Holy taboo, Batman!

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

I shall read:
Melissa Mohr. 2013. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (available both on Google Play and Amazon).

I’m adding this book to my goram reading list, based on an interview that Dr. Mohr gave Q The Summer (CBC Radio 1, 15 August 2013).

Here’s some of the points from the interview that make me want to read the book.

Swearing comes from the limbic system, not from the usual language centres of the brain. This explains why some brain injuries impede regular speech but not swearing. It can also be beneficial; for instance, swearing seems to actually increase our tolerance for pain.
How swearing has changed over the years is an indication of what that culture thinks is taboo. Ancient Romans – being “manly men” – often used words indicative of being sexual “receivers” as swear words. During the Medieval period, swear words typically involved religion. In Victorian times, swearing was all about sex – to the point that even “leg” was considered a taboo (and hence a swear) word. (If you wanted to refer to the leg of a table, one would use “limb” or “lower extremity” or some such.) By the middle of the last century, Victorian goofiness had given way to the usual swear words we know today, which remain sexual and scatological in nature.

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I’m a !@#$%^& Idiot

Rudeness is everywhere

Why do people feel entitled to act this way?

Perhaps one of the greatest shortcomings of our modern and sophisticated society is the disparity between those who think they’re entitled to something and those who do not. Until we get this sorted, we stand precious little chance of living in a truly fair or reasonable society.

One day, I was on my usual way home, and was exiting the Yorkdale subway station to get my car. At the exit, there are two sets of double doors that swing outward. I habitually steer right through these doors to avoid foot traffic entering the station to my left. Indeed I almost always use the rightmost door. That day, there was another person just slightly ahead of me and to my left. This person went through the left mirror image door, just in front of me. She only pushed the door open halfway, which required her to step to the right as she went through and she ended up right in front of the door I was about to use.

In case you’re confused by my description, consider the image below.  This is the view going in to the Yorkdale station entrance, so the door I used is the one on the extreme right.  The one next to it is the one the woman used.

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Why the BBC matters

The BBC provides an English-language perspective that is woefully missing from the American news sources.

Last night was a long night.  So this morning, I lounged in bed longer than usual, and watched TV.  Sundays are good days for contemplating the universe because much Sunday morning programming is either intensely religious – and thus can safely ignored – or of slightly deeper and richer quality than the usual fare.

I came across BBC World News, and saw a triplet of very interesting stories.

The first was about Dick Cheney’s attempts to hide some secret CIA plan from Congress, which was even the Top Story at the BBC main web site.  What the CIA plan was, is irrelevant.  The point is that I heard about this from BBC, not CNN.  CNN was still providing in-depth coverage of the death of Michael Jackson – apparently this is more important than an ex Vice-President conspiring with (admitedly domestic) spies to withhold operational information on intelligence activities outside the USA from the one US political body that can actually tell them to stop in the name of the people who elected said ex Vice-President.  Even though this is more proof of what a dick Cheney really is, there were only half as many articles listed at Google News on this story as there was for stories like the ongoing concerns around the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Judge, even though the latest Cheney fiasco is certainly an issue of far greater gravity.

The second story was about the potential end of Australia’s mining boom, and was filed by Nick Bryant.  This story covered the historical basics of Australian mining, the impact of recent mine closures, some of the political issues, and even the major environmental issues.  Considering coal is the principal export of the Australian mining industry (most of it destined for China), these are all quite sensitive issues.  Nothing is resolved in the story, but the questions are all laid out and interconnected.  It was an even-handed and very informative story of something very big happening in the world.

The third story was about the (hopefully) impending return of man to the Moon.  Simply titled “The Moon,” the segment treated humanity’s relationship with the Moon as a long and rather tempestuous love affair.  It covered the significance of the original landing just about 40 years ago, and how it was so completely accepted by the American people at the time.  And then how, over less than 10 years, the Americans lost interest in everything Lunar.  It was quite interesting to see what a total change was brought about by popular opinion alone.  Finally, though, the story ends on an up-beat, looking towards the future and the great plans for returning, and staying, on the Moon.  The one weakness of the story is the British narrator’s use of “we” in describing the activities of NASA; “they” would have been both more appropriate and accurate.

