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Topical Runoff

Just what it sounds like. Should be updated more often than it is.

New (or check out Archive for earlier stuff)

 

 

2023 Review: What a crime to be alive

 

Continued war in Europe, continued war in the Middle East, geopolitical and economic tensions between superpowers, new technology that the few oversee is thrust upon the masses.

The future is already happening, and it’s been happening for a long time.

The writing on the wall never dries.

2023 was 2022 but worse, sadly reminding us that it seems as if we must treat ourselves inhumanely before we can treat ourselves in the reverse, since we apparently forget the last time things were overwhelmingly terrible. And depending on where you are, that last time could be decades, years, or just months in the past.

Making big changes in the halls of power have never seemed so difficult, unless it’s a despotic nation who can quickly make something worse.

Cynicism is high (see previous sentence), but if you don't actively participate in democracy, then you are passively destroying it, because the chief threat to liberal democracy is not its ideological opposite but mass indifference...which leads to its ideological opposite (fascism/dictatorship) which can quickly bubble to the surface and have an easy time taking over.

After a few elections most career politicians just become talking point corpses stuffed with money, drunk on a strategy that shits kickbacks for them and pinches out the tiniest loaf of help for the common people.

We won’t say racist slurs anymore, but we’ll still act and pass policy like we believe in them, because actions speak louder than words. People aren’t born racist, but they’re quick learners if society isn’t careful. So do you try to crush hate-groups and risk inflaming them (as they might grow more violent and reactionary (and play the victim card) during this marginalization), or do you cross your fingers and hope it will fade out on its own?

What is the path that would lead to less death, less terror?

It's not an easy answer. Choosing one means you can never know the result of the other.

What we do know is that the economic ground conditions that exist in both the West and East (and North and South, for that matter) are making historically terrible ideas more palpable because contemporary terrible ideas are just that.

So this is a message for rich liberals, rich conservatives, and rich apolitical people: You’re the problem.

There are so many groups of people that have legitimate concerns and grievances as to how badly history and the current moment has treated them that there is no way to address or compensate them all. We are at such a exhaustive miasma of non-control that whatever this form of reparations (a loaded term based on the word ‘repair’) take, it will be insignificant, and still not be enough to correct current problems moving forward.

Congratulation, Chris Hedges, you were right about everything! Your reward/punishment is having to watch it all happen.

The centre won’t hold, and the sides are on fire.

The reaction by the margins are propping up more extremist political candidates who decide that compromise is the problem, not the solution.

So vote while you can, even though from a economic perspective in the halls of power, why buy votes when you can buy truth?

The post-secondary education system has long been seen by conservatives as hotbeds of liberalist dogma, but over the decades the Right took the leftist idea of postmodernism and made it their terrifying own. In the study of philosophy, art and culture, postmodernism suggests that there are no objective truths, that there are only temporary, subjective ones, relative to the one experiencing the world around them.

While fine in an academic environment or when making decisions for how to live your own life,  if applied to the wider socioeconomic world, it means “when we act we create our own reality” (Karl Rove said that, remember him? Steve Bannon is the software upgrade).

Like a Frankenstein monster, postmodernism inadvertently begat ‘do your own research’, and now the patrolling of language on the internet will be used to do even worse. Truth? What of it? From re-labeling a riot on the US Capitol as a peaceful protest to high ranking Chinese military officials disappearing to no one blinking an eye when a plane carrying a former leader of a Russian paramilitary group that briefly tried to overthrow Putin mysteriously crashes to India denying that they’ve attempt to kill Sikh separatists living in other nations to bank failures in America and China during a ‘healthy’ economy to an Israeli government official claiming there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Do you think the 2020 US election was stolen? Your answer probably depends on who you wanted to win.

If you wanted Biden, of course it was fair and legitimate and many non-partisan commissions and studies support this.

If you wanted Trump, of course it was stolen, and any evidence shown that suggest it was a fair election by any sort of commission or study can’t be trusted because of all the powerful people in Washington and on Wall Street who want to keep Trump from the White House.

No matter how much proof is presented, if it is counter to what you believe you will dismiss it.

How fitting that the Supreme Court looks to a document written in the eighteenth century in 2024 to decide whether a former president can run again, because that’s the time period America (and the world?) is headed towards.

We will only lament the disappearance of the profit-driven amorality of hypercapitalism as the chief ideology of human civilization when it is replaced by police state bigotry as the chief ideology of human civilization. While also sensibly acknowledging the former created the latter.

Suddenly complaining that corporations cater to the LGBTQ community only during pride month for the sake of virtue signalling and profit will seem ridiculous when having to fight for basic legal rights once again.

‘Hard come, easy go’.

Martin Luther King Jr understood during the civil rights movement that the passage of the Civil Rights Act through congress was only the first step towards any sort of equal footing for black people in America. The harder second step was to create economic equality, which can be conveniently denied outside of any sort of legislation. ‘Systemic racism’ is able to keep barriers up while existing in an (nearly) unenforceable legal grey area. Continued segregation through zoning laws, hiring practices and gerrymandering shows how easy it is to not change (the only things from the 1950s we should be looking at wistfully is jazz and the tax code).

When these are the issues, it shows how we are all responsible for both the positives and negatives in a democracy.

If the masses vote in politicians that act against their interests and pass legislation that benefits the extremely wealthy and powerful, do you want that to be the fault of the masses for not paying enough attention, or for the lyin’ politicians whose plan was to sell their citizens out as soon as they got in power?

While this instance might be a ‘why can’t it be both’ GIF,  people will vote against their economic interests if they believe who and what they are voting for can restore pride, power and respect, under the assumption that from this position comes everything else.

If you don't have economic power/respect, you find value in and defend other aspects of your life and identity.

Your culture becomes a thousand times more important to you when that's 'all' you have, or is the greatest power you have. So when someone attacks, denigrates, or even jokes about your culture or personal beliefs, it is a personal affront to an essential part of your identity.

When you have other forms or representations of power (economic security, less stress, a career), perhaps you can shrug off an insensitive joke or convince yourself that an attack (in physical or written/oral form) is an isolated incident, the outlier and not the norm.

There’s nothing more 2023 than wondering if your perspective on any topic is naive or cynical, and you might just toss your hands up hopelessly when it comes to wondering how the future will shake out.

And as much as we are digitizing ourselves at every moment, the physical world will always remind us harshly how badly we are treating it. Climate change is increasing the likelihood of temperature swings (ruining crops), forest fires (so much smoke it’s the ‘new’ form of air pollution), floods, and rising sea levels, which is not ‘new’ news anymore. But it was definitely part of 2023.

This geographic necessity is also political.

‘Where people are’ can determine how they vote, and who they vote for.

Rural voters might resent how much attention urban voters get, even if it’s because there’s a lot more people in the cities, and it makes sense that more people equals more attention.

Gerrymandering may have had its beginnings with rotten boroughs centuries ago, but it took modern statistical analysis to maximize the effects of knowing how people on certain streets in certain neighbourhoods within certain electoral districts end up voting. What sort of industries dominate certain states, provinces, and/or districts can mean so much in terms of which politicians (and which policies) represent in the halls of power.

That the wealthy and powerful now using these additional benefits from the government to simply make themselves more wealthy and powerful, instead of using it to better all of society should be pretty cut and dry for blame-laying.

Perhaps this small group of people don’t see a victim in this situation, that they are just taking advantage of it, but they are absolutely ignoring the externalities created.

The development of AI is the latest example, where something that might make money is dumped into the world without much forethought to what the consequences might be.

There would be less concern about AI if the rest of the world was in better shape, where we were trying to address big issues like inequality and basic rights globally and climate change much more effectively. But because we are not and the world itself is becoming a more chaotic, unpredictably place, introducing AI in its many facets to the people of earth is ripe for use and abuse.

Giving the people what they want is fine if you’re an entertainer, but if you’re a politician/doctor/engineer/owner of a company that provides an important service to the community, then you’re supposed to give them what they need, and understand and respect the responsibility on your shoulders to make a decision that benefits the most amount of people not just for next election cycle, but for years down the road.

And with that in mind, no one embodied America in the 20th century in its noble highs and embarrassing lows better than the recently deceased Henry Kissinger. A man who as a child fled persecution in Europe to succeed in the land across the sea, serving in the military in World War II, and during the Cold War creating a better, safer world for big nations while letting smaller ones suffer immensely. Avoiding World War 3 might have been the goal, and it didn’t happen under his watch, but it was realpolitik with plenty of flash (hanging out with celebrities while being sec of state), with the man somehow winning a Nobel peace prize while also secretly bombing nations America was not at war with.

‘Making tough decisions’ on one side and ‘war criminal’ on the other.

So maybe it makes sense that as recently as this summer he was still toasted by the Chinese government, because that nation has all the contradictions one can expect for the 21st century (and especially 2023).

In one generation, China went through a period of uneconomic upheaval/success that took place for the West over the course of one hundred years.

And just when it seemed like it would never end, of course it did. Now the government is bailing out massive real estate and construction companies (sounds 2008-ish), and with the Chinese youth unemployment rate at 20% this year, it should be a flashing red warning light for all of us.

It’s the sort of domestic problem that can send economic ripples quickly and terrifyingly the world over (much more so than spy balloons over North America).

For all its capitalistic success in a ‘communist’ (ha) nation, it bears remembering that China is just a dictatorship that curb-stomps free speech to a pathetic degree. An egg-fried-rice cooking video by a popular Internet personality was taken down because it was posted too close to the anniversary of the death of Mao’s son,  who supposedly died making the exact same dish.

Secular fascism is just as bad as religious fascism, and when it ‘s democracy down the barrel of a gun or fascism down the barrel of a gun, what’s the difference?

These sorts of questions are not new, and are asked in 2023 regarding some of the oldest conflict in history. The complexity of Israel-Palestine is a convenient excuse to not find any resolutions for it. Simply saying ‘revert back to 1967 border agreements’ is too simple, especially when the official Israeli response to the horrific Hamas attack is bludgeoning Gaza with bombs as well as taking over its land before the smoke clears.

The implication being it’s more acceptable for state-approved soldiers to kill innocent civilians than it is for terrorists to kill innocent civilians, to an exponential degree.

But the rest of the world eventually moves on from the conflict in Israel-Palestine because what else are you going to do?

Regarding campus speech and the call for the genocide of Jews (which was never actually said, but hypothesized in the congressional questioning of university presidents), talk is cheap. Free, even, and that’s a good thing, because the door can swing both ways awfully quick (is it okay to describe what is happening in Gaza the genocide of Palestinians or is it just a military operation?).

The conflation of the five thousand year old Jewish religion and the seventy five year old nation of Israel does no one any favours, because only fascists believe in ‘With us or against us’.

One big government enabling another to act in questionable or shocking way can put cracks in an already tenuous global system that requires on so many smaller (but essential) sub-systems working correctly. In any nation democracy hinges on a strong and secure middle class, so it’s no wonder that many nations who aren’t so keen on that form of governance are trying to shrink that demographic as much as possible.

2023 was a year ‘like’ 2022, where it felt like sides of every issue became all the more polarized, making it easy to take advantage - economically and politically - of each one. It feels like instability and uncertainty is baked into our future (once again, postmodern thought making its presence known), because even if we cynically know how humans might act, we certainly are in the dark regarding the actions of ever improving Artificial Intelligence.

But the (venture capitalist) money is on a global future with a government-corporate surveillance system similar to what there is in China, with wealthy people being able to pay (or simply have) a premium to not have their behaviour and internet browsing monitored (by gov to prevent dissent, by corps to sell products) to the same degree as everyone else. You know, your typical dystopia.

Right now the most effective form of protest is economic, but that comes with unfortunate downside of making nearly everything in society money-based. The more money you have, the more effective you can protest/influence, which is part of the problem.

Pushing back against entrenched power through strikes and grassroots campaigns against everything from the fossil fuel industry to human rights violations is the inspiring news of 2023 that we all need to hold onto, because with many big elections coming up in 2024 - and the effects social media can have on them at times of crisis - the unfriendly, unpredictable changes might come even quicker.

So raise a glass to making it through this year, pour one out for those who didn’t, and let a simple pleasure like having a drink or puff carry you through the next.

 

 

 

Culture Stuff

That strikes by writers and actors were the biggest news out of Hollywood (except for Barbenheimer) is a good sign in terms of the strength of unions at a time when worker unity is badly needed, and a bad sign for mass produced entertainment.

It feels like Oscar bait has become just as formulaic as the blockbusters.

But then again, the traditional music industry collapsed years ago and is doing pretty dang good artistically.

SZA’s ‘Gone Girl’ is a great tune on a great album (SOS).

Panopticon’s The Rime of Memory has the ever darkening mood with cracks of distant light that everyone can use right now (okay, not everyone, but definitely people who like 15 minute metal grinders)

Betcover!!’s quick follow up (Uma) of their 2022 classic (Tamago), is quick in the sense that’s less than half an hour, but still packs a frantic, fun jazzy punch.

Listening to MIKE’s Burning Desire will make you stoned, and that’s a compliment.

It’s like vaporwave plus Madlib, so of course Earl Sweatshirt guests here, considering MIKE’s own laconic, hypnotic delivery.

Bl4ck m4rt c4rt’s EP is DIY Black Country New Road.

George Clanton (Ooh, Rap) I Ya is Tears For Fears but more dance floor.

Courtney Polachek wears Solange on her sleeve.

(We also gave props to Lil Yachty’s Let’s Start Here in an earlier music column this year, and it deserves to be propped again)

And finally, it may have been released in 2014, but ten years later, Liars’ ’Pro Anti Anti’ should definitely be the song of 2024.

It’s been one of the best years ever for video games, unless you worked in the video game industry, where layoffs were constant because apparently the biggest studios still weren’t making enough money. But Tears of the Kingdom, Hi-Fi Rush, Cocoon, Pikmin 4 Chants of Sennaar and Dredge (plus plenty of other big triple A titles that we didn’t even get to playing…yet) kept everyone thrilled and relaxed for twelve months straight.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

(https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-05-16/china-s-youth-jobless-rate-jumps-to-record-20-4-in-danger-sign)

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/2023/12/20/business/wang-gang-egg-fried-rice-video.html)

 

Right wing, progressive, moderate political dysfunction in congress

(https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/11/29/pearlstein-congress-fantasy-00128949)

 

Sabotage on the US electrical grid:

(https://www.politico.com/news/2022/12/26/physical-attacks-electrical-grid-peak-00075216)

 

The 2024 elections are ominous:

(https://www.politico.eu/article/western-democracy-us-uk-eu-elections-2024-faces-nightmare-social-media-online/)

 


Archive

Land Ho's

The Fight for the Environment - Shot or Poisoned

Faking Crypto-Gasms

Time and Space and Numbers...and Vaccines

Sports-Ball in 2021 (and into 2022)

Like a Bird on a Wire: The 2021 Federal Election

The Magic of the Morrisons: Looking at Toni and Grant

The 2020 Election: [insert expletive here]

If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

2019 Review: Gimme Some Truth

Why Does Racism and Bigotry Persist?

We Need to Talk About Climate Change and Deadly Diseases

2018 Review: Anyone for Tennis?

The Middle Class is About to Die

We've Lost the Internet

Our Own Existence After The Discovery of Alien Life

2017 Review

Your Nation's Birthday, and Other Political Diversions

Breath of the Wild and a Glimpse of the Future

Nobody Will Like the Next President. This is a Huge Problem for Democracy

Not Caring About the Mossack-Fonseca (Panama) Papers

Soylent: Life Imitating Art. Unfortunately

Last Tango in Paris: Climate Change Talks 2015

Move On Up: Migrant Crisis

the inevitable sociocultural hierarchy of the internet

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymor

Fixing Food: Avoiding the Perfect Storm

The Dangers of Political Nostalgia

2014 Review

Money for Art, Art for Money

Building a Responsible Person

Class War Discussion Fare

2012: It Happened

Imperial Perspectives: Star Wars and 9/11

Stifling Summer Politics

Occupy the Boredom of Complexity

Christmas is Dead; Long Live Christmas:

Leave Chewie Alone: A Look at the Tinkering of One's Work Post-Release

Means to Offend: Schindler’s List and Tracy Morgan

Mindless Movie Categorizing

Christopher Nolan: 90% brilliance, 10% sleight of hand 

North Korea: The Only Batshit Crazy Country Left

The Death of Teh Web: Yeah, probably, but so what?

I Protest Your Protest

Searching for [a] Banksy

2009: Well... What Did You Expect?

And Just Who Might You Be?

Fight Club Redux

Michael Jackson versus Robert McNamara

The Internet is Making Me Hate Democracy

2008 Year in Review: Clusterfuck Commentary for a Clusterfuck Year

Burn After Reading / Burn the Mythologized Narrative Prepared by the Media After Reading

Shut the fuck up pollsters! Admit you don't know anything!

George Carlin (1937-2008

Christmas in Iraq, in Washington, and In Rainbows

A conversation between two abandonedstation employees that may or may not have happened

The End of Harry Potter

Kurt Vonnegut Eulogy

Assshole-nauts

Archive 2006 (on a whole separate page, too!)

 

Land Ho’s

 

There’s only so much ground beneath our feet (and with rising sea levels, there will be even less of it going forward), and everyone knows it.

On the Captain Obvious front, housing prices have skyrocketed in the last few decades in cities across the globe as the migration from smaller (shrinking/dying) towns and cities continue from the previous century. As much as this has been lamented in North America, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what has happened in the two most populous nations in earth - China and India - during the same time period (with an estimated 70% of the world population living in cities by 2050).

First it was technological innovations that had people move to urban areas, as it just didn’t take as many workers to keep a farm up and running, and there were new (not good, just new) job opportunities in the cities during the industrial revolution. The conditions that many citizens lived in were cramped and squalid and while that was true right up to the early twentieth century in North America and Europe, it was a similar challenge for the rest of the world for the many decades after that.

Laws of supply and demand mean that when lots of people want to live somewhere that doesn’t offer a lot of space, prices go up. And space is relative, because sometimes the way lots are divided up means a giant piece of property for a family of four or a series of sardine can-sized apartments in the sky for four hundred people.

But land was never just the stuff humans walked and lived on. It was part of the ecosystem necessary for complex life to evolve and develop, and we are still just as dependant on its proper functioning as ever, no matter how much we develop it. This isn’t a matter of being labelled a tree-hugger, mind you, since we need trees to breathe.

While land that has been wholly domesticated (to be built upon or tilled, and soon having easy access to transportation, water, electricity, and telecommunications infrastructure) is exceedingly valuable, the so-called wilderness has untapped potential, either below its surface right away, or the surface itself years down the road. 

For a very long time the rich have been buying land not necessarily to build an estate upon it, but to have possession land that has valuable resources on or beneath it. And not even having any plans to developing and accessing said resources yourself, but just holding onto it until whenever a company (or other wealthy person) makes what you consider a respectable (read: profitable) offer.

With rising housing prices (even when the market cools, it’s still unaffordable to many) and wages not keeping up with them or other the inflation affecting other basic needs, the only option for many people is rental properties. While cheaper of course, by never owning the property the renter never takes part in the social stability and wealth generation that owning a house or condominium has long come with.

Despite the natural assumption that with people moving out of small towns would result in cheaper opportunities for land around them, farmland is once again becoming out of the price range but anyone but the wealthiest citizens.

That the price has doubled per acre from just a few years ago is good news for sellers, but tough for buyers if you don’t already have deep pockets.

The biggest single private farmland owner in America? Bill Gates (and China owns even more).

And while it would be nice to hope that there will be altruistic goals in his acquisitions, that one of the richest men in the world is able to easily do this is part of the problem.

Meanwhile, the people who actually farm the land? More and more often they just lease, rent or work on it now, becoming modern-day serfs with almost no chance of owning it themselves. Governments still regularly dispense billions of dollars worth of farm subsidies to offset the unpredictability of food prices and the effects that climate change can have on crops, but because most of the farmland is owned by the wealthy /corporations, these are subsidies that simply line their already profitable pockets.

Consequently, the disillusion and distrust of governments when it comes to the physical area of the country has increased because fewer and fewer land policies seem to benefit the many (private companies own 2.6 million hectares of England and Wales).

Now money doesn’t talk it swears (thanks Bob), and there doesn’t seem to be a policy today that can ever be truly ‘for the people’, as it has to make plenty of financial shortcuts into the pockets of consultants and contractors and sub-contractors and yes, take into consideration the sadly shrinking union rules and timetables.

‘Grift’ is something that even every spend-happy-eat-the-rich leftist has to admit is seemingly a natural by-product of a behemoth institution spending lots of money (whether private corporation or public utility). It’s impossible to ensure that every person hired, every item purchased, and every bonus given is necessary and priced/paid accordingly. Of course there is the desire and expectation to be paid fairly for the work being done, but charging whatever you can get away with becomes a quiet mantra that many people will adhere to.

It’s just more egregious when many massive infrastructure projects go wildly over budget, starting with - wait for it - the purchase of land from private owners, and it’s quite quaint to think this is a small strip of land for a house that someone has lived in for years (and would be properly compensated for what the resources beneath it is worth), because for the most part it is already in corporate hands. This means the negotiations can easily be subject to falsification, favouritism, and political agreements, which results in the government (ie, the people) paying a lot more for what the land is actually worth.

Not that this sort of activity ends when the land is finally purchased. In terms of construction (whether a train line or a power plant), no one is surprised at the cost overruns by now, and that just grows the cynicism people from across the political spectrum have towards the entire project.

It looks bad on the government first and foremost because it is simply a better known organization compared to any corporation or contractor the government has hired from both the design side and the construction side. That there is so little responsibility or penalty fostered on the companies providing these services reinforces the idea that it’s easy to take advantage of the hand that does a lot more than just feed you.

While upon their completion these projects finally benefit the community at large, the government has bled itself so far into debt by this time that budget cuts have to come out of some other service, because god knows trying to raise taxes on the wealthy is not going to get very far in any legislature.

For example, the city of Chicago sold its parking meters to a global consortium to fill a big hole in the annual municipal budget fifteen years ago, and it has now it lost over two billion dollars it would have otherwise made if it kept that service for itself.

A toll highway in Ontario (Highway 407) is entirely owned by a private company after the government ‘gave it away’ for $3 billion in 1998. Toll amounts increased 300% over the first fifteen years of its existence, and by 2019 it was estimated that the province could have made $30 billion dollars if they didn’t sell the highway.

Is it possible for a private company to improve land it purchases/receives from the government and make it more beneficial for the community as a whole?

Of course it’s possible, but that simple concept is in sharp contrast to the goals of a private company, which is to make money for the people that own it, not necessarily the people that will live on or use the land beneath their feet.

So responsibility can be placed on short-sighted, politically partisan decisions at all levels of government, since it mingles beautifully with corrupt greed and bloat.

And it’s not just land. Where land ends water begins, and where they meet are where there is a vast majority of the people’s of the earth.

Water is life (literally, as our bodies are 70% of it), and land is where we live it.

Many experts in both finance and science are saying that what oil was to the 20th century water (specifically fresh water) will be to the 21st. Now this is largely due to more and more of the earth’s sea juice no longer easily and safely usable (for drinking or otherwise) because of the amount of garbage we dump into the oceans, lakes and rivers.

To think of the nations that exist upon the land create and adhere to their own rules for it is sensible from an economic and legal standpoint, but climate change is blurring these borders.

What is burned and dumped in one nation can greatly affect another, sometimes on the other side of the planet. The circulation of what is above (air) and alongside (water) the land can be full of micro-plastics. These small flecks that are less than five millimetres long are consumed by sea animals, which can poison them as well as those that consume said sea animals when they are sushi or fish sticks, and with winds and ocean currents these materials can travel very far from where they were inadvertently created.

It is the weakness of such an interconnected, hyper/post-industrial civilization, with the initial strength seeming to be further and further in the rearview mirror of history.

Even with the push towards renewable energy, so many of the current resources needed to make our society function not only take up huge swaths of land, but damage it constantly with oil spills, fracking and open pit mining (and guess whether it’s the government or corporation who is mostly stuck with the clean up job and its costs).

With Brazilian rainforests are chopped down to add grazing land for future hamburgers and even longstanding agricultural breadbasket regions like Central Russia, Southeastern Asia, California and the Canadian Prairies dealing with terribly uncertain harvests thanks to the unpredictable (or predictably terrible) weather patterns, no area of the world remains untouched.

Today the concept of the wild frontier is a sloppy half-fiction. Protected lands just have higher price tags, especially if there is a valued resource beneath. But politicians, political campaigns and all around wealthy interests used the idea of the wilderness as a mishmash of tropes and pseudo-ideologies meant to confuse the voter.

They say government is ‘taking’ the land when they are actually preserving it, meanwhile private owners build resource extraction infrastructure, and while we can save discussing the problems of mass and rampant corporatization for another day, what is clear that even when they build nothing and just keep the land in pristine shape, they are keeping it such for themselves and their guests.

It is the new form of noble’s land from the feudal era, where commoners could be punished simply for crossing it without permission (and in the past hunting any wildlife on it because your family might be starving, well that’s a death sentence if caught).

The greater good has been constantly set aside for greater profits.

Even when it’s land they own, the wealthy would try to get others to the foot the bill as often as they can for anything being built on top of it.

Sports teams owners have been ‘forcing’ cities and provinces/states to build them expensive stadiums on the public dime, by playing on the public’s emotions, threatening to move the team to another town if the building project isn’t approved.

And while football and baseball stadiums take up large areas of useful land in city and suburban environments, the worst offender is quite clearly the sport of golf.

The amount of resources wasted on a sport whose course can cover hundreds of overly manicured acres is stultifying. It’s bad enough in places that naturally receive a reasonable amount of rain, but building these in desert-like conditions (Southern California, is doubly insulting considering how long the same reason had been suffering from drought and the Colorado River drying up).

The ‘Golf and Country Club’ culture has gone hand-in-hand with a level of wealth continually out of reach by most people. George Carlin did a standup routine in the 90s about converting golf courses into housing for the homeless, and it much sounds less comical and much more rage-inducing today. At least railways and farmland are much more clearly beneficial to the continued operation of a community or country, but there’s absolutely a tone-deaf, ‘let them eat cake’ attitude towards how this leisure activity takes up land that could have been saved for so many other socially beneficial uses.

Years ago The Guardian featured an extensive article that underscored the notion 'road back to serfdom', where lands is going back into the hands of the corporate nobility. The government having been starved for funds and essentially being forced to sell off whatever it owns to try and balance the budget for the already spiralling costs of health care and education systems (because once again, raising taxes on those that could afford the increase has been pushed via political discourse into the ‘radical leftist extremism’ category).

Libraries closing are dispiriting symbols of a community slowly collapsing upon itself. Not only a loss of shared knowledge, but of shared experience.

The UK has never truly shed its class system, even as the empire slowly faded away. Certainly in the post-world-war-II period there was period of middle class prosperity when taxes were high and regulation were strong, but exceptions were made for those with noble titles and the land they retained.

The land (there’s that word again) controlled (and that word) by the British Empire was certainly shrinking during this period, as the many nations under colonial rule (which typically ranged between oppressive and brutal) declared independence and the UK did not have the power to quash them. But their loss of previous-owned land around the world was first replaced with running the industries and economies that sat upon these former lands.

Economic policies across the globe that still primarily benefit the very wealthy means we are blindly, drunkenly stumbling back towards feudalism. The majority of people will live in financial bondage (being tied to debts that include land in the form of mortgages), and there will be a small nobility that is mainly hereditary, with meritocracy becoming more and more out of reach because of necessary financial resources to even gain a foothold in powerful positions.

An increase in free market capitalism leads to a rise of wealth consolidation, which leads to an increase in inequality, both financial and political, which leads to a erosion of democratic principles and a rise in neo-feudalism (and most likely a dash or two of fascism to boot).

The 'estates of the realm' are sadly familiar, even with a twenty first century branding. Hundreds of years ago it was the King in charge, but even then it was at the pleasure of the handful of powerful institutions, who could depose him if he thoroughly dissatisfied them. The first estate was the clergy, because the fear (and/or love) of god kept everyone in line for millennia in civilizations across the globe. The priests that were able to interpret the whims of god (or claimed to be able, and if enough people thought they could, then what’s the difference?) meant they obviously had plenty of power and temples, churches, and shrines were given prime real estate (and construction priority) in towns and cities from thousands of years ago right up until a century or so.

The second estate was the nobility, the (comparatively) few families that owned and oversaw much of the land and wealth of the kingdom and always had the ear of the king (and sometimes other parts of him if they had enough power and were displeased with the monarch’s decisions).

The third estate was everyone else, who either lived on and tilled noble’s land (sometimes having an opportunity to lease it for long periods but never actually owning it) or lived and worked in villages (with buildings erected on plots of land they also mostly likely didn’t own).

In the past, these three estates would have their own hierarchies that would develop and become more complicated over time, in some ways mirroring each other.

But the land - and who owned it - was always at its centre.

In the medieval period, the church and nobility would clash over who had power over what, but always making sure that anyone else didn’t have much at all. Which didn’t take that much effort for the most part, as the feudal system was a futile system for the peasants who wished to be anything more (which is partly why so many fairy tales involved suddenly becoming rich and powerful by being granted land…you had to rely on magic for it to happen).

The emerging merchant (and therefore middle) class of the Renaissance actually played nice for centuries with the nobles and priests above them and the still plenty of poor below.

it wasn’t until the mid the eighteenth century that the looming industrial revolution (involving looms) would shuffle around where the money and power was in modern society.

The importance of land during this period changed, with ‘revolution’ being the operative word. Of course who owned it was the most important thing, but what was done upon it became a close second. A factory could suddenly become as valuable profit-wise as a farmer’s field that had taken up a lot more space, and available jobs changed accordingly.

Peasants that used to be tilling fields were now manning assembly lines, working massive looms, and overseeing large complex (for the time) machines, which meant becoming specialized in one particular task and doing it over and over again.

This meant a compatibly rapid shift of people moving from villages and towns to cities where these factories mostly were. A transition that has continued for nearly two centuries as the effects of the industrial revolution slowly spread across the earth.

Typically in unsafe, overcrowded and underpaid work conditions.

And living conditions were no better, as it was the beginning of slum living and shanty towns, with the law protecting the already wealthy and flexing its power upon the poor (stop us if you’ve heard this one before).

At the same time, farming methods did indeed improve (not just inventions like tractors and harvesters, but understanding plant biology), meaning less people had to work the land to produce even more agricultural yields than before.

And for how ideal that sounds, it meant that exploiting land (and the people that still lived and worked on it) became easier than ever thanks to innovations of the Industrial Revolution, because the people that owned the land were essentially the same nobles as the last several centuries.

Which is why many Europeans went to America in the latter half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries: because there was cheap (sometimes free) land available (and ‘available’ actually meant ‘stolen from the natives’).

Land meant freedom, land meant ownership, land meant stability, land meant prosperity and wealth.

And all these things wanted by everyone both rich and poor put them in a complicated relationship with the government that oversaw the parceling and offering of said land, especially when communities grew and towns and cities needed to offer essential services to the growing number of people living there. Now the government needed that land back to build said services on it.

Owning land that the government suddenly deemed important could be extremely profitable, if there was a decision to, say, build a railroad through it.

Reclamation of land and property by the authorities the throughout the twentieth century was a task fraught with difficulties. And when it wasn’t difficult, it was because a more violent matter (war, revolution, the systemic oppression of marginalized groups) was associated with it.

And now the problems that plagued the past rural communities includes modern smaller cities and larger towns, because both of those are dying as mega cities expand quickly and awkwardly, with rising rents and properties becoming more and more unaffordable to most in the urban centres, with house building in the suburbs unable to keep up with demand (and not necessarily being much cheaper).

In these flailing rural regions you can buy land and the old house sitting/decaying on it for actually affordable prices for the average citizen, but it comes with caveats like fewer, less reliable and more expensive basic services (water, electric, internet, emergency) and not nearly as many employment opportunities. It reinforces the position that what you can afford defines how you can live, and while that sounds obvious, it shouldn’t be. A country and a community should be able to provide a basic level of dignified living to all citizens, and that means big changes have to happen.

Comparatively recent history has proven that land/wealth reform can happen, it’s just that actually doing this in the chaos of the early 21st century will be oh so far from simple. Getting these policies passed and enacted in any particular nation to actually make a difference for the citizens in them is no easy task, because controlling prices and re-apportioning the earth’s surface are two very different and complicated disciplines. But their interdependence shows how money and land will always be prized possessions, and how using the better angels of our nature to share it with the many rather than seize it for the few is the best way forward for the ground beneath our collective feet.

 

 

Notes

 

https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization#:~:text=Urbanization%20is%20a%20trend%20unique,areas%20as%20they%20become%20richer

 

 

(https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/nov/10/how-europes-cities-stole-continents-wealth)

 

(https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/may/10/us-housing-market-prices-increasing)

 

Great article on rent, landlords, and never giving up:

(https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/magazine/rental-housing-crisis-minneapolis.html)

 

(https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-breadbaskets-of-the-world.html)

 

(https://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywashburn/2023/03/01/how-much-us-farmland-does-china-really-own-more-than-bill-gates-and-less-than-17-other-countries/?sh=3b34cb1421ff)

 

(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/24/microplastics-found-in-human-blood-for-first-time)

 

(https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2022/8/4/23288546/camden-yards-30th-anniversary-baltimore-influence)

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/22/us/wilks-brothers-fracking-business.html)

 

(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/19/who-owns-england-secretive-companies-hoarding-land)

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/13/us/politics/farmland-values-prices.html)

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/09/business/bitcoin-mining-electricity-pollution.html)

 

https://chicago.suntimes.com/city-hall/2022/5/26/23143356/chicago-parking-meters-75-year-lease-daley-city-council-audit-skyway-loop-garages-krislov

 

https://www.tvo.org/article/the-right-to-hold-people-to-ransom-how-and-why-the-tories-sold-highway-407

 


 

The Fight for the Environment: Shot or Poisoned

 

"We aren't totally fucked yet by climate change, but it's certainly buying us drinks and staring at our cleavage."

 

As we ruin our ability to live on this planet, remember: It’s not personal. It’s just business.

And to avoid this and fight to reduce the effects of climate change will come at a cost: A massive economic global depression. Because the world economy is based on rampant capitalism/consumerism that directly and indirectly (through the manufacture and transport of goods across the globe) creates greenhouse gases.

An ‘interruption of business’ is rightly derided by environmentalists as a pitiful complaint against the civilization-destabilizing effects of climate change, but matters complicate greatly when one acknowledges that it’s not just the owners and investors of these massive companies who will be affected. It will be average people of the middle and lower classes who will very quickly lose their jobs and the money it provides. And while you can try to appeal to them with terrible forecasts of the future, they need to know what will happen to them right now in terms of affording a place to live and putting food on their table.

To get anywhere close to zero emissions (so lofty a goal you need a space suit to imagine it) many industries from energy to tourism to agriculture will have to be shuttered or severely curtailed or go through massive restructuring, which would mean the end of many companies and massive layoffs. Increased tariffs would make many familiar products and services financially unattainable, which will exacerbate bankruptcies (corporate and public) and firings.

The instability will be catastrophic if a nation is not prepared to assist the millions of people who will be affected from the financial fall out. And even if your nation is prepared thanks to a longstanding, strong social safety net, a neighbouring nation might not be, and that will inevitably affect your own.

For many developing nations, a massive shrinking of the manufacturing and tourism industries will be akin to sentencing hundreds of thousands of people to (or back to) extreme poverty, because the government does not have the resources to suddenly support them.

Forget (for a moment) the philosophical/psychological drawbacks of living in a materialist/consumerist society and only focus on the practical drawbacks regarding resources. We are building more and more stuff to consume or appreciate/enjoy, and the combination of using things (like metal and plastic and wood and fabrics) to make them and the energy required to power the machines to make them is a huge drain on what the earth has and can spare. It is all the more embarrassing and dangerous that we are continuing to use fossil fuels (coal was still 40% of those emissions as of 2020), as opposed to more sustainable options in the creation of these products and service.

While the undeniable and increasingly expensive effects of climate change are finally forcing the hand of governments and industry to pivot from the carbon belching, the current adjustment period is a decades-long process, not a years-long one.

And this pivot will come with many challenges, some of which will make many, many people very, very angry and resistant to such changes. Having to fly less will devastate the tourism industry, having to change diets (namely, eating less meat) will permanently shrink the meat industry, and having to buy local will mean less selection for accustomed to goods at higher prices.

And if attempts to lessen these activities are done solely through taxation on their purchase or usage, then the result will be only the wealthy can afford to travel and eat meat (which will further increase the divide between the few rich and many poor).

The public reactions to these financial reverberations may be so negative and hostile that political leaders may have to reverse course to maintain political and economic stability. Whether it is a revolt in the streets or the ballot box (hopefully the latter), much of society that has become dependent on creature comforts masking as birthrights will reject such drastic any necessary reforms, claiming that cheap flights and cheap burgers are an infringement on their freedom.

We are taking the less drastic path right now, with moderate investments in alternative energy and a continued push for people to try and by more responsibly. But what is being done right away and what needs to be done right away cannot scale, not without so much more infrastructure and time to build said infrastructure (time we don’t have, especially considering to build it all would put an even bigger stress on current fossil-fuel focused resources)

The most glaringly obvious (but not easy) way we are getting out of this is if the ten thousand (or so) richest people on earth (from Silicon Valley venture capitalists to Chinese government officials to middle eastern royalty) all agree to diffuse their wealth among the people on earth so that when all the necessary changes come into effect we all won’t be without basic necessities.

But hey, while we’re daydreaming, let’s imagine aiming for zero emissions, and how many jobs in the fossil fuel industry would end almost immediately, even though oil will certainly be required for the lengthy transition period to clean energy (which will be accelerated). It is likely that both these processes will be 'nationalized' to some degree.

Even with the rise of electric vehicles, individual car ownership has to be reduced. Three out of four cars will be repossessed and it suseful parts will be stripped and reused for other materials (as opposed to mining or extracting them from the ground). People will have to share Uber rides everywhere (as opposed to that half-hearted attempt at carpooling in the nineties).

More drastically, a rationing of resources (electricity, heating, food) will almost certainly be inevitable. This is already happening at certain times of the year during extreme (but more common) weather events, like running AC when it’s too hot or heating when it’s too cold. Certain appliances that use too much will be recalled or discontinued. This will encourage/force people to share houses to save on heat and water usage.

Due to the huge amount of resources (from land to water to grain to transportation) required for even a few kilograms of beef, it will become a caviar-like delicacy.

Products that have any sort of extraneous plastic will no longer be manufactured, or have insanely high tariffs placed on them.

Even usage of the internet will become more expensive, or at least companies will offer discounted rates during the night so that people won’t put a strain on the essential services at peak hours.

There will have to be much less air travel for leisure, and a massive curtailing of air travel for business. If a meeting can be held via FaceTime or Zoom (and the pandemic has shown that many can), there will be no flying.

And these changes will be placed on us by the government, and the people who are against them will claim the changes are being forced on us. And it really is a matter of semantics, because yes, it will look like the introduction of a bleak, fascist dictatorship demanding people sacrifice what was seen as inalienable rights only a few years prior. And these changes likely be fought against, either as voting out the government for introducing these reforms, or (more terrifyingly) with country destabilizing violence (and failed state will certainly not hit any climate goals).

Because of this obvious risk, the many disparate proposals will be a hard sell not only in North America and Western Europe - where we have been used to an exceedingly comfortable, ‘everything on my doorstep within two days’ lifestyle for quite a long time - but countries like India and China, which has seen huge gains in living standards over the last few decades.

Telling people that they immediately have to live with less (less food (options), less mobility, less work/play) for decades so that this sacrifice might mean people have a better life in the distant future - most likely long after the people around today are dead (which might be sooner than in the past, thanks to all this ‘less’) - is an exceedingly hard sell for a majority of citizens.

In the West it is sometimes hard to grasp just how many people live in China and India alone. Each country has more people than North and South America combined.

The achievements these two nations have made over the last thirty years of bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is incredible…but at the cost of turning earth into a microwave and a giant garbage dump.

To single out these two countries is wildly unfair, because while that’s where a huge concentration of people are living, the climate change effects per capita are relatively low.

Per capita, the Western nations are so much more destructive and should understand the more stringent obligations that should be made (ah… ‘should’, the great act suggesting of what someone might consider doing if they happen to feel like it, as opposed to the ordering of what someone must do).

The dire economic prognostications/ramifications that will come unless we make real reforms to combat climate change are not meant to come off as a threat. They are instead an acknowledgement of how a difficult a situation we are in right now. It is the true ‘chickens come home to roost’ after decades of inactivity against an increasingly warming planet by human action.

Consequently, we are probably not going to do anything of any consequence until an incredible technological breakthrough arrives that is practically miraculous in how quickly it can be integrated into our current energy-using infrastructure.

That’s thinking positively, obviously.

In terms of more proactive policies in the very immediate future beyond the feeble fits and starts we’ve made so far, that it’s still so profitable to NOT improve the condition of the planet is absolutely insane. Fossil fuels - both coal and petroleum - remain so comparatively cheap and are part of a complex energy industry infrastructure that took decades to create and is not designed to ever be dismantled.

Which is why it so hard to even get started doing that.

We need to tax goods and services that greatly contribute to climate change at much higher amount than we are right now. Doing so will raise money, and that money will be needed not only to fund green energy programs and clean up efforts, but also be spent on all the job displacement that will inevitably occur.

A jobs program (ideally into green energy employment opportunities) is essential for moving forward, but is rightly seen with a sigh or suspicion because it is very hard to integrate into a society that is shedding secure, well-paying careers and replacing them with the gig economy.

There’s no getting around the fact that money is going to be a big problem to work both around and with.

We are either going to instigate a global economic depression to lessen the effects of climate change, or a global economic depression is going to come upon us thanks largely in part to ignoring the continuing effects of climate change. Perhaps something along the lines of an increase of natural disasters leading to excessive migration (domestic and foreign) away from coastal areas (where many cities are), plus the possibility of these catastrophes being so financially devastating that massive insurance companies will default (‘too big to fail’ rearing its ugly head again). How the global financial network reacts to these instabilities (and the comparatively small group of people who have a larger say in its operation than the average the citizen), will ultimately define what kind of civilization there will be going forward.

And if that sounds worrying, it should be.

Civilizations seem like they will last forever… until they don’t.

If we destroy ourselves (our ability to live on this planet, which is essentially the same thing), the only standards we've failed are our own, because these standards (and any morals or laws) are human creations.

Even the guilt we may have for destroying the planet's ecosystem is a human creation. Life itself doesn't care. Caring - emotion, affection, how we naively and egotistically see our own habitat - might have little to do with the ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra that seems to rule over life itself (although even that viewpoint is one of human creation, further sullying its objectivity).

And this is not supposed to end this article on a dour, hopeless note, but stress the importance of just how much we get to define and choose going forward.

That the earth will continue to warm over the next few decades despite any serious curbing of greenhouse gas emissions seems to be a given. We have moved the goalposts from reversing the effects to slowing them.

It might sound a little too convenient that if our applications of science got us into this mess than we can rely on newer applications of science to get us out of it.

Cold fusion is the dream, because it can be the safer, easier form of nuclear energy, but right now it’s a bunch of lasers in a lab barely being able to keep a light-bulb going.

And the issue with geo-engineering - sending chemicals into the air via rockets to make it rain, to stop the rain or to make clouds brighter so they reflect more sunlight back into space - is that we only have one geo. The effects of using these items - especially on a wide scale - is quite simply unknown. China has been using it to some success to force rain to fall on regions suffering from drought, but it might be a matter of causing rain to fall in one area and not in another, which means you’re just moving the drought around as well.

This method involves shooting silver iodide into clouds, already present, and while minimal exposure to the silver ion within the silver iodide is not a risk when it returns to earth with the rain, a lot more of it might be.

Once again, we are trying things today with no idea how it might affect the future.

How bad do things have to get before we actually have to act quickly, where everyone has to chip in (and in some cases, this means sacrificing convenience use of easily available resources) to make a difference?

The irony is that if there one catastrophic storm that truly highlights how much climate changes and its effects have gone out of control, it will likely disrupt the supply chain in such a way that the easiest thing to do to quickly get any kind of power to those who need it is to burn coal and wood.

A silver (iodide?) lining to the Coronavirus Pandemic was it showed the citizens of the world what its governments and corporations were (and were not) capable of when a large scale crisis suddenly arrives on our collective doorstep.

So can we overcome the challenges of climate change?

Sure.

We just have to act as we and not as the eternally familiar ‘us and them’, because such dichotomies are just another type of hot air.

 

 

 

Notes

 

https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/

 

(https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/fossil-fuel-subsidies-expaliner-1.6371411)

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html)

 

https://web.archive.org/web/20160527163840/http://www.jnu.ac.in/sss/cssp/What%20is%20degrowth.pdf

 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349661319_Climate_change_and_its_impact_on_natural_resources

 

https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/immersive-story/2018/09/20/what-a-waste-an-updated-look-into-the-future-of-solid-waste-management

 


 

Faking Crypto-Gasms

 

Oh god it is so awful.

If you haven’t made money in cryptocurrency yet, you won’t.

Unless you are attempting to be blessed the lottery ticket luck of somehow getting some suckers/buyers to snap up your newly minted Glafenbort-coin at just the right time and then you bail on it and pocket the winnings. Because that’s a business plan apparently.

Or you’re already a successful venture capitalist and can risk dumping your money into it with one long term goal: Legitimacy.

That’s the true danger of thinking the recent mass devaluation of cryptocurrencies is its death knell. Too many Silicon Valley/Wall Street hybrids have already sunk too much of their own money into it that they’ll bully their way into still breaking even when this shit bubble burst.

Bitcoin and Ethereum’s plan is to become ‘too big to fail’ so that they can rely on a government bailout when it inevitably crashes and burns.

Meaning even the people smart and moral enough to say ‘fuck off’ to crypto might just be paying for it through their tax dollars because enough rich people, idiots and rich idiots toss their money into a financial instruments that is more akin to a cancerous growth.

But let’s be clear: In terms of a road to hell paved with good intentions, it’s hard to beat cryptocurrencies:

Let’s form a currency that isn’t run by a bloated government or greedy amoral bank!

Great! But wait, then who owns it?

You do!

Me?

Yes!

Really?

Well no, whoever has a shitload of money to make an initial investment years ago or more recently buy hundreds of computer servers to earn money off verification fees.

So not me.

Well are you a venture capitalist or a wealthy bank executive?

No.

Then no. Not you. But you can buy a fraction of a bitcoin!

Oh good. Will I make money of it?

Probably not.

So…why do I want it?

To buy things! All sorts of things!

Like real money?

You bastard! It is real money!

Like I can go buy a coffee with it?

Go to hell.

Why? It’s not enough? So what if I want to buy a laptop-

Kiss our blockchain.

Then why would I consider using bitcoin in the first place?

Well because the verification process is super safe! There’s no way to fake a transaction that didn’t actually happen.

Oh good.

As long as nobody hacks any other aspect of your online footprint and gets to your bitcoin wallet.

Wait, what?

But that’s on you! Not us! Not our fault if someone finds out you own bitcoin and goes the long way ‘round to get it. Or short way ‘round, actually…

At least when that happens, you’ll help me track down the-

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

So there’s no legal recourse if-

Fucking lawyers, amirite?

