Piranhas of the Personal - Data Harvesting from the Domesday Book to Face Book

The ancient architecture of Europe is considered a romantic part of the European heritage.  A “Must See” on the tourist trail.  We swoon over the beauty of castles, towers and cathedrals and (often) view them through the lens of fairy tales, imagining the exploits of princesses and knights, fiery dragons and damsels in distress waiting to be saved.  Tales that go back to some  of the earliest examples of European literature and culture.  Legendary tropes mashed-up with Courtly Love: chaste and dutiful.  

But, if you look more closely, and from the right angle, the true nature of the architecture screams out.  The brutality of invasion and subjugation.  These buildings were placed to shock and awe. Clues also exist in the names of towns and villages left behind, both here and as Europe Spread across the New World. The castles on the ground became castles in the air.  The subjugation and manipulation now invisible.

We have just returned from a family trip to Europe that culminated in a few days spent in the village of my childhood.

Scatagraua,now known as Chedgrave, was as Anglo-Saxon as the squat square church tower that dominates the hill over-looking the village.  A church tower which dates back to 980 A.D. 86 years before 1066.  Before the Invasion.  Sometime in the next couple of hundred years after that calamity the name of the village changed, reflecting the new reality.  Out went the Anglo-Saxon and in came ownership, if the History of British Places Names is to be believed. The old Anglo-Saxon talk of Angled Groves are transmuted in to a pit owned by a family or man named Caetta or Chad. In the way so much Anglo-Saxon nomenclature disappeared, replaced by allusions of the land’s new ownership.

The linguistic subjugation was accompanied by the actual, physical domination of the new Norman rulers. Norwich, the closest city to Chedgrave, boasts a Norman castle and a cathedral.  Both buildings still dominate the city.  Each is based on a flint core, hard nodules of silica found in the local sedimentary rock. Coarse on the outside the inside resembles glass or obsidian.  The local foundation was then covered in a fine shell of Norman limestone.  Those soft white blocks were mined in the town of Caen then sailed from Normandy around the British coast and down the river Yare to Norwich.  Both buildings, the castle and the cathedral, were designed to awe and intimidate. A show of strength and power to leave no doubt in the indigenous population about who was in charge.  Who ruled. 

Some aspects of humanity never change.

Scatagraua/Chedgrave was documented in the great census of British chattels that William I a.k.a.  William the Conqueror a.k.a. William the Bastard called for shortly before his death.  This was the first recorded data harvesting exercise in English history, and it was completed in little over a year in 1085/86.  It surveyed everything:  property, buildings, villages, people.  Anything that can owned or taxed or both.

All 14,000 so entries seem to have been completed by one small team of scribes. They embarked on two separate expeditions riding through the countryside recording everything they found.  The result, called the Domesday Book, pronounced Doomsday, was literally that, the book of reckoning at the end of the (Anglo-Saxon) world.  The king, Harold Godwinson, dead.  The Anglo-Saxon Baronial class of England replaced by the Norman Conquerors en masse.  The decisions regarding ownership and taxable property that the Domesday Book captured, so said Richard FitzNeal in the reign of Henry II, were as unalterable as the last judgement.

Today we each probably surrender as much data in minute as the Domesday Book captured in a year and in most cases we are unaware.  The billions of dollars in server costs of Facebook or Snap Chat or Instagram paid for by a continual harvest of our online lives, used (and it would seem abused) to help manipulate us into buying a particular product or service or vote for a particular candidate.  The exercise much more effective because the selling is based on our internal prejudices, our world picture our own version of the truth.  It has been dubbed Surveillance Capitalism, Facebook and Google the biggest proponent.  There’s a reason Android phones are cheaper than Apple, in many ways they are the loss leaders to the real product, the life of the person who owns the device.

Now, in the spotlight we have Mark Zuckerberg’s floundering and a silence emanating from Google, Jeff Bezos and even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (owner of LinkedIn) that is deafening. Tim Cook of Apple has been the one consistent and vociferous Big Tech crusader for personal privacy in the face of the onslaught our online lives face.  There is speculation that Siri, the first digital assistant, is not as good as Alexa or Google for that very reason.  The amount of personal data that Siri needs to micro-triangulate and segment our needs is simply not as forthcoming.  Machine learning needs data, huge, gluttonous amounts.  The more the better.  These machines are vociferous feeders: piranhas of the personal.  Every time you ask Alexa, you’re feeding the beast.  I see Siri’s sometime ineptitude as a badge of honor, not a failing.     

Is there anything to be done?  Yes.  Regulation and privacy protection. Extending that which already exists in Europe.  Forcing companies like Facebook et alto be compliant with the most strident regulations available, and ensure that compliance is equally applied across all territories. 

Finally, we must be personally as aware and protective of the product we are selling online (us), as we are with the products we buy on the high-street.  And if the free offer looks too good to be true, it is.

Hold Your Nose... Then Smell Victory

The Right governs in the US, UK, a lot of Europe and maybe soon in Ontario and Canada.  All without winning an actual majority of the votes.

Barcelona is awash in yellow ribbons:  worn on jackets; spray painted on bollards and signs and tied in yellow plastic around statues and lampposts.  The symbols mark the exile or imprisonment of Catalonian politicians who face decades in prison for holding a referendum that was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court in Madrid.

You can trace the start of this current crisis back to the same Constitutional Court which in 2010 ruled key aspects of the 2006 Statue of Autonomy of Catalonia unconstitutional.  Never mind the fact that the statute had been passed by the Catalan Parliament, the Spanish Parliament and Senate and finally ratified by the Catalan people by a majority of 74%.  The Right-Wing People’s Party, the current Government of Spain, opposed it and took the case to the Constitutional Court which then made its fateful ruling and stoked the current mood for succession in Catalonia.  Control of the courts in Spain is as important to Spanish democracy as control of the Supreme Court is in the United States, and the People’s Party, just like the GOP, knows how to use that power.

In keeping with the standard narrative of gathering and using power, the Right (as usual) has remained unified and, also as usual, the Left is fragmented. 

What is it about Left-Wing politics that constantly allows ideological purity to trump (no pun intended) actual results?  The history of the political left has been ravaged by the kind of schisms that would have made the early Christian church blush.  Organizations have thrashed and shattered into pieces over ideological distinctions that make as much sense to the average person as early church arguments relating to the capacity of Pin-heads to support angels. And that’s before we even get to the subject of the wider progressive diaspora of social democrats, liberals, greens and the newer politics of the single issue or identity and intersectionality.

All told there seems to be about 50-60% of the population in most advanced countries that coalesce around broad “progressive” politics, but that vote is usually split two, three or even four ways.

Meanwhile, the 40% Neo-Conservative Right, despite their myriad inconsistencies, remains a largely coherent force.  Their current status quo is to defend the right of the individual at any cost and any expense.  To get Government out of the way.  Cut taxes.  Deregulate and end (perceived) societal permissiveness and to maintain control of the Supreme Court.  In the UK and US you can add the curtailing of globalization in terms of both trade and movement of people to that frothy cornucopia.  All these messages are told with language that speaks of end-times, crisis and out of touch elites (usually by very elite people indeed). 

Many a progressive journalist has wrung their hands over the supposed hypocrisy of evangelicals in the United States supporting their three-time married, adulterous President, but so far Trump and his cronies have delivered, especially in the case of Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.  That 40% or so approval rating he enjoys is pretty solid.  If you fragment the left in crucial states, it might just be enough too.  Ralph Nader and Jill Stein cost Al Gore and Hillary Clinton the Presidency, respectively.  Yes, I know, they weren't the best candidates:  too cautious,  too political,  yadda, yadda, yadda, but, really, I would defy anyone to the left of the GOP to state that either of these respected, ethical (yes, they were) and serious centrist politicians would have made worse Presidents than Bush II and Trump.  Certainly the environment, a whole lot of Iraqis and maybe millions of Koreans or Iranians, not to mention Americans, would all be better off. The narrative that there was no difference between the hard-right candidate and the cautious centrist is a false one, as history shows.

We are not immune in Canada either.  Somehow, despite losing both the popular vote and the majority of ridings, Doug “Mini-Me” Ford won the leadership of Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party.  The problem is, given Ontario’s First Past the Post electoral system, he may just win the forthcoming Provincial election, he’s currently 47% in the polls.

A progressive vote split between Liberals, NDP and the Greens in Canada’s most populous province could have the same result as Trump’s election:  the triumph of an unqualified hard-right populist demagogue.  It can be stopped.  I’ll offer two examples:  Thornhill.  This riding has a progressive majority of about 5,000, but the riding has gone Conservative for the last three Ontario elections as just enough NDP and Green votes are peeled away from the Liberals to let the Tories through.  Sault Ste. Marie offers a riding where the Liberals (given their current standing) and the Greens should back the NDP if they want to stop the Conservatives winning there. 

I recognize that this might not be seen as a positive vote for everyone, but, given the nature of Doug Ford and his likely cronies, it could be a positive and progressive vote for the Province of Ontario.  Trump won the election by about 72,000 votes in decisive electoral college states.  Those votes would have been nullified if Jill Stein voters had held their noses. 

It doesn’t take the data machinations of Facebook or Cambridge Analytica to work out how to beat Doug Ford in Ontario or Trump in the US.  Just be informed about your electoral riding or State and, if you are so inclined, vote for the progressive candidate most likely to win.

If you need to hold your nose, hold away.

Green Onions!

Calçots.  Until I started coming regularly to Barcelona I was unaware of these delicious members of the Onion family.  They are braised in vast bunches on great communal barbeques in community festivals that take place all over the city at this time of year.  Smoky from the flames and sweet from the caramelization they are consumed in the thousands, dipped in a local Salbitxada sauce.  These indelicate delicacies are then followed by roasted lamb or local sausages served with white beans and washed down with Vi Negra, red wine.  As we wandered around the narrow streets of Gracia this weekend, our senses were massaged with wonderful mouth-watering scents accompanied with dancing, singing and the joyful chitter-chatter of well-fed and happy people.

These celebrations will last two or three weekends through the end of March and into early April then, like the onions they acclaim, will disappear for another year.

One of the joys of visiting Barcelona, indeed Europe as a whole, is the food.  There is a different relationship to food than you get in most of North America, a different taste too.  Here produce is local and seasonal in a way that is difficult to imagine outside the confines of the scattered farmers markets you find in my other home in Canada. 

If you google Catalan farmer’s market the first few entries that you see are people named Catalan (mostly in Mexico and California) and a map of Barcelona with two or three markets highlighted.  These markets aren’t strictly farmers markets in the North American sense, they are daily markets that are operated by the municipality.  We have three within walking distance from our apartment.  Our favourite, Llibertat, is a bustling series of local butchers, fish-mongers and green grocers all offering huge varieties of local produce, some year ‘round staples, but many seasonal ones too, that change depending on what time of year you visit.  At the moment, along with the Calçots, there are half a dozen different types of tomatoes, most varieties I do not recognise, many will not be available in a month’s time.  All taste divine, like I remember tomatoes tasting when I was a kid.     