I saw all this over an hour and a half.  I can’t begin to recall the last time I saw this much informative journalism on television.

The point is: there are current events, and perspectives on them, that you cannot begin to imagine if you only watch the American media.  If you want to understand the world, you need to see a global picture.  You can’t get it just from CNN, or just from BBC.  You need to watch them all.

(Secretly, though, I really rather enjoy the BBC more than the others, even if they have their own biases.)

Being sustainable

Sustainability, like Zen, is a frame of mind.

And that’s why, I think, it’s so hard to be sustainable.

Zen can be characterized roughly as a mental practise dissociated from specific religious texts or theoretical knowledge, and associated with personal experience gained through certain activities.  The word “zen” itself is loosely translated as “meditation.”  It is the pursuit of “self-awareness” which usually leads to what can be described as contentment.  The goals of Zen could include virtue, discipline, concentration, and wisdom.  “Balance” is another word that is often associated with Zen.  When you learn Zen, you don’t learn it directly; instead, you learn methods and practises that, if you follow them well, will let you find your own enlightenment.  You’re not given enlightenment; you’re only shown the way to discover it for yourself.

The Japanese Zen symbol, Enso, makes sense from a sustainability point of view.

The Japanese Zen symbol, Enso, makes sense from a sustainability point of view. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

A lot has been written about Zen.  You can group serious Zen writing into two categories.  First is the methodical stuff: how to perform the practises of Zen (meditation and all that).  Second is the non-operationalized description of why you should adopt Zen, what its benefits are, and how to recognize enlightenment when you finally get there.  But in neither type of writing will you find a description of the how of Zen.  There’s no 12-step program to attain enlightenment, no Zen for Dummies book, no short-cuts or weekend retreats that can fast-track you on your way.

On the other hand, when you get there – to enlightenment – you’re really there.  You get it with every fibre of your being.  It becomes are part of you, or you become a part of it, or you and it are blended in a totally isotropic, isomorphic way.

I think of it as achieving a certain frame of mind.  You don’t let enlightenment in, nor does it take you over or anything like that.  It’s more like choosing to create a new version of yourself.  And after you’re done, you can’t really imagine ever giving it up, because it would mean given up on yourself.  Once you’ve got it, it manifests in everything you do, big acts and small, thoughts and actions.  It’s the basis on which you live.

Because of all this, Zen is hard for Westerners to understand.  We are, unfortunately, far too accustomed to having everything spoon-fed to us.  We’re not used to just being “shown the way.”  We’re more used to guided tours complete with headsets, cushy chairs to rest, lots of extra time to get there, free Margaritas, and plenty of shopping along the way.  Zen is hard work in any event; to Westerners, it’s bloody murder.

And I’ve come to believe that sustainability is a lot like Zen.  Here’s why.

Once you get sustainability, it becomes built-in, ubiquitous in how you think and act, that you can’t imagine not being sustainable.  Indeed, once you get it, you don’t even realize you’re doing certain things.  For instance:

  • I take the time to sort my recycling, even though there’s not much call for it where I live.  It’s a habit I picked up in the UK, and it’s something that seemed so natural to me that I only had to read the sorting rules once.  The practise stuck at once, and indelibly.  Even now, when it doesn’t really matter if I sort my recycling, I feel uncomfortable if I don’t do it.
  • I can’t imagine littering; I will carry and empty bottle or a crumpled up paper bag for blocks till I find an appropriate way to dispose of it.  I just can’t bring myself to toss it onto the street or leave it atop a newspaper box.
  • I drive a small car primarily because it uses relatively little gas, and required relatively fewer materials in its construction.
  • When I shop, I actually consider the amount of packaging when deciding between different products.

