Thursday, July 30, 2009

Canada is World's 13th Largest Arms Dealer

A very informative article by Jeff Davis elaborates on finding (available on a blog here).
Reproduced below of some of the stats (Canada exports about 300-400 billion each year):

Top 10 Buyers of Canadian Military Equipment (2003-2006)
1. Saudi Arabia 431,325,000
2. United Kingdom 338,360,000
3. Australia 275,356,000
4. New Zealand 269,810,000
5. South Korea 100,921,000
6. France 54,350,000
7. Germany 46,215,000
8. Netherlands 37,930,000
9. Sweden 35,306,000
10. Norway 31,393,000

The World's Top Arms Exporters - Per cent share of global arms sales (2003-2008)
1. USA 31
2. Russia 25
3. Germany 10
4. France 8
5. UK 4
13. Canada 1

Canada's Top 10 Military Exports, by Category 2003-2006
1. Military Ground Vehicles and components 902,000,000
2. Aircraft and components 337,633,000
3. Large Guns (Cannons, mortars, etc) 284,040,000
4. Electronics (Radar jammers, computers etc.) 241,332,000
5. Optics (infrared and thermal imaging, cameras) 125,051,000
6. Naval ships and equipment 118,162,000
7. Military Technology (miscellaneous) 104,531,000
8. Ammunition, fuses, detonators 102,688,000
9. Fire Control Systems (sights, guidance computers) 98,425,000
10. Simulators 72,273,000

Hope in the Balance - TVO Big Ideas

I just finished listening to two fantastic podcasts about humanitarianism taken from a series of lectures from an event called "Hope in the Balance."

Part one features lectures by Roméo Dallaire, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Marilyn McHarg.
Part two features lectures by Stephen Lewis, James Orbinski, and Stephanie Nolen.

While I highly recommend all of both parts, if you only have time for one, listen to Stephen Lewis at the beginning of part two - he is truly one of Canada's best orators.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sam Harris Opines on Francis Collins Directing the NIH

WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer

(Spoiler Alert: After the first paragraph I go into some detail which could ruin the book)

An interesting, accessible book that explores the topics of consciousness, human-technological interfaces, the complexity of psychological processing and theories of mind and emergent phenomena.

It was an easy read, both because of the writing and not-too-complicated plot. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi so it seemed fine to me, but chances are if I read more I would be disappointed. I did like how he described Canada and Julian Jaynes’ theories, as well as other little sciency tidbits throughout. This would probably make a good introductory sci-fi novel.
I actually hadn’t heard of Robert Sawyer before this book was given to me (he is one of Canada’s top authors and has one the top 3 sci-fi awards in the world), so my expectations weren’t too high. After finishing this book, I was interested in reading more of his work and might check out Flashforward or Mindscan.

Although I appreciated the exploration of how the Internet might “Wake,” the presentation could have been more plausible. Then again, because I’m currently unconvinced at exactly how intelligence and consciousness would emerge just due to complexity, perhaps it couldn’t have been much more plausible.

Here is a better book review than the one you just read.

Friday, July 24, 2009


This morning I had a fascinating visual experience. It was about 5:30am and I couldn’t sleep so I stepped out on my balcony to just look around. The sky was a dark grey, both because of the position of the sun and the fact that it was lightly raining. I noticed that when I shifted my vision using my eyes I experienced a flash of lights moving opposite to the direction of the shift. It is hard to describe the appearance of the lights, but it was as if there were very faint, short, pseudo-line segments that moved quickly and disappeared just as quickly. Alternatively, they could be described as points, which when scanned across, created the appearance of short, slightly luminous, blurred lines. It was absolutely fascinating. I tested it repeatedly, and ever time I intentionally shifted my eyes, I experience these flashes distributed throughout my visual field for a split-second. I looked up, the flashes moved down. I looked left, they went right. I even tried going diagonally up and they moved diagonally down. Considering the possibility that it was some effect of my glasses, I took off my glasses to see if the phenomena continued. It did, though slightly diminished. Considering the possibility I was just imagining things I went back inside and looked around – no flashes. I then went back outside and saw the flashes ‘moving’ in the opposite direction of my eye-shift or saccade.

