Friday, November 4, 2011

Mango Ripple GFC

Okay, listen carefully…
Once upon a time, if you wanted to borrow money from a bank, the bank had to HAVE the money to lend you. Then, as now, a mortgage was essentially the bank buying the house for you, letting you live in it, bang holes in the walls, clean up the vomit after too much fairy bread at kids’ parties and generally act like you own the place. Each month you’d give the bank a slice of your hard-earned, they’d put another little X on the “Months till your house is paid off” calendar on the bank manager’s wall and everyone would go home for ice cream.
Decades of crippling debt, hurray!

 And if you couldn’t pay them each month? They’d try to help you out, but if it became clear that you just couldn’t put away the fifty shillings a week to buy your Charming Doer-Upper In A Quiet Street Near Schools And Bus Stops, then they would take it off you. They wouldn’t want to; foreclosures are hard, expensive, ugly things. More than anything, they just wanted their steady fifty shillings a week, not a slightly run-down suburban house that smells of child vomit. But they could sell it, get back most of the money you owed them and carry on. Afterwards, they would try to figure out how on Earth they made the idiotic mistake of lending you money in the first place.
Loan defaults are banker’s kryptonite; it means lawyers, real people and endless harrowing stories about needing the money for little Timmy’s crutches. So the bank manager would go to the loan officer and say “Hey! We should never have loaned them the money for that Charming Doer-Upper In A Quiet Street Near Schools And Bus Stops! They have a Poor Credit Rating and a History Of Loan Default! No ice cream for you!” The loan officer would sulk while everyone else enjoyed their mango ripple, and resolve to be a bit more careful with credit checks in future.
It's a metaphor. Or something

This is sensible, cautious business. If you only lend to people with jobs, you’ll get less mortgages, but there’s less chance of your bank being used as a horror story to frighten first-year economics students. Everyone is careful and thorough, because the product you are selling is the bank’s money. Or at least it’s money that the bank manager is expected to take very, very good care of. It’s a good system, and it’s worked for a long time.
Let’s see if we can break that system...
First. No shareholder likes to see red ink. Mortgages are red ink. That’s money the bank gave to someone else, on the promise that they’d pay it back slowly. Those people might get sick, die, lose their jobs, invite the Mythbusters round for coffee and explosions, all sorts of risky stuff. So let’s get rid of that risk by SELLING the mortgage.
You don’t sell it AS a mortgage of course. You don’t sidle up to some small business pension fund manager and whisper “Psst! Wanna buy a mortgage?” Nothing so crude. Instead, you set up an investment THINGY that’s sort of got the mortgage in it. It’s roughly like this: in return for money, say, a hundred thousand dollars, they get the Thingy. Much like buying shares, they are buying a little piece of your bank, and you are promising to pay them a dividend each month. If it’s got a nice safe mortgage in it that you know will keep getting paid off, you offer them a little bit of interest. If it’s a dodgy one, you offer them more money each month.
Why offer them more if it’s dodgy?
Because if the mortgage stops getting paid, the Thingy disappears. They might lose their hundred thousand dollars.
In other words, the more risk they are willing to take, the more return they get.
So, now the bank is still taking mortgage repayments from home buyers. But rather than putting that into the bucket it came from, they are now giving it to the people who bought the Thingy. The bank might keep a little bit, but the really good thing for the bank is no more red ink. If you suddenly can’t pay the mortgage because your meth lab exploded or your idea for a Pimp My Bicycle shop fell through, they just cross you off and forget it ever happened. However, the poor little pension fund who bought the Thingy is now out a hundred thousand dollars. To quote a banky guy: “Banks made plenty of money putting [Thingies] out on the marketplace. But they could explode a day later and [the banks] are not impacted one single iota."
Sound dodgy? It’s not. Buying and selling debt  is at the core of the world’s money market. Doing this does not break the system. And if it’s done right, it’s perfectly legitimate. If it’s done right…
Care to guess how we break the system? It's easier than you'd think.
Doing it right means two things:
1)      Do some checks on the borrower. Make sure they can pay the mortgage
2)      When you sell the investment Thingy to someone else, make sure they know EXACTLY what they’re buying, and how likely it is to Chernobyl on them.

"He looks legit. Sign him up."

Doing it wrong means two rather different things.
Credit checks are expensive. Loan documentation processes are slow. And, even worse for a hungry mortgage broker with a wife and two Porsches to feed, If the customer has a poor credit rating you might not be able to seal the deal. Soooo, let’s just skip the credit check, shall we? Why don’t you just TELL me how much you earn? Oh no, no need to show me a pay slip, you’ve got an honest face. And since house prices only EVER  go up, you can always sell the house and get your money back if you lose your job at the Betamax video store! Oh, you’re a bit skint right now what with the kids and the price of Nascar tickets? How about a nice low starting interest rate? After a year we’ll have to increase it to WOW LOOK AT THAT SHINY THING! Sorry, what was I saying? Never mind, sign here.
Congratulations and welcome to your subprime mortgage.

"'s nice, but a bit pricey. Have you got anything sub-subprime?"

So that’s number one taken care of. Mortgage broker guy wants his commission, so he skips over nitpicky details like whether they can ever pay the thing back. Since it’s a risky mortgage, the bank charges higher interest to compensate for the fact you’re probably going to do that annoying going-broke thing to them. And yes, you read it right, the people who are LEAST likely to be able to pay are the ones who get the HIGHEST interest rate. And the bank is totally cool with all of this because they’re going to turn the mortgage into a Thingy and sell it to a pension fund or something. Hurray, ice cream!
But what kind of idiot would buy a Thingy that had a horrible stinky mortgage like that inside it?
Simple. An idiot who didn’t know.
These Thingies are so complicated that not even the bank understands them. This might seem crazy, but finance is so scary and so confusing that even if you created the Thingy, you can’t be sure what it’s worth. One Thingy might have bits of a thousand mortgages all stirred up inside it, and knowing what that’s worth, and the chance of it vapourising, is simply too hard.
And obviously the pension funds can’t check this stuff. They assume the bank’s done its homework. So they buy the Thingies, loving the ten percent interest rate and the confidence of a big bank’s name behind it. The bank gets credit rating agencies to cast an eye and say “HELL yes! That is a triple-A Thingy!” So the pension fund managers cough up, pat themselves on the back and go home for ice cream.
And when they watch the evening news over their bowl of strawberry surprise, they start seeing stories about something called a Global Financial Crisis.

The Global Financial Facepalm.

