Archive for the ‘Media Gleanings’ Category

Commentary on This Is Life with Lisa Ling, S5E4, “Screen Addiction”

I made a point of watching this particular episode of This Is Life because I strongly suspected that it would shed light on the thesis of my book, The Tao of the Wild.  The episode takes a close look at the case studies of two young people who fell victim to screen addiction.  The first led to a tragic suicide while the second led to attempted suicides and eventual therapy.  Both stories have a lot to say about the influence of social media on individuals with poor identity structures and conflicted Multiple Selves within their personality.

My central thesis is that all of us have personalities constructed of Multiple Selves, a perspective held by Hal and Sidra Stone in their book The Divided Self, and supported by a multitude of others in the psychological community along with the current Zen Buddhist community.  I have explained and expounded on this thesis extensively in my book.  These Multiple Selves can be in a state of anarchy, where they take turns steering the ship.  If there is a captain, then there is some order and coordination, but if there is not then there can be conflict and confusion within the personality.  Throughout it all, there is a striving for identity, whether it be one Self dominating the others, a “Captain Self” or Controller which can bring order and some unity, or even a higher, Aware Self which can reify identity and self control.

It goes without saying that a developing adolescent lives in a state of turmoil with regard to their inner life and the dominance of various Selves.  Not only is their state of development at an early stage, with the whole system being soft and malleable, but a teenager’s life is full of various roles that they have to navigate and which are often at odds.  This, of course, is true to varying degrees with some teens coping better than others.  However, all go through identity pangs and tribulations, risking depression, sometimes frantically looking for feedback or validation from external sources.

Enter Social Media.  Teens have always risked placing themselves in negative feedback loops through a poor choice of friends, gangs or even involvement in cults.  However with social media, this risk becomes magnified tremendously.  The case studies in this TV episode clearly show teens who had normal self doubts and teenage angst but who discovered negative and depressing social media sites where they could, in the first case of the suicide, indulge their own dark impulses and get regular, powerful validation from depressing sites and other like minded people.  This is all done in secret, with parents not really knowing what is happening, and even friends often being locked out of the social media loop.  It becomes a separate life because it hijacks separate Selves within the adolescent.  One Self finds validation and gains superiority over the others, especially if it is a teen with an already weak or confused identity structure.  Without a Controller/Captain there is little self awareness, observation or diagnostics.  The validated Self is one acting in a self reinforcing narrative of desperation.

In the second case study a strong academic and athletically successful boy became addicted to gaming, finding easy self validation on line in various video games.  He often spent consecutive, sleepless days online.  This, of course, can’t happen without sacrificing real, face to face, social interactions.  Isolation is inevitable, as is a disengagement from normal social activities like team sports.  It is a double dose of disconnection, relationships and activity, with real life consequences.  Those consequences can only complicate life, often driving the teen further into their gaming and isolation.

In this second case we see the same result on the Self and Personality structure of the screen addicted person.  What starts as a healthy personality, with diverse and engaged Selves, becomes seduced by the screen into a more and more narrow Self structure.  “Seduced” is an apt word, as the boy in question admitted that viewing pornography played a significant role in his screen time.  One Self, The Gamer, strongly supported by a Sexual Self, totally dominates his Personality to the exclusion of almost everything else, while barricaded in his bedroom.

The mother of the girl who committed suicide states emphatically that her daughter would still be alive if it were not for social media.  There is some truth to that, as it was the feedback loop from the depression web sites and chat rooms that undoubtedly fed Selves that are not abnormal in adolescents, but which become abnormal when fed regularly.  Teens often have to overcome depressing thoughts and complicated situations.  They do so by engaging with their environment, including family, friends and other help when necessary.  Reinforcement of only the negative along with isolation may make the teen think that they have a “real identity” in the long run, but it is really just feeding one of many Selves, -and not the healthy one.

So what can be done?  The first temptation is to blame Social Media, and there has been a lot of talk lately about how sites are contrived to addict or subliminally engage users, much like a gambling casino.  There should be steps taken to minimize that effect.  However I don’t think that will ever really happen.  The dark websites that the girl visited would not disappear in that scenario, nor would the porn sites or gaming sites that enticed the boy.

By understanding the mechanics of personality, we can see that a big part of the problem is shallow identity structure, -very much in synch with the idea of shallow values and connectivity that I have explained in my book.  Strengthening that identity structure is something that is completely ignored in our education system.  In fact it was completely ignored in the therapy that the boy eventually participated in.  I was stunned to see that there was no internal therapy as part of their program.  There was no meditation or mindfulness exercises, -the exact measures that would create self reflection and would strengthen the Captain of the ship, so that the adolescent would have a wider perspective than that coming from their various screen lives and Selves.  This, I believe, is the more practical answer.  Social media is a business model that is not going away, and which honestly has a lot of potential benefits for the people who can engage in it more objectively.  So, let’s start giving our teens, and people in general, the tools and wider perspective necessary to cope with their technological world.  Lets start educating people to have a stronger and deeper connection to their own personalities and identities.

