Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Us vs. Them

Happy post-Presidential election day! I hope you all kept your wits about you and didn’t descend into the throes of American partisanship. You’re too smart for that, yes? Yes.

My pick (courtesy of The Browser) for the most interesting (i.e. infuriating) post-election article comes from Jonathan Haidt at the New York Times.

Haidt’s article is one of many lamenting the hyperpartisan nature of American politics.  Few rifts are as animated as the one between the substantially similar Democrat and Republican parties. Even levelheaded Canadians from their lofty Northern perch go absolutely nuts over the party divide in the United States.

This enthusiasm is surely a feather in the cap of both parties. They work hard to whip up that superficial partisan spirit.

Alas, the fruit of this divisive cheerleading complicates matters post-election, when the country has to work together to get things accomplished.

Haidt asks: “How will our still divided government deal with our mounting threats and challenges?”

Haidt answers: “shared fear.”

He lists a few things we ought to be afraid of, if any of you are in a cooperative mood and wish to join him in his quaking: Rising entitlements, temperatures, inequality and births to unmarried women would all, in Haidt’s opinion, make worthy causes to recast as common enemies.

Never mind that the “us vs them” worldview bears no resemblance to reality. Never mind that the part of group psychology that searches for, and if need be, conjures up, enemies and allies on which to project the aggression of the many is nearly always destructive.

It appears that, in Haidt's view, the “us vs them” mentality is so pervasive that the only solution to the problems it inevitably causes is for a smart person (and uh, I believe this is Haidt volunteering) to sit America down and tell her who the real bad guys are.

It's assumed that experience and evidence, thought and debate, are beyond the reach of the average American. Therefore, what America needs to push beyond the partisan fray isn’t a little self-awareness, but another psychological defense against the blurred lines and uncertainty of reality.

Or, as Haidt says,

“Let’s unite with our cousins to fight the stranger!”

Really. He wrote that. It's like freaking Gustave Le Bon reincarnate.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Despite Sandy's best efforts, price gouging is really rare

Via Planet Money:

Even in states without price gouging laws, most stores won't raise prices for generators or bottled water or canned food. Which raises a question: Why? Why doesn't price go up when demand increases? Why don't we see more price gouging? 
The people Kahneman surveyed said they would punish businesses that raised prices in ways that seemed unfair. While I would have paid twice the normal price for my groceries yesterday, I would have felt like I was getting ripped off. After the storm passed, I might have started getting my groceries somewhere else. 
Businesses know this. And, Kahneman argues, when basic economic theory conflicts with peoples' perception of fairness, it's in a firm's long-term interest to behave in a way that people think is fair.

Isn't that something? I am constantly astounded by collective intelligence.

Now that we're all happy, I suppose we can get rid of those superfluous regulatory pricing laws, no?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


65% of Canadians support the return of the death penalty:

 Andrew Barr/National Post

Let's be clear: instituting the death penalty means legitimizing the government's power to pre-meditatively kill its own citizens. Unless people truly feel that the government is unerring (which, judging by this list of the posthumously pardoned, is absurd), I think supporting the death penalty indicates a failure of imagination.

That is, 65% of Canadians imagine themselves only as the judge, never the accused.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A quick thought

A friend of mine shared the following quote from economist Robert Higgs. It's a stunning reminder of what people are apt to accept when violence is instigated from behind a desk:
Anarchists did not try to carry out genocide against the Armenians in Turkey; they did not deliberately starve millions of Ukrainians; they did not create a system of death camps to kill Jews, gypsies, and Slavs in Europe; they did not fire-bomb scores of large German and Japanese cities and drop nuclear bombs on two of them; they did not carry out a Great Leap Forward that killed scores of millions of Chinese; they did not attempt to kill everybody with any appreciable education in Cambodia; they did not launch one aggressive war after another; they did not implement trade sanctions that killed perhaps 500,000 Iraqi children. In debates between anarchists and statists, the burden of proof clearly should rest on those who place their trust in the state. Anarchy's mayhem is wholly conjectural; the state's mayhem is undeniably, factually horrendous. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sadism and the Police

There have been a flurry of police brutality and misconduct reports over the past few weeks - recently Brian Hutchinson's article in Wednesday’s National Post. 
Hutchinson posits that the problems stem from the difficulties of police discipline. It usually takes third-party intervention to compel the force to call out one of their own, and “the rules don’t allow for simple, straight-forward termination.”

