Monday, 9 July 2012

Sorry About Stuff

Samuel here.

Yo! I haven't posted in ages. Sorry! I'm working 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and every post I make on facebook, twitter, tumblr or this blog is monitored by the DNC and senior staff of Barack Obama's reelection campaign until the end of August. I am expressly prohibited from throwing the sort of fire I am accustomed to throwing, and if I'm going to write posts on my blog with my name attached to them, I would like their content and their tone to be entirely unrestricted. So I'm gonna hold off until I'm a free man once again.

Ian can make his own excuses and I don't even know if Simon's still alive*. I will resume my regular posting schedule in September, likely in the second week. I may change when I post based on what day of the week my problem sets are due next year, but I'll be sure to tell you guys if that happens.

I'm sorry it took me so long to write this post. You've all been most patient and I've been entirely neglectful. I have no excuses. When I start writing again, I'll post about it on facebook and g+ and stuff so that everyone knows.

Thank you all for your interest in the blog and for being patient with me.

*This is a complete lie. I'm talking to him on facebook right now.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

May Day!

Samuel here.

A number of my friends have declared on Facebook that they are going to this (NOTE: the horrible people who made this horrible website have changed the page and left no record of what it was when I posted this. It was a thing promoting a "hand puppets for Occupy" event, I think), and it seems like as good a time as any for me to actually say something partisan. I haven't really expressed any political convictions on this blog since that one time I wrote 8 pages about libertarianism. It's time to make some enemies.

I wish I could protest.

I mean, I wish I had ever had the opportunity to protest for a cause I believe in.

Now I've got you all mad. But hear me out. The Canadian Occupy Movement sucked. May Day sucks. Anyone who talks about "the Harper Attack" definitely sucks.

Firstly, to The Right Honorable Stephen Harper, I wish a late but sincere happy birthday. I contend that you came to power through willful election fraud in 2006 when you knowingly violated the $18,300,000 federal campaign spending limit. You came to power through willful election fraud in 2011 when your campaign systematically and maliciously lied to liberal voters in tight ridings about where and when they were to vote, and I contend that whoever is responsible for that unprecedented breach of Canadian democracy should literally be exiled from human society. Perhaps by spaceship. Your harsh limitations on the freedom of Conservative MPs and your cabinet members to speak their minds represents an atrocious contempt for the maturity of your colleagues, and you habitually ignoring the press combined with your government's repeated refusal to give the House information that it requires (leading, I should add, to your government being the first committee of parliament in any commonwealth nation ever to be found in contempt of parliament) is genuinely frightening. I was disappointed and surprised by your crime bill, which is a rare combination for me in politics. In the year I graduate from university, we will spend twice as much on prisons as we did in my freshman year, and crime rates will have steadily fallen (barring unforeseen crime-inducing circumstances). I was shocked when we literally spent tens of billions of dollars on fighter jets that aren't built yet, during peacetime, during a massive deficit amassed during your administration. And I can't tell you how saddened and angry I am at the idea of redefining when life begins for the purposes of outlawing abortion. But ultimately, sir, I am grateful for how little your government has done. The fact is, it could have been a whole lot worse. I'm pretty fucking pissed about the election rigging, sure, but aside from the crime bill, the only thing you've done to advance any sort of socially conservative agenda is the fairly low-impact scrapping of the long-gun registry. That, and my respect for your office and my recognition of your humanity, are why I sincerely wish you a happy birthday.

I wish anyone had been complaining about any of that when I visited Occupy Toronto. That would have been nice. But instead they spoke, like this May Day website, in strange, obfuscated platitudes. I was told that we shouldn't be building a pipeline to the US because the oil is ours. I met communists and extreme socialists and we spoke about Marxism and that was pretty fun but pretty blatantly futile. It was not a protest. It was a circlejerk.

