Fighting Back

It’s been a long time coming, but it still managed to take me by surprise: the union that represents the scientists working for the federal government has finally ditched its official position of political neutrality, and is vowing to “take all necessary action to ensure that Canadians are aware of what is at stake in federal public service collective bargaining and in the upcoming federal election in 2015”. Apparently, government scientists have finally gotten sick of being transformed into the lobotomized shoe-shine boys of the tar sands industry, and as you have probably inferred, I am 100% behind them. I’m looking forward to seeing how this story progresses.

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Apparently Economics is Really Easy

Pictured: The Governor of the Bank of Canada trying to find his ass with both hands.

Pictured: The Governor of the Bank of Canada trying to find his ass with both hands.

Young Canadians who are facing long-term underemployment (your humble scribe included) will be pleased to learn that Mr. Stephen Poloz has some advice for us:

“When I bump into youths, they ask me, you know, ‘What am I supposed to do in a situation?’ I say, look, having something unpaid on your CV is very worth it because that’s the one thing you can do to counteract this scarring effect. Get some real-life experience even though you’re discouraged, even if it’s for free,” Mr. Poloz told reporters Monday in Ottawa.”

What a coincidence: my father gave me the same advice a few months ago.

Of course, my father, unlike Stephen Poloz, is not the Governor of the Bank of Canada, but I suppose that it’s too much to expect that the person whose four-hundred-and-thirty-thousand-dollar-a-year job it is to oversee the economy would offer unemployed people something beyond paternal advice. I mean, it’s not like he’s in a position to put a dent in the unemployment rate or anything like that. 

He was also a bit mum about a few minor details, such as, for example, what young Canadians are supposed to eat and where they are supposed to sleep while we’re giving our labour away for free over an indefinite period, but I’m sure that he, having a degree in economics, must have some suggestions. Perhaps the Toronto Dominion Bank will generously volunteer to forgive my tuition debts.

Now, this statement isn’t exactly “Let them eat cake” in terms of pithiness, but it’s coming close in terms of sentiment. But what really gets my gall up is the fact that Stephen Poloz, Canada’s top economist, apparently doesn’t even understand basic economics. So what, however many million under- and unemployed Canadians are supposed to start giving their work away for free all at the same time? And this is going to get us all jobs, rather than, for example, driving the unemployment rate up even further since there are apparently millions of people who are willing to work without being paid for it?

Is economics even a real intellectual discipline, or do they just give you degrees and cushy jobs for saying what those in power want to hear? Is there some way I can get in on this scam? Work isn’t working.

Posted in bullshit, Employment, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Who Owns the Future?

I attended my friend’s wedding in Toronto this weekend, which means that I have spent a significantly larger percentage of the last three days sitting in various airports than I would care to admit. And if you have been through airports in Canada recently, you have probably seen some of those HSBC “In the Future…” advertisements on the walls. Now, I have been seeing these advertisements for several months or years, and never thought that deeply about them; but it just so happened that yesterday I was reading Margaret Atwood’s novel MaddAddam on the plane, and I just couldn’t help but notice how creepy and frankly dystopian a lot of these advertisements actually are.

Here are some samples (captions mine):

In the future, nature will be a thing of the past.

In the future, nature will be a thing of the past.

In the future, education will exist only as a handmaiden of corporate  capitalism.

In the future, education will exist only as a handmaiden of corporate capitalism.

Creepy3

I believe that this is known as the “Grey Goo apocalypse,” actually.

Who the hell is this supposed to appeal to, exactly?

Who the hell is this supposed to appeal to, exactly?

Now, those of you who have read the MaddAddam trilogy will get where I’m coming from. But apparently one person’s hellish dystopia is another person’s fondest wish. Especially if that “person” is a corporate person like HSBC.

Posted in Fiction, Personal Stuff, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wise Words From An Old Friend

Arguing with ignorance is like playing chess with a pigeon. You could be the world’s best chess player, but the pigeon is still going to knock all the pieces over, shit on the board, and dance around triumphantly.

I don’t know how true this is of ignorance in general, but it’s certainly a fair description of arguing with proud, willful, immovable ignorance.

Posted in Personal Stuff | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Some Thoughts on Fantasy

So, as part of the discussion on my previous post, n8chz has directed my attention towards a discussion going on the blog the Hipcrime Vocab . This post (which is well worth the read) asks the question: given all of the problems that (the application of) technology has caused, Why must positive depictions of the future always be dependent upon some sort of new technology?

