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O tempora! O Myspace!

There’s an interesting article in Bloomberg Businessweek about the rise and fall of Myspace—the social media construct that had hoped to revolutionise the relationship between the music industry and its consumers. In the article, Myspace’s two founders seem to blame their woes on a combination of poorly scaled technology, management missteps, an increasingly negative user experience, and a heaping helping of bad press.

Those factors certainly play a role, however I would posit that even a well-run social networking site–with a pleasant, secure user experience and the press blowing sunshine up one’s backside all day–will still experience the dreaded user fall-off. The author of the Businessweek piece comes tantalisingly close to the truth when he writes the following:

Mismanagement, a flawed merger, and countless strategic blunders have accelerated Myspace’s fall from being one of the most popular websites on earth—one that promised to redefine music, politics, dating, and pop culture—to an afterthought. But Myspace’s fate may not be an anomaly. It turns out that fast-moving technology, fickle user behavior, and swirling public perception are an extremely volatile mix. Add in the sense of arrogance that comes when hundreds of millions of people around the world are living on your platform, and social networks appear to be a very peculiar business—one in which companies might serially rise, fall, and disappear.

— Gillette, Felix. “The Rise and Inglorious Fall of Myspace.” Bloomberg Businessweek, 22 June 2011.

The cyclical nature of social media is not accidental, and is in fact a vital clue to its lack of long-term viability. Back in June of 2006 I wrote about Myspace’s unlikely prospects due to its heavy reliance on circa-1995 models of online revenue generation, i.e. good old banner ads. That piece included the following abbreviated history of social networking, which may help one understanding its previous iterations.


In the early 80s we had telephone “party lines” where eager young teens could call up a central chat line service, create a cutesy little audible profile, and make new friends — realtime — with dozens of other like-minded teens from the same city (or across North America) talking about billowing hairspray-dos, tiger-striped pants, and Queen Street rock bars.

In the late 80s and early 90s we had multi-line bulletin board services like Metropolis and Canada Remote Systems, where angst-ridden young teens could dial in with a 1200-baud modem, create a lengthy personal profile, and make new friends — realtime — with dozens of other angst-ridden teens from the same city (or across North America) typing about unkempt hair, grunge rock and Queen Street goth bars.

In the mid-to-late 90s we had personal web pages and internet relay chat, where you could create a lengthy personal profile, link to all of your interests and pop-culture icons, and make new friends — realtime — reminiscing with people in the same city (or across the world) about the bygone days of tiger stripe pants, grunge rock, and Queen-Street-goth-bars-turned-Starbucks-outlets.

Now we’ve got MySpace, where you can create an intricate personal presence on the web (in 1995-style backgrounds and layout), link to all of your interests and pop-culture icons, and locate — realtime — new friends who share the same interests and possibly geography.

Each of those prior forms of social media have died out over the years. Technology keeps creating newer avenues of interaction, and the generation that initially adopts a tool will in a few short years mature into a different stage of life—and move on to something else that better suits it.

And that, dear readers, is why social media is always ephemeral and never quite the stable, long-term cash cow that everyone wishes it were.

Even though almost all office-dwellers have a computer at work, the working Joes and Janes are not the folks that will spend the vast bulk of their time on social media sites. Most companies require one to complete tasks in order to earn a salary; lollygagging and playing Farmville doesn’t cut it. Thus the folks with vast amounts of time to spend online are (generally) the young; teenagers, college students.

But as the young grow up they, too, get less time to spend online. Work will start eating up larger and larger slices of time, along with girlfriends/wives, children, and so on. If two or three key friends end up using and recommending a new social media vector, one might be more inclined to adopt it. But that vector (whether it is an instant messaging service, Myspace or Facebook) does not always maintain the same level of relevance to the user. As the user ages and his or her life circumstances change, the various attractions of the site will lose (or gain) relevance.

In my teens I had used BBSes (particularly the live chat) to communicate with friends, organise spur-of-the-moment social and sporting events, and so on. Although we moved from BBSes to IRC in the 90s, live chat lost all relevance after my early 20s, because I and all of my friends were working full-time—and, critically, few offices in 1995 had desktop Internet access. I still have ICQ, Yahoo! and MSN instant messaging accounts, but I never use them; they are not earning any revenue for any of those firms. Facebook, too, was interesting initially but quickly became less so. I don’t use its chat function, and the games feel too much like work. Many games want you to check in every couple hours or risk losing progress, and at that point it’s no longer fun—it’s a chore. Nor do I use the Foursquare integration, photo album or event calendar; my use of Facebook has thus declined to that of e-mail substitute. Trying to get people together for a ball game in your teens in easy; most of the people you know live nearby (or at least in the same city). And being teenagers, there are usually few duties and ample free time. But to do the same with adults is something else entirely. Few of my high school friends live in the same city anymore, and most have wives, kids, tons of responsibility, and little spare time.

Unlike brick-and-mortar businesses, social media isn’t selling something you might actually need. So when the early adopters find a service’s relevance fading, it can’t always count on the following generation to take up the slack. A pub can survive for hundreds of years in the same location because people in every generation will want to eat, drink and socialise. Social media can only offer the socialising, and that lasts only as long as the young find it relevant and cool. None have found a way (nor investors patient enough) to recruit successive generations.