This isn’t a metaphor. This isn’t made up. This is how the whole thing happened. There are names for every bit of it:
-A mortgage without paperwork to show you can afford it is called a No-Documentation loan, or an “I don’t care, I just want my commission. Sign here peasant” loan.
-A mortgage without having to prove how much you earn is called a Stated Income loan, or Liars Loan.
-A mortgage to someone with No Income, No Job or Assets is called a NINJA loan. Not making this up. To add to the Awesome, when NINJA borrowers couldn’t afford to pay they would sometimes just disappear into the night.
-Signing people up for mortgages that the bank is going to sell as Thingies is called the Originate-To-Distribute Model, or the “We don’t care, it’s not our money” model.
-The whole Damn-The-Risk-I-Want-My-Commission routine is called Predatory Lending, or There’s One Born Every Minute lending.
-A Thingy is called a Mortgage-Backed security. Lots of them sold at once is called a Collateralised Debt Obligation, or a “Look at the interest rate. Now look at me. Now back to the interest rate” investment.
-The collapse of the world’s banking system, the loss of trillions of dollars of innocent people’s pensions, the loss of homes, jobs and futures, and the expenditure of trillions of taxpayers’ dollars to bail out the idiots who caused this mess in the first place is called a GFC.

"I am here. To apply. For a HOME LOAN ahh.

We all know how that one turned out. We dodged the worst of it here in Australia, but even if you didn’t lose any investments, you still took a hit. Your superannuation almost certainly went backwards. Interest on your savings nosedived. Your bank suddenly got all weird about lending you money. Wages slowed, jobs got harder to find, the economy got smaller and just about nobody got to go home for ice cream for a year. Whole industries went bankrupt because of this disaster, millions lost jobs, and most of them haven’t got them back even now, four years after it hit.
But this thing wasn’t a complete disaster. The mortgage brokers got to keep their commissions. The managers of the banks still got their bonuses. The credit agencies who said the Thingies were good buys are still doing a brisk trade. And the people who defaulted on their loans are good and bankrupt, living in nice free cardboard boxes and no longer cluttering up the system with their stinky mortgages.

Sure it's damp. But at least it's drafty

So how did we let this happen?
Quite simply, we cut the brakes. We let banks loan more than they could afford to lose, we let mortgage brokers give unemployed broke people loans, we let banks sell investments that were probably going to implode and we let credit agencies charge people for terrible advice. The government regulators who allowed all this simply couldn’t imagine that the banks would let things get so horribly broken that it could destroy them.
Amazingly, they ignored one thing: human nature.
If bank managers can get fifty million in bonuses for something that has a teeny chance of destroying the bank, most won’t do it. Some will. If mortgage brokers can make twenty percent commission, even if they sign up people who can barely feed themselves, most won’t do it. Some will. And if investment bankers can make fifty million dollar bonuses to sell those broken mortgages to pensioners, most won’t do it. Some will.
Enough did.
Turning off the controls, telling people they were allowed to take huge risks then letting them do it with other people’s money meant greed could go wild. These people knew what they were doing, and they did it as hard and as fast as possible, socking away the cash as the train gathered speed. By the time the wheels came off, they were at the station, smiling and waving at the taxpayers still stuck on board. And the bankers who hadn’t bailed out in time were given a nice soft landing in a huge pile of nice soft taxpayers’ livelihoods.
Ah, Other People's Money. Like sleeping on a cloud.

 And best of all, since their bonus clauses said nothing about whether the bank was imploding or not, a slice of the public bailout money went straight into the pockets of the people who caused it. Retrenched staff were walking out the doors with their cardboard boxes at the same time the seven-figure bonus cheques were being handed out fifty floors above. Banky Guy again: “Wall Street traders were thinking of the bonus at the end of the year, not the long-term health of their firm.”
This cancer was spawned in the United States. Nobody there has gone to jail. Others did: German banker Stefan Orteifen, who lied about how many dodgy Thingies his bank had bought, got a ten month suspended sentence and a hundred thousand euro fine. Other bankers in Europe suffered the same fate. Their counterparts in the US are still free, still working and still getting bonuses. Because the regulators cut the legal brakes on the system, the people who sold the CDO time bombs broke no actual laws, and are currently floating about in yachts off Long Island, wondering how to make money out of Greek misery.
"Darling? Let's go further out. I can still see poor people."

This didn’t cause the mess we have in Greece now. But it sure didn’t help. Banks are behind the Eurozone mess too; they loaned money to people who couldn’t pay it back, then screamed and wailed until they got bailouts. The problem is now so big that even if Greece comes good, it will be centuries, if ever, before they could make back what it cost to fix them. People are now talking seriously about letting the country go broke, rather than getting dragged into the meatgrinder with them.
But that’s a tale for another blog. Maybe I can write that one from Greece. Assuming it hasn’t been sold to Warren Buffet by then.

Still not clear on what happened? Here’s what I just said, with less ice cream but more stick figures.
Or try this one for some banky guys' take on it.
Watch Inside Job to hear the whole story in Matt Damon’s voice.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Livin' la vita Libya

So how do you make a country?
First, you’ll need a chunk of land. Pervasive though the iCloud is about to become, you can’t live there, at least not until the iPhone 5 comes out. There aren’t any real restrictions on size: the Soviet Union was about 22 million square kilometres and got along fine until some bloke got his Glasnost on, forcing several bits of the country to drop off and rename themselves UnpronouncableStan. Things get fiddly at the other end of the scale: Vatican City is only half a square kilometre, but it’s less a country and more somewhere for the Pope to stash his bling. Monaco comes in at 2 square kilometres, most of which is racetrack, casino or money. Nauru is next at about 20 square kilometres originally, a whole lot less now as most of the land mass was fossilised bird poop, which they exported as fertiliser and plot material for the Twilight movies (zing!) Another jump gets you to Tuvalu (26 square km). They decided not to export their island, and now make a bundle of cash selling their domain name (.tv) for American sitcom websites, so they have the same export industry as Nauru (bam!)  All these countries are small enough to hide behind Rosie O’Donnell, but all are still fully-fledged nations in their own right. So you don’t need much land to get on the scoreboard.
The reputation of the Vatican's elite Swiss Clown force is legendary

And if you can’t find a slice of land even that small, there are still options. One chap decided to set up the country of SEALAND on an old World War 2 coastal fort off the UK, making it the nation with the highest anti-aircraft gun-to-people ratio in the world. It’s been invaded by a German nutjob, burned down in an electrical fire, its passports were mass-forged (at one stage the  hundred-metre long country had 150,000 ‘residents’), it’s been offered for sale  and is now recruiting its own football team, so not having a scrap of actual land hasn’t stopped them living a history every bit as colourful as any dirtbound nation. Somewhere to plant a flag, build a presidential hut and gesture defiantly at your neighbours is all you need.
"Welcome to Sealand. Mind your step."

