Middle of the Road Radical

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Sunday, July 3 2016

Future Schlock

When I was young expectations for the future were different. The view from the 1950’s and 60’s defined progress as the measure of free time available for indulging personal interests. Technology was about increasing productivity so we could do more with less, as in less time. Looking ahead to the year 2000 it was expected we would achieve a 30-hour workweek, some even suggested a 20-hour. The result would be a life dedicated to more social and interactive pursuits. Our personal goals, and Western society’s collective goal, focused on the pure joy of choosing how to spend our time in a less demanding and less frantic world.

What happened? How were the desires of an entire generation, supposedly in control of its destiny, altered so dramatically? It’s a simple question but it boils down to the proposition that we, as individuals, changed, and it happened so gradually we didn't even see it coming.

Today work often displaces family – and our friends are more likely to be colleagues than neighbours. We not only spend longer in the workplace we bring it home with us.

Another change, perhaps even more surprising, is that even when we are home, less time is considered “free”. A significant portion is devoted to solving problems relating to today’s complex high-speed lifestyles.

Governments of all levels, for instance, require detailed information to satisfy their data hungry bureaucracies. Income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, medical insurance premiums, vehicle registration, water and sewer bills, along with a myriad of personal exemptions, deductions, surcharges, all have challenges attached, often relating to arguments involving mistakes or disputes from either party. Multiple methods of communication have placed severe deadline demands on our time, with no excuses for tardiness.

And once our government commitments are in order we can get down to the business of corporate demands. Vehicle insurance, house insurance, life and disability insurance, warranties for every appliance and fixture in the house, power bills, phone bills, internet bills, television provider bills, and they come with the same built-in exemptions, deductions, surcharges and arguments over what applies to who and how much.

Last but certainly not least, of course, is the finance sector. How’s the bank account? Is our budget on track? Can we pay all of the bills this week or will we have to hold some over until next? How are all of the payment plans? Are the mortgages, car loans, educational plans, pension funds and saving accounts holding up? What are we going to need for the coming week, month, year, or lifetime?

It’s mind numbing and exhausting – and if you get the immediate stuff all finished that means you finally have time to sit down, get out your instruction book and figure our how to use your new phone, or television service, or programmable thermostat, or that new camera with the zoom lens – but did you remember to fill in the warranty card and send it off?

This wouldn’t be so bad if it gained us something, if there were a pot of gold at the end of this work rainbow. However, not only is that concept defunct but it comes in the midst of increased downsides… such as declining health.

Our present day lives destroy our bodies. Even when we find some “spare” time we are too tired or poorly conditioned to take part in any physical activity beyond a gentle stroll. When you combine this lack of fitness with our continued exposure to an array of strange substances ingested in our foods, and the equally strange stuff we inhale from such things as new cars and household cleaners, we are pushing our immune systems to the breaking point.

On top of this, the daily stress of deciphering the myriad facts surrounding every important decision in our life is now magnified because we can no longer determine whether the information we are using is either true or complete. What is healthy food, who should be in our government, is religion important, which religion, is this drug going to save me or kill me – and the end result of all this confusion is that new generations, for the first time in history, have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Is this an improvement?

Why, in the last half century, did our value system about-face and become more about being successful consumers than peaceful and contented social beings? Enough is never enough in today’s world. Our role models and heroes, at least according to our magazine covers and news stories, are the rich and super rich - people who have made more money than they know how to intelligently spend - and the paradox is, many of them (perhaps most) live a life so flakey that few of us would rationally choose it for ourselves. Still, we can’t seem to get enough of them living it.

It seems Western society has morphed into an endless competition for discretionary goods and we race to keep up or be branded “losers”… relegated to a junk pile of human failure. Our lives have shifted into a higher gear, increasing to a speed where most of what we see is a blur. We could opt out and choose counter-culture but that has its own strict hierarchy and guidelines. Meanwhile middle class life is so demanding we have stopped asking basic questions. We only have time to react. It’s all very mindless and, in effect, destructive. At the same time, these new values have become so powerful and universal we can’t shake them without being branded a kook or a weirdo... ultimately an outcast.

People now look back fifty or sixty years and call them the good old days, but the most positive aspect of those days was the expectation for a future where quality social and contemplative pursuits would bring peace and joy to every individual.

Thursday, June 23 2016

The Cost of Freedom is Trust - Part 1

In recent times the number of innocent people being gunned down, blown up, run over, stabbed, and otherwise maimed by fanatics is surely a sign that the status quo has ceased to be an option. Granted, statistically you have a far greater chance of being hit by lightning than being killed by a religious terrorist, or nutcase mass murderer, but the fear is real and living with fear diminishes our lives.

How fanatics kill is what truly disturbs us. The randomness of their attacks mean you can be doing everything right, making good decisions, living a respectful and caring life, and still end up dead on the street. Indeed, victims appear to be picked purely on the basis of access and vulnerability. Theatres, schools, colleges, street crowds, conference delegates, workers in an enclosed space, terrorists choose wherever a large number of unarmed people gather. And the killers don't plan on surviving so there is no consequence inhibiting them, no mortal fear, only fear of failure. This level of detachment shakes our view of the world.

So how can we defend against these outrages? Western governments are spending literally trillions of dollars on this effort and, at present, are quick to claim a winning record. Although, the attacks are rare considering both the openness of our societies and the resources fanatics have at their disposal, the notion that it could be a lot worse is not satisfying. It simply means we are at risk for an even more frightening existence.

People need a reasonable level of security for their individual mental health, but what can we do to achieve it? One way, we are told, is not to trust anybody. If you see something suspicious call the police – gun possession, particularly, is an indication of possible disasters in the offing. And the police respond. We have seen all manner of individuals taken down by swat teams for such things as being observed with paint ball guns or pellet guns or legal sporting or target rifles. The police have even shot children playing with toy guns. There are millions of guns in circulation and the vast majority are legal - owned by people who have no desire to kill anyone - but we don’t know them personally so they remain a threat.

In addition, bombs may be constructed from materials purchased at the local hardware or grocery store and, supposedly, are so easy to build a child could manage it. Witness the fact that a fourteen-year-old student was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school, to show his teachers. To his dismay adult members of the educational establishment mistook it for a bomb. The child was subsequently taken into police custody where he was fingerprinted, interrogated (without being allowed to call his parents), and charged with inciting a bomb hoax. That is, until an expert looked at the “bomb” and decided it was, indeed, just a clock.

And we must not ignore the threat of chemical warfare from that same quadrant of our population. A grade three student, even more recently, was removed from a school bus by police, arrested, placed in the back of a police cruiser, and taken to the local station because it was reported, by another child, that she had “chemicals” in her backpack. A thorough search of her pack while on the bus found no sign of chemicals but it didn’t halt her arrest and subsequent interrogation. Did they believe she had secreted the chemicals on her person? The article reporting this story made no attempt to imply what chemicals she was believed to be carrying, although, they must have thought it to be something significantly harmful (anthrax, crystal meth??). Again, nothing was found.

It appears people in authority are becoming afraid to make judgment calls because, in the event they are wrong – however small that possibility – they will be blamed. It is simply more prudent to follow a mindless protocol. As a result, children, even elementary school children, are being arrested and traumatized as possible mass murderers.

How far will this take us? Will major fashion houses be coming out with a line of Kevlar evening wear, are puppy mills in the process of churning out personal sniffer dogs that can identify bombs and chemical warfare agents while fetching a stick in the park?

Such is the extent of our paranoia that many citizens are demanding an increase in police powers – a dangerous proposition given the reported abuses we have witnessed in the news lately. Undoubtedly, more police would provide a greater protective presence at social gatherings. The cost of this increased protection would be enormous of course, and mostly wasted. Police can’t be everywhere at once and mass killers would, with very little effort, be able to determine which groups were vulnerable and which are well defended. Police protective equipment is relatively easy to spot.

A popular saying in many urban areas relates that “when seconds count, the police are only minutes away,” and that is true. Regardless of the almost immediate reporting methods provided by our ubiquitous mobile communication devices, and the efficiency of emergency contact services, police can’t be instantly transported to situations where innocent lives are being taken. The reality remains, in an attack by a mass killer or killers, initially, everyone is on their own.

The American answer to this problem, at least in some states, is to allow citizens to be armed. This solution has its good and bad points. Yes, it would be nice if, when a deranged killer pulls out a gun and begins shooting, they are immediately engaged by a bevy of armed defenders. And, No, I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Jane) who wishes to carry a concealed firearm to have that opportunity. Far too many of them are capable of being clumsy or negligent or trigger happy, or even criminal under certain circumstances. Just look at those in our society who already have the right to carry pistols. Every year we hear of stories of peace officers gunning down individuals who present little or no immediate threat to anyone, even themselves – and peace officers pass through a rigorous selection process and undergo intense training to prevent such actions. How could we trust individuals who select and train themselves?

We, in modern democratic societies, are vulnerable, and not only do we accept it, we demand it. We want our freedoms, we want our privacy, and we are constantly on the lookout for attempts, within our institutions, to limit either. At the same time, we demand security. We wish to live our lives with as few restrictions and anxieties as possible. The arguments we are now facing encompass the question, " Where is the compromise between freedom and security?"

                                Part Two

Finding the balance between freedom and security is huge. So huge in fact we abandon it to government. We depend on them to define the many nuances and ancillary issues and find solutions to problems. At present they are faced with two options. Should they cede more power to the now quasi-military police forces and the highly secretive intelligence agencies – admonishing them not to abuse it, hoping the famous dictum “power corrupts” doesn’t apply to our security services? Or should they simply accept that a few fanatics will get through and hope that we, the people, will view those instances as just profoundly tragic circumstances? It is a no win situation for governments. They get blamed for both the loss of freedoms and the leakage when a mass murderer is successful. And politicians don't like being blamed for anything. As a result, their solution has generally been to give the responsibility to the "professionals". Unfortunately, the professionals - police and military organizations - are prone to accepting a narrow protective focus that flows from a "worst case scenario" and "better safe than sorry" understanding. Too often, following this protocol means respect for human rights and freedoms becomes dispensable.

