Monday, October 27, 2014

Narrative and the necessity to stand up for our rights

by andrianart
I’ve been having an interesting discussion over Facebook with author Robert Bidinotto around the importance of narrative in our society. It all started with a discussion about Ayn Rand. Robert’s contention was that, no matter whether you agree with Rand or not, she changed the popular narrative of her time.

It’s an idea that struck me after the events here in Ottawa on Wednesday.

The first item on the 10:00 am. CBC news was that a soldier had just been shot at the War Memorial. I told others in the office where I work. We were all shocked—it was just a few blocks away. We all thought of the same things: about Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent being killed in a deliberate hit-and-run last Monday, and the supposed ISIS/ISIL message exhorting sympathizers to strike against Canadian civilians for our warplanes being sent to the Middle East.

The human mind is wired to see connections and patterns. It’s an evolutionary advantage. So it’s to be expected that we’d very quickly try to fit the events of last Monday and Wednesday into a pattern—and one already lives in the zeitgeist, the narrative most spectacularly exemplified on 9-11: the industrialized, democratic West is under attack by Islamic terrorists around the world. Now, we have a new idea added to that narrative because of the Islamic State formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: there are supporters embedded in Western societies around the world—even here in uber-peaceful Canada—who will strike unexpectedly, viciously and effectively.

The facts do not support that narrative, however. Just as the facts of our world do not support Rand’s narrative.

The Ottawa shooting does not fit the terrorism narrative.

When I compare these events to other terror attacks, it makes no sense. If it were a terrorist attack, it would have to be, thankfully, a remarkably ineffectual one. One fine man is dead, and that’s a tragedy.

But look at other terrorism attacks in the West since 2001: New York, Madrid, London, which killed dozens or even thousands of people. What good it do anyone to shoot an unarmed soldier standing honour guard? What hope could Bibeau have had to advance any cause by acting alone, if as violently as he did?

But when you look at this through the lens of mental illness, it makes a lot more sense.

As more facts about Michael Zehaf Bibeau emerge, it seems his mental state had a lot more to do with his motivation. He has a history of mental illness and drug abuse. He was homeless and unemployed. He tried to get incarcerated in Vancouver.

A day after the Ottawa attack there was a multiple shooting in a school Washington — not linked to terrorism, ISIS/ISIL or anything else. And none of the analysis of it linked it to terror. Instead, and rightly, in my opinion, the talk orbits the debate over gun control.

Maybe if we look at “home-grown terrorism” from the perspective of mental illness, we can begin to get a handle on how to deal with it. Why don’t we ask these questions:
  • How did Bibeau get a rifle? 
  • Where did he buy it? 
  • What if there were some kind of, I don’t know, a list or a database of long guns so we could track who’s buying and selling them, so that if one is used in a crime, we could work out how the criminal obtained the weapon and then take steps to prevent recurrence. Crazy idea, I know, but still—worth thinking about.

Maybe that’s how we can account for the appeal of an organization like IS/ISIL/ISIS to new converts to Islam in the West: they have personal histories involving isolation, loneliness, mental illness and/or substance abuse. And maybe, just maybe, if we addressed those problems before they manifested as violence, we’d have a less violent world. 

Our government is trying to use the events to advance their own agenda.

The Conservative government lost no time in fitting the attack into their own narrative and using it to advance their own agenda. At 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “Any attack on our soldiers or our institutions by definition is an attack on our country and our values.” And the next day in Parliament, he said “our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest." (CBC news)

Even Opposition leader Tom Mulcair said the attack was “driven by hatred, and designed to make us hate others.”

Sorry, Tom: there was no evidence of that on Wednesday. Only on Sunday did the investigators mention the existence of a video that supposedly reveals Bibeau's political and ideological motivations. And so far, no one outside the investigation team has seen it.

What there is evidence of is this: the Conservative government wants more power to observe us, and thereby control us. To detect dissent, in other words. To find those of us who diverge from their narrative.

We do need to stand on guard. We need to protect ourselves and our rights. But what we need to guard against is not necessarily found overseas. Often, we find it much closer.

Canadians and thinkers of the world: do not fall for the false narrative. We are all we have to protect our freedom of thought and expression.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Words of the month: bubble and loop

The oil bubble is deflating, but the response among economics, business and political leaders has been to get stuck in a logical loop.

The bubble blows

It seems that everyone needs to be reminded of the definition of bubble regularly, because they seem to deceive everyone, including educated and otherwise successful people and those who really ought to know better.

Here’s the definition according to Oxford: “a situation in which investments, sales, etc. increase rapidly and then collapse.”

How is it that the economic leaders of the world forget that definition, when it happens so often?

How did they forget the 2008 crisis, which followed banking deregulation, the bubble in housing prices and the valuation of asset-backed paper? That’s the nature of a financial bubble: people keep buying at ever higher prices because they assume the price increase will go on forever—or at least, until they can sell at a profit.

And when the bubble bursts, these people are caught, scrambling to sell at plummeting prices. They’re surprised every time. Unfortunately, it was mostly working-class and middle-class people who paid the price of the 2008 crisis. Governments bailed out international banks because they were “too big to fail,” resulting in the biggest transfer of public wealth to the upper classes in history.

Now, it’s happening again with oil. Oil prices have been increasing fairly steadily since 2001, when a barrel of crude was around US$25, to a high of $110 in April 2011. Despite short-term fluctuations that can seem dramatic, they’ve eased to the current level of around US$80. And the economists these days are predicting the price is going to keep falling.
Source: Macrotrends 
So, the bubble burst. Going from the charts, it seems to have burst back in 2011. Funny, though, because I remember paying less for a litre of gasoline then than I did last month. Although I am relieved to see the prices at the pumps falling.

Stuck in the loop

But this blog is about communications, not about economics. The communications lesson to take away here is: remember what bubble means the next time you are tempted to buy into something that’s growing fast.

The smart money people got caught again. Sure, there were economists who predicted falling oil prices a year ago or more. But the bursting of the bubble seems to have knocked their logic into a logical rut and they keep repeating the same logic:

  • High oil prices drove exploration and development of higher-cost sources like the tar sands in Canada and shale oil in the US. Now that these are producing, they’re increasing the world supply of oil. 
  • At the same time, more efficient consumption and the development of alternative sources of energy like solar and wind are reducing demand. As a result, prices are falling. 
  • Falling prices makes those new sources of oil—tar and shale—uneconomical. According to the sources I’ve read, at less than US$80 per barrel, fracking is too expensive to be worth it. Tar sands oil costs between US$50 to $90 per barrel, according to a report in the FinancialPost last year. 
  • With lower prices, companies will take fracking and tar sands production off line. Presumably, that will reduce supply and thus increase price. 
  • Falling prices for oil, like any commodity, are bad for the economy—the lower prices for oil on the world market have cause the stock markets to fall in the past month.
  • Falling prices for all fossil fuels makes alternative energy sources less attractive to energy consumers. We are about to enter a deflationary period with falling prices for all commodities, which is going to hurt the economy—in short, it’s going to be bad for the owners of oil and other companies. 
  • “The world economy depends on fossil fuel extraction and consumption,” goes the logic. With falling prices for fossil fuels comes a falling US dollar, stock markets and just about everything else.

If we try to build a new system without fossil fuels, we will be really starting over, because even today’s “renewables” are part of the fossil fuel system.3 We will have to go back to things that can be made directly from wood and other natural products without large amounts of heat, to have truly renewable resources. (Gail Tverberg, Our Finite World)

What these arguments miss, and the logical element that could knock them out of this repeating loop, is the environmental cost of oil versus other forms of power generation. The environmental and public health impacts of fracking and tar sands production have not yet been fully admitted by government nor industry, and I think even their staunchest opponents don’t know the full cost. 

Time to break out of the loop 

It seems the arguments just keep getting repeated: 

  • Fossil fuels are more efficient, more energy-dense, than wind or solar, which are unreliable.
  • Alternative energy sources would be as efficient if they got as serious development support as fossil fuels do.
    back to 
  • Supplying our energy needs from non-fossil sources would cost too much.
  • Fossil fuel costs are higher than the current price indicates. 

How about moving on by looking at all the facts. A year ago, the Economist magazine called oil "yesterday’s fuel.” 

No matter how you look at it, oil is a finite resource. And wouldn’t we all be healthier without fossil fuel exhaust in the air, water and soil? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we could talk calmly and openly about fossil fuel consumption’s contribution to climate change? 

