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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 26 April 2013

Game Theory in Canadian Politics

Politics is a blood sport, as we're often told.  In short, it's a game - a highly competitive one in which multiple players vie for a prize - control of government and the ability to set the policy agenda.
Of course, there are more than Political Parties at the table in this particular game; there is also The PublicThe Public is not a homogeneous entity, nor are they constrained to the same rules generally accepted as essential for Political Parties to succeed; homogeneity of message and Party discipline, for instance.  As a result, The Public is not privy to the same shared resources, messaging and understanding of manipulative techniques that Political Operatives and to a much lesser degree, The Media are.
There are a couple of consequences that stem from this reality - one is, The Public cannot present a comprehensive and stable game strategy to ensure their best interests are being met.  Another is that Political Parties tend not to see The Public as a player in the game; instead, they are perceived as an audience or a consumer.
Standard practice is for Political Parties to (rightly) assume that The Public is by and large unacquainted with political stratagems; people are ignorant and therefore can be manipulated.  The question becomes which Party has the most money to both sell their message and damage their opponent, as well as the best discipline to show no cracks in their own public presentation.
This approach is entirely dependent on a divided, ignorant populace that doesn't see itself as a player at the table.  We are expected to see ourselves purely as recipients of political shenanigans - more than that, we're encouraged not to see ourselves as a collective with common interests.
That's the way the game has always been played; the tools available have reinforced the one-way dialogue between competing Parties and potential voters.  Traditional market forces apply - just as it's assumed successful companies will target likely audiences, Political Strategists pick their targets and pick fights with everyone else to suppress oppositional voting.

Social Media has opened up the dialogue in ways that simply have never been conceived before; The Public gets to watch in-fights between political tweeters in real time, respond en-masse to approaches they take issue with and share information between themselves to build a picture of the sorts of political manipulations at play.
It's getting harder and harder to pull the wool over The Public's eyes, as made obvious by everything from Porter Push Polls to Political Truths to RCMP manipulations by Vic Toews.  Even cross-sectoral impacts like Harper's position on UN drought talks and international acceptance of our commitment to clean usage of the Oil Sands are revealing themselves to the average citizen with a computer.
The Public is becoming conscious of the games being played with them; we're cluing in to our collective stake in The Ultimate Game that is politics.
As the rules of The Game change, Political Strategists are going to have to revisit their approaches and start questioning the political truths about the long game they have clung to.  This will force them to start considering the temporal political map more closely and chart their courses further out than has been their tendency. 
That's when they'll become conscious of this unsettling fact: they're being played, too.

When that happens, we'll find we're all playing a much different game than we thought we were.

Thursday 25 April 2013

Stephen Harper's Terrorists

The Conservative Party of Canada is all for direct call-and-answer.  Terrorism is caused by terrorists, pure and simple.  There can be no equivocating on this point.
With that in mind, let's do a little exercise, just for fun.
Here's the definition of terrorism: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion
And here's a definition of terror, just so we have full clarity:
                  1: a state of intense fear
                  2a: one that inspires fear
                    b: a frightening aspect (terror of invasion)
                    c: a cause of anxiety
                    d: an appalling person or thing
It's simple; a terrorist is one who causes/inspires fear.  People who engage in fear-mongering are terrorists.
Stephen Harper has warned us about seas of troubles lapping at our shores.  He's warned us that Socialists and Separatists seek to destroy our country.  Liberal leaders, environmentalists, people who use the Internet have all been branded as threats to our safety and economic security that only The Harper's Canada Government can save us from.
In short, Stephen Harper has consistently used fear as a coercive tool to get Canadians to vote his way or ignore CPC behaviours (like lying to the public, coercing bureaucrats to lie or not speak to the public, so on and so forth); in his world, the CPC ends justify the means of keeping Harper's perceived threats at bay.
By this linear, straight-forward logic, it's no wonder the Harper Conservatives are so clear about what constitutes terrorism.
Talk about the pot calling the kettle tar baby.
But it gets better - see, our Prime Minister has a cut-and-dry response to terrorism:
There's no time to commit sociology.  You're either on the right side of a clearly defined line or your not.  By Harper's logic, by his actions and by his words, he's clearly on the wrong side of history.
Canada - it looks like we have a job to do.

Stephen Harper: L'etat n'est pas toi

Yes, Peter, it is appropriate for Canadians to be informed about contrasting aspects of leaders and policies - which is the role of Political Parties, not Government.  Government is supposed to be about providing services and keeping citizens informed about what, you know, government is doing.
The Harper Tories have clearly lost the thread - they've blurred the line between partisanship and governance to the point where they can't see the difference.
That's not only bad politics - it's dangerous to democracy.

The Social Media Community: With Great Power...

