an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

bird smarts and theory of mind

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human brain compared to that of a zebra finch, I think

I like birds a lot – how could you not? I particularly like their brains, which considering their ‘beautiful plumage’, their grace in flight, their songs, their treatment of mates and offspring and their dinosaur history, is quite a big call. Not that I’ve ever seen or examined a bird’s brain, but I’ve seen and heard of  some gobsmacking behaviour from some species, so I thought I might check out what’s known about their grey-white matter.

As with so many research fields, there’s been a surge in research into bird brains, and I’ve not heard the term bird-brain used as an insult in recent times. Still, when we think of bird intelligence, we tend to anthropomorphise, to compare them with us – do they play, do they use language or tools, do they recognise us individually, can they solve the same sorts of problems we can? That’s understandable enough, but in studying bird brains we should be just as thoughtful about the differences as the similarities.

The birds that have stood out for us so far are corvids – ravens, crows, jays and magpies, though many parrots such as the sadly endangered kea of New Zealand have also caught researchers’ attention. So how do these small-brained creatures manage to do the things that so impress us? Well for a start it may be more a matter of numbers than actual size (and it should be noted that birds have the largest brain to body ratio of any creature). Some research published in July 2016, which received a lot of media attention, found that bird brains pack neurons more densely than other animals. It was previously thought that neuron density didn’t vary much between species, but it’s now becoming clear this isn’t so, and actual brain size isn’t such a reliable guide to intelligence. But bird brains are really small compared to those of primates, so there must surely be other differences besides density.

But the 2016 research, which featured a revolutionary method for sampling brain tissue and making neuron counts, found that, in fact, a parrot brain contained as many neurons as some mid-sized primates. However, it’s also true that a bird’s brain is structurally different. Unsurprisingly, in the past, bird brains were thought of as primitive, and were classified as such, probably because they’re far removed from us on the evolutionary bush. Anthropomorphism again – understandably we used to feel that the only really intelligent creatures apart from us were those most closely related to us, but in recent decades we’ve learned that cetaceans, octopuses, elephants and birds, none of which are close to us  evolutionarily, are highly intelligent creatures. And they’re not all mammals, and in the case of the octopus, not even vertebrates. This is quite exciting for our understanding of intelligent life forms – they can have a multitude of ‘brain plans’.

The first important bird brain anatomist was the 19th century German naturalist Ludwig Edinger, whose work was so influential that it provided the orthodox view until a few decades ago. Noting the very different structure of the bird brain, Edinger understandably assumed they couldn’t be as smart as mammals, and being one of the first to name brain structures in birds, he assigned names such as paleostriatum, suggesting a very basic region involving instinctual and motor activity. Basically, he assumed birds lacked a neocortex altogether. However, we now know that the bird brain evolved from the pallium rather than the striatum, and in 2005 it was agreed that an overhaul of bird brain nomenclature was required. All part of our more informed and respectful approach to these wondrous creatures.

National Geographic, in combination with other interested organisations, has declared 2018 the Year of the Bird, and has some fascinating pieces on bird behaviour on its website. That’s where I learned that, according to one researcher, birds’ brains are more distributed ‘like a pizza’, whereas the mammalian brain is more layered. However, the wiring that underlies long-term memory in birds (and they clearly have impressive long-term memory) and decision-making is similar to that in mammals. 

Here are just a few of the extraordinary behaviours discovered. Green-rumped parrotlets of South America use calls as names for their chicks. Male palm cockatoos of New Guinea court females not only with calls but by drumming on hollow trees with twigs and seedpods – arguably a form of music. Goffin’s cockatoos, from Indonesia, make and use tools in captivity even though they’ve never been seen to do so in the wild. They’re also expert at opening locks. The National Geographic video ‘Beak and Brain: genius birds down under’ compares the kea of New Zealand’s South Island to the New Caledonian crow as problems solvers tasked with overcoming a variety of obstacles to obtain their favourite treats. It makes for riveting viewing. Other videos online show crows creating hooks on sticks and using them to pull food out of holes. 

