09/29/14

Montaigne: The Depravity of Our Morals


Montaigne“Our judgments follow the depravity of our morals and remain sick,” wrote Michel de Montaigne in his essay On Cato the Younger (Essay XXXVII, Book I, Screech translation, Penguin Classics, 2003). That’s quite a condemnation.*

Montaigne opens that essay by quietly commenting, “I do not suffer from that common failing of judging another man by me.” Would that we all had his strength, not to judge others by what we think of ourselves. But he was born long before the age of selfies.

In our more narcissistic age of social media we are all too quick to judge, too quick to anger, too quick to take offence. We react first, strike back immediately, think long after. We treat anyone with different ideas or visions as intruders; trespassers on our internet. We disparage rather than discuss. We hurl invectives and insults rather than ask questions. We slough off civil debate in favour of personal attack.

(Yes, I’ve been reading The Essays again. I never seem to tire of Montaigne; there’s always something in his words to move me, inspire me and make me think. There’s nothing quite so comforting as sitting on the front porch in the late afternoon, under a clear, warm sky, Susan reading beside me, dogs at my feet, while I sip a glass of homemade wine and peruse Montaigne… well, him and a small pile of other books I am also currently reading. Would that these moments could be frozen in time and all afternoons be so comforting and civilized… as blogger J. D Taylor writes, “I will never finish reading Montaigne…”)

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09/28/14

On the hustings


Hustings meeting
I’ve been going door-to-door for the past few weeks in my campaign for re-election. Stumping on the hustings, as it’s called in Canada. Or at least that’s how I’ve always heard it used.

Hustings is an odd, old word, an anachronism that survives, seemingly, only in the world of politics. It comes from the days when England was a series of small kingdoms suffering frequent invasions by the Danes and Vikings. A few of the old Germanic and Norse words have managed to survive in our language, reminder of those distant, violent days.

The first known use, Wikipedia says, in a charter dated 1032 CE. But it probably was in oral use long before that document.

Husting derives from an Old Norse word, “hús” which meant ‘house. ’ It combines with “thing ” to make “hústhing,” which meant a ‘household assembly held by a leader.’ The meeting of the men who were in the household of a noble or royal leader. They would be the noble’s ‘cabinet’ or advisors.

Husting later came to mean more generically any assembly or parliament. In Old English, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, it meant ‘meeting, court’ or ‘tribunal.’

The word appears in Middle English – the language of Chaucer – referring to the highest court of the City of London. From there is begins an odd transformation to mean the platform where the Lord Mayor and aldermen presided. By the early 18th century, it meant any temporary platform on which parliamentary candidates were nominated. And by 1719, it came to mean generally a platform for political speeches.

That evolved into an even more general sense of the election process itself. In England, it still refers to a meeting or an assembly where all candidates are present. Or, as Wikipedia says, “a combination of a debate, speeches or questions from the electors.” You can “go to the hustings” or “attend the hustings” as a member of the audience, or as a politician (Word Wizard notes) you can “hit the hustings” or “take to the hustings.”

I’ve often heard it said candidates are “on the hustings” when on the campaign trail, going door-to-door. This isn’t exactly the sense meant by the term, but calling it “stumping” is equally incorrect if we’re to be true to the etymology (see below).

There are online references to a verbal form too: to hust, although I’ve never encountered it in Canada. The singular form of the noun – husting – seems to have vanished while the plural form survives.

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09/22/14

The Forgotten Gulag


The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

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09/21/14

No Data Are Better Than Bad Data


Avoid bias
The full name of an article I read today is, “The Fallacy of Online Surveys: No Data Are Better Than Bad Data.” It’s from 2010 and very good. You can find it on the Responsive Management website. It makes some key points about the invalidity of online surveys:

  • For a study to be unbiased, every member of the population under study must have an equal chance of participating.
  • When online surveys are accessible to anyone who visits a website, the researcher has no control over sample selection. These self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.
  • Non-response bias in online surveys is complicated by the most egregious form of self-selection. People who respond to a request to complete an online survey are likely to be more interested in or enthusiastic about the topic and therefore more willing to complete the survey, which biases the results.
  • Unless specific technical steps are taken with the survey to prevent it, people who have a vested interest in survey results can complete an online survey multiple times and urge others to complete the survey in order to influence the results.
  • Because of the inability to control who has access to online surveys, there is no way to verify who responds to them — who they are, their demographic background, their location, and so on.

I’ve said this all before. The article concludes:

As a result of these problems, obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.

There’s also a good slide show on internet surveys here that goes over the basics presented in the article above. A 2008 paper addressed just issue with online surveys: self-selection. The author, Jelke Bethlehem, wrote:

…web surveys are a fast, cheap and attractive means of collecting large amounts of data. Not surprisingly, many survey organisations have implemented such surveys. However, the question is whether a web survey is also attractive from a quality point of view, because there are methodological problems. These problems are caused by using the Internet as a selection instrument for respondents.
This paper shows that the quality of web surveys may be seriously affected by these problems, making it difficult, if not impossible to make proper inference with respect to the target population of the survey. The two main causes of problems are under-coverage and self-selection.

