Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

A Few Quotes For These Times

January 24, 2017

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.
— Robinson Jeffers

Such is the irresistable nature of the truth that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
— Thomas Paine

With words we still name our losses and our endurance.  We do this because we have no other recourse, but also because man is incurably open to words and slowly they form his judgement.  This judgement, which those in power habitually fear, is formed slowly like a riverbed, by currents of words.  But words make such currents only when they are credible.
— John Bergen

The surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even — if you will — eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned imposter couldn’t be happy with.
Joseph Brodsky

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Voltaire

It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.
Blaise Pascal

People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
Kurt Vonnegut

We have no ideas, and they are pretty firm.
Joseph Heller

What if you could make humans do the wise thing, like the way you could make them laugh?
Joan Slonczewski

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A Short Trip to Ireland

October 8, 2016

This summer my wife and I took a trip for the first time to the Republic of Ireland.

My wife is Chinese in origin; I am probably of old English stock  with a last name corresponding to a large British city.  Neither of us have any forebears as far as we know from Ireland.

We ended up on an extended week-long tour of the Emerald Isle after giving up on going to St. Petersburg in Russia, my wife’s first choice.  The Russian visa process was alarmingly expensive, and required you to feel like you were being vetted for possible spy duties, given the extensive background information the forms required, back to who your friends were in high school and whether you’d ever viewed any satirical cartoons of Putin.  I exaggerate, but that was the feeling that the bureaucratic invasion of privacy engendered.

After deciding we weren’t going to St. Petersburg, in order not to lose our tour deposit, we looked at our remaining choices and plunked a finger down on the world map and said, “There!”  Ireland.  Just the southern part of the Republic.  We didn’t get to Northern Ireland.

protestant-cathedral-dublin

We landed in Dublin in July and toured our way by bus in a rough circle route, as far east as the Cliffs of Moher, north to Galway, then south to the Ring of Kerry, back through the south towards the east and Waterford and finally back up north to Dublin.

Looking back on it now after several months, my most general impressions are of a startlingly green place, even more so than the “Wet Coast” of Vancouver, a place of extremely variable and often inhospitable weather, and overall basically a very tidy and friendly land.

And everyone spoke English!  This was disconcerting to my wife, who felt afterwards that Ireland just wasn’t very exotic; it didn’t seem foreign enough, and the weather was as bad as rainy Vancouver in the winter.

dublin-pub

Myself, I appreciated the subtle Tolkienesque effect of Gaelic on every sign, the medieval castles we came across, and the impression of a history much more turbulent and freighted with violence than anything anyone, thankfully, has suffered on the west side of Canada.

But we were unlucky with the weather.  Sun and blue skies did appear on our first day in Dublin, but as we made our way across Ireland towards the Cliffs of Moher, one of the scenic highlights of the trip if only we could have seen it, the clouds descended thickly and the rains hurtled down.

Our guide on the bus tour charmingly referred to the torrents as, “Oh, but we’ve got a bit of a mist this morning,” but we got soaked all the same when we did venture out.

Despite that disappointment and the continued gloomy weather as we continued along the Ring Of Kerry, a purportedly scenic and panoramic 100 km drive, afterwards the weather did finally break and become relatively pleasant for the rest of our travels.

We did enjoy the castles and other medieval sites, from Bunratty Castle between Limerick and Ennis, to Blarney Castle near Cork, to Glendalough, the early Christian monastic site in County Wicklow founded in the 6th Century.

The medieval feast at Bunratty Castle was a highlight with costumed entertainment, food consumed completely with our hands, and humorous sing-a-longs.

Of course, Castle Blarney has the Blarney Stone, which is supposed to induce eloquence in all who kiss it.  I am of the view that I could go out into a random field and kiss any old boulder with likely the same effect.

The long line-up to go to the top of the castle, lean out and have yourself anchored by others so you didn’t fall and then smooch above you the rough stone where thousands of predecessors have also so spitted did not appeal to either of us.  (We were assured that as often as four times a day, alcohol is applied to the stone for sanitary reasons.)

But the castle itself is impressive, and as both my wife and I are enthusiastic amateur photographers, we had lots of subject matter.

home-for-the-little-people

Overall, I enjoyed the trip, with my wife somewhat less enthusiastic.  Similarly to the experience we had of Greece and its people in the previous year, I was left with the impression of a hardy people, capable of retaining their culture even after enduring periods of oppression and internal wars.

As an example of specific Irish culture, I found fascinating the widespread enthusiasm for the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football.

Hurling, a game with stick and ball which resembles lacrosse to me, is said to date back to prehistoric times, and may be as much as 3000 years old.

Every county has its own team and the regional competitions are fierce and more interesting for the Irish, it seems, than that of more well-known sports such as soccer (football) or cricket.

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Notes on my photos (from top down):

1. This photo of a Protestant cathedral in Dublin indicates the Irish past of considerable religious strife.  The majority of cathedrals are Protestant rather than Catholic, despite the latter being the predominant flavour of Christianity in Ireland, as a result of the historical suppression of Catholicism by the British.