One possible option being suggested in other jurisdictions is for governments to request widely trusted members within each community to undergo training in the use of firearms – with the plan being for them to carry those firearms whenever they attend public gatherings. Voluntary and unpaid of course, founded on community support and selection, and subject to a high standard of mature and ethical conduct. For instance, select teachers in some schools in the United States are being asked to undergo training and carry concealed weapons while on the job. It certainly puts more defenders out there, although, if it becomes widespread I would expect a great deal of backlash from the police establishment. They could view this as an infringement on their territory and, perhaps, even a threat at times. If a peace officer were to pull their pistol and shoot someone who apparently poses no danger to society - who knows how a trusted volunteer would react.

When I discuss this trade-off, between freedom and security, people often suggest they wouldn’t mind paying extra for security, if it was guaranteed to produce results. Certainly some measure of extra security would likely be likely with any large increase in spending. However, the question revolves around value. How much security can we gain for each additional dollar? Money spent by government carries with it an opportunity cost. To spend it on security means that same dollar can’t be spent on health care or infrastructure improvements. Take for example the late, sometimes lamented, “long gun registry” here in Canada. Two billion dollars of federal tax money spent and, if the firearm organizations are to be believed, not one concrete example of a life saved. Their suggestion being that this same amount of money could have placed an extra MRI in every major hospital in the country with full-time staffing. Imagine how many lives that would have helped. I, for one, have waited months for an MRI and, believe me, there is palpable terror involved in that process as well.

No matter how you slice it, protecting society from mass murderers is not only expensive it requires personal sacrifices. One sacrifice is, of course, individual freedoms. This includes living in a closely monitored world where cameras are everywhere and all calls, emails, texts – even conversations held in public places – are screened for signs of aberrant behaviour. Is this what it will take? If so, a rant spoken to a good friend, or as a joke, may land you in jail. Government’s now “sort of” have the ability to arrest and hold people purely on the possibility of them being dangerous, with no requirement to share the information it used to justify their actions, (thus providing no way to defend yourself). This is justified, we must remember, because we live in a world where violent, irrational, fanatics have the ability to express their passion, commitment, and hatred, using the latest in destructive technologies. To prevent dying at the hands of these fanatics we may need to accept the loss of privacy, dignity, openness, and free expression, and the occasional imprisonment of innocent individuals. So say people who trust and defend authority.

The choice we, as individuals, face, ends up being between putting our faith in huge, secretive, tightly controlled bureaucracies, or in finding ways to trust and rely on each other. Do we cave to the paranoia that allows us to see children as terrorists; do we acknowledge that personal privacy is an outdated concept; do we accept that anyone can be forced to lie spread eagle on the ground while being searched and questioned with a gun in their face, simply because a peace officer thought they looked suspicious; or do we seek out more ways to trust others and share the burden of protection among ourselves - understanding that, tragically, a deranged individual will occasionally get through. Believe it or not, this is our choice. It just isn't an easy one.

Saturday, April 2 2016

Artificial Intelligence and Guru Techies (AI Part 1)

A few of the world’s richest techie’s have come up with a plan to protect us while they research an even more high tech world. The threat they worry about is right off the pages of a “Terminator” movie script. Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, Peter Theil of Paypal, in association with tech giants Infosys and Amazon, have pledged one billion dollars toward “OpenAI”, a non-profit research facility with the goal of building only well-behaved Artificial Intelligence… the kind that will do us no harm.

Theoretical Physicist, Stephen Hawking, like Musk, Theil, Bill Gates, and Steve Wozniak, has stated a belief that AI may be humanity's closest thing to a true "Pandora's Box". Hawking fears that once created these newly sentient electronic beings could use their superior capacity to increase their intelligence - rapidly evolving beyond human management - and relegate us to second-class citizenship. In a world where everything from transportation, power generation, and worldwide communications, to IV monitors and toasters can be remotely manipulated, it is a viable concern.

People in the tech world have already accepted that AI is coming. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, announced that his 2016 New Years resolution was to build an artificially intelligent butler to help him around the house. Facebook has a team dedicated to developing software for AI. Google has purchased “Deep Mind”, a British company that writes software to make computers “think like humans”.

The questions that need asking are; in what form and with what protections will this technology arrive? Will it simply be a matter of having a discussion with our washing machine about how white we want or clothes, or will it extend to fully functional “bots” taking over maintenance activities in our life – cooking, cleaning, bill paying, grocery buying. The vector is onward and upward. AI is happening and will be a part of our life very soon.

The fear, “OpenAI”, appears to be anticipating concerns non-techie people, (like me) who depend on external information sources provided by corporations and/or government, and how our hunger for more may push these companies to reach into dangerous theoretical territory. While they are looking to cash-in on these new technologies either industry or government could, inadvertently, create a self-aware electronic being.

The initial payout from AI has the potential to be huge. It includes the promise of a “Jetson’s” type future where all difficult, dirty and annoying work is accomplished by slave machines. Undoubtedly, the creators of such technology would promise a risk free process. However, should they be wrong, Stephan Hawking suggests the consequence may be life altering. We could become the slaves – or worse – superfluous to their needs.

“OpenAI” may have as its goal to ensure that all forms of Artificial Intelligence are clearly, and obviously, beneficial for humankind - but the question arises, who are they to make such a value judgment?

Just consider for instance that we, as in all of humanity on this planet, presently encompass a range of diverse societies. Some believe dying, when done for the right reasons, is the ultimate achievement in life, and is followed by eternity in the good graces of their God. Other societies have as their goal to live forever in a youthful and attractive form, surrounded by the trappings of wealth and status. The capitalist, materialist vision versus the mortal-life-is-Hell and all true rewards come in the afterlife vision.

This is just a sampling. Millions of variations exist. In fact, it is quite possible that each of us has a unique vision for what exactly is the perfect future - but not everyone has a say. Elon Musk, Peter Theil, Infosys, Amazon, Google, Mark Zuckerberg; they will have a say and, although their intelligence in undeniable and their philanthropy is well established, the high-tech crowd isn't exactly a microcosm of world diversity. Other insights may be needed. Yet, even then, who among us has enough knowledge and understanding to truly know what the future of humankind should be, and what role intelligent machines should play in it... if any?

Artificial Intelligence isn't just about developing cool toys or work-saving “bots”. In a world where a machine in everyone's home can perform millions of actions at light speed, have access to virtually every piece of information on the planet, do it all wirelessly, and without the restraint of human emotions – to write an algorithm giving even one of them a sense of self – an ego – would make them potentially the most powerful being on Earth. Who can you really trust to protect us from that?

         Part Two

Have you ever thought about why we need Artificial Intelligence? It’s obvious why industry needs smart robots. They work cheap. They can be on the job twenty four/seven. Their productivity is measurable, reliable and repeatable. They don’t argue or complain or object to what they are told. They are, in effect, ideal employees. They even problem solve. What industry wouldn’t want more of them? But why do you and I need them?

Technology has arrived at a point where the sophistication level of AI machines is increasing rapidly - and, so too, is our investment in building them. They are presently in a cascading creative environment and very soon we will see these AI machines showing up and replacing entire skill sets within industry.

People take time to learn. In the case of some medical professionals or academics it takes over a decade to complete their studies. On the other hand, once a comprehensive software program is written it can be installed in an endless number of intelligent machines. Programming AI takes seconds, and can be designed to accept continuous updates incorporating all the latest information. Of the human/machine options which do you think corporations, or consumers, will view as the best choice.

Take for instance taxis. When you have cars that drive themselves, and can be called by simply accessing a phone app, and their position and distance traveled is measured and monitored by GPS, all you need is a credit card and a place to swipe it - so why have taxi drivers? The same can be said for delivery vehicles or buses. Who needs a driver?

Education is moving online. Whether in a bricks and mortar school or from home, the same lessons can be beamed in, and the same interactive communication can be initiated. Even now it's possible to go from Kindergarten to a graduate degree without attending a regular school.

Thanks largely to the American desire for avoiding universal medical coverage, a substantial effort is being put toward artificially simulating doctors. Imagine this scenario; you walk into a clinic, sit in front of a technician (or robot) who feeds your symptoms into a computer, you answer comprehensive follow up questions supplied by a program, (which has access to all of the most up-to-date medical knowledge in the World), and within minutes, you are supplied with either a diagnosis and a prescription, or moved on to a different station for supplemental tests and scans. This is in the works, and Medical Doctor’s may not be major players in the process.

It may sound fantastic but when you think about it you begin to realize that the ultimate goal of AI is to eliminate everyone from the workforce, not just labourers and assembly line workers. They are the easy ones. Whether this is achievable is up for debate but the possibility of it causing massive job displacement isn't. Whole industries will soon find themselves instantly at risk - and what does society do with people who lose careers that took years of training and study?

Governments are constantly promising to create and protect jobs. It's such a fundamental and important goal they appear willing to put in jeopardy our environment, our health, our safety, all with this justification in mind. Yet, we are channeling toward a future where jobs will be ever more scarce - and no effort is being made to seriously anticipate the outcomes. No career, no trade, no profession has been deemed sacrosanct - and given the incredible amount of money being applied, and the results being achieved, we have to believe that this is going to happen fast.

How will we adapt? Consider that even if you are a business owner salivating over the prospect of replacing a great portion of your work force with intelligent machines, what happens when this becomes a widespread phenomena? More bluntly stated, who is going to buy your product if fewer people are working?

The unspoken goal of artificial intelligence is to replace us as employees. These machines will be smarter, faster, stronger, more reliable, less demanding, and cheaper to employ. Sorry people, it may hurt to admit it but when it comes to employment we, as living, breathing, human beings, will not be able to compete. And competition, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your ideology), is the lifeblood of our entire economic system. We have enshrined its principles in our institutions and absorbed them within our personalities. How will we structure our lives once we have been deemed obsolescent by mechanized intelligence?