Second, you’ll need a bunch of people to a) govern it, and b) be governed. The second of these should generally be the larger group, or it can look a bit naff come election time when there are more folks on the ballot than in the booths. You usually don’t have to look far for citizens; if you’ve completed step 1 you’ll probably find they come with the package. If you’ve brought your own people it’s probably a good idea to try to get along with any folks who were there first, or two hundred years later the nice big bridge you built to impress the queen is going to get blocked until you say sorry for the whole, you know, taking away their land thing.

Sorry we pinched your country. We built you a bridge though...?

You also want to be careful about how you bring in new citizens for your budding nation; the general rule is that if you have to club them and tie them up to get them to come, you probably need to revise your immigration policy. Endless experience has shown that slavery might get the canals dug faster, but it leads to all sorts of horrors like segregation, apartheid and Snoop Dogg. Capturing, buying, owning or pretty much doing anything to slaves except setting them free is not cool, and no matter how good it looks on paper, even thinking about it makes you kind of a jerk.
Abe Lincoln. Not a jerk.
So you’ve got your chunk of land. Maybe a nice one, with a view of the Mediterranean. If you’re lucky you’ll have a little oil or some such under your feet, although if you’re not careful this can lead to pollution and Americans. The people thing is sorted without you having to get all “Come to the Colonies!” on tv about it because there’s a whole bunch of people who have lived on that land for ages. They really like it there, they’ve got a favourite little café not far from the bungalow their great-grandfather built after the war no not that war the one before that, and they’re pretty keen on sticking around thanks to the oil and the Mediterranean and the No Americans So Far. They’re keen to be a country too, so everyone’s looking at you and waiting to see what you’re going to do next.
"Come to the Colonies! Blue skies! Room to move! Um, rocks!"
So what do you do?

This is roughly where Libya is at right now. They’re not starting from scratch, they didn’t come from afar, but they’ve gone from stable nationhood to Who’s The Boss in the space of a few bullet-riddled months. The evil overlord is gone, the NATO bombers have parked up for a spell while the pilots pose for sunglasses commercials, and now the ENTIRE WORLD is watching to see what they do next. Where do you start?
Luckily, a lot of the basic stuff is already in place. There are folks to deliver the mail, pick up the garbage, connect your broadband and hand out perfume samples at department stores. So long as the last guy didn’t kill all of them trying to stop you taking his country off him, your citizens can sleep safe at night, knowing there’ll be someone to wave a poker hand of stinky cardboard strips at them next time they drop in to pick up a three pack of undies from menswear. Most folks don’t like change, and after one as terrifying as their entire government being blown up by French warplanes, they’re going to appreciate the sense of familiarity they get from commuter traffic, overpriced café lunches and that jerk who keeps leaving the office coffee machine set on triple espresso Yes I’m Looking At You John. Gaddhafi spent a lot of oil money ensuring Libyans had a reasonable standard of living, maybe even going dollar for dollar on the amount he siphoned off for gold-plated pistols and dictator haute-couture. It wasn’t the socialist paradise he promised, but the garbage was getting collected, the trains ran on time and people had enough money to afford some simple luxuries. It was a smart play on his part: I suspect he knew that once folks have air conditioning and Internet, the thing most of them want is to keep their air conditioning and Internet. So what a lot of Libyans want is for things to get back to some kind of normal as fast as possible without anyone getting too sweaty or not being able to YouTube up some Kanye any time they want.
Kanye. Surprisingly big in Benghazi.
But this is how folks are at the bottom of the political pyramid. Start from anywhere in Libyan society and follow the chain of command (or the chain of money) upwards, eventually you bump into someone who got there because they were good at telling Gaddhafi how pretty he looked in green, or how much the people loved him, yes even those guys over there with the machine guns and the “Kill the tyrant!” banners. This tends to be the way with dictatorships; one bloke and his hired goons kick out the previous bloke/goons combo, grab the treasury and start making a lot of people’s lives more comfortable, so long as they keep the new regime sweet with palaces and appointments with Condoleeza Rice.

"Hey Condi baby, let's lose the dork with the orange tie so I can show you my, huhuh, Scud stockpile."

 It doesn’t matter if your nation’s main export is oil or broccoli; so long as you control most of it you can get enough folks on your side to oppress the 99% who aren’t getting any of that sweet broccoli revenue. Broccoli makes for smaller palaces than oil, but it conveys the advantage that the US aren’t as likely to drop by for tea and cluster bombs. You get your new paid-up buddies to run the army, the police, the media and everything else they can use to control the way things roll in the country. Everyone above a certain level is kept on side by broccoli money, everyone below that is too scared to make waves.
"Oh sure, oil will make you rich. But broccoli is full of niacin! AND vitamin C!"
And when that changes? Revolution! The reasons it happens are best left to another blog, maybe one with less jokes about cruciferous vegetables, but whatever tips it off, it usually means the bloke and his goons won’t be smiling and waving to a hand-picked crowd at next year’s  mock elections. And all the folks they’ve been keeping onside with government money? The odds are that the revolutionaries know who they are, and while the bandanna-camouflage-and-AK47 set don’t have nice condos in Sirte, they do have 23mm anti-aircraft guns cable-tied to the back of their mate’s Hilux, and having the latter usually means you get to decide who holds the keys to the former. It might take days, it might take years, it might not even work at all, but in this case it did, and Libyans who chose Team Moammar back in the ‘60s are currently wondering if maybe they should have bought themselves a nice retirement doer-upper in Tuscany back in ’97 like the wife said they should.
"Tariq? Yeah, hi. Look, about your ute..."
So with the Big Bad gone, his heirs out of the picture and a passel of suspiciously well-dressed Sirte refugees with suspiciously bulging briefcases all applying for Sealand passports, how do the bosses-in-waiting,  the so-called National Transition Council or NTC, begin?
Very, VERY carefully.
The Libyan revolution was very much of the people. There wasn’t a foreign army backing the rebels. There wasn’t a charismatic figurehead leading the charge. There wasn’t even a Soviet-backed insurgency to blame like back in the good old days of impending nuclear annihilation. As far as it was possible to tell from the outside, the whole thing kicked off when a bunch of pissed-off locals got their hands on enough AK-47s to start thinning out the local Gaddhafi henchmen. The sound of gunfire echoed across Twitter and Facebook and before anyone had time to duck, the man himself was being unceremoniously hauled out of a culvert. And even though he’s gone, even though his sons are gone and the whole apparatus of tyranny has collapsed in a bloodstained heap, the rebels are still heavily armed…
"Hey fellas! He's in here! Get Condi, we'll lure him out!"
And this is the issue for the NTC. If they put a foot wrong, if they don’t live up to the expectations of the rebels (actually, since they’ve won I think I have to call them freedom fighters), then the next blurry phone camera footage that gets posted to YouTube might feature the head of the NTC in a central and fairly bloodstained role. So they will need to tread carefully through the minefield of statehood if they don’t want to be remembered as second up against the wall when the revolution came. Revolutions often beget revolutions (Russia went through a couple before the communists came up with the devastating one-two combination of killing your opposition then killing anyone who might become your opposition), and the NTC are no more bullet-proof than Gaddhafi wasn’t.
They’re not flying blind here though. History has provided some lessons on a few things they shouldn’t do:
Don’t sack the army
The US administrative genius, L. Paul Bremer, appointed to run things in Iraq decided this was a good idea. The Coalition rolled in, killed a fair slice of the Iraqi army, took their country off them, then told the survivors they were out of a job. He somehow decided the best way to build a new Iraq was to give a whole bunch of free time to a hundred thousand trained killers with a grudge against the invaders. If you actually WANTED to start an insurgency, this guy wrote the manual. It’s going to be tempting for the NTC to get a little tit-for-tat on the one-time forces of repression, but making sure they’re all in the one place and all wearing the same coloured clothes is a great way to keep tabs on the biggest pool of potential counter-revolutionaries.
The elite Iraqi Clown force. Not as pretty as the Pope's lads, but still awesome.