Another video, involving experiments with jackdaws by Princess Auguste of Bavaria (really), a behavioural scientist, shows that these birds are much influenced by the gaze of humans, and can be directed to act simply by the gaze of a human they have bonded with. They also appear to know when they’re not being watched, and can act more boldly in such circumstances. All of this raises obvious questions, voiced by Auguste in the video. How do jackdaws think? How is it similar to the way we think? Do they recognise intentions? Do they have a theory of mind?

This theory of mind issue comes up with a lot of birds, and other animals. It refers to whether and to what extent a creature has the ability to attribute any or all of the variety of possible mental states to itself and/or others. The question of an avian theory of mind was explored in a study entitled ‘ravens attribute visual access to unseen competitors’. In describing their experiment, the authors highlight what they see – or what skeptics see – as a problem with much experimental work that tests for theory of mind in other species. This is the question – as I understand it – of whether the bird or animal actually ‘sees’ or reads what conspecifics are thinking, or is simply following particular observable cues. It was a complex experiment involving caching (hiding a store of food for later consumption, a common raven behaviour), peepholes that were either open or closed, and inference (by the researchers) from observed behaviour to either ‘minimal’ or ‘full-blown’ Theory of Mind. As a dilettante I found much of the discussion and analysis beyond me, but I found these remarks interesting:

In conclusion, the current experiment, together with the other recent studies on chimpanzees11,12, provides strong evidence against the skeptical hypothesis that the social cognition of nonhuman animals is limited to behaviour-reading. Peephole designs can allow researchers to overcome the confound of gaze cues, but further experimental work is needed to determine the specific limits of ravens and other animals—including humans—on such tasks.

In my general reading on these matters I’ve definitely found something like a rift between the skeptics on the behaviour of higher primates, dolphins and other ‘smart’ creatures, and those who have pushed, sometimes naively, other-life smarts with regard to ‘language’, memory and emotional intelligence. What I think needs to be kept clearly in mind is that in examining intelligence, or brain power or whatever, human intelligence may be only one of a possible infinity of gold standards. Is Theory of Mind itself an anthropomorphic concept, or one that lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic thinking? 

Meanwhile, experimentation and investigation of the neurological underpinnings of bird behaviour will continue, and I’ll be watching for the results. Just about to embark on Jim Robbins’ book The wonder of birds, and I hope to learn more especially about bird neurology in the future, and how it relates to birdsong. That’s a whole other issue.

Written by stewart henderson

November 2, 2018 at 9:40 am

another look at free will, with thanks to Robert Sapolsky

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Ah poor old Aynnie – from guru to laughing stock within a couple of gens

Having recently had a brief conversation about free will, I’ve decided to look at the matter again. Fact is, it’s been playing on my mind. I know this is a very old chestnut in philosophy, renewed somewhat by neurologists recently, and I know that far more informed minds than mine have devoted oodles of time and energy to it, but my conversation was with someone with no philosophical or neurological background who simply found the idea of our having no free will, no autonomy, no ‘say’ whatever in our lives, frankly ludicrous. Free will, after all, was what made our lives worth living. It gives us our dignity, our self-respect, our pride in our achievements, our sense of shame or disappointment at having made bad or unworthy decisions. To deny us our free will would deny us….  far far too much.

My previous piece on the matter might be worth a look (having just reread it, it’s not bad), but it seems to me the conundrum can be made clear by thinking in two intuitively obvious but entirely contradictory ways. First, of course we have free will, which we demonstrate with a thousand voluntary decisions made every day – what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, whether to disagree or hold our tongue, whether to turn right or left in our daily walk, etc etc. Second, of course we don’t have free will – student A can’t learn English as quickly and effectively as student B, no matter how well you teach her; this student has a natural ability to excel at every sport, that one is eternally clumsy and uncoordinated; this girl is shy and withdrawn, that one’s a noisy show-off, etc etc.

