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fall back position

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Always remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason, and plot!
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

I have been recalcitrant with my writing on this site. My personal life justifies this, but it’s time to get back to it, and November 5th seems a good day. This day is known as Guy Fawkes day. In the late 1500’s and early 1600’s people who openly practiced Catholicism in Britain were subject to fines and restrictions for their faith. With the coronation of the nominally Catholic king James I, many Catholics throughout Britain looked for some respite, but the new King chose to work with Parliament to maintain the level of persecution. (The fines brought in a nice and regular subsidy to the treasury.) In 1605 a group of Catholics, feeling disappointed and betrayed by the new king, attempted regicide and the assassination of all the members of Britain’s Parliament. In the off-season they rented a cellar under the house of parliament and stocked it with gunpowder. They intended to blow it up when the king sat to reopen Parliament, but on November 5th, 1605, their plot was discovered or betrayed. Guy Fawkes did not orchestrate the plan; he was just the conspirator guarding the cellar that day, and he was was caught red-handed. The authorities tortured and broke him in a few days. He signed a formal confession dated November 8, and the other would-be terrorists were rounded up or killed in the following weeks. Guy Fawkes was publicly executed, along with some of the other conspirators, on January 31, 1606, before a large enthusiastic crowd. The prisoners were first bound and dragged behind horses through the streets of London to the gallows. Then, the plan was that each was to be hung by noose, to strangle them a little, but not to death, and then to castrate and disembowel each of them on a table set up in the square for that purpose, then to cut each man into four pieces, and then (finally) cut off each convict’s head and mount it on a spike for public display (traditionally on London Bridge). In the age of the divine right of kings, to be ‘hung, drawn, and quartered’ was the standard sentence of the time for treason. As well as being the first of the conspirators caught, Guy Fawkes also has the distinction that his last act was a public act of defiance. When he was on the gallows platform he jumped high so that when he fell, the knot of his noose broke his neck and he died instantly, disappointing, and maybe impressing, the gathered crowds.

Now the story goes that in the following years, Guy Fawkes, for his sins, is burned in effigy on the evening of November 5th. Traditionally, a big straw model is made in the shape of a man, and there is a community bonfire and some drinking and, in later years, fireworks. However, long before Guy Fawkes, long before there were Anglicans or even Catholics, people in northern European communities were making straw manikins and burning them in annual end-of-harvest celebrations. Maybe it was a re-enactment of the ‘death’ of the pagan Deity of Agriculture, who will be ‘reborn’ in the coming spring (our Easter celebration). Maybe it was mutual encouragement, a way for the people of a community to demonstrate to themselves that they had enough harvested to make it through the long winter ahead (Look, we can even burn some of it up! We aren’t scared!) And I expect there was usually some drinking and merry-making on the side. In the 1600’s, peasants in farming communities throughout Britain were still enjoying this ancient celebration, and the Anglican establishment thought to bring this activity formally into the state religion. The fires throughout the countryside were explained as metaphorically burning Guy Fawkes, as a celebration of order over chaos, of the monarchy over the Catholic conspirators. And the odd little poem at the start of this post was one feature of that campaign.

It’s always at about the same time, but this year Guy Fawkes Day happens to fall on the very day we are to set our clocks back 1 hour. Daylight Saving Time has ancient origins, maybe even as old as the end-of-harvest bonfires. It would have always made sense, in Agrarian societies in northern climes, to work longer days during the summer and into the harvest time. And then, when all the work was done, kick back and relax, and then hunker down to survive the cold winter. This seasonal routine long predated clocks. The industrial revolution brought modern clocks, artificial lights, time zones, and railway schedules to Europe and North America. In the 1800’s the exciting ideal – having every clock within a range of 15° longitude agree on the time – blinded many to the advantages of seasonal temporal variations. Modern Daylight Saving Time was initiated in the early 1900’s, for the same reasons as before, to give people more daylight hours in which to work during the summer, and the switch back to regular hours was made after Hallowe’en. Fall Back night is a modern version of that same ancient end-of-harvest celebration as Guy Fawkes night.

