Category Archives: Social Order & Disorder

Marx, Darwin and Machiavelli


The Age of IgnoranceWhat do these three men – three of the world’s greatest thinkers – have in common? Science? Economics? Politics? Their impact on culture and society? Their foresight or insight? Their importance to the development of modern thought? Their continued relevance today? The depth and breadth of their wisdom? The quality of their writing?

Yes, they are or have all those things, but the answer is simpler: they are among the least read authors that people attempt to speak knowingly about. All three of these authors are frequently demonized or misquoted by people who have never read their works, nor do they intend to do so, lest actual knowledge prove their preconceived ideas about them wrong.

Yet here we are in a world of complex, challenging politics at all levels where the sage advice of Machiavelli is most needed. A world where pseudoscience is spreading like a virus, and there is a rising tide of vocal anti-vaccination idiots and creationists; where the keen observations of Darwin can help us understand the scientific facts of biology. A world where the gap between the rich 1% and the rest of us grows obscenely wider every day and Marx’s insight into capitalism and wealth would surely give us some guidance on stemming this trend.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know, or whom I have some reasonable acquaintance, who have demonstrably read Machiavelli’s shortest work: The Prince. The number I personally know who have read The Discourses? None. Art of War? History of Florence? None. Yet many people, even those I know, confidently say that Machiavelli wrote “the end justifies the means” (he didn’t) and have called politicians “Machiavellian.”

The number of people I personally know who have read Origin of Species – arguably the single most important scientific work in the last two centuries – none. Descent of Man? Voyage of the Beagle? None. Yet some people confidently scoff at the notion of species evolving, and dismiss his ideas as “mere theory.”

Ditto with Marx’s Capital. Even my left-wing friends, with whom I hung out in the 70s and 80s, struggled to get past the first couple of chapters. Most had read The Communist Manifesto, to be sure, but I haven’t met anyone in the last three decades who can say he or she has (or can remember it beyond its opening line). Yet many people talk knowingly about Marxism and Communism.

And I’m not talking about the crazies, the conspiracy theorists, the barely literate bloggers, Fox ‘News’ or the venom-spewing wingnuts like Ann Coulter. I’m concerned about people we meet every day; friends, coworkers, family. People who should know about what’s happening in the news, understand the connections and consequences and the big ideas behind the events.

People who should be able to use their words correctly and not resort to bumper-sticker ideologies as substitutes for actual understanding. So instead of conversations and discussions about big ideas based on knowledge, we trade angry epithets, accusations and insults.

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Facebook, Likes and Big Data


GizmodoI suppose you could call it ironic. There was a story from a ‘friend’ on my Facebook news feed today called “Quitting the Like” all about escaping Facebook’s data collection processes by simply not “liking” items or comments you see.

Right below this ostensibly anti-Facebook story were three related links produced by one of the Facebook data-collection bots all about the same thing: breaking free from Facebook’s data mining. I suspect the FB programmers hadn’t planned it that way. But aside from the irony, it caused me to read them all.

The first story, fully titled “I Quit Liking Things On Facebook for Two Weeks. Here’s How It Changed My View of Humanity” is by blogger Elan Morgan who explains:

I no longer wanted to be as active a participant in teaching Facebook how to advertise to me as I had been in the past, but another and much larger issue was my real curiosity: how was my Facebook experience going to change once I stopped feeding its engine with likes?

Her conclusion is that by not feeding the bots through the automatic reflex of clicking “like” below a ‘friend’s’ (real or artificial) post or comment, and instead by writing something positive in a comment, you can increase the human interaction on FB and reduce the generated noise.

Quit the Like and experiment with amplifying a better signal. What will happen to your Facebook without your likes? What will happen to your perception of not only your Facebook friends but the world at large? What will happen to us?

That’s an interesting approach, one I had considered but never taken. It encourages me to try it, but I also wonder if sharing a post also generates the same sort of algorithmic reaction. Is a ‘share’ a formulaic equivalent to a ‘like’ or are they weighted in some manner? And I am not sure the algorithms don’t also track comment density and content: is replacing ‘like’ with a comment merely a cosmetic change, or does it have a significant effect?

Gizmodo reported FB is doing some automatic liking for you, behind the curtain:

You might think clicking “Like” is the only way to stamp that public FB affirmation on something—you’re wrong. Facebook is checking your private messages and automatically liking things you talk about.

What I’d really like to know is how FB’s bots manage all the content, beyond the like button. So they weigh keywords, track what we post, how we comment, share and so on? I suspect they do, but how they parse the results is a fascinating, sometimes a bit scary mystery.

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Heart of Darkness


Heart of DarknessHeart of Darkness can be a difficult read. Not just for its brooding setting and the sense of morbid inevitability. Conrad’s semi-autobiographical 1899 novel is replete with racism and breezy colonialism: the insufferable superiority of white, Western culture. The casual ability of so-called civilized men to commit savagery in the name of some higher cause is clearly expressed; a forerunner to the brutality of two world wars.