Category: Web/Tech  Tags:  Comments off

Poisoned environment

The story of Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Tahrir Square is a sad footnote to democratic triumphalism following President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.  Logan is a CBS correspondent who was—just days earlier—detained (along with her crew) by Egyptian security forces as a supposed spy.  After her release, she and her crew returned to Cairo to continue covering the story, and there they were set upon by evildoers in the crowd.

On Friday, Feb. 11, the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan was covering the jubilation in Tahrir Square for a “60 Minutes” story when she and her team and their security were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration. It was a mob of more than 200 people whipped into frenzy.

In the crush of the mob, she was separated from her crew. She was surrounded and suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers. She reconnected with the CBS team, returned to her hotel and returned to the United States on the first flight the next morning. She is currently in the hospital recovering.

There will be no further comment from CBS News and correspondent Logan and her family respectfully request privacy at this time.

— “CBS News’ Lara Logan assaulted during Egypt protests.” CBS News, 15 February 2011.

As always, the traditional bromides apply:  extrapolation is unwise, and blame should not be attributed beyond this isolated group of individuals, et cetera.  But it’s worth noting that even before this, Egypt (and Cairo in particular) had gained some notoriety in recent years for horrifying attacks on women during the days of Eid.  The perceived increase in harassment was feared to have a chilling effect on tourism, and a particularly shocking case of sexual assault had even been noted by the United Nations’ humanitarian news agency IRIN:

CAIRO, 19 February 2008 (IRIN) – Egypt was scandalised last summer when an 11-year-old girl named Hend Farghali was allegedly raped by a 21-year-old man. Petrified, the girl did not tell anyone until she was five months pregnant.

Such extreme cases involving children may be beginning to change attitudes to rape in general which, though illegal, has traditionally been seen as more of a family misfortune rather than a crime.

…”We want to change traditions, but it is not easy,” Rania Hamid, manager of the family counselling unit at the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA), said. “These traditions are not 20 years old, they’re ancient. You have to change them bit by bit.”

Hend is one of 20,000 women or girls raped every year, according to Egypt’s Interior Ministry, a figure which implies that an average of about 55 women are raped every day. However, owing to the fear of social disgrace, victims are reluctant to report cases, and experts say the number may be much higher.

— “Egypt: Are attitudes to rape beginning to change?”  Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) / UNHCR, 19 February 2008.

Thanks to groups like the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), in-country attitudes toward sexual harassment were highlighted in media reports (such as this one from the BBC).  The ECWR report (Clouds in Egypt’s Sky, 2008) measured a sample of 2,020 Egyptian participants (half male, half female) and 109 foreign women living and travelling in Egypt; it paints a rather dreary picture, some of which I will excerpt here.  Any emphasis [in bold] is mine.  I believe the report is valuable because it illustrates my contention (previously outlined in this post) that Egyptians may want the efficiency, accountability and transparency of liberal democracy, but they are a long way from desiring significant social liberalism.

First we have a sample image of various women, differently attired.  Survey respondents were asked to identify the clothing choices they perceived as most vulnerable to harassment, while researchers noted the actual type of clothing they were wearing when surveyed.  I have added some survey results directly to the image, although the report’s original imagery does not:

General appearance of women who get sexually harassed: what women wear. (Clouds in Egypt's Sky—Sexual Harassment: from Verbal Harassment to Rape, 2008)

Participants’ views on the most important features of a victim of sexual harassment:

48.4% of Egyptian and 51.4% of foreign women that women of all ages are subjected to sexual harassment. However, the majority of the male sample 62.2% indicated that women in the age groups 19 – 25 years old are most susceptible to sexual harassment. This difference in the views of women and men may be due to the experiences that women have had with sexual harassment. If it happens to them, they are likely to believe that any woman at any age could be vulnerable to harassment, that it is not confined to young women and girls.

In terms of general appearance of the victim, 62.5% of the Egyptian women and 65.3% of men involved in the study stated that Figure 2 (see above) is the most common appearance of women vulnerable to harassment. 44% of foreign women rejected this notion, suggesting, rather, that all women are commonly harassed. They think that the female in Figure 2 will be subject to harassment, but they also thought that the women in Figures 5 or 6 were also likely to be harassed. Generally, foreign women agreed that a woman’s appearance is not a determinant of harassment.

These two points are interesting because they indicate a male-female divergence of perception (males thinking that only young women typically get harassed) and a domestic-foreign divergence as well.

Views  of  the  public  on  the  most  important features of a harasser:

Public opinion research showed that most harassers are young males, between 19-24 years old.

In terms of occupation, the study showed that male microbus and taxi drivers are the most likely to be harassers. However, the vast majority of foreign women emphasized that police and security personnel are the most likely to engage in sexual harassment.

The reaction of foreign women is notable because, of course, some of those uniformed worthies will be the very people now running “democratic” Egypt.

Manifestations  of  exposure  to  sexual harassment:

Results of the study found high rates of exposure to sexual harassment. 83% of Egyptian women reported exposure to harassment, while 98% of foreign women stated they had been sexually harassed while in Egypt.

Results also revealed that 46.1% of Egyptian women and 52.3% of foreign women are subjected to harassment on a daily basis.

According to the results of the study, 91.5% of Egyptian women and 96.3% of foreign women faced sexual harassment on the street and public transportation most often. Second most common were tourist destinations and foreign educational institutions.

