Thursday, April 30, 2009

Forced Acting in the Low Theatre of Politics

1) NBC's Brian Williams questioning Obama about personal action on climate change during a debate in the primary:
Williams: … what in your personal life, Senator Obama, have you done personally to make for a better environment? Personal life…
Obama: Well, you know, we just had Earth Day. And we actually organized 3,000 volunteers to plant trees, which…
Williams: I mean, like light bulbs…
Obama: Well…(Laughter) I thought the tree thing was pretty good.
Williams: Well, yes, but…
Obama: We’ve also been working to install lightbulbs that last longer and save energy. And that’s something that I’m trying to teach my daughters, 8-year-old Malia and 5-year-old Sasha.

2) What Newsweek is reporting that Obama said sometime after the fact, regarding the trouble with the debate structures:

"I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious.I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know,this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.' So when Brian Williams isasking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f---ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."

I don't know about you, but I now respect him more.

Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong

“Islam is a religion of peace.” Or so Armstrong would have you believe in this mostly worthwhile overview of the religion from inception to the early 2000s. She very usefully points out that fundamentalism exists all over the world and can be found in every religion so it is unwise and inaccurate to assume fundamentalism is an exclusively Muslim phenomena or that it is representative of the majority of views held by Islam’s followers. Through Qur’anic passages and details about (alleged) prophet Muhammad’s life, the book attempts to say that Islam supports helping the poor, is explicitly against forced conversion and eschews most violence (i.e., except in a war). I found the work informative but a bit dry; as with many works of history it contained the unavoidable procession of people and dates that usually seem to matter, but at other times seemed to not matter at all. It was helpful to be reminded that there is never complete agreement among a group of people, even if they self-classify into one category. All too often our simple brains just skip over complexity and nuance and assume all X people behave in Y way with Z thoughts – a stupid thing that is hard to prevent.

Given that I have little historical (or current) knowledge of Islam, the Qur’an and the Middle East, it is hard to evaluate the accuracy of the content. One need only check reviews to see that some find Islam wonderfully objective while others think it is terrible and biased. So it goes.

What I can do though is address the supposed coherence of the statement “Islam is really…” - a structure/style that Armstrong employs throughout the work. There could be a fundamental misunderstanding here or, alternatively, just a tactical move. I’m generally of the impression that is no “really” but just different ways of interpreting things. Now, some interpretations are better than others (i.e., it is generally true that people eat bananas instead of wear them as shoes), but the Qur’an, like any religious text, asserts conflicting ideas or at least lacks clarity at various points. Some passages supposedly instruct followers to be peaceful and just, but others could read the same passage and say “We should be just… and that involves violence and killing to achieve justice.” How should you read it? Which verses do you trust? Context is a good place to start, so you’d have to read the whole thing, which of course most don’t. So then you have one scholar pushing one view and another pushing another. This isn’t just a problem with religious texts, but also with other documents such as constitutions or laws; it is nearly inherent to any enterprise attempting communication and interpretation.
Being charitable, I will assume Armstrong doesn’t think there is a ‘really’ but more that there is an interpretation of the Qur’an that is more reasonable than others, and that interpretation is that the Qur’an promotes peace and helping others less fortunate.

Yet, I still find the whole thing hugely problematic because words in a book are being used to justify behaviour instead of detailed ethical arguments. Said a different way, there will always be problems if people follow texts that offer little reasoning behind their declarations instead of explicit, reasoned, ethical arguments. Sure enough, there will still be complications with the explicit ethical argument route, but issues can at least be debated more easily with the ideas themselves discussed instead of conversations being inhibited by the obfuscating burqa of the sacred.*

*In the final line I was going to use the word 'cloak' instead of 'burqa' as 'cloak' comes more naturally and it is what first came to mind. But then I thought 'burqa' would be more germane and nearly equivalent as it is a fabric/cloth that covers much of the body. I realize the burqa is not mentioned in the Qur'an, so I am not implying that either. I initially wrote this piece without the * even though I thought about it before posting. Subsequently, my intentions were misinterpreted so I thought this addendum might add clarity. I guess you'll be the judge of that.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's this Tamil thing about?

