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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 9 January 2015

Twitter Maps


Twitter heatmap shows the #jesuischarlie hashtag 


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I’ve been tracking geotagged tweets from Twitter’s public API for the last three and a half years. There are about 10 million public geotagged tweets every day, which is about 120 per second, up from about 3 million a day when I first started watching. The accumulated history adds up to nearly three terabytes of compressed JSON and is growing by four gigabytes a day. And here is what those 6,341,973,478 tweets look like on a map, at any scale you want.


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Canary in the Counter-Regime Coal Mine?

This is a very interesting statement, one which need not be applied solely to Extremist Islam.  Communism was about a counter-regime, as were the French and America revolutions.  The Open Gov movement has something of a counter-regime vibe to it, as do movements like the Tea Party and Occupy.
Then there's this:
Do leaders wrap themselves in the flag, try to co-opt or replace national symbols, make it feel like they are the natural governing party?  Of course they do.
And finally:
How do you define authoritarian?
Does irrational discourse do things like ignore evidence in favour of ideological positions?
Have different forms of clamping down oppositional voices been introduced in countries closer to and including home?
I wonder if we're looking at outliers, or a global trend.

Thursday 8 January 2015

The Depiction of Mohammed: The Golden Calf of Islam


A political segue, then back to Islam.

Political satire has always had a prominent role in democratic or quasi-democratic societies.  Just as much as, say, the US Democrats or the Canadian Conservatives will portray their leader as God-like in their infallibleness and create idolistic images of them, their opponents will crank out lampoons.

Some examples:

Look at that.  Primary colours, up-tilted chin, HOPE - this is Obama as Jesus.
Then we have this - Obama as comedian, as caricature.
Lampooning characterizations such as this serve a societal purpose - they counter the partisan deification of leaders, heads of movements or organizations and the like.  It used to be the case that images were better vehicles to convey critical (and humanizing) opinions of leaders to populations with varying degrees of literacy.  These days, cartoons carry messages to people too busy to read opinion pieces.
Of course, political parties want voters to think of their leader as prophet-like and infallible; they want voters to believe that only they can solve whatever problems are on the table and keep threats at bay.
It's not for nothing that political rallies tend to follow the same format as evangelical religious services.  It's also no surprise that Kool-Aid-drinking partisans sometimes get really mad when they see their guy or gal made fun of; it's like someone's painting a moustache on their Mona Lisa. 
They've invested in that leader, they don't want to see him or her devalued. 
It's idolatry, basically - we transform individuals into creatures of mythic proportions and ascribe to them all sorts of powers and expectations that exceed their humanity. 
And it's not just partisans that do it - we all do it.  We turn celebrities into role models and damn them for human frailties we justify in lesser beings (like ourselves).  Similarly, we ascribe meaning to things beyond the purposes they serve.  Brands are the best example of this, but you could refer to hammers and ploughs as symbols of peace or a flag as a symbol of a people and ideology and say the same thing.
By the same token, traditions that serve a purpose at one point in time will be retained long after that purpose has disappeared, and take on new, ascribed meaning.
In Westminster Parliaments, Speakers are, by tradition, escorted to their chairs.  There was a time when this was a practical thing, because being the Speaker wasn't a desirable position.  Now Members of Parliament actively want and campaign to be Speaker, but the tradition remains.
In  Korea, it's polite to touch your wrist with your free hand while pouring tea or shaking hands.  Why?  Because at one time, traditional clothing had longer sleeves that had to be pulled out of the way for these functions to be filled.
We're creatures of custom.  We rely on symbols to understand and communicate our world.  We have a habit of embuing powers and magic to symbols beyond what they have themselves.
We are, in essence, idolaters.
Now back to Islam.
Like all religions, Islam has taken on new traditions and symbolic meanings over its existence.  Some of its original intentions have likewise been lost or changed through time and interpretation.  These changes, as with all cultural evolutions, follow predictable paths; just as you can predict with some degree of accuracy how a language will evolve, you can safely assume that in any given religion, symbolism will grow and will often end up countering intent.
In Christianity, the Protestant Reformation was a response to this drift.
Let's apply this logic to Mohammed cartoons and run with it a bit.
- the intent behind not depicting Mohammed (or other prophets like Abraham, Moses or Jesus) was to reduce the chance of human messengers being deified as idols in and of themselves.
Given the deification of Jesus (if you're non-Christian and don't believe Jesus was the son of God) and the idolization of the golden calf, that would have made sense.  Behavioural Economics and political marketing only reinforce this message.
- the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other related murders or indemnifications of satirical (and non-satirical) depictions of Muhammad were responses to a perceived blasphemy, ie disrespecting of the prophet.
I don't believe any radicalized self-proclaimed Muslim has taken anyone to task for The Interview, or killed anyone who's lampooned Barack Obama.  Which means they are holding Mohammed to a different standard than other men.  Which, if the premise of "don't depict, don't idolize" is true, means that they're missing the point.
By insisting that Mohammed cannot be caricatured, radicals are doing by omission what they theoretically should be standing against by inclusion - they are idolizing Mohammed as something more than a man. 
How would Mohammed feel about this?  Would he approve of the way people are killing other people in his defense?  Or would it make him do a faceplant?
A man is flesh and blood; he can be killed, caricatured, forgotten - but as a symbol, he can become a rallying point or a validation for things like self-dehumanization and murdering one's neighbour.
If the idolization of Mohammed is not Islam, if the slaughter of children is not Islam, then it stands to reason that what is being called radical Islam (as represented by ISIL and the Charlie Hebdo murderers) would be best characterized as something other than Islam.  It's funny in a dark-humour kind of way, when you think of it.
There's plenty of precedent for this deviation from the path in Abrahamic religions, after all.
I won't pretend to have the final answer on this.  After all, I'm only mortal.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Over the Heads: At Least Baird's Consistent

