08/27/14

Montaigne’s cat and Descartes’ reality


“When I play with my cat,” wrote French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, “Who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.*

That statement encompasses two very distinct paths of contemplation.

First is one of animal sentience. The recognition that animals are conscious, that they are sentient creatures, with feelings and intelligence, not simply biological machines, is fairly new. Most of our modern awareness of animal intelligence and consciousness comes only in the last century (although the debate was opened in Darwin’s time). The 17th-century philosopher, Rene Descartes, believed animals were machines that acted out of reflex only (or not… what he meant by his statements is a hotly debated issue, it appears – although the Cartesian view is still cited to justify use of animals in research).

Montaigne, writing almost 200 years before Descartes, recognizes that cats can play. Amuse themselves, have fun – just like people can. That strikes me as a considerable leap in understanding: play is the act of an intelligent, self-aware being, not an automata. Montaigne knew that cats were conscious.

The second thread is that of our own consciousness and what it can know of itself and the external world. Montaigne’s comment is remarkably akin to Chuang Tzu’s famous butterfly dream from the third century BCE:

Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a fluttering butterfly. What fun he had, doing as he pleased! He did not know he was Zhou. Suddenly he woke up and found himself to be Zhou. He did not know whether Zhou had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly had dreamed he was Zhou. Between Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction. This is what is meant by the transformation of things.**

Who is the awakened, who is the dreamer in Montaigne’s statement? Is the cat or the writer the active player? Or are they actually cooperating in the act, a shared reality that neither holds independently without the other?

Sara Bakewell, writing in The Guardian, explains it:

One of Montaigne’s favourite hobbies was imagining the world from different perspectives…. At home, he extended his perspective-leaping to other species. “When I play with my cat”, he wrote, “who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” He borrowed her point of view in relation to him just as readily as he occupied his own in relation to her. And, as he watched his dog twitching in sleep, he imagined the dog creating a disembodied hare to chase in its dreams – “a hare without fur or bones”, just as real in the dog’s mind as Montaigne’s own images of Paris or Rome were when he dreamed about those cities. The dog had its inner world, as Montaigne did, furnished with things that interested him.
These were all extraordinary thoughts in Montaigne’s own time, and they remain so today. They imply an acceptance that other animals are very much like us, combined with an ability to wonder how differently they might grasp what they perceive.

Montaigne isn’t merely projecting himself into his cat. The question has greater reach: how does any of us really know what reality is? Is there even an objective reality outside our subjective viewpoint? Is there some objective reality that is separate from the observer or are effect and observer inseparable (the Schrodinger’s cat theorem…). And of course it leads back to Descartes and thus to the TED video posted at the top of this page.

What, after all, is reality and can we discover it? Timothy Leary philosophized about what he called the “reality tunnel” of subjective perspective:

The theory states that, with a subconscious set of mental filters formed from his or her beliefs and experiences, every individual interprets the same world differently, hence “Truth is in the eye of the beholder”.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” wrote Anais Nin, in her novel, The Seduction of the Minotaur, 1961

Can we really know what another person is thinking or feeling – let alone what a cat is thinking? We don’t even know for sure if another person sees the came colours or hears the same sounds as we do. And we assume there is some objective, measurable reality about such physical phenomena. So how can we know thoughts?

Montaigne, of course could not get into the mind of his cat any more than we can get into the mind of Montaigne. It was a rhetorical question, really, meant as an observation, or perhaps the starting point of a discourse on the subjective nature of reality. Unfortunately, he left that line alone and never followed through in a later essay to explore the thought further.

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08/27/14

Social media and social dialogue


Angry at social media
A recent poll done by Pew Research reiterated what I’ve been saying for the past two years: social media (SM) doesn’t necessary facilitate social debate and in fact may be stifling it. Discussion on many SM platforms tends to reinforce existing beliefs because in general only those who feel their beliefs are shared by their circle of “friends” or followers will express them. It’s called the “spiral of silence.”

The Pew report noted:

…social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views… Previous research has shown that when people decide whether to speak out about an issue, they rely on reference groups—friendships and community ties—to weigh their opinion relative to their peers… Those who do not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agree with their opinion are more likely to self-censor their views…

When social media emerged as a concept or platform that could be labelled* it was hailed as the new tool for social engagement, the panacea for flagging social interaction in many spheres like politics, education and government. And for a while, it was.

But that proved not to be the case any more than previously existing platforms (forums and list servers). In fact, for many who embraced it, social media proved more of a liability (think Anthony Weiner).

