Is a wandering mind ADHD or just natural reaction?

Attention disorder?Serendipity: this image appeared on Facebook this week, followed by an article on Science Daily today, titled, “A Wandering Mind Reveals Mental Processes and Priorities.” The combined impact got me thinking about attention and focus.

A new study investigating the mental processes underlying a wandering mind reports a role for working memory, a sort of a mental workspace that allows you to juggle multiple thoughts simultaneously… The new study, published online March 14 in the journal Psychological Science … reports that a person’s working memory capacity relates to the tendency of their mind to wander during a routine assignment.

As someone whose mind is on a permanent hike across the mental landscape, and meanders through thoughts, ideas, tasks and imagination frequently and seemingly randomly, I am interested in the psychology and biology of wandering minds and attention deficit disorders. I love it when people call it “multi-tasking,” because it sounds like I’m doing it intentionally. To me, it’s just being distracted.

Is that bad? I read a dozen books at any time, a chapter here, a chapter there. I read from at least three different books every night before bed, sometimes five or six. I have the attention span of a literary fruit fly. But I consume books and read voraciously.

However, I tend to be an ADD/ADHD agnostic when it comes to the popular idea that kids need to be medicated to focus their brains. I get nervous when drug companies promote their drugs as a cure for things that no one seems to have heard of before the drugs hit the shelf. Especially when the market for ADHD drugs tops $4 billion a year.

Does that make ADHD a fad or an invention? Some writers like Stephen Herr seem to think so:

ADHD became a popular diagnosis in the 1980s as more parents went to work and the role of schools and teachers changed… At one time, ADHD appeared to be a reasonable theory that might help people address genuine concerns…The creation of ADHD as a psychological disorder was in part an attempt to deal with some of the difficulties of raising children. Unfortunately, that attempt has fallen short and led to new problems in recent years.
On a diagnostic level, ADHD is problematic. After generations of research, there is still no test for ADHD, nor is there a standard diagnostic measure within the profession…
What started out as a theory articulated by professionals is now an urban legend… has helped fuel a pharmacological intervention that would have seemed absurd two generations ago. As of 2006, 4.5 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD, with nearly half taking medication. In 2008, the ADHD pharmaceutical market was worth $4 billion.
Another problem with our fixation on ADHD is that it is not working. Again, even after generations of research there is no evidence that suggests placing children on Schedule II drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse improves their intellectual abilities over an extended period, or that these drugs affect children with ADHD any differently than they affect any other child. A stimulant is a stimulant is a stimulant. What we do know is that the use of these drugs can be debilitating, addictive, and deadly.

I’m not a doctor, pharmacist or psychiatrist, but when I read articles like this one, I have to wonder if ADHD is a real disorder or a populist fad:

It is impossible to judge how much of the epidemic is influenced by parents and teachers having less time and patience for their unruly kids. Or by the fact that authorization for special services requires there be an ADD diagnosis? I think these are sometimes quite important, but overall much less a factor than the huge drug company push.

Then I read this in the Science Daily report:

The result is the first positive correlation found between working memory and mind wandering and suggests that working memory may actually enable off-topic thoughts.
“What this study seems to suggest is that, when circumstances for the task aren’t very difficult, people who have additional working memory resources deploy them to think about things other than what they’re doing,” Smallwood says.

ADHD cartoonOkay. So the definition of ADHD is, “ADHD is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination. For these problems to be diagnosed as ADHD, they must be out of the normal range for a child’s age and development.” Which sounds to me like the definition of any kid stuck in school. So what is the “normal range” of development for humans whose brains are growing, changing and developing while they’re being taught?

And the symptoms also read like those some parents ascribe to the use of wireless technology: “Impaired concentration, Loss of short term memory, ADHD.” Is it ADHD or wireless? Which is the popular disorder du jour?

Hmm. Maybe some of these kids just have wandering minds. Maybe they’re just being kids: inquisitive, restless and bored. Maybe what’s wrong isn’t with them, it’s with the educational system. Maybe it’s tied into our schools’ primitive task-reward system that doesn’t engage them:

As Science Daily continues,

Where your mind wanders may be an indication of underlying priorities being held in your working memory, whether conscious or not, he says. But it doesn’t mean that people with high working memory capacity are doomed to a straying mind. The bottom line is that working memory is a resource and it’s all about how you use it, he says. “If your priority is to keep attention on task, you can use working memory to do that, too.”

Stephen Herr – an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies, Leadership and Counseling at Murray State University – concludes:

On a scientific level, we get past ADHD the same way we got past phrenology and eugenics; we demand that the theories that are being expounded be based in fact and verified by research. On a societal level, we take responsibility for the fact that the diagnostic labels we have accepted, and pharmacological interventions we have embraced, are harming children and that we have no right to ask children to bear those harms. On a personal level, we place the difficulties of childhood within the context of the life of each child, and within the nature of childhood itself. We make a commitment to helping children be their best selves, and above all, we do the best we can to make sure that we never use our positions of authority to harm anyone.

ADHD cartoonMaybe a wandering mind isn’t a disease that has to be treated with drugs. Maybe it’s just a natural childhood reaction to the changing state of schools, the changing nature of parenthood, information overload, peer pressure, and too much attention wasted on competing entertainment demands provided by those substitute parents: TV/music/video games.

I’m sure glad no one diagnosed me with it when I was in school. I’d probably still be drugged.

Why the Republicans are bad for science

Tumblr imageRick Santorum’s recent win in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries are frightening for anyone who values science and critical thinking. Santorum is not the only Republican who frightens me. They all do. But Santorum most of all. The idea of a right-wing, homophobic, fundamentalist, creationist running the biggest and most powerful nation in the world is scary enough to keep me awake at night.

Santorum was the author of a 2001 amendment to the US education funding bill. His pro-creationist proposal was known as The Santorum Amendment. It “promoted the teaching of intelligent design while questioning the academic standing of evolution in U.S. public schools.” “Intelligent” design is anything but: it’s merely creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo. Santorum has a long history of “mischaracterizing” and misunderstanding evolution, as chronicled here: “…Santorum doesn’t need facts to back up his side, as long as he makes it sound like the other side has its own problems.”

Since Santorum’s failed attempt to get creationism inserted into the classroom, teaching so-called “intelligent” design has been declared unconstitutional by a US federal judge: “U.S. District Judge John E. Jones delivered a stinging attack on the Dover Area School Board, saying its first-in-the-nation decision in October 2004 to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum violates the constitutional separation of church and state.” The judge declared there was “overwhelming evidence” presented during the trial to prove “intelligent” design “is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.”

That hasn’t stopped Santorum from being an outspoken advocate for creationism in whatever party dress it wears. Mitt Romney, his chief rival for the top spot, has been described as a “theistic evolutionist” based on older quotes, but he has said little or nothing about creationism during the campaign for the Republican candidacy.

In 2008, Santorum commented that, “…the theory of evolution… is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.”

Creationist humourIn November, 2011, as the HuffPost reported, Santorum said, “the “left” and “scientific community” have monopolized the public school system’s curriculum, only permitting the teaching of evolution and leaving no room for the introduction of creation-based theories in the classroom.” Santorum bemoaned his frustration at the “whole ‘science only allows science to be taught in science class scenario.” Uh, Rick, that’s what you’re supposed to teach in a science class.

Creationism is not by itself a significant issue. It’s rather that it links to other, bigger issues. As Martin Wisckol writes,

While creationism itself rarely is the subject of political policy beyond school curriculum, it’s closely tied to high-profile issues that are – including abortion rights, stem cell use, gay marriage and birth control. And the most sizeable portion of the electorate subscribing to creationism are evangelical Christians… according to Pew researcher David Masci.

Santorum has other issues with science and scientific research aside from creationism. As Discover Magazine noted, Santorum doesn’t believe in climate change science. He doesn’t support stem cell research. Santorum called Barack Obama’s environmental policy, “some phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible” (see here – although that may have merely been a CYA retraction when his words were taken as a faith-based attack on Obama).

Early in the campaign, Romney distanced himself from Santorum’s ‘climate-science-is-political-science’ denial, by admitting he believed, “…the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that.” (see here). But later he flip-flopped and said, “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” He also supports the rights of gas and oil companies to despoil the environment, including, “…drilling in the “the Gulf of Mexico, both the Atlantic and Pacific Outer Continental Shelves, Western lands, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and off the Alaska coast.” Romney will be as bad for the environment as he will be for science, it appears.