That will not only help prevent screen addiction, but will have many other positive consequences.

I’ve said this before, but I’m ready to repeat myself because I just think it is a really effective idea.

Indiana’s new “Religious Freedom” law actually allows private businesses to post signs saying that they will discriminate in their service on the basis of sexual orientation.  It is being widely criticized as a blatantly bigoted law, which of course it is.  This article in The Atlantic does a good job of pointing out exactly how bad this law is.  Much to the chagrin of many people with religious beliefs, it is fueled and rationalized by right wing Christian extremist views and beliefs.  So, how should someone who doesn’t fit into that category, whether religious or not, respond?

One way is to launch a campaign of signs in businesses that say something to the effect of “ALL ARE WELCOME TO DO BUSINESS HERE, REGARDLESS OF RACE, COLOR, RELIGION OR SEXUAL ORIENTATION!” Make some kind of a catchy symbol to go with it.  Make them available to stores who abide by that policy, and then put forward an awareness campaign encouraging like minded people to only shop in stores displaying and living up to that sign.  Those willing to support the campaign have a chance to show their love of freedom and human dignity.  It could be civil rights organizations, large businesses and, yes, even some churches.

Even in the most redneck parts of the U.S., there are large proportions of rational people, often approaching or surpassing 50%.  It is often a vocal minority that pushes this kind of ignorance, -or at least one can hope it is.  Regardless, those who do not post the sign, or who post a contrary sign, would be making their beliefs clear and the discriminating public would be free to exercise their right of choice and withhold their business.

These signs would not be meant for those being discriminated against, although it would have an added benefit of showing them not only in which stores they are welcome, but also how many stores would actually support them.  They are, moreover, meant for the rest of the public, many of which would actually prefer not to financially support a store that so strongly differs from their own ethical views.  I know that I would avoid a store that had a policy that I found repulsive.

I’ve said before that this seems to be a very positive way of solving the problem in a manner that supports tolerance rather than condemning bigotry, -not that that doesn’t have its place as well.  In time, singled out by omission, the stores who chose to retain their redneck ways would more than likely suffer financially, that being one basic way to force them to recognize that it may not be to their benefit to try to shove their outdated religious beliefs down the throats of others.

Just want to put in here that I was equally disappointed in CNN’s Special Report on Atheism.  I found it unfocused and very shallow in it’s view.  I wonder if it was meant as an obligatory “equal time” response to the “Finding Jesus” travesty.  It didn’t really bring out many of the important points that should have been covered, such as establishing “Humanism” as a viable moral philosophy.  Most of it was about how several atheists from religious families were shunned by those families.  Sad stories, but still not really the stuff from which meaningful documentaries are made.

As an Integralist, I like to think that I have a skeptical but open mind when it comes to religion. While allocating much of religion to the realm of superstition, I feel that there are real spiritual values to be found (sometimes deeply buried by dogma) in religions, and I truly appreciate how religion can be important to the lives of many people who are operating with a certain world view, however much I may disagree with them.

So I was very interested in the new CNN series “Finding Jesus”. The advertizing sound bites put forth ideas like “He didn’t disappear without a trace,” and other things that kind of begged the question of scientific or historic evidence. It had the potential of being in interesting treatment of the subject.

I have to admit that I wasn’t very surprised to find out that it is nothing of the sort. After watching two episodes (-and I confess to fast forwarding though the second to try to find more serious parts-) I basically found this series to be rather graphic portrayals of Bible stories with a very slight injection of scientific speculation.

The Bible stories are all presented the way you’d expect to hear them at Sunday school, though perhaps more bloody and violently depicted in order to enthral (or perhaps outrage) the viewers. They are presented from the point of view of being factual, with frequent commentaries from known Christian pundits and clergy, never questioned or corroborated in any way. They’re argument for the existence of Jesus (-which is what the series purports to be about-) is from the assumption that the Bible stories are factual and then trying to support them with cherry picked “facts”. It is the same way that Creationists make their arguments. Start with the assumption that the Bible is true, because anything else is unthinkable, and then proceed from there.