There's a fascinating picture emerging about how social media is rejigging the rules of social engagement that hopefully everyone is paying attention to. 
There's no question that tools like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr allow more information to be shared by more people to larger audiences almost instantaneously; this is both a good thing and a bad thing.  It's good in the level of coordination and social solidarity it provides - look at how platforms like Ushahidi make disaster relief coordination between individuals, organizations and nations around the world that much more seamless.  Smartphone Aps like Guardly add an extra level of security to women walking university campuses at night.  Rapid response just keeps getting faster. 
Look also at the amazing level of coordination and pro-social behaviour that happened in response to the Boston Marathon - citizens were tweeting their love and support, letting others know if blood donations were needed at hospitals and where worried friends and families could turn to learn if anyone they knew who was in the race was injured.  The bombing was horrifying and tragic, but the response was the exact opposite of what terrorism is supposed to produce - a sense of community and comfort instead of heightened feelings of fear and vulnerability.
I'd also argue that social media is leveling out the playing field between the haves and have nots in a manner similar to the influence of unions a century ago.  Connect the dots between various e-campaigns over the past decade or so; former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty backed down on increased restrictions for young drivers in response to a Facebook campaign.  Similarly, #TellVicEverything stopped The Canadian Harper Government's Internet restrictions Bill dead in its tracks.  A robocall push-poll by Porter Airlines rapidly led to a sharing of information between people called on Twitter; within a day, the who and what behind those calls had been exposed online.
Then there's Anonymous; where the existing political or justice systems fail to fill their public mandate, there is now a powerful entity watching the watchers.
This is where the power of social media starts to slide into darker territory, though, and where the need for responsibility comes in to play.  @Vikileaks was done anonymously (though it didn't stay that way) and was really a mini-terror campaign directed against Vic Toews.  Cyberbullying is a terribly invasive form of individually-targeted terrorism (which is essentially what bullying has always been).  Hacking and information bleeding happens all the time; though most of us are more familiar with the "OMG - you should see this pic of U going around" variety, these privacy breaches can be much more damaging - and also point out a major weakness in the institutions we are supposed to trust with our personal information.
Which is where the hacking of AP's Twitter account and the circulated story about White House bombings and a wounded President come in.  One single tweet, coming from a reputable handle in an age of rapid-response and information dissemination briefly threw the market - the engine of the economy - into a nosedive.  that was just one tweet; picture a more coordinated attack that hacks the social media accounts of multiple respected agencies (media, government, banks, whatever). 
Picture the Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast spooling out over social media, except with the story a nuclear explosion over a major city.  It would go viral in seconds; timed and coordinated properly, the average citizen would be left with conflicting information and no way of knowing what or whom to trust.  Call it Invasion of the Social Media Snatchers.
It's for good reason that governments and organizations are seeking ways to clamp down on Internet security; the potential risks posed by hacking are stupendous and horrifying.  What's more - as would-be terrorists realize they can do the terror-infliction thing without putting themselves in harm's way, the use of hacking, information theft and misinformation campaigns are only going to increase. 
How can we say this with certainty?  As I've written elsewhere - as Western governments increasingly use advanced military weapons like drones to do their dirty work while keeping their hands clean, those on the receiving end are going to look for any and every way to respond in kind.  It's a historical trend - when you can't fight a super power head-on, you employ creative, guerrilla tactics.  The guerrilla war is increasingly online.
You can try to clamp down on e-terrorism all you want; as history teaches us, building more complicated locks simply results in smarter criminals.  This is not a battle that will be won through escalation - the only way to end the conflict is to look at the root causes behind what informs and facilitates e-terrorism and information manipulation.

When you have governments that withhold the facts from their citizens and only spool out pieces of partisan rhetoric, the playing field is wide open for misinformation; people already don't believe government is being open and honest, so they are that much more likely to believe alternate sources.  The way to combat this risk is for government to be more proactive, transparent and frankly, honest about what they're doing, what problems are arising and to proactively engage with citizens for solutions.  That way, people feel they are part of the government process and are less likely to be swayed by alternate misinformation; they will also feel more comfortable turning to official sources for verification before jumping on whatever meme is circulating on a given day.
The second piece is just plain good PR - instead of picking fights with specific enemies to reinforce relationships with established partners, governments, Political Parties and all organizations need to build stronger relationships with a more diverse range of players.  Altruism, after all, is selfishness that plans ahead; you're less likely to face a sneak attack from someone who you have supported or collaborated with in the past.
Social media might not create information, but it does disseminate it rapidly between massive audiences.  Not only can average citizens from anywhere on the planet compete with talking heads for attention; Established Voices can be co-opted through hacking to devastating public effect.
That's power money can't buy.
With great power, however, comes great responsibility.  That responsibility lies on the shoulders of every person with access to a computer, but unless they have positive role models (like government) encouraging responsible use of the medium, we will simply be looking at an online tragedy of the commons.
If that's not a reason to rethink partisanship, negative attacks and reactive policy, I don't know what is.


