November 03, 2011

I was as startled as anyone when Greek prime minister George Papandreou announced that he was going to take the latest bailout proposal to a referendum. My initial reaction was a near-certainty that of course people would vote the proposed measures down: and then what?

Since then, I have reconsidered.

Protests in the Greek capital are ongoing. So long as austerity measures continue, there is absolutely no reason why they would stop anytime in the near future. Previous austerity measures hit hard, and the new ones will hit harder. The decision to abide by the greater European ruling has thus far been taken unilaterally by the Greek government. Consequently, as things currently stand, the protesters naturally see the issue as being them versus the government.

A referendum question which leaves no doubt that further austerities are the price of staying in the Eurozone may be just what is required.

In entering the realm of referendum, Papandreou is taking the chance that the answer may not be what the rest of Europe wants to hear. It will, however, clarify just what the people of Greece value most at this point in time. It will be painful for everybody involved, but I do think it is necessary to learn the actual state of mind of the people of Greece -- and, for that matter, of the people of the entire Eurozone. (But that latter question will wait until local elections.)

Certainly this is playing politics: but for once, it is the kind of politics that acknowledges an unwelcome reality and not just the kind of politics that manoeuvres for greater personal power.

October 27, 2011

To have a right, then, is, I conceive, to have something which society ought to defend me in the possession of.
- John Stuart Mill

The true irony of all "inalienable" individual rights, especially in a libertarian context, is that it takes societal structure to ensure their existence. In the absence of such a structure, people are left to fend for themselves: and "inalienable" rights quickly go out the window.

In the absence of an abstract societal structure where we can trust people we don't really know to make governing laws on our behalf, the default unit of society is always the family. In the absence of such structure, a person can rely on nothing but family.

In modern western societies today, where there is a reasonable amount of wealth, that family is usually nuclear. In most other societies, even in the poorest parts of western society, that family is extended: for precisely reasons of self-sustainability against the reality that no other social structure is able to defend the family's continued survival. Even with guns, a nuclear family with a typical 2.3 children is simply not large enough to both feed itself and to protect itself from the level of outside threats which arises when all other social structure ceases to exist.

Family, extended far enough, becomes essentially clannish, which gives rise to tribalism.

A reliable and trusted social structure is the only thing that keeps us from tribal-style anarchy: trust in government, trust in the instruments of government, trust even that licensing serves a purpose in social structures which have grown beyond "the immediate neighbours". From the libertarian perspective, licensing is unnecessary government interference. Yet modern business is not transacted only between people who already know each other. The licence thus becomes a statement of trustworthiness: None of this is needed where both buyer and seller know each other -- or, alternately, where either buyer or seller hold near complete power in the transaction and the other holds none. If the seller holds near complete power, the buyer must buy from that seller, without recourse and no matter what the cost or risk. If the buyer holds near complete power, the seller must sell to that buyer or not sell at all. In these latter cases, trust is replaced by power, and the concept of inalienable rights once again goes out the window.

All conception of rights thus assumes one of benevolent dictatorial power, an equality of power, or some manner of oversight of power with some teeth to it. Without one of these, the concept of rights has no meaning.

Trust is the other half of the equation. It can reinforce a social structure which can support the concept of rights, or its absence can undermine an existing structure utterly.

(Note that I never say "blind trust". Trust must stand in balance with the oversight necessary to ensure that the trust is meritted.)

As might be guessed by the griping over any requirement to be licensed, the most common expression of power is economic. Quite simply: beggars cannot be choosers. Military (and lower-level physical) power is actually secondary to economic power. Cultural power is the third part of this triumvirate: and that may just be starting to really come into its own. Mass media has made it possible to escalate wars over cultural ideals as never before.

Watch, this Hallowe'en, to see how many parents are willing to let children go trick-or-treating house to house. A child, especially a lightly supervised child, cannot walk so far as to leave the immediate neighbourhood. The trick-or-treat Hallowe'en tradition and its many relations around the world is one of the most basic expressions of a simple trust in one's own immediate neighbours: that people who are not closely related can nonetheless have, at the very least, a common human empathy that will not bring harm to another person's children.

A child who does not go trick-or-treating loses this chance of establishing personal independence: going with parents or an older responsible child, and then oneself becoming that older responsible child. At the same time, the child will learn and eventually internalise this bit of mistrust -- of one's own neighbours.

Take away the trust: and all the rest must inevitably crumble.

September 25, 2011

Do you seek a hero, a Gilgamesh or Superman or even an Eisenhower, to solve a world's problems instantly with a flurry of headlines and a snap of his fingers? Do you seek in desperation, uneasily suspecting such a hero to be the last, best, perhaps only hope for mankind?

Do you yet fear to cede a single strand of your own personal power to a single other person?

Don't seek heroes. If you do not have the power to change the world, no one does -- for you will not allow it.

May 02, 2011

Just one week after WikiLeaks released its latest batch of cables, the Guantánamo Files, indicating that the movements of Osama bin Laden were a good deal better known than had been publicly admitted: United States President Barack Obama has declared that Osama bin Laden has been killed in a small, targetted operation.

During his 2008 election campaign, Obama had repeatedly vowed: "We will kill Osama bin Laden." In his first term of office, in the year leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he succeeded. Whatever else has been said about Obama: he kept that election promise.

Last week, Obama felt the intelligence was solid enough to act. Knowing the events he had set in motion, he was still able to act publicly and decisively in a dozen other ways, never once giving a hint of the stress he must have been feeling. He would have known that the operation was underway when he poked fun at himself and others at the Press Correspondents' Dinner. Between the time Obama set the operation in motion and late Sunday, when news organisations were first informed that an important announcement would be made: not one hint was given that something major was in the air.

As a leader, Osama bin Laden has long since lost any real relevance. As a symbol --

Within moments of the initial announcement, United States residents have been gathering outside the White House in a mood of wild celebration. I have no doubt that celebrations are breaking out in the streets all over the United States, even though the announcement came near midnight on a Sunday, Washington DC time.

(And suddenly I flash back to the condemnation of other celebrations during other deaths. Maybe some deaths may be necessary, much though I could wish otherwise. Certainly it was obvious from the beginning that Osama bin Laden's life was going to end no other way. But do we have to celebrate death? any death?)

As a slightly different kind of symbol: time will tell. (The Guantánamo Files contain rather more information than simply the movements of a few men; and even vigilence may not be sufficient.)

But suppose, just suppose, what might have been the outcome had the Guantánamo Files been released prior to November 2010?

Full transcript of the announcement by United States President Barack Obama of Osama bin Laden's death. Video here.

Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory -- hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda -- an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies.

Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort. We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense. In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al Qaeda safe haven and support. And around the globe, we worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al Qaeda terrorists, including several who were a part of the 9/11 plot.

Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world.

And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will -- remain vigilant at home and abroad.

As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.

Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

May 01, 2011

There is much we don't understand about how our bodies work -- far more, if we are honest, than yet we do understand. It is entirely possible that we never can understand the processes involved in their entirety. Systems of sufficient complexity breed additional complexity at a more rapid rate than the additions can be understood and categorised.

Many times, treatments work as we expect and hope. At least as often, treatments fail. Nothing we have yet imagined is as effective as our own body's immune system. Even with all our modern knowledge, the very best we can do is still to support a healthy immune system. It is still the most effective line of defence against disease -- until it falls short, overreacts, or fails utterly.

We have never learned to create or duplicate anything even close to this. The closest we can come is a bone marrow transplant: to replace malfunctioning substances we don't fully understand with the same substance, hopefully healthy this time.

Sometimes, against all our knowledge, the body rallies. We don't know how, we don't know why. Maybe what we so casually dismiss as the placebo effect can sometimes go far beyond what we commonly assume. Maybe we can never know for certain.

So where is the harm in ascribing an extremely rare, otherwise inexplicable remission to the power of belief? Why not call it a miracle, and be grateful for that miracle?

April 22, 2011

One year ago on this date, not too long after the Department of the Interior exempted British Petroleum's Gulf of Mexico drilling from a detailed environmental impact study and then a detailed blowout plan, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, killing eleven men. The resulting oil spill turned out to be one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history.