The science being presented is baffling. In the first program there was an examination of the Shroud of Turin with the scientific conclusions being inconclusive. Afterwards several commentators appeared on screen to say that even if it is not scientifically proven, it is important to include the idea of Faith and a need to have something to believe in. The second episode examined a bone artifact that was believed to be from St. John the Baptist, and out rightly proved that it could not have been authentic because it was only about 1000 years old according to carbon dating. Again, commentators stated that it is important to have such artifacts in order to have Faith, totally ignoring that it was just proven on screen that their artifact was a fraud. This is truly baffling. There was some mention of the fact that there were many other alleged artifacts that had not been tested, as if that is supposed to be a consolation. It isn’t.

So we have a series that tells Bible stories from the perspective of them being true and then peppers the hour with scientific examinations that are, at best inconclusive and in some cases completely disprove authenticity. I’m not sure what they are trying to do. To the believer, I guess they can point to the scientific component and say, “See, we are trying to be rational and scientific about this,” totally losing sight of the fact that the science they’re talking about refuts their arguments. I honestly don’t understand the motive behind this, especially on a channel like CNN. It seems more like something that FOX would run.  I will not be watching any more episodes.  As I said, I am a little bit disappointed but not at all surprised.

I thought that I might catch the new movie, Chappie, sometime this weekend, or ever perhaps today (the opening day), seeing that it was playing in some places at 1 p.m. A quick look at the listings revealed a commercial opportunism that I’ve seen building over the past year or two, but never to the degree that currently seems to be prevalent.

If you want to see a new movie in any of the larger theatres, expect to pay extra. I’m not talking about the IMAX or 3D surcharges. Those, at least, make some sense to me. You’re paying for a notably better experience, and you usually have a choice in whether you want to avail yourself of this premium experience or not.

No, I’m talking about the other, recently imposed, fake premium tickets such as the VIP or the ULTRAAVX arrangements. IN the ULTRA situations you pay a surcharge of several dollars for what they claim is superior video and audio, -although I’ve never really noticed any difference. You also get the privilege of choosing your seats before going in to the theatre, although you really don’t have full choice as there are limitations on what seats you can choose. The result in a low use time is having a small group of people lumped into a small area in the middle of the theatre. There is no point in this seat selection. In high use times, you get to choose at the box office between a variety of poorer seats, -something you could just as easily do walking down the hall and entering the movie. In low use times, you get to choose among lots of seats, just like you’d be able to do if you just walked in and sat down. The difference is that with ULTRA you get to pay a surcharge for the privilege, which usually doesn’t do much other than slow down the ticket line. Even if you were the only person in the room, or one of a dozen, you would still pay this premium price. (If they wanted to impose a surcharge for choosing a seat on the Internet, which I personally think is totally unnecessary, then, fine, do that for those taking advantage of that extra service, but don’t make the people in the theatre line have to pay for it.) For today and the following week, the movie “Chappie”, along with several other new releases, are only available in most theatres using the ULTRA option. It is nothing less than a surcharge for seeing a new release wrapped in a thin veneer of crappy extra services.

When I went to see “A Theory of Everything” about a month ago, I chose to see it at the Varsity Theatre in Toronto. It wasn’t playing at anything but a few downtown theatres at that point as it was prior to the awards season. Admittedly, I didn’t look carefully enough at the listing, or I would have noticed that it was only playing in the VIP theatre. I didn’t realize it until they asked for $20 for the movie ticket. I had gone all the way down there and there wasn’t any opportunity to move to another theatre (-there was only one other in town playing it at that time-) so I took the hit, cursed myself for not looking more carefully, and saw the movie. For the additional cost, I enjoyed the privileges of having a slightly more comfortable seat (and I mean slightly), being offered over priced theatre food by annoying waiters and seeing the movie on a relatively small screen.

Theatres, especially the larger chains such as Silver City, are using the pretext of the “premium service” to simply fleece their customers of a little extra cash. It is not enough that they sell popcorn for a price that calculates to $66 a pound, a price that is twice what you’d pay for a fine steak in a good restaurant, and which rivals quality caviar. (I actually calculated this as a Math/Science activity with my Gr. 7 class.) Now they are trying to convince us that their meagre enhancements are worth charging us even more for the actual movie. It’s all smoke and mirrors. If I lived close to a small theatre like the Carlton, it would have all of my business. In the meantime, if theatres want to complete with on line services (and pirating) they would do well not to exploit their customers.

I feel that it was a very lean year for movies. A lot of the films that are garnering award nominations seem to be coming from desperation and would not get that kind of recognition in other years where stronger films were more prevalent. Films like “Into the Woods” and “Foxcatcher”, …and even “Birdman” don’t seem to be of the kind of calibre that deserves recognition, and “American Sniper” hadn’t even been released when the nominations were announced.