When the AI Economy takes over will we all go on some kind of guaranteed annual income and live a subsistence lifestyle based on minimal remuneration from government? That would hardly support the kind of living we have been taught to believe in. What does a nation do with 80% unemployment, or 40%, when even 20% now puts us in a severe depression? This trend toward AI will create situations our societies have never previously encountered. Basic changes to our value systems are inevitable. We may have to re-think our goals as individuals and nations - and do it quickly. The window of opportunity to absorb whatever negative impacts these changes provide could close in a hurry - and the subsequent upheavals could create desperation and conflicts. It’s time we took a more comprehensive look at this whole AI reality.

Sunday, July 19 2015

Blog Talk 6

Peter Oborn

Peter Oborne won Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards in 2013. By all accounts it was well deserved. He had enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a journalist and author - until this year. Recently, and suddenly, Peter Oborne resigned as chief political commentator for The Daily Telegraph, a major British newspaper. His leaving came as a surprise to both his many readers and the media community. To begin with, he was quiet about his reasons for leaving, but this has changed. In a letter to openDemocracy, a British news website, he talked of the rise in power of large advertisers and how executives are reacting to their influence by altering the content of their newspapers. Oborne found himself unable to work under these constraints and so he left.

In his words:

“A free press is essential to a healthy democracy. There is a purpose to journalism, and it is not just to entertain. It is not to pander to political power, big corporations and rich men. Newspapers have what amounts in the end to a constitutional duty to tell their readers the truth. It is not only the Telegraph that is at fault here. The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media.”

This action required a great deal of courage and it may see Mr. Oborne blacklisted as a mainstream journalist.

Newspapers, television, and radio are becoming more and more the property of large corporate enterprises and they exist to satisfy the wants and needs of their shareholders. Generally, this translates to a focus on profits and the bulk of mainstream media profits are derived from advertising. This fact places our media in potential conflict of interest situations. The vast majority of us use the media as our primary information source. They provide insights into the candidates we vote for; they tell us which vehicles are safe to drive or which foods are safe to eat. They even tell us which schools are best for our children. We have come to rely on the media for it's objectivity when making the most important decisions in our lives. If we can’t trust this information what other options do we have?

There is only one real option, and that is the Internet. It may be largely unregulated, poorly presented and, on occasion, wildly biased but it is, at the very least, a counterpoint to what may be a filtered and profit-driven message from traditional mainstream sources. Until they gain back our trust - if ever - we must do the research and check all the facts before finally deciding on anything that may have a real impact in our lives.

Friday, June 19 2015

Blog Talk 5

Some of these pieces are tough to write because they cross a line, an international border line.

Since my last Blog Talk I did a piece on Conversion which asks why some young people choose to become radicalized and, as part of that discussion, I suggested that our Western systems of government aren't helping the cause. The next piece was a mea culpa for my so-called "sixties" generation and the myth that we are supposed to be so much more enlightened than previous issuances. It may appear a bit over the top - but I don't think so. From mea culpa I move to picking on a foreign leader, Barack Obama, and then to taking a shot at his country's entire political system. Sounds controversial and inflammatory, I know, I'll probably get some flack on that one.

Writing anything critical about the United States is difficult. As a Canadian my opinions fall into the category of “outsider” or “foreigner” when being consumed by Americans - so they are easily written off as biased and uninformed. On the other hand, when I resided in the United States I learned that Americans who expressed the same criticisms weren’t treated much better. Even they must use kid gloves when suggesting the existence of possible fundamental faults within their system - or risk being labeled anything from a kook to a traitor.

Building this level of homogeneous support throughout their entire nation – especially given the diversity in the United States – is what helped achieve America’s stature as the most powerful nation on Earth. Unfortunately, it may also be their Achilles Heel. America is an example of how ultra-success inspires ultra-conservatism but, historically, ultra-conservatism is recognized as a prelude to decadence and a harbinger of institutionalized fear.

Since the beginning of civilization change has been the constant. It has proven time and again to be persistent and unavoidable regardless of opposition. As a result, one of our greatest challenges, as a human species, has always been choosing the right changes and implementing them in the least hurtful manner. To fight against change, or to fight against the recognition of its power, does nothing but magnify the eventual misery it will cause.

The United States has done a truly magnificent job forming a cohesive and patriotic nation from an array of highly disparate peoples, and one of its primary devices in this regard has been to convince the citizenry they live in a nation beyond compare. Yet, once you have convinced people they are at the top of the food chain, it becomes virtually impossible to continue evolving because people believe it places what has already been achieved in jeopardy. The most successful institutions are the ones that understand such fears but continue to embrace flexibility and a belief in our evolving maturity. For this to occur In America, at this stage, would require a level of openness and trust between the people and their leadership that has not been evident in many decades. It requires considerable courage and an open mind, within the halls of government, to challenge the citizenry to seek and accept the most forward thinking changes - to abandon retrenchment. Part of being a leader involves taking on the role of educator and discussion leader. However, modern political leaders appear more interested in pandering to their power bases and constructing negative attitudes toward their opposition. The result has been gridlock and a fear of transparency within governments.

As an outsider what I have is the privilege of being critical without having to confront the suspicions of my neighbors and my community. Whether this is a good or bad condition is up for debate. Criticizing from a distance can easily be portrayed as cowardly and opportunistic. Still, when a nation calls itself the best and the greatest on so many levels - and the model against which other systems should be measured - it is bound to invite a bit of contrarianism, from the other side of the line.

Sunday, June 14 2015

Celebrity Heroes

The notion of celebrity is one of the great puzzles of modern living. Showing interest in the details of someone’s life because they display incredible talent, or are fortunate to achieve something special, is understandable - to a certain extent - but we pursue our curiosity beyond all measure of common sense. We have, literally, people within our culture who have accomplished very little and became famous simply for being made famous.

Turn on the television, open a newspaper, listen to the radio, and you are faced with entire programs detailing the twists and turns, quirks and calamities, of celebrity lives. Why are we so enthralled? Some of these people wallow in our attention while others hide from it, but it doesn’t appear to matter. We simply must know what is happening in their world.

I understand “greatness” but even then it’s vague. We have exceptional artists and athletes who astound us with their abilities - and leaders whether political or cultural who impact our lives, so how they think and react to various situations can be of interest. But many of our celebrities are simply family members of another celebrity, or people who have amassed great wealth as a by-product of some obsession or single minded drive. Then comes the beautiful, female or male, who we must follow to see if they are living the beautiful life. Undoubtedly they have a story worth telling but, then, who doesn't. Every one of us lives a unique life. As Andy Warhol suggested we are all worth 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps that explains why we have celebrity failures as well - people who are famous for not winning anything or for falling short of their goals.

Similar or, perhaps, in tune with this obsession, is the concept of being an extreme "fan". Why do we root for a particular team? We seldom can relate to, or identify with, any of the players. They are so far removed from most of us they are more like fantasy individuals. We are spoon fed the hype by those who sell the sport or it's products and, again, we manage to create a connection where none really exists. And the connection becomes so strong we mob them in public, reaching out to touch them when they go by as if the mere touch will create a transfer of greatness, and - when given the rare opportunity to ask celebrities a question - we ask about subjects which bear no relation to their sport or training - as if they have special insights into all aspects of life. It is outright weird, but it's so widespread as to be universal. Where do we get this need for uber people? What is this thing deep within us that requires us to manufacture god-like individuals and designate them as cultural and political leaders?

We seem to put people on a pedestal who have the ability to create any kind of emotional response within us. This is what artists do and some are amazingly good at it. Whether we laugh or cry or become angry or excited, the response is the issue and we heap praise and concern on those capable of inciting that response. It’s like they become part of us by practicing their art so well. Entertainers of all kinds have this capability and we wish them success – unless they prove to be too fallible - or worse yet, bland. Then we become disappointed and angry. Eventually all of them turn out to be human and fallible because everyone is - except by then we are hooked and it doesn't matter.

Real heroes do exist and are worth our support. I have heroes - people I greatly admire for their achievements. Few of them, I must say, are actors or athletes, and even fewer are politicians. In the case of actors their persona is so intertwined with their major roles it's difficult to delineate between them, perhaps even for them. My heroes are people who achieve more than was expected because of their persistence and desire to reach a goal, usually a goal to help other people. Rosa Parks and Terry Fox, to name two famous examples. As for the ones in the tabloids, it's still a puzzle.

Sunday, June 7 2015


The United States is a conundrum in many ways but, to me, healthcare policies are one of the most obvious. Just imagine, they live in a nation that is so wealthy, so powerful, and so proud to call itself the greatest nation on Earth and, yet, for some reason, they can’t get their heads into providing basic medical protection to all citizens. Virtually every nation listed in the top ten for livability has universal health care, but the United States doesn't. Nationalism, individualism and consumerism are raised to heroic proportions but a high level of social responsibility is, seemingly, anti-American. In the presence of such abundance what possible justification can there be for ignoring people who get sick or hurt?

Obama fought hard to bring in the Affordable Health Care Act but, by the time the bill passed, so many compromises had been reached it was hardly worth the effort. As well, since the bill's passage constitutional challenges have been launched, (the Supreme Court has chosen to hear a case which may kill Obamacare altogether), huge amounts of money have been spent criticizing the day-to-day viability of the program, and almost every power player in the Republican Party, who now control both the Senate and the House, has promised to deactivate the program. Obviously this attempt to care for those who can't care for themselves is on shaky ground.

How can the richest country on Earth expect everyone to be totally responsible for their own well being when good health is such a highly random event - particularly in children? Adults may make lifestyle choices putting their health at risk, even some forms of employment are harmful but, given this reality, how someone responds to a risky lifestyle impacts each individual differently. Some live long vibrant lives in spite of their choices while others can be disabled by the most innocuous of situations. Only a few deserve their injury or illness, not enough to be statistically significant, and certainly not enough to create a model for a health care system. On the other hand, popular ideologies preclude regulating medical professionals compensation thereby allowing America to have one of the most expensive systems in the world.