Don’t rush it
You can hold an election easily enough. Print some papers, set up some cardboard booths in a few primary schools, put up notices saying what day it’s on and away you go. When people start bleating about democracy, you remind them nicely that you just held an election, and if they’d bothered to read the community noticeboard behind the dumpsters at the derelict shopping centre inhabited by starving wolves, they would have known about it. Depressingly, this doesn’t wash with a lot of bleeding-heart latte-and-biscotti socialists who insist on gasbagging about transparency and not taking the opposition leaders’ families hostage and other such impediments to efficient rule. They expect you to let your rivals recover from their shrapnel wounds, pick out some candidates and start sharing their idiotic ideas with the people before you can go about winning the election.
"Just put an X in any box. We'll fill in the names later..."
While the NTC might be thinking this, they’d better not act on it. People need not only to vote, they need to believe their vote can actually make a difference. The ballot paper needs more options than 1) NTC 2) Gaddhafi’s corpse or 3) Please send an armed re-education squad to my home address.  An election that will keep the anti-aircraft guns on Hiluxes out of the democratic process needs to be one hundred percent legitimate or…yeah, drain pipes and phone cameras a few years down the track. Luckily the international community has all sorts of Idiot’s Guides to this stuff, and a clique of political has-beens all too keen to snatch one last moment in the limelight to give your new democracy some cred.
Don’t be dicks
This seems to be the hard part. When the Shi’ites finally got Saddam Hussein on trial, they were dicks about it, up to and beyond the moment he stepped onto the gallows. Revenge may be a dish best served cold (what the hell does that even mean??), but given the choice of the respect of nations or a big plate of cold revenge, I’ll take door number one thanks. Stalin was a dick; he killed more of his people than most other nations have people in total, including most of the blokes who gave him a leg up in the early days. He and his successors held most of the world to ransom for decades after that, but when the end came for the world’s mightiest military machine, it was just embarrassing to watch. Or Zimbabwe: from Africa’s bread basket to Africa’s basket case in a few short and bloody decades. That particular boil is yet to be lanced, but the clock is ticking, and every second is one more Zimbabwean crossing the border into a less dick-governed country.
Zimbabwe. Mugabe made everyone a billionaire in a country with no shops.
If you want to see how NOT to be a dick, look at South Africa. Generations of apartheid, but when Nelson Mandela got the guernsey, did he start kicking white farmers off their land? Did he send out revenge squads to have a quiet chat with his former prison guards? South Africa still has issues, but thanks to Mandela’s deep reserves of personal Awesome, they’re on the path to building a country they call all be proud of.
"Hmm. I wonder if they've noticed I'm wearing pyjamas."

And while the NTC are busy not sacking the army, not rushing it and not being dicks, they need to piece humpty together and get him back on the wall. Between the celebratory firing of automatic weapons (where do those bullets come down??) and the next election, they need to get the factories working, the oil flowing, the roads open, the kids back to school and all the blokes who turned out to shoot the anti-aircraft guns back into their old less murder-oriented jobs. Sure, the institutions are still there; if they need the water pipes fixed, they can ask the Water Commission to get onto it, if they want the roads cleared of burning tanks, they can tell the Department of Roads to fire up the bulldozers. But what if the heads of the departments say no? What if they say they don’t want to do what an unelected ‘government’ says? Sure, you could send the cops in to arrest him, but then what if the Police Chief says no? Soldiers? Tanks? Internet bans? How far can you go before you run out of bigger sticks?
"Send two bulldozers. Maybe three. This thing's BIG!"
You can see how this can all go horribly wrong. The whole mechanism of a nation is still there, but with the Big Bad gone, there’s a great big empty right in the middle. This is late-game Jenga: the bottom half-is swiss-cheesed all to hell, there’s this big heavy bit at the top that wobbles every time you breathe out, it’s your turn and that clown next door in Tunisia keeps ‘accidentally’ bumping your elbow when you’re about to make a move. And, just like Jenga, a collapse means everyone reaching for the Ak47s and NATO bombers.
"Uh...can we just play Pictionary now?"

