Crime And a Lack of Confidence

January 10, 2020

I subscribe to a number of neighbourhood email lists, and talk to residents every day, and from this anecdotal evidence alone, it is clear that a wave of break-ins and thefts has swept over parts of Grandview recently. On Venables Street, for example, a number of households in a single block were hit night after night with burglaries and robberies. A man was caught trying to break into my own building last week, thwarted by a neighbour who called the police. It does have locals concerned and talking.

And this local concern seems to fit into a general pattern across the region (shootings in Metro, etc) and indeed the country.  According to a recent Angus Reid report, crime has increased from a low in 2014, ticking up slightly each year since:

 

Along with that comes a fall in the confidence that Canadians have in the various parts of the justice system:

 

I don’t offer any opinions on what this all means; just wanted to share the data.

 


Looking For Love With The Oxford Comma

December 31, 2019

This post, first published on 22nd February, was the most viewed on my site in 2019:

 

Image: from Reddit

I have always used the Oxford comma. Because of it, I have been abused by grammar “purists”, marked down in school, and “corrected” by copy editors all my life it seems, but still I am happy to cheer lead for it. The battle for and against the Oxford comma is deeply divisive but limited, or so I thought, to those who write a lot. No more, according to an article in GQ:

“Recently, the Oxford comma has found a spot on the Bingo card of online-dating profiles, alongside mainstays like “no hookups,” “no drama,” and “420 friendly.” Whether you’re mindlessly grazing on Tinder or Bumble, OkCupid or Match.com, you’re now as likely to learn someone’s thoughts on the Oxford comma as you are their job title or their penchant for tacos. On the Tinder subreddit, which has 1.8 million subscribers, one user lamented that the Oxford comma features in “like a quarter of bios ’round my parts.” Another said, “It’s everywhere.” Even a journal entry on Tinder’s own blog mentions it: “Honestly, I’m not sure how compatible I can be with someone who is anti-the Oxford comma.”

I sympathize with that final cri de coeur.  However, is it really so important that it can affect your love life?  According to GQ, it is a reliable class signifier:

“The blue-blood punctuation mark, named after the Oxford University Press, acts as a social signifier, a sieve for the bookish and studious (and, perhaps, pretentious). It suggests personality traits that extend far beyond punctuation preferences …  I think it suggests care. It suggests somebody who’s structured and disciplined and not a slob … Somebody who’s into detail, who likes precision. Somebody who has standards.”

Gosh. Who knew?


The States They Are A’Changin’

December 29, 2019

As part of its end of year review the Pew Research Centre has issued a number of graphs and reports about the changing face of the United States.  As someone who believes in open borders and the power of diversity, I was particularly interested in the following conclusions.

 

 

These major demographic trends will doubtless create a more interesting and pluralistic society.  However, I have concerns that the nativist white identity culture enraged and encouraged by the current crop of GOP leadership will fall back on violent means to retain their grip on power. The long term hope has to be in the youth of the country who seem, in general at least, to be far less interested in ideas of racial purity.  Fingers crossed.


Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


For International Women’s Day

March 8, 2019

To me, it is a no-brainer that women should be — and should be treated as — equal to men in all respects.  Arguments against this thesis — whether by religionists (of any faith), GOPers, Tories, and other misogynists — do not rise above the thinking of Neanderthals.  For anyone with a whit of common sense and a whiff of humanity it should be obvious, I would have thought. Unfortunately, that is not the case in many parts of the world.

In 2015, Pew Research conducted a Global Attitudes survey in 38 countries that revealed significant differences of opinion. I doubt the figures have changed much since then.

[select image for a better view]

Even in countries, like Canada, the US, and the UK, which appear to score well in this survey, women are still not treated as equals when it comes to pay and opportunities in management, the professions, and science.  The 2016 US Presidential election revealed a continuing deep distrust (at best) regarding the possibility of a woman taking the top job.

There are structural gender issues that have to be fixed in all societies but that doesn’t mean to say we should leave the fix for politicians to deal with.  Far from it. If, as individuals, we all are careful to treat every other individual as a human being rather than as a member of some group or other, then we can solve this unhappy situation far quicker and more completely than any legislation.


Leisure Time

February 26, 2019

A new analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Pew Research is illuminating changes in time usage by North American teenagers.

