Jul 152013

What about the universal human capacity to screw things up? That’s what I wonder in all this.

We are now dealing with a vast intelligence-industrial complex that is largely unaccountable to its citizens. This alarming, unchecked growth of the intelligence sector and the increasingly heavy reliance on subcontractors to carry out core intelligence tasks – now estimated to account for approximately 60% of the intelligence budget – have intensified since the 9/11 attacks and what was, arguably, our regrettable over-reaction to them.

via The NSA’s metastasised intelligence-industrial complex is ripe for abuse | Valerie Plame Wilson and Joe Wilson | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk.

Jul 142013

I love the phrase “10 percent less likely to have died.” It’s the sort of thing I often say: I am 10 percent less likely to have died since I my mocha latte the morning.

But men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study.

via This Is Your Brain on Coffee – NYTimes.com.

Jul 122013

Apparently, Taiwanese “tradition” dictates that pregnant women can “share their luck” – increasing another’s chances of bearing children – by passing on unused towels or tampons. And the capital’s civil affairs department hopes the scheme will boost its birth-rate, reports the Taipei Times. “We hope that Taipei residents who want to get pregnant will be blessed by the lucky pads and that their wishes will come true,” it quotes department commissioner Huang Lu Ching-ju as saying.

via BBC News – Taiwan: Sanitary pad scheme ‘to help women conceive’.

Jul 112013

Nothing new here. I stopped working years ago and took up book-writing, which is not gainful employment in anyone’s judgement. My guess is that men in America are all turning from the assembly lines and blast furnaces to poetry, choreography and modern art.

[T]he male employment ratio reached its peak in the early 1950s-and then commenced an almost relentless descent. Today’s level is the lowest thus far-but this decline of work for men has been unfolding for decades, indeed generations. Over the past 60 years, the employment ratio for adult men has plummeted by about 20 percentage points. Which is to say: if America’s male employment ratios were back at their Eisenhower-era levels, well over 20 million more men would be at work today. At the moment, roughly 76 million men are counted as working.

How is this collapse of work to be explained? In purely arithmetic terms, the great bulk of the change is due to an exodus out of the labor force-that is to say, to a massive long-term rise in the number of adult men who are neither working nor seeking work. Over the past 60 years, the labor force participation rate for adult men has fallen by about 16 percentage points. In 1953, about 14 percent of adult men were out of the labor force-around one in seven. Today 30 percent are neither working nor seeking work-nearly one in three.

Of course population aging has something to do with this gradual but cumulatively immense male flight out of the workforce. But we should not exaggerate this effect. In the early 1950s, senior citizens 65 and older accounted for almost 12 percent of adult men, as against 16 percent today. Aging on this scale cannot explain most of the 16 percentage point shift out of the workforce that has been registered by adult men over these decades. Indeed, it cannot even explain all that much of it.

The plain fact is that men in what are generally regarded as conventional working ages have been increasingly opting out of the workforce altogether.

via RealClearMarkets – The Astonishing Collapse of Work In America.

Jul 102013

Francis Fukuyama, who once famously and incorrectly predicted the End of History, is now writing about the Middle-Class Revolution and the end of authoritarian regimes around the world. Because he was so wrong before, we should be careful about jumping on Francis’s train. He has a tendency to speak the speak of the classical liberal economist and right of centre politician (monetarist, puritannical, ever hopeful that liberal democracy will eventually rule the world and bring about the End of History).  Still, he writes a good, authoritative story that only begins to fray when it’s held up against reality. Just because you own a cell phone and can tweet doesn’t mean you’re middle-class.

[In China], as in other parts of the developing world, the rise of a new middle class underlies the phenomenon described by Moises Naím of the Carnegie Endowment as the “end of power.” The middle classes have been on the front lines of opposition to abuses of power, whether by authoritarian or democratic regimes. The challenge for them is to turn their protest movements into durable political change, expressed in the form of new institutions and policies. In Latin America, Chile has been a star performer with regard to economic growth and the effectiveness of its democratic political system. Nonetheless, recent years have seen an explosion of protests by high-school students who have pointed to the failings of the country’s public education system.

The new middle class is not just a challenge for authoritarian regimes or new democracies. No established democracy should believe it can rest on its laurels, simply because it holds elections and has leaders who do well in opinion polls. The technologically empowered middle class will be highly demanding of their politicians across the board.

