Monday, July 03, 2006

Time to go

I began Windy Weather in May of last year as an experiment. I wanted to see what it was like to run a website, and I also hoped the blog might attract visitors interested in various social, political, and philosophical ideas. With regard to the first objective, the experiment has been a success. I’ve enjoyed learning how to put together, or at least modify, a web page, and I think the result has been satisfactory. (For example, I like the look of this page, especially the title logo, which I created in the composite manner of Victor Frankenstein, but with happier results. And after much frustration, I figured out how to create a favicon for the site.)

On the other hand, in terms of tossing my messages-in-bottles out into the sea, it’s been a flop. Hardly anyone reads this blog. To the three or four people who have been coming here fairly frequently, I can say that without you Windy Weather would not have lasted this long. Most of the others who visit do so more or less by happenstance (for example, because they want to find out about “windy weather” in their area, or because they’re obsessed with a certain Mongolian beauty-pageant contestant, who’s name I once mentioned). There’s been no snowball effect, no feverish buzz in the blogosphere. (Or perhaps the fever melted the snowball.) I might have got a few more readers if I had enabled “comments”, but I figured that would result in my wasting even more time on the computer, and I doubt it would have made much difference anyway.

I had hoped that people might be drawn to all the useful links on the right-hand side here, which are magic portals into all sorts of fascinating and informative sites around the world. No such luck. Still, I often use these links myself, so it hasn’t all been for nought.

Now that I’m off to Europe for a while, I think it’s a good time to put this blog into suspended animation. Whether it will ever be revived, I can’t say. It would probably take a kiss from a beautiful princess or else an imperious command from the Galactic Overlords. Meanwhile, I hope that whenever I get the urge to write a brilliantly insightful commentary on what’s happening in the world, I’ll do something constructive instead, like going for a bicycle ride or popping open a cold beer.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Children's literature

During the last federal election campaign, fellow blogger James Bow invited his readers to forecast the results. As it turned out, I came fourth in the contest, and, as a prize, James generously sent me a copy of his just-published novel for young people, The Unwritten Girl. The story is a clever fantasy about a girl who must enter the Land of Fiction in order to rescue her brother from mental illness, and who, in the process, ends up learning about herself and about life. Bow writes well and the story has the ingredients of good children's literature: it has a moral, but the moral is integral to the story and doesn't get in the way of what is likely to prove a satisfying adventure for the young reader. I understand that this is James Bow's first published fiction as a professional; I'm sure it won't be his last. All those unwritten books of his look promising.

Speaking of books for young people, I also recommend just about anything by Kit Pearson. My particular favourite by her is Awake and Dreaming, a terrific story with vividly drawn characters, which blends fantasy and realism, and which won the Governor General's Award. Moreover, much of it is set just around the corner (literally, around two corners) from where I live. Another novel with a local setting, this one a historical fantasy, is White Jade Tiger by Julie Lawson. Travelling further afield, to the exotic U.S.A., there's the absolutely gripping quartet by Caroline B. Cooney that begins with The Face on the Milk Carton.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fear and loathing among the apes

The news has been building for some time now that the Spanish parliament may be about to recognize that great apes should be accorded certain basic legal protections. That is, not only humans, but the other great apes too. This news has been met with controversy and ridicule, as well as approval. Are the wacko Socialists and Greens of Spain about to give chimpanzees the right to drive motor vehicles, to run for parliament, and to sit on the boards of major corporations? Will young Spanish children now have to share their kindergarten desks with gorillas? Well, not exactly. If Spanish legislation were to follow the ideals of the Great Ape Project, chimpanzees ("common" and bonobo), gorillas, and orangutans would acquire legal rights to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. In the words of the Declaration on Great Apes:
We demand the extension of the community of equals to include all great apes: human beings, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang-utans.

The community of equals is the moral community within which we accept certain basic moral principles or rights as governing our relations with each other and enforceable at law. Among these principles or rights are the following:

1. The Right to Life
The lives of members of the community of equals are to be protected. Members of the community of equals may not be killed except in very strictly defined circumstances, for example, self-defense.

2. The Protection of Individual Liberty
Members of the community of equals are not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; if they should be imprisoned without due legal process, they have the right to immediate release. The detention of those who have not been convicted of any crime, or of those who are not criminally liable, should be allowed only where it can be shown to be for their own good, or necessary to protect the public from a member of the community who would clearly be a danger to others if at liberty. In such cases, members of the community of equals must have the right to appeal, either directly or, if they lack the relevant capacity, through an advocate, to a judicial tribunal.