My first inclination upon hearing this question asked was mundane: science fiction tends to be written by scientists or science enthusiasts, and this subculture tends, of necessity, to be very positive about Humans’ abilities to solve problems through the diligent application of wits. But the second, deeper reason, I think, is that technologies, once having been invented, cannot easily be un-invented*. Thus, the only feasible way through the problems of technological civilization is out the other side**. Some Science Fiction writers err in thinking that technology alone would make a better world possible, but ultimately, any vision of the future that doesn’t involve huge numbers of people dying must be technological in nature; there is no chance of returning to pastoralism, and frankly, the overwhelming majority of moderns–even the ones who might think otherwise–wouldn’t actually want to if they thought about it in any great detail***.

But then it occurred to me that this impulse to escape to a romanticized vision of a pre-industrial world (rather than trying to envision a better future for the one we’ve got) already has an outlet: Fantasy literature. 

When you think about it, it’s actually kind of odd that science fiction and fantasy should so often be grouped together on bookstore shelves. It is true that both of them involve imaginary departures, be they large of small, from the mundane world of the here and now. But historically, the two genres in fact arise from two diametrically opposed ideological forces: science fiction from the technological enthusiasm arising from the industrial and technological revolutions, and fantasy from 19th century romanticism, which was itself a social reaction to the “disenchantment of the world” by these same revolutions. Needless to say, there have been no shortage of fantasy worlds in popular culture over the last fifteen years or so, and has all-but-replaced the mainstream science fiction which was so popular during the 1990s. Indeed, I would say that it first entered it’s present position in mainstream culture around 2001, with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring. By coincidence, this was also around the same time that the technology bubble of the 1990s burst, the economy started to slow down, and the war on terrorism started.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m as much of a fan of fantasy as the next person. But I have yet to be convinced that it can offer anything but escapism.

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*There are, of course, a huge number of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels wherein modern technology has been lost due to cataclysm, but no one seriously asserts these as “positive’ depictions.

**A positive alternative, I suppose, could be to have a world with no technology that hasn’t already been invented, but in which the societal machinery has been reconfigured into a more-Utopian configuration, but even that would require some sort of catalyst.

***Here’s a fun game you can play by yourself, it’s: Try to count the number of times you would have died if it weren’t for modern medicine.

Posted in Fiction, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An Heretical Question

For the last several weeks I’ve been thinking about a question which I’m almost afraid to ask, because if taken too literally, it could sound like I’m advocating restrictions on freedom of inquiry. Nevertheless, I think it’s an interesting question, so I’m going to ask it here anyways.
So here goes:
*ahem*

Whereas technology exerts and enormous influence on culture to the point of being one of the major driving forces of history, and

whereas these influences are not always positive (or, at least, not always desired), and

whereas a technology, once having been invented, cannot be un-invented, and

whereas the dissemination of new technologies, unlike other major driving forces of history, is almost entirely under Human control,

why should there not be some process in place for determining, based on the desirability of the likely effects of a new technology upon society, whether or not the new technology should be disseminated?

Now, I must admit, I feel a little bit dirty even for asking this question; indeed, it seems almost heretical, particularly to someone of my age group and scientific background: “information wants to be free” and all of that. But let’s at least entertain this idea as a thought experiment: right now, the unwritten rule is, essentially, that any new technology upon which someone can turn a profit gets spread around. But given that any new technology can have profound effects upon a society, ranging well-beyond what its inventor intended or what it was marketed for, and given that we all have to live in this society whatever the consequences, is it not right, based on the principles of democracy, that we should get to have some say over the process? Would this be any worse than living in a perpetual series of randomly-selected social experiments with no controls?

Indeed, even hardened free marketeers agree, whether consciously or otherwise, that the line needs to be drawn somewhere. Few and far between, mercifully, are those who think that you should be able to walk into any corner drugstore and stock up on nuclear weapons*. So if we are agreed that avoiding an otherwise-statistically certain nuclear holocaust is worth a little regulation, how about an environmental catastrophe? Why should we not, after all, use legislation to forbid the worst of the greenhouse gas emitting technologies? Phase out engines below a certain degree of efficiency and mandate the replacement of carbon-based power plants. This one attracts a lot more controversy than the first, although not deservedly so. And of course, if you’re going to guard against nuclear and environmental catastrophes, biological catastrophes certainly seem like fair game as well. Antibiotics should be rationed, so as to prevent the evolution of “superbugs.” So far, I don’t think I’ve said anything that any reasonable person should find particularly outrageous.