It’s easy to target Santorum’s fundamentalist-Tea-Party-anti-science myopia and Romney’s pro-corporate-waste-the environment-deny-science position. But as Chris Mooney points out in this piece, even educated Republicans are prone to accept the same fallacies and narrow-minded views that characterize all of the presidential candidates:

Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.
Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all. In a recent survey by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, they rejected the science of global warming even more strongly than average Republicans did. For instance, considerably more Tea Party members than Republicans incorrectly thought there was a lot of scientific disagreement about global warming (69 percent to 56 percent). Most strikingly, the Tea Party members were very sure of themselves—they considered themselves “very well-informed” about global warming and were more likely than other groups to say they “do not need any more information” to make up their minds on the issue.

Mooney calls it the “smart idiot” effect, and continues:

…well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue.

Rationality does not win the day, it seems, even with educated Republicans. Ideology does. And increasingly that ideology seems to be the products of a smaller and select group of uber-right media outlets (like Fox), self-appointed spokespeople (like the harridan Ann Coulter), and vocal Tea Party members. Ideology, as Martin Wisckol writes, is driving the debate about many issues, not facts – information, or empirical data:

…the “facts” used by voters are often subjective, depending on one’s political, philosophical and religious beliefs. The trend is growing, fueled in part by spurious information on the internet, and is a major reason for partisan gridlock in Sacramento and Washington.
Thirty percent of Republicans say manmade global warming is occurring, while 64 percent of Democrats say that’s the case, according to Pew Research Center. Pure creationism – which says man was created by God in his current form – is subscribed to by 52 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats, according to Gallup. Pew found the difference on creationism to be a closer – but still substantial – 39 percent to 30 percent.
And it’s not just evolution and global warming that are too complex for most voters to thoroughly assess based on data. The comparative efficiency of health-care policies, the effect of a large deficit, the best way to reduce the debt and how to stimulate the economy are other key areas where factual understanding doesn’t determine a voter’s position so much as their preexisting ideology and whose word they’re inclined to trust.

Sad to think that during the Enlightenment, governments supported the quest for learning. In the 21st Century, Republicans want the government to support ignorance and superstition.

NASA latest target of creationist harridans

CreationismA former NASA computer technician has filed an wrongful dismissal suit against his former employer, alleging he was, “discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design.” Engaged is a mild word. From what I’ve read in more balanced reports, he proselytized and his co-workers complained. The trial began Monday (documents here).

David Coppedge admitted he, “…handed out (religious) DVDs on the idea while at work.” But that’s not all. According to this AP story, Coppedge was also involved in political campaigning at work:

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, contends his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian, and interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a Christmas party.

Coppedge runs an apologist creationist website that tries to discredit evolutionary and biological science and new discoveries with pseudo-scientific jargon.

The Huffington Post story noted,

While the case has attracted interest because of the controversial nature of intelligent design, it is at its heart a straightforward discrimination case, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of First Amendment law at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law.

“Intelligent” design is not controversial unless you try to promote it in your workplace to skeptical coworkers. Creationist advocates get shirty that your efforts get you dismissed. The story continues:

“The question is whether the plaintiff was fired simply because he was wasting people’s time and bothering them in ways that would have led him to being fired regardless of whether it was about religion or whether he was treated worse based on the religiosity of his beliefs,” said Volokh. “If he can show that, then he’s got a good case.”

The CBC story quoted John West, associate director of the inappropriately-named, right-wing anti-science “Centre for Science and Culture” at the creationist defence group, the “Discovery Institute” (aka The Discoveroids*)

“It’s part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years. This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101.”

The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

No, it isn’t free speech or conscience. It’s a typical creationist assault on science through a wedge issue. West is using typical pro-creationist/anti-science spin doctoring. In this quote, he tries to reposition the issue from one of a workplace problem to one of constitutional freedom and faith. It is neither. It’s not a war on dissent**. It’s about whether Coppedge was engaged in workplace harassment. The only “war” going on is the constant creationist assault on critical thinking.

Would these people defend someone who actively promoted astrology at JPL? Or promoted Communism? Or is protecting “free speech” limited to defending the alleged right to spout creationist folderol?

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, says his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian and other interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a “Christmas party.”

Belief in “intelligent” design IS religious. Only religious fundamentalists or biblical literalists believe in creationism. But belief alone won’t get you fired.

Live Science notes:

According to Coppedge’s complaint first filed with the courts in April 2010, JPL supervisors reprimanded Coppedge for handing out intelligent design DVDs to coworkers and discussing his beliefs about intelligent design with them. Coppedge alleges that JPL stifled his right to free speech and created a hostile work environment, demoting him from his “team lead” position in 2009. Coppedge lost his job last year.
“Plaintiff contends that, as a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ conduct and actions, he has been prejudiced and harmed as the result of Defendants’ actions suppressing and constraining protected speech in the workplace on account of viewpoint, content and religion,” reads Coppedge’s complaint filed at the Los Angeles Superior Court in 2010. The complaint has since been updated to include Coppedge’s termination.
According to JPL, it was not Coppedge’s beliefs, but his conflicts with colleagues that led to his demotion. The lab also holds that Coppedge’s firing was the result of planned budget cuts, not his intelligent design beliefs.

Strikes me that handing out religious DVDs or campaigning for a homophobic state proposition in any workplace during work hours are inappropriate acts. The US Constitution protects free speech from government interference. It doesn’t protect anyone’s right to disrupt a workplace. There is no constitutional right to promote creationism in the workplace.

Far more frightening is the rest of the story about the dumbing down of America:

According to the Gallup polling organization, as of 2010, 38 percent of Americans believed that humans evolved with God’s guidance, a position roughly congruous with intelligent design. Forty percent said they believed that God created humans in their present form, while 16 percent said they believed that humans evolved without God’s hand.
The Pew Research Center… in 2005… found that about 58 percent of Americans said the biblical account of creation was definitely or probably true, but the same percentage also said the same of evolution. In August 2005, a Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of Americans knew what the term “intelligent design” meant.
One study published in January found that people’s acceptance of evolution depends on their gut feeling rather than a careful examination of the evidence.
Nonetheless, evolution, creationism and intelligent design remain hot political topics. Legislators in several states introduced legislation this year that would limit the teaching of evolution or promote instruction in creationism.

Those figures are truly frightening and bode ill for science and critical thinking. Forty percent believe in creationism, while only 16% believe humans evolved without supernatural intervention. That’s sad. So very, very sad.

Creationism is fraudulent pseudoscience***. Claptrap. Codswallop. “Intelligent” Design (ID) is simply lipstick on the creationist pig. It isn’t science any more than “faith healing” is medicine.

The Sensuous Curmudgeon has been following the trial and commenting on the pieces creationist groups have been posting on their websites in their attempt to recast the case as a battle over faith rather than a workplace discipline issue. His archive of posts is here.

One example of the fundamentalist spin is this screed from an uber-right site:

In a developing case indicative of the growing war on religion and in particular Christianity, opening statements are expected Monday in a legal case involving the wrongful termination of a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee…
Anyone who has ever been a Christian in a secular workplace characterized by a decidedly anti-religious environment knows all too well that this kind of “labeling” and discrimination is common place. Though JPL will advance all kinds of evidence to defend its demotion and ultimate firing of Coppedge, most unbiased Americans can read between the lines and see that what really went on here was a coordinated and widespread effort to get rid of that ignorant Christian trouble-maker. Heaven forbid somebody in NASA actually believe in God or Intelligent Design – that is pure unadulterated blasphemy to today’s breed of scientists!

Typical creationist/fundamentalist hookum. Free speech is a canard in this trial.