Listening to it as an audiobook, yesterday, as I drove again to Toronto, I almost flinched every time the reader pronounced the “N” word. No amount of rationalization about the times and the era made it less uncomfortable, less offensive.*

Yet once you have touched the sticky web of Conrad’s story, you find it hard to pull away. You are drawn inexorably inward, along the journey. So you listen (or read on), and realize the layers and the complexities he wove into the tale. It seems so simple at first, a mere nautical tale shared among friends, but it builds in layers and texture. His sometimes subtle, sometimes pointed criticisms of the politics and the imperialism. His observations, his piercing eye into human behaviour; his acidic comments on the nature of civilization. All, of course, expressed during the infinitely slow progress to find the mysterious Kurtz.

I can’t remember when I first read Heart of Darkness. Sometime in the 1970s, I think, around the time I was reading Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Achebe’s book is set in the same period as Conrad’s and might be considered a counterpoint: the evils of colonialism described from the native perspective. Achebe himself despised Heart of Darkness, calling it “deplorable.” Yet his 1975 criticism sparked renewed scholarly interest in the book. It was reprinted in mass-market paperback (my copy, printed together with Conrad’s Secret Sharer, is dated 1978).

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Robocalls from Real Robots



“mmm…buzzz…. click…. This is your friendly….buzzz…. automated calling device…click…hummmm… reminding you that….mmmm….buzzz…..click… there are only three days left to…. zzzzz…. take advantage of the Black Friday sales at…. mmmm…. buzzzz….. your…. zzzz… Collingwood…..insert box store name…. mmmm…buzzz…. click….thank you…”

Solenoid RobotsWell, maybe robotic telemarketers won’t sound like the solenoid robots on Roger Ramjet, but within the decade, most telemarketers will be machines, not humans. So when they interrupt your dinner to tell you you’ve won a free cruise, shouting at them and slamming down the phone won’t hurt their feelings at all. Mmmmm….buzz…. click…

Of course, a lot of this work is already automated, but according to a recent report called Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace, half of today’s current workforce will be replaced by robots or some form of automation in 2025, telemarketers being at the top of the list for outplacement by machines. Repeat: half of the current workforce.

(Now, I have to admit I was puzzled as to why CBRE, an international real estate firm, would commission such a report. But regardless of the source, the report is fascinating, if perhaps a bit Pollyanna-ish in its conclusions about this upcoming revolution in the workplace…. especially when it quietly suggests on page nine another recession is coming… )*

Reporting on the report, the New Zealand Herald noted,

…experts now believe that almost 50 per cent of occupations existing today will be completely redundant by 2025 as artificial intelligence continues to transform businesses… A 2014 report by Pew Research found 52 per cent of experts in artificial and robotics were optimistic about the future and believed there would still be enough jobs in the next few decades… The optimists envisioned “a future in which robots and digital agents do not displace more jobs than they create,” according to Aaron Smith, the report’s co-author.

Rather to the contrary, Stephen Hawking is reported in a BBC story warning that,

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk warned that artificial intelligence potentially could be “more dangerous than nukes. Yes, yes, we all immediately think of Terminator’s Skynet AI and the robots.

But when it comes to telemarketers, I think I’d rather have Skynet. And Bell Canada’s customer “service” reps? Forget the robots and just replace them all with cement roadblocks… that’s what they are, after all… mmmm…. buzzzz…. click….

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Rights Without Responsibility


Online comments“Why do online spaces often feel so fractious?” asks Helen Lewis in a thought-provoking opinion piece in The Guardian last week. It’s something I’ve been pondering for many years. It’s not just the internet, or even social media, nor is it our increasingly uncivil and impolite society: it’s the technology that seems to be dividing us. The medium. (Would this be considered McLuhanistic? *)

Online spaces were havens for trolls, for angry denunciations, personal attacks, threats and bullying for decades. I’ve been watching it happen since I started up my own BBS in the early 1980s. I saw it when I was a sysop who managed forums on CompuServe and later Delphi, and I’ve watched it grow on the internet.

It’s in large part because the technology we use online is not designed to interface well with the biology we have evolved over millions of years to communicate with. Technology doesn’t provide the crucial emotional connection that real, human communication offers.

Sure, you can feel emotions from online content, but one-sided reaction someone sitting at home having a morning coffee in their pajamas gets from looking at cute kittens or twerking videos is not communication. But on social media with comments flying about rapidly from everyone, you can easily lose sight of the context and become engaged in comment-swapping for its own sake.

Lewis wrote:

Social scientists call this “context collapse” – the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, ever. The fact that for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends will read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.

An opinion piece in The Star this month described the difficulties media face in trying to provide a public space for comment without having to apply heavy-handed control to keep the cyberbullies and trolls in check. It gets so confrontational at times it discourages people not just from participating, but from reading entirely:

The sad reality of online comments across the entire Internet is that they are too often abusive, inflammatory and ignorant. Where once I idealistically believed comments could be a force for good, allowing readers to connect and communicate about ideas, I have come to empathize more with those readers who would just as soon not see anonymous online comments. As one reader told me recently in expressing her dismay: “The trolls are dominating; feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”

What could be – should be – open, engaging discussion and exchange of ideas becomes merely a place for emotional, public masturbation. Being able to vent anonymously and say anything you damned well please without repercussion is the same reason internet porn is so popular among the emotionally challenged. No commitment, no emotional baggage, no messy post-sex conversations and “I’ll call you” lies. What actually happens to the people – the abuse of women in particular – in porn becomes irrelevant to the viewer because they’ve become toons in our online culture, like characters in an online game.