Most of the pieces are still there. But the whole machine will only work if the good people of Libya are willing to trust the NTC and do as they’re told. Right next door, the Egyptians agreed to let the army run things after Mubarak foolishly stepped out of his office for a ciggie, but with troops back on the street a few months later, the Egyptian people are wondering if all they’ve done is swap a despot in a suit for one in a uniform.
If the NTC do the same, the much better-armed Libyan reb...uh, freedom fighters might just clean house again.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Climate Change non-debate

Hot or not?
I don’t really know about this whole carbon-dioxide-causing-global-warming thing. Sure, I like a little of it in my drinks but seriously, is it worth risking a climate apocalypse just so I can get the tingling sensation of bubbles up my nose when I sip on a refreshing beverage? The answer is of course yes, and anyone who says otherwise is a climate alarmist, hypnotised by Greenie propaganda. Go back to smoking pot in happy fairy land and let us get on with running things in the real world. Hippie.
Take that you stupid climate

None of which I actually believe. The weight of evidence supporting the contribution of man-made carbon dioxide to climate change is significant. We are experiencing longer periods of hotter weather, greater unpredictability, worse climatic extremes and retreating ice masses at both poles, and correlations with rises in atmospheric CO2 are obvious. Ignoring the evidence is simply allowing ourselves to be blinded to the greatest threat to face our world since nuclear weapons. Stop sacrificing our children’s future for the sake of a few dollars off your power bill and the right to drive a gas-guzzling monster truck to get your groceries from the soulless mega-mart built by inhuman corporations hell-bent on our demise. Fascist.
Uh, guys?

Aaand breathe.
Somewhere in between these two warring camps you’ll find a) the truth, and b) a rapidly dwindling proportion of humanity. Global warming is polarising people faster than New Facebook, and failing to pick a side looks more like weakness than open-mindedness to those already bolted down at one end or the other of the debate. The only thing they seem to have in common is their conviction that the opposing idea will bring about the end of civilisation as we know it. The difference is in the means  of our destruction; whether it’s baking in the exhaust gases of our own excess, or watching our economy crumble around us as the Greens tour the country, adding a zero to our electricity bills and turning power stations into refuges for sad unicorns.
Save us, Australian Green Party!

So, like, is it really happening?

Global what??

It’s hard to say if Earth is getting warmer. This might seem an odd thing to say, but we’re not talking about a chicken dinner here. You can’t stick a finger in it and see if it burns a bit. The temperature on the surface of the Earth varies between 57.8 degrees (1922, Al’Aziziyah in Libya. A Wednesday I think) and minus 89.2 degrees (Antarctica, 1985), slightly cooler if Snoop Dogg is in the house, uh, yo. Even where these extremes occur, it can vary by up to fifty degrees in any 24 hour period. Over the course of a week, weather can add tens of degrees to this variability. And over a year, seasons can tack on another forty degrees plus or minus.  So on the scale of a day, a week or a year, Earth’s temperature flaps about like granny’s bloomers on baked beans Tuesday. And those in the know will add the eleven year solar cycle to this, usually in whatever way adds to their case.

Yeah, but are we making Earth warmer?

The day after the September 11 attacks, we discovered that we are affecting Earth’s weather (not climate necessarily; there’s a difference). In the 24 hours after the attacks, when air traffic control had bitch-slapped every plane onto the nearest straight bit of tarmac, opportunistic scientists noted something unexpected. Weather readings taken during this window did not show a temperature variation, but they did show a light variation. The absence of contrails (those cool lines that appear behind high-flying jets) reduced the amount of sunlight being reflected back into space, increasing the amount reaching Earth. Whether or not you believe global warming is true, they clearly demonstrated that aircraft cause global dimming. Meteorologists saw the same thing in World War 2: with huge flights of bombers heading over to pummel Germany every day, the same dimming effect was observed several times. Western democracy was busily reducing the Nazi war machine to custard at the time, so the question of the daffodils blooming a bit earlier in thirty years wasn’t likely to distract Winston from getting the Germans back for calling him fat. What it does suggest however is that even though humans are teeny little flyspecks on the surface of the world, we can change the way Nature rolls.
No wait, colder...

Yeah, but ARE we making Earth WARMER?

A lot of people seem to think so. They’re generally fairly smart folks, with degrees in things most of us didn’t even know you could get degrees in.  They’ve done clever things like digging up ancient ice and counting the pollen/ash grains/oxygen isotopes/Rocky sequels in it to see what the climate’s done over generations. They’ve looked at charts of climate data from all over the planet, and found steadily increasing trends that suggest yes, things are slowly getting warmer. Not fast enough that you’d notice (we’re talking a degree a decade sort of thing here, not “so fast your dog will catch fire” sort of speed), but certainly warmer.
Hang on, definitely hotter...

Or so they tell us. A more interesting question might be this: if things aren’t getting warmer, if everything they’ve said is completely wrong/untrue, why the heck are they saying it? It’s possible, as a lot of their opponents say, that they’re making the whole thing up. It could just be a cry for attention by the marginalised and desperate climate scientist lobby (seriously: climate scientists comprise 40% of the homeless population in some countries; it’s so sad seeing them out there on the street, offering to chart your precipitation index for spare change). But if it’s not true, why aren’t climate scientists getting thrown out of universities like creepy truckers at boy scout camps? Why would sensible, intelligent adults get up in the morning, have a scratch and a yawn and think “What a lovely day for some fake science!” It might be fake, it might be bad science, but if it is, it’s bad science on a scale not seen since Y2K had us stocking up on bottled water and packet noodles a while back.


To quote Shakespeare: “Do I LOOK like a climate scientist?”  How the hell should I know if the Earth’s getting warmer?
Ah, crap.

The issue at hand here is that we can’t know. Not conclusively. Most of us are unable to do the research ourselves; even if we could, it’s not likely we could do it on a scale that would yield meaningful answers. If it’s one degree on average warmer in Australia, but two degrees cooler on average in Botswana, is the Earth warmer? If it rains twice as hard for half as long as last year, is the climate changing? There’s simply no such thing as ‘average climate’; we can’t add up all the temperatures, divide by the price of carbon and compare the number to Vogue magazine’s “Hot or Not” index.  To briefly hark back to the earlier example, poking your finger in the chicken dinner will tell you whether it’s hot at the spot where your finger is. Common sense tells you it’ll be just as hot everywhere else, but as everyone who’s bitten into the icy core of an underdone microwave lasagne knows, we can’t even predict the climate of our convenience food without some trial and error. Earth is a six billion billion ton frozen lasagne 12,600 kilometres wide (which would make the cheese layer 250 miles thick if you’re wondering); measuring the temperature of something that size takes more than a cautious prod with an index finger.
The similarity is remarkable

This is an oversimplification of course; we can analyse the steady flow of weather data generated every day and see if there are patterns.There are only a few thousand people qualified to do this though, and some of them might have a vested interest in lying to us, thus:
Coal Industry: “Hello, climate science? I’d like a report saying climate change is bollocks please.”
Climate science: <gasp> “But that might not be true! We could never…”
Coal industry: “Here is money.”
Climate science: “Do you have a preferred font?”
This is not to suggest that there are scientists falsifying evidence. But with something as big and complicated and inaccurate as weather, it’s easy to make the numbers tell any old story. It was twenty degrees here yesterday; today it’s twenty two degrees. Oh no, at that rate it’ll be three hundred degrees by Christmas! Nobody’s going to fall for that of course (if you did, please step away from the computer before you hurt yourself), but it’s much less certain once we’re talking about years and fractions of degrees. Sorting the genuine science from the written-for-a-purpose articles makes it that much harder.