Our health is vital to every aspect of our moment-to-moment lives, and to live without the ability to get qualified help in an emergency must create a high level of anxiety. How do you live with ongoing or increasing symptoms you can’t afford to get diagnosed, or a deadly disease which you have no resources to treat – or, if you do choose to treat a debilitating disease, live with the knowledge it would bankrupt your entire family?

The American justification for having no universal healthcare is, supposedly, that it’s run by the government and is, therefore, socialist, (it’s referred to as socialized medicine). When you add to this the popular perspective that all government enterprises are over-bureaucratized and wasteful of resources, while private industry runs everything efficiently and humanely, a psychological barrier to universal healthcare is programmed in.

Of course, by unequivocally believing that private industry provides more for less, the American people may possibly be under the influence of the constant, sometimes intense, promotional campaigns paid for by industry. Advocating for specific policies in support of industry, unlike advocating for universal healthcare, is a fundamental freedom in the United States, which gives the medical community every right to contribute multi-millions of dollars toward lobbying politicians while, simultaneously, portraying a host of negative scenarios about "socialized medicine" to the general population. And In a culture where "spin" has been raised to an art form, determining whose story is the real one is not an easy task.

Indeed, can a level playing field exist between citizens and special interests when, officially, over 12,000 registered lobbyists are spending around 29 million dollars per year in Washington DC and, unofficially, Opensecrets.org puts the estimate of money spent to influence policy closer to 3 billion dollars? It’s a wide-ranging figure at the very least. With 435 elected members in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate – multi-billions of dollars per year is a lot of money being used to influence 535 people – although, as Opensecrets.org also noted, in 2012 incumbent House members spent an average of over 3 million dollars each to get re-elected. Politics in the United States is, without a doubt, very expensive.

Strategically, of course, it’s not necessary for lobbyists to get all politicians onside. You only have to influence 50% plus one to win a vote in both Houses - less if you are trying to prevent a bill from passing. To stop a bill you only have to influence 50% plus one in one House because legislation has to be passed in both Houses, then approved by the President, to become law.

Admittedly, expressions of influence are seldom this blatantly transparent. More subtle results may be achieved by altering a bill's detailed technical language or through amendments attached during the committee process. Remember, lobby groups are spending billions and hiring the best and brightest minds in the country. Legislation that says all the right things, while doing little of it, is not that difficult to craft.

A couple days after I began writing this piece my wife and I were in the mountains near our home, gathering firewood, and I managed to drop a Douglas Fir on my head. In forty years of running chainsaw, both professionally and domestically, it was a first. I didn’t lose consciousness but I was dazed and bleeding so my wife administered first aid, gathered up our tools and drove my truck, and me, down into our little town where I was dropped off at the door of the local medical center, (while she went looking for the ever elusive parking space).

Immediately I was placed on a gurney in the emergency ward and a nurse began cleaning the gash on my head to have a better look. Shortly thereafter a doctor came by and said my wound went right to the skull and I also had a severe concussion (which is probably why I kept falling over whenever I tried standing up). He also wanted an x-ray of my upper spine. Within and hour I had the x-ray followed by ten stitches and, still, the doctor wasn’t satisfied. The x-rays showed nothing - but my neck was sore so he decided to send me to the regional hospital for a scan. It was a tremendous inconvenience that included a three hour ambulance trip and further hours waiting in a crowded emergency ward - to get the scan - and then more hours to get someone to read it, but at two o’clock in the morning a doctor wandered over and informed me that I had a broken neck. A vertebra was cracked in two places, one of them right through and, if subjected to more strenuous activity, (my rural lifestyle) the vertebra could split and expose or even damage my spinal cord.

I spent the rest of the night in the regional hospital and the next day I was visited by a neurologist who suggested that if the break was properly protected it could heal on its own. I would be required to spend twenty-four hours a day in a neck brace for some months and undergo follow up physiotherapy. If we didn’t have a full coverage medical plan (Thank you Canada.) I would have tried to patch up my head at home and tough out the pain by telling myself that my neck was just jammed when that sneaky limb swung around and whacked the top of my skull. Such a rationalization could have been life threatening.

When this happened had I been living in the United States, (which I did for a few years), I would either have enjoyed good coverage paid for at great expense from a medical insurance provider, and subject to a myriad of terms, conditions, deductibles and spending limits, all outlined in a complex and detailed signed agreement… or I would have nothing. The Canadian system is far from perfect and studies show that superior models exist, which we can learn from. Particularly in their ability to reduce wait times and place superior technology, and administrative procedures, in the hands of health care providers - but our system is still world class, and the fact that it exists at all is a testament to this country and the value we place on providing the comfort and security each of us needs to live the best life we possibly can.

Americans seem fond of portraying Canadians as sort of generally laid back and easy going (as in lacking ambition) and, comparatively speaking, this may be true. However, it behooves them to take a closer look. Perhaps this easy going cultural divide relies, in part, on the ability our health care system to offer protection from some of life's most frightening anxieties.

Monday, May 18 2015

Barack Obama

Barack Obama is a Black man. In an ideal world we would hardly notice but in this world it’s an issue. He was the first Black man ever elected to America’s highest office. Indeed, the first “man-of-any-color-other-than-white” ever to be elected. As he approaches his final year in office questions are being asked as to, “Why was he elected?” and “Was it worthwhile?” These are not unusual questions; they come at the end of every administration, but Mr. Obama’s skin color gives them a special context.

Obviously, Barack Obama is a highly intelligent and charismatic individual who was able to put together a quality team in his run for office. He can speak and write well and his natural, open personality drew supporters from all walks of life. A few pundits early on bravely questioned if America was ready for a Black president and, I believe, the discussion that followed helped him. Many people root for an underdog, (I almost said “dark horse” but realized it might be misunderstood. You have to be so careful in these situations.) When the long shot wins this represents hope in a world that often falls short of it. Of course, minorities of all kinds also saw Mr. Obama as a shining example of what America should stand for. If a Black man could rise to the highest office in a land where once he would have been sold on an auction block, it must mean that everyone has a chance. Everyone should finally have a right to equal treatment.

Besides minorities, those living in poverty also supported Obama because a high proportion of those are people of color and he should, therefore, have a connection to, and understanding of, their wants and needs. Add in liberals in the middle class, and beyond, who believe strongly in the creation and preservation of rights and freedoms, and who better to carry their banner – a man who has felt the sting of racism and bigotry.

It was a lot to live up to. So how did Obama do? First, it has to be stated that he had at least one major advantage. He arrived in Washington without a great deal of political baggage. He wasn’t a career politician who carried the sacrifices of many years spent forging compromises between voters and political bosses. There were not a lot of skeletons in his closet. On the downside, when he won he walked into a monster financial mess that would take years to clean up, and it absorbed much of his early focus. Still, given the seriousness of the problems caused by such a mess, and the self-centered evil that caused it, little was accomplished toward preventing it happening again, and even less was done to punish the perpetrators. The financial crisis brought about a near world-wide recession, cost many thousands, perhaps even millions, of people their life savings, and was created by rich people trying to get even richer – so why was accountability and restitution largely absent under a President who was supposed to be standing up for the little guy? It wasn’t an auspicious start to his presidency.

Then there were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he would wind them down but in the end he even ramped them up for awhile and claimed a partial victory before pulling out. If what he left is some form of success I can’t see it. Afghanistan is working its way back to what it was while Iraq is involved in a war to create a state whose primary goal is to wipe America and Western style democracies off the face of the Earth.

One strong plank in Obama’s platform was to fold up the Guantanamo facility, because it was about taking American prisoners to a place outside of America’s jurisdiction where they wouldn’t have the protection of American laws. Once there, methods were used on them to extract information not legal in the United States. (It’s called torture in some circles.) He’s had eight years to achieve that commitment and, surprise, surprise, he hasn’t.

As for enhancing America’s image as the world’s chief defender of freedom and democracy; besides tacitly ignoring what goes on at Guantanamo, the “Big Brother” power of the NSA has increased tremendously under Obama and so, apparently, has secrecy within government. This information comes to us courtesy of a few brave whistleblowers who were subsequently denied legitimacy and persecuted to the fullest extent of the law, (and, perhaps, beyond) – even when courts ruled that at least a portion of what they exposed was illegal and against the government’s stated policy. If this is how the United States expects to exemplify the superiority of their system, and convince the people of foreign nations to advocate for a similar way of life, I doubt if it has become an easier sell.

It was my understanding that one reason the Founding Fathers of the United States chose to create a government where the President is elected independently of Congress is because they believed selecting someone from outside the traditional legislative path – arising directly from the people – would give greater voice and increased representation to the electorate.

The President is supposed to represent the greatest good for the greatest number - to speak directly for the people - in a system that might otherwise be overpowered by special interests, and when Obama ran for President that is what the people saw in him. He appeared to be an inspirational leader, one that would stand up and fight for truth in the face of all the usual obfuscations. American Presidential elections appear to focus on finding an outsider, perhaps even a rebel, to face off against the jaded, navel-gazing insiders who traditionally run the country. In Obama, Americans believed they had found such a man; a visionary, one with the intellectual strength and energy to defend their constitutional values against the small minded selfishness that so inhabits much of modern politics – and what they got instead was a classic administrator, one who put his faith in diplomacy and lived for compromise, all the while protecting a system badly in need of challenging.

There is an old Monty Python skit where a man knocks on a door and the person inside asks, “Who is it?” and the man replies, ”Burglar.” Except the person inside doesn’t believe him and questions the man further, “You’re sure you’re not an encyclopedia salesman?” “Oh, no,” responds the man “I am absolutely a burglar.” So the person inside opens the door and immediately the man starts trying to sell a set of encyclopedias. It looks to me like America voted for a burglar and what they got was an encyclopedia salesman.

