being referred to as “the singularity” and which experts believe will arrive in about 40 years. If this forecast becomes reality, what use the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects then to mere mortals? Why bother learning about the nature of an exponential function, or how to write source code? (Note: these questions will be even more redundant if the machines opt to murder us all in our beds, Terminator-style.)

A more medium-term outlook is that many of us will be looking for new forms of employment. We might also be forced to reconsider what will benefit our children to learn. For Brynjolfsson, that means focusing on things that humans do well and machines don’t, or don’t yet: “creative” things like coaching football teams, or writing novels, or conceiving of new products and services.

The problem with the last of these, I hear you object (you’re objecting to the first two as well, on account of there being a finite number of football teams and already enough crap novels? Fair enough) is that if machines are doing everything workers used to, then there will be no workers / consumers left to buy the things smarty-pants entrepreneurial people are producing. This is to presume that without proper work we’d most of us be poor, though. In fact, in a world where machines make and do everything, the cost of buying stuff should also nosedive, meaning that we can survive on very little, helped along by governments paying some kind of “living wage”.

That’s the rosy, utopian version of a workless future enabled by A.I. in which we all become part of one big leisure class, at liberty to create or to volunteer, or simply to exist. No doubt people in every century in history have felt like they were at the end of something that went before, but the notion of the end of work feels a bit more significant than the end of, say, witch-burning, or rock ‘n’ roll, or communism, or even religion. Freed to be artists and idlers, perhaps we’d have more time to think about human values, and about how they might survive the singularity. Perhaps we’d gain self-worth entirely from sources other than our careers. Either way, you would hope we’d be less inclined to overload the young with tests and homework.