This ought to be a major concern of the Interior Ministry and all of Egypt’s tourism/hospitality industries.  The convergence of police and security doing the harassing—with tourist destinations and expat universities being some of the likely areas for it to occur—ought to be an economic blight waiting to erupt.

General  appearance  of women who  get  sexually harassed: what women wear

31.9% of women who reported sexual harassment were dressed like figure 1, wearing a blouse, long skirt and veil. 21.0% of women were wearing a longer blouse, pants, and veil like figure 3. Figure 4 was third, where women were wearing a cloak and veil (20 %), then figure 6 (19.6%). These results disprove the belief that sexual harassment is linked to the way women dress (women are sexually harassed when dressed ?indecently? or are not veiled ? in the words of some participants), since 72.5% of victims surveyed were veiled.

…Participants believed that figures 2 and 4 would get harassed more than the others because these figures were not wearing the veil and were wearing short clothes, but the results prove that this is mistaken, as the majority of women we interviewed were dressed like the figures 1, 3, 4 and 5 – but still experienced sexual harassment.

How  the  Victim,  Witness and  Security  Officers  Deal  with  the Problem of Sexual Harassment:

…Only 2.4% of Egyptian women and 7.5% of foreign women reported the crime.  …Some police officers the mock these women or harass them as well. The vast majority of women – 96.7% of Egyptian women and 86.9% of foreign women – did not seek police assistance because they didn’?t think it was important or because no one would help them. …The vast majority of foreigners confirmed that many times the harasser was himself a police officer – further deterring them from requesting assistance.

Men and sexual harassment:

Results show that the vast majority – 62.4% of the male audience surveyed – confirmed that they have perpetrated and/or continue to perpetrate one or more of the forms of harassment. 49.8% being ogling women’s bodies, 27.7% whistling and shouting comments, 15.9% shouting sexually explicit comments, 15.4% phone harassment, 13.4 unwanted touching of women?s bodies, 12.2% following and stalking, 4.3% exposed or pointed out his penis.

The vast preponderance of inappropriate ogling is to be expected, as it is the easiest to execute without fear of significant consequences.  I am a little bit surprised by the non-trivial numbers of people engaging in phone harassment (97 out of 1012), groping (84), and whipping out the wang (27).

Results indicate that 53.8% of men blame men’s sexual harassment of women on the women. They interpret the cause of sexual harassment primarily as a result of women dressing indecently (unveiled). However, our study shows that most victims of harassment wear headscarves, illustrating the falseness of this claim. 42.4% of men also attributed harassment to women’s beauty.

88% of the sample saw someone harassing a woman. …The reactions of these to seeing such incidents where negative, but that 61.4% ignored the issue completely and failed to provide any assistance to the victim or separate the harasser from her. 29.4% sympathized with the victim and only 0.1% reported trying to help the victim (verbally, physically, or by helping the victim to file a police report).

Reasons that most of the sample ignored harassment and refused to help the victim included: 47.8% indicated that they don’t care, others said that women enjoy harassment, and others replied that since they harass women themselves, they have no right to prevent others from doing the same.

Blaming the Victim:

Most Egyptian women interviewed agreed that it is wrong for a woman to go to the police station to report harassment or to talk about being harassed. Some men in the sample both agreed and disagreed with these ideas.

Most of the Egyptian women and men agreed that women should be at home by 8 p.m.

As for the foreign women participants, we find that the vast majority rejected all these views. They do not provide excuses for the harasser to commit these behaviors, and reject blaming women for being harassed.

The Egyptian government’s own efforts to curb sexual harassment are of course mired in the belief that prevention and self-restraint are the duty of the woman—not the men that wish to pester her.  No image can convey this astonishing attitude as effectively as their own poster campaign:

2008's "Veil Your Lollipop" campaign. Poster text reads "You can't stop them, but you can protect yourself."

ECWR’s study ought to put paid to such notions, since it clearly demonstrates that modest dress is no protection from lascivious conduct.   But the myth persists and it’s not uncommon, both in the West and abroad.  I’ve encountered it in emails and comments discussing previous posts on Islam and the role of women, and the best response is probably that delivered by Susan Carland writing at AltMuslimah:

And as long as Muslims try to make the argument that hijab is the magical protection against sexual harassment and rape, then they continue to place the blame on the victim/survivor and are buying into the “she was asking for it by dressing like that” argument, and not where it squarely belongs: on the man.

— Carland, Susan.  “Sexual harassment, Egypt and the hijab.”  AltMuslimah.com, 15 February 2011.

Ends, means, etc.

Somehow I doubt this significant news will affect our leftist friends’ preferred narrative/slogan “Bush lied, people died.”

The defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons programme has admitted for the first time that he lied about his story, then watched in shock as it was used to justify the war.

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball by German and American intelligence officials who dealt with his claims, has told the Guardian that he fabricated tales of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled in 1995.

“Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right,” he said. “They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy.”

— Chulov, Martin and Helen Pidd.  “Defector admits to WMD lies that triggered Iraq war.” Manchester Guardian, 15 February 2011.

(Via the Tiger on Politics.)