Why does this sound familiar?  Oh riiight:
I guess it's a good thing Baird's consistent, but it strikes me as concerning that he wants to treat Canada's elected Parliament and the government of Iran. 
The connective tissue seems to be that Baird wants to talk directly to people without peer critique of his message.
There are governments out there who block people's access to information, monitor them excessively and penalize them if they speak against the prevailing ideology.
Then there are governments who simply stop the collection and analysis of information, but still monitor people excessively and penalize them for speaking against the prevailing ideology by firing, defunding or simple intimidation.
It strikes me that all around, we have too much talking to and talking at going on; instead of actual communication, messaging and spin are the order of the day.
That has to change.  It's going to change.  It's changing already.
Do you hear the people sing?  (in a unified chorus, no less)
I just hope that the John Bairds of the world are listening.

Humanity and The Social Construct

Last April, while in Germany for the annual commemoration of the liberation of Buchenwald, I had an interesting chat with a German friend about the term Jedem Das Seine.
Translated, the phrase means "to each their own."  I had always interpreted it to mean "you're on your own," which is the message the Nazis clearly meant to convey when they had it built into the gates of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
This was not the interpretation of my friend; she went back to Goethe and suggested the intended meaning was "to each according to their needs."  Instead of everyone being on their own, it was more a matter of people having access to whatever they needed to succeed.  For some, that might be very little; for others, it could be a wheelchair, or psychological support, or dialysis.
The idealists coined a phrase that was pro-social and expansive in nature; the ideologues twisted it into something isolationist and sinister.
What does any of this have to do with society?
With her comments, Thatcher means well, and she does make a point worth considering.  It's the same point that Ayn Rand tried to make:
There is no such entity as "the public."  As individuals, supposedly rational actors, this makes sense to us.  You're not me, I'm not you, right?  We live and die as individuals.
Only we don't.  We can be infected by illnesses transmitted by others.  We can be hit by cars driven by others, innovated by others still.  Economic crashes aren't caused by us, but they impact us.
Conversely, when we individually work, earn money, pay taxes, buy goods, we're engaged in a system of exchange with, ideally, positive implications for everyone.
The only way to truly not be part of that system is to be a hermit - not the North Pond kind of hermit, who still relied on society for survival, but the kind that lives in the wild, hunts, builds their own shelter, like a wild animal.
Even then, though, you'd be part of a system - the ecosystem.  You'd kill for food, deposit waste, use air and take up space.
As human beings, we are part of many systems, layered together.  We may think we live apart from nature, because we're in cities and such, but that isn't true; we're surrounded by nature ranging from grass to birds and squirrels, not to mention germs.  We eat food that comes from somewhere, our waste has to go somewhere.  We're not hermetically sealed off from the rest of nature.
But we think we are.  We think we've evolved beyond nature, or above nature, because we're civilized.
One of the men who died was wearing a t-shirt, no sweater, no jacket.  Clearly, he had it coming.  But why didn't he have a jacket?  Why didn't he have what he needed to survive?
Is that not our problem, because we have to put ourselves first?  If our duty is to look after ourselves first, are those who fail to look after themselves first not really human?  What of parents who put their own interests ahead of those of their children?  Are they more or less human?
This line of thought can go on from your children to your neighbour's children to the homeless man on the street to dead journalists in France or the children killed by ISIL.
We ignore the well-being of the man on the street because it's up to him to look after what we identify as his own self-interest.  ISIL kills children because they are looking after what they have identified as their self-interest.  Or rather, God's interest as interpreted by them.
The world is fixed, what happens is beyond our capacity, God has pre-ordained all.  We have no responsibility to be responsible.
North America used to be home to a lot of mega-fauna.  They're all gone now.  So too are Neanderthals and Denisovans.  There can be no question that many of humanity's surviving primate cousins are also facing extinction due to our actions.
No one alive today was there; we don't know what happened, nor can or should we claim responsibility for it.  What we can do, however, is extrapolate from the past to understand the present and, to some degree, predict the future.
The man with no jacket died because no one gave him one.  The children murdered in cold blood were killed because they were seen as threats to the purity of ISIL's vision.
We drive other species to extinction for their fur, their hands, their tusks, their land.  They have something we want - not necessarily need - and we take it.  They have needs that are impacted by our actions, but we don't recognize or choose not to care.  Whether intentional or not, malicious or not, these creatures were killed by humans.
Because we looked to ourselves first.  Sometimes.
Raising children takes - and always has taken - a lot of hope - Elizabeth Kolbert
Humans do crazy things, risky things; we explore for no reason, we climb mountains because they are there, occasionally we give others the jacket off our backs.
Not all of us, clearly, but enough of us to make a difference.  Otherwise, there would be no technology, no colonization of new worlds, no civilization.
With civilization comes a brand new kind of co-dependence, which is our second system.  We still rely on and are part of the overall ecosystem, but we're part of another system, too - a social one tied to human constructs like infrastructure and economies.  Much of what we do in a social context is antithetical to self-interest. 
Any other species - and many humans alive today - would think it madness to spend up to six hours a day cramped into tight commutes, contort oneself into cubicles to strain eyes and build stress, only to earn money to buy overpriced things that aren't needed and often do nothing beyond collect dust.  Yet that's what we do, isn't it? 
Is that really self-interest?  Why on earth would we choose to think so?  Why would we pat ourselves on the back for success that negatively impacts our health, strains our familial relationships, all in the interest of being adored or feared by people we'll never meet?
Consciously or not, trade-offs are being made.  Sacrifices are being made.  In supposedly serving our self-interests as individuals, we are being part of a system. 
A system that, perhaps, is doing to humanity what we have done to other species throughout our existence.
“With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens, is also the capacity to destroy it.”
Words are symbols; they solidify abstract concepts into unique and (theoretically) consistent wholes.  Logos do the same, as do styles of dress.  Concepts are also symbols; there is no zero in the real world, yet it's something we have been able to create.  The economy is something we have created, though really it's a fancy way of isolating one component of an ecosystem of trade-offs from all the rest.
What of the individual? 
We celebrate individuals, and individuality, but not everyone does.  At the same time, all the individuals that are us remain part of systems; like hands, or cells of an ecosystemic body.  In fact, the raw material of which we are made comes from other organisms; our matter comes from what we consume.  Our DNA is passed on to our children, and was passed on to us by our parents.  We call ourselves individuals, but we are equally vessels, and conduits, and components.
It's not society that's a construct; it's the individual that's a construct.
Worth noting, as well - if there is any one thing that sets humans apart from other animals that informs our power to both create and destroy, it's our ability to collaborate.