The first way of thinking comes largely from self-observation, the second comes largely from observing others (if only others were as free to be like us as we are). And it seems to me that most relationship breakdowns come from 1) not allowing the other to be ‘free’ to be themselves, or 2) not recognising the other’s lack of freedom to change. Take your pick.

So I’ve just read Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will in his book Behave, and it strengthens me in my ‘free will is a myth’ conviction. Sapolsky somewhat mocks the free will advocates with the notion of an uncaused homunculus inside the brain that does the deciding with more or less good sense. The point is that ‘compatibilism’ can’t possibly make sense. How do you sensibly define ‘free will’ within a determinist framework? Is this compatibilism just a product of the eternal complexity of the human brain? We can’t tease out the chain of causal events, therefore free will? So if at some future date we were able to tease out those connections, free will would evaporate? As Sapolsky points out, we are much further along at understanding the parts of the prefrontal cortex and the neuronal pathways into and out of it, and research increases exponentially. Far enough along to realise how extraordinarily far we have to go. 

One way of thinking of the absurdity of the self-deciding self is to wonder when this decider evolved. Is it in dogs? Is it in mosquitos? The probable response would be that dogs have a partial or diminished free will, mosquitos much less so, if at all. As if free will was an epiphenomen of complexity. But complexity is just complexity, there seems no point in adding free will to it. 

But perhaps we should take a look at the best arguments we can find for compatibilism or any other position that advocates free will. Joachim Krueger presents five arguments on the Psychology Today website, though he’s not convinced by any of them. The second argument relates to consciousness (a fuzzy concept avoided by most neurologists I’ve read) and volition, a tricky concept that Krueger defines as ‘will’ but not free will. Yes, there are decisions we make, which we may weigh up in our minds, to take an overseas holiday or spend a day at the beach, and they are entirely voluntary, not externally coerced – at least to our minds. However, that doesn’t make them free, outside the causal chain. But presumably compatibilists will agree – they are wedded to determinism after all. So they must have to define freedom in a different way. I’ve yet to find any definition that works for the compatibilist.

There’s also a whiff of desperation in trying to connect free will with quantum indeterminacy, as some have done. Having read Life at the edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, which examines the possibilities of quantum effects at the biological level, I’m certainly open to the science on this, but I can’t see how it would apply at the macro level of human decision-making. And this macro level is generally far more ‘unconscious’ than we have previously believed, which is another way of saying that, with the growth of neurology (and my previous mention of exponential growth in this field is no exaggeration), the mapping of neurological activity, the research into neurotransmission and general brain chemistry, the concept of ‘consciousness’ has largely been ignored, perhaps because it resembles too much the homunculus that Sapolsky mocks. 

As Sapolsky quite urgently points out, this question of free will and individual responsibility is far from being the fun and almost frolicsome philosophical conundrum that some have seemed to suggest. It has major implications for the law, and for crime and punishment. For example, there are legal discussions in the USA, one of the few ‘civilised’ nations that still execute people, as to the IQ level above which you’re smart enough to be executed, and how that IQ is to be measured. This legal and semi-neurological issue affects a significant percentage of those on death row. A significant percentage of the same people have been shown to have damage to the prefrontal cortex. How much damage? How did this affect the commission of the crime? Neurologists may not be able to answer this question today, but future neurologists might. 

So, for me, the central issue in the free will debate is the term ‘free’. Let’s look at how Marvin Edwards describes it in his blog post ‘Free will skepticism: an incoherent notion’. I’ve had a bit of a to-and-fro with Marvin – check out the comments section on my previous post on the topic, referenced below. His definition is very basic. For a will, or perhaps I should say a decision, to be free it has to be void of ‘undue influences’. That’s it. And yet he’s an out and out determinist, agreeing that if we could account for all the ‘influences’, or causal operants, affecting a person’s decision, we could perfectly predict that decision in advance. So it is obvious to Marvin that free will and determinism are perfectly compatible.