Minor, but useful, digression: Saccades are the quick, ballistic movements that your eyes make whenever you are reading or taking in a new scene or just looking around. You can see this when you watch someone else’s eyes and how they move about. This does not happen when you are tracking a continuously moving object (or move your head with your neck while keeping your vision fixation on something). The interesting thing about saccades is that they are happening all the time but we don’t notice. Our brain somehow inhibits the ‘visual smear’ that would result from the eyes moving from one place to another. Our eyes basically just ‘arrive’ at a new fixation point and our experience is that there was no jump at all.

So what the heck was happening with my eyes? I don’t know. I thought perhaps the inhibition of the smearing was itself slightly inhibited so I was seeing the appearance of movement in the opposite direction of my eyes. Another possibility is that my eyes were somehow globally taking in parts of the environment, like raindrops (that I could not see overtly) and somehow attaching to them; when I shifted my vision from these ‘set points’ they were used as a very brief anchor in my visual space. Consequently, it appeared as if flashes were moving away from my new gaze direction when in fact I was just looking past ‘set points’ that created the illusion of motion. I thought this might occur because the distribution of the flashes could be like how raindrops would appear if quickly viewed.
I really have no idea how plausible either of these scenarios is, but I do know the experience was interesting and amazing as it is extremely rare to be aware of the fact that your eyes are shifting when you examine an environment or scene. Of course, this would probably only be desirable temporarily as it would be quite negative if one was continually made aware of such shifts.
It makes me wonder if, on some level, I was able to see myself seeing.

Any thoughts? (No, I wasn’t on drugs :P)

Scientific Naturalism and the Illusion of Free Will

Recently Point of Inquiry had a fantastic interview with Tom Clark that I highly recommend you give a listen. Clark does a good job of summarizing many of the views I've had since about 2003.
In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Tom Clark discusses the implications of a thorough-going scientific naturalism for the concepts of the self and of free will. He contrasts "contra-causal free will" with kinds of political or social freedom, and argues that the former is a vestige of outmoded religious or dualistic thinking. He talks about compatibilism, and how he can be a skeptic of free will while also prizing personal freedom, how determinism can be compatible with certain kinds of free will. He explores what these implications of scientific naturalism might actually mean for criminal justice, and how rejecting concepts of free-will may empower society to be more humanistic and to solve social ills more effectively.

Microbes ‘R’ Us by Olivia Judson

The NY Times had a good opinion piece about the bacteria and microbes that prevade our bodies. Although mostly general and review, I found the points raised at the end of the article to be interesting ones:
Bacteria evolve quickly: they can go through many thousands of generations for every human one.
This has two potential consequences. First, during your lifetime, your bacteria can change their genes even though you cannot change yours. (You do have some flexibility: your immune system has a built-in capacity to change.) It may be that gut bacteria evolve in response to short-term changes in the environment, especially exposure to food-borne diseases. They may thus act as an evolving supplement to the immune system.
The second potential consequence is further reaching. Because bacteria can evolve so fast, it may be that some of what we think of as human evolution — like the ability to digest new diets that accompanied the invention of agriculture — is actually bacterial
evolution. We know that hostile bacteria — those that cause diseases in ourselves and our domestic plants and animals — have undergone dramatic genetic changes in the last 10,000 years. Perhaps our friendly bacteria have, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One small step...

I am truly awed by the moon landing - the complexity, the scale, the pictures, the significance...

This Onion headline is what I should have posted yesterday.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Lesser Evil by Michael Ignatieff

An excellent book that combines superb writing with reasoned analysis regarding how much civil liberty must be sacrificed to protect public safety when states are under terrorist threats.

This was my first exposure to Ignatieff’s writings and I was quite impressed. Although I knew he had written 16 books and was well regarded as a top intellectual globally, it seems my expectations were lower than they should have been. Page after page contains first-rate writing and skilful analysis of complicated issues. Even if I was less convinced by a point he was making or disagreed with an argument, I would often still think it was well-written.