The issue is obviously very complicated, but Dyer appears to present a concise overview of what is happening both within the country and internationally.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How a Rwandan genocide survivor made peace with the man who almost killed her

The Walrus had an excellent, moving piece about a violated Tutsi eventually meeting the Hutu that cut her. Though relatively short, it is quite powerful and, I found, very useful to understand (the banality of) evil.
One interesting excerpt among many:
"That’s why, when the soldier gave me the order to kill, I did it. I wanted to do it, because I wanted to have cows. I thought I would never in my life have a cow."

Lush Life by Richard Price

A good read. I haven’t explored much fiction lately because I have had a hard time getting into a novel and/or justifying the activity, but Lush Life was pretty good. It was an intriguing exploration of crime and how the police investigate. The two main (interrelated) strengths were (1) Character development and (2) Realism. The characters, even minor ones, were well developed so that they seemed like real people with typical thought processes, goals, idiosyncrasies, strengths, weaknesses and perspectives. While the novel is plot driven to a large extent, it was the manner with which the characters operated within the world of New York in 2003 that made the whole seem highly plausible if not accurate.
If you’re looking for a good read with some depth but nothing too weighty, check it out.

Addendum: I looked up some reviews on Amazon after I finished the post and I thought the first review made a useful summary of a main theme that I didn't address. Lush Life explores "what happens to us/how do we feel when we realize that our lives aren't what we had planned, or that we've somehow failed ourselves." - A. Ross

Monday, April 27, 2009

Climate, Chomsky, Atheism, Appearences, University and Torture

Some interesting articles (the first, last and fourth are probably more important):
A great exploration of how our cognitive biases inhibit action on climate change.
A good, short interview with Noam Chomsky.
A piece about atheism in the US.
Appearences and how we judge.
Should the university structure change?
Rich opines on evil and torture used to procure links between Iraq and 9/11.

The Reality Check #34: Pyramid Threory + The Singularity + Frog Myth

On episode #34 of the podcast The Reality Check I recently discussed the topic of the Singularity; it is the second segment, about 20 minutes in. Have a listen.

The "Singularity" is a term given to the idea that vast technological changes will allow humans to create superintelligent machines and transcend our biology - perhaps in the next 30 years.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day and (radical) Sustainability

(For my general thoughts on the issue of climate change and what we should be doing, see the post below.)
A friend sent me an article that proposes the radical notion of scanning and uploading our brains into computers so that we can be truly sustainable. I recommend reading this because I assume it will be "something completely different" from the proposals and ideas to which you are accustomed to hearing. I'm not promoting the view, nor do I understand all the numbers bandied about, but there is useful content.
The article helped me realize how powerful technology is and how inefficient our ways of consuming energy are.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Climate Change on the Brain

As I recently finished and wrote a review of The Weather Makers and I went to a climate change/injustice event last night and I'm presenting the issue on the podcast on Thursday, I've obviously had climate change on (in? around? my mind. I was going to post some thoughts on the issue in the book review below, but I thought it would make more sense in a seperate post. Here is a variation of what I will likely conclude in the podcast segment:
Climate change is happening, it will cause enormous problems and increase human suffering. Further, it is the developed nations that mainly created the problem so it isn’t fair to blame developing countries, with a much lower per capita emission rate as a large source of the problem.
Recommendations: Learn more about the issue, try to reduce your emissions but mainly put political pressure on our representatives to commit to larger reductions. Canada has failed miserably over the past decade or two at living up to the obligations we said we would in the Kyoto protocol. There is a follow up agreement being decided in Copenhagen in December that will be a crucial factor regarding how we will act regarding climate change. Finally, don’t let future opinion pieces confuse you; there is a huge problem, the developed nations are largely responsible and therefore we must do the most to fix things.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

A very useful and informative guide to the issue of climate change.
In short chapters, Flannery covers the background and basics to both the climate and the science behind it all. In the first part he discusses where we are and how we got there; how our use of fossil fuels has lead to increased warming. The second part elaborates on specific areas such as: ice ages; coral reefs; polar melting; species extinction; mountains; rainfall; and tipping points. The third part is about how scientific models of weather are created and how they work and covers various predictions being made. The fourth part discusses how political action has been taken in the past (with CFCs) to stop a climate issue, how we almost killed ourselves then, details about the Kyoto process and our responsibilities and some proposals that won’t really work (i.e., carbon sequestration). The final part is about what we can do to solve this problem. It involves an examination of nuclear and renewable possibilities, political and personal action that must be taken and specific references to do so.

