10/9/13

Poor Lao Tzu: He Gets Blamed for So Much


Not a Lao Tzu quotePoor Lao Tzu. He gets saddled with the most atrocious of the New Age codswallop. As if it wasn’t enough to be for founder of one of the most obscure  philosophies (not a religion, since it has no deity), he gets to be the poster boy for all sorts of twaddle from people who clearly have never read his actual writing.

This time it’s a mushy feel-good quote on Facebook (mercifully without kittens or angels) that reads,

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.

Well, it’s not by Lao Tzu. Or more properly, Laozi. That’s not his name, by the way: it’s an honorific, a title that roughly translates to “Old Master.” His real name was likely Li Er, Wikipedia tells us. But his name doesn’t matter: it’s the single book he left us that is relevant.

That book – the Tao Teh Ching – consists of 81 short “chapters” – although they’d be better described as poems. Or pithy epithets. It can be ready cover to cover in an hour.

For all its brevity, the Tao Teh Ching is a weighty work. It’s the underpinning of an entire school of  Chinese metaphysics and philosophy: Taoism, that dates back to the Axial Age, circa 500 BCE. That makes Lao Tzu contemporary with Confucius and in the same rough time frame as Siddhartha Gautama.

Lap Tzu was clearly a deep thinker, which makes it all the more ironic that he gets accused of spouting all sorts of saccharine New Age piffle.

One of the stories of how the book came about goes like this: Lao Tzu was the Keeper of the Royal Archives. Late in his life, he wearied of the intrigues, the corruption and the crassness of life at court. He decided to go live the remainder of his life as a hermit in the mountains. At the city gate, the sentry asked him to write down his wisdom. The result was the Tao Teh Ching.

Like with many religious, political or philosophical figures, take any story or claims with a grain of salt. Stories get embellished by both supporters and enemies over the centuries.*

Others say the work is really a collection of sayings by many people, collated into a single work. Since the earliest copy of the text is at least 100 years younger than Lao Tzu, and there are no verifiable records that identify him as the sole author, this theory strikes me as having some merit.

After all, every single religious work I can think of has been edited, added to, cut away from and interpreted by hundreds of human hands in the interim since it was first penned. Why not this one?

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09/21/13

Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade


Normal clouds mis-identified by wingnutsMy earlier post on the nonsensical chemtrail conspiracy has generated quite a lot of activity recently (more than 1,000 views in a few days – thanks!). So much so that I decided to look online again to see why – had this silliness abated? Were people waking up and laughing at their former craziness? Or was it spreading more among the hard-of-thinking and the anti-science crowd?

Sadly, it seems the latter is the case. And after a bit of research, I became deeply distressed that it seems to be spreading rapidly.

Or maybe the overall number of gullibles is simply growing larger. They band together into cult-like groups that reject outsiders; refuse to allow debate or questions; that turn inwardly and reinforce their own beliefs among one another. Dissonance reduction in numbers.

I found a Facebook group page with more than 11,000 chemtrail-believing members (that’s scary enough right there). Imagine 11,000 people dedicated to this silliest and most risible of all the recent conspiracy theories. But they’re hardly alone.

The conspiracy works like this: every world government, every airline, air force, every pilot, every airline and air force ground and cabin crew, millions of government employees worldwide, engineering firms, chemical manufacturers, scientists, NGOs, meteorologists, NASA, reptilians, and the darkly secretive (and entirely imaginary) “New World Order,” the Illuminati (or the Zionists, Bill Gates or President Obama, since they are implicated – not a little racism runs through these posts) have conspired and are conspiring to secretly spray toxins (or drugs or biochemicals or alien lifeforms) into the atmosphere from stratospheric heights in order to pacify/poison/control (your choice, it seems) the population and/or the weather/crops.

But no matter how you laugh at the gullibility of these folks, no matter how their photographs and wild imagining are easily debunked by science, meteorology, rational thought and common sense, they seem to persist. And grow. (I blame TV, but that’s a digression.)*

More normal sky and cloudsThe conspiracists’ approach to science, natural phenomena, logic and fact is stunningly medieval. Of course, back in the Medieval days the motivating agents were demons, ghosts, imps, sprites and other invisible figments of their imagination. Today, it’s no less superstitious; just the imagined instigators have been given a modern facelift: big government, big pharma and secret societies. They’re still the scary things that go bump in the night, though.

Superstition is still superstition even when wrapped up in technology. The Skeptics’ Dictionary describes superstition as:

…a false belief based on ignorance (e.g., if we don’t beat the drums during an eclipse, the evil demon won’t return the sun to the sky), fear of the unknown (e.g., if we don’t chop up this chicken in just the right way and burn it according to tradition while uttering just the right incantations then the rain won’t come and our crops won’t grow and we’ll starve), trust in magic (e.g., if I put spit or dirt on my beautiful child who has been praised, the effects of the evil eye will be averted), trust in chance (if I open this book randomly and let my finger fall to any word that word will guide my future actions), or some other false conception of causation (e.g.,  homeopathy, therapeutic touch, vitalism, creationism, or that I’ll have good luck if I carry a rabbit’s foot or bad luck if a black cat crosses my path).

The conspiracist view of  government and politics goes beyond superstition, beyond the bizarre and into the pathological.

Some less-than-civil folks online call the chemtrail believers “chemtards.” Others ascribe malicious intent to them:

The Chemtrail looks like a normal contrail in reality. However, there is a conspiracy on the internet that has been passed on for some time and gaining in strength about the Chemtrail. But the truth is that the chemtrails are a hoax and rumour on the internet by people who are looking to create some kind of chaos or just trying to make an impact on others by giving false importance to the chemtrails.