2. A fairly typical Irish pub in Dublin, with the ubiquitous Guinness signs.

3. A home for the Little People…. At the Irish National Stud Farm, there were a grove of trees with these abodes for the Little People.  The Irish National Stud Farm was on the tour apparently because the Irish are just mad about horses.

Summer 2016: Ugly Haircuts, Adult Coloring Books, Pokémon & Trump

August 13, 2016

Once in a while I put my head up just to see what’s going on in the world, and it never fails to bemuse and alarm me.  I did something similar back in 2008, and traumatized as I became at that time, I have only now attempted to take another peek.

First off, I have to say as a developing curmudgeon that men’s haircuts, the trendy ones, have become incredibly ugly.  I am of the generation that enjoyed flowing locks, although in certain cases I admit that style might have had a few scraggly, greasy, over-the-face messes.  (If you would like to relive those fabled days of yesteryear, you can listen to the song Hair….)

However this new crop often looks like a small dead furry animal draped front to back over an otherwise shaved head.

Blonde shaved sidetopknot

 

 

 

 

 

Mens-Shaved-Hairstyles

It’s just the young trying to be different, I know.  But I would like to see long hair and bell bottom jeans come back some day… although I’m glad the one fellow above has maintained the tradition of the tie-dyed shirt.

Adult Coloring Books

They were probably out there before now, but as I hang out in bookstores, those that remain, I’ve come across adult coloring books a lot this year.

As an adult, by appearances anyway, I wouldn’t be caught dead breaking out my crayons and trying, tip of my tongue peeking out in concentration, to put colors in the little spaces.  But I guess people are buying them and doing just that, probably in the privacy of their own homes.

There are an amazing variety of them: The Great Canadian Cottage Colouring Book, a Vogue Fashion Coloring Book, Paris Street Style: A Coloring Book, Chill The F*ck Out: A Swear Word Coloring Book, The Aviary: Bird Portraits to Color, and the Meditation Coloring Book.

All seem to be predicated on the idea of relieving stress, which is a good thing.  And it is good to get some color in our lives in the midst of the drabness of city streets and monochrome workplaces.

An article in Medical Daily, The Therapeutic Science of Adult Coloring Books declares that adult coloring verges on “art therapy” and the activity helps people to focus and relax.

Pokémon Go

As a semi-luddite, as indicated by my lack of a smart phone, I know only a little about Pokémon Go, all of it hearsay.  (I’m proud to state that I own a wise phone – a flip cell phone – that gives me as much interactivity as I can stand.)

But this game has taken over much of the social media world it seems, and it is a fascinating combination of the virtual and the real.

It basically is a GPS game that takes off on the similar pursuit of geocaching and that activity’s variations on orienteering.

But Pokémon Go has figured out how to monetize geocaching in a way that captures, among others, an entire generation of adults who once played Pokémon on the old Game Boy video game system.

The intriguing thing about the game is its real world activity, and how players will engage in adventures, even dangerous ones, in pursuit of the wild Pokémon.

There are the players who broke into a zoo in Toledo, Ohio to catch a (virtual) Pokémon near a (live) tiger.

Australian players invaded a police station to catch a Sandshrew (whatever that is…).

Some entrepreneurial folks are taking to Craigslist to advertise their services as professional Pokémon hunters.

And then there are the criminally inclined who use Pokémon lures to gather players to isolated areas to mug them, as happened recently in Missouri.

On a more upbeat note, as a welcome diversion for hospital patients, some are even catching Pokémons in their beds.

Trump

This is certainly the summer of Trump in the US presidential election campaign.

What can really be said about Trump that hasn’t been said?  Senator Elizabeth Warren has him nailed: “Donald Trump is a loud, nasty, thin-skinned fraud who has never risked anything for anyone and who serves no one but himself.”

I am leaning towards the view, though, after all I’ve read and seen that the man is actually mentally ill.  He may be sick in his brain.  His father died of dementia, and we may be seeing the playing out of the very early stages of such a syndrome.

Beyond the cagey  goading of the media with outrageous statements which are retracted, sort of, as jokes, there are times when he is incoherent and quite muddled.  I’m thinking especially of his response in an interview to questions about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s Crimea.  But there are many other examples.

This idea and concern about Trump’s mental and brain health is not new.  From psychologist Dan McAdams’ piece in the Atlantic, to neuroscientist Howard Gardner’s analysis quoted in RawStory, to Kathleen Parker’s column, “Could Trump Be Suffering from Dementia?” , to an article by Steve King, “Does Donald Trump Have Dementia?” the suspicion is certainly out that the man may not be all there.  Perhaps he will end up a figure of pity rather than scorn.

The current Time magazine article on Trump, “Inside Donald Trump’s Meltdown” gives rise to the same impression.  Reportedly a Clinton campaign aide said of the billionaire’s recent antics, “On other campaigns, we would have to scrounge for crumbs. Here, it’s a fire hose. He can set himself on fire at breakfast, kill a nun at lunch and waterboard a puppy in the afternoon. And that doesn’t even get us to prime time.”