Well actually in some cases having an agreed upon contract

Boooooring. We can’t hear you because of all the verification we’re doing!

That seems like it’s taking up a lot of your time.

And resources!

What?

Never mind!

Now that you mention it, couldn’t all the energy being used for cryptocurrency verification be used for people’s homes or-

Shut up.

Yes, cryptocurrency seems like the parody of bring all sorts of disparate contemporary problems together and making everything worse very quickly.

Bitcoin is the de-facto name-brand of Cryptocurrency, with Ethereum trying to play the role of the younger, hipper start-up that supposedly fixed some of the problems that are plaguing the big dawg. It’s a nice fiction, as both of them are interchangeable in their handful of pluses and boatload of minuses, but they’re a whole lot reliable than every other sort of cryptocurrency that anyone has ever tried to exist.

Sure, you can at least try and point out that because of big money backing that Bitcoin and Ethereum that they aren’t complete pyramid schemes (they still mostly are), but good luck defending stuff like Doge-coin, Cthulhu Offerings, Bongger or Whopper-Coin.

And let’s be honest, if Donald Trump hadn’t been president (which is still a real mindfuck to think about, looking back), he’d certainly be shilling Trump-coin (there are some knock-off ones that sound similar, but don’t have his official endorsement).

If it’s not the minting of these coins (boy, that makes it sound a lot more authentic, doesn’t it?), it’s what is happening within the bowels of them.

The aforementioned Ethereum allows for written computer programs to operate within its blockchain, which is how it is able to host smart contracts, programs that allow for… Non-Fungible Tokens. This has allowed for the more recent - but absolutely ancient in terms of our contemporary attention spans - craze of NFTs, which are expertly named because if they had an actually clear and understandable title, you’d realize how stupid they are in mere seconds.

Digital scarcity is a hard thing to ensure when one of the most basic advantages of the computer was the ease of making a copy of something, and if the art is completely incidental, of course the aesthetics are also going to suck (at least the tulips were pretty back when the Dutch went wild for them in the 17th century). Instead of the Brooklyn Bridge, it’s slightly different photocopies of the Brooklyn Bridge they wish to sell you (ask your grandparents). A pyramid scheme in a digital realm could go on forever.

NFTs are the tumour upon the tumour, the piss icing on the shit cake.

And while there are plenty of pathetic things about Cryptocurrency and its offal at present, perhaps what towers above the rest is how its future is going to be so, so shit.

Even with the recent cratering of crypto’s value (it’s been a real nauseating roller coaster unless you’ve only being mainlining the tweets of acolytes), the greedy Wall Street Bankers or gatekeeping venture capitalists own the biggest chunks of Bitcoin and Ethereum now, and because they put so much money into it, you better believe they are determined to get a profit out of it, and that means forcing that crypto-cock down all our throats whether they bought us dinner first or not.

The recent news that the chair of the SEC said they might consider designating bitcoin as a security is proof alone that anything new that gets big enough will be consumed by the main and become part of the main (popular culture eats sub-culture, rebel groups/policies is included in ‘normal’ politics in watered down forms).

The SEC will make Crypto ‘safe’ for the already nobility, welcoming the rebel leaders of crypto who have become very much like the former in the last few years getting rich, and freezing out all the crypto bros, who will have one more reason to become bitter and cynical about the system fucking them over (which was one of the early selling points of crypto, that it was a way to get around the system and ‘win’).

The problem is in cryptocurrency’s very foundation.

A currency not tied to a country or series of banks (a currency for the people!) sounds good, and it especially sounded good in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-2009. Instead it’s tied to…many, many computer computations.

Perhaps elements of it will be part of our socioeconomic future, but its current form is too volatile to be anything more than a hot (but usually cold) investment tip, let alone a new future for the global economy.

For all out technological advances in the last three decades alone that has made paying for things so, so much easier, we still pay in internationally recognized currencies that represent individual countries or blocks of countries.

While thanks to quantitative easing and bank bailouts the idea of ‘money’ can easily become more abstract and that you can usually/always make more out of thin air, there is a still a finite amount of recognized power in society, whether it a small community or the entire globe.

We trust money works, and that’s how it works. The trust.

That the major cryptocurrencies are only valued in comparison to the US Dollar or another currency (0.001 unit of bitcoin can buy a $20 lamp) is a reminder that this the former is still absolutely in its infancy stage, that it is clearly an investment of anticipated trust and not trust outright.

And to earn that trust, cryptocurrency has to be as good as the dollar. Or the Euro. And not just in terms of its eternally wavering value in relations to other currencies, but in terms of how it is effortlessly used.

The mechanisms to pay with crypto at a grocery store or coffee shop is not there because the transaction with your phone using ApplePay or your banking app is so, so much slower when using bitcoin.

Even saying Crypto’s security failsafe comes at the cost of convenience, is not the whole story, because the ‘security failsafe’ has plenty of human holes.

Yes, crypto would be perfect if only AI used it, because our fleshy hands and brains just screw it all up. People seem accustomed to the concept of crypto thanks in part to more familiar programs such as frequent flier miles and loyalty programs. ‘Alternate currency’ that requires a change in purchasing behaviour to get the maximum savings (or whatever supposed advantage crypto is supposed to have). But in the end everyone still think in whatever named currency they get paid in and pay their bills with.

The psychology of crypto was a hard sell, because even if banks blew up the economy in 2008, you could still buy things with a dollar or a euro without any issue, so there was no reason for the average person to switch to a different currency. So a profit carrot was dangled in front of early adopters, and the get-rich-quick-ers bit. And ruined any possible plus or advantage that could come out of this form of financial instrument.

Blockchain data management might be part of the future of the internet (Web 3.0 as it’s been recently nicknamed and probably ruined because the same tech bros are pushing it), and the reason it’s a not a sure is because of how terrible crypto and NFTs have sullied its concept.

Whereas right now you will connect to a Google-specific server when you search something, in the future your own computer or smartphone will be part of a huge shared network of essentially mini-servers that carry the combined load of information that is the internet.

Technically it means your computer’s bandwidth and CPU power will very temporarily ‘host’ all sorts of bits of things, from company spreadsheets to music files to porn. Now, you will absolutely NOT have access to this data because it is in pieces and accessing a complete file will require fool-proof*security key. It will never be yours, because without the key the data will never be able to combine and reveal itself.

*-well…

Computers were already changing how people were working and living in the eighties and nineties, and while sharing data between hard drives was already possible when they were both standing beside each other and connected by wire, widening the distances between them was originally a goal sought by the US military decades earlier when considering how to keep the chain of command in the event of nuclear war.

Add some modems in the nineties, and suddenly we get America Online.

Simply connecting and sharing were the early promises that the internet offered the average citizen and as the speed of doing so increased (and as computers became much more affordable), its adaptation was measured in mere years, instead of decades as technological advances in the past typically took.

From hobby to habit, from nicety to necessity.

Of course it came with a litany of problems that we still haven’t solved completely.

On the technical side alone, glitches and viruses highlighted the dangers of information being secure, with the acknowledgement that once computers could send data back and forth, there would be people trying to steal anything of value (which is much more of a general human problem).

The common sense rules for the masses came on slow. Not opening attached files from strange emails became as common sense as looking both ways before crossing the street.

The dot-com burst of 1999 and 2000 was really just a speed bump, and no doubt cryptocurrency is hoping that the same sort of event that happened to them early 2010s and right the fuck now was/is the same sort of inconvenience that can be put in the rear view mirror.

Getting celebrity endorsements and whimsical commercials revolving the idea of FOMO is a way to normalize a way of using a new form of money that they have control over.

Which is madness, because for all the talk of decentralization and sharing, the way cryptocurrency actually operates is wildly centralized and monopolistic is at risk from bad actors, stupid actors, and greedy actors.

It’s the problems that a secure blockchain can’t fix because those are human fallibilities, and that’s not even close to the biggest problem with cryptocurrency, because the future with it will be worse.

Know how buying things online can have shitty service and ever-increasing delivery fees? Or how banks continually prey on the lower and middle class for bad loans, bad investments, and generally bad (for the person, good for the bank) advice?

Imagine that with just ‘money’ in general.

Hypothetically the national currency can fluctuate daily so a coffee can suddenly cost twice as much as it did yesterday, but that’s a good way to have your entire country fall to pieces quickly, and there are oodles of laws and experts in important positions trying oh so hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.

A government carefully oversees the worth of a dollar or Euro or whatever currency they have, having to take into consideration many domestic and foreign issues, and while no one will deny that those who pull these economic levers can be short-sighted, pressured by external forces and/or greedy, for all the faults of a central national currency, its practically immaculate compared to what cryptocurrency offers.

What if your coffee is twice as expensive as yesterday because six hedge fund owners decided to buy a lot of bitcoin?

Considering a future that will essentially be Goldman Sachs, Facebook (sorry, Meta, because War is Peace) or even a nameless floating cloud of investor capitalists telling us how much if what we have, what our every waking moment of our lives is worth.

Put a price on pricing, and the already rich will already win.

The hyperinflation of Germany a century ago or Venezuela in the last few years shows the real-life chaos that comes with people’s savings and wages being worth half as much as they were the day before.

Imagine if that was the system working as designed.

The quick devaluation of cryptocurrencies throughout 2022 might be a signal that even those with the long deep pockets are realizing there are more pluses than minuses (or that they cannot easily heap the responsibility of the minuses onto others), but maybe after one more bubble bursting that causes a true recession the government actually will step in and put forth some sort of regulation for cryptocurrencies.

And how strong or effective this regulation is will depend on who will truly own bitcoin and ethereum going forward.

Crypto’s creators claim it was a product/service meant to avoid corporate influence and government regulation, but the more the first happens, the more likely the second ultimately will, too. And once the visible hand of global financial regulation comes upon cryptocurrency, is it going to restrain its wrists or jerk it off even more?

It’s great to be optimistic about such questions, but not at the risk of being a fool when the evidence is plain as day.

If you haven’t made money in crypto yet, you won’t.

If you haven’t realized that there is too much real money in trading this fake money, if you haven’t had a chance to personally experience the oily goop greed of these ideas getting in the way of everything, you will.

If you just don’t care about it, too bad, a lot of rich people see it as a way to get richer, so you’ll have to.

Meet the new banker, same as the old banker. And somehow worse.

 

 

Notes

(https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/10/opinion/cash-crypto-trust-money.html)

 

 

(https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22313936/non-fungible-tokens-crypto-explained)

 

(https://gizmodo.com/blockchains-vulnerable-to-centralized-control-darpa-fi-1849088882)

 

(https://gizmodo.com/ethereum-bitcoin-price-plunges-sec-chair-merge-security-1849551695)


 

Time and Space and Numbers…and Vaccines

 

Our familiar day-to-day numbers betray us. They keep us from being able to appreciate the sizes of other things between our fingertips and beyond our sky.

Adding zeroes can quickly make a product or proposal more expensive or impressive, but this useful exponential increase becomes less useful when the number get larger and larger, and the item we are counting are less and less familiar.

We are bad with big numbers.

Take 137 million kilometres and 405 million kilometres. The second number is three times as large the first, but you can't really visualize a distance of that scale, even if the difference is a simple ratio of 1:3. It’s the added zeroes, certainly.

A billion dollars, a billion planets. The same amount yes, but because we deal with dollars (and how they are applied to things ranging from the price of vegetables to the value of a house) we can still somehow gauge that amount of money, whereas we only really ever have to think about more than one planet (ideally the one we’re standing on at the moment).

Just like how there is only one ‘sun’, a flaming ball of gas that we sensibly take for granted on a day-to-day basis because it inevitably ‘rises’ every morning (it doesn’t, we’re the one spinning and rotating around it so it appears to us as if the star is the one doing all the work).

But the star we call ‘the sun’ is absolutely not unique. Even less unique than our planet full of life. There are approximately 100-400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, and 200 billion galaxies in the universe.

And while at first the fact that these numbers are not exact might be a bit frustrating or suspicious, it should be noted at just how ridiculously large these numbers are even on the low end.

(It also says a lot about us that when we try to start to try and comprehend these numbers using something in our society, our thoughts typically drift towards large amounts of money)

But numbers don’t just have to be huge to be more than a little bit confusing, because it bears acknowledging that:

Anti-Vaxxers are Bad at Math (even before the Coronavirus)

For the moment, let’s skip the obvious mis-and-disinformation problems and discuss another factor with the vaccination issue: How people react to seeing something that has a 90% success rate. We have a tendency to boot that number up in our head and assume it is 100%. If it’s 90% chance of rain, you’re packing an umbrella or putting on a hat. If a bet has a 90% chance of hitting, you’ll be suspicious because it’s so damn likely that the house will lose.

But 90% is not 100%. 9 times out of 10 sounds great, but it really does mean that it’s not always going to work, even though we fool ourselves into thinking it will, because it will work so often.

This holds true for vaccines as well, and not just the Covid ones (most of which had a success rate above 90%). Many anti-vaxxers hold up examples of childhood vaccines not working correctly or having unfortunate side effects. And while it’s definitely sad when this happens, it’s not evidence that the vaccine doesn’t work. It is evidence that it doesn’t work all the time. And while doctors explain this to patients (and to the parents of child patients when we are talking about measles, polio, hepatitis) and the success rates of around 90%, we inevitably hear that number and boot it up to 100% in our heads, even when we really shouldn’t.

Seeing your child get sick from a debilitating disease that they were supposed to be protected from is emotionally devastating and can of course overwhelm the rational thought that your child was just in the unlucky 5 or 6% for whom the medicine didn’t work. And because these vaccines are distributed to hundreds of millions, it is therefore easy to find 5 or 6% of that huge group of people for whom the medicine didn’t work either. In a country of 100 million you can find 5-6 million people who fall into that category, and even if only a fraction of that complains about it on the internet along with you, it doesn’t take much for you to think that this is happening at an incredibly high rate and that the vaccine doesn’t work…but it’s just math. That’s the amount of people this medicine just won’t work for.

No one wants to think that they or their child is the unlucky one, but that’s how odds work. And while considering odds doesn’t always sound like science, a 95% success rate still involves playing them.

And that’s hard to accept so it’s natural to look for excuses or alternative explanations, and doing so can create a skewered perspective even if it based on an honest and accurate individual experience.

This is not an excuse for anti-vaxxers. There should not be an excuse for behaviour that puts serious and systemic risk to the literal health of the community. 

But understanding the mistaken position they are approaching this issue from puts all of us on a better level when it comes to correcting this misinformation.

It is important to accept that uncertainty, failure, and what 90% really means is part of living in a (chiefly) science-based world.

Perhaps some of this misplaced certainty and then misplaced distrust in science come from the fact that we don’t necessarily know how vaccines work. Yes, it’s tiny microbes in liquid they inject in your arm that fend off viruses, but anyone but experts would be hopeless at describing what ‘fending off’ means on the molecular level, which part of:

The Shame of Science Illiteracy

Think how absolutely useless most people on earth would be if aliens asked them basic scientific questions out of sheer curiosity, like where our planet is within the Milky Way Galaxy, or what the atomic components are of our atmosphere or our planet.

How foolish and small minded we would sound if we answered 'where are we?' with the name of our country, and 'what is this planet made of?' with listing off things like dirt, rocks, and water.

We would have to quickly check our phones, and we couldn’t easily explain how this technology works, either.

These aliens were able to quickly adapt to speaking our language (or at least have a translator of some sort), and we could barely explain the electricity and transistors that are the essential foundation to all our modern technology.

At least we could explain a bit of how we championed increased specialization and individualism over each citizen knowing just a little bit of everything.

Computer technology made a network of people communicating via the internet possible, and this near-constant connection is now ‘just the way things are’.

Prior to this sharing information was much slower, but building these roads - sometimes literally roads, which carried wheeled vehicles pulled by horses which could hold plenty of messages and goods destined for the next town over - sped up the pace of the society and state in general.

Soon we didn’t have to understand why certain types of farming practices would reap better yields than others, or why the tides came in and out. It was good enough that at least someone knew and kept a record of it.

During the industrial revolution we might quickly understand how an industrial-sized loom worked by watching it in action, but we couldn’t easily explain how to fashion the steel and various parts to make one ourselves.

By the time of the digital revolution, we didn’t have to know the basics of transistors and the physics of electrical signals to successfully take advantage of all the features a cell phone offers, and that is truly a blissful ignorance.

We don’t even have to know how the cells, molecules, atoms and electrons that we are made up of work. They just do, and therefore so do we: A network of minuscule electronic transistors being ostensibly operated by a network of people who exist thanks to a network of cells.

It is a solution as long as the electronic network doesn’t go down, because then we are suddenly solely dependent on our biological one.

Which sounds pretty freaky, but plenty of changes to society thanks in part to scientific progress sound absolutely ridiculous and dangerous at the time.

Right now, the idea of implanting a chip or digital device inside your brain so you can ‘think’ commands to it which will immediately be reflected on your smart phone or computer sounds absolutely wild.

But so was the idea of opening up a human body and removing organs, or replacing them with artificial ones.

So was the idea of getting inside of large a pressurized tube with wings and fly over land and sea at extremely high speeds so you can cross continents in a matter of hours.

For something important and life changing?

Nah, just wanted to get out of the city for the weekend.

Hell, centuries ago the idea of moving to the city if you’ve lived most of your life in a small village was considered the height of folly.

The speed at which we acclimatize ourselves to these changes is increasing, and that’s thanks in part to scientific discoveries as well. Being constantly connected to people and information around the world might have seemed dystopic and overwhelming only a few decades ago.

Of course it can be easily argued that while we are getting used to these technological changes, we still have massive and terrible growing pains.

In ten years, the communications gaps in the internet (both intentional and unintentional) might be wholly corrected because of the speed we will be able to tailor and adjust our messages, but another huge issue might suddenly rears its complicated, ugly head. Especially if the matter is how much technology we are going to let inside our actual heads, which will be the biggest change to the relationship between the human body and the human mind that has created these wild gadgets.

Trying to make connections underscores almost every aspect of human existence. On the every day societal level, it means mental, emotional and (when appropriate) physical connections with the other human beings around us.

Meanwhile, the immutable laws of the universe are ones that exist even when we don’t (especially when one considers that humanity has existed for the teeniest, tiniest fraction of the 13.7 billion years that the universe has).

Science is a very human process of trying to figure this stuff out, and while its pursuit of knowledge may be wonderfully idealistic and pure (and using more and more precise instruments is helping), the day-to-day steps of getting there is full of our typical fallibility.

Ego, laziness and greed can not only affect individual scientists, but larger organizations (especially profit driven ones) can be particularly susceptible to these problems. Desiring a certain outcome to an experiment can make you dismiss or be suspicious of results that don’t match.

Sometimes it’s about sacrificing speed for accuracy and vice versa (which also harkens to the conundrum of trying to figured out the location of a particle and its trajectory).

Sometimes it’s no fault of one’s own, and it’s the limitations of concept or technology that inadvertently hides the true cost of scientific discovery.

The worst scientist in the world was Thomas Midgley Junior, an American engineer who championed lead in gasoline and plenty of commercial products (it’s poisonous, by the way), and discovered chlorofluorocarbon (commercially known as Freon), which was pumped into the atmosphere for decades before it was found out to severely deplete the ozone layer.

While it would have been poetic if he died of lead poisoning, Midgley instead contracted polio and became severely disabled, leading him to design a contraption that could lift him out of bed. It malfunctioned, he got caught in the ropes and was strangled to death.

So he was certainly committed to the scientific process to the end, even if the world would have been better off if his earlier inventions did him in.

But his intentions were pure and grounded in the scientific method, which shows that all intellectual pursuits can have unintended consequences (see: plastic).

Science is not the answer but the search for answers. Science is always changing (dare we say, evolving), to absorb new findings and discoveries, in order to have more complete (but not totally complete) answers.

Religion doesn't change very much (or easily), because it purports to have all the answers immediately and up front (the answer being, by and large 'god did it, because god is good').

Religion starts full, and science starts empty.

There are only very few tweaks to theological foundations. It boggles the mind that until the early sixties, the Catholic Church’s official rule was that masses had to be conducted in Latin. The early nineteen sixties. That the church is pulling back on some of their more rigid beliefs (they even acknowledge the Big Bang), is more a comment on their shrinking power in society over the last century than a more liberal and open mind.

But it’s not like there wasn’t a scientific perspective offered up by the church. They just happened to be really shitty theories based on extremely over simplistic premises.

To return to the numbers that started this article, religion is very set on exact number sets. Exactly ten of this, twelve of that, 144,000 of something else.

Meanwhile science quickly creates placeholder terms for the possibility of certain numbers being represented by x if other numbers represent y and z.

The potential is overflowing, to be proven right, to be shown wrong, to always have the ability to change and improve.

To even suggest that scientific method is too rigid and unchangeable, you have to crib a religious term to create the phrase ‘scientific dogma’. But this more to do with a misunderstanding of the scientific method, just as there is the misunderstanding of numbers and odds. When there is profit to made at this juncture, then human nature writ large takes over and will use a drop of actual science into a pool of lies to make a quick buck.

Science tries to speak in greater truths, pseudoscience whispers little lies, and outright hostility towards the pursuit of knowledge is screaming idiocy.

Of course there are going to unanswered questions, where one great discovery leads to a plethora of fresh unknowns. The unknown is a way to keep us humble, to keep us guessing, to keep us throwing ideas at the wall and see what sticks.

That said, if you're going to get into a pissing contest with science, based on how much we’ve discovered so far, it’s recommend you start drinking the ocean.

 


 

SPORTS-BALL in 2021 (and into 2022)

 

It was the biggest NFL season of all time, which was a simple and indisputable marketing campaign/fact because for the first time ever the regular season had seventeen games instead of sixteen (it wouldn’t be much of surprise to see that it’s soon increased to eighteen games  with an added second bye week to expand ‘futbaw’ by another half month, because money).

But it should be noted that the current eighteen week regular season plus a month of playoffs is not meant to be the only time we care about tossing the pigskin around. While it’s the still shortest period of gaming compared to other professional sports organizations across the world, the NFL has showed they intend to make following the league a twelve month endeavour.

The off-season might start moments after the Lombardi trophy is hoisted at the mid-February championship game, but with the Combine (organized evaluations of college prospects by coaches and managers) at the end of March, the draft of said prospects in early May, official team practices starting in early July and the pre-season revving up a month later, the league wants you to be paying attention the whole time. And then theres the rampant speculation during all this time about trades and signings during free agency.

For the 2021 off-season, quarterback trading, drafting and near sitting out kept the headlines churning (and how happy that must be that big trade of Matt Stafford to the Rams resulted in a Super Bowl victory).

Once the season began, there was obviously hope that somehow one extra week would necessarily mean that there would be a little bit more excitement, disappointment and weirdness on and off the field, but instead we got an overload of it (with the eventual divisional playoff weekend being maybe the best four game lineup of all time).

From every team’s own week to week performance to Covid still looming menacingly in the background affecting almost every lineup in big and small ways, it felt like Monday and Tuesday was making sense of just what happened and Thursday and Friday was predicting and analyzing of what might happen on the next Sunday.

Looking back at the talk points at the beginning of the season you can’t help but roll your eyes at the naïveté of it all. By the end of September, The Panthers were 3-0, the Arizona Cardinals were the team to beat and Kansas City couldn’t get its shit together.

New England started okay and then went on a seven game win streak to temporarily sit atop the AFC, once again forcing the entire conference to hyperventilate into a paper bag, terrified that Bill Belichick’s team just cannot die.

But the longer the season went on, the more familiar and mostly expected results reflected in the standings.

The Rams and Bucs had the all-pro player lineups, the Titans were strong despite losing all-pro players, and the Bengals were pretty good…until they just did everything right at the right time: the playoffs.

Until the last five minutes of the Super Bowl, that is. But even with the loss, the Bengals are being praised for their quick and wildly effective re-build, considering their terrible showing in the 2019 allowed them to grab Joe Burrow in the 2020 draft.

But 2021 Cincinnati team was really nothing more than promising. Sure, there were flashes of brilliance when Burrow hooked up with Chase and they won their division, but their record for the season was only 10-7. They came in first in the AFC East because injuries hobbled the two favourites (Ravens and Browns), and even though the Steelers had a broken QB, they were nipping at the Bengals heels, sneaking into the playoffs at 9-7–1.

In fact, the Bengals were expected to not last much longer than the Steelers in the playoffs.

But it just goes to show you that when you win can mean more than how often you win (just ask the Packers).

Cincinnati’s constant grit and getting off big plays when they need them (including a superb rookie kicker) meant that being an underdog in the playoffs is never a death sentence (just ask the Packers).

Of course the Bengals’ first win in the playoffs was a seven point victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, the exact amount of a touchdown, one of which Cincinnati shouldn’t have been awarded because a linesman blew a whistle in the middle of a touchdown pass, which should have stopped the play immediately. But after discussion the refs decided to allow the touchdown to count.

Raiders and football fans in general were not thrilled with this. But part of reality of accepting humans making calls and judgments in games (as umpires, referees or linesman) is that mistakes will be made, some of which can affect the outcome, even if there is a team of officials in a distant room with dozens of different camera angles ready to help the on-field team.

If you don’t like it, train AI to make judgments using many, many on-field sensors. That way every single moment of physical contact between players, all toe-drags and last minute bursts of energy towards the line to gain can be coldly and impersonally decided by ones and zeroes.

Which might actually be the future, meaning ‘Delete the Refs’ can be the rallying cry by fans in the stands ten years from now.

While Cowboys tried to blame their predictable early exit from the playoffs on the officiating as well, they fell short for the familiar collection of self-inflicted wounds.

Jerry Jones can’t get out of his own way. It’s already a hindrance that the owner is also the very hands on GM, but he is also playing a too-involved way in overseeing the coaching as well. After clashing in the nineties with head coaches Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer and Bill Parcells, he found coaches that were more willing to accommodate and defer to him. But it was with Johnson and Switzer where he found the most success, winning Super Bowls with them.

And football is such a game of specialization that there will always be a ton of variables you can’t control, but having a good, healthy top-down culture makes it easier to deal with inevitable setbacks and challenges.

How much can an amazing coach win with mediocre players?

And vice-versa?

Because it could be suggested that Brett Farve and Aaron Rodgers each won a Super Bowl in Green Bay in spite of then head coach Mike McCarthy, not because of him. And while McCarthy is definitely doing McCarthy-like things in Dallas, one can point out that the Packers haven’t been back to Super Bowl since him.

Even though the Packers have looked great since and played great this season except when they didn’t have their hall-of-fame signal caller on the field because of a covid mishap.

Aaron Rodgers’ shadiness and stupidity meant he is never going to be invited back to Jeopardy again.

Knowing that he could have been open and clear when asked if he was vaccinated (the correct answer in hindsight was ‘no’), he instead said he was ‘immunized’, having apparently taking the sleazy politician’s way out by choosing a term that wasn’t accurate but sounded like what everyone expected. And while the press could have asked for clarification, that they would trust Rodgers at face value and then find themselves burned when the QB announced he got Covid and wasn’t vaccinated meant he pissed away years of respect and goodwill from the league and its millions of fans for not being honest and straightforward in the first place.

And then there is Antonio Brown, a walking reality show who occasionally would remind everyone how good he could juke defenders and catch a football.

For how wild it was the way he left the Buccaneers, it was even wilder that he was even allowed to come back to play football after being caught with a fake vaccination card and suspended for three games.

They were examples of how football can easily become a microcosm for everything else going on in the world, and how excuses can be made for some people and not others. With Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin out with a season ending injury, Tampa Bay looked at Brown and thought, ‘Can’t throw the book at him, because we need him for success’.

So he threw the book at himself in the middle of a game a few weeks later, and most likely ending a career that had comparatively brief second chances in Oakland, New England and Tampa Bay, because it started with started with eight steady seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Speaking of which, it was Ben Roethlisberger’s last season.

Credit to Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin and the team’s defense for making it to the playoffs without the one thing everyone stresses you need to get there: a capable quarterback. Big Ben was certainly that for most of his career in Pittsburgh, but in the last few years he was really showing his age (yes, even though they won their first 11 games in 2020). If he had on-off games in the last three seasons, then he had on-off halves of games in 2021.

The Steelers had terrible first half offensive stats, but was able to amp up the scoring the third and fourth quarters to at least make it a game (unless it was a blow-out, which happened against the Bengals and Chiefs). They barely made it into the playoffs with an overtime win versus the Ravens in the final week, while also relying on a huge Jacksonville upset over the Colts and wild ending to the Raiders-Chargers game that couldn’t end in a tie (and almost did).

Despite this, they were only a half game back behind Cincinnati in the divisional standings, but the Steelers got crushed by the Chiefs in Wild Card weekend, although Roethlisberger did his usual thing and scored some touchdown at the end of the game when it didn’t really matter.

With that, Big Ben could retire with at least a final playoff season, but much of his success on the field was overshadowed by another QB’s run the started a few years before his.

One of the best lines from NFL Films (in the old special Crunch Course) was describing then Raiders defensive end Howie Long:  "No one is immune to his greatness." It might be time to apply that statement to Tom Brady.

Yes, Tom Brady and the Patriots had always been an obstacle for the Steelers trying to make it to the Super Bowl, but the two teams had not met as frequently as one would have imagined over the sixteen years with Tom and Ben being in the same conference.

With Brady also announcing his retirement this year, the Patriots/Bucs legend upstage Roethlisberger one last time, with an unassailable record, a generation or two of dominance, and ending not with a season of uneven stats, but an MVP calibre one.

Tom and Ben were main stays for so long, each one only missing essentially a single season due to injury during nearly two decades of football (Brady in 2008 when he tore his ACL and MCL in the opener, and Roethlisberger in 2019 when he injured his elbow in the second game and was done).

But while Brady relied on an intense exercise/diet regiment and a willingness to throw the ball quickly (either for short gains or purposely out of bounds) to avoid getting hit, Ben took those hits and near tackles to extend plays and throw bombs down the field when everything seemed lost. Of course he paid for that with injuries that he refused to sit out for, meaning in the back half of the season he was much, much less than 100%, which would hurt the Steelers especially in the playoffs, and why Pittsburgh hadn’t even been to the Super Bowl since the 2010 season.

Brady, of course, has been to the big dance ten times, nine with the Patriots, a dynasty that paired an unstoppable force (him) and an immovable object (Belichick). 

And while Steelers fans might see New England as their nemesis, Brady and Patriots fans themselves might pick the Manning brothers for slightly different reasons.

As far most NFL quarterback stats go, Peyton Manning has his younger brother Eli beat except for one, and that one might be the most important when considering their careers in the sport.

The eldest was better in regular season and constantly being a thorn in Tom Brady’s side (and offering up some amazing shoot-out style games), whereas the younger is better in playoffs.

In his first Super Bowl (XLI), Peyton Manning outplayed the Bears’ Rex Grossman (yeah! Him!), with an 81.8 to 68.3 rating. In his second (XLIV), he had a better performance, but got smoked by Drew Brees and the Saints in the end, and in Super Bowl XLVIII his offense mustered only 8 points against Seattle, who put up 43. In Super Bowl L (yeah, that’s weird, but it’s 50 in Roman numerals), it was a competition of which quarterback could stink the most, as neither Peyton or Cam Newton threw a touchdown nor had a rating above 57 (sensibly, the Broncos’ linebacker Von Miller got the game MVP award, highlighting how it was a defence-heavy contest). 

Meanwhile, in his two Super Bowl appearances, Eli Manning beat…Tom Brady.

(Is it slightly uncouth to ask who is the worst/weakest QB to win a super bowl in the last 20 years? Maybe it’s easily Brad Johnson (SB 37) or Trent Dilfer (SB 35), because those were names that had to be googled unless you’re Brad Johnson or Trent Dilfer)

So not seeing such an institution like TB12 playing as a season revs up in late summer will be a bizarre sight.

Oh, except that Tom Brady might not retire.

It took a little over a week to realize how damn empty his life would be without slinging a pigskin for half a year (and training to do it for the other half).

Legendary broadcaster Al Michaels seems to be in the same situation when it comes to announcing players slinging said pigskin, as the 77 year old was rounding out his contract with NBC by calling this year’s Super Bowl but also inferring that he wants to stay on the mic next year.

Which would be great, because he’s one of the best to do it. Listening to various game-callers throughout Sunday afternoon, you don’t realize how good Michaels is at the craft until hearing him on Sunday night. Not only knowing when to let the play speak for itself, but when to say something smart, funny, and just scathing enough if someone screwed up.

(https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2022/2/10/22926986/al-michaels-nbc-super-bowl)

Sports can have that effect on people, whether you’re playing it, watching it, or essentially being the intermediary between the two.

You don’t want it to end, and you don’t want to leave when you are still enjoying it immensely. As John Madden - another football legend who we sadly lost late last year - said:

Spending time with the family is one of the most overrated things in the world.”  

Of course it’s because of these impassioned emotions for the game itself that makes it easy for many of us to turn away from any of the problems that might come with football and organized sports in general.

Because the news of Tom Brady’s possible retirement quickly took second stage when former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores announced he has sued the NFL with a class action lawsuit that focuses on being on the receiving end of systemic discriminatory practices by team executives for years.

That it’s not surprising is the really sad part. What is a head scratcher is that for how much these team owners seem focused on winning, they seem to stop short at applying the practice of hiring the best available coaches.

There is only one black coach in the league currently, so let’s see how Mike Tomlin himself is doing?

Just one of the longest current coaching tenures (15 seasons), and has never had a losing season (something even Belichick can’t claim of his years in New England). Flores himself did amazing things in Miami with a lot of things stacked against him. That many talented offensive and defensive coordinators of colour were interviewed just to make it look like various teams were being fair and making an effort (the Rooney rule) before they hired a white coach of questionable ability shows a hollowness in intent.

Is there an element of racism because every team is run by white men?

Sure, probably.

But not in the sense that any of these owners would secretly attend a meeting of white supremacists.

It would be the blander form of systemic racism, where softer language like ‘doesn’t fit with the culture’ and ‘weren’t speaking the same language’ is used to justify these decisions. 

And that’s why systemic racism is dangerous. A weaker, less violent and explicit form, but one that can last so, so much longer in board room and Human Resources shadows.

That it is a sport where old white men trade and exchange predominantly black athletes from team to team so they can smash into and tackle each other for everyone else’s amusement cannot be ignored on a historic-symbolic level, either.

Because it can be seen as a matter of billionaires versus millionaires (which athletes and head coaches can certainly become quickly) arguing over a form of entertainment, much of the public can quickly roll their eyes at the level of importance, but it is a massive professional sports is an industry that can have influences far beyond the field.

At one moment it seems like the NFL is all about the money (Commission Goodell has overseen period of incredible financial growth for the league, even increasing its overall worth by $3.5 billion over the pandemic), and then you hear how casual racist and misogynistic emails are sent back and forth by coaches and executives (and which got Raider coach Jon Gruden fired).

When money, power and ego on the line, excuses can be made for practically everything, no matter how disgusting and awful (because it is hard to properly process the career and life of Ben Roethlisberger without acknowledging that he was accused of sexually assault by two women (both of which were settled out of court) and the penalty for that was ultimately a four game suspension by the league).

It makes the league’s increasing embrace of gambling sadly sensible as well, as the activity   has become a bigger and bigger thanks to the internet making it absolutely effortlessly to put money on sort of wager you can imagine (from how many catches one particular player will make, to how long the national anthem will take to perform).

The more that money is tied to a particular outcome of a game, the more there is a possibility of a match being fixed, although right now the only real reason intentionally losing is done right now is for apparently better draft picks, as Brian Flores has outlined in his lawsuit.

Right now it is very easy to celebrate the fun accomplishments on the field, but going forward (much like with the concussion issue), the NFL has to realize that the role they occupy in society is bigger than every play from scrimmage, and being a positive role model not just for kids but for everybody is a much greater legacy to achieve, and it has to come from a change of perspective from the current owners, or a change of ownership entirely.

But at least this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show went off without a hitch…right?

 

Overtime:

The Rolling Stones vs. The NFL (Halftime Show)

(https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/2/16961244/super-bowl-halftime-show-audio-patrick-baltzell-2018)

Since it grew beyond the marching bands that performed in the seventies and eighties and started to feature big, well-known musical acts, the Super Bowl Halftime Show has always included a level of pre-recorded music. This is because the NFL doesn’t want the biggest show on earth to have any embarrassing sound-related screw ups.

It’s been the responsibility of the half time show organizers to say to the artist that we’re not gonna pay you, and you’re gonna put on the show the way we tell you to.

For purely pop acts like Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Madonna and Katy Perry, all the backing instruments are pre-recorded and even the vocals are pumped in from a rehearsal performance (although they might have a live mic and can sing over themselves during the actual show).

For rock acts (U2, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, Red Hot Chilli Peppers), almost all of the backing instruments are pre-recorded, with the vocals and maybe one prominent guitar or piano being performed live (this was the case for Prince’s performance).

Except The Rolling Stones, who told the NFL ‘no backing tracks’ and the NFL didn’t argue.

 

NFL to everyone else: This is how it’s gonna be.

Everyone else: Yes, sir.

 

The Rolling Stones to the NFL: This is how it’s gonna be.

NFL: Yes, sir.

 

 

Notes

 

(https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2021/12/29/22858278/john-madden-nfl-coach-broadcast-legend)

 

 


 

Like a Bird on a Wire: The 2021 Federal Election

 

Well that was…something.

And nothing.

While he’s keeping his post, it’s fair to ask if Justin Trudeau actually wants to be prime minister. Because this was a poorly run campaign right from the moment he and the Liberals decided to have one.

If he thought he was in a good position to get a majority, then he can shoulder the blame himself or toss it onto his advisors and pollsters for being so clueless.

It’s hard to push the message ‘haven’t screwed up too bad so far’ when it comes to the pandemic, especially as the entire campaign took place while coronavirus cases were going up across the country.

Only a few years ago one of the explanations for consistently placing federal elections for the early fall is because people are less likely to vote when it’s cold out, which would nix the next five or six months.

Now you gotta slot it in between the nation’s waves of a global pandemic.

The common sense wisdom and political wisdom for holding an election now - and only two years after the last one - seems risky for all (political) parties involved, and it’s a bit of a head scratcher when everyone thinks they smell blood in the water which would mean it’s the right time to strike (hopefully you aren’t smelling your own).

A minority government is by its nature unstable, even though based on vote tallies (and not on the riding borders) the people of Canada want a government that leans left.

The Liberal-NDP partnership in the wake of the 2019 election (yes, two years ago feels like two decades) seemed the best one could hope for, as progressive policies slowly enacted are better than no progressive policies at all, but a global health emergency arrived six months later that put any serious test of this partnership on ice.

Disorienting to say the least, it made six years of Trudeau feel long and short at the same time.

Centrist policy is typically ‘don’t rock the boat’. Nobody happy, but nobody too angry.

That’s the ideal, anyway, and easier to maintain when the news isn’t what the news has been for quite a while now.

It’s time for…action?

There hasn’t been much substantial policy change for quite a while. Potential tax increases on the wealthy got boos and hisses in parliament. The tentativeness of changing the nation’s energy policy was clear from the beginning of Trudeau’s tenure. He passed the buck to officially let then-President Obama (remember him?) to shut down the Keystone pipeline project.

Cynically the Liberals were hoping to shore up as many votes as possible in Alberta by not completely demonizing fossil fuels, and from a practical standpoint it was the acknowledgement that even with fluctuating prices, the industry is still a huge boon for Canada, one that pays for the living standards we have (without the as high tax rates of many Nordic countries that have the same livability indexes).

When it comes to dealing with the pandemic Trudeau did well, as well as any leader could be expected to do in such a situation (the more recent former president/human dumpster fire to the south always the exception). Show up in front of the cameras, strike a tone that is a mixture of respectful, cautious and confident, don’t get in the way of the experts, and take their advice.

You don’t get points for doing the right thing, you can only lose points for doing the wrong thing (see: Ford, Doug and Kennney, Jason).

O’Toole waffling on the gun control issue (what does he really think about them? Whatever you do, dear voter) meant the Liberals and NDP framed a vote for the Tories as a vote for assault weapons flooding the streets.

Meanwhile, Trudeau was attacked in commercials for spending a hell of a lot money (during a pandemic)… which is…bad? That’s what the conservatives are going with? Did they do some polls and surveys and find that most people don’t think much about what else happened in Ottawa in the last six years?

After all, Trudeau’s scandals are bureaucratic bumblings (a meeting that shouldn’t have happened, blind to conflicts of interest), not threats-to-the-democracy. It easily reinforces the image that he lacks the politics savviness and intelligence of his father. There is a lack of malevolence in them, which can be appreciated for just half a breath. Because narrative hates a vacuum as much as nature does, Trudeau is defined by his missteps because he hasn’t accomplished anything positive of note that could push the negative perspective to the side.

But when it comes to enacting policy, the Liberals disappoint and the Conservatives disgust.

It’s good, complicated ideas that are needed to address the present and future challenges for the citizens of this nation regarding resources, forms of employment, and all sorts of inequality on one side…and bad, simple ideas on the other.

A Prime Minister gets no points for maintaining the status quo even if that’s not an easy thing to do.

Trudeau’s overlap with Trump’s four year flameout meant that getting along with Canada’s biggest economic, cultural and social trading partner had to be done while walking on broken glass (and certainly at times it felt as bad as eating it), and probably cast some more progressive planning - both domestic and foreign - to the side.

During the election campaign, a third of Canadians found the current Prime Minister doing a good job, a third found him tolerable, and the last third wanted to hog-tie him and run him out of town on the CN rails.

But ‘Likability’ in politics is almost always about disliking the other candidates more.

Stephen Harper, Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole (and even add the premiers Jason Kennedy and Doug Ford) are empty suits that only succeed if the alternative comes off worse.

Most of Alberta just votes against a leader from Ontario or Quebec (and vice versa).

Regionalism is cheap…that’s why it works.

Politics is just as much as about the lowest common dominator as it is about lofty ambitions and ideals.

The Conservative tactic of offering small tax breaks for most people and huge tax break for the wealthy is their typical bait-and-switch, like thinking a five dollar bill is going to convince a hostess to seat you at a nice restaurant when you don’t have a reservation.

The climate change debacle (that is, not acknowledging it as a problem in the Conservative Party platform) is a great awful example. While nice to find that O’Toole himself was disappointed with this, that he couldn’t do much to sway the party he represents suggests he’s not much of a leader (especially on an issue that is seeming more open-and-shut every day).

That O’Toole and his party are now backing a carbon tax should have been a PR-dream for everyone other party: ‘The Conservatives - Good Ideas Twenty Years Late’

O’Toole has the challenge of appealing to the hardcore conservatives as well as many political centrists who will only choose him if they dislike Trudeau enough.

Just like Scheer with the last election.

The NDP is the progressive platform that can best help the average citizen in a digitizing world, but few of their policies have corporate/big donor support.

Just like the last election.

The difference is everyone in the country is frustrated, exhausted and still quite wary about what the near and far future holds for both Canada and the world.

Which brings us back to the timing of this election.

If Trudeau thought he was in a good position for this election, it once again shows a level of cluelessness that doesn’t say much about his skills.

To pull of the timing - call an election with covid cases low and hoping they don’t tick upwards - was threading a needle… and they missed.

(Experts were warning about spikes due to the delta variant, due to the loosening of restrictions, due to everything tiring that came with it, and they were right. But that doesn’t matter to a growing contingent of society where being called an expert is ground for immediate suspicion. But we digress…)

Reality and perception can be heavy philosophical heavy concepts, but in politics they boil down to what you’re doing and what the public thinks you’re doing. Maybe internal polls, coalition challenges and expediency meant that holding an election was best from Ottawa’s perspective, which means everyone in parliament looks naive at best and irresponsible at worst.

Good ideas seem hard to come by in the nation’s capital, especially when one considers that O’Toole had practically copied the Liberal platform bullet point by bullet point, leading some to call him the ‘socialist conservative’ (critically? Complimentary? For O’Toole’s supporters, who cares…”just win baby!” - Al Davis, who has nothing to do with politics).

It’s part of the campaign process to promise us the sun and moon, sure, but we’ll take for being comfortable looking at each other actual face to actual face.

[and in terms of managing the pandemic, all elected and health officials can only do so much before the responsibility falls on every individual citizen to do the right thing and get vaccinated and make the sensible social sacrifices, but we digress again…]

It is a very thin membrane between cynicism and realism and 2020 and 2021 have tested us all in ways that have never been experienced in our lifetimes.

We live at a time where and when misinformation is easier than information. Typically more interesting, too, which is like shit to flies, speaking of which…

The scumminess of hecklers and protesters interrupting rallies for Trudeau (with the shit bonus of bigoted haunts and slurs hurled at visible minority candidates, because of course) drives just more of a wedge between how people talk (or appear to talk) about political issues.

(Who puts time into making a professional-looking banner that says ‘Fuck Trudeau’? And even sanitizing it slightly to make the first (and more implicating) ‘u’ a maple leaf symbol)

There is a not-insignificant minority of right-wing citizens who are becoming more and more dissatisfied with politics and the state of society in general.

The knee jerk reaction for them is to support the Conservative (or People’s Party) candidate in a riding due to the predominant belief that these parties push a ‘hands off, walls up’ policy to governance in general.

That O’Toole and his party came up short where it matters reinforces the idea that the Conservatives have a ceiling, and to combat this they tried to push a policy that wasn’t very Conservative, because people don’t support those typical talking points anymore (certainly not in the midst of a pandemic where the role of government is expected to be front, centre and functional).

This wasn’t exactly acknowledged during the campaign because for the media - and for political PR - it’s not very exciting.

Of course, elections are not supposed to be exciting, they’re supposed to be important.

The citizens of Canada gave their opinion of the last two years of a Trudeau minority government at the ballot box and said, ‘this is fine’.

Turnout was down by nearly 5%, and while a touch of political apathy, there’s certainly an element of people staying home because of a pandemic that will not go gentle into the night. But we are at the point where a progressive Liberal-NDP partnership has to actually bear fruit, not only for the sake of these two party’s political futures, but Canada’s as well.

 

 

Elections Need to Be Fixed, But Good Luck Voting On That

 

How a person's vote counts is a very delicate thing.

Getting a majority of the votes is sensibly ingrained in western democracies as the best way to represent the views of many, many people… by having a few hundred of them in a big room in the capital where they can argue and allegedly get nothing done.

It’s divided up into geographic regions (ridings, districts) with the idea that your local interests will be represented by local politicians. But if the first riding gives 9,000 votes for politician from party A and 1,000 votes for politician from party B, and the second riding gives 4,000 votes for politician from party A and 6,000 votes for politician from party B, it means that each party has won one riding each, even though 13,000 people combined voted for party A and only 7,000 people combined voted for party B.

Multiply these situations across a country with hundreds of ridings, and you get results like this in the recent election:

The Liberals got 5.5 million votes and 157 seats.

The Conservatives got 5.7 million votes and 121 seats.

Already that should set off some cocked eyebrows, but that's nothing compared to how weird it gets for the next three parties:

The Bloc Québécois got 1.3 million votes and 34 seats.

The NDP got 3 million votes and 25 seats.

The Green Party got 400,000 votes and 2 seats.

The People’s Party got 843,000 votes and no seats (take that, people!).

