Archives for the month of: April, 2013

For those of you who haven’t been following Canadian politics lately, Justin Trudeau was recently called a bunch of mean names for his comments following the Boston Marathon Bombings on April 15.  He said “ there is no question that [the bombings] happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents. At war with a society. And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?”  The general message of his comment was that to prevent terrorist attacks, one must look for the root causes and address them.

The conservative criticism to this comment has been that by suggesting that societal factors could lead to terrorist tendencies is blaming innocent people for terrorism.  As such, the only appropriate response to terrorism is condemnation and increased security.  In other words: explanation = justification.  Pierre Poilievre later crystalized this view stating that “terrorism is caused by terrorists!”

I love this debate because for once it’s actually about something important and the answer is worth discussing.  Most political debates have incredibly obvious answers that never come out because everyone talks around it and is afraid of offending someone.  This debate is about the ago old question, and age old paradox, of free will.

INTRO TO FREE WILL

Free will means you have control over your own destiny.  People are the source of their actions and are responsible for their outcomes.

Free will contrasts the idea of destiny which proposes that there is a plan that your life will follow regardless of your actions.

Christopher Hitchens put the paradox most elequently:

When the believer is asked “Is there free will” he will say “Yes because we’ve been given it.  Of course there’s free will.  The big guy says so.”  Who am I to disagree?  That seems to be to me absolute self-cancelling nonsense.  My answer when I’m asked “Is there free will?” is “Yeah I think there’s free will.  We have no choice but to have it.”  At least I know I’m being ironic.

Today, science and philosophy have largely erased this paradox.  The answer is no, we have no free will. Hook your brain up to a computer and a neuroscientist can predict the decisions you’re brain makes before your mind has made them.  Almost all of your thoughts are automated and can be manipulated by pushing the right buttons.  You just feel like you’re making conscious decisions.

Here’s a simple illustration.  Choose a movie, any movie.  Really stop and think of one.  Now think of the process that led you to choose that movie.  Maybe you thought of two and picked your favourite?  Did you choose for those two movies to come into your mind or did they just appear there?  Did you choose to think of a movie at all or did it just happen because I suggested it to you a moment ago?  Are you starting to see what I mean?

There are philosophers who still believe in free will but it’s either because they haven’t thought about it that much or because it really does feel like we’re making conscious decisions right now.  If you want to know more about the free will debate, google it.  It’s not hard to find.  Daniel Dennett is one of my favourite speakers on the subject.

Anyways, free will is  an illusion and in practical terms, we all know it.  It’s why we don’t put psychopaths in jail, we treat them for mental illness.  We understand the source of their deviant behavior.  And back to the case at hand, if we found that terrorism were caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, we would treat it the same way.  It’s a deviant behavior with a real world cause that we don’t fully understand.  The reason people don’t like this fact is that it undermines the theoretical basis of our criminal justice system and our social code.  If no person is the cause of their own actions then punishing them is kind of evil.  Well, the truth hurts.

Admittedly, designing a just society without the concept of blame is a daunting task, however Justin Trudeau, in proposing a search for the societal causes of societal tension, proposed the only possible way to move towards preventing further suffering and his critics proposed that anything further than blaming the terrorists is inappropriate.  This response is not only stupid and superficial, it’s destructive.  Luckily, anyone whose job it is to actually prevent these things knows that the terrorist club doesn’t have a uniform and that looking for societal factors is the only way to prevent it.

To live in Chinatown, as I do, you have to learn to embrace certain cultural idiosyncrasies.  Chinese shop owners often haven’t fully grasped the more subtle aspects of advertising in the English language.  I had to share with you the brand new super happy great store that loves you because it so epitomizes how subtlety is lost in translation.
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My mum used to tell me that everyone sees the world through their own pane of glass.  As each year passes I understand better what she meant.  The things you’ve learned, the things you’ve experienced, and the things you believe are the authors of your consciousness.  Well a huge part of my own experience and education has been studying human history and it does have a real effect on the way I see things.  Historical perspective has a tendency to make beautiful things ugly.  Here’s an example:

Paris is known for it’s beautiful broad avenues.  Most medieval european cities get harder to navigate as you get closer to the center, yet somehow Paris has a network of wide streets making transportation much easier and defining the esthetic of the city.  But how did Paris get so lucky?  Well it was planned that way.  In the early to mid nineteenth century, Emperor Napoleon III had a Baron by the name of Haussmann plan and execute the urbanization of Paris which involved, among other things, the destruction of ancient neighborhoods to make way for huge, modern thoroughfares.