At least the Olympics are on now (with their own set of problems in the midst of athletic excellence) to display a better side of humanity.

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Sources for images:

http://mulpix.com/instagram/shaved_bald_hair.html
http://www.menshairstylestoday.com/shaved-sides-hairstyles-for-men/
https://www.pinterest.com/pin/426786502166444248

The Dust of Greece on My Shoes

October 25, 2015

Embedded in the seams of my black oxford walking shoes there can still be seen the light-coloured dust of Greece from a recent trip there.

I was almost going to write “the ancient dust,” since we traversed the Acropolis in Athens, prehistoric Corinth, Olympia and the original Olympic games site, Delphi, the monasteries of the high Meteora outcrops, and Thermopylae before we headed off to the tourist islands of Mykonos and Santorini.

But the dust in Vancouver, of course, is just as ancient, although it lacks the molecules, and the echoes, of far-distant human history and prehistory if not the gods themselves, that must float around in Greece still.

I swear that you could march off a couple of hundred yards or metres in any direction there, start excavating and before too long discover some sign of ancient civilization — that was how dense the presence of Greece’s history felt.

Up to the Acropolis

Up to the Acropolis

Our tour guide for the mainland part of the tour, which was really an archaeological one, was a young archaeologist between digging gigs who made ends meet by taking around, in this case, a bunch of Americans, Australians, and two Canadians — my wife and me.  Our guide was very serious about her job — so proud of her country and its heritage and eager to impart a detailed knowledge of the sites we visited.

Greece’s universities produce many archaeologists, given its many ruins and artifacts and the interest of many parts of the world in its rich history.  But probably too many, especially given its current economic troubles, of which we observed some signs.

That evidence included expensive half-built homes left undone in the dust and heat, and the shells of uncompleted businesses abandoned until times get better.  In the larger cities could be seen much graffiti on building walls which our guide said had cropped up most extensively in the last couple of years with all the troubles.  Mainly they were messages about politics and sports teams, she said.

But there were no riots in the streets, no bonfire-fueled protests or chanting demonstrations.  Both our guides during the trip expressed frustration with the way the media gets stuck on the most dramatic snapshot of events and then repeats that image well past where the reality has changed and moved on.  There is no question that there is hardship in the country: high unemployment, reduction in wages and access to money, political corruption, but most people cope as they struggle and make do amidst the uncertainty of their lives.

Meteora Monastery

Meteora Monastery

Tourism is a huge economic engine for the country, and although there had been some cancellations due to the economic unrest and the migrant crisis in other parts of the country, there were still many coming to the ancient land.  Tourism and olive trees — everywhere.

Highlights of the trip:

♦ The hilltop plateau in Athens with the Acropolis and the hordes who accompanied us to the top. Making our way through the sweating crowds up the steep pathways to the top seemed like a secular pilgrimage of sorts.  The old temples and reminders of the old gods – Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Zeus – although now just backdrops for thousands of digital snapshots and selfies, still have an essential dignity and grandeur.  This feeling of pilgrimage was strong in me and perhaps also, if unconscious, in many of the multitudes standing on the doorstep of the beginnings of Western Civilization.  These gods and the Athenians who worshipped them somehow engendered the idea of democracy.

Oh, Athenian democracy was limited.  You had to be a citizen of the city-state, to have completed your military training and to be male to qualify.  Athens became an imperial power, often cruel in the way of empires.  And as somebody once said, like Christianity, democracy has yet to be thoroughly practiced — even or especially by the Athenians.  Yet, in that era of authoritarian and tyrannical gods and rulers, somehow the Athenians were the very first to find their way for a time to the idea that direct participation in politics, in their own governing, was both possible and necessary.  Theirs was not a “representative” democracy, where one periodically is allowed to vote for those made available by the elites, but direct, where one had to be in attendance, both figuratively and literally.

♦ Seeing the Antikythera Mechanism in the flesh, so to speak (or in the metal) at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.  In my enthusiasm I’ve written about that unique and mysterious machine or computer in a couple of posts here over the years (The Antikythera Mechanism: Ancient Computer and The Antikythera Mechanism Revisited).  I’m still amazed at its existence: it gives you new respect for the minds at the dim edges of the history we are able to know.

♦ The Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church monasteries perched atop the rocky crags of Meteora.  In a landscape of surreal rocky crags, the six perched monasteries look over the valley below.  Two of them are for nuns. One we were told was inhabited by only three monks, two in their nineties.  The Eastern Church, as its brother Catholic Church, is not the attractive vocation of young people as it was once.  But we did find there tourists and buses from all over Europe, especially places such as Romania and Serbia.  Many who came were of the faith, there to pay their respects.  After climbing up the steep stone stairs, one can only marvel at the efforts it took to build these places, mostly in the 1500s.

♦ Once we left the mainland, it was on to the more leisurely islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  The Aegean is as blue as the tourist brochures show, and the white and pastel buildings glow in the sun.