The popular explanation for the repeat indiscretions seems straight-forward: the police have too much power and need to  be reined in. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," said Lord Acton in 1887, quoted ad nauseum ever since.

There is another explanation that's a little more interesting, and I think well worth considering: the underlying issue is sadism, for which the police is a natural breeding ground. It isn't just that a few officers have a "sadist streak," as the Post  speculated a few weeks back, it's that the police as an institution is prone to foster that kind of thinking.

I recently read a fascinating 1996 study by political scientist C. Fred Alford regarding people's attitudes towards violence and victimhood. It turns out that many people see the world in kill-or-be-killed terms -- a particularly problematic view considering how our self-partiality clouds our judgment of just retribution. Given the right circumstances, it appears that most people would act sadistically. 

Alford spent two years interviewing two groups of people: ordinary citizens, and inmates at a maximum security prison. He wanted to find out how their attitudes towards the Holocaust differed. He was most curious to see what they considered evil. 

He asked a simple question: Was the Nazi “desk murderer” Adolf Eichmann responsible for the crimes he committed? Eichmann, though he never killed anyone directly, did organize the mass killings. Did that make him evil?
Nearly all of the ordinary people responded along the same line:
Look, he was just a cog in the machine. If he didn't do it, someone else would. Besides, he would have been killed if he didn't, and you can't ask that of anyone. 
Sound reasonable? Well, it isn't quite right. For one thing, they wrongfully assumed that if Eichmann had refused to do his job he would have been killed. There is no evidence that would have been the case.

The inmates didn’t just use the “cog in the machine” argument. They went hardcore Hobbesian:
"It's total war, man, and in total war there's no bystanders. Everyone is a soldier." Even babies? "Yea, they just don't know it yet." 
The two exonerations are remarkably similar. The response of the prisoners was merely more blunt. They both describe what is essentially a war of all against all -- only the regular citizens prefer to think of things in sanitized, bureaucratized terms. We are not all soldiers, we’re cogs.  
Thinking in kill-or-be-killed terms is close kin to the broader definition of sadism: aggression characterized by an intense identification with the victim, “the form aggression takes when it seeks to inflict its doom on others.” 
In a kill-or-be-killed world, it is understandable that a person would rather be grouped with the killers; identifying with the victims is just too horrible (speaking of which, remember this?).  When harming another person is seen as a way to “inflict one’s doom on others,” i.e. to escape victimhood by victimizing another person, the sadistic impulse takes over.
Law enforcement officials of all stripes are put into a world that is decidedly Hobbesian -- they are the Leviathan. They are the good guys, but they are also the killers. To maintain their position they must subjugate others -- it's part of the job description. That is ample fodder for sadistic thinking.   
The prisoners, writes Alford, seemed no more sadistic than ordinary people -- they had simply taken their violence “freelance.” It was the same kill-or-be-killed mentality, but the inmates lacked Eichmann's all-important desk.
It’s not surprising that the police, who work in an institution which gives them “the opportunity to express, channel, and implement society’s sadism,” would, once in a while, freelance on the side.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Labatt's totalitarian tendencies

Earlier this month Labatt provided a choice example of the "Streisand effect" when they threatened to sue the Gazette over a photo of Magnotta drinking Blue. They bullied the press and demanded that they retract the image that no one else, until that moment, had noticed.

The threatened lawsuit was a clear misstep, but what about the underlying motive of preserving the brand's cheery facade at the expense of reality? Isn't it odd that we accept the general desire to tightly-control the public image of corporations?

Andrew Coyne argues that this aggressive form of branding contains an element of totalitarianism:
In endorsing Labatt’s concern for its brand, we are implicitly accepting the essentially totalitarian assumptions that inform most advertising, and its close cousin, politics: in the world inhabited by this brand or that party, nothing bad ever happens, nothing ever goes wrong, no one ever is unhappy. In such a world it is impossible that there could be any negative associations. Therefore, they must be made to disappear. 
First - I like how this gives credence to Steve Murray's illustration. He was making a far more sophisticated argument than I thought. 1,000 words indeed.