If I had lived in New York this past year, I would have lent my name and my hands and all my spare time to the Occupy Wall Street movement, because that was a genuine protest. I would have sat in Zuccotti Park because campaign contributions should be limited. Severely limited. I would have sat in Zuccotti Park because radical campaign finance reform is absolutely essential for the health of American democracy. I would have sat in Zuccotti Park because most lobbyists should have little influence most of the time. I went to the Toronto Occupy movement once and never again. When they told them to leave Oakland they rioted. When they told them to leave New York they came back half a dozen times. When they told them to leave Church Street they were gone by the morning. Because they weren't there for any good reason. Because they spoke in platitudes. They were bored and unfocused. You aren't a protester unless you are angry.

Friends. If someone is trying to change the world, and their rallying cry includes the phrase "criminalization and racialization of our communities", if their single biggest worry in this world is that "the corporate elite are deploying measures of austerity that is [sic] leading to the depletion of our much valued social and public services", if they don't give you a single damn example of what's making them angry, if they are asking you to make puppets, then stay home.


But if this private members' bill goes anywhere, or if Rick Santorum had gotten anywhere with his anti-contraception clusterfuckery

If The Right Honorable Stephen Harper decides he can turn Canada into a state where a woman must bear the child of her rapist, that he can do so on the backs of the MPs he has muzzled while lying through his teeth about where he stands, if we slip that one fatal inch back down the slope of women's liberty, then I will live on parliament hill. I hope you will as well. And we will scream at the top of our lungs. Because we will be angry. Because we will be focused. Because we will understand our cause and we will believe that it is right. Because that is how you protest.

Happy birthday, Mr. Prime Minister. And happy May Day to you all.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


Samuel here.

Ladies and gentlemen, darling readers, exams! See you in three weeks.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Post 23: Wherein I Blatantly Break The Rules To Talk About PLANETS

Samuel here, but I am not writing a blog post today.

"Then what am I reading?"

Okay, I guess I am writing a blog post today. But I'm breaking all the rules.

See, this morning I found an editorial cartoon that I wanted to write about because when I saw it I thought up a really great joke about Rick Santorum and condoms. But after a few deep breaths and a lot of coffee, I still couldn't bring myself to crack wise about Rick Santorum's penis. It's great to have an outlet, but after a couple weeks of writing as though everything I see on Facebook is personally offensive to me, I have to take a break. I already basically did when I wrote that one about things being awesome, and this morning I was reading the news when I discovered, to my surprise, that things are still awesome.

This is the second most important news article that I have ever read. The most important was on September 29, 2010, when Steven Vogt and Paul Butler discovered Gliese 581 g. It was immediately apparent that it would more profoundly change the human legacy than any discovery in our lifetimes thus far. It was the first Earthlike planet ever discovered; it had a substantial atmosphere, remarkably Earth-like temperature and chemical composition, and astrophysicists worldwide deemed it likely habitable by humankind. Immediately Gliese 581 g caused our estimate of the distribution of nearby habitable planets to skyrocket; it unrecognizably changed our estimation of the number of future homes for us or even present homes for others. Having Earthlike planets nearby means two crucial things: that in order to branch out into space we don't have to spend millions of years terraforming uncooperative worlds like Mars (not only don't we have to terraform, but I am literally talking about wandering around on a planet 20 light years away without any kind of spacesuit at all), and that perhaps the evolution of organisms like us isn't so unlikely after all. All the life we know is based on liquid water, so in space we look for life where there is liquid water. The more liquid water we know about, the more likely we are to find life. The discovery that there is anywhere near 10 billion Earthlike planets in our galaxy alone is the biggest step towards finding aliens since the invention of the telescope.

And the individual discoveries aren't even the important thing. The important thing is the trend. Ever since we started looking for planets outside of our solar system in 1995, we have found them in droves. I mean, really, in unbelievable numbers. No one could have predicted that when I was born. But within my lifetime, the likelihood of humans ever living on another world has increased by orders of magnitude. If we can find sufficiently Earthlike planets sufficiently close by, all the remaining obstacles to far-reaching human colonization of space are cosmetic. The infrastructure is there. We don't have to fundamentally alter the nature of worlds; the building is done for us, all that's left is engineering and politics. It's like the universe has handed us a state-of-the-art computer, and all we have to do is write the software.