The U.S. and Europe are experiencing sluggish growth and persistently high unemployment, which for young people in countries like Spain reaches 50%. In the rich world, the older generation also has failed the young by bequeathing them crushing debts. No politician in the U.S. or Europe should look down complacently on the events unfolding in the streets of Istanbul and São Paulo. It would be a grave mistake to think, “It can’t happen here.”

via Francis Fukuyama The Middle-Class Revolution – WSJ.com.

Jul 102013

What I can’t figure out is why, if we’re not having more kids, there is still any real estate market at all. Surely we have enough houses by now.

On Tuesday, the agency reported that the total fertility rate in Canada has declined for a third year in a row, falling to just 1.61 children per woman in 2011. And while that represents an increase over a decade prior, when the rate plummeted to a historic low of 1.51, it’s nonetheless consistent with the long-term trend of multiple children becoming a rarer phenomenon.

In fact, Statistics Canada shows we haven’t met the population replacement level of roughly 2.1 children per woman since 1971.

via ‘Domestic dream’ of 2.5 children per woman long gone as fertility rate declines for third year in row | Canada | News | National Post.

Jul 052013

Of course, no single weather event can be linked to the increased concentration of human-produced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And yet the increased frequency of extreme weather is a scientifically proven result of those gases. In the past month alone, floods in Canada killed four people and forced seventy-five thousand to evacuate Calgary; floods in central Europe killed eighteen; and floods in India killed a thousand. The drought in Spicewood Beach is, by comparison, mundane. Still, it is an example of an inconvenient, costly impact of climate change. And, unlike mass death and trauma, it’s a story that we can picture.

This liminal moment, when the signs are everywhere that the climate in which human civilization developed is gone, seems a natural subject for fiction, and a number of recent novels have grappled with it—Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior,” and Ian McEwan’s “Solar” among them. These books have been labelled “cli-fi,” but chances are that the name won’t stick. It makes the genre sound marginal, when, in fact, climate change is moving to the center of human experience.

— via The New Yorker 

— Benjamin Woodard

Jun 282013

…the U.S. is experiencing a dangerous moment in which political and financial forces are pushing people to think of themselves as abnormal, and “the counterbalancing forces pushing normal don’t remotely counterbalance and aren’t nearly forceful enough.” In other words, there are many people who profit from the idea that a staggering proportion of Americans are mentally ill, and these groups are powerful, well organized, and politically effective.

via America’s Epidemic of Psychiatric Over-Diagnosis – The Daily Beast.

Jun 252013

A bit of logrolling, I think. Not so much here we don’t know but packaged to inspire cocktail chitchat of a depressing sort. We’re all going to the dogs (an unthought turn of phrase that gives dogs a bad name). Run for the exits. Well, no, don’t run: saunter. Have a little style, for goodness sake. Watch out for drones.

Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.

Earlier this year, Al Gore made $100m (£64m) in a single month by selling Current TV to al-Jazeera for $70m and cashing in his shares of Apple stock for $30m. Never mind that al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, whose oil exports and views of women and minorities make a mockery of the ideas that Gore propounds in a book or film every other year. Never mind that his Apple stock came with his position on the company’s board, a gift to a former presidential contender. Gore used to be a patrician politician whose career seemed inspired by the ideal of public service. Today – not unlike Tony Blair – he has traded on a life in politics to join the rarefied class of the global super-rich.

via Decline and fall: how American society unravelled | World news | The Guardian.

Jun 212013

I think I have mentioned his before: I’m buying a beach house on Baffin Island. Greenland is looking good, too (once they get all the ice cleared off).

If we go on like this, we will certainly produce a “4 degrees C. world” — a worst case scenario, in which our climate becomes unstable and there are floods, droughts and heat waves on a scale that make a typical Hollywood summer disaster movie look like a Smurf cartoon.

The report says that the warming will produce massive flooding in parts of Asia, a 50% reduction in the fish catch in southeast Asia, and severe and prolonged drought in Africa.

via Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion.

Jun 112013

What he [Snowden] stressed is how they all work under a false premise; “If a surveillance program produces information of value, it legitimizes it … In one step, we’ve managed to justify the operation of the Panopticon”.

Oh yes, make no mistake; Snowden has carefully read his Michel Foucault (he also stressed his revulsion facing “the capabilities of this architecture of oppression”).

