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Dael Morris
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Excellent analysis of what ground defeats - of which more are happening - are likely to mean for the idiot clown show, ISIS.

As I, and anyone else who follows this, have said previously the idiot clown show ISIS is not a "state", and you can't treat it as though it is, for the very good reasons laid out here. It's a rolling set of dynamics, quite capable of rolling to another patch of land, when it's laughable pretensions to medieval government of a city are successfully resisted.
The militants may be taking hits in Iraq and Syria. But they're far from burying their heads in the sand.
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WhatsApp is to start sharing data with its owner, Facebook, according to leaked screenshots. An update to the site looks set to introduce a new data-sharing tool that will see the two companies share user information with one another.
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Breaking news. Richard Dawkins still a tool.

(John Gray still excellent, for what it's worth)

#RichardDawkins  
#Tool  
This is not the first time that Dawkins has made bigoted statements about Islam or weighed in on what it means to be a “good girl."
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Race is not the issue

Patrick Bond says, with greater clarity, something I've thought privately for for a long time. Basically, the ANC that went into CODESA is not the same as the ANC that came out.

The problems in this country, media furore notwithstanding, are structural. We're experiencing the classic neo-liberal trajectory, with the creation of a very small wealthy class and the further impoverishment of everyone else. 

People are talking about public issues with an intensity borne of fear and nurtured by desperation. People are desperate because their living circumstances - black or white - are under threat. Since structural economics has been taken off the table for discussion, and since it is assumed that the decisions made at CODESA and beyond were sound, alternative scapegoats need to be found for economic failure. Both black people and white people therefore default to race-baiting and finger pointing.

Both have cause. Black people are talking about white racism, because the majority of the poor remain black. White people are talking about black racism because the government is demonstrably corrupt and serves itself and its cronies. Both are driven by fear of worsening circumstances.

But neither party realises that the solutions lie with a discussion about structural economic policy and cannot be found in policing "racism", which even if it was possible, would not address the issues. 

This here, also has bearing:  https://plus.google.com/+DaelMorris/posts/8nLJriTiK1T
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Matt Taibbi takes on Thomas Friedman taking on ISIS

This is not new, but it's still salutary to realise that Thomas Friedman is what passes for a thinker on this - or any - subject. Friedman is a poster child for a fantasy version of capitalism, whose sole claim to fame in life is that he married rich and then had his in-laws find him jobs. It's inaccurate to call what he says "Thomas Friedman's 2-cents worth". Frankly, every time you read something that he slowly and laboriously spelled out in coloured crayon capital letters and then handed to an intern to type, he owes you and every other reader about R1500.00. More if he's in top form.

This is the level of the public dialogue that the American ruling class thinks the voting population is competent to handle. And because that class are still declaring themselves the "leaders of the free world", while shamefully hiding from public sight that they would happily sell the country to China if they could figure out how, this is the level of discourse on the subject that goes out across the world. 
Cab apps and baby camels are this week's cure for Islamic terror
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something the banks have been sitting on for years
In Shopshifting: The potential for payment system abuse, Karsten Nohl and Fabian Bräunlein showed attendees at Hamburg's Chaos Communications Congress just how poor the security in payment terminal...
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Have them in circles
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Dael Morris

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Good article on the American Democratic nomination race. It uses a comparison to Gough Whitlam to make insightful points. Firstly, I would bet serious money that this is only article on the 2015/2016 American election that references Gough Whitlam. Secondly, it's only the second time I've ever read about him. The first time, in detail and brilliantly, is in John Pilger's "A Secret Country", a wonderful book that starts off being a recollection of growing up in Sydney - I think - and evolves beautifully into both a history of Australia and then a history of twentieth-century politics, without ever losing its warmth as a memoir.  It gave me a visceral sense that this wasn't just politics we were discussing, but events that we both lived through and that affected us. Before that, I had unconsciously read political theory and criticism - especially Pilger's - as either journalism or technical analysis of systems and dynamics. I could never do that afterwards. It became personal for me.
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John Gray gets every single point right in this review. It exactly the kind of wide-ranging, well-informed critique that Dawkins himself never delivers, but that he fantasizes that he is respected for.

Gray also touches on aspects of Dawkins' presentation of himself that are startling in that they are never discussed, even though they are obvious. I'd like to quote them, but the review itself is so good that I don't want to tempt anyone into sampling it here and then not reading it. I'll just say that around paragraph 22 onward it gets even more excellent than it has been to that point.

It has always amazed me that people don't see right through Richard Dawkins. His lack of self-awareness, relentless self-promotion and the crudity of his thesis are self-evident. Beyond that, though, there's a visible mean-ness that is repellent. Anyone who makes any effort to investigate his credentials at all will instantly discover that he hasn't actually conducted any scientific research for 30 years. (If I remember correctly, it was as co-author of a paper on fruit flies or something.) For the greater part of his adult life, he's been nothing more than an ideologue and popular author, at best outlining - and often misrepresenting - the views of people much more insightful than himself. He's acquired credibility by association , by nothing more than ensuring that he's always positioned as the only legitimate custodian and interpreter of people much greater and smarter than he is. In other words, he's a petty bureaucrat.  