Tuesday 6 January 2015

It's All Coming Together - Down There

Strengthening our nation.  Resilience.  Shared Responsibility.  Emergency preparedness.

Digital tools, innovation, community engagement, open government, cross-sectoral collaboration, problem solving, creating a big-bad that everyone can unite against (natural Armageddon) and empowering everyone to be part of win-win solutions.
Why can't we be doing this here?

What Pictures Tell

Both are smiling.  Both look comfortable, relaxed, like they're having fun.
Wynne's a bit cleaner in her appearance than Harper is; the absence of a tie helps with his relaxed look, but results in more visible rumples in his shirt.
Plus, he's got a small green folder in front of him.  This could symbolize nothing; it could imply that his Ontario File is a small one.  It also makes him look a bit like a kid at school.
Premier Wynne, however, has a professional folder in front of her.  Added to her overall look, she looks more the role of engaged, properly-resourced leader than Harper does.
And they both have Canadian flags behind them.
I can see why Team Harper released this pic, but were I them, I would have framed it differently.


Of Short-Term Memories and Political Baubles

Stephen Harper is a stubborn ideologue with something of a superiority complex.  It's not for nothing that he's ended up Prime Minister.  But it's not for nothing that he's stayed Prime Minister for so long, either.
Harper is also politically savvy.  He knows how to play the game, whatever you think of his actual policy.
Which brings up an interesting point. 
While it's common wisdom in politics that voters have short-term memories, this isn't necessarily the case.  What's more accurate, I think, is that voters are more emotionally rooted in the present than they are in the past.
Can a government ignore the majority of a populace for three years, so long as they throw out some shiny baubles in the race to the finish line?  Is everything old forgiven by a few treats that are new?
Political operatives think so.  They always have.
There's a big difference, however, between fixing election odds and fixing our ailing democracy. 
That's not the mandate of political people, though - they're in it to win, full stop.  If we want structural solutions, we have to look to ourselves to see it done.  Which requires long-term commitment that won't show return for a while.
Such is the challenge of our times.