Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Enemies List

TyeeCanadians barely lifted an eyebrow in surprise when it was revealed that our Prime Minister had an “enemies list” compiled as a warning to newly-minted cabinet ministers laying out who they can’t trust. I mean, we’ve lived with Harper as leader long enough not be shocked by anything that seems petty, autocratic, paranoid or Republican.

So what if the list was so long it had to be delivered in several boxes and had more names than the GTA white pages?

The Toronto Star editorialized about how the “PMO’s derisive and adversarial tone is rightly ringing alarm bells.” Clearly they haven’t been paying close attention to the PMO these past several years. Most Canadians assumed the PMO had trademarked “derisive” and “adversarial” as their own.

Then they threw in what’s become another meme: the comparison between Harper and former US President, Richard Nixon and, inevitably, Watergate:

The comparison to Nixon is unsettling. The disgraced former president was thought to view dissenters as adversaries to be destroyed rather than debated. The enemies list is just the latest piece of evidence that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a tendency to think the same way.

Uh huh. Harper-as-Nixon isn’t necessarily a bad thing, from Harper’s perspective. After all, Nixon made a successful comeback from being the butt of media jokes to being the President. Sure he lied and schemed his way into the job; he was mistrustful, suspicious, controlling, manipulative and dishonest. But that’s not a bad role model for Stephen. Some might argue Stephen is far more cunning and treacherous than Nixon ever was. Maybe he considered it high praise.*

And Nixon had a List. Twenty names, that’s all. Well, that and the 576 names on his Other List. But for a country with more than 200 million at the time, 596 enemies isn’t all that many. Barely enough to fill a regiment. Stephen can do better, Surely he can muster at least a division’s worth of enemies. Maybe even a whole corps of them.

Andrew Coyne, writing in the NatPost with biting tongue-in-cheek, basically made the point that the list of perceived enemies might actually be close to infinite.

The PM (or at least the PMO) is suspicious of or fears anyone who doesn’t share Stephen’s ideology. That person goes on the list.

That’s a big list, since one of his favourite political games seems to be “guess what I’m thinking” – the loser gets booted out of caucus, the winner gets to sit in a minister’s chair (until the next round). Just ask Helena. Or Peter Kent.

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The sum of all knowledge

Know it AllIn his 2004 book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs tells of his quest to become “the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.

Right away, you can see the fly in this intellectual ointment: knowledge doesn’t equal intelligence.

Jared Diamond, in his introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, credits the barely literate, ill-educated tribespeople of New Guinea as being the smartest people he ever met. Not because of their ability to discourse, as Jacobs says, on the intricacies of the Phoenician legal system, but rather because their daily life is such a struggle.

That struggle, combined with a hostile environment that lacks many of the natural resources like metals that propelled western civilizations’ technologies ahead, Diamond writes, forces them to think a lot about how to survive. They have to be creative in ways we never consider, or have long since taken for granted. They have to find solutions using limited tools and resources. That makes them very smart.

You want dinner? It’s a few steps away, a short journey between freezer and microwave. They want dinner, it has to be found in a challenging and dangerous world, caught, killed, cleaned, a fire made from raw materials, then cooked. They survive every day having to solve life-affecting problems. Our biggest challenge many days is whether to watch this channel or another one.

Modern civilization often relieves us of the necessity to think critically. Convenience is wonderful, but it also can make us stupid. Just look at the number of cute kitten photos on Facebook paired with sappy “inspirational” quotes attributed to the wrong person. Or the number of homeopathic sites. Convenience often makes us susceptible to marketing, advertising and propaganda because we accept rather than analyse.

And reading alone isn’t enough to alleviate it. People read all sorts of stuff online – volumes of the written word – but still believe in all sorts of superstitious, stupid claptrap like chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies. People read and give credence to wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy and Anne Coulter. There is no shortage of written material online about Bosnian pyramids, UFO abductions, religious intolerance, astrology, “psychics,” racism and political extremism.