Thursday, April 16 2015

Boomer Environmentalism

I get grumpy (even more than usual) when I hear young environmentalists go on about how we must “act now” before it’s too late. The truth is; all of that passion, rhetoric, and science is just a waste of everybody’s time. I know the reality. I went the serious environmentalist route and fought a battle to protect wilderness. I even attended grad school so I could get the proper initials after my name and confront the foresters, biologists, and anyone else who works for those powerful resource users. Yet, ultimately, what I learned was that it isn’t chemistry or biology or geology or hydrology or any other “ology” that defines the problem – it’s flawed humanity.

North America is home to two of the most educated and sophisticated nations on this planet – both regarded as fortresses of freedom and democracy – and we are two of the youngest. Our nations are barely a few hundred years old which means that everything that happened here has happened recently. We can’t blame ancient peoples or long lost kingdoms or historic cultural imperatives for our mistakes – and the changes we made, or are making, are “in your face” obvious. The growth in our physical impact on the land and the resulting pollution, desertification, increasing toxicity, CO2 production, holes in the ozone layer, dying oceans - it’s all ours. We own it, and if we don’t see it as a problem now than, chances are, we never will.

The only real question is; how have we managed to get away with it? How do our societies, which are so educated, free to think and make decisions, get away with consistently downplaying the fragility of this world as we close our ears and eyes to any argument against exploitation? The warnings began in the sixties and seventies, continuing into the eighties, nineties and every year since - and it has made no difference. We put a bit of wilderness aside and removed some poisonous chemicals from our air, food, and water, but even those were difficult battles, and it was little more than chipping away at the edges. The Earth is getting dirtier and sicker every day and the systems that heal it have gone beyond overload while we continually refuse to admit the seriousness of the problem.

What’s to worry? Read the paper, watch your television, the good times are still going strong. New and exciting things are happening each and every day. All of the doomsayers, like me, are just exaggerating to make headlines and, besides, even if the problems are real someone will solve them… eventually. There’s no way the entire world can be in jeopardy.

If a thousand people say it’s a problem and ten say it isn’t we will listen to the ten because we want upbeat and positive, not negativity. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance” and suggest it’s built in to our human nature. We grow up with positive expectations for the future. When these beliefs encounter contrary information the easiest and least stressful way to deal with it is to find the means for rejecting the negative… deny, deny, deny.

After all, we are God’s children. He won’t let anything really bad happen to us.

Just look at what is happening every day around us. Let’s say, for instance, you want to develop a controversial industry that involves significant changes to the environment; all you need is the promise of more money for everyone and a believable expert, or two, minimizing risk and spouting suspect solutions to each problem and, voila, instant support. And you really need very few experts, and they don’t have to be particularly special, or even highly qualified in the field they are commenting on. They simply have to appear confident and put forth positive sounding arguments – celebrities are known to work well for this. Unless the alternative is so gross and blatant as to personally frighten or disgust people, most will want to believe them. We simply wish to keep living the life we are living and not have to change - especially if it looks like we are changing to something less.

So here's the quandary, our societies follow experts who we want to believe as they argue with experts who we don’t want to believe. Meanwhile, our leaders, the politicians, are constantly in need of support to keep running expensive campaigns and, once elected, the are constantly in need of money to provide services to keep voters supporting them, (and you don’t get money from the doomsayers) so how many high risk development proposals do you think will get turned down? How many do you know of that have been turned down? Get this through your head, it’s just a matter of time. Still, these noisy, young, environmental crusaders keep shouting facts and presenting data and talking about the need to change as if we had the luxury of waiting for that to happen. At most maybe a few million people on this planet really know the score. Do these young environmental activists actually believe they are going to enlighten all of those other billions in such a way that they will suddenly accept how precarious this situation is?

This is a done deal and as a member of the generation that stole it all I’m not particularly proud of our accomplishment. We pillaged this earth to buy toys and entertain ourselves, and stretch our lives out beyond where they had gone before, and now as we get down to our last feeble decade or two we appear determined to keep the lies going. We managed to train the next couple of generations to think like us – maybe even more so – and that, happily, allows us to shuffle off into the great beyond smug in our delusion that we leave the world a better place. The world is certainly more constructed, more “human”, displaying tremendous creativity, diversity, and artistry… if not rationality. The knowledge base has grown tremendously, almost beyond belief, and popular science has exploded with information that reaches into every corner of the universe. It looks like progress. Just when did this aggregation of our greatness convince us we had grown too smart to totally screw things up?

This fantasy is so powerful it’s as if our species now believes we live above the surface, detached, no longer needing the Earth for our survival. So when our oxygen begins disappearing as that micro-layer of phytoplankton on the surface of the oceans dies – or the intensity of UV rays grow to dangerous levels with expanding holes in the ozone layer and, in concert with increased toxicity in our air and water, mutate viruses and bacteria to cause pandemics, will we even see a connection? (Does that sound ridiculous? Did you know that at one time scientists feared that HIV could become airborne and decimate all human life?)

If not that particular disaster, perhaps the scarcity of potable water and arable land resulting from human caused drought, and/or volatile weather, will force us to adopt even wilder genetic modifications to our food supply, thereby creating agents that begin reacting with our basic molecular structure. Mind you, it could just as easily be a calamity we have yet to imagine arising and threatening to end our reign as the dominant species on Earth. Open a newspaper, new dangers abound, are they all smoke and mirrors? Of course, some say the more plausible scenario is that our future will come down to the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction as people respond to the scarcities and injustices caused by the above.

Not that it matters to my generation. We won’t be here to see it. It’s not fair, I know, and I wish we had done things better, but we didn’t so the problem now belongs to the rest of you. (I keep thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if some lab all of the sudden announced a discovery reversing the aging process so my contemporaries and I would have to actually live with our decisions? Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants?)

I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my adult life and no matter what the particular title, or reason given for holding them, a large percentage surrounded the issue of short-term wealth creation vs. long-term people protection, and it would be a lie to suggest that a balanced debate ensued, or that minds were significantly changed. In retrospect, what sticks with me the most is all the times I heard someone stand up and talk emotionally about how we have to fix this for our children and our children’s children. But we didn’t fix it because we learned that it would cost us. It might have meant living in a smaller house or driving cars that didn’t have power windows or heated seats, or not taking that European vacation or the annual trip south in winter. We were warned about the consequences, but it was more fun to ignore them and, apparently, for some reason, we got it in our heads that we had a right to this good life regardless of cost. Well, we danced the dance and now the time is coming to pay the piper, and that is the legacy we are leaving to our children and our children’s children.

Saturday, April 4 2015

Radical Conversion

There appears to be some disquietude surrounding the reasons why so-called “western” raised young people leave the relative comfort of their situations and enter the world of extremism. In the past few years this has been exemplified by the number of Europeans and North Americans travelling to the Middle East and joining ISIS, becoming jihadist warriors. At a recent summit meeting in Washington DC, set up specifically to study the phenomenon, leaders from many countries gave their interpretation of this seemingly irrational activity – and those listening for words of wisdom showed their unconcealed disappointment. Nobody, it seems, harbours any insightful explanation as to why this attitude shift occurs.

Well, far be it from me to suggest that I know more than they, (is that sarcasm, I'm not even sure), but, if my arm were twisted and I was forced to hazard a guess, I might suggest that part of what’s driving young people from their more secure and freedom loving existence, into the arms of a strict, narrowly-defined, brutal, organization could involve the hypocrisy inherent in our western style political system. Let's not beat around the bush, most governments lie to their constituents – and they do it blatantly and poorly. They say things that will get them elected and then they fudge on the follow through once elected. They mouth wondrous rhetoric about equality and freedom and then discriminate in favor of groups that support their re-election. They gather power unto themselves and hide their abuses, while demanding a high level of transparency and responsibility from citizens. They invoke secrecy provisions for many of their most controversial activities claiming it would be too dangerous for we, the people, to know – and they extend this avoidance policy by simply refusing to answer direct questions on anything that might cause them a problem. They even do this on issues that are minor in nature, although possibly embarrassing, to ministers and senior bureaucrats. And they do all of this while constantly and, with great fanfare, declaring themselves the pinnacle of democracy and good government.

Thanks to the growth in the Internet and social media, young people nowadays have attained a level of sophistication far beyond what past generations enjoyed, and with this new understanding they are losing faith in their governments. Indeed, many are losing faith in everything. If the great leaders of their nations can lie and cheat and reward themselves, their friends, and their largest supporters, at taxpayers expense, while ignoring the promises and rhetoric they espoused during campaigns – and still be re-elected time after time – how is this system worth believing in?

Young people haven’t lived through times when our governments were even less responsible and more discriminatory, often with the support of the populace. Granted, those of us who were a part of that darker era may not have had the access to information and opposing opinions that are available today, (I’m looking for excuses), or we may have satiated our need for reform by grasping onto a few subtle improvements that occurred along the way. In other words, we adults may also believe things are bad, but we know they have been worse. Unfortunately, this is a downer message to hand young people so we prefer, instead, to pump them up with nationalistic rhetoric and engineered history until they eventually discover, it’s all a glorious myth, and they must choose to either believe the fantasy, or accept reality and try and live their lives with fewer illusions regarding our claims of cultural superiority. It’s from the latter group that radicals gather their converts. This loss and disillusionment produces a fertile soil for all manner of radicals to till - be they religious, anarchist, or simply people who support “opting-out” and setting up cocooned communities.

I suspect that those who suffer the greatest disillusionment are the ones most vulnerable to accepting the dangerous and self-sacrificial forms of conversion. Radicals offer a simple, black and white, alternative. They offer a world so different, so challenging and, unfortunately, so rewarding to the individual, that people who have lost faith with our Western hypocrisy see it as a meaningful alternative. They offer real and significant change in a world where change is always promised but seldom delivered. They offer their version of truth and passion in a world of bland untruths. And they offer a life-ever-after full of respect and stature. It may all amount to brutal, soul-destroying lies but for those who feel cheated and ignored in their homelands, it holds the promise of something better. Few people should be surprised that our political leaders can’t understand why this is happening. Nor do they understand the failure of their particular solution to the problem, which is to make changes to the rest of the world and not themselves.