The Pew research notes:

“Teens now enjoy more than five and a half hours of leisure a day (5 hours, 44 minutes). The biggest chunk of teens’ daily leisure time is spent on screens: 3 hours and 4 minutes on average. This figure, which can include time spent gaming, surfing the web, watching videos and watching TV, has held steady over the past decade. On weekends, screen time increases to almost four hours a day (3 hours, 53 minutes), and on weekdays teens are spending 2 hours and 44 minutes on screens …

Over the past decade, the time spent socializing – including attending parties, extracurriculars, sporting or other entertainment events as well as spending time with others in person or on the phone – has dropped by 16 minutes, to 1 hour and 13 minutes a day.”

The report also illustrates differences between girls and boys:

Perhaps more important than the actual time differences are differences in attitude:

” the way boys and girls feel about their day also differs in some key ways. A new survey by Pew Research Center of teens ages 13 to 17 finds that 36% of girls say they feel tense or nervous about their day every or almost every day; 23% of boys say the same. At the same time, girls are more likely than boys to say they get excited daily or almost daily by something they study in school (33% vs. 21%). And while similar shares of boys and girls say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, be involved in extracurricular activities or fit in socially, girls are more likely than boys to say they face a lot of pressure to look good (35% vs. 23%).”

A useful study, I think.


Cultural Impact

February 23, 2019

A recent study has analysed the demographics of the artists included in 18 major museums in the US, a sample that included more than 40,000 artworks.  It will probably not be an amazing surprise to learn:

“[t]hey estimate that 85 percent of artists represented in these collections are white and 87 percent are men. (This is significantly out of step with the US population at large, which is 61 percent white and 50.2 percent male, according to census data.) ” [emphasis added]

While the article makes clear there are efforts afoot in the museum world to confront this diversity gap, I have to wonder how much of this gap was caused by a general sexist/racist bias in society as a whole, and how much in turn the gap in cultural collections feed and perpetuate that same white patriarchal mythology.

Which is cause and which is feedback?

 


Looking For Love With The Oxford Comma

February 22, 2019

Image: from Reddit

I have always used the Oxford comma. Because of it, I have been abused by grammar “purists”, marked down in school, and “corrected” by copy editors all my life it seems, but still I am happy to cheer lead for it. The battle for and against the Oxford comma is deeply divisive but limited, or so I thought, to those who write a lot. No more, according to an article in GQ:

“Recently, the Oxford comma has found a spot on the Bingo card of online-dating profiles, alongside mainstays like “no hookups,” “no drama,” and “420 friendly.” Whether you’re mindlessly grazing on Tinder or Bumble, OkCupid or Match.com, you’re now as likely to learn someone’s thoughts on the Oxford comma as you are their job title or their penchant for tacos. On the Tinder subreddit, which has 1.8 million subscribers, one user lamented that the Oxford comma features in “like a quarter of bios ’round my parts.” Another said, “It’s everywhere.” Even a journal entry on Tinder’s own blog mentions it: “Honestly, I’m not sure how compatible I can be with someone who is anti-the Oxford comma.”

I sympathize with that final cri de coeur.  However, is it really so important that it can affect your love life?  According to GQ, it is a reliable class signifier:

“The blue-blood punctuation mark, named after the Oxford University Press, acts as a social signifier, a sieve for the bookish and studious (and, perhaps, pretentious). It suggests personality traits that extend far beyond punctuation preferences …  I think it suggests care. It suggests somebody who’s structured and disciplined and not a slob … Somebody who’s into detail, who likes precision. Somebody who has standards.”

Gosh. Who knew?


The Ages Of The World

February 15, 2019

I found this fascinating map at the always reliable VisualCapitalist.com:

 

The difference in the age of populations between Africa and anywhere else in the world is striking.

Select image for a closer look.   There is a lot more data in the article.

 


Reason #236 NOT To Use Facebook

February 3, 2019

From TechCrunch:

“Facebook  has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity, a TechCrunch investigation confirms …

Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app … The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement ,,, For kids short on cash, the payments could coerce them to sell their privacy to Facebook.”

Seven hours after this story was published, Facebook told TechCrunch it would shut down the iOS version of its Research app in the wake of the report.

 

 

Previous Reasons NOT To Use Facebook.


Continuing Adult Education

January 22, 2019

I was waiting for a bus at a stop on Commercial the other day.  A gentleman who appeared to be about my age approached and sat down. He clearly wanted to chat.  English was not his first language, but we managed well enough.

After some small talk about the weather and buses, he asked me whether I worked or was retired. “Retired,” I beamed. He asked me if I liked being retired and why.  I explained that I have been retired for almost a decade, and that I love the lack of schedules, the ability to avoid doing things I didn’t enjoy, the lack of a boss. But what about money, he asked?  I told him that, for me, being free and self-managing was a lot better than being rich and under the gun.