“Birdman” seems to be a favorite this year. While it was well produced and directed, the story seemed hollow to me. The filmmakers did an excellent job of telling a very jumbled and largely irrelevant story. It didn’t really speak to me at all in spite of the fact that it was well crafted. “Selma” is probably an excellent film (…I haven’t seen it…), but I have to say (and may be criticized for it) that after “The Butler”, “The Help” and “12 Years a Slave” civil rights issues just might be getting a little overdone. I’m sure that those most directly affected by civil rights issues don’t agree with me, …although the Academy does seem to agree with me as “Selma” got a mention for best film but nothing else.

There are several movies that I do feel deserve award mention.

“Boyhood” is a classic Linklater film. He does a very good job of making a film about nothing in particular. I appreciate the scope of the task and think that it was a novel idea, but the opportunity presented by the film was, in my opinion, squandered. The story didn’t live up to the overall accomplishment. In spite of that, I feel that it is worthy of award nomination as a film, although none of the individual performances were particularly noteworthy.

The two films that I think are on top of the heap are “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game”. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” came out early in the year, a rare January release of an Oscar worthy movie. It got my attention immediately and is an original, funny and well crafted movie. “The Imitation Game” is a far more serious film about Alan Turing, with many layers of story and significance. They are totally different films, but both had fantastic acting performances and were very entertaining.

“The Theory of Everything” comes close to “The Imitation Game” in telling a deeply significant biographical story, but the latter, in my opinion, is just a hair better both in acting and story. There is no doubt that Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking takes on a very difficult task in portraying Hawking’s disability, but personally I think that an excellent performance of a normal person trumps an excellent performance of a person with a handicap. (Don’t misunderstand this. What comes to mind is Meryl Streep’s performance in “August: Osage County” where the melodramatic portrayal of the crazy, alcoholic mother was very deep, but none the less melodramatic. –Not that Redmayne’s performance is melodramatic. It’s actually quite masterful.) “The Theory of Everything” tackles a complicated character and manages to bring a special humanity to it, while still tackling the science that made Hawking famous.

Best actor should go to preferably Benedict Cumberbatch, but Eddie Redmayne would be fine.

Best actress seems to be a thin category with many of the nominations coming from peripheral films. I can only speak to Felicity Jones, in “the Theory of Everything”, who did a very good but not exceptional job.

“Interstellar” deserved some recognition beyond the music nod. Perhaps it was a little too “out there” for the Academy. Films that made my top 10 that aren’t on the Oscar list include, “Chef”, “The Internet’s Own Boy” (for documentary), and “Night crawler”. Movies like”Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dawn of Planet of the Apes” never get the recognition that they deserve.

Finally, it is disappointing that “The Lego Movie” didn’t get any recognition, other than a music nod for “Everything is Awesome”, which I hope it gets. It clearly deserved a nomination if not a win for Animated Film.

Let’s start with some facts. Something which some news media outlets don’t consider important.