Problems only really start to emerge once we start to widen the circle a bit; looking beyond outcomes which are strictly and almost certainly catastrophic to those which are merely undesirable. Here, the question naturally becomes: undesirable to whom? And here is where the waters start to become muddied, because things like cultural value systems and entrenched power structures enter into the equation in a much more major way**. Imagine, for example, if there had been some sort of a board in place in the United States to review new inventions and give them the stamp of legislative approval based on their projected cultural impact during the early 1960s; now, given the likely composition of this board (namely: men), how likely do you suppose that they would be to allow the dissemination of the combined oral contraceptive pill when it came across their desk? It certainly wouldn’t have been a sure thing. And can you imagine what the last 50 years would have been like without the sexual revolution? Now, of course, it’s entirely possible that the pill could have passed anyways, if it’s manufacturer had put enough pressure on the legislative process–which, of course, only highlights another of the system’s flaws.

Of course, all of this overlooks one key point: the fact that, in most cases, it is impossible or at least very difficult to accurately predict all of the societal ramifications of new technologies. As such, debates over any new technology would come to be dominated by wild speculation, probably of the most sensational nature.

All in all then, the idea is a bad one; while it is reasonable in the most extreme (i.e., likely catastrophic) cases, there’s just too much that could go wrong with it. If we lived in a perfect society where everyone could have roughly the same amount of say in determining what our culture’s “values” were, and if there were some empirically verifiable method for predicting the likely outcomes of introducing any given new technology, and if the whole thing was run by people who were utterly incorruptable, then it might be different, but in any society populated by Humans, it’s probably best to leave the boundary strictly at things like “preventing nuclear annihilation” or “stopping global warming.”

Science, as Isaac Asimov noted, may be gathering knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom, but there seems to be very little on the regulatory end that can be done to mitigate that.

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*Although I don’t want to give the NRA any ideas for their next policy initiative.

**Not that they didn’t enter into it in the first place, mind you. The wealth of the petroleum industry is by far the largest reason why so little action has been taken on climate change.

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The Moderate Sort of Racist Misogyny.

Q: How many Liberals does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Look guys, I know we promised change during the election, but the situation on the ground is such that…

So here’s the Liberal Party in a nutshell. Now, the article refers specifically to the Liberal Party of Quebec, rather than its federal equivalent, but there’s a pretty significant amount of cross-pollination between the two, and the criticism still applies.

For context:  A few months ago, the then-governing Parti Québecois entered an election campaign running on its proposed “Quebec Charter of Values.” The values embodied were nominally those of secularism, but in practice, the charter was rightly decried as xenophobic; it banned all public employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols (that is: turbans, hijabs, or kippahs, but not, presumably, crucifix pendants) as well as mandating that everyone have their faces uncovered when receiving any sort of public service. Notably, for a secular charter, it was surprisingly silent on the issue of the giant crucifix in Quebec’s legislature, on the grounds an icon of Jesus Christ been sacrificed in penance for the sins of mankind is somehow not a religious symbol*. In other words, the charter was far more about sticking it to unpopular minorities (Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs) then it was about the (laudable) goal of ensuring the religious neutrality of the Provincial Government.

Anyways, the Parti Quebecois went on to lose the election (for a variety of reasons, mostly unrelated to the Charter), and was replaced in government by the Liberal Party.

But now, of course, the Charter is back. But don’t worry everyone! It’s a moderate version!

Vallee said her legislation would allow all religious symbols but place limits on the burka, and the niqab, which cover a woman’s face, and the chador, a long veil which covers the hair and arms and is seen as a symbol of religious oppression

So in other words, they’re not going to stick it to all unpopular religious minorities anymore; oh no. Now it’s been trimmed down so that it only sticks it to really unpopular religious minorities. And only the women, so it’s OK!**

This is precisely what I hate about the political moderation.

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*Considering that fundamentalist Christianity is currently by far the biggest threat to secularism in just about every jurisdiction in North America, this is a profound oversight.

**On a side note, I just love the logic here: these are “symbols of religious oppression” of women, so naturally women will automatically become less oppressed once we start policing what they’re allowed to wear in public. No doubt, denying them government services will help them assimilate into mainstream society too! There’s simply no way of interpreting this policy except as a scrap of red meat being thrown to xenophobes.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment