I’ve been reviewing clips of Penn and Teller’s Fool Us series recently, not because I’m particularly enthralled with magic and magicians, but because magicians embody — operate on — the idea of misdirection, and, as Penn has pointed out/implied; everyone seems to think that this is some sort of distractionary explosion of confetti, when, in reality, it’s a technical term that’s really “the story the audience tells themselves.” In more clinical terms, it’s the rationalization processes inherent in everyone integrating their innate assumptions, prior experiences, and current situation, but with some gaping loopholes that can be readily seized by the unscrupulous and/or canny. Find the red ace, sir?

All of which is my rather roundabout way of saying; sorry my friends; I dropped the commentary ball, while I was focused on the grueling-yet-entertaining Trump Decline, Boris Johnson (hereafter referred to as BoJo)(not my line, sadly, although I can’t recall who first used that nom de guerre)(speaking of which, if I ever default on my credit due to ongoing medical expenses and am forced to join the French Foreign Legion, that will be the name under which I enlist)(but I digress) was at work under my nose. While Greta Thunberg was chastising alleged leaders, Cadet Bonespurs was inciting violence toward Mark Felt (I mean, the whistelblower), N. Pelosi was announcing a witch hunt (the difference being, this is more like Wizard of Oz than Salem), and Boris was mumbling something in front of the general assembly. It has been a very long, strange week.

When I last checked on BoJo; he was trying to temporarily suspend parliament via a process known as prorogation — prologulation? Caligulation? Proregulation? It sounds like something Pontius Pilate would do wight befowe weleasing Wodewick. My British friends should get in touch to explain the process; anyway, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the executive branch of government arbitrarily terminating the legislative branch was a bit of a no-no, and BoJo canceled his US tour to come back home and deal with those uppity courts. That was my understanding of the UK situation (also something about Brexit)(again, my focus has been elsewhere). Clearly my information is outdated, because BoJo got back into the country to address the UN in a speech that made The Donald seem smooth and statesmanlike. Go and check it out; it’s weird.

My apologies for using The Sun as a source; it felt wrong, but it was the fastest way to find the king’s speech.

So, the man gets points for literally in the first 30 seconds saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, democracy, due process, access to clean air, water and decent healthcare good; we support that, folks.” Says the man who recently tried to dramatically reduce the democracy in his own country. Let us just pause and savor that brief attempt at normality, because then things get weird. BoJo launches into a bizarre diatribe against the surveillance state and the Internet of Things (which, to be fair; is the original technical term for the Internet and associated, web-connected devices, but I did have to actually go and look it up)(it’s possible BoJo’s speech was written by North Korean hackers on their weekly 10-minute sleep break). He mentions that, in the future, there may be nowhere to hide, building off of Google and Facebook’s troubling data collection services. I will admit that I’m not wild about them, either, but, at the same time, we are consumers. If you dislike Pepsi, Coke is available. If you’re worried about being left in the dust because Instagram and Twitter have no real competition, and Bing is only slightly better than Infoseek, well, maybe it’s time to admit that the Internet should be a publicly-owned and managed resource, like airwaves in the 1950s. But the role of capitalism and Big Brother is another discussion for legal and philosophical experts, not some masochistic writer gnawing through an incomprehensible speech. Also, even though I dislike the idea of a surveillance state, BoJo definitely seems like the “Only the guilty have anything to fear” sort — certainly, I believe his tenure as mayor of London Towne was characterized by an increase in cameras monitoring public spaces, speed traps — in other words, I really don’t think BoJo is actually bothered by a surveillance state or a nanny state; I think he’s bothered at the thought of a surveillance state in which he’s not looking in the peep-hole all the time, or a nanny state that he does not directly employ/control.