Wednesday 24 April 2013

I approve this message

 - Liberal Party of Canada Leader Justin Trudeau
You know what political polarization gets us?  Gaping holes in our social system which far too many Canadians are falling into.  The people with solid ground beneath their feet can blame those drowning in seas of troubles for not knowing how to swim, but the reality is we are all anchored together.
There is a world of difference between a hand up and a hand out.  True leaders don't give their people fish, nor leave them to flounder - the best leaders are always teachers as well.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Punishing Evil vs Promoting virtue

Selfishness That Plans Ahead

I'd say I feel bad for Ayn Rand, but were she still around that probably wouldn't be received as intended.
People are selfish creatures, just like our cousins - after all, altruism is simply selfishness that plans ahead.
Did selfishness — or sharing — drive human evolution? Evolutionary theorists have traditionally focused on competition and the ruthlessness of natural selection, but often they have failed to consider a critical fact: that humans could not have survived in nature without the charity and social reciprocity of a group.
Last week on Slate, evolutionary anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson explored the question against the backdrop of two cultural events in 1957 — the consequences of the rogue, selfish activities of a pygmy hunter in a Congo forest, who used the group’s collective hunting efforts to benefit only himself, and in New York City, the publication of Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, whose protagonist champions the author’s notion that human nature is fundamentally selfish and that each man “exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”
Atlas Shrugged counts many politicians as admirers, perhaps most notably Republican vice presidential candidate, Paul Ryan, who cites the book as one of his main inspirations for entering politics and is known to give Rand’s books frequently to his interns.
So, does Rand’s theory comport with current evolutionary theory? The data is not exactly kind to her position. For example, Johnson describes an anthropologist’s account of the pygmy tribesman, Cephu, in the Congo who lived by the Randian ideal that selfishness is the highest morality. Cephu was part of the Mbuti tribe for whom “hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else,” Johnson writes, detailing how the tribe “employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap.”
It was a group effort, for most:
But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others.
Soon caught in this blatant attempt to steal meat, Cephu was brought in front of the whole tribe:
At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” [the anthropologist Colin] Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.
Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented.
He apologized, handed over his meat to the tribe and then, essentially, was sent to bed without dinner. As Johnson explains, selfishness is considered far from a virtue in such tribal groups, which still live in ways similar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Indeed, every such group ever studied has been found to idealize altruism and punish selfishness, in everything from their mythologies to their mating practices.
Although Rand accepted that early human life was a collective effort, she failed to realize how this shaped our brains. In most societies, for example, a man like Cephu would be seen as the opposite of a good catch for a woman wanting a partner. A good mate — and one whose genes were likely selected for and passed on in our earliest evolutionary history — would have been a cooperative hunter, one who didn’t put his own goals ahead of those of the tribe. He would have been altruistic in battle too, particularly when warring with other groups. A selfish soldier, after all, is known as a coward, not a hero.
The evidence for altruism as a critical part of human nature isn’t limited to anthropology. Studies of 18-month-old toddlers show that they will almost always try to help an adult who is visibly struggling with a task, without being asked to do so: if the adult is reaching for something, the toddler will try to hand it to them, or if they see an adult drop something accidentally, they will pick it up.
However, if the same adult forcefully throws something to the ground, toddlers won’t try to retrieve it: they understand that the action was deliberate and that the object is unwanted. These very young children will even assist (or refrain from helping) with a book-stacking task depending on what they perceive to be the adult’s intention. If the adult clumsily knocks the last book off the top of the stack, the toddler will try to put it back; if the adult deliberately takes the last book off, however, toddlers won’t intervene. Even before kids are taught to chip in — perhaps especially before they are told it’s an obligation — children are less selfish than often presumed.
Another study found that 3- to 5-year-olds tend to give a greater share of a reward (stickers, in this case) to a partner who has done more work on a task — again, without being asked — even if it means they get to keep less for themselves. And those cries of “That’s not fair!” that plague sibling relationships: they’re not only selfish; they reflect children’s apparently innate desire for equity.
Fundamental tendencies toward altruism aren’t only seen in children, either. Worldwide, the aftermath of natural disasters are typically characterized by heroism and a sharing of resources — within the affected community and in others farther way — not selfish panics. During the terrorist attacks of 9/11, for example, there were no accounts of people being trampled rushing out of the World Trade Center towers; rather, those who needed assistance descending were cared for, and calm mainly prevailed. The same occurred after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan in 2011. The cases in which people stampede or look out only for themselves tend to be rare and involve very specific circumstances that mitigate against helpfulness.
Moreover, our stress systems themselves seem to be designed to connect us to others. They calm down when we are feeling close to people we care about — whether related to us or not — and spike during isolation and loneliness. Even short periods of solitary confinement can derange the mind and damage the body because of the stress they create. And having no social support can be as destructive to health as cigarette smoking.
Of course, none of this is to say that humans are never selfish or that we don’t have a grasping, greedy part of our nature. But to claim, as Rand does, that “altruistic morality” is a “disease” is to misrepresent reality.
(Share the love and read the rest of Johnson’s fascinating feature here.)