In the public mind though, he's a scientist - an image he's deliberately cultivated  - despite not having done any science for 3 decades. He therefore gets a free pass for saying really dumb things, and putting forth positions that are (a) really inadequate for their subject and (b) often previously discredited, sometimes centuries ago. Donald Trump is critiqued more ruthlessly and with less charity than Dawkins is, even though the only difference between them is that Dawkins is better educated and has a more respected publisher.  In effect, he's abused the notion of the scientific method and the aura of science to conduct a public demagoguery that utterly contradicts both method and aura.  

Educated people, the people who seem to veer towards him , are often literate factory workers. That's a function of the economy and the world we live in now. They know everything that there is to know about a coding language, or accountancy or the fucking best way to monetize Twitter and regularly lack any exposure to the richness of historical human thought and activity, to the myriad of social experiments we've conducted as a species, and the deep thinking that underlay many of them. Ironically, the same thing that makes them skilled labor - a lack of historical awareness -  prevents them from realizing the limitations of their knowledge.  It also encourages hubris, and in a world where wealth insulates you from consequences, because consequences can be externalized to poor people, such hubris is seldom challenged. 

From this, a certain type of person in this position will often come to believe - unchallenged - their narrow facility  with a skill makes them innately superior to others. Dawkins seems to be their vindication - in him they see someone trying to give the orders to the world that they believe they are entitled to give. So they flock to him. 

This period in history unfortunately often rewards such people well beyond their worth. Uber is a good example - it's a very, very impressive enterprise, but in the end it's really just a facility with code and load balancing across drivers, arising at a point in time when much longer and more complex wave of technology opened a door to spread it quickly.  The founders and their fans seem to have no awareness at all of the sheer accidental contingency of their success. They attribute it all to themselves, and as a consequence, the founders of Uber and their fans now make the kind of public pronouncements about their importance to history that would get anyone else locked up as delusional. Yet they are indulged, encouraged and sought after for advice. And predictably, the kind of advice they do have on complex social subjects tend to be adolescent fantasies of the Nietzschean uber-mensch and trivialities.

I don't have an objection, by the way, to great successes - Google, for example, despite my uneasiness about their practices and my anger at their tax avoidance remains fascinating. This is because of their choices, though, not their business. The founders of Google don't see their commercial success as indicative of moral superiority. They're much more interested in deploying their accumulated money and expertise in areas that might really change the world. Earlier this week, for example, they announced a breakthrough in artificial intelligence research that leapfrogs the species ahead in ways that no-one expected. AI is beginning to be a real possibility now, something I thought was impossible. For years they've been working on deploying a atmosphere-based weather balloon network to bring free wi-fi to developing countries. They tried to digitize and make available the world's books. They're working on creating a medical database that will speed and improve diagnostics and anticipate health risks, rather than react to them. They're deploying driver-less cars, to try and see whether that reduces problems in traffic and congestion that have plagued the world for the last 60 years. They're doing the things that are interesting and that have the potential to be meaningful. Should they succeed, they would have a legitimate claim to having influenced the course of humanity. They're not claiming that the accidental growth of click-based advertising on the internet rendered them natural supermen and aristocrats and they're not insisting on obeisance. 

The acid test is empirical: in 100 years, what will Uber matter? Aristotle has remained relevant over millenia. Lao-Tzu and Sun-Tze have continued to impact thinking and social organization through a range of social structures and across ages. Richard Feynman's contribution to knowledge will continue to ripple unavoidably through every part of human existence as long as humans exist. Uber? It's taxi driver scheduling for yuppies. Really? Really? This is the pinnacle of human achievement? Frankly, who gives a fuck? 

Years ago, a friend and I - Jonathan - heard that Richard Dawkins was giving a lecture in Pretoria, at the University. There was a lot of Raymond Dart-iness around there then and he was the guest speaker. We were both pretty excited, as we were fascinated with the possibilities for development of evolutionary theory, were both steeped in physics and biology and were curious minds. We had questions we'd been mulling over and the chance to ask them was very exciting. I must have been about twenty years old. 

We set out - Jonathan and his then-wife and me and my then-girlfriend - and joined the others in the University hall. And then a strange thing happened. A small man with a disproportionately large head walked out onto the stage and proceeded to deliver the most smug, patronizing talk on any subject that I have ever heard, full of wind and nastiness and self-satisfaction. About half-way through - and I could be remembering this wrong - I looked over at Jonathan and saw him crumple the notes he'd made ahead of the Q&A session, and throw them away. I couldn't get out of there fast enough, and we left as soon as was possible.  

Outside, we said nothing to each other for a while, and then went home. In the years since, I have never looked back on that decision. Dawkins is a prat. I have verified it for myself and there is nothing that he has ever done that has made me rescind that view. If anything, it has deepened. 

John Gray, in this review, by the simple expedient of actually having erudition and rigor, makes Dawkins' lack of either evident  by comparison. It's very well-written. It's human and serious. It's also, eventually, very funny. 