The book is about terrorism and how liberal democracies should cope with such threats without sacrificing their ideals and freedoms. The primary concern is that if too many concessions are made and rights denied then the society has lost itself; it is no longer a liberal democracy and it has lost while trying to win.
Ignatieff outlines opposing views to the protection of the state: (1) Where necessity is emphasized over the dignity and freedom of the individual, for if a state is not sufficiently protective, it will be destroyed or diminished and there will be even fewer rights for people; and (2) where rights are emphasized over necessity because if a state cannot protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens, then it has already been compromised. The Lesser Evil is about the lesser evil, a third position that

“maintains that necessity may require us to take actions in defense of democracy which will stray from democracy’s own foundational commitments to dignity. While we cannot avoid this, the best way to minimize harms is to maintain a clear distinction in our minds between what necessity can justify and what the morality of dignity can justify, and never to allow the justifications of necessity – risk, threat, imminent danger – to dissolve the morally problematic character of necessary measures. Because the measures are morally problematic, they must be strictly targeted, applied to the smallest possible number of people, used as a last resort, and kept under the adversarial scrutiny of an open democratic system.” (p. 8)
I excerpted the above paragraph because I thought it provided the clearest description of Ignatieff’s stance and then one can (accurately) imagine that Ignatieff goes on to further elaborate his beliefs throughout the rest of the book. Often in academic works, there are theoretical descriptions of how systems/people should behave, but these prescriptions suffer from vagueness. Additionally, many authors frequently ask questions, mostly as a rhetorical device, but never answer them directly. Happily, neither of these issues was problematic in The Lesser Evil as Ignatieff provides examples, both real and theoretical, of how his view would be different from the other viewpoints on defending a liberal democracy; and whenever he would ask questions, he would usually answer them. Further, his examples spanned both space and time as situations in numerous countries were assessed using the lesser evil approach. I did think the last chapter was the least cogent, but it still had a lot of useful content.

This book review could be quite long because there is so much to discuss, but I want to maintain some sort of balance between breadth and brevity (the lesser evil approach to book reviews?), so I’ve decided to list some questions I had while reading the book (and also for use in a book group meeting) and then to provide short answers to them. I end with a half-assed timeline examining Ignatieff’s beliefs about Iraq, the book and his political actions (I was trying to ascertain how much future political aspirations influence the book).

Discussion Questions:
General: What were your expectations going in?
I was expecting something decently intelligent and perhaps pro-torture. I would say I was wrong on both accounts as this was a very intelligent book and Ignatieff believe there should be a fundamental ban on torture.

Chapter 1:
Does he create a false dichotomy and/or straw men (i.e., the two positions he outlines) so that he seems more reasonable taking a middle ground approach?
I think he might do this to some extent, but my ignorance prohibits me from knowing just how much. His arguments usually assume that most people are only in one of the two camps as opposed to most people not falling into the extremes, and even then probably even having some contradictions or inconsistency in their views considering the plethora of issues surrounding the protection of public safety. While it is true that there are decent numbers in the extremes, I do not know what proportion they represent. Consequently, I am sympathetic to the charge that Ignatieff was being tactical instead of just descriptive (who could deny porridge that had a temperature that was ‘just right’?)

Chapter 2:
Do you think that there is a hierarchy of rights?
I will have to say I do. While some declarations have rights as all equal, I think more of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and then this informs my idea of rights.
Do you think “adversarial justification” is sufficient?
No, but it is necessary. Ignatieff seems to put much faith in our governmental institutions and while I believe they do serve important purposes, I am far more agnostic on the issue.

Chapter 3:
Do you agree that terrorism alone has never toppled a state (but only when it is combined with an economic or military crisis); and therefore terrorism might be a decent ‘tactic,’ but it is a poor ‘strategy'?
Based on the little I know, I do agree. It would seem that terrorism does terrorize, but rarely if ever actually succeeds in creating full revolution.

Chapter 4:
Is his justification for armed struggle in defence of self-determination convincing? (the four conditions on page 103)
They certainly seem like decent conditions, but I would like to have another learned scholar critique so I could be aware of competing ideas.