Blogger Raed El-Younsi blames the technology as at least partially responsible for the way we interact online. He wrote:

The internet gives us an unprecedented opportunity to understand one another. And yet anyone familiar with internet “discussion” boards knows that NOISE, group think and personal attacks can drown out most attempts at constructive dialogue. (For an extreme example, try discussing politics or religion in the YouTube comments.)
Similarly, the recent U.S. Government shutdown is a visible symptom of a much deeper trend: the polarization of our global society, online and offline…
Going into online discussion boards often means going into “hostile” territory and, as such, it can be a risky proposition. People often resort to attacks out of boredom, to be seen, or to “rally the troops” and win the numbers game. Strategically, our options are usually fight or flight – aggression or avoidance.

I have written in the past that it’s equally because we see the Internet as ours and respond to things online as if they were a threat to our personal property. It’s our computer, our modem, our house, our phone or cable bill, our wireless router… of course it’s our internet, too. And we respond to anyone who dissents or offers different ideas as we would a home invader or trespasser: with aggression. (Read the signs of narcissism here: listening only to dismiss; feeling the rules don’t apply to you; quick to anger; refusal to take responsibility; inability to take criticism.)

The notion of digital democracy at first suggested a great step forward. After all, what’s to dislike about free speech, freedom of expression, free exchange of ideas and open debate without borders? That quickly proved naive. The new social media proved an easier platform for the expressions of ideology than an exchange of ideas – just as the old forms had been. And in these situations, people who offered alternate or conflicting positions often found themselves denounced, attacked, insulted and vilified; their ideas or comments drowned out in a sea of vituperation. Instead of civil debate or an intelligent exchange of ideas, often these threads degenerated into a race to see who could type the nastiest rejoinder soonest.

Social networking sites (SNS) opened a whole new venue for harassment and spawned a neologism: cyberbullying.**

One recent poll suggests 25% of Americans have been harassed, bullied or threatened online and 62% of those had been harassed on Facebook. Some writers have suggested countermeasures, but these seem not to have gained much traction yet:

While keeping in mind that this is a self-reporting survey, the findings nevertheless illustrate the seriousness of online harassment and attacks, and the fact that people are increasingly becoming disenchanted with the negative behavior they experience.
We know online harassment and attacks are a huge social problem. We know they are a huge social GLOBAL problem. And it’s up to all of us to help turn things around.
While the steps needed to make this happen aren’t simply or easy, and also won’t solve the problem overnight, they will be concrete actions towards creating a positive cultural shift in online communication.

Free speech in social media does not come with any sense of responsibility, just narcissistic entitlement. People feel they have the right to comment on anything, in any manner, for any reason, regardless of their involvement in the issue, understanding of the idea, or respect for the feelings and rights of the others. Look what happens when some “hot-button” issues are broached – look at the angry back-and-forth over gun control or abortion.

Strangers can enter the fray, too, and anonymous posters can sling mud and spew invective at the original poster. It is difficult enough to argue with people you know or work with but generally much more polite and engaging; arguing with violent strangers or angry cowards hiding their identities through pseudonyms quickly makes people reluctant to engage.

Compounding it is the sheer number of people who can participate almost simultaneously: the confusion of multiple comments can turn what began as a discussion into a cacophony. A mob mentality that takes over and users on one side gang up to batter the outsider or dissenter into submission to the group mind – it’s called “seal clubbing.”

When ideology enters the fray – particularly political or religious – there is often no real civil debate on social media, but there is clearly intolerance as opposing sides batter away at each other.

And it doesn’t seem to be getting better: the Pew report found people are more willing to self-censor themselves on social media than among friends and co-workers. Based on earlier studies done by the organization, this suggests to me that the initial enthusiasm with which many people embraced social media has been curbed by the actions/words of the users themselves.
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08/25/14

Looking forward to 2015-18


Collingwood Terminals
Looking forward to 2015 and beyond, here are some of the things I would like to see Collingwood Council and the town staff accomplish in the upcoming term. I have laid these out in my campaign website and literature already, but thought I should include something in my blog to complement those sources.