Lives can never be recovered. Livelihoods in the Gulf have returned, uneasily. The oil may have been dispersed and the worst parts of a surface slick avoided using conventional oil leak technology, but it has not just gone away. At the cold temperatures deep in the Gulf of Mexico, it may not go away for a very, very long time.

Only an estimated 25% (or possibly even less) of the total oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at that time was actually removed through direct recovery, skimming, or burning. Virtually all the oil that was dispersed, dissolved, or evaporated -- well over three million barrels -- is still in the local environment.

Dispersed and dissolved oil persists in plumes and oily sediment permeating the Gulf floor for dozens of kilometres in all directions: affecting phytoplankton and other microscopic lifeforms that form the base of the Gulf of Mexico food web. Sea molluscs from the Gulf still contain both oil and dispersants. Oil still continues to wash ashore along the Gulf sands, thousands of kilograms at a time. Evaporated oil will be raining onto Gulf-adjacent lands for years -- perhaps decades -- to come.

Thousands of carcasses are slowly rotting in the Gulf. Perhaps one in fifty reached the shore. Seventeen dead baby dolphins washed ashore during January and February, the dolphin birthing months; with at least another 200 dead dolphins still out in the Gulf -- from the first three months of this year alone. (The rest of that research has been placed under a gag order due to criminal charges pending.) The rest are out of sight, out of mind: but not out of the ecosystem. They will slowly rot: and as they rot, they will pull oxygen out of the surrounding waters.

British Petroleum has settled some lawsuits out of court, and is still dealing with others. BP, in turn, is suing Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron, the manufacturer of the blowout preventer which failed.

A six-month deepwater drilling moratorium was overturned several months early by court order. Current unrest throughout the Arab world has virtually ensured that no one will move too hard to endanger 23.5% of domestic United States oil production. Safety regulations and planning are essentially what they were before. Deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has now returned to previous levels, less one rig and eleven lives.

April 20, 2011

A comment by Perfectly_Craumulent in What will the universe look like in one trillion years?, in response to repeated outright rejections of all things beyond the known equations. Minor spelling corrections by me. - T

My point with the electron [quantum physics] is that it "seems" to defy logic, like the belief in a creator may "seem" also, but both only because of our limited understanding. I'm an objective person, but it really bothers me when someone says there is no evidence for creation.

DNA sequencing, mathematic patterns in biology,the human brain and body. Just admiring the artistry of a beautiful woman. Things like the degree of tuning of just the 4 primary forces [electromagnetism, gravity], [where] minute differences would equal a radically different universe.

Don't hold me too closely to this; Michio Kaku theorizes that the only way to account for the level of perfection in natural laws, is an infinite number of universes. Imagine that, every conceivable universe HAS to exist. Maybe time will prove this theory true, but for now, personally, design outweighs it.

I should say that I'm no expert, just an enthusiast who's passionate about theoretical physics and science in general. Some days I have doubts, and that's a good thing. Only a fool believes everything he/she is told without asking questions or coming to a level of personal understanding, whether in science or religon.

If you don't believe in a god of creation, then you believe in the god of nature, a lifeless idea who creates beauty out of chance and chaos [BOTH require faith]. Perhaps, in 2 trillion years the universe will collaspe unto itself, into a singularity, and the whole thing will happen again, and again, in an infinite loop.

Don't get me wrong, folks, I'm NO fundamentalist genesis pusher, just a slightly biased enthusiast.

April 19, 2011

[A] recent Gallup study ... found that 6 percent of Americans in households earning over $250,000 a year think their taxes are "too low." Of that same group, 26 percent said their taxes were "about right," and a whopping 67 percent said their taxes were "too high."

And yet when this same group of high earners was asked whether "upper-income people" paid their fair share in taxes, 30 percent said "upper-income people" paid too little, 30 percent said it was a "fair share," and 38 percent said it was "too much."

- from Rich People Still Don't Realize They're Rich

Take your average American earning $100,000 a year ...
- attributed to Nelson Rockefeller


We never see the cars we pass, only the ones we have not yet caught up to.

We never see the the incomes below us, only the incomes above.

We know all too well how difficult it is to make ends meet at our current income. We can see only the things we cannot afford, while the things we have become so much an expected part of life that they become invisible to us. Though we be told repeatedly the mean income in our part of the world is far below our own, we cannot conceive of it. The knowledge reluctantly slips in, and then slips out again as easily as the cars we have passed and forgotten.

We are all middle class. (Unless we happen to be on welfare or stratospherically rich.)

And of course, we never speed.

April 15, 2011

Atlas Shrugged has finally been made into a film, with a release date carefully timed for tax day in the United States. Hollywood was reluctant (purely on a return on investment basis, nothing to do with any attempted censorship): but the rise of the Tea Party demonstrates that times have changed, and it should be a more than adequate moneymaker.

Although it is also being seen as a polariser, I rather doubt that this one film can polarise things any more than they are already. Those who oppose an objectivist libertarian stance will keep on opposing it. Those who agree with it will keep on agreeing, and will consider this film long overdue. Those who look at the book for its literary value will continue to wince, seeing the fiction solely as an excuse upon which to hang a theory, and a painfully poorly written fiction at that. Strongly opinionated authors of fiction have ever fallen into the trap of making their fictional characters and fictional scenarios

Curiously, its producer does not see Atlas Shrugged as a polemic: because Ayn Rand is not right wing in her attitude towards social issues -- or, more accurately, in promoting the freedom to practice any vice she wishes while being largely left alone to earn money and not have it taken away and redistributed by the federal government. (He also claims that she is in favour of paying taxes. It may be an idea to reexamine the essays.)

The claim is often made that the Tea Party draws from both sides: and yet during right wing governments, the movement now known as the Tea Party is little more than a determined grumbling about taxes. The demonstrations only come out during left wing governments.

Yet this ought not to be too much of a surprise. Unlike right wing freedoms, which primarily cost private money (at least to superficial inspection), preserving left wing freedoms costs tax money. As soon as general social freedoms touch in the slightest on the individual wallet: watch them evaporate.

(Somehow I doubt that Ayn Rand herself would have overlooked the indirect tax money that right wing freedoms cost.)

The dangerous thing about isolationism in this day and age is the "unless" -- we don't want to spend money on foreign wars "unless" we are attacked on our native soil. Yet in this day and age, especially in a free society, attacks on our native soil are inevitable. When -- not if -- that happens: watch the drive to isolationism vanish like a soap bubble.

In true libertarian fashion, the armed forces are under intense pressure to cut down costs: and thus we have entered the era of the contractor wars. In the short term, maybe cheaper. Maybe. In the long term, not: not least because a contractor war will always be longer than its non-contracted equivalent. Where is the drive to keep it short?

April 01, 2011

In years -- decades -- of watching April Fool's jokes go by, the crass and the clever: never have I seen so stiff, so rigid a general response, even to the lightest attempts at humour.

Where the humour hangs on an ambiguous turn of phrase, the attempt at humour is increasingly met with a demand for literality. Twists in meaning are struggling, metaphor failing, irony a lost art. If the resolution of the ambiguity falls in lines with the original expectations, no humour is seen because no other meaning has ever been seen. If the resolution does not match the original expectations, the original statement is seen simply as being wrong.

I recently completely rewrote the Wikipedia article on "At The Hotel", an underappreciated Ken Finkleman production which plays with multiple layers of realities, the discovery of which causes the viewer to reevaluate all that has gone before. Yet every single review I tracked down -- and the original article I rewrote -- completely missed that key point, and evaluated the show accordingly. It did not even seem to matter that the shift had been stated explicitly within the show itself, multiple times. Once the original assumption had been made, it stuck.

The Wikipedia volunteers take pride in their April Fool's page. Not a single item is made up! Every item on a Wikipedia April Fool's page is genuine -- but almost always turns out not to be quite as the lede implied. We can learn that in Australia, high risk sex workers are required to wear full mask respirators; that Batman is half female; that the final resting place of Rudyard Kipling is on the ocean floor. On a different day, I would expect different things from the lede: but is not this day of all days about questioning assumptions?