#RichardDawkins  
#JohnGray  
His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion.
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All you need to know about this age

62 specific people together are as wealthy as 3 697 816 673 real people living on earth right now. 

The history of the last 150 years, as colonial wealth gave way to financial wealth, leads precisely here. It's why governments are bought, and wars are fought. It's not a conspiracy. There is no cabal engineering it. It's the result of generations of capital and power, embodied in structures that come and go, consistently seeking to perpetuate the advantages of capital and power. It's the end result of all the seemingly disconnected news stories you see, the underlying driver for the policy decisions that lead to wars, the explanation for otherwise unintelligible economic policy. 

If  you want to fight this, as you should realise that you're not fighting people. People are doing this, but if one goes, he or she will be replaced. It's not personal, it's structural. Getting us to focus on this person, or that person, and ignore the structures we exist in is an exercise in misdirection. 

You're going to have to fight to reduce and redefine structures, to constrain centers of authority, to take back decision making power from concentrated centers of capital. If you're not fighting this, expect this to continue to its inevitable end, and the world to get even worse. It's not going to spontaneously change direction, and as Howard Zinn said, you can't be neutral on a moving train. 
Charity says only a crackdown on tax dodging, higher investment in public services and higher wages can halt the wealth divide widening even further and faster
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Marc Maron today in his monologue: "It's amazing how many 'free thinkers' have the same five or six fucking free thoughts". 

I laughed...out loud
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This is a story about Laurie Anderson, though it takes a while to get there.

About a Man

I like Nick Hornby. I read High Fidelity first and it blew me away. It was the first time I'd read a contemporary author who wrote what sounded like lucid stream of consciousness, and whose subject was the male experience. 

I was a sophisticated reader, and knew that this was a difficult trick to pull off and appreciated the craft involved. It has always been a guideline of mine, in part because of an early immersion in Gore Vidal and George Orwell, that writing words clearly and simply is the Holy Grail, and that it is also incredibly hard. I knew from my own experience that allowing the natural thought to develop and then ensuring that it made it to the page were both credible and impossible aims. That there were a myriad of unfortunate neuroses and sad personal hobgoblins that saw it as their license to subvert the notion between its original formation and its' life on the page. (It's for this reason, by the way, that I so respected my brother's writing, on the day that he won that battle and consistently became capable of writing what was needed rather than what was wanted.) Despite his reputation as the male equivalent of chick-lit, I think his struggle to remain truthful - start to finish - deserves more recognition than it has been given, and that his capacity for truth-telling does not receive the respect it deserves. 

Shortly after that, I read Fever Pitch and About a Boy. The former is essentially a diary of a life measured against football. In the latter, book, he expands his range from the almost purely interior dialogue to a more conventional plot, but the center remains that odd interior narrative that men have but which has almost never found an honest spokesman. 

Years ago, in a conversation with the CEO of a company, I explained that there was, in my mind, a relationship between the fortunes of Manchester United and my own fortunes. I expected laughter and a kind of pathetic sympathy, but perhaps because he was Greek and carried with him some residual trace of the action of gods in the lives of human beings, and so was therefore there more open to those idea, it didn't. He looked at me quite calmly and said "Of course - you've tied your fortunes to that team", as though that were the most natural thing in the world. 

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby writes about the experience of being tied to Arsenal Football Club. In so doing he discovers a way to talk about both the limitations and peculiar strengths of men’s experience, And he accepts the limitations – of which there are many – without denying the odd warmth and singular identity. Essentially, he subverts those very same elements for which the male experience is usually derided. I loved both books. 

All of this is by way of explaining that I keep hoping Nick Hornby finds that range again. As a consequence, when I come across his work, I tend to buy it. 

This happened last week, at a second hand book store, where I found a collection of his writing on songs, called 31 Songs. In this collection, Nick Hornby writes 31 short pieces, each loosely framed around a particular song of importance to him. I like the idea immensely. Songs have punctuated my life and likely yours more than has ever been the case before in history. The rise of popular music, allied to a global delivery network, allied to a marketing machine intent – for reasons of its own – on convincing anyone in hearing range that whatever occurred was not only utterly crucial but also inevitable and archetypal, has ensured that no-one younger than 60 can think of music impartially anymore. My life as much as yours is measured in a succession of relationships to songs, whether you remember it or not. It’s an idiosyncrasy of the times we live in, and as impossible to fight as the fact that we all know brand names reflexively. 

So, when I skimmed the book and found (a) that I didn’t know many of the songs, and (b) found the writing to have little deep relationship to the songs, you can imagine that I was upset. This is not a book review, though, so I won’t go into the fact that I think Nick used each song as a departure point to say other things, most of them aimed at enchanting an audience who never listened to music, and convincing them of his skills. (He’s very good at that.) I just want to use the format as a departure point: it struck me, that I should write something about songs.  

About a Woman

I don't like the act of writing. My brother, whose writing, as I said, I respect, would be a much better narrator. Nevertheless, below, I write about Laurie Anderson, what I heard, when I heard it and some of the situational context that informed that experience.