And while at first it certainly seems like the Conservatives got the short end of the stick (since they got the most votes but not the most seats), keep in mind that while they are the right wing party, the next three parties lean left of the centre-left Liberals (with some glaring Bloc-Quebecois policy exceptions). In fact, the most screwed over is the NDP, which got over half the amount of votes that the Liberals got, but only a sixth of the seats.

Was it an anomaly?

Well it’s been two in a row, because here are the very similar results of the 2019 federal election:

The Liberals got 6 million votes and got 154 seats

The Conservatives got 6.2 million votes and got 121 seats

The Bloc Québécois got 1.3 million votes and got 32 seats

The NDP got 2.9 million votes and got 24 seats

The Green Party got 1.1 million votes and got 3 seats

The only difference in 2021 is that the People’s Party peeled some votes away from the Liberal, the Conservatives and the Greens.

Whether you believe this is accurate representation of the will of the people can depend on whether you think that if people didn’t like this set up, they would clamour for change. And the idea of ranked balloting has been gaining steam in Canada (and America as well).

Steam is lighter than smoke, though, which is why any actual ‘fire’ for this constantly gets snuffed out.

If you are the politician/party that campaigned in part on electoral reform and then win the election, you might suddenly think that elections are working out pretty darn well (since you won), and hope the public forgets that campaign promise (like Trudeau from 2015 hoped). The Ford government in Ontario went out of the way to quash municipalities from trying it out (even though the leadership races within the political parties used ranked ballots).

Every political party always promises change for the better, but if Canadians are truly frustrated by election results that don’t represent their voice, really changes to that seems to be even harder to come by.

 


 

The Magic of the Morrisons - Looking at Toni and Grant

 

The same old story.

Confronting the Other.

What mask must your Other wear to make your tale one worth telling?

When history is so unbearable you have to add fantastical flourishes just to get to the next chapter. After all, there are many ways to be oppressed.

Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison and…uh…Scottish person Grant Morrison explore the evil and redemptive qualities of humanity in their work, but starting on very different scales.

Toni begins her focus on the small and domestic, the little quirks of daily life, and then she zooms out to show how they can be representations of great movements in family trees and histories of nations. She lightly dips these narratives in the slightly magical and maybe unbelievable, a connection of sorts to myths and wild rumours that a community tells itself about a past quickly fading.

Grant starts with the entire planet, the galaxy, the multi-verse, and then shrinks it down to relatable and hopeful moments that inspire us all, like Superman stopping a teenage suicide at the last minute and offering her kind words.

Oh right, Toni writes highly, acclaimed bestselling novels, while Grant writes comic books. But to dismiss the latter medium now is to fall into a narrow-minded and archaic notion of what constitutes storytelling and art (a title that the novel itself was once thought to be unworthy of).

Toni works up to the belief that a man can certainly fly, while for Grant it is a given, and where it goes from there is even more absurd and unbelievable.

But because we live in a world that is filled with mortal (and moral) peril, it helps that both of them have activism running through their life experience.

Growing up in segregated America in the thirties and forties, Toni Morrison learned her song well before she started singing.

When she was young and her family was too poor to pay rent the landlord responded by burning the house down. In response, the Morrison family simply laughed. Her description of this act was more than just a teachable moment. The image or idea of a house engulfed in flames (one pregnant with symbolism that could range from loss of innocence to the eradication of family, history and/or wealth) would be a recurring one in several of her works.

She worked for Random House as an editor, bringing black literature from around the world in to the American mainstream in the late sixties.

Her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, came out in 1970 when she was thirty-nine. In it a young African American woman wishes to have blue eyes, immediately finding common ground with fairy tales like The Little Mermaid, and Snow White where unattainable transformation brings about ruin. But with horrific plot points involving sexual abuse, incest and mental illness.

Toni does not just challenges the reader with these disturbing moments, but challenges the reader with changes in narrative perspective as well, shifting who exactly plays the role of the Other (she will use this several times in her work, most notably in Jazz).

Historically, the most powerful group of a society has labelled any group that would try and contest or simply share power as the 'Other', and this has divided people along racial, religious and cultural divides. A hatred and even a self-loathing is forced upon them - both actively and passively - by forces beyond any one individual's control. In a 1975 lecture she notes that, "the very serious function of racism...is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being." Outside of the obvious and odious violence that comes with racism, there is an exhaustion for those who must experience it. Racism doesn’t just up take time, it steals time, the one thing you can never get back. 

Her 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, is a Bildungsroman in the African American community that stretches over decades, featuring the son of a ruthless landlord trying to make his own way in the world.

Building a town slowly, side story after side story, and then leaving it all behind.

But for so long he doesn't and the true trials of protagonist Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead (a nickname he received because he was nursed by his mother way, way too late into childhood and an erstwhile neighbour accidentally came upon the scene looking through a window) begins when he ventures across nineteen-sixties America.

His homecoming is intentionally brief. You can never come home again, not in the same way. Time forces experience, and experiences changes you and your relationship to the past.

Wisdom takes time, but titular biblical references are much more oblique. One’s history is not just uncovered through learning about cherished keepsakes and specific key memories, but playground rhymes.

While race of course is a defining factor in how the black communities can and must operate in Song of Solomon (a sub-plot involves a secret society of black men killing random white people for every black man lawlessly struck down first), the chief Other is money.

By virtue of his father, Milkman is rich, and when he goes on his journey he is either fawned over or attack because of how he spends it.

His journey is for his own wealth, but not exactly. He is searching for lost gold, which will free him from having to be reliant on his father, although he certainly uses his father's name to gain access to learning more about his family’s past.

It’s no secret that the secret of a family is what makes it turn.

1987’s Beloved has that rarified air of a piece of fiction that is elevated and brought into general public's consciousness, even if they only got a few chapters in. Deigned Toni's masterpiece, boosts came from her winning the 1993 Nobel Prize and its development into a movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.

It didn't do very well at the box office, but considering the subject matter - a woman murdering her child in a frenzy to keep them from ever being a slave – it is a testament to Toni’s unrivaled skill with the written word to make Sethe a character of sympathy, pity, revulsion and love.

On top of that, it’s based on a true story, but for this novel the bridge between fiction and non takes quick leap over a small stream when a ghost arrives and eats them out of house and home. Doting over living or dead daughters to an unhealthy extreme is a moral failing that reappears in Toni's writings. So to do does the indefatigable support team that appears at the protagonist’s time of most need. Whether they are a prostitute with a heart of gold in Solomon or Eva Pearce in Sula, they can offer advice or simply a warm bath. It is enough to help the hero to change for the better, to redeem themselves, to give everything to those they love, even if it's with their dying breath.

This metamorphosis is what can make them super, and that's a fine transition to Grant Morrison's own body of work.

Their 2009 book Supergods is both a history and deconstruction of comic books, as well as a memoir, effortlessly fusing the underlying argument that no matter how many incredible powers, skin-tight suits, and nick-of-time rescues, superhero stories are really just about the ideal world we want to manifest upon the real one. The history of comics is one of freedom followed by control, followed by more freedom when fewer pearl-clutchers were paying attention. In the twenties and thirties, comics could be as dark and deadly as the artists wanted, but their popularity with children meant that the Comics Code Authority of the mid-fifties would take out the sex, violence and death and replace it with cartoonish domesticity. By the sixties and seventies, movies and television had taken over as the medium that needed to be watched and regulated to protect tender minds, so comics were let off the hook and off the chain.

Just in time for a young Scot to get their hands on them.

Bathed in sixties protests (and having an activist father who campaigned against nuclear proliferation), Grant Morrison kept their nose in issue after issue during a frustrating adolescence before starting a punk band that was meant to be more fun in the Glasgow non-sun than anarchic in the UK.

Trying their hand at writing comic strips on the side for a local newspaper, their near alter-ago Gideon Stargrave made his debut appearance when they were only eighteen. Spending time in the sci-fi trenches of Doctor Who Magazine and 2000AD, because if you've grown up with the stories, it's your responsibility to make them yours.

Blend the heavy-handed ideas of truth, justice, morals that has always been a staple and make it…weird. Taking the old and forgotten and making it new.

Animal Man was a ridiculous superhero created in the mid-sixties and largely forgotten for twenty years, until Grant got their hands on it, flipping everything upside down. The most mundane sort of superhero (with the appropriate everyman name: Buddy Baker) exists in a world overflowing with superheroes. So what does he do?

He tries to find meaning in his own life, and part of this involves living in harmony with the natural world he intuitively understands (which leads to him wondering if he should help eco-terrorism), assisting suicidal supervillains, talking to parodies of other famous animal characters (including the infamous ‘Coyote Gospel, which netted that particular issue a Eisner nomination), and – ultimately – meeting his (current) creator/manipulator, Grant themselves.

Doom Patrol did similar things for an erstwhile team that made The Avengers look normal (back when The Avengers weren’t the hottest superhero team out there). With Dadaist elements and the fusing of different characters to create a multiracial, multi-gender higher being, it’s what you would get If William S Burrough’s wrote a comic book.

After this, Grant was given keys to the big dogs, but they still did it in their style, tackling Batman in a bizarre way with Arkham Asylum, a 'serious book' at a time when everything in comics was getting too smart for its own good.

If Watchmen played with the bright and shiny comic tropes and exposed its underbelly, while Miller's Dark Knight Returns explored the true challenges of vigilantism in a police state, then Arkham Asylum is a coffee table art book of nightmares and dreamscapes.

After ten years of scraping by, it was a huge success for Grant, proving that – like crime – writing doesn't pay until it does.

Repackaging the comic book as a graphic novel, to the chagrin of literary types who only see it as panels full of punches.

So with that in mind, we should probably talk about The Invisibles.

Feel the white flame.

No really, this would be a real good time to feel the white flame.

Throughout time a chair will be a tree, a building project, a place to park your butt, a cherished heirloom, and perhaps a pile of ash. What would it look like if you could see all of these moments in time with the ease of turning your head?

What would you look like if you were able to see everything in the world the same way? Or yourself?

What are you? When are you? Where are you? Who are you?

And of course, why are you?

Feel the white flame.

Over six years and 'sometimes decent, sometimes not' sales (and eventually collected in seven separate paperback collections), the series is a magnum opus in every way.

What's it about? Well, good versus evil would be the best basic way to put it. But a more fun way is to say that imagine all the 20th century conspiracy theories were put in a blender and then you had a gonzo team of semi-superheroes trying to fight them all at once.

John Lennon makes an early cameo, as does Percy Shelley, the Marquis de Sade, and imagine if Bruce Wayne was abducted by 'aliens' (quotation marks intentional) and consequently just wants to help terrorists overthrow the military industrial complex (which obviously is run by evil higher dimensional beings, aka the ultimate ‘Other’).

The Watchmen on acid. If George Orwell and Terrence McKenna collaborated after sharing a bottle of whisky.

It was written in 90s, when everything was supposed to be great, but the world certainty found a litany of problems, of course.

Corporate greed, technological malaise (the earlier, lighter version), environmental uncertainty, and continued marginalization of many different minority groups, based on race, culture and gender.

Morrison wasn’t afraid to use their pen as a blunt instrument in this series. A short sub-plot involves white business executives smoking magical drugs that allow them to temporarily inhabit the bodies of black gang members so they can kill and rape all night long without consequences.

A hideous modern day fairy tale meant to show the lengths those in power will go to be flex, wield and hold onto it.

Rigging elections? Ha! Try rigging reality.

Our heroes sometimes face seemingly insurmountable odds because it’s not a giant laser or an obvious alien invasion coming from the dark side of the moon. Frequently in the Invisibles the team asks why they are fighting and who they are supposed to be fighting?

The real truth, as one character finally notes:

"We are not at war. There is no enemy. This is a rescue operation."

The only way to defeat the Other is to refuse to acknowledge them as such, and instead see them truly as Us. You have to love them.

The Invisibles is suitably bonkers, a great way to re-wire your brain without the use of psychedelics, and 2002's The Filth is the flip-side of it.

If there are more than two sides to every story, then this one depicts the evil forces of the previous tale in a new light, as a inter-dimensional police force that is really trying to keep the status quo and prevent the 'world' from slipping into further chaos.

Richard Nixon lives, there is pornological terrorism (meant to free people from societal norms and boundaries) that must be rooted out before it gets out of hand, and brainwashing your enemy into your friend is all in a day’s work.

When its protagonist rebels (because of course they would) and they confront what is meant to be the concept of a superior, he asks what he is supposed to do with this, holding up the entrails and guts of the universe, and the superior indifferently tells him to put it on his flowers.

Don’t just stand there, do something.

Persevere, continue, take another breath.

Grant coming out as non-binary in 2020 underscores that there is no final state, that initiation to life in general never ends (to paraphrase another wisdom nugget from The Invisibles).

Much of Grant's work focuses on ascension, on improvement, on transformation. A combination of ascetic meditation and the physical overpowering of evil (with guns and Kung-fu, obviously), but the latter is really just a smoke screen.

There is only one battle, a battle of the mind, of ideas, and the big fish eats the little ones.

Meanwhile, Toni has had her race and gender be chosen by society at large to be what defines her. After all, "definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." (Beloved) This sad, crushing imbalance of power means more intricate restraints and restrictions. Promises of change being as flimsy as paper, so you may as well write on them.

In her 1993 Nobel lecture Toni states that, "language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation."

The power of names is a popular fairy tale trope (from Rumpelstiltskin to Voldemort), and many characters in Toni’s works are searching for people – living and dead – whose history is unknown because there is not even a record of ‘who’. From slavery onwards it was a process of erasure, not just of customs and cultures and bodies, but the most basic words that define an individual: Their name.

In The Invisibles, the enemies try to control language in familiar (a surveillance state, corporate run media) but bizarre ways as well (saying the alphabet as one long words - "ayebeeceedee...etc." - is actually a spell to keep children (and ultimately adults) ignorant of higher thought).

Grant finds the shocking possibilities in gods and monsters while Toni finds tragic beauty in the ordinary.

Describing food, finery and the way someone might sit down on a bed in great detail, saving dialogue for certain moments where the scene takes on the feeling of watching a play.

Even when she introduces the supernatural, it comes as a plain and grounded question: 'What if the worst thing you've ever done - even for the best intentions - comes back to haunt you?'

Beloved in the end is...

Well, there is no 'end' to what Beloved is, because it is very much a ghost story that lingers with the reader long after they finish the novel. The apparition for the rest of us is the very real, very odious and very long shadow of the chains of racism.

Milkman Dead doesn’t try to break those bonds in the end, but the physics of the universe itself: "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."

The exact same thing happens early in The Invisibles, when young recruit Dane McGowan jumps off a skyscraper like it was parch bench.

Grant's limitation is many, many panels, even as they wants to blow the whole wide world open to the universe next door.

A picture is only worth a thousand words if it's a good picture.

Finding the perfect balance when you have both at your disposal is an art in and of itself. When you can show and tell you might ruin the fun and mystery in seconds, and being able to communicate clearly with the artist during creation is just as important as being able to communicate clearly with the audience upon publication.

What if the flimsy 2D paper that superheroes exist upon, living their seemingly static panel-to-panel lives could compared to our own lives in 3D space plus time? What is the level above, and are own lives as simple and easily manipulatable as our ink and paper characters?

The final chapter of Morrison's Supergods is an excellent summation of superheroes, and gods in our modern society. With - gasp - a happy and inspiring note to end on as well. Why does it seem like we are hell-bent on destruction, ruining our own only planetary home and never seeming to be that happy about anything we do on it for more than few minutes at a time? Because we are ascending, because there is some sort of order (which might look like a chaos at the moment) that is tracking our progress. We are putting ourselves through hell because it’s the only way to get to heaven.

While it still might be more of a pipe dream, everyone needs a good story to get us through the night.

Certainly Toni would agree.

 

 

 

Sources

 

 


 

The 2020 Election: [insert expletive here]

 

 

It's always been too early to bury Donald Trump because there's something about brash confidence that lights up the reptilian brain like a Christmas tree.

Hell, his success against all odds would be something to celebrate if he didn't perfectly encapsulate how terrible the shape of the American Dream truly is.

George Carlin noted that it was called such 'because you have to be asleep to believe it', but for more than a century, the nation represented to the globe as a place where hard work could pay off. Provided you were white and male, of course.

And with such context it's easy to be skeptical of the egalitarian nature of the country’s past successes, but that story of American greatness is a core value injected directly into the citizen's subconscious. And we have to be careful with such legends, stories and myths , because they are designed to leap off the backs of statistics and into the cross-fingered stratosphere of 'fucking' A!'. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, and the current president is known for his flag-hugging.

While the outcome of the 2016 election was so close that almost every reason given to Trump’s victory is plausible (the re-opening of the email fiasco, Clinton not campaigning in the rust belt, the nation’s long simmering sexism, Bernie Bros sitting out, difficulty voting, ambivalence to either candidate, domestic and foreign internet disinformation), what should have disqualified him early on somehow became his greatest strength: He talked so much shit, it stopped sounding like shit. It became background fridge buzz.

No policy details, but everything will be beautiful, tremendous, trust me, and here's something offensive everyone can bicker over. Fareed Zakaria didn't pull any punches and called Trump a bullshitter love on national television not long after the 2016 Republican National Convention.

One would hope that regardless of your political stripe, looking over the last four-odd years would make someone who espouses the virtues of a functioning democracy be absolutely revolted.  Congress was certainly horrifically disappointing and has its own share of problems, but the executive branch quickly caught fire and decided to put itself out with gasoline.

By continuing to dig deeper and deeper into a hole with the handling of the Coronavirus, it's easy to forget the earlier disasters.

Remember when he shut down the government because he wasn't getting money for his border wall, the embarrassing, insulting and immoral construction project that won't even work?

Shit, Covid-19 has obviously spread over all of the news for 2020 (and into the president to really drive the point home), but that means we forget this guy's been impeached for the drooling-moron-corrupt-as-fuck decision to ask Ukraine to get dirt on his political opponent, otherwise they don't get military aid.

There is no American institution that Trump hasn't shat upon. He has attacked and denigrated every pillar of democracy if he feels it hasn't kissed his ass unconditionally: Congress, Supreme Court, the justice department, intelligence agencies, the electoral process., the news media, windmills If it gets in his way it is FAKE and BAD and UNFAIR. His tactics have been compared to a strongman, but he gives even less of a shit (thankfully?) about any aspect of governance. For him the appearance of power is enough. Even his desires are hollow. Beyond getting good headlines and hearing cheers and applause, he just wants to play golf. And that superficiality leaks through all levels of power in America. Make some money, protect the money, deflect responsibility, have the proles argue amongst themselves. 'Make America Great Again' is a perfect jingle in the sense that it means whatever you want it to be, and therefore absolutely nothing. Nations are too complicated to simply be labelled 'great' (reminder: 'Great Britain' is a geographical designation).

But no one will deny that America was top dog in 20th century. But we're two decades into the 21st, and to stay #1, you’ve got stay in fighting shape. And this doesn't just mean having a military that can kick the ass of every other country. Sure, there's huge advantages at being number one in that, but when all that spending comes at the expense of massive cuts to infrastructure and social programs that is slowly turning your middle and lower class into a permanent underclass, what the hell are you protecting? Is it the estates of the 1%, who have not only gotten richer in the last four decades of deregulation, but even more stinking rich since the beginning of the pandemic?

This has been a massive problem for decades in America, and despite Obama's best progressive efforts, Congress thwarted much of his agenda to re-distribute wealth among the many. Even something that sounds some common sense as universal health care was constantly vilified in conservative circles and knee-capped in the courts.

So if the system acts like it's rigged for the rich, and works like it's rigged rich, what does the average voter do? If citizens chose a populist over a traditional politician - ostensibly because 'business as usual' hasn't helped anyone outside of Wall Street or Silicon Valley for so long - and the populist completely shanks it, do you go back to a traditional politician? Because that's Trump versus Biden. The choice for the leader of the ‘free’ world is between a constantly exploding diaper-filled dumpster fire and a seventy eight year old with fifty years of beltway politics under his belt.

It's bad enough when a corporate-minded attitude dwells within the executive branch. It is awful when a profit-driven mindset is applied to the responsibility of doing public good. It is even worse that the current office-holder represents the worst sort of corrupt and broken aspects of corporatism.

Biden will obviously be a great sigh for most of the world just by being there, but there is so much work to be done. With the exception of this push for health care, the mainstream democrat economic policy has not been that different from the mainstream republican economic policy (hell, it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall). For several decades the wildly divergent differences between the two parties was mainly seen with social issues. Bumps/cuts in spending/deficits were kabuki theatre in Congress. Only in the growing progressive wing of the democrats has there been a push for huge economic reform. Which has been met with resistance from mainstream dems and their big money donors.

You don't have to be a massive cynic to say that Republicans and Democrats will both fuck you, but that the Dems will just buy you dinner first.

Everyone pretty much agrees that profit-driven everything has infected much of the West (and certainly America) and that it's a bad thing. The only people who don’t agree with that sentiment are coincidentally the ones with all the money. Its unrestrained admittance into the halls of power was bad enough, but the Supreme Court's Citizen's United ruling made 'buying public opinion' (or muddying it) as easy as buying a politician.

And perhaps the view of the court was that a curtailing of any sort of speech - even possible misrepresentations of a shadowy political action committee - was too risky, and that they hoped the average citizen would understand the proper context of the torrent of information presented to them and not make rash conclusions.

Well, the Supreme Court was wrong, and fucked up the country forever.

Speaking of which...

Calling the passing of Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg the pre-October surprise of this election cycle is a stain on her memory, but so is how the conservatives are handling it.

But then there was the release of his (non) tax returns, a clusterfuck of a debate performance, and then the announcement that Trump has come down with the covid, and then left the hospital and called it no big deal.

It’s an embarrassment. It’s a triumph. It's the flu. The drugs he took were tremendous. God gave it to him. Whatever you want it to believe, that's the answer. That's the how the truth is marketed these days. Objectivity seems to be hard to come by, but we're having a fire sale on the Subjectivity brand.

What do you want your nation to be? There are not many moments where each citizen can answer this question, and usually elections boil down to policy differences between candidates. And saying 'but this election is different' feels hack because it's important to acknowledge that every election can have ramifications that you could not possibly anticipate, but truly the decision has never been so stark. Joe Biden might be everything wrong with incumbency and centrist politics, but Donald Trump is everything wrong with humanity. It seems baffling that there is even a rational choice between the two, and the great divide between how two political parties see America is alarming. But then, what is America? Is it a shining, peaceful beacon democracy, or is it a hyper-militaristic global superpower? Is a bureaucratic nightmare or a free-market, 1% controlled monster? Or is it just the best damn country on earth with cheeseburgers and imported supermodels for all? Check your social media newsfeed for the answer.

The US government is larger than ever before, though seeing its benefit for the average citizen is disgustingly low. And corporate power and influence is larger than ever before, despite this massive bureaucracy. This is because the US government just gives/funnels money to these massive corporations, many of which work in very close relationship with government officials (elected and otherwise) who bounce back and forth between high-ranking jobs in the public and private sectors. The clearest is the old standby, the military-industrial complex, because the US spends the mostly on military spending by a huge margin compared to any other country, although very little actually makes it to the average soldier. So much of that money goes to private companies with government contracts that are massive money pits of greed and waste. But other industries big industries as well. Energy, Wall Street, Health Care, Silicon Valley, there is a lot of money that is given to these corporations, and in return these corporations donate to/fund-raise for/bribe politicians to pass legislation that benefits them even more.

The big picture problem with Trump and his tax returns is that none of what has shown is a crime. The problem is that the wealthy can hold onto money and power through a series of legal loopholes that ensures they can still retain money and prestige while simultaneously being horribly incompetent and corrupt.

Trump is the most glaring and obvious symptom of a larger disease.

If this is capitalism, it's creating feudalism.

Even the campaign and election cycle is big business (thanks again, Citizen United). Big and small donations from people who can create super-pacs or try to fit it into their already stretched monthly budgets means we are all betting on our candidate to win and then make a return on our investment by introducing policy that we want to see.

Of course, unless a politician is talking about the one issue that you care a ton about (taxes! The environment! Guns! the Minimum wage!), it's easy to tune out policy and start nitpicking superficiality. And since that's Trump modus operandi, he's the perfect clown to cause a mess Three Stooges/Eric Andre style. Too bad it's a nation he's ruining now, and not just a reality TV show. The tools that are meant to inform us about serious issues are getting gummed up by scream tweets and always breaking news.

A horrible side-effect of trying to educate/inform the public through a massive promotional campaign through traditional (tv, radio, print) and modern (Internet) methods is that the money spent typically goes to big PR firms and massive media corporations (who own tv and radio station, newspapers and magazines, and popular internet sites that people congregate to). So in many ways, this exacerbates one of the main problems - and one that people should learn more about - which is the narrow concentration of media companies and how what is presented in their programming and advertising shapes our political discourse (oh, and the fact that these media companies are 'meant' to make profits, and who see Trump as good for ratings, and therefore good for business). These are narrow debates which whittles social assistance to 'welfare bad vs welfare good', equates the ability to purchase extended ammunition clips with freedom, and turns every policy no matter how complex or nuanced into a slogan.

Despite this, Progressivism has gotten more popular everywhere in the United States except the place where it can make all the difference: Congress. Centrists democrats like Biden (and the two houses the party might control) will be able improve the national moral standing simply by being exponentially better than Trump, but that is only a very small step in the process of healing all America's self-inflicted wounds.

The costs are going to be astronomical, because it has to be a massive surplus plan that will dwarf the CARES act (and without all that Wall Street blowjobbery). Joe Biden has carefully avoid using the words 'tax hike', even though it is absolutely essential to rehabilitate America and increase spending, especially in communities of colour, which has suffered through decades of systemic and blatant, violent acts of racism, of which the events of 2020 have become another painful reminder.

While marches and awareness campaigns are all essential first step to create a groundswell of support for change, the change that has to happen involves wealth re-distribution. Full stop.

But no one wants to pay for anything. Only suckers get stuck with the bill. And tragically the current president fits this mindset like a glove.

"There is no herd immunity to greed", Thomas Friedman said earlier this year, and while he can be a bit of a ham in his writing, no profanity-free quote has perfectly summed up this year better than that one.

It's good to see that more and more of America seems to be acknowledging this, that success and financial freedom is becoming harder and harder to attain as the already-wealthy circle the wagons around what they already have. It is tempting to give in to cynicism and try hustle your way in the world and not try to see the bigger picture or fix it, which is why everyone has to be working together and supporting policies not just when they are about to be voted on, but during their enactment as well. You don’t just fight for your country on election day. The Democrats' opponents in elections and governance aren't just Republicans, but apathy as well.

It is heartening to see that despite the pandemic, voter turnout looks to be extremely high. Sadly,

because America is turning left, the right is trying to make voting - making the very essence of democracy - harder to do. Big business teamed up with evangelical Christianity to create the steady republican voting block (with some libertarians thrown in more good measure). Somehow the wealthy and the purportedly pious don't step on each other's toes, and the rich support anti-gay, anti-abortion and anti-woman policies (because if you're rich you can ignore them), and the faithful supporting pro-corporate, pro-wall street policies (because god will reward the faithful in heaven). Combined, you can really fuck up a country in the early twenty-first century by turning it into the gilded age of the late eighteen-hundreds.

It's both frightening and frustrating that the current crop of 1%-ers can't or won't see the problems that concentrated wealth can create. But it should be no surprise that little has been done in the last four years to alleviate this crippling problem, considering the person in the White House.

Trump is a zombie corporation come to life. If capitalism was actually a system that rewarded the smart and hardworking as well as benefitting the many, his business failures would have truly ruined him and no one would ever think of putting such an incompetent, malevolent fool in any position of power. Instead, he blew through the American political system like a hurricane and stomped on the American psyche like an elephant.

The blowback against everything that Donald Trump represents - ignorance, cruelty, cooperate greed, equating power with being right - and how it has united so many people across America in collective loathing, will be the only positive aspect of his presidency. Hopefully everyone will know what they absolutely do not want to experience again. That's not the same thing as knowing what they want (and knowing how to get it), but at least it's a start.

 

 

 

 

Sources

(Or at least, read this important article about free speech in a digitizing world)

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/13/magazine/free-speech.html


 

 

If you tolerate this, your children will be next

(Manic Street Preachers)

OR

Stuck Inside of 2020 with 1968 Blues Again

(Dylan (almost))

 

 

(note: we didn't think we'd be writing about this topic again so soon, but that's 2020 for you)

 

It feels wrong that the sun should shine so brightly on these early summer days.

Like the weather doesn't notice the state of the world. Or it does, and is mocking us.

The bad news is that the protests are the easy part.

The hard part is slow, steady structural change, that not only has to focus on improving the lives of individual visible minorities and the communities they live in, but completely reforming the criminal justice system to - and here it will be put bluntly - stop being so damn racist.

While vilifying any group that doesn't conform to arbitrary norms set by those in power has been happening since the dawn of civilization, in America the constant 'other' has always been black people, and to be more specific, the black man, who - even after the abolishment of slavery - was something to be feared, something to be restrained.

Both women's rights and gay rights have made tremendous strides over the 20th century, and while the civil rights act of 1965 is a landmark achievement, many laws (notably - and only recently revoked - 'three strikes') both overtly and covertly keep minorities largely in the margins of power.

How do we end this?

Police reform is only a start, as it is the manifestation of the laws of the state which actively attempts to enforce these laws as well as passively attempt to segregate power from those with and those without. This means that the statement that seemingly innocent phrase 'the police protect the law-abiding citizens from criminals' is a warped, dog-whistle euphemism which is meant to infer that the police protect white people from minorities.

Disconnecting people from supporting this belief is essential, but doing so - changing people's viewpoints - is not easy. The belief that criminality is linked to minority communities needs to be tempered strongly with the acknowledgement that it is poverty itself which is the culprit, not at all the colour of one's skin. To address this multifaceted issue, there needs to be a divestment of power from those that hold it. And in practical terms this means taking money from people how have plenty of it and giving it to people who don't.

Call it reparations if you like. Call it redistribution if that suits you. Offer it in the form of increased spending in predominantly black communities, for social programs, education and public works projects, all of which bolster local employment opportunities. Certainly subsidies for post-secondary education, small business loans and debt forgiveness should be included.

That is what should be done.

Will it?

Paradoxically, this attempt to give black people a fairer shake will be decried by some as handouts, as 'free money' for events that they believe happened too far back in the past to warrant such a 'gift'. A sizeable selection of poor white people (and there are a lot of them to begin with) will resent the enacting of a reparations-style program and see it is as 'special treatment'.

Because they are poor, they do not see themselves as having any sort of white privilege. A middle class suburban family are more likely to be aware of this privilege and be reflective of it than someone who has seen their small town hit harder and harder times over the last twenty years. They take for granted that a police officer will talk calmly to them, that they can walk into a store and not be viewed suspiciously by employees, and they will bristle at being told that they are blind to the realities of the larger world they are living in.

And for those who want long overdue fairness and justice to be applied to black people in predominantly white nations, responding 'let these racists make these complaints, we should just ignore/cancel them', will not remove those who are deaf and blind to their white privilege from the political discourse. They will vote based on this, they will express their misguided opinions in the public and virtual public squares. And the debate and discourse around these opinions will inevitable take up plenty of time and political-social energy, which will keep the real reform - wealth redistribution - from ever happening

It's always not time to talk about money, apparently.

Debate the use of confederate symbols, the possibility of false flag rioters, how corporations try to piggyback onto causes, Even arguing about the term 'Defund the Police' (and however you want to define that nebulous, three word term that is largely more symbolic than substantial) avoids the heart of the issue.

But it should always be about money, because money is the representation of power that we all assent to via a globalized economy. Loosening the purses strings of the wealthy in America, China, India, Russia, and other powerful nations and sharing the spoils with the rest of the citizens there is the only way to truly rehabilitate society, and with that, a lessening of hatred and bigotry that people cling to when things grow bleak.

Of course money alone cannot heal the long pains of the heart, but it undoubtedly improves the conditions of the mind and body. It makes the difference between a thriving community and a dying community.  It makes the difference between a police force that serves citizens and one that suspects citizens. It makes the difference between hard work finally paying off and hard work being more like a tunnel with no light at the end.

As of 2013 white families had an average median wealth of $142,000, while black families had roughly $11,000. Black families in America have less retirement savings, more student debt, and at the moment federal policies support lower class Americans less than wealthier classes (and sadly, visible minorities make up for higher than average share of lower class families, which makes it harder to climb that social ladder).

There is a system with both passive structural and active social elements that keep this terrible imbalance in place.

So we are now dealing with the idea of a massive reparation fund, one that will take generations to properly enact. It will take an incredible amount of unity across all races in America. It will involve financial sacrifice not only of those who can easily afford it - certainly much of this fund will be paid for by high taxes on the wealthy and corporations - but affect those who will be asked to give in much subtler ways, like accepting cuts in services in their already economically comfortable communities so that there will be spending increases in areas that desperately need more attention. And of course because the corporation's profits are going to be squeezed, they are in turn going to squeeze their customers (regardless of the colour of their skin, in this case).

It will be full of setbacks, and for this to truly work they must be overcome, the project cannot be cancelled or curtailed lest we all return to horrible status quo of right now..

Because this cannot hold.

If the police are above the law, then there is no law. If the police can't follow the rules, why should they expect the citizens to?

The domestic side of the legislation passed in the early years of the 'War on Terror' is now a convenient excuse to persecute visible minorities. Police were not only given larger budgets to invest in equipment, but were given a much wider berth to enforce laws and surveil suspects. Egregious behaviour was constantly downplayed or ignored until it just became 'behaviour'. And as more of this abuse of power is exposed, a change must come.  With power comes responsibility, and the police have been able to defer or ignore any semblance of responsibility for decades. It is true that they are expected to do much more than in the past, playing the role of mental health councillor, EMT, social worker, and concerned citizen.

Especially in impoverished and lower class communities cuts to programs and the weakening of an overarching institutions are felt, and the void is filled by the police. And giving police responsibilities that they are not trained to handle inevitably results in disenfranchising a community further. These jobs stresses may drive ideal candidates out and allow for people with glaring deficiencies into the role of law and order. And we see what happens when these conditions exist, over and over again.

This healing cannot open with money alone, obviously. In fact, the only way this re-investment can happen at all is to acknowledgment racism - both overt and systemic - and then to actually change our behaviour, not just the law.

But behaviour is fickle, stubborn, and can be resistant to change if it requires even slight discomfort. The problem with racists... is that they are human. Obama noted that not one person is born with hatred for another. Which means it was something that had to be taught, that one person had to conclude that they were innately superior to others because of the colour of their skin. Which is insane.

It would be much easier if racists were not human, if they could be some other form of creature that we would have no problem eradicating from the earth. And sadly, their violent and hate-filled actions are not inhuman either, as much as we would like to label them as such.

Viewing racists as the 'other' - as racists typically view those that they denigrate - all but guarantees these thoughts and actions will continue in perpetuity.

More complicated and universal forms of human behaviour are at the heart of racism. Fear, anger, loneliness, envy, jealousy. Root emotions combined with people's unique external experience twist and roil into a gnarled hatred.

Dismissing a person (or group) entirely because of their opinion doesn't stop that from existing, or playing a role in society. Even if you think their views are stupid or reprehensible, they will still vote or run for office, and maybe even have an important role in a powerful position.

So you either wait for the opinion to become so awful that no one has it anymore (because it die out with them), or you try to talk with the other side, and if not find common ground, that try to change their mind.

And if a society cannot do that, if the people cannot compromise (even if you personally think that compromising on this particular issue is ridiculous because to you and everyone you know and interact with how to stand on this issue is clear as day), then democracy is doomed.

If it's your demand or nothing, society usually takes the course of least energy (change is hard!), which means they choose nothing, or just do window dressing (like changing street signs).

It seems impossible to fathom how anyone could believe that racism, sexism or any form of bigotry has a role to play in humanity's future. It is incomprehensible how someone would not believe that this was something that we collectively have to overcome. It has to be one of the highest ideals, one of the greatest virtues that we should aspire to.

To think otherwise is not only darkly cynical, but an embrace of this awful regressiveism that you would hope evolution itself would have stamped out.

To achieve this goal is a supremely massive, undertaking however, even making wealth distribution alone look simple.

Can it be achieved? There may be no great challenge to humanity in regards to how we interact with each other. By looking for similarities between each other we cannot help but see differences as well

Can we overcome our primitive mind-level bigotry? It is dispiriting that it has to be asked, rather than simply announce with certainty that this sunny day will come. There is the fear that the current power structure and status quo might to be ingrained in too many people. There is the fear that we have to conquer the primitive components of our biology in such a infinitesimally small time frame compared to how changes in the human animal actually occur. There is the fear that somehow even more pressing and immediate disasters (literally natural disasters) will take attention away from something that is so key to the importance of civilization. How can we address taking care of the earth when we cannot even take care of each other?

It is always said that the most powerful tool or weapon is an idea.

The ability to change another person's mind is an incredible one.

And that is why there should alway be more than a sliver of hope, because history has shown time and time again that new ways of seeing the world can either raise or topple communities, nations, and empires.

What we must remain cognizant of in the present moment is how ideas are spread through society, and then acknowledge the importance of memetic quality in our communication with modern technology (how can we talk to each other via the 'this is fine' dog?).

To use a dirty phrasing, how do we sell the world on racial reconciliation that relies heavily on taking money from one race and giving it to another?

To say 'we shouldn't have to worry about optics' is missing the underlying observation that people need to be convinced of a position through a myriad complicated signals. There are factual signals and there are emotional/moral signals. There are arguments that appeal to the head and the heart, and both need to be addressed to convince to align themselves with your point of view.

'Defund the Police' is a short phrase, right to the point, but because of that it is ripe for multiple meanings and misinterpretation.

This present marketing analysis of this term is absolutely revolting. Obviously having to market the idea that police brutality is wrong and that systemic racism exists sounds reprehensible because you shouldn't have to do it because it is fucking obvious.

But we live in a society that is struggling with how to engage with technology that we are still ill-equipped for. The Internet has change how perceive and evaluate information, and has allowed us to exist in intellectual bubbles or echo chambers, where the only way to engage within them is through a powerful, succinct and direct message.

Marketing thought/speech applied to technological innovation has upturned sociopolitical discourse, and the only way to solve this is by flipping it on its head.

Fight fire with fire.

The Left needs an ideal convince-the-world strategy to match their lofty ideals.

It feels lousy writing this, really. There needs to be be a constant reminder that using this marketing strategy has the ultimate goal of lessening the psychological impact of marketing.

But you need to change people's minds, and while the continued barbaric torture of disenfranchised minorities at the hands of those expected to uphold the law is finally showing the masses that something must be done - and marching in the streets is a powerful initial show of solidarity and importance - explaining what must be done is a process requiring surgical intellectual precision.

With the proper message you can expect larger support, and with that a strong set of reforms can be put to a vote in the halls of power. And even at that point, pressure (through phone, email and possibly more protests) still must be put on the politicians in order to make sure the vote is reflective of the populace. And there must be a concerted effort to continually remind the general public during election campaigns of just how important this matter is, and that they definitely should support a candidate that endorses these reforms when they go to the ballot box (and my god, do they ever have to go to the ballot box)

All these links in the chain must be strong, or it risks breaking.

At this point we are roughly one month out from George Floyd's murder, and while protests have spread across the globe, there are already signs that our general attention is waning (certainly that there is still a global pandemic to contend with does not make reforming law and order institutions any easier).

We are living at a time that 'feels' fast and immediate, that we continually move from one piece of information (whether tragic, inspiring, or trivial) without reflection. We are attempting to change our behaviour and the how integral institutions operate, and neither of these thing fit into a news cycle or social media newsfeed.

The challenge is not just time, although we have to acknowledge that opportunities to improve civilization for the many come and go, and that if we don't capture the energy of the moment, it will be something that we will regret for generations to come.

In times of trial and tribulation we turn to our past because they have certainly gone through their own times of darkness. But they persevered, rose to the challenge, and overcame it, and we know this because we're here. And future generations can look to this time, and know that we did the same, as they will look to themselves and say, 'because we're here'.

The many who marched over the last few weeks may not have financial power, but that is no way to judge a society. Financial power can be found in any nation, regardless of its level of personal freedoms. For too long marginalized groups have felt the crushing weight of indifference at best and hate at worst. Without a redistribution of wealth and power across nations, all these protests will be in vain.

Which is why we're here. Yes, we're here. It's time.

 

 

Sources

 

Important Practical Article On What Can/Should Be Done:

(https://www.vox.com/2020/6/1/21277013/police-reform-policies-systemic-racism-george-floyd)

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/13/magazine/police-reform.html)

 

(https://apps.urban.org/features/wealth-inequality-charts/)

 

(http://www.tripoetry.com/BEING-BLACK/FACTS/Wealth%20inequality%20has%20widened%20along%20racial,%20ethnic%20lines%20since%20end%20of%20Great%20Recession%20%7C%20Pew%20Research%20Center.pdf)

 


 

2019 Review: Gimme Some Truth

 

 

Finally we got a tweet that was important.

Darryl Morey did it accidentally.

Nations and corporations have attempted to play nice throughout their tempestuous history, with the underlying view being 'if one succeeds, then the other succeeds'.

If the average citizens also succeed, all the better, but this has not been viewed as necessary, save for the Great Depression. 'Bread and circuses' have long been enough, but now even our bread and circuses have become global corporations.

The problem with everything having a capitalist mindset is...just that. Then there is no alternative, no plan B, and there should always be something like that.

Millionaires shooting balls into hoops for our amusement may already seem incongruous for a properly functioning society, but when Rockets' General Manager Morey expressed simple support of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, it threatened his bosses' bosses' bosses’ relationship with China, which enthusiastically supports the NBA in the country ('enthusiastically supports' means the American company can sell plenty of merch and viewing options to the country's billion-plus population).

In response to this, professional basketball threw a towel over their head and sat on the bench, hoping the whole thing would blow over. Big name players who have long been politically outspoken missed the easy basket by supporting...democracy. The NBA as a whole chose money over American values. Over Western, democratic values. Not that this is new, as all countries betray their moral foundations when it is most convenient to do so. Espousing values is easy, but adhering to them is so much more difficult. Ideally citizens can hold the government accountable through protests, inquiries and elections, but it must be said that it is all too frequent for people of all political stripes to passively accept the system that governs their society because power is rarely distributed so evenly. This means the most beneficial direction for all (or even most) is not always the one that is pursued.

But corporations have no such qualms or barriers. Take the money and run (thanks Steve, although Bob was also right: 'Money doesn't talk, it swears'). While the NBA is at least just an entertainment company, even heavy hitters like Apple have buckled under China's demands, as the tech giant removed apps from their store that provided assistance to the Hong Kong protesters.

(https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/10/23/20927577/apple-hong-kong-protest-app-democracy)

To simply demand that the NBA or Apple stand up for the ideals of the country they originated from is easier said than done. Such an interconnected economy means that everyone risks taking potential financial losses on the chin, and while the players on the court would be able to miss a few paycheques, that's not exactly true for the thousands of ancillary jobs that depend on a properly functioning professional basketball season.

There's so much business tied up in all this, that even a well-intentioned tweet that is the opinion of one man can jeopardize the entire operation.

And that's the problem.

A system this fragile shouldn't exist, and no one should have to walk back their opinion because someone else finds it problematic.

The Chinese government's response was cut and dry and pathetic:  they tried to get an American citizen fired for expressing an opinion while he was in America. This is according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and denied by China.

No country is without its faults, and the more powerful the country the more glaring these faults can be. The Western world has long had an outsized role in managing global affairs for better and worse, but the 'better' in this respect meant slowly giving rights and freedoms to practically all of its citizens. Not so with China, which is a totalitarian police state where the government censors all media and arrests/intimidates/threatens you if speak out against it.

You don't have to know the intricacies of thousands of years of Chinese history to know that right they have prison camps filled with millions of Muslims (in this case Uighurs), Tibetans and dissenters, all of whom the government perceives as a threat. That having a slightly clever name of 'The Great Firewall of China' practically glosses over the fact that it means the government can restrict an incredible amount of information from its citizens. And China is now so economically powerful and essential to the world economy that none of us can truly turn away, even when we're having throwaway meme fun (not fun fact: China owns Tik-Tok, and flexes its muscle - https://www.vox.com/open-sourced/2019/12/16/21013048/tiktok-china-national-security-investigation).

More than ever before, it doesn't matter where you live. It may not affect you now, but changes to how we engage with each other in a digital realm are happening at an incredible pace. Knowledge is power, and while the Internet first appeared to be a wonderful provider and equalizer in this regard, we have found disinformation and no information at all is just as easy to offer up.

Trying to guess what the news story of this year will have the biggest impact in the years to come is nearly impossible. While the easy answer is just 'Trump', the Hong Kong protests are not so secretly the most important for the future of the sort of global society we are going to live in moving forward. Democratic rights and freedoms are going to have to be fought for. Maybe not always in the streets, but definitely in how we conduct ourselves off and online.

It's been over twenty years since the British gave Hong Kong back to China. They never should have taken it in the first place, and it had long been a stain that slightly reminded everyone of the dismissive brutality of colonialism (that made a lot of powerful people a shitload of money).

China originally allowed Hong Kong to have some level of autonomy, but with the rest of the country having an astonishing level of success over the past few decades the government saw no reason to 'share' power with a slightly Western style of citizen rule.

Which came as a slight shock the West. The belief was that as China experienced strong economic growth and built what was called in the West a 'middle class', freedoms would naturally follow. That there would be elections and free speech.

But that didn't happen.

Whether Western capitalists knew it was unlikely and were (are) just in China for the money, or were genuinely surprised that the Chinese government strengthened its grip on the populace as it experienced record financial success is not exactly clear. But if we look at how concentrated power became in the wake of early nineteenth century monopolists in America, then it's obvious that Capitalism doesn't work that way if you don't want it to, and China did not. This rise in economic power coincided with technological developments that make it easier to monitor and control citizens and the information they have about their community and country.

Interconnectedness comes with huge advantages and huge disadvantages, and we are being wholly ignorant if we think only of the positives. It's been passively decided by the largest companies in the world that authoritarian governments are okay to do business with. In this we're all guilty. We've been buying cheaper products from China and Southeast Asia for decades, regardless of how the governments there treated its people.

We are all in this together, for better and for worse.

This sort of empty platitude certainly rings emptier than ever at the starting gate of the third decade of this century.

Divisions are more pronounced. Just look at the latest British election, Trump's still powerful support, and protests across Europe against everything from austerity to immigration to climate change. The problems that have created these divisions (economic and social, neither of which should be seen as separate entities) are not entirely domestic, either, which means the nation alone cannot solve them. But nations aren’t talking and negotiating the same way as before. Too much power is tied up in the corporate world, which operates beyond borders, and largely beyond civic accountability.

To think that Wall Street and the financial markets have learned their lesson from ten years ago is naive.

(https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/20/world-sleepwalking-to-another-financial-crisis-says-mervyn-king)

Even as the stock market hits record highs.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/27/business/stock-market-best-year.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage)

Corporations continue to take and never give.

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/17/business/how-fedex-cut-its-tax-bill-to-0.html)

Governments typically do the right thing very slowly, and corporations do the wrong thing very quickly. And nations are wholly dependent on receiving corporate profit crumbs that they will jeopardize the long-term functioning of their country and several others.