So why does it take me to tell people about this? When Pluto was accurately reclassified as a trans-Neptunian dwarf planet, newspapers worldwide were loud and indignant for days. Where are they now? This story didn't even make the Android news app's Top News section for the day. We have just witnessed a radical overnight transformation of humankind’s understanding of the universe and you're probably hearing about it from a blog. I mean, this article has further-reaching consequences than almost anything you will ever read or see or hear; if our descendants exist in a billion years, they will be spacefaring, and if they are spacefaring then this very discovery will be the cornerstone of their longevity. The name of the researchers, and of Gliese 581 g and Steven Vogt and Paul Butler, should be taught to every child in every school on Earth. And yet they will be casually mentioned and quickly forgotten.

I cannot imagine a human future without space colonization. I can't even imagine another generation without space colonization. I like humans and I want to see us survive, and I have limited patience where the extinction of my species is concerned. To know that worlds exist that are perfectly prepared for our arrival is comforting on a cosmological scale. It is viscerally exciting. When I stand at my window and look into the sky I have always seen the unfathomable blackness of space. I have always known the tiny shimmering glints of those massive furnaces that pepper our cosmos. But now, for the first time ever, I see home. Earth is no more safe, no more nurturing or lovely, than tens of billions of distant alien rocks. This is not my home. I am shackled here, temporarily, by the technical immaturity and social irresponsibility of my species. But I learned today that that can't last. There's no reason any longer to keep us here, for today we learned the Earth is nothing special. The Earth is not our home. Our homes are everywhere. So let's go.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Post 21: Wherein People Whine About Politics

Samuel here.

People whine about politics: FACT. Usually this is good. The success of self-governance depends on people whining about politics. But sometimes they do it for the wrong reasons.

Lately there has been a reasonable hubbub, at least among my fellow liberal-socialist-commie-pinko-elitist-war-on-religion-types, about Stephen Harper launching an attack ad against Bob Rae, the leader of the Liberal Party which isn't even the official opposition, on the day of a by-election. While Canada does have rules against campaigning in an election on the day it's held, this video bypasses them nicely by not mentioning the by-election once.

Seems fine to me.

I have never seen anything wrong with using the rules of the game to your advantage. In my opinion, the only meaningful political boundaries are whether it is legally possible to do something and whether or not you think it contributes to the sum total good in the world. If it does both, you cannot be blamed for doing it. So, yes, I'm in favor of exploiting legal loopholes to air videos that you think will contribute to keeping the right people in power. I am not in favor of something like the nuclear option, because I think it would fundamentally alter the functionality of the senate in a way that does more harm than good (again, sorry that every time I need a reference it's to American politics. It's just that here in Canada we are slowly realizing that our last election was maliciously and intentionally rigged by the people who currently run our country and what we choose to bitch about is by-election youtube videos, so you'll understand if I have a bit of a hard time studying the functionality of, say, our unelected senate that has veto power over every law our elected representatives try to create. Yes, every one of those words has a different link). Mine is a pretty straightforward legalistic utilitarian argument. It's pretty easy to make and hard to challenge. It would make for some super fun devil's advocate. But I imagine you guys are more interested in why I think the Conservatives were right to release this video (much as I'd like to talk about political ethics for ages).

Does it fit my criteria?
Well, so far as I've read, it is legally possible. The obvious response is that "it goes against the spirit of the law." This I do not understand. Why should it be up to a political operative, probably the head of some Conservative federal video editing team, to interpret the law? I bet you there wasn't a single lawyer involved in the creation of this video. The only lawyers involved are the guys who would have said that technically, it would not be illegal to release a video on the day of a by-election if the video ignores the by-election. And they were doing their job and they were doing it well. Whom exactly are you blaming if you say that the video goes against the spirit of the law? Who is supposed to step up and say that the law should be taken to mean something that it does not say? Personally, I'm just as happy that the Conservative majority's lawyers are telling the truth to our elected officials, and I'm even happier that the cinematographers who actually constructed the commercial aren't interpreting Canadian election code.

