The Hobgoblins under the Lobbyist Bridge

Lobbyist cartoonLobbyist. For some, the word conjures frightening images of nefarious trolls and ogres in Armani suits lurking under the bridges and in the woods in the dark night, snatching unwary politicians and dragging them down to whatever hell the gullible and naive descend to (a hell cleverly paved with gold and champagne flutes).

The very word itself is printed in bold and in colour in some comments, just in case you might miss it and the boogeyman-thrill the hiss of the word gives. Lobbyisssst… my precioussss….

That’s in part because the popular impression of lobbying derives from watching American TV news, and sitcoms. In the USA, the lobbying industry has been likened to a shadow government, pulling the strings of the legislators while filling their pockets with cash. Lobbyists there seem to be able to buy votes with impunity and openly. It’s not the same everywhere, however.

For others, the word simply refers to someone doing a job, like a carpenter, a lawyer, a dentist… in fact a lawyer could be called a lobbyist with a law degree (we’ve seen lawyers acting as lobbyists on behalf of their clients in front of council many times). And like any other profession, lobbyists have a role to play in public life and government.

Lobbyist cartoonWhile lobbyists often get a bad rap in the media because of their association with corporate interests, they also represent many smaller commercial concerns and NGOs. Some represent non-profit groups, charities, environmental agencies, health agencies and even private schools. Lobbyists helped change the smoking laws in Ontario to prevent smoking in public places, bars and restaurants. Lobbyists helped change the pesticide use laws to prohibit toxic chemicals from being used on public property. So clearly they’re not all bad, and in fact are often important to the governance process.

Lobbyists play an important role in bringing issues and challenges to the political forefront. How much they actually influence municipal governments is difficult to assess.

“The defence of lobbying is that it is not only an inevitable part of life but a necessary and positive one. It is simply a modern professional embodiment of the ancient right of people to petition their rulers, and, by extension, to seek the advice and support of others to help them do so. Modern governments are responsible for a vast range of policy areas which involves drafting and implementing detailed and intricate laws and regulations. On their own they cannot hope to keep abreast of all the information and opinions they need to take into account. Lobbying is a means of providing them with the raw material they need to make informed decisions which reflect different interests in their societies.”
Trevor Morris & Simon Goldsworthy: PR Today, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Because of the negative connotations associated with the term, lobbyists often prefer to call themselves “public affairs” practitioners.

“There is some confusion over the terms ‘lobbying’ and ‘public affairs’. Some authorities argue that there are subtle differences between the two, suggesting the lobbying is process of speaking with political actors, whilst public affairs refers to the complete process. The term lobbyist is often eschewed by consultants because of its shady undertones. However, in this fact sheet (and all others) the terms will be used interchangeably.”
www.publicaffairslinks.co.uk/

Others try to highlight their difference with the term “advocates” rather than lobbyist. A rose by any other name… Others have called lobbying “advocacy journalism“. The American League of Lobbyists has in its code of ethics this statement:

Lobbying is an integral part of our nation’s democratic process and is a constitutionally guaranteed right. Government officials are continuously making public policy decisions that affect the vital interests of individuals, corporations, labor organizations, religious groups, charitable institutions and other entities. Public officials need to receive factual information from affected interests and to know such parties’ views in order to make informed policy judgments. In exercising their rights to try to influence public policy, interests often choose to employ professional representatives to monitor developments and advocate their positions, or to use lobbyists through their membership in trade associations and other membership organizations. Tens of thousands of men and women now are professional lobbyists and represent virtually every type of interest.

Why do companies or groups use lobbyists? Because not everyone is calm and confident as a speaker, is comfortable doing public presentations, has the time to research and meet with everyone. When you can’t do the job yourself, you hire a carpenter to fix the stairs, a mechanic to fix your car, an electrician to put in new lighting. Same principle.

The unfathomable paranoia over lobbyists is likely more driven by petty partisan politics than by any actual threat they pose to democracy. The word is used to scare small children, but like all ghost stories, it proves a risible threat in the sockdolager of rational thought.

Five years ago, Collingwood council considered creating a lobbyist registry. Staff report 2008-05 (April 7, 2008) noted

Some of the options may be viewed as solutions to problems that Collingwood, as a much smaller municipality, does not encounter.

In other words, some members of council were looking to fix what wasn’t broken. I wrote a humorous piece about that discussion, a few days later on my old blog.

The issue brewed and stewed like a fart in a crowded elevator on a long trip to the penthouse, until June 23, 2008, when Coun. Edwards moved and I seconded a motion to dump the idea. It passed (5-4? I don’t recall – the EB story isn’t online). I also wrote about that, more seriously, on my old blog. Back then I wrote:

It was one of those ‘bubble ideas’ – ideas that sound good at election time and make great sound bites, but are fragile shells, ill-conceived plans, hollow of substance.

The idea seemed to have been buried in the post-election kitty litter with the rest of the impractical proposals, but up it came last April in a staff report (C2008-05). But that initial discussion had no conclusion (or rather debate was truncated before we arrived at one), and left to simmer for a few months.

I thought the issue had died its deserving death, but no, it continues to rise from the grave every now and then like one of those tired old internet hoaxes about Bill Gates giving you $100 to forward this email to everyone in your contact list. Someone always seems to be able to spin a conspiracy in which a lobbyist plays the role of the Big Bad Wolf. We need a website that debunks these political myths like Snopes.com does internet myths.

This is a small town. We can figure this out without the need for any more layers of bureaucracy or red tape.

We don’t need a lobbyist registry anymore than we need a spaceport, an aquarium or a bronze statue of a former mayor in front of the library. Like I wrote in 2008, this would put a wall between politicians and the people they represent, and flies in the face of the often-promised-but-seldom-delivered “open, accountable and transparent” government.

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Another Zen tale

Hermit tarot cardCarrying on in the tradition of my last post, here’s another of the stories from Paul Reps’ book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Before I repeat it, consider the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher and founder of the school of Cynics (cynos is Greek for dog, thus the “dog” philosophers). Diogenes once complained that, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” I might add municipal politicians to that list…

He broke almost every rule of civic and social convention to teach his philosophy, almost like a Zen master using koans to break the bonds of rigid logic. Diogenes has a certain ambivalent attraction for Westerners, because of his iconoclastic,

“…talent for undercutting social and religious conventions and subverting political power…”

Yet his flagrant dislike for artificiality makes us uncomfortable because of our social herd instinct and our collective passion for shiny new toys. His contempt for convention, and his acts in flouting them are, we are told,

“…for the sake of promoting reason and virtue. In the end, for a human to be in accord with nature is to be rational, for it is in the nature of a human being to act in accord with reason.”