The Competitive Edge of Polylingualism

Now, just think of the advantages polyculturalism must give us?
Learning to speak was the most remarkable thing you ever did. It wasn’t just the 50,000 words you had to master to become fluent or the fact that for the first six years of your life you learned about three new words per day. It was the tenses and the syntax and the entire scaffolding of grammar, not to mention the metaphors and allusions and the almost-but-not-quite synonyms.
But you accomplished it, and good for you. Now imagine doing it two or three times over — becoming bilingual, trilingual or more. The mind of the polyglot is a very particular thing, and scientists are only beginning to look closely at how acquiring a second language influences learning, behavior and the very structure of the brain itself. At a bilingualism conference last weekend convened by the Lycée Français de New York, where all students learn in both English and French, language experts gathered to explore where the science stands so far and where it’s heading next (disclosure: my children are LFNY students).
Humans are crude linguists from the moment of birth — and perhaps even in the womb — to the extent at least that we can hear spoken sounds and begin to recognize different combinations language sounds. At first, we don’t much care which of these phonemes from which languages we absorb, which makes sense since the brain has to be ready to learn any of the world’s thousands of languages depending on where we’re born.
“Before 9 months of age, a baby produces a babble made up of hundreds of phonemes from hundreds of languages,” said Elisabeth Cros, a speech therapist with the Ecole Internationale de New York. “Parents will react to the phonemes they recognize from their native tongues, which reinforces the baby’s use of those selected ones.”
Doubling down on a pair of languages rather than just one does take extra work, but it’s work young children are generally not aware they’re doing. Bilingual people of all ages are continually addressing what research psychologist Ellen Bialystok of Toronto’s York University calls the dog-chien dilemma, encountering an object, action or concept and instantaneously toggling between two different words to describe it. Such nimble decisionmaking ought to improve on-the-fly problem solving, and studies show that it does.
Language researchers often point to the famed Stroop test, which asks subjects to look at the word red, for example, which is presented in an ink of a different color, say blue. Then they are required to say aloud or identify on a computer the ink color. That requires an additional fraction of a second to accomplish than if both the word and ink color were the same. Everyone experiences that lag, but for bilinguals it’s measurably shorter. “Monolinguals always need more time,” Bialystok says. “It’s a lifelong advantage for bilinguals.”
Excelling on the Stroop test is hardly a marketable skill, but what it suggests about the brain is something else. Sean Lynch, headmaster of the LFNY, previously worked in a multilingual school in France in which all of the students spoke French and at least one of 12 other languages, including Japanese, Russian, Italian and Spanish. As is often the case with well-endowed schools, the students, on average, outperformed their age peers academically, and it’s impossible to determine how much of that is due to native skill and how much to the fact that they simply have access to better teachers, books and other resources. Still, Lynch observed that these students seemed to show a greater facility with skills that relied on interpreting symbolic representations, such as math or music.
Lynch also believes — albeit based primarily on his own observations — that multilingual kids may exhibit social empathy sooner than children who grow up speaking only one language, which makes developmental sense. The theory of mind — understanding that what’s in your head is not the same as what’s in other people’s heads — does not emerge in children until they’re about 3 years old. Prior to that, they assume that if, say, they know a secret you probably do too. There’s a kind of primal narcissism in this — a belief that their worldview is the universal one. Once they learn that’s not the case, self-centeredness falls away — at least a little — and the long process of true socialization begins. There’s nothing that accelerates the acquisition of that kind of other-awareness like the realization that even the very words you use to label the things in your world — dog, tree, banana — are not the same ones everyone uses.
Preliminary imaging work suggests that the roots of this behavior may even be visible in the brain. Some studies, for example, have shown a thickening of the cortex in two brain regions — most importantly the left inferior parietal, which helps code for language and gesturing. Bialystok is not entirely sold on these studies, since she would expect the greatest differences to be in the frontal lobes, where higher functions such as planning, decisionmaking and other aspects of what’s known as executive control take place. Some of her own work has found an increase in white matter — the fatty sheathing that insulates nerves and improves their ability to communicate — in the frontal regions of bilinguals, suggesting denser signaling and complexity of functions in these areas. “Structural differences are where the new science is really unfolding,” she says. “That work will reveal a lot.”
Not every study out there finds benefits to bilingualism. Earlier this year, psychologists at Concordia University in Montreal studied 168 children ages 1 and 2 years old being raised by bilingual parents. In general, they found that the kids in the younger half of that cohort had smaller comprehension vocabularies — the number of words they appeared to understand — than kids being raised monolingual. The older half of the sample group had smaller production vocabularies — or words they could pronounce. This results, the researches believe, from parents mixing their languages when speaking to their kids, choosing the words they feel the children will have an easier time understanding or reproducing. That in turn leads to what linguists call code-switching — a commingling of tongues by the children that produces what Americans call Spanglish or Franglish when Spanish or French melded with English (this particular study produced more complex comminglings, since it included kids speaking German, Japanese and Farsi as well). However, Bialystok agrees that this is a short-term disadvantage of bilingualism, and says in most cases the kids catch up.
And when they do, language skills acquired early can pay late-life dividends. In one study, bilinguals experienced the onset of age-related dementia 4.1 years later than multilinguals, and full-blown Alzheimer’s 5.1 years later. “One school of thought says that any cognitive reserve — education, multilingualism, even playing Sudoku puzzles — strengthens the brain and helps it resist disease,” says Bialystok. “The other says that the brains of multilinguals experience the same level of disease as those of monolinguals, but they cope with it better. They function at a higher level than they would otherwise be able to function.”
In another 2013 study, this one from the University of Kentucky, bilingual and monolingual people in the 60- to 68-year-old age group underwent brain scans while performing a cognitive task that required them to switch back and forth among several different ideas. Both groups performed the task accurately, but bilinguals were faster as well as more metabolically economical in executing the cognitive mission, using less energy in the frontal cortex than the monolinguals.
The very fact that something as simple as working with puzzles or having once got a good education can improve brain function does prove that multilingualism is not the only path to staying cognitively healthy in your dotage. And plenty of monolinguals do perfectly well at acquiring empathy and social skills early in life. Still, there are roughly 6,500 spoken languages in the world. There must be a reason our brains come factory-loaded to learn more than just one.