Second - Andrew Coyne has a point. There's a vast difference between promoting the idea that only decent people drink Labatt, and eliminating facts to the contrary. When a company sets out to prove their ad-copy by manipulating the real world, the spin turns sinister.

In politics, transforming lies into prophesies is how ideology becomes total, i.e. how a simple, flawed idea becomes the only plausible explanation. A regular politician might say "our healthcare is the best in the world!" It may not be true, it's likely hyperbole, and it's most certainly debatable. A totalitarian politician will say the same thing, only they will suppress any contrary evidence by destroying all superior hospitals. VoilĂ ! The statement is demonstrably true, the politician is sheltered from the changing winds of reality, and there is no room left for debate.

In totalitarian Germany, when Hitler talked about "dying classes," he meant "classes of people I am systematically murdering." See what I mean? Logical. Prophetic. Unhinged. Any statement can be made valid if sufficiently controlled.

Herein lies the allure of totalitarians: they don't "flip-flop," they make good on their promises. Whether in advertising or politics, logical, unerring consistency sells. Alas, water-tight predictions and infallible statements are exceedingly rare in the real world, so they change the world to suit their vision.

Monday, May 28, 2012

By redefining war, drones may redefine the Presidency

Peter Singer examines a trend towards war without deliberation in this fascinating article via the CIC:
The United States has carried out more than 300 drone strikes [in Pakistan] since 2004. 

Yet, this operation has never been debated in Congress. More than seven years after it began, there has not even been a single vote for or against it.
Apparently, it isn't a real war until U.S. ground troops are in the line of fire. The President can blow Pakistan to pieces without congressional approval as long as he sticks with unmanned machinery.

If left unchecked, this could fundamentally alter the balance of power within the U.S. government. Evidence, perhaps, of the increasingly imperial-bureaucratic nature of the regime.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The New Bad Jobs

Dear artists, Jim Flaherty's "There is no bad job" comment wasn't intended for you.

How could it be? You invented the day job. You figured out long ago that bussing tables beat going broke. You didn't study writing, or illustration, or music, or theatre, to become fabulously wealthy. You went into the field because you love it, and you're good at what you do.  Those are solid reasons, my friend. They always will be.

You know who needed to hear that taking a less-than-ideal job is okay? The people who went into traditionally stable industries, like government, business and education, who expected a clear path to success but were met instead with hiring freezes. The people who looked up to their unionized parents and planned to land the same kind of job. The people who chose their area of study based on what appeared to be economically solid reasons just a few years ago.

Generational conflict and a stagnant economy hit those people hard. It isn't because they're lazy or entitled, it's because working a job on the side isn't as socially acceptable in those circles.

Community makes a huge difference. When you're freelancing, there's no shame in walking dogs to make ends meet. People "get" that. Your friends are probably doing the same thing, and the writers you admire were likely once in the same boat.

That humble path is hard to take when your dream job was to work as a high school teacher, an assembler or a fabricator. What has changed isn't that artists are facing up to the fact that they might have to accept a job outside of their field, it's that other industries are discovering the artist's way.

Success wasn't always defined in terms of security. In ancient Greece, people preferred backbreaking day-to-day labour to cushier full-time careers. Assured work was considered akin to slavery, because the indefinitely employed didn't have the freedom to choose what to do everyday.

Rather than say "there is no such thing as a bad job," maybe it's time to rethink what makes a job bad. Not a lack of security, but a false sense of security. Not too few hours, but too many: the type of job that eliminates the individual's ability to start something new. When no job lasts forever, freedom and flexibility become vitally important.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"The conventional wisdom of 3,500 calories less is what it takes to lose a pound of weight is wrong."

"The body changes as you lose," reports the New York Times in what is essentially a mathematician's guide to weight loss. "An extra 10 calories a day puts more weight onto an obese person than on a thinner one." 