Then it gets weirder. Again, I had to watch the whole thing in 90-second chunks because that was about the maximum length I could go before having to check my pulse. BoJo threatens us with the possibility of a future in which mechanized processes sweep streets, empty trashbins, “and the urban environment is as antiseptic as a Zurich pharmacy.” As someone with a lot of prescriptions, I like sterile pharmacies. It’s a positive trait in a medical clinic. Also, very weirdly, did he accuse the Swiss of being too clean and well-organized? I could be wrong, but I believe those are among the national, traded-upon Swiss stereotypical traits (others include shady banking practices and a notoriously intricate and tricky immigration process). I realize I’m not a Brexiteer, whereas BoJo has become their mumbly, unified voice, but it seems extremely odd — almost Karl Rove-esque — to positively stereotype a group, then immediately imply those same positive traits you just ascribed to them are actually, somehow sinister. Those Swiss better start sneezing in the Azithromycin, pronto! Or we’ll have to invade the continent!

On a more pragmatic note; I really want to know in which neighborhood BoJo lives; what sort of place is so dreadfully clean and tidy that you look around and say, “This place is a little too neat and tidy; by God, we need more filth! And where did the urchins go? It’s all fine as far as modernity and public health are concerned, but I’d like a little more romanticized Dickensian Nightmare!” Does BoJo actually live in a Zurich pharmacy? Or perhaps some top-secret government lab where he’s occasionally thawed out and loosed upon the unsuspecting countryside, as some sort of bizarre population control measure? I realize I’m just an illiterate foreigner commenting on issues far beyond my jurisdiction, but the questions are endless and fascinating.

He then gets back to invoking the Ghost of Surveillance Devices Yet to Come, saying,

A future Alexa will pretend to take orders, but this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue, and stamping her foot!

I think BoJo’s model Alexa is dramatically different from the factory standard, starting with the basic issue that my Alexa has neither tongue nor feet. And if you want those on your Alexa, you probably have to go to a very specialized shop that probably should be under police surveillance.

Also, side-note; what is it with the British fascination/dread of losing the servants’ approval? It plays a major part of Wodehouse’s works; it is — from what I can tell — the core theme of Downton Abbey — you pay the butler’s wage. You don’t need his approval, too.

Your smart meter will go hustling, on its own accord for the cheapest electricity.

The closest I’ve gotten to this scenario was living in the Caribbean, where I purchased pre-paid electricity cards that gave me a certain amount of kilowatt hours on each card; I then had to manually enter the numbers into the meter. In all other places I’ve been to — even in other countries in the Caribbean — electricity is a public utility and universally priced. Your electricity bill might increase from last week due to leaving your weird, bipedal, betongued Alexa on all night and doing God knows what to the toaster, but, again; you can make that a more manageable number by turning the appliances off at night (except for the fridge and/or walk-in freezer in BoJo’s house)(I’m betting his model has meat-hooks, which, again, all I’m hearing at this point in the speech is, “Jack the Ripper would not approve of all this”).

BoJo makes an astonishingly good metaphor, comparing individual data to crude oil, calling the basis of the 21st century economy, and then asking who should own the rights to this? Well, Boris; again, based on your lurid history of privatizing public resources and/or profiteering, I’d say you’d be only too happy to let Microsoft and Zuckerberg have it for a one-time payment to the government. Public ownership of natural resource are for those shit-hole countries like Norway.

…The arrival of the Internet is bigger… than the Atomic Age

Which is why we immediately privatized nuclear development and made “Build a Bomb” franchised workshops publicly available. Again, BoJo’s rhetoric is hamstrung by his own prior positions and actions.

He brings up AI, asking whether it will be friendly robots washing and caring for an aging population, or “pink-eyed Terminators.” Again, I hate to bring semantics into it, but I am 99% sure that the Terminators’ eyes are red. Which wouldn’t hold any real bearing on the conversation, but if we can’t agree on basic colors, I doubt we’re going to see eye-to-pink-eye on thornier issues, like the regulation of AI development.

It’s also worth noting at this point that, in crowd shots of the UN, you can actually see the delegates quietly chuckling.