People are allowed to believe any tomfoolery they want, even creationism, the apex of tomfoolery, up there with with astrology, phrenology, crystal therapy and alien abductions. All of which have many, many followers. But believers can’t annoy co-workers with their beliefs and disrupt the workplace. And that’s what NASA alleges Coppedge did.
~~~~~

* My favourite quotes from the Discoveroids’ website: “The Spanish Inquisition was about testing the sincerity of people’s Christianity.” “Darwinism is the tribal religion of the modern elites, presided over by The New York Times, NPR/PBS and even The Wall Street Journal.” “Ann Coulter is so funny that people fail to notice the well read public intellectual behind the laughing smile and endless blonde tresses.” (Ann Coulter is the poster girl of the uber-right wingnut caucus who personifies the term ‘shrill harridan’). Guffaws all around.
** Many scientists have challenged Darwin’s original ideas. Evolutionary theory has evolved in its own way from Darwin’s day. That’s natural (like evolution). Darwin didn’t know about genetics, DNA, viruses, radiation and other things that affect development and mutation. So of course scientists have had to refine and adapt the original theory in the light of new information. Science grows with knowledge, unlike creationism which stopped thinking about things 4,000 years ago when the Genesis mythology was first penned. Today’s evolutionary biology is far more complex and fuller than what Darwin proposed. But that doesn’t mean Darwin was wrong, any more than Newton or Galileo are wrong simply because we’ve learned new things since either.
*** Creationism is the belief that the first creation myth in the Book of Genesis is fact, not primitive mythology. Curiously, the different and contradictory second creation myth (2:4-2:25) gets ignored.

That’s not mass, it’s area. Poor science means bad reporting.

It will come from space, be as massive as half a football field, have the explosive power to decimate hundreds of square miles of land and will hurtle perilously close to Earth.

Just some artist's impression of a burning rockI cringed when I read this paragraph in a QMI story published in the London Free Press recently, titled “Rock of Ages: Killer Asteroid Likely to Pass in 2013.” So many mistakes in so few words. But it might be a great start for a Roger Corman B-flick script.

Of course, “it” will come from space: “it” is an asteroid. Asteroids, says Wikipedia, are, “…a class of small Solar System bodies in orbit around the Sun.” So it’s pretty obvious an asteroid can’t come from your basement, from the North Pole or from Ottawa.

“As massive as half a football field,” the writer declares. How massive is a football field? It isn’t massive at all. It has area, which is a measurement of its size in two dimensions, not mass. Mass, as Wikipedia says, has nothing to do with size: “In everyday usage, mass is often referred to as weight… In scientific use, however, the term weight refers to a different, yet related, property of matter. Weight is the gravitational force acting on a given body.”

Let’s get more technical, so we can be exact in our definition of mass: “…inertial mass, can be defined as a quantitative measure of an object’s resistance to the change of its speed.” An asteroid moving at an estimated 8.2 km/second certainly has inertial mass.

So many mistakes in so few words. But it might be a great start for a Roger Corman B-flick script.

Massive is an adjective that refers to mass, of course. So tell me, Terry Davidson, how you can measure the mass of a football field? What does a football field weigh? And is that an America, Canadian or Australian football field – because they are different sizes. The asteroid in question is estimated to be about 46m (150 feet) wide. But that doesn’t say anything about its mass which is also related to its density and speed.

Explosive power? Not really. Asteroids are not explosive, although impacts create explosions.

An explosion happens when the kinetic energy of the asteroid is converted to other forms of energy on impact. Until that moment, an asteroid does not have “explosive power,” just kinetic energy. Sometimes asteroids explode in the atmosphere as this one did over Indonesia, in 2009. But that’s a combination of rapid heat expansion, pressure and kinetic energy, not because the asteroid was “explosive.”

Decimate hundreds of square miles? Does the writer mean it will destroy every tenth square mile? The origin of decimate is Latin, and refers to a practice in the Roman Army of killing every tenth soldier as a form of punishment. Common usage means to “kill, destroy, or remove a large percentage or part of (something),” and “drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something).” Decimate does not mean destroy everything.

It is called 2012-DA14, an asteroid that NASA scientists have been watching closely in anticipation of Feb. 15, 2013, when the mammoth piece of solid space rock will soar past the Earth a mere 24,000 kms from the planet’s surface. It will be passing even lower than the altitude at which many man-made satellites orbit.

Man-made. Bit of an anachronism, that term. I’m pretty sure there were also women working on some of those parts. I would have preferred “artificial” as a neutral adjective over the sexist “man-made.”

Mammoth? Compared to what? To a football field? It’s certainly bigger than the house Dorothy dropped on the Wicked Witch of the West, but compared to Ceres or Vesta? At 45-46m (150 feet), on the cosmic scale, it’s a pebble. It’s a fraction of the size of Asteroid 2005 YU55, which will whiz by Earth on November 8, about 319,000 kms away.

In fact 2012-DA14 is eerily similar to an asteroid that destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest in remote Siberia a little over a century ago.

In fact”? Since nothing has ever been found of the Tunguska meteorite, and certainly no sample has ever been taken of 2012-DA14, how can they be compared? Where are the “facts” about either? Many scientists believe the Tunguska event was caused by a chunk of comet, or even a micro black hole, not an asteroid. No one even knows the size of the rock that caused Tunguska, although there are educated guesses. We can only guess at any possible similarities; not state facts.

Eerily? What’s eerie about similarities between pieces of material? Eerily means, “…inspiring inexplicable fear, dread, or uneasiness; strange and frightening; suggestive of the supernatural; mysterious.” What is supernatural about a natural piece of space rock? Why would some physical similarity – size is the only property that can be estimated for both – instill dread or fear? Is it a haunted asteroid? Being “haunted” requires imaginary creatures called ghosts, not science.

The rock that exploded over Siberia, did so at an estimated 5–10 kilometres (3–6 mi) above the Earth’s surface, and likely on an impact trajectory. Asteroid 2012-DA14 will pass us by at 2,400 to 4,800 times that distance, and will not be aimed at the planet’s surface. These two are as “eerily similar” as the distance from my home to my town hall – about a mile – is similar to the distance from my home to Vancouver (about 3,500 miles).

Killer Asteroid, the headline screams! Is it time to panic? Not in 2013. Although the headline suggests it’s “likely” to pass Earth in 2013, Asteroid 2012-DA14 has zero percent chance of hitting the planet. Zero. Zilch. It’s not likely to pass us: it WILL pass us by. There’s a huge difference between likely and won’t.

You actually get some real science at the tail end of the story, where the estimated speed, size and mass of the asteroid is indicated. That’s where it says risk to hit: 0. By which I assume that means zero percent or zero chances in whatever. Not likely: none. The real data isn’t from the story writer, however, but from Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Program.

Asteroid 2012-DA14?s next closest pass, in 2040, has a 1 in 80,000 chance of striking Earth. That’s lower odds than the chance of getting rich on the Antiques Road Show (1:60,000)! Frankly, probability suggests you’re more likely to win the lottery than to be hit by any meteorite.

2040 is the year the asteroid is “likely to pass” not 2013. It’s very, very, very likely to pass in 2040, with about 12 chances in a million to hit us. Until then, I won’t worry about it. But I will continue to worry about bad science in reporting.

~~~~~~
Davidson’s story at least has some science buried in the hyperbole. There are many on the Internet that are a LOT worse, although few are written by reporters and are mostly the work of oddballs. “Deadly asteroid 2012 DA14 bounds towards Earth out of the blue” reads one headline, admittedly from a site that has all sorts of claptrap, from aliens to UFOs to demons and various conspiracy theories. I’m happy that the fringe lunatics have a place to play online, but the writer is incorrect in saying, “NASA confirms the 60-meter (197-feet) asteroid, spotted by Spanish stargazers in February, has a good chance of colliding with Earth in eleven months.” It has NO chance. None.

That squiggle cost taxpayers HOW much?

I read in the latest edition of the Collingwood Connection that: “Regional Tourist Organization 7 (is) now Bruce Grey Simcoe.” Were you even aware of Regional Tourist Organization 7 before that story? According to the Connection,

The organization announced its new brand and logo on Thursday at the Bear Estate in Collingwood. Bruce Grey Simcoe is one of 13 regional tourism organizations across the province.
Executive director Jeffery Schmidt said the group has been doing research and marketing over the past year in preparation for this announcement, as well as future initiatives.
He said creating the brand cost about $80,000 but the research over the past year has cost about $1.5 million.

Bruce Grey Simcoe and its squiggleMore than $1.5 million to change its name and produce a squiggle (“swoosh”) for a logo? It cost $80,000 to rename the organization from the bland, Borg-like “Regional Tourist Organization 7” (RTO 7 to its friends, and the name the website still bears but it links to brucegreysimcoe.com/) to “Bruce Grey Simcoe.” $80,000 for that. And they forgot the commas, too. Now it reads like some English writer’s name. Eric Arthur Blair. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Mary Ann Evans. Bruce Grey Simcoe. Maybe commas would have cost too much money, so they eschewed correct punctuation to save taxpayers money.

Man, I’m in the wrong industry. Five minutes of shallow cogitation could produce that name. Let’s see… who does he organization service? Hmm. The website says, “Tourism Region 7 consists of Bruce County, Grey County and Simcoe County (see map).” The counties of Bruce, Grey and Simcoe. Wait a second, I have an idea, let’s call it…

Come on. That cost $80,00? I would have thrown in the commas for free, for $80,000.

Actually it seems to have cost taxpayers $1,580,000, because it took $1.5 million in “research and marketing in preparation for this announcement, as well as future initiatives.” What research? Doesn’t say. No pollster called me to ask my opinion of the new name, or whether three independent, proper names should be strung together without the right punctuation.

RTO7 is an independent, not-for-profit organization whose mission is to work collaboratively with tourism partners and stakeholders to enrich Region 7’s diverse tourism experiences and to sustain and grow visitation, investment and tourism receipts.

What exactly are “tourism receipts?” If a visitor shops at Wal Mart, is that a tourism receipt? How are they grown (do they need water and fertilizer)?