So reading itself is not a path to intelligence. You need critical thinking and skepticism, too. Lots of skepticism.*

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Losing the world, and some sleep, but enjoying it

 

Civ VBrave New World – not the novel of a dystopian future by Aldous Huxley – is the name of the latest add-on for Civilization V, following after Gods & Kings, released in 2012. BNW was released last Tuesday, and I was at the local EB Games store to get one on launch day. Over the weekend, I took a look at it, playing for several hours in learning mode.

Civilization, if you don’t already know, is a turn-based 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) computer game/simulation created by Sid Meier, originally in 1991. It has gone through numerous releases (Civ II in 1996, Civ III in 2001, Civ IV in 2005 and the latest, Civ V in 2010). V is built on a hexagonal grid like the old paper wargames, where earlier versions used a square grid. The map can be randomly generated each game from a template (many islands, large continents, one land mas, dessert, jungle,etc.) so every game is different.

It’s always been one of my top five or so favourite computer games, and I’ve played it (and many other Sid Meier games) since the first release.

The basic goal of the game is to build a civilization from the Stone Age to the space age, along the way discovering technologies, building cities, exploring the world, fighting barbarians and then other players (limited to computer opponents until Civ IV, now with online opponents). Your workers need to cultivate the land, too: mine it, build quarries and plantations, chop forests, bridge rivers and link cities with roads and, later, railroads. Growing cities grows your territory, expanding your borders outward, providing more land to till and mine. Continue reading

Small glitch, please stay tuned

Oops. Seems there’s a coding glitch in the latest WordPress update. Comments are getting attached to a header image rather than to the post they’re supposed to be associated with.

And it’s not a new glitch – the WP support forums have discussions on this that go back at least a year, albeit an earlier version of the software. So I suspect there will be a solution that involves changing one of the PHP modules. Just not sure which one yet.

I’ve posted a request on the WP support forum for some help and will try to get things fixed as soon as I know how. Meanwhile, feel free to read and comment, just keep in mind that the comments may not show in the right place. They’re still there – just need to be moved when I figure out how.

If you are the author of a recent comment that has not appeared, try reposting to see where it attaches to. I can email the content of your posts to you if you wish. Contact me for this. Meanwhile, I’ll try some tweaks at this end.

My apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll try to get it fixed ASAP. Meanwhile, comments have landed here: image attachment page.

 

Putdownable books?

Boring bookA recent article in The Independent said that J.K. Rowling’s new book and the abysmally-written 50 Shades of Grey were among the books most put down by readers as unfinishable. Putdownable. A description no author or publisher relishes.

They joined titles like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged and Catch 22 as books readers gave up the struggle to finish. Personally, I hesitate to put 50 Shades in the same category as anything even vaguely literary, let alone the likes of Joseph Heller and J.R. Tolkein. But we’re talking statistics here, not literary merit.*

That got me thinking about reading habits and expectations. As well as the basic question of why people read in the first place.**

(NB: Rowlings’ The Casual Vacancy might have had more readers had it made the the Literary Review’s Bad Sex 2012 awards. Sex always sells regardless of how mediocre the writing.)

Popular fiction is divided into many genres, and each genre has its own audience. Often these audiences overlap, but not always. What one person expects from, say, a science fiction (my favourite genre) title is not what another expects from a romantic tale. And certainly what one expects from fiction is nothing like what one expects from, say, biography, or science.

So why would you start a book, then not finish it. It often comes down to nothing more than personal taste: you don’t like the characters, the writing style, the location, the plot, and so on. Most recently, I stopped mid-way through a Malcolm Gladwell book, thinking it “twaddle” but that was a judgment on his conclusions and method, rather than on his writing. I gave up on a massive biography of Joseph Smith earlier this year after a couple of hundred pages because I found it overwhelming: more detail than I felt I needed and I was wading through the minutiae like they were molasses.

Why do you give up on a book you’ve started?

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Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and CressidaAfter reading the play by Shakespeare last week, I decided to tackle Chaucer’s epic 8,000-line poem about the Trojan lovers, Troilus and Cressida (or Criseyde as Chaucer writes it). It’s a long, somewhat meandering piece that begins, in the Online Medieval Classical Library version:

The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
Fro wo to wele, and after out of Ioye,
My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Thesiphone, thou help me for tendyte
Thise woful vers, that wepen as I wryte!