Growing up in the United Kingdom food was seasonal.  The Salad Days of summer where that, literally.  A fleeting time of ripe fruit, and fresh strawberries.  Then, as summer blushed its way into autumn, the time of mists and mellow fruitfulness as Keats remarked, so the necessary produce for salads: lettuce; tomatoes; English cucumbers; steaming piles of buttered new potatoes, tiny and sweet, gave way to their troglodyte cousins.  Soups and stews took over the familial sustenance duties; hearty food to keep out the oncoming damp and dark chill of winter.

Sometime over the last couple of decades produce became global in reach.  Strawberries, no longer a brief joyful smile in summer, became a year ‘round commodity flown in from Mexico or (if you weren’t looking) China, and in doing so lost both cachet and flavour.  Same with many other fruits and vegetables.  The food became more uniform, larger and in many cases more bland.

Local farmers began to suffer too, as we switched from local shops to super-markets to hyper-markets to Whole Foods and Costco.  Food prices have remained low, artificially low I suspect, having a devastating effect on farmers across the globe.  This combined with a move by the fast-food restaurants to provide healthier foods which may, along with obvious health benefits, also have devastating effects on the varieties of produce that are being grown.  Gary Yonge, the Guardian correspondent, was writing about the effect McDonald’s had on the Apple industry in the Pacific North-West as far back as 2005, where the pressurized switch from dozens of varietals to the two or three favoured by the restaurant chain was spreading fear across the industry. 

We may be quick to forget, but the evidence of food scarcity, blights and disease are written into the very fabric of North American history through the effects of the Irish Potato famine in the 1840’s and the subsequent mass-migration to the US, visible in the green beer many of you will have just quaffed.

We all, through our consumer power, have the ability to purchase local seasonal produce.  In Ontario we can celebrate the glorious Ontario summer fruits and winter vegetables.  We can resist food that may have accumulated more air-miles than we could dream of in a year.  We can support local farmers and local produce.  We can cherish our food, and the people who work so hard to produce it.  It’s better for the environment and mostly tastes better too.  We all can crave that mid-December strawberry (I know I do), but we should consume it with our eyes wide open, or maybe, just maybe, try and wait until the real-thing arrives in our locality at the right time of year.  Which I am pleased to say, it has, just, in Spain.    

"The Snow Has No Voice"* - March SADness, March Joy

March break and the clocks are about to go forward.  The evenings and mornings are getting lighter.  As we leave this heaving, teeter-totter of a winter:  in like a lion, out like some drunken curmudgeon who over stays its welcome, I am reminded of my first Canadian one.   Not the shock of the cold, I was braced for that, but the shock of the light. 

Coming from England, I wasn’t used to winter’s brightness.

By brightness, I don’t mean those incredible sunny frigid days where the waters of Lake Ontario sublimate into a delicate haze, though those days are both figuratively and literally breath taking.  I mean the hint of sun you get just above the horizon at 4pm on a January evening, or the fact that, on the school run at 7.45am, there are very few mornings where it is truly dark. 

I grew up in the United Kingdom where winters are foggy, dank and dark; very, very dark.  There were days when I would leave for work at 7.30am in the pitch black of night and eight or so working hours later leave the office at 5.30 pm once again in the night, the sun having set almost two hours before my departure.  If I ate lunch at my desk I might not see the sun at all.  And that was on the few days when the sun was out.

In North America we have the February Blahs, that short burst of ennui and discontent as we face yet another Alberta Clipper or Colorado or Texan storm system, driven west by the Jet Stream.  In the United Kingdom we have SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which, as the name suggests, brings a depression not just for the shortest month of the year, but for the whole season, from late fall through the spring.  The darkness of the days reflected in a darkness of the soul.

Occasionally, in a supreme act of iniquity, the UK gets hit by both: darkness and a deep frigidity.  The weather pattern will reverse and, instead of the (comparatively) warm damp Atlantic weather from the west, the winds shift to the East dragging the continental cold  from the depths of Siberia.  

Such a pattern occurred at the end of February this year.  Nick-named “The Beast from the East”, the snow piled up and the temperature dropped in a country unprepared for either scenario. Here, in Toronto, we basked in a mini-spring with temperatures of +11°C, whilst the temperature in my childhood home of Norwich had dipped to -11°C with the wind-chill, an almost mirror image of the normal weather situation.  The cold, ironically, caused by an unprecedented warming of the arctic stratosphere, which allowed warm air to flood north over Canada and pushed the polar vortex down south over Russia, where, like the government of that country, it wreaked havoc over much of the hemisphere.

Whenever the United Kingdom faces such weather thoughts inevitably turn to the unprecedented (in modern times) winter of 1962-63. The Big Freeze.  The cold started in December 1962 as two glacial systems, what would now be called polar vortex, hit back to back.  They brought huge (for the UK) amounts of snow and a deep freezing weather that lasted throughout January, then more ferocious snow storms in February.  The thaw didn’t kick in until early March.

By that thaw, the event that I associate most with that period: fifty-five years ago, three years before I was born, had occurred.  The poet Sylvia Plath took her own life on morning of February 11th, 1963.  

Of all the poets I have read and studied, hers has affected me most.  I was first introduced to her startling work while studying for my English Literature ‘A’-Level at the age of 16.  I still read her work regularly, in that regard she is right up there with T.S. Eliot.  Both required thought, but where Eliot had a wonderful dusty stuffiness that spoke of classics and encyclopaedia, Plath made both thought and language spark like a Catherine Wheel.  Like Eliot there were allusions and references, but there was also a startling modernity to her poetry, a vivacious brutality:

I am your opus,

I am your valuable,   

The pure gold baby

 

That melts to a shriek.

 Lady Lazarus – October 1962

 In the final months of her life, Plath’s writing came in two incredible bursts:  a period of freneticism that lasted from the end of September 1962 until the first week of November and produced a large number of the Ariel poems that would cement her reputation.  Her most famous:  Daddy and the afore mentioned Lady Lazarus were composed in this period.  Then a lull, not bereft but quieter, until another final, intense burst in the Big Freeze of January and early February 1963.  Then she was silenced.  Her final two poems:  Balloons and Edge were both drafted on 8th February.

Balloons in particular is now one of my  favourites.  The poem, implicitly addressed to her infant daughter Frieda, referencing her son, Nick, still a baby, is one of her most charming children’s poems.  I think all parents have been there.  We’ve wrestled with balloons, those happy, random stowaways.  We’ve stuffed them gingerly into car trunks.  We’ve prayed that little hands don’t let go of the string.  We’ve watched, helpless, as a child inadvertently and unexpectedly pops one of them.  Or jump when they do it on purpose.  Then, at home, they remain like happy but unwanted guests for weeks or months.  Plath’s poem shares that sense of happiness and fun and reminds us that, shining through the final nihilism she obviously thought, she could still reach some semblance of joy.

The last part of winter drifting into spring.  

 

* The Munich Mannequins -Sylvia Plath

A Garden of Heavenly Delights?

The Bible has very little to say about the actuality of heaven, so I can’t help wondering if the expectations of Billy Graham, the American evangelist who died this week, were met.  I mean no disrespect by this.  Sometimes, when things aren’t carefully articulated, the full implication or meaning is not apparent until it’s too late, we only have to look at Brexit to see that's true.  

I saw Billy Graham preach in Norwich, UK, when I was 17 years old.  The football stadium, Carrow Road, was packed with about 20,000 people and that didn’t include the thousand or so in the choir.  I was curious, attending at the behest of my first proper girlfriend, a cute self-described hippy who was also, at the time, a born again Christian.  She bestowed on me my ongoing love for Bob Dylan, much to the chagrin of pretty much every single partner I’ve had since.   

I remember after the event (I’m not sure what to call it, religious service seems too solemn, circus, though more accurate, seems a little discourteous) we had a blazing row, as I, in my  rebellious young man phase, full of righteous left-wing certainty, declaimed the horrors of this, as I saw it, right-wing American zealot.   All I can recall now was his charisma, which he certainly had, and that burning certainty, like so many Americans, that both Heaven and Hell are real.

Although “Heaven” the place is mentioned a number of times in the Bible, the descriptions are sparse.  Jesus mentions that “In my Father's house are many rooms.” (John 14:2) But then, so does a Holiday Inn.  I hope Mr. Graham’s room is not next to the Ice Maker or the elevator. 

The other big descriptions of heaven are in Revelations:

“The river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”  (Revelations 22: 1-5). 

Which strikes me less as a description of heaven and more like the stage directions for a late period Michael Jackson video, when he was going through his difficult messianic period, and no one could say “No”.

I’m not sure my idea of heaven would be so busy.  For me, it would probably be something more akin to the gentle splendour of Hanalei Bay in Kauai.

So, Heaven is a convenience.  It can be whatever we want to project onto the concept.  A destination that promises untold bounty without specificity.  Vague terms and promises that are used to entice the unsure towards the tent and reel them in.  Of course, with heaven we won’t have any certainty about whether it exists, or if we get to go there, until it’s too late.  Also, once there, it might not be to our taste.  If you look at the great depictions of hell by Hieronymus Bosch in either of his masterpieces “The Harrowing of Hell” or the Hell Panel from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” you see demons and devils partaking in much innovative and adventurous torture, all with rapturous smiles.  They look like they are in their own idea of heaven, a place that is certainly not mine.

Heaven (or death itself), “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” as Shakespeare intoned, is unknown.  With Brexit, on the other hand, we may have the opportunity to see the likely result before we have to go there for eternity.  We may also be able to change our minds.

Over the last few days and weeks various UK ministers have spoken about “The Road to Brexit”, a roadshow which culminated in Theresa May’s speech on March 2nd.  Hours of platitudes have been spoken but, in the midst of all the talk of hope, no one has suggested that life after we leave will be much better (probably because the evidence is it won’t).  In fact there was more than a touch of the "fair is fair", “stiff upper lip”, “grin and bear it”, Great British Attitude ™ about all the speeches.  I almost expected May to start invoking the Blitz or Dunkirk.  Both of which the UK survived.  Both of which became part of the founding myth of modern Britain, but, if we look back honestly, both of which were horrendous, disastrous experiences.  Hundreds of thousands of people were injured or died, huge amounts of homes and property destroyed and, to this day, we are still digging up the bombs

What is still not apparent is how Brexit will work:  The trade deals; the access to the various regulatory bodies; the protection for the financial services which the country depends on?  May suggested that none of the current models:  Norway, Canada South Korea or even Switzerland will truly meet the UK’s needs. 

Let’s face it, the UK was sold free access to the Single Market and Customs Union without obligation.  Now we see that the vague heavenly promise of the Leave campaign cannot be reconciled with the actuality of a hard Brexit.  At the Leavers behest we may set sail, solo into the world, just as a new trade war appears to be starting.  

Luckily, the UK Parliament will have a chance to examine the forthcoming paradise and judge whether it is somewhere we want to go.  We know what would work:  Continued access to the Single Market; Continued access to the Customs Union. (As the leavers suggested during the campaign). The best place to keep that access?  Inside the EU where we can have a say in the rules.  As the 80’s icon Belinda Carlisle, noted: “Heaven is a place on earth.”  In other words, we may be, without realizing it, already there.