The book wasn’t fascinating, but it was generally quite interesting and nicely comprehensive. If you haven’t read anything about the topic this would make a good introduction. Alternatively, I would probably still recommend Climate Wars more, both because it is more recent and more (appropriately) alarming. (Click here for a review.)

The first of two things that stood out from the book was a good description of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which I've mostly quoted:
The IPCC is not an industry or lobby group. It was established in 1988 and is a joint subsidiary body of the United Nations environmental program and the World Meterological Organization. The reports, of which there now have been 4, involve hundreds of experts, hundreds of reviewers, over 30 editors, before finally being approved by delegates from 100 countries; they must be approved by countries like Saudi Arabia, China and the US. The outcome is that the pronouncements of the IPCC do not represent mainstream science, nor even good science, but lowest common denominator science. Consequently, because the view being presented is very conservative, you should believe it, and also allow for the likelihood that things are worse than they are.
The second was information about how the accumulation of greenhouse gases led to the warming of the Indian Ocean, which lead to a decline in rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa, which lead to droughts beginning in the 1960s and continuing. This led to food shortages and increased malnutrition and conflict in some areas (think Darfur). Obviously, the issues are very complicated and the environment isn’t the only factor, but it is a factor and people often forget that.
In summation, The Weather Makers makes an excellent general resource and guide to the issue(s) of our climate and how it is changing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Wired for War by P.W. Singer

Wired for War is a truly outstanding book that exemplifies the notion of comprehensive topic coverage without an overburdening of details. Nearly every page has an interesting fact, information about an astounding technology or a useful perspective presented by various actors in the fields of robotics, computation, military or business – all with accessible writing and pop-cultural references along the way.

The subtitle is a decent descriptor of the content: The robotics revolution and conflict in the 21st century; and I highly recommend this to anyone interested in technology, conflict or even just understanding coming trends in the world. Aside from climate change and potential economic collapse, military action and technological developments will be the issues of this century.

The reader gets a basic introduction to numerous issues and is then presented with mind-blowing information about what is already happening in conflict situations or is in the plans. Some examples that stand out: Robotic aircraft operating in Iraq and Afghanistan are being piloted by people in Nevada; these systems engage targets and coordinate strikes; a gun already developed that shoots a million rounds in a minute; using machine guns as single-shot weapons because the machines are that fast; crowd control devices that make you feel like your skin is on fire, or make you defecate, or give you a fever and knock you unconscious, or make you feel like you were hit by lightening; that people are actually trying to create a Holodeck and the ‘air-screen’ from Minority Report; the Army’s FCS strategy where it plans to invest $230 billion over the next 10 years to move towards unmanned and automated systems; the prediction of robotic infantry by approximately 2030; the hope that people will shoot at machine systems because then they will be able to know who to kill and use devices to hone in on the target; a ship/plane that comes out of submarine, makes a strike in the air and then returns to the submarine; engaging haptic (touch) processes more (i.e., when the machine gun rounds are low, you might feel a slight pinch on your bicep); insect sized drones that can hover and gather surveillance… and it just keeps going!

Singer did his homework, that much is obvious, but here and there he does come off as a bit too pro-war (but that could be my anti-war bias). That is not to say he does not mention some of the failings (past, present and likely future) or that all opinions presented are rosy: some commentators have great fears about military dominance, increased inequality, self-replicating accidents that destroy part of the Earth or even robotic uprising. In general it is quite descriptive and balanced, but there could have been more regarding the problem of war itself and how civilians always seem to suffer.