There’s no question that Saddam Hussein was brutal tyrant of poor moral fibre—a despot who employed chemical weapons against his own citizens—and every punishment that was finally heaped upon him was undoubtedly deserved.   There is no question that the first Gulf War had been ended only by a temporary ceasefire—whose terms Saddam had repeatedly violated from 1997 onward with malice aforethought.  But I would not blame the policymakers, diplomats and servicemen of the United States for feeling a twinge of resentment at having been misled by a zealot into an essentially avoidable endeavour.

Saddam’s story is one we might have seen earlier, in an alternate history.  If the French and British had gone to war in 1936, when Hitler violated the Treaty of Versailles by remilitarising the Rhineland, it’s likely we would have a much sunnier image of the 20th century’s most famous dictator.  Let’s suppose der Führer also managed to survive the 1936 war, clinging to power in an economically crippled Germany (still hobbled by Versailles reparations), only to be deposed by an Allied invasion ten years later when an escaped scientist (an Einstein perhaps, or a von Braun) fabricated details of a Nazi superweapon program.  Without the horrors of a worldwide war and the additional nightmare of the Holocaust to prejudice our judgment, he would probably be a university campus hero today, like Che Guevara; just another hopeless, seedy foreign outlaw snuffed out by the reigning imperialists of the day.

Saddam was not Hitler, of course, though he was demonstrably brutal, tyrannical and anti-Semitic.  But even given all of that, one’s attitude toward the errors and deception underlying our casus belli probably depends on whether one believes Saddam’s greatest evils lay behind or ahead.  It’s a question to which—perhaps fortunately—we won’t ever have a definitive answer.

TRUE LIES UPDATE: A reminder that belief in Saddam’s WMD program was very much a bipartisan affair.

“If Saddam rejects peace and we have to use force, our purpose is clear. We want to seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program.”

— President William J. Clinton, Statement on Iraq, 17 February 1998.

“Iraq is a long way from Ohio, but what happens there matters a great deal here. For the risks that the leaders of a rogue state will use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies is the greatest security threat we face.”

— Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Town Hall meeting on Iraq, Ohio State University, 18 February 1998.

“He will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.”

— National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, Town Hall meeting on Iraq, Ohio State University, 18 February 1998.

“Mr. Speaker, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I am keenly aware that the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons is an issue of grave importance to all nations. Saddam Hussein has been engaged in the development of weapons of mass destruction technology which is a threat to countries in the region and he has made a mockery of the weapons inspection process.”

— Representative Nancy Pelosi (D—California), Statement in support of air strikes underway against Iraq, 17 December 1998.

“This December will mark three years since United Nations inspectors last visited Iraq. There is no doubt that since that time, Saddam Hussein has reinvigorated his weapons programs. Reports indicate that biological, chemical and nuclear programs continue apace and may be back to pre-Gulf war status. In addition, Saddam continues to refine delivery systems and is doubtless using the cover of a licit missile program to develop longer-range missiles that will threaten the United States and our allies.”

— Congressmen John McCain, Jesse Helms, Henry Hyde, Richard Shelby, Harold Ford Jr., Joseph Lieberman, Trent Lott, Ben Gilman, Sam Brownback. Joint letter to President George W. Bush calling for stepped up action against Iraq, 5 December 2001.

“We begin with the common belief that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a threat to the peace and stability of the region. He has ignored the mandates of the United Nations and is building weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them.”

— Senator Carl Levin (D—Michigan), Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, September 2002.

“As a condition of the truce that ended the gulf war, Saddam Hussein agreed to eliminate Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and to abandon all efforts to develop or deliver such weapons. That agreement is spelled out in U.N. Security Council Resolution 687. Iraq has never complied with the resolution.”

— Senator Tom Daschle (D—South Dakota), Statement on authorisation of the use of United States armed forces against Iraq, 10 October 2002.

Category: Foreign Affairs, National Defence  Tags: , ,  Comments off

Humanity’s true face

Foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead argues that everyone should read science-fiction (or perhaps more accurately, speculative fiction), not because it has the best prose, plots or characters, but because it gives us a chance to see outside of our usual frames of reference, and possibly encounter humanity in a new light.

Taken as a whole, the field of science fiction today is where most of the most interesting thought about human society can be found.  At a time when many academics have become almost willfully obscure, political science is increasingly dominated by arcane and uninspiring theories and in which a fog of political correctness makes some forms of (badly needed) debate and exploration off limits, science fiction has stepped forward to fill the gap.

— Mead, Walter Russell. “Literary Saturday: Science Fiction is a Genre That Everyone Should Read.” Via Meadia/The American Interest, 18 September 2010.

I’m sympathetic to Mr. Mead’s argument on several levels: as a former science-fiction reader who once thoroughly enjoyed the genre; as one who mines the currents of history for patterns that might be applicable today; and as one who holds Mead’s intellect in some esteem. I’m not sure any of these things can overpower the catalyst that drove me away from science fiction, which is a tendency to explore new frontiers of the human condition in exactly the same way.

I refer not to similar plots, characters or superficial elements, but the underlying theme, which usually—when boiled down to its simplest elements—is a novel-length Facebook status update from the author, saying in essence “Wouldn’t it be great if human nature were no longer a limiting factor, and we could dispense with x, which bugs the crap out of me?”

Sure, it would be great. And if your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle.

Why I find much science-fiction/speculative fiction hard to take is that if one has a decent knowledge of history, religion and anthropology, one will understand that humanity actually has hard-coded limits that will be nigh-impossible to transcend. Or more accurately, that our superficial layer of cultural software can be changed relatively easily, but most of what plagues us as a species is the result of our neurological firmware, which has evolved into its present condition over millennia and will take literal millennia to add any new lines of code.