So, in the spirit of the season, set your clocks back an hour. Check your batteries in your smoke alarms and CO monitors, change the filter in your furnace, get yourself ready for a good restful winter. And remember that nothing much has changed.


I read  The Unbroken Machine by Dale Smith. I will post in detail about the ideas in this work shortly, but I strongly recommend that, if you read my website, you should read this book. In later posts I intend to challenge many of the ideas put forward in The Unbroken Machine; I do not agree with the central thesis. But I am very grateful to Mr. Smith for describing in clear language the broad strokes of the mechanism of Democracy in Canada. And, I appreciate his enthusiasm on this topic. His work deserves to be considered and pondered and, despite himself, can act as a catalyst for improvements in our ways of governing.  More to come.

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if it ain’t broke…

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Well, I was trying to write about the mainstream media handling of the revelations of Minister Freeland’s family past and those nefarious Russians, and I find I have to unwind a bit. The layers of irony are so deep I get paralyzed. I want to do it justice so I am going to set that one aside for now.

Instead, I went to read Dale Smith’s blog Routine Proceedings. Mr. Smith is a parliamentary press gallery journalist and he writes short insightful posts about the nuts-and-bolts workings of the government in Ottawa. I wanted to get his take on the Freeland vs. Russia issue.  While there, I learned that he has just published a book, The Unbroken Machine.  The theme of The Unbroken Machine is that our Westminster Parliamentary system of governance is good as is, and it is a lack of understanding by the average Canadian that makes our government seem broken. Don’t reform it!  If we behave differently, then it will behave better.

On the one hand, I agree; educating youngsters in the workings of Parliament is very valuable. We would be better governed if we understood our system better. The events of December 2008 would not have unfolded as they had if the Canadian public were better educated about our governing traditions. And I would say that Mr. Smith probably understands our system considerably better than I do. The book is probably also a response, and challenge, to the Fair Vote Canada electoral reform campaign for proportional representation, a cause readers of this site will know I don’t support. I will certainly be reading the book (and probably blogging about it).

On the other hand, the whole 2008 fiasco just flagged the profoundly undemocratic nature of the Westminster Parliamentary system and especially its Canadian variety. I really believe all the stuff on the 7 pages on this website! All the blah-blah theory, as one of my readers once kindly put it, is solid. So, I am keen to take on a well-thought defense of our current system, a system I find democratically indefensible. I will certainly be reading Dale Smith’s book (and probably blogging about it).

cheers,

DB

 

 

zen liberalism

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2017 at 9:11 pm

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.

Zen saying

Continuing with what I started in the previous post, to connect the two themes of biology and democracy; the 1970’s were seminal. Back then, liberalism was the dominant western philosophy. The wild eccentricities of the 60’s were receding into the past; science seemed ascendant. In southeast Asia, and in the US, the madness of the Vietnam war raged on. But back then people thought it madness, said publicly that war was morally wrong. It was an American war, and Canadians and Europeans were stridently proud not to be part of it. In the US, the Civil Rights, Feminism, and the Peace Movement were in full gear. Everyone watched M*A*S*H and All in the Family on TV. We used to openly laugh at socially conservative people. We wrote them off as dinosaurs, unable to adapt, doomed to extinction.

And this open, progressive, free society was what distinguished us fundamentally from our military adversaries with their closed, regressive, controlled societies, what made us the good guys in our manichaean struggle. The threat of nuclear war hung over us, and truly no one knew what to do about that, but somehow the immediacy of that horror was being rolled back. For one thing, we started playing hockey with Soviet teams. They were really good, but we were sometimes a little better. (Again, a group effort thing.) And Russian crowds cheered the best Canadian players and after a while Canadian crowds cheered the best Russian players. It was still scary to think about the unthinkable, but somehow, those tensions were easing and if both sides kept humanizing each other, rather than demonizing each other, maybe things would keep getting better. We seemed to be on a good path.