Yet Diogenes is also seen as very negative, rough, unwashed, misanthropic… and yet wise. Plato, when asked about Diogenes, sneeringly called him a “Socrates gone mad.” His sayings show a remarkable wisdom that is almost Zen-like:

“Those who have virtue always in their mouths, and neglect it in practice, are like a harp, which emits a sound pleasing to others, while itself is insensible of the music.”

Diogenes apparently asked, rhetorically I suppose,

“Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?”

Editors feel the same way.

He also said that, “there was one only good, namely, knowledge; and one only evil, namely, ignorance.” A phrase like that could be well repeated today. Author George Iles once said, “Whoever ceases to be a student never was a student.” We can never stop learning, searching for answers and knowledge, because when we do, we cease to move forward. We start to die, to shrivel when we cease to learn.

Another of Diogenes’ sayings would challenge those who want the most, the best, the most expensive of all things: “He has the most who is most content with the least.”

There’s a tale told about Diogenes that’s worth repeating because it captures some of his method and madness:

In winter Diogenes walked barefoot in the snow. In summer he rolled in the hot sand. He did this to harden himself against discomfort.

“But aren’t you overdoing it a little?” a disciple asked.

“Of course,” replied Diogenes, “I am like a teacher of choruses who has to sing louder than the rest in order they may get the right note.”

Diogenes and the lamp

According to legend, Diogenes used to walk around the streets of Athens in the daytime with a lit lantern. When asked by passersby about why he needed a light in the daytime, he would reply to them that he was “looking for an honest man.” That image of Diogenes has been passed down to us in many forms, including the Hermit card from the major arcana of the tarot deck (image at top). But it also relates to the Japanese story, below.

Other reports have phrased his response differently:

Diogenes has trouble finding such humans, and expresses his sentiments regarding his difficulty theatrically. Diogenes is reported to have “lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, ‘I am searching for a human being’” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book 6, Chapter 41).

Honest man, human being – the translation isn’t as important as the metaphor (it is intellectually similar to Thoreau’s statement in Walden that, “To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”).

And that’s where the Zen tale comes in:

In early times in Japan, bamboo-and-paper lanterns were used with candles inside.

A blind man, visiting a friend one night was offered a lantern to carry home with him.

‘I do not need a lantern,’ he said. Darkness or light is all the same to me’

‘I know you do not need a lantern to find your way,’ his friend replied, ‘but if you don’t have one someone else may run into you. So you must take it.’

The blind man started off with the lantern and before he had walked very far someone ran squarely into him. ‘Look out where you are going!’ he exclaimed to the stranger. ‘Can’t you see this lantern?’

‘Your candle has burned out brother,’ replied the stranger.

An interesting difference. In the Diogenes tale, everyone can see the lantern, but it doesn’t illuminate anyone. In the Zen story, everyone but the holder who needs it most can see it (and see it has been extinguished). Diogenes is the lamplighter, the blind man is only the carrier.

Zenmonkeys suggests this is the moral:

Using ideas of one person to enlighten another is like the blind man with the lantern; the light may go out along the way and you’ll never know.

And that certainly resonates (and it is this resonance that made me think of this tale as a lesson to ponder). But, turning again to Thoreau’s statement, the blind man is not fully “awake” in that he lacks one critical sense. He cannot effectively borrow that sense. No one can “look him in the face” because his lantern has gone out.

The Buddhist story has many iterations that alter it subtly but significantly. For example, this one:

Late one night a blind man was about to go home after visiting a friend.

“Please,” he said to his friend, “may I take your lantern with me?”

“Why carry a lantern?” asked his friend.

“You won’t see any better with it.” ”

No,” said the blind one, “perhaps not. But others will see me better, and not bump into me.”

So his friend gave the blind man the lantern, which was made of paper on bamboo strips, with a candle inside.

Off went the blind man with the lantern, and before he had gone more than a few yards, “Crack!” — a traveler walked right into him.

The blind man was very angry. “Why don’t you look out?” he stormed. “Why don’t you see this lantern?”

“Why don’t you light the candle?” asked the traveler

The message/moral here is quite different: if the lantern represents ideas, then it says you have to use them as intended, not merely carry them. And that unrealized ideas do not enlighten anyone. But here the responsibility lies on the blind man for not bothering to check if the lantern was lit (easily done with a candle – just feel the heat) and taking it for granted that others would take responsibility.

But here’s a rather different version of the story I came across today:

A blind man was leaving a friend’s house at night when he was suggested to carry a lantern. Laughing aloud, the blind man snapped, “What do I need light for? I know my way home !”

His friend patiently replied, “It’s for others to see – so that they won’t bump into you.”

Sneering, the blind man agreed to use it. A little down the road, someone accidentally bumped into the blind man, startling him.

Fuming, he yelled, “Hey! You’re not blind! So make way for the blind man!”

Further down the road, another person bumped into him. This time, he got angrier, shouting, “Are you blind? Can’t you see the lantern? I’m carrying it for you!”

The stranger replied, “You are the blind one! Can’t you see your lantern has gone out?” The blind man was stunned.

Upon closer look, the stranger apologised, “So sorry, I was the ‘blind’ one. I didn’t see that you really are blind!”

The blind man uttered, “No no, It is I who should apologise for my rudeness.”

Both felt greatly embarrassed, as the man helped to re-light the lantern.

Even further down the road, yet another person bumped into the blind man. The blind man was more cautious this time, asking politely, “Excuse me, did my lantern go out?”

This second stranger replied, “Strange! That was what I was about to ask you myself! ‘Did my lantern go out?'”

There was a brief pause… before they asked each other, “Are you blind?”

“Yes!” they replied in unison, bursting with laughter at their predicament, as they fumbled with their lanterns, trying to help re-light each other’s.

Just then, someone walked by. He saw their flickering matches just in time, and narrowly avoided bumping into them. He didn’t know they were blind, or he would naturally had helped. As he passed, he thought, “Perhaps I should carry a lantern too, so that I can see my way better, so that others can see their way too.”