It’s also around this point that BoJo goes on a lengthy explanation of the story of Prometheus. Being a man, I don’t know if I can — by definition — be ‘mansplained to, but this definitely feels like it — going over unnecessary detail one excruciating bit at a time. I don’t know if it was BoJo’s intent to make his audience feel like there being disemboweled by an eagle as he simultaneously described the act, but, if so; job done, Boris.

And this went on forever, a bit like the experience of Brexit in the UK, if some parliamentarians had their way.

Okay, Mr. Johnson, let’s pause for just a second; because I think I speak for humanity at large when I say that it’s certainly felt like Brexit has dragged on forever, but, at the same time; reality-check — the UK has hundreds of treaties, trade deals, zoning ordinances, etc. all contingent on them being a sort-of member of the EU. You have renegotiate every single one of those, and you can not make it through a 20-minute speech with your dignity intact. Outwitting the Germans in international banking laws is out of the question. Of course, there is the possibility that the UK could admit they made a major mistake, show up in front of Angela Merkel’s house with a boombox playing Peter Gabriel and beg her to take you all back, but that would require and admission of mistakes made and some attempt to correct that bad behavior. Which would probably involve locking BoJo in the Tower of London, so I can see why he, personally, might have a stake in that one.

I totally reject this scientific pessimism [in regards to anti-vaxxers].

We’ll discuss the problem with personality politics in a moment, but it was at this moment I literally had to pause the video and listen to again… and another time, because I realized I shared a stated political position with BoJo; that children should be vaccinated.

Moving on!

The mission of the United Kingdom and all who share our values must be to ensure that emerging technologies are designed, from the outset, for freedom, openness, and pluralism.

Okay, I agree with the sentiment, but, from a pragmatic viewpoint, that’s just not realistic. A great many technologies are discovered accidentally — your own example, BoJo, of nuclear energy, was developed from a discovery that was made exclusively as a horrific weapon of advanced warfare — initially. the weapons own designers couldn’t see past the horrific devastation and hellish destruction they’d unleashed. Similarly, when Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin were figuring out the structure of DNA; it’s unlikely they’d foresee the possibility of using that initial discovery to make bioweapons. X-rays are also an accidental discovery; however, exposure to X-rays is linked to cancer. To quote you a man who, in retrospect, seems stable and brilliant, William Jefferson Clinton,

There have only ever been mixed blessings.

Anyway, back to BoJo, who says that we all — globally — need a set of standards for emerging technology that reflect our values. Again, I hate to be a haggler about semantics, but everyone has dramatically different values, and things get muddy fast. Even something as basic as, “Thou shalt not kill” (technically “murder” in the original Hebrew) gets pretty muddy pretty quickly — can I kill in self-defense? You’ll get different answers depending on which culture you ask that in. Something as complex as, “Should a computer program be allowed to kill human beings” (drones, folks?) is even harder. But I digress in analyzing the intent of BoJo’s speech, and there are still minutes to churn through.

I invite you, next year, to a summit in London — wonderful city, where, by the way, it is not raining 94% of the time, and where, at one stage, when I was mayor of London, or shortly before, we discovered that we had more Michelin-starred restaurants even than Paris! The French somehow rapidly recovered by a process that I wasn’t quite sure was entirely fair

Holy shit. It’s an Eddie Izzard joke inserted into a politician’s speech. Leaving aside the issue of which tense he’s speaking in (somehow, he’s referencing past, present, future, and conditional states)(we’ll call it the DeLorean tense)(also, why is it that the people least-fluent in English are more-likely to insist that everyone speak it?), way to nail the Little Englander mind-set Boris; “London’s not as miserably cold and wet as everyone seems to think it is! The fact that we conquered and occupied a quarter of the planet’s landmass is not indicative that we come from a tiny, resource-poor island nation! Oh, and fuck the French for being so fucking French!” (that last line is an E. Izzard joke, credit where it’s due).