In 1982, I was eleven years old. I lived in Pretoria in South Africa, in a house owned by an alcoholic physicist, my father, and his second wife, a very sweet but entirely submissive woman, my mother. I was the eldest child of their marriage, though he had children from a previous marriage who did not live with us, but whose presence hung over us. 

There were storms in summer, each day, like clockwork. They built up an electricity and a heat every afternoon that I still remember and may never escape. It signals to me a particular anticipation, an anticipation of harm, and oddly, the certainty that harm passes, something learned entirely through experience. I was in primary school that year. I wore a uniform, usually beige.

We lived in a suburb. In houses like ours, husbands beat wives, as happened in ours. Sometimes that deluge of rage spilled off her and onto us, collateral violence and collateral fear. We grew up scared, I suppose. I know that I did. In the world I live in now, it manifests in a tremendous desire to remove fear from anyone experiencing it. I should explain that I don't think my father was a bad man - just one whose challenges outweighed his capacity. 

The world we lived in was constrained, though I did not know that, by uniquely Afrikaans concerns. Teachers, parents, authorities of all kinds were engaged in ensuring that everyone cleaved to the same rules. I never met black people, other than as servants, and I never wondered where they went, nor what they did or thought, or believed. I never engaged them outside that role. No-one did. But for a child, these were not your concerns – these were merely the parameters of the world. While I was not aware of it at the time, this atmosphere of stifling tension and conformity must also have informed my childhood. 

My concerns each day and each week were much more closely focussed on avoiding men who wanted to fuck me, which for some reason had become more common, and navigating my father’s anger, something I came to associate with the heat, and the clouds building up and the electricity in the air. I came to be an expert in listening for the presence and nature of the footsteps in the corridor. Judging their pattern. Were they a-rhythmic?  Did this signify that he’d lost his temper? Were they fast or slow?  Were they heavy?  Did they indicate flight or merely passage from one room to another? 

Night after night, I learned to listen. I still do it. It’s now a habit, and a comfort. I hear the house I live in, and settle only when it does.  I still feel like my dogs though, alien in an alien place, and prone to waking and settling again. Sometimes, like my dogs, I will wake up and stay awake for some time, unsettled. I often have bouts of insomnia, something I'm sure I learned from my mother, whom I'd find awake in the kitchen at any hour, repetitively numbing her senses with crossword puzzles, and slowly calming down. 

Once upon a time, my brother and I slept in bunkbeds. I slept in the upper. By 1982 though, we slept in separate rooms.

I cannot tell anymore whether my particular organisation of mind has as much to do with my childhood as it has to do with its own innate qualities. Looking back, it seems to me that by 1982, I had already become much of the person I would ornament with bad habits in the subsequent 30 years. I was increasingly detached from daily life rotuines. I read philosophy and particularly Taoist philosophy, and I read Homage to Catalonia and I read Aristotle. I loved the avenue onto worlds that books gave me, and I treated them as literal instructions.

For example, I tried, without telling anyone, to learn to meditate, and I tried, again without telling anyone, to simplify the thoughts I had of all extraneous content, under impulse from Orwell. I tried, I suppose, to see the world the way it is. Most nights, I left the house to climb the tree in the back garden to watch bats exit the roof and go hunting. I sometimes remained there for hours, enthralled by the experience of night time, by the strangeness of night, by the sense that I belonged out here. I liked sitting still for long, long periods of time, and I liked looking at the sky, both of which have deepened over the years, rather than diminished. For many years I also performed a daily death meditation, something I later found out no-one did. 

To the outside world, had it been paying any attention, I'm sure I was an increasingly strange child. No-one was paying attention though. In the world I lived in in 1982, it was enough that a child conformed. I struggled with that, but not enough to raise an alarm. My life looked, to all intents and purposes, like other children’s lives. In broad strokes, I went to school – something that collapsed irrevocably two years later – and I lived in a house, and I met the minimum obligations on a child. I learned to hide. 

(In 1990, eight years later, this world was abandoned with the formal abdication of apartheid. But this was before that, and the world was total and all-encompassing. You have to forget the future to understand this.)

I had a radio that I left on most nights, to play through until morning. I cannot remember the radio station - it was probably 702, when it was a music station - but at midnight, it was largely given over to a free-form radio format. The DJ was Alex Jay, someone I came to understand later was regarded by the authorities as suspect and was therefore relegated to a later show. All this I learned later, though.  

One night I woke up because of a particular refrain – “ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…”. I woke up in my bed, and in my house, and in world and in my life, but luckily, I imagine, because of the strangeness of REM sleep, I woke up in my dreaming.

And in my dreaming, a beautiful, authoritative, calm, loving, intelligent voice said to me “Hello? Is anybody home?” 

And I answered Yes. 

And a voice said, “Well, you don't know me, but I know you. and I've got a message to give to you. You better get ready, ready to go. You can come as you are, but you pay as you go”. 

And I said, “Who is this really?”

And a voice said, “This is the hand, the hand that takes.”

And I knew that hand, so I wasn’t surprised. Just sad. 