Unbeknownst to all, the blind man’s friend was all along following behind quietly with a lantern, smiling, making sure that he has a safe journey home, hoping that he will learn more about himself along the way.

Does this story have the same moral? Not really.It mixes all sorts of metaphors. The poster goes on at length about the lessons in this more convoluted tale, including this:

The blind man’s unexpected bumping into strangers on the way home represents our unexpected stumbling onto obstacles on the path of practising the Dharma. Each and every obstacle however, need not be seen as obstacles but an invaluable opportunity or stepping stone to learn more about oneself, a chance to become wiser and kinder.

Yes, the bumps in the road can be seen as obstacles or challenges for improvement on our journey. But I also read in it a suggestion of the controlling force stealthily walking behind the blind man, not so much to help but to direct. But yet this “friend” doesn’t help when the blind man stumbles and collides with others, simply watches while the blind man makes the mistakes. There’s a lesson in that, too.

Local references? Take them as you see fit. I didn’t write the tales, just reprinted them..

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A Zen story

Zen storyThere are all sorts of great stories, great tales of wisdom and enlightenment, to be found in Zen Buddhism. They often have that sort of eternal depth and universal meaning to our lives, regardless of your personal beliefs. The one below came back to me, last night, while I was walking my dog and pondering why some people remain so angry over little things, why they can’t move on. It goes like this…

Two Zen monks, a young and and old one, were walking along the road on the way to visit a monastery in the hills. They came to a river that was swollen with water from the recent rains, and the ford was deep under the muddy, rushing water.

On their side of the river was a young woman, dressed in a rich new kimono and sash, unable to cross, looking fearfully at the water.

The elder monk went over, spoke quietly to the woman, then picked her up, and carried her across the river while his companion struggled through the water behind him. The monk put the woman down on the further bank, bowed, and the two monks continued their journey. The woman went off down another path and they never saw her again.

After many hours of walking in silence, the two arrived at the monastery. They greeted the master, had dinner, sat in meditation, then retired to their cell to sleep. While they were preparing to go to bed, the younger of the two could no longer restrain himself.

He suddenly burst out angrily, “I can be silent no more! What were you thinking? You know we’re not supposed to have any contact with women. Yet you carried that woman across the river without a second thought. Don’t you know that’s against the rules? How could you do something like that?”

He railed on for a couple more minutes.

The elder monk simply stood still and listened. When the younger was finished, and had exhausted himself, the elder said, “I put that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Wonderful tale, isn’t it?

~~~~~

This story comes from a wonderful collection called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I was given a paperback edition of this book in 1968 and I still have it, the same, somewhat battered copy, in my book collection. I have a couple of other editions, too, picked up over the years.

I have read the entire book many times over during the time I’ve had it, and probably will read it many more times. It’s the single, most-read book I own and one of the few I would always want to own.

You can read the tales online at many sites, including here, but I do recommend you get a printed copy for yourself. It’s a rich treasure trove of inspirational, educational and often entertaining material.

Okay, I embellished the telling a bit. The original tale is much shorter and has a few variants (you can read it here and here and here). Wisdom tales abound in all cultures and I have a few similar books from other lands and times. I think I will reprint a few more stories here in the future.

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10,000 words too many

Scribble, scribbleBeen working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).

I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.

Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.

There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)

Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!

Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.

As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.

My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.

Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.

Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….

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Is it time for a Collingwood ukulele group?

Cheltenham uke groupWhen a friend recently told me he had joined the new Guelph ukulele group, it made me somewhat envious. After all, having a local support-performance-practice-chat-socialize group for any hobby is always great. When your hobby is a passion that requires an audience to realize itself fully, a local group is de rigeur. You simply need others people to practice with to get better and share the joy.

Ukes in Toronto

Uke groups have been springing up all over. The ukulele is currently the most popular musical instrument in the world.

The Corktown Ukulele Jam is a weekly group get-together in Toronto that I’ve attended a couple of times. It’s amazing, fun and always packed (click the photo on the left). Ukuleles and beer… a terrific combination!

But are there enough local ukulele players to form a viable group? I’m not sure. I only know of four, perhaps six, of us (adults anyway). There may be others, of course. Maybe this post will bring a few more out.

A local group could do several other things: help new players learn, share information and tips on playing and buying, compare models and brands, encourage local music stores to stock better product, share music, buy strings in bulk, and build interest in the ukulele for others who may not have discovered it yet.

We could build a songbook everyone could share, too. I have hundreds of vintage song sheets and books already scanned we could build from. Plus there is a lot of music already posted on forums like the Ukulele Underground, personal sites (like mine) and then there are generic song sites like Chordie.com that offer arrangements for the uke.

Not sure yet where we’d meet, but space can always be found. The pub idea works well for me…

Any thoughts? Any players who’d like to gather?

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Scaramouche

Librivox coverHe was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. That has to rank among the best opening lines in a novel, up there with Dickens’ “It was the best of times…” opening in A Tale of Two Cities. This line, however, is from Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, Scaramouche.

Yesterday, I was rummaging through my rather messy and erratic book collection, poking among books stacked upon books, and in piles on the floor, looking for a copy of Albert and the Lion that I wrote about recently. I didn’t find it, but I did find my copy of Scaramouche, a book I thought I had lost a few years back.*

What a delight it is to find a book you thought you had lost! I immediately pulled it out of the pile and took it to bed with me to read. Finished the first three chapters last night, before I picked up another book.

Mine is an old edition; a little rough, with lightly yellowed pages. No foxing, though, and the binding is fragile but still intact. My copy was published by the Canadian publisher, McClelland and Stewart, in 1923; the second Canadian edition – this one has six illustrations; photographs actually: stills from a silent film of the same name, also shot in 1923. I found out today, as I wrote this, that the film has been restored and is available from TCM.

There was also a 1952 film of the novel, starring Stewart Granger and Janet Leigh. The silent film follows the novel better, however.

The novel is subtitled “A Romance of the French Revolution,” and it’s a swashbuckling, sprawling tale of love, friendship, intrigue, politics, swordfighting – all the elements that Hollywood loves. Sabatini also wrote, among others, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, both also swashbucklers and both made into movies. It’s along the lines of the books by the Baroness Orczy – the Scarlet Pimpernel and similar titles – written only a few years earlier – but with more politics, action and discourse.

You can read Scaramouche online or as an e-book today (I have not yet got myself an e-reader, and still like the tactile sense of actual books, but I do appreciate the technology). You can also down an audiobook at Librivox (I like to listen to audio books and courses when I drive long distances, or when I walk the dog).

It has some great lines, although the writing style is a bit florid for today’s standards.

He was too impish, too caustic, too much disposed—so thought his colleagues—to ridicule their sublime theories for the regeneration of mankind. Himself he protested that he merely held them up to the mirror of truth, and that it was not his fault if when reflected there they looked ridiculous.

It starts in France in the years just before the Revolution and follows the hero as he joins the revolutionaries, but many of the comments and political descriptions sound remarkably like a metaphor for modern American society:

“The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic; she is a republic built on the best pattern—the Roman pattern. Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury, preserving for themselves power and wealth, and what else is accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen…

“Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness?”

and…

“You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses of power under which we labour at present.”
“Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it.”

“Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable administration.”

“The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold it.”

“The people can—the people in its might.”

“Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace? You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield, because power demands qualities which the populace does not possess, or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by equity; and equity, if it is not found in the enlightened, is not to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses, and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States General are to assemble.”

I read a recent translation by Richard Pevear of Dumas’ great novel, The Three Musketeers, a few months back, and this novel seems the perfect companion to that. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book – all 346 pages of it.