(https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/nov/28/12-eu-states-reject-move-to-expose-companies-tax-avoidance)

Do you even want to know how the planet is doing?

(https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/05/climate-crisis-11000-scientists-warn-of-untold-suffering)

What will it take to make positive change? Maybe the smaller things. As we've eased into certain expectations of how the online world is supposed to work, changes to them might jar us into action.

We are already reorganizing our off and online lives a bit more carefully thanks to incessant realization that Facebook is – to paraphrase John Oliver - 'a data collection app masquerading as your high school yearbook'. This year we’ve learned just how extensive the social media giant have been knowingly selling your data to third parties, and also not realizing that other third parties are using nefarious mean to get it anyway. They also came out in favour of political ads that lie, saying it’s not their job to make sure truth is told. No one on earth liked that. Knowing all this looks (and is) bad, the company has been trying to spin themselves positive with ads that literally have puppies and ice cream in them.

Google/YouTube (it’s bears reminding that the former owns the latter, just like how Facebook owns Instagram) have bragged that so many kids are watching videos on their site that they’ve shot themselves in the foot. You can’t ‘target ad’ children online (the law is known as COPPA), and a recent decision means all videos (yes, the billions) have to be (re)classified as designated for children or not. Who cares? Advertisers. They might not bother with paying for target ads for any demographic, child or otherwise, since they can’t be placed on as many videos. Who cares about that? Everyone who makes a living creating YouTube videos. Your favourite creators might be working for 90% less in the new year, which means many of them might have to close up shop because it’s not worth it. And let’s not minimize the importance of the communities these creators have built (speaking of whom: RIP Etika - Joy(conboyz) will never be forgotten).

It’s things like that – a disruption to people’s viewing habits – that can wake up people up to the larger problems: That all these companies are much too large to exist as they do. They are practically public utilities, but are still run as for-profit companies with much of their stock owned by a very, very small group of investors.

It explains why Amazon has no qualms of taking open-source software when building its cloud services for other companies to buy. Amazon Web Services is like a millionaire going to soup kitchen with a giant cauldron and taking it all. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/15/technology/amazon-aws-cloud-competition.html)

It’s not that they can’t help themselves, because in their eyes this is that ‘not a bug but a feature’ sort of thing.

Google and Amazon were vying for Pentagon contracts, and the only reason Google won is that Trump hates Amazon owner Jeff Bezos because he also owns The Washington Post (which, y’know, reports the news). What a perfect marriage of the greed of amoral corporations and the immoral pettiness of modern politics.

Apple is able to stay above the fray in this respect, and just hope no one notices how it tries to avoid paying taxes in democratic countries, while following the whims of authoritarian ones.

(https://www.ft.com/content/43812efa-d7f4-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17)

Yes, bashing Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple all in a row. Not necessarily for their failures, but the unintended consequences of their incredible success. 2019 was the year where everyone felt Silicon Valley’s overreach and didn’t like it one bit. Breaking up these companies might be too difficult a goal in the halls of power (even if it should be done), but how the billions of people who use these tools daily can also force these companies to make changes for the better.

Just in time, too, because it’s not like governments are necessarily stepping up and doing the right things.

Taking a page of America's treatment of illegal immigrants and then making it ten times worse, the Indian government has begun discriminating against Muslims in such a blatant fashion that the whole world is turning against it in revulsion:

(https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/12/12/21010975/india-muslim-citizenship-bill-national-register)

Move a couple nations over and we can finally read about badly America mishandled Afghanistan during its still ongoing war/occupation/clusterfuck with recently released intelligence reports that took a three year challenge in the courts to give journalists access to them.

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/)

In the same vein, the Mossack-Fonseca/Paradise papers is by far the most underreported important story of the decade. This is where the money goes. Some zeros in a corporate tax haven bank account is doing irreparable damage to every nation (and every citizen) on earth. Such massive wealth concentration is the slow strangling of democracy and helps solidify the grip of authoritarians and dictators.

(https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/paradise-papers)

2019 was a continual slide into the muck. A fitting final year to a decade where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, the changes to technology (and our relationship with it) were still too cosmetic, and still being used largely in part to kept things as they are as opposed to ushering in real and essential change.

Admittedly each of us have a limited range of choices of what to do in the face of such large challenges moving forward, but if we continually choose money over freedom, soon we won't have either. A breaking point is too negative a term. We need to seek out a fixing point.

 

 


 

Why Does Racism and Bigotry Persist?

 

It's immoral, hurtful, disgusting, and completely unscientific. It is a wholly irrational viewpoint. Yet this line of thinking is still around, and it sadly holds so much power over many, and causes so much destruction.

This will obviously not be a complete analysis of racism and bigotry in totality. That would take several academic-sized books (and the work of a diverse cast of writers and researchers). But we are at a unique point in human history where the role of science and technology has become a dogmatic essential. We tacitly agree that large decisions that affect the community should be made using scientific data. We tacitly agree that one of the most important ways to engage with the community is using glowing rectangles in our pockets, and on our laps or desks. 

Science has proven time and time again that there is no difference in ability between races and ethnicities. We are all homo sapiens. The differences between us are individual, not based collectively on skin colour, culture gender, or sexual orientation.

Saying this now might sound obvious, but it can take years or even decades for the discoveries of science to finally filter through society so that we are all on the same page for accepting the most basic explanations of scientific concepts (evolution, the universe, the big bang). The Internet has made it possible to connect with people across the globe instantaneously, and even language barriers have been able to be knocked down thanks to easy translation programs. Knowledge and ideas can be shared, individuals can show how unique and capable they are, long held beliefs of who can do what are able to be radically transformed.

But we have resisted.

So much hasn't changed.

While the Internet has made it easier to highlight examples of racisms and bigotry that range from systemically bureaucratic (hiring practices, double standards in legal system) to crimes against humanity (the violent persecutions of the Uyghurs and Rohingya), the fact that there are still so many examples is alarming and disheartening.

And why?

-Because it's easy to assign senseless and incorrect blame, and people (all people, beyond race, creed, gender, orientation or any other trait) have a tendency to be intellectually lazy when they can get away with it

-It is a useful wedge political issue (this is the PR, euphemistic term for how the matter is handled today. In the past it was pogroms, witch hunts, and race riots)

-The difficulty in overcoming the concept of 'otherness'

The 'other' is more a psychological concept than any actual person or group. It is labelled that way because it is meant to be wholly malleable.

It is a leftover response from tribal behaviour tens of thousands of years old. You trusted your family, your small social group, and, as civilization developed, towns full of people you knew. And because of proximity and cross-breeding and a strict social structure, people looked pretty similar and acted similar. Anyone new or different that arrived on your farm or in your town was met with suspicion. This was the 'other', and the suspicion that you had of them was the most basic. This stranger might kill you or steal from you (a reaction that pre-dates humanity, and is the basic 'fight or flight' responses in most animals).

Over eons and centuries, we've been able to temper this to some degree. The mechanisms of civilization (security, safety, health, exchange of good and services, etc.) have made us much more likely to trust and socialize with people who are not members of our family, our tribe, our town, our country, our background, etc.

Yet this also meant that the image of the 'other' can be manipulated or distorted, sometimes bringing back the older, reptilian-brain view that they were here to cause you harm.

When it suited those in power to have their citizens to demonize or hate a certain group, they would encourage it. And when it suited them to no longer have their citizens to feel that way, they would discourage it. This was seen throughout history:

Keep the barbarian hordes out of the Roman Empire, the Mongolian hordes out of the Byzantine empire, the entire world out of Japan.

If it wasn't enough to kill people who looked and acted different than you (and then take their land), then it was because god said it was okay, which made for a good excuse to kill/subjugate unbelievers and heretics (and then take their land).

The Crusades weren't the first time that pitted Christians, Muslims and Jews against each other, but it's best known example of religious hatred and persecution involving a place where a lot of valuable buildings are (Jerusalem).

It doesn’t even have to be completely different faiths. The inter-European conflict from 1618-1648 was simply called the 'Wars of Religion', although everyone involved were of various Christian denominations (and they still had time to vilify the Jews and claim they poisoned the wells).

Even in the twentieth century, the portioning of India resulted in the deaths of millions of Hindus and Muslims when Pakistan and Bangladesh were created.

Thankfully, an overall decline in religious affiliation (or strong religious affiliation) means that many archaic notions and rules have fallen by the wayside. Religious persecution and social divisions are not nearly as deep as they once were (while it is clear they are not eradicated completely). Today's religious extremist would have just been considered 'religious' decades and centuries ago.

It should be noted that while the abrahamic religions have long vilified homosexuality, many religious doctrines have also been used to promote segregation and apartheid between races, and certainly the constant and near-unrelenting subjugation of women.

If it's not because 'god said so', then it's because some other authority figure (perhaps a king, a political leader, a family member, or a group of people you trust) said so. It is the return of a form of tribalism, where we pick and choose the information to trust implicitly or suspect immediately. Some of the information is incorrect or incomplete, but occasionally we overlook this and want it to be true because it conforms to a previous assessment or experience. This is problematic enough with any statement ('it is raining here, so I will assume it is raining everywhere else'), but it's much more terrifying when it's applied to people.

If there is one story about a person committing a crime, then it's as if every group that person belongs to (race, religion, nationality) is guilty of the same crime.

What makes someone start to believe a stereotype about a group of people, let alone taking the next step and assuming that they (and their own group) are better than them? Why do people believe that immigrants 'bring' crime and chaos when study after study show that this is not true?

Quite simply and unfortunately, because we can. Because we have that psychological agency to believe whatever we want, even if it's wrong. Because we can stubbornly refuse to find out anything else (and more accurate) about the matter at hand. Because it has become even easier to live in a mental bubble. The Internet has made it easier to re-re-re-confirm our worst and basest beliefs and suspicions thanks to the spread of misinformation and twisted facts.

Responsibility weighs heavy on us. From work, family and social obligations in our own lives, to the widely diffused responsibility of a citizen. As Sartre notes, we flee from responsibility when can. We like things not being our fault. We like hearing that it's always 'the other' who is making the mistakes, who is contributing to the downfall of society.

If you assume that because most Americans in prison are black that black people are more prone to criminal activity, then you are (idiotically) ignoring a wealth of other factors that explains this discrepancy.

While 'People are intellectually lazy and prone to ignorance' might be the answer to these questions about the persistence of racism and bigotry, acknowledging this is not a solution to the problem.

If the solution were simple, perhaps it would be solved by now.

Racism was (and is) based on pseudoscience, useful/immoral political agendas (keeping a house divided means you can lord over it that much more easily), and personal aggrievement. It has allowed for large groups of people to be treated unfairly and cruelly since the rise of civilization.

This exploitation has unfortunately continued, and has allowed for the continued marginalization of 'the other'. In the current economic system of unrestrained capitalism, there is also the cruel Monetization of Otherness. Capitalism doesn't 'do' morality, it just attempts to make profit.

No nation is entirely homogeneous, which makes it possible for any sort of minority (visible, sexual, etc) to be constantly portrayed as the 'other' in society, as a focus of both active and passive racism (and while we should acknowledge the great strides made over the past decades, it is still sadly present today).

Portrayal is an important term here, because it can be parsed between the laws and actions of citizens, and the culture of this society. How culture affects the viewpoints and opinions of a society's citizens (and vice versa) will always be an ongoing debate in a healthy community, and this is because culture has always been fascinated with the other and attempts to engage with it (through art, literature, and other aspects), while other facets of modern post-industrial society still fear and marginalize it (justice, economics, political participation).

In this sense, culture can knock down barriers and build bridges between groups, but even here, corporations have long taken advantage of still existing prejudices. Presentation of the 'other' in film and television still may have problems, and there does not necessarily mean that there is adequate representation behind the scenes. Even during the years of the civil rights movement in America, stereotypes were common on-screen, working conditions were not fair behind it, and even in entertainment industries where visible minorities were making great strides, major record companies still exploited black artists (and one of the reasons of the creation of Motown Records).

The distribution of power in the wake of the Depression and World War II took it out the hands of the few and redistributed it to the already emerging middle class (which, across North America and Europe, was predominantly white, and led by the straight white male). The strengthening of this group of people during the time - when there were calls by minorities and women for equal rights - worked out very well. People are more likely to share power when they are finally comfortable with the amount of power that they now have. This is not particularly reassuring observation, considering how power has manifested itself in society.

Racism and bigotry was infused into class hierarchies. A poor white man might resent the rich white man, but he would at least be satisfied that he was at least 'above' (in his mind) a poor black man (and if he resented the rich white man, he absolutely loathed a rich black man).

And everyone listed above felt good about the fact they weren't a woman, although a rich woman certainly thought themselves better than a poor woman, and a white woman thought themselves better than a black woman.

Finally, if anyone above was a homosexual, you suppressed that with every fibre of your being, because if you were lucky you'd just be ostracized (and if you were unlucky, you'd be killed).

This system allowed for a powerful minority (whether ethnicity or religion) to rule over a less powerful majority, proving that in certain conditions, certain numbers ($$$) mean more than others (population).

Regardless of when you want to stamp western democracy with its 'golden age' label, praise must be given for what it began to do in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

The necessary restructuring of society during this time was to give historically disenfranchised individuals (in western democracy, this can be very loosely said to include women, visual minorities, the LGBTQ community, and the differently abled) access to power that they never have before. This meant taking power away from the concentration of people who had the most of it (in western democracy, this is the straight white male).

This would result in some form of resentment, but it was not widespread. People are more willing to help the marginalized and downtrodden in society when they themselves are living a more comfortable and secure life. You'll share a bit of your power with others when you are secure with the amount of power you have.

This observation can't help but note that this means the social progress and harmony is dependent on the continued success of the people with power, since they are the ones who have the ability to parcel it out and share it, if they so desire.

But power ebbs and flows.

Gains made by the white middle class in the middle and late decades of the twentieth century have receded. Now the concentration of power is in the hands of even fewer people, divides not seen since the Great Depression of nearly a century ago.

The effects of this are far reaching, and range from the obvious to the subtle.

Rent instead of buy, people are more likely to have to get a quick loan just to cover bills, etc. You are not able to save as much, which is doubly problematic considering job security is weak, and that you might need to access this money if you suddenly find yourself without a job.

Psychological effects (which should never be discounted or ignored) include low self-esteem, stress, depression and anger. And this increases the chances of turning to drugs and alcohol to cope or push these feelings away (which can result in addiction).

Outwardly, there can be a cynical disinterest in political discourse (which can exacerbate the wider problems of economic inequality because solving them requires an active and engage populace) or a cynical and narrow engagement in political discourse.

The easier and more direct action is the mental regression: Blaming 'the other' for your predicament. Now people are reluctant to share power when they perceive there’s not enough of it to go around. It’s no longer not sharing with ‘the other’, but the idea that this other now has it better than you, or is supposedly taking advantage of a social system or program that is no longer helping you.

This ‘feeling’ that this is happening can overwhelm any factual arguments that show this assumption is not true.

And this is a dangerous predicament for democracy as a whole.

Racism and bigotry are nothing but hateful, society-destroying beliefs based on lies. And when that is part of the foundation of the nation, then it will not remain a democratic one for long. One form of twisted lies beget another.  Racism is literally 'skin deep', but it has been baked into the history of human civilization, and it will be a slow, arduous task to pick all the bits of it out.

Individual nations or regions each have their own challenges with racism within their borders. But global matters can affect each nation in different ways.

Western democracy (and its subset of European colonialism, which was profoundly undemocratic) has long presented a contradictory picture of rights and freedoms, giving citizenship for some of those within its continental borders, and brutal racist subjugation for wherever their ships landed. Its attempts to right past wrongs have been middling, but at least there was an attempt. Now the situation has changed entirely.

With the higher concentration of economic power in the hands of smaller groupa of wealthy individuals and corporations, the average citizen (regardless of their identity) in Western democracies has seen their shares of power and economic security dwindle in the last forty-odd years.

A change of how this economic power operates is necessary. It must be redistributed across the state. The quickest and most effective way is to greatly increase taxation on the extremely wealthy and the corporations they own and invest in, as this inordinately small segment of the population has actively and passively taken advantage of social divisions for years.

While this will not cure all of racism's ills, it will go a long way to alleviate the suffering that comes with poverty, marginalization, and hardship of those that are exploited through racism and bigotry, and the victims of racism and bigotry. This means not only helping the marginalized groups, but also some the people who are doing the marginalizing. Poor white and poor black communities both need assistance for the good of society as a whole.

This is not a 'pardoning' of racist behaviour. This is a long, slow reduction of racist behaviour.

A deeply entrenched problem requires an extensive and complicated solution. Without any plan in place to do this, then the problem will only get worse.

The Internet has made it possible to connect and radicalize people who hold terribly violent views towards minorities, immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community, and it has been tragic when these views are acted upon. When the baseline belief is disgusting, immoral and wrong, it's no surprise that the people who come to represent these viewpoints in the halls of power are also disgusting, immoral and wrong.

There is no other way to say it: For the good of the future of western democracy, straight white men (especially wealthy straight white men) have to take this on the chin, have to get the shit end of the stick, have to pony up and give an inordinate amount of their power back.

If this sounds like class warfare, it is, because this group has been waging war on the 99% for decades now, as they continue to amass more and more power with impunity.

And that so many of them seem to willing to fight tooth and nail for a set of privileges that they believe to be rightfully theirs shows how entrenched this demented line of thinking (that 'they deserve this') really is. Born into wealth doesn't mean you are successful, and being born a white man doesn't mean you are having your rights trampled when a minority or a woman gets the job you wanted. Sorry, straight white men, your mediocrity is no longer a high enough bar for success.

Actually, forget the 'sorry' part.

 


 

 

We Need to Talk About Climate Change and Deadly Diseases

 

Do you remember life in the time of cholera?

Probably not, but it's making a comeback.

Diseases and viruses that we conquered throughout the twentieth century are mutating and coming back stronger, resistant to our medicines, and are spreading in ways that are harder and harder to control.

It's not just the big name heavy hitters like cholera, ebola, or measles. Little known bacterial infections that few people outside the medical community have ever heard of - like candida auris – are proving fatal for the very old and very young across the world. Yellow fever can still spread across continents. Despite having medication available, malaria still kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.

We need more research, more education, more infrastructure, and more efficient containment.

But there is one thing that is happening across the globe that is making all that much more difficult.

Climate change is an amplifier, making long-standing problems and challenges to the development of civilization much worse. The twenty hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 1980. Eighteen of the twenty most devastating hurricane seasons had occurred since then. In the United States alone, this has cost $1.6 trillion dollars. For the rest of the world - especially in underdeveloped regions - more and more people are paying with their lives.

That much of this can be blamed on the warming of the planet is no doubt frustrating and exhausting, since it's yet another big piece of bad news upon a front which we seem to be making very little headway.

Climate change is upending weather patterns, creating longer dry periods that lead to forest fires, as well as warming waters which create huge storms that lead to intense flash flooding. It affects growing cycles for crops the entire planet depends on for food supplies, leading to price spikes, shortages, and famines. It is melting the world's glaciers, which means all the ice that was on the land becomes water and raises ocean levels, flooding coastal cities.

For too long this laundry list of problems was only of concern to environmentalists... and large segments of the populace. But rarely did this raise the eyebrows of massive corporations that had undue influence on the halls of power. For the energy industry, which dumps/spews CO2 into the atmosphere, there was (and still is) a cottage industry in denying that climate change even existed despite all the evidence. The danger here was our stubborn ignorance. Whatever got our cars moving and our bills paid was good, and a bunch of tree-huggers were just trying to harsh our buzz.

Our belief that we are atop (and therefore out) of the food chain, leads to an erroneous assumption that we are atop the entire global ecosystem. But the continued existence of stuff we need to live our lives - from food to building materials to socks - are dependant on an extremely fragile economic system, where every interconnected pieces has to work perfectly.

Nothing shows how easily this system falls apart than massive storms, occurring with increasing regularity. In the Northwestern Hemisphere this is costing hundreds of lives and trillions of dollars. Seeing the speed an extent of the response by fire, police and other rescue personnel (including the military in some cases) is certainly inspiring, but it also comes with an ever-increasing price tag. One of the reasons storms in the West cost so much more is that so many properties are insured, and having to pay so much with such regularity is putting a tremendous squeeze on the insurance companies...and the other companies and individuals who invested heavily in them. The fragile ecosystem of Wall Street and the fragile ecosystem of our planet have dangerous similarities when too many components are removed or do not work properly. One is the abstract value of wealth and power, the other is the physical properties of matter that are arranged in such a way to create life. Clearly the second trumps the first, although you’d be forgiven for not thinking so, based on how so many political and financial decisions are being made. This is the curse of the post-industrial, proto-digital state when it reaches certain levels of consolidation: Profit begins to slow progress.

In the rest of the world, however, the stronger, climate change-enhanced storms can cause much more obvious, widespread, long-lasting, and deadlier chaos.

There is a less organized response to the disaster, and people who were struggling with finally climbing out of extreme poverty now find themselves with even less. Just enough food becomes no food at all. Homes and farms completely destroyed in floods, with no government authority or agency to appeal to. This means that other problems in the region that was barely being kept under control can suddenly grow exponentially. Regions that have poor sanitation, little to no transport infrastructure, or dependable medical facilities/supplies mean a rise of infectious and extremely contagious diseases soon follow. A typhoon may only last a few days and be terribly devastating, but the famine that comes after lasts much, much longer.

Climate change's far-ranging effects are going to be most devastating to the world's poor.

Areas of the globe that have benefited from rapid industrialization only recently (Africa, Southeastern Asia) are in a particularly tough bind. More industry would improve living standards, but more industry also means more pollution not only in close proximity to these areas, but to the rest of the world as well.

It's gotten to the point where 'rest of the world' is an inaccurate, demeaning misnomer. In the interconnected socioeconomic quasi-digital community of 2019, there is no place that a disaster cannot touch. Investment means a company in London losses millions when there is a particularly devastating monsoon in India, destroying a factory. Trade means the goods in every store and every warehouse almost certainly came from across the oceans, or at least the parts of it did. Apples from South Africa, coffee from brazil, fish from absolutely anywhere. The ease of global travel means so many people are always cross-crossing the planet for professional and personal reasons.

Money holds the system together, and it may be what tears it apart.

In America, the five costliest hurricanes all took place in the last fourteen years (Katrina, Harvey, Maria, Sandy, Irma), California wildfires are incessant, and both these overshadow the frequency (and economic and social damage) of tornados and midwest flooding.

Despite years of disinformation over the existence of climate change, many people are finally accepting the truth that it's here and it's devastating, because the horrible results speak for themselves.

But the problem is what to do about it.

Governments rarely have enough 'emergency money' just to provide necessary help to their citizens who are now suffering, let alone funds in their budget to completely upend their energy and fiscal policy that will lessen the impact of this weather and its effects in the future.

Southern Australia has quietly been going through its worst drought in centuries, with the Prime Minister declaring New South Wales ‘completely in drought’ last August, spending millions in relief aid for farmers. Meanwhile, Northern Australia is experiencing record floods, which also required extensive financial assistance. They are also one of the most coal-dependent countries on earth.

Like so many problems an interconnected world is dealing in the early 21st century, a warming globe and more natural disasters is just the beginning of the problems.

What also has to be taken into consideration is not just storms of flames and water (and what comes after), nor the migration patterns of millions of people who are leaving lands that have too much water or too much dust.

In the coming decades, temperate regions will become tropical, and that will completely upturn growing seasons, wildlife, livestock and every sort of plant. These changes alone will cost billions of dollars to adjust, and if that wasn't hard enough, the actual, actual problem is both bigger and smaller:

Billions of tiny bugs.

Warmer climates means mosquitoes are moving into different regions, bringing along the viruses they unwittingly carry: Zika, dengue, malaria, west nile, and various strains of encephalitis. While there is treatment for many of these deadly ailments, overuses of these medicines have created strains that are resistant to these drugs.

It’s easy to dismiss these as tropical diseases, until you realize that tropical climates are expanding outward from the equator. Warming, rising seas means there are more suitable regions for mosquitoes to breed, especially along coasts (and coastal cities), where most of the human population lives.

We congregate in cities because we have moved from agrarian to industrial, and are in the process of moving to digital. Maybe in the future, our connection via computer networks will allow us to spread out once again, but right now, many people in densely populated areas is how we’ve chosen to live. Even if the energy that is required to live this way lends greatly to the dangers of climate change.

The deflating truth is that even if we somehow stop our CO2 output on a dime (spoiler alert: we won't), the die is cast for the next several decades of increased global warmth. Our flagrant use of fossil fuels in the prior century has created the warming trends of today. And the way we are burning coal and oil in the first half of the 21st century will reflect the terrible climate problems we will experience in the second half (our problems now might only be a sneak preview).

In terms of reducing our carbon footprint and general environmental impact, our individual spirits seems to be willing (people seem to be better educated on the problems with greenhouse gases and the green bin has become a symbol of 'every little bit helps') but the larger flesh is certainly weak (few ironclad and impactful policy changes have been made on national levels, and global commitments like the 2015 Paris Agreements are mostly voluntary, ignored by the world's largest polluters).

Which is frustrating, because now is the time to act. To say that a dengue outbreak will be more likely fifteen years from now is not going to spur people into action.

For all our advances, we are much more a reactive species than we'd like to think. We only make strong preparation and preventative measures after something has gone wrong the first time.

Our plans to have a proper defense against a series of deadly diseases are woefully inadequate. The World Health Organization is the UN agency that would be the first response against not only a global pandemic, but any large scale outbreak also has to be dealt with by the respective countries involved, and a lack of similar plans and infrastructure means containment is that much more difficult (a chain is only as strong as its weakest link).

Rising food prices has already become an unintended consequence of climate change (and a sign of how resource management needs to be addressed), but the even more atrocious price gouging will come in the health care industries that owns the patents to disease treatments. Medicine in one country that costs only a few dollars might cost hundreds somewhere else. Massive corporations that do much of the medical research and development work are publicly traded and 'obligated' not only to provide effective treatment, but also turn a profit.

Just to show that there is no barrel bottom too low for capitalism, investors are pouring money into pharmaceuticals companies that will provide new vaccines for malaria and typhoid, health care remaining a limited, gated resource.

Even in countries where they are able to successfully combat an outbreak, this process costs a huge amount of money, which typically has to be paid for by making cuts in another sector or program, creating further social divisions and civil unrest, leading to more political instability.

Once again, preventative measures at this date can make huge differences (in terms of saving lives and money) in the future. Not just the stockpiling of vaccines (while ensuring they remain effective), but also educating the public, since panic is a form of deadly disease unto itself.

Certainly the bafflingly idiotic anti-vaccination movement doesn't help. Picking and choosing which aspects of science to embrace (all this wonderful telecommunications technology like the know-everything-and-everyone-machine in your back pocket) and which to deride and shun (the medical advances that have prevented millions of deaths and suffering across the globe for decades) is mind-boggling. Court cases have come up recently regarding the rights of parents to not vaccinate their children and whether they can play in public with others. While individual rights have to be respected, there’s a scorched-earth stubbornness to the idea of putting yourself before your community in this respect. There has been medical missteps throughout history, and those that no longer work are thankfully phased out, but vaccinations have consistently been one of the most powerful life-giving tools of the last one hundred years. It’s not something that should be ostracized without substantial proof that there are dangers with taking it.

And on the end, there is overuse. In Kenya, antibiotics are so cheap that they are being taken too often, with 90% of Kenyans in Kibera region using these drugs each year to combat a range of illness from salmonella to typhoid. Over time, the viruses learn to adapt, and the medicines become less effective. It only hurts more that in the West we are feeding most of our antibiotics to livestock.

With disease comes a lot of terrible incidental chaos.

Trade stops, which is not really a concept we are prepared for on larger scales. We take it for granted how incredibly efficient our factory-warehouse-doorstep economy works (notice how we're omitting 'retail store' in that process with increasingly regularity). When it works so well (or we only complain about the odd delivery hiccup), we rarely think about how fragile it is. When too many people are to sick to go to work – or are not permitted to go to work due to quarantine because too many other people are sick – then the part isn’t made, the product isn’t shipped, the good is not received, the money is not exchanged.

Trade stops.

And that’s simply the cold capitalist nightmare of this scenario.

If people think immigrants fleeing violence and poverty is bad, wait until we are dealing with immigrants fleeing impartial, indifferent, indomitable diseases.

All of this creates a terrible panic where it isn't exactly clear what is a prudent, difficult discussion and what is a wildly irrational, cruel and overreaching one.

Immediate dismissal of entire regions, which could almost be called bigotry.

Closing borders may be the drastic and only option for a nation's stability, but that guarantees a terrible humanitarian crisis. It might become the only option in the eyes of the authorities, but only because they avoided every other option until then.

If unity is our greatest strength, then disunity would be our greatest weakness.

Temporary moments of chaos are becoming more and more frequent across the globe. The days right after Hurricane Harvey, or the weeks after a cyclone in Mozambique. We've gotten so used to a world that works with the push of a button that we don't even stop to think that it isn't really a button that you push. It's a screen that you tap. Even our language hasn't caught up with reality.

And when you put it in those terms, it's not really a surprise that so many of us don't consider climate change on a daily basis, or just shake our head when we hear or read an article about it.

We are creatures of habit and everything about a slightly warmer planet, stronger storm or a more expensive grocery store trip seems to be a small price to pay. It’s only the sound of a small insect buzzing near our ears that might get our undivided attention.

 

 

Sources

 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/10/magazine/climate-change-pinkertons.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage

 

(https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/3/29/18287342/mozambique-cyclone-idai-cholera-how-to-help)

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/06/health/drug-resistant-candida-auris.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

 

https://www.dw.com/en/australian-state-of-new-south-wales-entirely-in-drought/a-44994506

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/07/health/antibiotic-resistance-kenya-drugs.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage)

 


 

2018 REVIEW: Anyone for Tennis?

 

2018 is over, and what's left for the common man?

Shopping and sports.

'Bread and circuses', as the old roman adage goes, the dismissive but not completely wrong observation that most of public will be happy enough with just those two things and won't care how they're ruled over by the elites.

Forty years ago the challenge for contemporary elites was how to consolidate their power, which invariably required the slow removal of political and economic power from the average person (while power is not nearly so set as energy, which cannot be created or destroyed but just transferred, there is a finite amount of it in a society, and it ebbs and flows from persons and groups in both bloodless and bloody fashions).

Corporate influence, voter suppression, the flood of misinformation. Western democracy was not prepared for these rapid sea changes in the twenty-first century. The assumption was that civilization, individual prosperity and democracy would always move forward. At certain points it would slow down to crawl, or maybe stop briefly, but there was very little belief that we could possibly go backward, and that democracy and prosperity could lessen over time.

The prediction made for China, with its incredible rise to an industrial power house in a generation, was that it would be forced to become more democratic as its middle class grew, that the 'communist' party would have to listen to the people yearning to be free as capitalism flushed it with cash. But this did not come to pass. By madly guarding the flow of money and erecting a high tech police state, the elites running China became even more powerful, money flowing into their personal coffers first, the rest trickling down to the billion below them.

This was enough of a challenge for America and the West in the 1990s and 2000s, but then came Trump, and in less than two years, it revealed how fragile democracy was in a nation that had come to define that form of governance. It wasn't that he was trying to run the most powerful nation on earth as a business, it was that he was running it as his own business. Which means badly, because by almost any metric, Donald Trump is a complete failure as a businessman and moral compass. His only position on anything is: 'me first'.

With the US president alienating his party, denigrating his political opponents, insulting global allies, and praising dictators, other nations were emboldened to start stamping out freedoms in their own backyard, or continue the process at an accelerated pace.

The gulf between the rulers and ruled is widening. The individual feels like they matter less in the modern world, that their political voice is drowned out by more powerful forces and interests. So they turn to sports and movies more fully. Not as a hobby, now an integral part of how you define yourself as a person in your community. It's easy to debate just how much a single person's vote/purchasing power really mattered in various states over the last five decades, but it's even easier to debate the latest player trade, the ref's call last night, or a team's playoff potential (or the latest movie trailer, the box office returns last weekend, or how a studio bungled a superhero's story arc).

It's a positive feedback loop. The less power we have in politics, the more we turn to our pastimes, so we pay attention to politics evens less, which diminishes our power in that arena even more. Even worse, these pleasurable distractions are covered in the media as intently and thoroughly as other major news stories (or in some sad cases, with more attention than important issues and developments in our world).

But it's so easy to do this. To put off the important things and spend more time with frivolities (Sartre would say are fleeing responsibility because we find it an existential burden). We follow the rule of the universe, the law of laziness: entropy.

Studies have shown that if people are watching a video on YouTube, they're less likely to switch to another video site or service, even if the other has exactly what they want. They'll just stick with whatever else they find on YouTube. And YouTube content - owned by Google/Alphabet - will always be more pastime than politics.

A concentration of corporate power and its outsized influence on those that formulate the laws and regulations of a more complex and unitary global society means the informed citizen is not simply less frequent but also less relevant.

Everything has become background, including the news.

For years, TV/radio networks accepted the news division as the one area that would typically operate a loss. That the money spent to broadcast the news and have journalists and crews all over the world would not be matched by the advertising revenue made during the program. It was tacit agreement that the news - keeping people informed - was a responsibility, not a money maker. The belief that was part of a TV network’s DNA, and making money with other programming was meant to balance it out.

Rupert Murdoch and Fox took the same approach to sports, and didn't even bother having a national news division (Fox News would be a separate cable channel entirely). Murdoch bid astronomical amounts for NFL broadcasting rights in the early nineties, which guaranteed that for the first several years, the network would lose money on it. They saw the NFL as an important enough cog in the network machine that they would take the loss and make up for it in other ways.

Sports replaced the news. Everything is covered and analyzed like they’re sports. Politics, science, sports, gossip. Everything has become strategy and numbers. 'Adjusting the figures' is a horrendous euphemism to warp reality to what power desires.

Which really means everything has become capitalism.

The news has become divided, with people having the option of choosing which delivery method and perspective already supports what they want to believe. We can live in our own reality, even if it's not representative of reality. And with this, actual change for a better society is that much more difficult to attain. Which is depressing, and makes us go further into our reality, creating a vicious circle where change seems more difficult than ever.

Meanwhile, sports can change. Sports change quickly. Change in real life moves at a snail's pace, and we are being conditioned thanks to instantaneous technology to except everything immediately. It is the act of projecting what we can no longer experience in our real, day-to-day lives upon a game, a past-time, an event that we have all decided means a lot to all of us, because so many other things in our community (functioning infrastructure, gainful and steady employment, affordable housing, healthcare, goods and services, etc.) no longer do.

Sometimes people riot over this. For both sports and politics. Recent football riots in Argentina and Italy have left scores injured, pitted police against passionate/violent fans, and left millions of dollars worth of damage (in a unique article for Deadspin, Haisley laments the corporatization of the sport, pitting intense South American passions against clinical European bureaucracy). Meanwhile, in France, there are political protests that have devolved into near-riots, because of austerity measures that are being enacted. The 'yellow-vests' (as they're known, for that exact attire many of them wear) were then courted by the right and left political parties of the country, saying they represent the marchers' concerns the best, promising everything under the sun to alleviate their concerns and make [insert your country here] great again.

Which is what you have to say as a politician now.

It is near-political suicide to tell people that they can't have it all, that the world is changing in a way that how you spend money affects people on the other side of the world and vice-versa, and that your idea of what a nation is and can do has to change as well. And if you do want significant reform, it's not just at the ballot box but a near daily participation in politics and personal spending, since that's where power resides. It's 'constant vigilance' to ensure that the ship of democracy is on course, and that special interests don't take the wheel.

Saying all this doesn’t gain any sort of traction on the campaign trail anymore.

That 'crazy empty promises' won out against 'practical and reasonable changes' in 2016 (and in many elections since then across the globe) is disappointing for so many reasons, from the complete inability to enact said crazy promises, to acknowledging that there is a huge swath of the populace who thought they were good ideas in the first place. And recent reactions to this (notably in the US midterms) suggests a return to some semblance of balance, but it's still being covered like a comeback in a game.

Blaming Clinton for losing to Trump is reducing elections to sporting events, winning votes being equated with scoring points, regardless of whatever policy or claim was used to win said vote. That Trump connected with voters in the Rust belt better than Clinton did, that she stumbled in embracing the Bernie Sanders supporters, that each counter the other’s point or accusation properly. All of it treated like it was a playoff tournament or boxing match. Which is not at all how politics should be engaged with. It's not supposed to be unilateral, with candidates wooing reluctant or indifferent voters with cheap talk and impossible promises.

Yet candidates shouldn't do all the heavy lifting. Each citizen owes it democracy to learn about the people running for office, what their policies are, what their experience is, and what their character is like. The information is available, and it's also the responsibility of the citizen to parse the misinformation from the facts. For all the problems with mainstream media in their coverage of politics, it should be noted that most American citizens don't even pay attention to CNN, Fox News, or the New York Times. 70% of people get their most of their news from Facebook and Google. Which is terrifying. War stories alongside cat photos in your newsfeed.

More people need to step up and pay attention and vote beyond their simple 'feeling'. There are many, many other problems that have created a crisis in democracy (money in every aspect of the political machines, from elections to lobbying, bureaucratic inefficiency, hyper-partisan voting, gerrymandering), and one of the key tools the public can use to fix these problems in participating in politics by being well-informed and voting.

At least Trump's naked awfulness has exposed these problems bare. For most of the last forty years or so, the process to dismantle democracy and enrich the wealthy has been a shadowy and clinical coup.

And so with that we say goodbye to, 'a kinder, gentler machine gun hand'.

So sayeth Neil Young in his 1989 hit 'Rockin' in a Free World', a sneering indictment of the Reagan-Bush era (though at one point in the early eighties he kinda supported them, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish. I mean, I can't think of another genius-eccentric music artist around today that weirdly threw his support behind Trump and then swore him off not much later. Nope, can't think of anyone). To really drive the point home, Young used one of 41st president's better known phrases: 'we got a thousand points of light'... for the homeless man. Then he adds, 'we got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand' (in live performances, he's occasionally replaced 'machine gun' with 'policeman').

George HW Bush died earlier this month, and he leaves a complicated legacy. Most writers contrasted his politeness and bipartisanship with the behaviour of the current president, but that's just the tip of iceberg. He's done a lot for his country (starting with his military service), and he did a hell of a lot more to other countries (starting with military interventions across the globe that killed hundreds of thousands innocent people). He came off as a friendly, modest man. He also came out against civil rights, homosexuals, and the poor. He was a family man who sexually assaulted random women. Had no problem making millions off of oil and then weapons sales, and no problem jailing millions for doing drugs.

And this is what Young meant with that line.

George Bush did terrible things with an easy-going handshake and awkward but supposedly well-meaning smile.

And that's the danger. Proclaiming freedom while dropping bombs on other countries. Passing off 'business friendly' legislation as something that will ultimately help the assembly line worker or cashier (it won't). Whipping up empty culture wars and scandals to bring out the religious vote. PR-proofing terrible ideas. George Bush did corporate, compassionate conservatism better than his son, and the entire world is ultimately worse off for it.

And because this position doesn't help the middle and lower classes at all, of course the public rejected all iterations of it in 2016 - including when it was in the form of Jeb Bush - and went with a wild card named Donald Trump. Who took all the bad ideas of 'corporate, compassionate conservatism' one moronic step further, with the bonus of being an ignorant asshole.   

Familiar global agreements and accords are crumbling, angry nativism is on the rise, the very concept of steady employment is going through an identity crisis, and most damning of all is that an entire war/humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Yemen and it's barely being talked about.

This situation needs to change, and if the politicians are beholden mainly to the wealthy then the vast majority of humanity must learn how to channel their numerical power into a worthwhile and effective fashion. That will help us move forward. That will define who we truly are and we can accomplish together.

But to end the review on an even more horrifying note, what we know or think we know is falling to pieces. That 'fake news' has become a kneejerk dismissal of anything that you don't agree with means it can be tossed at any graph, statistic, anecdote, or video clip that supports the initial proposition (and this not a new phenomenon - 'Russian interference' is what America now calls what it did across the developing world for decades - but its pervasiveness is appalling). What does it matter if the president or CEO or monarch lies if nothing is done about it, if there's enough unyielding support for them no matter what they do?

Today, nothing means anything more than ever.

We do not have a handle on the transmission of accurate, useful information to the billions of people on the planet. As mentioned above, the public needs to take action, but it's doubly depressing that any attempt to simply educate oneself is fraught with its own dangers.

Where being aware of the disinformation is part of the process.

It is expected by the powerful that you do this. To doubt the information presented, to encourage cynicism and malaise. And this is dangerous because it feeds into our already lazy, pastime-loving inclinations. And it is hard shackle to remove.

Whether you accept the information presented immediately because it confirms your pre-existing worldview, or whether you question it's veracity, the 'presenter' (whether a politician or app) of the information wins either way. To return to McLuhan: the medium is the message. For the sake of the messages, we need better mediums in 2019 and beyond.

 

 

 

Culture-ish things that were good this year

Audio: Daytona - Pusha T (beats), The Sciences - Sleep (blunts), Aviary - Julia Holter (beautiful)

Visual: The Other Side of the Wind (movie), Celeste (video game), Big Mouth (show)

 

 

Sources

 

https://www.theringer.com/tech/2018/12/19/18148701/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-year-in-review

 

(https://www.theringer.com/soccer/2018/11/28/18115215/boca-juniors-river-plate-copa-libertadores-postponement-violence)

(https://deadspin.com/the-copa-libertadores-scandal-is-the-latest-battle-in-t-1830756876)

(https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2018/12/13/18137938/nfl-fox-deal-rupert-murdoch-1993-john-madden-terry-bradshaw-howie-long-jimmy-johnson-cbs-nbc)

 

 


 

The Middle Class is about to die

(One of those gripping headlines)

 

It's been dying a slow death the last few years. The last financial collapse caused an aneurysm, and the middle class slipped into a coma from which it would never recover. We are on last rites. This comes off as hyperbole simply because we are attributing descriptions of recognizable human behaviour and events (albeit terrible ones) to a sprawling, multi-faceted assembly of statistics that are connected to the presumed finances of billions of people.

That 'The Middle Class' is such a complex concept that differs from person to person. There is not a single definition of it that people of all political leanings can agree upon (is it income-based or ownership-based, does it designate between individual and family, how much is geography a factor, or inflation, or even larger political forces that designate what you are able do in society).

Which comes in handy for those that would like to deny there's a problem at all, or at least not the sort of problem that should be fixed with several large-scale reforms to the global economic system (or at least in certain nations or regions that have a inordinately large influence on the rest of the world’s financial well-being).

The rapid rise of digital and AI technologies coupled with very narrow corporate ownership of these and other dominant industries (financial, energy, medicinal) means we are in the midst of a funnelling of wealth from the many to the few.

But this occurrence and its adjacent dangers are frequently overshadowed by trumpets of Wall Street’s constant bullishness, and record low unemployment rate.

Fortune 500 and Nasdaq-listed companies have found that with advanced technology and automation, workers are becoming more expendable and replaceable, more akin to expensive office furniture than actual human beings.

For every supposed new perk for the workers ($15 minimum wage at Amazon), there's a give and take (no more stock options, less performance bonuses). There should be constant worry that corporations and not the government are going to be dictating working conditions going forward. For all the good intentions a company’s founders might have regarding its employees, the larger and more successful it gets the more it is beholden to turn a constant profit for its investors.

Speaking of which, Wall Street is becoming less and less of a barometer of the conditions on Main Street. Manufacturing is done wherever it is cheapest in the world, transport is becoming more and more automated, and purchases are increasingly being made online. Fewer and fewer people are involved in this process of consumerism, and that means fewer and fewer people have jobs that would give them the means to participate in this process. Not buying from Wal-Mart or Amazon is sometimes the most political act people can do outside of voting, since buying from those behemoths creates a feedback loop of choosing the lowest price for something regardless of what its effects might be to the greater economy. It creates a race-to-the-bottom in terms of convenience and price, which means employees at these companies are squeezed even more so.

But this isn’t really an issue that is addressed in a serious degree in the halls of power.  Every politician will take any sort of good economic news as a win, even if it only affects stockholders.

This gap between management and workers has consequences that go far beyond simply the size of paycheque and bonuses. The psychological gap between the boss who is being forced by their bosses to treat the people as living cogs that have to meet sales and production deadlines should not be understated, but frequently is. But once you bring in concerns like emotional health and stress, there is a dismissiveness by the higher-ups, because it is a variable that is hard to quantify and could interrupt the flow of business. ‘At least you have a job’, some might say.

Oh, we're working. The unemployment rate is at historic lows.

But the pay doesn't cut it. Not for the commodities that for decades have defined a healthy and robust middle class. A mortgage, a car, any sort of retirement savings plan, all of these things are becoming the exception and not the norm.

City streets lined with coffee shops, barber shops, and then empty storefronts. Small business can certainly still fail, but a massive bank or tech giant needs to be protected at all costs with government money.
When half the adds on TV are for quick loans and lawyers that can get you money if you fell down or got laid off, that should be a warning bell.

Debt everywhere.

Living off credit.

Who thinks this situation is sustainable? The ‘great recession’ came about ten years ago (people defaulted on housing loans, and like any massive sprawling mess, the fingers can be pointed at so many people along the line), and only the very wealthy came out better, with the hundreds of millions of people across the globe not only losing sizable portions of what could possibly count for retirement savings, but the idea of job security as well.

The flatlining will come in the next global financial collapse, which will permanently eradicate a demographic that seemed to define the American/Western dream of the 20th century.

The house of cards that is the global economy might teeter with Trump's ridiculous trade wars, if China calls in some of the debt it's bought from America over the years as retaliation. Toss in Brexit and South American currencies in flux to the fire.

Now everyone is going to default on some or all of the multiple credit cards they own, which simply pays for rent, groceries, phone bill and a transit pass (necessities that free-market capitalists seem to call luxuries).

Populism has grabbed a hold of the low/working class, but it's being dragged in a counterproductive direction. Populism focuses on simplicity, and the problems that require attention are an intricate series of international trade agreements and domestic tax policies that differ greatly from nation to nation.

There is a disconnection (Marx might called it alienation) between people and how products and services are manufactured and delivered to them in the early twentieth century. To set a series of statutes or tariffs on foreign goods entering your country requires an extensive awareness on the greater effects it will have not only on your nation, but on the one you're directly negotiating with, and all the other nations (and agreements) that will be indirectly influenced.

The inability to effectively make reforms – from restraining banks to increasing taxes – means that there is starting to become an overclass and an underclass. The new feudalism. A noble class of very wealthy that supports a particular economic system instead of a monarch. Below them is a thin, grossly shrunken layer of professionals and politicians that are not powerful enough to change the system even if they wanted to.

And then it's the other 90% of us.

In several regions of the globe, this new underclass is actually the higher plateau hundreds of millions of people reached after climbing out of extreme poverty. The economic success stories of Asia, predominantly China and India.

For the West, it is a step down.

The postwar democratic governments created the modern middle class, and they are the only institutions big enough to save it.

Despite private corporations playing a larger and larger role in every aspect of modern life (and sometimes contracted by the government to do so), the primary responsibility for these companies is to increase value for shareholders, not to make human civilization better for future generations.