That’s it, I say again. That’s the entire substance of the argument. It all hangs on this idea of ‘undue influence’, an idea apparently taken from standard philosophical definitions of free will. Presumably a ‘due influence’ is one that comes from ‘the self’ and so is ‘free’. But this is an incoherent notion, to borrow Marvin’s phrase. Again it runs up against Sapolsky’s homunculus, an uncaused decider living inside the brain, aka ‘the self’. Here’s what Sapolsky has to say about the kind of compatibilism Marvin is advocating for, which he (Sapolsky) calls ‘mitigated free will’, a term taken from his colleague Joshua Greene. It’s a long quote, but well worth transcribing, as it captures my own skepticism as exactly as anything I’ve read:

Here’s how I’ve always pictured mitigated free will:

There’s the brain – neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, receptors, brain-specific transcription factors, epigenetic effects, gene transpositions during neurogenesis. Aspects of brain function can be influenced by someone’s prenatal environment, genes, and hormones, whether their parents were authoritarian or their culture egalitarian, whether they witnessed violence in childhood, when they had breakfast. It’s the whole shebang, all of this book.

And then, separate from that, in a concrete bunker tucked away in the brain, sits a little man (or woman, or agendered individual), a homunculus at a control panel. The homunculus is made of a mixture of nanochips, old vacuum tubes, crinkly ancient parchment, stalactites of your mother’s admonishing voice, streaks of brimstone, rivets made out of gumption. In other words, not squishy biological brain yuck.

And the homunculus sits there controlling behaviour. There are some things outside its purview – seizures blow the homunculus’s fuses, requiring it to reboot the system and check for damaged files. Same with alcohol, Alzheimer’s disease, a severed spinal cord, hypoglycaemic shock. 

There are domains where the homunculus and that biology stuff have worked out a détente – for example, biology is usually automatically regulating your respiration, unless you must take a deep breath before singing an aria, in which case the homunculus briefly overrides the automatic pilot.

But other than that, the homunculus makes decisions. Sure, it takes careful note of all the inputs and information from the brain, checks your hormone levels, skims the neurobiology journals, takes it all under advisement, and then, after reflecting and deliberating, decides what you do. A homunculus in your brain, but not of it, operating independently of the material rules of the universe that constitute modern science.

This captures perfectly, to me, the dilemma of those sorts of compatibilists who insist on determinism but. They seem more than reluctant to recognise the implications of that determinist commitment. It’s an amusing description – I love the bit about the aria – But it seems to me just right. As to the implications for our cherished sense of freedom, we can at least reflect that it has ever been thus, and it hasn’t stopped us thriving in our selfish, selfless ways. But as to the implications for those of us less fortunate in the forces that have moved us since childhood and before, that’s another story.

References

https://ussromantics.com/2018/05/15/is-free-will-a-thing-apparently-not/

R Sapolsky, Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, Bodley Head 2017. Note especially Chapter 16, ‘Biology, the criminal justice system and free will’. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/#FreWil

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/one-among-many/201803/five-arguments-free-will

https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/06/free-will-exists-and-is-measurable/486551/

Written by stewart henderson

October 27, 2018 at 1:25 pm

why I’m not a conservative

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Probably better to read this highly recommended book than my article, but you’re welcome to do both

There are many ways of answering the above question. I might state the obvious – conservatives tend to be stodgy, boring, backward-facing selfish naysayers with a limited social conscience and little interest in, if not an outright fear of, scientific and technological development.  End of story.

But of course, that can’t be the whole story. We’re not as free to develop our own views as we think. I’m a product of a particular environment, a very working-class environment, though very bookish within the family. The recent Kavanaugh kerfuffle reminds me of my rough and ready high school days, though I was more often a victim than a perp. All through high school I was the smallest and probably lightest kid in my class, male or female, so I was the target of pranks, mostly ‘good-natured’. For example, on two occasions I was held out upside-down by the legs over the first-floor balustrade by my fun-loving schoolmates. Had they lost their collective grip, I suppose I would’ve dropped head-first to probable death. Yet, though I’m sure my heart-rate was well up at the time, I had a pretty strong faith in my friends – all boys of course – and their benign intentions. I never lost any sleep over it afterwards. 