(I even learned about the not-so-secret candy desk on the floor of the United States Senate: one of the few front-page links which had no need for a hidden meaning lede. I had never before considered that the acquisition of candy could be so politically laden.)

Yet somewhere along the line, among a growing segment of the population, a willingness to reevaluate expectations and laugh at oneself has quietly morphed into resistance and then outrage: How dare you find us something to be laughed at? At that point, it is only a very small step to conclude: How dare you laugh at me! You need only read the comments following any April Fool's event on a major Internet page to track the trend for yourself.

When did we become so rigid? When did we become so stuck-up?

The Wikipedia Overlords have heard your request and agree. It will take several hours for your concerns to be addressed, but rest assured that we will have returned to the regular wikipedia by tomorrow. Be aware, however, that issues like this one may occur in 1 out of approximately 365 days of the year.
- Quietmarc (talk) 15:31, 1 April 2011 (UTC)

March 21, 2011

Spring

O city of trees! we'll not forget your pain!
It will be beyond difficult to stand fast:
But the cherry trees will blossom once again.

Though they bloom in a world become inhumane --
All of us stared at those images aghast --
O city of trees! we'll not forget your pain!

This stillborn spring forgotten, so many slain,
Lost, torn loose from the earth: who could have held fast?
But the cherry trees will blossom once again.

Though the sea carve out in blood its cold terrain,
Yet we'll hang the paper lanterns at long last:
O city of trees! we'll not forget your pain!

This winter is slow to relinquish its domain.
My forty-nine days will never come to pass:
But the cherry trees will blossom once again.

Though seven days times seven days have passed,
And were each day a year of time amassed:

O city of trees! we'll not forget your pain!
But the cherry trees will blossom once again.

March 12, 2011

Seems that helium.com has been blacklisted by Wikipedia. Ah well. I did warn them.

February 21, 2011

Sunrise at Svalbard Kirke

There are no stars behind the clouds. The night
Is blind, not even a moon to give light.

It was brighter before. In the deep cold
There are no clouds, nothing between the night
And the crisp snow. There is just an untold
Vastness, veiled by hissing vermilion light.

As the cold fades, the green and scarlet light
Recedes into a warmer, darker night.

Despite the dark, the path is better here.
The way is well-trodden, but the lamps' light
Is welcome all the same. Another year
Will have passed with the passing of this night.

But it is reluctant to pass, this night,
To yield its claim upon the hidden light.

We gathered here so many times before
To cry shared grief into an endless night;
This year, we journey to the church’s door
With thanks that so far, burdens have been light.

Above the ground holds memories of light.
Under the mountains, it is always night.

No starlight here, no gleam to ease the night,
Yet even here, our hearts remember light.
Though blackened are the hands which delve for coal,
We hold the sunlight deep within our soul.

'Mid all the noise, where sound replaces sight,
A quiet stillness says, let there be light.

Out of the dark, out of reluctant night
Are born the mountain peaks, etched from the turn,
Divided by the harbinger of light
From the receding heights for which they yearn.

Against the dawn is always darkest night,
Frustrating seeds impatient for the light.

A wash of water paints the ebbing night
In inky ocean shadows crowned with spray,
While high above, our steeple, loving light,
Is brushed with roses by the hem of day.

On twilight cries of gulls, recoiling night
Now quickly flees the rapier of the light.

Good cheer! Svale! You bring news of the night
Driven forth by swallows and doves in flight:
Beneath the rail, beneath the candlelight,
The quiet crosses set in glass ignite.

We stood and stared and cried with dazzled sight;
As sunlight dawned on five long months of night.

(On March 8, 2010, the sun returned to Longyearbyen and the Svalbard Kirke: northernmost church in the world.)

January 09, 2011

I don't know the motivation behind yesterday's targetted shooting of United States representative Gabrielle Giffords and many of those who happened to be around her at the time. I can make guesses certainly: but unless Jared Lee Loughner decides to tell us anything more, all we have to work with is the action itself and his previous statements.

I can say something as to the state of modern political rhetoric in the United States.

The target image from Sarah Palin's webpage, which was removed todayMore than two years ago, long before Sarah Palin was a household name, two politically motivated killings occurred within two weeks of each other. In one case, the chair of a state Democratic Party was shot. In the other, two people were killed and several were injured because an unemployed man had come to the conclusion that all liberals must die. At that time, I ran a Google search for the phrase "liberals must die" and another for the phrase "conservatives must die", and also searched for patterns of violent events in the United States which could clearly be linked with politics.

Both phrases gave more than half a million results: but "liberals must die" came up more frequently and more vehemently. I have lost track of the number of webpages and blogposts titled some variant of "Liberals Must Die!!!" but liberalsmustdie.com is even a registered website. (The rest of the analysis can be found in that post.)

These kinds of phrases are now considered normal in polarised rhetoric in the United States. Most people say them automatically, thoughtlessly -- but at least some some people truly believe them. Given certain premises, reason would even dictate that "liberals must die" is a completely rational conclusion, in fact the only possible rational conclusion. If liberals truly are indistinguishable from "America's enemies" and "terrorists", as so many Tea Partiers claim: who would rationally think otherwise?

Even Jesse Kelly, Giffords' Tea Party opponent in last November's elections, held a campaign event which was described as "Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly". This is mild compared to the comment exchanges I read every single day, and not from a tiny minority of posters. We would never consider shouting it aloud from the rooftops: but a fair number of us seem to have absolutely no problem with writing it down for all too see.

On the Internet, where we can surround ourselves entirely with support of our own opinions and easily forget that behind other printed comments are real people who could be our neighbours and our friends: what could be easier?

Until today, only one United States representative has ever been killed as a direct result of his views and actions. He was Leo Joseph Ryan Jr, an outspoken critic of damaging charismatic cults, who had just completed an investigation of the People's Temple on November 18, 1978, when he was killed along with several reporters and others who had accompanied his delegation or who were trying to leave the Jonestown compound. Those deaths precipitated the Jonestown Massacre later the same day.

He is still the only United States representative ever to have been killed in the line of duty. Giffords will probably survive, although she will certainly have terrible consequences from her injuries for the rest of her life. Six people around her were killed, including a nine-year-old girl who had been born on the 11th day of September, 2001. At least a dozen people around her were also injured, some severely. Had Loughner not stopped to reload, even more people would be dead.

Will this killing become a call to sanity and some modicum of simple decency in the way we now talk to each other? or will it be dismissed, as every previous such killing has been dismissed, as yet another "isolated" incident by a lone "lunatic"? How many "isolated" incidents do we need to have before we start reconsidering our entire basis of interaction?


Update:

This blog has now been discovered by several searches for "liberalsmustdie" -- but not by a single search for "conservativesmustdie". Judging by the minimal amount of time spent on the site, this blog was not what the searchers were looking for.

January 01, 2011

When I saw a treasured heritage bridge, the last of its kind yet still sure and solid underfoot, condemned to be sold for scrap with the mayor's gleeful statement, "It is not every day that you can find $1 million to save in the city budget, just like that!" : I knew that one day, future generations will see us as the Dark Ages.

In previous times, we reduced the value of all things to virtue, or to reason, or to buying prime beachfront real estate in the afterlife. We don't build for the ages anymore. Today, we reduce the value of all things to their monetary cost. Even if quality or durability or even history must be sacrified, cheaper is better. If it cannot be expressed in black ink, it may as well be worthless.

Yet these are all human constructs. Not one of them needs be absolute unless we ourselves make it so.

To step outside our familiar value constructs is difficult. To step outside a money-dominated perspective during difficult economic times is as close to impossible as makes no matter -- but it is not impossible. What we build, today, can reflect the best of what we have to give the world and our own future generations.

Or -- we can do our best to tear ourselves down, and the works of past generations with us. After all, what is love and craftsmanship and engineering for the stars but just another indulgent vanity we can no longer afford? Consign it to the bonfire!

December 18, 2010

I expect all choices to have consequences.

If I set myself up publicly as the never-questioning promotional voice of a cause, I expect to be publicly identified with that cause in its totality, whether or not I personally have the power to alter a tiny hair in the direction of its policies. If I choose never to waver from that tone in the slightest, no matter what the circumstances, I expect others to consider me little more than an extension of the cause and to answer me accordingly.