6241155-Av_Marceau_Av_Iena_Paris

That’s nice!  Now here’s the historical perspective.  Many historians today view the project as a method of authoritarian control.  During the french revolution, just a few years previous, revolutionaries barricaded the narrow streets and were able to hold off large numbers of government troops from a defensive position.  Broad avenues made the construction of barricades difficult, it  facilitated the easy movement of huge armies right into the heart of Paris, and it made it possible for the first time to use artillery inside the city.  When you understand how these broad streets were designed to put down the people of Paris, they’re somehow less beautiful.

It’s not all bad though.  Some things that look quite boring become incredibly beautiful in historical perspective.  Here’s an example:150px-Venus_of_Tan-TanThis is a drawing of a 5cm stone that was found in Germany in 1999.  It’s discoverers believe it to be a piece of quartzite carved by geological forces to vaguely resemble a human form, then carved with stone tools to accentuate the shape and dyed with red ochre.  Why is this important?  Because this stone is dated to between 300 000 and 500 000 years old.  That puts it at least 200 000 years older than the emergence of decorative markings on human artifacts.  The dating and the process itself makes this stone a little more than instinct and less than art.  In this tiny rock we may be seeing the emergence of the human sense of aesthetics: the evolution of beauty itself.

The right answer is rarely as simple as we like to think.  To understand why you think and feel the way you do, you have to understand from what perspective you are seeing things.  History is my filter, yours is something different.  The real answer is only visible when all the filters are removed.  Then the truth becomes true for everyone.

I don’t like hero worship.  When I hear about bad people I want to see the good in them and when I hear about great people I want to see the insane.  In light of that, I present to you three of history’s greatest minds and the mad things they believed on the side.

Johannes Kepler

One of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, Johannes Keplet advanced the scientific view of the solar system from a model of nested spheres to the modern mathematical model of planetary motion.  He was the first astronomer to realize that all planetary orbits are elliptical and he codified the laws describing the movement of the six known planets.  Many see Kepler as the father of Astrophysics.

Kepler also spent a good chunk of his life building models of platonic solids, of which there are six, in order to represent the movements of the known planets, also numbering six at the time, in order to understand the geometry of the universe.  Because his models never lined up with mathematical observations, he eventually discarded this belief.

Isaac Newton

The author of classical physics, Newton is often called the greatest scientist ever to have lived.  His work Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, was the textbook for understanding the laws of motion for three hundred years.  Newton also made great contributions to the field of optics and invented an entirely new field of calculus.

Netwon happened to also believe in alchemy: the science of turning common metals into gold.  He believed that the Philosopher’s Stone was the secret to this process (Yeah, like Harry Potter.)  In fact, the study of Netwon’s life has shown that he was much more interested in uncovering the mystical wisdom of the ancient world than in science.  Inventing modern physics was something of a side project.

Thomas Edison

Holding 1093 US patents, Thomas Edison is one of the most prolific inventors ever to have lived.  He is credited with inventing the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the first long-lasting light bulb.  He developed an electricity generation and distribution system that is the foundation of all modern electrical grids.

He also believed that inside every person’s head there were fifteen tiny men that were responsible for our dreams.  Be believed that reincarnation was simply the fifteen tiny men climbing out of your head when you die and into the head of someone else.

Believing in hogwash didn’t prevent these men from changing the way we view the world forever.  The takeaway from this is as follows: you may know a lot about something, you may think that you’re really quite clever, you may have invented an entire field of science, you may be the smartest person alive, but that doesn’t mean some of the things you believe are total, complete, and utter nonsense.  These guys inspire me to set my sights high and live up to my highest aspirations, but also to be self critical in every belief I hold.

I’ve never believed that wisdom is knowing how little to know.  Humanity knows more each day than it did the day before.  It also knows how much more there is to be known.  In other words, our understanding is growing but the mysteries of the universe are growing faster.  Wisdom then is looking into straight at the mysteries of life and the universe with humble determination.

What do you think?  Does a person’s genius validate the mad beliefs that they hold?  Or do their mad beliefs undermine their genius?

 

 

The question in the title must be rhetorical because the answer is so obviously yes.  I recently watched Christina Aguilera’s video for the single “Your Body.”  You might expect that the body was a living, breathing human body being referred to as a sex object, as is the case in most pop songs.  On the contrary: it seems to refer to the bloodied and battered male body after a vicious assault that he didn’t see coming because he was seduced by a scantily clad woman at a bar.

I’m no stranger to the genre of songs about jilted women getting their revenge.  One of the most well known is Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” in which she describes slashing her cheating lover’s tires, carving up his car seats and smashing his headlights.  Blu Cantrell had a song called “Hit ’em up style” in which she catches her man cheating and gets revenge by maxing out his credit card then selling all his belongings.  Oddly she pays the credit bills in the end but she does it late so that his credit scores will be messed up! Ouch!