~~~~~

* You may know the name Scaramouche from the lyrics in Queen’s hit, Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Perfect Sense

Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=iexMJrBzZtA]

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

~~~~~

* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

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On being a left wing pinko socialist

Amazon.My left-wing, pro-union friends would be amused to hear me called a “leftie.” They generally think of me as right as Steven Harper. The only difference to them, I suppose, is my unwillingness to sell Canada to the highest corporate bidder (Chinese or American…). My right-wing friends think I’m somewhere between Karl Marx and the late Jack Layton.

I’ve always thought of myself as a “political agnostic.” Probably due to years in the media where cynicism about politicians and politicians is rife. I pursue humanist goals,* not party goals. I simply have no faith in party politics.

I don’t see this as a refusal to take sides, merely a refusal to be drawn into the herd mentality of party politics. I take sides over issues, not over ideologies (which are akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin). Sometimes I side with the government; other times with the opposition. It depends on how I understand the issue, and on my conscience, not what colour of party card I own.

Party politics are to social reality what creationism or astrology are to science. Parties do not give us, nor have they ever given us, a foolproof guide for economic, social or cultural pathfinding. All party platforms are fundamentally flawed because they always devolve down to being soapboxes for the party leader’s personal agendas. And as Lord Acton wrote,

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

I like municipal politics because they are, at least in small centres like Collingwood, free of the partisan squabbles we see at provincial and federal levels (barring, of course, a recent term). Party politics and municipal governance are a toxic, self-destructive mix that distracts councils from the real, local issues into shadowboxing over irrelevant ones.

Like most Canadians, I hover somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. Centrist, but not personally bound to any party. I can’t think of any party that has a platform I completely endorse, or one that has a platform I entirely reject. There are good and bad in all.**

Not only that, but policies and platforms shift over time. The Conservative policies under Diefenbaker were very different party than those under Harper, for example. The NDP of Broadbent and the NDP under Mulcair are different animals.

Question authority

Blind allegiance to party ends up being blind allegiance to the leader and his or her personal agendas. Political wisdom means you have to question authority, and challenge bad ideas. In party politics, that’s not allowed.

When I vote it is on how the candidates respond to questions, debate issues and appear to think on their feet – not how well they spout the party line. I try to judge political figures as individuals, not by their platform. I expect them to be credible, honest, logical, intelligent, and not ideological. I won’t vote for anyone who doesn’t have an open, questing and nimble mind (although sometimes the choice of local candidate isn’t always among intellectual giants…).

I am more concerned about what is promised for the greater good; what policies and legislation will benefit local residents, Ontarians or Canadians most, rather than which will best reinforce the party line.

To me party politics is a lot like religion: too much blind faith, not enough skepticism or secularism. Blind adherence to a platform is what has led Americans into their current quagmire. Far, far too many ideologues on both sides. It makes it impossible to accomplish anything in the US without an overwhelming majority.***

All that being said, Canada is a moderately socialist country in that we translate European humanist values into policy and law: we have general (but far from universal) health care, a modest welfare and social assistance system (despite Steven’s attempts to relegate the poor to workhouses…), a common educational system, a legal support system, a national broadcaster (despite Steven’s efforts to muzzle it), collective bargaining (also under siege) and we still have a modicum of control over our banks and (less so) corporations. These institutions and policies make up the core values of being a Canadian. Any attack on them is an attack on our identity, so I will always side with those who defend them.

~~~~~

* More properly, secular humanism, which Wikipedia notes, “…posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or a god. It does not, however, assume that humans are either inherently evil or innately good, nor does it present humans as being superior to nature. Rather, the humanist life stance emphasizes the unique responsibility facing humanity and the ethical consequences of human decisions.” I would also call it Buddhist politics: “The Buddhist approach to political power is the moralization and the responsible use of public power.The Buddha discussed the importance and the prerequisites of a good government. He showed how the country could become corrupt, degenerate and unhappy when the head of the government becomes corrupt and unjust. He spoke against corruption and how a government should act based on humanitarian principles.” However, my approach to Buddhism is very secular and not religious; more along the lines of Batchelor and Flanagan.

** Well, perhaps the Tea Party can be excused from that statement, because I can’t think of a single good, logical, humanist thing in their platform.
A shining example of the good-and-bad paired in a party policy is the Ontario Liberals’ policy on green energy. The thrust is good (alternative energy is basically a good cause), but the implementation – including the lack of municipal input into the process – has been bad and very contentious. I really like Tim Hudak’s Ontario PC promise to reform the “alphabet soup” of redundant, interfering and excessive government agencies, but his promise to scrap existing green energy deals is economically foolish and counterproductive. Good and bad in both parties’ platforms.