  1. There is very little specific information about the content of the new curriculum available to the general public. That is not surprising as it has been made clear that it is still in the formative stage, with parent input still being sought and utilized. With such a politically and socially charged topic, parading it too early in the media would only lead to a circus which would hinder any kind of intelligent discussion. It eventually must be presented to a wider audience, before implementation and as a final formative stage, but at this point in time it would be counterproductive. Take the Sun Media pouncing on the “Anal 101” graphic behind one of the posters, with absolutely no context or explanation involved. Sex education is an easy target for sensationalism. Case in point, the Charles McVety attacks back in 2010, supported and advanced by the Ontario PC part, subsequently condemned by the Canadian Boadcasting Standards Council as shamelessly bigoted. Currently we see the same kind of shamelessness. It is interesting that a thorough Google shows that only SUN News and the various blogs that have simply cut and pasted their article, have any mention of the “Anal 101” issue. I find this unusual in that SUN is not the only conservative media outlet in Ontario, …just, I guess, the only tawdry one.
    The fact seems to be that parents are still being invited to provide feedback and input regarding this curriculum. If there are suspicions that this might not be a fair vetting, then address that and ask for a better representation of parents in that process. One parent from each school seems to be a good deal, although I can see how some religious groups might fear being left out of the process. There is a Catholic School system in Ontario, though, so they should easily be able to manage adequate representation. The truth of the matter is, though, that many of these religious groups would not be satisfied with anything less than abstinence based education and little more. Their cries of “secrecy” at this stage are not valid, and weren’t with the 2010 document where, clearly, enough was revealed about it to result in protests leading to its cancellation.
    However, I admit that after proper vetting, the provincial government does have a responsibility to release the final document to the public for more general scrutiny. There’s no scenario where that will go well. We live in a social structure with too many divergent values and world views. However, if the majority agrees (-not a majority of parents, but a majority of our society-) then moving ahead with it is the nature of social progress.
  2. This is an old story. As part of Wynne’s campaign when becoming leader of the provincial Liberal Party, she made it clear that she’d supported the scrapped 2010 curriculum document and that it was her intention to reintroduce it in some form. There are news articles to that effect prior to the last provincial election, and yet the Liberals won a majority. There are no transparency issues here. One can’t help but wonder to what degree Wynne’s own sexual orientation may be playing a role in the views of some more conservative critics.
  3. Most educators agree that the 15 year old Sex Ed. curriculum is woefully outdated for the changes that have taken place in that time. A little statistical research (not to mention anecdotal) shows how much of a shift there has been in the level of access to sexual material as a result of social media. Sexting and cameras on everything from home computers to laptops to tablets to phones are a game changer. Attitudes towards sexual engagement have changed and become more open, with the very definition of sexual activity having changed with terms like “wheeling” and “friends with benefits” becoming common place for lunch room banter. Access to pornography has become progressively easier and more commonly sought out than ever before, with most parents powerless to block it short of simply denying kids access to any form of technology. (And then they still have to contend with access that friends may have, -or as I’ve often hear, kids finding it on their parents computers, not realizing that kids are more tech savvy and better able to investigate search histories and hidden files than are the parent.) Having been a teacher (now retired) and a leader of several youth groups, I can say with a degree of authority that I’ve noticed a dramatic and significant shift in this whole area specifically over the past ten years.
  4. When creating and vetting a curriculum guideline, while parents certainly have the right to provide input, so should education experts and teachers. The indication is that most education experts feel that the new curriculum is largely a good thing. Now, I can hear the protest out there, the old adage of “What do experts know, anyway.” Well, I’m sorry but I’m reluctant to bow to the right wing, anti-intellectual movement that seems to be so prevalent in the U.S., and give experts the respect that they are due. It is too easy to disagree by simply dismissing the words of those who have made it their life’s work to study and understand education. What do you replace it with; folk lore and religious dogma?? I can assure you that while such people might be busy asserting such “values”, it will make no difference to the sexual activities of their children. The states in the U.S. with the most dogmatic and repressive attitudes towards sexuality and sex education are also those with the highest incidence of teen/unwanted pregnancy. In Canada it’s Quebec, which, coincidentally, has a largely Catholic school system.
    It is a sad fact that many parents, and especially the parents of kids that are in the highest risk category for early sexual activity, pregnancy and STDs, do not adequately exercise their responsibility of providing information and guidance in sexual matters. At the same time, they are often, though not always, the same people who object to sex education in schools. In many cases this is because they feel that exposing children to information about sex will encourage them to become more promiscuous. As stated above, the statistics are clear the ignorance about sex is directly related to unwanted pregnancy and STDs. By contrast to more conservative areas in the United States and Canada, in The Netherlands, where attitudes about teen sexuality are very open and liberal, teens are 15% more likely to use protection when having sex and the teen pregnancy rate is one sixth what it is in the States. There is one third the STD rate and The Netherlands has less than 1% the incidence of Gonorrhea. Ignorance does nobody any good.

I some ways it can be said that the need for the schools and the sex curriculum to step in is necessary for the very reason that many parents are ill equipped or often unwilling to do it themselves. If they were, the school curriculum would be less essential in properly equipping students to cope with the social media world. It needs to be done tactfully and with a measure of consensus and sensitivity, but it needs to be done.

Does proving the existence of God make any real difference to us?  Is it of any consequence?  Are we just ants infesting a Zoo, thinking that it was built by a benevolent super being for our benefit?

When Atheists or scientifically minded people scoff at religion they are typically attacking certain supernatural or superstitious aspects of it.  Most often these days it is the Young Earth Creationist under attack , who chooses to deny a mountain of scientific evidence, claiming that the world was created 8 000 years ago by God, and denying both Geology and Evolution.  But it also would include the acceptance of an historically unsubstantiated, often translated and randomly edited book (The Bible) as a fundamental truth, the idea of an afterlife that is only accessible by those who defer to a set of arbitrary rules pronounced by a patriarchal institution, the idea that prayer will result in God’s intervention (which has some indirect merit, as I’ll discuss later), and that there is a divine being who demands our worship to be in His good graces.

I recently viewed a video on YouTube called The Signs of God’s Existence, which is supposedly an intellectual and scientific examination of astronomical, physical, biological and mathematical theories, proving that the universe had to come about by Intelligent Design.  The arguments presented are far more intellectual and refined than the ones usually presented but I could easily spend pages rebutting this travesty of a documentary.  But that is not my goal here.  Suffice it to say that the so called evidence presented in this video is deeply flawed and very misleading.