RTOs are funded by the province – which means by you, the taxpayer. And maybe you’ll pay twice: your local municipality may be asked to shell out money to belong to RTO 7. “It is up to each Regional Tourism Organization to determine if membership fees will be implemented,” says the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. I await their request to council.

Benefit of these expenditures to you, the taxpayer? Aside from keeping graphic design, research and marketing firms busy, that is? Benefit of another layer of bureaucracy? Sorry, I haven’t found any, but I’ll keep searching.

The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport website says,

Ontario is paving the way for a stronger, more competitive tourism industry. The Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport is supporting Ontario’s tourism partners as they develop Regional Tourism Organizations in the province’s 13 new tourism regions. Each Regional Tourism Organization is independent, industry-led and not-for-profit. Each will be responsible for building and supporting competitive and sustainable tourism regions. And each will help attract more visitors, generate more economic activity, and create more jobs across the province.

How these organizations will pave the way for anything, let alone develop or build tourism, is not stated. Nor does it state how the MTCS supports its “tourism partners.” But the FAQ says:

Regional Tourism Organizations are independent, industry-led, not-for-profit organizations responsible for working with tourism partners to enhance and grow each region’s tourism products and marketing activities. The regional leadership and coordination they provide will help build and support competitive and sustainable tourism regions. As a result, each region will be better equipped to attract more visitors, generate more economic activity and create more jobs across the province.

Again, more bluster-speak, long on touchy-feely but short on details. How will they lead? Or build? It does say that, “Regional Tourism Organizations may pursue regional research for planning, coordination and performance measurement.” Which I suppose justifies spending $1.5 million to research a squiggle and three words. Okay, to be fair: six words if you count the tag line, “Always in Season.” That’s how much a word? No wonder they couldn’t afford the commas!

The new BGS/RTO 7 logo, says the Connection,

…features the names of the three counties with a swoosh above in blue, green, yellow and orange. The tag line is, Always in Season, representing the fact the region is a four-season destination.

The EB article called it a, “..swoosh that can either represent the topography changes between Lake Huron and Lake Simcoe, or the outline of the escarpment — with colours representing the water, the fall season, and the spectacular sunsets seen over Georgian Bay.”

I’m not a graphic artist, so perhaps my eye fails to see the beauty of what looks to me like a squiggle from a paint brush that wasn’t fully cleaned. Maybe I lack the eye to recognize metaphor. But I do recognize another layer being piled onto the tourism layer cake.

The official media release notes about the branding exercise,

“The goal of the process was to determine a name and identity for the region that demonstrates its uniqueness and tells consumers where we are, both geographically and spiritually,” said Bill Sullivan, the organization’s Director of Marketing. “We wanted to convey the essence of our authentic communities, natural environments and breadth of product, and the fact that visitors can expect different experiences each and every time they visit.”

Spiritually? Come on… we’re not the Vatican or Jerusalem, catering to religious tourists. I don’t think there’s even a single face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich to be found in any of the three counties.

I could already tell you where we are geographically by looking at my GPS. Authentic? Yep, it’s an authentic county named Simcoe. Glad we got that sorted out (unless they mean a county authentically named Simcoe, in which case I get all rhetorical). Look, there’s an authentic county named Grey. And there’s an authentic squiggle… I mean, swoosh.

I’m not a graphic artist, so perhaps my eye fails to see the beauty of what looks to me like a squiggle from a paint brush that wasn’t fully cleaned. Maybe I lack the eye to recognize metaphor.

According to the Enterprise Bulletin, the RTO 7 held, “…town hall information sessions in Owen Sound, Collingwood and Barrie this week where the new consumer brand will be unveiled. Members of the public are invited to see how the brand will be rolled out in the coming months.”

Town hall sessions at what expense and why? To promote something to local consumers who ALREADY live in the area the RTO is supposed to be promoting? Sessions to inform people of what? A squiggle and a tag line? I assume tourism and hospitality businesses already know about these RTOs. Do you think the local consumer really cares, or even if he/she has ever heard of the organization? Who gets paid for these events, who claims mileage and expenses for these sessions?

Makes me wonder how much more this roll-out will cost taxpayers. The EB coverage gave us some idea that it might prove expensive:

RTO7 will be undertaking a ‘brand’ launch beginning in mid-March, complete with an in-region promotion contest encouraging local residents to submit photos and stories and “showcase their favourite places and experiences, and what makes (the region) such a great place to live and play,” said Schmidt.

Neither newspaper had anything in the way of substance about what the RTO will actually do, just that it was self-promoting its $1.58 million branding. And what happens with existing tourism associations like the GTTA?

The EB article continues:

“What we are unveiling at the session is a brand name, like a destination name for the area, as well as a logo and talking about how that will be introduced or rolled out through a promotion or marketing campaign,” said Jeff Schmidt, executive director of RTO 7, based in Thornbury.

“It’s like a consumer brand where people will be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, I know where that is.'”

Yeah. I can see people in Toronto talking over breakfast about what a good time they had on their weekend getaway to “Brucegreysimcoe.” Imagine all 13 RTOs marketing to the same Toronto consumers, too. After all, who else will they target?

For $1.58 million, I could send every consumer in the province a road map of Ontario with the three counties marked with circles, and probably save taxpayers $1 million. Imagine if all 13 of these groups follow RTO 7 and spend that much on tag lines and squiggles? That would cost taxpayers more than $20 million. And for what? Words and squiggles. Sorry: swooshes. That would come from the $65 million of tax dollars the province has budgeted as handouts support for RTOs. Imagine what local hospitals could do with that, instead. Probably waste it on MRI scanners or some other piece of medical hardware.

Hey, Don Drummond, I think you missed a big sinkhole in spending right here. The MTCS FAQ says,RTOS must “…sign a transfer payment agreement that holds them accountable to the Province for expenditure of taxpayer dollars and for growing tourism in the region.” I wonder if spending $1.58 million for “branding” and squiggles is considered “accountable.”

Sorry the world didn’t end for you….

Christian Science MonitorHoward Camping is one sorry person. Really. This week he apologized – again – for making an incorrect “doomsday” prediction last year that had hundreds, maybe thousands, of his co-religious wingnuts eagerly selling all their belongings in anticipation of the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI, October 21).

Oops. World didn’t end, but then we knew it wouldn’t, didn’t we? Just like it won’t end this December simply because the Mayans ran out of room on their stone calendar for another long cycle.

I wrote about Camping and his wacky “Rapture” predictions back in May, 2011. Today I read about his apology for miscalculating the end of the world on the Huffington Post and Washington Post.

Camping actually made his first apology in May, 2011, when the “Rapture” he predicted failed to happen. Then he made another apology last October when the world didn’t end. Like I said earlier, he’s a sorry guy.

Well, he said he was wrong, but not everyone thought they were apologies. I agree: they read like excuses to me.

Then Harold apologized (sort of) again, in November, when he retired from “Family” Radio. He wrote: “It seems embarrassing for Family Radio. But God was in charge of everything. We came to that conclusion after quite careful study of the Bible. He allowed everything to happen the way it did without correction. He could have stopped everything if He had wanted to.” So it was God’s fault, not Harold’s that he got the date wrong.

This week Camping posted a new letter of apology on his company’s website. That’s right: his company. Camping is the founder of “Family” Radio, a fundamentalist Christian radio network. Never lose site of the fact like televangelists, Camping’s operation is about business first, and faith second. The network spent millions of dollars in 2011 advertising the alleged “Rapture.” Big bucks: gotta come from somewhere.

“Family” Radio isn’t my personal cup of tea: it offers an unrelenting program of Bible reading and study, with an emphasis on Camping’s own particular (and peculiar) slant on the text (its literal truth as he interprets it). Given his track record on end-of-the-world predictions (he made an earlier one for 1994), his interpretations strike me as pretty screwy and not conducive to anyone’s belief. Some of their stations alleviate the dreary droning with CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). Give me Bluesville any day of the week over CCM. Please.

In his recent letter, posted on the “Family” Radio site, Camping wrote:

The May 21 campaign was an astounding event if you think about its impact upon this world. There is no question that millions, if not billions of people heard for the first time the Bible’s warning that Jesus Christ will return. Huge portions of this world that had never read or seen a Bible heard the message the Christ Jesus is coming to rapture His people and destroy this natural world.

Well, the millennium-bug campaign was equally “astounding” in the same sense that for all the brouhaha, nothing happened with either. Dates came, dates went, computers didn’t crash, Jesus didn’t return. Camping seems to think his failed prediction woke people up to his vision of Rapture and apocalypse. I doubt it: it was grist for many, many comedy routines and much smirking palaver, but aside from the general hilarity, I doubt it convinced anyone. In fact, it probably cost Camping a lot of followers. Especially those who woke up October 22, homeless, jobless, friendless, penniless, rapture-less and still very much on planet earth.