The 1% argument

Even if we accept that global warming is true, is this carbon tax thingy the solution? The idea is pretty simple: charge people money if their power station/factory/pig farm or whatever makes carbon dioxide. This makes their electricity/plastic sandals/pork chops more expensive to make, and thus to buy. The guy across the road with the giant wind farm couldn’t compete with Coal Power Station Guy before the tax, but now, with Coal Guy paying $23 per ton for all the carbon he’s belching out, Wind Farm Guy is making electricity for less money. His business thrives, Coal Guy has to close down. End result: more expensive electricity, but way less carbon dioxide in the air. Sweet! Well, not the more expensive electricity thing, but certainly the less CO2 thing.
Take that you stupid coal

The trouble is, it also makes our other stuff pricier. If we make carbon-neutral plastic sandals and pork chops, they’re going to cost more than the stinky carbony Chinese ones. The rest of the world will buy from China, and our pork chop/plastic sandal industry collapses in a heap. Going it alone will cost us exports, at least in the short term.
And more to the point, given that there are only 20 million of us cranking out CO2 in Australia, how much difference can we really make when one and a bit billion Chinese are still happily belting it out at fifty thousand pork chops/plastic sandals a minute? Australia’s contribution to human CO2 production is only one percent of the total. If nobody else is doing it, imposing a carbon tax is simply making things harder for ourselves for no benefit to the planet. We won’t stop Global Warming, even if we reduce our emissions to zero. And our tasty, tasty climate-friendly pork chops will just rot on the shelves so long as Chinese ones are six cents a kilo cheaper (Russian pork chops are even cheaper, but Chernobyl laser piggies are that little bit harder to get onto the truck).
It’s a rational argument. But that doesn’t make it right. Saying it’s okay because they’re doing it worse is like claiming that eating a few endangered animals is fine because hey, those guys over there are eating them all the time. It doesn’t matter if you only order dugong fritters once, you’re still a jerk for doing it.
Dugong. Tasty, tasty dugong.

And that’s where the moral dimension comes in. Yes, a carbon tax will cost us. No, we won’t save the world on our own. But you can be fairly certain that as long as we’re not reducing our emissions, the big polluters won’t. It’s a bugger of a responsibility, but First World countries kinda have to step up when there’s bad stuff going on. Famine in Africa? US food drops. Tsunami in Indonesia? Australian medical teams. Violent repression in Libya? NATO military assistance. For a variety of reasons, you simply don’t see small African nations taking the lead in relief efforts, you don’t see south east Asian countries unloading bottled water for bedraggled flood survivors, not on the scale that Western Democracies can do it. Taking the lead on moral issues sometimes sucks, it makes our pork chops more expensive, but it seems like a fair trade-off for clean water, decent Internet and not getting murdered in our sleep by a brutal repressive regime. A carbon tax will take a few dollars out of our pockets, it will slow our economy down a couple of notches, but it’s one of those annoying Right Thing To Do slash Lead By Example sort of things that nobody will ever thank us for.
Of course, that’s assuming the science is right…
This whole thing may just dry up and blow away in a decade or three. The numbers might reverse, a volcanic eruption might give us another Year Without A Summer, we might even drop back into that Ice Age they predicted back in the 70s. That creepy Monckton guy will spend his last days on an ‘I Told You So’ tour, everyone will rewrite history to show they were against the whole thing from the start and we’ll be able to get back to cooking our dugong fritters over coal fired electric stoves like we did back in the nineties. We might even be able to shut down all the nuclear power stations because…uh…oh yeah, they ruin the spinach. It would be very, very cool if the whole thing turned out to be one gigantic mistake.
Thaaat's better
But consider this:
The oil is going to run out. Probably in the next fifty years.
Natural gas is going to run out. Some time this century.
The coal will run out. We’ve got a good couple of centuries worth, but there will come a day when we’re scraping the last bits from between the railway tracks to keep our microwaves turning for one more day.
Global warming or not, we WILL run out of fossil fuels. A carbon tax won’t stop that, but it will definitely make people develop more renewable energy sources. The biofuel plans have all fallen in an untidy heap since we realised the corn you’d need to fuel an average SUV once is enough to feed a person for a year. Global warming or not, having a few windmills, solar plants and tidal thingies up and running when the oil tankers start coming back half-full will be a very good thing. With every second government in the middle east cheerfully murdering its own citizens, the price of oil is only going to go up.
No thanks, we've got wind.

There are a couple of horrible issues that will prevent us sorting this mess out soon though. The first one is just how many people will be affected by a carbon tax. It’ll make business more expensive: it’s hard to make much of anything without using a little electricity, so the big end of town hate this tax for cutting into their profits. At the other end of the bar, blue-collar types will take a hit when their jobs are threatened by these increased costs. People who work in carbon-intensive industries don’t care about the ocean being three inches deeper twenty years after they’re dead. They care about losing their job shovelling coal before they pay off the thirty-year mortgage they had to take out to ensure their sons went to Bali every footy season and their teenage daughters got a bathroom each. Traditional class enemies are thus allied in their opposition, leaving the middle class looking nervously in both directions. It’s why we’re seeing union rabble-rousers sharing a podium with heavy breathers from the mining industry and the usual passel of right-wing cash-for-comment shock jocks who know a ratings-grabbing populist issue when they see one.
Carbon tax: hard on workers, harder on donkeys.