However, let’s assume for the moment that this documentary is accurate and that things like the finely tuned constant values in forces holding the substance of the world together, and the Fibonacci pattern arising regularly in nature (to take two examples) is not explainable by science, but is proof of divine creation.  Such a proof of the existence of God still does not confirm in any way the beliefs of the Earth’s various religions.  It does not automatically follow that we are special in any way, that God wishes to be worshipped, or that Heaven is waiting for us.  It could be an impersonal God which has no desire to intervene or even have any interest in human, earthly affairs.  In fact, it is far more likely that the motives and designs of a divine and omnipotent being would be unfathomable to us.

Einstein clearly believed in a mysterious, spiritual force.  He was what would loosely be called a “Modern Deist”, although there are a multitude of meanings for that term.  From the World Union of Deists:

“Deism is the recognition of a universal creative force greater than that demonstrated by mankind, supported by personal observation of laws and designs in nature and the universe, perpetuated and validated by the innate ability of human reason coupled with the rejection of claims made by individuals and organized religions of having received special divine revelation.”

I’m not sure to what extent Einstein would have formally believed this, but in many interview with him he stated that there was an elegance to the structure of the universe that was not entirely scientific.  He was attracted to Spinoza’s impersonal God rather than the personal one of traditional religions.  Similarly, the Eastern system of Taoism believes that there is a positive force flowing through the universe (kind of like The Force in Star Wars, which was actually based on Taoism).  While this “force” is not in any extraordinary way concerned with us, it is still possible to live in or out of harmony with it.  It is still possible to recognize the pattern of its worldly effects on reality.

This is an impersonal God.  It can be seen as an evolutionary force, as a spiritual presence or as a mathematical theory related to Chaos Theory.  Perhaps one day we will be able understand it better or maybe even quantify it.  It does not require worship, it does not see us as exceptional and it does not speak to us of an afterlife.

However, as I said, it is possible to live in or out of harmony with this force.  When the subject of “prayer” comes up, there is the fact that if you envision something you wish to come to pass, this reinforcing act of volition will make it more possible, empowering your Will and aligning your Sub-Conscious.  This is the way in which prayer and mindfulness (or meditation) might be similar, -the enabling and empowering of certain thoughts to help propel them into reality by strengthening volition.  Also the act of mindfulness or contemplation strengthens the mind, helps produce harmony and enables a more deliberate and rewarding life.  In this very indirect way, prayer and God may be a real force in our lives, in an impersonal way.

My personal feeling is that it is a huge leap from a universe full of only hydrogen and helium to the existence of a William Shakespeare or a Robert Frost.  If Quantum Physics has to postulate a theory of multiple universes in order to adequately explain the finely tuned constants of forces, then perhaps there is another force helping to nudge things along in the background.  Not a patriarchal, bearded, sentient (at least in the way that we understand it), personal God, but perhaps an impersonal, “spiritual” force moving us towards increased organization rather than just entropy.  It would not be ridiculous to think that there may be an evolutionary force functioning in the universe as a counter to entropy.  Such an impersonal God, if that is even a wise label, doesn’t impact or interfere in my life, still allows me to create and evolve my own morals, and ultimately affirms science.  It also provides a little order and meaning to the universe.

The Strypes

Posted: October 3, 2013 in Entertainment, Media Gleanings, Reviews

And speaking of new and refreshing, the new Strypes album is just amazing, good old rock and roll.  This live clip shows that their talent is not just studio produced.  Wow … young!!  The lead singer is 16 and the guitarist 18.

Cyprus Bank Heist

Posted: March 29, 2013 in Current Events, Media Gleanings, politics

So I’ve been looking at the situation in Cyprus for the past few weeks, and several thoughts have been rattling around in my head.

If I have this straight, banks in Cyprus have decided that depositors with more than 100 000 Euros in accounts will have to give the bank somewhere between 20% and 80% of their funds.  I put the range in there, because if you look at the reports it is not at all clear what the final rate is going to be, and it has already changed at least once.  So if your life savings was 200 000 Euros, you could easily lose half of that in what they’re calling a “bail-in” as opposed to a bail-out.  Banks that have incompetently lost money or which have succumbed to the financial winds of other big institutions that have lost money will be able to recoup their losses by dipping into the personal accounts of its customers.

And nobody seems to be screaming bloody murder!  While the situation is being reported in the media, it doesn’t seem to be getting the “Holy shit!! What the hell is happening here!!” treatment that it should.  There is very little investigative reporting around, say, the fact that many wealthier customers were tipped off about the policy in advance and were able to withdraw their funds before they were frozen.  There seems to be little mention of the hardships that many of the ordinary people who may lose their retirement nest egg will suffer.  And, very notably, there is very little concern about whether this tactic will be used in other countries.  That this can happen in a European country and be accompanied by so little attention and outrage is deeply concerning.  I try not to be a conspiracy theorist, but one can’t help buy wonder if the media inattention, and the eclipse of the issue by the gay marriage question, might be deliberate.