Old MacDonald Lost His Job…. A.I. A.I. Oh!

It’s not often that you can pin-point the exact time when a class of job becomes effectively extinct, but a couple of weeks ago such a proposition was plastered loudly and proudly in an advertisement on the back of The Economist.  It was placed there by Oracle, the data company that grew to prominence powering the web.  What struck me about the advert wasn’t the slightly breathless hyperbole, you expect that from Silicon Valley, it was the nature of the language used and the message being sold.  The advert pronounced: 

The World’s First “Self-Driving Database”

Oracle Autonomous Database

No Human Labor – Half the Cost

No Human Error – 100x More Reliable

This is the first white collar job replacement that I can remember being advertised on the basis of perceived human cost and fallibility.  The Oracle Database Administrator (or DBA) is (or maybe now, was) one of the prestige operational roles in IT departments across all industries.  It’s been that way since I first started my own IT career over twenty-five years ago, commanding a good six figure salary.  Now IT services such as the DBA role are going the way of electricity (which used to be site specific) and becoming a utility, provided from off-site locations, automatically.  Programming will surely follow.   

Most cloud or Artificial Intelligence offerings push an augmented human model, think the advertising you’ve probably seen for Azure (Microsoft’s Cloud/Analytics offering) or IBM’s Watson. These show how computing power can help the (highly skilled) human employee do their job better, faster, easier.  In those short heart-warming TV spots, we watch from behind transparent boards as serious people gather round one another, make notes in arcane symbols and nod knowingly.  Sometimes the symbols glow.  The point is, it is still shown as the human’s job.  We feel reassured that the impact of the technological change will be munificence.

The Oracle advertisement is the first that I can recall that is proud to offer a blatant replacement to humanity.  Proud in identifying human involvement in the process as a problem in need of a fix.  I can see the same argument soon being used for a number of white collar jobs.

For me one of the key messages of the film Hidden Figures was not only how appallingly the African Americans protagonists were treated, or the hoops the women had to jump through for recognition, but also, how easily they and all the other human computers were replaced by machines.  I see a similar fate eventually overtaking the quants of the finance industry and other information driven work including IT and Medicine. 

Many white collar jobs will have the same fate as last century’s blue collar ones.

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently and mentioned coal production in West Virginia.  How Trump used it against Hillary.  This idea there has been a War on Coal, that production was down.  US jobs were replaced by mining in China or India or were lost because of those pesky environmentalists demanding renewables (of which I am proud to say, I am one.)  It’s a trope that make sense… unless you look at the evidence.

In the 1940, 113,000 West Virginia miners produced 126.6 million tons of coal.  In 2008 (the best production year within the last decade) 21,000 miners (out of 29,000 employed in the Coal industry) produced 165.7 million tons of coal.  That is a 75% decrease in coal mining jobs for an actual increase in coal output.  Coal production numbers since then have not dipped that significantly, despite the Great Recession.  What changed?  Coal production shifted from digging mines to blowing the tops off mountains and using giant trucks to scoop out the material.  The War on Coal wasn’t a War on Coal, it was a war on using human muscle to extract it. 

In Australia Rio-Tinto are removing the drivers from those trucks, 30% of its Australian mining fleet will be fully autonomous by the end of 2019, next year.  

Uber want to do the same with their fleet.

This is a pace of change that is hard to relate to when you are in the middle of it, where you lack a space for perspective.  But, we can learn from the past, we’ve seen such change before.  In 1701, Manchester, England was a village of about 7,000 people.  A century later, in 1801 it had grown to 85,000, fifty years later, well within one lifetime, it had swollen to 250,000, reaching almost a million by the end of the 19th Century.  Birmingham, England was the same.  Society moved from Agrarian to Industrial.  People rushed from the countryside to the towns as new industry, new sectors and new jobs were created.      

Oxford University has predicted that 47% of Jobs will disappear in the next  twenty-five years.  The jobs we do now may not (more likely will not) exist when our own children graduate from University.  That was always the pattern with previous eras of mass industrial change.  New jobs and new challenges replaced those lost.  The only difference I see between then and now, is that this time the newly minted jobs created by change might not be for human consumption

The first industrial revolution set the stage for the great welfare and education reforms of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  This new Industrial Revolution could lead to a similar reforming zeal.  If we embrace such reform the future could be glorious.  There could be (paid) free time to pursue education, art, sport and recreation, exploration and research not for profit but for building the human experience.

Of course, if we get it wrong then the future may be closer to that envisioned by some famous literary observers of the effects of that first Industrial Revolution in Manchester:  Messrs Marx, K and Engles, F.

 

 

Not walking but stamping on Sunshine… and no, it doesn’t feel good

It’s the Family Day long weekend in Ontario and I am enjoying time with my wife, daughters and our friends thinking about those families which have been ripped asunder in the Sunshine State this week.

As a non-American father of two American girls I was once again left speechless by yet another mass shooting in the United States.  Speechless not just by my anger at the event, that sense of a meaningless deep sadness and horror, but also by the event’s increasing commonality, and the banality of the political reaction to it.  The predictable platitudes told through the venal lips of the US gun lobby disguised as politicians in Congress.

The fact we have Wayne LaPierre, the director of the NRA sharing his disgust at the “elites”:  Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Diane Feinstein, who, it is alleged, are trying to take away the “god given” constitutional right to bear arms.  This, of course, is coming from a “non-elite” old white guy who makes close to a million dollars a year from the NRA to propagate this bullshit.  God given constitutional right?  Last time I looked the founding fathers did an awful lot to make sure “god” was nowhere near that particular document or the institutions it supports.

When I was growing up we never went on vacation abroad, my parents preferring the damp and mildewed splendours of Wales, Devon or Cornwall to the straw donkey and plastic fan wielding crowds of the Costa Blanca.  The first foreign country I ever visited with them was Switzerland.  My sister had fallen in love with a Swiss guy and we spent a week with him and his family including a beautiful engagement party.  Amongst the wonders of Switzerland:  Mountains!  Fondue!  Chocolate!  Was the unexpected abundance of heavy weaponry that most households had.  My (soon to be) brother-in-law patiently explained that every man (and quite a few women) were in the army for a few weeks a year and were expected to keep both semi-automatic rifles and ammunition at home.  That the small professional Swiss army was supplemented by this semi-professional militia.  The type of militia which was the intention James Madison’s second amendment.  The part of the US Bill of Rights that gets LaPierre and his cohorts so lathered up.

There was gun violence in Switzerland, nothing like the US, but still, more than other European countries.  Most were (male) suicides.  It took a mass shooting in the Zug legislature in 2001 for the ever-democratic Swiss to act. They didn’t ban guns.  They didn’t disband the militia.  They didn’t even take the guns from the homes.

They took the ammo.   

They stored it in the central arsenal that each town and village had.

That act alone  cut a huge swathe in the figures for gun related suicides and gun violence in general.  Regulation works, ask the residents of Dunblane and Port Arthur

One of the more bizarre conversations I have had was over the course of the hour and a half drive from Nashville to Chattanooga in Tennessee in the Fall of 2008.  I was the only passenger in the airport shuttle bus, and , given that the US was about to elect its first African American President, the driver, a retired veteran and erudite old white guy, unleashed his concern about the Country’s prospects.  He was terrified of two certainties:  One, that Liberals would take away all guns and, two, when they weren’t surrendered, they (The Liberals) would set up interment or re-education camps.  However much I tried to assuage his fears he wasn’t buying.

That is the black and white nature of this argument.  The fear that all guns will be taken, not just the semi-automatic assault rifles.  The idea that reserving such heavy weaponry for the professional US army is somehow un-American.  That pointing out that an assault rifle is not needed for self-protection is somehow heretical.  That suggesting increased regulation is not an attack on the US Constitution. 

The second amendment has been reduced to the right to bear (insanely heavy) arms alone, rather than being seen in the context of the need for a fledgling 18th Century nation to be able to defend itself against England, the most aggressive and well-armed nation of the time.  A militia that, given the eye-watering amounts that the country spends on the military, the US certainly no longer requires.

That said, I don’t want to repeal the Second Amendment.  I am not in favour of making guns illegal.

I am in favour of banning certain types of gun and ammunition.  I am in favour of closing loopholes and increasing background checks.  I am in favour of education for gun owners. 

And I am in favour of comprehensive research into why so many (mostly) young and (mostly)  white men are feeling so murderous, and what can be done to prevent their murderous rage in the future.   

Irish Spirits - Make Mine a Double (Think)

Warning:  You might need a dram to swallow this one…

When I was young, many years ago, I was heavily involved with student politics in the United Kingdom.  Part of that involvement was representing the National Union of Students in Northern Ireland.  This was during the period now known as the Troubles, when armed British Troops and armored cars  were regular features of my trips to Belfast and on the road down to Dublin.  Friends would open up bags to be searched for bombs when they went into shops.  Helicopters would fly overhead.  Unlike on the mainland the political discourse in the student bars was conducted with a quiet intensity, because losing your temper may have serious or even fatal consequences. 

Luckily those days are passed.  The Good Friday Agreement, twenty-years old this year, has allowed a sense of peace and trust to develop on the Island of Ireland as guns and bombs made way for debate and the ballot box.  The EU played a vital part in smoothing over the waters.  The issue was (foolishly) swept under the rug during the Brexit vote.  It’s like England was busy fixing the roof and ignored the flooding in the basement, assuming the foundation would remain solid.

One of the key levers of this peace, the open and seamless border between the North and the South, is now in jeopardy thanks to the collective insanity that has overtaken arguably the oldest political party in Western history:  The Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom, aka The Tory Party. 

Theresa May and the rest of her beleaguered crew are engaged in a most precarious act of double think, that brilliant Orwellian construct, of holding two opposing ideas in your head at the same time and believing in both as the absolute truth.  The idea is that the United Kingdom, through Brexit, can leave the EU’s Single Market (tariff free services) and the Customs Union (tariff free trade) and still maintain a soft border (no customs barriers) with the Irish Republic.  Something not even the Norwegians and the Swedish have managed.

If the border were to move to the Irish Sea, if Northern Ireland was to leave the rump of the UK behind and move into the Customs Union and Single Market, an EU suggestion, then the Unionists in Northern Ireland, who keep Theresa May in power, would say ‘No!’  The Scots would go crazy too, they want the benefits such membership brings.

A new hard border on the Island of Ireland will cause massive distrust and consternation on both sides and may even threaten a resumption of violence.  Such an outcome would persuade the members of the EU to support the Irish Republic and veto any such final deal with the UK.

There is no way to square the circle. 

Well there is, but only if the whole of the UK remains in the Single Market and the Customs Union, but that does not have the support of the Tory Party or (at the moment) the leadership of the opposition Labour Party.  It might also beg the question... why the bleep are we leaving?! 

This isn’t the first time that the “Irish Question” threatened to rip the politics of the United Kingdom asunder. 

When the United Kingdom was formed in 1801 by joining the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland into a single United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Irish parliament was subsumed into the Westminster Parliament.  This was not popular with a large section of the Irish and lead to a century of wrangling over Irish Home Rule.   

Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister at the end of the 19th Century, supported Irish Home Rule and tried to bring it about.  He failed, and in doing so split the Liberal Party in half.  What remained was the Liberal Party (pro-Irish home rule) and the Liberal Unionist Party (anti-Irish home rule).  The Liberal Unionist merged over time with the Conservative Party to become the Conservative and Unionist Party, the party of Theresa May that currently runs (ahem) the UK Government and finds itself in such a mess. 

The Liberal Party faded into oblivion, a possible fate for the modern Conservatives too. 

The EU position in all this will be agreed using what is called Qualified Majority voting.  Meaning that 55% of countries representing 65% of the EU population need to agree.  This is similar to the requirements needed to change the Canadian or US constitutions.  The crazy thing is, if similar rules had been applied within the UK, and they should have been, Brexit would not have happened.  Only 50% of the Countries of the UK voted for Brexit (England and Wales).  Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

The great opening line from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, published in 1852 is now something of a cliché:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

For once, Marx is right.  We are well into farcical territory.  As the Liberals foundered on the anvil of Ireland, so may the Tory Party too. 

In fact the whole of UK politics may face realignment, unless we get this foundation right.

Water on the Mind

Winter in Canada is a time to think about snowflakes, lots of them.  I find the fact that Snowflake has been propositioned as a term of weakness to be both ironic and mildly hilarious.  Snowflakes, each unique, can fall thousands of meters.  During that fall they retain their shape.  Sometimes they coagulate with others, sometimes they remain singular.  When they land, they land softly and they do not shatter.  I wonder if I would do the same?  I mean, it hurts when I accidently belly-flop from the side of a swimming pool, let alone fall from a storm cloud thousands of meters above planet Earth.

In the west, we tend to ignore water, treating it as an infinite resource, or worse a commodity.  We take it for granted.  Water is disposable and essentially harmless.  Until it’s not.  We forget it’s power, until the frozen pipe bursts, or the basement floods or the wave crashes over us. 

Or it isn’t there anymore.

Even when, in Ontario and Quebec, we call Electricity “Hydro”, I think we forget the connection, though thanks to this wonderful liquid (and the rocks it falls over) water accounts for 1/3 of Ontario’s electricity production, and, of course, is pollution free and renewable. 

We still don’t fully know how all this water got here.  Was it deposited by Asteroids?  Was it trapped in rocks during the Earth’s formation, gathered from the nebula and ice-clouds from which this planet formed?  Then, did it seep out through bedrock, or cascade via shifts in the Earth’s tectonic plates?  We know it is an abundant resource in the universe and have identified other water worlds in our own solar system:  Vast oceans lie under ice in Europa around Jupiter and Enceladus in orbit around Saturn, to name but two.  We could even, if we were daring, extrapolate that some primitive life may have evolved on these worlds as it has here in the unforgiving heat, darkness and pressure of the 'Black Smokers' in some of the deepest parts of our ocean.

The water we drink and bathe in is the same water where the earliest life on Earth formed.  The water that was drunk by dinosaurs sixty million years ago (and peed out by them too).  Every cup of water we drink from the tap is a direct link back to the very formation of our planet.  Each cup of water contains 8 trillion trillions of water molecules that are each billions of years old!

It is also one of the most effective solvents and landscapers we know.  It can dissolve rocks, create vast canyons, carve out valleys, level mountains and, unless we are careful, drown cities.

Despite this power we take water for granted and we don’t have a tendency to treat it very well.  BBC Earth is currently showing Blue Planet II, the awarding winning documentary on Oceans, including a (yet to be aired in North America) disturbing episode on pollution, especially plastic pollution.  A Blu-Ray of the Blue Planet II was Theresa May’s rather pointed gift to President Xi on her recent bi-lateral diplomatic visit to China.  The Plastic Oceans Foundation estimates that we produce 300 Million tons of plastic every year, 8 tons of which is dumped in the ocean with catastrophic results.  Plastic is being ingested as microfiber and plastic particles throughout the food-chain and in every part of the ocean, including the deepest abyss.  We do not know what the impact will be  but given the evidence about BPA and the effects on hormones, it is unlikely to be positive.

As well as polluting the water directly, climate change is leading to vast areas of the ocean becoming depleted of Oxygen, rendering life virtually impossible.  We are on the verge of a mass oceanic extinction.

At a time when we should be looking to reduce waste and pollution, when we are increasingly aware of the impact it has on the planet, the US EPA is looking to loosen pollution regulation in line with the other regulatory vandalism.  The UK is threatening that Brexit cannot be greenCanada is missing the mark too.  The water we swim in is increasingly polluted.  The water in major cities like Flint MI is still unsafe.   

In reality each of us have the ability to make choices every day, like using reusable water bottles not plastic.

Like most families we love playing in water.  The places we have chosen to live and vacate are all linked to accessibility to it.  We are fortunate to have access to the warm waters and crashing waves of Hawaii, the tide pools and cliffs of the California coast, the blissful Mediterranean and the lakes of Ontario.  Water sanctity is my wife, Taliaferro’s, passion and mine by extension.  The power, majesty, the very essence of water has inspired her throughout her life.  It resulted in the creation of art: glass sculpture and photography and more importantly an ongoing and deep philosophy.  I am reminded of the famous quote that she used in the artist statement for the show she was working on when we first met:

“True goodness is like water, in that it benefits everything and harms nothing. Like water it ever seeks the lowest place, the place that all others avoid.”

Lao Tzu. “Tao Te Ching.”

Water.  We are of it and surround ourselves in it.  Let’s be mindful of it.

Lions and Snowflakes and Me! Oh! My!

I was given to thinking about a recent presidential campaign, looking back at a man who focused on a  message that could be dubbed the ‘audacity of hope’, a man who challenged the political orthodoxy of the day and fought against the prevailing elite with powerful rhetoric.  A man who offered solutions that resonated as a positive and powerful for his millions of followers. 

But, I am fed up with talking about Donald Trump.

The most positive messages of the recent political campaigns in Toronto (Mayor Rob Ford, “Stop the gravy train!”), the United Kingdom (Brexit, “Take Back Control” and Jeremy Corbyn, “For the Many!”) and the United States (both Barack Obama, “Hope!” and Donald Trump, “Drain the Swamp!”, “Make America Great Again!”) have all been powerful anti-establishment messages of hope.  Even Trudeau, that most establishment of politicians, ran on legalizing Cannabis and changing Canada’s electoral system, he’s since reneged on one of the them, but Canada is still due to legally toking later this year.

The sentiment may be positive, but prescriptions and the audiences are completely different.  The dog-whistles of campaigning, loud and ringing to those in the know, silent to those out of the loop are getting louder and louder.  The differences, the chasm, between the audiences getting wider.  On one side the old manufacturing rust belts and rural communities, lazily caricatured as old, white, racist and uneducated or under-educated, on the other, equally caricatured, the young, effete urban snowflakes out of step with the traditional values of the country (any country). 

It is reaching the point where the world picture of our separate communities, our separate identities are becoming so disjointed, so out of phase that we are increasingly speaking in parallel, all sides attempting to impose prejudice and misunderstanding on shrill and often unappealing messages, unable to comprehend the life and experiences of the other.  We are getting into the territory of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lion.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that if a lion could speak in words we could understand, we would still not be able to understand the lion.  The lion’s world view, it’s experience as a lion, being so alien that words would not adequately convey meaning or understanding.  The only way we could understand would be to anthropomorphize the lion, in which case a lion it would no longer be.  Red State.  Blue State.  Red Pill.  Blue Pill. 

We aren’t listening very well, either. 

The recent UK Channel Four interview with University of Toronto Psychology professor, Jordan Peterson, is an (almost) perfect case study in parallel communication and the art of political interviewing.  Peterson speaks in the nuanced words, chosen with the extreme precision, of an empirical academic, the interviewer, Gaby Newsome paints in the broader strokes of the journalistic political interviewer.  It allowed Peterson to come across as reasoned (which he his) and reasonable (which, I fear, he mostly isn’t.) 

Peterson is a paid-up adherent of the neo-Marxist conspiracy school, which propositions that our education system and very social policy is being subverted by a loud and outspoken clique of Marx or Antonio Gramsci worshiping hegemons imposing their cultural view on our society.  Unfortunately the shrill and un-nuanced response often offered by his soft-left or liberal opponents, allow his arguments to sound more than reasonable. 

He paints himself as a champion of free-speech, his opponents ‘Snowflakes’ (though he doesn’t use the term, the dog-whistle is evident).  He has contempt for the folks demanding safe-spaces lest they be offended.  When it comes to this argument, Peterson abandons nuance and puts these opponents squarely on the same plain as Mao and Stalin, an ideology that has killed millions.  (Let's not forget that Gramsci killed no-one and died in the fascist jail in Italy where he wrote most of his theories.)   

I am not going to attempt to offer a comparison with Peterson's most vocal supporters on the so called ‘alt-right’.  The people who make death or rape threats or who drive cars into crowds of demonstrators.  My horror and contempt for such thoughts and actions will not allow me to dignify their hatred with any response.  “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

Peterson’s arguments are enlivened by the recent attack on Margaret Atwood (not a stooge of a radical patriarchy), or Jagmeet Singh, the newly minted leader of Canada’s Social Democratic NDP, and his ridiculous proposition that Presumption of Innocence is a mere legal convenience, suitable only for the courts.  NO IT ISN’T. 

Believing victims means allowing them access to a safe hearing and due process, it means believing them enough to allow a trial where they are free to give evidence without fear (something that still does not happen in 90% of cases).  It means believing them to get action and justice.  It does not mean that we abandon all concepts of civilization and impose the (manipulated) judgement of the mob on the alleged perps.  “Lock Her Up!”  or take the Hemlock, Socrates.  And yes, it is imperfect, and yes there will be verdicts we know, societally, to be wrong.  But that is the (high) price I am willing to pay.   

In one of my favourite scenes from Robert Bolt’s wonderful A Man For All Seasons.  William Roper, young and zealous, wants to marry Thomas More’s daughter, Meg.  Both Roper and More are lawyers, and friends, in that most devout age they discuss giving the Devil the benefit of doubt, allowing him the concept of innocence until proven guilty:

“Will Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
Thomas More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down — and you're just the man to do it — d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.”

So yes, I’d give the Devil, or Harvey Weinstein (or Jian Ghomeshi) the benefit of the law, for society’s safety’s sake.

And yes, I’m trying to understand and appreciate why Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all believed Trump’s (false) prescriptions in his message of hope.

The Beginning of the End of the New Age of Endarkenment

There was an interesting story this week on Business Insider, it was about Wholefoods and the apparent woes of a new Just-In-Time re-stocking system that is leaving shelves empty across stores as produce is not re-stocked in time, and aisles empty of customers.

The Wholefoods fiasco shows the perfect storm that can happen when the an idea based on wrong intention leads to implementation purgatory which in turn leads to operational hell.  In Wholefoods case, you just know a middle level executive with a desire for a large bonus, promotion and self-aggrandisement added two and two together and made five.  If that is the case then that person is taking the first (or next) tentative steps on the studied path to endarkenment.