I’m not suggesting this was working-class hijinx – think of Eton and Harrow ragging, etc – but there was more, including stuff I’m far from proud of, as I strove to fit in with the anti-intellectual and often nihilistically violent environment around me. The quality of teaching was pretty poor, our headmaster was an outright fascist, and I was happy to be a high school drop-out at fifteen. I got occasional assembly-line work, and my spare time was spent either failing to ingratiate myself with a gang of local vandals, or reading Jane Austen or encyclopaedia entries on Isaac Newton, etc. Not to mention wanking myself silly to fantasies of any local beauty I happened to clap my eyes on. Another great solace and opening to a wider world was the wordsmith musical artists of the early seventies I obsessed over, such as Dylan, Cohen and Bowie. 

So what has this to do with my politics? Well, the region of my childhood and youth was, and still is, one of the safest Labor electorates in the country (Labor, for international readers, is the party of the left here in Australia, as it is in Britain). I can’t imagine it ever going the way of the conservatives. In Australia, the urban/suburban working-class tend to vote left, while the rural working-class tend to vote right. It’s perhaps different from the USA where the working-class in general tend to vote right (though this seems to happen here in some parts, notably Queensland). This kind of pro-union us-and-them mentality, an atmosphere of both togetherness and despair, was what I breathed in as I wandered lonely as a cloud through the streets of my town. I engaged with others in petty theft and pointless vandalism, got caught and was placed on a bond, and felt self-servingly that the law was the principle weapon of the rich to beat down the poor.

In the early seventies a downturn in the economy hit our region particularly hard, and I felt it in the air of neglect and dilapidation, the family breakdowns, the beginnings of generational unemployment. I saw a neighbourhood of victims, unable to climb out of their situation, as if they’d been sold a pup and didn’t know quite who to blame. 

I didn’t hang around, I moved to a bigger smoke, and a more variegated, bohemian-student world. My problems of ‘fitting in’ didn’t exactly go away, but I was becoming more reconciled to my ‘loner’ identity. And of course I was educating myself more about politics, economics and history. But always I’ve been concerned about the most vulnerable, the least advantaged, those who ‘lucked out’ in our society. This goes with my views on free will, and on nationalism. We don’t get to choose our parentage, or the where and when of our birth. I politely decline to sing songs about how wonderful and unique ‘my’ country is, because I know that if I was born in another country on the other side of the world I’d be pressured to sing songs about its splendour and specialness. I feel lucky to be a citizen of two peaceful and developed countries, just as I feel lucky to have been born a human rather than a mosquito. I feel lucky to be alive when all this new knowledge is being uncovered, in astronomy, in neurology, in palaeontology and so much else, though I feel unlucky to have been born in 1956 rather than 1996, or even later.

But the implications of this matter of luck seem to me enormous, and they’re essential to my political views. For example, they largely define my views on education, health, welfare, immigration and the justice system. To me, one of the major roles of a political state is to do its best to mitigate, for its members, the destructive effects of bad luck. 

Broadly speaking, the history of politics has ever been the battle between the left and the right – patricians v plebeians, socialists v libertarians, progressives v traditionalists, Labor v Conservative, Republicans v Democrats, with independents ranged across the political spectrum. Those who want to do more for their people v those who want to let people do for themselves, and various other polarities. Of course, not all these categories are the same on each side of the v sign, which raises all sorts of questions. Where does business and capitalism fit in? What about the environmental movement? What about globalism and its detractors? 

My views on many of these matters aren’t well-formulated – or I should say, in a more self-boosting way, they’re not hard and fast. However, the application of a basic rule of thumb – ‘try to reduce the effect of bad luck’, is, I think, a useful starting point. For example, a taxation system that tries to reduce disadvantage in terms of education and healthcare is important, but one that heavily reduces incentives for businesses and entrepreneurs may ultimately affect productivity and the wealth from which taxation can be drawn. At the same time it’s dangerous to fall for the line of the ‘haves’, that tax breaks for the ‘deserving rich’ will ultimately benefit all through greater employment and opportunity. The rich, I’ve noticed, like very much to keep it in the ‘family’ – gated communities being the most in-your-face symbol of the trickle-across effect. 