*** From a Canadian point of view, the two US parties are both right wing; one (the Democrats) is just less right than the other. To label the Democrats “left-wing” let alone “socialist” shows a misunderstanding of the terminology. It is better to use alternative terms that relate to policies or proposed legislation such as pro-people (Democrat) versus pro-corporation (Republican), pro-middle-class (Dem) vs pro-rich (Rep), pro-gun-control (Dem) vs pro-weapons-manufacturers (Rep) and so on, when describing the differences.
The parties are also split along religious lines (the Republicans put much greater stock in promoting into law a particular subset of fundamentalist Christian values). I personally don’t like the Republican platform or most of its representatives because I am adamant about the separation of church and state.
Republican policies, too, are clearly aimed at benefitting the rich and the corporations rather than the American people and that offends my humanist views.
Many of the GOP members are, frankly, as smart as a bag of nails. So are some of the Democrats, but not nearly as many. I respect intelligence, not blind faith. So yes, I tend to side with the Democrats more than the Republicans because they make more sense and show they care more about the people they represent.

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Albert and the Lion

Book of Albert poemsA recent comment on Facebook – “You just can’t resist poking the bear…”* made me remember a poem by Marriott Edgar that I enjoyed as a child in the 1950s: Albert and the Lion. I actually first heard it orally – we had a collection of old 78s and a wind-up gramophone in the basement. Among the musical treasures were several monologues by Stanley Holloway who read this and several other poems about Young Albert, accompanied by a piano that accented his words.

There was a book, too, probably brought from England by my father when he came over in the late 1940s. It had this and several other poems by Marriott. It was published in the 1930s and had great illustrations.I found the cover online at another blogger’s site. The poems were funny, but also darkly comic, like this one:

I’ll tell of the Battle of Hastings,
As happened in days long gone by,
When Duke William became King of England,
And ‘Arold got shot in the eye.

Albert and the 'eadsman
Or this one about the headsman and the ghost of Anne Boleyn:

The ‘Eadsman chased Jane round the grass patch
They saw his axe flash in the moon
And seeing as poor lass were ‘eadless
They wondered what what next he would prune.

He suddenly caught sight of Albert
As midnight was on its last chime
As he lifted his axe, father murmered
‘We’ll get the insurance this time.’

Boy's Own AnnualI may still have a copy of Edgar’s wonderful book in my own collection. Not sure what became of it, but it was well-read even when I first found it. I remember it well. remember the feel of it, how the pages smelled, how it folded in my hands as I sat on the couch and read it. It had the English price on the cover, which was a number very odd to a boy raised in Canada. Just added to the magic.

My father had brought an odd assortment of books with him, including several Boys’ Own Annuals, some dating from the early 1900s. I read them, too, in that basement, while 78 rpm records played. I still have a couple of those Boy’s Own books, upstairs. We used to get parcels at Christmas with Beano and other British comics in them. But I always went back to the Albert poems.

I can still hear Holloway’s Lancashire voice intoning the words as I read them in the book. “Sam, Sam, pick oop tha moosket, Sam,” said Holloway, dryly. My father was from the north, outside Manchester, and probably didn’t find the accent funny or his odd grammar mysterious, but I delighted in it and loved to imitate it.

I loved those recordings. I listened to them over and over and I can still remember many verses and lines. And of course many of these are on YouTube today. Wonderful memories… here’s what I used to hear. Imagine an eight-year-old strutting, pretending to be the characters, making faces like the bemused parents, frowning like the dour magistrate, poking his imaginary stick at the lion:

[youtube=www.youtube.com/watch?v=Putw3by4-e8]

Here’s the poem itself. The verses that came to mind are in bold:

There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That’s noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
‘E’d a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
The finest that Woolworth’s could sell.

They didn’t think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin’ and small
There was no wrecks… nobody drownded
‘Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they’d lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well… it didn’t seem right to the child.

So straight ‘way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took ‘is stick with the’orse’s ‘ead ‘andle
And pushed it in Wallace’s ear!

You could see that the lion didn’t like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with ‘im
And swallowed the little lad… whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn’t know what to do next
Said, “Mother! Yon lions ‘et Albert”
And Mother said “Eeh, I am vexed!”

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all’s said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, “What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it’s your lad he’s eaten?”
Pa said, “Am I sure? There’s his cap!”

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, “What’s to do?”
Pa said, “Yon lion’s ‘eaten our Albert
And ‘im in his Sunday clothes, too.”

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!”

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, “How much to settle the matter?”
And Pa said “What do you usually pay?”