The concept of right and wrong intention sits at the heart of Buddhist philosophy, the second step on the eightfold path to awakening or enlightenment.  Right Intention is thinking and ideas that are free from craving, ill-will and cruelty.  Wrong intention the opposite.  The key aspect of wrong intention does not lie in the obvious:  the knowing desire to hurt or harm, but usually in the more subtle craving and desire, a craving for the individual pursuit of wealth, power, sex, self-aggrandisement.

When I worked in technology, mostly in implementations or operations, I used to dread when an executive approached my office brandishing a copy of Forbes with the same evangelical glow I saw on my doorstep when a Jehovah’s Witness tried to give me a copy The Watchtower.  I knew I would have to spend the next ten to fifteen minutes talking him or her (but usually him) down from the Elysium fields of ‘C’-Level management speak to the practical Tartarus of operational reality.  Not because the idea was wrong per se, but because, most often, it was the intention driving the idea that was wrong.  The idea was not designed to improve anything other than the person’s own prospects.  They didn’t want to hear how to do what they wanted well and equitably, they usually wanted a quick fix to a complex problem so they could sell it (meaning them) up the chain as soon as possible, getting the heck out of Dodge.  Walking the path.

The Eightfold Path in Buddhism is the answer to the conundrum of the Four Noble Truths, the idea that life is suffering as a result of cravings which we should overcome.  By thinking and acting in the right way, without ill-will and without craving the Eightfold Path strategy can lead to wisdom, and that wisdom may lead to awakening or enlightenment.  Not guaranteed.

Follow in the opposite direction and you end up in a place of deep yearning and a sense of absolute entitlement.  A place of suffering, though you may not know it.  Endarkenment is a place where you still crave and demand and where your karma is all shot to hell, but you won’t recognise any of that because life is good, or so you convince yourself.  But, like the junkie in the blissful stupor of alcohol or heroin, the high will wear off.  All is good in this world until it stops.  That is guaranteed. 

Now, this observation isn’t about wealth.  There are plenty of very wealthy people who are also very enlightened.  The practitioners on the Path to Endarkenment are the folks who practice what are dubbed the ‘dark arts’ to acquire power.  Those who spread ill-will.  Those who practice wrong intention in a deep, conscientious and mindful way. 

From the outside we view the eccentricities of such powerful devotees with disdain and hilarity.  For instance, even as Merrill Lynch tottered towards collapse around him, the head, John Thain, brought in to try and solve the institutions travails, spent millions on his office decoration, including the infamous commode, as if it was normal behaviour.  For him, it probably was normal, I assume there was a craving to satisfy: a craving for luxury, a craving for power, that sense of entitlment.  The itch wasn’t fully scratched.  You’re suffering, but you (probably) don’t  know it.  He travelled far on the path, but he hadn’t reached the end. 

But someone has.

He followed the Ignoble Eightfold Path:  Acquiring more wealth, more power and less knowledge, less empathy.  In the end he become a powerful king and soldier, well, Commander in Chief. 

It’s almost as if his entire life has been a piece of performance art based on the Buddha’s life, only in reverse.  Rapidly gaining power and wealth, keeping it, revelling in it and, at the same time, losing comprehension, understanding and gaining deep rooted fear.  Moving away from the lightness to the dark, the tragedy coming in the lack of recognition of these things.  Apart from the fear.

He has become the anti-Buddha.

Now, this isn’t a completely depressing story, there is light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.  The majority of us recognise the anti-Buddha for what he is.  We reject endarkenment.  We want the light (I would say crave, but to crave is to suffer).  This year we can show that light across the world.  In the ballot box, either voting or standing, or on the streets, like yesterday’s demonstrations marking the first anniversary.  By making ethical choices in how we shop and consume.  Darkness is the absence of light.  One star, one flame and true darkness is banished

Put simply, there are more of us.  Many more. 

 

Orion's Belt(way) Reality

 

I have just  finished my family trip to the other side of the world, a remote dot in the middle of the pacific, the last days of a beautiful Christmas visit with my in-laws.  I’d call it a vacation but for the fact I managed to work with joy every day; writing my blog or revising my books.  What really felt like work was observing the ongoing war of attrition against taste and sanity that is the 45th Presidency and the media’s increasingly onanistic response to it.  The latest, a book, The Fire and the Fury, added an extra gossipy sheen to what we already know or, at the very least, suspect about Trump’s wellbeing: he didn’t expect to win; he isn’t really suited to the job; he might not be a well man.

The oxygen was further sucked out of the room by a (rather wonderful) speech by Oprah Winfrey, which then propagated the ongoing debate about whether one business minded celebrity (albeit with, I suspect, more palatable views) can beat another business minded celebrity.  Personally, if Oprah wants to run… then run, but run for a state senate position or even governor, do that for a while, then run for president… the Ronald Reagan or (in the UK) Glenda Jackson approach. 

Entertainment stars now are to US power what Roman generals were at the height of its empire (the winners), but in politics, like most jobs, it pays to do your dues.  Just ask Crassus, co-ruler with Caesar and Pompey.  He wanted the quick route not only to a military victory to equal his great rivals, but also to (more) vast amounts of gold.  He was arrogant and hadn’t done his homework.  He ended up with the Parthians pouring the wealth, molten, down his throat, which didn’t do much for his longevity. 

All this endless politics, this noise, forced me outside to get some peace.  On a beautiful Hawaiian night, cicadas chirruped, insects hummed, the air was still but for the gentle rustle of trade winds through palm trees.  Above me, the Milky Way shone in its full glory, resplendent, it’s majesty undimmed by light pollution.  Cassiopeia was upside down (from my perspective), a giant ‘M’, as if a toddler had scrawled a giant bird across the sky, rather than the more usual ‘W’.  But, as always this time of year, the star of the sky was Orion. 

Orion is, along with the Big Dipper, one of the few northern hemisphere constellations that most of us can identify.  The three stars of the belt in particular have straddled myths and legends across continents. 

The constellations were useful drawings in the sky that provided meaning and stories to guide us through the long nights.  The northern hemisphere is full of dragons, hunters, bears, flying horses and the great gods and monsters of the zodiac.  In the south: sextants, telescopes, microscopes, a ship’s keel.  The instruments and tools of seventeenth century European sailors unconcerned with the myths and beliefs of the indigenous peoples they met and terrorized. 

In actuality the stars in any of these patterns bear little or no relation to one another, flattened in our perception, by the vast distances involved and their relative brightness.  Though the stars of Orion appear to us, though cultural memory, to be connected, they do not remotely inhabit the same place in space or time. 

When you look at Orion you are looking at light that began its journey in 18AD  before Jesus started his ministry under the reign of the emperor Tiberius (Alnilam middle Star in the belt is 2000 light years away), or light that was born at the time of the second and third crusades (Rigel, the brightest star, 864 light years away) or when Europe was recovering from the devastation of the Black Death (Betelgeuse 640 light years away) or when James Cook was sailing the antipodes discovering New Caledonia while across the world Washington had raised a militia and the US Constitutional Convention was meeting and preparing for war (Bellatrix 244, light years away).  The light of history is shining, and the distances travelled, unfathomable.

Our nearest star, outside the solar system, is Proxima Centauri, four and a quarter light years away.  A number I hadn’t considered properly growing up in the era of the TARDIS, hyperspace and warp-drives, the basis of so much great science fiction.  The numbers seem small and somewhat innocuous (4.25 Light Years, see, tiny.)  Then I did the math.  The fastest machine we have ever created, the New Horizons Space Probe, which used the slingshot power of Jupiter, the solar system’s biggest planet, to reach speed of 58,000 km/h (36,400 mph) would take 81,000 years to reach it.  If you arrived at a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri today, your journey would have encompassed the whole of human history from the time we, as a species, first left Africa.  That’s the nearest. 

Now, I think the idea that we are the only intelligent animals in a universe (heck even a galaxy) as large as ours, is arrogance of the grandest scale.  But, if Einstein is right and the speed of light is the universal speed limit,  we will never meet them, or not for a very long time.

Then I consider that every atom in my body, born through nucleosynthesis in the fire and fury of a sun, might already have made a journey of similar magnitude. 

Forget Trump or Oprah.  We all are timeless.  We are all stars.

Growth vs. Happiness - A New Year's Cozy Little Mystery

 

I’m not in the habit of making New Year’s resolutions,  I haven’t made them since I successfully gave up smoking just after my 40th Birthday (October, a few years ago).  I had just got married and my wife and I were starting to discuss what we needed to put in place before we even started thinking about having a family.  Giving up smoking was a key decision for me.  I had grown up with a parent who smoked and didn’t want to inflict that experience on my (as then) future children

I wasn’t my first attempt to stop.  I had resolved to quit smoking in numerous New Year’s Resolutions, only to find myself huddled outside with a dwindling group of enthusiasts puffing away in sub-zero temperatures come the first week of February, wondering to myself what the collective noun for nicotine addicts actually is… a junk or a smoke perhaps?  I finally managed to quit when I saw the reality of my addiction.  A cigarette when I needed to relax, and when I needed to concentrate?  It (finally) dawned on me that no drug could achieve both.  It was the satiation of the need to move the nicotine addiction/craving out of the way, so I could then relax or concentrate, that the cigarette provided.   I put out my last cigarette as Peter Gabriel was singing “I’ve kicked the habit” on Sledgehammer… an unplanned and prophetic experience.   Getting my head around that little oxymoronic conundrum had allowed me to find happiness without the dependency.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness over the last little while. We are just passed the season when you are most likely to be asked “What do you want for..?”, after all.  I came very close to  dying just over a year ago and that experience made completely re-evaluate what I consider to be precious in my life, which wasn’t stuff, but time.  By living I got the greatest gift I could be given:  time with my wife, time with my kids, time with my family.  All in all I feel pretty happy and I am delighted to be surrounded by a diverse group of friends and family in Toronto who all seem pretty happy too.  We have the usual first world problems, but we are largely fortunate and blessed.

Now, I do watch the news, read the papers and like to think I keep up with stuff, so I am very aware of how many people in my wife’s country of birth (the US) and mine (the UK) aren’t; happy that is.  If key decisions are a reflection of national happiness, then the collective outpouring that resulted in Brexit and Trump in 2016 would indicate that such happiness maybe in short supply in large parts of the US and UK population.

The panacea that was supposed to be unleashed by both Trump and Brexit was (the delusion of) taking back of control, a reduction in immigration (painted as a national scourge across both countries) and an implied increase in Economic Growth.  The ‘(Economic) Growth is Good’ mantra is pummeled into us all the time.  There is a global assumption that economies must grow, always, and that this growth benefits the whole of society.  It was the ideological justification for the recent tax cut in the US, and the UK.  By stimulating the supply side (making the rich and the corporations richer) the results will trickle down and this will lead to… growth, growth, growth!  