High school speech-writing clubs, please view this speech, because it is a remarkable teaching tool in how not to conduct rhetoric. The man contradicts himself in every single paragraph — I didn’t discuss over 90% of the speech because I don’t have that kind of life expectancy. However, BoJo’s proposal is a perfect example of why personality politics doesn’t work. I’m having trouble tracking down a precise definition, but the definition I’ve grown accustomed to of personality politics is, “When a politician advances or pursues their agenda based on their personal appeal to voters and politicians, rather than the value of the policies, or through the traditional deal-making and appeals to public support that are usually the method of implementing policy.” The best example of this is Trumpism vs Karl Rove. Trumpism is, of course; the set of political beliefs associated with The Donald, rather than political positions adopted by the GOP, although the two are becoming dangerously close to merging. Quick; is Trump a liberal? Not at the moment; prior to 2011, he was. As a result, personality politics tends to be mercurial and hard to pin down, and, while it works great on television debates, it doesn’t leave any lasting mark. Karl Rove is, of course, the chief GOP political operative from 1999–2009. Even though he’s sort of famous, you’d be hard-pressed to definitively associate any policy positions with the man. He’s worked hard to keep it that way. The modern GOP is all about cutting taxes on the wealthy, rolling back environmental protections, union-busting, and cutting back on economic and legal equity. Even though you can find the start of those things with Reagan’s advisers, Rove was the one who, quietly, set them in stone. Because Rove played politics and not popularity, even though he’s quietly retired (probably to an underground lair with a debonair Englishman chained to a wall), the GOP is still advancing his position. Trump and his little brother, BoJo, are prime examples of why personality politics won’t work. BoJo’s central thesis — and, forgive me, it was buried under loads of extraneous stuff — seems to be, “New technologies are evolving and developing so quickly that no regulatory body or group can effectively legislate and police it, so, we should set up some universal goals and standards that can be used to proactively deal with new scientific and technological developments on a case-by-case basis.”

That’s not an unreasonable proposal, and, in theory, I actually agree with it. Problem: it’s coming from the man who selected himself to be the very public face of Brexit, which is an international disaster that is so disastrous, Britain’s been putting it off for over a year. The underlying problem of personality politics is this: even though it may make you some instant allies in some parts of the populace or in politics, it effectively blocks you from recruiting new supporters or disparate allies on points of intersection.

Anyway, back to BoJo; I’ve heard that he’s some sort of dastardly, secret genius, best-explained by John Oliver:

So, it’s almost certain that BoJo is smarter than he presents himself (I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I feel safe in saying that there is an absolutely zero percent chance anyone could be that dumb without some serious acquired brain injury involved). However, I’m extremely skeptical of the idea that he’s some secret political idiot savant who is extraordinarily gifted at politics… who just happens to be amazingly incompetent when it comes to actually enacting legislation he lobbies for, or even getting a seat at the table. It’s like the fan theory in the states in 2017 that D. Trump was some sort of secret genius who was able to miraculously one-time “tap” into some secret Internet troll-ery to win an election… and then magically fail at virtually everything else, apart from cutting taxes for the wealthiest 0.01%. Even with the Kochs threatening to turn off the funding to the GOP until the ACA was repealed, he couldn’t do that. He had to declare a state of emergency to scrounge up funding for the wall (Trump, not BoJo), which was repealed (the state of emergency) once senators in vulnerable states figured out they were giving their political challengers rhetorical ammunition (“The Mexicans are coming for your jobs” isn’t nearly as effective as, “These suspiciously-specific spending cuts will end your job, here’s an Excel sheet showing why”).

Occam’s Razor is usually reduced to, “The simplest answer is usually the best one,” when it really states, “When choosing between two competing hypotheses, the superior one is the one that makes the fewest assumptions.” Your BoJo/The Donald hypotheses:

I get that Option 1 might seem appealing, because it implies that we didn’t get fooled by fools, but it also has far, far more assumptions built into it than the second which implies that we got swindled by guys who are trained to do it, even if they’re not very good at it, but even a broken clock is right twice a day (forgive me for mixing metaphors; I’ve been watching The Donald and BoJo most of the day, and it’s exhausting); I’m banking on Option 2.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store