Santorini Church Bell

Santorini Church Bell

There were many other places of course: the sonically impressive theatre at Epidaurus, the ruins at Delphi, and the original Olympic grounds near Olympia.  I even ran back and forth over the race track in what remains of the stadium.  I hope that allows me to say I’m an Olympic athlete….

I came away from Greece with a new appreciation for the Greek people, subjugated and over-run by various empires for centuries, now going through the current crises — they are enormously resilient to have kept their culture and sense of identity.  They have a justifiable pride in their country and their history.  In the wet fall of the Pacific Northwest, I like to look at the faint line of white dust in the seams of my shoes.

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Note:  More photos from Greece in addition to the above will eventually be on my photo website, The Suspended Moment….

The Migrant Crisis and An Old Apocalyptic Novel

September 19, 2015

“Raspail may have written the most politically incorrect book in France in the second half of the twentieth century.”
Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, The Atlantic, Dec. 1994 in a review of The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail, 1973.
—————-

My wife and I recently visited Greece on vacation for a couple of weeks, part archaeological tour and part chasing photographs on a couple of the tourist islands.

At night, with BBC World Service usually about the only English channel available on TV, we heard and saw all the drama and tragedy of the ongoing migrant crisis, which continues to deepen.  Although we didn’t come into contact with it, Greece on top of its economic troubles is also dealing with an influx of the refugees piling into Europe and headed north.

Camp of the SaintsIt reminded me a lot of an old science-fiction novel, I guess you could call it, I read back in the 1970s.  Returning from our trip, I tried to track down the name and more details of the book.  It turns out to have been the 1973 apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints by Frenchman Jean Raspail, which was translated into English in 1975 and I must have read shortly thereafter.

It’s about the starving, the wretched and the disenfranchised pouring out of India in a flotilla a million strong and arriving on the beaches of France.  Although France is the focus, the rest of Europe and the Western world in the novel eventually suffer the same fate as hordes of migrants continue to come ashore.  As Raspail himself put it:

“I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.”

On their way to France, the enormous flotilla wants to approach Egypt (to gain access to the Suez Canal) and South Africa, but the military of both countries threaten to sink the boats and drown the occupants if they should approach.  So, in Raspail’s world, the horde of migrants make their way to France.  Raspail is more interested really in the reaction of the French establishment and the rest of Europe in the face of such an onslaught, and depicts it as decadent and weak in the face of this threat to the Western way of life.  He casts the coming migrants in a poor light as mangy and prone to violence and sexual assaults in their long journey to anywhere that will be better than what they left.

A review of the book by T. Williamson describes it in a way that is thought-provoking about current events:

“The actions of the main characters in the book mirror what we see every day in the media and especially on the Internet: There are the government spokesmen telling us not to panic, the media talking heads telling us what our duty is or should be, the leaders of church and society instructing us in what is the “proper” way to feel about everything that’s happening to us. And front and center is the ordinary citizen, caught like a child under a steamroller as events roll over them at their terrible slow speed.”

The Fate of Western Civilization

The point of Raspail’s book seems to be that Western civilization is psychologically incapable of defending itself.  The French in the end order their miltary to shoot or sink the approaching menacing armada, but the soldiers and navy refuse and flee.  Eventually, at the end of the novel, as examples of the overrunning by the third world, the mayor of New York is made to share Gracie Mansion with three families from Harlem, the Queen of England must marry her son to a Pakistani and other huge armadas are ready to head for Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Raspail has been accused of writing a racist tract, but that is too simple.  As an example, one main spokesman for European civilization in the novel is non-white but has embraced what he sees as the best of Western civilization.

As another reviewer, Dominique M. Sanchez, puts it:

“I did not see it as a racist book but as a book written by an elitist who is strongly attached to his way of life and fearful of seeing it vanish. All cultures are protective and proud of their own ways and that includes Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Latin populations. The issue here is poverty and exploitation, not necessarily race.”

Over the years, as migrant and refugee crises have cropped up here and there, those from both sides of the political spectrum have referred to this book from the mid-1970s.

The National Review, a prestigious conservative publication, in 2014 had a short essay by Mackubin Thomas Owens about The Camp of the Saints after the sudden influx of migrant children into the United States.  He asserted the deficiencies of multiculturalism and the loss of self-confidence of Western liberal society:

“Instead, multiculturalism has spawned a balkanized society of resentful members of various groups that seek favors for themselves, often at the expense of other groups — identity politics at its worst.”

The Atlantic, a literary and cultural magazine that would likely be considered too liberal by the National Review, examined The Camp of the Saints 20 years prior to that, trying to place the fictional events of Raspail’s novel in the context of exploitation of the third world.

The authors, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy, wrote in 1994 that:

“Perhaps the global problem of the early twenty-first century is basically this: that across our planet a number of what might be termed demographic-technological fault lines are emerging, between fast-growing, adolescent, resource-poor, undercapitalized, and undereducated populations on one side and technologically inventive, demographically moribund, and increasingly nervous rich societies on the other.”