He didn’t look convinced. It turns out that he retired just last November and he hasn’t yet gotten used to it.  I suspect that though money was an issue, he was much more concerned about lack of structure and lack of regular human contact.

It would be useful for corporations, perhaps, to help train their workers about the non-financial aspects of retirement. I don’t claim to know what that training should include, but over the years I have come across numerous retired workers who seem somewhat lost and confused without the structure and social relationships of a job.

Now that we live so long, retirement can be for decades. To manage that length of time a decent pension is vital, but it is far from the whole enchilada.


Reason #235 NOT To Use Facebook

January 20, 2019

RevealNews.org has uncovered documents showing how Facebook made money (or”inappropriately profited”) from children by exploiting the confusion some kids have between real and fantasy money.

“The lead plaintiff in the case was a child who used his mother’s credit card to pay $20 while playing a game on Facebook. The child, referred to as “I.B.” in the case, did not know the social media giant had stored his mom’s payment information. As he continued to play the game, Ninja Saga, Facebook continued to charge his mom’s credit card, racking up several hundred dollars in just a few weeks. The child “believed these purchases were being made with virtual currency, and that his mother’s credit card was not being charged for these purchases,” according to a previous ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Beth Freeman.  When the bill came, his mom requested Facebook refund the money, saying she never authorized any charges beyond the original $20. But the company never refunded any money, forcing the family to file a lawsuit in pursuit of a refund.

The documents — which have been withheld by the company for years — reveal “widespread confusion by children and their parents, who didn’t understand Facebook continued to charge them as they played games.”  Even Facebook employees worried about the issue:

“In nearly all cases the parents knew their child was playing Angry Birds, but didn’t think the child would be allowed to buy anything without their password or authorization first,” according to an internal Facebook memo. The memo noted that on other platforms, such as Apple’s iPhone, people were required to reauthorize additional purchases, such as by re-entering a password … Yet the company continued to deny refunds to children, profiting from their confusion.”

 

Previous Reasons Not To Use Facebook.


Morality Clauses and Twitter

January 18, 2019

Lionel Shriver has a fascinating piece in the Spectator USA about “morality clauses” in modern publishing contracts; clauses that void contracts “if, in a magazine’s ‘sole judgement’, they were the subject of ‘public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals’.”

Shriver gives an account of the use of such clauses in Hollywood to control writers, directors, and stars, and which in part led to the McCarthyite blacklists.  He goes on to note:

In kind, today’s broad, nonspecific publishing opt-outs in the event of an author’s incurring ‘disrepute’ readily extend to thought crime — and the contemporary basket of ideological no-nos does nothing but burgeon. Off the top of my head, too-hot-to-handle topics now include anything to do with gender, sex, race, immigration, disability, social class, obesity and Islam (surely that list is too short).

The reason for their recent resurgence?  Twitter, says Shriver.

Enshrining mob rule in legal contracts can only further embolden the cranks, the kooks, the grumps — the sanctimonious, the embittered, the aggrieved. As word spreads that outrage on digital steroids can not only hound and intimidate writers, but can consign years of their hard work to the bin, the Twits are further motivated to crucify anyone who breaks their imaginary rules …

Yet this is a much larger matter than writers whingeing about their writery problems in their little writery world. It’s an issue for readers, of course, but it extends beyond readers as well. All forms of employment are now altogether too contingent on not attracting the contumely of the crowd.

Shriver concludes with advice for publishers:

It’s time for folks with institutional power to exercise independent judgment, rather than immediately disavowing overnight pariahs who only yesterday were their friends and colleagues. To refuse to respond to every mob at the door by picking up a baseball bat and joining the throng. You know who you are.

Well worth the read.


Bravo to Gillette!

January 16, 2019

 

This is a very brave corporate statement in support of #MeToo, noting that a large number of men need to change their actions and their thinking if we are ever to rid ourselves of a domineering patriarchy.

I’m not dumb enough to think they put this out without massive research in focus groups and elsewhere where they learned that it would not be a fatal mistake to launch such an “attack” on its own target market.  However, I am intelligent enough to recognise that Gillette didn’t need to do this, didn’t need to take the risk but did it away because it was the right thing to do.

The risk, of course, comes from the response to the ad by the large number of unreconstructed males, the very same group who perpetuate the problems highlighted in the ad.  A wide variety of these responses can be found most easily in the 1,650 comments on the YouTube video.