And a voice said, “…when love is gone, there's always justice. and when justice is gone, there's always force.”
 
And I knew that too, and I wasn’t surprised. 

And then a voice said,  "so hold me now, in your long arm, your long arms."

When it ended, I lay half-awake, while the moon shone through the window. To some degree, I’ve lived in that sense of the world for the rest of my life. 

About a boy

Two years later, on another night as hot and oppressive as the first, I woke in the dark again, because of a song. This time, Laurie Andersen was singing "Sharkey's Day" to me. Like the first time, I listened, and then went back to sleep. These are the only two times that has happened to me, and each time I needed it desperately.  

When I first heard her, I was younger, and life was more minimalist. She brought me calm and structure and a way into the forest. When I heard her the second time, life was harder and bad things had happened, and I was contorted around them, failing to make sense of them. The first message was simple and painful and clear. The second was wilder and anarchic. In each case, something reached out to me, accidentally intersecting with this life, like a private Northern Lights outside my window, and made a display for me, precise, strange and pertinent. Then it closed. 

Both times I lay awake a little, knowing clearly that whatever had been happening until that moment was a dream. The real world existed somewhere and it was stranger than I could ever have thought and it was beautiful and it was unavoidably moving toward me.  I really believe that. Even now. 

Absolutely true story.  

#LaurieAnderson  
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Louis Van Gaal is the best manager United never had

In the video below, Jose Mourinho makes a basic, excellent point about Louis Van Gaal. In the same way that a player coming to the Premiership has to adapt to a different footballing experience and different demands, so Van Gaal also has to adapt to the nature of the league. In other words, it's not that he's wrong about the goals he has - it's that he's not working with the situation he has to achieve the goals he has. He's not adapting. 

This has been the thing most frustrating to watch for me - somewhere in the Van Gaal experience is the germ of an excellent manager, and one beautifully fitted to Manchester United. But what has happened instead is he's been inflexibly stubborn about trying to drive a particular approach, and not adapted to English season, and the English teams. How can you tell?  Reflexes. More than anything, football is a game of beautiful reflexes, combining into a greater pattern. Any individual player's skills are only a momentary link in a chain of such reflexes across the greater whole that is a team. (This was most beautifully exemplified by Barcelona over two or three seasons under Guardiola.)

Great coaches, and Van Gaal may well actually be one, know this and build accordingly. Firstly, they - through the coaches and staff - try to ensure that the players have the right reflexes both on and off the ball; that is, that they consistently find themselves in the right places, and consistently and successfully play the ball into the right spaces. Secondly, they work to ensure that the team has a pattern, not a shape - that the pattern of individual players distributed across a field ebbs and flows intelligently, forcing space to open in ways that are productively available for the team's purpose. When you watch that extraordinary Barcelona team, you see footballing intelligence at multiple levels - you see players shifting in unison, purposefully, adapting unthinkingly to changing potentials on-field, and you see the ball move seamlessly across such patterns, again with neither planning nor hesitation.  

The key to all of this is an extraordinary habituation. In that Barcelona team, the sheer depth of this footballing habituation, the depth of reflexive intelligence exhibited in other words, came from a systematic immersion in such play that for many of the players began in the youth academy. Their reflexes and positional intelligence were established by the time they played for the first team. The orchestration of these was Pep Guardiola's job, and one he did brilliantly largely because as player and coach of the youth team, these were his reflexes too.  When Xavi or Iniesta turned and released a ball to a colleague, it was not that they expected that specific individual to be there, but that they had read the tempo and texture of the game at that moment and knew "intuitively" that that area was now available. They didn't have to know who would be there to collect, they just had to be a part of the natural flow, secure in the knowledge that their colleagues sensed the same pattern that they did, and that someone had therefore entered that space. 

To make this happen, then, you need (a) the players’ reflexes tuned in that fashion, and (b) the manager's pattern-making aligned with those reflexes. For Van Gaal, Guardiola, Cruyff and managers like that, this is the goal. It's no surprise that they were all players - it is a player's view of the goal of the game. 

At Manchester United, Van Gaal naturally and explicitly set about creating such an optimal combination of global and local intelligences, because as far as he was aware, that was what he was hired to do. He refers to it as his "philosophy" which the usual idiots in the media have made a mocking phrase of because “it's a lad's game, innit, and who's this git using foreign words an' all?” However, he is attempting to do so player by player, and he's doing so in a league that is faster and more physical than most if not all others. Both factors work ferociously against him and they amplify each other. This is how. 

Over two seasons, Van Gaal has therefore tried to train new reflexes. When you try to do that to the first team, you're training them to second guess themselves, and the result is that they're slower. This is because such decisions are newly-learned decisions, not beautifully deep reflexes, and the result is therefore slower. There's an extra step in the rhythm - where before a senior player operated from a reflex, that same senior player is now catching himself and trying to remember what to do next. This take a few more seconds, by which time whatever opportunity existed has passed, the opposing player has closed you down, and so the only available option is to play sideways or backwards, usually under pressure. We're seeing a lot of that. When your flow as a team starts consisting mostly of this hesitation, as United's has, a number of things happen. 