Well, somehow we wandered far off that path. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, western liberalism was in full retreat and conservatism was the dominant philosophy. It was our hard line conservatives that broke the Soviets, exhausting the Evil Empire in Afghanistan. True, destabilizing Afghanistan was the initiative of a fairly liberal US administration, but President Carter couldn’t even win a second term, and it was his successor, the deeply conservative President Reagan, who reaped the credit for saving the world when the wall came down. Today, it is liberalism that is openly mocked, and rightly so. The once compelling ideologies upon which liberalism was built have devolved into disturbing parodies. Scientific research now serves the marketing needs of its funders, feminism is now misandry, egalitarianism is now identity politics, and politeness, which once served as a framework for civil discourse, is now the paralysis of political correctness. It is not that liberalism has nothing to offer humanity. It is not that there are no good people on all those fronts still doing good work, for there are. It is that liberalism is in retreat, has lost society’s high ground, and its practitioners are disparate and desperate, clinging to straws.

Here’s a theory. I think this happened because liberalism could not learn from ethology in the 1970’s. Science was showing us a side of humanity that was dark. And liberalism could not embrace that dark side. Liberalism would not adapt in the 70’s, and today we witness the consequences of that failure. Well, the horse has left; let’s close the barn door now. Prejudice, xenophobia, bigotry, these are not evil. There; I said it.

Xenophobia is part of our heritage. It goes a long long way back. Rats are xenophobic, geese are xenophobic, howler monkeys are xenophobic, wolves are xenophobic. If a rat from one colony happens upon a group of rats from a neighbouring colony, the rat gang members, driven to fury, will tear that lone rat to bits. Xenophobia is a widely distributed behaviour throughout the natural world. A liberal infers that therefore nature is bad. But ethologists would point out that xenophobia is a behaviour that enhances survival, that xenophobia is part of the human package that got us where we are today. In prehistoric times, xenophobia kept us in geographically isolated tribes. So, we did not clump together and over-hunt one area and then all starve. We did not over-pollute one area with our refuse and then die of illness. When plague did strike, it could not carry far because each tribe kept physically apart from others. Plague would not even be the right word; the consequences of a serious communicable disease would be tragic for one tribe only, but not for the adversaries on the other side of the hill. Xenophobia is part of what makes rats and us so successful. And just as surely as a person feels pain or hunger or joy, they can feel xenophobia. That was the lesson ethologists revealed, and liberals rejected.

Now, let us be fair. I am not a rat, you are not a rat, and none of my other readers are rats. We are all super primates in this discussion. And, not to disparage our equally successful fellow travelers, but we super primates have far more complex behaviours, far more choices, than rats have. There’s not much to be gained for ratkind, or for an atypical rat, were that rat to try bucking xenophobic behaviour. But there were huge advantages for human kind, and for a prehistoric human, were that human to not be xenophobic. See those folks over there? They do some things differently, and better, than we do here. Their food smells great. They have stuff over there that we don’t have here, and I could trade them for some stuff we have here that they don’t have. And, the girls over there are not strange looking; they are exotic! These are not murine (ratly) considerations; they are very human considerations. Our behavioural suite includes xenophobia with a significant smattering of xenophilia. Most humans feel genuine uneasiness around ‘others’. Some humans, just as genuinely, do not. Throughout prehistory most of us stayed in our tribes, and strangers were our demons, and a few of us wandered off in search of cool stuff, fine dining, and exciting new sexual encounters. And I am pretty sure that this is what’s still driving us super primates today.

Liberalism lost its dominance because it could not make a place for the majority of humans in its ideology. How’s that for a serious flaw? If you happened to fall on the xenophobe side of our biological divide, liberalism demanded you feel ashamed. That you cared for your kids and your parents, that you worked conscientiously for your livelihood, that you were a good neighbour and good friend to those who looked and sounded like you, that you were kind to animals, all of that counted for naught; in the liberal universe you were condemned to hide your true feelings or face social rejection and live in shame. Yes, there have been gas chambers, lynchings, residential schools. From a liberal perspective, extremes of xenophobia needed to be reigned in. So, taking a page from old-time religion, xenophobia got defined as evil and everyone was advised to repress themselves when they felt it. Easy for a xenophile. But a relentless blanket of shame was not a policy destined to keep all the well-intentioned xenophobes on side over the long term. Sometime early in the 1980’s a critical mass of people just decided they didn’t need to be ashamed of themselves anymore. Can anyone blame them?