That’s more the role of governments, but even these jobs no longer offer the pay or security to allow for a middle class existence. Part of the restructuring of many Western governments over the years is enacting tax cuts supposedly meant to help all citizens (but doesn’t), and to pay for this there is the process of austerity, which involves cutting spending for social programs (which helped people out of poverty) and cutting the amount and quality of jobs within various institutions (meaning they aren’t properly staffed, which creates more government dysfunction).

We're two or three quiet pieces of legislation away from 1984, and not just the dystopic Orwellian nightmare, but in terms of taking a step thirty four years backwards, to that time's permitted levels of pollution, ‘greed is good’ mindset and Cold War tensions.

Conservative orthodoxy states that government is too big, too inefficient, and too expensive. And the language used here is what we should really reflect upon. 'Orthodoxy' is an inflexible position, which is shockingly inefficient in a world that needs a quickly adaptable and nimble decision-making process.

This especially true now that ‘mini recessions’ are now a quantifiable occurrence, focusing in particular economic regions (even within one country) and on one particular industry. In 2016, fluctuating energy prices meant the demand for equipment needed in energy industries dropped and all who invested and worked in it felt the squeeze for about two years. These interruptions that costs people their jobs and livelihoods are another terrible thing that is becoming normalized. To not get full media attention, to not get average people protesting, to not even be addressed in congress or parliament. To just be forgotten.

Even worse is the attempt to pass anti-middle class legislation under the media radar.

The US House of Representatives passed a bill attempting to make last year’s tax cuts (which benefits the wealthy) permanent, while everyone else was frothing over the seemingly endless Kavanaugh hearing.

Politicians can destroy a government program within one election cycle, but to successfully build one from scratch and have it be used with expected frequency by the public can take several years to a couple campaigns. And if a candidate who is against the program is elected, they can dismantle or cut its funding, and now it's only legacy was a waste of money.

A healthy middle class ensures for a healthier and responsible government. The more diverse and varied group of citizens which have influence upon the government, the better living standards for an even more diverse and varied group of people.

The disconnect between what the government does and what people thinks it does (or doesn’t do) is a problem that is strangling the middle class.

Taxes pay for your community. When you cut taxes, your community suffers.

Teaching supplies, pot holes, prison guards, lines at the post office/DMV, it is these details that can affect people on every rung of the economic ladder. Demanding tax increases is not an indictment of wealth. It is an indictment of concentrated wealth.

It is alarming at how few powerful political or corporate figures realize that this situation is untenable, that in an interconnected, globalized society, a collapse of buying power for hundreds of millions of people (in a geographic region that many companies have relied for decades to wholly embrace consumerism), will affect absolutely everyone. Including the very wealthy, who own these companies that depend on constant profits. It will create both economic and political instability in a world that is already splintering in these ways.

From this same group there is the turning of a very influential blind eye away from the middle class plight, the demographic that the wealthy depend on to continue to buy and meet their bills, which allows this 1% to make their own millions.

For all capitalism's virtues, there are many sins, and one is almost certainly profiting off the selling of products that will enjoyed by the populace, also have devastating effects on the health and safety of the community and the society at large (from burning fossil fuels to gambling to cigarettes). And while in no way is this to suggest these items be prohibited, they shouldn't necessarily make other people extremely wealthy.

Doubly vile are the companies that can profit from withholding good things from the populace. Health insurance companies try to avoiding paying for a patient's health care, and give their employees bonuses for more claims they deny.

It's the new gilded age. The overwhelming influence in the halls of the power by robber barons we're now supposed to quietly defer to. Companies can get bloated and take ridiculous risks that are somehow underwritten by the government (ie, us) when they crater spectacularly.

[history lesson begins]

Post Civil-War, American reconstruction was helped along by the Industrial Revolution, which was screaming along throughout the West, changing how nations operated at their very core, with democracies replacing monarchies, while a small group of wealthy business owners accrued an obscene amount of power. In the 1920s the economy roared, but eventually the world looked down and saw that it was all shit, which was the Great Depression, followed by, thanks to upheavals across the rest of the globe, World War II.

And the war had to be fought for something, not just against the fascist ideals of the Axis Powers. The West embraced heavily regulated capitalism while the East tried out semi-communism (since in Russia and China there were heavy despotic elements in their governments).

Continuing the reforms that were enacted in the wake of the Great Depression, the middle class in North America expanded, Western Europe rebuilt rapidly, and with this power given to the average white man, demands came from women and minorities for equal treatment. Fighting Communism by making capitalism much, more appealing worked well (even if, y'know, the high tax rates and government oversight that helped build the middle class during this period isn't exactly capitalism).

But even before Soviet Russia broke apart, there were pushes to cut taxes and deregulate, and these two mantras have directed Western economic policy for nearly forty years. And that’s enough time to wipe out the gains made in the forty years’ previous, under a completely different economic policy.

[history lesson ends]

‘Feels like a lifetime’ shouldn’t be a throwaway line to express slowness. It needs to be a reminder that just because a lifetime (and what happened during that period) is all one person remembers, it doesn’t mean life always was or will always be that same way. For most people alive today, they were born into a globe that was improving living standards – certainly some places much quicker than others – for a majority of its citizens.

Success has been so prevalent and so strongly marketed to us that people will vote for the perception of success over the reality of failure. In one sense, it's good to see that we have the capacity to hope for the best, to believe that things will always get better going forward. But to not acknowledge the collapse of the middle class right before our eyes is to run right off the cliff like the end of 1920s.

The changes to the capitalist system over the last several decades have occurred comparatively slowly, but its effects are becoming more acute and devastating. The lack of proper understanding of this group of interrelated problems means little chance of solving them. A rapid expansion of interest and therefore knowledge of the current plight of the middle class by the middle class itself can still it save it from almost certain ruin. Participation not only in elections but how citizens spend their money can make great strides changing the way we move forward.

Sustainable should not just a description of a type of energy. It should describe economics as well. And it is from a revitalized middle class that this sustainability can flow. 

 

 

 

Sources

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/11/magazine/americans-jobs-poverty-homeless.html

 

https://www.wired.com/story/amazon-minimum-wage-some-fear-they-will-earn-less/

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/22/business/economy/public-employees.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/house-republicans-pass-bill-to-extend-individual-tax-cuts/2018/09/28/2497d6bc-c326-11e8-97a5-ab1e46bb3bc7_story.html?utm_term=.738c002c99b4

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/29/upshot/mini-recession-2016-little-known-big-impact.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

 

(https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/opinion/amazon-hq2-incentives-taxes.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-right-region&region=opinion-c-col-right-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-right-region)


 

 

We've Lost the Internet

 

Maybe we never actually had it. Maybe it just felt that way.

Or maybe we did, but its takeover by giant corporate blobs who could write all its rules was an inevitable conclusion, one that only the most pessimistic techno-futurists predicted.

Yes, we could communicate with anyone, anywhere. We could watch movies and have dog toys and dildos delivered to our doorstep. But there are a lot of terribly shitty things we can do with it, too. And suddenly the news of that became all we thought of when it came to the Internet, all the good things quickly being taken for granted.

Consequently, we only sought out what pleased us, what was familiar and agreeable to us. We were able to construct virtual worlds and websites and apps full of only what we wanted. Our bubbles are only strengthening. They're becoming balloons, and soon might up titanium spheres of ideas and toleration: Only one with an identical thought and opinion can enter and engage with you.

For most of human history, we were afraid of the mysterious other, the physical presence of the stranger who - because we don't know them, cannot outright trust them - we believe might do us harm. Stay close to your home, trust your family and neighbours, beyond that, it was a dangerous world.

Now we can be afraid of the less ethereal menace: the mysterious idea. It's a truth no one wants to believe because it shatters what he or she already think. It's a lie told incessantly, until enough people believe it's true. A digital reality can be bent, warped, and deceptively altered much easier than the world we walk through everyday, since we can at least agree when the sky is blue.

And this time the mysterious other, in digital form, can remain a mystery for longer. We can shrug and say that cyberbullying isn't a bad as actual bullying (where there is always the chance of being physically attacked), but since people are always connected, are always cyber, it's just bullying by another name. You'll never know which forms of harassment or threat to take seriously, you don't know if it’s a group effort to discredit your name or just a bunch a trolls out for the lulz that afternoon. Our human perception systems adapted over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with the physical world, but humanity has always been bad at quickly adapting to new technologies. The Industrial Revolution accelerated technological progress and dragged people from a rural to urban (or agricultural to industrial) society. It started and finished empires, saw basic rights being given and taken away, thrust a great many people into and out of poverty, and ultimately lead to two catastrophic wars and a Great Depression.

And that was when the Industrial Revolution was mainly affecting the Western World. Throughout the twenty century, different regions across the globe received their own factories, small appliances, and rules of international capitalism, at different times.

The digital revolution once against started in the West, but it has crisscrossed and influenced the globe at a much, much faster pace.

Western companies like Google and Amazon begat global counterparts Baidu and AliBaba, and Facebook is growing fastest in Asia and South America.

We work digital, we shop digital, we entertain digital, we fuck digital. And while we step out of this realm to do similar things in the real world, the latter is becoming more and more of an option, not the essential.

It's getting to the abnormal point where you're not a trusted member of society if you don't have a easily follow-able and detailed social media presence/identity. A presence/identity that can quickly be co-opted, denigrated, misconstrued, threatened, hijacked, and scammed out of money and power.

Even if you don't have Facebook, or tweet or 'gram, you've almost certainly have an email address and have bought something online. Facebook itself makes fake, semi-hypothetical profiles for the friends of users who have not yet signed up.

Information has a value that waxes and wanes, but the matter now is that all of this information exists, since even the concept of 'deletion' is not the same as it once was. Everything is saved somewhere, and when you delete your account of a popular social media site, it's usually just put on ice until you come crawling back. 'The right to be forgotten' was a big legal issue in Europe regarding google searches, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.

The speed and immediacy of news being promulgated across the digital realm means the most eye-catching headlines and rubbernecker-type story will get the most clicks. Accuracy be damned. Fact checking takes time and a team, two things most news publications don't have in 2018. Now the first report is the only report. Any sort of correction might pop up hours or days later, but by this time the misinformation (whether intentional or accidental) is out there, being shared by those who agreed, and shunned and slimed by those who don't.

With these grave concerns, it is essential that government institutions monitor and regulate these aspects of the community - just as they do the same thing for the towns, cities, and natural spaces across their nation - to make sure it's serving the populace in the most responsible and moral way as possible.

Unfortunately, several recent decisions and corresponding scandals suggest that the government is unable to perform this duty, certainly not without a lot of difficulty and corporate interest.

That Net Neutrality is still a controversy in the world's wealthiest, most powerful nation shows the power that corporations have in leaning on politicians, sometimes bending around the usual checks and balances of, say, elections, and simply having lobbyists write legislation itself. Internet Service Providers continually reassure the public that charging websites on a sliding scale and not the current 'neutral price for everyone' will not result in them abusing this newfound power, but anyone who believes that is a fool or being paid handsomely by Internet Service Providers.

But privacy rights and Net Neutrality is not what people necessarily think about when it comes to the Internet. Usually it's what your best friend did on their vacation, or the hot meme take of the day. Facebook is MySpace with a better interface and better timing. Facebook came with an initial exclusivity - had to be university/college students - that immediately made it more appealing. And the slow roll out of allowing everyone else on earth to join helped keep it fresh.

But Facebook is 'just' a webpage of yourself, just like those clunky geocities pages early Internet fans were making in the mid nineties. Pictures of yourself and what your doing some of your likes, and links to them. That's it. Facebook's newsfeed made it easy for 'friends' (and on Facebook 'friends' should always be a term used loosely) to see similar things. Its proliferation is what truly made it a self-contained community bulletin board of just your friends, your likes, your interests. It became a town, with your favourite restaurants and stores building pages, along with celebrities and politicians you might be interest in.

And for how nice and idyllic that sounds, Facebook has a problem, and that problem is that it's a publicly traded company that needs to make money, and the only way it can do that is through advertising, and it can't be choosy over what company wants to plaster virtual billboards on people's pages. Or, y'know, what shadowy, wealthy group of people want to do it. And just so these companies/Russian oligarchs get the biggest bang for their buck, Facebook will sell your data as part of a pricing plan (Or let you operate a data gathering program while it looks the other way).

Hence every bad thing you've read about Facebook, in, say, the last two years.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal will taint the company for a long time to come, and it will be viewed negatively by the large swaths of people who made it a household name in the first place. It is the breach of trust of the public square, one used by billions of people, but its users have very little actual say in how it runs since it is incessantly trying to make money off these people in oblique and annoying ways.

Social media and the online community is in control of a handful of corporations, whose main goal is not simply betterment of society, but turning a profit. And these two goals consistently clash. Ideally, the government is the dominant player in the 'betterment of society' game, but they've been constantly kneecapped in recent decades.

Corporations cannot be gatekeepers of the community, even though this has been the result of the breakneck pace of capitalism (especially the venture/vulture kind) of the last thirty-plus years. Google always propped up the 'don't be evil' mantra, but they jettisoned that line from their mission statements since doing more and more work for the department of defense and the CIA.

Indeed, the idea of breaking up parts of Facebook (since it owns interrelated companies such as Instagram, Occulus VR, and WhatsApp) has been floated. It is not to big too fail, but has enough money to drag any sort of legal challenge through the courts for many, many years (everyone forgets that Microsoft successfully deployed this tactic in the nineties during their anti-trust problems). And don’t even bother bringing up the possibility of Facebook stockholders taking a haircut (a lovely euphemism for losing a shitload of money).

The problem was that Facebook was extremely irresponsible. But what if we made websites responsible? Well, we're on the cusp of that, too. Even more damaging than online propaganda is the legislation in the US that passed just after Zuckerberg's testimony, the FOSTA-SESTA Acts.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the intention for this act is as positive and important as it gets - protecting the victims of sex trafficking online - but the way it does so, gives an incredible amount of power to the companies that own websites upon which individuals post their own content (from a comment on a messageboard, or an uploaded video).

Websites like Craiglist, Reddit, Facebook and pretty much every other website can now be held liable if something a user post results in a crime. The idea behind this is that in the case of sex trafficking, these websites will quickly take down any posts that might be related to this horrible practice because they could possibly be charged in criminal and/or civil court essentially as accessories, because by operating the website they enabled the crime to happen (even if they didn't intend to).

It is good way to pressure a website to do this.

But the ramifications are mindboggling. The language used in the law is so open-ended (whether this is intentional or accidental is yet be seen), that it can applied not just to sex-trafficking, not just to discussing criminal behaviour, but discussing anything at all that a website would be concerned could cost them money or result in criminal charges.

The government puts the responsibility on them, and in response they shirk away from it by passing said responsibility down to the individual vendors or profile. And if there is any concern that the vendor or profile is a liability for them, they'll remove the account with little deliberation.

It will be a 'delete first, ask questions later (or never)' policy.

We are giving more and more of what we consider our identities and rights to a small group of corporations, who are being given more and more power to do with them what they want. And since their primary intention is profit, any negatives that might come with this technocratic system are just acceptable risks, even if it severely damages human interaction between individuals, political groups, and nations. It didn't take long for real world divisions to be mirrored in the digital realm, and the internet easily allows for these divisions to widen and accelerate.

Identity and citizen-hood is a hotly debated topic right now in the form of global immigration reform, as well as online. The underlying concerns of changes in immigration laws (who the community believes should be allowed to enter and who must be refused) shouldn't, at first glance, transfer to the digital realm, because in the world of endless bytes of information there is enough space (in both literal and proverbial senses) for everyone. But there is still overlap because we still exist in both. We can be removed from and shunned in countries just as easy we can be in message boards and Destiny II game lobbies.

We are close to point where making comments about the real world will begin to become not nearly as popular as the comments regarding the virtual one. Which means it will be easier to be anyone in the latter. In certain virtual realms, your online identity can look and act nothing like your real self. You can be an outstanding public citizen and rat-bastard online troll. And if you tell someone to do something online as a troll, how responsible are you if they go and do it?

The link from your online self to your real self will be a central question about human rights in the years to come. How should your actions of your online identity reflect and impact your physical identity?

It’s these sorts of concerns - along with identity hacking, since soon it might be someone else pretending to be you online, not only with purchases, but with your online behaviour - that could lead us to a much more dystopic form of connection.

We're getting closer and closer to the point where the horrors of having a new form of digital ID that is 'on' constantly so you can be surveilled in both physical and cyberspace will appear to outweigh the horrors of not being constantly surveilled.

(The italics are important)

Proving who you are and what you've done has become more difficult as more and more of life's activities are done in the virtual realm. The Internet has made it easier to impersonate other people, and possible for computer programs to impersonate other people. Cyber security experts have typically been behind the curve on stopping the latest form of exploitation, but that's partly due to the populace's woeful inability to determine authentication.

If hacking events become more common, widespread and devastating, a movement supported by world governments and powerful industries/corporations will be a sort of 'universal ID' that's not a card, but a chip (of course!) implanted in the skin, or a skintight sleeve on your forearm, that corresponds with a blockchain of data that is 'you' in virtual form.

(The short film 'Hyperreality', by Matsuda is excellent distillation of this sort of overwhelming and disconcerting experience)

But at least all of this - corporate greed, privacy breaches, odious online behaviour - are human activities. Just 21st century examples of how we've acted for thousands of years. The real unknown danger of computer technology (and certainly gummed up with what the Internet hath wrought) is Artificial Intelligence.

A surprise to no one who's ever had a whiff of sci-fi interest (or had a yammering friend with one), ones and zeros aren't just here to play chess. And we can picture all the action films about it how it's all gone bad, but rarely pay attention to real news of today, which tells us how we are making computer programs more like us.

We are developing AIs that can dream. We are making AI play Doom, and seeing how they learn, how they make decisions regarding picking up a chainsaw and slicing up a demon. We are having AI's study games that people are playing, in order for them to learn about reality and people.

We are acting as teachers and parents for lines of code that is being taught how to write its own lines of code. This sort of replication is similar to how DNA replicates the information that makes up life, just at much, much more basic level (for now. Scientists have recently been able to built a complete computer replica of a very, very tiny worm's brain).

And if your reaction is 'that's amazing', or 'that's terrifying', or 'I don't care', don't worry. It doesn't matter how you react. The development of AI is moving forward full steam ahead. It's going to happen. We just have to grapple with a massive uncertainty looming in the soon to be close horizon. The main problem with the existence of an advanced artificial intelligence (advanced in comparison to human intelligence) is we ultimately hit the wall of the unknown with regards of how it will act when it becomes activated/aware.

We cannot conceive how an intelligence of this sort will consider us. We can perhaps make some guesses, but we have no definitive certainty as to how it will act. We knew how basic computer technology acted because we programmed it how to act. And now much of AI research is designed to assist in the computer technology to essentially program/teach itself.

We're losing our ability to predict the behaviour of artificial intelligence.

Which is why we have to be incredibly careful in terms of developing it. It's dangerous in a way that nuclear war and climate change isn't. We have concrete plans to combat both the possibility of nuclear war and climate change (although we're not using the latter very much). We can't really create a plan to deal with advanced AI. Because what it might conceive is beyond what we humans could ever conceive.

And when it's put into such terms - term that can't help but be abstract - it's no wonder they we then turn inward into the very specific comfort we've decided these machines should give us. Forgetting the massive world problems that we seem powerless to affect by watching another clip, playing another round. We're still at the point of luxury, where we use the Internet for an escape. Soon it might get to the point where we are going to build the Matrix ourselves, no evil AI required. We'll 'enslave' ourselves because reality is just too much to deal with, especially if it's a great deal (or, if we continue to destroy the planet and use up its resources at an alarming rate, we couldn't live 'outside' even if we wanted to). The Internet may be one vast library of information, but we'll prefer the stuff we already think we know, thank you very much.

Ignorance is bliss, especially the kind you build yourself.

 

 

 

Notes

 

Boo Facebook (Taibbi):

https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/taibbi-facebook-can-we-be-saved-social-media-giant-w518655

 

Zuck interview:

https://www.vox.com/2018/4/2/17185052/mark-zuckerberg-facebook-interview-fake-news-bots-cambridge

 

https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/4/13/17172762/fosta-sesta-backpage-230-internet-freedom

 

(Mother lode link)

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43bxjj/watch-deep-learning-ai-computer-play-doom-dream

 

https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/3da7g3/video-games-artificial-intelligence-realistic-teach-ai-what-the-world-looks-like

 


 

Our Own Existence After the Discovery of Alien Life

[In terms of 'big picture' topics, this is as 'biggest picture' as it gets]

 

A small ship flying through space clearly not made by our human technology lands (or crash lands) on earth. Inside are no biological creatures but a basic computer program and/or holographic projection that plays on repeat. It is a message from an alien species with audiovisual images and aids to convey information regarding basic scientific understanding of matter, energy, and light, as well as its launching location in the galaxy.

This is the most likely way we'll find out about intelligent life somewhere else in the universe.

And a great many things would change about human civilization and how we see ourselves...and some things won't change at all.

Forget simply how we decide to address this going forward in terms of political decisions or scientific discoveries. What does this say about humans as a species?

We're not alone, we're not as smart or advanced as we thought (since we could only compare ourselves to monkeys and dolphins), apparently God in its infinite wisdom neglected to tell us that it created life far, far away, we've been destroying ourselves and our planet to varying degrees for millennia wasting so much time and effort looking viciously inward when we should be reaching harmoniously outward, and we've been consumed by petty politics and personal concerns instead of truly addressing larger questions and taking the steps to answer them.

Aliens? What are they? Are there photos or videos of them in the message they've sent us? Can we ascertain if they're carbon based life-forms from what see? If we examine what we've sent out into space, the human image sent in the Arecibo message is a two-dimensional block character, and even the illustration on the Voyager plaque is pretty damn narrow representation of ourselves (a couple bent lines to create two healthy naked Caucasians). We know we're not flat, but who knows what an alien species would think if they saw it. Similarly, our biological/cultural prejudices may simply assume that we would be dealing with Star Wars/Trek type aliens, that look mostly humanoid, when they could possibly look like rocks, or even clouds of sentient gas that might be able to assemble matter telepathically (this may sound far-fetched, but c'mon...we're already talking about aliens). Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon are the four most common elements found in the universe, so it's likely that those four are involved in the biological makeup of all complex life forms, but 'likely' isn't 'definitely'. It also doesn't help that dark matter/energy almost make up a sizeable chunk of mass in the universe, so if they are more advanced than us, maybe they're made of elements we've been unable to observe and therefore comprehend.

So all we've done has to be reconsidered. We've 'conquered' our own planet, but have still been asking 'why are we here?'. And now the answer might be, 'to get there' (and we point in the general direction of the sky where the ship came from).

And that's a huge undertaking, because while we're not alone, our new friends (let's be positive from the start, right?) are almost certainly very, very far away. If they weren't able to make the trip themselves and had to send a letter instead, chances are that it would take a heck of a long time before we had the technology to send a similar sort of unmanned ship, let alone one with a crew few of human representatives (considering that in early 2018 we only have loose plans to make it to our closest planetary neighbour, let alone star system neighbour). It's definitely something to work towards, and maybe would give our space programs a good swift kick in their collective asses, but it'll be our descendants who arrive on [insert planet here], not us.

Which might be a world full of dead creatures. Maybe the ship was sent so long ago they all died out by the time it reached us, or by the time we made out our way over there.

Understanding outer space distances (and the time it takes to traverse them) can quickly get depressing. Even during the age of exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, earthly distances were small and effortless compared to the other stars (and the planets orbiting them) in our galaxy (and we had air as we voyaged across our oceans, which were full of food, and there wasn't any pesky cancer causing radiation).

So of course we're going to take that ship apart down the molecules, since it was able to make the trip here in tact (and let's ignore the high and heartbreaking possibility that it might land in the ocean, sink like a stone, and nobody ever notices it). We would have an international team working on this, with the imperative of sharing everything they discover with the public. And what we collectively find can change the future of our entire species.

How does it work, what is made out of, how are the parts joined/fastened/fused together, what's the propulsion system, is the most basic form of energy they're using a sort of 'nuclear fusion in a double AA battery', or are they already using what we call ‘warp drive’ (scheduled to arrive on earth in 2300AD)? Five years after it crash lands on earth, have we modified our technologies and not only travelled further into our own solar system, but completely revamped how we create/use energy here on earth?

On the other hand, it would be quite amusing if the technology they sent is actually not as good as our own (maybe some super durable metal so it can survive space for a very long time and an 12v battery with a lot of life in it, but that's all). It's as if Voyager 1 or 2 gets intercepted and found by alien life, and they still think we're using mid-seventies equipment.

Any sort of levity in this situation will be welcome. It would be a comparably relatable moment (as it would suggest the alien beings are not perfect, god-like entities, but creatures which have their own limits and flaws), since everything else would careen from outright joy to pure terror. There's intelligent life in the galaxy! (Joy) What do we do? What might they do? (Terror)

Yet life on earth might not change much at first. Everyone still having to go to work the next day, etc. Even with the world's governments agreeing to some sort of plan moving forward (reach out to the location of the alien species, work on our own planet's defensive capabilities, both?), it's not going to immediately change the machinations of international commerce, or beget world peace. Of course people in several professions will have their work turned upside down directly because of this discovery (certainly the sciences, like physics, chemistry, biology...), and some incidentally (psychology certainly, since we're all processing a very new way to view the concept of life, and our relationship to it). From both, philosophical and religious perspectives, a lot of questions would have to be asked. Church attendance has been dwindling for years now, but this might accelerate it. Suddenly there's a whole damn planet that the god you believe in has apparently ignored, even though it created the universe. Or maybe it'll send people back to church, appealing to an intelligence/force/entity that at least feels more familiar to them.

Perhaps the aliens itself have a very strong missionary bent, and the reason for sending these craft in the first place is an attempt to convert us all to its own religion, and not necessarily in a malevolent way (like European explorers did in the Americas and Africa), but more like a handing out religious pamphlets on the street corner that is the galaxy.

Even that's a relatable endeavour (if dismaying on one level to the scientific community). Like us, they are trying to share what they understand and believe, and that's where the ‘spread the word’ aspect of religion usually comes in. When there aren't across-the-board answers from the scientific methods, there's a tendency to stuff god in the gaps. And there's joy and excitement in the process, in the challenge, in the quest of finding answers from either realm. The difference between 'eureka' (attributed to Archimedes when understanding displacement) and 'hallelujah' (best heard from a church choir), is quite small when considering life as a whole.

 

Because life is just clumps of a heck of a lot of very particularly condensed bits of matter. The only place we've found it is here on our own planet. The main reason is that we aren't doing much searching (some satellites and some radio signals aren't much), but we're also pretty damn bias of what we're looking for: Carbon-based life forms with lots of hydrogen and oxygen with a 2:1 ration (water). If that's the only way we can conceive of life existing (even with boatloads of our own science supporting this), then maybe we're missing another combination of atoms and molecules that work wonderfully on another planet (maybe heavy doses of radiation is as good as water on the other side of the galaxy). And if there is this sort of life somewhere else, maybe they'll never find us because they're looking for creatures like themselves.

We can only really conceive of our own biological makeup and only slight alterations to our own technology that aliens might have. We would imagine they have the same initial problems we have now. Namely, that a lot of energy and resources would be wasted having living creatures flying across the galaxy for a very, very long time (even if they are travelling at or around or faster than the speed of light). It wouldn't be the best decision unless you knew exactly where you were going, and what you would find when you got there.

The Milky Way Galaxy is such a massive, massive area (the conservative estimate is that there’s one hundred billion stars inside it), that it would be so easy to miss our solar system if you were checking out Alpha Centauri, the next star over. A couple strange radio waves buzzing out of our own isn't going to get much attention, and our furthest satellite hasn't even hit the Oort Cloud yet (Voyager 1 will reach it in...300 years (damn you, outer space distances)). Looking for life is such a needle in a haystack sort of scenario, it's completely understandable that even if you have the technology, our new alien neighbours can't have living creatures pilot every damn ship.

So while there will be new scientific ideas and industries that bloom like flowers in the advent of this sort of contact with intelligent life, a lot won't change. Not only would have you have to go to work the next day and the day after that, but world peace and alleviating poverty will be just as difficult tasks as before, even if we begin to hammer home the idea that we should get our own planet in order, if only so we don't look like squabbling children in case of...guests.

Which we still never might meet in the flesh. Maybe we live in boonies of the Milky Way Galaxy. But who thinks about that regularly when we have enough public, private and political problems to deal with? Time and space are so much bigger than human life/civilization and a 'round the world plane ticket. We have a hard time processing this because have no need to process this in our lives (unless you're, y'know, buildings spacecraft). We are creatures of habit and necessity, and whatever falls out of our purview may as well not be there. Having to consider on a daily basis that there is intelligence life so very, very far away from us is very...(wait for it)...alien.

Hopefully if proof ever lands on earth, we will, at the very least, appreciate our own planet - our own little slice of life - just a little more.

 

 

 

(Okay, let's Hollywood-ize this a bit)

If Aliens knew we were here and came to visit and:

They're friendly - in the absolutely perfect world, it's pretty much Star Trek. They come not only in peace, but with enough advanced technology that they can translate our language easily enough so that communication is a breeze. And they're willing to help us with some technology upgrades and...er...cleaning up our dirty, warming oceans...and CO2-clogged skies...and all those garbage dumps on land. And of course there's an immediate downside to this: We'll have to rely on them for everything we don't yet comprehend, everything we can't yet do.

Our top scientific minds will be reduced to first-year physics students. Our new friends would probably be very confused as to why we all don't use the same system of measurement globally (although most of the world uses metric, imperial is surprisingly and frustratingly still around) and don't speak the same language (at which point we would have to somehow explain the value of distinct cultures and traditions, although they might reply there should be some method to keep said traditions while being able to freely and easily communicate with every member of your species).

But overall, it'll be pretty awesome. They might roll out the tech kinda slowly (they'd actually be pretty foolish to give us warp drive engines a week after first contact), but we could roll with that. Hopefully they won't keep reminding us with a grin (if they're able to grin) that they had to bail us out of the mess we created on earth.

Okay, let's say they're friendly but the communication isn't so keen (more likely? Less likely?) Would a humanoid sort of alien species be more likely to find us than one whose biological makeup is much different? The film 'Arrival' did a great job addressing the challenge of talking with an alien species of a squid-like variety, while at the same time making a movie about Amy Adams considering whether or not to have a baby. Star Trek: The Next Generation had an excellent take on the same challenges with the episode 'Darmok'. Bridging the communication gap will not only be a time-eater, but also riddled with misinterpretations that can range from hilarious to deadly. You'd be hard-pressed to name a linguist who isn't Noam Chomsky (and that's not exactly what he's known for), but if aliens came and we couldn't talk right from the get go, the linguists who rush in to make discussion possible will become international heroes.

 

They're friendly but jerks - maybe they think we're drooling idiots who have almost ruined a perfectly good planet because of SUVs, fried food, and spending too much time watching movies about us killing alien invaders. Sure they came across the galaxy out of some obligatory acknowledgment that yes, we figured out the speed of light, but they don't owe us anything and how can we possibly consider terraforming other planets if we can't even take care of our own?

Maybe they'll agree to exchange some technology for resources, or for permission to build a sort of service station on the moon (or maybe they'll want the moon in general). But they'll turn their noses (if they have noses) up at us when they're not lecturing us on how easily dark energy is to understand, and wondering aloud how they got stuck in a galaxy with such a foolish, water-wasting species.

Perhaps this will invigorate our sense of competition, and we put in 110% to solve our planetary problems and begin building better spaceships and planetary colonies...just to rub it in their faces (if they have faces).

 

They're not friendly - this is the least complex scenario, actually. And it sadly would look a lot like whenever one human civilization met a less advanced one: Bonk 'em on the head and take their stuff (a euphemistic phrase for genocide if there ever was one). There's pretty good odds that if aliens have technology to get across the galaxy, they could take over our planet with relative ease, overpowering any sort of military response we enact. Maybe we'll become slaves, maybe they hunt us for sport, maybe they'll eat us because they're like super intelligent bear creatures and why wouldn't they? We'd look like a planet full of chickens for them. Or they don't care about us and just want our resources (water is pretty darn rare, galaxy wise). Or maybe they're super angry at how we're squandering/destroying our resources and decide that we don't deserve it, and kill us all and begin rehabilitating our environment, enjoying the company of dolphins as opposed to us.

 

 


 

2017 Review

 

Is this real life?

It's how things on earth would get worse in a cliché-ridden film about how things in life would get worse. In terms of global politics, the power players (your Jinpings, your Putins, your Trumps) running the power countries have consolidated said powers (suppress dissent, bar your enemies from running against you in an election that would be crooked anyway) and the wannabe power players in the wannabe power countries are doing the same thing on a lesser scale. The United Nations tried to finger wag the US for moving their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and the US responding by cutting their UN spending by almost $300 million.

'Fuck You' used to be the underlying comment between most political discourse, but now it's right there on the surface. In 2017 the goal wasn't to appear to talk with your political opponent (even if it would be pre-scripted and just talking points), it was to tell them to fuck right off. To gather up your meager toys and tax cuts and take them home, to give them to your lackeys and boot licks. Pull out of accords and agreements, purge or ignore those annoying academics who keep cawing about sustainability and fairness, call everyone who disagrees with you liars that are conspiring against you and your supporters.

But is that true? Does that existential nugget even matter right now? What's the difference between a half-truth and a half-lie? The same as a glass half-full and one half-empty? When we start to feel like any breaking story is possible or impossible, bent in such a way as to favour this group or that demographic, it's a sign of our exhaustion, shock, gullibility, and constant suspicion.

Fake facebook ads and 'news'-feed stories filled with lies are just the tip of a communications iceberg that is changing the way we think and interact with others. Our intellect has not kept pace with the advances in technology. We're 1998 brains using 2017 technology. The medium is the message, and with the onslaught of information all being essentially equal (whether it's a new meme, a sports highlight, a celebrity scandal, or a political disaster), it means that everything goes through the same mental filter.

Nothing is more important than anything else.

In terms of an average life span, all of this (free-market capitalism running amok while the Internet is the centrepiece of the digital revolution) happened fairly quick. In terms of human history, it is almost instantaneous. From one way a complex globalized civilization tried to operate (Political centralization to facilitate to economic diffusion) to another (political diffusion to facilitate economic centralization). It took several decades for radio and television to spread across the globe. It took two for the Internet. Day and night (or in a few too many ways, from day to night), and our eyes haven’t adjusted yet. We don’t know what we’re really looking at.

And the face that represents this incomprehension, this confusion, this feeling of irrelevance is Donald Trump. Trump is not the worst side of America, he is the worst side of a dictator, masquerading as a democratically elected president. The brash, proud, preening sense of superiority, which does a poor job at covering up the ignorance, bitterness, and resentfulness towards the average citizen. It's no coincidence that it was the early eighties - the same time when 'corporations first, government needs to be stopped, greed is good' attitudes took hold of America - when Donald Trump began to flourish and represent all of this.

And like exponential growth, this sort of attitude and policies that come with have really taken off in the last twelve months (it's only been twelve months!). Travel bans, rolling back of transgender rights, Twitter feuds (from Schwarzenegger to North Korea), repeated attempts and failures to repeal Obamacare just as more and more people started to support it, the Keystone Pipeline being pushed again (and then an oil spill), the head of the EPA doesn't believe in climate change, and Stupid Watergate (thanks for that title, John) eternally looming over the entire administration.

America is still the most powerful country on earth, and with that title comes the most attention (good and bad), and the news from the United States in 2017 was all dumpster fire (somehow it's "Make exporting elephant ivory back to America legal again!").

Around the world it was trying to keep Trump clones and Trump policy at bay. Xenophobic fearmongering that hides the kleptocracy.

Multiculturalism in a globalized cultural system is a balancing act that can be upturned very easily when other societal institutions begin to fail. People turning against each other, within nations or attacking neighbours. This can be seen in the wanton slaughter of the Rohingya in Mynamar, the muted response to the recovery effort across the Caribbean and southeastern US after the devastating hurricane season, East African nations facing increased tensions as famine spreads, while ISIS finally collapsing across Syria and Iraq is a sliver of good news, but has revealed yet another humanitarian crisis.

In good times, the 'other' is tolerated, perhaps even welcomed. In bad times, the 'other' is made into some sort of pariah, forgotten at best, persecuted at worst.

Yes, there has always been conflict, there has always been poverty, there have always been years with man-made and natural disasters. But the discussion over how to deal with these issues has never been so paltry, so futile, so screaming at a wall.

The tired joke being that you unfriend or stop following certain people on Twitter who apparently support [insert whatever politician you think should be put in jail here]. The terrifying actual blowback of this is the lack of any sort of discussion between left and right at all.

We're at a point where truth is bent so much it never reaches common ground. Instead it turns and turns and finally returns from where it started so you're just confirming your own story or assumption and calling it truth. Turning inward, turning xenophobic, turning towards an imaginary past when everything was supposedly better, turning desperate, turning angry.

A divisiveness not seen since...well, actual segregation, and at times like those, powerful people have taken advantage to increase their share of the pie. Another information leak, this time labelled the Paradise Papers, shone an even wider light on how hundreds of billions of dollars are legally hidden by the wealthy and large corporations (don't remember it? That's cause it's as important as a presidential tweet and the awfulness of United Airlines). So what happens at the end of the year? America passes a tax bill that unabashedly supports corporations and the wealthy at the expensive of essential government programs and a ballooning deficit that will trigger a tax increase for the middle class years down the road. And they tossed the repeal of the individual mandate for the previous president's health care plan because hey, what's a shit sandwich without a little arsenic sprinkled on top?

One wants to avoid hyperbole, but what else can be said? If America hasn't already ceased to be a functioning democracy, than it's racing to that horrid state at breakneck speed, playing catch-up with Russia and China. And the EU is trying to hold itself together while squeezing the UK as it tries to leave. And South America is mired in scandal or sudden market collapse. And while Mugabe was finally deposed in Zimbabwe, it felt a lot like meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

It's every dystopic movie opening, with a small cabal of elites indifferently ruling over the unwashed, powerless masses, a stifling, corrupt bureaucracy that silences dissent primarily by drowning it out with discrediting and obfuscation.

But don't think for one moment that there is a sort of super human group of ultra-rich at the helm. This system exists in part because of the large amount of people who don't engage in the democratic process (a necessity to keep it functioning properly). Now certainly conditions can exist which essentially force or allow a person to 'drop out' of this participation so blame cannot be laid entirely at their feet, but the fact remains that there are millions of people who can vote (and therefore can make a difference)...but don't.

There's something nightmarishly comforting in the thought that a small group of people are purposely engineering the downfall of America for reasons unknown, if only because it means that there is at least plan (even if it's a horrifying one). The alternate (and truth) is just as bad: There is no one at the helm, the people in power are inept, short-sighted, greedy and stupid, having no idea how devastating their decisions are. The hope is that Trump is the best advertisement against everything he represents, and that all countries - not just the United States - would do well to remember to not fall for such incendiary pronouncements outlandish promises.

One would almost wish that Trump did indeed have some sort of mental health issue, as at least that would offer an explanation and garner some sympathy for his actions, rather than having to accept that fact that he is simply a loathsome, petty, vindictive human being. The kind of leader that would go to war over a personal slight. The kind of leader who would say it was sunny at his inaugural when it was actually raining. The kind of leader who says policy that hurts the poor will actually help them. The kind of leader who sees his presidency as a daily television series that he has to always win by day's end. There's a reason Orwell's 1984 was one of the best selling books of the year (the bigger surprise being that people still read books). The conflation of corporate and government power continues and they just haven't had to guts to rename the still valued institutions the Ministries of Peace, Plenty, Love, and Truth.

It's in this sort of cultural environment that the entertainment gets either grittier or more fantastical (or in the case of Game of Thrones, both). When the daily news is such a slog that it's actually a relief to have a discussion as to whether we're all just living in a massive simulation created by advanced entities that might be in a higher dimension.

So once again: Is this real life?

Saying that it 'feels' so incredibly surreal and crazy gives a big hint to why we're in this mess in the first place. 'Feeling' is political Russian roulette. Sometimes it's going to go in your favour if you bet more on an exciting feeling than on verifiable facts, and sometimes it's going to blow up in your goddamn face.

Donald Trump won because of how fucking hard he pushed feeling over fact, breaking truth in our political discourse in the process. There will always be another flunky willing to lie for you on camera. If you want something to be true for your convenience and you have a decent chunk of power/money, then thy will be done. Globalization isn't going to collapse simply because of unchecked human greed, but that's certainly going to be one of its main ingredients.

2017 was polarizing, which is how everything is done in our society nowadays (including Star Wars films, apparently). 2017 was opposite sides of the time-space coin. 2017 was parallel lines, with two camps going the same direction but neither of them agreeing they are. 2017 was sliced in two at every moment, between the conscious and the unconscious, where the day is an unending nightmare and the night is somnolent bliss. Light and dark, us and them, left and right, right and wrong. Concrete walls have dropped in between these opposites and then expanded, driving them further and further away from each other.

2017 was a reminder that division is easier, more seductive (thanks, Yoda) than keeping people united and clear-headed. It was a year which proved that a car-crash can get more people's attention than a highway running smoothly. It was a year where people in the board rooms reached out for more than ever before, and the rest of us hoarded any sort of power (political, economic, cultural) that remained. It was a year where a reckoning began for sexual predators in high places, but its extent and dysfunction revealed how much of a problem it truly was (and might continue to be). 2017 was a whole lot of dark, and maybe just a few candles were lit to show a barely manageable path out of it.

So here's to 2018. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking it can't get any worse, but let's steel ourselves to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't.

 

 

Culture Stuff

Like global developments, there were two sides to the things we took in for fun and games this year.

Music: The Light

A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs (it might be something about two crazy kids throwing away all their responsibilities and living for the moment. It certainly feels like that. It certainly feel like Adam Granduciel is trying to mainline Springsteen and Petty (RIP, of course), and stretch their radio hits into something grander, heavier, more reaching for something better, which is no small feat when that last one's a feeling we need more than ever)

Flower Boy, Tyler, the Creator (Tyler grows up and we're all the better for it. Apparently 'growing up' means spitting lines that go from boasting to self doubt in the same verse, along with putting together the hardest hitting, grooviest, old school R&B funk filled beats of the year. Kendrick's better on the mic and DAMN's no slouch by any means, but I found myself gravitating towards Flower Boy more often)

 

Music: The Dark

TFCF, Liars (liars are dead. Long lives liars. The only familiar thread between liars albums is their demented, dead-eyed grin. If The War on Drugs are promising a pedal to the metal rush down the highway towards the horizon, then the liars offer a high speed trip into a brick wall painted to look like a tunnel. There are songs with recognizable choruses, with almost-catchy melodies and some lyrics that might suggest some sort of emotional bond or connection, but it still feels just a little bit dirty and upside- down reflection all the way through)

(Self-titled), uuuu (the background music to everything in 2017. The almost vocal-free shriek of scabby, feedback-ever guitars, and deadly, ominous warehouse drums. The 'songs' shamble forward, ugly and seething at one moment, but then they break open to these wide open expanses of one note, one chord, one repeated drum kick. It persists. It's a crushing, soaring sound that reminds you to keep breathing, to keep going. It's not the music we want, but it's probably the music we need)

 

Best Movie/TV Show - The Light

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

No, it's not a movie or a TV show (it's one of those video-game thingies), and there was more of that than ever before. But two hours of one film or an eight hour binge watch of one season wasn't enough time to escape the morning news. You needed a much more immersive, fantastical experience, and nothing else delivered like Breath of the Wild. The scope, the challenge, the fun, the absolutely weird, the necessary mission to save a kingdom from ruin. And while it's hard, it's not too hard, and it looks beautiful and majestic at every turn.

 

Best Movie/TV Show - The Dark

[Real Life]

A cheap pick, but not wrong. In 2017, nothing was as chaotic, twisted, unpredictable and shocking as real life. Politics on every possible level of society beat out all the movies and TV shows, even though there were plenty good ones out there. No one would have predicted it would be this shocking, full of this much pettiness, this much scrapping of the supposed bottom of the apparently endless barrel. And we can’t even imagine the cliffhanger.

 

 

Honourable Mention

3, Run the Jewels (only because it kind of fell through the cracks and was forgotten way to early in 2017...since it was intentionally leaked by the guys on Christmas Day, weeks before it's announced release. El-P and Killer Mike just get better and better, bringing a hard hitting, fist pumping album full of hilarious threats and a barrel of middle finger insults. It’s a good bit of defence to keep the crap of this year at bay. Perfect for the gym, protest, or afternoon tea)

 


 

Your Nation's Birthday, and Other Political Diversions

 

Here comes the grump train, complete with buzzkill dining car!

But the first, the glass half-full positive people: Oh what's the harm in celebrating an arbitrary date of political documents being signed that have since being superseded by other signed political documents? Why can't you just enjoy some flag-waving, fireworks shooting, and an onslaught of companies proudly boasting their own patriotism so you'll buy more of their products and services? What can be more [insert the name of your country here] than that?

Well, because a country is more complicated than a flag, a slogan, a symbol, and whatever products these things are printed, plastered on, and shot into the sky. Without healthy participation in the voting process and strong government transparency, a nation can quickly become nothing more than some flags and fireworks.

A stable, successful country has boring, complicated machinery under its hood. There are extensive fail safes and oversights between the different branches of government to make sure each one doesn't abuse its power or become ineffective. To provide necessary services to the citizens, there are very large and heavily staffed departments that operate on strict budgets and deadlines to make sure people have safe water, safe streets, safe medical procedures, and safe internet access.

Protesting against (or praising) politicians for a wealth of very good reasons is a keystone to free and democratic nation, but if you don't have the other stones (to continue to use a metaphor we've all just rushed past without thinking) that could be considered bureaucracy, the entire bridge collapses.

What is a country, if not the rules and regulations that apply those living within a specific set of geographic boundaries? A cold and bland description, sure, but that's where you have to start, and - if you go in reverse to strip everything glossy away - is what you're left with.

These laws and statutes beget respect and trust that is meant to extend far beyond an individual's own community and daily routine. It's easy to take for granted that for much of human history - even within former empires and ancient civilizations - most individuals had a small social circle and rather strictly proscribed role for their community. Modern democracy is generally, acknowledged as the form of governance that grants the individual the most amount of freedom, and if that's not something that should be celebrated annually, then I don't know what is.

It just so happens that Canada turns 150 on July 1st.

If you slept through history class and forgot what year that was, don't worry, everything from beers to banks to bakeries will remind you at every opportunity. It was also recently pride weekend, but I don't think that comes as any surprise, either, as vodka companies and Target have been plastering rainbows on bottles and t-shirts all month. And that's something that should give us all pause.

The rights and freedoms granted to us through the creation of our democracies, and the rights and freedoms granted to the LGBTQ community (finally, after so much suffering and hard work) are clearly things worth celebrating, but the appropriation of the symbols that represent these events by corporations who are simply trying to push even more products upon us should ring more than hollow. Putting a price tag on symbols diminishes their power and importance, but beyond that, it gives corporations the opportunity to make the argument that they morally support these issues. But corporations are amoral. Corporations are not people. Corporations are business entities who sole purpose of existence is to provide a product or service that will maximize shareholder profit. They should be held up with suspicion and regulation, not alongside the sacrifices and hard work that actual people have made. And there's not much wiggle room for this. If you give a corporation a yard, they'll take a mile and then try to sell it back to you with a 30% markup.