The orthodoxy then states that changes that benefit the 1% and corporations have to be paid for.  This normally falls on the shoulders of the mythical “feckless poor" that has proven so popular with the right-wing in both the UK and US.  The view that poverty is self-inflicted is often a foundation myth of Anglo-American right-wing governments and associated media, used to justify the cuts in the societal safety-net that are now suddenly necessary to balance budgets and pay for the "deserved" tax cuts for "job creators".  Such ideology does not infect much of the post-war thinking of the European right, which comes from a Christian Democrat tradition.  In Canada this Christian Democracy is propagated as Red-Toryism and is a key difference with the US.  Trump, of course, was also an exception, only of the nationalist/populist kind.  But, with his tax plans, his actions have spoken louder than words.  The most recent example of the "feckless poor" phenomenon  is Sen Chuck Grassley of Iowa who justified the changes in inheritance tax because the 'poor' “spend every darn penny… on booze or women.”  When the US deficit starts to rise, as it will, we can expect many more such examples to be used as justification for the inevitable cuts in social security.       

Is it a coincidence that the 2017 OECD World Happiness Report placed both the US (#14) and UK (#19) outside the top 10 happiest countries, and that they are both becoming unhappier?   Canada (#7) is grouped in the Top 10 along with the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand), Scandinavia, Switzerland and The Netherlands.  Last year Norway was top.  Economic Growth doesn’t appear to be a factor.  Norway (1.2% Economic Growth in 2017) was behind both the US (2.3%) and the UK (2%) in terms of growth, but way ahead in happiness.  So, if economic growth, whether  supported by trickle-down economics or not, isn’t a reliable happiness indicator, what is?  

My thoughts initially turned to pure inequality as the key, but when you look at the latest GINI indexes there is not as strong a correlation between happiness and more equal societies as I would have assumed.  Of the ten most equal countries, only Sweden and Finland are in the OECD’s top ten happiest, the biggest outlier is the Ukraine - #5 most equal, #132 in the Happiness Report, the lowest ranked of any European country.

The indicator that seems to be the closest fit is the Human Development Index (HDI).  The countries with the lowest differences in Income, Education and Health when inequality is taken into account correlate closely with the happiest.  Having been through the health scare I mentioned earlier, I can attest that access to free at the point of delivery healthcare has been crucial to both my survival and my own ongoing happiness. 

The other thing the top ten happiest countries have in common is they all have quite small populations (which would seem to be the differentiator for Germany, #16 in Happiness and #6 in HDI) and stable economies and politics (which might do it for Ireland, hit so hard by the Great Recession of 2008, #15 in Happiness and  #9 in HDI).  The happiest places to be appear to be cozy places to be: safe; prosperous; educated; tolerant and healthy; smallish with generally equal and well-regulated societies.  Oh, and they have good safety nets too.

So, if I were to make a resolution in 2018 it would be this:  Ask our Governments and representatives to start being more like Bhutan and look at Gross National Happiness across the entire population as a key societal indicator to sit alongside GDP.  Happiness is happiness regardless of wealth.  Let’s see how we can increase people’s feelings of safety across our society.  Let’s work on tolerance and diversity and let’s make sure that no one falls through the cracks because of a lack of access to affordable healthcare or education.  In the words of the late great UK comedians Morecambe and Wise:  “In this world where we live there should be more happiness…”  That’s not a bad wish for the new year.

The (False) Thaws of Perception

One of the first things to hit me, when I moved from England to Canada many years ago, was the weather.  The Canadian winter can be brutal. 

I left London, England, in a beautiful spring: the grass already high enough to mow, daffodils everywhere, the leaves on the trees, newly budded, a light verdant green.  I arrived in London, Ontario, in a snow squall.  The trees still denuded.  The grass, where you could see it through the patina of grey and black encrusted ice, a moribund, derelict beige.  The temperatures, the exact reverse of each other.   I was unprepared for how different the country was.  We spoke the same language.  The coins had the same regal head on them.  I knew the land and cityscapes through the osmosis of popular culture.  These vestiges offered a perception of familiarity that proved false and unnerved me.  It took time to truly appreciate Canada, a place I am now more than happy to call home.

Of all the unnerving Canadian things I was exposed to, it was the ridiculously bright sunny days of winter that really drove that sense of false perception home.   

When snow threatens you know what you’re in for.  If you can stay warm inside, a snow storm can be soothing:  Watching the flakes (smaller, dryer, colder than the ones I was used to in the United Kingdom) or even taking a short walk out into the crystal haze where you feel the crisp pop of melting ice on what small amount  of exposed skin you might dare risk.  In those circumstance the old song:  let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, rings clear and true.

But then the storm clears and you are faced with that most brilliant of deceptions:  Bright, sunlit days, armed with a wind-chill that can induce frostbite in minutes.  The normal assumption, sunlight equates to warmth, is turned on its head.  The sun can still burn you (oh, the irony!) whilst at the same time your nose hair freezes and the air you breathe feels like a physical assault on your whole respiratory system.  In Canada you associate winter sunlight with warmth at your peril, it is a dangerous and false perception.

It has been this way throughout human history, false perceptions based upon the familiar and comfortable that prove both tenacious and therefore dangerous.

·      Cold days in winter mean that climate change is not real.

·      Supply-side economics will, it is always promised, lead to middle-class economic prosperity.  Despite the lack of any evidence that the wealth from the top 1% ever ‘trickles down’.

·      Taxes are bad and Government is the problem.

·      The return of the United Kingdom blue Imperial passport, after the emasculation of the burgundy EU ones, is some kind of bizarre Brexit victory.

·      A constitutional democracy and/or republic, once created, will always sustain itself.  (Tell that to the  Roman emperors, monarchs in all but name, who hid their military dictatorships in the worn clothes and rituals of the distinctly anti-monarchal Roman republic.)

·      There’s no real difference between the GOP and the Democrats  (See the opprobrium heaped from the left on M. Dukakis, W.J. Clinton, A. Gore, J. Kerry, B. Obama, H. Clinton)

The modern GOP will set up a familiar stall in the US mid-terms of 2018.  Highlighting the “out of touch liberal coastal elite”, they will use the perception of a tax cut, due to melt away in less than a decade, to continue their demolition of the state, whilst continuing to trample their way through their revolutionary remodeling of the judicial branch, appointing people as qualified as I to life long positions on the bench, having resisted the appointments of the previous administrations on somewhat spurious grounds.

In 2018, we will hear a lot about the size and role of Government.  In the UK it will be wrapped in the false perception of Brexit ‘taking back control’.  (Control of what, through what, from whom?)  In the Ontario election in June and throughout the US at the mid-terms, it will be untruths about the role and cost of government and what exactly taxes are used for that will dominate the news cycles.  The non-liberal elite, the oligarchs and plutocrats, will be out of sight to the general public, quietly pulling the strings of right-wing populism in the background; weaving, relying on cynicism and a lack of hope to continue to deliver them less over-sight, less regulation, more money, disruption and control.

So, as we enter the new year, let’s challenge false perceptions.  A cold winter day does not mean global warming is fake.  A sunny day is not necessarily warm.  Government can do good things. (Education, Healthcare, Roads, Firefighters, Air Quality, Water Quality etc., etc.,)  Brexit can be reversed, The news (and Disney) will survive Murdoch and hope can (and must) win in 2018.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Exit, Pursued by a Bot

I love writing; telling stories, expressing opinions, sending a cri de Coeur or even just delivering a simple “I love you”.  There is a permanence to words.  We keep old letters and cards.  Books become acquaintances, some become best friends.  In a few special cases that friendship is life long, as we return to the texts of our childhood with the regularity of a planetary orbit. 

A series of books that hold a special place for many people, young and old, is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.  My twelve year old niece has devoured the lot, including the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.  My eldest daughter, seven, arrived back from a recent birthday party clutching a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone replete in the yellow of Hufflepuff, an appropriate house for such a kind and thoughtful girl.  It will be her special holiday reading.

A new chapter in the Harry Potter saga was recently released.   Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.  It is unlikely to be included in the canon of text that make up the “Potterverse”, if only because, I assume, J.K. Rowling had no role in its creation.  The author was an Artificial Intelligence predictive writing algorithm called Botnik.   Created by feeding the seven canonical books into a Machine Learning engine.  The resulting chapter is surprising readable, if, to put it mildly, a tad bonkers, in a rather dark and poetic way.  But, hey, the same could be argued about some of the best FanFic out there too.  Here is an excerpt:

“The sky outside was a great black ceiling, which was full of blood.  The only sounds drifting from Hagrid’s hut were the disdainful shrieks of his own furniture.”  

Artificial Intelligence appliances such as Botnik are becoming increasingly ubiquitous.  Without thinking, we use them every day: We question via Alexa or Siri.  We read articles created by Bots.  A.I. powers a lot of our fun.  It has serious applications too.  It powers sensors, analytics and diagnostic apparatus used by Governments, hospitals, power stations and corporations.  All are web-based, the data processed remotely by vast computing centers.  We’ve abandoned the personal in personal computing, like we’ve abandoned the village water pump or a localized generator, long replaced by utility offerings.  Today our computing power comes from the cloud delivered by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  Technology in 2017 is a distributed system.  In the words of John Gage, former VP at Sun Computing, “The network is the computer.”

Like many of the socialites of old, our phone isn’t smart, it’s just well connected.

It is this change that makes the recent FCC decision to wipe out established Net Neutrality rules so dangerous.  Ajit Pai, the Trump appointed Chair of the FCC, recently pushed through changes to Internet regulations accompanied by a patronizing video.  He urged the removal of safeguards put in place by Barack Obama’s team, safeguards that aimed to treat the internet like a utility. Essential, like water or power. 

In simple terms, the new FCC approved regulatory framework frees up the Internet Service Providers (the plumbers) ability charge more for certain site/service access or to stifle certain content in its entirety.  The playing field, currently level, will be skewed to the big corporate advantage.  Since most of the big tech companies (the creators), who oppose this change, are based in the US, these changes could, or more likely will, have a global effect, since traffic from those services will likely run through some of that ISP plumbing.

A lot of the focus has rightly been on the effects on rural communities currently suffering from poor access, but there are some other effects which are not being talked about:  There are many ways we use the web, without fully realizing we are using the web.  Not all access is via a browser, most modern technology reaches back to some remote data centre to function, and all is visible to the ISPs. 

To use an analogy, the Obama rules are like power company surge charging for usage at peak times of demand.  The surge charge is a known and fair commodity, we can do our laundry at night, if we choose.

Now, imagine if a power company knew what you used their product, electricity, for.  Imagine if they could see whether it powered a clothes dryer or, say, a kidney dialysis machine.  Imagine if that power company was both monopolistic and unscrupulous and there was just light regulation in place.  The unscrupulous power company might be tempted to charge you extra, a lot extra, to use that dialysis machine, regardless of time of day.

Think they won’t?  Think again.   Remember the outrage over Pharma and the price gouging allowed under current federal regulation?  The extortionate jump in the price of AIDs medication or Epi-Pens for no logical reason, other than greed.  Or remember the $640 toilet seat bought be the Pentagon, where the size of the procurement allows “small” charges like that to be lost in the millions or billions of dollars.