Second, this one’s really got people’s blood boiling. Our prime minister got in because she went on tape saying Nooo We’re Not Doing A Carbon Tax! Promise! Embarrassingly, a tied election meant she had to cosy up to that bloke from the Greens to get across the line. He would only hop in the sack with her if she agreed to a carbon tax; faced with the choice of three years in opposition or having to grit her teeth and smile when people replayed the “No carbon tax” tape, she chose the one with the gritting and smiling. It’s made the issue an easy vote-buyer for her opponents, who don’t have to actually come up with an answer; they get votes just by playing the tape. Unclear science, plenty of strident and credible deniers and a good healthy dash of bugger-the-planet-I-want-cheaper-electricity meant any serious debate would quickly descend into name-calling and bitterness.
The urbane sophisticated face of Australian political discourse

More than thirty years after we first heard the words, this is where the climate change question is at. Sensible debate is shouted down, either by the Deniers or the True Believers. Scientific evidence in either direction is immediately drowned in a deluge of partisan opinions that send the scientists, the only people who CAN tell us if it’s real, scurrying out of the spotlight. Any chance we had of getting to the truth is long gone. This thing will be decided by the loudest voices and the deepest pockets.
And that to me is the real tragedy. Science has doubled our life span, showed us a glimpse of our amazing universe, eliminated some horrific diseases, given us wonderful toys and a level of control over our destiny unimaginable a hundred years ago. But faced with the possibility of a global catastrophe in a hundred years, people willingly dismiss the science if it means they can save enough on the power bill to afford an iPhone 5 next month. If we had treated our early medical science the way we’re currently treating climate science, a trip to the doctor today would get you a course of leeches, a dunking in vinegar and a good strong strychnine enema. It’s just normal human behaviour of course: faced with an intangible, uncertain threat beyond our life spans, our brains easily rationalise away the dangers in favour of an immediate shiny reward with unlimited Facebook and a free leather-look cover.
Sure, I know I'm destroying the planet. But...look at that screen! LOOK AT IT!

I couldn’t understand why people were so dismissive about the science, but it came to me when someone asked me recently for my opinion. Not strange in itself, but the way she asked the question surprised me. She didn’t ask whether I believed the evidence was being correctly interpreted, whether I thought we had insufficient data, or whether I thought the debate was too mired in partisan politics for the science to matter any more. What she said was this:
“Do you believe in Global Warming?”
It was like she’d asked me whether I believed in fairies, Father Christmas, or God. All important questions worthy of consideration, but they are philosophical matters, and whether you believe in them is more important than whether they exist.
But science isn’t something you believe in. What would you think if someone said “Do you believe in gravity”? Or whether you ‘believed in’ the laws of thermodynamics? You accept the validity of scientific evidence, you do not ‘believe in it’. If climate scientists are telling us it’s getting hotter, it won’t matter what you (or they) believe in, it won’t matter how many times Monckton ridicules them, it will only matter if they get the science right.
When you believe in something, you stop listening to anything that disagrees with your opinion. ‘Believing in’ something implies faith rather than a rational decision based on evidence; it’s ideal for religions and the characters of children’s fantasies, but until a religion comes up with an AIDS vaccine, until Father Christmas sends a rocket to Mars or the Tooth Fairy resolves the string theory debate, I’m going to look to scientists for solutions to the world’s problems.
Satisfied, smart guy?

But for most of us, it’s too late. It’s gone beyond the issue, and is now more about proving those other idiots wrong than about finding the truth. We’d prefer a five percent chance of human extinction to a fifty percent chance of picking the wrong side, so nobody is going to change their mind now. People now back their chosen climate change position the way they back their football team, and nothing the meteorologists say will change their minds.
They might be wrong about the whole thing. Science is NOT infallible. It is proved wrong all the time (maybe even Einstein, although it's more likely those naughty chimps at CERN who are wrong). If the world’s climate scientists are proved wrong about climate change, they’ll scratch their heads, peer quizzically at their barometers and start going through their notes to figure out where they made the mistake.
But if they’re right, we’d better start building windmills. Soon.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

IT makes you deaf

It’s looking like being a great day when I get to work. Everything’s working, all my projects are on track and the smoke coming out of the server room has thinned to the point I can go in there without a respirator. The microwave in the lunch room is working, so hopefully I won’t get hassled to fix it again (it was a graphics card driver issue) and the guy who bugs me every day to change his email address to wellhungd00d@<companyname> is away on a break. Time, I think, to deal with some of the really pressing concerns, like sharpening my juggling skills and finding time for a snooze under my desk.

This thought is the cue for the  phone to start ringing.

Since I run the phone system, it’s as easy as pulling a couple of wires to stop that. Not that I ever would of course; far more entertaining to divert my phone to a different company’s helpdesk (seriously, that never gets old). But after a while, people see through that one and they start coming to see me instead.

This is not a good thing.

Problem number one of course is that there’s a fair to middling chance they’ll wake me up. You can only use the old “I was checking the cables under my desk” excuse so many times before they wise up. And the pillow and blow-up mattress down there make that one tricky even the first time. Problem number two is that they sometimes stick around to watch me fix whatever incredibly interesting problem they’ve come to me with. And when they see that resetting passwords and unlocking accounts is a matter of about ten seconds, it gets that much harder to fob them off with “Ooh, might need to, uh, flush the DNS cache up your computer’s IP fluid to fix that. Some time next week?”

But worst of all? They find out what I look like.

This is bad enough in itself; several years in IT have left my face a twisted mask of rage and despair.  It’s fine when people just stare in shock and back out slowly without making eye contact. But the ones who tell me to “Cheer up, it might not happen!” then shoot me with jaunty finger guns have me reaching for my special sharpened screwdriver. There’s only so much space in the server room to hide the bodies, so that’s had to stop. Even worse,  once they know what I look like, they’re never too shy to point me out to all their workmates and say “See that guy? He fixes our computers, so he must love computers. You should go talk to him about computers.”
This didn't help. SOMEHOW THEY KNEW.

But these are minor problems. The real issue with people being able to put a face to the IT Guy moniker is that they start asking me to FIX STUFF.
Once you’re more than an anonymous surly voice with a poorly faked Indian accent, folks get comfy with asking for help. I was kidding about the microwave thing, but when I first started, nobody told me I could say no to a job. TVs, radios, cameras, binoculars, VCRs (“wait, is this thing BETA?”), security cameras, some...I dunno, thing in a box attached to a gigantic tank with “DANGER: CYANIDE” written on it (no I am not kidding), you name it, I’d try to fix it. But when someone came into my office with a desperate look and a half-gutted Tickle Me Elmo, I took a long hard look at my job description.
Did you try a reboot?

Now? I have a simple rule. If I can’t ping it or ring it, don’t bring it.

This isn’t actually what’s in my job description. I’ve read that thing over and over, and it’s all blah blah blah stop stabbing people with screwdrivers yadda yadda what’s that smell coming from the server room, so no help there. But it doesn’t take much to realise that time spent figuring out which bit in Elmo is the, uh, vibrator, is time NOT spent making my servers less on fire, or getting that dead mouse out of the PABX (nope, not kidding again; that little bastich shut down comms across half the site). So I’m that little bit more careful about when I say HELL yes, drop that broken piece of crap right here on my desk. Pass me that pointy screwdriver real quick?
Unfortunately, this approach has led me to a new discovery.

