From Quantum Physics to Tree Hugging

More great programming on BBC World. Today, it was the debate Why Poverty? Participating, a number of personalities, most recognizable being Tony Blair. He always looks like such an idiot wherever he shows up. Like a bizarre cross between Peter Sellers and Chris Barrie. Still, I have to applaud him. I believe he believes in his mission and I also believe he genuinely wants to do good and despite embarrassing himself, he’s still trying to learn, like me, slowly, slowly. Maybe someday he will have some valuable insights to share. Not yet, though. (Governance? Milquetoast, please!)

But most important for me seeing this program, I was introduced to an incredible personality: one Vandana Shiva. Unfortunately, my mental state right now is such that I can barely string two words together, and I don’t feel like I can do justice to her as a person or her message. I would rather leave it to her to speak for herself. The debate isn’t available online at this time, but I’ve included a link to a previous HARDTalk interview with her.

Normally, I’m not one to gush, but it’s so rare to see someone with such a combination of energy and intelligence. How does one speak with such authority without carrying a big stick? (She’s not quiet by any stretch, though.)

I’ve signed the petition and I’m starting my seed bank.

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The Town that Pensioned Itself to Death

I’d been planning to tell a joke about a Canadian lesbian who walked into a Muslim barber shop, but it turned out to be true, and not all that funny. It was, however, interesting to me, in that it rather neatly exemplified a point made in a recent thinky-think by Slavoj Zizec titled Liberalism and its Discontents:

[…] But as every observer of the deadlocks of political correctness knows, the separation of legal justice from moral goodness – which should be relativised and historicized – ends up in a claustrophobic, oppressive moralism brimming with resentment. Without any “organic” social substance grounding the standards of what George Orwell approvingly referred to as “common decency,” the minimalist program of laws intended to do little more than prevent individuals from encroaching upon each other (annoying or “harassing” each other) turns into an explosion of legal and moral rules, an endless process of legalization and moralization, presented as “the fight against all forms of discrimination.” If there are no shared mores in place to influence the law, just the bare fact of subjects “harassing” other subjects, then who – in the absence of such mores – will decide what counts as “harassment”?

Slavoj Zizek (photo by Mariusz Kubik)

So, this is what happens when you decide to tolerate people with different religions, different cultures, different haircuts, different seckshul orientations, instead of sending them all back where they came from, goddammit. You have to put up with their different frigging religions, cultures, haircuts, and whatnot. And then, on top of that, you have to deal with the consequences of tolerating them, because they don’t tolerate each other.

Jon Stewart had a funnier, more positive take on this issue — this “American experiment” — the other night. Unfortunately, the clip of it isn’t available in Canada, so I can’t see it and I’m trusting it is the show I watched that night and not the one I watched the other other tonight:

Goddamn bunch of ingrates, I say. Taking out jobs.

Anyway, so I changed my mind and decided not to talk about that, and I got to thinking about how every time Israel does something — anything, our Prime Minister insists on being the first in line to defend them. Mr. Harper, is it really necessary? Really?? I mean, he even upstages the US pro-Israel lobby. What gives? Certainly not because his hick-ass cares about Israel, or the Jewish vote, or about anything for that matter. Here is an interesting theory that plays nicely to my anti-religious zealot bent; he’s trying to hasten the End of Days! Yeeehaw!!!!

Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen

Stephen Harper at the World Economic Forum 2010 in Davos (Remy Steinegger)

But I don’t feel like talking about that either. Instead, I turn my attention to the Deep South. No, not that Deep South, silly Yankee…

San Bernardino, California Files for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

A recent Reuters story provides a cautionary tale of a city going under due to mismanagement of municipal worker pensions. (And it’s not the first.)

It’s no secret that I hate the working class. They are stupid, although they are generally much better at getting laid than me, so I’m jealous of that. A particular subgroup of the working class I find especially heinous: the unionized worker. I’ll always remember my first “real” job (after my summer in the army reserve and the even briefer stint telemarketing) as a security guard and my first taste of union mentality. I remember the idiot with the tumor on his forehead, smoking incessantly, bellyaching about the anglais, as many morons in Quebec like to do. (Et je t’invite à crisser ton camp si t’aimes pas mes propos. Connasse.) I remember how my grievance was tossed because, though I had seniority on the site, tumorface had company seniority, and therefore entitled to the best shift. And after that site contract ended, I stopped getting called for other jobs. So, yes, I have an axe to grind. And I have an English name, so I should toss in a claim of discrimination too. But as usual, I digress.

Back to unions. A further subclass, yet more despicable, is the public servant. As someone who’s worked in positions with no benefits for most of my life, I find their sense of entitlement galling. But to be fair, I don’t believe public servants go into the job with purely selfish intentions. I mean, they’re not like investment bankers. But are there not similarities? Are we not seeing some of them now getting rich with the money of others, retiring young, and abusing everyone and everything along the way?