After all, I always have the freedom to choose differently.

December 14, 2010

In 1917, the United States Patent Office awarded Clarence Saunders a patent for a "self-serving store". Customers enjoyed the new freedom to be able to choose their products directly.

The original Piggly-WigglyAgainst that newfound freedom and the promise of lowered prices, what was a little lost customer interaction as quota'ed checkout stands, turnstiles, and fences replaced the local grocer? Few noticed or cared that customers had been converted into part of the store's service assembly line and were now doing many of the jobs that paid staff used to do. The store manager was in charge of the buying, as always. The only paid jobs that were left were stocking, cleaning, and cashing out: and those at a sharply reduced staff-customer ratio.

Not surprisingly, Piggly-Wiggly and its competitor Alpha Beta were happy with the enhanced profit line. Other stores noticed, and were quick to follow suit.

Neither the personal touch nor the lost jobs were missed, not with a war looming on the horizon. As the traditional role of women abruptly shifted to fill the employment vacuum, the jobs lost to volunteering customers would not become noticeable until the men returned from war: at which point the self serve store had become so much a part of the landscape that its role was never questioned.

Nor did the promise of lowered prices ever pan out. Since education in identifying product value had not parallelled increased customer choice, shelf appeal quickly became the dominant basis for product selection. To best leverage the new basis for choice, an entire industry grew up around packaging and brand recognition: an industry which quietly raised the wholesale cost of the most popular products and edged others out.

The introduction of self-bagging at discount grocery stores went almost completely unnoticed. Now self-bagging in all levels of grocery stores is the norm, although it is often concealed under the environmental guise of reducing plastic bags (but you can always buy one if you want, which sometimes also pays for your bagger's services and sometimes not).

When self-checkouts were introduced in Clifton Park in 1992, customers scarcely blinked. A single cashier could now supervise four or more self-serve lines: which were even more efficient than cashier lines would have been since the customers who chose that option were clearly motivated by getting out of the store as quickly as possible. A few objected that self-checkouts used customer unpaid labour to further trim store costs and increase profit margins: but enough people saw only a shorter, faster checkout line that the objectors were little more than a speed bump.

Forty years ago, full service filling stations (gas stations) were the norm. Not only would the attendants fill the tank, they would also clean the windows, check and adjust the tire pressure, and top off the oil, tires, antifreeze, and a myriad of other engine fluids essential to the smooth operation of a vehicle. This model had not essentially changed since the first purpose-built gas station in the world came into being in St. Louis (United States) in 1905.

The first self serve filling station was built in Winnipeg in 1949. At first, the concept was slow to take off: but a tipping point was reached during the 1980s. Now, it is the full service filling station which is the quirky oddity in a world filled with self serve. The customer is increasingly expected to do all parts of the transaction, even to the point of pre-paying at the pump to release the nozzle. These changes have made most filling stations into simple turnkey operations which require only a single attendant to oversee them.

In the United States, New Jersey and Oregon do not allow customers to handle the pump, and the town of Huntington in New York State has also banned self serve on the basis of saving jobs. These bans are frequently challenged in the name of constitutionality and reducing prices: yet prices did not fall when self serve took over.

For some time now, a fair number of for-profit foundations, causes, and even overtly for-profit companies have been shifting their labour pools to include more and more volunteers: some to the point that only their directors and a few core staff are still paid. In a few cases, the core staff are paid handsomely enough that the business would collapse were it ever forced to pay its volunteer component.

The Internet world was quick to adopt this unpaid labour model, most effectively wherever those who worked for the business could be taught to see themselves as a "community" and invest their labour into the interests of that "community". Even though their only reason for existence was their direct value to the company, the social ties in these communities did become real: but so did the amount of unpaid labour extracted from those communities in the name of a common cause. This pattern is far from unique to the Internet: but its effectiveness rises greatly when the company structure can bring together many isolated people, none of whom are employed directly by the company, who will never meet each other except through the company structure.

Curiously, the vast majority of this unpaid labour is directed toward what would be called marketing promotion, quality control, and customer service in a more conventional business model. In other words, this Internet model has successfully outsourced every single one of its most expensive elements to volunteerism by appealing to a sense of community -- which is allowed to exist only insofar as it remains desirable to the business bottom line. Elements of community which go off on a tangent from direct business benefit will be the first to be shut down. Elements of community which challenge the status quo will be tolerated only insofar as what is said provides some benefit to the community, if only that of a pressure releasing steam valve: any real potential for substantial change will be quickly shut down and their instigator banned from the community and the business. Should any other part of the community ever start to become too independent of the Internet company, the business will not hesitate to shut down the relevant parts of the structure which brought those people together in the first place.

Ideally, the community has so internalised company values by this point that it will actively band together of its own accord to support the company's actions, even where those actions demand yet more unpaid labour of its members. Having invested so much into the community already: what is another hour of unpaid time in the interests of the "community" (or ten, or a hundred)?

December 13, 2010

Some wait for the first snowdrop of the year,
The first swallow, travelling ahead,
The first crocus to shyly show her head
Through the snow, the first robin to appear.

To some, quiet winter snow brings no cheer,
No laughter, no joy, just a constant dread
Of snow, and snow, and yet another spread
Of endless white. When will it disappear?!

Huddled away inside houses and bars
With shutters closed, they can't imagine how
Scattered light from a thousand scattered stars
Sparkles on a low-hanging, snow-decked bough.
Instead, they wait testily in their cars,
And waiting: miss the beauty that is now.

December 12, 2010

What is the use of universal education if most people refuse to use it? If the purpose of education is to be job training alone, the apprenticeship system is much more effective.

December 10, 2010

I know the length of these posts deters some readers. Twitterfeeds run a maximum of 140 characters, but even newspaper columns are almost never longer than eight hundred words. Some of the more detailed or introspective posts in this blog are easily twice that.

But what does it cost, here, save server space which Google claims to have in abundance, my time in writing, and your time in reading? Were you really going to solve world peace in the time you did not spend reading the rest of this post? or were you going to chase down the latest YouTube viral video?

When I choose to write for other publications, I will play by their rules and write to their specifications. Until then, I will spend as much time and space and as many words as it needs for me to feel out a topic within a single post.

You may choose to read, or not. It lies completely in your free will and your freedom of choice and of action. I don't claim to have the world's truth. If there is any wisdom in any of this, you have brought as much to the table as I. Please don't take it as insult or deterrence or any kind of demand when I say as much directly!

December 09, 2010

Note: WikiLeaks is not associated with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation.
- note at the top of the WikiLeaks article on Wikipedia

I find it truly interesting that the current denial of service attacks on the companies which have cut off Wikileaks (Amazon, Paypal, VISA, Mastercard) and the websites of those politicians who seem to be most closely involved in trying to take down Wikileaks are not sourced in networks of 'bots. Rather, they seem to be the coordinated efforts of thousands, perhaps millions of people acting individually.

Contrary to media reports, this is not the first info-war. Wars destroy: and thus far there has been no attempt by the DoS people to damage any data on any of the targeted sites. Even when examined only as a determined attempt to take Wikileaks down (for the Wikileaks site continues to be hacker-targeted), there have been many similar attacks before: some in the news, some not. Ironically, the Wikileaks diplomatic cables confirm at least one such suspected government attack, by China on Google.

Still, the current DoS action is historically significant: as the very first ever cyber demonstration, with protesters "camping out" on the doorsteps of those against whom they are protesting and doing their utmost to disrupt business as usual simply by their massed presence. As protesters have known for generations, action speaks much more loudly than even the largest petition.

(It remains an open question whether it speaks more loudly than the ballot box. I am not at all certain whether democracy has particularly much to do with all this -- on either side.)

In passing, the Wikipedia editors have been diligently collecting and summarising the leaked information, to the point where it now has its own page.

December 07, 2010

The results of Haiti's controversial election are expected to be released today. Currently, polls show a possible run-off between the top two candidates: Misery and Corruption. Optimism withdrew from the race weeks ago.
- The Current, CBC Radio

December 06, 2010

We love the comfort of the familiar morning newspaper. We may curse its inconvenience or its temporary isolating qualities when it is spread out halfway across the breakfast table, but to those of us who grew up with it, the routine is as well-worn and familiar as a pair of old shoes.

