Reason on the ropes

I wasn’t intending to write about Science v. Religion again anytime soon, but a random conjunction of recent sources demand consideration as a group.

These disparate sources include an educator’s reaction to New York’s “banned list” of city exam topics, a noted blogger’s analysis of yet another piece of Tennessee anti-evolution legislation, and a listing of the anti-science views of Canada’s Conservative government.

Reading these sources one after another focuses the mind forcefully on the tenuous position that both science in particular and rationality in general have in the public mind. Continue reading

Now you see me, now you — see me

Last week was not a good week for digital media users concerned about their privacy.

First, the Conservative government of Canada introduced legislation that will significantly broaden police and security agency powers to eavesdrop on citizens, without the need for warrants and the limited judicial oversight they now provide.

Then, in an article published February 15th, Bloomberg investigated some of the largely-unknown powers hardware and content providers like Apple and Amazon reserve for themselves, without the explicit consent of their customers.

And on Sunday the 19thPC World reported on Google’s intransigence in the face of user lawsuits over alleged privacy violations.

Any of these stories is alone sufficient to raise the antennae of privacy watchdogs. Taken together, they emphasize the continuing — and growing — intrusion of government and commercial interests into the details of what we do online. Continue reading

Contemplating November 11th

Remembrance Day is always a curious day for me. If it hadn’t been for the Vietnam War, today would be, for me, not Remembrance Day but Veterans Day. My own life was changed by war — not by a war in which I fought, but by a war in which I declined to fight.

Whenever Remembrance Day approaches, I experience a number of emotions:  sadness that the suffering and death war causes still endure; peace of mind that the decisions I made more than 40 years ago, I would make again; reflection about my relationship to those individuals I know whose histories differ so greatly from mine.

This competing group of emotions was especially acute during the more than 30 years in which, as part of my job, I participated in the annual ceremonies of the day. It should have felt a little strange that I, an American draft resister, was leading Canadian teenagers in official tributes to their country’s warriors.

Thankfully, Canadians associate Remembrance Day not with false glory and shrill patriotism but with a full awareness of the loss and sacrifice that war brings. This thoughtful attitude encourages all Canadians, veterans and non-veterans, to consider the complex realities of war. The absence of nationalistic bravado made it possible for everyone, for me, to participate in all good conscience, to join the common reflection which characterizes the day. So instead of discomfort or a feeling of isolation, Remembrance Day gives me a strong sense of how fortunate I am to have lived my adult life here.

A more personal aspect of my experience of Remembrance Day came soon after retirement, when I joined an exercise group for cardiac rehab patients. Many members of the group were older than I am, and more than a few of them were veterans of World War II or the wives of veterans. My own family remained in California, so this was my most extended contact as an adult with people of the WWII generation.

Like all Canadians I have met, without a single exception in 40 years, these elder soldiers welcomed me into their group. Some of them, volunteers in their war, shared my feelings about the Vietnam War. They had fought in what was arguably the last anti-imperial war, and they recognized  that the war that I had resisted was nothing at all like the one that they had fought.

While we exercised, we often listened to music. One day, as a small surprise, I brought in a CD of 40′s dance band music. At first, I just enjoyed watching the smiles and the dancing feet. Later on, I started to watch the faces of the old folks as they sang along to the songs of their youth. What Elvis and Dion were to me, Glenn Miller and The Andrews Sisters were to them.

As I watched them, I listened more closely to the words they were repeating. “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” “There’ll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover.” “I’ll be seeing you in apple blossom time.” To them, these were not just superficial old pop songs; they were profound expressions of the emotions of separation and conflict, emotions that these people had lived.

As the veterans and their war brides and their widows sang, as their faces softened and they turned inside, into private thoughts I could only imagine, I saw them — and the costs of their war — in new ways.

It’s a scene I haven’t forgotten, and every Remembrance Day I think of it.

Metaphorically spooking

“The US intelligence establishment doesn’t do jokes, on account of it comprising lots of smart folks whose sense of humour was surgically removed at birth.”

So writes John Naughton in a June 5th Observer  article highlighting a proposal by the U. S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence to tender a “metaphor project,” which will sift through internet traffic, looking for language use that signals undesirable core values.

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Paul Krugman: conscience of the American left

Canada has just endured another federal election campaign (1) in which parties put on their best public faces before heading back to Ottawa to do what they do behind those closed doors.

Typically, the Conservatives campaign to the centre but govern from the right. The Liberals campaign to the left, to govern from the centre. Maybe that’s why this time the progressive NDP did so well — say what you believe, and damn the torpedos.

In the United States, Barack Obama ran to the left but governs from the right. His chief justification — true, alas — he’s a lesser evil than those other guys.

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