Same with posting angry comments on FB and Twitter: you can write them, slander or attack someone, drag them through the mud, lie, insult and castigate, then close your laptop and go to bed without having to deal with the emotional and psychological turmoil your comments leave in their wake. By the time you get up, next day, the posts will likely have vanished from your feed in the ongoing cascade of content that races by.
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Saying Happy Holidays is Acceptable


NonsenseThis time of year we get inundated on Facebook and Twitter with this sort of stupid, offensive warning about saying “happy holidays” or “season’s greetings” instead of Merry Christmas. A couple of these appeared in a few hours just today, and there will be more, no doubt.

Sorry, but it’s just xenophobic hogwash; an uncomfortably fundamentalist and increasingly political sentiment. By the same token, how would you feel if people started demanding you greet one another with Happy Hanukkah or Happy Kwanzaa? Put the shoe on the other foot and see how it feels. Like it’s a bit of cyberbullying? That’s exactly what it is.

Now I have little tolerance for that faux political correctness that has infected our language, but I have even less little tolerance for religion being forced down anyone’s throat. Any religion. This is a secular society, not a theocracy, and because of that we allow and respect all faiths and creeds. Okay, we might laugh at the wingnuts like the Scientologists and Raelians, but we accept them. And we accept Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jains, Zoroastrians, Jews and everyone else whose faith is not Christian. We even accept atheists with the same affection. *

No it isn'tWhy get upset if someone says “happy holidays?” It’s not Christmas for everyone and you can’t always ask “Are you a Christian?” before saying it.

Saying happy holidays is just a pleasant, all-encompassing, friendly greeting that avoids religious or cultural stereotypes. It’s not meant to offend: it’s meant to give the widest reach. I’ll keep saying it. I’ll also wish people Merry Christmas – if I know their religious bent or it seems suitable. Neither one is offensive to me and we shouldn’t encourage those who are trying to make it so.

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Timothy Leary Was Right. Maybe.


This is your brain on drugs
This is your brain on drugs. Or rather, the right-hand image is your brain on psilocybin. The other side is your brain on a non-psychedelic drug. Researchers recently discovered some amazing facts about how our brains work on some chemicals. And some psychedelic drugs prove to have pretty amazing effects. But don’t try this at home… stick to building toy rockets and drones for your science experiments…

Apparently Timothy Leary was right: psychedelic drugs change the way users think. For a long time, possibly forever. In his pioneering work, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Leary wrote

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

He also said in a 1966 CBS documentary about his work,

We always have urged people: Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.

A story in Wired Magazine about this new research described the image above:

A representation of that is seen in the image above. Each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks—with normal-state brains at left, and psilocybin-influenced brains at right…
In mathematical terms, said Petri (study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange), normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There’s not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge…
Petri notes that the network depiction above is still a simplified abstraction, with the analysis mapped onto a circular, two-dimensional scaffold. A truer way of visualizing it, he said, would be in three dimensions, with connections between networks forming a sponge-like topography.

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Social Media, Public Opinion, and Jian Ghomeshi



Star CartoonI doubt anyone in North America is unaware of the furor surrounding CBC’s recent firing of radio show Q’s host, Jian Ghomeshi last week.*

In case you were on the moon when it happened, you can read some of the many stories on the Star and other news sites (just Google it…).

It’s a complex story; about the seesaw between workers’ and employers’ rights; about sex and consent; about abuse and violence against women; about privacy and personal rights; about social media and cyber-bullying; about justice and law; about media and declining reporting standards; about the public forum and the nature of spectacle; about victims and the various shades of truth. And it’s about double standards.

Fascinating, difficult, and troubling. It challenges us to think about our own beliefs and ideas; about how we react eagerly to scandal; how we view the glitterati as both outsiders and those we emulate; how we obsess over stardom; how we view sex and behaviour; how we view male and female sexuality; and how we treat – and judge – both others and ourselves. But little of that actually gets into the news or the commentaries. Mostly what gets into them is sensationalism (such is the level to which most media have fallen; how can modern media maintain its audience without crass sensationalism?). Plus a mixture of salacious gossip, accusations, self-righteous moralizing,and chest beating in the editorials and online.

But not always. Christie Blatchford recently wrote an excellent column (and I don’t often agree with her perspective, although I respect her as a writer) about how these things should be tried in courts, not by the public:

My concern is that the allegations in this story are criminal matters — these are claims of sexual assault and violent physical assault — and they ought not to be tried in the court of public opinion.
There are no safeguards in that court, no testing of the evidence, no rules or boundaries.
As Abe Lincoln famously said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.”
Sorry for the interruption, now back to the lynching.

It’s important to keep in mind that, so far, no one has filed a complaint with the police about Ghomeshi’s actions. Yes, I know a police complaint does not indicate guilt, but it does open a more intensive investigation outside of the forum Facebook and Twitter offer. An objective one, too.**
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