Some are simply sticking their head in the sand and hoping it will go away:  “RIP Gillette”, “Goodbye Gillette”, “buy anything but this product”, “you just lost a customer for life”, “what a bunch of fools”, etc.

Others were more expressive: “it feels like Gillette is calling me a rapist”, “the entire country is sick of feminism,” and the ad is “dripping with contempt for men.”

But the antediluvian rednecks were loudest: “Men get treated like they’re bad just for being a man,” for example. (Compare and contrast: “Nazis get treated like they’re bad just for being Nazis.”) Those responsible for the ad should be “put in camps to be worked to death”. They say the ad is “misogynistic and racist” but is “still not quite gay enough.” “Now we can’t even shave without radical feminist ideology.”

It is “left wing propaganda” paid for by “your liberal masters,” and is “a garbage political narrative.” One even suggested that “big corporation sides with communists in the culture war.”

How can the idea of treating people as people rather than as sexual or dominatable objects be considered “radical”?

Unfortunately, the number and extent of these comments proves that there is a genuine need for more public service messages of this kind.


News Addictions Anonymous

December 14, 2018

The always useful No Tech Magazine led me to Rolf Dobelli’s “Avoid News” essay in which he declares that the instant overwhelming availability of news leads to terrible evils for the mind and the body of the ordinary human being.

He proves to my satisfaction that the regime of news misleads us systematically, is irrelevant, limits understanding, is toxic to the body‘s limbic system, increases cognitive errors, and inhibits thinking.  It also changes the brain, is expensive and manipulative, makes us passive and decreases creativity.  He ends by describing a regime of news abstinence in which the body is gradually cleansed of the news disease.

I believe it all.  He’s nailed it.  I urge everyone to read it.  But I still can’t live it.

My name is Jak and I am a news junkie. I used to abuse news through every source, but now I’m mainlining it via Twitter and the radio.  TV is still useful for non-news material, but I don’t get any news from it any more.  The revolution is being tweeted. CNN and Fox are irrelevant, replaced by individuals using instant alerts with links to dozens of stories and broadcasts and background, expanding outward as far as the market will handle.

I accept Dobelli’s conclusions about the addiction’s negative effects. And I will stop.

But not  just yet.  Please.


Pandora’s Seed Fails To Blossom

December 13, 2018

I spent a week reading “Pandora’s Seed: The Unforseen Cost of Civilization” by the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells, and I was thoroughly disappointed.

I’m guessing that if it was a reader’s very first introduction to the disasters caused by the Neolithic Revolution — hierarchy, stress, planet destruction — then perhaps some of the chapters would be of value. But for the many who have studied this topic for a long time, including a couple of mentions on this blog, this was little more than a recap.

There was too much of the Sunday supplement style of writing, describing flights to exotic locales, cab journeys, and the minutia of other scientists’ looks.  I sometimes thought I was reading the lead-in to a People profile. He did have the occasional good line; perhaps the best of which correctly describes agriculture as “a virus, expanding in influence despite its negative effects on human health.”

But this was generally too shallow a dive for me.


Dirtiness Is Next to Godliness

December 11, 2018

When I was a kid, I bet I ate a whole field’s worth of dirt as I played.  My mates and I mucked around in the Thames which, in those days, was little better than a sewer; we got colds and upset stomachs and simply ran them off, more as likely in pouring rain.  Sometimes we got real diseases like mumps and measles but they were considered age appropriate and we all knew it would be over in a week or two.  If any of us had suggested we had an allergy to peanut butter, say, then we would have been stuffed with it until we got over it.  We spent our childhoods shaking hands with every germ and bacteria on the ground and in the air and we grew up to be a fairly healthy generation.

These days parents protect their kids from any kind of contamination and we have the sickest kids in history, I bet.  Many parents pride themselves on keeping their home environments as — or more — sterile than hospitals.  And yet their children have allergies to this and contra-indications to that.  They are as clean as they can be and they are sick as dogs.

I believe there is a direct relationship between the health of kids and the amount of dirt they eat.  The more bugs they collect early in life, the better immunities they develop later; and the more sniffles they get as a child the less likely they are to show hypochondriac tendencies as adults.  To put it another way, the less a household pays in cleansing and sanitizing and “protecting” their kids, the less they will need to spend in health care costs later.

This change from healthy dirt to dangerous prophylaxis has occurred within my lifetime.  How did it come about?  Marketing and capitalism, that’s how.