Chapter 5:
How did you feel about his definitions of nihilism?
I was initially reluctant but then saw the utility. I found useful the repetition of the idea that some terrorists have apolitical goals – that they are just seeking destruction and death. In these cases, one cannot reason with such an enemy (but military action must take into account potential future recruits).
What do you think of the issue of military versus civilian targets? How blurry is the line?
I thought it was important as a point of discussion, but I think the line is far blurrier than Ignatieff does (at least in my reading). Civilians who are making the decisions to kill others could arguably be considered military targets and I wasn’t so easily convinced by his notion that that average citizen isn’t partly complicit in the military actions of their state.
Did he address the issue of torture sufficiently?
Not quite. He did provide excellent coverage and his views were mostly clear, but I thought he could have done more on the issue of whether or not torture actually works and just how one might deal with a ticking time bomb – that pervasive and dangerous thought experiment. I also thought he could have presented greater coverage of how some ‘non-tortuous’ states use information that was acquired by a different state torturing someone. Are they complicit? What moral conflicts are presented here?

Chapter 6:
Do you agree with his last sentence of the book?
I agree with half of it. I am mostly convinced by his arguments, but I’m less persuaded by the idea that people will be persuaded to act more reasonably (and I’m not just trying to be sneaky to prove my point).

What did you think about pre-emption and did he decently justify when it is appropriate?
I think it is a very tricky issue and while he made a decent attempt to justify it, the fact that he supported the war in Iraq, which I consider unjust and an invasion, made the whole section less cogent. I really think he should have supported his view on Iran better and specifically described how the U.S. helped arm Saddam with the very weapons that Ignatieff chastises him for.

Do you think (liberal democratic) people humanize their enemies?
I think they want to… but they don’t. One simply needs to look at a newspaper:
1 Canadian Soldier died; XX Afghans. I used Xs not only to represent unknown double digits because that seems to be the approximate ratio, but also because the lack of specificity indicates that we just don’t really care. It is the problem of any state (or even person) – some lives are worth more than others.

2002 to 2003 and onward: Supports invasion of Iraq

January 2003 – Gave lectures upon which The Lesser Evil is loosely based.

January 2004 – Writes preface to The Lesser Evil, which is published sometime that year.

March 2004 - wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine, "The Year of Living Dangerously," on the first anniversary of the invasion : "So I supported an administration whose intentions I didn’t trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can’t have human rights without order and that you can’t have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation."

Late 2004, Davey and two Liberal lawyers from Toronto decided to visit Ignatieff in Cambridge, Mass., where he was teaching at Harvard (to convince him to run for office)

November 2005 - Ignatieff confirmed in he intended to run for a seat in the House of Commons in the winter 2006 election.

April 7, 2006 - Ignatieff announced his candidacy in the upcoming Liberal leadership race, joining several others who had already declared their candidacy.

October 2006 - in the midst of his campaign for leadership, he told The Globe and Mail his support of Iraq was based on mistakenly having faith in the Americans."(I take) full responsibility for not having anticipated how incompetent the Americans would be. I don’t have remaining confidence in the Americans," he said. "The Bush operation in Iraq betrayed any hopes I had of Iraq transitioning to a stable political elite, and now all those hopes rest with my friends, the Iraqi political elite."

August 2007 – Ignatieff recants on Iraq war – NY Times magazine.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Saviors and Survivors by Mahmood Mamdani

A very informative work that provides detailed factual information about both the current violence in Darfur and the history that lead to the problems region itself (ex: Dar Fur became Darfur). Saviors and Survivors argues that genocide was not technically occurring; that people with good intentions are often mislead; that the Western powers still engage in neo-colonial practices; and that the simplistic popular narrative (Arab settlers attacking non-Arab natives) of Darfur is incorrect. Less compelling were Mamdani’s arguments near the end of the book decrying the neo-colonial attitude of many practitioners of humanitarianism and the international instruments they use.