Does it contribute to the sum total good? I'm going to say no, but the people who launched the video would of course disagree. And I think this is probably the biggest public misconception about government. Nobody understands the types of people who get involved in politics. Sure, there is money and influence and fame in being a member of parliament. Agreed. There is only poverty and obscurity in being the guy who makes videos for the Conservative party, or in being the guy who decides that a video will be made and why and when and how. If you don't hold elected office, you're not there for money and you're not there for power. You are there out of a genuine desire to effect positive change. This is why it pisses me off when people complain about "spin doctors" or "hatchet men". You do what you have to do to change the world for the better. Sometimes it may seem manipulative, sometimes it may seem destructive. But I'm a utilitarian, and chances are you are, too.

Calm down.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Post 19: Wherein Snobs Bother Me

Samuel here.

You guys! You guys! Exciting news, you guys! Turns out I'm what's wrong with the world. :(

Once again, I'd like to preface this post with an admission that at times it seems like I'm arguing at great length with an image that really isn't trying to put forward a considered opinion, so allow me to defend my post in advance: I choose the images that I complain about on this blog based partly on how familiar I am with the opinions they present. People share things on Facebook because they agree with them. I think this image presents an opinion that a lot of smart people believe, or at least believe a slight modification of. I'm arguing with behaviors I've seen as much as with the image itself.

So, I definitely can't name all of these people. I don't recognize Freud by sight and I sure don't know what Ayaan Hirsi Ali looks like. Yes, I do recognize Snooki, but not because I have ever watched Jersey Shore. I blame some sort of cultural osmosis. Not that it matters at all whether I've watched Jersey Shore or not.

I guess that there are two things for me to address here. I'm going to make the wording of the image --- and probably its meaning, too --- a little bit more reasonable so that I'm actually arguing against real statements that real people might seriously make. One message of the image is, I think, that anyone who watches Jersey Shore is supporting something damaging to humanity. The second message is that you are damaging humanity if you are unfamiliar with the work of history's greatest minds. Note that this isn't my interpretation of the image, it's just the most reasonable argument along these lines that I can construct while still feeling like I'm at least sort of responding to the image.

Well. I'm a gamer (surprise!). I played with colorful pieces of cardboard in public places for most of my free time in high school. I like math and sometimes I read large books while I walk. I know what it's like to have people make fun of me for my hobbies. I never understood why it mattered to random strangers in the cafeteria how my friends and I spent our time. It didn't affect them in the slightest, and I doubt we ever gave much satisfaction to anyone who harassed us. Not that people bothered us often, but it did happen occasionally, and it always perplexed me. I see the same ridiculous error in this image. When someone watches Jersey Shore, they are part of a group of people who are responsible for, uh, let's say, three things that could ever possibly matter to you:

1) They raise the ratings of Jersey Shore, making it more profitable for advertisers to run commercials during that show, which means that the networks are more likely to pick it up for more seasons. So more of the time that you turn on the television, there will be Jersey Shore on. This would be a reasonable argument if it significantly decreased the likelihood that something you want to see is on at any given time. But it doesn't mean that at all. Firstly, the affect that one program has on how much other programs are aired is minimal. Secondly, if you object this strongly to Jersey Shore then you probably aren't watching MTV anyways. Finally, reality shows don't air reruns. Jersey Shore takes up 11 hours of the year. Horror of horrors.
2) They popularize cultural icons, like Snooki, that you find distasteful. This is a stupid complaint. It is absurdly easy to ignore celebrities who annoy you. The fact that Snooki is popular will never affect how much you enjoy television. I mean, Stephen Harper is my Prime Minister and I'm still majoring in political science (OUCH!).
3) They popularize a cultural icon whose behavior glamorizes something destructive, which you feel young people will emulate. Maybe there's something to this, but in order to do this argument justice I would have to figure out what Snooki actually does, which sounds difficult and boring.

I refuse to even attempt to construct an argument about how Snooki's popularity reveals the stupidity of the masses, and stupid people are fun to complain about. Anyone who tries to mount an argument like that desperately needs to relax.

What about ignorance and science and stuff!?