The Politics and Psychology of Fear (Maia Szalavitz)

How Terror Hijacks the Brain
Fear short circuits the brain, especially when it hits close to home, experts say— making coping with events like the bombings at the Boston Marathon especially tricky.
“When people are terrorized, the smartest parts of our brain tend to shut down,” says Dr. Bruce Perry, Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy. (Disclosure: he and I have written books together).
When the brain is under severe threat, it immediately changes the way it processes information, and starts to prioritize rapid responses. “The normal long pathways through the orbitofrontal cortex, where people evaluate situations in a logical and conscious fashion and [consider] the risks and benefits of different behaviors— that gets short circuited,” says Dr. Eric Hollander, professor of psychiatry at Montefiore/Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York. Instead, he says, “You have sensory input right through the sensory [regions] and into the amygdala or limbic system.”
This dramatically alters how we think, since the limbic system is deeply engaged with modulating our emotions. “The neural networks in the brain that are involved in rational, abstract cognition— essentially, the systems that mediate our most humane and creative thoughts— are very sensitive to emotional states, especially fear,” says Perry. So when people are terrorized, “Problem solving becomes more categorical, concrete and emotional [and] we become more vulnerable to reactive and short-sighted solutions,” he says.
Every loud sound suddenly becomes a potential threat, for example, and even mundane circumstances such as a person who avoids eye contact can take on suspicious and ominous meaning and elicit an extreme, alert-ready response. Such informational triage can be essential to surviving traumatic experience, of course. “Severe threats to well-being activate hard wired circuits in the brain and produce responses that help us survive,” explains Joseph LeDoux, professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, “This process is the most important thing for the organism at the moment, and brain resources are monopolized to achieve the goal of coping with the threat.”
Says Hollander, “To some extent, that type of behavior is good because if you’re in a forest and get attacked by a snake or a lion, you want to be able to react quickly without too much thinking.” Indeed, our ancestors who spent time contemplating whether or not a risk was real more often that not would not have lived to rationalize their way through such situations again.
But once the immediate threat has passed, this style of thinking can become a hindrance, not a help. “The problem is that often people have these intense reactions and are not able to think about the situation or concept more realistically,” Hollander says. The fear can become generalized so that ordinary experiences like being in a crowd or seeing a backpack trigger intense anxiety.
Traumatic events typically evoke a whole suite of brain responses, such as making people faster to startle, increasing their reaction time and producing hypervigilance to any type of sensation that might be linked with the threatening experience.
And this warping of perspective is exactly what terrorists aim to achieve. “Terrorists are trying to induce fear and panic,” says Hollander, noting that media coverage that repeats the sounds and images of the events maximizes their impact. The coverage keeps the threat alive and real in people’s minds, and sustains the threat response, despite the fact that the immediate danger has passed. The marathon attacks were particularly damaging, he says, because “All of sudden, there’s trauma associated with what had been a meaningful, communal event.”
It doesn’t help that the most common coping mechanisms can make matters worse. People who live in fear tend to want to sleep, drink alcohol or turn to sedatives to ease their anxiety. But, says Hollander, “It turns out that you are better off staying up than trying to go to sleep.” Sleep tends to consolidate and lay down traumatic memories. And that’s partly why the Israeli army, for example, tries to keep traumatized soldiers awake immediately after a difficult experience and engage them in warm social contact, both of which help reduce the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Fortunately, our brains are designed to modulate fear responses and at least 80% of people exposed to a severe traumatic event will not develop PTSD. Studies show that the more support, altruism and connection people share, the lower the risk for the disorder and the easier the recovery. Because such interactions aren’t always easy in the immediate aftermath of a harrowing experience, Hollander is investigating whether medications based on oxytocin— a hormone linked with love and parent/child bonding— might help to ease this connection.
If fear short circuits the brain’s normally logical and reasoned thinking, social support may be important in rerouting those networks back to their normal state. Which is why the selflessness and altruism we see in the wake of terror attacks is often the key to helping us to process and overcome the shock of living through them.