IT makes you deaf.

You wouldn’t have thought so. Sure, server fans are a bit noisy, but its not like I put my ear right up against them any more. But I swear, the longer I spend having conversations like “no, spam emails can’t give you herpes” and “I know your iPhone has a touch screen but your PC doesn’t, yes you’d think they’d get onto that,”, the worse my hearing seems to get. What I hear when people first drop in and what I eventually figure out they really said are so different I wonder if I should go get me a hearing aid. Maybe a nice one, with a touch screen.

Here’s the sort of thing I mean...

What I hear                                              What they actually said

I’m too stupid to remember a six-character password

My password doesn’t work. Did you change it?

I can’t read a nameplate on a door, or infer anything from the piles of computers, switches and monitors occupying this room.

Is this the IT office?

You know my name because we’ve worked together for five years, but I’m so self-absorbed I barely remember the names of those three guys I hooked up with at that night club last Saturday

Hi. It’s...Alex, right?

I believe the company network exists purely to indulge my need for an endless stream of autotuned pop videos and monkeys riding pigs backwards

Can you guys unblock YouTube so I can watch video?

I’m convinced I’m smarter than you
That problem I phoned you about two minutes ago? It’s okay, I ran a defrag and a disk check and fixed it myself. This stuff’s not that hard.

My time is so much more valuable than yours that the two seconds it takes to actually read a warning popup about deleting my files is worth more than the hour it’ll take you to get them back.

Someone deleted my files. I need you to recover them, put each one on a separate, labelled CD and bring them to me. Thanks.

I have no idea what kind of person you are. Finding out would take time, effort and a brief journey outside my comfort zone of like-minded fellows who speak only of beer, football and lads’ mags, so I’ll just slap a label on you that you’ll find as imaginative and funny as I do.

Hi, nerd.
Despite knowing the names of every player in my chosen football team, the prices of sixteen brands of beer and the measurements of every Playboy Bunny back to 1865, I am incapable of remembering seven letters that haven’t changed since I started here.

What’s my username again?
I have a problem. It’s a tiny thing, and it’ll take you five seconds to fix, but I’m going to make you work so hard to figure out what it is that you’ll contemplate murdering me with that keyboard by the time we’re done.

My computer’s acting funny.
My home computer is broken. I am about to siphon twenty minutes of your life for no gain while I try to explain the problem, completely in defiance of your attempts to discourage me.

Got a minute?
I play World of Warcraft. A LOT. Seriously, I’ve forgotten my wife’s name, I’ve had to subcontract my job to some guy in the Philippines and I missed the birth of my first child because my guild needed a healer for a dungeon run. I want to play it more, but my wife keeps changing my password on my home PC.

I need a company laptop with a decent graphics card for design work. Oh, and a headset. For, uh, design work.
I can’t tell the difference between the ‘Reply’ button and the ‘Reply to all’ button. In a completely unrelated matter, I would like to keep the intimate details of my blossoming relationship with the nice young lady in the next office from becoming company gossip.

Can you show me how to recall an email real quick?
I dropped my mobile phone in the toilet.

I dropped my mobile phone in a puddle.
You are going to get nothing done today.

My screen just went blue. Is that bad
I have no life, no social skills and no work ethic. I spend my work days wandering from office to office, telling long, rambling stories just to get some semblance of social contact. Prepare yourself for hell.

Got a minute?
My porn collection is now so large it is overflowing my local hard drive. I need to migrate some of it to my home PC.

Do you guys have a portable hard drive I can borrow?
I am fully aware that you are at someone else’s desk to fix their computer, but I am the type of person who will tells knock-knock jokes to adults and expects a laugh.

Hello, <desk owner’s name>, you look different today!
I have a small penis
I need a bigger monitor
You left your copy of of PC Review in the lunch room
Can I get a 250 gig SSD, Nvidia GeForeced GTX 590 GPU and a Gigabyte GA-EP35C-DS3R motherboard for my desktop? That’ll make my Excels go better, right?

My home computer’s keyboard is broken. Can I have a new one?
My work computer’s keyboard is broken. Can I have a new one?

I am your God.
We’ve decided to outsource our IT support. Here’s your redundancy notice.

Don’t get me wrong: not everyone I work with is like this. Most of ‘em are smart, capable professionals, and only need to have their email address sold to Russian spammers once to learn not to bug me before my third coffee. But you don’t remember the million cars that drive safely by your house each day; it’s the one that crashes through the front fence and ends up leaking battery acid on the lino in your breakfast nook that tends to stick in your mind (yes I’m looking at YOU, Guy-Who-Spray-n-Wipes-His-Motherboard). I’m convinced it’s my hearing that’s letting me down because, by and large, these train wrecks that come through my door are functioning human beings, capable of dressing and feeding themselves. The only alternative is that everyone’s IQ drops by fifty points the moment they put their hand on a mouse. I’d be down around minus eight million by now if that was it, so I’m going with the hearing thing.

I decided things had gone too far recently. We lost power across the whole site when a breeding pair of electricians chewed through the power station wiring and crashed the generators. I’m standing in a dark office, calmly shutting down servers before the battery backup runs out when there’s a timid tap at the window. I point my torch that way, illuminating a worried-looking co-worker.
“Got a minute?” she says nervously. Not a good start.
“Bit busy,” I say, trying to decide if I love my file or print server most. “What’s up?”
“Oh sorry,” says she. “When you’re done, can you come see my computer? My email’s not working.”

"Hm. Looks like a virus."

Time seemed to stop. I used the pause to confirm that I was not wearing anything that might interfere with my hearing (nope), that she was not kidding (nuh uh), and that we had not somehow been transported to Opposite World, where blackouts made computers go faster. That part of my mind not shrieking in horror managed to reply that yes, I’d help her out, before mister brain packed its bags and refused to cooperate until I got a job with smarter clientele. I dunno, feeding the molluscs at an aquarium or something.
"Got a minute?"

The power came back on. I ‘fixed’ her email. Then I booked me an appointment to see a doctor the next day.

“So,” said the doctor. “What can I do for you?”
“Well,” I said. “I work in IT, and I’m running out of places to hide the bodies. Do you have any pills that make other people sound smarter?”
“I see,” he replied. “And when did you first notice your hearing deteriorating?”

I guess medicine makes people deaf too.