The Fault Line of War

It seems to me that the main fault line is simpler than that, and it’s called war.  The current migrant and refugee numbers are a direct result of civil, guerilla and national wars.  Right now, on the continent of Africa alone, there are something like 20 nations with major conflicts with a half-million or more of their citizens on the move, struggling to survive.  That’s not even on the horizon of most Western minds.  Never mind all the displacement from the Middle East conflicts that is front and centre in the media now.

My modest proposal is that those nations who profit most from the billions of dollars they are making in the arms trade, who export the weapons of war, should import the most refugees.

By that measure, the United States, Russia, Germany, China and France should be taking in the most.  Great Britain (no. 6) and Canada (no. 15) should also be stepping up.  (And remember the hypocrisy when representatives of those nations prattle about the evils of war.)

Connelly and Kennedy put it well at the end of their Atlantic article:

“However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. It will take more than talk to prove the prophet wrong.”

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On the Right to Not Be Accosted

August 15, 2015

“The real war is not on terror, but on what ‘terrifies’ the System: the unpredictable spanner-in-the-works known as individuality.”
— John Kendall Hawkins, in a review of the book Technocreep, by Tom Keenan
———————————————–

There may well come a time not long from now when the Internet has outlived its usefulness, when the attractiveness of its original free and open spirit, of the amazing possibilities of interconnectedness that galvanized its beginnings has rigidified into an environment overwhelmed by corporate and governmental interests.

The relentless pursuit of monetization and surveillance even now threaten to make the Internet a platform which legitimizes all forms of corporate and governmental spying on its users.  (For just one example, see this article on potential upcoming collusion between large tech companies such as Google and the NSA becoming enshrined in legislation.)

One aspect of this is the conflict between the increasingly intrusive nature of advertising on the web, and the measures taken to avoid it, as should be anybody’s right.  Those measures themselves are increasingly coming under fire.

Many of us have become so annoyed by web page advertising that we’ve resorted to ad blockers of one kind or another to escape incessant pop-up ads, flashing banners, voice-overs and the rest.  Beyond the more petty annoyances, the ads are avenues for potential malware delivery (including by surveillance agencies) and incessant corporate tracking which nullifies any pretensions to privacy we might once have had.

The Pursuit of Ad Blocking

So those of us who surf the net and object to the annoyance and worse of the ads, there are browser add-ons like, for example, Ad-Block Plus.  This has become a very popular content filter to block ads, which is obtainable as an extension for most web browsers.

Unfortunately, this add-on is exhibiting similar symptoms for which it proclaims itself the cure — the makers of the add-on accept money from advertisers to be ‘white-listed’ (some advertisers say they’ve been extorted) and thus allow those ads to circumvent the block.

Many dedicated surfers of the web have now moved on to uBlock, which is free and open-source, as well as doing its job more efficiently.

These ad blockers and others are working well enough to be proclaimed a clear and present danger to the business models of many commercial sites.  A recent ad-blocking report says that ad blocking grew by 41% in the last year, and supposedly cost web publishers $22 billion.

A group of publishers in Germany was so upset this year that they took Ad-Block to court and lost. Twice. There are other business groups also working towards making ad-blocking illegal.  Although that doesn’t really seem technically feasible.

There are another group of extensions available that now are able to block most of the tracking that makes it possible, for instance, for Google to cater ads to you on the basis of your searches.  All of the major, and not so major, commercial and governmental entities are busy building profiles on who surfs the web for what by the use of tracking cookies and similar means.

Getting Tracked

So now, on my Firefox browser, I now have the following extensions to thwart this activity: Ghostery, Blur (formerly Do Not Track Me – Abine), and Privacy Badger (which is intended to detect patterns of tracking).  Of course I also rely on the extensions NoScript and KeyScrambler to block unwanted Java script and to encrypt keystrokes respectively.  In addition, I have another add-on that deletes cookies when I leave a site.  You may think me excessive, but I have a right not to be accosted.

As an experiment about tracking, let’s go to a genuinely informative website and see what one would imagine should be relatively innocuous — the Smithsonian.  This is the site of the venerable, educational and scientific Smithsonian Institute and the publisher of what amounts to an online magazine.

There’s some good information here.  But first I’ve got to temporarily allow many of about 50 scripts on the page with my handy NoScript options button.  But there are so many ad-related scripts on this page that they come in waves.  I allow one batch of scripts so I can click on various content, and then there appears another bunch I also temporarily allow.  And then I have to do it again.  (Although I am temporarily allowing scripts, my other blockers are taking care of the tracking cookies. I hope.)

Courtesy of Ghostery, let’s take a look at the trackers that I am blocking, which want to collect information about my presence and what I look at and sell it to whomever will buy as I browse the Smithsonian website.