At least he didn’t convince them to drink the Kool-Aid… although there were documented suicides and attempted suicides as a result of his predictions. Some people are that gullible.

Camping’s letter may seem an abjectly humble apology to some, but to me it sounds a trifle hollow; rather defensive or even a bit prideful:

…we humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing; yet though we were wrong God is still using the May 21 warning in a very mighty way. In the months following May 21 the Bible has, in some ways, come out from under the shadows and is now being discussed by all kinds of people who never before paid any attention to the Bible. We learn about this, for example, by the recent National Geographic articles concerning the King James Bible and the Apostles. Reading about and even discussing about the Bible can never be a bad thing, even if the Bible’s authenticity is questioned or ridiculed. The world’s attention has been called to the Bible…. Yet this incorrect and sinful statement allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention. Even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish His purposes, so He used our sin to accomplish His purpose of making the whole world acquainted with the Bible. However, even so, that does not excuse us. We tremble before God as we humbly ask Him for forgiveness for making that sinful statement. We are so thankful that God is so loving that He will forgive even this sin.

For all his mea-culpa commentary, Harold doesn’t apologize to all those people who gave up everything to become his camp(ing) followers and ended up with nothing but the ringing laughter of their former friends and co-workers to live on. I suppose we’ll still have to wait for him to apologize fully. Probably until the “Rapture” finally does arrive… or at least until the UFOs land (pick your fantasy scenario)…

Grim outlook for Canadian manufacturing

Abandoned Arrow Shirt factory, OntarioThe outlook for Canadian manufacturing, warns the CIBC, will remain grim as long as a strong dollar keeps labour costs high, “deepening the hollowing out of the industrial heartland and boosting regional income inequality in the years ahead,” says the Huffington Post.

The Canadian loonie looks good for shoppers who buy consumer and retail goods made outside Canada. Our import prices are actually 10% lower than they were a decade ago. Back in 2002, when the loonie was $0.62CAD to the $USD, our labour costs were lower, so it made Canada a good place in to make products. Now we’re not: we’re too expensive. Our labour costs are now 20-25% higher than those in the USA (see graph, below).

The factories have moved elsewhere and they’re not coming back any time in the foreseeable future. So you have to ask which is the greater advantage for Canadians: being able to buy cheaper goods from China or having good-paying jobs so you can afford better products?

Canadian labour costs risingThe CIBC report notes that, “Canada is no longer a cost-effective location for a host of non-resource-related manufacturing activities. Initially, shutdowns were seen in sectors like apparel and furniture that had earlier hung on in part due to an undervalued exchange rate. More recently, Canada has lagged in attracting or retaining facilities for autos and parts, rail cars, steel mills, and other goods where the competition is now more weighted to US producers… barring a big correction in the currency, or a sharp shift in relative wages, factory growth will subsequently stall.”

Ontario has been hardest hit, the report continues. “Real GDP growth in that province has now trailed the rest of the country for nine straight years—underperformance that has coincided with C$ appreciation. Had Ontario kept pace with the rest of the country, its economy would be almost 10% larger than it is today, making it much easier for the government to dig itself out of deficit.”

Only last month, the HuffPost reported that Canada lost industrial plants at twice the pace of the United States in 2011. The story adds,

Ontario led the decline in industrial plants, shedding 33 of them for a total of 7,853 jobs lost, the report stated. Quebec shed 23 plants, costing nearly 3,000 jobs. Western Canada and Atlantic Canada lost fewer than 2,000 industrial plant jobs each.
But the 14,000 jobs lost at shuttered plants don’t tell the full story. According to Statistics Canada, total employment in manufacturing declined by 50,000 from December, 2010, to December, 2011.
The IIR report suggests the pace of industrial job losses will be similar this year. There are already 76 plants scheduled to close in the next few months in the U.S., while Canada already has four closings scheduled, for job losses totaling 2,700.

At the bottom of the story is a slide show that documents the 10 hardest-hit manufacturing sectors, with the greatest job losses since before the 2008 recession.

Manufacturing isn’t the only sector hit. It’s the classic domino effect. Last month we saw a story on the grim outlook for the air cargo industry: “The immediate future doesn’t look at all rosy for the air cargo business.”

A report from TD Securities just after the recession began stated, “There’s no reason to expect anything good from the Canadian manufacturing shipments report on the 16th, with every single leading indicator that we know of in negative territory.” That picture has not improved significantly. A look at their forecasts for 2012 doesn’t show any improvement predicted. The once robust automobile sector remains flat: “…there is limited upside for new auto sales over the medium term. Perhaps the most difficult challenge facing automakers is the likely absence of any meaningful pentup demand in the Canadian market.” The housing market is at a crossroads: “Overall, we expect sales to record annual average declines of 2.4% and 3.5% in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Prices are poised to suffer a similar fate – annual average declines of 1.9% in 2012 and 3.6% in 2013.”

Furniture sales forecasts have been rewritten with lower expectations. Canadian retail sales in December – the best month of the year – were lower than expected (“There is also a direct connection between the retail shopping numbers and the Personal Consumption Expenditure (PCE) line item in gross domestic product (GDP). PCE accounts for 55% of Canada’s national output.”)

Overall, the economic future does not look rosy for Canada, and especially not for Ontario. Coupled with the Drummond Report on Ontario’s troubled economy and its recommendations for significant cuts to government spending, it looks like we’re in for a few lean years. It’s something for Collingwood Council to keep in mind when working through its next few budgets.

Nope, this quote is not from Plato

Plato“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Seems like a wise thing to say. And I wish Plato had said it – it would have saved me a lot of time today. I spent many hours today putting together a quotation widget for this blog and trying to ascertain every quote I included came from a respectable, creditable source. Most were fairly easy to confirm, but others – like this one – just didn’t feel right for the attributed author.

This quote strikes me as far more modern than anything Plato ever wrote. It just see,ms to me like another touchy-feely, self-help-guru saying attributed to someone ancient to give it a patina of credibility.

Every single site that repeated that quotation of the several hundred I perused, not a single one included a source work for it. Many had sources for other Plato quotes, identifying the book from which the quotation was taken, but not this quote. That’s annoying. I spent at least an hour trying to find a proper source for this one.

Quotations attributed to the wrong author discredit both the poster and the quotation. It’s part of the general dumbing-down the Internet is doing to us all. But hundreds, even thousands of sites perpetuate this stupidity. It makes it very difficult to repeat anything we find online because few, if any, bother to track content backwards to confirm a source.

Some sites attributed (again without a source reference) it to Socrates (which points back to Plato, of course, since Socrates did not actually write anything and most of his recorded words are contained in Plato’s works).*

One site named the source as “Platone,” one as “Plate” and another as “Plata” (don’t these idiots ever use spell check?). Other sites attributed it to a real estate agent in la Jolla named “John Parker.” A poster named “kiersten11” is noted as the source in one place. One site seems to attribute it to Abraham Lincoln (again unsourced). It’s like a dart board of dead people.

Many others just parroted it without attribution (probably a lot safer). It’s been used as an inspirational quote for both humanists and religious fundamentalists, evolutionists and creationists alike. It’s been bruited about in all sorts of simperingly saccharine posts about fear, love, fear of the dark and being one with the whatever nebulous oneness that inspires the poster.

But it isn’t from Plato. Another bloody stupid Internet meme is all it is. The equivalent of Internet chain letters. Sigh.

My bet is on it being by modern author Robin Sharma, for which I found several attributions of it from his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. It seems to run in parallel with his other quotes, too, much more than it reads like something Plato would have written.