There are, undoubtedly, charismatic radical leaders in this world who attract the attention of vulnerable young people while displaying psychopathic tendencies that literally define the concept of evil - and we would all be better off rid of them - along with their expressed goal of spreading terror to the entire world. Yet, it is telling that our political leaders, during their many public discussions, have discovered no short-comings within our political systems that may contribute to the recruitment of these radical-cause volunteers. Children are naive but not stupid, and blaming parents or on-line recruiters for their coversion may be the easy route but it's hardly a complete answer. If we truly want to change this situation we should accept our own shortcomings and begin recognizing the harm we do by leading our young people down a garden path that leads into a den of lies. .

Tuesday, March 31 2015

Blog Talk 4

I probably get a hundred ads a day on this site. A few of them have real comments attached, but very few, and it takes time to separate them and post them. When I do get a thoughtful comment it stands out. I'm obviously easily pleased.

I re-published Ego Politics and the Quantum Economy, with a few editing updates, (I'm a better writer now than I was when it first appeared in the "Georgia Straight"). It's a another rant, which I'm prone to on occasion, but people of advanced age are often prone to ranting so, perhaps, it's a normal and natural activity for our species. I followed that piece up with The Cost of the One Free Shot Rule which harkens back to the horror of watching Sept. 11/2001 live on television, as it was happening. I don't think anyone who watched could come away unchanged in a very fundamental way. Still, what people do with tragedies after they occur may be more related to their own agendas' than to solving the actual problem. We, the people, must be vigilant and very demanding when it comes to threats against our rights and freedoms. If we aren't than maybe we deserve being treated like domesticated animals. The last piece in this series, No Hard Ground, is a bit whimsical and fun but still has a strong message. I apologize for its length, I prefer to keep my essays between 1500 and 2000 words, but some just keep creeping along until they stretch even the overload limit. It does read fast, which is a saving grace, but it isn't a harbinger of things to come. It's an anomaly, pure and simple, so please don't be deterred.

I get a lot of questions in the comments section. Answering them is a chore because many of them are already answered in the previous Blog Talks or they require me to go through a website I really don't have time to sort out. If you do have a serious question that I should answer, and am technically capable of answering, please use the email address on this site. Thanks again for being a reader, Ross

Monday, March 30 2015

No Hard Ground

Originally published in The Georgia Straight. (This is a slightly re-edited version.)

Continue reading...

Friday, March 13 2015

The Cost of the "One Free Shot" Rule

Every September 11th the, now historic, video footage of large passenger aircraft disappearing into the Twin Towers, followed subsequently by images of their slow motion collapse, bring about a reaction that may best be described as hypnotic - in an almost disbelieving way. It’s a difficult scene not to watch, regardless of how many times you’ve seen it. So jarring are these images that many films shot in New York before the attack were altered to hide the World Trade Center in fear of disturbing the mood of the viewing public.

Our lives changed that day, as did the lives of everyone living in a free society. The “enhanced” security, and the general policy of rampant paranoia that followed, continues to hold us in its grip. Governments use this tragedy to become less transparent while demanding that we, as individuals, become more transparent – physically so at large airports – and if we take issue with this foray into our intimate lives we are deemed either, selfish, sympathetic to the bad guys, or, indeed, simple-minded when it comes to foreign affairs.

It appears, at times, elements in government are abusing this situation for their own obscure reasons, as exemplified by the ongoing communications monitoring of each citizen, (as well as of select foreign dignitaries) but, then, we can’t know this for certain because only our government can tell us – and they say opening their methods to scrutiny could jeopardize our safety. Consequently, we are forced to trust them, and this becomes a difficult pill to swallow given that all governments are prone to varying amounts of corruption – and history, even recent history, has shown that the abuse of power tends to flourish when hidden from the watchful eyes of the public.

Challenging governments on this point comes with a few significant moral dilemmas. One very real problem with defending against terror attacks is that, as any military expert will readily admit, the defenders, by necessity, are always one step behind the attackers. In other words, the aggressor always has the potential for one free shot. After terrorists fly planes into tall buildings we make it difficult to do the same thing again. When a van loaded with home-made explosives is parked in front of a public building, then explodes killing hundreds of people, new policies and training are put into effect to combat more of the same – but it has already been successful.

Intelligent terrorists learn that the best way to cower the enemy into confusion is to use a different method of attack each time, creating new layers of paranoia. Defenders can only respond to what they have experienced and not to every new attack the terrorists are capable of dreaming up (shoe bombs and underwear bombs for instance). The reality of modern terrorism is that it takes hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of times more effort to defend against, than to perpetrate, because you are trying to defend against every attack “imaginable”.

Unfortunately, terrorists have learned that simply by causing an extreme level of activity within the “enemies” borders they gain ground in their battle. You can see it in their propaganda. As a small group taking on a great western power they will always be able to portray themselves as the underdog and, thus, expectations are low while achieving small but well publicized victories is relatively easy. All they need do is shoot up or blow up or execute any group of people not in sympathy with their cause, anywhere in the world. Add in the incredible frustration caused by this imbalance within defence forces, and abuses become common (Abu Ghraib prison, water boarding, Marines urinating on enemy bodies), and these abuses further strengthen the terrorist position.

As far as most Western nations are concerned these two wars created by the attack on the Twin Towers, in Iraq and Afghanistan, are over, although neither was won and the fighting continues under different circumstances. Seemingly, abandonment of these wars was the result of political fatigue and the long overdue acknowledgement of how silly it is to try and bully, or bribe, a radically different culture into accepting significant social and political change. In both places it was beneficial to throw out the brutal and morally corrupt governments but, for the thousands of lives lost and the trillions of dollars spent on bringing about structural change, there is precious little evidence anything positive remains – and even less evidence that a level of gratitude, or even good will, toward the countries that participated, still exists.

For all of the patriotic hoopla and warriors for democracy speeches, fighting terrorism on the ground in a foreign country has proven a bust. The mere fact that you come from a totally foreign land with a totally foreign culture, aspects of which you are trying to impose on them, makes you the invader. The brave soldiers who died in the attempt did so for the right reasons and still deserve to be honored for their sacrifice – but it becomes difficult to understand how nobody in all that vast storehouse of wisdom and knowledge called government, could not have foretold such an obviously poor result.

So how should terrorists be dealt with? If the model the U.S. has recently developed can be taken as the reigning example, (one learned after many years of sacrificing their young people in battle and financial resources in support), it’s more efficient to put your efforts into determining, through intelligence gathering, who are the brains and the leadership behind the terrorist organization – and to fly an unmanned drone to their location and blow them to bits, (I wonder if Tom Clancy gets royalties from this). If they miss, the drones are relatively cheap and another chance will sooner or later arise. In the meantime terrorist leaders are now, themselves, being terrorized by the constant threat of bolts from the sky… and perhaps there is justice in that.

However, this technique may be effective only with large, well-organized, terrorist groups – ones capable of being studied. The fact is, we continue to live in a world where many thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of people are willing to die for a cause – and where ongoing technological developments place more and more destructive power in fewer and fewer hands. Indeed, bombs no bigger than briefcases have been tested which are capable of wiping out the downtown core of virtually any city on Earth and leaving it a moonscape for generations to come. The mere existence of such potential ensures the future of continued anti-terrorist activities.

Our governments continually seek to destroy those who promote terrorism and, hopefully, intercept those who perpetrate it, but bitter and angry people will always be with us. It’s a disease for which no cure has yet been found, and whether we call the more extreme proponents terrorists, mass-murderers or, simply, fanatical psychopaths, their goal is to rid the world of “us”. The questions each of "us" must ask are: How great a threat are they really – and what are we willing to sacrifice to stop them? So far we have been leaving these questions up to our government and they have been working out on the extreme edge, fearful of being blamed if something gets by.

As individuals, who are now being forced to live within the ever-shrinking boundaries our governments impose, what we have left is the opportunity and, perhaps, the obligation, to live our lives boldly and confidently – setting clear and transparent goals and working to achieve them – because only by displaying the value and joy in living with freedom, and its privileges, can we encourage the rest of the world to copy us. Only by giving those who live in fear a positive vision of life – one ultimately open to them – will we bring about real change. Inherent in this belief, certainly, is the need to maintain or even enhance our freedoms and, unfortunately, this is not the direction we are moving in. I suppose this means the terrorists are winning.

Wednesday, March 4 2015

Ego Politics and the Quantum Economy

First published in the Georgia Straight in November 2013. (This is a slightly edited version.)

Continue reading...

Tuesday, March 3 2015

Blog Talk 3

I'm still getting a pile of comments but as I learn more about the blogging process I'm discovering the extent of the challenges involved. All comments come to the admin site and I read them and post the ones which apply. As I do this I have come to realize many are "robo comments" - companies just trying to get their website in circulation. Consequently, I am posting far fewer than I did initially (during my more naive period). If it looks like someone did read any of the pieces I will give them the benefit of the doubt, regardless of whether they appear to be advertising themselves, however, I have become more discerning.

A number of times I have been asked for my email address (I'm a bit afraid to ask why), and it isn't a particular secret but I have been working on one especially for this site which is, Ross at <middleoftheroadradical@gmail.com>. The reality though, is that each article is its own creation and I may not have much more to add - and my life is too demanding to do a lot of exploratory chatting. I am always behind and trying to catch up when it comes to this blog and being old, for those of you who aren't there yet, takes a lot of time all by itself.

For those offering to guest write on this blog, I'm not sure what to tell you. That is a situation where I need to get some feedback because I don't know the parameters. I'll get back to you when I've completed my research. Thanks again for reading, Ross

Monday, March 2 2015

Blog Talk 2

The number of comments that are coming in is overwhelming, and would be gratifying except that more than half of them concern other sites and seem to have migrated here in some mysterious fashion. Processing all of them still takes considerable time, (time I would rather spend writing).