The book was not as saddening as I thought it might be because it did not focus on the horrors of people being killed or raped. Instead it was predominantly an analysis of how Darfur has come to be seen and how that view is overly simple and flawed. While Mamdani strongly makes the case that the popular narrative is flawed, the fact that at the end of the book he describes how many of those within Sudan believe this narrative resulted in my thinking that the situation more nuanced than initially presented (and I was less condemnatory of those who have propagated ‘false’ descriptions).
Although not saddening in the aforementioned sense, the book was infuriating and saddening in another: Saviors and Survivors describes how the Save Darfur campaign kept publishing the number of dead at 400,000 when this is not true. That the Save Darfur movement kept doing so even after it was quite clear the number was 200,000 or less, is quite problematic, as it is this number that other news agencies and celebrities picked up to use for various purposes. (While this number is psychologically irrelevant to the average person, it is important as a matter of fact and policy.) Apparently, the situation in Darfur had dropped below emergency levels in 2005, yet publicity surrounding the issue soared in 2006-07: Clooney made a speech to the U.N. Security Council, Mia Farrow wanted to brand the Beijing Olympics the “Genocide Olympics” and Spielberg withdrew from producing part of the opening ceremonies.
The well-written speech was hyperbolic and inaccurate, Farrow’s point and tactic are problematic at best, and similar thoughts go to Spielberg. Such events create within me a multilayered cacophony of sighs.
One of Mamdani’s main points is that, considering more people have died because of the invasion of Iraq, perhaps those Americans so concerned about Darfur should be more concerned with a country they are overtly involved in and directly responsible for some of the killings.

The book (re)taught me several things:
(1) Much of what you read in the news is not accurate. Information is often presented without a rigorous check of accuracy and situations get presented in certain ways to form narratives, which are variable in their validity. Omission is a key factor here, for while at least some have heard of the problems in Darfur, most have not heard of the problems in Angola or the DRC (which were/are worse).
(2) Due to the complexity of most issues, one should be cautious stating a hard opinion on a topic, instead of just engaging in discussion, unless they have been exposed to the equivalent of reading three books on the topic.
(3) Learning the history of an issue is extremely important, but I don’t find it as enjoyable as learning about current events or evaluating the logic of, and evidence for, arguments.

For those experienced in geopolitical happenings, this book will present you with themes you have encountered many a time before, so I would probably only recommend it to those who are specifically interested in the issue of Darfur.

For those less experienced, Saviors and Survivors will provide an excellent example of how complicated socio-geopolitical issues are, how labelling/framing are crucial to discussions, how different states operate to pursue their different (but similar) goals, how the media simplify and pick up certain narratives, and how most people (even those with good intentions) are uninformed, especially of the very important history of how things have come to be.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A classic Vonnegut work that wonderfully delivers in the usual ways.
Although this is my second reading, I hadn’t remembered much so it was still a novel novel. Chief among the themes Vonnegut was pushing was the idea of materialism and how we often do what we do because we are built that way. Alternatively, he contrasts this oft repeated idea by suggesting that at another (essential) level we are all unique beings of light and that perspective allows for wonder and compassion.
As he makes many dry, satirical comments and descriptions of events, it is both humourous to those affected by such wit but the book could also serve as a guide to aliens trying to understand human behaviour.
The plot was decent but I usually read Vonnegut for the ideologies or quirky presentation of interesting ideas to which I can relate.
The primary example was:
“This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by
not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important,
and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.”

Another gem was a dialogue between two artists, Beatrice and Rabo, at a piano bar about Rabo’s painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony:
Beatrice: “This is a dreadful confession, but I don’t even know who Saint Anthony was. Who was he, and why should anybody have wanted to tempt him?”
Rabo: “I don’t know, and I would hate to find out.”
Beatrice: “You have
no use for truth?”
Rabo: “You know what truth is? It’s some crazy thing my neighbour believes. If I want to make friends with him, I ask him what he believes. He tells me, and I say, “Yeah, yeah – ain’t it the truth?”

Vonnegut’s frequent depiction of people as various types of machines existing in various states of working order was very useful for me. I am already sympathetic to (some form of) the view and it provides me with greater compassion and understanding. I quite appreciated his detailed description of how his adrenal system kicked into gear after his visual system registered a potentially threatening stimulus.

I highly recommend Breakfast of Champions (but if you have never read a Vonnegut I would start with Slaughterhouse Five and then perhaps God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and then Breakfast)