A non-exhaustive list of the fascinating content:
- A primer on robotics and technology and why there are likely going to be major advances in the next 20-30 years.
- Information on the various types of the (over 12 000) robotic systems that are currently operational in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- The supposed importance of keeping humans in the loop, but in reality the shift towards autonomy is increasing
- The influence of science fiction upon creativity and development of technologies.
- The moral conflict among roboticist regarding whether to take military funding (the majority of A.I. research is funded by DARPA)
- How different military cultures clash and how emerging technologies will shake up hierarchies and the likely increased desire to micromanage from higher-ups.
- The U.S versus other countries and the race to dominate military robotics; as well as how insurgencies will be using the technologies as well.
- How autonomous weapons and the law interact; there is currently nothing in place to deal with the issues being created.
- Ethical issues about using robots and how we might come to treat them as they become an increasing part of our lives.

This book was exceptionally enjoyable because it combined the generally very important issue of military activities with the personally interesting issue of technological and robotic development. It’s like having both rhythm AND music – who could ask for anything more?

Extra: The book also ended up commenting on a recent intellectual question – will there be conscious robots – I asked Dan Dennett when he was in town. Dennett said “it would be possible to build a mechanical bird to fly around and land on a twig in a lab, but why would you?” Considering that there are already contracts for similarly size devices being put out by the military, I have an answer: to better able to protect friends and harm foes. Adding that fact with the huge influence of the sex market on adopting and developing new technologies (the Web is only the most recent example), I now think I have a useful short answer that explains much of why many technologies are developed: to kill something or have sex with it.
What else would you expect from a bunch of apes?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Afghanistan, Development and Understanding

Scott Taylor has a good article in this week's Embassy, the highlight of which was this part:

One NGO colleague working in Afghanistan did an assessment of a small village just north of Kabul. He observed that every day the women had to spend four hours a day labouriously hauling well water for cooking and cleaning. At a cost of only a couple of thousand dollars, this NGO had workers install a pump and a pipeline that brought water directly into the centre of the village. All the women had to do was turn on the tap and their chore was complete.
About one week later, the NGO representative returned to the site to discover the pump had been sabotaged and the pipeline dismantled. Outraged at this destruction, he asked who was responsible for the damage. Through an interpreter, the tribal
elder explained that it was the women of the village who had destroyed the labour-saving device.
As it turned out, the walk to the well was the highlight of the day for these women. They were out of their homes, away from their husbands and able to socialize and gossip. The extra four hours a day in their lives meant nothing to them, given that it was not replaced with any other form of entertainment, education or social activity.

As always, with development one has to be so cautious.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The quiet unravelling of Canadian democracy by James Travers

Travers wrote a good piece in The Star a little while ago in which he makes many excellent points regarding how democracy in Canada is not what we often think it to be nor is it what it should be.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Reality Check #30: Is Homosexuality Natural? + '9/11 Truth' Professors + Accidents on Friday 13

In this recent episode of the podcast The Reality Check, I discuss whether homosexuality is natural.
Have a listen. :)

Media Failure - Somalia, Pirates and Nuclear Waste

I have read various articles about Somali pirates over the past couple years and not one has mentioned the issue of nuclear waste.

You say: What's this about nuclear waste?!

Well, it appears that various individuals or companies have been dumping waste off Somalia's coast for the past 15-20 years because the government is unstable and they have no one guarding their long coastline. Sure enough some of the pirates are doing very bad things, but the idea that they are also protecting their coast from illegal dumping and overfishing does not seem to be mentioned in the articles investigating hijacking ships and taking World Food Program goods.
To go even further, even IF there was not dumping (and it seems there was), it appears that many Somali people believe it, so that would offer a reason for some behaviours, which would also aid understanding. Once again it is demonstrated that the many news outlets see their purpose as to provide biased perspectives or entertainment, as opposed to increase the understanding an issue.

Feb, 2005 - A UNEP spokesperson states that the Asian tsunami has interacted with illegal dumping to create various health problems for Somali people.
Oct, 2008 - Al Jazeera at least brings up the possibility of toxic waste being a contributing factor to piracy (but writes in a balanced way despite it being a short-ish article)
April, 2009 - Matthew Good links to Jonathan Hari who indicates the 'Western' world is being lied to and the pirates are mainly just trying to protect their country from the dastardly practices of other countries.