It would appear that some sense of entitlement is clearly a part of the culture. A belief that, for their great sacrifice, society owes them a debt of gratitude extending well beyond the period of their service. While city boys see themselves as conquerors, the naturally dominant class, and entitled to take what they want through force, public servants see themselves as heroes and we have a moral obligation to give them whatever they see as their due.

Both groups have built powerful systems of self-justification that are not easy to challenge from within. Even in the face of both local and worldwide economic difficulties, these people dig their heels in and steadfastly refuse to change their modi operandi. It would be unfair (even for me) to blame individuals. But that doesn’t exonerate them. It doesn’t exonerate us either.

When we live in “democratic” societies and turn the reins over to a select few because we don’t want to be bothered with the minutiae of the operations of government, these are things that will happen. Policy and governance need to become an ongoing conversation. If you aren’t engaged, those who are will call the tune. And you’re going to whine about it after the fact? Demand a 1000-page, multi-million-dollar inquiry? Threaten to vote them out next election? Or maybe even voting is too much to ask because you don’t believe in the system anyway, so you just bellyache on the comments pages of online news sites, right? Get a fucking grip.

Use it, or lose it.

The Orange of Discord

Boats ferrying boxes of oranges to freighter waiting beyong the rocks at Jaffa. circa 1930. Author unknown. [Public domain or CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

A while back, I mentioned how much I enjoy BBC World (especially this part) and I lauded the worldly perspective of the British. But there’s a dark side to imperialism, and England most certainly had a hand in fanning the flames of one the Middle East’s enduring dramas.

The Al Jazeera English website is presenting Eyal Sivan’s Jaffa – The Orange’s Clockwork in its entirety (0:46:54) until November 14. If you can ignore the rather poor choice of title, it’s actually quite good.

This documentary treats the Arab-Jewish conflict from the perspective of citrus growers, both Arab and Jewish, in the town whose name is synonymous in the West with not only oranges, but with Israel, and the struggle of European diaspora Jews to build a new nation in their ancestral homeland — or if you prefer, the war of European Zionist Jews against the rightful inhabitants of Palestine, take your pick.

The film consists of interviews with the growers themselves (some old enough to remember 1948) interspersed with some interesting (albeit superficial, but hey it’s a 45-minute movie) analyses of ye olde propaganda newsreels. I liked that the director didn’t feel a need to resort to melodrama or sensationalism or polemics, and it’s a subject that easily elicits all those things. At the same time, it felt quite human. And what we see is, okay, there was a time when Arab and Jew lived and worked together. Maybe it was not a lovefest, but it was functional. And in most parts of the world, most of the time, that’s the best you can hope for.

Do Leaders Make a Difference?

There’s a great podcast over at BBC4 that considers the question of how much influence do leaders really have. It’s well worth the 30 minutes (only up on the site until October 2013, so hurry), but if you don’t feel like bothering, I’ll try to summarize.

It contains snippets of interviews with a variety of people (economists, politicians, historians, psychologists) of different political stripes (mostly left-leaning, but not all) talking about leaders in the spheres of politics, business, and sports and how much impact they really have.

One of the psych folks cited the fundamental attribution error as a driving force behind people’s tendency to blame or praise individuals for the success or failure of everything from the world economy to football teams. The fundamental attribution error suggests that people tend to attribute the cause of an event to the personalities of the individual actors (people involved in the event) instead of looking at situational factors (the context in which the event occurred), which often play a greater role. For example, if a company does poorly, we might be tempted to say, “they had poor management practices and made a series of bad decisions.” But other companies in a similar situation may have made the exact same decisions, but with very different outcomes. What was the economic climate like in general at that time? Was their target market particularly affected by a change in it? Were there geo-political issues? Some other factors not brought to light?

The reality often is more complicated than we want to admit, but we don’t want to consider that, because it’s too much work. It’s much easier to put a human face on it and lay the blame at the feet of some person when things don’t go our way. It works the other way too. If things go unexpectedly well, we might want to attribute it to some seemingly unique individual. Then we proceed to over-analyze this person in search of that elusive quality that others can cultivate in the hope that they too will one day be able to reproduce that success. As if the Midas touch could be distilled, bottled, and sold. 7 Habits, anyone?

So, we overemphasize the importance of individuals and their abilities, which leads organizations to focus on finding “rock stars” with mad skillz (at least until the next upstarts come along) and egos to match instead of finding people who are not only good, but more importantly, are able to raise the group’s collective capacity to do great stuff. And this, not by carrying them, but by helping them to up their individual game.

Anyway, that’s what I took away (with my two or three cents added for emphasis) and I agree with it for the most part. The one thing I think they all either neglected to mention or failed to recognize is that there are leaders that do affect positive change within their spheres of influence. Whether that change translates into financial success is another thing. But ultimately, it isn’t even about how much money they make, how many trophies they take home, or whatever legacy is important in their field. It’s about how they serve the people who work for them. Real leaders represent values that others can aspire to. They model behavior that makes others think, “hey, I can do that too.” When real leaders fail, they don’t point the finger at everyone else. And when real leaders succeed, they’re humble about it and they make everyone feel like they succeeded. These are the leaders with the greatest legacies of all.