Who would even consider casting it aside? The backlighting of most computer screens is extremely wearing on the eyes, the text on cellphone screens is microscopically tiny.

But set all that aside. These are not permanent reasons to prefer one type of information transfer over another. Daily comfort rituals change. Technology evolves. The technology of LED and Kindle is already doing much to remove computer screen backlight and make the light contrast easier on the eye.

At the same time we ourselves are adapting to the technology. Increasingly we take it for granted that the right size in which to read news should be the size of a telephone screen: something to which we have perhaps been pre-conditioned by the bottom headline newsfeed of the news cable networks. We would rather shorten our information feed to correspond to the cellphoned Twitter than strain our eyes trying to decipher anything of any length.

The coming generation can't even conceive that information might come in any other form. Just as those born after the 1940s cannot conceive of a world without radio and those born after the 1970s cannot conceive of a world without cable television, those born into the new millennium take the Internet and electronic news for granted. We are endlessly psychologically adaptable that way.

We find it difficult even to conceive that we might lose anything thereby. Who could lose, now that the world is at our fingertips?

Yet we do lose. And we are so very adaptable and so very willing to forget what has gone before, most of us not living in the transition years will never even realise what we have lost.


*** In depth analysis ***

Electronic news does not lend itself to in depth analysis. If it is to survive, the printed page has no choice in the matter. Competition from 24/7 cable news feeds and now from the Internet has forced major printed newspapers and printed weekly magazines to compete almost entirely on the basis of in depth analysis.

As with televised cable news before it, electronic news delivery prioritises speed and efficiency over substance: an attitude which has been fully transposed to the reader. Short attention spans are now the norm. If the substance of an electronic news feed cannot be fully summarised within 140 characters, most readers find it not worth reading.

How can what is going on in the world ever be adequately summarised in just a few short paragraphs, let alone a Twitter feed? How can it possibly be understood? Yet we know that in electronic journalism, it must be: for anything below the fold is much less likely to be read. There are always alternatives on the Internet. If a reader runs into something too complex to try and digest in the few in-between moments devoted to the quick update, there will always be something shorter and faster and easier to read. On the Internet, it is easier than ever to "channel change" away from unwanted depth.

Yet in depth analysis of current events also costs money. In a world where removing cost from processes is an ongoing initiative, in depth analysis may not even be desirable. In depth analysis keeps the reader on a very few pages for long periods of time. Far more ROI-desirable is the rapid clicking through multiple pages: translating into visit depth and far, far more viewed advertisements, and correspondingly increasing the odds that at least one of those advertisements will become a click-through and perhaps a sale. Rapid, efficient turnover of content and constant new gimmicks and eye candy to pull the reader from page to page and especially advertisement to advertisement will always trump quality of content in the capitalist electronic universe.

Print media does not have this limitation. Whether readers read a single page or the entire publication in detail, they are still counted into its circulation. A newspaper does not have to encourage the reader to flip flip flip through its pages in order to maintain its advertisement revenue: it only needs the reader to be hooked by a single one of its articles. That single article could suddenly double or even triple circulation as new readers rush to check it out.

Still, even newspapers are succumbing to the combined pressure of high in-depth costs and the short attention span: and subscribing to information feeds that give exactly the same short, concise information to news networks of all shapes and sizes.

This pattern is not unique to electronic news and the printed newspaper. Every age has had its version of the same pattern: from manuscripts to printed books to weeklys, dailys, and now the electronic age. Every time new technology has speeded up the release of information, the in depth quality of that information has been been diluted correspondingly.


*** Pixels are fragile ***

Physical newspapers and magazines have a permanence which electronics at every level have yet to embrace. Pixels get lost or purged or glitched or outright deleted on a regular basis. Early electronic information was lost to the recycling of tapes, even such worldshaking historical data as the original feed for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Modern electronic information is lost to constant technological change and to sheer volume. With every hardware and software upgrade, vast amounts of information are permanently lost.

Although the vast majority of newspapers are tossed or (hopefully) recycled, hundreds of copies of major newpapers are preserved in living rooms, attics, libraries, even the newspaper office itself. Even if one of these storage locations were to suffer a catastrophic event, it is very likely that copies will still survive elsewhere.

Paper news media lend themselves to clipping, scrapbooking, archiving. Cellphones and iPads don't even print hardcopies. They are not meant to.

Our journalistic heritage is vanishing at our fingertips. History is eroding as quickly as as the next new electronic edition. On-line news is impermanent by its very nature. As newsfeeds are updated, old articles are pulled, so quickly that readers may never have seen them and -- barring actually thinking about the news process -- have no reason even to suspect their existence.


*** Medical issues ***

The flip side of electronic news media has always been a technology which could receive it and download it to consumers as quickly as it can be churned out. The personal computer age opened the door, the Internet turned the key: but at that time relatively few of us lived on-line to the point where instant feeds made any sense. If we wanted instant and sometimes graphic news 24/7 and did not care particularly about its quality or depth, CNN taught us to turn on the television.

The personal digital assistant changed all that. The Blackberry first brought the Internet world into a jacket pocket, but its early possibilities were still limited mostly to e-mail communication. Everything really started to change when the increasing popularity of WiFi wiring made it easier and more convenient to hook into the Internet than to seek out a television. Now, with the cellphone revolution, the Internet lives at nearly everyone's fingertips, no matter where they happen to be.

We don't know exactly what this barrage of constantly linked-in electronics is doing to our health -- but some early warning signs should cause us to pay close heed.

In the January 2011 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, a new study has found that something about cellphones in themselves is linked with behavioural problems in children much too young to use them themselves. Even pregnant mothers who use cellphones frequently are much more likely to give birth to a child with a behavioural problem. This finding is independent of other complicating factors which could have been linked with high cellphone use such as maternal inattention or the amount of time spent with the child. A family history of behavioural problems was checked and ruled out as contributing to the cellphone-behavioural problems link.

Even the different type of eye focus required by computer screens permanently alters the shape of the eye, resulting in a rising incidence of myopia and quite probably a future parallel rise in the rate of chronic glaucoma (since the existing structures for siphoning off excess fluid in the eye is blocked by the elongated shape). In some teenage populations, the incidence of myopia is already as high as 80%.

Most of these effects have never been studied before. Governments have previously rejected any restrictions on technology expansion on the basis that no negative evidence had ever been found -- yet does this really mean anything if the issue has never been studied? No negative evidence found does not mean the same as that a negative effect does not exist. Our children are the guinea pigs.

Quite independent from any material or radiative factor is the psychological impact of a constant barrage of news headlines, for the most part received without context and without further explanation of any kind. With all these constant graphic headlines at our fingertips: how much can the human factor still mean to us? How much will it mean to our children, who have grown up with the knowledge that where human contact is not face-to-face, they can always turn the cellphone off? Where we don't personally know the people involved, how many domestic or foreign deaths does it take before we care?

Or will it all be lost in time to the ability to quickly flip the channel away from unwanted content?


*** A look forward ***

Yet for all this, electronic versions of daily news are here to stay. From a business perspective, electronic news is simply cheaper to produce and has a higher return on investment. From a reader perspective, electronic news is more convenient and far-reaching -- at least in theory -- than ever before.

Nor there any objective reason why electronic news should be rejected out of hand. If there is a fundamental fault in any of what has been said before, it lies not in the medium itself but in our willingness to have our expectations shaped by early limitations of the medium. Electronic media can be responsible, can preserve history, can cover an event with just as much detail and context as any printed newspaper. The potential of electronic media is vast. But it can also be just as narrow and limiting as any printed page -- more so, because we delude ourselves that the wider access and instant public feedback inherently mean that it is not.

Even the technology to make that news safely accessible can come into being if there exists the public will to do it. Safety standards were virtually unheard of at the turn of the previous century, yet today few products are released without them. Yet no product can be made subject to safety standards where the will does not exist. Common sense and public education should have eradicated smoking years ago: yet here it remains, just as strong as ever.