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, “No! someone’s got to be summonsed”
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told ‘im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
“And thank you, sir, kindly,” said she
“What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!”

~~~~~

Memory’s like that.  Sometimes the oddest things happen. I spent a pleasant morning finding this stuff.

Albert and the Lion
* The comment was not related to the poem, by the way, but rather ab irato; critical comments by another blogger about what I write here.

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ID’s deep roots in creationism

Fundamentalist folliesProponents of creationism often try to deny that “intelligent” design (ID) is merely creationism wrapped in a fake lab coat to make it look like it’s pals with science. It isn’t. They’re not buddies, didn’t go to school together, and don’t ‘like’ each others Facebook pages.

ID is merely a tawdry, paper-thin attempt to hoodwink the gullible who can’t see past the plastic pocket protector that there’s a bible in the pocket. In part this is because the popular notion of what a theory is has devolved into a synonym for guess or an unproven assumption. But that’s not the scientific meaning of the word: “…a well-confirmed type of explanation of nature, made in a way consistent with scientific method, and fulfilling the criteria required by modern science… Scientific theories are the most reliable, rigorous, and comprehensive form of scientific knowledge.” Scientific method

ID is not even a hypothesis: it’s a statement of faith and its pseudo-scientific arguments have been well-debunked on better sites than this (i.e. Skeptico). It starts with belief and looks for ways to prove it, rejecting anything that counters that preconceived theology.
creationism masquerading as ID

The National Center of Science Education defines ID this way:

“Intelligent Design” creationism (IDC) is a successor to the “creation science” movement, which dates back to the 1960s. The IDC movement began in the middle 1980s as an antievolution movement which could include young earth, old earth, and progressive creationists; theistic evolutionists, however, were not welcome. The movement increased in popularity in the 1990s with the publication of books by law professor Phillip Johnson and the founding in 1996 of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now the Center for Science and Culture.) The term “intelligent design” was adopted as a replacement for “creation science,” which was ruled to represent a particular religious belief in the Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987.
IDC proponents usually avoid explicit references to God, attempting to present a veneer of secular scientific inquiry. IDC proponents introduced some new phrases into anti-evolution rhetoric, such as “irreducible complexity” (Michael Behe: Darwin’s Black Box, 1996) and “specified complexity” (William Dembski: The Design Inference, 1998), but the basic principles behind these phrases have long histories in creationist attacks on evolution. Underlying both of these concepts, and foundational to IDC itself, is an early 19th century British theological view, the “argument from design.”

Despite angry denials from creationist supporters that ID is not the same, and instead ID is a form of scientific research, that’s balderdash. It’s the “wedge” strategy- the ID movement’s published methods for inserting their religious content into the secular world.
Creationist bingo

All they’ve done is use cut-n-paste to replace terms like creationism in their documents with scientific-sounding phrases like “intelligent” design. They haven’t changed the core religious nature of their argument. Common Sense Atheism documents this as a clumsy, but failed attempt to mislead the reader:

…consider how the term “intelligent design” was born. In 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that “creation science” could not be taught in public schools because it advances a particular religion. That same year, a Creationist textbook called Of Pandas and People had been published using terms like “creationism” over 150 times. But after the defeat of Creationism in court, the editors replaced every instance of “creationism” with “intelligent design” and every instance of “creationists” with “design proponents.” In one case, part of the original term, “creationists,” was left behind by the editing process, rendering “cdesign proponentsists”… That the editors merely replaced “creationism” with the new term “intelligent design” is abundantly obvious when one compares various drafts of Of Pandas and People (originally called Biology and Creation)…

ID supporters universally identify the need for a “designer” as the mechanic behind the curtain, and all say it’s their own particular Christian deity. Wikipedia notes:

Intelligent design (ID) is a form of creationism promulgated by the Discovery Institute, a politically conservative think tank. The Institute defines it as the proposition that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” It is a contemporary adaptation of the traditional teleological argument for the existence of God, presented by its advocates as “an evidence-based scientific theory about life’s origins” rather than “a religious-based idea”. All the leading proponents of intelligent design are associated with the Discovery Institute and believe the designer to be the Christian deity.

A designer, logically, has to be a deity* but why only this particular one? I have yet to run across a single ID proponent who will say that designer is Shiva. Or Kali. Or Moloch. Or Ra. Or Odin. Or Zeus. Why not each one working as a team (because there’s no God in team)? All of the hundreds of other deities (thousands?) in world mythologies and religions are ignored and just one is elected as the only possible designer: the hairy thunderer of the New Testament. Not only are non-Christians excluded from ID, but so are Catholics. Only fundamentalist literalist Christians need apply.

Creationism poster

As Wikipedia also notes:

Scientific acceptance of Intelligent Design would require redefining science to allow supernatural explanations of observed phenomena, an approach its proponents describe as theistic realism or theistic science.

In other words, yes kids, Santa Claus really does put those presents under the Xmas trees of good children every year, millions of them simultaneously, all over the world, delivered from a sleigh that travels faster than light and, while seemingly small, actually has an infinite storage capacity. Never mind those wrapped boxes you found at the back of the closet last week. Those aren’t proof of another, more logical explanation of how the presents arrive. Belief is more important than observation, so don’t question our explanation. We’ll tell you what you need to know.
Creationist continuum
As noted in another article on the NSCE website:

Following creationist tradition, IDC proponents accept natural selection but deny that mutation and natural selection are adequate to explain the evolution of one kind to another, such as chordates from echinoderms or humans and chimps from a common ancestor. The emergence of major anatomical body types and the origin of life, to choose just two examples popular among IDC followers, are phenomena supposedly too complex to be explained naturally; thus, IDC demands that a role be left for the intelligent designer — God.

About.com sums it up very well:

Intelligent Design is, like all other creationist movements, more about politics and religion than about science. Where Intelligent Design differs is that it was originally and deliberately conceived in explicitly political terms whereas earlier creationist movements tended to acquire political goals and principles over time. This is very important to understand because it reveals as false the pretensions of Intelligent Design apologists that they are involved in a scientific enterprise.

The US judicial system recognized the similarity between the two, as well (see this article). Judge Jones noted in the Dover School case:

ID uses the same, or exceedingly similar arguments as were posited in support of creationism. One significant difference is that the words “God,” “creationism,” and “Genesis” have been systematically purged from ID explanations, and replaced by an unnamed “designer.”
Demonstrative charts introduced through Dr. [Barbara] Forrest show parallel arguments relating to the rejection of naturalism, evolution’s threat to culture and society, “abrupt appearance” implying divine creation, the exploitation of the same alleged gaps in the fossil record, the alleged inability of science to explain complex biological information like DNA, as well as the theme that proponents of each version of creationism merely aim to teach a scientific alternative to evolution to show its “strengths and weaknesses,” and to alert students to a supposed “controversy” in the scientific community. In addition, creationists made the same argument that the complexity of the bacterial flagellum supported creationism as Professors Behe and Minnich now make for ID.

ID cartoon
Talkreason.org has many good articles critiquing ID, but this one is particularly good because it deconstructs a description from the “Discovery Institute” (the political and religious organization that developed and promotes ID, and spreads the wedge):

Right away we are told that ID is a program conducted by “scientists, philosophers, and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature.” Basically this is an admission that their program is not about gathering data and allowing the evidence to lead them wherever it may, but rather a mission to find evidence which supports a predetermined conclusion — that being that an intelligent agent created everything. In this way, the ID “researcher” confines himself to analysis of only those findings which he may have use for as a buttress for the conclusion he has already arrived at. It goes without saying that this is not science. To presuppose automatically the existence of a (perhaps supernatural) designer is to preclude real, thoughtful, scientific research in accordance with the scientific method, since science deals only with observable, measurable, phenomena.

You can’t research an act of god. Any god. What happens when you find something you can’t fully explain or understand? IDers would assign it to “the designer” then move on. Scientists would investigate further to try and provide an answer that doesn’t involve a supernatural cause. They would look to see what existing laws, theories or hypotheses are related and whether they apply. They would test, then retest, and test again until something made sense, long after IDers had shrugged their shoulders and given up looking.
ID trial arguments
ID is, like the notion of the flat earth, based not on observation, research and experimentation, but simply on blind faith.
Intelligent geography
Why would ID deserve any more research that, say, phrenology? ID has already decided the answer, so anything scientists find that explains outside that answer will be rejected by the IDers. They already start by rejecting science – evolution, cosmology, biology.
Common Sense Atheism does allow that creationism and ID are, semantically, different terms (although joined at the hip by their theological basis):

Here’s how I like to think of Creationism and Intelligent Design. I tend to use “Creationism” to refer to theories informed by the Bible or Christian (or Muslim) theology. For example, a theory including a 6,000 year old Earth is obviously Creationism.
In contrast, I tend to use “Intelligent Design” to refer to modern attempts at natural theology, which are not dependent on scripture or doctrine. The method of natural theology is to make an inference from observations of public, natural evidence to the existence of some kind of Designer or First Cause. This method does not allow you to assume any properties at all about the Designer that cannot be inferred from the observations of public, natural evidence… Remember, “intelligent design” and “creationism” are just words. They mean whatever we say they mean.

I agree, but I prefer to call it “ID creationism” so that the concept is not mis-identified by those who are not aware of the historical or political origins of the ID movement, and somehow mistakenly think that ID is actually something scientific.It isn’t. It’s claptrap masquerading as an “alternative” to science. Why should we pretend otherwise?

Watch Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial on PBS. See more from NOVA.