  1. Rocket Fuel (or x+1):”Rocket Fuel delivers a leading programmatic media-buying platform at big data scale that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to improve marketing ROI. Rocket Fuel’s Advertising That LearnsTM technology empowers media teams to focus on strategy, not spreadsheets. Rocket Fuel was founded by online-advertising veterans and rocket scientists from NASA, Yahoo!, Salesforce.com, and DoubleClick.”  Yikes.  Rocket scientists are involved.
  2. ChartBeat: “Chartbeat provides real-time data analytics and performance alerts for your website.”
  3. Crazy Egg: “Crazy Egg shows you where people clicked on your site. Our servers will create a report that shows you the clicks on the pages you are tracking.”
  4. DataPoint Media: “DataPoint Media specializes in audience data management and exchange-traded media. Our solutions help publishers and media companies take control of their audience data, increase targeting capabilities and extend their reach across the ad exchanges.”
  5. Google Adwords: “No matter what your budget, you can display your ads on Google and our advertising network. Pay only if people click your ads.”  Can’t see ’em; won’t click ’em.
  6. Google Tag Manager: “Google Tag Manager is free and easy, leaving more time and money to spend on your marketing campaigns.”
  7. Quantcast: “Quantcast measures and organizes the world’s audiences in real-time so advertisers can buy, sell and connect with the people who matter most to them.”  Advertisers are busy buying and selling us.
  8. Scorecard Research Beacon: “… a leader in the Internet market research industry.”
  9. Sharethrough: “Sharethrough is the only video distribution technology company built from the ground-up to maximize sharing of brand video content.”
  10. Taboola: “Taboola’s service is used by publishers to recirculate their own traffic by generating personalized on-site video recommendations.”  It’s all about the personalization.

Becoming a Commodity

Now it could be argued, and often is, that all this intrusiveness is the price of having content to look at on the internet.  This is the argument of people with very short memories who don’t remember, or never knew, the web before the onslaught of commercialization.  I have no sympathy for the idea that I am obligated to look at ads and be subjected to profiling and metadata marketing for the benefit of somebody’s business model.  I resent being anybody’s commodity.

I take the same view as Marco Arment does in a blog post called “The Ethics of Modern Web Ad-Blocking.”

He writes, “People often argue that running ad-blocking software is violating an implied contract between the reader and the publisher: the publisher offers the page content to the reader for free, in exchange for the reader seeing the publisher’s ads. And that’s a nice, simple theory, but it’s a blurry line in reality.

“By that implied-contract theory, readers should not only permit their browsers to load the ads, but they should actually read each one, giving themselves a chance to develop an interest for the advertised product or service and maybe even click on it and make a purchase.”

This is the ethics of ridiculousness, as Arment points out.  Web ads are something different than say a newspaper ad (which certainly has no ethical obligation on my part either).  They are software, and designed without your consent to “run arbitrary code on your computer, which can (and usually does) collect and send data about you and your behavior back to the advertisers and publishers. And there’s so much consolidation amongst ad networks and analytics providers that they can easily track your behavior across multiple sites, building a creepily accurate and deep profile of your personal information and private business.”

The book referred to at the beginning of this post, Technocreep, by Tom Keenan, has the subtitle: “The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy.”

Thou Shalt Not Accost

One day not long ago in the car I overheard a portion of a radio interview with Keenan on his book.  He commented that, increasingly, commercial and other interests feel entitled to use every empty vista, whether on the web, or in a stadium, or along the road to invade our mental, emotional and spiritual space.  The web advertising practices take this tendency to new degrees of invasiveness.

But we have a right to not be accosted.

[Home]

Can Modern Human Beings Inhabit A Sustainable Environment?

April 4, 2015

Change Resistance as the Crux of the Environmental Sustainability Problem
by Jack Harich, System Dynamics Review, 2010, 37 pages
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Is it our nature as human beings that we must be so intractable and incapable of change, even against our best interest?

Must the culture to which we belong remain so bent on turning everything into commodities and markets that it becomes less and less possible to live in a decent, dignified way in a healthy world?

Is nature itself doomed by humans unable to get a grip on themselves, like addicts who repeat the same destructive patterns over and over again while constantly talking ineffectually about their plans to get better?

I’ve often wondered about these things, but rather pointlessly without any particular insight, as the world’s stresses mount. But I came across Jack Harich’s paper a while ago, and the analysis he makes of the situation from a systems perspective seemed to actually get at the real difficulties.

I can’t claim any special knowledge about the systems approach, but it does seem to be about the interdependence of things and events.  You can’t look at completely independent elements this way — but what do you know, the world does seem to be wholly interdependent, if not interpenetrating!

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking comes out of General Systems Theory as formulated by the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s and 40s with application to everything from biology to cybernetics to the social sciences.

“Cybernetics” is almost a quaint term to me, probably undeservedly so.  But it seems to go along with images from the last century of revolving magnetic tapes on massive IBM computers, and 1970s talk about feedback loops.

But it is actually about information, in all its aspects, and how it changes and makes a difference in the world about us.  Witness all the gadgets and the distracted people.

And of course it can’t help but bring to my mind the book Psycho-Cybernetics, that wildly popular self-help book from the 1960s by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz.  (I can still see that cover.)

