A Reason for Vegetarianism

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, entitled “Livestock’s Long Shadow
livestock use 30 percent of the land surface of the planet, generate more greenhouse gases than transport:

The livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent — 18 percent — than transport.

Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth’s entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land, [which is] used to produce feed for livestock

The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution, euthropication and the degeneration of coral reefs.

Meat and dairy animals now account for about 20 percent of all terrestrial animal biomass.

Perhaps we need a Kyoto Accord for livestock as well.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

Enhanced by Zemanta

Dumbing Us Down

There is a maxim attributed to the Jesuits that goes: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man”, meaning that the childhood years are formative. More ancient philosophies going back to to the Greeks and Chinese voice a similar outlook. Modern psychology, thanks in large part to Freud, supports this outlook.

I want to show how the bad stuff we learn at school harms us as individuals, in our relationships, in the workplace and how it damages society as a whole.

So its frightening when that principle is used for subversive ends. We feel horrified when we hear of children being recruited by rebels and terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, being armed with automatic weapons or being used as involuntary human bombs. What frightens us most, perhaps, is that their minds and outlook are being perverted, just as in another age children living in totalitarian societies were encouraged to “report” the “subversive” activities of their parents and other adults.

We, especially in the contemporary West, value our children and their innocence. We take the view that crimes against children, exploiting them or abusing them is particularly pernicious.

Why then, asks John Taylor Gatto, do we do so systematically, and have this deeply embedded in our culture and educational system? Gatto has written books and essays on this subject. The essay you can read on-line, the book is worth reading in its own right. Continue reading Dumbing Us Down

Kansas Outlaws Evolution, “No Species Exempt”

If you are not familiar with The Onion then this report may come as a surprise to you.

Kansas lawmakers passed emergency legislation outlawing evolution, the highly controversial process responsible for the development and diversity of species and the continued survival of all life.

It reminds you of the laws defining the value if Pi, doesn’t it? Continue reading Kansas Outlaws Evolution, “No Species Exempt”

Its in The Book

In The Beginning was The Word
and The Word was Content-type: text/plain

Some people say that dictionaries are records of common usage… meaning that if enough people understand a word to mean a particular thing, that’s what it does mean. Likewise for spelling and pronunciation. In other words, the dictionary definition reflects the common understanding, even if that understanding is ignorant and wrong.

Indeed, people look to dictionaries for guidance and enlightenment about the proper meanings of words. They rarely think to themselves, as they look up an entry, “even though this is what it says …” that was how people used the word at the time it was compiled, but that might not be the appropriate of the word now, in this context. For example, works on Shakespeare, whose Saxon English did not contain esoteric words from the Latin, Greek and “Romance” languages, still needs footnotes that explain the different meaning of many common words as they were used in his times. Even in my lifetime words have changed meaning (and I don’t mean just as result of my travels). The term “Gay” is a good example.
Even this: Random House Unabridged Dictionary 2006 definition lists all of the “archaic” forms before the contemporary usage.

So when we come to how the Miriam-Webster redefines the term “atheism” – as mentioned in this article
http://h3h.net/2005/05/atheism-debunked/ one wonders just how
good a job of separation of Church and State the constitutional forces in the USA are doing.

To the Founding Fathers of the USA it was important that the special privilege accorded to the Aristocracy and the Church in Europe, and in particular in England, should not be the case in their new society. This applied also to the legal system. Status was not to confer any advantage in legal proceedings – all disputes would be settled in court. (Yes we can see the unfortunate side effect of that today where wealth is the ‘privilege’ and advantage, and even that is comparative. There is no shortage of examples where the ‘little guy’ gives in because the legal costs would be ruinous and the ‘big guy’ can afford a better legal legal team. It happens even when the ‘little guy’ is a multi-million dollar corporation!)

Now its the turn of separation of church and state to be diluted. Political leaders are talking about moral weakness and turning to the Bible and encouraging “family values” based on the Bible. Let’s leave aside for the moment what is happening in other countries that are putting the values of another religious work, also one geared for pre-technic herdsmen moving to a city culture, ahead of ‘the state’, and look at what some of those ‘family values’ are.