But it easy to forget this, considering how pervasive corporations have become, with their own symbols and logos rivaling the ones meant to represent ideas and movements, not simply product. And the blurring of these two is extremely dangerous. A political idea or a political movement should never be for sale.

There's always been big money in nostalgia, and since the baby boomers are the only generation that is actually still clutching to that middle class/disposable income status, pushing anything in the 'look how far we've come' vein feels like marketing gold.

And 'feels' is the key. That's the right plucking of the purse strings. Be proud of your nation on its birthday because it hasn't keeled over and died just yet (in this case, the day when a bunch of white men who, after following the footsteps of other white men who coldly expropriated native lands, signed some papers in Charlottetown saying they won't rely on the Brits for every single legislative decision).

And we like to think this is a more important birthday because this time around we have a nice, clean number. One hundred and fifty. Not like those ratty old eighty sevens and one hundred thirty threes. Ordered, efficient, simple. We're supposed to prefer things like this! It's worth celebrating! This number represents the successfulness of our country! Let it co-exist among with other representations, like a flag, some food, a tall mountain or an old building.

But a country isn't that simple. A country shouldn't be that simple.

Parades don't get sick people the health care they need or the impoverished the assistance they need. A national anthem doesn't explain the trade agreements with neighbouring states that will (ideally) strengthen the economies of all involved nations for years to come.

Now patriotism is meant to be shorthand for all the political qualities that have made your country successful. If a nation's was a brain (a similarly complicated device), then patriotism is the endorphins. The ultimate 'feeling good about stuff' that can't possibly exist until basic functions work smoothly most of the time. But a brain can't operate on endorphins alone, just like a nation can't run on bravado very long until it runs into the ground.

Patriotism didn't win the Second World War. The massive industrial effort did.

The former just made the latter easier because a massive marketing campaign from politicians and celebrities alike pitched the hell out of buying war bonds and saving/donating everything from scrap metal to bacon grease. And when America came out so unquestionably on top in 1945 (having absolutely more of everything, with very little of their country damaged when compared to other major powers), it made complete sense that this sense of superiority would continue, that what was being done for/to the world in its name was good and right and justice and will certainly succeed. Until it doesn’t.

Patriotism is a tool, and like any tool, it can be very useful, but also lead to abuse.

Patriotism sells, and anything simple, straightforward and positive sells, especially when it's marketed as a miracle cure for whatever is currently ailing you or your country.

Patriotism used to represent/symbolize important ideals that were the foundations and proud accomplishments of a nation. But now patriotism represents itself, and when it gets that hollow and malleable, it becomes an easy symbol to insert into an advertisement to deliver that endorphin hit that will make it more likely for you to buy that product or to agree with whatever position is being pushed.

Patriotism discourages deep reflection and complex discourse. Patriotism puts feeling ahead of numbers. Patriotism rewrites history and truncates the past.

It's bad enough when ideas like freedom, democracy and truth (and its accompanying symbols) are pushed in front of dubious government actions like military intervention or policy that only benefits a small segment of the populace, but it becomes even more odious when these concepts are used for financial gain.

In years past these symbols were held in higher regard. A suit 'made' of your country's flag would be considered extremely disrespectful (in addition to being a poor fashion choice). Now it's just fodder for late night comedians and fashion show judges.

How we got to the point where your ATM is wishing you a happy Independence Day is a strange one. It's a reminder how pervasive marketing has become, how throughout the 20th century it 'accidentally' competed with other institutions as a delivery system for specific types of information (government, media, arts and entertainment), and how in the 21st century it has essentially superseded the others. Criticism levied against this has been constant, from 'The Hidden Persuaders' to McLuhan to Chomsky. All noting to some degree that the constant conflation (even if initially inadvertent) of messages in one block can create unintended consequences for people's cultural experience. A news program followed by a series of commercials, followed by a scripted drama on TV or radio. Print ads for jewellery stores besides stories of war atrocities in a newspaper. And now as we take in the entire world through our phones, the accuracy and honesty of everything we read comes into question. Are we being informed, sold something, or about to be hacked by clicking on the wrong link and downloading a virus? What is an accurate depiction of our world today, and what is...ugh...fake news?

Political advertising has always been a mix of high-minded ideals and the absolute lowest form of mud-slinging, but the President of the United States is a walking, talking attack ad full of vindictive lies and half-truths. The powerful figurehead of a nation is a former game show host who in the past shilled for McDonald's and Domino's Pizza. Donald Trump is a commercial come to life. How we go back to when politics was not complete spin is a mystery. Forget throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We're dumping our entire sense of self into a dirty river.

It is in this environment that the nostalgia angle becomes so appealing. Memories for a past time when things were better and simple are always selective (we focus on the good and fun and forget the bad and lousy), and that means it's so much easier for marketers and public relations groups to capitalize upon. This mix of history, patriotism and nostalgia means that a nation's birthday is always an easy advertising target. It's driven into all our minds that our own country is good, right, and deserves all it gets (which is what marketing in general tells us every moment of every day), so why not shell out for a domestic flight because there's an ad on your Facebook feed pushing anniversary ticket deals?

There are a lot of pressing issues facing the planet and the socioeconomic order today (oof, what a phrase), and anniversary advertising is not exactly one of them. There's certainly some truth in the offhand shrug of 'just ignore it', because that's what a vast majority of people do when it comes to advertising. Most of it leaves our short term memory seconds after it arrives. But it is a factor in changing people's minds and behaviour (in terms of both spending and voting), because otherwise advertisers wouldn't spend billions upon billions of dollars on it every year.

When it comes to selling tires, trucks, or even Tylenol, we've come to accept that the truth about these goods and services will be warped, blurred, and sent through a wood chipper, all to increase the chances of you taking out your wallet (physical or digital). And perhaps it's a touch of wistful nostalgia on our own part that we would hope that something considerably more important - namely, your country - would be separated from that. Not in any legal sense, of course, since banning advertising related to political events would quickly veer into censorship, but just out of a sort of common sense and respect (another bout of wistful nostalgia, really). Nothing should be so important that it can’t be mocked or criticized, but the flip side of this means that nothing is sacred. When it comes to the good ol' Internet, the difference on a newspaper website between a news story and advertisement is nicknamed the separation of church and state, but it certainly feels like a bishop has been writing the headlines these days.

 

 


 

Breath of the Wild and a Glimpse of the Future

 

Oh my gods.

The new Zelda game (Breath of the Wild) for Switch, Nintendo's new console (and thankfully, their previous and underrated console as well, the Wii U) is so good it's almost certainly bad for everything else in your life. Work, relationships, friendships, other hobbies, grooming, and eating are all important, but not as important as climbing over that next ridge to reach that orange-hued temple you saw from one of the towers days and days ago but was sidetracked to fight those monsters on the main trail just past the Rito stables, where an old man asked you to help him find some goron spice, which you can only get in the city of its namesake, which sits on the side of a billowing volcano.

If you wanted to design a game that took all the best elements from action-adventure games, puzzle games, role playing games, simulation games, social network games and, first person shooters, you're too late, Breath of the Wild already did it.

If you get tired off slashing monsters to pieces with a three-pronged silver boomerang, you can buy a house and furnish it. Or find all these kids who don't want to attend choir practice. Or climb mountain after mountain to find treasure and mini-puzzles to collect korok seeds (which you collect and give to the giant dancing- never mind. The more you describe games like this, the more they sound like a medieval mushroom trip). Or just level the fuck up and up and up and then crush every enemy in your path. This was the immersion that No Man's Sky offered (where the galaxy is your oyster), but with joy and a sense of mission.

In this case, you're tasked with - wait for it - saving a kingdom that's in the grip of an evil force. Once again, it's the blending of ever-improving gaming and advancing technology with the oldest and most familiar story tropes (ahem, The Legend of Zelda epitomizes the fisher king narrative perfectly. The destroyed land, the hero who must save it by quests which prove their strength and worthiness. If you want a TS Eliot nod, there's a whole region in the game named 'The Wasteland', and boy howdy does it live up to its name. To truncate the temporal influence, the entire Zelda game series (19 titles and counting) owes a fine debt to Miyazaki's 1984 anime classic, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, which involves the titular hero bringing life to dying lands, poisoned from the misuse of old but advanced technology (and yes, to archetype it up, Nausicaa is named after the Greek mythological character that gave aid to Odysseus as he shipwrecked on Scheria)). Saving and rescuing seen in every sort of game, from Mario to Doom to Myst to Angry Birds.

Breath of the Wild successfully incorporates the challenges of open world gaming, which can have difficulty balancing the boredom that is reality with the excitement that is expected in video games, which exist to alleviate the boredom of reality. You can climb the Hebra mountains forever (although prepare sensibly for the cold), but you won't be that far away from a shrine, a spear-wielding bokoblin, or a panoramic landscape that takes your breath away and makes you forget it's just an arrangement of pixels on the screen.

Prior to this, open world games had to have some pretty sweet plums to make the travelling and waiting worth it, and Grand Theft Auto made headlines outside the gaming world for celebrating terrible/terribly fun activities in a Los Angeles substitute. It was fun, but it wasn't joyous (although riding a motorcycle onto a moving train got close). Breath of the Wild's look and feel certainly is. The mythical world of Hyrule has never felt more realistic and majestic, and being able to interact with everything inside it makes the experience that much more emotionally resonating.

Games are getting better, bigger, more immersive, accessible to players at any skill level, and even the traditional notions of what skill level can accomplish are changing. For most of video games' history, it would the noobs who would play the storyline and not much else, whereas the hardcore gamers could explore the ever-expanding virtual world at their leisure, completing side quests for swag and respect. Now, in open-world games, finishing the story has become slightly more optional. It's not the only way to have barrels of fun. In fact, at one point the game's main goal may get ridiculously difficult for 'weekend gamers', and they might be happy enough wandering around, discovering new places, fighting easier enemies and completing other tasks.

Games are rushing past 'time-wasters' and 'hobbies', quickly becoming 'lifestyles'. If the outside world is just bad news (what with the under-employment, climate change, President Trump, and too many goddamn superhero movies), why not spend hours in an epic fantasyland where you can't permanently die?

[Ah, diversions! The typically labelled bane of the politicization of the masses. If only all these sheeple would put down their iPhones and eighteen button controllers and actually find out about what's happening in the world, then we could finally start to fix all these problems. Which is completely unreasonable. That's not how humans behave. Laziness and leisure is part of our physical/psychological makeup. Having an outlet for these things is supremely beneficial, otherwise you end up doing important things lazily...like deciding who to vote for. Besides, video games offer the opportunity to educate people as well as entertain them. Even first person shooters can teach basic team building skills. Changing people is hard. Changing the tools people use to interact with the world around them is...less hard]

This newfound respect was hard earned. Ignored by many people in the culture industry as a toy for kids, the kids that played video games incessantly grew up and ended up elevating their quality to at least merit a seat at the children's table. Roger Ebert decried video games as not being worthy to enter the same pantheon of art, alongside music, film, and literature. While 'worthiness' is a term that can always be up for debate (certainly the first film strips and moving pictures were thought to be nothing more than passing fads and novelties, and gave little indication that years later the industry would offer up 'Battleship Potempkin' and 'Citizen Kane').

But in the sense that one's engagement in video games is different than when compared to other forms of art, Ebert is correct. Even more abstract works of art that requires the spectator to press a button, move a rock, or even add their own personal brushstroke to a canvas don't require the same level of attentive engagement that even an early arcade game like Frogger doe.

Discovering the rules of the reality of the piece in question is essential for all art. For a painting or movie, if you don't understand, you might just be confused. In a video game, you might end up dead. You have to press this button here to elicit this reaction, and the better you get at pressing this button at just the right time, the more options available to you. The background might be colourful eight-bit blocks, or an ultra-realistic sky.

Video covers the art, and game covers the engagement.

Maybe the real question should be, 'how do you review video games'?

For most of it's history, video games have been light of the qualities that writers gravity towards (story, symbolism, subtly, originality, social commentary) and heavy on repetitive, button pressing fun that can't afford to bore or confuse you for very long lest you stop feeding quarters or turn it off.

'Fun'.

It's not exactly antithetical to art, but it's not very often than the greatest works in literature, music, painting/sculpture and film are also described as 'fun'. Hamlet, Citizen Kane, Guernica, and Beethoven's Fifth don't do 'fun'.

Fun is supposed to be childish and fleeting, and not something you were expected to wallow over and in for hours and days at a time, or feel profound hope or sorrow over. Which, y'know, is something you can actually write about.

Pity the poor reviewer who needs to figure out how to puke out five hundreds words for something that's just fun (this reviewer included, who is, as you read this, quite aware that they are deconstructing video game reviews in the middle of a video game review, partially in order to extend the word count).

Even if the reviewer enjoyed the game, the sentence 'I had a great time jumping on wave after wave of goombas and koopas' is just fourteen words. Stretching that out to acceptable article length is not easy.

Video games' interactivity demands a new set of skills for the reviewer. Fortunately and sensibly, one of the basic skills is being really, really into video games (this is hardly surprising. Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were really, really into movies, hence our trust that they knew what they were talking about when they reviewed a new film). But reviewing 'gameplay'? The ease of switching from one weapon to another by holding your thumb down for the right of amount of time? Suddenly it's like your talking about a car, or a cordless drill.

Putting into words the happiness and relief the player feels when they finally defeat the half dozen heavily armed soldiers at an elevated mountain fort is hard for a reviewer to put into words. They aren't watching the protagonist doing this, they are the protagonist doing this. Suddenly it's not a review, but an account of event that 'actually' occurred. The reviewer becomes an autobiographer, even if they are reviewing an event that hundreds of thousands of other players have also done, in a near identical fashion. When you defeat an enemy or solve a puzzle in a unique and ingenious way, is that a form of performance art?

It's not so much that the stories have always come second, but that the story has to be written around what the player is going to do most of the time, which is fighting and running, typically (and hey, let's roll a smirking glass to the acknowledgement that video games depict some of the most physically demanding and deadly actions a person would ever undertake, and it's being piloted by someone sitting on the edge of a couch, sometimes barely moving anything more than their fingers)

'Formulaic stories written around fighting and running'? Sounds like the glut of superhero movies that have overrun box offices for the last decade. Which is apropos, since any film reviewer worth their salt has decried the rise and focus of these cookie-cutter childlike blockbusters at the expense of more thought-provoking and original fare.

It's as if movies are dumbing down quickly and video games are getting smarter and more detailed, which means they are on the way to meet in a sort of middle ground. And video games will have the ultimate edge because of vicariousness.

Living through the actions of the other, which will become even easier as Virtual Reality begins to seep into the monoculture. Ten year old kids with the strength of an entire platoon of soldiers, or - quite simply - Batman. Going back or forward thousands of years in time, zipping across the galaxy to trade some radioactive material or save a planet, racing in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. As graphics and gameplay become more realistic, this immersion in a new environment will imitate the real world to a much greater degree.

And Zelda has always been on the edge of video games' potential.

Rockstar Games CEO Dan Houser said that practically all 3D gaming owes a massive debt to Zelda's Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Breath of the Wild is set to have that sort of influence on future games (the narrative flow is stellar, the voice acting is top-notch, the ease of switching tools and weapons, the amount of choice you have to doeverything). They will be games that will go beyond the idea of a hobby or past time. Creating and exploring virtual/digital realities are on the cusp of being a job, not just something to do after work to kill time before moving on to something else.

For a long time the challenge was finding something to always bring people back after finishing the game, and one of the first features for this in the modern gaming world (once beating the high score was essentially consigned to only phone booth size arcade (and arcane) games) was the online multiplayer. Thank Doom (and ID Software) for that.

Which created its own little debate about the future of socialization. How much different is it playing video games with some across the globe instead of sitting beside you on the couch? Sure, you can hog all the chips, but we have to admit that 'hanging out' is going to go through a severe change of definition once that term is used casually to describe shooting the shit in a game lobby.

Regardless of how seriously we engage in these games, one thing is for certain: They are going to grow larger than even developers can imagine. No Man's Sky created a universe that had more planets than the developers knew about (it's a procedurally generated open universe, so in a sense the game 'built' itself).

This was part of the game's initial appeal. You and all the other players would explores this uncharted universe and catalogue and research all these unknown planets, with the info being placed in a big encyclopedia, and earning in-game currency while doing so (it's only a matter of time before some created a game called Everything, which - conveniently - they have. And like No Man's Sky, algorithms, not people, created its content).

Which is another factor. Money. Video games are a massive business, and the more people spend time with/in them, the more interested business will be to take advantage of this time. Perhaps in-game currency becomes exchangeable between games (although not necessarily 1=1. A rupee in a Zelda is almost certainly harder earned than the hundreds of thousands of points quickly awarded to you in Angry Birds), which becomes exchangeable for real-world currency. A bridging of the virtual and the real. After all, time is money. Where you spend one determines where you will spend in the other.

This sort of 'outside the box, inside the console' thinking will be essential in the years to come. Automation and robotics will replace up to forty percent of jobs that currently exist across the globe, so huge segments of the population will have a lot of time on their hands. Why not fill them with tasks in the virtual world, which could be a good way to earn some side spending money?

Ridiculous?

Perhaps we just haven't reached that level of technological familiarity with games and virtual spaces just yet. Think how absolutely bizarre the size and scope of the music industry in the 1990s would seem to someone at the beginning of the 20th century. The amount of money and jobs (from A&R men to touring  crew to, yes, critics) dependent on people listening to music on small discs that were read by lasers.

Consider how big professional sport has grown over the last few decades and how many people are directly or tangentially employed with that.

Why not video games?

We have e-sports (and even e-sports scandals!), e-life won't be far behind.

And as far as first steps into this new world of technological immersion, Breath of the Wild is absolutely perfect. Now please excuse us, there's a shrine hidden behind that rock wall which we have to quickly blow up to access.

 


 

2016 Review

 

Beyoncé made two big statements of the year: one intended, the other accidental.

The first debuted at the Super Bowl, effortlessly unseating Coldplay as the main chunk of halftime entertainment. And Ms. Knowles - in her wise-beyond-her-years way - is aware that it can't be just a song to excite the modern era. Audio-visual almost always defeats just audio.

'Formation' is a good track, and does a great job of being a protest song without being a cloyingly cliche protest song, but its presentation - in the premiere 'middle of football' performance, the accompanying music video, and during her concerts - is what transformed into it a cultural event and lightning rod of controversy. It was no ‘Fuck Tha Police’, but that’s because 2016 was already ‘Fuck, The Police’.

'Formation' suggested an ordered reaction, which is perfect, because 2016 was full of chaotic actions. The plan is playing a strong defense just before mounting a similarly strong offense. If 'Formation' was written in reaction to a miserable 2015, with Knowles attempting to infuse a bit of energy and inspiration into the listener, then she also happened to have penned (along with co-writers Brown, Frost, Hogan, and Williams) a song that summed up the chaos and confusion of 2016.

With headline after headline of bad news, 'Formation' became a circling of wagons, keeping what you knew and trusted in and everything else out (a circle that you might have thought was growing smaller by the day). A celebration of yourself and your power when everything else seemed to crumble. The economy was good if you were rich, the shootings didn't stop, and neither did the terrorist attacks.

The mass shootings (whether by the police or citizens with guns and anger) indicate a myriad of troubles in Western democracy, with the institutions of law enforcement failing to address in any sensible way not only systemic racism but also the rising and widening pockets of poverty that cover not only America but many other countries where the middle class is sliding into poverty and the already impoverished are sliding into a sort of dead zone.

The terror attacks are troubling on an entirely different level, in the sense that the goal of those willing to commit terrorist acts aren’t to win any sort of land or power, but a spot in the afterlife, since they believe suicide bombings (or shootings, or driving trucks through crowds) is a sure-fire way to heaven. And despondency, poverty, and social alienation are what drive people to believe in this worldview. If you don't have something to live for, you’ll find something to die for.

'Formation' can two meanings. Organization, planning, order, advancing an idea, moving forward. But it can also suggest falling into a narrowness: identifying with one candidate, party, worldview, clique or mixtape, and decrying anything different as the 'other', and not being worthy of discussion. Polarization, building walls instead of bridges. Protecting yourself at the expense of...what?

And before this article gets any more depressing about the state of world affairs, let's move on to note that Beyond also dropped Lemonade, a very good album which came as/with an accompanying music video/not-short-not-full-length-film/whatever you call 'em these days. Named after her grandmother's basic mantra about what to do when dealt a bad hand.

Making said lemonade out of lemons.

Sounds a bit like the only way to put 2016 into perspective.

Lots of lemons, yes, but to keep our heads up and our thoughts positive, let's grab that knife, blender, and bag of sugar and make a refreshing, much needed glass of citrus-based juice.

How we react to the challenges placed in our path or beaten into us near senselessly is a better measure of our abilities than a simple walk through an unencumbered near straight line in average space-time. Oh, we would obviously prefer the later. Everyone naturally tumbles into the path of least resistance. The temptation to keep our heads down, our eyes shut and our tongues silent is particularly great when the problems seem to pile up one after the other. Maybe if we don't look at it, the rash will go away by itself. It's NIMBY's cousin, LEEHI (Let Everyone Else Hand It).

Are we showing our partisan hand too obviously by believing that Trump will be a disaster for the world at large (while at the same time we cross all twenty fingers and toes at once for this not to happen, that please, please, please can he somehow shock us and make America and the world…wait for it…great again)? If this is the main bushel of lemons, then the solace is that the populist message - that life is getting worse for the average citizen, and we need to do something about it - swings across the political spectrum. This is not about agreeing on the problem. It's about agreeing on the solution. The Sanders campaign shows that there is a viable left-leaning movement in the United States that the neither party can continue to ignore, especially when one considers that the political centre of America is shrinking like Arctic sea ice.

Populism is in, and Trump’s tone-deafness in his political appointments and his - shudder - constant tweeting of his barely-baked policies will only strengthen the ever growing disenfranchised (including the millions that voted for him with genuine hope that he would improve their lives). People on opposite sides of the political spectrum when it comes to social issues will hold hands and march together against corporations, mega banks, and bait-and-switch trade deals.

Despite initial reports (including here) listing a litany of reasons why Clinton lost (emails, low energy, illness rumours, too beltway, more emails, hollow scandals, poor electioneering strategy), further research shows that Trump connected with voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, including 20% of white working class voters that describe themselves as liberals. The difference was 'jobs' in quotation marks. Not only wishing to have a steady paycheque, but all the literal and proverbial trappings that go along with it (pride, happiness, comfort, a positive attitude towards the future). This is why people who work in the fossil fuel industry are more likely to be skeptical about climate change: it's their damn meal ticket, and the last thing want to believe is that their job is helping making the world worse.

Unemployment may be low, but many of these jobs are in the 'underemployment' industry, like working part time in a retail position, or becoming an Uber driver/delivery-person. 40% of jobs that exist today will disappear in a generation, replaced by computers and automation. It will be the true Second Industrial Revolution.

And like the first one, the wealth of the very few who got very rich off of these sweeping changes to a more digital form of everything (from financial instruments to a killer app that does the work of a dozen accountants) will have to confront the reality that they have the ability (and many will say a responsibility) to improve the lives of billions if they are just willing to part with some of their damn money and power (the top 1% of the 1% have an estimated $22 trillion holed up in offshore, secret bank accounts).

Because - and here's that sip of lemonade - the moment is closing in when people are going to realize that a lot of the divisions that seemed to frame so many debates in old and new media are convenient distractions to the blandly obvious truth about the have and have-nots. The current crop of ultra-nationalists and right-wingers talk a big game (just like immigrant-hugging lefties), but if they don't deliver, then everyone will see them for what they really are: power hungry opportunists.

With technology rushing ahead at breakneck speed, openness and transparency is barreling forward, ruining some people's plans and policies and creating great opportunity for others. Any short term problems regarding questions about access to information will be outweighed by long term gain. Knowledge is power and access to that is something politicians and security officials have always wanted to keep private, but that's a fight against gravity. Information is pouring out of everything, and while many people will rather get their Mario Run on, the data is just there, waiting for them, when they finally want to see what's going on. If a large enough group of people take action, then this action doesn't have to require huge amounts of energy or sacrifice. The numbers of participants will make the difference.

The net neutrality protests of 2014 are good examples of what it looks like when people and sections of big industry (in this case, digital companies like Google and Amazon, who understand that a fair playing field in cyberspace helped create much of their success) work together towards a greater good.

Speaking of which, global investments in green energy are on the rise which is great news in the long term for developing environmentally-friendly technologies, as well as the short term, as it continues to make coal a prohibitively expensive fuel source (at least outside of China), and really puts the hurt on the awful, awful oil sands.

This needs to be applied to the more nebulous and abstract world of financial instruments, before another Great Recession crashes into us. Definitely not as easy to mobilize for as worker's rights and climate change, but the decisions made on Wall Street directly affect how well almost any big proposal or plan will be implemented (if it's implemented at all). Being able to push for change here (especially with Trump coming into power) still feels like sucking on a lemon.

But maybe the greatest glass is that fewer people than ever before are dying in wars and violent conflicts than any time in the last several decades. And it might not seem that way, with the continuing horrors in Syria (even as the war is finally winding down) and Yemen (which has continually been underreported in the Western press). The earth is in a good state to have many changes made upon it, but we can easily make it seem like it's teetering on edge between utopia and dystopia, both of which are supremely overhyped.

The problem here is perception. The problem here is sifting through an overwhelming amount of information being dumped all over without much fact-checking or filter. What we believe to be true, and when we act on the information that we want to be the accurate framing of the situation. Good news that’s fake, bad news that’s fake, good news that’s real, bad news that’s real. It all comes in the same medium (which, as McLuhan noted, is the message), so it’s difficult to pick apart the shit from the gold. And we don’t spend much time trying to do that. As we quickly cherry-pick our entertainment (listening to half a song to decide if we like an entire album, or the first five minutes of the first episode or a TV show), we spend even less time considering the sources of what we call news.

What do we truly know about the world outside our routine? Western leaders remind us that terrorism is not an existential threat to our democracy and way of life, except for the Western leaders who tell us that it certainly is a threat to everything we hold dear. We complain about corporations but don’t think for a minute of doing any sort of personal boycott. If you need proof that marketing works, look no further than the statistic which shows that more people in America today believe that climate change isn't real than twenty years ago. The twelve months that made up 2016 was full of screaming headlines that inevitably made so many of us numb towards the events that will almost certainly shape our world for years to come. If it 'feels' like anger and isolation won, then it time turn that negativity into something positive ('lemons into lemonade' theme reminder). And the more we connect with others, the better chance we have at making the right difference.

But what do we want? Is there anything universal we can all hold onto and agree upon?

To not know the horrors of war.

To escape the soul-grinding bonds of poverty.

To avoid the easy pratfalls of social isolation.

To make the next generation have a better life that our own.

When the masses begin to agree, that's when the people in the halls of power will begin to listen. And if contacting your local politician isn't cutting it, find who is pulling their strings and withdraw support of whatever company or industry is propping them up. That's the work required.

That's what can be done. That's available to us. Typically these yearly reviews have that lousy stream of cynicism babbling through it, with crossed-fingers at the end hoping that we'll do better in 2013, 2014, 2015, etc. And since 2016 'felt' particularly awful, we're going for a different  tactic.

We hope but not blindly. We sigh but we don’t close out eyes. We grit our teeth but offer a handshake instead of a fist. We worry but we do not despair.

Why? Because as a recent Nobel Prize winner once said, "don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin."

Raise a glass of lemonade to that.

 

 

 

Music of the year

Big Three, in Alphabetical Order

 

Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition

Has gotten only more prescient and necessary by the day. The bangers saddling up next to the more, moody introspective tracks in a perfect presentation. If 2016 was like falling down stairs, then this was the soundtrack to drown out your cries and pleas for help. Brown seems only half certain of himself half the time, and for the other 50% he's king of the world.  'When It Rain' is the paranoid rave up we need right now.

Hooded Fang - Venus on Edge

Concentrated mania. Tweaked riffs over soothing vocal melodies. Bright and bubbly and boiling over. It's buzzing with too much sunshine. If all this seems like gibberish to you, then that means you haven't heard the album yet, because it's all those things. Most importantly, it's got a shitload of energy. Rock has been so thoroughly obliterated and dissected over the last several years (it's what jazz became in the late sixties and beyond, multi-genred and supported by fewer and fewer people), that even the presence of a guitar is not the go-to definition. But if it's got energy - aka, if it 'rocks' - then it's in.

Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool

Yeah, these guys are still pretty good. Tenderness is not a popular word to drizzle upon the Oxford Five's music, but Desert Island Disc, Glass Eyes, Present Tense and True Love Waits are so far away from Paranoid Android and Idioteque, it reminds you yet again this is the only band of the last twenty five that not only sought out left turns, but nailed each one (although the freakout of 'Ful Stop' shows they still got balls, along with their bigger hearts).

 

Very Honourable Mentions

Bowie - going out on a high note.

Kanye - breaking down on a high note.

Frank Ocean - returning on a high note.

2814 - chillaxing on a high note.

Babyfather - an abstract sonic painting of 2016 on a high note.

Knowles the Older > Knowles the Younger - sisterly competition on a higher note.

Angel Olson - wondering about life and love on a high note.

 

(and it seems that Run the Jewels dropped the album of 2017 for Christmas, official release in January)

 

 

Sources

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/upshot/how-the-obama-coalition-crumbled-leaving-an-opening-for-trump.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

 

http://deadspin.com/how-to-save-the-world-1790496499

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/11/19/baristas-of-the-world-unite-why-college-grads-may-be-stuck-at-starbucks-even-longer-than-they-thought/?utm_term=.7cf3b7748a6d

 

 

 

http://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2016/12/23/14062168/history-global-conditions-charts-life-span-poverty

 

 


 

Nobody Will Like the Next President. This is a huge problem for democracy.

 

Most people aren't voting for the next president, they're voting against who they definitely don't want as the next president.

This is an awful situation for a floundering democracy to be in.

Distrust, disapproval and disappointment at Congress at an all time high, and more and more people are realizing that this inactivity and incompetence goes beyond who is in the Oval Office.

 It's easy to note the lack of awareness disturbingly large segments of the population can have regarding certain aspects of the political process (who is your congressperson, name at least one Supreme Court Justice, what are the three branches of government), but a great majority of citizens believe that politicians addresses the needs of wealthy and corporate interests before the needs of their fellow countrymen and women.

Which is of course the case. The politicians and wealthy will freely admit to the reality of an unhealthily close relationship. From this to gerrymandering, from inefficient federal programs and service to bribery scandals, from filibustering to a broken election cycle, it's no wonder that people completely tune out of the political process. Or pay attention half-assed, or only vote because one of two choices (only two!) is decidedly worse.

It's a malaise that only gets worse as we go on. What happens when the President doesn't matter? What happens when the political spectrum (if you want to call blue and red a spectrum) in the House of Representatives and the Senate doesn't matter? What happens when the number of red states and blue states are as relevant as the score of an exhibition football game, especially when every party's colour is green except for the Green Party (and they'll turn too, if they ever become politically viable).

At least you had hopes for Obama. Too high, admittedly, so you were bound to be let down. And not just liberals. Even hardcore conservatives - who thought he'd take away all the guns, institute martial/Sharia law, and have everyone work in government labour camps until it was time to face the death panels - have to be disappointed with how bland Barry turned out. Hillary has shown herself to be an excellent states-person with the right amount of experience, patience, and firm decision-making. All of which makes her sound a bit dull, which is reinforced whenever she gives a speech, as she doesn't have the most energetic persona behind the podium (and by writing this, once again we are falling into the trap of seemingly equating the importance of this negative quality with her positive qualities. Which is not the intention. But calling for a nuanced view of these candidates' positions and personalities (with the former being more important than the latter) has mostly gone unheard of in this election (and many pervious elections, going back several decades now)). 

The coverage given to politics is extremely simplified by dominant media organizations (whose chief goal is profit, which is determined by advertising fees, which are determined by ratings, which means there is a cycle of people preferring simplified, like-minded positions, which produces higher ratings, which results in even more simplified, like-minded positions). This is at a time when the legislative process has become even more complicated, thanks largely in part to corporate interests writing actual law for the politicians.

Consequently, elections have become, as Chomsky notes, public relations contests. And in 2016, we've been witnessing the most disappointing and disastrous campaign of recent memory, and we'd be foolish to think that all involved will suddenly wise up the day after. The effects will linger, and they will almost certainly be negative.

With Trump making a pivot not towards the political middle but rather the town garbage dump, Clinton's victory looks all but assured. But even as the democrats hope to make in-roads in traditionally conservative states because of Trump's ballot stink, Clinton's win won't likely be a landslide, and that means the victory won't bring the necessary momentum to vote in new Democratic representatives and Senators to turn either chambers.

Consequently, she will be a Democratic president working with a Republican congress, who will quickly and conveniently forget how poorly the embodiment of its policies fared in its presidential candidate. It's great that Clinton's a centre-left policy wonk, but it will come to naught if the same Washington gridlock continues after her inauguration. And there's no reason to think/expect that will change. The current system benefits the wealthy, who pour billions of dollars into campaign donations (to politicians and their superPACs), and this helps ensure that the gridlock (and therefore no foundational changes) remains in place.

If Clinton really is the continuation of Obama, then you can expect the same non-legislating Congress that has been the hallmark of the previous six years. That's two years (at the bare minimum, until the 2018 elections) of Republicans blocking any sort of liberal legislation and Clinton vetoing any sort of conservative legislation.

The groundswell of support that will certainly be around Hillary Clinton for her historic win the weeks after her victory - and again, weeks after her inauguration - will be short-lived, because the heavy expectation of the new president to fix the still-many problems in America simply cannot happen quickly. And since many people who voted for Hillary did out of some sort of compromise - because Sanders wasn't a viable candidate during the primaries (and then wasn't on the ballot in the fall), or because the other choice was a wholly distasteful real estate mogul - the levels of cynicism and mistrust towards her won't dissipate, either. And the accusation that she's a Washington insider who cozies up to the wealthy corporates is an easy one to levy and make stick because everyone in DC is that way. But Hillary and Bill have become the archetypes of this, and that is going to be at the forefront of her presidency every time anyone even loosely associated with her is accused of anything even slightly unseemly. Or if legislation or programs she championed falls apart and doesn't work. Which is not fair, of course, but boy, is 'not fair' not going to be a plausible defense over the next four years. There is always the toll of negative perception and continuing political apathy when it appears that the government is not working for the people, and for all her talent and ability, Hillary Clinton needs a functioning congress to change this viewpoint and remind people of this egalitarian power of democracy.

And then there's that Donald Trump guy.

It felt like a joke when he announced his candidacy last summer, it felt like an amusing car crash to rubberneck at when he was leading the polls, it got to be a eye-popping wake-up call to the political establishment when he won victory after victory during the primaries, it was a depressing slog through the summer, and it's been a flaming, radioactive death march since the first debate.

It's as if Donald Trump believes that the American Dream and democracy is dead (he said the former during the primaries, and the latter seems to be his closing argument), and is running in the style that he knows will become the future for all candidates trying for higher office: Idiocracy-style. A celebrity reality show, where the only thing that keeps you alive until the next week is to be memorable and never look like you're losing (even if you are). Tact, truth, and sensibility be damned.

In the last few elections, it was noted that candidates who had very little chance of winning (your Huckabees, your Carsons) could at least get a good bit of PR out of their attempt, which can maybe be turned into speaking fees, books, or even a TV show.

Trump did this in reverse, and was able to break through because he already was the perception of wealth since the 1980s (even if it was half Daddy assisted and half bullshit), and a showman who understood the importance of the eternally flashing red light on the camera or phone.

He had the celebrity-ish name recognition and actually did sound different than the hollow, conservative Washington suits that he was running against. And in this election cycle, that was enough. In a country where practically everyone agrees that Congress is broken, of course there were enough people that would carry a 'say anything' demagogue to their party's convention. Even while conservative beltway insiders have been decrying Trump for well over a year. The non-elected Republican establishment seemed shocked that there were this many right-fringers in their base. It's a segment where George F. Will is practically liberal, even Rush seems a little mainstream, and Alex Jones apparently has lots of interesting ideas worth considering.

And Trump will play and say anything - currently in the direction of the demographic listed above - to win (which in too many ways seems to represent corporate America perfectly). What does he really think? Who knows? Is he an amoral businessman pretending to be a bigot? What is the link between being a rude, boorish and generally obnoxious human being, and how they conduct their business? It's the frequent concern of how one's personal and private life relates to their profession and public conduct.

It's also how politics has been covered by the mainstream media for years now. Of course there are the occasional questions of policy (and typically it relates to how they are going to pay for it, since a balanced budget is a laughable concept these days), but for the most part the entire election slog is to beat back scandals and missteps and he said/she said/they said/maybe nobody said anecdotes, without breaking under the pressure and screaming at the Anderson Cooper/Megan Kelly hybrid to just shut the fuck up about that, it doesn't fucking matter anymore, how is that even an important question.

Trump is by no means the first powerful person to realize that appearing to be successful is easier than actual being successful. In terms of politics, you can go back to the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, when people thought Kennedy looked good and won the debate on TV, while people who listened on radio thought that Nixon came out on top (fairly important additional anecdote: Nixon was critical about how he had to wear makeup and appear affable on television and said to aides that he hoped he wouldn't have to deal with it more often in the future. An aide told him that television was the future, and that if you don't embrace it, you will almost certainly lose in the future. So Nixon embraced TV ('Sock it to me?') and became president. That aide who talked back? Roger Ailes).

Fifty six years and countless information overloads later, the Republican presidential nominee is tweeting people to check out a former beauty pageant contestant's (non-existent) sex tape. And while that and his own very real 'grab 'em by the pussy' tape is pretty much the height of sleaze, Trump has said much more alarming things about democracy itself. He's frequently called for Hillary to be put in jail. For what, it's not exactly clear, as she's been exonerated from every criminal investigation that has been opened up against her (some led by conservative politicians and lawyers). So perhaps you can chalk it up to offering up another cheap cheer for the crowd when he's on the stump. The words themselves don't matter to him when he's speaking, they only matter so much as they're getting traction, getting attention. He's not thinking how his supporters are processing this, let alone the viewers who see this as a snippet later on the news (or their newsfeed).

All he cares about is winning. And since it looks like he won't, the one position he has now wholly embraced is that the election is rigged and will be stolen not only from him, but from the tens of millions of enthusiastic Trump supporters (what's most galling is Trump repeatedly asserting without a single shred of proof).

It cannot be stressed at how absolutely terrible this for democracy. And criticism for this is thankfully coming from across the political spectrum. Can you make the argument that both the positions of the president and Congress exist and operate independent of the will and wisdom of the American electorate? Yes, you can certainly suggest with credible evidence that the actions on every even year on the second Tuesday in November is more window dressing than genuine change, but voting is not the only way to create change in your country. Contacting your congressperson, raising awareness through social media, protests, donating to causes, volunteering, canvassing, all these things are available to you.

But they're only available in a state that offers rights to its citizens and operates upon democratic principles (or at least tries very, very hard to). And so it's horrifying that Trump has doubled down with accusations that democracy itself is being torn to pieces (regardless of whether he honestly believes it or not. It gets cheers from the crowd, the media's reporting on it, by his own narcissistic standards, it's a success). He won't question the election results if he wins, he'll keep everyone in suspense about how he feels about its legitimacy. Stay tuned to watch his 'victory' speech to see if the American political is still standing.

Trump supporters still hover around 40% of eligible voters. Hillary is leading in nation polls by 6% (Just 6%! She's beating a man who brags about sexually assaulting women by just 6%!). That's around sixty million people who will be outright dismissive (and hostile at worst, as some fringers have called for an outright revolution if she wins) of Clinton throughout her entire presidency. There were plenty of conservatives who loathed Obama, but at least there wasn't any hateful rhetoric about the election being illegitimate or stolen.

People becoming cynical and dismissive about politics is bad enough, but when millions are actively pushing against the system because they believe it's rigged (just because the loser of the election said it was), that's when the situation becomes an actual crisis. Political commentators are agog and offering up exhausted shrugs because no one knows what's going to happen on or after Election Day, and that's the most terrifying part. And perhaps this worrying perspective is once again the media trying to whip up fervour and concern (which equals bigger ratings), but how seriously do you take people who say it's time for an armed revolution if Trump loses, and that they're going to monitor polling places for non-existent voter fraud?

How do you track and predict when cooler heads, common sense, and civil society will prevail? The only hopeful silver lining to all of this is that maybe the many people who are critical of Trump's attitudes and behaviour and hollow policies, will come to be critical of the attitudes and policies of the group Trump happens to represent: the extremely wealthy. And not even the one percent, but the one percent of the one percent. The tax dodging (or tax code re-writing), tone-deaf, venture capitalist, pass-the-buck, multi-millionaires whose amoral belief that it's every man for themselves and how you get rich is irrelevant, as long as you become 'hyuge'.

If this sounds like class warfare, then it's largely in part due to the war that has been waged against the lower and middle classes by the wealthy for over three decades now. Climbing the ladder to success shouldn’t require you to push hundreds of thousands of other people off it. The 'finally good news for everybody else' - the rise of minimum wage in some states, the better employment numbers across America - comes along after the richest citizens got the first and deep dibs in the post-Great Recession punch-bowl. It's not even proof that trickle-down economics works, Minimum wages rise while prices for so many basic necessities rise even higher, completely cancelling out the income boost. Food prices, housing/rent, health care premiums, and this doesn't even begin to address the fact that job security has practically evaporated. Much of the employment gains are in the always temporary service economy.

This is what the 2016 presidential election should be about. Important and substantive discussions about how the middle class is slipping backwards and the overclass is escaping into the stratosphere. Another Clinton pointed out back in 1992 that 'it's the economy, stupid', and as the world has only become more interconnected since then, every political conversation has to have some element of financial policy within it. Railing against corporations are as old as the industrial revolution (back then it was protesting miserly factory owners), and with every massive merger that cuts jobs and quality to make room for more board room bonuses, it's another reminder that the greatest power the masses have IS their mass.

That should be an inspiring acknowledgement. Excitement is not necessary for your elected officials, but enthusiasm is nothing to scoff it. Once people start doing that, many other challenges become much easier to address, and we can take the first steps to solving them. It doesn't take much talk of 'positive mental attitude' to sound like a hack motivational speaker, but if there's ever a time when America could use a cheering up, it's in these last few days before...whatever comes next.

 

 

 

 

Notes

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/upshot/actually-many-inner-cities-are-doing-great.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=a-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1


 

 

Not Caring About the Mossack Fonseca (Panama) Papers

Damn, that's so easy. Not caring.

Not caring because zzzzzz.

Not caring because reading the nuts and bolts about shuffling money around and filling out papers to create a shell corporation or a 'charity' organization that donates the money back to you or allows for absolutely anything to count as an expense is the opposite of riveting. Running afoul of trade sanctions and exchange laws just doesn't have that headline-grabbing/tweet able 'holy shit!' type-umph.

Ratings and page views don't lie. The story about the leak of how a couple thousand super wealthy and powerful people hide their money in off-shore accounts that are popular in countries like Panama and the Cayman Islands made a brief blip on news programs and websites and papers across the world in April, then everyone moved back to focussing on shit Donald Trump says.

And it's not a matter of someone else behind the curtain killing the story. There doesn't need to be a conspiracy between the wealthy elites and the media, keeping the story off the news networks and burying it far from the front page.

A lot of people just don't care. A lot of people will certainly roll their eyes and say 'what else is new?'. Which is terrifying in and of itself, because it means way too many people think that society can't change for the better. It means that it's tacitly agreed that letting one's country fall further into debt and its citizens into poverty because a few of the richest people don't want to pay their fair share of taxes is an acceptable situation. Or one that's just going to happen anyway, so why bother hearing about it?

Cynicism was a chief cultural characteristic of generation X, but even that was more about one's own life. Now it's grown to how many people feel about the world at large.

And if this many people don't care, if this many people aren't contacting their MP or congressman, aren't marching in the streets, aren't setting up grassroots organizations to try and move their own money around to stop supporting these large corporations and their owners as much as possible, does that mean that we're all passively accepting that this is the way the world works now?

Well mostly yes and kind of no.

Most people don't care (which is horrifying), and the few that do care a whole lot (which is reassuring, as keeping this story alive and kicking is the one chance at getting very real and necessary change out of it).

So who's to blame? The already wealthy, for bending and (re)writing rules so they can become even wealthier at the expense of the state, or the rest of us, for not paying attention as the bending and re(writing) of these rules happened?

This is the classic quandary of democracy, really. Are citizens expected to be constantly vigilant against forces that attempt to usurp power for their own means, (which typically involves the passage of convoluted tax laws through congress/parliament) or is it acceptable that people vote and put total faith that the politicians they elected into power will always act in the best interest of their representatives and shouldn't have to pay attention after they submit their ballot?

And the answer is both, of course. A little from column A, a little from column B. Wherever there is power, that's where the credit and blame can lie. The change over the last three decades is the greater concentration of power among those that own some of the largest corporations who exert unheard of influence over the daily economic conditions that govern our civilization. And these corporations - along with those that own and invest in them - use tax havens in small, foreign countries (or tax havens in certain zones within their own countries, like the state of Delaware and the 'city' of London) to store their wealth that would have otherwise been given to the government to pay for all the services and infrastructure that a country needs to run properly. Avoiding inheritance taxes, raising for foreign funds in an offshore account because your country doesn't allow it, buying foreign property through fake companies, driving up housing prices on the other side of the world (phantom neighbourhoods from London to Vancouver).

Booooring. Where the excitement and intrigue? Are they at least flying this money to the Caribbean in several steel suitcases in the dead of night on private planes being tailed by IRS jets until they reach international airspace?

Nope. They are paying accountants and lawyers to do a shitload of paperwork (or spreadsheet and PDF work, really) and the money gets shuffled around electronically in the blink of an eye. Some ones and zeroes disappear from a quarterly earnings report and a bridge project gets cancelled, several libraries close, and a hospital has to cut back on nurses on staff.

Still dull. You could be directly affected by any of those reductions in government spending and try desperately to get people to understand the large scale ramifications of people trying to cheat the system, but it still wouldn't register among the masses.

Which is insanely frustrating, because this is really should be big news. The biggest news. It should be discussed heavily throughout the presidential election, should have been covered during the entire 'Brexit' campaign, the economic slowdown in China, the corruption scandals in Brazil, and the ongoing problems with setting up legitimate democracies across Africa. When there are trillions of dollars hidden, it's a global crisis.

But that's not even the craziest bit. Sure it's bad enough that the 1% are starving their governments, but the Mossack-Fonseca Papers should be big news because so much of the data reveals that barely any of these activities are illegal (which the firm stressed as soon as the papers were released).

Creating fake corporations that don't do anything, that exist just to hide money in the otherwise pointless bank accounts is allowed by almost all the countries that had wealthy individuals use the Mossack-Fonseca law firm to set up these companies. That's the convenient, and oft-repeated line by the firm and the people who have used their services. But just because something is legal doesn't mean it should be allowed. Especially when one considers the only reason it is legal is because a bunch of rich people paid politicians a bunch of money to write loopholes into the tax code. Backdoor oligarchy is a great way to kill front door democracy. These loopholes shouldn't be allowed.