Firstly, you don't simply get slow. You get exceptionally slow, relative to the speed of the other team who are playing at the same pace they always did. Where a Manchester United attack once took 5 passes and 11 second, it now takes 25 passes and takes 75 seconds (25 x 3). That's an extraordinary difference in any league. In the Premiership, it's a death knell, because of the pace. The pace of play in the Premiership is different to most other top leagues. Things happen recklessly quickly. Because that is the case, converting attacking opportunities to goals in the Premiership rests on speed of reply. The patterns in a Premier league game open and close much quicker. If your attack, your rebuttal, your response, is 7 times slower than the other team's, you're going to find it impossible to score. 

Second, and more damaging, is simply that the slowness of decisions allied to the opposition speed of play - the normal hurry and recklessness of the Premiership -  ensures that you'll be making more and more passes under pressure. Add to that that you’re making those passes sideways and backwards, it's obvious that you're making many more back-passes while under pressure. The nett result of that is that even if you played as well as before, the actual number of errors - back-passes that failed and gifted the opposition a goal - inevitably goes up. 

So this one thing - the decision to try and forcibly re-pattern already patterned players - has immediately disadvantageous effects. You will (a) immediately  create fewer and fewer chances, and (b) immediately concede more goals from the accumulation of errors under pressure. That's a pretty comprehensive description of Manchester United on-field in the last two seasons. In fact, if we accept that Van Gaal took months to get his regimen settled, and we accept this has been the case since Van Gaal finally did get settled, it explains why this season, his second, with players now deeply enmeshed in doubting their reflexes, was always likely to be worse than the first. 

There are factors that make it worse for United though, and this brings me to the nub of what I think Van Gaal is doing poorly. 

Confidence

Any football team consists of people. In many cases, they are relatively young people, whose sole claim to any kind of fame is footballing prowess, and whose ability to demonstrate that prowess rests in their own confidence in their skills. When they fail publicly, the shallow foundations of their confidence are revealed, they fall apart and their performances deteriorate. Playing them as we now play invites them to be the objects of massive public ridicule. That is guaranteed to tear them to shreds. And when they seek reassurance, they're going to seek it from one of two sources: either the manager, or the club system. Both better be there for them.  

Communication - or "playing the man"

I don't think Van Gaal is at heart an exceptional communicator. By this, I don't mean he's bad. I think he's average, much like all of us. In a squad where he speaks poor English, and many of the players speak worse English or none at all, the nuances of everything I describe here are not likely to be communicated. He's also quite authoritarian, as we can see from his press conferences. So he almost certainly expects the players to grasp what he says and get on with it - he's actually stated that on a number of occasions.

One thing that stands out is that he talks about intelligence a lot. It's an axiom to him, perhaps an unconscious one, that if you didn't grasp what he said, you lack intelligence. Players are struggling. It's my guess that they're reading into that struggle that they don't have the required intelligence to play his way. Players are human. Those who have a weak sense of self will see their confidence collapse further. Those with a stronger sense of self will wall themselves off from him, and begin to take exception to his perceived judgement of them. In both cases, his ability to get across to them what he needs is compromised. 

Communication, though, goes further than that. It's not merely linguistic, it's demonstrative and engaged and often physical. It also rests on an acute and sensitive observation of each player as a person, on an ability to sense when in a cycle someone could exceed their own abilities, and know how to trigger that. Alex had this in spades. Rio Ferdinand recently spoke about Alex's management of Ji-Sung Park, and how Park was treated to a shower of attention aimed solely at convincing him that he was world-class. Park, a squad player like so many that Alex sprinkled fairy-dust on, played as though that was true. When his average skills betrayed him, it failed. When they didn't he looked like a god. Alex Ferguson did that, by nothing more complex than playing the man, not the ball (a trait that his Celtic opposition would say he developed as a player). 

Van Gaal seems to lack a specific aspect of this - not the ability to form connections, but the ability to leverage them, often ruthlessly. Training ground clips show him delighting in players’ performances, laughing, relaxed and natural. His joy in Van Persie's headed goal for Holland was unfeigned and wholehearted. That counts in his favour. But his often repeated claim that there is nothing he can do once the game has started betrays his own doubt of his powers in this area. He lacks confidence in his own charisma, in his ability to move a team to perform. 

He seems a tough person to get close to - prickly with strangers and publicly reserved. You know people like this. People who doubt themselves that way, who are hard to get close to, who hold you at arm’s length and who are revealed to be warm once you get inside the defences. To a man, they all secretly believe that they don't really have the power to sway people. They lack an elementary confidence in themselves, which lack makes them paradoxically pugnacious about their own positions in public and extremely reluctant to back down from their viewpoints. People often misidentify this as arrogance, but it’s actually insecurity. These people also often default to an overriding belief in "a system", "a process" or a field of knowledge, as a way to not have to admit that it rests with them, and confront the meaning of that responsibility. This is Louis Van Gaal to a T.  