As for Christina Aguilera, she is told by a TV psychic that she’s going to have a “killer week”.  She then uses her sexuality to get a man to pick her up from the roadside, she coaxes him to sleep, and she blows up the car with him inside it.  Next she goes to a bar, flirts with a guy, coaxes him into the mens room for a quickie and leaves him dead on the toilet.  Instead of blood, the stall is splattered with blue paint.  Finally she flirts with the clerk at a convenience store, lures him to a cheap motel room and smashes his head in with a baseball bat, this time the blood spatter being replaced with a shower of pink confetti.  This is a woman who is a prominent voice in the movement to stop violence against women.

Now I can call myself neither feminist nor a mens rights activist.  I identify with neither cause and I think that both are fatally flawed in their methodology.  I do however think it’s everyone’s prerogative to point out hypocrisy whenever possible.  In matters of equality, all you have to do to examine a case is to switch the parties.

Imagine a man who’s girlfriend has cheated who is so distraught that he trashes her car.  I think we would all find this pretty repugnant.  The same can be said for a man who sells all of his girlfriends belongings and runs up her credit card bill.  We’d all hate him for it.  Now imagine a man who goes around seducing women, taking them to private places, slaughtering them violently and bathing joyously in the contents of their dead bodies.  Sounds to me like a slasher film about serial killer.

I have to make myself clear: I am no advocate of censorship.  I think that if a woman wants to shoot a video glorifying the slaughter of men, she’s perfectly within her rights to do so.  I feel the same way for men.  The problem is that if the latter video were produced it would never air: it would be deemed hate speech, the video would be banned, violence against women group, and probably Christina Aguilera herself, would protest and the status quo would be preserved.

Haters of violence: have some integrity.  If ever a stink deserved raising it’s here.  Media shouldn’t glorify violence against anyone because of their gender.  If you revile one and not the other, you’re complicit.  SO go to work people, start a protest!

As Canadian politics heats up, I’ve been taking a look back on the economic policy that the government is so proud of.  Last year the federal government apparently spend $78.5 million on ads for various things.  Of that, $21 million was for the economic action plan.  And it’s not normal, the ad spending was up 72% in the four years since the 2008 recession when compared to the five years previous.  Now I have to say I find it annoying.  I find it annoying because when Stephen Harper was the opposition leader he showed integrity by pointing out that the Liberal government was spending tax dollars on partisan advertising.  Now his government is spending way more tax dollars telling Canadians that we’re in a good position because the government acted fast.

But are we in a good position?  In short, no.  They used to say that we were fairing better than other industrialized nations.  Now the IMF is warning Canada about it’s poor growth rates.  So, compared to other nations, our economic action plan has not done very well at all.  Yet the commercials continue.  I for one think that the government that promised not to run a deficit and then ran a huge deficit can find a better use for tax dollars than telling us everything is great when it’s not!

When I talk to people about politics, they often will cite economic policy as a point in favour of the Conservative government.  Whose economy are you looking at?  Every available report says we’re not in very good shape at all.  That may not be the fault of the government at all but it certainly doesn’t look good that the Concentrative party leaders denied that there was a recession while opposition parties demanded stimulus.  Now they take credit for the whole thing.

BEFORE ELECTION

“This country will not go into recession next year and will lead the G7 countries.”
– Prime Minister Stephen Harper Oct. 10, 2008

“If you don’t want a carbon tax and tax increases and a deficit and recession, the only way to ensure that is the case is to vote for the Conservative party.”
– Prime Minister Stephen Harper Oct. 12, 2008

AFTER ELECTION

“The most recent private-sector forecasts suggest the strong possibility of a technical recession at the end of this year and beginning of next.”
– Prime Minister Stephen Harper Nov. 23, 2008

Well it would seem that it was prudent at the time to tell Canadians that there was no recession, though there in fact was, and now it is prudent to tell Canadians that Canada is doing great, though it is not.

The other reason that it bothers me when the government pats itself on the back while our economy struggles is that they keep saying the same stupid thing: cutting taxes will grow the economy.  This is a line that’s repeated by politicians constantly.  Obama says it twice a week.  Unfortunately it’s just two things that people want to hear placed side by side in a sentence.  I learned it in first-year economics: during recession, lower taxes do not increase economic growth because vulnerable individuals save instead of spending.  Now I’m not saying that the government should raise taxes, I’m saying that they are lying when they say that tax cuts lead to growth.  Here’s a 65 year study showing that there is no correlation and here’s a statistical breakdown of US tax rates and economic growth.  Here’s Bloomberg on the same point.