To answer a few of the questions raised; my blog template is from "dotclear" and I don't really know what security it has. As well, I'm not doing anything about plagiarism because I don't know what I can do and life is too short (and getting shorter) to worry about such things. This whole blogging venture is an entirely new situation for me and I am relying on help and advice from friends (and you people) to set it up and make make improvements. It's a slow process but I'm gradually gaining ground.

I've had comments where it has been suggested that I need to jazz the site up a bit with snappier titles and illustrative pictures, and I am sure that would be an asset, however, it is way too artistic, (and technical) for my poor skills. When I used to publish in periodicals and newspapers editors routinely did both, but I'm stretched to do even what I am accomplishing here. Perhaps someday...

My latest pieces, you may have noticed, were at opposite ends of a spectrum. Betting on Dreams is mostly factual information, delivered with the hope of creating meaningful discussion on an event that is simply world changing and, yet, is virtually unknown to people who don't reside in the sphere of social science statistics (and few do). Are these particular stats being downplayed or are they just too earth shattering in scope to accept. I don't know, but they reach into every corner of our world and books should be written about their consequences instead of blog articles. The second piece on spirits and science was purely and simply fun to write. It is a notable divergence from my usual work, though it carries a message I believe is as important as any. I hope you at least found a laugh in it. Thanks again for visiting, Ross

Sunday, February 22 2015

How to Combine Negative Ions With Positive Morons in the Creation of Wealth

Are you looking for a job? Maybe you're just psychically adrift in this wonderfully complex world. If so, you need a grand enterprise to lift the malaise from your shoulders. Despair no longer. Exciting opportunities exist in the world of real fantasy (or is that fantasy reality, no matter). Join the march to wealth and fame (or, at the very least, comfort and acceptance), and cast off the shackles of the working world by becoming an entrepreneur. Your future awaits in a field as relevant and alive as the memories of our long dead heroes. You need nothing to begin with except the power of your mind and the courage to accept a challenge. A million times a day, in every corner of the world, this path is a proven success. Jump on the bandwagon; reap a whirlwind of potential with no expiry date. Read on and enter your new life.

The first requirement on this journey is expertise. Don’t despair if it sounds technical or difficult. It doesn’t have to be. Let’s say, for instance, you are a fan of Crystals, Tarot Cards, Palm Reading or, one of my all time favorites, Distance Healing; like a bolt from the blue all of the sudden you “discover” that your grandmother was the last in a long line of Gypsy princesses and your grandfather the only surviving son of a powerful Native Shaman – and that their lovechild daughter, your mother, during her impetuous youth, travelled to Nepal and spent her formative years in a monastery high above Katmandu studying the ancient healing arts passed down through a select group of Master Healers, (not to be confused with Blue Heelers, which are an excellent cattle dog). While there she first encountered your father, a treasure hunter and adventure seeker, on a mission to find porous stones reputed to be from the fabled Fountain of Youth. These stones were believed to contain the pure essence of life as they filtered the sacred waters of the Fountain for thousands of years. Alas, we know not if he found them but he did find the adoration of a beautiful, if somewhat flakey, young woman. As a result, you, of course, being the direct descendant of this far-flung, spirit-laden, exotic joining, have become the ultimate repository of esoteric knowledge – and an exalted guide to the ancient mysteries of the netherworld. Only a pudgy, bald, old, skeptic (perhaps a poor choice of words) would dare entertain doubts as to your authenticity?

Now that you have established credentials, the second thing you need is truth. We’re not talking objective truth here like the kind science is looking for. We’re talking "television" truth. The kind where famous celebrities relate awe-inspiring anecdotes containing real events, which they personally witnessed, and which could only have occurred under the influence (perhaps another poor choice of words) of shadowy forces from outside the physical world… all of this happening while an audience sits breathless with incredulity, bobbing their heads, delighted at being given the opportunity to participate in such a ground breaking lifetime event. Who would dare presume to suggest that an award winning actor or renowned politician was anything but sincere in their pronouncements? Didn’t you see the tremble of their hand, hear the crack of their voice, or watch the tears glide slowly down their cheek? How crude and unmannerly to imply that the aforementioned events wouldn’t survive dispassionate scrutiny. Such truth is beneath questioning.

Expending time and energy convincing people that forces exist in nature, beyond the purview of science, is easier than giving puppies to children. Every religion in the world teaches you that in the absence of evidence (perhaps even in spite of it) you must rely on faith. Just doubting the existence and power of spirits can condemn you to an eternity burning in the fires of Hell (wherever that is). We grow up badgered, bullied, and cajoled into believing all manner of strange, unexplainable events, people walking on water and rising from the dead, Holy Ghosts, and virgins having babies.

Is it any wonder some of the most important decisions in our lives are made based on “signs” or “good vibes” and, yet, those silly scientists tell us to ignore all of this in favor of something called empirical evidence or rational choice. What kind of life would that be? Science denies there is even such a thing as luck. If that were true who would ever buy a lottery ticket. Do you know that dogs are now being trained to find cancer? They can smell it, especially skin, prostate and cervical cancers. Hundreds of years of scientific research and billions of dollars invested in infrastructure, and now we are being told that for a dog biscuit and a pat on the head we can diagnose our deadly diseases. Science is just one great conspiracy.

At the same time, riveting and dramatic evidence fills our libraries and overflows onto our cable channels, vividly detailing the legions of individual spirits roaming the earth – and all, apparently, in search of communication with the living. We simply have to open our ears to their call. The spirits are anxious to enlighten us with their truths, and duty bound to inform us of past injustice and future danger. Why shut them out? Why deny their existence when an open mind will give us the secrets of the universe? Through human mediums, prayer, meditation, (even Ouija Boards) we forge connections and gain peace and knowledge – but only through a psychic guide can we be certain our search isn’t in vain. Only with one who commands the language can we open the lines of communication and truly fulfill our spiritual needs… and never will our lives be complete if we fail to do so. It is really this easy folks, and the only thing easier than stringing a line of this horsepucky is finding “clients” who believe it.

If spirits aren’t in your comfort zone perhaps technology can be your shtick. Great opportunities exist in the fog of pseudoscience. Never in history was the saying, “They know so little they think they know it all,” more relevant or applicable. In a complex, fast-changing world most of us learn just enough to create confusion. For example: Did you know that our bodies run on electricity? Each time we make even the slightest movement it’s triggered by an electrical charge sent from our brains, along nerves, activating individual muscle fibres. Our bodies, like the bodies of all living things, are continuously running mini generators, using electrical energy to power all of our diverse systems. As a result, electromagnetic fields surround every living thing with halos of energy. Special cameras can photograph it. And this energy radiates outward and joins with the halo’s of others to form a great maelstrom of invisible, vibrating ions. If one could but harness this energy and refocus it to maintain a positive state of electromagnetic balance no deadly disease would ever wreak its havoc again – and all you need are these magnets or, perhaps, these crystals or, if you want absolute certainty, these special herbs grown in ionized soil and hand-ground by the granddaughter of a gypsy princess using porous stones secretly taken from the Fountain of Youth…

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, seek your fortune in a field as old as human existence. Take on the best in a world where gurus, positivists, transcendentalists, and astrologers mingle with priests, homeopaths, chiropractors, and acupuncturists in a never-ending struggle to reach that holy grail of achievement, Master of the Fog, Visionary of the Void, Prophet of Profit, and Cure for All that Ails You. Learn to balance the flow of energy in your client’s bodies, cleanse their organs with mystical herbs, seek wisdom for them through communication with the long departed, then elevate them to the astral-plane. Take your clients beyond the boundaries of physical existence to a place where they will forever enjoy the ecstasy of Nirvana. All of this while you bravely sacrifice your youth and vitality by remaining in the shallow, physical world of peach flambé, steamy sexuality, and single malt whiskey, enduring a life of hardship to aid those less fortunate in fulfilling their spiritual needs. Perhaps one day the world will truly recognize and understand the depth of your commitment.

Thursday, February 12 2015

Betting on Dreams

Recently, I read a prediction that by 2060 we will be consuming, on average, 80% more of everything than we are today. It was a major oil company making the prediction, but they aren’t the only ones forecasting massive increases in consumption over the next few decades.

Since the “bubble burst” in ’07-‘08 we have endured an entire financial dictionary of expert language about “slowdowns”, “recessions”, “corrections” and “recoveries”, all referring to this painful world wide economic event as little more than a speed bump on the road to endless growth. Indeed, governments were so wrapped in confidence about our eventual return to prosperity they adopted an ongoing protective policy called “quantitative easing”, QE for short, which was, in effect, printing money and using it to purchase debt from industries that needed help. Their debt then became our debt until they recover sufficiently (we hope) to begin buying it back. The program is finished but the pundits are still debating its worth.

At the same time statistics record that, on an individual level, most of us are increasing our personal debt to take advantage of “Historically Low!” interest rates and ‘’Fantastic Deals!” in consumer goods, with ads that suggest we would be fools not to participate in these “Bargains of the Century!” As both taxpayers and committed consumers we, therefore, face the double whammy of knowing that debt is being stockpiled on our behalf, from government, while we fight a battle with mounting personal debt - but not to worry, it’s the cheapest debt we will ever see in our lifetimes.

Spending creates growth by providing profits to industry and taxes to government, so leaders in both encourage this activity. Unfortunately, there appears to be limits on the prosperity either governments or individuals can purchase with debt so, in spite of our efforts, the slower growth continues while we remain patient – waiting for some unknown, but supposedly inevitable, circumstance to “jumpstart” our economy.

I understand how easy it is to be positive about the long-term outlook. Technology has brought truly unbelievable changes in a very short period of time, and there is so much more promised that imaginations are provided with few boundaries in its anticipation. We grow more food now on less land than ever in history, we can communicate from anywhere to anywhere – even tweet astronauts on a space station – and we are capable of building stronger, more complex, and more reliable goods, at prices that weren’t even conceived of in past generations. We have grown to believe that our form of creative and innovative technology will remain a permanent part of our future, capable of supplying an ever-growing marketplace with new and exciting products, all of which require manufacture, distribution, and sales infrastructure. How can we fail to continue expanding? How can human society not move forward in a never-ending linear pattern of wealth creation toward… toward whatever it is we are imagining?