As with all things, the future direction of electronic news and the printed page is entirely in our hands. It is up to us to decide whether we will choose to proceed with wisdom.

December 05, 2010

It seems Wikileaks' release of the diplomatic cables has touched a nerve mere military releases could not. The general public seemed just fine with protecting First Amendment rights during a series of leaky hiccoughs involving some dozen (other) countries, odd reports of toxic dumping, the inner secrets of sorority sisters and Scientologists, illegal practices in Icelandic banks; and let's not forget about the leaked e-mails of the Climatic Research Unit, gleefully reproduced in appropriately edited versions all over the conservative blogosphere.

The first sign of real trouble actually antedates the diplomatic cable leak. When the Swiss bank Julius Baer learned that some of its records had been leaked specifically pertaining to anonymising trusts in its Cayman Islands branch (with strong tax evasion and money laundering implications), the chief operating officer of that branch was fired. Interestingly, the leaks appear to have continued even after Rudolf Elmer's dismissal: so the bank launched a cease and desist order against Wikileaks and its United States domain registrar Dyandot, on the basis that "immediate harm will result to Plaintiffs in the absence of injunctive relief." For reasons as yet unconfirmed, Wikileaks had no representative at the hearing where the injunction was granted. Although the law firm representing Julius Baer is based in Los Angeles, the hearing was held in San Francisco. Wikileaks claims that Julius Baer had never informed Wikileaks in which city it would seek the injunction.

This first action passed almost completely under the media radar, and would probably have gone almost completely unnoticed on its own. Things only hit the fan when Julius Baer succeeded in getting a second injunction against Wikileaks: which would have suppressed virtually every major document Wikileaks had ever exposed. At the time, Wikileaks held somewhere in the neighbourhood of a million documents: of which only fourteen touched on Julius Baer. The given reason was to protect the privacy of Julius Baer's clients: yet Julius Baer's own lawyers identified at least one of those clients by name and street address in their own submitted documentation.

The second injunction did not go unnoticed. With the assistance of several First Amendment and civil liberties groups, Wikileaks was able to overturn the injunction and reclaim its domain name by the 29th of February, 2008, eleven days after the original injunction was issued; and the bank dropped the case a week later.

At no point was any libel, slander, or infringement of copyright ever proven in the courts; nor was any lawsuit filed on that basis. The original cease and desist injunction stood alone, without ever having been submitted to any rigorous examination; and without protest and quite a bit of external financial and legal assistance, the second would have stood as well. Destroying a member of the press is just that easy: even in a part of the world which prides itself on its freedom of speech.

Yet Dyandot had unquestioningly complied with the permanent injunction by immediately locking the wikileaks.org domain name.

Fast-forward two years, to the present day and the present release of diplomatic cables.

This week alone, Wikileaks has been subject to a denial-of-service attack, has been forced off Amazon's servers and now its French server, is steadily losing domains, and has been cut off from receiving funds through Moneybookers and Paypal. Access to the document release is now restricted almost entirely to independent mirror domains. For now, Wikileaks still retains its Facebook page. Unless Facebook's CEO is sufficiently independent of his investors to be able to take a stand -- and wishes to do so -- don't expect that to last.

In one of those surreal moments which never make the media, Homeland Security Committee Chair Peter King, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad all agreed that the Wikileaks diplomatic cables release was an attack on their respective countries, although only Peter King has claimed that the release was an attack on the international community. Only United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ventured to suggest that reaction to the release was "over-wrought".

More amusingly, the White House Office of Management and Budget expects all unauthorised federal government employees and contractors to avert their eyes from what the world has already seen.

These actions will never be called censorship. As far as the letter of the law is concerned, each of these actions represents the independent decisions of a number of separate corporations. Equally, each corporation has denied acting under political pressure. Instead, each has claimed that Wikileaks violated its terms of service by providing illegal activities. Anyone who tries to work around the ToS by hosting or collecting money for Wikileaks independently risks similarly violating the ToS of any company with which they may be associated.

What will never be said is that those services were not illegal until the moment the United States government opened a federal criminal investigation, and they are still not illegal until charges are actually laid and Wikileaks has been convicted of those charges. To date, no charges have been laid.

All that has happened is that an investigation has been opened, in precisely the same way as HUAC opened its investigation against Communist Party infiltration some fifty-odd years ago. In effect, the moment the United States government opened a federal criminal investigation, those same corporations were given precisely two choices: either sever all ties with Wikileaks and open the relevant documentation to the federal government, or be considered possible accomplices and liable to parallel investigation. Successful prosecution on any such basis against Amazon, Paypal et al is so highly unlikely that it would probably never be initiated: yet the threat suffices to create exactly the same effect as if government pressure had been applied directly.

Let no one who finds this kind of government pressure acceptable say a word against Chinese censorship. At their core, the two are no different.

December 02, 2010

CHONPS: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur. These six elements are the building blocks of all life.

The first four of these elements are each the least massive element in their respective periodic table group. Hydrogen is the simplest, a single electron orbiting a single proton: from it are all the other elements made. Helium comes next but it reacts chemically with nothing else. Fusion can build upon helium but life, never. Among all possible reactive elements born in the stellar fusion crucible: carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen are the easiest for a star to make.

The other two elements are used to create amino acids, the basic building blocks of life at the molecular level. Sulphur appears in cysteine and methionine, two of the essential amino acids we must ingest through our diet to sustain life.

But phosphorus: that is the very spine of all life. Adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine, zippered together on a backbone of alternating sugars and phosphates: these are the essential components of DNA, upon which all life is based. The phosphate ion is also a key player in both adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and adenosine diphosphate (ADP): without which metabolism could not occur.

No phosphorus, no life.

Or so we thought.

The GFAJ-1 bacterium, a member of the common Halomonadaceae family, seemed to be just another extremophile at first: happy in high-saline, high-alkaline environments which would kill most other organisms. Mono Lake, a volcanic lake located high in the Bodie Hills of California, United States, provides both of those conditions. It also happens to have an unusually high concentration of arsenic.

When phosphorus is lacking, it seems that the GFAJ-1 bacterium is capable of using arsenic instead: in ATP, in glucose, in its proteins and lipids, even in its very DNA.

A successful elemental substitution has never been known before in a living organism. As a member of the nitrogen-phosphorus family in the table of elements, arsenic is chemically similar enough to phosphorus that our bodies often try to substitute arsenic for phosphorus, with disastrous results. This similarity to phosphorus is exactly why arsenic is so very toxic to us. Yet somehow, GFAJ-1 seems to have made it work.

Arsenic is known to be common in hydrothermal vent environments: which the depths of Mono Lake mimic quite well. After water diversions were ended in 1994, the deepest layers of Mono Lake ceased to mix in with shallower layers, and the lake reverted to its natural meromictic state. We have long known of entire ecosystems built upon sulphur, substituting chemical reactions based upon sulphur and the vent's geo-energy for photosynthesis and other photochemical reactions. The previously unsuspected ability of the GFAJ-1 bacterium to also use the arsenic eminating from these vents may thus have cast a light into the dimmest recesses of the very origins of life.

The research is still young. The results obtained by Felisa Wolfe-Simon have yet to be replicated: for it is on such replication that scientific evidence is built. Multiple dilutions built into the methodology make it unlikely that trace phosphorus could have contaminated the lab samples; yet any such contamination might be sufficient to maintain the phosphorus spine of the GFAJ-1 bacterium's DNA, with the arsenates used elsewhere in the bacterium's structure and metabolism. Upon this point much depends: for all life as we know it is based on DNA and RNA, and thus on phosphorus.

If the GFAJ-1 bacterium is indeed capable of replacing one of the core elements in its genetic structure with arsenic, it will force us to re-consider the nature of life and what is needed for life, not only on our own planet but in the entire universe.

To Mark Twain, Mono Lake was a "lifeless, treeless, hideous desert ... the loneliest place on earth". Will the GFAJ-1 bacterium native to Mono Lake turn out to be the loneliest organism in the universe ... or will it feel right at home?