So, liberalism today faces a big problem. It is rejected by a now self-confident majority. Despised as elitist by people who really know how to hold a grudge, it circles the drain of history, a cluster of gross mockeries of the principled ideals for which it once stood. What is liberalism to do? Because, you know, in itself, it’s not really a problem that liberals are not socially dominant anymore. We can all get over that. It’s even poetic justice because it’s where liberals tried to put conservatives. No, the real problem is that xenophobes, now in charge, can’t lead us on a path of survival. In the conservative universe ‘might makes right’ is the only conceivable path. That means eventual environmental collapse and nuclear war. The only way forward for us all, to keep living healthy primate lives in a functioning biosphere, is some new robust intellectual structure, with accompanying societal behaviour standards, that can serve the animal ‘all humanity’. It will be conceived by xenophiles, because only xenophile minds can conceive something like that. Call it zen liberalism. It’s a vision that encompasses what we once had and that also has a place of respect, and healthy restraint, for our xenophobe brethren. Maybe democracy is part of that new vision. Maybe.

ethologue

In Uncategorized on March 11, 2017 at 7:15 pm

I met my wife-to-be at the end of the last century. One of the things about her I found inspiring was that she is a poet. She encouraged me to try my hand at her craft.
“Just write about something important to you.” she told me, and the poem of the previous post was the result of that long ago effort. She eventually married me anyways.

I’d like to tie up the whole biology and evolution theme of these recent posts with the democracy theme of the website pages. I better start by saying I was an adolescent of the 70’s. It will seem incredible to my younger readers, and this observation is likely strongly coloured by my own level of understanding, but  back then science seemed ascendant. In 1969 we had walked upon the moon. (Well, two of us had, but it was seen as a group effort.) Computers were not yet commonplace, but it was clear they would play bigger roles in our lives in the near future. Revelations of warm-blooded dinosaurs and ancient hominids were popularizing evolution, and organized religion seemed helpless to stem the tide.

A particular branch of study was becoming popular thanks to the Austrian author and naturalist, Konrad Lorenz. He wrote two classics,  King Solomon’s Ring in 1949 and On Aggression in 1963. He had an interesting past, and I’d like to take that up in a later post, but for this discussion, his works inspired a great number of intellectuals in ethology. This cool word has, of course, a Greek root. Ethology can be translated as the study of character. That’s not quite the whole of it though. The paradigm chain goes something like this:  An elephant does not behave like a mouse, and a mouse does not behave like an elephant, and both are better off for that. Same with cats and dogs, or crows and magpies. The behaviour of any successful creature is deeply tied to its physical form. But the forces of evolution give the successful creature its form. And so those same evolutionary forces also shape the animal’s behaviour. And people are animals.

As a teen I read Dr. Carl Sagan‘s Dragons of Eden when it was first published in 1977, and I learned about the oniony structure of the human brain: the central reptilian part, wrapped in the mammalian part, wrapped again in the primate part, the last blanket grown huge in our own, human, case. But, for me, I really didn’t fully grasp the implications until, a decade later, I read The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris. This book, written in 1967, popularized the paradigm that our present day-to-day behaviour is locked into us by our turbulent evolutionary past. So, when I felt shy, horny, frustrated, ashamed, angry, jealous, or lonely, as I often did, that was because I was built following nature’s blueprint for creatures like me. Those feelings were to guide me, not define me. It was a personal liberation.

But enough about me in the 80’s; let’s go back in the 70’s. The Naked Ape crossed some social taboos, most famously tying the shape of a lady’s breasts and buttocks to the uniquely human enjoyment of front-to-front sex. (Read the book!) The controversial proposal inspired challenges, the best by Elaine Morgan in her terrific book, The Descent of Woman, published in 1972. Morgan made the strong case for an aquatic phase in human evolution that was not captured in the fossil record (because it was aquatic). While she chided Morris for his breast/buttock theory, her work did not take away from the Naked Ape’s thesis. The ideas in the two works are not mutually exclusive, and both stand as solid, though not definitive, interpretations of the fossil record at the time.