  • Maintain our current fiscal stability and sustainability. This council has been very proactive in keeping taxes and spending low, without compromising on any essential services or infrastructure. We have paid down $11 of the $45 million debt we inherited, and only borrowed minimally for necessary infrastructure projects. The average tax increase this term has been less than the rate of inflation: 0.5%. And we got two stunning new recreational facilities without having to go deeper into debt or raise taxes. Staying this fiscal course for the next term is a must.
  • Complete and implement the waterfront/harbour master plan. We have started the process, held public meetings, but we need to see it to the end. Our harbour is underutilized and offers many benefits, resources and economic opportunities we can take advantage of. We need to make it more attractive, safe and accessible for all users, while drawing visitors and business to the community through aquatic activities and resources.
  • Embrace more green initiatives. Change to LED lighting in municipal buildings, rec facilities and street lights; put solar panels on municipal buildings; and install electric vehicle charging stations in municipal parking lots. Collingwood should be in the forefront of energy conservation and awareness and we must work closely with our utility partner, Collus/Powerstream to accomplish these goals.There are significant savings in energy use to be had.
  • Rebuild the BMX/skateboard park, with input from users for the design and layout. A new skateboard park could draw users from all over Ontario and host competitions and events. Let’s start planning for a revitalized facility next term and get the youth involved in the design process. It’s a prime project for a public-private partnership and sponsorship, too.
  • Aggressively promote and market Collingwood. We have a new economic development/marketing manager in a new office shared with our community business partners. We must harness these dynamic services to attract businesses and industry, and to cement our brand as the most attractive place to visit and to open a business in Ontario.
  • Implement governance changes. Our CAO has recently proposed some sweeping changes to the town’s governance and committee structures, to help make council more efficient and effective, while smoothing out the public input process. These changes will need experienced politicians to help guide them, help communicate them, and make sure they meet the needs of our residents. I have the experience to help make these changes work.
  • Promote a greater mix of housing types for both sale and rent; encourage affordable and attainable development including more rental properties, providing opportunities for workers and young families. This is a challenge because the town is limited by legislation what it can offer as incentives to developers. A roundtable discussion with planners and developers will help set priorities and strategies.
  • Integrate event planning & culture with economic development; Culture and events are economic drivers that can benefit the entire community. We must look for new signature events and activities to draw visitors, and keep people coming back. Look for new, innovative ways to increase traffic and activities downtown and engage both residents and visitors in them.
  • A regional local food strategy: I would like to see one developed with our neighbouring municipalities, which would look at promoting local agriculture, food tourism and related events. I would also like the town and BIA to look at updated and enhanced models for the farmers’ market with an eye to developing a year-round, indoor market that could attract visitors and merchants.

These are my main priorities and my vision for the upcoming term. If elected, I will bring them to council and help implement in the next four years. Some of these – the electric vehicle charging stations, for example – I have already raised this term, but because of timing, other pressing issues, budget restraints or staff changes, they have not had the opportunity for a full discussion at the council table. I have the experience, the vision and the passion to continue as your representative on Collingwood Council and work as diligently on your behalf as I have for the past three terms.

You can read more about my election platform here.

08/23/14

Tricks of the mind


Reading

Reading involves bit of trickery. Mental trickery. It engages the imagination and fools us into thinking we are there within the book: nestled beside the author, or better yet, beside the characters. Immersed in the created world, floating through it like a ghost in a haunted house movie, or perhaps in the imagined flesh, interacting on the mental stage.

We ask ourselves how we would play the scene, how we would decide, take action, engage the other characters. How would we behave at the dinner table with Becky and Rawdon? Would we defend Nancy from the rages of Bill Sykes? Would we warn Caesar on the steps of the forum? How would we greet Paul Atreides in a dusty sietch? Would we hide or expose Jean Valjean?

Our minds put us there, let us explore and build the what-if world of our own thoughts. Every paragraph opens another possibility, and our minds add it to the infinite number of scenarios we play out in them.

We imagine the walls, the furniture, the coolness of the water, the scent of spice on the breeze, the rustle of the leaves as we snake along the forest trail. Our brains get into high gear, populating the microcosm and making it real. We feel the stiffness of the starched collar, the smoothness of the velvet, the coolness of the rain as it soaks our clothes, the heat of the sun on the beach. We see the wallpaper as the sun moves across it, taste the soup served at the table, smell the lavender as we walk in the fields.

Imagination is such a powerful force that it can affect us like the real thing. We get a jolt from the coffee the hero drinks, we get aroused by the imagined sexual touch of the heroine. Our own hearts beat faster as the protagonist runs away in fear from the killer, our hair prickles when she enters the darkened room to confront the danger.

As A Scribbler’s Dreams says:

The curse of a voracious reader is having an amazing imagination. Having an amazing imagination that you feed by reading more and more books and picturing each world vividly. From the power vibrating in the Elder Wand to the smoke curling from Smaug’s nostrils, you, the reader, can picture each world and be sucked in – the only problem is that you can’t physically go there and talk to Liz Bennet or Peter Pevensie or Percy Jackson, no matter how hard you wish.

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08/23/14

Ontario’s liquor sales conundrum


The C.D. Howe Institute released its report on beer and wine sales in Ontario, today, advocating for a more liberal approach and allowing beer and wine to be sold in other outlets, such as supermarkets and convenience stores. You can read the report here.

I have a grudging respect for the C.D. Howe Institute, but not always an agreement with their conclusions, because I feel they are seldom as free of right-leaning ideologies as I would hope. But the report is a good read, nonetheless. It has a local significance in that we have seen three craft breweries open in Collingwood this term and their well-being is important to our local economy.