The cultural practices described in the bible – and the Koran for that matter – are far removed from the sensibilities of Western society

Let’s start with marriage. Some of those speaking out against “gay marriage” insist that marriage1 is the union of one man and one woman. The bible says otherwise: Solomon has 700 wives and 300 concubines. Jacob had only two wives, his brother Easu had three – the overall pattern in the bible is polygamy. (Gen 4:19, 4:23, 16:1-4, 26:34,
28:9, 29:26-30, 30:26, 31:17, 32:22, 36:2, 36:10, 37:2, Ex. 21:10,
Deut 21:15,  Judges 8:30, 1 Sam 1:2, 25:43, 27:3, 30:5, 30:18, 2 Sam 2:2, 3:2-5, 1 Chron 3:1-3, 4:5, 8:8, 14:3, 2 Chron 11:21, 13:21, 24:3) and concubinage (Gen 25:6, Judges 8:31, 2 Sam 5:13, 1 Kings 11:3, 1 Chron 3:9, 2 Chron 11:21, Dan 5:2-3).
The bible says the can take any woman he wants (Gen 6:2, Deut 21:11), provided only that she is not already another man’s wife (Lev 18:14-16, Deut. 22:30) or his [half-]sister (Lev 18:11, 20:17), nor the mother (Lev 20:14) or the sister (Lev 18:18) of a woman who is already his wife. The concept that a woman has any say in the matter is foreign to the Biblical mindset.

Then lets add in prostituting one’s wife, a Abraham (not once but twice! – Genesis 13:13-17, Genesis 20:2 ) and Issac did Genesis (26:7), prostituting your daughters (Genesis 19:8), father-daughter incest (Genesis 19:32-36), slavery (Leviticus 25:44, Luke 7:2) – including selling unmarried daughters into slavery.

Its in the Book! – a Johnny Standley used to say.

The God of the Old Testament has got to be the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous, and proud of it, petty, vindictive, unjust, unforgiving, racist. —Richard Dawkins, The Root of All Evil??

The cultural practices described in the bible – and the Koran for that matter – are far removed from the sensibilities of Western society; the authors of the Bible would scarcely recognize the partnership of equals that marks a contemporary American marriage and tolerance and belief in fairness for all . But its not just “contemporary”, “Western” and “American” that are key here. The culture of the Bible and the Koran was one, as I said, of tribes and herdsmen moving to a “city” – their kind not ours – culture, dealing with tribal issues of command and control, health and sanitation in the hot, marginal ecology of Mesopotamia. We are in a society of nation states, with a great deal of control over our environment, advanced public hygiene, a food surplus (but politically limited logistics), of understanding of mechanics and biology. Our ancestors of 4,000, 2,000 and 1,200 years ago lacked our tools and knowledge.

The Founding Fathers examined English “Common Law” critically to decide what to retain. Even in England the last few centuries have seen a great deal of reform, to religious freedom, the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in the middle of the 19th century, the abolition of slavery, parliamentary reform, female and universal suffrage in the 20th century. These are all things we consider “modern Western Values”. In some areas the United Stated led Europe, in other areas lagged. But certainly by the time the United States was formed, the shift from a ‘tribal’ outlook and value system to that of a “national identity” had occurred.

Dictionaries, despite – or perhaps because of – the work of dedicated enthusiasts and self mutilating madmen are backward-looking documents. They document the sources of the language, the first use, the shifts in pronunciation and meaning with time, how the words have their roots on other, more ancient languages. Even with electronic tools, the dictionaries are not up to date.

Similarly, the issue isn’t the veracity or inerrancy of the Bible, its isn’t about whether or not God did actually dictate the text of the Koran to Mohammad. In many ways its not even about the translation and the various political agendas that have and always will surround that. It is especially not about whether God exists or any particular religion is “The One True Faith”. It is about our understanding of the culture in which they were written – more importantly that it is not the culture of today. We cannot obsessively and literally apply the institutions that were suitable thousands of years ago to the modern age.