Many critics claim that the government stimulus was and is far too little.  I tried to find numbers to confirm the accusation that the the stimulus portion of the Economic Action Plan has ceased, but the government hasn’t really published budget numbers for the last two years.

All I really want is honesty.  I know people make mistakes but this is shameless and embarrassing.  We were told that there will be no recession, Canada will lead the G7, there will be no deficit and that tax cuts lead to economic growth.  Instead we are in a recession, trying to keep up with other G7 nations, we have lower taxes and a much bigger deficit and tax cuts still don’t lead to economic growth.  And the government’s response is to do TV spots about how great everything is?  It just goes to show that if you say something with confidence and you repeat it enough times, people will think it’s really true.  They rely on Canadians without the initiative to google it believing what they’re told.

Please stop using my money to lie to me.  I googled it.  I know what you’re doing and $21 million worth of TV commercials won’t convince me otherwise.

Dear Justin,

Your victory in the race for leadership of the liberal party has been making news lately.  Even people who don’t normally care about Canadian politics are talking about you.  Personally, you won me over by being the only canadian politician in my memory of any party to take youth issues seriously.

Just days after your leadership was announced, the Conservative party released their campaign attack ad, only it’s not really a campaign ad because the campaign hasn’t started.  It’s just a smear campaign.  And it was released so soon after your leadership was announced that it was almost certainly produced preemptively.    This move wreaks of fear: fear of the momentum that can carry charismatic men like yourself to positions of power.  But as you know, the Conservatives may be the worst of the lot for spending illegal amounts of money on personal attacks, but they aren’t the only party trying to defame their opponents.

I write this to beg you: be the first Canadian leader in recent memory to maintain some self respect and denounce attack ads.  They’re pathetic.  It’s the kind of schoolyard mud-flinging that convinces Canadians that all parties have an equally small share in dignity and integrity.

I believe that the new Conservative smear campaign is so pitiful that it represents a tipping point and that Canadians are ready to hear a voice of integrity over the droan of slander and personal attacks.  Have the courage to be that voice.

Sincerely,

A young Canadian optimist.

Dear world,

I was in a variety store yesterday and I couldn’t help but notice that the staff had placed Vanity Fair in the fashion section of their magazine rack.  This is not the first time I’ve encountered this delusion, in fact I hear it all the time.  Whenever I tell someone that I read Vanity Fair religiously, they look at me like I’m a crazy person, as if to say “But you’re interested in literature and politics and economics.  Why would you read Vanity Fair?”  Even when I explain their mistake, they seem skeptical.

I want to clear this up once and for all.  Vanity Fair is a New York culture magazine.  They feature the highest quality articles on economics, culture, theatre, visual arts, global politics, travel, as well as a monthly biography.

So why do you think it’s a fashion magazine?  Is it because the title contains the word “vanity”?  Lets clear this up too.  Vanity Fair Magazine is named after an earlier New York magazine also called Vanity Fair which was named after a novel published in 1847, written by William Makepeace Thackeray, called Vanity Fair.  The 1847 title refers to a passage in the book that talks about a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity: it represents man’s worldly attachment to sinful things.  So, like the book, the title of the magazine is satyrical.  It refers to New York as a sort of hedonistic wonderland.  Really, it’s one of the greatest magazine names ever: it has both pedigree and wit.  

Humbly I request that you, the world, stop assuming that Vanity Fair is a fashion magazine.  It’s transparently silly.

Sincerely,

Ian

As Canadians, we like to feel superior to Americans.  We like to point out that Americans have a poor knowledge of geography outside their own borders and when surveyed, the results are truly dismal.  A 2006 survey showed that nine in ten American youth couldn’t identify Afghanistan on a map.

But I prefer to look at our own failings in order to improve rather than look at the failings of others in order to gloat.  Rebels recently overthrew the government of an African nation called the Central African Republic.  Do you know where it is?  Do you know what countries it borders?  Do you know the political status of those countries?  Maybe that’s asking too much.  How many African countries can you name?  I’ll give you a hint: there are 54 recognized by international law and 11 territories of de facto states.  Really, try it!  Make a list and see how many you can name.  You can test yourself here.

You may say “What does that war have to do with us way over here in North America?”  Well lets look at a case that you ought to know all about: Afghanistan.  After all we were at war with the the Taliban in Afghanistan for over a decade and the war continues now without Canada’s help.  What countries border Afghanistan?  What languages do they speak?  What’s their racial origin? Is afghanistan in the middle east?  Lots of people think it is.  In fact, there are stories of Canadian soldiers being shocked and surprised that Afghanistan was cold in the winter.  Afghanistan is a central-asian nation with almost no arabs or speakers of arabic yet I talk to people all the time who think it’s a middle eastern, arab nation.