Sustainability means different things to different people.  Some versions might be better than others, but they all have their merits and problems.  It’s not a competition or a race, so comparing different kinds of sustainability isn’t really going to help anyone much.  We don’t need to argue about who’s version is best, but rather recognize that any version is better than no version at all, and that diversity is good, because we can all learn new tricks from each other.  To some, sustainability is primarily an economic thing; to others its primarily environmental.  There’s a streak of political correctness in the sustainability community these days that says ecological, social, and economic issues must be treated equally.  I don’t buy it because in any one particular situation, only some of those issues will dominate.  The best answer in that case will be the one that best accommodates that particular case.

Externalizing what we mean by sustainability is hard.  Is paper really better than plastic?  Where does solar power work better than wind power or wave power or whatever else?  There are no fixed answers.  It depends on geography, on climate, on technology, on economy, on cultural and societal values, on education, and on political will.  The answers we do have are extremely coarse and based on global estimated averages.  Though this is better than nothing, it’s still not good enough to realize how sustainability works best in specific locations where those global averages are pretty much wrong.  Sustainability is a local phenomenon.  Not only local to a particular setting, but also local to individuals, and even to where individuals are in their lives.  You can’t show someone how to be sustainable; you can only show then how to find their own way to be sustainable.

Because of this, achieving sustainability is hard.  If everyone becomes sustainable in a different way, there’s no way to describe how to be sustainable.  We can only teach sustainability to the extent that we can teach Zen.  We can give people tools and information (ways to choose how to live) but we can’t tell them how that stuff will make them sustainable.  So anyone who wants to be sustainable will have to find their own way, which makes it a tough row to hoe.

…unless we make sustainability enter the social consciousness.  As I wrote in another post, I’m convinced that humanity is getting green, and that it’s pretty much unavoidable at this point that we’ll eventually learn how to live in a better “balance” with nature than we do now.  This is how we do an end-run around the hardness of Zen.  It’s a cheap way out, really, because we’re skipping the hard work.  The hard work is what makes it real.  Without it, it will just become the way things are, rather than how we will them to be.  Rather like how smoking has passed out of favour for no particular reason.  This means that a sustainable society will be relatively weak, and that, in time, the principles of sustainable living could become perverted or contorted.  It’s always easier to give up your principles if you never had to fight to preserve them.

Still, it’s better than nothing, and it’s a step in the right direction.  After all, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Okay, that’s a Tao thing, but it still fits.)

Vulgar Hypocrisy

Vulgarity is a useful tool; too bad so many people are rank hypocrites about it.

One evening, my kids watched a comedian on TV rant about the practise of dubbing over vulgarities and obscenities in movies shown on TV with nonsensical words.  Like: “Ah, go fruit yourself!”

This brought to mind a silly movie from the 80’s called Johnny Dangerously, starring Michael Keaton.  This movie, though it had virtually no other redeeming qualities (except possibly Dom DeLuise‘s appearance as the Pope), did manage to cheat the censors by intentionally using nonsense words in place of the standard seven words you can’t say on television, and their sundry declensions, conjugations, participles, and gerunds.  Examples included: “you fargin cork-soaker!” and “I’m gonna tear yer arm off an’ shove it up yer icehole!” (To hear what I mean for yourself, see this youtube clip.)

The point is that whether Big Brother censors the original language, or whether the actors censor it themselves, though the words change, the meaning remains the same.  And we all know what they really meant to say.  My kids certainly do.

I myself am not particularly against the use of vulgarities, in some contexts.  I use them when I lecture, usually to emphasize a point, or to keep the class’s attention.  Sure, it’s a cheap trick, but it works.  I use vulgarities because they’re emotionally loaded and because they’re extremely concise.  (Call someone a f*ckin’ a$$hole, and there is little doubt about your opinion even with just four syllables.)  And sometimes I use vulgarities because I know that’s the only kind of language that the target of my vitriol will understand.

Of course, I can also elucidate my sentiments in particularly florid and loquacious ways.  I can talk about someone being ankle deep at the shallow end of the gene pool.  I can speak of someone’s ability to write at the bleeding edge of grammatical validity.  I can talk about something being designed by a squirrel on quaaludes.  Or about a fine scent befitting only the very best cesspools.  Or of colour schemes that should be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions against torture.  Or of the authenticity of someone’s sense of faux (this is particularly descriptive of certain poorly educated media celebrities who pawn themselves off as “interior designers”).  Or of being one slice short of a loaf, one bit short of a byte, or deserving of a job at Microsoft.