Foucault’s deconstruction of the Panopticon’s architecture is now a classic (see it here in an excerpt of his 1975 masterpiece Discipline and Punish). The Panopticon was the ultimate surveillance system, designed by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The Panopticon – a tower surrounded by cells, a pre-Orwellian example of “architecture of oppression” – was not originally conceived for the surveillance of a prison, but of a factory crammed with landless peasants on forced labor.

via Asia Times Online :: Digital Blackwater rules.

Jun 112013

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.”

via Introduction: The Panopticon.

Jun 092013

It is indeed sobering when the Harvard Business Review comes off sounding like Julian Assange or someone in the Occupy movement. Time to RUN FOR THE EXIT!

There is no exit.

Watching peoples’ ideas form as they type, in order to protect against someone who might become a terrorist in the future. George Orwell, eat your heart out.

via Your Smartphone Works for the Surveillance State – James Allworth – Harvard Business Review.

Jun 052013

Let me count the reasons…

It has long held true that elderly people have higher suicide rates than the overall population. But numbers released in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a dramatic spike in suicides among middle-aged people, with the highest increases among men in their 50s, whose rate went up by nearly 50 per cent to 30 per 100,000; and women in their early 60s, whose rate rose by nearly 60 per cent (though it is still relatively low compared with men, at 7 in 100,000).

via Baby boomers are killing themselves at an alarming rate. Why? | Toronto Star.

Jun 032013

What a strange and alien idea! Teach kids philosophy, give them ideas, show them how to articulate ideas in argument, make them conversant with the intellectual themes of the age? Elitist poppycock! Let them eat Freedom Fries! No wonder the French are so easily satisfied with things like universal health care!


Why this emphasis on philosophy in France?

Other countries have school-leaving exams which cover the history of ideas and religion and so on. But the French are very clear that that is not what theirs is.

The purpose of the philosophy Bac is not to understand the history of human thought but to leap into the stream that is the actuality of human thought.

If you learn about what Kant or Spinoza once said, it is not so much to understand their argument as to use their argument.

Napoleon launched the Baccalaureat in 1809, and philosophy was one of the subjects in the first ever exam (though back then it was oral, and in Latin, and only 31 males took it).

The idea behind philosophy was itself entirely philosophical.

In the newly created republic (and yes, I know Napoleon had just made himself emperor, but the point still holds) it was important to create model citizens.

Had not the great writer and thinker Montesquieu himself said the republic relied on virtue, and virtue consisted in the capacity of individuals to exercise their own freely-formed judgment?

So the purpose of teaching philosophy was – and remains, in theory – to complete the education of young men and women and permit them to think.

To see the universal arguments about the individual and society, God and reason, good and bad and so on, and thus escape from the binding imperatives of the now – by which I mean the dictatorship of whatever ideas are most pressingly forced on us in the day-to-day by government, media, fashion, political correctness and so on.

How wonderful, you cannot help thinking. What a great idea. Now that is what I call civilisation.

via BBC News – Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?.

May 312013

Okay, clearly the world is coming unglued, coming to end. The time of Revelation is at hand! This is a Sign!

Kelly: In this country in the ’50s and ’60s there were huge, huge numbers of people that believed that the children of interracial marriages were biologically inferior and that is why it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry in some states in the country up until 1967. And they said it was science and fact if you were the child of a black father and white mother or vice versa you were inferior and you were not set up for success. Tell that to Barack Obama.

via Megyn Kelly Rips Erick Erickson: I’m Not An Emo Liberal (VIDEO) | TPM LiveWire.

May 252013

Ford, who turns 44 this month, is clearly a man of appetite, the embodiment of Toronto’s ravenous id struggling against the city’s notoriously well-developed, patrician inner father. In person, a near-constant lamina of sweat lends him the appearance of something that’s just crawled up from out of the ooze, half-formed and shapeless.

via Rob Ford’s insatiable appetite for destruction – Canada – Macleans.ca.

May 252013

The average smartphone user checks his or her device 150 times per day, or about once every six minutes. Meanwhile, government data from 2011 says 35 percent of us work on weekends, and those who do average five hours of labor, often without compensation — or even a thank you. The other 65 percent were probably too busy to answer surveyors’ questions.

via How the smartphone killed the three-day weekend – Red Tape.