The second thought was, “Who’s next?”  The answer seems to be, “Everyone!”  There are already signs that this tactic is being adopted in other European countries.  In Canada, while the threat of our banking system’s demise is significantly less than it is elsewhere, Harper and the Canadian government just passed a bill   which establishes “bail-ins” as a strategy to deal with the problems of banks and financial institutions.  Once again, this has been done with almost no media coverage.  That’s not surprising.  The Cyprus banks had to freeze assets and limit withdrawals because of a run on savings.  Imagine what would happen in Canada or the U.S. if there was even a hint of this possibility.  The run on the banks of people withdrawing their money would be enough to topple them.

One might ask, “Well, what is the answer then?  Should failing banks not be the responsibility of their customers?  Why should taxpayer bail out banks?”  These are all legitimate questions.  The problem is that we’ve already seen with the U.S. (and Canadian) bail-outs, that the within a few years banks are back to billions in profits with millions in bonuses for executives, but the customer victims of the whole mess are still unemployed, and have still lost their retirement funds or houses.  There is nothing to suggest that the “bail-in” strategy would not have the same outcome.  Additionally, while you might say that customers should bear the responsibility for the financial decisions that they make, there aren’t too many options.  Based on what we’re seeing here, maybe everyone should remove their money from the banks and turn it into gold or something similar.  Maybe it all needs to be invested into real estate, although that’s not protected from potential property taxation and confiscation.  I don’t know the answer.  I do know that if this situation develops, and viable alternative options are found, that doesn’t bode well for banks, and that’s not good for anybody.

What a mess.  The situation seems to be “no win”.  Why?  Because there is a climate of corporate and financial greed and irresponsibility which is being encouraged by governments allowing it to happen.  Because financial institutions are encouraged to be opportunists and are self aggrandizing rather than responsible custodians of their customers’ resources.  They are companies that have lost sight of their customers, even though they are totally dependent upon customer resources in order to maintain their own resources.

Under those circumstances, I wouldn’t blame customers to be outraged to the point of revolution if the banks just decided to steal their money.  I’m surprised that the reaction isn’t more violent in Cyprus.  Perhaps it well arise in coming weeks.

After devouring a few more of Doctorow’s books, he is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.  I previously gave a glowing review to Pirate Cinema, and then moved on to Little Brother and Homeland, the original book and sequel about the exploits of Marcus Yallow, otherwise known as M1k3y.  The story begins with Marcus hacking his way out of his high school’s security in order to participate in an on line game, but quickly turns into a suspenseful and intriguing tale about terrorism and conspiracy.  This is meant to be a YA novel, but the themes are very mature, venturing into civil liberties, social activism, the danger of Homeland Security and the role of torture in stopping terrorism.  As I pointed out in my review of Pirate Cinema, it is clearly as Left Wing in its ideology as Flashback is Right Wing.  Doctorow makes no bones about slamming governments for disregarding civil liberties and for abuse of power.  Some have claimed that the themes are too mature for a YA novel, but I would disagree.  People who make such claims are same idiots who are killing young people’s (especially boys’)desire to read by wanting to make everything sanitized and politically correct.  The sixteen year old character has to deal with some pretty extreme situations, including an introduction to sexuality.  But it’s all, in my opinion, dealt with in a very truthful and authentic manner.

I would give these two books an A+, but read them in order.  I also have to say that the second book, while still exciting and a good story, is definitely a little preachy.

Take a look at the letter sent to Cory by a young reader.  I quote a small part here, but the entire letter can be found on the craphound .com.  This was written by a twelve year old boy.

“Little Brother is one of those drastically important books that deals with real issues affecting everyone. This book was, in my opinion, more than just a book; it was a persuasive, life-changing book, the kind of gem that comes around too infrequently.

Before I read Little Brother I was scared to try something different. I surrounded myself with the same old young-adult novels (you know- goes on a quest, learns many things, big fight with a troll, the end) and never dared to step out of my little box.”

Little Brother alludes to Big Brother, and it’s comparison to Orwell’s classic is notable.  While some may say that Doctorow’s portrayal of corruption within Homeland Security and the violence it perpetrates on its own citizens in the novel is farfetched, I would tell them to look carefully at the news.  Look at the stories of protestors being kettled in the G12 demonstrations in Toronto.  Look at the peaceful Occupy… protestors being attacked with pepper spray.  Or look back at the last era where there was effective protest against government dominance and witness the killing of 4 students when the National Guard opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Ohio, or the clubbing of protestors during the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968.  Doctorow exaggerates, but it is little more than an extrapolation of what we see in the news.  That’s what good Science Fiction does.  That’s what 1984 did.