What are the official languages of India?  What nations border North Korea?  What’s the capital of Chile?  What’s the main religion in Indonesia?  What languages are spoken in Spain?

These all seem like things we ought to know if we’re to be good global citizens.  I’m pretty confident that my geographic knowledge is above average but when I actually test myself I still fall pathetically short.  If you care about people regardless of their nationality, you’ll take the time to learn a little about where they live and what their lives are like.  If nothing else, it will put your own circumstance in perspective.  So to that end, here’s some fun suggestions on how to improve your knowledge of global geography:

1. Play country games.  Try this: one person names a country and the other gets a point for naming the capital, naming a major language, or accurately describing the flag.  It’s easy with France but gets tougher with places like Burma or Paraguay.

2. Learn to love google maps.  When you are wondering about a country’s location or geography, go to google maps.  It’s the most advanced geographic resource the human race has ever devised and it’s at your fingertips.

3. Use Wikipedia.  When you hear about a distant country at war, read that country’s wikipedia page.  You’ll learn about history, culture, language, geography, climate, and more in only a few minutes and the news will make more sense.

4. Embrace complexity.  Not all muslims are arabs, not all Africans are dark skinned, not all dark skinned people live in Africa.  Mexico was populated by first-nations people of Asian origins then populated by Spanish, German, and other ethnic groups.  Why would Mexico be any less ethnically diverse than Canada or the USA?  With race, religion, culture, and politics all in the mix, geography is very complex so don’t be simplistic.

Well I hope that through shaming I have inspired you to work a little harder to understand the world you live in.  I believe that if you were lucky enough to have been born, and to be born into a rich, prosperous country with the information technology we have today, the least you can do is not be ignorant of your own circumstances.  If you lived in Somalia, you might have an excuse for not knowing anything about the outside world but in Canada you have none.

I have, for many years, enjoyed teasing my father about his belief in horoscopes.  I can tease him in good faith because I know he doesn’t take them very seriously, he’s simply amused when a horoscope seems to accurately describe a person’s character or circumstance.  I enjoy reading not only my own but every horoscope to see how many of them seem to apply to the circumstances of my life and, without fail, about 80% seem to click.  They are what’s called Barnum statements which represent another epic failure of common sense.  Here’s five for your consideration:

1.  You make friends very easily but you have very few close friends because you tend to bottle your feelings up.

2. There’s an older man that you associate with the letter “B” who has always suffered with a pain in the back of his chest area.  When you think of him, you think of the funny thing he does that makes you laugh.

3. You’re outgoing and sociable but occasionally you feel very detached like you’re zooming out and watching yourself from above.

4. You have a scar, not from an operation but from an accident years ago, on your left leg in the middle.

5. You have a recurring dream about falling or flying which alternates with an occasional dream about bring held underwater or struggling to catch your breath.

Most people can connect with at least a couple if not all of these statements because they are designed to apply to almost everyone but seem quite specific to your own experience.  This is where out common sense fails.  We are highly susceptible to being tricked in this way.  We believe that the person uttering the Barnum statement knows something about us when they truly know nothing.  There is good news though: the more you understand how Barnum statements work, the less you’ll think they apply to you.  Lets go through them.  Reread the statements above if you need to remember.

1. This is simply flattery combined with universal experience.  Everyone bottles some of their feelings up and everyone has a few close friends.

2. Because the letter “B” is an association and not the first letter of his name, it’s easy to find someone in your life who applies.  By saying “the back of the chest area” I’ve covered all heart and back pain problems, which almost all people suffer with.  And all older men do something that makes us laugh.

3. By focusing on a very personal experience that people aren’t likely to discuss with each other, this seems like quite an insight, until you realize that most people seem to have the same experience.

4. By saying the scar is in the middle instead of on the knee, it could be on the knee, in the middle of the calf, or in the middle of the thigh.  Your legs are also probably the most likely place for a person to get cut up as a child.

5.  This is an interesting one.  I have never had a flying or drowning dream.  However, they are extremely common and people are very impressed if you can tell them what they’ve been dreaming about.

You see, when you consider each one, you realize that they are engineered to seem personal and be universal.  Our common sense lets us down because we accept the details as true without stopping to think just how many people the same details might apply to.

Here’s a clip of Darren Brown using using Barnum statements to demonstrate his supposed psychic abilities.

As i’ve said before: some people say common sense isn’t too common but I say it doesn’t make much sense.

Previous posts on the failure of common sense:

Universal Expansion

The Monty Hall Problem