This is no different from understanding the different cultures that exist in our contemporary world. Not just between the USA, Asia and the Middle East, but the rich set of cultures that exist within the USA itself. Anyone who has relocated from San Francisco to NYC knows what I mean.

1 Historically, “marriage” was about property and inheritance and ensuring that the ‘legitimate’ offspring inherited.
In many societies only the aristocrats “married”; the peasants simply cohabited. Our contemporary religious bombasts, like their predecessors, fail to recognize that nobody else’s actions can affect their moral stature. Similarly those who insist on using the adjective “gay” alongside the word “marriage” also fail to recognize that the issue is one of legality – who shall inherit by default, who shall share health benefits, retirement benefits – when in so many jurisdictions such matters are determined by the state and any religious recognition of the union is an adjunct – that the civil ceremony is what is recognized by the state, not the religious one. The rest of us keep getting bothered by a question of very little real impact to us. But then its common for religious zealots to want to impose their views on others.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Enhanced by Zemanta

Democratic Demagoguery

It’s municipal election time here in Toronto, and the politicians are paying attention to the voters and promising bread and circus so they can ignore us for another four years.

Well the incumbent David Miller is certainly making promises along those line. He is currently saying he will invest the equivalent of $100,000 in each and every ward across the city in a plan to clean up and beautify Toronto’s open spaces. The works out at nearly $18 million. He points to a local artist who has painted murals on the underside of a bridge. Well in one park near me graffiti artists have done that. Big Deal.

Miller’s leading contender, Jane Pitfield, is taking a different tack, she is promising that there will be investment in the infrastructure — a commitment to work on transit issues. But lets face it, compromises and a peculiar obsession to balance spending ‘fairly’ between the boroughs has meant that a lot of Toronto’s necessities, most pointedly roads and public transit, has been systematically short-changed for decades. A recent grant to the TTC by the province is being swallowed up just to deal with maintenance — no new vehicles or infrastructure. And lets face it, poor roads cost us all in wear and tear on vehicles, not just our own cars, which we have to use, despite the gridlock, because transit is so under-developed, but the buses and the commercial vehicles suffer too.

Vote Early Vote Often

if you’re not on the voters list you can still vote … Even if you are ineligible. It only matters if the election is contested in court

Democracy costs. This election is costing the city about $6 million, and its been in the works since the last election. Many people question whether its worth it. As a democratic process, its almost laughable. The voter’s list has always been a mess but this year the amalgamation has finally gotten around to using the list compiled by the Municipal Property’s Assessment Corporation — an outsourcing effort. Although this has called into question the eligibility of over a quarter of a million voters, it is not as bad as it sounds. Or perhaps its worse.

Its like this: if you’re not on the voters list you can still vote; all you have to do is show up at a polling station with some identification — this doesn’t have to be “strong” identification like a passport or a driving license with your photograph. It seems a letter or bill will do the job. And even if you can’t produce identification, you can still cast a ballot. All you have to do is declare you’re eligible, sign that declaration and you can cast the ballot. I’ve heard stories about how years ago elections in Chicago were rigged by having people vote on behalf of the deceased, but this beats that hands down. (And it seems, Chicago is still vulnerable to voter fraud.)

And if someone is suspicious? No big deal, just go ahead. Any observer who is suspicious can register an objection, which is duly noted, but you still vote and your vote is still counted. Even if you are ineligible. It only matters if the election is contested in court.

Oddly enough, the city didn’t make up this rule, the province did, and the city can’t amend it.

Democratic Values

I am fascinated by the origins of democracy, not just the magnificent work that the founding fathers of the USA did (though not all of them beleived in the form of democracy that the USA ended up with), but its long and tortured history throughout the world. One of my heroes is Simon deMontford, who is one of the progenitors of modern
democracy. He pressed for political reform to limit the absolute power of the King, tried to uphold the terms of the Magna Carta and the the Provisions of Oxford, which form England’s first written constitution.

These forced King Henry III of England to accept a government in which power was placed in the hands of a council of 15 members who were to supervise ministerial appointments, local administration and the like – the things we would consider a very basic set of ‘controls’ on power. There was to be a formal Parliament which was to meet three times a year, to monitor the the council. These provisions were to limit the absolute power of the king and make him recognize his responsibility to the people of the country.