The most gifted writer on this topic was Robert Ardrey. He was a playwright who became fascinated with evolution, and turned his keen insight on human behaviour and his considerable literary talent to a Nature of Man tetralogy, African Genesis, The Territorial Imperative, The Social Contract, and The Hunting Hypothesis. Meanwhile, out in the African rocks, Richard Leakey was following in the footsteps of his famous paleoanthropologist parents, Dr. Louis and Mary Leakey; (a career that, as a younger man, he had sought, with some vigour, to avoid). He wrote Origins in 1977. A decade earlier, Louis and Mary had sponsored three young women who each became famous for their field work with primates, drawing insights into human behaviour by studying our less naked relatives.  In the 1970’s Jane Goodall wrote about her observations of Chimp behaviour in My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees, and In the Shadow of Man. Dian Fossey worked with mountain gorillas. She was not famous as an author until Gorillas in the Mist was published in 1983, but she was well known from National Geographic programs in the 1970’s, and she was in the news for her outspoken conservationism, for her condemnation of the poaching industry, and her strong stand against the way primates are treated in zoos. The youngest of the three primatologists was Birutė Galdikas, who went to Indonesia to studied orangutans, a task thought impossible at the time. She started her field work in 1971 and wrote a popular cover story for National Geographic in 1975. She was and remains an advocate for environmental issues and ecological preservation of wild habitat, especially in Indonesia.

Now, I will wind this post up by saying this is by no means a complete list of literary ethologists, and I encourage you to search further afield. Also, many  good studies in ethology have been done since the 70’s too. One I’ll recommend to you is Richard Leaky’s later work Origins Reconsidered. He explores some very interesting ethological models, even speculating on the nature of the human soul! But the one point I want to leave you with in this post is that in the 70’s there were a lot of general readers in North America and Europe getting a lot of exposure to ethology, in that liberal age.

song of the naked ape

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Long long ago, when the world was young,
An ape tribe lived in the jungle.
They lived their ape lives,
They chased after mates.
They loved their ape loves,
They seethed their ape hates.
From ancient green canopy’s branches we swung.
Life was good for a tribe in the jungle.

What was the misfortune, the bad luck, the shame,
That drove one tribe from the jungle?
No one can say how
One tribe of apes fell,
Familiar heaven to
Mysterious hell,
From our canopy torn, forced to stake a new claim
On the prairie beyond the jungle.

Long long ago, under skies open wide,
A wolf pack lived on the prairie.
Couples for life,
Mice and fowl they ate.
But hunt in a pack,
And no prey is too great.
Howl at the moon, snuggle side by side.
Life was good for a pack on the prairie.

But the prairies were cruel to apes who behave
Like an ape tribe out on the prairie.
Generations of sorrow,
The storied stones told
How Nature’s hard hand
Crafts the new from the old.
Survive or die trying, the choice that she gave
Made us live like wolves on the prairie.

Once outcasts, now masters, with civilized ways,
We’re so far from the jungle and prairie.
But the wolf and the ape,
Both still speak in my heart.
Says one “Fierce and loyal!”
Says one “Play it smart!”
I’m guided by both as I wander this maze,
Never leaving the jungle and prairie.

 

My tribute to Desmond Morris, author of  The Naked Ape.

dance of the sea cucumber

In Uncategorized on February 27, 2017 at 2:12 pm

In this post, I want to explain why something is funny.