And, granted, 'shouldn't' isn't a very strong word. It comes with the image of a doting parent's wagging finger. You can feel the Wall Streets roll their eyes at this notion of babysitting

Because suddenly it's an ethical/moral dilemma, and that can be tossed aside right quick because you rationalize ignoring one of those. Only breaking a law can get you thrown in jail (or really, in this case, pay a big fine and probably not admit any wrongdoing).

The dilemma isn't:

Should you pay your taxes?

Because that's a pretty cut and dry 'yes' for a vast segment of the population, with the only holdouts being hardcore libertarians whose preferred economic theory was even outdated in all of the last century.

Instead the dilemma becomes:

Should you pay your fair share of taxes?

Which allows for even more wiggle room. How much 'fair share' is to you means you can essentially decided how much the government 'deserves' to take from you, and anything else you do with your money is your own damn business. So if you can squirrel a bunch of it in an offshore account that the government was just going to take and waste anyways (in your view), why not do that?

It's not like there's any sort of denial or excuse someone who used these services can offer up. An internal Mossack-Fonseca memo summed it up quite well in one sentence:

"Ninety-five percent of our work coincidentally consists of selling vehicles to avoid taxes."

And just to add a dollop of true illegality that might raise an eyebrow or two, Mossack-Fonseca had no problem doing business with the sanction-laden countries of Syria, North Korea and Russia.

But if the extent of the countries and wealthy people involved aren't enough to get people protesting in the streets (with the exception of Iceland, where almost 10% of the entire country showed up in front of the parliament buildings and the prime minister ultimately resigned), then actual criminal activities of a financial nature isn't going to be the tipping point, either.

Forty years on, Watergate is still the defining political event of modern America.

The beginning of a convoluted shadow government. It's failure - as first attempts usually are failures - begat a spidery web of backdoor power that the corporate world consumed whole.   And Watergate failed because Mark Felt told Woodward and Bernstein three words: 'Follow the money'. Which is a good inscription as any for the gravestone of empires throughout history.

Follow the money, because it's disappeared from the coffers of governments and the bank accounts of the vast majority of the world's populace.

The money needed to circle through civilization to keep it running (the way blood must continually pump through the veins/arteries for the body to continue functioning) is getting stopped up and clogged in a series of offshore accounts, and it's causing - to continue our body metaphor - a terrible aneurysm that will continue to weaken the world for many years to come.

This needs to be talked about.

What has to be kept in mind the whole time is that you need to be an extremely wealthy and/or powerful individual to afford these services. These are the one percent of the one percent. This is 'royalty under another name' type of wealth. And they can make hollow case after case about unfettered capitalism and government waste and bureaucratic inefficiency.

But free-market capitalism/neo-liberalism has been the dominant economic policy (or at least a continued push towards its purest, unregulated forms) for most of the world for over thirty years now. And the debt incurred by governments as they still attempt to provide basics services for their people is owned by these giant banks and wealthy globalized citizens (citizens that may have citizenship in one country, but live in another most of the time, and barely pay any tax in either). Their expensive buying habits and owning of corporations do not create the 'trickle down' effect that they believe is their contribution to helping the masses. And as the small group gets more powerful, government and people get less powerful.

This is why the middle class is crumbling into a permanent underclass.

This is why there's no manufacturing industry in the West anymore.

This is why the tech industry can treat people like replaceable computer code.

This is why there are cuts in everything from social services to mental health programs.

This is why the city of Detroit's gone bankrupt.

This is why driving a car for a company that calls you an independent contractor so it can treat you terribly is a typical job choice now. The freelance everything economy.

This is why there is high rates of stress, addiction, isolation and anger.

This is why people turn to extreme views, desperately looking for answer as to why life is able to be so good for others and never to them. And these answers could be political, religious radicalism, or outright crime.

There are huge societal consequences when a small cabal of people squirrel away an astonishingly large amount of money that was meant to spent elsewhere.

Orwell said that 'rich people are just poor people with money'. The Mossack-Fonseca Papers are a reminder at the worst possible time that the wealthy can live by a different set of rules than the rest of us. It is the alienation of the rich to the rest and the rest to the rich. People's views are moving towards the untenable, impossible extremes on either side. The hyper-capitalist belief that it's their money rightfully earned and they should have no obligation to 'share the wealth' with freeloaders, and the hyper-socialist belief that money and financial divisions should be abolished completely because of the chaos and suffering it causes.

Both are more philosophical than practical, but they look more appealing when it seems like any sort of compromise or change from the current system is not possible. And compromise should be possible. There should be an appeal to fiscal sensibility and a sustainable economy.

But it doesn't seem to be making much traction. Once again, this is not a shocking revelation. Even the lack of anger isn't a surprise. It's all disappointing and depressing. It's a hard thing to get motivated for, because even results will take years to reveal themselves (the increased tax revenue will finally help lower deficits, fund health and social programs, create much needed infrastructure projects).

If there's no mobilization of many, it will continue to be a world run by the very few.

This is why the world is going the way it is (a slow crawl towards worse and worse. Even in the countries that have made great economic leaps from poverty to working class (China and India come to mind), recently the greatest strides have been a small cabal of already wealthy and powerful becoming even richer).

This attitude is why the world is going the way it is. Hobsbawm describe the twentieth century as the age of extremes, but so far the 21st century is doing a hell of a job at taking that title, and we're not even two decades in.

 

 


 

Soylent: Life Imitating Art. Unfortunately.

 

You'd think it was a joke. Or a winking, ironic consumable art piece based on a ridiculous bit of pop culture, meant to be social commentary about our future.

But no, it's made with good intentions.

You know, the paver for the road to hell.

Soylent is a meal replacement, all the calories and nutrients required to have the energy to get through your day. It was designed by a computer engineer who wanted to cut down on the amount of time he spent eating. It was meant for very busy people, who might want to replace one meal a day (or two) with a simple two minute process of mixing of powder and water, and drinking it over the next half hour while not leaving your workstation.

Fine, let the geeks and gamers drink down whatever they gotta drink down to do whatever they gotta do.

And that could be the end of it.

But it probably isn't.

Soylent will go beyond a niche market and slowly unfold (in part through competitors once their business model is aped) across the planet over the next decade. It will save hundreds of millions of lives from the brink of starvation, while also become a key symbol in the death of materialism and the crippling dearth of basic resources.

That's a lot of praise and blame to put on a bag full of powder.

But its simplicity is deceiving. Like a lot of things with good intentions. Hell, the Internet is really just two computers talking to each other, and it's made the world better, worse, easier, more complicated, wealthier, poorer, inspiring, and endlessly depressing. Every afternoon.

Soylent will be the same soon enough. Just like the Internet was first popular among a bunch of computer programmers who set up newsgroups to talk about things they liked (The Simpsons was an early forum), Soylent has the same audience. And it will expand beyond this initial core group because it's cheap and it's fast. And those two things are insanely attractive to the world right now, since the pesky 99% of us seem to have no money and no time. If fluctuating oil prices can be a key player in sending the global economy into an unpredictable tailspin, it's only going to be worse when the same thing happens to food. Mentally budgeting at the supermarket, desperately going for only what's on sale, and still realizing you aren't going to have enough in your bank account.

Soylent can step in to ease the panic and pain, but it's clearly not being presented to us this way at the moment. Right now, it's still just cool and hip, something to try for a week; like yoga, axe throwing, and making your own compost.

The product's website does a very good job at making it all seem smooth, sleek, pristine, efficient, futuristic.  Packaging, too. A tall thin jug that feels aerodynamic. A tiny steel scooper. The minimalist bags with just the nutritional information printed. The instructions are brief because using Soylent is stupidly straightforward. Plus stickers (because, y'know, art-branding corporate synergy, man).

And it's a success story. At least it's a very bland and prosaic series of events that can be spun into a success story. It's the most funded food-related crowdfunding project of all time! Venture capitalists are throwing eight-figure investments at it. If other people think it's important and good, then by (xanthan) gum you should, too.

Presentation isn't everything, but it's a lot of things. Especially in the coming years when this sort of food (right now it's classified by Wikipedia as 'meal replacement beverage', but certainly that will go through the PR-wringer) is going to become a necessary choice for many millions of people.

At this moment, Soylent all feels like a easy thing to try that will maybe give you an extra thirty minutes to an hour during the day by not having to cook and eat and clean up (you can already see the commercials. Whatever time-saving a new type of electrostatic broom or a one-click shopping website offered you, it will pale in comparison to the 'just add water and sip' angle).

So far all the promises are coming true, with the website and easy ordering (and easy paying) and delivery to your door making it all seem like the future is here today.

Then you open up the bag with scissors and part of the powder puffs up and makes flour-like streaks and stains on the counter. It also hangs in the air just briefly, dancing in the sun or artificial light.

A blender is recommended, but a stirring stick will suffice (although you'll have a bit of dried chunks floating inside the glass). It looks like a vanilla-chocolate milkshake combination, but even that's too much of a suspension of disbelief. Anything which promotes healthy...er...drinking can't be that tasty.

Now at this point you look at the glass in front of you and you check the time and realize that yes, it's today, which is technically the future but not in the same way as before, and what you're about to grab onto is beige sludge in a cup. And the streaks of the powder-water inside the cool thin jug are really hurting the cool factor.

Your stomach is rumbling. This has been promised to rectify the situation. On your marks, get set, go.

You drink it down and it's not nothing but not by much. It's close to nothing, and in some sense that's impressive. It’s five hundred calories, thirty five percent of your recommended daily intake of fat, and twenty five to thirty percent of your recommended daily intake of twenty three nutrients which can be effortlessly drank down while you pop pigs or crunch numbers or fold laundry or run on the elliptical or repair a socket, etc.

Lumpy, even after the blender? Sure.

A smoothie for robots? It's a fair cop.

But what does it taste like?

Very watered down peanut butter at best. And at worst it's chalky water that you have to get off your teeth and gums with your tongue.

You'll never forget it's not powder because it quickly sticks to everything. Enough water and it will dissolve without issue, but not enough and it makes for a sticky fleck on a glass or counter that needs more water to wash off.

Make sure you immediately soak anything that housed Soylent in water. It will make the eventual cleaning of them that much easier (even if it's going in the dishwasher). Much of this product reminds you of the frustration of dryness. When there's no water involved, it's dust. And when water leaves it hardens as annoying streaks and smudges. Only with H20 is it free to live up to its potential (it’s like an early reminder of how valuable water will become in the near future).  

And to sum up taste-wise: It's not great, and it's not terrible.

Sounds like the future.

Maybe you'll add half a can of Coke to it just for sweetness (and to show that you've learned nothing).

It doesn't fill you up immediately. In no way, shape or form do you feel like you've had a big meal and are stuffed after finishing a single or double serving of Soylent. You're stomach will immediately start breaking down the nutrients, so it won't be rumbling, but there's certainly a psychological aspect of eating that has to be reconditioned. Plus a lot of the sludge sinks to the bottom of the glass, which means those last few mouthfuls are heavy on the clumps indeed.

It will take some getting used to.

Sounds like the future.

That's Soylent.

And then there's Soylent Green, a cheesy, not-good-but-not-terrible, 70s sci-fi dystopia flick starring Charlton Heston, where the title is a bland foodstuff fed to the impoverished and overpopulated citizens of the planet. Only the few wealthy elite can afford to eat actual food and not in live in cramped, sky-high apartment blocks. These elites own the few massive corporations that essentially oversee all aspects of life on earth (this is movie, by the way), including the food for the masses, which is Soylent.

And it's also (sigh...spoiler alert) made out of old people (Or anybody, really. But because of overpopulation and its stress on resources, people - old people especially - are encouraged to commit suicide at euthanasia centres). Just a reminder, this is just a movie full of cardboard Heston acting. He's a cop who's investigating the suspicious death of a wealthy businessman, who lived in enviable luxury and was involved in large corporate conspiracies meant to be hidden from the populace. Again, not real. A movie.

In the flick, Soylent Green was allegedly 'plankton based', but it's revealed (through Heston's roommate's research friends) that since the oceans are dying, it can no longer produced enough plankton for this to be true. Heston finds out that it's made of human remains, fights off thugs, and runs through the streets screaming the truth as the film ends.

So why name your product after a hideous dystopic wafer in an almost forgettable 70s sci-fi movie (it's Edward G. Robinson's last role, and if we need to add some more contemporary links, police dispense of rioters using over the top paramilitary vehicles, namely giant dump trucks)? Soylent's creator Rob Rhinehart didn't. He named it after the same product in the novel titled, 'Make Room! Make Room!', which the movie Soylent Green based off of. In the book, 'Soylent' is the term coined by combining the two allegedly main ingredients of the foodstuff, soya and lentils. Real-life Soylent is primarily rice protein, with soy lecithin much further down on the list of ingredients (which includes such mouth-waterers as oat flour, cellulose, modified food starch, and xanthan gum).

So it's low art which consumed high(er) art, a meme of which was absentmindedly vacuumed up by a computer engineer who didn't want to spend time eating and transformed into a slowly expanding corporate blob of something that is providing a low-cost, nutrient-forward drink to keep billions of people alive exactly when they can't afford anything else. Which is/was the premise of the book/movie from which the name was taken in the first place.

It's life imitating art imitating art imitating life. Good thing they didn't make Soylent to be constructed out of human feces in the film, because that would be a much too literal full circle.

And all this is more than a quirky coincidence or amusing anecdote, because we need Soylent.

We need it bad.

It's gotten to the point where we can stop talking about the inevitable effects of climate change and overpopulation and overconsumption that is on the horizon because we're already there.

We are running out of food.

That's one of those sobering sentences that still packs quite a lot of power. Kind of hits you right in the stomach (unlike some meal replacement drinks you might think of).

While migration due to war and conflict are headline grabbing, migration due to lack of basic necessities is also occurring across the globe and it numbers in the millions.

In the West we are extremely lucky that these effects are being felt only in the form of rising food prices. Compared to other places across the planet, 'starvation' is not a pressing concern. That's not to say that people are wholly ignorant of the situation. The push to 'go local' is a wonderful attempt, but it cannot be done on a large enough and affordable scale. There's not enough farms in the areas close to large cities in the West to feed everyone, regardless if they could afford to eat the fruits, vegetables, meats, grain and diary products that these agricultural havens produce.

We have to rely on food grown and raised at an extremely cheap price across the globe, which is ultimately frozen (most of the time) and shipped here, which is where most of the price in the grocery store goes (not to mention the burning fuel on a ship or plane which contributes to the effects of climate change which makes it harder to grown said crops and farm animals on the necessary scale).

And this where Soylent comes in. People will make the 'choice' to replace one of their traditional meals with a non-traditional meal replacement because this is the option that they can financially afford.

It's real because it's not a miracle cure that comes out of nowhere. Soylent is made

via 'using all of the Buffalo' approach. Where the food is ground and ground and ground until flavour is a dream and there's enough folate and vitamin K for everybody.

But overnight? Of course not.

First it'll be replacing snacks, then one of your daily meals (breakfast probably), because hey, you can save time and money early in the day, right? So you can get to your overworked and underpaid job that much faster, right?

Soon real food will be for special occasions. Steak is for holidays, weddings. A tiny birthday cake that is the sole property of the birthday boy or girl.

Sounds terrible. Sounds bleak. But don't worry, it's just a movie.

For now.


 

Last Tango in Paris: Climate Change Talks 2015

 

Oh boy.

Are you ready to watch the fate of billions of people be put on the line in the form of middle-aged men argue about how much they can slow down the blind, amoral stomp of process? Are you interested in how these politicians will have to simultaneously kiss the asses the vast majority of the planet who know that climate change is going to have devastating effects on our way of life, and the few massive energy companies that got their career balls in a vice and also power our way of life?

What can a rich politician do, except pretend to take a stand, in that sleepy Paris town, theres just no place for the future of man

The appearance of success is a much-cherished plan B in the world of politics if plan A (actual success) is unlikely/impossible.

The big (but not exactly good) news for the United States is that they're no longer the biggest producer of CO2 on the planet (that would be China). That doesn't exactly take the pressure off, but it does remind everyone of the changing balance of power. Not that America's a lame duck country, but lame duck Obama wants to go out on a high note, even if Congress has no interest in passing anything regarding an energy/environment bill. So the President offers up a carbon capture plan that looks promising, and if the Republicans kill it, he can point his finger and say he tried.

At the summit China and India will flex their ever-growing economic muscles and make the not entirely unreasonable argument that the West had a good one hundred fifty years to industrialize before finding their conscience, so why do they only get a few decade to burn all their coal? And it's tempting to make the argument that these nations should take up the challenge to lead the creation and introduction of emerging green technologies to truly differentiate themselves from the West.

But that's obviously not how the world works. The world economy, more specifically. You can't shut down your power plants over several years until you already have a dependable energy infrastructure to replace them. And that would cost billions of billions of dollars that even already developed countries won't even consider.

Take Canada for example.

Under the recently ousted Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the resource-rich nation doubled down on the oil sands and said that they wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to building the Keystone pipeline (which would allow exports to the United States to increase dramatically). But then one of those pesky election thingies happened, and Conservative Harper was defeated by the Liberal Justin Trudeau, who's probably thanking his lucky stars that Obama was the one that kyboshed the Keystone pipeline so he could have no opinion on the matter.

Now Trudeau ran on a 'more money for green energy' ticket, but he knows too much of his countrys economic well-being is still tied up in oil (even at $45 a barrel), so even though a majority of his citizens (and especially those that elected him) want to see a much more proactive stance on climate change, hes really going to be Americas wingman here. No crazy policy pronouncements, a step up from the last guy, let's cross our fingers and throw some money at the problem rather than telling energy companies to hurry up and shut it down.

Meanwhile, the EU just sits and waits for America to catch up, acknowledging ruefully that it was always a bit easier for them to clean up their act, what with a smaller geographic region to deal with, and much more powerful government regulatory bodies.

Which is about the time when it has to be reminded that pollution doesn't acknowledge borders, and that we ultimately share the same big, body of water, regardless of who is poisoning it more. And you know institutions are really scrambling for any sort of good news when Ontario's energy crown corporation Hydro One proudly proclaims they (finally) got rid of coal-burning plants in 2014.

The Copenhagen Summit of 2009 resulted in an accord brought forth by the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil which was voted whether to be taken note of(as opposed to being adopted), and not passed unanimously by all the participating countries.

At least the bar is set nice and low for Paris 2015.

But as the old adage goes, that just makes it easier for attendees to trip over it.

That's not to say that the big players aren't trying to avoid the same pointless drivel they drooled out in Denmark six years earlier. In fact, because these big summits are typically just the PR icing on the decision cake, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings have already begun amongst the teams behind the leaders, trying to get on the same page now so they don't have to yell or sulk or get caught with their pants down in the French capital.

But that's part of the problem. Essentially everything boils down to window dressing, and when you can't agree on anything substantial, you really look like an ass trying to make the drapes seem perfect when the house is falling down.

Prominent climate change research scientist James Hansen recently penned a scathing letter concerning the initial goals of the conference, accusing Obama of, "selling our children, and theirs, down the river."

It’s kind of refreshing to hear an eminent scholar describe a proposal being put forth by the White House as, unadulterated 100% pure bullshit.” (underline is his)

For a second, then you realize that what's bullshit is supposed to be the centrepiece agreement between the US and China regarding carbon capture and storage (which involves retrofitting coal plants and oil refineries so that the carbon is not spewed into the atmosphere but captured and stored deep in the ground). But because it's a proposal and not a law (no surprise: carbon capture and storage is expensive), neither of them has to do anything. It's confronting harsh truths with wishful thinking.

These truths have not come out of nowhere.

The lofty, stated goal for the last big climate talks over the twenty five years (Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009) has been to keep the planet's increase in temperature through the twenty first century at 2 degree celsius. But even if all the agreements made for the talks in Paris were adhered to, the more likely increase is going to be a little over 6 degrees celsius. So success is already failure, but to polish the turd, we're reminded that if nothing is agreed upon over the next two weeks, and it's 'business as usual' polluting for the foreseeable future, then the increase would be over 8 degrees.

'Business as Usual' is taking on a well-deserved negative connotation in environmental circles. Another good one is, follow the money, which Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein all those years ago. And things havent changed.

The centralization and narrowing of corporate power means that too big to failalso suggests that it’s too big to do many, many other tasks that could benefit society in general.

And even when a task is a pressing as climate change/pollution, even if the spirit is somehow willing, the liquidity is typically weak.

Whatever increases costs is vilified, whatever might affect the bottom line and the annual returns to the investors is dead on arrival, whatever statistics explain the threat is ignored or muzzled.

Even when science can put a price tag on the dangers of pollution (and how it will affect us in the years to come), it seen as a more nebulous figure than how much the costs of instituting plans and projects to correct the dangers. Which makes it less likely to be taken seriously by people who live and die by quarterly projections.

Emission standards are seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the corporate world. Something to push against, and failing that work around.

Volkswagen spent millions of dollars essentially rigging their cars to perform differently during emissions tests than during regular driving.

This duplicity enabled Volkswagen to receive subsidies and tax breaks in the United States related to meeting clean energy standards. 'Greenwashing' is promoting your product or service as environmentally friendly when it isn't. Real 1984 type stuff. And popular enough to have a wikipedia article on it.

It's a great way to appeal to the many people who do want to do the right thing (as long it doesn't completely overhaul their lifestyle or routine, and buying something they think is better for the environment at the same store they would shop at anyway falls into that category), without having to actually do anything about it.

It's the new 'free trade' or 'organic' label.

Another terrible symptom of a corporate-focused society. This is how you increase profits, and if you get caught lying about what your product does or how it's made, the fine is a slap on the wrist, which means there's no real incentive to stop.

No one is going to jail for these (apparently not) crimes. If you are a big enough company, selling a product that does the opposite of what it promises is not against the law.

And if causing astronomical levels of pollution is nice and legal, certainly spreading misinformation about how it’s caused and who causes it is acceptable as well.

If you're an eager young go getter in the world of public relations and are willing to swallow your pride, ethics, and concern for the future, there's no better business than the field of climate change denial.

Legitimatize a non-existent debate. Easily win five minute on-air arguments with nebbish scientists. Flashy adds with smiling oil workers saying how they know that many people are worried about the future (and say no more about it).

And it works. More people today in the United States harbour doubts about the claims scientists make about climate change than twenty and forty years ago.

James Hansen knows this. He made landmark testimony in front of Congress in 1988 about the dangers of greenhouse gases. Hansen questions who Obama is getting his information from, but he has been around long enough to know that you don't kick the leader of the free world in the shins without offering him a band aid.

Hansen proposes a 'carbon fee' (he's also been around long enough to know not to call it a tax), that is designed to be much easier for the corporate world to adopt (once again, he's been around long enough to know who got a shitload of power regarding this issue) than further government regulation or Cap & Trade.

So far this has been about politicians and corporations, the latter of whom bankroll the election campaigns of the former so much that one can't accomplish much in government without them.

Yes, but what can I do, is the refrain from the masses, none of whom own an energy company or have a seat in the halls of power.

There is a disconnect between science that improves my life immediatelyand science that tells me that I have to make concessions and sacrifices for the future. This is true even of people who wholeheartedly acknowledge the existent of climate change and say they want to do something about it.

So…the easiest and most effective way that millions of people across the globe can help curb the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere starting tomorrowis carpooling.

A vast majority of people who drive to work across cities (or from suburbs into downtown areas) are sitting alone in their vehicles.

Even going moderately out of your way to pick up a co-worker who lives perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes away can, over time, make a huge difference not only in the amount of exhaust being barfed into the air, but also save both of you money (if your co-worker chips in a bit on gas). And it can increase even more if you added more people in the back seat. A couple phone calls or texts are all it takes to set this up. In fact, the other passengers can even get a jump on work by spending most of the drive on their phones, tablets or laptops, which they would not be able to do if they were driving themselves. And theres no matter of the possible awkwardness of driving or sitting with strangers. And with fewer cars on the road, everyone will be getting to work faster, and the streets and highways will be safer. The positives of carpooling are absolutely amazing, especially considering the ease of instituting the practice.

Yet we dont do this.

Theres nary a peep about it in lunchrooms or elevators. Theres hasnt been much of a promotional push for it by any environmental or green energy groups. None of the institutions that would love to see fewer cars on the road (police and emergency personnel, insurance companies, city councillors who would love to not have to spend so much money on highway maintenance) have put up billboards or internet banners.

It’s not a matter of getting rid of cars, but just using them with a bit more restraint and common sense. Oil is going to be part of the world’s energy plan for a decades to come no matter what. We just have to use (a lot) less of it. Even Hansen acknowledges that it's thanks to the burning of fossil fuels (both oil and coal) that helped raise the standard of living in the West, and it's damn hypocritical of us to demand China to stop doing the same, when it's playing such a larger role in raising their living standards as well.

Salvaging is never an inspiring concept (and certainly not considered a noble profession), but it is an extremely essential one, especially when we're talking about the condition of our planet (and our only planet, might I add).

That the oceans will continue to warm, that the airs will be filled with more CO2 and methane, that sea levels will rise, that the animals living in the water and on land will struggle to adapt, none of these things are up for debate. All we can hope for in Paris is to lay the seeds to slow the pace of the inevitable changes coming to our planet.

 

 

Sources

 

http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2015/20151127_Isolation.pdf


 

 

Move On Up: Migrant Crisis

 

This shit gets hard so fast.

It's so easy to say 'everyone is legal', and on a globe that is so interdependent and interconnected it's even easy to make the case that because of the massive influence the developed world has on the developing world (for now, we'll just go with these broad terms, while quickly acknowledging just how over-simplistic and demeaning they are), everyone should be allowed to travel and reside almost anywhere. If the United States and Europe (along with China, as another major economic player) are setting crop futures prices that affect the economies of Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia, that means they are directly affecting the livelihoods and living standards of the people in those countries. When you go to your grocery store and buy Granny Smith apples grown in South Africa, you are entering into a economic partnership with that country. You are affecting people's lives on the other side of the globe (as they are yours). But that happens on such a massive and frequent scale (it can apply to your iphone, your pants, your cutlery, your bicycle) that we don't think much about it at all.

Saying 'everyone is legal' is a wonderfully humanitarian and moralistic position of welcoming everyone as family, as identifying everyone as equals, and really should be a starting ethos if we want to achieve greater peace and harmony in this world.

And certainly affluent regions of the world that love to trumpet their freedoms and abilities to assist less prosperous and more volatile regions should do much more to welcome people from these regions who are fleeing war, famine, and persecution. Especially because of the tendency to find that these affluent regions play vital roles in shaping the politics and economies of these less prosperous regions. There's been plenty of reasons for the West going into Africa or the Middle East over the last several centuries, and only a small handful of them have been wholly altruistic.

So it can also be argued that the West should actually be 'forced' (although by what sort of agency or organization remains to be seen, since the UN has been pretty toothless this century) to do everything it can to address the current migrant crisis in Europe, since it played such a large role in its emergence (coveted resources and geopolitical strategy are the clear ones, but some scientists have also connected climate change to the horrible situation in Syria).

The examples above of economic exchange involve countries that do not currently have such violent instability that tens of thousands are fleeing from them. But the countries that are being focussed on during this terrible situation do have important and complicated relationships with the United States, Canada and Europe.

The West buys oil from the region, and with that money countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, and Iraq buy weapons manufactured in the West to 'put down' violent rebellions in their respective countries, which ultimately make safety and stability all the more unlikely and the flight of terrified and desperate citizens more likely.

Syria has been a mid-sized Western ally for years (and another seller of petroleum), and consequently the response to al-Assad crushing his opponents (and inflaming a rebellion) during the Arab Spring has been done with relative restraint.

To atone for the 'sins' (probably the more modern term would be 'business interests') of British-American involvement in the Middle East (going back to the height of the British Empire, into the 1970s and 1980s when America increased its presence there after the formation of OPEC and the oil crisis, right up through to today, with its own myriad of challenges), it seems like they should take the lead in opening their doors to many thousands of migrants and refugees (it would also make for an effective PR campaign against ISIS).  Germany (the third largest weapons exporter to the region) is spearheading the campaign by stating it can take up to half a million migrants this year. Other European countries, after intense public pressure both among their own citizens and around the world, are also now agreeing to take at markedly increased number of migrants before the end of the year.

Not surprisingly, there is plenty of blowback from these decisions, ranging from stupidly bigoted to frustratingly practical. Frequently the people in the countries receiving this influx of people forget (or don't know) the history of migration, where these two opposing reactions to waves of new citizens have always been present.

Having to leave where you are and going somewhere else is old. Really old.

And it was rarely welcomed by all the people who were living in 'somewhere else' at the time. The immigration boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America is now seen as inspiring chapter of the American Dream, but during this period the 'already heres' persistently vilified every new wave of immigrant with the same complaints and prejudices, regardless of where they were from (they were lazy, uneducated, had too many children they couldn't care for, couldn't speak the language, had bizarre customs, adhered to a different religion, etc.). This didn't matter if it was the Irish in the nineteenth century, the Italians in the early twentieth, or the much greater milieu of people from around the world in the latter half of the twentieth. New, unfamiliar groups of people are frequently isolated and treated unfairly in any new neighbourhood or region. And while its essential that we continue to rectify this hostile and harmful close-mindedness, there are signs that the same thing is happening during the migrant crisis that is occurring across in Europe in various forms. Railway chaos in Hungary and the in Chunnel. Police throwing food into large fenced in areas of people like they were animals. Poor conditions in refugee camps, with people caught in legal limbo between the nation they left and wherever their boat ended up (and considering how many people die trying to cross seas and borders, even a refugee camp is - at first - a step up from any of the likely alternatives). At least the closing of the unattended borders in Western Europe that have been open for decades now has more to do with simple organizational and bureaucratic tallying than anything that can be seen as a symbolic 'circling of the wagons'. One of the coveted qualities of the continent is its 'social safety net', which ensures some of the highest standards of living in the world. But migrants cannot get proper assistance if they don't have any identification (and when you leave a war-torn area, sometimes you have little more than the shirt on your back), and simply having an official record of people entering these countries makes it easier to help them.

Our hearts going out to the father of Alan Kurdi is an important first step, and politicians (finally) acting is an inspiring sign, but the next several steps are the more decisive and difficult ones.

Finding the resources necessary to properly provide basic assistance to hundreds of thousands of people so that over several years they can better acclimatize themselves to their adopted country is not easy.

From a practical (and admittedly cold) standpoint, almost every Western and G8 nation are cash strapped and have enough internal problems with budgets and infrastructure that this new additional project (albeit inspiring and central to our concepts of being charitable and responsible) means those of us already here must make/expect practical sacrifices in the near future to afford it.

Talking about having the money to support the influx of migrants turned citizens seems cold and insensitive, but that is the measure of ability for our bureaucracy to do the activities we deem important. Do you give the tired, huddled masses your best, your leftovers, something in the middle? And how do we address this issue without considering how well we're doing taking care of the poor and downtrodden who are already in our respective countries? When institutions and governments must pick and choose who to help (or who to help first) it is almost a foregone conclusion that their own citizens are the initial recipients of any sort of support (whether it be in the form of improved infrastructure, social assistance or any other service or program). It seems absurd that suddenly we demand our fellow citizens who are suffering from similar situations of homelessness and poverty to suddenly make do with even less.

There is not enough Western standards of living to go around, even for people who risk death to make it to the West (hell, there's not enough of WSoL for people born in the West). Even when the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

While living in run-down apartments in impoverished neighbourhoods in large cities in Europe and North America can be considered improvements over remaining in dangerous, war torn nations of the Middle East and Africa, that has to be just another step in the story, not the end if it.

This does illustrate the size of this problem, however. There are enough issues with the concept of wealth redistribution in affluent countries (namely, that the richer are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the lower class is growing) that when confronted with unexpected but essential actions (I feel like I'm being euphemistically cautious by never using the overt and straightforward term, 'spending money on migrants’), governments need to start considering policies that for quite a long time were considered politically unfeasible

Do we ask wealthier citizens to suddenly pony up? Do we not ask and simply pass legislation that raises their taxes? Do we do the same to corporations, and end their tax breaks?

On the NGO-charitable front, do we open the doors to our houses that might have a spare bedroom to a mother and daughter who have recently lost the other half of their family as they crossed the Mediterranean? Kickstarter campaigns for orphaned children? There are programs in place to help the set amount of immigrants and refugees that a developed nations accepts each year, do we volunteer our time and donate money through there?

All of these suggestions have their benefits (even if simply 'writing to your congressperson or MP'), but one thing that should also be talked about with great fervour in this matter is huge increases in foreign aid to these war torn nations. And obviously military spending is not considered 'aid' in this instance. Money for food, shelter, clothing (the very basic necessities), along with simple but essential infrastructure can a long way in ensuring that there does not have to be a migrant crisis in the first place. If the West cannot welcome the displaced millions over last several years, then it certainly must improve the living conditions from where these displaced millions came.

Which is of course another long term, expensive undertaking by the West (and arguably being done currently in a middling, barely effective fashion).

Many of the nations that are having migrants leave in droves have a lack of any sort of security/stability. At one point in the not too distant past, a lot of these places had those two essential qualities, but at the 'cost' of their country being run by a corrupt, brutal and power-hungry dictator (Gaddafi in Libya, al-Assad in Syria, Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan). And when these leaders were disposed or made ineffective, the propped up Western-supported governments that came after floundered under cronyism, ineffectiveness, and led to violent clashes, ethnic cleansing, and war. Nature abhors a vacuum, and civilization abhors a power vacuum. It will be filled with death and chaos, and ISIS is only to happy to display.

The challenge for the West - and certainly there are many on its plate - with regards to the migrant crisis is sustainability and vigilance. To provide basic necessities to the people fleeing war and death when they arrive, while at the same time providing resources so that there is a functioning society for these people if they choose to return home when the violence ends. Even displaying great and far-reaching acts of charity and generosity, both in public and private spheres, Western nations cannot fully 'look after' and assist these waves of migrants ad infinitum, nor should that ever be the goal.

Our ability to do this - and in addition, rise above petty and wrongheaded assumptions about any person or group seeking refuge in a new country - would be so much more beneficial to society as a whole than simply agreeing that we should do something, which is always the easiest thing to do. The danger is that we start to believe the matter is solved when it disappears from the headlines or news feeds. Signing an online petition or offering a donation of five dollars has to be the start, not the end. If our hearts truly were moved at the sight of a drowned three year old on the shores of Greece, then we owe it to him (and to ourselves) to see these policies enacted and carried out until there are demonstrative rises in living standards in the countries which these thousands of people are fleeing.

We may not be able to send the West itself to these areas of the world, but we can at least show them what we claim our values to be.

 

Notes

http://m.democracynow.org/stories/15489

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/climate-change-key-in-syrian-conflict--and-it-will-trigger-more-war-in-future-10081163.html

 

 

 


 

the inevitable sociocultural hierarchy of the internet

 

Democracy is a fragile thing.

No wait, I can come up with a better start. And while this isn't a facebook post (which can't be deleted)(oh, and meanwhile a tweet can, although anything remotely interesting or spar(k)-worthy is usually saved as jpeg. or .png file by users for posterity), I'll keep it up there as a reminder of my opening stumble, my beginning mistake. And sometime between and now and when the sun expands and swallows the earth in five billion years, it will be used against me or the AI version of me in the cyber-court of public opinion.

That I can't hack it right out of the gate, cant find the right word when I need to, can't take the heat, am a technophobe, indifferent, hate democracy, endlessly cynical, and addicted to pronouns.

Regardless

Community is a fragile thing.

(better)

When everyone can participate, everyone's got to work their ass off to keep the quality up. When cracks begin to show and aren't patched up quickly, the rate of deterioration increases. And ultimately there comes a point of no return, where whatever you had has been nefariously switched, twisted and turned into something that is a disgusting pale shadow-echo of what used to be.

But this isn't (another) piece decrying the dangerous stalling of democratic principles in Western nations.

Instead, let's talk about youtube! And twitter! And facebook!

The town squares of the 21st century, with millions of people passing through and having a chat, an idea, a product or service to sell, or a bigoted screed (fancy word. How  about 'screech' instead?).

But it's not a town square. It's better and worse. Like everything else it gets its digital fingers on (statistics, music, pornography), the internet pries, pushes and explodes things into the extremes.

And like all unwieldy, complicated things, there's advantages and disadvantages. Your cyberspace town square can include people from all the ends of the earth, enjoying and chatting about common interests in real time, co-workers in different time zones each with access to the same info so they can all band together and solve problems quicker than before. You can plan your vacation in the Philippines down to the hour, and you can find out the number of the new pizza place down the street.

And some of this stuff has become so commonplace that it comes off as eye-rollingly boring when you read it. Even though most of it was unheard of twenty years ago. It's a monumental achievement of human ability. Not only the development of computer technology, but the infrastructure required to keep the internet up and running. Everything from orbiting satellites to thousands of miles of underground cables and millions of employees at all sorts of tech companies making sure the code in all these tiny machines work near perfectly almost all of the time.

Just so you can [insert terrible and cliched time wasting activity that the internet is primarily know for]. And thanks to smart phones (although I'm pretty sure we can just call them phones now), it's so much easier to dive in and lose yourself. When you had a computer at home, various factors like work-related software, slower connections, and other people using it, would keep you from spending hours upon hours quickly jetting back and forth from facebook, twitter, youtube, angry birds, candy crush, buzzfeed, xhamster (don't pretend like you don't know), reddit, etc. until the end of time.

And this is not an anti-internet screed (you're reading this on a website, after all). It's just a frustrated acknowledgement that - wait for it - complicated things are complicated. And complicated things need a lot of consideration and maintenance for them to work properly.

And how do we define properly here? Because its not just the technical functioning that we think about.

Once the codes works more or less perfectly (think how infrequently the internet crashes (not the connection, but the actual data being transmitted and presented)considering how much time you spend on it), are we judging the internet based on how we use it? By our noblest intentions and activities? By our lowest common denominator base-level desires and reactions?

After all, from a sociological experiment perspective, the one thing we've learned beyond a doubt in the early twenty first century is that it's a lot easier to be an asshole when you can effortlessly reduce the person you're being an asshole towards into a username or irrelevant avatar of a dog or kid's cartoon.

Technology can dehumanize as quickly as it can bring people together (and for every bad story that fall under the umbrella of the former, I firmly believe there are thousands of stories that involve the latter, and that we just take it for granted now).

So what do we do when both things happen?

Once against the responsibility falls on everyone's shoulders.

We didn't break the internet, but it looks a lot like modern civilization, and that comments hovers uncomfortably between insult and compliment.

You occasionally see what wonderful things we are capable of if we are proactive and informed (and what seemed amazing fifteen years ago - emailing many people across the globe, watching a video - is so blandly mundane). Raising money for niche and headline causes (a single cancer patients wish, an earthquake on the other side of the planet), learning the same thing in African and Japanese classrooms, giving support and advice to friends and strangers, sharing whatever you created and maybe becoming successful thanks to it.

But what frequently gets attention is the opposite. Teenagers who kill themselves because of what a group of fellow high school students say and do on facebook. People getting pilloried for thoughtless tweets, and then the people who do the attacking get (cyber)attacked themselves (very French Revolution, actually).

And my goodness it's important that we do address pressing issues like cyberbullying, harassment, fraud, and stalking and attempt to stamp it out. When such heinous acts and/or results 'go viral', it almost comes in the form of a groundswell of support for the victim (laws passed in the name of deceased, thousands of dollars (or a party) donated to the embarrassed/harassed).

But the challenge is to become proactive, not stuck being reactive.

It's as if we'll always be playing catch up.

But that makes sense. We aren't as simple and dependable as the technology we design.

The device you hold in your hand is hundreds of times more powerful than the machines that took up a shitload of counter space less than twenty years ago.

Moore's law has been consistent for the last fifty years (how microchip power and performance will double every two years), but we haven't kept up.

What does this technology allow us to be/become?

(other than unemployed, which always happens when something is invented and popularized that can be applied to work. See: the plow, the printing press, the steam engine, the assembly line, etc.)

Gladwell's Tipping Point investigates the process and speed of ideas and products becoming popular. The right people with the right initiative pushing the right product/service at the right time. The internet was for the computer-savvy, then for the computer-fad folk, then the computer-intrigued and finally for absolutely everyone. As computers got more powerful, so too did the technology required to make the internet that much more useful, dependable, and exciting.

It was sci-fi come to life. William Gibson deserves a royalty for every down and uploaded loaded megabyte. And even though it was for the sake of making an interesting narrative in Neuromancer (a film version is stuck in development hell, and maybe it should be stuck there so everyone can do that old school thing and y'know, read), he saw pretty quick the dark and lonely side of an massively interconnected computer system.

The dream of easy open access for every person on planet also comes with the nightmare of easy open access for every person on the planet. Not everyones going to treat a free gift with the same amount of respect. To paraphrase legendary concert promoter Bill Graham: "if it's free people will piss on the floor."

It - and that's a really open pronoun - has to have some value otherwise it will be taken for granted and treated accordingly. To paraphrase legendary comedian Louis CK about the guy upset when the internet on planes was introduced and then stop working: "how quickly the world owes him for something he just found out existed five minutes ago."

And it's not that we should have a sense of delight and wonder every time we check our phones. But a modicum of respect would be nice, as well as the awareness that posting something in cyberspace isn't the same thing as saying it aloud to your friends in your kitchen or break room. A free, democratic society is never going to arrest you for your asshole tweet, but that won't protect you from the court of public opinion (or from the risk of losing your job if your company now sees your pariah-like status in cyberspace as a liability).

Perhaps there's a tipping point for our reactions and overreactions that we haven't yet hit. Where even if it's your real name in your twitter handle, what you say in the endless forest of ones and zeros doesn't hold the same level of personal accountability as everything else (of course, it all gets jumbled up in social media when people use their social media accounts for messages both work related and anger venting).

So far, we still have kinks to iron out when it comes to figuring out who we are and how we express ourselves online.

But it's important that we do so, because the internet is going to play a dominant role in civilization's future, and like democracy, if we don't give it our full attention and effort, this unique network/institution/opportunity/gift can be permanently spoiled and/or disfigured.

And we should acknowledge that, again like democracy, the internet was created with less benevolent intentions than we see now. Democracy was originally permitted only for the wealthiest 1% of America in the late eighteenth century (you had to be landowning white male to vote). The internet was originally developed so US Department of Defence computers could speak to each other and launch missiles and rain mushroom clouds around the world (mainly on Soviet Russia) at the advent of World War III. The smoothest road to hell is paved with only the very best intentions (wikipedia 'fair trade', for example).

What a sprawling and multifaceted thing can become over time will be an interesting research assignment on one hand, and a sobering look at human nature on the other.

Things people would never say face to face comes out effortlessly when you're only replying to a username below a video of motorcycle fails (sure, it's better than using your connection to other computers to blow up the planet, but that's a low bar).

We hear critics of this behaviour say that we are becoming crueller and insensitive as we invest more and more of our time in our smartphones, tablets and (coming very soon) smart-watches.

It is said that our ability to sympathize and emphasize with people will begin to break down and become the rarity, not the norm.

[this is the 'get off my lawn' argument, as it's been applied to all new technologies and trends that have been vociferously taken up by the youth. Past culprits: television, rock and roll, jazz, dancing, novels, minor chords, literacy]

On the other hand (playing devil's advocate?), perhaps by being obnoxious human beings online we're getting frustrations and stress out that might have been acted out in more harmful ways.

[this is a poor argument in the (unfortunately) many cases of trolling/bullying on the internet that has unquestionably had 'real world' influences, including suicide, murder, assaults, harassment, and firings]

It's a sinking feeling. It's something we all can complain about on our own facebook/twitter/instagram accounts to friends, who agree that this freshest example of insensitivity is proof of humanity's ability to evolve, to have a shred of respect for each other, etc.

So what's the solution?

Wait, that's not right.

What's a solution?

Better.

See, there are solutions that have their own problems inherent to them. And like democracy being usurped by those willing to pay (heavily) to play in the halls of power through large campaign donations and lobbyists, the internet is now being, toll-boothed, cut up and cordoned off by a wealthy cabal of companies and interests.

This is not a shock. This is the usual fate of institutions and ideas. A rising, a falling, and then rebirth of something slightly different from the ashes. Culture especially. A popular style, musical genre, or even neighbourhood is first known only to a small number of people. Then it breaks through into a wider audience, hangers on arrive in droves, the initial essence of what made it popular is diluted, the initial creators bail or decry its alteration, it gets less popular, and is soon is mocked, derided and forgotten. And then the next new style, musical genre or neighbourhood is found.

It's the circle of post-industrial life.

Although obviously the internet is much bigger and more essential to contemporary human civilization than hipster fashion, punk, or the East Village. And how it changes has a greater effect on us all than a bunch of stores closing or record label employees getting laid off.

The internet is currently gestating into it's next phase of more barriers, almost all of which are divided by what you're willing to pay. Which comes with some simple solutions and a lot of complex problems.

The hardware has always been a capitalist enterprise. The more money you spend on your phone, cable line or modem's power, the faster upload and download speed at your fingertips. Outside of that rather large blindspot, the internet was trumpeted as being an equal and level playing field. Anyone could build a website. Anyone can talk to anyone else (remember texting....on your desktop computer?). Copyright wasn't too big of an issue at first because it took so much memory to digitize and upload/download a sound or photo or any other hunk of information that was owned by someone else.

It was as if so many people were amazed that it even worked there was barely any time or energy to be petty or angry when you arrived in cyberspace (instead your negative emotions were focussed on the goddamn 14.4 modem not connecting to American Online, even though no one else was on the phone).

Then computers/modems got faster, files could be compressed, the internet bubble burst, Google, Napster, facebook, youtube, twitter, torrenting, etc.

How's that for a summation of the last twenty years of the most important technological advance since nuclear power (debatable?)?

Now, in 2015, with almost everyone almost constantly connected, it's rarely acknowledged that a lot of our initial options for how we access the internet, what we access, and what we can access have narrowed.

The full embrace of phones and tablets as the main forms of access to cyberspace means that apps and closed software are becoming the norm, replacing websites and open software (the hallmark of your desktop and laptop computers, with their prompts and dialogue boxes).

Your facebook or tumblr page has more rigid guidelines and design limitations than any sort of web-building software.

And we should note here that the battle for net neutrality won't be over until it's finally won by the cable providers, who want to 'offer'/'charge' certain websites and online services premium fees for 'ideally' faster service. A two-tier system that leaves start up and less established ones in the dust. The already powerful will become more powerful.

Even where everything form of entertainment is supposedly free, money still talks.

A classic example is Tinder (yes, something three years old can be 'classic', in our hyper-accelerated world), which was intentionally introduced to the Silicon Valley/Hollywood upper crust to give it a bit of cache and curiosity, it's fuckbook-like interface spilling down to the plebs below in the coming months and years. And now that it's part of the culture - for better and for worse - they can now introduce premium subscription services to the site, with those paying a bit more getting a higher level swipe-and-meet-and-fuck experience.

From news to games to porn, there's more options, power-ups and exclusive hi-def footage if you're willing to pay. When the rabble start to get particularly ornery with what everyone can have because its free, those who can afford it slowly slip out of the room and into the brand new, VIP patio (mark my words, facebook will ultimately add a facebook plus, where people can pay to have ads removed from their news feed).