~~~~~
* Clearly the whole argument fails if you don’t believe in this or any other deity. If it wasn’t Ganesh who made the world and all the cute bunnies and squirrels, then I ain’t buying it… but you don’t have to be an atheist to believe in evolution: a modest education, and an open mind are all you need.

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Maybe some people are just dense…

Not a tin foil hat...Story in today’s Science Daily: Why Some People Don’t Learn Well: EEG Shows Insufficient Processing of Information to Be Learned. While you might initially want to say “because they’re stupid,” (or Republicans), the authors reach a different conclusion. It may be that some people just don’t process information efficiently:

…the main problem is not that learning processes are inefficient per se, but that the brain insufficiently processes the information to be learned.

Which made me think…. it’s like eating. If you don’t chew your food sufficiently, it doesn’t get digested as well. I know a lot of people who don’t chew their data very well and get intellectual gas after every PowerPoint presentation… but perhaps it’s the way that data is presented (infographics and data visualization can really change the way people absorb content). Maybe if we presented the data differently we wouldn’t be subject to so much online wind…

But what about multitasking? Do people who multitask lose the ability to learn because their sensory attention is flitting about all over the place? I multitask all the time. Is it a bad proposition? Does multitasking actually make you stupid? Scary thought. Consider that we all do it – driving is a multitasking experience with several tons of metal at your disposal.

I guess it all depends on your alpha waves. The higher your alpha activity is, the researchers suggest, the better you learn (reminder: find a way to check own alpha wave activity):

A high level of alpha activity counts as a marker of the readiness of the brain to exploit new incoming information. Conversely, a strong decrease of alpha activity during sensory stimulation counts as an indicator that the brain processes stimuli particularly efficiently. The results, therefore, suggest that perception-based learning is highly dependent on how accessible the sensory information is. The alpha activity, as a marker of constantly changing brain states, modulates this accessibility.

So maybe you need to kick yourself under the table while learning in order to digest the intellectual gruel better? Well, not everyone. Some folks just don’t learn very well to start with. It’s genetic:

How well we learn depends on genetic aspects, the individual brain anatomy, and, not least, on attention.

And maybe it’s cultural or social. Are those kids with the TV-fed attention span of a gnat slow learners as a result? And if so, can kicking them under the table help get their flitty little brains into gear? Maybe. Even if it doesn’t I know some parents who will enjoy the kicking anyway. But some of those kids learn very well in other areas (like spatial mapping for first-person shooter games).

In the experiment, patients received mild electrical stimulation for 30 minutes before engaging on a learning experience. Then they were put through the learning gauntlet. It seemed to helped most of them learn better. But the experimenters also found that:

The higher the alpha activity before the passive training, the better the people learned. In addition, the more the alpha activity decreased during passive training, the more easily they learned.

Which suggests to me that the ones already disposed towards learning (alpha highs, better attention span) start with an advantage, and the 30-minute sensory interlude acted like a meditation session; calming and slowing down the alphas and providing focus. Gee, Buddhists have know that for a couple of millenia.

It doesn’t explain, however, why some folks can apply critical thinking (i.e. skepticism, analysis, logic) to what they learn and others are so gullible they consume claptrap like creationism, homeopathy and phrenology without question. All learning is not equal. Like the Kalama Sutra (the Buddhist doctrine on free inquiry) says:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

This is the motto of my own life: in essence, question everything. Don’t accept blindly. Don’t believe blindly. I would never have become one of Hoffer’s “true believers.”

Learning (and retaining) also may have something to do with the way we’re taught. According to this post on Psychotactics.com, we only retain a portion of what we learn based on both how it is presented and how it it is used:

To summarize the numbers (which sometimes get cited differently) learners retain approximately:
90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture.

As a voracious reader, I’d have to challenge that statistic, at least from my own experience. I like to think I retain a lot from what I read (mostly nonfiction).

So what do you need to do to retain what you’ve learned? Here’s the author’s advice:

So how do you avoid losing 90% of what you’ve learned?
Well, do what I do. I learn something. I write it down in a mindmap. I talk to my wife or clients about the concept. I write an article about it. I do an audio. And so it goes. A simple concept is never just learned. It needs to be discussed, talked, written, felt etc. (I wrote this article, ten minutes after reading these statistics online).

In other words, share it, debate it, challenge it. Good advice.* That’s often what I do here: I read something, then dissect it as I write about it in this blog. I read my posts to my wife, who then challenges me, corrects me and reinforces me. Or sometimes tells me I’m full of codswallop… but that never stopped me from writing about it.