3. The Prohibition of Torture
The deliberate infliction of severe pain on a member of the community of equals, either wantonly or for an alleged benefit to others, is regarded as torture, and is wrong.
It is surely a sad commentary on human civilization in the twenty-first century that we are still debating – indeed, have only begun to debate – whether torturing and killing our nearest relatives is acceptable. Passage of legislation in Spain would mark a giant leap for apekind, both because it would hold out some hope (though no certainty) that our relatives may be saved from extinction and enabled to live relatively free lives, and because it would mark significant progress in human ethical thinking, by removing some non-humans from the legal category of property and recognizing their intrinsic moral worth.

It is this last bit – recognizing the intrinsic moral worth of members of other species – that is generating fear and loathing among human apes. Although chimpanzees have cognitive faculties roughly equivalent to those of normal three-year-old human children, there is fierce resistance to granting them the right not to be killed, tortured, eaten, orphaned, kept in tiny cages, deliberately infected with fatal diseases, or to have their body parts used for trinkets or medicines. As I've suggested before, this resistance to admitting non-humans into the moral community is to a large degree based on existential dread: it is only by asserting our right to dominate and exploit other sentient creatures that we can overcome the fear that we will share their ultimate fate, that of being abandoned by God and Nature – of being treated as if we were animals: that is, of being treated the way we treat others who are not human. We must continue to treat animals like animals to prove to ourselves that we are not just animals who will be treated like animals.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Bottle of wine

Paul McCartney is 64.
Veronica Lodge, who was born the same year as Paul, is still 16.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Long Emergency

James Howard Kunstler has been in town, to attend a conference on urban planning and to talk about the coming Long Emergency, as he calls it. Kunstler is a witty and engaging public speaker, who can make his audience roar with laughter as he describes (and illustrates with slides) the ugliness of North American urban sprawl and the hideousness of much modern architecture. If we didn’t laugh, we’d have to cry. The problem with our urban environment, as he points out, isn’t that “it’s all the same” (no one complains of Tuscan hill towns or of Parisian streets that “it’s all the same”); the problem is that so much of it is inhuman and alienating, lacking in the proportions and appropriate design that make for a welcoming sense of public space.

Kunstler argues that the end of cheap oil will soon force radical changes in our lives. The suburbs and the suburban way of life will be toast. Cities will of necessity become smaller, and will rely more on waterways and ports for the delivery of goods. The rail networks will have to be rebuilt and upgraded. Overall, however, life will become intensely local, and urban centres that do not have access to locally produced food will be in trouble. It’s madness, says Kunstler, to construct buildings more than seven stories high. With power outages likely to be fairly common, living on the 18th floor of a building will not be a good idea.

Kunstler rejects the idea that technological innovation will enable us to overcome the crisis with little disruption of our comfortable way of life. Technology ≠ Power, he says. A jumbo jet can’t be fuelled with software. (He says that the young millionaire nerds at Google headquarters to whom he talked just didn’t grasp this elementary fact.) He doesn’t believe that alternative energy sources like wind or solar power – or even nuclear power – can be adequate replacements for oil and gas. And he utterly rejects claims that the Alberta Tar Sands and its ilk can provide enough recoverable oil to significantly postpone the arrival of the Long Emergency. He says that people often ask him whether he can give them any hope, but he can’t do that. The only hope there can be is what comes from getting up off your rear end and doing something about the current state of affairs.

Footnote: Useful action must be guided by an intelligent analysis of the problem. And that includes understanding the capitalist economic system. It is interesting that a survey of some prominent British politicians and commentators finds many of them claiming that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is still relevant today. How many of their North American counterparts would dare say such a thing, even if they believed it? How many have the educational background to have a credible opinion on the matter?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Where's my stick?

And speaking of the CBC: Last night I watched a wonderful documentary on Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye about Diego Maradona, the Argentine footballer – followed by good old George Stroumboulopoulos interviewing Al Gore on The Hour. How fortunate we are to have the public network(s), which is not under quite the same pressure as other radio and television outlets to dumb down its content in pursuit of ratings.

Unfortunately, most people want dumb, as illustrated by both traditional mass media and the Web. Even overtly political blogs too often generate more heat than light. One high-traffic right-wing blog site, which shall go unnamed, illustrates the tendency to substitute name-calling for intelligent argument. The proprietress drops bits of food (“CBC”, “Liberals”, “United Nations”, “Tommy Douglas”, “multiculturalism”, “moral relativists”) into the tank, and the feeding frenzy is on. The piranhas enjoying their meal are dumb but vicious. You can click on “Comments” to lift the tank’s lid and peer inside. It’s tempting to take a stick and poke at the writhing mass with a provocative comment of one's own, just for the fun of it. (This is called “trolling”, or “a waste of time”.) Fortunately, several Canadian conservative bloggers do more than feed the fish: have a look at Andrew Coyne, Jay Currie, Bound by Gravity, and North Western Winds (this last having an interesting leaning toward Catholic theology).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Whose side are you on?