So calories in vs. calories out is scrapped, but a restricted calorie diet is still recommended. Takeaway: lower your expectations and stick with it. Forever. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The new mass movements

By this time, you've already heard of the Greek extremist party the "Golden Dawn" [GD]. On May 6th, they took 7% of the Greek vote, winning 21 seats in parliament and leaving the world bewildered. The party has a bizarre platform of Hitler-ish measures, that are so detached from reality, so fantastical, it is difficult to take them seriously.

In an election centered on austerity, GD ran on anti-immigration policy, as if the world's tired and poor were begging to get in to Greece (immigrants make up about 9% of the Greek population, compared to about 19% of Canada's). Really, calling their platform "policy" is flattery.  It is insanity. They demanded land mines at the borders.

Who supports the party? Reuters reports that the people who voted for GD were "men aged 25-34, unemployed and without higher education."

In other words, they were people who weren't generally interested in politics. The isolated masses. The demographic that traditional political parties wrote off as chronically disengaged, too fickle to bring them to power.

The fact that these people are voting is remarkable. It goes against everything we know. Education and wealth are supposed to be the most accurate indicator of whether a person will cast a ballot. Parties cater to them. They hold the power. But they could lose that power to a fresh batch of mass movements.

This Le Monde article sees the success of the GD as indication of a larger shift away from politics-as-usual. Citing movements from across Europe of all political stripes, they note that they "have nothing in common" except "the potential to upset traditional political parties."

The press was quick to draw parallels between the GD and the Nazis, but I'll add another. In tough times, fiction is so much more compelling than reality. Don't get hung up on trying to make sense of the rhetoric, because the power of these movements is in their absurdity. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her Origins of Totalitarianism, mass movements provide a "lying world of consistency" that is "more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself."

Though the GD didn't run on monetary policy, it was the current economic turmoil that compelled these otherwise apolitical people to join their movement. When people worry, an unnatural certainty is the most potent political opiate.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Steynamite night

Disclaimer: the following play-by-play is based wholly on my chicken scratch notes. If the quotes strike you as unbelievable, it's likely that in my haste, my own bias toned down the rhetorical vitriol. I assure you that Steyn was far more offensive in person. 

Author/Provocateur Mark Steyn brought his surreal, one-man-show to Toronto last night. From my seat in the balcony, it looked like a good crowd - nearly filling the 1330-seat John Bassett Theatre.

The message? Canada's Human Rights Commissions and their international equivalencies are the single greatest threat to human rights in the western world.

The medium? A darkened theatre, where Steyn lectured, serenaded (possible motto: with so many great keys, why sing in just one?), and danced, punctuated by an ongoing skit with a fellow dressed as an Imam and a brief appearance by a woman in a Burqa, who at one point, was the subject of a mimed beating.

National Post editor Jonathan Kay introduced the "conservative fusion jamboree." Lamenting the "explosive motif," but heralding Steyn as the only person on earth who could pull off the explosives-themed evening in a crowded Toronto theatre.

Sun News fixture Michael Coren opened with a quick speech (like "Maggie Trudeau warming up for the rolling stones, or is that warming up the Rolling Stones?"), that was equal parts comedy schtick, sun news promo, and defense of christianity in the public square.

He advised the audience not to expect the usual political rally, rather to prepare themselves for a Carol Burnett-like experience.

Mark Steyn entered dressed as Dick Cheney in hunting gear, complete with a life-like rubber mask, flannel shirt, and a shotgun in hand. The real Cheney was scheduled to speak, but cancelled, afraid for his safety. Steyn/Cheney flailed around a bit before mistakenly shooting Coren. The aforementioned Imam appeared from stage left to drag his lifeless body out of view.

Steyn's first polemic was aimed at various awareness campaigns:

"In the 1920s, they cured polio, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, without a single awareness-raising day.... Today we have achieved phenomenal breakthroughs in awareness ribbon colours."

Though the futility of the campaigns irked him, Steyn took particular offense to the pressure to comply with the campaigns in schools, particularly Ontario's anti-bullying "Day of Pink." According to Steyn, the pink t-shirt wearing children were themselves victims of large-scale bullying in the form of social engineering.