So now it’s off to eBay to look for an alpha-wave monitor…

~~~~~

* Okay, he also says (read his post for the details):

The next time you pick up a book or watch a video, remember this .
Listening or reading something is just listening or reading.
It’s not real learning.
Real learning comes from making mistakes.
And mistakes come from implementation.
And that’s how you retain 90% of everything you learn.

I would like to debate with him about his conclusions.

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Or maybe doomsday just postponed…

A story in Science Daily today talks about the effect that antibiotics used in animals has had on humans. Or rather, on antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are dangerous to humans.

The increasing production and use of antibiotics, about half of which is used in animal production, is mirrored by the growing number of antibiotic resistance genes, or ARGs, effectively reducing antibiotics’ ability to fend off diseases — in animals and humans.

Now this is hardly news. Concerns over unchecked use of antibiotics in farm animals have been raised for decades. The antibiotics have been working their way through the system and back into the environment where they came back to haunt us. As noted in this story,

Waters polluted by the ordure of pigs, poultry, or cattle represent a reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes, both known and potentially novel. These resistance genes can be spread among different bacterial species by bacteriophage, bacteria-infecting viruses, according to a paper in the October Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.
“We found great quantities of bacteriophages carrying different antibiotic resistance genes in waters with fecal pollution from pigs, cattle, and poultry,” says Maite Muniesa of the University of Barcelona, Spain, an author on the study. “We demonstrated that the genes carried by the phages were able to generate resistance to a given antibiotic when introduced into other bacteria in laboratory conditions,” says Muniesa.

The Animal Health Institute assures us antibiotics are necessary to keep us safe:

Because antibiotic resistance is a public health concern, several layers of protection have been put in place to ensure that animal antibiotics do not affect public health.

But our concerns isn’t as great here as it is with one of our primary food suppliers: China. As Science Daily reports:

A study in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that China — the world’s largest producer and consumer of antibiotics — and many other countries don’t monitor the powerful medicine’s usage or impact on the environment.
On Chinese commercial pig farms, researchers found 149 unique ARGs, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than the control samples…

Pretty scary. Environment Canada has commented on how antibiotics and other drugs fed to animals get into the environment:

The primary contaminants associated with manure include nitrate and ammonia, coliform bacteria, phosphorus, endocrine disrupters and other animal pharmaceuticals. Both the land use and waste management practices commonly employed on farms throughout Canada have impaired the quality of water resources on a regional basis (Rudolph et al. 1998). In a recent survey of farm drinking wells in Ontario, approximately one well in three was found to contain at least one contaminant commonly associated with agricultural activities, including nitrate or bacteria…

The risk is that these antibiotic-resistant microbes spread easily and rapidly, sharing their AR genes with other microbes:

Daily exposure to antibiotics, such as those in animal feed, allows microbes carrying ARGs to thrive. In some cases, these antibiotic resistant genes become highly mobile, meaning they can be transferred to other bacteria that can cause illness in humans. This is a big concern because the infections they cause can’t be treated with antibiotics.
ARGs can reach the general population through food crops, drinking water and interactions with farm workers. Because of this undesirable cycle, ARGs pose a potential global risk to human health and should be classified as pollutants, said Tiedje, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist.

The genes concentrate in sewage treatment plants, which become reservoirs of them, says this story:

Water discharged into lakes and rivers from municipal sewage treatment plants may contain significant concentrations of the genes that make bacteria antibiotic-resistant. That’s the conclusion of a new study on a sewage treatment plant on Lake Superior in the Duluth, Minn., harbor that appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Timothy M. LaPara and colleagues explain that antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a major problem in medicine today — are abundant in the sewage that enters municipal wastewater treatment plants. Treatment is intended to kill the bacteria, and it removes many of the bacterial genes that cause antibiotic resistance. However, genes or bacteria may be released in effluent from the plant. In an effort to determine the importance of municipal sewage treatment plants as sources of antibiotic resistance genes, the scientists studied releases of those genes at the Duluth facility.

These genes can be transferred to humans and affect our health. A 2010 story in Science Daily noted one growing impact on human health:

Genes that make bacteria resistant to antibiotics can be transferred between humans and other animals, say researchers writing in this month’s issue of the Journal of Medical Microbiology. The findings will help health experts to assess how using antibiotics in food-producing animals can affect the treatment of common human infections.
Scientists from the Carol Yu Centre for Infection at the University of Hong Kong examined Escherichia coli bacteria responsible for causing human urinary tract infections (UTIs) and bacteria in faecal samples from humans and food-producing animals. They found an identical gene for antibiotic resistance was present in all the samples in similar proportions and locations, suggesting that the gene is likely to be transferred between bacteria residing in different hosts.
The gene, called aacC2, encodes resistance to a commonly-used antibiotic gentamicin and was found in approximately 80% of human and animal samples. What is more, this gene was found on sections of DNA that are known to swap between different bacterial populations. Both these factors, combined with the identical gene sequences led the researchers to suggest that aacC2 can transfer between separate populations of bacteria that colonise different species.
E. coli is responsible for 75-95% of human urinary tract infections. Surveys in recent years have shown that antibiotic resistance in this bacterium is increasing, making infections increasingly difficult to treat.

This seems to be a bigger problem for women than for men, according to this 2010 story:

Chicken sold in supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets may place young women at risk of urinary tract infections (UTI), McGill researcher Amee Manges has discovered. Samples taken in the Montreal area between 2005 and 2007, in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada and the University of Guelph, provide strong new evidence that E. coli (Escherichia coli) bacteria originating from these food sources can cause common urinary tract infections.

As Greatist notes in this piece, the use of antibiotics in livestock is increasing rapidly:

…the use of antibiotics in livestock may be expanding at a greater rate than the meat industry itself. While the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to 2010, antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period — suggesting meat production might be relying more heavily on antibiotics. All told, the livestock industry now uses nearly four-fifths of the antibiotics administered in the U.S.

Pew research graphic

The graphic reveals that human antibiotic use has leveled off at below eight billion pounds a year. Meanwhile, meat and poultry farms have been using up record numbers of the stuff each year — reaching a new high of almost 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.

About 80% of all the antibiotics produced in the USA are being fed to animals.
The widespread antibiotic use isn’t just harming us. It’s harming our entire environment. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are showing up in soil, according to this story:

A team of scientists in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are reporting disturbing evidence that soil microbes have become progressively more resistant to antibiotics over the last 60 years. Surprisingly, this trend continues despite apparent more stringent rules on use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, and improved sewage treatment technology that broadly improves water quality in surrounding environments.

There is a lot more to write and research here, but I’ll leave this here for now with this quote from a story in The Guardian last fall:

The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)… a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.

So doomsday may yet be waiting in the wings… or in the soil, the water, and on our dinner plates.

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