I don't like ignorance, but I think an image like this ignores the crucial distinction between ignorance that hurts society and ignorance that just makes life a little bit more boring for the ignorant person. Chances are you have seen a video or a television show where a camera crew has taken to the streets and asked random people absurdly simple questions, and most people could not answer them. Chances are you thought it was funny, and decided that people are stupid (or that it's easy to edit videos and only show dumb people). These videos from the Rick Mercer Report are exactly what I'm talking about. Or all the ones from the beginning of the #Occupy movement where journalists from major networks asked Occupy protesters questions like "what is the name of the secretary of transportation?" and then whined about how no one knew. I see absolutely nothing wrong with the ignorance of these people. Why would a random resident of South Carolina know the name of the Canadian Prime Minister? Why would someone protesting the influence of money in politics know the name of the secretary of health and human services? These aren't relevant. They really are cheap shots. It's the fallacy of irrelevant conclusion. You're dismissing people and dismissing peoples' ideas based on criteria they have no reason to succeed in.

Same problem with this image. See, I'm all for promoting scientific literacy. But only because science is cool and because you need to understand some science to vote optimally. Neither of these requires knowing shit about Madam Curie or Tesla. Maybe the image would have a point if the pictures were related to global warming, or alternative fuels, or space exploration. Because most people only need to know enough science to vote intelligently and not fall for obvious scams. I love science, but that's just it: I learn science because I love it. Some people do not. I have absolutely no problem with the average citizen not being able to write the Simple Harmonic Motion lab reports that stopped me from uploading yesterday. In fact, I'm rather pleased that they can't, in much the same way that I imagine painters are glad that I can't paint as well as they can. I'm content if everyone understands what global warming means and why you shouldn't smoke cigarettes at the gas pump. That isn't what this image is about. This image is about insisting that everyone absolutely must share your interests. And insisting that anyone who doesn't share your interests is a cancerous sore on the body politic is a great way to have no friends ever.

P.S. For curiosity's sake, from the top left and going vertically before horizontally:
Stephen Hawking, Marie Curie, Nichola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Thomas Paine, Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin. Snooki.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Post 17: Anti-Anti-Slacktivism Slacktivism. Also Kony.

Samuel here.

Toronto is basically a billion degrees and absurdly sunny today, and residence services has yet to put a screen in my window, so for the first time since September I can lean out my 8th floor window with a mug of coffee and enjoy a couple hundred pages of Kissinger (my favorite!). So you'll understand if I have trouble getting convincingly worked up about anything right now. I have a nice angry post ready to upload, but today I wanted to talk to you about something super-contemporary while everyone's still talking about it. Plus, if I uploaded a post that I had already written, I would be writing my history essay right now instead of writing this post. And what a waste of time that would be.

So it turns out that I'm psychic. I can make unerring predictions about the contents of other peoples' Facebook News Feeds. Don't believe me? Watch this: if you have a Facebook account, you will have these three statuses on it, and they'll be in this order chronologically:
  1. A link to this video, followed by something like “Please watch all of this or else you eat puppies” (NOTE: this isn't like my other posts. You don't have to watch this to understand what I'm talking about. PLEASE don't think that you have to watch this to know what I'm talking about.)
  2. A status like “slacktivism is actually the Holocaust I'm not even joking” (slacktivism is the derisive term generally applied to those who spread the news of social issues online and are content to leave their involvement in the issue to that)
  3. A status where someone linked to this tumblr, saying something like “I'm not yet coming out completely not in favor of Invisible Children per se, I'm just saying that maybe there's something a little bit less than ideal going on with this organization and maybe some healthy skepticism shouldn't be avoided PLEASE DON'T HATE ME.”

I have absolutely no interest in writing about whether or not Invisible Children is legit. I don't want to tell you whether you should support the (bizarrely named, bizarrely branded) Kony 2012 campaign. I watched some of the video, I read the tumblr post, and I've sort of made up my mind. You probably should too. I'm perfectly happy to let you make up your minds about statuses 1) and 3). What I want to talk about is the dickheads responsible for status 2).