Poor Robin Sharma if it really is his. How will he ever retrieve it from Plato?

~~~~~

* Update: I mis-spoke in my earlier version. Socrates is quoted by several classical authors, but of them only Plato was his actual student; Xenophon has been called a disciple but is from my reading more a contemporary or colleague. And Plato and Xenophon differ in a few p[laces what they claim Socrates said.
The rest of the authors use third-hand or more distant sources since they never knew or studied under Socrates. The Socratic problem is trying to determine what Socrates actually believed, since classical authors used him to voice their own sentiments and ideas.

English suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous punctuation

Grammar TalesThere’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?

The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.

A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.

I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”

A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”

ToonpoolI suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.

There’s the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, a Flickr collection of signs with bad grammar and spelling (and not just at Tea Party rallies, either!) and another set here, here, and here.

Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”

Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.

Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.

If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!

Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.

Maybe Canada needs a National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) or a National Grammar Day (March 4) like the US has. Would it make any difference? Aside, that is, from giving geeks like me something else to whinge about?

The Drummond Report: economic disaster or salvation?


“It’s not all doom and gloom,” quips Rick Mercer in this video. “Drummond predicts the province could still turn things around, if it acts now, and no one gets sick, needs a job, or educates their children, for the next… ever.”

The Drummond Report – from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services headed by economist Don Drummond – was released last week. It’s a sweeping, 529-page, brick-thick study of Ontario’s fiscal policies and structures, with 362 recommendations about how the province should run its public service. It reads like the findings of an inquest after a particularly gruesome series of industrial accidents. Perhaps it is.

If followed, those recommendations will have a huge impact on municipalities and taxpayers (Drummond says government spending must decrease 16.2% every year for every man, woman and child in this province). Adopting them is the only way, says the report’s author, to get the province out of its $16 billion deficit before we become North America’s Greece with a $30 billion deficit.

Drummond says we must accept all of his recommendations or face financial meltdown. All, not just some. We can’t pick from them like a smorgasbord, he says. But that’s just what Premier Dalton McGuinty has already done, with his recent announcements about what he won’t implement or cut.

I’m not sure if that’s McGuinty’s way of telling us he doesn’t have the backbone to implement unpopular recommendations, or he’s just dancing one last song with political popularity while the ship sinks, or that we should buckle up because the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train called The Deficit. But maybe, he’s actually wiser than we normally give him credit for being.

In a few short weeks, the report has spawned a small, but intense industry of commentators who have weighed in on the pros and cons of Drummond’s recommendations. Rex Murphy, for example, penned this scathing comment in the National Post:

With the exception of the writings of the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah at their bleakest, flavoured with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft on the days when that lightless mind was wrestling with a migraine, the recent meditations of Don Drummond on Ontario’s fiscal situation set the standard for prose that vibrates with gloom and foreboding.

To be fair, the chances of any National Post writer making even the most remotely backhanded compliment about anything even vaguely Liberal is akin to my chances of winning the lottery, so we have to take his comments in the conservative spirit in which they were written: a self-righteous, anti-Liberal, “I told you so.”

And as expected, the Toronto Star weighed in against it, albeit from another side. Thomas Walkom wrote:

That the rich will fare best under Drummond is true by definition.
The well-to-do depend less on government programs than the poor and middle class. That is a fact. Drummond’s call for government to roll back the Ontario Child Benefit will hurt poor families who receive the subsidy. It will not affect the rich who do not.
Nor are the wealthy being asked to chip in through higher progressive taxes. Drummond did advocate that some taxes, including those on property and gasoline, be hiked. He even wants a special tax (he calls it a user fee) levied on rural parents who bus their children to school.
But these kinds of regressive taxes hit the poor and middle class proportionally harder than the rich. A surtax on high-income earners could correct that bias. But Premier Dalton McGuinty specifically told Drummond to stay away from such remedies.
Add to this the real world of politics, a world in which some groups have clout and others do not.

AMO – the Association of Municipalities of Ontario – has weighed in with an early comment, noting:

AMO is anxious about the potential for altering the upload agreement and the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund. The Commission is recommending to delay planned uploads of provincial costs from the municipal property tax base by two years.

Translation: Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals promised to reverse the downloading of services and expenses onto municipalities perpetuated by Premier Mike Harris. McGuinty has been undoing it, albeit slowly. He reiterated his promise to continue the uploading at the annual AMO convention, in 2011, and again at the ROMA/OGRA convention in 2012. He promised to have it all reversed by 2018. Drummond suggests pushing that to 2021, which means additional years of expenses to Ontario’s municipalities (you, the taxpayers will pay either way).

AMO credited Drummond with several worthwhile recommendations in the areas of social programs and housing, health care, infrastructure, real estate, electricity, full-cost pricing for water and wastewater treatment services, the justice system, and improving the arbitration system. However, why these recommendations are worthy and others are not is not explained

AMO executives may not want to stray too far into critical commentary because it could alienate the organization from the government, and that would backfire on municipalities. Still, even if it is preliminary, the response noted above is annoyingly vague. I hope to see a much more comprehensive analysis from AMO in the near future, one that looks more closely at what the recommendations mean to municipalities.

Exhaustive as it may appear to some, the report has gaping holes in it. One area, for example, is in the labour arbitration process. Municipalities are frequently burdened with high salary agreements through arbitration. But the executive summary in the report says, “The interest arbitration system has come under increasing scrutiny and attack. We do not find the system to be broken, though it can be improved.” To any municipality trying to wrestle with the escalating costs of, say, their fire service, that statement is a mere nod and a wink to a seriously broken and very expensive process. School boards face the same issue with local teachers’ unions.

Like Walkom pointed out, the provincial tax structure was overlooked and most of the recommendations will have the greatest effect on those with the lowest incomes. One example is full-day kindergarten (which the right-wing QMI media’s writer, Christina Blizzard, caustically calls “free baby sitting”). Working parents who struggle to make ends meet depend on all-day kindergarten to enable them both to stay in the workforce. It’s not a handout.

Drummond’s recommended cuts could slash another 250,000 jobs from the provincial workforce and reduce the provincial economy by billions of dollars. McGuinty may be right by not leaping into these waters without carefully looking at what’s lurking in their depths first.

To the right who view every government program with suspicion, Drummond didn’t go far enough and the cuts should be made regardless of their impact on lower-income and working-class families. To the left, Drummond’s recommendations are a recipe for disaster that will decimate our workforce, our economy and cripple our already struggling labour force with additional costs. These are simplistic views. We’re in a mess and we need to fix it, but Drummond’s report is not the sole answer. It’s a start and some of what he recommends will be necessary, but not all. So Dalton may be right to proceed with caution and not simply dive in without some serious thought to what has to be done.

Here’s an idea Drummond didn’t offer, but I put forward for your consideration. Once upon a time, the province used to charge licencing fees for vehicles based on their number of cylinders. That was dropped, inexplicably. Why not return to that system and put the extra revenue directly into infrastructure spending? Or perhaps base the license fee on the vehicle’s gas mileage ratio? It would serve the double duty of discouraging sales of gas guzzlers, which will only help our environment.

You really think they’re, like, linguistic pioneers? OMG!


Are the Kardashians, Valley Girls or the Jersey Shores’ starlets pioneers of language? Or just inept, barely literate, somewhat dim young women of dubious talent? I tend to believe the latter. Writer Douglas Quequa suggested the former in the New York Times this week. He opens with this line:

“Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.”

Well, of course, yes. If you speak like an idiot, people naturally assume you are one. Language conveys the speaker’s intelligence, education, upbringing, experience and communications skills. Anyone who sticks “like” into every sentence does not come across as a particularly well-educated or even bright communicator. Anyone who thinks the Kardashians are brilliant orators is, like, oh-my-god, a moron.

It doesn’t have to be women: men do it too albeit usually with different words and cadence (the affected pseudo-“homie” talk of young men is particularly painful to listen to), but the cultural stereotype of the mindless, barely literate babble has been rather unfortunately pinned mostly on young women. Sadly, a few, it seems, deserve the label:

But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

I agree that these verbalizations fulfill a stylistic function, but interactional? It’s difficult to interact properly with someone who peppers “like” throughout a sentence. When someone says “I’m, like, happy,” should I ask what being similar to happy means to them?

If you mean “um”, say “um,” and not “like.” Basically both are an interruption of thought, but “like” has become an accepted stylistic form among some groups, spread like a virus, without deliberate effort. The abuse of the word “like” in speech is a bad gene on the language chromosome we need to expunge. Quequa writes,