But, I hear you cry, it’s only Netflix, or Meme’s or Cat Videos, not dialysis.  Well, that’s the hidden power of the internet.  Hospital Specialists use the web for Medical diagnostics via IBM Watson.  Government agencies use remote sensors to monitor water or air quality.  Police and Intelligence agencies use it to exchange information.  They all rely on the web.  The ISPs, the internet utility providers, know the sites, the addresses, the content and can then charge, stifle and block accordingly, and would we even know it?  News and information can be affected too, think about the last U.S. Presidential election.  So, I’m not worried about Netflix, or Memes or Cat Videos.  I’m worried about the cost of the health, safety and security implications across the internet.  The cost to all of us.

Sweet Home... Windsor Castle

This week I’m going all tabloid, focusing on royalty and fidelity.

It’s been a busy time for the House of Windsor, the venerable dynasty that has provided monarchs to the United Kingdom and some of the Commonwealth of Nations (including, of course, our own head of state, here in Canada) since 1917, when the original name, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, proved a little too Germanic for the home team during the first world war.

In the last thirty days we have seen the celebration of a platinum wedding anniversary, seventy years, an incredible feat for any couple; the engagement of a Royal grandchild and the prospect, therefore, of a new royal wedding.  (Where, due to a happy accident of television production logistics, Toronto will no doubt claim a special link to the royal couple.)   And, finally, we have the opportunity to watch one of the best actors currently gracing our screen, Claire Foy, reprise her clipped and proper portrayal of Her Majesty’s younger self in Season Two of The Crown.

The Queen is the longest reigning monarch in British history, having beaten Victoria’s record in 2015.  The fact she became queen in 1952 rather than twenty years later, when her uncle, Edward VIII a.k.a. The Duke of Windsor died, came down to a moral climate in Britain that has changed considerably in the last eighty years.  Edward VIII was forced to resign because the idea that he loved and would marry an older American divorcee, whose two ex-husbands were still alive, was abhorrent to the traditional and conservative nature of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and others in Parliament and power and explicitly challenged the church, though to many of the common people Edward’s love was completely acceptable.  

Next year, on May 19th, the world will celebrate when Harry marries Meghan, an American woman who is both older and a divorcee.  Personally, I’m happy that my former homeland has modernized and that the world will find a little bit of joy in their happiness.  It’s been having a rough time lately.

Of course, the big difference between Edward VIII and Harry of Wales is that Harry will never sit on the throne, having been forced down the pecking order to fifth in line, soon to be sixth.  As he will not become the King, he will also not become the head of a national religion that still holds considerable sway in United Kingdom, including having its most senior bishops sitting in the legislature of the country.  Even in the 1950s, Princess Margaret was barred from marrying Peter Townsend because her Church could not countenance the marriage of a royal princess to a divorcee.  The coronation vow still maintains the monarch as the defender of the faith and in defending the faith, the crown did not consent to the match. 

Times have blessedly progressed. 

State religions are above the concern of Canada or the U.S.  Even though the Queen is head of state here, there is no official state religion.  As for the U.S., such an idea is unconstitutional, despite what certain conservatives in the deep south might think.  In the recent spellbinding interview between Jake Tapper and Ted Crockett, recorded before Roy Moore miraculously lost the Alabama Senate race, Crockett is left speechless when he is told that it is not a legal requirement in the United States to swear on a Christian Bible.  You’d think that the Ten Commandments episode that caused Judge Moore so much trouble (and celebrity) in his earlier career would have been enough to cement that fact in mind.

Having worked all over the U.S., I do find the United States more overtly sensitive to religion than other societies.  I think this is more likely because of, not despite, the fact that church and state are legally separate.  Religion became a less dignified and (mostly) a less dangerous affair when stripped of the regal majesty of either a monarch or a pope.  The freedom of speech embodied in the constitution allowed new religions to flourish and old ones to evangelise.  It also forced religions that were not automatically part of the societal hierarchy (as they often were in Europe) to sell themselves and sell themselves hugely.  The best, loudest and most persuasive preachers founded the biggest churches and in doing so became the richest.  Who needs subtlety of argument when hell fire and damnation is so much more powerful? 

This has not only led to a skewed view of science and morality in certain parts of the United States, especially focused on Christian evangelical adherence, but has also seen a shadow effect on the general level of cultural discourse of the entire country.  An example of this is Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster Origin.  Without going into spoilers, the main revelation of the book, the controversial idea at the tome’s centre, only makes sense in a country where nearly 25% of the population (around 80 million people!) believe in the bible as literal truth.  For the rest of the (Christian) world, when the great revelation is made, the reaction, with no religious skin in the game, must surely be “meh.”  Science has won many of the arguments that are  presented in Origin as controversial, just ask the deists who founded the country.

So, how do we try to take the religious strife out of U.S. politics, as has been accomplished (to a certain extent) in the U.K.?  The quickest way may be to establish a State religion, but, one of the quieter ones like the Church of England or a religion that can move with the times and accept new ideas all in the name of faith, like the Catholics.  Thinking about history, that is probably a bad idea.  As an alternative, we could simply forget about the extreme social mores of two thousand years plus ago and relish, cherish and take pride in the joy of other people’s being, happiness and love, especially at this time of year.  We could follow the golden rule that is there in all religions.  Kindness and reciprocity, the dignified and human thing to do.

A Rake's Progress*

One of the great traditions I have learnt to endure as a new(ish) Canadian living in Toronto - enjoy is too strong a sentiment - is the final scramble to gather up the remaining harvest of leaves in time for the last yard waste collection of the year.  This year the leaves are still falling (it’s early December) and a stubborn few remain green on the trees and bushes, unusual even for this most temperate of Canadian cities.  Still, faced with the prospect of a three month collection drought, I managed to gather the piles of brown and yellow detritus, already turning to mulch in the late autumnal rain, into eight giant brown-paper bags.  It is always a time for contemplation and, I must admit, I marvelled at each of the discarded little engines I was raking up:  The size, shapes and colours dictated by their species, but all with the same goal, turning Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen.  Turning what we now consider pollution into breath

To the north of me lies the biggest land-based biome on the planet, the Taiga, that vast forest that stretches around the globe through North America, Asia and Europe.  Like their city cousins, the deciduous brethren of the Taiga are now denuded.  They sleep, waiting for the return of spring, when their photosynthesis begins again.  This is the breathing of the planet, a year at a time. The breathing that supports most animal life.

To look at them, trees appear to be the most solitary of living entities.  Each stands in its own immobile, quiet and permanent isolation.  More akin to infrastructure than an active and vibrant member of a vast society.  It seems, however, that such appearances are deceptive.  Research now shows that trees cooperate with each other, forming a giant underground network of communications, that spreads not only across individuals, but across species.  Using symbiotic underground fungi, trees pass nutrients to each other and offer protection against bacteria, bugs and other invaders.   In the summer, when conifers can be shaded by the broad leaves of the maples, silver birches and oaks, those trees will pass carbon over to their sunlight depleted comrades.  In winter when the deciduous leaves have fallen, the conifers, still photosynthesizing, return the favour

Cooperation such as this, though without the medium of buried fungi (truffles excepted), is part of the wider human experience too.  Evidence suggests that cooperation forms a crucial part in the development of the social networks of hunter-gather societies.  New studies show that as we moved to create permanent settlements through agriculture, as we plowed up the forests for crops, as we domesticated animals, our own egalitarianism faded.  This permanent taming, then ownership, of the land, seems to have been the starting point of the inequality and social hierarchies we see today. 

One of the most interesting countries my wife and I travelled to on our honeymoon, was Jordan.  We wanted to see Petra, but in the process of visiting that amazing city we also got to see some of the other wonderful sights of that beautiful part of the world.  I specifically remember the Mosaic map in the Byzantine church we visited in Madaba.  This map of the holy land has Jerusalem proudly dominating its centre stage, as it still does today in the politics of the region, but it was the map’s periphery that most interested me.  Shown in tile form was the treed expanse of the Jordan Valley, replete with lions and antelope.  The fauna of the savanna of Africa living in what is now a rather dry, harsh and forbidding environment.  When I  asked about this, our Guide was clear as to what had led to this desertification:  Deforestation by the Romans.  Whether this mass removal of trees was to punish the population for the Jewish revolts of the First Century AD, or to provide Pompey the Great with timber needed to build his armada to defeat the Cilician Pirates, or just to cope with the increasing urbanization of the Roman Empire, he could not say.  The effect was there to see in the countryside around us, though.  Jordan is now one of the least forested countries on the planet with less than 2% forest coverage compared to 15% globally.  The Jordanian lions and antelope are no more.

Of course, even closer to home, similar deforestation is everywhere to be seen around us.  Every farm, every town, every city in Ontario, below the tundra, is occupying land that used to be forest.  It is this rapid ‘taming’ of the environment, deforestation in centuries rather than eons or millennia, all on a global scale, that has put such stress on the fauna and flora that surrounds us.  My seven year old daughter recently asked me what was causing so many animals to become endangered or even extinct… “And don’t say us.” she said, with a sad finality.  I smiled, handed her the perfect apple slices I had cut for her snack, and went back to reading The Lorax.

* with apologies to Hogarth

Here's looking at you... Mr. Eliot

As we slip out of the moorings of the autumn of 2017 into the winter to come, I want to look back on two artistic anniversaries, twenty years apart, we have just celebrated.  Two anniversaries that in my mind still speak to our collective experience and even our present political travails.  These two works of art were influenced directly by the events they were created in.  One looking back to the calamity and horror of World War One with hindsight and wisdom, the other created in the heat of World War Two, looking forward, barely hinting at the full horror to come; reminding us that the past we know so well, was still the future in 1942.  One high-brow, the other of a middling persuasion.  Their paths parallel.

The first happened ninety-five years ago.  At the end of October 1922, T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land, was first published.  It joined James Joyce’s Ulysses - published in its entirety for the first time, in February of the same year - as the second great pillar of literary modernism:  pun-filled, playful, difficult.  Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse, to quote Prufrock

They were great pieces of literature, written by emigres, which seem to carry a definitive sense of time and space. 

Ulysses provides a specific mental map of Dublin on June 16th, 1904; now celebrated as Bloomsday, the day Joyce had his first outing with wife-to-be Nora.  Written while Joyce was ensconced in a continental Europe that was disintegrating before his eyes.  Published as his homeland, Ireland, succumbed to civil war.  

The Waste Land, Eliot’s response to the horrors of the Great War, written while living as an American citizen in London (he took British nationality and renounced his US citizenship in 1927), took its inspiration from the Arthurian legend of The Fisher King:  a wounded monarch, keeper of the grail, unable to support or father the next generation.  Unable to fulfil his duty.  His impotence reducing the kingdom he rules to the waste and desolation of the poem’s title.  The Fisher King stands for the old Edwardian rulers of Europe.  Rulers who denigrated the land and whose arrogance led to a lost generation of young men, killed in a Europe smashed apart. 

In that conflagration, The Austro-Hungarian empire - where Joyce was living, in Trieste, now part of Italy - and the Ottoman Empire, both vanished from the map.  In Russia, the Czar, was overthrown and shot.  While across the world the apogee of the still dominant British Empire occurred.  An empire whose exterior looked fine and regal, but where the foundations were already rotten and teetering.  The seeds of conflicts to come, declarations and treaties, some of which still haunt us, were planted and watered with care and attention:  Balfour and Versailles to name but two.  Out in the west and far east, new powers were beginning to flex their muscles.