November 29, 2010

The newest Ring cycle, by the New York Metropolitan Opera, is -- something else. Something exquisite, but also in a way opera rarely is: something that speaks not only to the opera lover but also to those who yearn for experiences with some depth to them.

I did not see it in person. I can see where that experience would be very different. Parts of what I saw may definitely have been improved by the high-definition feed: and I must wonder if future productions will always be designed with an eye to the filming and the feed. One thing the sound balance was not able to filtre out entirely was the sound of a 25-ton set re-adjusting: and that too would have been more noticeable in future.

I cannot speak of the voice quality of this singer or that. I do not have that kind of expertise. I know only that in what I heard, I have no complaints: but I also recognise that this too may be a function of sound balancing. Other reviews have different opinions.

At times, reading those other opinions felt like a war of the traditionalists vs. the innovators: except that each seems to want nothing less than a completely traditional performance or a complete innovation with no traditional elements whatsoever. Some liked the innovative set, others hated it: but each wanted more of the same direction in the entire production. (All wished the set could be made more soundless.) For the traditionalists, the old static sets should have been brought back in their entirety. For the innovators, costuming that created the illusion of ancient epic was too traditional. Ironically, many of those who complained that the set did not show enough (eg. Valhalla, suggested rather than shown by the rainbow bridge) also complained in different places that the set showed too much. If the ransom hides Freya from the giants' perspective, must it hide Freya from the audience as well?

Especially, the reviewers this time seemed caught with their backs against the wall in an end-stage holding action against the epic. Many noted that this production would appeal to those who enjoy epic films: as though that were a mark against it.

Oddest to me was the assumption that the production ought to "say" something. It has been the fashion for many years now for theatre circles to re-interpret productions through costuming, setting, even selected editing to give this message and reject that message. Some pieces lend themselves to such ambiguity. One of the beautiful open questions of Evita is whether Juan Perón truly loves his mistress or simply uses her.

Yet Wagner's Ring cycle can stand quite firmly on its own themes, without any need to drag in outside metaphors. Wagner's Ring grants power at a cost. This is something which simply is. To forge the gold into the Ring, Alberich must give up love. For those who would wish to possess the Ring after it was taken from Alberich, they must accept his curse along with the power. There is no inherent imperative or morality within that basic truth, unless we wish to create one.

When left to its own devices: what we see in a Ring which tries to stay clear of such imperative or morality is what we bring to it. Should we then complain that the production does not show what we think it should show?

The one thing that has always stood out to me when I listen to the Ring cycle -- the one thing that no one else ever seems to mention -- is its striking similarity to the plotline and themes of The Lord of the Rings.

This Ring will be the first to have been produced in its entirety since Peter Jackson completed his film version of LotR, and the set and light work and even the costumes definitely evoked some of LotR's camera work and costuming. When Wotan and Loge descend into Niflheim: that dizzying "vertical" illusion stands up astoundingly well against the LotR camera swoop from Gandalf's lofty prison down to the mining depths. If the similarity is deliberate: perhaps this Ring says much more than we think it does.

For myself: I can say only that the New York Metropolitan's production of Die Rheingold held me spellbound from beginning to end and for many hours after, when my thoughts drifted back to what I had just experienced. Avatar cannot hold a candle to that.

November 28, 2010

Another month, another document dump by Wikileaks. At this point, the United States law enforcement agencies might be best served to start thinking of these releases as test cases, not even so much to try to find the sources and plug them as to determine whether a non-egotistical, non-boasting internal source is still findable within the growing intelligence bloat. How much longer can the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of Homeland Security), and dozens of other alphabet soup agencies imperfectly under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence -- not to mention all the private contractors doubling and quadrupling the cost of trying to keep track of things, adding to the nation's GDP without actually improving anything of substance -- continue along these skew lines before even inept bombing plots such as Friday's attempt by Mohamed Osman Mohamud fall between the cracks?

Of course, these massive releases hurt Wikileaks publicity not at all. It remains an open question to what extent future releases will be driven by the public interest v. Wikileaks' own rising profile. It becomes difficult to tell the difference.

Many, including the White House, have accused Wikileaks of "reckless and dangerous" behaviour. Ttwo days before the release, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange explicitly invited the United States Department of State to review the material and identify any information that would "put individual persons at significant risk of harm that has not already been addressed". Surely by now, there could no doubt that Wikileaks was not bluffing either about having the information or being willing to release it. Recognising the potential danger to individual people, Assange extended an offer of compromise in the interest of protecting individual people: yet the Department of State legal department refused.

The statement to Assange would seem to indicate that the United States government does not negotiate, some would say "with terrorists": yet the diplomatic cables show some interesting negotiations indeed. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that, in the true spirit of realpolitik, the United States government prefers not to negotiate except from a position of power.

Some journalists have criticised Wikileaks as not acting in the public interest precisely because these releases are unedited, uninterpreted, nothing other than a mass of documents. Wikileaks has made no specific thesis statement of corruption nor of anything else: nor does the document leak purport to support this or that allegation. It simply is. Yet without a specific suspicion and a focused reason, there are those who believe that the Wikileaks release does not serve the public interest because it does not have an explicit purpose beyond the release itself. By this line of argument, documents such as these should be released only where they provide supporting evidence for a specific allegation.

Myself, I find the lack of an explicit thesis statement refreshing. Stating and then having to support a specific argument limits the ability to see solely to what can be used to defend or undermine a particular argument. Anything that does neither can be readily ignored as easily as an e-mail that need no longer be considered because it does not deal with an immediate problem or demand. The very process of defending makes it impossible to adjust to new evidence except from the perspective of support or opposition. Pretty or ugly though a particular story may be, it gets us no closer to the sense of a broader picture.

Instead, Wikileaks mostly leaves us to read for ourselves and even to make up our own minds about what we see. This might seem to suggest a basic faith in our ability to do just that. (I say "mostly" because the "-gate" suffix has carried its own set of connotations for several decades now.)

The current document release differs from previous releases by targeting diplomatic cables rather than the previous military-oriented releases. Several United States departments have been doing damage control ever since word of the impending leak hit the fan.

Yet surely any nation which believes in democracy, transparency, the (educated) will of the people, and a basic mutual respect for the free will of others -- and which acts at every level on those principles -- should have nothing to fear from any diplomatic leak?

I write nothing of the content of that release here. Why should I immediately limit perception by inserting my own pigeonholes? I will say only that there should have been no surprises. If you did not expect what you read, it was not because it was not there to be seen before.

... Which, in itself, could prove a useful mirror in which to see the truth of oneself, and perhaps also to see clearly for the first time the lenses through which one chooses to see the world.

November 27, 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, without Joss Whedon?

No doubt the major plot elements will be preserved ... which may be an interesting way to discover just how much more Whedon brought to the series than a simple chronological series of events, a clever turn of phrase, and a bit of comedy.

November 26, 2010

"No evidence exists" is not the same as "negative evidence exists."

Governments and pundits have long based their policies on the absence of any concrete scientific evidence which would oppose a desired policy direction. Yet both government and private research funding is based almost entirely upon pre-existing solid precedent: with private enterprise funding additionally looking for good investment returns on new innovations and reasons not to discontinue existing profitable production.

Where there is no desire to find negative evidence, all the pieces are in place never to find any.

Among many other similar issues, I am open to independently corroborated evidence that low-frequency sonics such as those produced by wind turbines can harm a person's health. Frankly, any such findings would not surprise me.

Yet if the same people doing the complaining have no problems running a subwoofer as part of their home theatre system, I would suggest that there may be other factors involved in the complaints: and not all of those factors may have independent objective existence.

(For my part, I have never been able to run a subwoofer. The first time I used one I ended up with a horrible headache, but I could not identify the cause. The second time, the timing suggested the sound system. A third test involving a different friend's sound system -- and the sudden complete difference when the subwoofer was disconnected -- confirmed the source.)

Anecdotal evidence may point to a future line of research, may even be an early warning system for factors we should be examining more closely for our own sakes: but it should never substitute for independent, objective research.