Governing isn’t easy, especially under the constant scrutiny of vested interests – and that means everyone. One of the major difficulties I’ve noticed is that some scrutineers, e.g. the Rupert Murdochs of this world – are vastly mote powerful than others, so money and influence are always at play – and those in most need are always those who have least influence. It’s easy to lose sight of that – though many conservatives aren’t worried about that, they often see their rich supporters as a natural elite, and the strengthening of that elite as their natural duty in government.

I know this is a bitsy sort of essay – I don’t have an ideology as such, but I do have some strong views, against ideology and for pragmatism, against adversarialism and for collaboration, against realpolitik and nationalism and for the more voiceless and lucked out members of our species – often the victims of realpolitik. I’m also for the progress of science and technology against the fearful or dismissive or wilfully ignorant naysayers. I know I’ve just contradicted myself, seemingly, in speaking for  collaboration and then couching issues in for/against terms, but of course you must have core beliefs to bring to a negotiation, which you can present for consideration while considering and questioning the views of the opposition, as they question yours. And those who aren’t prepared to listen – and I can name quite a few – shouldn’t be allowed at the table. 

I like the approach of Aristotle – first you work out your ethics (the particular or individual) then apply it to politics, the general. Of course, the first thing to note, as you try to work out what you should do, is that it must be in relation to others, the general. Without that ‘general’, which is life itself, not just humanity, as natural selection has taught us, we individuals wouldn’t be here. So the relationship between the individual and the general is necessarily dialectical, but it starts off with that personal question. And there is always that tension, for progressives – those who believe in pushing forward not yearning backward – between that forward movement and responsibility for the luckless strugglers, those so easily left behind. It makes for a very difficult task for those well-meaning politicians I admire. Scientific, technological and intellectual progress is happening at a more rapid clip than ever before, but it’s spreading the spectrum ever wider, not just between the haves and have nots, but between attitudes towards and against that progress, between adoring enthusiasm and hate-filled fear. 

So. I’m not a conservative. I want to embrace the future, to help make it happen. I want it to improve the lot of the majority, especially of those whose lot needs most improving, so that they can share in enthusiasm for the future. I want women to rule the majority of the world, because I believe this would improve humanity, and the world. I want to avoid warfare as much as humanly possible, because the costs are always borne by those who can least afford them. I want to challenge the power of self-serving elites, and to shake their complacency. I want people to think about and recognise the consequences of their actions – especially those with power over others. The future will happen, and we can choose to face forward, and put our hands to those shaky and complicated controls, or to look away and pretend it’s not happening. It’s not much of a choice really. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 23, 2018 at 2:25 pm

the movements of the Earth, the ecliptic, the celestial sphere…

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Why does the Earth spin? Initial conditions plus Newton’s first law is the basic explanation. And from these it should be easy to guess that it’s slowing down as tiny but inexorable forces act upon it, and it will continue to do so unless something unforeseeable happens. The tidal friction caused by the moon, which itself is decreasing over time (or at least I assume so, since the moon is spiralling away from us) is the Earth’s principal brake. Some say that Earth has been gradually slowing down since the last great collision, which created the moon, and which left the planet spinning full circle every six hours, but I think that’s still speculative.

Anyway, we don’t just rotate (in an anti-clockwise direction), we revolve (anti-clockwise) around the sun on a plane tilted at 23.4 degrees from our spin – that’s tilted from the perpendicular. But why? And there’s this thing called precession, right? Spin a top, as I did as a kid, and the most successful spin will have the least precession – the smallest circle (actually a cone) around which the axis of rotation wobbles, but as the top slows that cone will widen until all falls in a heap. In the Earth’s case, it’s most commonly called the precession of the equinoxes, or ‘the wobble’ (maybe).

So the Earth moves in mysterious ways, and I’ve barely begun. It orbits the sun – why? Its orbit is elliptical – why? Its rotational and revolutionary speed vary – why? And what about other movements – the solar system, the galaxy, the universe?