But that takes time, and effort.  And though the results are often more pleasing, sometimes keeping things punchy and to the point is more important.

The point is this: vulgarity, like any other form of language, has its place and its use.  Denying its existence is a lot like the Victorian fear of talking about sex: stupid.  It’s stupid because it denies a route of self-expression that is certainly valid, and at least occasionally both effective and efficient.

Of course, the trick is knowing when to be vulgar.  This is something that requires a certain mental maturity that children lack.  Modern society’s solution to this problem is to denounce vulgarity – especially as a language tool of children – as entirely inappropriate.  Vulgarity is punished, pushed aside, and ignored.

And as a strategy, it fails miserably.  Kids still use vulgarities.  And they use vulgarities especially because they’re forbidden.  What easier way for a child to get attention than to swear like a sailor on shore leave?  It’ll embarrass the hell out of the kid’s parents and make everyone within earshot stare disapprovingly.

It’s hard to explain to children that there’s a time and a place for everything.  But that’s what parenthood and teaching are: hard.  By trying to outlaw vulgarity, we’re doing exactly the wrong thing: making vulgarity attractive for its own sake rather than as the tool that it can be.  And we’re taking the easy way out, which is not an honourable way to treat our children.

And all this is, of course, a horrible hypocrisy.  When the kids aren’t listening, adults (except for certain prudes and religious zealots) use vulgarities all the time.  These people will often hide it with something even worse: denial.  They’ll say they’re hiding their use of vulgarity from their children for the benefit.  That’s just crap.  They’re doing it because it’s expedient, and easier than having to teach children about vulgarity and its place in the language.  They’re just lazy and selfish.

Sometimes, I really think adults are far more childish than children, and that the only real vulgarity is the hypocrisy of parents.

A green wave is coming, I think

I think it’s too late to change: sustainability is here to stay.

A bellwether does things before the rest of the flock

Bellwethers do things before the rest of the flock

I’ve recently read that “green jobs” are on the rise.  Some data points:

  • The Associated Press (6/11) reports that the “renewable energy industry” has been adding jobs more than twice as fast as the national (US) rate, as high as 9.1% between 1998 and 2007.  More recent data isn’t available, so we don’t know what’s happened since the global recession started.
  • The New York Times (6/10, Burnham) reported the same statistics, adding that the “nation’s clean-energy economy is poised for explosive growth.  The trends include surging venture capital investment…a critical growth rate in clean-energy generation, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly products.”
  • The Los Angeles Times (6/11, Lifsher) reports, “Fields that will need more workers include clean energy production, energy efficiency, environmentally friendly manufacturing, and conservation and pollution control.”
  • The Wired (6/10, Madrigal) Science blog notes that UC Berkeley researchers “found the renewable energy industry was more labor intensive than traditional fossil-fuel businesses.”  That means, at least for now, there are proportionally more green jobs.

This got me thinking about the future of this whole sustainability thing.  I can’t explain it, but I get this feeling that the writing is on the wall, that “sustainability” is here to stay, that it’s working its way into the social psyche in a way that will become ubiquitous and therefore nearly impossible to eliminate, at least in the foreseeable future.

It’s like when smoking became uncool.  Watch some old movies, like Casablanca, or some recent TV shows about the 50’s and 60’s, like Mad Men, and you’ll see people smoking everywhere – indoors, in front of children, on airplanes, at sporting events….  Then suddenly, over only a few years, smoking went from being a sign of cool to a sign of total uncool.  It wasn’t just the medical research about the danger of tobacco; it wasn’t just the taxes; it wasn’t just the entirely unauthentic PR campaigns mounted by various governments.  Somehow all these factors blended together in the mass consciousness and, once it hit a critical mass, it suddenly took on a life of its own.  Now, even I, who still smoke on occasion, am entirely revolted by the sight of someone smoking in a closed area with, say, children present.