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) …while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women… The use of “like” in a sentence, “apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,” has made its way into the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — this newspaper’s reference Bible — where the example given is: “It’s, like, hot.” Anyone who has seen a television show featuring the Kardashian sisters will be more than familiar with this usage.

Making it into any dictionary does not convey credibility or even acceptability. Dictionaries document use, but don’t make any effort to correct usage. They are tools for mapping the language, not arbiters of its use. Words also disappear from dictionaries, but not because they’re worthless. They may be expunged simply for lack of space. How many dictionaries still carry the word “mumpsimus”?

As an editorial note, Quequa doesn’t qualify his statement as to how (or even if) his quoted sources, “once promoted theories consistent with that attitude.” We never get any inkling of what those those earlier theories say. Or even if they are theories (they could be mere hypotheses…)

I suppose if I really wanted to be hip (wait, does that colloquialism show my age?) I’d write Valley “Gurlz” because the rage among the marketing and advertising illiterates is to replace a proper ‘s’ with a ‘z’ and pretend they’re actually the same sound (they’re not, but it’s like arguing cosmology with goldfish…). These are the same dimwits who brought us “lite” instead of light and “E-Z” instead of easy. Pay no attention to them and they will probably slink back into their caves.

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

Oh, puh-leez. That’s codswallop. That’s akin to saying my dog is pioneering veterinary treatments because she got better after the medicine. The spread of linguistic forms is often little more than mimicry based on popular culture and pressure from peer usage. It’s just like fashion and popular culture. Just look at Internet memes and viral videos. Pioneering requires someone or some group to actually do the pioneering, not simply repeat what others do. I am not a pioneer of the telephone simply because I use one.

In the Sixties we talked about “rip offs” and said “cool, man”; in the Fifties it was “Daddy-oh” and “hipster.” Were we language pioneers or just parrots? These young women are products of their age and pop cultures, influenced by TV, the Net and movies to absorb these aspects.

Every generation has its own language, its own slang. But slang and sociolects age like political humour, losing their relevance within a few years and get dropped. Who today uses terms that were once in daily speeeh in the 1920s? Who says twenty-three skidoo or  see you later alligator?

What Quequa overlooks is that the patois of Valleyspeak and its ilk are not evolving languages as much as they are variant sociolects that have become a cross-pollinating meme. A sociolect, or social dialect, is, according to Wikipedia:

…a variety of language (a dialect) associated with a social group such as a socioeconomic class, an ethnic group, an age group, etc… interaction in written and other media can also lead to sociolects, and many can be found in online communities.

There’s nothing wrong with slang or sociolects; they’ve been around since language was invented. But there’s a world of difference between pioneering language forms and merely using them. And certainly a difference between pioneering and parroting.

Language is a tool. It can be used with finesse, like a scalpel, or bluntly and coarsely, like a chainsaw. Girl slang is certainly closer to the latter than the former as a mode of communication. Shakespeare was a pioneer of language, introducing many neologisms and developing new forms of expression. I simply cannot countenance putting the Kardashians on the same level as Shakespeare.

Not a John Lennon quote… just another bad meme

Lennon mis-quoteAnother unsourced, mis-attributed quote is going the rounds, found as are so many on Facebook, this one turning itself into another of those annoying, unsourced Internet memes that people love to share:

When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down “happy”. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

Nope, not by Lennon. Just another bad Internet meme, with no source ever listed, but posted and re-posted as a Lennon quotation by the gullible souls who want warm-n-fuzzy thoughts to tinkle down on the rest of us. The Net is replete with laudatory comments about how this shows just how wise John was. Well, at least someone was wise, not Lennon, since he didn’t say it. But that doesn’t matter, does it? Just get gooey and gush about how meaningful it is. Uplifting, inspirational, some call it.

Sorry, but to me a bumper sticker about fishing is about as inspirational as this misquote. It’s one of those saccharine snippets you expect to read in self-help books; all puff and no substance. Tagged on blogs and forums with glittery words like happiness, fulfillment, wisdom. Kindness demands I should merely label this quote “apocryphal,” but I can’t get past the terms “sloppy thinking” and “gullible Netiots” when I read it.
Internet jokeAt the age of 4, Lennon was in the custody of his aunt Mimi (Mary Smith), not his mother. You really think a five-year-old is that precocious and witty? Kids say the darndest things… but that Lennon kid didn’t say this. (As an aside, he started school on Nov. 12, 1945, but by April, 1946 he had been expelled from Mosspits County Primary School for misbehaviour. He then went to Dovedale Road Primary School.)

Check Wikiquote and Beatlesquotes for confirmation or at least additional challenges.

Check those quotes, says Ralph Keyes: “As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ‘flypaper figure,’ a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.”

The Quote Investigator also notes other lines mis-attributed to John Lennon. Lennon is also one of the Top Ten mis-quoted celebrities.

On translating Chaucer and the joys of Middle English

Geoffrey ChaucerIn my last two visits to the nearby Chapters, I picked up from the bargain books section two recent, hardcover, versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One is a new verse translation by Burton Raffel published in 2008, the other a prose translation by Peter Ackroyd, from 2009.

These join the dozen or so other versions of Chaucer’s works I already have on my bookshelves: the Riverside Chaucer (third edition), several venerable Penguin editions (both original and translations), the New Cambridge edition, the Portable Chaucer, Hopper’s interlinear translation, and a few others. What always surprises me is how widely these translations range in wording, rhythm and style.

Chaucer, of course, wrote in Middle English, a form of English that’s not quite like our speech today, but close enough that anyone can stumble through most of it without needing a glossary. I have only skimmed some works on learning Middle English, not studied it beyond casual reading. For me, trying to read and understand Chaucer in his original tongue is part of the pleasure of it. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out a verse that looked cryptic at first but clarity has broken upon me, or when the words coalesce into a tale.

There are four things to keep in mind when reading Chaucer. First is to try to read it aloud. The sound and rhythm of the spoken word often helps makes the meaning evident. Chaucer wrote to be heard, not just read. You can hear some Chaucerian poetry online to get a sense of how it sounded – a lot more Germanic than it does today. But just reading him aloud helps you appreciate his work.

Second is the pronunciation. Many words and letters were pronounced somewhat differently in Chaucer’s day, much more like Romance languages: most letters are pronounced and few are silent. For example, what we would see as a silent ‘e’ at the end of a Chaucerian word, such as ‘grete’ and likely pronounce as “greet” today would have been sounded as ‘eh’ in Chaucer’s day” ‘grey-teh’. You can get basic pronunciation guides online, too. It’s not difficult.

Third is the spelling. Chaucer didn’t use spell-check (neither, it seems, do most Facebook posters, but I digress). He was not always consistent in his spelling. Many common words in his day were also spelled differently than today. These words can look odd, but when you say them aloud, you realize they’re familiar words with different spellings. For example, these lines from the Knight’s Tale (Knightes Tale, lines 2160-64):

“His coat-armure was of clooth of Tars,
Couched with perles whyte and rounde and grete.
His sadel was of brend gold newe y-bete,
A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede, as fyr sparklinge.”

You should understand most of that pretty easily. Shuldre today is shoulder, sadle is saddle, perles are pearls, clooth is cloth, and so on. But what is y-bete, or brend, or armure? That’s where translations or glossaries help.
In prose translation, this can be rendered:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And here it is in poetry (from an online interlinear site):

His tunic with his coat of arms was of cloth of Tarsia (in Turkestan)
Adorned with pearls white and round and big;
His saddle was newly adorned with pure gold;
A short cloak hanging upon his shoulder,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

Raffel, I see, translates Tars as “Persian”:

…His coat was Persian silk,
Embroidered with pearls, great, and white as milk.
His saddle was hammered out of bright new gold,
And the mantle hanging high across his shoulders
Was heavy with fire-red rubies, sparkling in sunlight.

Fourth reminder is that words come and go in English, and can even change meaning from one period to the next. In Chaucer’s day, for example, the word silly meant “happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate.” By the early-16th century, it meant “deserving pity or sympathy.” It took on its current meaning of “empty-headed” or “lacking good sense” by the early 17th century. (See Steinmetz: Semantic Antics). When you read Chaucer, you will find words no longer in use, as well as words that have shifted meaning since his day. That’s one reason having a modern translation is handy. When you come to an incomprehensible line, you can see how it gets translated into today’s speech.

The structure of Middle English – the grammar – is similar enough to modern English that it’s not hard to figure out. Adjectives tend to follow nouns rather than precede them (“perles whyte” rather than “white pearls”). But if you have no problem with the syntax of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, Chaucer won’t pose significant problems,

Ah, but you also need to know where you’re reading in order to find the translated lines. In Hopper’s edition, those lines above are numbered 1303-06. In Raffel’s new translation, we find them at 1290-94. But the Riverside, New Cambridge and Penguin (original spelling) versions all use the numbering noted above.

It can be tricky finding the reference. Many translations are unnumbered, making it difficult to locate a particular line. Ackroyd’s prose version has no references, either (the lines above appear about a third of the way down on page 57):

His coat of arms was woven of rare silk and embroidered with white pearls; his saddle was of newly beaten gold, and the mantle around his shoulders was studded with glowing rubies.

Morrison’s translation in the Portable Chaucer (revised edn), is:

Over his gear a Tartar coat; each fold
With large pearls was embroidered, round and white.
His saddle was of forged gold, beaten bright.
A little mantel from his shoulders spread
Brimful of fiery rubies, glittering red.