I'll try to put the best face on these complaints that I can. One of the main reasons that I'm doing this blog is that I like to break these things down in a way that most people don't seem to; I think that no argument is worth examining until you have stated it syllogistically with all meaningful premises stated explicitly. And no one ever writes or speaks in syllogisms when they're casually arguing. And that leads to really shitty arguments that go absolutely nowhere. If you state a conclusion and I take issue with it, and we go back and forth about increasingly unrelated ideas for 15 posts, then probably at some point you will say something blatantly wrong. Then I can fixate on that and ignore your conclusion entirely, while remaining smug in the idea that I have won the argument and that your conclusion must be wrong. I sincerely believe that this is why no one ever changes their minds about anything. So let's not make that mistake here!
The best argument I can think of against slacktivism proceeds, quite roughly, as follows (NOTE: This argument applies only in situations where this actually is the best argument I can think of. For example, for the Kony 2012 video, there is substantial reason to believe that it's riddled with errors, and insubstantial reason to believe that it's intentionally misleading. So this argument only applies to when people complain about factual videos on important issues being shared with good intentions. Thanks to Isuri and Sophie for pointing out the need for this qualification) :

Premise 1: Meaningful social change is effected when many people do something to measurably advance a social cause.
Premise 2: Sharing a video on Facebook does not measurably advance any cause, nor does it lead to any cause being measurably advanced.
Premise 3: People who share a video on Facebook often think that they have done something to measurably advance a social cause.
Premise 4: People only work to advance a social cause if they feel they have not already done something for that cause.
Conclusion: From premises 1) and 2): Sharing videos on Facebook never constitutes social change. From premises 3) and 4): Sharing videos on Facebook actively discourages social change. Allowing that social change is desirable, then sharing videos on Facebook about social issues is wrong.

If you think I have misstated the issue, or stated a weaker version of the argument than you would like, please leave a comment telling me that I am a tool.
Here are my problems with the progression above:

Premise 1) is just my personal definition of social change, so naturally I don't have a problem with it.
Premise 2) seems too counter-intuitive for me to be comfortable with it. The usual response to this is that “it raises awareness”, which I think is a very valuable point: my politics and outlook are of course heavily shaped by what people who were close to me told me when I was young. I am certain that videos and images in the classroom and on television played a major role in forging my present worldview. I wouldn't exactly say that I have meaningfully and measurably advanced any worthy causes yet, but I certainly hope to in the next few decades. If I hadn't been exposed to the right things, who knows if I would be studying political science? It seems like a very, very weak premise to take that my exposure to videos like the Kony one played a negligible role in my social development. Very weak.
Premise 3) and premise 4) again are deeply unsatisfying, for the same reason: why do you think that? How do you know that's true? Before we actively discourage people from sharing videos, shouldn't we make sure that we're right that it decreases the action that people will actually take? I bet you it won't. I don't tend to share videos like this one, but one the very rare occasions that I have, I never sat back and thought to myself “well, I win. Suck it, Global Warming.” You could respond that I thought this on a subconscious level, but your argument is just getting more and more tenuous.

We get so caught up in these layers and layers of increasingly fragile justification that we forget that we can actually measure things. If you are against slacktivism, I want at least some reason to believe that your premises are true. Or present better ones to me. Meanwhile, I'm going with the intuitive assumption that the more people who know about a bad thing, the better. Even if it seems unpreventable, I can't think of a better way to figure out how to prevent it than to ask a whole ton of people. That's the only way that anything ever gets done.

But here's the part that really bothers me: I have a lot of trouble believing that anyone actually agrees with the argument that I laid out above. In fact, I submit to you that people who complain about slacktivists are complaining only because they hate to see other people doing something that makes them feel good. They aren't really accomplishing anything by sharing the video, and for some reason we believe that it makes them feel better about themselves, so we set out to take them down a notch. It's the same impulse that makes us derisively call scantily clad women “slutty”; we're too inhibited to do it, for whatever reason, so we hate to see other people do it. It's a petty, mean, absurd thing to do. Stop.

P.S. Simon and I will be ideally geographically located this weekend to bring you another cooperative post. So watch for that.

P.P.S. My mother just started a blog. If you like books, you should check it out. She's a writer, so she actually knows what she's talking about, which will be a welcome change from this blog. Anyways, by promoting it here, I can only assume that I have officially re-payed her for 18 years of food and love and stuff. You're welcome, mom!