The Presumption of Decency

Edward Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard who does research on urban growth and he’s written a short essay on a topic completely outside his area of knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read. It’s titled The Presumption of Decency and I urge you to check it out.

I think he touches on a deep-rooted flaw in human thinking habits, one that frequently puts us on a path to a mindset that enables us to justify committing some the most atrocious acts against other human beings. And despite the remorse we may feel afterward, we do it again and again.

The fact is, our perspective-taking abilities are generally not very good. We also have incomplete access to the situational information of others. So when we try to understand the behaviors of others, we tend to assume it’s due to negative motivations or personality flaws. Social psychologists refer to this as a fundamental attribution error.

For example:

Ellen is ignoring me. She’s being a bitch.

Ummm, maybe Ellen is busy?

On the other hand, when reflecting on our own actions, we tend to be more forgiving. For example:

I have so much to do right now. I don’t have time to answer that email.

Are you really so busy, when you’ve already answered messages from several other people?

I suspect we are doubly likely to fall back on this heuristic when trying to understand those who are in conflict with us:

The police won’t let me take my bike through this gate. They are morons.

Maybe at one time, this was a useful heuristic, helping us to quickly identify potential threats so we could eliminate them before they became immediate dangers. But if something is not an immediate danger, shouldn’t we not be relying on a heuristic when we try to understand it? Shouldn’t we be making the investment of time to investigate more deeply to form a better conclusion?

Now that humans have armed themselves with weapons capable of death and destruction on a massive scale, perhaps it’s time to call this out as detrimental to us as a species. That is, if continuation of the species is important to us.

Let’s start by not always assuming the worst of others.

The problem is complicated…

STFU, you weasel.

People sometimes refuse to answer seemingly simple yes-or-no questions. They know that answering truthfully would compromise them in some way. Getting caught in a lie would be equally dangerous. So instead, they give drawn-out, bullshit answers that say absolutely nothing.

We see this most often with parents and their children (“Timmy, did you break the vase?” “Paul, did you shave the cat’s whiskers?”, etc.). In the public arena, we see it with the media and politicians. I applaud the media asking the tough questions (when they actually ask them). Sure, somebody has to keep the politicians’ feet to the fire. At the same time, the media are just as much weasels as the politicians they’re interrogating. Most often, their only real goal is provide entertainment in the form of watching another weasel squirm in the hot seat as they try to dodge the issue. Again, understandable to an extent, as drama creates interest, which draws eyeballs, which brings ad revenue. Still… I’m uncomfortable…

With that in mind, I want to applaud how the new BC minister of transportation, Mary Polak, handled the recent fare-evasion-legislation-loophole issue (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2012/09/07/bc-translink-fare-evasion.html). I don’t often praise politicians (especially regressive conservatives), but when I do, I am profuse.

Bravo, I say. She admitted it was an oversight and promised to have it corrected within weeks and shortly after, it was corrected.

Granted, it was a minor issue. Wouldn’t win or lose any seats come election time. But imagine if we saw more politicians coming out and owning up to mistakes/failures/oversights! Likely, the media feeding frenzy would decrease (maybe a few flare-ups of “investigative reporting” into recent spates of gov’t incompetency, whatev) over time, as we become inured to gov’t admitting that they make mistakes but can commit to fixing them in a timely fashion. Maybe if they didn’t have to constantly worry about managing public perception, they could spend more time governing. Like, I’m just saying…

Follow the link above and have a look at the comments. As expected, they boil down to the usual smirking look-at-our-tax-dollars-at-work crap you see from the anonymous losers who post on news sites. Yes, government accountability is important. But people, try for once to stop being such fucking idiots. Or at least keep your moronic opinions on your own blogs like I do. You’re entitled to your opinion, but griping about it in every public forum really doesn’t help move public policy forward. Let’s consider what you do in your job for a moment. I wonder how much damage your stupid mistakes have caused to others. Think about it. STFU, weasels.

BTW, I cannot imagine a scenario where any BC Liberal would ever see a vote from me, even if the party ran a positively brilliant individual candidate in my riding. So, for any idiot who wants to comment on my partisanship, consider this a pre-emptive strike. I don’t endorse any party.

BTW, the irony of my anonymity comment isn’t lost on me. If you’re going to comment on that specifically, you better make it real fucking smart.

The answer is simple…


The answer is simple. Don’t you feel relieved when you hear that? Like most people, you’re an idiot. Answers are only simple when there is one perspective. Stupid people are only capable of seeing one perspective. Smarter people might see two perspectives and brag how much smarter they are than the people who only see one. (Sadly, they often aren’t much smarter than the stupid ones.)

If you have a perspective, I am willing to hear it. But once you’ve had your say, stay the fuck out of my face. I won’t need you anymore once I understand your puny mindset.

Beware of *anyone* who tells you the solution to a problem is simple. You are dealing with someone who is an idiot and/or master manipulator (yes, it is possible to be both).