I hate hearing the same old argument being repeated. It's like listening to your parents have the same fight again. How about this? How about we really consider an alternative to fossil fuels—something that's not poisonous, at least? And then use it as the basis for not only transportation, but our markets, like oil is now. And then move toward it steadily.

At least, talk about that instead of having the same useless argument again.

Monday, October 06, 2014

When Emily Stone asks you to join her blog hop, you don't dare say no

Actually, I'm happy to hop onto author Jennifer Chase's first-ever blog hop. She's got a new Emily Stone novel and a literally kick-ass new video to support it. 

Check it out:

Crime has a new nemesis and her name is Emily Stone. She will continue to hunt serial killers and child abductors as long as they are out there. 

This is her life. Tag along with vigilante detective Emily Stone in a first time ever “live action” novel short film.  Be sure to watch it full screen, turn up the volume, and enjoy.

Check out the Award-winning EMILY STONE THRILLER SERIES available at Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Smashwords, and most online and book retailers.
You can find Jennifer Chase and all of her books at:

How to lose Friends without getting upset about it

I’m still running away” by Flickr user Vincepal, used under a Creative CommonsAttribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license.
I have noticed a shift in my Facebook news feed: there are now fewer ridiculous rants against Obama and pro-gun-rights posts, fewer Creationists going on with spurious proofs of their improvable ideas, and thankfully fewer racists with equally implausible, unsupportable ideas.

I wonder why

The only reason I can figure is that the creationists, gun advocates and racists who “friended” and followed me have since unfriended and unfollowed me. There probably is a way to see who has unfriended you, but I don’t bother with that. I’ll just go with noticing the absence of names and faces that I used to see quite regularly.

One is a Facebook Friend of a Friend who called me an “asshole” because I questioned his argument that Obama sucks. I asked for some solid examples of how Obama’s policies had made their lives worse in some concrete way.

Another right-winger dropped me after I questioned logical holes in his statements and arguments about gun rights and foreign policy. Maybe he just got tired of being shot down so many times. But even Snoopy gets back in the air after being shot down by the Red Baron.

I don’t see many creationists anymore, either. There’s one I haven’t seen after she asserted “it takes a lot more faith to believe in evolution than in creation.” I suggested she look up “faith” in a dictionary, and then open another book that’s not the bible.

(By the way, Oxford defines it as “firm belief, esp. without logical proof.”)

Okay, maybe my retort was kind of snarky, but it’s not insulting.

I miss those people—and not just because they're so easy

I think one of the purposes of Facebook was to engage in a healthy debate. Sure, it’s also a great way to catch up with old friends and far-flung family, to coordinate group activities and to share cool photographs, but I also enjoy respectful debates. I point out logical holes, question assumptions and conclusions, and have been questioned and corrected myself. I accepted corrections when I made errors, and I never sank to the level of insults. I never swore at people (okay, I used a few salty words to describe things and actions, but never the people I was arguing with).

For the most part, I did not get a lot of abuse. As I said, one person called me an “asshole” for questioning his argument about Obama. Another insulted me for arguing for higher corporate taxes and against the idea that corporations should be able to spend on political communications without limit. A number of people called me a “liberal” as if it were insulting. I told a few of them to look up the word, too, and once got insulted for explaining that the understanding of the word “liberal” in the US is different from its original political meaning, and that in Europe, neo-liberal is equivalent to neo-conservative in the US. I don’t understand why that was threatening or problematic, but it did bother some people.

But the people who were most committed to the right-wing side of many debates—guns, abortion, evolution, taxation, health care—have run away.

What are they afraid of?

I’m not going to shy away from expressing myself. I am a writer, after all. If someone disagrees with me, that’s fine. I encourage that.

Bringing poles closer

Image courtesy Dark Matters a Lot
We need to be able to discuss our differences respectfully. I don’t delude myself that I’ll ever change anyone’s deepest beliefs, but if we don’t share opposing ideas, we only increase the polarization that is already growing in the world. Extremism is growing on all sides of every debate, and we can see this with ISIS/ISIL, Christian/creationist groups, the Tea Party, resurgent communism in Russia. And that kind of extremism doesn’t make the world a better place.

So come back, right wing! Engage me. If you think I’m wrong, let me know. Just remember my rule of engagement: if you use personal insults, you lose.