Coghill’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition reads,

His surcoat was in cloth of Tartary,
Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.
He had a mantle hanging from his shoulders,
Which, crammed with rubies,dazzled all beholders.

Here a re a few other translations of those four lines from the Web. First this one:

His coat-of-arms was cloth of the Tartars,
Begemmed with pearls, all white and round and great.
Of beaten gold his saddle, burnished late;
A mantle from his shoulders hung, the thing
Close-set with rubies red, like fire blazing.

Which I find a bit stilted (begemmed, rubies red, etc.). Then this one:

His coat of arms of cloth from Turkestan,
Adorned with large round pearls of polished white;
His pure gold saddle was a wondrous sight;
A short cloak on his shoulders all admire,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

And this prose version:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And this poetic version:

His surcoat was of cloth from Tartary,
With all the large white pearls that it could hold.
His saddle, newly forged, was burnished gold.
A mantle from his shoulders hung, attire
Brimful of rubies sparkling red as fire.

And finally this verse translation:

His surcoat was of cloth of Tartary,
Adorned with pearls, white, round and bold.
His saddle of pure freshly-beaten gold,
A short mantle on his shoulder hanging,
Dense with rubies red, like fire sparkling.

You can see how different each version is, yet how similar. The original is not really very difficult to understand – at least to my eyes – but every translator finds in it a different sense or colour. Every version above sounds particularly different from the original when read aloud, both in wording and in poetic rhythm.

Are any of them better? Is there a definitive modern translation? I have not the academic background to judge. I enjoy reading Chaucer in almost all forms, including my stumbling and fitful attempts to master the original. But these two latest versions of the Canterbury Tales are among the most enjoyable I have read in a while, and I would recommend them to anyone. You merely have to decide whether you want to read Chaucer as epic poetry (Raffel) or stories constructed like modern fiction (Ackroyd). I like both, and of course the bargain-book price didn’t hurt.

All of this is to explain why, despite several translations on my bookshelves already, I continue to purchase – and delight in reading – new translations of Chaucer.

It wasn’t Einstein who said it…

Not an Einstein quote!Yet another incorrectly attributed quotation is being passed around the Internet, this time on Facebook. This one is, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

A saccharine, touchy-feely, warm-puppy quote that appeals to some who take comfort in them, but Einstein never said that. According to Wikiquote’s page on Einstein,

This gets almost 500k hits on google, but as far as I can tell, none has a source… Doing a Google book search and restricting the date range to 1900-1990, there are only 10 books and several of them attribute it to “Samples, 1976” which is apparently The Metaphoric Mind by Bob Samples (which also seems to be the earliest published variant)… two sections that attribute it to Einstein, but as a paraphrase rather than a direct quote, with no source given, and the author seems to be adding his own comment when he writes “It is paradoxical that in the context of modern life we have begun to worship the servant and defile the divine” so even if the first part is accurate, this part is probably not Einstein’s.
Einstein had many quotes about the value of intuition and imagination, but the specific word “gift” can be found in a comment remembered by János Plesch in the section Albert_Einstein#Posthumous_publications, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” So, Bob Samples might have been paraphrasing that comment.

Einstein, as far as I know from my reading of several biographies, was unlikely to refer to a natural faculty as a “sacred gift” – Einstein was not openly an atheist (he called himself an agnostic), but neither was he by any means religious. A “sacred gift” suggests humans get their faculties handed down by the gods, rather than developed by evolution and through effort. Einstein would have rejected that for the codswallop it is.

Einstein’s religious views were firmly in the humanist-Descartes-Spinoza model, according to Wikipedia:

He believed in the God of Baruch Spinoza, but not in a personal god, a belief which he criticized. He also called himself an agnostic, and criticized atheism, preferring he said “an attitude of humility.”

One actual quote from Einstein is this:

I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.

But his views on religion and spirituality were amorphous and seem to have changed over the years – although not towards him becoming religious in the traditional or formal sense, but rather in a deeper sense of wonder that can be called spiritual, without any identification with a personal deity.

It’s worth reading the entire entry to see how complex this subject is.

Be that as it may, this quotation is another bad Internet meme, perpetuated by people who are don’t bother to confirm sources and simply spread the silliness. Then the gullibles pick it up and spread it around faster than a chain letter. Damn, I wish people would check first and post later.

Was Marx right after all?


While Marx didn’t say exactly that the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” he did state that under capitalism, poverty would inevitably increase while more and more wealth would concentrate in fewer hands. Increasing profits and increasing wages, he claimed, were contradictory. Adam Smith – the “father” of capitalism – said much of the same thing, by the way. They were right.

Karl MarxMarx’s economic and world views were fermented in the mid-19th century’s industrial age, an age without any of the mass communication technology of today. He was right about many things, but wrong about others. He did not, for example, see the rise of the financial class, nor did he predict the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. To be fair, none of his contemporaries did. But he got quite a bit right, given today’s economic crisis.

Nope, I’m not a Communist, let alone a Marxist, and certainly not an economist. But look around you: if you’re not a banker, investment or hedge fund manager, if you’re not the CEO of an international corporation whose products are being made overseas, if most or all of the manufacturing jobs in your town have moved overseas, if your wages are proportionately lower compared to your expenses than they were a decade ago, if your prospects of a good-paying job are slim because those are getting sparser in your city and being replaced by minimum-wage Mcjobs, or if you live in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland or Spain, then capitalism has probably failed you.

I’m not the only one who thinks capitalism today has serious problems (its failings have been analyzed to the nth degree since the last recession and the US bailout of its financial sector). Many now think that perhaps we should not have dismissed Marx so cavalierly when Communism fell. And some of those who think Marx may have got more than one thing right are pretty prestigious thinkers.

Over at the conservative Harvard Business Review, Umair Haque, author of Betterness: Economics for Humans and The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business, wrote about Marx in late 2011:

Marx’s critiques seem, today, more resonant than we might have guessed. Now, here’s what I’m not suggesting: that Marx’s prescriptions (you know the score: overthrow, communalize, high-five, live happily ever after) for what to do about the maladies above were desirable, good, or just. History, I’d argue, suggests they were anything but. Yet nothing’s black or white — and while Marx’s prescriptions were poor, perhaps, if we’re prepared to think subtly, it’s worthwhile separating his diagnoses from them.

Marx, it seems, it getting a sort of facelift from intellectuals today; people are beginning to realize that after the Berlin Wall fell, that Communism – a fault-ridden, overly-bureaucratic system few will miss in the nations that cast it off – was not actually based on Marx’s theories, just used Marx as a sort of bumper-sticker economics, so perhaps the old guy deserves a re-think.

In spring 2011, Yale University Press published “Was Marx Right?“, by Prof. Terry Eagleton. He examines ten of the most common objections to Marxism and attempts to demonstrate “what a woeful travesty of Marx’s own thought these assumptions are.”

In an interview with Bezinga in August, 2011, noted economist Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini stated that, “Karl Marx had it right. At some point capitalism can self-destroy itself. That’s because you cannot keep on shifting income from labor to capital without not having an excess capacity and a lack of aggregate demand.” Roubini continued, “We thought that markets work. They are not working. What’s individually rational…is a self-destructive process.”

The article that follows goes on to criticize Roubini for his comments, but makes the classic fallacy of not dissociating Marx from Communism, or rather from the systems that took the name Communism but were usually little more than military dictatorships with poorly implemented, centrally-planned economies, and only nodding allegiance to anything Marx wrote. It’s easy to point to the collapse of the Soviet economy and claim it proves that Communism and therefore Marx’s economic ideas were faulty. But that’s really Leninism, and not what Marx meant by “Communism.”

It’s popular among the uber-right in the USA to label anything left of Genghis Khan as “Communist” or “socialist” but that only underscores the intellectual poverty of the right. It doesn’t actually mean anything in the political debate except that you’re arguing with fools.

Communism as Marx saw it was never actually implemented, and probably never could be today. We’re as far from his industrial age world as the Internet is from Gutenberg. But that doesn’t mean that every aspect of Marx’s thinking was wrong. Despite being drearily dense and notoriously difficult to read, his economic works contain some valid points about capitalism that – like his predecessor Adam Smith’s writings – make some salient points about capitalism that we can’t reject by tossing them out with the Soviet-tainted bathwater.

None of the above writers would be classified as Marxists or even neo-Marxists, but there are still some old, dogmatic Marxist thinkers around who treat Das Capital as gospel. As Mike Beggs wrote in Zombie Marx,

What I call Zombie Marx is different – the reanimation of a corpse which still holds organically together in some way. This is the reconstruction of Marxist economics as a coherent body of thought, not a collection of quotations… the need to ground everything in a 140-year-old text…. it is obviously a lot of intellectual hard work to “interpret Marx correctly.” It cannot be taken for granted that Marx was right; it must be proven anew with each generation, against both rival interpretations and the revisions the previous generation had found necessary to make.

Marx got some things wrong. And he got some things right. That’s pretty much true of every economic theory or policy since Adam Smith. Marx was probably more right than some – say Alan Greenspan, whose disastrous economic polices have led to much to today’s problems – but I think the point here is that we should be re-evaluating Marx in light of today’s failing capitalism and not simply dismissing him as the tail wagging the Communist dog.