Someone once said to me "beware the man who insists on converting you because he's usually trying to convince himself. There are very few people running around shouting that the sun will come up tomorrow".  In other words, we tend not to be strident about things we are sure of. When I hear Louis Van Gaal repeat that the system is paramount or that the he cannot affect the game, I hear someone retreating from a responsibility that they fear they cannot fulfill.  

But players are children, many of them. They live and work in a hothouse environment, often without having developed the skills to handle the attention, the swings of fortune and the devastation of failure. When they fall, they look to a touchstone, a figure on the side-lines, vitally engaged, suffering with them and rejoicing with them during the game. When United players look to the touchline now, they see no-one. Van Gaal has to confront this fear in himself, and fast.  

Transition - or "the terrible unfamiliarity of everything"

Van Gaal took over at a club where the transition we're still undergoing was - and is - epochal. Alex Ferguson had been in charge for 26 years, longer than many of the players had been alive. When he retired, the board let both David Gill and Alex go together. At one blow, we lost the two critical roles in the club, and all their associated networks of contacts, resources and knowledge. Then, with the appointment of David Moyes, we lost the back-room staff whom he summarily replaced with the board's complete approval. 

In one season, both the touchstone of the club and that web of daily engagement with players that is Manchester United to each player was completely dismantled. The methods they grew up on were banished. The faces they relied on seeing, the conversations they were engaged in having, the familiarity and security they depended on, every part of it was gone. We saw the effects of this immediately. Not in the results, which could be explained away as the outcomes of multiple causes, but in the unequivocal, unilateral reaction of the senior players who all either sought other clubs or accelerated their retirement. This sweeping loss of senior players was the third great shock that swept United. 

I cannot emphasise this enough: in short succession, over a period of just over a year, United lost David Gill and Alex Ferguson, then the critical training staff and confidants, then close to all the senior players. United was stripped not only of its powers but the means to channel and direct those powers. The effect of that is impossible to overstate. 

Under Alex, United made many bum transfer decisions. Eric Djemba Djemba, for example, or - much as I loved him - Diego Forlan, but even those were indicative of a plan. We bought a player as much for the person, as the position. We bought for character, and the chance that he would fit in with an ethos, and because there was something in the player that Alex thought he could reach under the right circumstances. We bought Andy Cole when people thought he was washed up, and we bought Teddy Sheringham when he was supposedly tailing off, and we bought Eric Cantona when he was supposedly not capable of being managed. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was an complete unknown, bought at a time when we were supposed to be wooing Alan Shearer. Vidic was a known quantity, a “star”, but he was known only in a Russian League that no-one took seriously, and the club tracked him and wrestled with that decision for two years. Patrice Evra, a player with the club still tattooed on his heart, was a "prospect", but he was a prospect in a French League that no-one respected, especially when it came to defenders, and the charge of being a lightweight was flung at him for six months after his arrival.

In every single case, Manchester United totally ignored the noise, because there was a plan. In every single case, each was an astute buy, in cost, in character, and in longevity. We bought talent, often under the radar, who blended in and who could still develop into titans - specifically our type of titans. Then we set about cultivating it. It’s a policy that takes the long view and combines it with the club values and meaning. 

And yes, we also duffed as many as we got right that way, but character, it turns out, is cheaper than reputation. Largely because of the way we selected the cost of getting it wrong wasn't that great (Veron excepted) and the benefit of success was vastly greater than could have been anticipated. It was Cole, for example, who led the lethal United attack of the '90's and Solskjaer and Sheringham who won us the treble, Vidic and Evra who made us feared and Gabriel Heinze who dragged the club on when others’ legs failed, failing only when his did.

Then, once a player arrived he was immersed in an active, established network of staff, club management and senior players, all focussed on assessing, testing, honing, cajoling - and in some cases, knocking the edges off players - solely to have them express the potential that had been identified. Dozens of experts, steeped in the club ethos eyeballed transfers, and monitored new arrivals. Conversations were had, day in and day out, where individual assessments were tested, refined and abandoned. Scouts spoke to training staff, who spoke to doctors, who spoke to Alex, who spoke to everyone from the cleaning lady to the youth team bus driver, all of which added up to a ruthlessly effective system for creating players from human beings.

Did it work? You decide. It’s a truism amongst venture capitalists that you invest in a hundred to get one or two that break out. United had had dozens. Consistently, repeatedly and successfully, and done so for decades on end. 

When United allowed the cascading series of departures I described above, we literally let all the knowledge holders and almost every moving part of that system go. If we’d been a company, it would have been the equivalent of losing all our IP at one go. The staff still come to work, but no-one knows what to do. For a while it runs on inertia. Then it falls over. I am certain that Van Gaal under-estimated the impact of this, because no-one could have. Had he assessed it correctly, he might not have taken the job.  

Worse, though, in a sense, was what followed: United has since prosecuted a buying policy created and driven by people without deep football experience. The result has been a mix of good football decisions - Schneiderlin, Rojo, Shaw - and PlayStation footballing decisions - Falcao, Di Maria, Depay. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the fact that Di Maria was bought. Until it came out that he never wanted to leave Real Madrid. And until it came out that he had really wanted to go to Paris Saint-Germain. And until it came out that they were were hobbled by Financial Fair Play rules and couldn’t take him for at last a year. Until it came out that he needed a bolt-hole, somewhere to wait that year out.   