Certainly some chemtrail promotes have engaged in deliberate hoaxes as this news story tells:

The Penticton RCMP is investigating a fraudulent letter that began circulating in the city on Monday.
According to Sgt. Rick Dellebuur, bogus alert notices regarding hazardous chemtrails were put on vehicles at Shoppers Drug Mart.
The letter has city letterhead, but was not issued by the city.
“There is no environmental department in the city and Penticton did not issue this,” he said.
The letter signed by someone named Susan Smith, environmental department manager, states “we are suspecting that unidentified planes are deliberately spraying chemicals over the city of Penticton.”
It further covers how to identify hazardous chemtrails and who to contact if you see them.
Dellebuur said they are investigating to see who is behind this.
“We are following up on leads,” he said. “It’s just one of those things out there in this day and age.”

I have no doubt some of these promoters are the internet versions of televangelists: they prey on the gullible, the hard-of-thinking, the susceptible and the ill-educated, conning them through sales and marketing, through aggressively encouraged “donations.”

One of the most telling indicators of these conspiracy fantasies is that they seem to be held predominantly by those of the libertarian or uber-right-wing political stripe. Blaming Obama for anything spooky, inexplicable, disagreeable or simply misunderstood seems de rigeur among the conspiracists, even if it’s blatantly stupid or illogical to draw even the vaguest of connections between events and the administration. They finally got down to blaming the government for the weather.

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08/3/13

WP theme experiments ongoing


With the latest update to WordPress (3.6) comes a new theme, Twenty Thirteen. I’ve activated it with the upgrade, and I like it so far, but I’m not 100% satisfied.

I preferred the dimensions of the header image on the Twenty Eleven and Twenty Twelve themes. Proportionately they were more humanistic. The new header is 1600 x 230, which is rather thin and proportionately difficult. Using it means redoing a lot of photos and trying to find a slice that works as well as with the older themes, if I want my own headers. The abstract headers are the default that come with the theme.

I could go back to an earlier theme, and restore my previous headers, but this one has elements I like, so I’m trying to work with it.

Also, the header sits below the blog name in the Z axis, so I have to find images that work well with the layering. Might mean some changes in text colour, size and location to get it right.

Whenever you activate a WP theme, you lose the CSS changes you made to previous themes. If you want to restore them, you need to edit the new CSS again. Which means you need to comb through the new theme’s CSS to find out how the authors set it up and then figure out what changes you want to make. And I’m an inveterate hacker from way back, who just can’t help myself from tinkering.

I’m okay hacking at CSS – actually enjoy the challenge and it keeps my coding skills from getting too rusty – but it’s not as simple as a working with a static page. Sometimes the appropriate code is spread throughout several entries that need to be identified and changed.

The WP CSS is only modestly commented, so sometimes it takes a bit of experimentation to figure out the intent of the code in every entry. I copy the CSS into MS Expression and use that file as my base for searching and identifying the content I need to change. I can also do a cut-and-paste of all related content into a separate file so I get to see it all together. That’s sometimes easier to comprehend.

For example, I like my quoted material to look a certain way. That means altering the blockquote codes. In the new theme, there are 16 separate places where blockquote is referenced. You’d think the font size would be set by the basic font-size: 18px in the main entry, but no, I found it lurking in .entry-content blockquote which has font-size: 24px. Trial and error works best here – testing in different browsers, on mobile devices, is necessary too.

So if you see changes to style and layout while you’re surfing this site, I’m probably tinkering in the background. I apologize for any inconvenience or oddly stylized bits that may occur. For me, presentation matters, so I want it to look the best I can make it.

I may switch back and forth between the new and older themes, too, as I try to figure out what changes I want. Be patient, please.

I’ve also migrated to a different server recently, which may make some pages load slowly for you. That’s because all the images, cookies and some content need to be re-cached in your browser. Once they load, the next time it should be faster.

07/16/13

The sum of all knowledge


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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07/3/13

The Decline in Media Credibility and Profitability


Pew Study image 1Last August the Pew research Center released the results of its latest study on how much the American public trusts the media. This has been part of an ongoing study since at least 2002, and ever since the first report, the amount of trust in media has fallen. This has been a hot topic of discussion online ever since, and the source of much hand-wringing at each new release.

Perhaps the mounting number of scandals in journalism has soured an audience accustomed to believing the media is honorable, trustworthy and upright. Perhaps it’s the growing politicization of (some) media that polarizes rather than informs public opinion. I don’t know.

Admittedly the study is based on American media, and the scandals have been mostly American made. I have not found a comparable study on Canadian media, but there are clues one can follow, and similar polls that tell us much.

Media typesThe Pew study asked respondents to rate various types of media for credibility. Local TV news rated highest, but other types of local media don’t seem to have been rated.

Not surprisingly, the uber-right-wing Fox News continues to lose trust among the American public. And I would suspect that similarly the uber-right Sun/QMI networks in Canada would fare the same. But if that’s so, then media that depend heavily on, say, QMI, as a source of material, the decline of trust in QMI must surely reflect on the subscribing media as well.

Why are these American media losing credibility faster than other sources? Probably because they are so blatantly, overtly ideological and people tire of the relentless mudslinging, attacks, innuendo and lies. These media cry wolf far too often.

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06/22/13

Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally


Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

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