Coincidentally, the Beer Store was an exhibitor at the recent AMO convention*, and made presentations (as well as handing out reports) that proved a counterpoint to the C.D. Howe study. It’s a battle of conflicting figures and facts being tossed about.

Of course, The Beer Store (TBS) has a vested interest in keeping its near-monopoly on beer sales. Contrary to what some folks think, the Beer Store – we knew it as Brewer’s Retail when I was growing up – is not a government outlet like the LCBO. It’s privately owned; although it’s technically designated “not for profit” some reports say it managed to garner $700 million in “incremental profits” every year for the past few years.

This figure is challenged by Jeff Newton, President, Canada’s National Brewers, who writes:

The Beer Store does not make $700 million a year in profit; it actually makes no profit, a fact that can be confirmed by reviewing the corporation’s publicly available financial statements.

The so-called 2013 study that produced this erroneous claim was funded by the convenience store lobby association and has since been proven false by two former assistant deputy ministers of finance in the Ontario government.

What the convenience store lobbyists claimed to be a $700-million profit was actually shown to be higher Ontario beer taxes. The report debunking this claim can be found at ontariobeerfacts.ca/files/studies/earnscliffe_comparison.pdf.

Well, if The Beer Store itself isn’t making those profits, the brewers who own it are, according to the CD Howe report:

The Beer Store enjoys significant economies of scale. These factors combined allow brewers to earn what we estimate to be $450 to $630 million in additional profits compared to what would have occurred in a competitive retail market similar to that in Quebec.

Nothing against profits, mind you: they keep the brewers in business. But maybe we could shave off a couple of points to allow some of the smaller, Ontario brewers to get a bit more of the action. Encourage local, home-grown craft breweries.

Over the past few years, TBS has been the subject of considerable political controversy over its practices and policies that, some companies say, are prejudicial against small, craft breweries. The ownership of The Beer Store is also controversial because it is now an international conglomerate, not even Canadian:

…when you buy beer at The Beer Store, you’re actually supporting massive corporations based at least in part in the States, in Brazil, in Belgium, or in Japan — regardless of the brand of beer you actually buy.

The Beer Store, as you probably already know, is actually owned by Labatts, Molson-Coors, and Sleeman, and however Canadian these household brands may sound, they’re not. Molson isn’t really just Molson anymore. It’s Molson-Coors, a company with equal ownership in Canada and the United States. Labatt Brewing Company is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a Belgian-Brazilian multinational company headquartered in Leuven, and, since 2006, Sleeman has been owned by Japanese brewer Sapporo.

As the owners of The Beer Store, these three brewers are not only taking in an astounding 79.2% of the market share of all beer sold in Ontario, but they also gets to make up standards and fees to which any other brewer must adhere if he or she wants the store to stock his or her products.

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08/22/14

The Beginning of the End


Sixty years ago, the end began. It would take almost a full year for the Allies to batter the Third Reich into submission, but in the summer of 1944, the end was inevitable. All could see it. The combined might of the Allied armies was simply overpowering for whatever Germany had left to throw at it. But it was neither easy nor simple.

So why didn’t Germany sue for peace, cut its losses and surrender, rather than face the prospect of ruin and devastation? Why did Germany continue its reckless, inhumane pursuit of terror and repression – even accelerating the Final Solution in that final year – rather than accepting defeat? What compelled them to fight on?

Was it terror? Inertia? Ideology? Social peer pressure? Simple numbness? Why did Germany keep fighting a lost cause?

That’s the question Ian Kershaw tackles in his new book, The End (Penguin, 2011). The book arrived in a package today and I have read just the preface. The end of the war is a topic I’ve studied before.

I’ve read a lot of books about World War II, about the armies, about the battles, about the leaders and the politics in every nation. Few have attempted to explain why Germany remained defiant even as it was pounded into ruin; or explain the psychology of the ruled and their rulers. Most have made the story into a narrative of battles and politics that runs forward on the rails of chronology.

The book review in The Guardian notes:

The end of the Third Reich presents an enduring historical enigma. How can we explain the extraordinary cohesion of German society right up to the bitter end – the lack of rebellion or mutiny, the relatively low levels of desertion from the ranks of the army, and the tenacious hold of the National Socialist state over the lives of ordinary people until, very suddenly, it was all over? The most obvious explanation – that people really did believe in Him (a phrase from the reich brilliantly analysed at the time by Victor Klemperer) – raises a second puzzle: why, if German society remained basically Nazified, was there so little resistance to foreign occupation after “liberation”? These two riddles continue to preoccupy historians, and now Ian Kershaw, the doyen of English scholars of the Third Reich, seeks the answers.

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