Actually Maltz’s field, although one might be snide about it, was instrumental in developing what the book tried to say: that only with a positive self-image can one strive towards goals worth having, and be able to correct one’s path along the way. In his experience, many of his patients still felt ugly after his surgical attempts to beautify them.  Although perhaps others benefited enough to pursue goals in life with a renewed self-confidence. He saw human behaviour as a negative feedback, cybernetic system.  (It seems to me, though, that self-clarity is just as important as self-image in any such system.)

This can only be peripheral to Jack Harich’s more academic considerations in his article on change resistance and environmental sustainability, although his approach is all about correcting a path that leads nowhere.  And maybe humanity is coming to have a self-image problem….

The situation is that after at least 30 or 40 years of well-intentioned effort, humans have failed to move towards living sustainably on this planet.  The science of environmental sustainability is unable to solve its central problems. Harich proposes a new paradigm, a new way to think about the problems.  But first we need to understand the “old” way.

The Old Paradigm

He identifies the old paradigm as focusing on “proper coupling” as the central problem to solve. Proper coupling occurs when the behavior of one system affects the behavior of other systems in a desirable manner, using the appropriate feedback loops, so the systems work together in harmony in accordance with design objectives. For example, if you never got hungry you would starve to death…. ”

“In the environmental sustainability problem the human system has become improperly coupled to the greater system it lives within: the environment.”

He notes that in 1972 the publication of The Limits to Growth brought the problem of environment sustainability to the world’s attention and defined the problem as how to devise economic and ecological sustainability that could last far into the future.  How can the ecological and economic systems be properly coupled? More elaborations of coupling mechanisms were proposed such as “a broad natural capital depletion tax, application of the precautionary polluter pays principle, and a system of ecological tariffs.”

In 2007, the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report encouraged governments to create incentives to mitigate environmental problems.  Another way to promote proper coupling.

The New Paradigm of Change Resistance

Harich recounts a discussion years ago over a difficult problem with a young engineer from the U.K., who suggested that if you’ve looked at a problem from every angle and still are stumped, then you probably have a missing abstraction.  Find it, and the problem becomes more solvable, he says.

So to Harich, change resistance is that missing abstraction.  The term describes the tendency of a system to continue its current behavior, despite the application of forceful measures to change that behavior. The main feature of this is that the status quo represents an equilibrium between the barriers to change and the forces favoring change.  And the status quo today, as Harich points out, is an unsustainable world.

When anyone attempts to solve sustainability problems, the system maintains its balance by automatically increasing the barriers to change.

He proposes decomposing difficult social problems into two more workable sub-problems: 1) overcoming change resistance, and 2) achieving proper coupling — that is linking proper consequences to actions, as in universal suffrage or the dangers of smoking tobacco. (His analysis depends on having a relatively democratic society.  Unfortunately, the democratic features of the developed world are also increasingly in question.)

For sustainability, there is obviously massive change resistance.  This indicates, Harich says, an implicit goal of the system in which we find ourselves. He identifies a process of “Classic Activism” which has been long used by citizen groups to solve problems of the common good that governments are not addressing.

Most environmental literature, including The Limits to Growth and the IPCC assessment reports can be seen as part of the Classic Activism of finding the proper practices; telling people the truth about the problem and proper practices; and exhorting, inspiring and bargaining with people and groups to get them to support the proper practices.

The Process of Classic Activism Fails

Harich describes how while Classic Activism works on some problems, it has failed to adequately address the global environmental sustainability problem.  His diagrams of the feedback loops at play are fascinating.  (Check out Figure 3 on page 45 in pages 35-72 of his article.)

He says classic activists don’t see the feedback mechanism of systemic change resistance or assume it is only a minor issue, easily solved by overcoming individual change resistance.

He cites an interesting table from Donella Meadows on places to intervene in a system in increasing order of effectiveness.  At the low end are playing around with subsidies, taxes and standards, moving to the higher leverage items of addressing the goal of the system, and even transcending paradigms.

In his model of the process of Classic Activism and its failures, there is no discussion of why social agents are motivated to solve problems and also to resist solving problems.  It’s just how the loops function.

Basic to his discussion is the “common good” as the mixture of “industrial production, social factors, environmental health and other elements that optimizes quality of life for all living people and their descendents.” Hirach writes, “In a common good problem, altruistic activists stand on the side of the truth of what will benefit the common good, while selfish special interests resisting change cannot.”  [ His emphasis.] He goes on: “Overall, one side employs the truth about the need for proper practices while the other side utilizes bold lies, half-truths, spin, sophism, reality as they see it and all sorts of twaddle.”  (Twaddle, I’m sure, is a technical cybernetic-type word….)

But “deception” is a defined term, meaning the act of convincing others to believe what is not true or only half-true, not out of malice necessarily but as a way to achieve the goal of resisting change.  Thus deception is an objective term which describes a certain kind of observed behaviour in Hirach’s model, and which serves to play the largest role in political decision making.

Wakeup Call Catastrophes

He observes that most environmental progress is made piecemeal as a result of some “wakeup call catastrophe” such as the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole or acid rain or the Love Canal. “…Reliance on the use of Classic Activism and wakeup call catastrophes to overcome change resistance will not work, because by the time large enough catastrophes occur to solve the complete sustainability problem, it will be too late.”