Let us take, for example, emotion. Every human being is going to (at some point) feel love, hate, joy, sadness, anger, relief, pride, shame, et cetera. Much of the time we can decide whether or not we want to embrace or suppress specific feelings in a specific instant, but we don’t have any control over whether emotion itself occurs at all, and sometimes strongly-felt emotion can override our reason. Our collective evolutionary, genetic and neurological heritage thus dictates that the emotion switch is stuck in the “on” position for all of us, with an occasional involuntary “override” capability. On a macro level this means humanity is subject to irrationality, and will be until evolutionary pressures millions of years down the road might decide that we must evolve a “cutoff” capability. Any human civilisation where we still resemble actual homo sapiens is going to have a certain amount of irrationality and illogic built-in by default.

Lots of the firmware that creates annoying problems has a perfectly good, reasonable role. Like all manner of flora and fauna we discriminate (in the objective—not perjorative—sense). The human brain is a generalization machine; it looks for patterns inductively and deductively. It has evolved this mechanism in its firmware to help all humans adapt to our various physical and social environments; it is not merely an inculculated software artefact of one specific culture. Operating at a certain baseline level the ability to identify a pattern, associate it with a predicted outcome, and act to achieve our desired outcome is good. That ability keeps us from eating food that has gone bad, from touching red-hot objects, and so on. But as everyone knows we can easily run into problems by over-utilising this necessary survival skill (or by providing lousy inputs).

An individual can modify his or her software generalisations, if they are self-aware enough to a) know that they are happening and 2) they desire to either embrace or reject the conclusions. What is completely beyond the individual’s control is the firmware, the part of the brain subconsciously assimilating data and making generalisations, every moment of every day. We can and should pass laws to prevent certain kinds of discrimination in public life and commerce, but we can never hope to eliminate the firmware in the brain that inductively and deductively arrives at generalisation-hypotheses. It’s used in too many facets of human (and animal) existence. Ergo prejudice of one kind or another will always be with us, as a species (even if culturally, we conquer the usual racial / gender / orientation kind).

History and religion become useful wells to draw upon because they show us that man’s inner struggle hasn’t changed much over the past few thousand years. We may have newer gear—spacecraft and computers—but in the end we are governed by the same evolutionary programming handed down from our ancestors eons ago. We wonder at the vastness of the cosmos and our small place in it. We wonder how we might best fulfill our potential in a world where the outcomes are uncertain and the stakes so high. Sometimes that striving takes us into conflict with others who have the same (or a different) goal. How we decide on and pursue that goal depends on our cultural software, but our evolutionary firmware is the why. Nobody arrives on the planet and wants to sit still and do absolutely nothing until the day they pass on.

Background knowledge of history will also tell you what utopian experiments have already been tried and found wanting. (Hint: it’s all of them.) The great failing—if not defining feature—of utopian projects of all eras is that they generally try to paper over mankind’s firmware with less-sturdy cultural software. This might last for three or four generations at best, but ultimately our firmware will reassert itself.

Regrettably, when one reads science-fiction that tries to get around humanity’s firmware limitations, the authors tend to run for all-out transhumanism (whereby humanity’s limiting factors are solved by experimentation, genetic and biological manipulation, et cetera).  But because the author’s also writing the story for humans today—who generally don’t want to read about persons and things they cannot relate to—you get post-humans who are either 1) a little bit too human, which kind of nukes the premise of the story, or 2) are sufficiently un-human to the point of being uninteresting to the human being who has to slog through the story in the here and now.  It’s a hard, virtually impossible balance to strike, and as a result I find myself reaching for histories rather than science/speculative fiction.

And let’s not even get into the facepalm territory of why some authors give spacefaring civilisations with faster-than-light drives ultra-low-tech bullets and projectile weapons.  Tomorrow’s Earth-bound fighters and gunships already have planned directed-energy weapon upgrades.  And we’ll have those operationally deployed before the first manned interplanetary spacecraft sets out for Mars.

Category: Ars Gratia Artis, Historica  Tags: , ,  Comments off

There is nothing new under the sun

As the author of Ecclesiastes notes, human nature is a constant and there are few truly new challenges each generation will face.  Most of what we perceive as new and troubling is due to the phenomena known as the “tyranny of the living”—that we who are alive have no significant knowledge or memory of what went on generations before.  It is hard to conceptualise what life for our grandparents was like, let alone people that lived ten or twenty generations before them.  Our educational priorities are generally aimed at narrow technical/ economic manpower requirements, rather than providing a means to understanding the human condition; so each cohort of graduates remains ignorant of our ancestors’ similar challenges, and their solutions (or failures).

I was reminded of this by a guest-blog in the Harvard Business Review by Robert I. Sutton (Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University):

Cries for the reinvention of management and claims that we have to discard old models are made by every generation of gurus. But really, the ideas that work aren’t that complicated, and most of what is called new is really the same old wine in relabeled bottles. If you want to read a great book on this point, check out Robert Eccles‘ and Nitin Nohria‘s Beyond The Hype. When I read it for the first time, I realized that a big reason every generation thinks that its solutions are new is because it thinks its challenges are brand new. People can’t quite bring themselves to believe that managers of the past faced remarkably similar problems, found frustration and satisfaction in similar sources, and came up with similar solutions. Just as teenagers discover sex and can’t imagine that the fundamentals were the same for their parents, managers are convinced they are encountering forces and feelings that haven’t been seen before. And management theorists do little to disabuse them of that notion.