Sadly, neither the documents nor deMontford allowed for human frailty and greed, and the English barons did not stand behind these reforms, many pushed for their individual advantage. Yet another civil war ensued, deMontford was defeated, the provisions annulled and for the ensuing centuries the terms of the Magna Carta were ignored as well.

The Founding Fathers of the USA did a much better job, but then they not only had the experience of history and a better philosophical and epistemological base on which to work, they also had a clearer set of objectives and better human material to work with.

Not only were the original citizens of the USA educated and literate, it was also a ‘flatter’ society than the Britain it had broken away from, and much ‘flatter’ than the medieval England that deMontford had to cope with. In fact much of the constitutional debate focused not so much on what a hypothetical democracy should be so much as what it should NOT be — and that was pretty much defined by the aristocratic power structure of England. The American way of doing things would be equitable; there would be no privilege in law based on wealth, rank or heritage as there was in England. All men – well, slaves and women aside – were created equal.

DeMontford’s ‘rebellion’ failed, a did so many others that followed it in England, France, Italy and Germany (but not quite so simply in Switzerland) because it was the aristocracy – those in power – that wielded the weapons. The “Bill of Rights” quickly filled in ten amendments to the original constitution to deal with such matters that were so ‘obvious’ and self-apparent that they had been overlooked. All these documents, and the marvelous literary debate that surrounded them, the discussion about distribution or centralization of power, ‘The Federalist Papers’, are of great political significance to this day and deserve reading by anyone concerned with any form of politics. The cases and logic they put forward were obviously lacking in many of the political groups I encountered at university and even today by many groups bleating about ‘democracy’. Can you say “shibboleth”? Of course you can!

Mob Rule?

But democracy has many flaws, above and beyond those facing the municipality of Toronto. The great American poet, E. A Poe described it as a form of “mob rule”. Another American, Tomas Jefferson, said: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.

And therein lies the problem that faces Toronto and most of the western world. Democracy isn’t equitable in practise. The “first past the post” system can mean the 49% get the raw deal. And since politics tends to polarize issues, make them absolute either-or situations, the losers loose everything.

Minority Rule

The reality is worse than that, though. The major democracies of the west have poor voter turnouts. Recent elections in the USA, Canada and the UK have been less than 60%. This means that as little as 30% of the population dictate to the majority.

Why such a poor turnout? We can speculate a number of reasons:

  • People don’t think their vote will count.
    There are a number of ideas behind this varying from ‘first past the post’ claiming to be a ‘representational’ system, though the idea that what does one vote mean among millions. In the US Presidential election, the one candidate that everyone is supposed to be able to vote for, the electoral college system means that the candidate receiving the most votes may not get elected.
  • People think that there’s a ‘system’ so votes don’t matter.
    In one sense this points to the government bureaucracy and the civil servants that persist regardless of the elected officials.
  • Sometimes you don’t have the candidates.
    The age of great statesmen and leader is past?

The last point is very true; the party system massively distorts a democracy. The small number – compared to the overall electorate – of party members selects the candidate. The party machine, which is much bigger than anything an independent can muster, finances his campaign. This is implicit in the economics of electioneering. Once the party is in power its ‘whip’ dictates what happens. (And recently here in Canada Garth Turner has seen what happens to anyone in the Party who doesn’t abide by the whip.) In situations like the UK and Canada it is the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament that becomes the premier. Only the party voted him to be the leader, not the whole electorate. If he steps down the party might select a new leader, who promptly becomes premier without a general election.

Yes, indeed, a small percentage dictates to the majority.

Thomas Jefferson warned of what he called “elective despotism.”.
Over 50 years ago in his classic work The Road to Serfdom the nobel prize winner Friedrich Hayek warned that democracy is no guarantee of either a liberal — “free” — society or of maintaining a standard of living.

Better than the Alternatives?