As Harich sees it, the main problem for Classic Activism is that change resistance is much more likely to be systemic than local or located within individual agents.

Getting at the Root Cause

The root causes usually identified as important in hampering environmental sustainability such as population growth, economic inequality, lack of cooperation and maladapted values are not the deepest root causes of inability to change.  They are only intermediate and pseudo root causes to Harich.

Harich warns that what he will present as possible solutions “may appear impossible.”  Such impossibilities as universal suffrage and the end of slavery as an institution could be considered similar.

The modern corporation can be viewed as a kind of life form, following the same principles of behaviour that genetic life forms do.  He cites an abundance of literature showing that large for-profit corporations are “now the dominant life form in the biosphere.”

The Goal of the Dominant Life Form on the Planet

WEFstrip

The corporations’ goal of maximizing profits is mutually exclusive with the goal of Homo sapiens to “optimize quality of life for those living and their descendents, which includes protecting the environment on which we depend for life.”

This is identified as the root cause of “improper coupling.”

Harich asks us to conceive of the modern corporation being re-engineered to be a trusted servant of Homo sapiens, which historically was the original idea.

The new re-engineered goal would be serving our species as its highest priority, “by optimizing components of quality of life as stated in its charter,” both in general and for specific outputs of the corporation.  Goal achievement would be measured by contribution to a sustainable quality of life index.  Others have already done much work on such an index, Harich says.

“Such an index would be expressed in percent of goal achieved.  A negative amount means a company performed so poorly it should be penalized.  Over 100 percent indicates expectations were exceeded.  The index would be calculated by each company as part of normal accounting.”

This is one suggested approach and will require further experimentation and refinement.  Harich says, for example, instead of an index something called the Triple Bottom Line could be used.

“The new goal must be as simple, unambiguous, measurable, and motivating as the one it replaces: profit maximization.”

Corporation 2.0

He calls this Corporation 2.0 and says it could be introduced on a gradual basis over a couple of decades.  Solving common good problems, because this advances the goal of Homo sapiens, would now benefit the new corporations.

“Imagine what it would be like for large corporations to work as hard to solve the sustainability problem as they have worked in the past to not solve it.”

So all seems to depend on redesigning the modern corporation — and Harich expects “strenuous resistance from the corporate life form to loss of dominance.”

So then he goes on to ask what is the root cause of change resistance to corporate redesign?

“The root cause appears to be deception effectiveness high enough to thwart, weaken, or delay changes that run counter to the goal of the corporate life form.”

The corporations’ have promulgated two high-impact beliefs to further their goal: 1) corporations are good and essential to society’s wellbeing, and 2) growth is good because gross domestic product (GDP) and the stock market are the best indicators of a nation’s wellbeing.

Harich says both points are only half-true.  It is only the production role of corporations that is essential, not the way they are currently defined.  And GDP doesn’t measure quality of life.  Serious disasters automatically raise the GDP as more is spent to reconstruct, for instance.  And the stock market is a kind of con game.

High Deception Effectiveness

But how to overcome the high “deception effectiveness” behind systemic change resistance?

Harich suggest pushing “on the related high leverage point of general ability to detect manipulative deception.”  This might be done by more and better education on how to detect common fallacies (see end of this post for an example); independent political truth rating organizations such as FactCheck.org; corporate environmental responsibility ratings; and the use of quality of life and sustainability indexes.

Unfortunately, the current ability to detect manipulative deception is very low.  But if it should ever start to rise, “deception effectiveness” will then start to fall, and the corporations’ two high-impact beliefs will begin to lose credibility.

Hirach points out that worst historic excesses of dictators, kings, warlords and other tyrants were eventually, in a way now intuitively obvious, reduced by the addition of the voter feedback loop.

“This could also be called the ruler benevolence feedback loop.  Is the system missing the corporate benevolence feedback loop?”

*       *      *

In some ways, Harich’s analysis in systems-speak is stating the obvious.  But his approach does have the advantage of providing of a more-or-less objective means of detailed analysis in terms of all the feedback loops that govern our way of life.

In his model, you can add or modify a feedback loop, and observe in a verifiable, repeatable way what kind of impact it might make on the whole system.  It is a quite detailed, technical representation that one should read his paper to appreciate.

You can read more on Jack Harich’s site about the sustainability problem at Thwink.org.

And finally, here is a summation of the Truth Test as presented by Robert Gowans and included in Harich’s article as a table:

“Table 3. The truth test

1. What is the argument?
2. Are any common patterns of deception present?
3. Are the premises true, complete, and relevant?
4. Does each conclusion follow from its premises?

The truth test is a simple test designed to tell whether a statement is true, false, or just plain nonsense. This allows voters to tell reality from illusion. They can then answer the question every democracy depends on: Is this truth or deception?

By using pattern recognition you can determine the truth of most political appeals in little more than the time it takes to hear or read them. All that is required is to learn the patterns.”

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Note on cartoon source:

From Marc Roberts Cartoons