As a fan, we didn't know these things at the time, but I guarantee you that the club knew. Can you imagine that Alex would have sanctioned that purchase? David Gill? Paid over the odds for a player who explicitly thought that the club was a stopover on the way to a better job? Not a chance. Somewhere in the system it would have been filtered out. In the United of today, though, it wasn't. Both the Di Maria and Falcao decisions were purely business decisions. Both came on the back of board concerns that the club profile had been damaged, and both were driven by a need to impress a flurry of recent sponsors with easily recognised “names”. The result was inevitable, and the damage predictable. 

Footballing men know that you don’t just buy a collection of players and throw them in a box, hoping they naturally form a team. You select well and then you ruthlessly apply your system to your selections. That system, the activities by which a prospect became a United player, was dismantled almost three years ago. 

The next time you read that a club is in "transition", that's what “transition” means. 

What does this mean for Louis Van Gaal?

Louis Van Gaal has all the right goals. His philosophy, system or approach makes sense, both aesthetically and practically. It’s a vision worth having at United and the board knows this, because they’re considering Guardiola at the moment, and have in the past. Pep is nothing if not the exemplar of these views. Players like Xavi Hernandez have also publicly come to Van Gaal's defence. That carries a lot of weight for me. While everyone and their granny in the press has been revising their prior pronouncements, and hurrying to make it clear that they always said he peaked years ago, I tend to trust actual experts. When Xavi says Van Gaal knows what he’s doing, odds on Xavi is right. 

Inside the Louis Van Gaal we see every day is a smaller, less obvious but vitally important Louis Van Gaal waving at us, one who could be brilliant for this club. He wants players to have a natural intelligence for the game, capable of letting them play across a range of positions? Me too. He wants possession to be maintained? Me too. He wants flexibility of shape and formation in real-time? Me too. He wants scintillating one-touch passing? Me too. He wants an aesthetically and structurally coherent approach to every game?  Me too. He wants on-field intelligence?  Me too. He wants players to be independent of management?  Me too. 

But our Louis Van Gaal is hamstrung by the fact that he took on the job as a three-year rejuvenation programme. The reality is, you can’t build what he’s trying to build in three years, and you can’t do it with the first team, because the first team is usually already occupied trying to win games. Manchester United is not a project – it’s a competitive institution that is engaged in contesting the Premier League. The business of training players into new systems of thought, reaction and play cannot be directly applied to the first team, at the expense of results. It’s the kind of careful building up of a system that starts with the youth team and builds over many years. It relies on structures and systems in the club that in United’s case, are shaky.

Van Gaal has not adapted to that reality, and his insistence on never backing down, a factor of his own insecurity, has made him needlessly intransigent in this regard. This club, more than any other would have opened its arms to him. Today, though, in the newspapers of record it was reported again that he’d spoken to the board and says he “does not know what to do to get United playing the way they need to”. In a sense, he’s asking them to take it away from him, to protect him from having to confront his fears. 

The challenge he’s facing is a watershed one, but not for the club. It’s a watershed moment for Louis Van Gaal, because for Louis Van Gaal to succeed at Manchester United, he has to confront Louis Van Gaal and Louis Van Gaal's worst fears. 

- He has to force Louis Van Gaal out of his comfort zone, one where he can walk away claiming that his system is still pristine, untrammelled by players who fail it. He must require Louis Van Gaal to work in the world. 

 - He has to allow others to communicate for him where he is poor. He probably needs to leverage the player network, to accept that Paul Scholes or Rio Ferdinand might better be able to talk to his players than he can and open that channel to them. 

- He has to back down from trying to prove that his approach to creating a system is right, and find another way to succeed, possibly by engaging the players and soliciting their views. He might benefit from explaining the underlying meaning of what he’s trying to create, and allowing the players to find their own way to experience and embody it.

- More than anything, he needs to seek out those essential members of the United system that the board and Moyes so stupidly let go, and coax them back into some form of engagement. 

- Ultimately, Louis Van Gaal has to acknowledge that Louis Van Gaal still has things to learn.  Louis Van Gaal has to become open to being changed by Manchester United. It's a humbling recognition, after a high-profile career, one not aided by his having taken a three-year custodial role. Restarting your life never has a time-frame on it. You can't do it part-time. 

Each of these requires Louis Van Gaal to step back from a publicly held position and admit he needs help, something that runs counter to his entire identity and that cuts to the heart of who he thinks he is. He may not be able to do this. But if he does, he will find that in past players and staff there is a fund of goodwill, built over decades, that he cannot currently imagine the scale of. Help will come flooding from all quarters. He may have to settle, as Alex Ferguson did many times, for merely incremental improvements in playing style and for merely winning the Premiership. 

Because Alex Ferguson, with this same collection of players would have romped this season. That’s a fact.

#ManchesterUnited 
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