— Sutton, Robert I.  “What Every New Generation of Bosses Has to Learn.” Harvard Business Review, 9 June 2010. [Emphasis mine, however the hyperlinks have been preserved from the original.]

I would amend this more broadly to state simply that it is something every human being has to learn.  The tools by which we live our lives may change, but the trials and tribulations do not.  On a basic level, every human wrestles with joy and sadness, anger and forgiveness, triumph and tragedy; every human will learn, in the fullness of time, that their emotional responses cannot be fully mastered—only managed.  At a more macro level, even specific scenarios—Islamic radicalism, speculation bubbles, excessive national and personal debt, environmental devastation, parents concerned about the sexualisation of their adolescents and kids—all have at least one (if not several) relevant analogues in human history.  None of these are a new frontier for the human race.

For example, if you want to have some idea what animates millenarian movements such as 2012 Mayan calendar doomsayers, off-the-grid environmentalists, peak oil apocalyptics and some sects of Christianity and Islam, it’s helpful to understand that this doomsaying impulse has always been with humanity, and may have reached its peak during the Protestant Reformation.

…The Reformation would not have happened if ordinary people had not convinced themselves that they were actors in a cosmic drama plotted by God: that in the Bible he had left them a record of his plans and directions to carry them out. Their revolution was not simply a search for personal salvation. They changed the way that their world worked because they were convinced that this visible world was the least important part of the divine plan.

Above all, large numbers of Europeans were convinced in varying ways and with varying degrees of fervour that the momentous events through which they were living signified that the visible world was about to end. If so, it was vitally important for the world’s condition at it’s end to correspond as closely as possible to what God wanted. The perpetual threat from the Turks was proof enough, even before the Reformation (and some will have known that their Islamic enemies were also widely convinced that the world would end in the Hijra year of 1000, the equivalent of the Christian 1592). Without that pervasive expectation of an imminent, dramatic change, few might have listened to Luther’s challenge to the Church. Without it, Savonarola could not have seized Florence, thousands would not have trekked to Münster to set up a new Jerusalem, Franciscans might not have toiled to convert the Indios in the Americas, Friedrich V might not have travelled to Prague, Transylvanian princes would not have found a sense of crusading mission, Oliver Cromwell might not have readmitted the Jews to England.

— MacCulloch, Diarmaid. “Changing Times.” Reformation: Europe’s House Divided, 1490-1700. p550-551.

Substitute global warming, dwindling oil reserves, rapacious consumerism and so forth for the evils of the age, and you get the idea. The people on board with today’s millenarian movements—whether religious or secular in nature—do think that a dramatic, imminent change is upon us; that is why they listen to latter-day Luthers, and it is why many are desperate (as Catholics and Protestants were in those days) to put forth a world-shaking effort. It is entirely possible that latter-day millenarianism will succeed in changing the world again—but a better prescription would be to understand that for 99% of the scenarios the human race will confront, we’ve already established parameters and a template.

It wouldn’t hurt to do some digging and find out how we handled it before, and whether we want to handle it the same way in this iteration.

Category: Aut disce aut discede  Tags:  Comments off

Our Lady of Cupertino

I have long maintained that the religious impulse is a core part of our evolutionary biology, because every human being I have ever known is religious about something.

Even—and especially—the unreligious, who will not realize they are in the throes of it because they may define religion as “believing in something for no reason at all”, rather than a rational faith that asks questions, observes data, records answers, and believes on the strength of the evidence that it has thus far.

Given that every known human civilization has objects of affection, inspiration and veneration, it is not surprising to see that religiosity extends into the secular realm and may even be actively cultivated by savvy marketing.

Just as the Genius Bar has proved to be genius, the now-classic Apple slogan “Think Different” also turns out to be more than just words: The brains of Apple fans really are different. When Martin Lindstrom, a brand consultant and author of Buyology: The Truth and Lies About Why We Buy, examined those brains under a functional magnetic-resonance-imaging scanner, he discovered that Apple devotees are indistinguishable from those committed to Jesus. “Apple’s brand is so powerful that for some people it’s just like a true religion,” Lindstrom says.

Apple cultivates religious fervor among its adherents in a number of subtle ways, including its mysteriousness and its suggestion that customers are among the chosen ones. Perhaps most important, though, is Apple’s devotion to symbology. Its most effective marketing efforts, Lindstrom says, are built into the products themselves. Think of the iPod’s white earbuds, the Mac’s startup sound, or the unmistakable shape of the MacBook’s back panel. None of these choices were accidental. Apple understands the lasting power of sensory cues, and it goes out of its way to infuse everything it makes with memorable ideas that scream its brand.

— Manjoo, Farhad. “Invincible Apple: 10 Lessons From the Coolest Company Anywhere.” Fast Company, 1 July 2010.

It would be easy to go for the cheap laugh and say “See? It is a cult!” But I think the story reinforces a broader truth about human nature.