One of Churchill’s great quotes is:
It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Well that depends on what you mean by “worst” and for whom. It is difficult to make comparisons across different civilizations and economic systems though human history. And what alternatives? Democracy doesn’t not equate to Capitalism, does it?

If we look back to many primitive societies we see a simple division – the peasant class who work the land and the those that do other things. Those other things may vary depending on the type and degree of civilization. In some situations the difference may not be great.

But we can romanticize about warrior tribal leaders and draw out examples from the ‘primitive’ world of a few hundred years ago. But it has taken time for those countries to ‘mature’ politically enough to be able to handle democracy.

To start with there has to be the sense of identity, call it nationhood. That is a recent concept in the west. A few hundred years ago there were kingdoms not counties and their border were mutable by conquest or marriage. Only a few like England had distinct boundaries, and even there there were the Welsh and the Scots in the days before it became “The United Kingdom”. But even at that stage there had been leaders

Cosmic Emergence

When explaining emergence
I sometimes say, half jokingly that:

The English language is an Emergent Property of the Hydrogen Bond

We usually talk of emergent properties of complex systems in the contemporary world, things like bio-systems and ecology, complex social systems and of course consciousness and “intelligence”.

Emergent properties are usually the result of complex interactions.  Simple, first level interactions such as sodium and chlorine, neither of which are crystalline or salty, combine to make salt – which has properties that are not inherent in either of them.  However basic chemistry does tell us that such chemicals can make “salts”.  Water, however, has complex physical properties that are unique in chemistry and cannot be predicted from knowledge of how similar elements combine.  Merely saying that:

“An emergent is a higher-level property, which cannot be deduced from or explained by the properties of the lower-level entities.”

is inadequate.  It may be simply that we don’t have the detailed knowledge.  Non-chemists, for example, will not be aware of the chemistry of “salts”.  There are no shortage of stories based on having such a superior knowledge to “impress the natives”.  Or be a stage magician.  See, for example, Penn and Teller explaining how they do their “magic” tricks.   Continue reading Cosmic Emergence

Dumbing Down Science Education

The BBC is not normally a hotbed of high standards, but it offers this report on the dumbing down of science education in the UK: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/6038638.stm

The new GCSE science curriculum has been branded “sound bite science” which takes a back-to-front approach.
Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, is among the scientists to attack the core qualification, in which pupils discuss topical issues. Sir Richard told BBC News: “If you wish to have a dumbed-down syllabus for the general population that’s fine.

The article goes on to quote Ethicist Baroness Mary Warnock:

“What counts as an issue to be debated in class is largely, as David Perks points out, dictated by the press.
Far too much teaching at school has already degenerated into this kind of debate, more suitable for the pub than the school room.”

So it would seem that in the UK science is being discarded as Latin and Greek and the grammatical analysis and critical thinking that went along with them is being discarded. Continue reading Dumbing Down Science Education

Are you a Dummy or an Idiot?

There are a few axioms in business, sales and marketing.
Up there at the top is something of the order of “treat your customers with respect.
For many, this starts at “hang up the phone before you start swearing at them”, but the principle is more universal. Its a variation of the idea of “The customer is always right” that one famous department store owner – or other – brought into the vernacular.

Along with such truisms goes the idea in marking that something new and dramatic will grab the customer’s attention.

Which has led to an interesting paradox. There is a line of books that is predicated on the assumption that telling the reader — the customer — that they are ignorant. Continue reading Are you a Dummy or an Idiot?

How the Celts are Responsible For Everything

Cover of "How the Irish Saved Civilizatio...

Cover of "How the Scots Invented the Mode...

These two books look like they go hand in hand, but actually they tell very different stories in very different ways about very different things. One might say that they also reflect the troubles between the two Celtic heritages in Northern Ireland today, but that would be stretching the matter.

Cahill’s book originally came out in hardcover in 1995. I have the trade paperback which came out in 1996. It has full colour front plates and 8 pages of photographs as well as many in-line illustration and maps. It is about two-thirds (218 pages of text) the thickness of Arthur Herman’s book (429 pages of text) in paperback, and therein lies part of the point of this review. Continue reading How the Celts are Responsible For Everything