Jump ahead twenty-years.

November 1942, seventy-five years ago, marked the release of Casablanca, a film made in Hollywood predominately by emigres, which aimed to create a definitive sense of time and space.  A time and space smashed apart from that which was known to Eliot when he wrote The Waste Land twenty years before, as his poem reflected the similar destruction of the Edwardian era. 

Bogart and the film’s writers were American, the director and all the other stars of the movie, European, including designated enemies of the Reich.   Watching the film now, the romance and drama remains as strong as ever, but the depiction of the Nazi regime has a naiveté about it that would not pass muster in our world today.  The film was released eleven months after the infamous, and top secret, Wannsee Conference, the high-level meeting that set-in motion the holocaust.  While Casablanca references Nazi Concentration Camps, and their evil is suggested, it seems a pedestrian evil, human in scale.  The collective horror and annihilation such places represent now, the horror unleashed by Wannsee, unimaginable to the writers then.

Casablanca is an unabashed piece of highly engaging propaganda.  A film designed to make the US entry into the war palatable to an American population still reeling from the infamy of Pearl Harbour.  A film which, thanks to its acting, direction, lighting, cinematography, and not forgetting a wonderful timeless story, is now considered one of the greatest ever made. Casablanca, the town as portrayed in the movie, is the last gasp of a corrupt European imperialism.  Bogart, on the other hand, represents the epitome of America:  straight-talking, rugged and courageous.  Frontier roughness with a heart of gold.  In the end, his sacrifice is for the greater good, as is Ilsa’s.  Throughout the movie the United States is portrayed as the hope the world needs, the antidote to the travails of Europe.  The answer to The Waste Land.    

The events that led inexorably from one anniversary to the other are well known. 

In Italy, October 1922, Mussolini attained power. 

A year later, November 1923, Hitler led his Beerhall Putsch in Munich.  In the next ten years he took the Nazi Party from a group of two-thousand thugs to the rulers of Germany.  Six years after that, he had taken control of most of Europe and plunged the world into the horrors of the most brutal war ever fought.  A new global conflagration on a scale unprecedented.   A war that put the final nails in the coffin of imperial Europe with the metamorphosis of the British Imperium to the British Commonwealth.

The rise of the Nazi’s in Germany, like the Fascists in Italy, happened with the blessing of an out of touch and arrogant ruling order who thought they could control the right-wing populist upstarts they had empowered.  They thought that once in government the fascists would curtail their baser instincts.  They allowed the brutality of the thugs to be tolerated as long as the billionaires got their free market without interference (or, presumably, taxes).  They expected that these untried rulers: Hitler, Mussolini, could be controlled and that they would be forced to revert to the established political norms. 

They thought that democracy and the constitutions of Italy and Germany would be upheld. 

They were, of course, wrong.

 

The Internet needs a STEAM Clean….

Last week a picture of Christ attributed to Leonardo da Vinci sold for $450M.  With a single drop of the gavel the painting became the most expensive ever sold.  At the same time Facebook and other social media sites are dealing with the ongoing fallout of the Russian influence on the US Presidential election and speculation that social media (read Russians) may also have influenced the outcome of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, by deploying similar tactics.

How is this all interlinked? 

The work of Leonardo da Vinci holds the public in its sway.  Many of us have heard of the accepted truisms surrounding the Louvre museum: that the vast majority of visitors go, spend less than two minutes in front of the Mona Lisa, maybe cast a quick glance over at the Venus de Milo, then leave.  On my first trip to Paris as an 18-year-old, my first time away, flying solo on the continent, I too perpetuated this philistinic approach to cultural tourism.  The fame of the Mona Lisa and the cultural calling to witness it in person are major reasons for visiting the City of Love.  So, it proved for me.  (Luckily, I learnt my lesson by the time I got to Madrid and the Prado.)

In addition to the Mona Lisa, we have Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man.  This is one of the key crossover images of the last millennium.  I have seen this picture, with those perfectly proportioned out stretched arms, used to illustrate medicine, current affairs, science in general and the arts in particular.  An image that without doubt captures the lasting spirit of the Renaissance Man.  A true polymath, which Leonardo definitely was.  In fact, most of the great contributors of the period, the other great artists, thinkers, writers, scientists and philosophers, likely practiced more than one of those disciplines.  The Renaissance was not specialist.

Which brings me to STEM.  Leonardo the polymath had all of the skills and attributes those initials imbue, but the one we remember him most for, the one we now seem to value most, is missing.  If we look at Leonardo we see:  Science, check.  Technology, definitely.  Engineering, obviously.  Math?  Well you couldn’t do the other things without a good grounding in the universal language… Arts?  The one area he is now most famous for, art, is nowhere to be seen. 

Science changes as evidence proves or disproves.  Technology and engineering can be superseded.  Math, like art, is universal.  Art is subject to reevaluation and the vagaries of fashion, sure, but, like math, it is always required, always needed, always done.  It is art that is missing from the STEM acronym.  We need to add it, we need STE(A)M.  That lack of art and humanity in the cold empiricism of STEM, that lack of Renaissance thinking, well, as another great Renaissance genius wrote: “there’s the rub”. 

There is a background radiation about education policy that seeps into our collective consciousness:

1)    Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are considered crucial to future economic development

2)    There is a massive skill shortage in these areas that eduction must address

3)    Investment in the arts has dropped in public schools in light of the increased STEM demand

I have worked in the technology space for 25 years and I do believe STEM is important, but I do not believe it is the be all and end all.  I would argue that the lack of arts in STEM is one of the key reasons Facebook and Twitter algorithms will allow Russian bots to tell lies merrily across our digital playing fields, undermining democracy, but will remove the picture of a breastfeeding mom or a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph in seconds.  In the race to make money, we have established a lack of care and discernment.  A lack of care for the societal mores on which our democracies are based and in which they can flourish.  A lack of care and attention in how the algorithms function when disseminating and curating information and news.  Targeting information is the business of news, and that function in social media (despite protestations to the contrary) is exactly why the advertising space is so valuable on those sites. 

The developers and executives, wrapped in the exclusivity and specialisms of the scientific age, seem oblivious to the wider impact their creations can have for harm.  Something a little exposure to art, humanities or philosophy in school may have helped alleviate.   Too many of the IT folks I interact with want to make technology that is super, super cool, world changing even, without a full understanding of what that cool thing will do to the people it will impact, including potentially themselves, or whether the world will be changed for better or worse.  As with the news and information, context is all.   

Arts and humanities bring context and discernment and much more to the very core of business practices.  Art roots us in humanity.  Art is a series of advances and wonders that stretch back to the first time we tried, as a species, to bring understanding and meaning to our world.  We gathered in the safety of fire light and drew on the walls of our caves.  In those original safe spaces we created wonderful paintings for our amusement, or to convey news or simply for joy.  We drew to connect with each other.   Pictograms formed the first writing, our very language is art.

Investing in arts and humanities in education and including these disciplines in STEM to create STEAM, will bring a level of creativity and discernment I see missing in many of today’s IT graduates and practitioners, where many lack the soft-skills to speak ‘human’.  The inclusion of arts will encourage greater human connection, and a greater understanding of the mores and culture of our collective society. 

Eventually, the machines will code their own programs without our input, and they will likely base that code on the society they have been exposed to as “true”, in true machine learning style.  A little art enabled discernment, a little humanity, would be a welcome intervention.  An intervention that demands and could then lead, to one of the greatest gifts bestowed on us by the artists of the Renaissance:  perspective.

Black Friday... Blue Monday?

I’m having an identity crisis.  The new iPhone X is out and my feeling is ‘meh’.   Sure, it looks beautiful and my good friend Avinash tweeted about how great the screen is.  Then he showed me the device.  I got it, the form factor is phenomenal.  It is every bit as beautiful as he claimed.  Apple have done a wonderful job, but still, my feeling is ‘meh’. 

Don't get me wrong, I am an Apple fan.  I am typing this on a 15” 2013 Macbook Pro, bought when my even older MacBook Pro finally bit the dust.  I have an iPhone 6, like my laptop, it too is about three years old, I got it when my last phone (a 5s) was pick-pocketed in Barcelona.  Like all Apple devices, it’s served me well.  My only regret regarding my current phone, is that I inflicted IOS 11 on the thing.  Since that fateful day it has become a tiny bit more sluggish, huffing and puffing as it tries to open the new TV App (new to Canada at least).  A technical reminiscence of the geriatric dog we had in my youth.  I remember Sweep, a Black Lab, Border Collie cross, struggling up the stairs; always wagging his tail defiantly, but definitely slower and a little breathless.  The cliché about old dogs and new tricks is a cliché for a reason.   My phone is a little like that, the spirit is willing, but...  Well, we didn’t put Sweep to sleep at that point, and that is how I feel about my faithful digital companion too. 

Did anyone ask for the iPhone X, or the iPhone 8 or the 7… the new versions of Windows 10?  Do we feel a mass sense of ennui by the non-arrival of the iPad 5 Mini?  Were there Occupy! style demonstrations demanding Cortana, or an improved Siri, or multiple desktops or a return of the Windows Start Button… actually wait, that last one did probably provoke a demo or two. 

The technology industry, like so much of our current economic model, relies on an almost constant frenzy of new consumption.  The need for sharks to keep swimming is the tired metaphor that comes to mind.  That consumption is spurred by little tweaks and minor mods.  And, like all consumption (such a friendlier word than exploitation), can have real human suffering behind it.  The recent Los Angeles Times article on the analysis of the iPhone is fascinating reading.  Fascinating, but not necessarily disturbing, for two reasons: One, Apple appears to be a responsible company and is doing a lot to make sure its raw materials are produced from ethical sources in compliance with governmental asks.  And two, well, deep in our hearts, we know. 

We know that what our consumption in the west can and does have major impacts across the planet from a resource exploitation perspective, and a subsequent effect on geo-politics.  A friend of mine tweeted about the rise of the middle class in China, it’s on a lot of people’s minds.  Rising prosperity is great for all of us.  The movement of people out of poverty, wonderful.  I want to see more of it, much more.  Let poverty wilt across China, India, the countries of Asia, Africa, South and Central America and at home too.  Only, let it wilt in a way that vastly reduces the impact on our collective home. We only have one planet and the resources we are exploiting are mostly finite (including air and water). 

A rising middle class across the world will demand greater consumption.  I think a correct response in the west is not to deny that consumption or attempt to lessen it, but to be more mindful of what we use in Europe and North America, Australia and New Zealand.  How we all exploit the resources of the planet.  That is what I am trying to do.  I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I do try and take my personal consumption into consideration.  This year, like the last one, I will be manfully resisting all Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals that are currently bombarding my inbox.  I will not be queuing to get the best or the latest, and yes, until my phone actually breaks, I will say “Thanks, but no thanks” to the iPhone X.

Now, if only someone would invent clean aircraft…