My sense is that asking humans to not indulge their religious nature is akin to asking sharks not to swim or eat seals. When people draw pleasure and inspiration from something—be it a relationship with the Creator of the universe or merely Apple Inc. of Cupertino—they will continue to seek out that experience and strengthen that bond.

One hopes that those who experience their religion as a purely secular phenomena can have some understanding of what draws believers back to churches and hymns week after week.

RELATED: The Atlantic Monthly‘s interesting piece on Apple as religion, detailing the company’s creation, hero, devil and resurrection narratives.

Studying religion with a degree of seriousness

Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine conducts a fascinating interview with Dr. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and one of two Research Directors of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Dr. Tiger has spent four decades trying to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences.  Most recently he has done the religious and irreligious a favour by examining humanity’s adherence to religion in the light of cognitive science, and treating it with a respect and seriousness of purpose that is usually lacking.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?

A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.

— Bethune, Brian.  “Maclean’s interview: Lionel Tiger.” Maclean’s, 4 March 2010.

I appreciate the doctor’s candour and lack of condescension.  Too many opponents assume that those with religious beliefs were raised into it, or are mentally deficient, and thus have no other framework for understanding the universe (i.e. those poor, ignorant religious dears).  I find that reductionist assumption more than a little simplistic.  As a child I was not raised in any such faith tradition and did not attend church regularly.  I had a general familiarity with the superficial aspects of Christmas and Easter (i.e. presents and chocolates), but we did not attend church on those holidays.

I came to my beliefs partially because of the good and humble example of religious neighbours, and a spur-of-the-moment decision (previously detailed in this space) to find out whether God was really out there.

The frequently-debated aspects of religion (whether the universe was formed according to a literal reading of Genesis, or not) I find a little tiresome.  It is like debating whether all vehicle operating manuals are worth reading because the specific instructions for a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom can not be applied with equal validity to a 2010 Aston Martin Vantage.  I do not read Genesis for its astronomy and biology any more than I would read the Guide Star Catalogue for its insights into human interpersonal relations.  It was not compiled for that purpose.

So it is with some relief that I find that a scholar takes the examination of religion (and not just one of them, either) with a high degree of seriousness.  My own perception is that every human is religious about something, whether or not they consciously understand it as a manifestation of that impulse.  There is always an instrument, activity or pursuit to which a person repeatedly devotes their focus, and draws from it a sense of enjoyment, fulfilment and renewed purpose.

Clearly, it is a phenomenon that the species finds useful, and we will continue to find it present wherever humans are.  Imagining this species without its religions is like imagining one without happiness or sadness or love.  Religiosity appears to have a significant physiological component, not merely a social one; we are not likely to evolve beyond it even in many millions of lifetimes.

UPDATE 220239Z MAR 10: I forgot to note that the interview was conducted as part of a book review; the book being God’s Brain, by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire.

Root of the problem

Nathan Bauman at Port Coquitlam Odysseus has linked to a fascinating interview with Mosab Hassan Yousef—son of a founding member of Hamas.  Mr. Yousef has written a book about his journey from terrorist to counterterrorist, concomitant with a parallel spiritual journey from Islam to Christianity.  He also has some potent words to say about his former religion:

Do you consider your father a fanatic? “He’s not a fanatic,” says Mr. Yousef. “He’s a very moderate, logical person. What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God. I know this is harsh to say. Most governments avoid this subject. They don’t want to admit this is an ideological war.

“The problem is not in Muslims,” he continues. “The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to.”

— Kaminski, Matthew.  “‘They Need to Be Liberated From Their God’.” Wall Street Journal, 6 March 2010.

Mr. Yousef has certainly cut to the heart of the matter.  And he is correct that governments have shied away from addressing fanatical ideology, even though it is the causal factor that breeds homegrown and international Islamism.

A couple of months ago, a young Muslim woman wrote to me in response to a previous post on Islam and women.  She argued that Christianity and Western nations also had a fairly horrible track record with regard to equality of women, and that this really only began to be addressed quite recently, in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  And she would be correct insofar as that goes; I readily conceded that point.

But the focus of that post was not that Christianity (nor any other religion) had a perfect, spotless record when it came to women’s dignity and equality—it doesn’t.  My point was that unequal and second-class treatment were built into the example of Islam’s founder, Mohammed.  I confined myself to reviewing notable misdeeds in Mohammed’s history which have no parallels in Christ; in this I hoped to foster an understanding of why other religions may self-improve and refine their doctrines dealing with women, but Islam cannot.

At its best, religion reconnects us with the Divine and broadens our perspective beyond the parochial self.  It civilises us, sanding down our rough edges; a benefit for individual believers, certainly, also one for our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues.  But all religions are also—in varying degrees—at odds with certain aspects of human nature, so individually and collectively, humans are constantly falling short of the mark.

Islam is unique, however, in some critical areas.  Instead of exhorting us toward better behaviour, it can also be used to give licence—via the example of Mohammed himself—to some of humanity’s worst impulses.

Not too many religions have founders who sought and were granted such wide latitude to commit violent acts without repentance.  Violence is an integral part of Mohammed’s example, and this is what will make radical strains of Islam so very difficult to eradicate.  This aspect of the ideology will have to be acknowledged and combated; to place it off-limits is to prematurely concede defeat.