Steyn donned a pink shirt for the event, which he professed to have worn since April 11th, the Day of Pink. His personal campaign was to raise awareness of body odor: "Canada's silent killer."

Similarly, his pink socks spoke to the ravages of ankle cancer, his pink handkerchief, to "what a nosebleed Justin Trudeau is." His pink boxers, the most pragmatic of all, reminded onlookers of the perils of mixing reds with whites in the wash.

He ended the stint by proposing a day of his own, "Individual liberty for free-born citizens day." Where you "make your own damn ribbon."

Next on the hit-list was the HRC's. He ran through an exhaustive list of the ludicrous suits heard in the kangaroo courts, including his own.

In 2008, Maclean's magazine was acquitted of "flagrant Islamophobia," by the British Columbia HRC, a charge garnered by Steyn's article "The Future Belongs to Islam."

His defense strategy was to "go magna carta" on a certain HRC chief commissar's "medieval ass," though he didn't hang his success on strategizing alone. The acquittal, rather, was a "political decision," because the HRC couldn't "stand the heat" of a guilty verdict.

The takeaway? The sensitivity crackdowns aren't "just nuts, they're evil." The HRC "Legitimizes the state as the only mediator of social conflicts" leaving Canadians "less free than our grandparents by nearly every particular, except sexual freedom."

Coren and Steyn fielded a few questions, including one from a person who identified herself "as a black woman from the West Indies, who is unapologetically conservative" and wanted to know how to appeal to "her people," who were loyal to the Liberal party, having immigrated while they were in power.

Coren stated that politicians who claim to have a particular ethnic vote in the bag are "inherently racists." Oddly, after what was a truly politically incorrect field day, he could not bring himself to "say the words" some "leftist liberals" used to describe Conservative minorities.

Steyn, on the other hand, took aim at those who identify first as a member of a group: "You and me and Omar Kadhr are all the same, our cultural identity does not trump our identity as citizens."

Over the course of the night, Steyn sang three songs. The first, his own rendition of "Kung Fu Fighting." A homage to Simon Ledger, who was arrested for racism after singing the tune at a karaoke bar (In case anyone was feeling litigious, he swore he was only lip-synching to Michael Buble). The second, "My Sharia Amour," which he crooned to his Burqa-clad "third wife."

The third and final number was "York, York." AKA, "New York, New York," only tailored to the Toronto audiences. He was accompanied by pianist Bruce Harvey, who expertly modulated to keep up with the uniquely Steynian key signature.

What was my overall impression of the evening? I don't think he hit the right note.   I "get" it. I get that Steyn was being offensive not only to assert his right to do so, but to demonstrate the harmlessness of "hate speech." I'm confident he proved that point - I doubt there was a spike of crime in the neighborhood post-Steynamite.

Still, this wasn't a regular political rally. It was an extravaganza! It was entertainment! And it wasn't all that funny. The combination of the type of rude jokes and the fairly white-bread audience didn't mesh. When Steyn writes for a national newspaper, it makes sense that he attack the nation's sacred cows. When he's surrounded by admirers, he ought to take a jab at their goat. We're going for intellectual pluralism here, folks, and that means variety.

Friday, April 13, 2012

How to enjoy twitter without making friends or influencing people

Two weeks ago I didn't "get" twitter. I thought it was for preachy social media experts, or smarmy salespeople hawking their product, or exhibitionists who got a kick out of trawling the depths of the internet for followers they would never talk to or meet. It sounded like the dinner party from hell - where Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber reigned supreme.

That, my friends, is the twitter dark side. But there is light!

The beauty of twitter is that it's public and searchable. You don't need to have a lot of friends who use twitter to enjoy the medium. You just need to find your niche. To seek out people who share your interests.

I'm pretty new to twitter. I've had my account for a while, but it sat barely-used until I was stuck in my house nursing my sore gums post-wisdom teeth extraction. I looked funny and couldn't talk comfortably. I was driven to social media out of desperation for some form of human contact.

Here's the thing - I still don't follow a lot of people, and I don't have a lot of followers. This isn't about how to become the most popular boy or girl on twitter, though I suspect it has something to do with attracting lots of pornbots. (AKA "my base.") This is about enjoying the twitter experience from day 1. When you're twitterlost and twitterconfused.