Well, the flaw in that expectation rests within a surprisingly underreported event out there on the horizon. One that is forecast to impact every person on this planet, quite possibly, within the lifetimes of children now attending school.

According to the World Bank, which is not particularly prone to sensationalism, our human population is expected to peak at around ten billion individuals sometime in the second half of this century. Their figures show that at the beginning of this century our population was adding just over ninety million individuals per year, yet, in anywhere from fifty to eighty years, we are expected to hit “zero” human population growth.

Just give that a moment to sink in. Ninety million more people on this planet per year, every year and, within the lifetimes of children born today, it all comes to a screeching halt. In reality, it is entirely possible that from then on the world population will actually begin shrinking. It sounds incredible but it is backed up with detailed research and it’s not a new prediction. The World Bank has been forecasting this seminal event for more than a generation. It’s just that few people seem to be listening.

Better education, increased prosperity, and opportunities for women to participate in family planning are what turn the tide. If these three conditions are met families get smaller. Right now 71 countries are producing less than two children per couple and, in general, they are the most prosperous and democratic countries. For instance, Canada produces 1.6 children per couple, Japan 1.2, Germany 1.4, and the United States at 2.0 is still less than the 2.1 minimum. Even India, which was once a favorite example for the population explosion proponents, has gone from 3.4 to 2.7 in the last fifteen years. The worldwide average is now 2.5 children for every couple – down from 4.7 in 1970. Ultimately, we will arrive at 2.1 but that’s just a number. There is no magic in stasis and nothing keeps it from falling further as the world population will probably begin shrinking in the proceeding years.

The World Bank statistics show that our planet’s population reached two billion in 1926, three billion in 1960, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1998, and is now well over seven billion. That is an incredible surge in population – and by averaging almost ninety million more people per year for the last two generations a lot of opportunities for economic growth were created. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” as financial analysts are fond of saying. When your marketplace is expanding at a record rate it’s easy to bet on the future. But what happens when we aren’t adding anyone? When the marketplace is shrinking and there are, in fact, less people – as in fewer consumers – than the year before. Do you still believe we will be capable of experiencing the same level of growth?

This isn’t something theoretical or off in the distance; it’s beginning now, and the changes coming will be multi-leveled and far-reaching – some good and some bad. So why is there no discussion? Why do we continue to bet on endless growth and a model that may soon become painfully defunct? The human population “bubble” is now “bursting”, and the consequences include a serious revamping of how we, as a society, determine value, and even what we value. This is a huge event in the history of the world and people alive today will be responsible for dealing with it. So why do our governments ignore this reality and continue committing both our physical, and financial, resources to policies based on never-ending growth?

Wednesday, February 4 2015

Blog Talk

It's gratifying to see all the comments but I wish I knew how many of them actually apply to my site. It's obvious that some of them wandered in from somewhere else, (weight reducing and electrical contracting?) and I know so little about the technical aspects of their arrival that I am at a loss to weed them out in advance. Also, many of the comments are so vague and generic they could apply to anything. Spam filters work to a certain degree but, then, I have found some of my best comments on the spam list.

Some visitors ask technical questions and, as much as I would like to help, I can't. I had a local entrepreneur (and friend) set this site up, and it is still a work in progress. There are other aspects we are working on and hope to make improvements as we go.

If you, the reader, are looking for a theme, it probably hasn't appeared yet and it's not likely to for awhile. Some of my subjects are random, however, certain topics I will keep rounding back to. I wrote an ebook doing much the same and discovered that those who reviewed the manuscript enjoyed me throwing in chapters where the mood and focus was changed significantly. It helped readers enjoy the whole experience. (The book is coming out in print, by the way.)

So far the blog has done a rant on the Snowden controversy, which I wrote in a gush and then set aside, going back and tinkering on occasion before I brought it here. It still turned out to be a rant, but that might have been inevitable. The essay on happiness was a labor of love. Who isn't interested in finding happiness, and over a lifetime you learn a few things. I thought it would be a shame not to learn some of them sooner. The piece on young people committing suicide was difficult to write because it is such tragic and emotional topic. It takes us to places in our youth where we don't like to go, and to write about it without trivializing or denigrating the events, and the feelings that precipitated them, is a tightrope walk. I just thought young people should have a perspective from someone at the other end of life who still remembers what it was like.

There is more to come and I hope those pieces will be read and commented on as well. It doesn't take much to encourage me, (I guess I have low expectations), and new ideas are always being brought forth for discussion. Until writing stops being fun this blog will continue. Thanks for your interest. Ross

Tuesday, February 3 2015

Dying of Shame

Suicide is always a tragedy even when it ends a life filled with pain, but when it happens to young people it’s worse. It isn’t simply about age and the waste of human potential, or the grief and guilt carried thereafter by family members. Too often young people are dying in response to what members of my generation have learned is a nitpickingly small event. Many appear to be consumed with shame, and it usually involves their sexuality, or appearance, or vulnerability to exploitation.

We all understand shame. If you have escaped all forms of embarrassment, especially in your early attempts to promote your sexuality, than you have either been remarkably lucky, or surrounded by a protective shell. And one particular lesson shame teaches all of us is that many, many, people absolutely thrive on exploiting and expanding whatever humiliation you have endured into a world-class event. Library shelves are stocked with books on why some people need to make others look foolish, but whether it’s embedded in our cultural psychology or our genetic makeup, it feels very real and produces intense agony.

Lately, a move to class all such people as bullies has been promoted but, to me, that is a “thug” word and doesn’t express anywhere near the complexity and nuance used by truly aggressive propagators of social ridicule.

One fact young people seldom understand is how you deal with ridicule is an art in itself - one worth learning (or being taught by parents). Indeed, on more than one occasion I have seen people become heroes simply for the way they reacted to being shamed. But whether you react well, or badly, the pain does eventually fade and if you can’t believe it at the time, evidence does exist to support this reality. You just may not recognize it as such. Have you ever heard anyone brag that they learned many lessons in life the “hard way”? (I’m one.) This is generally a euphemism for saying we did a lot of stupid things and through the grace of God and with the help of others we somehow survived.

Like most young people I received a great deal of advice in my early years, with a considerable amount of wisdom and clear thinking contained therein. Still, everyone has moments when they are overtaken by an impulse and must just reach out and touch that “hot stove” for themselves. It’s the nature of youth to learn from pushing boundaries, and avoiding the scars left behind is often purely a matter of luck. Over time we learn to be less impulsive and many of those mistakes, if made early enough in life, help us develop into a more successful person. Being tagged a loser is a great incentive to end up a winner.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that achieving acceptance is almost universally a priority in young people – it’s part of growing up – but where is it written that we have to be widely popular in order to be thought of as a worthwhile human being? Looking back over the last sixty plus years, some of my best memories are when I was able to totally annoy people whom I considered self-absorbed, self-important, self-centered – you get the picture – or hypocrites, another group worthy of a year-round-open-harassment-season. Did I leave out prudes? I shouldn’t have, they get their jollies by applying a rigid set of standards and condemning everyone who doesn’t meet them. (I have noticed that as they age their circle of friends become smaller, even zeros out on occasion... so few people measure up over a lifetime.)

It may be a trite and worn-out homily but you truly will never please everyone and it doesn’t matter because a few really good friends are enough. Indeed, as you get older you learn that the more people who think you are special the greater the burden of expectations placed upon you and, if you are a conscientious sort, the greater the anxieties you feel trying to meet those expectations.

Lately, the new digital age burden of having almost continuous communication with all who are important in your life, via computers and their mobile offspring, has further magnified this ongoing pressure to accept the goals others create for you. It takes a great deal of self-belief and strength to say “no” to people you care for, and that doesn’t develop overnight. Maturity teaches us how to demand our own space and gives us the ability to live within it. Young people haven’t reached that stage and remain open to conflicting and confusing demands – all happening in a brain that doesn’t physically finish growing until after the teenage years are over… and the last part to finish developing, in your mid-twenties, is the rational decision making center (scientific fact).

High-profile attention has been focused on a number of teen suicides involving the Internet. Apparently, when you combine the underdeveloped minds with the very developed appearance of present day young people, and the instant and constant communication devices now dominating our lives, it’s easy to forget how two dimensional and impersonal these devices allow us to be. Anyone can fall prey to a false sense of security, even if just for a thoughtless instant, encouraging them to share intimate details of their life, or the life of a friend, in a medium where intimacy doesn’t exist. This desire for acceptance and recognition leaves young people so open to being taken advantage of that becoming a victim, on some level, is almost a rite of passage.

If you have been victimized, and are feeling apprehensive about the long-term impact of your teenage follies, the prescription is clear, if not easy. Tough it out and learn from it by showing that you are a quality person, the kind of honest, caring, and positive individual that makes a good friend. Sooner or later the people around you will get over whatever issues they have, and learn to view your mistake as another goofy anomaly of youth. If you don’t believe this, sit down with a group of senior citizens and listen to the kind of stories they are sharing and laughing about. You will discover in a hurry that the ones who lived a good life were the ones who took risks. Getting burned was part of the process and their uninhibited relating of the details leave little doubt they are long recovered from the initial humiliation.

- page 1 of 2

The Hollow Life

Life is a collection of moments.
The good ones you relive constantly.
The bad ones you try and forget.
Together they give life substance and meaning.

Others judge it's value.
All you may do is enhance or change the meaning
- while in search of the next moment.

If you fail to care deeply for others
You get no joy from helping them.
And if there is no joy, why bother.

Then all the meaning in life becomes about one person,
But people don't exist as one person.
We are all entwined, a product of each other.
And life as one person is meaningless..


Email Ross directly at

middleoftheroadradical at gmail dot com

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