Robocalls, Punishment and the Emperor's Cloak

I find this all very amusing, in a tragic kind of way.  The Political Right - as embodied by folk like Stephen Harper and Rob Ford - believe that punishment is the best way to deter bad behaviour.  If you punish people for doing wrong, they say, they'll learn not to do wrong again; others will learn from that example and steer clear of crime completely.
And yet, here we are with the same people who've been wrist-slapped repeatedly for robocall sins pulling the exact same tricks.  Instead of changing their ways, they've instead spent more time covering their tracks, though not so thoroughly as they deluded themselves into believing.  
There's a reason the same mistakes keep getting made - it's because people think they're too clever to be caught, or others are too dumb or sheepish to do anything about their behaviour.  Or, they simply don't register any form of social empathy at all - ie, are psychopaths.
All this behaviour stems from neuropsychology, a combination of nature and nurture.  We train our kids to read, write and do math because those are deemed essential social skills - the same should apply to social emotional empathy.
Of course, we're not supposed to be interested in the root causes of criminal behaviour, are we?

Rant: RBC and Systems Theory

In other words - so long as the institutions remain competitive, the spoils will trickle down to the people in the system.  It's classic economic theory that assumes standard rules will be applied equally across a system.  The implication is that everyone both understands and is motivated to follow these rules to nurture a strong economic system.
This is just plain wrong.  Businesses that are seeking to be competitive aren't interested in helping laid off employees find new work - that's a frill that would distract from their main purpose, which is making money for their shareholders (with a fair bit landing in the pockets of their Executives, too).  They also aren't interested in helping 21st Century enterprises get their feet under them - they're looking for the sure wins, the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
Herein lies a paradox that keeps society moving in circles.  The political right feels proactive governance is cumbersome and leads to social engineering; they believe government needs to be small and focused solely on punishment to keep people functioning within the parameters of the system (the economy).  The assumption is that rational individuals will intuitively make the choices that are in their best short- and long-term interests; employers will be fair to employees who will see themselves as equal partners selling a valuable product, their labour, at a mutually recognized market value.
They say this at the exact same time that they have recognized we have a national mental health crisis that is in no small part being exacerbated by work cultures that don't empower individuals who themselves don't feel like they have control over their lives or their labour.  They say this while employing crass, manipulative ads in the context of staged political scenarios with the intent of tricking voters into giving them the results they want.
Tony Clement has done nothing to help transition Federal Employees being laid off - in fact, his casual attitude to yellow slips has exacerbated stress and related powerlessness among the employees he is responsible for, and this in spite of the fact he had a ready-made staff-transition strategy that just needed a bit of commitment on his part to enact.
RBC wasn't going to do anything for its casually dismissed employees, either, until they got caught; the bank sees no value in helping those who don't fit within their narrow mandate, even when they're employees.  Will RBC's wrist-slapping encourage other players engaging in callous foreign-service manipulations to see the light and change their practice?  No - they'll instead work extra hard at not getting caught.
Companies selling products or services aren't attempting to make rational cases as to why they have the best products - instead, they're employing increasingly clever marketing to force responses from consumers.  There's nothing natural about supply and demand - the demand is largely manufactured through psychological manipulation.
People aren't rational actors, plain and simple.  When everyone is encouraged to put their own interests first, tragedies of the commons result - tragedies which invariably impact some more than others.  Those predators who land at the top of the food chain can say they are entitled to their wealth and that if those at the bottom wanted more, they'd work for it - but that's delusional; not everyone is born with a shiv in hand, nor the fortune of supportive families or inherited wealth.  We can point to the odd rags-to-riches story to convince ourselves it is possible, but these stories are the exception, not the rule.
The classic economic system does work - but in the same way natural selection does.  Unless we're willing to kill off under performers or simply allow them to die, we will always have an obligation to think beyond our own selfish interests.  Given the real cost of social cancers like poverty, crime and epidemics, one would think that the so-called rational actors at the top would recognize the need to walk the walk when it comes to pro-social engagement, but they don't.  Instead they see their role as "keeping the system going", meaning making themselves money and staying competitive.  Somehow, the system is supposed to take care of the rest.
This leads to the notion of society having two tiers - rational actors who can and should compete on an equal playing field and those who are either criminals or incompetent; both need to be removed from the economy and taken care of separately.  Hence prisons and insane asylums.  But we're finding over time that many of those slotted into the "non-participant" category do have something to offer and can participate, given the right training and accommodation.  How many disabled people who would have been marginalized in the past are now able to offer more to the system?  How many people wear glasses or use hearing aids, or take medication for asthma, diabetes or mental illnesses?
We're trying to reduce a social system into an economic equation, putting a sphere into a square.  It can't work.  It's proven not to work. 
Until we stop stupidly telling ourselves that "the economy" is the only thing that matters, we won't even be able to recognize the broader system we're in.  If we're ever to nurture a social system that works for everyone, we need to spend more time considering social economics.
And if we aren't interested in fostering a system that works for everyone, we will continue to live with the baggage of those supposedly left behind.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Brainwashing in A Clockwork Orange