Category: Fidei Defensor  Tags:  4 Comments

Pick only one: A sound mind, or a sound body

Mr. David Meadows, author of Rogue Classicism, links to a fascinating if depressing post in Psychology Today‘s Adventures in Old Age blog.  Dr. Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D, compares the situation of Thaao, a long-lived captive Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) with that of elderly humans—also captive, in a way—requiring care in nursing homes.

Would you like to be 80 and be physically health with dementia, or with a sound mind in a ruined body?

Pick only one.

In my work, I get to ask questions from the Geriatric Depression Scale like, “Do you think that most people are better off than you are?”

The 80something, I asked this of said, “No, not most, particularly some of the other people around here, whose minds are totally destroyed,” the fairly common response from many who still have a mind that always reminds me of the first line of Ginsberg’s Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”-a line appropriate to the most garden variety of nursing homes.

I’ll call him Mr. Jones. He was a long-time, semi-prominent classicist who forsaking Herodotus–I told him I could barely finish the first book of The Histories, in English–now lies in bed when he’s not in his wheel chair, mostly watching TV. A Yankee fan, he’s happily waiting for the first spring training game only weeks away.

“If only I kind walk,” a refrain I’ve heard scores of times over the years, “my life would be so much better.”

But Jones, unlike some others or possibly me in the future, is making–pick your platitude–the best of a bad bargain and playing the hand fate dealt to him.

Jones told me that, like Thaoo, perhaps, he never expects to leave the nursing home.

“I recognize I can’t live on my own. My son says its an ordeal just to take me for a car ride. But my friends still visit.”

…Although he admitted, who wouldn’t? that he’d like the sound body as well as the sound mind, but he’ll settle for the mind.

— Rosofsky, Ira.  “World’s Oldest Condor Dies–In A Cage.” Psychology Today | Adventures in Old Age, 30 January 2010.

This is a subject very much on my mind as I have seen elders in my family age and become ever more dependent on nursing care.  They have all, almost without exception, suffered a mental decline more precipitous than that of their bodies.  While I am not related by blood (and thus have no concerns about heredity of these conditions) to all but one of the sufferers, it is nonetheless disconcerting to see such a transformation.  When a person’s body declines, you may at least maintain some semblance of conversation and inquire after their interests, needs, wants, news and current affairs, et cetera.  Managing their affairs is easy, they can tell you about the state of their health, their income and expenses, how they would prefer for things to be administered, and so on.

But when a mind declines, conversations can become circular or nonsensical.  The person has no ability to make small talk, they cannot impart useful information to their caretakers, or discuss how they want their medical, social and financial care administered.  Worse, the personality that you once knew fades into nonexistence, replaced by some new hybrid entity combining a few ghosts of memory with a childlike innocence of all that was once familiar.

Aging is a bit of a Morton’s Fork; everything tends to deteriorate, and whether it’s the mind or the body that goes, the results are rarely pleasing to those who must endure it.  Dr. Rosofsky notes further one that as we age into the senior years our autonomy decreases, and that in a nursing home “sometimes the only autonomy you have left is to say, ‘No,’ or ‘Go away.'”

Category: That all men may know His works  Tags: ,  Comments off

The Pitfalls of Confessional Culture

John Donovan, Master of Castle Argghhh!, links to a pitiful column in online magazine Salon.com, wherein the former wife of a soldier confesses to leaving her husband while he’s on deployment.  Nor can she bear to show up for her son’s induction into the United States Naval Academy.

It would be easy to cast aspersions on the woman’s apparent fecklessness and lack of character.  But despite your correspondent’s generally Christian conception of marriage, I readily accept that some people will choose life partners unwisely, and therefore divorce is unavoidable and even desirable in some cases.

What I can’t conceive of at all is writing a column like that of Ms. Cook.

For while I do not expect that every life should be devoid of misadventure, mishap and misjudgement, I do think it slightly unwise to treat the general public as if they are one’s closest confidant.  While seeking a divorce does not—in and of itself—necessarily provide insight into one’s character, seeking a divorce while one’s spouse is duty-bound several thousand miles away sends a certain message.  As does failing to show up at a landmark event in the life of one’s own offspring.

If I were in a situation where my son or daughter was taking part in a ceremony from a career or institution which I personally found distasteful (say, for the sake of argument, the AVN Awards), I would still make a point of showing up as a mark of respect for my own flesh and blood.  The important thing is not whether I am comfortable or happy about being at such an event (or approve of the career choices involved); the important thing is to honour my offspring by demonstrating love and support for them, at the event that they consider important.

More importantly, had I failed to make such a basic effort for my spouse or my descendants, I don’t I think I would be admitting to it in print.  This is something I would count as a personal shame; a failure of character not to be repeated should another such opportunity arise.  Certainly not something to be recounted for strangers as entertainment.

Ms. Cook probably looks on that column with some pride, recounting a painful journey of the heart under stressful conditions.  I doubt very much if she realises that putting one’s lack of courage and small-mindedness on display for the public actually reduces her stature.

UPDATE 121606Z FEB 10: Reaction across the dextrosphere is, of course, overwhelmingly negative.  Also encouraging, the comments from liberal-minded military spouses (such as those at LeftFace, “the Other MilSpouse Blog”) are not too favourably inclined toward the piece, either.

EQUAL TIME: Ms. Cook offers her perspective on the piece (and the attendant response) at her own blog.

Category: Media, What Really Grinds My Gears  Tags:  Comments off