So, what do I (re)learn here? One, rarely do articles, opinion or news oriented, provide enough detail and content to understand an issue. Two, once again Al Jazeera did a better reporting job than the typical media sources to which I'm exposed. Three, it is always useful to investigate an issue and look for other sources. Granted, having never heard of the nuclear waste issue, I wouldn't have even thought to put that into Google (and that is the problem). Four, it is interesting to see who cites what source and how Hari's piece is going around the blogosphere and lefty news organizations.
'Normal' media is unbalanced in one direction, Hari's is a bit unbalanced in the other.
So what you should do? At this moment, Al Jazeera is your best bet.

Some pirates are just jackels and others might be true guaders of their coast, but it would at least be nice to be aware of both sides of the situation.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


I guess the fact that apes like dogs is nothing new, but it certainly seems to be expressed in an odd way here.
Additionally, I have a feeling 'doga' is one of those annoying words that just won't be going away.

(and here is a good, short piece about morality with a stupid title)

Friday, April 03, 2009

Does the Globe and Mail support torture?

Please read this editorial from today's Globe and Mail.
What do you think?

The Era of the Robot Scientist has Begun

Researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales and England's University of Cambridge has designed "an autonomous mini laboratory that uses computers, robotics and lab equipment to conduct scientific experiments, automatically generate hypotheses to explain the resulting data, test these hypotheses, and then interpret the results."
Read on.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

International dismay as Karzai backs law ravaging women's rights

A Globe and Mail piece discusses an Afghan law that would dramatically limits the rights of women and appears to have the support of Harmid Karzai.
The sub-heading is: "Law would legalize rape within marriage, UN says, putting damper on summit hopes and outraging ministers."
Well, that's just disgusting. Further down, the article accurately states that, "Spousal sexual assault is an offence in most parts of the Western world..." But the rest of the sentence is "... and became a crime in Canada in 1983."
So, Canada only outlawed marital rape 26 years ago? After reading that, my whole perspective changed. I think the whole thing notion of marital rape is terrible, but considering how long it took for us to come to our senses, just how much indignation should we be displaying?

America the Torturer

Though difficult reading for some, I highly recommend a review by Mark Danner of the ICRC Report on the Treatment of Fourteen "High Value Detainees" in CIA Custody.
Danner uses the report by the International Committee of the Red Cross - "whose official and legally recognized duties is to monitor compliance with the Geneva Conventions and to supervise treatment of prisoners of war" - to engage in a broader discussion of the Bush administration and its stance on torture and what it means.

The U.S. did torture, that is made clear.
Were those tortured terrible men? Yes, in this case, the mostly were.
Should they have been tortured? That is the important question and one which is briefly, but usefully, explored in this review.
Oh,before we embrace typical Canadian smugness regarding our neighbours to the south, do not forget how we have been complicit in the torturing of people- innocent people even.

My stance can be inferred from the three excerpted passages below.
"The use of torture deprives the society whose laws have been so egregiously violated of the possibility of rendering justice. Torture destroys justice. Torture in effect relinquishes this sacred right in exchange for speculative benefits whose value is, at the least, much disputed."

"For all the talk of ticking bombs, very rarely, if ever, have officials been able to point to information gained by interrogating prisoners with "enhanced techniques" that enabled them to prevent an attack that had reached its "operational stage" (that is, had gone beyond reconnoitering and planning). Still, widespread perception that such techniques have prevented attacks, actively encouraged by the President and other officials, has been politically essential in letting the administration carry on with these policies after they had largely become public. Polls tend to show that a majority of Americans are willing to support torture only when they are assured that it will "thwart a terrorist attack." Because of the political persuasiveness of such scenarios it is vital that a future inquiry truly investigate claims that attacks have been prevented."

"The political damage to the United States' reputation, and to the "soft power" of its constitutional and democratic ideals, has been, though difficult to quantify, vast and enduring. In a war that is essentially an insurgency fought on a worldwide scale—which is to say, a political war, in which the attitudes and allegiances of young Muslims are the critical target of opportunity—the United States' decision to use torture has resulted in an enormous self-administered defeat, undermining liberal sympathizers of the United States and convincing others that the country is exactly as its enemies paint it: a ruthless imperial power determined to suppress and abuse Muslims. By choosing to torture, we freely chose to become the caricature they made of us."
(wouldn't it be nice if this were just an April Fool's joke? Sigh)