The Sea Cucumber is an inspirational beast. It is an ancient sea-dwelling tube-shaped invertebrate, both boneless and brainless. Some kinds are only as big as your thumb. Some of the biggest ones are about as long as an adult human is tall. Long ago, denizens of the ancient warm oceans discoved the advantage of linear body shape. To be able to go forwards, towards good things (like food, shelter, and mates) and away from bad things (predators, the cold, one’s own feces) was proving an extremely worthwhile behavioural suite. Sea cucumbers appeared when radial pentamerists were discovering the wonders of linearity and bilateralism. The sea cucumber’s ancestors were armored echinoderms, ‘hedgehog-skinned’ animals like starfish and sea urchins. They stretched out, and the exoskelatal plates, that had shielded their forebears, separated and shrank to become tiny disparate (quite beautiful) little ossicles sprinkled sparingly throughout their now flexible hides. Embracing linearity, they shed their rigidity and attained the gift of speed.

source = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_cucumber#Exoskeleton

Sea cucumber ossicles                                               source = https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sea_cucumber#Exoskeleton

Cucumbers retained a rough five-sided symmetry about the axis of their length, but on three of their corners grow a host of little blobby legs to crawl around on the ocean floor. On their two upper corners they grow fewer and more vestigial blob legs. By undulating their bodies and waving their blobby legs they can swim as well as crawl.

At a cucumber’s front end, its mouth end, these blobby legs are specialized into a ring of food gathering scooper arms, with an accompanying ring of nerve tissues that coordinate the efforts of these little scoopers, and trails of nerves along the length of a cucumber’s tube-shaped body to direct its legs. Earlier on, I called sea cucumbers ‘brainless’. I was not trying to be mean. Their nerve system is quite effective; it just does not seem to have a central processing location. If, through some misfortune, a sea cumber looses its head end, then the legs will still walk the animal around and the front end, less efficiently, still collects food. The sea cucumber’s food is tiny ocean plants and animals that can be digested without chewing.

the formidable sea cucumber

the formidable sea cucumber

In the ancient ocean, the sea cucumbers were formidable beasts. Masters of their world, they could go anywhere, purposeful, fast, and effective. But, alas, they evolved in a soup of even more fearsome beings. Other creatures were taking bilateralism and linearity to crazy extremes, animals with real site-specific brains, streamlined animals with fins, plated animals with articulated legs, monsters that could focus on tasks in ways the sea cumber could not even imagine, could scramble across the ocean floor or swim through the water at speeds that the sea cucumber could not dream of achieving. Many of these rivals could see (and, belatedly, some species of sea cucumber evolved rudimentary light sensitivity). But the most terrible beasts of all had claws, had jaws with teeth, innovations that sea cucumbers could only have viewed (in their sightless, brainless minds) with utter dismay.

Out foxed, out maneuvered, their armor long abandoned, you would think sea cucumbers were doomed. But these apparently helpless tubes of slow, stupid, tasty muscle, they came up with a trick. When they got bitten or jabbed, when they felt threatened, they turned inside out! (The formal term is ‘evisceration’.) They pulled out their entrails and floated in a cloud of their own offal. The attacker, expecting a nice snack, got a surprising and unpleasant snoot full of upchuck, guts and feces. Many an otherwise enthusiastic predator found its appetite suddenly dampened. (Some sea cucumbers refined the technique, actually making their guts poisonous or gluey, so that potential predators, who did not retreat quickly, could be seriously hurt by the gross cloud.) It takes days for the cucumber to twist right-side-in again and grow new viscera, but despite the cost, enough sea cucumbers survive enough encounters with superior adversaries that, eons later, sea cucumbers are still with us in abundance.

I first learned about the sea cucumbers and their intriguing defense behaviour when I was an adolescent, and, as any half-grown primate would, I hooted with laughter. I have enjoyed the story ever since. But, an illustrative question for this post is: who am I to laugh at the sea cucumber? Or, maybe a better way to put it is: what is so funny about the sea cucumber’s defense?

The answer is that the sea cucumber’s behaviour is totally absurd from the perspective of a highly-evolved primate. You and I, my good reader, if in serious danger, would run (because we are fast and tricky), or turn and fight (because we have fists to punch with, feet to kick with, and we might have a weapon: a stick or knife or gun) or we might call 911 (because we have cell phones and a complex culture). We would not consider, however briefly, turning ourselves inside out as a practical way to defend ourselves. Judged in human terms, the sea cucumber’s response to danger is so profoundly impractical as to be comical.