The point is, there was a time, before smoking became socially unacceptable, that I knew it was going to happen, that it was only a matter of time, and that nothing was going to stop it.

I’ve felt that way other times too; for instance, I knew UNIX would be A Big Hit long before LINUX became the darling of operating systems.  But I’ve been wrong too – I still can’t understand what Scheme isn’t the most popular programming language.

Maybe it relates to the notion of artifacts like youtube videos “going viral.”  Maybe it’s something else.  Maybe it relates to the notion of a bellwether.  Whatever it is, I get exactly the same feeling about sustainability.  I get the sense that the writing is on the wall and that no corporation or Luddite organization is going to derail it.  We know so very little about the deeply interconnected entities and systems that make up the Earth’s ecology (including us, of course); it would be the highest arrogance to think that we know enough to inform our decision-making well.  Still, we are starting to get a sense of things, and that understanding is starting to work its way into the social psyche – in no small part thanks to the work of people like David Suzuki and Al Gore.  If they cast long shadows, it’s because they stand on the shoulders of giants: the thousands of scientists world-wide that spend their lives understanding how the universe works.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we can stop worrying about it and expect it to all work out.  We have to keep working at it, promoting environmental responsibility, coming up with new regulations to control corporations who see near term financial gain as more important than long-term health of the Earth’s ecosystems and of humanity, learning to consume less, and generally becoming more connected to the environment, and we need more research to develop methods and systems that are more sustainable.  And we need to insist that designers create more sustainable products and systems.

But I don’t think it’s an uphill battle anymore.  We’ve reached a plateau.  We’ve shown sustainability doesn’t mean poverty or deprivation.  We still need to push, but it’s no where near as hard as it used to be.  And someday soon, things will start to take off on their own – we’ll hit the downward slope – and we won’t have to push any more.

Of course, I might be wrong.  The global “economic crisis” has slowed down a number of green initiatives all over the world, and all we need is another war (against, say, North Korea, or Iraq, or something) and that could push the environment right off the stove, let alone to a back burner.  The Swine Flu pandemic could also screw things up royally.

But these are just hypothetical situations – nice for theoretical considerations, but useless otherwise unless they come true.  So let’s keep our eye on the ball and recognize that we may be on the cusp of a cultural shift in the developed world the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution.  That would be cool.

Smart planet = Screwed planet

IBM’s “Smart Planet” concept is a study in arrogance. Or maybe it’s the birth of the real Skynet.

Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM, has recently been pushing a “new” concept called “Smart Planet.” The sound bite that goes with the concept is, according to IBM’s web site, is

“The planet will be intrumented, interconnected, intelligent. People want it. We can do it.”

Irving Wladawsky-Berger explains the concept nicely in his blog, and there are hundreds of other web pages describing it. In a nutshell, the concept runs like this: because the world is so interconnected, bad things spread really fast, so let’s increase the amount of data we’re gathering and start automating decision making to increase efficiencies on a global scale because increased efficiency is always good and technology is becoming intelligent enough to do all this stuff for us.

The astronomical scale of the stupidity of this idea – and the cosmological scale of the ignorance shown by Palmisano and his henchmen at Big Blue – make it a serious candidate for Worst Idea Ever.

Don’t believe me; just read the text in the IBM site. Here’s the relevant bits from their front page.

“…[w]e’re all connected, today like never before: economically, socially and technically. When a crisis occurs on one part of the planet, it can bring problems to another part, within days or even hours.”

No we’re not. Chaos theory is a recent discovery, but the things it models have always been around. We’re only now realizing it. Technocrats might suggest that the connection intended here is the electronic kind – the connection we have through shared information (like this blog). Sure, but that’s an artificial connection that anyone can severe anytime they want (if they aren’t already web zombies, of course). Information doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what we do with that information. And those are two entirely different things.

“Yet this challenge is also an opportunity, and now is the time to seize it. People around the world are ready for change. And the planet is ready for it, too.”

Says who? Where are the studies that demonstrate that “people around the world are ready.” Does this include all the starving and warring people in Darfur? The Chinese peasants being ground under the heel of their government? The Taliban? Or does it just include white people who can afford broadband Internet connections in their Escalades? This sounds ‘way too much like Big Blue is going all Big Brother on us.