Doctorow lives what he preaches.  All of his books are available on his website free of charge.  His bio is very interesting, and when you read about his parents and his upbringing you quickly understand the roots of his ideology.  The video below is pretty long and technical, but watch at least the first few minutes, if you’ve find this at all intriguing.  It gets really, really interesting at about the 15 minute mark!!!  Also, take a look at his web site.  It’s full of amazing things.

[Can’t seem to embed this.  Don’t know why.]

However, in fairness to good reviewing, I have to say that I did not find the most recent Doctorow book, written with the very weird Charlie Stross,  “The Rapture of the Nerds”, to be less than optimally readable.  I couldn’t get into it.  It is a “post-singularity” novel, which is a unique idea.  The “singularity” is a future event, popularized by Ray Kurzweil which describes a time when nano-technology, genetics and AIs have transformed us in unimaginable ways.  “The Rapture of the Nerds” takes place in such a universe.  Many people may enjoy this, but I found it just too far out and had to abandon it after about 50 pages.  Maybe others would enjoy it more.

So, after the right wing propaganda of Flashback, fate chose to drop on me a few novels that are quite the opposite.

Pirate Cinema is classed as a YA novel, but you’d never know it.  Typically, the main character is an adolescent boy coming of age and all, but the bulk of the story is quite mature and fascinating, even if a little simplistic.  In the opening chapter, sixteen year old Trent McCauley is caught pirating videos and gets his family’s Internet access terminated.  This is a disaster for his family, affecting their lives in all kinds of ways, including his sister’s education and his father’s job.  Feeling disgraced he runs away to London, where he experiences homelessness, dumpster diving, and house squatting.  While a little less than realistic, and unfortunately likely to make many people view homelessness as less traumatic than it really is, it is still interesting and adventurous.

But the core of the novel is Doctorow’s fairly obvious rant against the government, big business and copyright laws.  It is the perfect antithesis to Simmons’ Flashback, with Doctorow speaking from a very liberal and environmental, pluralistic idealism.   It’s not as overtly preachy as Simmons.  There are few outright speeches, although there are a few at the end when the pirates hack the government.  Once again we are presented with an entertaining thought experiment.

Like Flashback, Doctorow makes a lot of idealistic ideological points without considering the opposing view.   His points are valid and thought provoking, but since they are unchallenged they sometimes come across as a little shallow.  His point, that stiff penalties for illegal downloading are overkill, is a valid one.  His presentation of big business being able “buy laws” and government trying to sneak unpopular legislation through being undemocratic is simply a valid reality.  His claim that artistic freedom should allow pirate cinema to go unchallenged is not fair to some of the economics of the situation.  Whatever you may feel about pirating and big business, -and I have strongly opposed the claim that the entertainment industry is suffering-, it is still true that intellectual property requires some respect so that people can reap some benefits from their creation.  Artists require some kind of protection.

However, a study released today and reported on the news claims that movie studio revenue increased in the period following a crackdown on major movie pirating sites were shut down.  What a crock!  The study is flawed in a multitude of ways.  First of all, it didn’t look at either cinema ticket sales, or DVD rental at all, only overall revenue.  Secondly, effects on a corporation’s revenue is going to be dependent on all kinds of things and is not going to respond very quickly to any sort of external event.  It’s a rather shaky correlation at best.  Thirdly, major pirating sites were completely unaffected, meaning that the closing of a few hardly dented the amount of downloading.  Thirdly, I know a lot of people who dl movies.  They are mostly people who attend cinemas very regularly.  What is downloaded is very unlikely to affect their movie attendance or DVD buying.  The economic impact is going to be a small fraction of the practice.  Economic impact on movie theatres is much more likely to be a result of on-demand movies being provided through cable TV.  There are many more intelligent, unbiased studies showing almost no impact of pirating video or music on the fiscal bottom line of big corporations.  The drop in their revenue over the past decade or two is a result of them no longer having a monopoly on their media (due to legitimate competition) and a change in demographics because of a shift in the baby boom generation.  They’re greedy corporations, as papered as many of the spoiled stars that work for them, and that don’t want to see their heyday come to an end.  Even though it already has.

So, I have an implicit biased for Doctorow’s message in Pirate Cinema.  Even if I didn’t, like Flashback, it is an adventurous and engaging view of the near future, and food for much thought.

I would give this book an A-.  It is definitely on the list of those books I’d try throwing at teenage boys to encourage them to read.