But the flip side is that the sea cucumbers have been turning themselves inside-out for a long long time, contorting before their adversaries, vomiting and defecating their way to safety for four hundred million years. Highly-evolved primates have only been doing sensible highly-evolved primate things to get away from danger for a few hundred thousand years. So sea cucumbers have been doing their routines for roughly one thousand times as long as we have been doing our routines. And we have done industrialization for only about one half of one-thousandth of our time here, less than one millionth of the time cucumbers have been dancing in the sea.

So, objectively, the sea cucumber’s behaviour is very effective. And it looks funny only when seen through the temporally distorted lens of human experience. Of course, being human, as I am, the distorted view is my default perspective. (Probably yours too, good reader.)

We are highly-evolved primates. We have evolved these amazing metaphorical teeth and claws, more terrible than any other on our world. We have nuclear missiles enough to cook our biosphere, to plunge it and ourselves into extinction before noon any day of the week. We could hold back a bit, and just initiate a nuclear winter. Or we could keep those missiles on-hand, unused but available, maintained by our great industrial civilization. Then it becomes a race to pollute our biosphere to collapse, or initiate a global warming catastrophe. By any objective assessment, we, the highly-evolved primates, are the ones headed for extinction.

And who will be laughing then, eh?

the trappings of civilizations

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2017 at 3:43 pm

It’s early morning on the first day of Family Day weekend in Alberta. Everyone else is still asleep in the house. A good time to put out another blog post. This one is about a great book. It is  Ronald Wright‘s brief classic, A Short History of Progress. I first heard of it as the Massey Lectures topic in 2004, and I read the book shortly after. I re-found and re-read it again during the Great House Clean-Up of 2016.

The idea is that people, being opportunistic animals, find and exploit local natural niches, live there and grow numerous and prosperous. We develop cultures, ways of doing things with each other, to divvy up the ecosystem’s bounty. And then we get too efficient in our exploitation or we grow too numerous, or both, and the ecosystem is exhausted and collapses. At which point there are a whole bunch of disappointed people with a culture, a way of doing things, that no longer works. The book argues that all civilizations, including our current global one, are examples of this boom-and-bust cycle. It is the trap of civilization.

It was fun for me to come across Solon and Peisistratos, in Progress, in a quite different context. I had written about them as adversaries in the struggle for democracy, but they were also allies in the struggle to slow deforestation around ancient Athens.

But I think the most evocative story in Progress is the parable of the Easter Islanders. On that isolated Pacific island social standing came to involve carving and erecting those iconic stone figures. And that involved cutting down trees to roll the statues into place. And so the Easter Islanders cut down all the trees on Easter Island, and could no longer build boats. As Wright says,

We might think that in such a limited place, where, from the height of Terevaka, islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce, the erection of statues would have been curtailed, and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boatbuilding and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last tree, could know with perfect certainty there would never be another. And they felled it anyway.

Did some Easter Islanders rail against the clear cutting policy? Were they mocked as ‘tree-huggers’ by mainstream society? In the end, Easter Island conservationists were not socially dominant, could not carry the day, and they and their civilization paid the ultimate price.

Nobody on Easter Island wanted that to happen. Evey thinking person knew there would be serious consequences to cutting down the last tree. Somehow, the people in charge, in the highest ranks of their competitive society, they dared not loose face before their social rivals. Somehow, those important people let their own standing cloud their judgement.

Progress goes on to tell how, in the final years, everyone knew mistakes had been made. In hopeless fury, people pushed over and smashed as many of those stone statues as they could. The former leaders and their offspring could not have fared well in those last days. Only through cannibalism could anybody survive, and the slogan “Eat the Rich!” would have taken on special significance.

The similarities between the ancient Easter Islanders and us today in our global society are pretty obvious. The question that Progress poses is, can we 21st century people survive the civilization trap? It has never been done before. If we do avoid the trap, it may be done by practicing (real) democracy.

There has been a nice uptick on my visitor counter recently. Thank you all for visiting. Please don’t be shy to leave comments, critical, supportive or quizzical.