According to the lawyer for one of the accused, those suspected of planning terrorist attacks in Ontario are charged with targeting the CBC. So let's be very clear, folks: Either you're on the side of the CBC or you're on the side of the terrorists.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Let the good times roll

Mogadishu — An Islamic militia with alleged links to al-Qaeda seized Somalia's capital Monday after weeks of fighting with U.S.-backed secular warlords, raising fears that the nation could fall under the sway of Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.
Read more.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Crimes against baseball

Records, they say, are made to be broken. Arguably, however, some records are made not to be broken. It seems unlikely that anyone will ever break Wayne Gretzky's NHL single-season goal record of 92, or his career record of 894. If someone comes along who does, the sky won't fall. But when, in 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 home runs, it was as if he had committed sacrilege. The fact that the 61st homer was hit on the last day of the season, and that the season was eight games longer than in 1927, meant that Maris's feat went into the record books with that legendary asterisk. That the asterisk was non-existent on paper did not make it any less real in the public's mind. An upstart like Maris could not be allowed to tarnish the image of the Sultan of Swat.

Baseball is preeminently a sport of tradition. A game may last for three hours, but during most of that time next to nothing happens on the field. The pitcher throws to the catcher. The fielders stand motionless, at the ready. Then a long space. Then the pitcher throws to the catcher. The fielders stand motionless, at the ready. Then a long space. But in the spaces comes the commentary: the statistics, the replays, the stories of other games and other seasons. "That's only the third time since 1942 that a left-hand- hitting Cubs' shortstop batting in the number two position has been called out on the infield-fly rule in the bottom of the seventh inning." Baseball is a story told across the generations. What this story requires is a level playing field, so that Nolan Ryan can be measured against Walter Johnson or Roy Campanella against Pudge Rodriguez. Without the level playing field, the story degenerates into incoherence.

When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both smashed Maris's record in the same year, 1998, hitting 70 and 66 homes runs respectively, then hit 65 and 63 the next year, and when Barry Bonds then hit 73 home runs in 2001, you knew something had to be wrong. This was not coincidence. The playing field wasn't level any more. Now Bonds has surpassed Ruth's lifetime total of 714 home runs, and is headed for Hank Aaron's all-time mark of 755. Aaron had to endure racist taunts when he broke Ruth's 714 mark, but no one could reasonably deny that he had become the greatest home-run hitter ever. His 755 means something because it stands against Ruth's 714, just as Roger Maris's 61* was right up there with Ruth's 60. But what do those other numbers mean: 70, 66, 65, 63, 73, 715-and-counting? Not much, in my books.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Euston Manifesto: not a capital idea

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of Tony Blair. Indeed, the Euston Manifesto, which has the left wing of the blogosphere mildly abuzz, could have been written by the British Prime Minister. The Manifesto is presented to us as a bold reassertion of progressive political values, intended to reinvigorate an enervated left that has lost its way. What we get instead is a laundry list of things we should all be against (like evil dictators, racism, and suicide bombers) and things we should all be in favour of (like democracy, human rights, and, uh, open-source software).

The authors of the Euston Manifesto are clearly irritated by the descent in recent years of at least part of the left into post-modernist, politically-correct, namby-pamby relativism: the unwillingness to stand up and fight for universal humanist values, if need be with a rocket launcher. But they set up a straw man. An inordinate amount of the Manifesto is given over to denouncing unspecified leftists who allegedly are so blinded by anti-Americanism that they are prepared to apologize for the Saddam Husseins of the world. Many of those behind the Manifesto are supporters of the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq, and have clearly been stung by criticism aimed at them by former comrades. Their response is to reiterate the idea that since Saddam was a monster, it was incumbent on all who respect human rights to support his overthrow and that Iraq is better off without him. What they conveniently fail to add to that last bit is "all things being equal". But all things were not and are not equal. The invasion of Iraq was not a crusade to liberate the Iraqi people, after all else had failed. It was a major push for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and involved abruptly cutting short the massive U.N. inspection effort already under way at the time. The invasion has undermined the fragile framework of international law and arguably made the world an even more dangerous place. (But we are warned that to talk of imperialism is "simplistic".)

The fundamental failing of the Euston Manifesto is implicit in a word that is nowhere to be found in the document. That word is capitalism. We live in the era of the global triumph of capitalism. It is the economic system that rules the world and shapes the lives of everyone and the politics of all nations. As a system based on the need for never-ending growth, it is in the process of eating the planet alive. One does not have to be a Marxist or to believe that capitalism is incapable of being reformed (that's an open question, and a crucial one) in order to recognize that we must confront the workings of this global system. Yes, the Manifesto mentions globalization and economic inequalities, but the failure to speak directly of capitalism indicates a willful blindness. It is also symptomatic of the fact that the document is a call to arms without a coherent understanding of the problem, and with little in the way of a plan for achieving its goals.

Scott McLemee has an essay with the nice title "Euston.... We Have a Problem".