1. Follow public lists on topics you love
Lists are the newbie shortcut to getting plugged-in. The kind souls who have used twitter for years have compiled lists by topic, that you can subscribe to. It's basically an "in" to an expertly curated twitter account.

Finding interesting twitter peeps to follow takes time. After a few days of poking around, I found a grand total of 88 fascinating individuals. Not all of them tweet very often. Updates were few and far between. My twitterverse was boring.

But then I found lists! I now follow five lists, that include 1,686 people. There's always something happening, and it's a great way to meet kindred spirits.

Recommended: @sree 's  SocMedia Editors , @acoyne 's Canada Journos , @antderosa 's Reuters Journalists

2. Follow real people, not companies
Love news? Following newspapers is soo impersonal, and if they aren't listed, they will clutter up your shiny new twitterfeed. Instead, do a quick search and see if your favorite journalists are logged on. They'll let you know about their latest piece before it goes to print, alert you to breaking news, and if you have a question or comment, you can ask them directly.

Recommended: Jesse Kline @accessd, Paul Wells @InklessPW, Andrew Coyne @acoyne, Steve Murray @NPsteve

3. If you have other social media accounts, avoid redundancy 
My initial strategy to find twitter peeps was to follow whichever facebook friends or pages updated their statuses via twitter. Bad idea. It ensured that twitter didn't offer anything new.

Also, I found the twitterers who routed their tweets directly to facebook were the self-promoting broadcast types. E.g. They'd only update with links to their blogs. Those people aren't much fun. By all means, follow your friends, but don't stop there!

That reminds me...

4. Don't fully integrate your accounts 
Twitter and Facebook lend themselves to different types of communication. Their style is different. Use selected tweets if you want to add some of your twitter content to facebook. Don't flood both mediums.

5. Use a profile picture, and make it a friendly one
A friendly one of YOUR FACE. Make it personal, baby. You look so nice today. Also, once you figure out what you're interested in, put the specifics in your twitter bio. It'll help like-minded people connect with you.

If you don't know exactly what you're looking for, that's cool too. At first, my bio was simply "What would Jessica Fletcher do?" Which said it all.

6. Be extra careful when you click on a link 
Haha okay so I sort of lied. I had a twitter account many moons ago, but I shut it down. Why? The site was glitchy beyond belief (it's gotten better). But also, I had a hilariously unfortunate spambot highjack my account and send all my followers a message that stated I was 25 and horny. And dude, I was only 22 at the time. How embarrassing.

Don't let it happen to you.

So there you go! Enjoy the twitterverse. It has much to offer. If you try my tips and it still doesn't float your boat, remember - I didn't enjoy twitter until I had my wisdom teeth removed. Maybe they are what is holding you back. I know a good surgeon.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Councilor's meeting-going baby stirs the Chamber's pot

raising the question: is there space for infants in the workplace?

The way this issue came to light is dreadful. The Councillor wasn't approached personally, rather one of her (female) colleagues wrote a whiny little comment in the community paper. Jerk move, bro.

Of course, the question of whether babies ought to be welcome in the workplace has to be decided between employer and employee. There will never be a blanket response to this sort of thing, if only because many workplaces would be outright dangerous for children. 

Dragging the media into this is really only good for a laugh. Professor Duxbury, of Carleton University, offers this little gem: 
If we’re going to start bringing children into work all the time, then the organization has every right to demand the reverse — that you work at home... We have to be really careful what we ask for and what we think is appropriate.

Indeed! Bring work home!? What an outrageous notion. That never happens. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Krugman thinks Americans should stop talking about morality...

...and start focusing on money. 

Really, Krugs? Why not talk about dogmatism vs. dialogue, political freedoms vs. private vices, Hitchens vs. Jesus.... ANYTHING but fault the REPUBLICANS for not being sufficiently obsessed with the economy. Has he never looked deep into the eyes of a member of the GOP, or, as they like to say, "the party of empiricism"? I have. It looked like this:

But sure, that's what politics in the US needs: a greater fixation on the economy. Revolutionary! They should like... talk about creating jobs and stuff.