“Today, we are seeing the infusion of intelligence into the way the world literally works—the systems and processes that enable…”

No we are not. And what is intelligence anyways? There is wide controversy on how exactly “intelligence” should be defined. Try googling What is intelligence. Intelligence is only observable indirectly, through behaviour and action. And when I look at “the way the world literally works,” I see little if any intelligence. I see lots of instinct; I see lots of application of the laws of science – but I don’t see intelligence.

And what’s this “we” all about. Just because President-Elect Obama loves to talk in first-person plurals doesn’t make it okay for a multinational corporations to do it.

“…physical goods to be developed, manufactured, bought and sold; services to be delivered;”

Ah, there’s the rub. We can make stuff to sell to get rich, and get paid to do things that we really should be doing for free if we cared about our fellow human!

“…everything from people and money to oil, water and electrons to move;”

No; the laws of nature make things move. What humans do is hold that movement hostage for payment of some kind. Nature has been in a finely tuned dynamic balance for millions of years and here come Palmisano, saying IBM can do it better? Talk about arrogance!

“…and billions of people to work and live.”

And billions more to live unnecessarily short, sick lives in abject poverty and intellectual destitution.

“All things are becoming intelligent. Algorithms and powerful systems can analyze and turn those mountains of data into actual decisions and actions that make the world work better. Smarter.”

[Insert theme song of The Six Million Dollar Man here.] Sorry, what? Read that again, without the fluff: “Algorithms…can…turn…data into…decisions and actions….” This says they want decisions to be made by algorithms. This sounds like an episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Let me be very clear here: I started programming computers in 1980. I still program for work and for enjoyment (yes, I find it relaxing). I’ve kept up with the new-fangled technologies. And I can tell you with absolute, 100% certainty, that there is no way, no how, under no circumstance, in any way whatsoever, that any algorithm we can conceive of creating, can make a real decision anywhere near as well as a trained and conscientious human can. The notion that software can make real decisions isn’t just science fiction, it’s bad science fiction – hell, it’s a fairy tale!

Software can drive subway trains, but it can’t drive cars – something that most humans can do nearly automatically with only little training. Software is used to help banks decide if individuals should get a loan or a mortgage, but it couldn’t predict the recent “global financial crisis.” Software can let a robot in a remote location perform live-saving surgery, but it can’t replace the human surgeon tele-operating the robot.

There may come a time, in the future, when all these things will be possible, but it won’t be anytime soon.

And having information is not the same as being smart. Making smart decisions depends on so many other things that aren’t covered by the kind of mass instrumentation that IBM is talking about.  You have to understand information; you have to integrate the information together with other information; you have to reason about its implications for your goals and goals of others; and you have to have some sort of ethic.  We’re drowning in information as it is – IBM wants to give us more?

The propaganda from IBM makes it sound like they want to turn the planet into a cyborg. We can’t figure out how to make a person into a cyborg – not that we’d want to – and IBM wants to do it to the whole planet?

And finally:

“Why get smarter? Because we can: the technology is both available and affordable. Because we must: the shocks we’ve seen to so many systems show that the current approaches aren’t sustainable. And because we want to.”

Because you can? We can blow the Earth up 10 times over; should we do that too?

Because you must? The system shocks have all been the result of humans and their technology. How can the same kind of thinking – that technology will solve all our problems – possibly work now when it’s been shown to be entirely inadequate in the past?  It was technocentric thinking that got us into the global mess we’re in now; more technocentricity won’t get us out of the hole, it’ll just make the whole deeper.

Because you want to? This is the kind of puerile response I’d expect from a child.

I cannot imagine a worse world than one in which IBM’s Smart Planet concept were implemented. It lacks ethical direction, it lacks accountability, it lacks the kind of global consensus that we really need now, it lacks any accommodation for the human “spirit” (not the religious kind), and it lacks any sense of history.

If we follow Palmisano’s Smart Planet, we will be thoroughly screwed.