 

 

Fake News! Fake News! Read all about it!

In Uncategorized on January 1, 2017 at 4:55 pm

This post is inspired by interesting events that have occurred and are occurring right now in the land to the south of us. Observations for a peaceful new years day…

  1.  In December 2016 the US Electoral College upheld the election of President-elect Donald Trump. The United States should be applauded for this accomplishment; Americans demonstrated to the world that their democratic system was proof against the considerable pressure Trump’s partisan rivals were able to bring to bear. Donald Trump’s shortcomings had been rehashed quite thoroughly throughout America and around the world; the results of the election took many (myself included) completely by surprise. For many people, post-election, there was tremendous temptation (based in moral conviction and personal gain and everything in between) to overturn the results. But the temptation was resisted. Back in December 2008, we, here in Canada, failed to stand up for our democratic process. That, and what to do about it, is the whole theme of this website. So, congratulations America, on the resilience of your democracy!  I hope we get there some day.
  2. Donald Trump was one of the biggest pushes of the Birther movement during President Obama’s tenure. This whole current ‘Russian hacker’ angle is, therefore, especially ironic. Just for the karma, President Trump will wear this, and it will be just as meaningful a distraction as Obama’s place of birth was for the outgoing American president.
  3. That being said, the Russian hacker story-line is being made part of a campaign to shut down non-mainstream news sources, a campaign against ‘Fake News’. The campaign has been going on for a while, but the introduction of Russian hackers into the mix is a brilliant tactic, a real game-changer. My prediction for 2017 is that this year will be a teeter-totter point between a wild and free internet and an internet wholly in the service of the state and commercial interests. This will certainly effect us here in the north half of North America.

This year I am going to try to be more connected on the net. It’s not in my nature, but I have enjoyed reading articles out here by others. As this may be the last year to do so, I will start recommending authors whose perspectives I think are worth considering in this whole, amorphous, quest for democracy adventure, in which we 21st century humans are all engaged.

So, to start, let me recommend the generally excellent site Alberta Politics.ca, written by David Climenhaga, about Alberta politics and news issues and issues of democracy as he sees them. Check out Mr. Climenhaga’s take on the Russian spy stuff.

Happy New Year!

…getting lost in that hopeless little screen.

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2016 at 5:54 pm

It’s Remembrance Day, and a great bard has left us, and our neighbours are in turmoil. This seems appropriate today.

Paradoxes in Politics

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2016 at 10:23 pm

I love used book shops. Back in 1980-something I found this intriguing arcane used book about politics and math, and then I lost it. A few years later I wrote the notes about the 3E Senate that eventually evolved into the website chapter ‘Rational Numbers’. I remembered the theories the book described, but not the details. Then, just recently, in sorting through some old boxes of old books, I found the book again: Paradoxes in Politics 1976 by Steven J. Brams. The byline is ‘An Introduction to the Nonobvious in Political Science’, and this is just what it is. There is a pretty good selection of counter-intuitive situations that could arise in issues related to voting, and a mathematical and game theory treatment of the situations to reveal the, well, non-obvious resulting consequences. It’s 231 pages, and pretty well written for technical approaches to social topics. In other words, I sympathize!

And, in section 7.5 the discussion turns to block voting power, and the measure I have called Decisiveness in these essays of mine are formally introduced. Paradoxes describes several ways to present the power value, and the version I am using was introduced as the Coleman index by a James Coleman in a paper in 1971. The author Brams gives as working examples the initial 1958 and later expanded 1973 Council of Ministers for the European Economic Community, and highlights the curious feature that for 15 years Luxembourg had a seat at the council but, because of the vote weight distribution of the council members, had no influence! As Brams says,

Unless its representative was able, in discussion, to influence the voting decision of representatives from other countries, he might as well have not attended Council meetings.

A friend of mine read through the whole set of the Why the 3E Senate is a Silly Idea essays and said that one thing lacking was some good footnotes or a reading list or something. He is probably right, and I will put some references in as my hobby time allows. This little post can count as one. I will probably put some in as direct links in the text, too.