To thee clepe I, thou goddesse of torment,
Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne;
Help me, that am the sorwful instrument
That helpeth lovers, as I can, to pleyne!
For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
A woful wight to han a drery fere,
And, to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Okay, that’s the Middle English original. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t give up yet. Read it aloud. Slowly. Pronounce each vowel as you would in Spanish or Italian. Sorwe becomes sor-weh. Parte is par-teh. You will at least hear, and perhaps feel, the rhythm in his words, the rhyming scheme.

You can hear how Chaucer would have pronounced his words on the Harvard Chaucer site. Or listen to parts of or the entire poem at Librivox.

You can also take several online courses in Chaucer that will help teach his language and style, like this one at Harvard U. The site also offers a handy interlinear translation of several fragments (although not complete poems) where the Middle English line is followed by a modern version. I have a paperback edition of the Canterbury Tales like that and it’s very helpful and quite readable.

Here’s the same two initial verses translated by Kline:

Troilus’s double sorrow for to tell,
he that was son of Priam King of Troy,
and how, in loving, his adventures fell
from grief to good, and after out of joy,
my purpose is, before I make envoy.
Tisiphone, do you help me, so I might
pen these sad lines, that weep now as I write.

I call on you, goddess who does torment,
you cruel Fury, sorrowing ever in pain:
help me, who am the sorrowful instrument
who (as I can) help lovers to complain.
Since it is fitting, and truth I maintain,
for a dreary mate a woeful soul to grace,
and for a sorrowful tale a sorry face.

Somewhat easier to understand, don’t you think? Continue reading

Casinos redux

Seniors and slotsFirst let’s clarify the terms. A “casino” was never really in the discussion, although just about everyone used that term. What the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) offered was a “gaming facility” as they euphemistically called it. A gambling joint, others said.

It was to be a warehouse-like, windowless building with up to 300 slot machines. No keno, no gaming tables for poker or blackjack, no roulette. Up to (and maybe less than) 300 slot machines. No guarantees on the number, just up to 300.

The OLG decides how many: not the town, not the operator. The town can’t even comment on who the operator will be. That decision is in the OLG’s hands.*

Locals also referred to it s a “slot barn,” underscoring its aesthetic deficits. Casino, however, stuck as the word for general palaver.

The OLG made an enthusiastic pitch to every municipality in its artificially-created and somewhat illogically-determined  “zone seven.” Do you want to be a host, they asked, assuming a civic stampede to their door. They held out the promise of money. Who doesn’t want money? It helps grease the wheels of municipal progress. Continue reading

Believing is Seeing

Persuasion“He who permits himself to tell a lie once,” wrote Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, from Paris, France, 1785), “finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

Anyone following the ups and downs of federal and provincial politics would have no trouble believing Jefferson’s words. We often believe – without any evidence to support our belief – that politicians lie, simply because other people say so. But Jefferson’s words are a truism that ranges far further, into faith, into social interaction, into relationships and work. It’s all about persuasion, likability and “social proof” or consensus:

…human beings often make choices about what to think, and what to do, based on the thoughts and actions of others. Simply stated: We like to follow the crowd.

People also tend to say yes and agree with people they like (and who shares areas of similarity).

Robert Levine, writing in The Power of Persuasion, says this shows Jefferson “understood the act of taking a stance galvanizes the belief behind the stance.”

In other words, although the speaker knows it isn’t true, by saying it often and loudly enough, the speaker will come to believe it himself, regardless of the truth. Cialdini’s rules of “social proof” and likability come into play here, too, along with the notion of self-justification:

Cialdini says that we’re more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability comes in many forms – people might be similar or familiar to us, they might give us compliments, or we may just simply trust them.

If you feel the speaker is “one of us,” likable or a peer, someone who shares some similarity with us, we are more likely to consequently repeat the content. We will then commit to that belief by repeating it often enough ourselves.* Continue reading