November 25, 2010

I would go so far as to say that National Opt-Out Day was a big bust.
- Genevieve Shaw Brown, spokesperson for Travelocity

By now it is a very rare person in the continental United States who has not yet heard of the airport security pat-down furour. They may not know John Tyner's name, they may not all have seen the recording; but most people are certain he missed his flight as a consequence of an overly-intrusive search -- and everyone knows the four key words which sparked a nationwide protest against overly intrusive security measures which secure nothing at all. In the name of sanity, they were prepared one and all to make a statement by making life as difficult for the Transportation Security Administration screening personnel as possible, whatever the personal cost.

Or not.

Only actions can speak for themselves. Actions have weight, which is made stronger by immediacy. Belated action could also be taken at the ballot box: but realism and long experience hints darkly in the background that whatever might be said during election campaigns, for a representative to vote to reduce security measures at this time will be death in the following election.

Words without acts are meaningless. No matter how many people wear a popular protest t-shirt, it means nothing but a popular fashion statement, to be lost at the back of the closet after the issue has lost its immediacy and eventually turned into rags or donated to charity. The power and threat of free speech is that the words are supposed to be able to seed the kinds of actions which make a difference. If the words turn out repeatedly to be just a lot of hot air, free speech is meaningless.

Actions which involve true difficulty or risk have a different weight than actions which are incidental, inertial, and which carry no consequence. On Travel Wednesday, flights to bring family together are not incidental, not a casual get-together for which alternatives can be found. Miss the flight, and you have missed Thanksgiving.

It seems very few people were prepared to risk that. Of the few visible protestors, most were not even planning to fly that day.

The TSA screeners themselves are not particularly happy about the current state of security screening. While these kinds of pat-downs are virtually the only reliable method of getting around the many ways in which there are to conceal a weapon, all of which are helpfully described or even modelled in gun and weapon magazines: the screeners and the travelling public alike have a nagging suspicion that there must be another way.

There is: but would you truly want it?

November 24, 2010

An individual human being is a wondrous thing, capable of so, so very much.

We are the wave-makers, not the wave-tossed things. All things created and caused by people, no matter how great or small, are sourced in individual human beings. Our own personal ripples may seem small at first, may even sometimes seem to have vanished altogether, but they can end up paying great dividends: to ourselves, to others, to the world. We are not lost in the ocean unless we wish to be.

A single human being is no less important than the choices which impact upon millions. At their core, they are no different. No matter if the matter touches millions or a single human heart, the same human principles are always involved.

Have faith in yourself.

November 23, 2010

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just broken the story that, based on the evidence collected by the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission and an independent police investigator, Hezbollah was behind the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. Neil Macdonald, the investigative reporter who put together this report, also has a few choice things to say about the competence and diligence of the UN commission in question.

As so often in Lebanon, the truth may not be nearly so simple.

Since long before French colonial times, Lebanon has been more sectarian than united. Which country is not? but unlike most western countries, Lebanon stands between several of the world's powers: and its sectarian divisions reflect that reality. Lebanese government is not only a religious compromise between Shi'ite, Sunni, and Maronite but also a delicate balancing act between Syria, Iran, Israel, France, Saudi Arabia, and the United States: all of which countries have an interest in ensuring that the others do not gain too much of a power base in Lebanon.

Some Lebanese side with one or another of these countries as the path to Lebanon's future unity and (ironically) ultimate freedom from sectarianism. Some hate all of them equally. Most Lebanese wish all the occupiers and foreign interests would just go quietly away: but however hopeful, most Lebanese are also realists. Years of invasions and civil war will do that to you.

Three key pieces of evidence stand out in the CBC investigative report.

The first is the inexplicable absence of Colonel Wissam al Hassan from the motorcade at the time of the explosion. At that time, Hassan was Lebanon's chief of protocol, in charge of Harari's security and required by his job to be at Hariri's side at all public functions. A year and a half after the assassination, Hassan became the head of Lebanese intelligence.

The second is the intricate networks of cellphones shadowing Hariri in the days before he died. These networks were carefully isolated from each other, but cellphones in proximity to each other use the same cell towers. Through painstaking correlation, Captain Wissam Eid traced each network to the next, until he ended up at four cellphones which had been issued by the Lebanese government. There the trail went blank but for one oddity. On the long list of telephone numbers on the goverment record provided to the commission, four entries are highlighted, with the word "Hezbollah" written beside them in Arabic.

The investigative report makes no mention of who made these notations, or why. At the time of the assassination, Hezbollah was one of several political parties and a part of the governing coalition. Macdonald does mention that shortly after getting to this point in the networks, Eid was contacted by Hezbollah and
told that some of the phones he was chasing were being used by Hezbollah agents conducting a counter-espionage operation against Israel's Mossad spy agency and that he needed to back off.
Macdonald adds:
The warning could not have been more clear.
Yet there are two ways to take what had been said. Macdonald chooses to assume that what was said is a lie. Since we hear Eid only through Macdonald's parsing, we cannot say what Eid thought at the time.

Elsewhere in the report, Macdonald also notes that in September 2006, Samir Shehade, who was Eid's superior, was nearly killed in a bomb blast. He was replaced by Hassan. What Macdonald fails to mention is that Shehade was not the only anti-Syrian official, politician, and other public figure killed or nearly killed during the months following Harari's assassination by far: even though the Syrian army had already left Lebanon in April. Although it seems clear that Hezbollah certainly knew of Eid's investigation by the time he reached the government telephones, nothing happened to Eid at this time, even though he was still taking a predictable route to his workplace. The attack on Shehade is thus unlikely to be connected directly with Eid's investigation.

The third key piece of evidence does not appear in the CBC report. Between November 2008 and June 2010, several Israeli spies have been arrested in Lebanon. Some reports mention dozens of spies, even as many as a hundred. Accounts vary. What all the accounts agree on, however, is that many of the Israeli spies had been in place for fifteen or more years, and many of them had been employed with mobile telephone companies. Israel has thus far remained silent on the issue.

This final piece of evidence would suggest that, at the very least, Israel would certainly have known about the plot to assassinate Hariri. Israel's computers are just as capable of crunching numbers and making correlations as Eid's were: with presumably more manpower behind them.

The days immediately after Hariri's assassination were a public relations mess. Most Lebanese immediately blamed Syria: which led to large, country-wide demonstrations that became known as the Cedar Revolution. Syria ended up withdrawing all its 14,000 soldiers and intelligence agents from Lebanon on April 27, 2005. Observers one and all sounded stunned at how quickly the movement had swelled and how determined the demonstrators were; but I cannot think that anyone familiar with Lebanon could have been surprised by the Lebanese public's reaction to Hariri's assassination. It was a thing waiting to happen. It needed only the proper spark.

Most western media also assumed that Syria was behind the assassination, although opinion was split on whether Hezbollah had been involved as well. Many people who had known Hariri suddenly remembered things that had been said; and many of those who suddenly remembered were also known in Lebanese circles to change sides from time to time: at least one of them the British Broadcasting Corporation has called "the country's political weathervane". The western media also gave a brief mention to Hezbollah's claim that Israel was behind it: although not nearly as well reported in western newspapers was that Hezbollah had presented evidence against Israel.

Some of Hezbollah's evidence consisted of intercepted spy-drone video footage. Curiously, Hezbollah also showed evidence that the Lebanese telephone network had been sabotaged and otherwise compromised by Israeli spies.

So, we now have two sets of stories, neither of which can be discredited on the basis of available evidence. The truth hangs upon a series of telephone calls. (Unless of course one assumes, sight unseen, that one side is truthful and the other is not.)

Ask, then, what possible other action could have so united a divided nation as to force out an occupying army. Ask who stands most to benefit by Syria's departure, and who gains not at all.

Syria's presence has never been altogether welcome to many in Lebanon: but it did stabilise the nation. Syria's withdrawal left a power vacuum, a Lebanon once again divided within itself.

Ask again: who had most to gain?

In the end, Eid did not survive his investigation. One day after his second meeting with the United Nations team, Eid was killed in a car bombing. Before he met with the UN team, Eid had been working on his investigation for two years. Clearly the UN team had a leak: quite possibly Hassan. Just as clearly, Eid's investigation was not seen as a threat, even though it was known previously to Hezbollah.

But who is Hassan working for?