Easy for some people, not an option for others.

[here is the obligatory reminder that the widening gap between the rich and everyone else (aka, the shrinking of the middle class) creates not only a have and have-nots divide in terms of bank account size (and all the sociocultural opportunities attached to it), but a psychological one as well, where one begins to think these tiers are inherent and unchangeable]

It's pretty much the divide between who pays for HBO, and who steals HBO content or waits for the DVDs to rent from the library (remember libraries? Can you believe all the stuff there is free?).

Barriers are inevitable, and while the internet broke the last of the physical ones (take that, titanium, stone, and chain-link), it took a very short period of time before digital ones replaced them.

The pay wall. And if you don't have the cash (or won't cough it up), they'll take your information for a quick hit, for a first time tour behind the gates.

The gate meant to keep out the trolls, the bitter, the scammers, the thin-skinned defensive, the easily offended, the consistently ignorant, the conveniently ignorant, the dim and burnt out bulbs.

The venue always changes (it's all ones and zeroes now) but that process remains. The lifespan off the newest killer app is rapidly approaching that of the average fruit fly. Now the true showing of power and prowess is how deftly one can hop from one to the other. Our need for endless novelty (recent proof: the early February interest of Katy Perry's Left Shark. Remember? Way back then? Good times).

But out fleeting interests and brief bursts of anger, sympathy and excitement can wreak havoc on anyone caught in its wake.  Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, is an account of the very worst examples of the internet ruining people's lives. Where tweets or facebook statuses of varying degrees of insult and ignorance sparks a flurry of anger and vindictiveness that costs people their dignity and sometimes their careers.

It's actually become possible to inadvertently profit from these flare-ups. Just follow the step-by-step process:

-Make a controversial opinion known, either on the internet or through the antiquated medium known as television.

-Twitter and facebook users send an overwhelming amount of angry tweets and comments (including good ol' death threats and bigotry).

-People who agree with original your controversial opinion support them in a much more stronger and traditional fashion (financial support, public protests and marches) than simply typing a message (or signing a digital petition) on a phone.

The recent example of this is the owner of an Indiana pizza place who said on local TV news that she supported the state's controversial bill that makes it possible for business to discriminate against gays and lesbians. LGBT-supportive people across the internet protested from the comfort of their homes, suggesting boycotts, arson, and murder as a way to deal with this person and their business. And in response to this a kickstarter campaign started by people who supported the pizza place employee raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for them.

Instant connection and response make oversteering a new normal. Something that people and PR firms now have to take into account. The celebrities, politicians, and average citizens who have been burned by sharing their opinions/jokes/comments/whatever on the internet were the first victims/lessons. And like a lot of new inventions, it's still clear we have difficulty with the learning curve. Now everyone can be known for only a slice of their personality or ability, good or bad.

If some random person's tweet somehow goes viral, that's all that person is (and probably ever will be) in the eyes of the internet.

Popularity in cyberspace is akin to a grease fire. I mentioned Land Shark, but hey, remember 'What Colour is the Dress'? How about Mathew McConaughey in Interstellar reacting to the second Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer?

Two days worth of 'fame', sometimes for a silly idea instead of a person's idiocy (and that's probably preferred).

A strange twenty second cut of a popular movie we can all laugh or roll our eyes at (the closest we have to egalitarianism now?) on youtube, the shopping mall of the internet. After all, everyone's there (youtube comments might just be the barnacles at the bottom of the barrel), there's a lot of material of dubious quality, and even the good stuff might have some ethical issues (youtube founders agreed early on that they would take a laissez-faire attitude towards removing copyrighted material that was uploaded by a random users).

4chan is the mysterious Eyes Wide Shut orgy, that's more fun and less shocking/deadly than everyone thinks it is.  I've always seen rotten.com and it's extensions (like dailyrotten, the library and the nndb) as the early pioneers of the 4chan attitude. Described itself as 'the soft white underbelly of the net eviscerated for all the world to see', at least there's plenty of properly spelled words and paragraph, which is more than you can say about a lot more popular places around cyberspace.

It hasn't been updated in quite awhile, but it's there, like a statue that will never gather a single grain of dust. It's not that 'nothing is forgotten' on the internet. It's more like, 'nothing valuable is forgotten' on the internet (and of course, valuable is relative. A page detailing your bankruptcy has value to certain people and certain situations. A page detailing your love of 1970s glam band Sparks has value, but certainly not the same kind as the previous example).

But there are so many ones and zeroes that truly have practically no value at all, and while they don't actually disappear, they sink very, very far down.

The deep web, the dark internet. This mass of information is like the lower 90% of the universal hard drive iceberg. As this data sinks further and further down, it will only become useful to historians many years from now. Finding old computers and getting them in serviceable condition to glean what information they have contained within will turn programmers and engineers in archaeologists.

Forgotten. Maybe that's when, where, and how we'll all be equal again.

 

 

 

NOTES

 

http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/inside-tinders-hookup-factory-20141027?page=3

 

http://www.menshealth.com/sex-women/who-buys-porn


 

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

 

Smiths song.

Cold out. Bleak January. The icy wind stings and stretches out in a biting embrace.

Dead men on the other side of the planet. In the same sort of profession. Typing stuff, doodling. Notoriety can catch a gaggle of writers off-guard (although in certain cases, it's a half-secret goal). But everyone can weather angry letters/email/tweets/psychic-missives (tba), advertisers jumping ship, subscriptions cancelled, lawsuits, public protests, even government investigations.

It's hard to weather a barrage of bullets breaking up your morning meeting unless you're in kevlar.

Now satirists have to dress like they're about to patrol in Kabul (or Ferguson, Missouri). Stand-ups are packing heat onstage, emptying a whole clip on a heckler. Talk show hosts behind bullet proof glass. To get into clubs and shows requires level five security clearance. It will just be military personnel and intelligence officials at Louis CK shows now (fortunately he has some killer bits on collateral damage).

[I/we didn't think we would be writing another (ahem) 'humour' column so quickly]

You can't reason with people who not only don't have a sense of humour, but also don't have a sense that people can hold different opinions than their own. A myopic, selfish view of the world around them. And even that's certainly allowed in a free society. You can gnash your teeth and shake your fist and wish the staff of Charles Hebdo were dead. You'd be a petty asshole, but there's plenty of those in a free society. But you can't pick up a gun and shoot the office up.

You can't kill them.

You're throwing away your pulpit, your explanation, your relevance when you start shrieking with your gun because you didn't like some guy's cartoons.  

'Radical' and 'Extreme' are the proper words to describe these men (and the woman who was the supportive girlfriend of one of them, who fled to Syria right after the attacks, which is a bit like going from the frying pan into a really shitty frying pan that keeps on exploding). They fall outside of what Jon Stewart recently called, 'Team Civilization'. If they were caught alive we would charge and punish them in a civilized way (because we are better than them), but their arguments would fall on deaf ears because of how they chose to argue. Not with reason, not even with personal beliefs, but with the barrel of a gun.

Satire and mockery is not big among fascists of any type, religious or secular. And it doesn't matter if the fascist is in a fascist country or in one that protects the freedom of individuals. Their 'level of offence' goes through the roof when almost anyone else would react to a book, movie, or cartoon with a shrug (if they don't care) or a sigh and shake of the head (even if they do).

And that's the sensible reaction because Charlie Hebdo isn't a government institution or a pulpit. Its not serious. It exists outside of serious. It comments on serious with barely a shred of it.

'Make fun of' makes all the difference, but 'taking the piss' can piss off a lot of people.

Coming at it from an angle, a wink, a sly nod, a between-the-lines reminder that so much of our concerns are part of a house of cards. Not that the comedian/satirist is a cynic who thinks it's all for nothing because we're all going to end up dead, but that an intense and serious orthodoxy/'five year plan' is no answer, either. Humour prevents a society from oversteering. Frequently it will safely do the oversteering for society, to show how ridiculous it could become (or already is).

Today censorship in the West is almost completely corporate-imposed, with books, TV episodes, tweets, and almost any other form of culture being altered before or hastily withdrawn after release due to public pressure by the company owning it, because of fear of a possible loss in profits. Incidents involving the government actually stepping in to ban the dissemination of any sort of written, visual, or audio material usually involve hate/racist speech (unless the material can be proven to be satire, that is, a mockery of racist attitudes, which is how Charles Hebdo was never fined, arrested, or shutdown by the French government, despite protests and fire bombings by those who hated what they wrote and drew).

So while it's reassuring that Western governments are taking one of the basic democratic rights as seriously as it should be taken, it's sadly revealing of how much more power corporations have in this globalized world, as they - and their profits - are the guardians as to what is and isn't acceptable.

[But that's a hideously mundane topic for another day. A 'read the small print type of news story, where whatever the corporation objects to is buried, ignored, suppressed, or released with no fanfare. The corporations work with a 21st century mindset in this case: Destroying something creates too much attention. But that's part of the point of terrorist acts on a French satirical paper. Not only to avenge the perceived insult to Islam, but to prevent it from happening again, and to prove - in their eyes - that they are noble followers of their creed.]

It's the fractured and appalling act of sacrificing yourself for your beliefs by risking your own life to kill the enemy. A gesture that is held high in almost any society, until one considers who is seen as the enemy. US and Allied soldiers killing ISIS soldiers (or militants, if you want to use a term meant to not equate the two) is acceptable. Al-Qaeda soldiers (or fighters or terrorists if you want to use the more common term) shooting up a newspaper is not. US drones blowing up a camp or convoy in Yemen that may or may not involve terrorist activity (the definition of an 'al Qaeda soldier' by the US military when it comes to drone strikes is 'any adult male') is a much more terrifying grey area.

Meanwhile, for the non-weaponized citizen, fighting for freedom of speech requires constant vigilance. Millions of people in the streets of Paris (and certainly it must be noted around the world as well) marching in support of Charles Hebdo is inspiring, but real tests of a nation's embrace of free speech traditionally come after. A few days ago the French government arrested and charged Muslim comedian Dieudonne with hate speech and supporting terrorism after he sent out tweets supporting the two brothers who carried out the shooting.

Considering what's happened in France plus the recent shootings in Belgium, it seems safe to say that most Western European nations are going to try to walk that fine line between cracking down on anything remotely suspicious in its Islamic communities and ensuring that basic rights are preserved (and by 'walk that fine line', I mean do the former and occasionally remember the latter). It's the Old World version of the Patriot Act. Softer on the militaristic 'murica rhetoric and trumpeting how they are going to keep liberalism alive, even though the results are the same. A hollow, outdated, uncertain promise of a war on extremism through a toothless military and a poison-fanged domestic police force that looks like the military.

And if France is already punishing 'free speech', they've become hypocrites while the bodies are still warm. This is the kind of idiocy that Charles Hebdo should jump on with gusto. Satire is meant to mock those in power, and god's always been an easy and obvious target. But religion in the early twenty-first century is an odd position (Hebdo editor Stephane 'Charb' Charbonnier said he wanted to make Islam as banal as Catholicism). Religious attendance and adherence is plummeting across the Western and Eastern world (secularism is on the rise in India), so the act of good ol' blasphemy doesn't carry the same punishments that it used to. Islam is at a particularly difficult crossroads, with the entire Middle Eastern region in a state of flux or authoritarian crush, which are the two conditions in which extremism of any sort (although in this case, taking the guise of religious fundamentalism) is able to flourish. Which is tragic for the vast majority of Muslims want to live in peace and stability (and it seems ridiculous that this even has to be pointed out, because of course they do. But when an 'us versus them' mindset is so strong, you have to keep repeating that this is a false dichotomy, grouping all members of one religion as thinking the same about everything).

At the same time, Islam is a marginalized religion in all Western countries, with adherents never topping more than 10% of the population. A minority for generations to come, always treated like the suspicious 'other', which only makes being embraced by the larger community that much more difficult. Technology, however, permits a constant connection with more radicalized branches of the religion throughout the Middle Eastern countries, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan (even as many governments in these countries try to stamp out extremists themselves). For certain alienated youth in French suburbs, people in Peshawar could easily be your neighbours.

But to focus on this attack being a strictly religious reaction or to say that Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism - is inaccurate. Every holy book has passages that can justify killing heathens or sinners in the name of faith. It's not religious reaction, it's a reaction to the threat (or a perceived threat) to the established order. It just so happens that religion has lost the most in the last one hundred years, and in the last several decades, Islam in particular.

Western ideals (some of which include being much more tolerant with different faiths because the West had gotten exhausted from fighting over faith for centuries past) are being shoehorned into politically destabilized regions with traditions that have outlasted all sorts of governments, isms, and dynasties.

Blowback is a particularly cold term, but you can't globalize/modernize regions like the Middle East and Central Asia without terrible and tragic problems that we've seen played out both in those areas and around the world.

And of course the problem is simply not Islam versus the West. What an insulting and unhelpful reductionism. A more useful reductionism that we can plug in various parties and institutions is simply the Powerful versus the Powerless. In 2014, satirist Bassem Youssef's comedy news program, Al-Bermaneg (nicknamed, 'Egypt's Daily Show), was taken off the air by Egyptian authorities, because the people in charge thought he was insulting to the leaders of the country. 'They' were offended, 'they' were worried, 'they saw it as a loss of face/power.

And the solution is exhausting. Democratizing power is a difficult process that takes a long time to properly introduce and Herculean effort to keep from running off the rails. With social mobility and enfranchisement bringing communities, countries, and everyone together, it's inevitable that the amount of terrible tragedies like the Hebdo shooting or the continued massacre in Nigeria will lessen.

Bloodthirsty goons can claim that they are acting in the name of an ideology but the root of 'ideology' is 'idea', and as soon as a better one can be offered and proven workable, then the terrible ones will die off (it's evolution, baby).

If there is a 'they' here, it's people who will lose because all they have to offer is obedience under pain of death. No one lasts very long on either end of a gun. Shooting a room full of comedy writers is just an attempt to terrorize. Simple as that. Let's not elevate the beliefs of the murderers and denigrate an entire religion by saying there was actually an 'idea' behind these terrible acts.

Preventing the (religious, political, etc.) radicalization of certain segments of the citizenry requires time, money, and an absence of a 'mission accomplished' banner. It's not a battle, and it's not fought. It's a slow replacement of values that preyed on despair and focused on very narrow beliefs that come to a singular and violent conclusion. Instead what should be ushered in is the idea of being a proud and true follower of your religion as well as a responsible and upstanding citizen. To serve god and man. That's the goal. And of course it's up for debate whether we've even achieved (or should achieve) this in the West, with plenty of practicing Christians alarmed the continued secularization of society. But this debate is done peacefully, blandly, with no violence to speak of, and that says volumes about its societal worth.

It is done peacefully.

And that should never be taken for granted.

We need to leave archaic notions like settling differences of faith and culture with violence in the dust. There always will be plenty of terrible reasons to spill blood, but fewer and fewer people should be doing so in the name of god.

The Charles Hebdo shooting can become a noble line in the sand if sensible and well-meaning people from across the political and religious spectrum come together and refuse to make this a cut and dry issue that raises the flames of hate in the name of any sort of trumped up phobia. And whether putting Mohammed on the cover of the newest issue is bold or insulting or crazy, if a debate over it can happen without violence, then the whole damn world is winning. If you can acknowledge that they are not being serious, that a slight to one's sensitivity is a shrug to another, then that's a huge leap forward, too. Because if you don't find humour in a country, you won't find freedom there, either.

 

 

 

Notes

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity

 


 

Fixing Food: Avoiding the Perfect Storm

 

The Perfect Storm is a term that recently has been taken from its original, literal meaning (several storm fronts coming together) to one describing a clusterfuck situation where a series of interconnected institutions and enterprises all go through a period of great crisis (some of which could have been avoided by proper planning ahead of time) around the same time and affect each other, making the whole debacle that much worse.

These sorts of manmade perfect storms can range from the 2008 financial crisis (the reverberation of which are still being felt today, six years later) to the collapse of governments in already unstable nations (we are apparently in the long Winter Months of the Arab Spring). In most instances, there were many warning signs of instability and looming disaster that went unacknowledged, making the whole situation that much more frustrating. These 'perfect storms' could have been avoided, or at least their terrible effects could have been mitigated. And while these effects can range from massive layoffs to massive  loss of life, there is always the attempt to improve, to get support from other nations and institutions to rehabilitate and hopefully rectify the crisis. And that's humanity's negatives and positives in a nutshell. We'll dig ourselves into a hole together, then try to climb out of it together.

But we've never had to do this yet when the problem is food. That is, food shortages on a global scale. Which is more real than most people think. And this can be seen by the fact that there have been several food riots across the globe in the last few years, ranging from places like sub-Saharan Africa to Bangladesh.

The concern for this cannot be understated. In terms of resources we need to survive, food is first, energy is second (and a close second, but only because so much of our energy is used to grow, prepare, and transport food) (also, food is human energy, so maybe if we ironed out the semantics, we'd say that all that matters is energy).

In the West it's practically unthinkable. It really only occurs in post-apocalyptic films.

Running out of food.

It's one of the few events that make war seem manageable. Until we start fighting over food, which is a marrying of two terrible and desperate situations. So perhaps we should consider rolling up our sleeves and avoiding it.

What does famine look like in the early 21st century? It looks more like malnutrition, first of all.

Delicately put, 800 million people around the globe do not have enough to eat (roughly 11% of the planet's population). 47 million of them are in the richest country on earth (which is still America, although clearly that wealth is extremely concentrated, otherwise 14% of them wouldn't be classified as suffering from malnutrition).

But even with those numbers, mass starvation and deadly famine occur only in extreme cases. Mainly where war and military conflict destroys entire towns and village forcing the citizens to flee with nothing except what they can carry. In addition, flood and drought can ruin years' worth of crops in regions of the world that have little to no infrastructure to deal with such problems. And while aid from other nations - through foreign assistance, the UN, or NGOs - can help alleviate these problems in the most basic fashion - namely, sending food to replace what they lost or were unable to grow - it is a band aid solution at best. And it's one that becomes untenable when rising food prices across the globe make it harder for wealthier nations to spare anything for the poorer ones.

Once again it's a matter of haves and have-nots, and despite economic/class inequality in all nations, the have nations must take on the added responsibility of sharing the wealth for the benefit of all.

First off, despite the dour number of people needing proper food, there's still too many of us eating too well.

Rising populations and rising economic statuses (in China and India mainly, the two most populous nations) mean we are burning through the food we already have quicker than ever before. Part of being wealthier in these emerging nations is simply being able to afford a greater variety of food. The West suddenly asking India, China and other 'Asian tiger' nations to tighten their belts without making large scale sacrifice themselves will not get much support (this is one of the same problems stifling any sort of global climate change policy).

It's a complicated issue and we as a civilization don't do well with complicated issues. It only makes matters worse that the food crisis is forever linked with climate change, because climate change is affecting harvests the world over. Too much rain and not enough of it in areas dependent on the 'goldilocks' amount means crops are ruined for another season, and this affects California as well as the Sudan. In California, the domino effect to combat the drought means higher water prices for farmers and non-farmers alike, which means driving food prices up immediately and going through water reserves even quicker than planned, while in the Sudan people 'simply' starve.

The advantage, though, is if climate change is addressed ('ha!' and 'sigh'), the policies put in place to slow and reverse the trends would also help alleviate the worst of the food crisis. This does not look like it would be happening any time soon. Any sort of 'spring into action'-like policy for climate change would require major cities like New York to suddenly be five feet underwater, at which point the damage has already been done.

That's not to say all hope is lost for the food crisis. To solve a problem that incorporates a little bit of everything, you need a solution that does the same.

Food Resource Management (FRM) is a big enough issue that to tackle it

requires changing policies on the macro level and changing attitudes of the micro level.

D.I.Y. has to go hand in hand with conglomerate restructuring and regulation. So what can you do? If there can be one commandment to help the whole damn world out, it would be this:

Eat less meat.

You don't have to excise beef, pork, or poultry from your diet completely, but the benefits of cutting down drastically the amount of cooked animal flesh you're stuffing down your gullet are huge. For one, everyone is eating more meat than is necessary for the health of your body. Of course there are benefits from eating meat, but you start to suffer from drawbacks if you eat too much, including an increased risk of diabetes and heart-related disease.

And even before the fillet makes it your plate, raising animals that are destined for the slaughterhouse takes up an incredible amount of energy. Feeding an ever increasing amount of animals means there's less food for us, even if what's eating our food is destined to end up in our stomaches. In the United States, 56 million acres of crops are grown to feed livestock, while 4 million acres are grown to feed people. When we feed 20,000 kilocalories of corn to cow, we get 2,000 calories of meat out of it.

As more of the world eats meat, more jungles and forests are cut down to create grazing land (and cutting down trees means there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - trees breathe it in - which means the world gets hotter and the weather more volatile which means it's harder to grow more crops, for human and animal consumption alike. These are examples of that 'perfect storm' mentioned earlier).

And as an odious cherry on top, cows fart methane, a greenhouse gas far worse than carbon dioxide.

So yes, to sound like a treehugger (as if embracing a plant that makes our lives possible is a bad thing), skip the steak most of the time and get a salad.

Eat healthier. Eat local.

The slightly more expensive cost of buying fruits, vegetables, grains, and the occasional meat grown within a three hour drive of your home in the short term will help nullify and reduce the long term costs of transporting, processing and marketing of food that's typically done on an industrialized scale (those three factors count for 80% of the price of food in the US).

Buy based on what's available seasonally. If you're buying cucumbers in February from a different country or continent, try and imagine how much gas it cost getting here.

And of course 'slipping' at the grocery store from time to time is going to happen, but make sure it's just that. An occasional thing. Instead of Ben and Jerry's being your treat, make it any sort of product that travelled more than two thousand kilometres to get to you.

Victory gardens were a major part of home-front war efforts in the first half of the nineteen forties. Designed to help feed your own household so crops from large farms could be sent to the troops, they succeeded in having regular citizens safely participate in defeating the axis powers. Believing youre making a difference is a big part in actually making a difference.

The challenge is to make the connection between FRM across the globe and national security/domestic stability at home.

21st Century Victory Gardens are fighting for something both more abstract and more straightforward than ultimate victory on the battlefield: More food.

If these suggestions are handed down from the upper echelons of government - Michelle Obama had suggested victory gardens for health and environmental benefits - there will be a sizeable rebuttal from certain sectors and groups regarding the effects of the Nanny State (at best) or fascist dictatorship imposing its iron-fisted will on the people (at worst).

But food, it should acknowledged, is a big part of what created civilization, communities, and countries in the first place. Early humans hunting in packs help develop language, crude forms of cooking occurred quite soon after we learned how to make and control fire, and it was thank to focussing on growing crops that turned us from nomadic tribesmen to village builders.

Food was the force that created a state of any sort, whether you see it as a nanny state, a libertarian free for all, or anything in between. But a lack of food is a force that can unravel all of this terribly quickly.

Which is why every little bit helps, and one less hamburger and one more tomato plant in the backyard is a step towards stability.

The corporate side is obviously more complicated, as it has always been regarding any sort of resource, food or otherwise.

Transactions of valuable products and services owned by companies are supposed to be regulated and monitored by the government, but clearly the divide between the two institutions have crumbled, making both of them less efficient (except when it comes to make profits).

It's not that governments are blind and deaf to the importance of food. It's just that industries have the money and clout to twist this important resource to their own advantage. Massive corporations get huge subsidies to grow certain crops and livestock in certain areas and are essentially free to process and sell them in any way they see fit, since government regulation is a toothless old lady (even in the rule-happy EU there was a recent scandal of horse meat being passed off as beef).

There is a complicated marketplace algorithm as to why some farmers - regardless of where across the globe - are paid to either not grow or grow only a certain amount of a particular crop or resource. Plus there's the matter of speculators buying and selling crops that don't yet exist (or, in some case, never will exist).

The cultivation and production food should not be a for profit enterprise. Even the profits made from the selling of food should be carefully regulated by both market forces and government regulation. Short term planning for industries with far-ranging consequences (whether it be a food, energy, or financial resource) is poor planning. It's time to regulate the food commodities market to the point where the money that can be made gaming the system is so negligible that it's not worth doing.

At the moment, most people across the globe spend no more than ten percent of their income on food. Unanticipated spikes - genuine and artificial - in food prices that can raise this level by only a few percentage point for a even a brief period of time can have devastating consequences for the country or region.

Corn is the petroleum of food. With all its guises, it is nearly impossible to avoid. And like oil, the danger is not only what it does to you and environment, but by participating in the marketplace you are supporting the corporations that produce the product, therefore strengthening their position to keep the status quo. And yes, corn is a vegetable, but it rarely stays so for long once picked. Corn is quickly turned into syrup. Ridiculously sweet, barely recognizable, certainly not healthy, glucose-fructose. It's the crack of the food world (leading to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases), and it's in almost everything in your grocery store outside of the produce and meat departments.

What's the alternative? Right now there's a left field solution: Gruel!

Well, not exactly gruel, but the name is just as silly. Soylent, a just-add-water powder that is made up of the basic minerals and nutrients required to keep you alive. Designed by Silicon Valley computer engineers who wanted to cut their eating time down, it's a meal in a glass, filling and meeting all your daily dietary needs.  Most importantly, its effects on the environment are practically negligible compared to almost anything else you'd eat.

It tastes all right, but considering the problems we're going to face in the future, 'all right' is pretty damn good.

What should be noted about Soylent is the unique view the company has of its product. It's open sourced, meaning there's no secret recipe and no copyright, meaning you can go to the trouble of making your own if you'd like (cutting down on the costs of transportation when they ship it to you). On messageboards people share their homemade recipes which differ slightly or greatly from the original.

In addition to this, Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart saw this as an opportunity to redefine food. You drink down a jug full of soylent when you need energy to get through your day. You save actual food - cooking a nice meal, or going out to a restaurant - for when you have the time for it. When you're socializing with friends. When you can devote an afternoon to a recipe that interests you. Having to plan one less meal a day by replacing it with a glass of soylent should be a welcome addition to a person's daily routine if they're frequently busy and are trying to save money. The advantages are plentiful, at a time when what Soylent is replacing is not.

So, to carry the title analogy to its end, avoiding the perfect storm requires a weather controlling machine. Food needs better PR (and it doesn't help soylent having more or less the same name as 'soylent green' the fictional 'made of people food' from the movie of the same name). Everything in the grocery store going up a dime or a quarter every season is not regular inflation. It's a reflection of huge challenges ahead. And apparently there's not even enough scientists addressing these extremely important issues.

Technological innovation (like Soylent) has to come together with personal and corporate responsibility. It wasn't really addressed here, but let's try to avoid water becoming the new oil.

Food's still too valuable to be free. But it's also too important to be expensive. There aren't many things in this world that 100% of population can agree we all need. But this is one of them.

 

NOTES

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140522-food-crisis-vulnerable-weather-climate-future/

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/05/12/the-end-of-food

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/07/28/stone-soup

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/25/us-usa-agriculture-inflation-idUSKBN0FU1DD20140725

http://www.bnn.ca/News/2014/7/19/Meat-sweats-Why-Canadas-food-infrastructure-is-buckling-as-prices-surge.aspx

http://www.worldwatch.org/node/549

 


 

Now and Then and Then Again: The Dangers of Political Nostalgia

 

What you think you remember is always changing.

This is a problem, since that's a large part in how you base your decisions. And while personal considerations like how you feel about music, food, and the backyard you had when you were five don't have great ramifications on your community and world as a whole, your feelings about what politics, family, classes, and crime were like in the past can have huge effects when you act upon them today.

Nostalgia for the good old days can be a very powerful thing, beyond reunion tours and forlornly driving through your old neighbourhood and seeing all the new interlopers living in yours and your friends' childhood homes.

How we imagined the world to be at one point has a great effect on how we try to shape it for the present and the future. Especially the future, which is based on a hazy projection of what we know about today and what we want tomorrow (and beyond) to become.

We either hope for the best, or worry about the worst. We're three steps away from a utopia or a dystopia, depending not only on who you talk to, but whether they got up on the right side of the bed in the morning. Same goes for recollecting the past. It is an unpredictable aspect of human psychology that can have devastating real-life consequences.

And while we've internalized this thought process to some degree and are aware of its existence, we can't helping falling into its convenient trappings every generation. It's Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. The people stay the same as the world changes around them.

The young hate the old for being judgmental and crotchety, and blame them for screwing everything up, since the old are primarily in charge. The old hate the young for being judgmental and naive, and have no faith in their ability to lead, thinking that they'll screw up everything even more.

As it was, as it every shall be.

This seems to be the 'going attitude' towards civilization during prolonged periods of little to moderate social upheaval (here we would classify the civil and equal rights movements of the sixties as moderate level of upheaval, compared to war and/or the removal of democratic mechanisms as a high level). It's almost a luxury when changes which occur over several decades only affect socioeconomic status of citizens, compared to anything else that could happen.

That's not to say we should accept the changes that have happened to the West in the last three decades. Looking at them in the proper context is necessary for enacting policies that can reverse the erosion of the middle class. And doing so by appealing to bland and dull statistics rather than any sort of emotional motivator. The latter may be more effective in the short term, but it requires reductionism in the cerebral argument. Emotional appeals - even with the best intentions - are rooted in nostalgic views of the past and future. And while this has been a key part of political rhetoric since the dawn of civilization, what has changed in the last three decades or so is the role that money has played in shaping political strategy.

But blame is beside the point. Blame is nostalgia to a t. Blame results in mocking statements about the baby boomers like this:

"I know we said, 'hope I die, before I get old', but since we didn't, we're going to push for another round of deregulation and layoffs to fatten our bottom line."

This is a utterly massive generalization, conflating the death of already shaky sixties ethos of peace, love and community with the increased corporate deregulation beginning in the eighties. While the 1980s was the time when the baby boomers entered their mid-to-late thirties and began to take the reigns of large institutions and companies, it is unfair to characterize all of them of completely turning their backs on Johnson's Great Society in favour of increased profit earnings at any cost. Its too complicated of a problem.

Meanwhile, the youth are to be judged with a shaking head and a sigh. They are to be stereotyped by the margins. The millennials (and within them, the hipsters), generation x (and within them, the yuppies), the baby boomers (and within them, the hippies). The people ten to twenty years older than each of them always knew they were up to no good, having it easier than them and never being as respectful as they were.

Sure.

Not every baby boomer (people born between 1946 and 1962) in the sixties was the stereotypical hippie, which supposedly meant they all wore beads, had long hair, dressed in psychedelic threads, listened to rock and roll, smoked pot, were dyed in the wool leftists, argued bitterly with their parents, declared god dead and spirituality alive, and protested in the streets when they weren't lying around in a park or commune.

Most people had these maybe a third of these qualities while growing up in the sixties. Now some people definitely had all these qualities, giving birth to the stereotype that can easily and unfairly represent the period through the media (both then and years past, when looking back on the time in an even more reductionist, bullet-pointed manner). And some people had none of these qualities, a mirror image of the stereotype. And these two small fractions of people can be seen as the extreme balances of the bell curve, with a great majority of the people in the middle.

The same goes for today.  It's too easy to deign the term hipster on a massive segment of the population, namely the millennials. Plaid shirts, glasses, fixed gear bikes, expensive coffee, an addiction to smart phones, an artistic endeavour on the side of intermittent employment, and a penchant for owning obscure vinyl record collection.

We make these categorizations because it's easy to do. Life is the process of constantly organizing whatever our sensory inputs absorb from the world around us. And we take shortcuts whenever possible (and sometimes it's our brain biological make-up that takes these shortcuts, although we should leave the mind-brain dichotomy for another day). Repetition is the most straightforward way to build a reservoir of knowledge. Routine tasks.  The less immediate information of something were experiencing in the present, the more we rely on our memories of the same (or similar) experience in the past. But one's past gets murkier the longer one lives. Certainly a handful of memories will always stand out clear as day, but a great many of them will fade, blur with different moments (or closely related anecdotes from others), or simply be strengthened with what the person recalling the memory wanted to happen. This a natural human fallacy, and it's one that we can only work around, not stamp out.

And this could be something as innocuous as remembering which of your friends caught  the fish that had a key in its stomach.

History on the more epic and important level gets conflated even easier. The farther back in time an event was, the fewer and fewer words and sentences devoted to it. And as unsettling as intentional revisionist history can be (that is, knowingly fabricating the details of an event to achieve a certain goal), recalling an event in what you think is an accurate way - when it, in fact, is not - is much more disconcerting. Lying to oneself and knowing it is bad enough, but lying to oneself and think it gospel is horrifying. That means the actual truth is lost forever.

The events of the sixties are being blurred (not wholly by intention) by those that grew up in them. The baby boomers didn't pass the Civil Rights Act. Their 'unhip, square' parents did. The 'baby boom' began in 1946 and the law was passed in 1964. That means, unless there were some fresh, eager eighteen year olds in congress (there weren't), the same generation that grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and epitomized the American nuclear family (and all its good and bad labels) passed the Civil Rights Act. This was the 'Greatest Generation', as they began to be called decades after the fact. And just so we aren't getting ahead of ourselves, they still treated women like second class citizens and homosexuality as if it was a mental disorder. Skeleton in the closet isn't the point. That's what happened in the past at this time.

When boomers reflect on the 'good old days' of their youth, they neglect to acknowledge that it was through the efforts of the generation before them to ensure that these 'good old days' would actually exist. The generation before them lived through the Great Depression, and there was a palpable sense - from those in power to those abandoning their farms in Oklahoma - of 'we can't let this happen again'. Decades later, that minorities would have to fight so hard for the right to vote in the 1950s and 1960s seems unthinkable (including risking their lives) now. There was certainly a strong, racist and bigoted opposition to the idea, but in the history books, beyond some KKK members and the odd southern governor, there seems to be only a vague feeling that some people were still pushing for segregation. Society has focussed on the positive and downplayed the negative, which comes at the expense of the truth. Civil rights became something to fight for instead of an injustice to fight against. Gay right in the last ten to fifteen years has gone/is going through the same process (thankfully with less violence). The lunatic accusations against gay marriage are highlighted as proof of opposition, with the turning opinion tide of the silent majority existing mainly in the distant background. Suddenly it seems like everyone had no problem with gay rights. As if the West was saying, 'no idea what all the fuss was about the eighties and nineties, really'.

Meanwhile, social conservatives never fail to ascribe the civil, feminist, and gay rights movements of the fifties through the seventies and eighties as the time when the West mainly America slipped into a haze of moral relativism and godless decadence. Since the rise of Ronald Reagan, candidates aiming for the highest political positions (on both sides of the aisle) in the land have appealed to the basest base by lamenting how far weve fallen and how its time to take back the country, and turn it back into the powerhouse it was when they were young.

But this period of time never existed. Crime was higher in the nineteen fifties, there was a constant threat of nuclear war, and a majority of citizens barely had a say in their own destinies, as it mostly shaped by forces beyond their control.

Whats not talked about is some of the aspects that did make the fifties and sixties such a successful period for the West: Strong government regulation, a healthy percentage of union jobs, and high tax rates on the wealthy, meant that there was a strong foundation for lower and middle class families to thrive (social programs were there to assist them with health, education, and infrastructure), that there was a smaller gap between the rich and poor in an economic and social sense (which meant there was a greater chance on the former assisting (or even at least considering) the latter), and that corruption - while obviously present - was kept in check.

How we remember the past is dependent on the point we're trying to make at the time. We can minimize the ugly truth that racism and sexism was (and still is, but thankfully to a lesser extent) accepted as just part of society up until about fifty years ago. Picking and choosing certain parts of the past to bolster our own contemporary position is done at the future's peril.

Frequently this is done just to feel better about ourselves, or to give evidence that our actions today are good and just because they were (supposedly) good and just in the past. America went to the moon, 'not because it was easy but because it was hard'. The Apollo missions were proof of the nation's ingenuity, dedication, and power. And after they landed on the moon six times, the NASA budget was slashed and the shuttle and space program limped along for decades.

If the space program was just something else that the West had to beat the Soviets at (as Neil DeGrasse Tyson has opined), the same can be said of the support for Johnson's Great Society. When it became clear in the 1980s that USSR was falling apart and Gorbachev introduced glasnost, America and many of its Western allies began introducing economic policies that began to hack away at the middle class foundation of the state. And even this period of deregulation is seen wistfully today, as Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney are portrayed as business-friendly, strong-on-defence leaders who at least compromised to some degree with their political opponents.

Today we claim that politics is more divided than ever, we complained about concentrated wealth and power, and we lament the power of the internet, how people cant think in anything more than 140 characters, need constant stimulation of the silliest things, and cant spell worth a damn. But on average people read more than they ever have in human history. We do better on intelligence tests than we did fifty years ago. The problems the world faces are numerous (climate change, resource management, inequality), but there is the advantage that there is the possibility of a global united front for some of these issues that never existed in the past.

And it begs the question: When was the golden age? When did it all work? Western history is taught with contradictory periods of greatness. The late eighteenth century, when American and French people rose up against their royal masters, the creation of a modern democracy, and all men are created equal'. But in the US only 1% of the population could vote at this time, and ten years of French democracy gave them the terror, followed by Napoleon.

It was during the rise of the industrial revolution, when the world truly became (at least in Western eyes) 'modern'. While a middle class did emerge (which existed in a prototypical form for previous centuries as the merchant class, which fell between the serfs and the nobility), the industrialists quickly consolidated their power and became - as far as the general public was concerned - robber barons. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan were held in both esteem and resentment. Their respective companies became so powerful that they were broken up by the American government. This partitioning occurred during a very violent labour relations period (early twentieth century) in the Untied States (another underrepresented and misremembered series of events that also had a large role in creating the 1950s middle class boom, as it laid the groundwork for union jobs).

But these advances were localize mainly in North America and Europe. Progress/Betterment has occurred at a glacial pace when we take a global perspective. In fact, the lamentations of wealth accumulation in the West by the upper 1% must be tempered with fact that across the globe hundreds of millions of people are climbing out of poverty, namely in China and India (while the richest 1% in those countries are also making out like government approved, corporate-owning bandits).

Placing your personal history over public history is a never-ending, always-in-progress effort of making tenuous connections to the past from the present, sometimes attempting to link up certain changes in your own life with larger events or periods of time that everyone is familiar with.

What Pearl Harbor, or the JFK assassination was to previous generations, 9/11 is that moment where it is easier to make a case that everything changed, a marker of sorts, especially when one considers its rippling effects shattered the post-Cold War peace of the 90s.

Politically, the post-coital afterglow of the end of the Cold War ended on September 11th. So in that respect, what can you say about the nineties? Certainly there were military conflicts across the world, several genocides, and level of instability, but as far as the West was concerned if you didnt look at the implosion of Yugoslavia it was a wonderful time to exist. Even times of greater economic growth and economic equality like the 1940s to the 1970s had the baggage of social inequalities only slowly being eradicated, plus, the threat of the Cold War itself going Hot.

Nineties postmodern malaise doesnt sound like a particularly positive or exciting archetype for the triumph of Western Capitalist Culture. Uncertainty underwrites the postmodernist position: How do we know what we know? Nostalgia is a dangerous pillar we balance our past, present, and future upon. Where our human limitations of memory recall and decision making collide. An ever-increasing dependence on scientific research in all fields from economic to geographic data has been excising problematic, subjective aspects of the policy forming process, but report recommendations have to make their way through special interests, favours-for-favours politicians, a vaguely interested media, and a mostly dismissive public. And every one of these collections of people have their own series of warping memories and future desires on the issue this report is addressing. Their reactions will alter accordingly: Its about damn time, its a liberal/conservative smear job, itll cost us billions, itll never get the votes.

Even trying to be as diplomatic and general as possible can’t stop the past from being used as a heaven or hell or something in between: It's bad but it's been worse and if we all don't 'roll up our sleeves' it'll get worse.

So it goes.

 

 


 

Year in Review: 2014

 

This not just in: Lousiness continues in 2013, unless you were one of the many millions climbing out of poverty in certain heavily populated pockets of Asia, and boy is it easy to forget about them if you aren't one of them.

Just because the global marketplace has touched/molested almost everyone on the planet doesn't mean we're all connected in the benign way that commercials for cell phones, shipping companies, and computer behemoths make it out to be. The West can buy cheap stuff buy the truckload from the East, but that doesn't mean we see then as anything but a method to bring down the price of jeans, watering cans, blenders, etc. Communism is certainly a ridiculous pipe dream, but Marx certainly hit the nail on the head with his views on alienation (when workers become nothing more than cogs in a massive machine of pumping out goods across the globe, they're seen less and less as human).

And the above is more of a reminder that it's carried on like this for quite a while now, not that it's particularly applicable to 2013. No, this year is more about running to stand still and failing just a bit by most accounts. Forget big things like a comprehensive green energy plan that the largest countries can agree on and actually put into practice (in reality, it's going to be a comprehensive green energy plan that the largest energy companies can agree will still make them billions when put into practice but first let's ride this petroleum thing as far as it can go). Or a way to reign in commodities speculators or still lumbering and amoral financial institutions.

Instead the US unveiled a not-exactly-universal health care plan that exploded in the vacuum of cyberspace, Canada still pretended that the oil sands weren't terrible, Stalin Jr. threw Russia's weight around, its a lousy time to be twenty something in Western Europe, and a lousy time to be any age in Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine. Meanwhile there's protests, marches, and riots across the globe, covered with only a mild interest by the international media (for a number of reasons: cutbacks in the newsroom and foreign offices/correspondents, with profits down high ratings are required and complicated international news (anything but a natural disaster or full government toppling) doesn't garner those, and the need to keep their own government contacts content which might require a squashing of stories about the crimes of a government-supported regime across the ocean).

Then there's Syria, which was a fiasco in every way but one. At least Assad will crush the rebellion with conventional weapons from now on; is that the turd Kerry is supposed to be polishing? As much as the matter is between a rock and a hard place - no one in the West wants to get boiled down in a middle eastern conflict again, even though Assad's a murderous tyrant - this result leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth, and a lot more innocent civilians killed (and even the rebels are guilty of human rights violations, which means either side one backs, there a war crimes court being prepared).

Certainly the American public didn't want to go to war (hey! Look, the system works! Once the military industrial complex is a bloated, bankrupt mess, then the public's position on foreign policy is considered!). And it's only through phone and internet polls that these political pulses are felt. Lord knows no one sat shiva in front of the Washington Monument for Syria.

So what do you do if people don't care? Or if too few people care? Is the act of people tuning out to Wall Street 'crimes' (quotations, since they can just pay off the government in the form of fines for their transgressions that cripple the economic health of millions) when they're reported on the news democracy in action? That if the masses are not participating in this issue, they are passively accepting what is happening?

I put a lot of these observations as questions. In part because I don't know the answers to them. Why don't I? Because it's complicated. Polls indicate that a majority of people believe corporations have too much power, put profits ahead of the good of society, and that their government first caters to these corporations and their investors, and the citizens come second. But beyond answering these questions via phone or internet survey, nothing much is really done about these issues as far as populism is concerned.

Is the material too complicated? Are people just too busy with their own lives, whether it be work or leisure? Is the media (almost all of it corporate-owned and therefore has a rather large conflict of interest when reporting on the wrongdoings of itself and its brethren) trying too hard to give the public what they want in terms of stories and content, rather than what they need?

It's a maddeningly rich tapestry, where all of these factors are part of the problem. In other words, figuring how to get people politically is complicated as well. Solving large scale problems (complicated) requires large scale organization (complicated) to create a working policy (complicated) that must be put into practice and adhered toby huge swaths of the population (complicated).

Maybe it's amazing the health care website works as well as it does now. Our expectation for everything working perfectly all the time is horribly unreasonable, to the point where someone without power for three days after an early winter ice storm in a city of millions says it's like living in a war torn country (a front page story in the Toronto Star a few days ago). Apparently restoring power to hundreds of thousand of people is supposed to be as simple as turning on a light.

Simplicity seems to be on the outs for the time being. (it'll come back in the long run.big picture, we're dealing with wheels here).  With Nelson Mandela's passing, we were reminded of fighting for a very simple form of freedom: The right to be treated equally, regardless of the colour of your skin (which can also - and should be - applied to your gender, your sexuality, your religion). And while this is still a continuous struggle in various forms across the globe against racism and intolerance (with Russia taking a step backward), the headway made in the last five decades is inspiring.

But now it (surprise!) gets complicated. We are now fighting to be treated equally, regardless of the size of your bank account. And as inequality grows, this is becoming much harder. Despite what Obama's soaring rhetoric claims, there's always been two Americas (and two Canadas, two Chinas, two United Kingdoms, two Germanys, two Russias, etc.). Where there is concentrated power/capital, there is going to be a different set of laws and standards for the people that wield such power/capital.

And with corporate world snuggling up even tighter with the government (and even some people involved in the lower echelons of either institution are as out of the loop as the rest of us), this complex network of folks can ruin economies and pay a nominal fine, build factories around the world for cheap and exploit the local populace without fear of reprisal, and spy on anyone in the world without warrant and claim it's done for our security/freedom (with America requesting/suggesting/lightly demanding that other nations set up secondary spy posts, we can at least be assured that we live in an international police state).

After all:

"If the highest officials in government can break the law without fearing punishment or even any repercussions at all, secret powers become tremendously dangerous."

That's an Eddie-baby quote. Edward Snowden isn't man of the year by any means, because the actions of men (and women) are taking more of a backseat to interests and agencies and corporations.

Suddenly exposing a nation's crimes (or at least constitutional pissing) is hero-worthy, as opposed to just 'the responsible thing to do'. Certainly risking jail time (and perhaps even death, if it might have been classified as treason) shows a huge level of sacrifice on his part, but it's rather maddening that this isn't considered straightforward whistleblowing. I won't say that Snowden is defending freedom or democracy, but he's certainly exposing attacks upon it. 'Secret' courts should be all you need to hear to grasp how undemocratic these types of NSA programs are. A set of laws and statutes that only a few people already with startling amount of power have any access to? And done in the name of security? We might not exactly be the road to fascism, but it certainly seems like powerful institutions are assiduously studying maps on how to get there. Even within the 'non-secret' courts, there are double standards for crimes committed by corporations/the wealthy and crimes committed by everyone else.

Combatting inequality wasn't really on the docket in 2013, but tallying up the reasons why sharing the wealth is beneficial and hoarding it is not was in full swing. Sweatshops crumble and kill scores in Bangladesh and the government barely lifts a finger, the poor are pushed off the land they owned after the devastating typhoon in the Philippines, the sequestration cuts in the United States slash money for food stamps and other social programs.

Then there's the bankruptcy of Detroit, a story which got a quick mention in the news and then sunk like a stone, which is a bit like Detroit itself. How bad is it in Michigan's largest city? Ninety minutes for a 911 response. At stake in the judge's ruling about how a city can go into Chapter 11 is the continuing payment of the city workers' pensions. The city might be excused from factoring that into their restructuring, which puts out the hundreds of thousands of retired municipal workers out to pasture. Other cities in similar financial straits are watching to see how this resolves itself. How can a city - or a state - operate in such a scenario? Privatization? In 2014 it might be 'Detroit, presented by Ford' (Infinite Jest reference). Similar problems are happening across what is traditionally called the Western World (we typically throw in Australia/New Zealand and Japan). We're all running out of money, and even