The author concludes:

It was shown that self-selection can cause estimates of population characteristics to be biased. This seems to be similar to the effect of nonresponse in traditional probability sampling based surveys. However, it was shown that the bias in selfselection surveys can be substantially larger. Depending on the response rate in a web survey, the bias can in a worst case situation even be more than 13 times as large.

In other words: most online surveys are bunk. You might also recall I wrote about online surveys in past posts. I won’t repeat what I said then, but here are the links to those posts:

09/5/14

Coffee with Cicero


CiceroCan you imagine what it would be like today to be able to meet the Roman philosopher, Cicero, for coffee and spend an hour chatting? Or meeting up at a local pub and settling down to a beer or glass of wine? How great would that be to spend an hour with one of the world’s great thinkers?

What would you talk about? What wouldn’t you? Just imagine having the opportunity to share your thoughts on politics, religion, justice, philosophy, morals, friendship… the scope of what Cicero wrote about means you can talk about almost anything.

Okay, maybe not our gawking-at-celebrities culture, or the latest ad-riddled TV sitcom, or how well a vastly-overpaid sports star or team is doing this season (I would pay teachers, firefighters and police first, before any sports celebrity, but I don’t get that choice). To which he might respond, O tempora, o mores! (O, the times, O, the customs!) which he said in his First Speech Against Catilina. It sums up every older generation’s view of the upcoming generations’ lifestyles, I expect.

I’m sure Cicero spoke among his friends of the trivialities, too, just didn’t write much about them, at least in what of his works remain. But why waste that hour with such irrelevancies?

No, you’d have the chance to engage in stuff of consequence: big ideas, embrace the range of humanity and its behaviour, grab at issues that affect the tides of culture, the meaning of life, and the ebb and flow of politics. A real conversation, it would be, even perhaps a debate in which his famous rhetorical skills might come into play as he challenged you, parried your points and argued you into a corner.

(There’s a book in this: what would you talk about if you could have coffee with a dozen of the world’s great thinkers? I need to get back to writing for print…)

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09/2/14

Common Sense



When men yield up the exclusive privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.

Thomas Paine, 18th century political activist and political philosopher, wrote that line. It struck me as particularly cogent in light of modern politics and the rise of fanatic, fundamentalist organizations: people who give themselves over to ideologies or to any monolithic cause lose their liberty because they stop thinking for themselves. They allow others to do the thinking for them, rather than question matters for themselves.

This is true, of course, at all levels, local to international. We should never allow partisan politics to replace our independent reason.

The line appears in the early part of his controversial booklet, Common Sense. That pamphlet helped inspire the thirteen American colonies to declare their independence in 1776. Although it was originally published anonymously, Paine’s name became linked to it after three months. He donated the royalties from its sale to help fund George Washington’s Continental Army.

How much the title and the contents match is open to discussion. In my own observations what most people call “common sense” isn’t very common at all. Paine’s work strikes me more an inciting work of political propaganda than common sense.

While the booklet was really all about the reasons for creating a new republican state, separate from the monarchy of Great Britain, Paine indulged in a bit of philosophizing outside that narrow political sphere, including many comments on the nature of government, especially hereditary government (which he clearly detested as unnatural).

Although he quotes from the Bible and includes many examples and stories drawn from scripture in his short work, and he was careful to support religious freedoms, Paine decried the mixing of religion and government, writing:

It is of the utmost danger to society to make it (religion) a party in political disputes… Mingling religion with politics may be disavowed and reprobated by every inhabitant of America… As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensible duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith.

In his appendix, Epistle to the Quakers, Paine challenges their own pamphlet against taking arms to fight for independence, and adds about religion in general that it is

“…the utmost danger to society, to make it a party in political disputes.”

While he was thinking historically of the contentious involvement of religion in European politics, I suspect he would be angry and shocked at the increasing interference in politics and education by the fundamentalist right in modern America.

Paine argued for simpler forms of government (which makes me think of our proposed governance changes here in Collingwood):

I draw my idea of the form of government from a principle in nature, which no art can overturn, viz. that the more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered…

This next quote strikes me as appropriate for our dynamic, new face of economic development, here in Collingwood:

It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world.

Paine speaks optimistically (perhaps overly so) of youth. Or perhaps he just hoped:

Youth is the seed time of good habits…

And this quote rings true when one contemplates the gun madness of our southern neighbour that has wrought so many deaths, so many tragedies yet no change in the gun laws:

The present state of America is truly alarming to every man who is capable of reflexion.

Of course, these quotes are all taken out of context and should not be seen as Paine presaging any modern situation or state.

It’s a short read, important mostly for its connection with the American Revolution. But it’s also interesting to read how Paine and his peers were looking at alternative forms of government. You can browse it online here.