Governments have been using brainwashing techniques for years, and there have been many different scientific methods used throughout modern history to obtain desired effects from people’s minds. The term brainwashing actually developed out of the methods of Communist China. As Robert Jay Lifton describes, “It [Brainwashing] was first used by an American journalist, Edward Hunter, as a translation of the colloquialism hsi nao (literally, “wash brain”) which he quoted from Chinese informants who described its use following the Communist takeover” (Lifton 3). A good example of Chinese brainwashing is the treatment of American prisoners. Prisoners would often be heavily interrogated in addition to being forced to read and discuss Communist propaganda with groups. Prisoners were made to feel like criminals and were often mentally swayed into thinking that they did something wrong, and therefore, giving confessions, etc (Lifton 19-37). Undoubtedly, fear, intimidation, and violence were common tools.
The Russian Soviets also used brainwashing techniques in the 1930s and later. Soviet prisoners were harshly interrogated to the point of confessions in much more solitary settings than the Chinese used. The Chinese used brainwashing mostly for “individual re-education and reform” while the Soviets used brainwashing to elicit confessions and punish individual criminals (O’Neill/Demos 20-21). The desired effects of brainwashing were not always negative. For example, during World War II, the process of “drug abreaction” was being used on soldiers to alleviate painful memories. The term “drug abreaction” was a product of the work of Breuer and Freud. They came up with the theory that in order to rid patients of the painful effects of traumatic memories, people had to bring the memories vividly back to the surface and be talked through them. Ether was a common drug used by psychotherapists during World War II to force soldiers to remember ugly wartime memories. These soldiers would then be talked through their pain and often come out of this drugged state without the mental anguish associated with these memories (Sargant 65-74). In A Clockwork Orange, drugs are used in a negative way to condition Alex’s brain in a way that cuts off his ability to make free choices. Alex describes the horror of the brainwashing and says, “Because I did not think it was possible for any veck to even think of making films of what I was forced to viddy, all tied to this chair and my glazzies made to be wide open” (Burgess 106). The process of conditioning Alex towards non-violence through films and music is known in the novel as the Ludovico Technique. This process is a form of responsive conditioning (Landini 1), where patients are trained to respond in desired ways to certain stimulants.
Alex is rendered physically ill by violence and even Beethoven. Alex states, “Then I noticed, in all my pain and sickness, what music it was that like crackled and boomed on the sound-track, and it was Ludwig van, the last movement of the Fifth Symphony, and I creeched like bezoomny at that” (Burgess 113). This link between his physical illness and Beethoven could be contributed to the fact that a part of the brain called the Amygdala is associated with both the emotional effects of music and “fear and recognition of emotions” (Landini 6). Alex is experiencing fear in association with Beethoven’s music. William Sargant talks about how shock treatment has been used to disturb the brain prior to conditioning it. Psychotherapists used these “psychological shocks” to eliminate mental disorders and other problems (Sargant 81-82).
Orwell spins this in a negative light as well by having O’Brien electrically shock Winston in 1984 until he is mentally exhausted and confused enough to believe anything Big Brother wants him to believe. At one point, O’Brien shocks Winston and Orwell explains, “He [Winston] started and almost cried out. A pang of pain had shot through his body. O’Brien had pushed the lever of the dial up to thirty-five” (Orwell 263). The brainwashing that Winston endures is absolutely brutal. Burgess and Orwell both try to warn us of a dark future by utilizing drug therapy, responsive conditioning, and shock therapy as the tools of evil totalitarian governments.
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Political Grit: Courage Under Attack Ads