By the 1940s and 1950s, major industrial cleaning companies had developed a whole range of cleaning solutions.  No one really needed them, but the marketers set out to convince parents, mothers especially, that they were doing their children great harm if they did not use their products.  They used fear as the primary motivation — not only fear of sickness in their kids, but more viscerally the fear of appearing to be a bad mother. And they succeeded perhaps beyond their wildest dreams.

And now we are all paying for it, with a generation of children with allergies and neuroses and medical conditions that were almost unknown fifty years ago.  It sure did the Johnson & Johnsons and the Hoovers of the world a lot of good financially, but is this really progress?

 


Reason #234 NOT to use Facebook

November 18, 2018

This article from the New York Times is long and important.  It looks at the management practices espoused by Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and the serious issues that arisen.

” … as evidence accumulated that Facebook’s power could also be exploited to disrupt elections, broadcast viral propaganda and inspire deadly campaigns of hate around the globe, Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them from public view. At critical moments over the last three years, they were distracted by personal projects, and passed off security and policy decisions to subordinates, according to current and former executives …

While Mr. Zuckerberg has conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation.

Facebook’s internal investigation on the extent of Russia interference in the 2016 elections was thorough and devastating, and Zuckerberg and Sandberg decided to hide as much of it as possible, But pressure from Congress was too much:

After stalling for weeks, Facebook eventually agreed to hand over the Russian posts to Congress. Twice in October 2017, Facebook was forced to revise its public statements, finally acknowledging that close to 126 million people had seen the Russian posts …

In March, The Times, The Observer of London and The Guardian prepared to publish a joint investigation into how Facebook user data had been appropriated by Cambridge Analytica to profile American voters. A few days before publication, The Times presented Facebook with evidence that copies of improperly acquired Facebook data still existed, despite earlier promises by Cambridge executives and others to delete it. Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg met with their lieutenants to determine a response. They decided to pre-empt the stories, saying in a statement published late on a Friday night that Facebook had suspended Cambridge Analytica from its platform. The executives figured that getting ahead of the news would soften its blow, according to people in the discussions. They were wrong.

For anyone interested in how these huge corporations manage the politics of their business, this is a detailed study.

 

Previous Reasons NOT to Use Facebook.


Another Side to The Invasive Species Stories

October 23, 2018

We see a lot of stories on the media these days about the negative impacts of invasive species, dominating anf decimating “local” species. But what happens if the invasive species actually becomes a fan favourite? Here is the lede to an interesting cultural history of smelt fishing:

“40 years ago, smelt fishing on the Lester River [Minnsota] was something else entirely. “There were people all over the place, bumper to bumper on London Road,” said Don Schreiner, fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Sea Grant. These now-tranquil shores were once home to a circus tent that housed an all-night smelt fry and a party atmosphere so wild that Schreiner’s parents wouldn’t even take him and his siblings down to the beach. In addition to hangovers, the smelt also brought a tourism industry. There were professional fishermen catching and selling smelt. It was a huge cultural event. “And then,” Schreiner said. “It crashed.”

Starting around 1979, smelt numbers in Lake Superior plummeted. In ’78, commercial fishing companies took in nearly 1.5 million pounds of smelt. A decade later, the haul was 182,000 pounds. There is no commercial smelt fishing on Lake Superior today. But because the smelt in Lake Superior are an invasive species, their decline is actually a sign that the lake is becoming healthier, ecologically speaking. From a cultural and economic perspective, though, the North Shore isn’t what it was. So is the decline of smelt something to celebrate? And if so, who should be throwing the party?

This excellent article goes o to show that, as with so many things in our complicated world, it is useful to have second thoughts about one’s first impressions.


Lascaux

September 12, 2018

On this day in 1940, the Lascaux caves in central France were discovered by four teenagers. As they entered the long shaft down into the cavern, the boys saw vivid pictures of animals on the walls.

 

When the site was made available in the later 1940s, this cave art was wildly popular with the public. More importantly, it allowed everyone, both public and scientists, to understand more clearly that the so-called “cave men” were far more than the mindless brutes of previous imagination.

At about 17,000 years old, the Lascaux images are far from being the earliest known cave art today — several caves in Europe and Indonesia have art from about 40,000 years ago, and a recent “sketch” on a rock in South Africa may be much older.  However, the enormous trove of images (more than 900 animals identified) at Lascaux combined with the encouragement of tourist traffic to the location has allowed this cave complex to become the best known of all cave art.

Today marks an important anniversary in our understanding of who we are and where we came from.