Judging by how much the political pundits prattle on about the potency of negative advertising, you'd think the commentariat all have PhDs in Industrial Psychology. 
Of course attack ads have an impact - they are designed to have the same emotional impact of a car crash, or a bombing for that matter.  The goal is to create the impression of a threat (like a contagion or incompetence) that people will reactively distance themselves from.  Our emotional hard-wiring is also essential in the memory creation process - for the same reason Alex feared the 5th, political ads can program audiences to respond negatively to desired stimuli.
For a Party that's supposed to dislike social engineering, the Conservatives seem to be overfond of brainwashing, but I digress.
By focusing on the negative, these pundits might be building the narrative that suits their needs, but they're missing the other half of the equation.  Yes, negative contexts draw public attention, but they do so because of an innate need for security and an instinct to group together in the face of threat. 
The reverse is also true - we are drawn together to address adversity and are inclined to follow those who show the strength to overcome challenges and keep moving forward.  Remember Abraham Lincoln?  He was a dismal failure at everything he did, except those things he is remembered for.  It's important for us to see our leaders fall - it's by how they learn to pick themselves back up that we judge them.  We also seek leaders who seem to know where that path forward lies, which is why fortune-telling, political prognosticating and polling are all such well-funded pursuits.
Negative attacks draw our attention, but they also mobilize us.  The response to the Boston Marathon attack was rapid, coordinated and inspiring - people touched by tragedy and strangers watching from distant corners all dove in with resources, advice and prayers.  Partially because there was this sense of community that formed out of the attack, the post-event consideration has been reflective; more people are interested in understanding and addressing the root causes behind the attack in the hopes of proactively cutting off the next one at the pass than they are looking for a lynching.
Herein lies Trudeau's opportunity.  The Conservatives have drawn all eyes to his perceived failings, laying them bear, so to speak, for the entire world to see.  They have collectively got us looking at Trudeau through a critical, emotional lens.  The unspoken question on the public's lips is "does Trudeau have true grit?
The Liberal Party should accept the gauntlet handed them and answer with an affirmative "hell yes."  Trudeau the younger has inherited some of the steel that made his father's gaze so piercing; that simmering cool should be used as much as possible.  Justin Trudeau has also demonstrated a leader's skill in saying first what everyone else will be saying next.  The wording could have been refined, but everyone - including Stephen Harper - wants to know why tragedies like the Boston Marathon, Newtown, Virgina Tech, etc.  keep happening so we can do something to prevent them.

Whack-a-mole politics simply isn't enough - it's not emotionally sustainable.  Whatever the ladder-climbers might like to tell themselves, people will take security over aggression nine times out of ten - and the tenth will only be if they're already hardwired for agitation themselves.
Harper's armour is decidedly showing some chinks - despite all his tough talk about real leaders being decisive, he himself has a habit of backing down.  His ideological policy focus of decentralize, disengage and sell oil is backfiring on all fronts; there's demand for centrally-coordinated healthcare strategies, Canada is being blasted for backing away from our human rights obligations and as a result of all this, it's getting harder to shill the Oil Sands.  Add to this a caucus rebellion and a progressively louder protest movement in Canada; you don't have to scratch the surface very far to see how fragile Harper's leadership truly is.
While Harper cloisters himself from the troubles lapping at his shores and employs his team in efforts to smack-down opponents, Trudeau is standing tall in the media storm with a twinkle in his eye.  Team Trudeau effectively used the attack ad the political experts have said is so effective as an opportunity to display what kind of leader their man would make; not a guy who hides from attacks but a man who turns an opponent's slings and arrows into gold for the people.
The model to follow here is Dalton McGuinty from 2003 - turning every hit into a demonstration of worth and simultaneously (with empathy) portraying the ruling guy as without wind in his sails.  Not going negative is not the same thing as not responding at all - instead, the best response is to use an opponent's force against them.
People will rally to keep out a threat, but when gifted with inspirational leadership, they'll also come together with aspirations of building something greater than they can achieve as individuals.
Personal grit and social inspiration; if that's not what liberalism is about, I don't know what is.