A cool video I’ve been watching tells me something I’d never known or thought of before. We’re all on meridian lines, which pass through us in a north-south direction, from the north pole to the south pole. Lines of longitude. When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, at noon, it’s aligned perfectly with our meridian. The shadow it casts, our shadow, thus points precisely to the north or south pole, depending on the sun’s position north or south of ‘directly overhead’. If the sun is directly overhead, congratulations, you’re on the sub-solar point, and your shadow will disappear beneath your feet, so to speak. Right now the sub-solar point is a circular area in the Atlantic, a little north of the equator, and just touching land in west Africa. I doubt if we ever experience it here in Australia, as it seems to hang close to the equator.

The point to make here is one about time. As there’s a meridian line for just about everyone, it follows that everyone on a different meridian is experiencing a different time. Noon, or any other time, isn’t the same for everyone – but that’s massively inconvenient, so we’ve regularised time via zones, so we can do our business.

Looking again at our rotation, we might think we have it nailed at very close to 24 hours per full rotation, but not quite, for all is relative. The sun, for example, has its movements too, as does everything else. We’ve found that, measured from a distant star, one meridian completes a revolution in 23.9 hours, also known as a sidereal day. Our calendars, though, are based on the solar day. As the Earth turns, it moves forward in its revolution around the sun. So by the time it has turned 360 degrees it needs to spin a little more for the same spot to be facing the sun as was the case 24 hours before. That slightly greater than 360 degree turn is what we call the solar day. From our perspective it seems like an exact 360-degree turn because we’re facing the sun again, exactly as the day before. Or so it seems.

We revolve around the sun in an ellipse. Or not precisely around the sun. Kepler’s first law of planetary motion, presented to the world without fanfare in 1609, had it that all the planets traced an elliptical orbit around a focal line, with the sun as one of its end-points, or foci. And while we’re at it, let’s look at Kepler’s three laws and how they were arrived at. The second law, presented in the same year, states that ‘a line segment joining a planet to the sun will sweep out an equal area over an equal time interval’, and the third law, announced to a largely indifferent world in 1618, is perhaps less linguistically elegant, or at any rate simple: ‘The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.’ I ripped this from Wikipedia, the greatest gift to all dilettantes and autodidacts ever developed.

Kepler’s laws improved on those of Copernicus, but of course they accepted Copernicus’ heliocentric system as the basis. All Kepler really added was the eccentricity of planetary orbits, a minor detail really, but certainly an improvement. His laws weren’t presented as such at the time: they weren’t described as laws until Voltaire’s  publication of Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, no doubt largely the work of his intellectual superior, Emilie du Chatelet.

So, the first two laws. Kepler was given access to some of the detailed astronomical data of his employer Tycho Brahe, who asked him to calculate precisely the orbit of Mars. Tycho apparently withheld the bulk of his observations from Kepler, because he suspected him of being one of those upstart heliocentrists. Kepler wanted, for largely mystical reasons, to define the Mars orbit as a perfect circle, but after years of trying the calculations wouldn’t work out. What he did discover was that, although the orbital path wasn’t circular – the sun was sometimes further away, sometimes closer –  if you drew a line from Mars (or any other planet, including Earth) to the sun, and then another line, say exactly six days later, the triangle created always had the same area, no matter where you were in the orbit. For this to happen, the planet must be moving faster nearer the sun than when further from the sun. This was Kepler’s second law, which helped him to calculate the first. The planets’ orbits appeared to be elliptical. If the sun was offset from the centre of the planetary orbits, but still obviously essential to those orbits, then the offset could be calculated precisely such that all the planetary orbits fitted. And so it was. Most astronomers consider this to be his greatest contribution.

Kepler’s third law, with its interesting mathematical basis, provided the greatest inspiration to Newton:

The square of the orbital period of a planet is proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit.

P2 = a3

I rarely do maths here, but surely this one’s simple enough even for me! The orbital period (p) of a planet is the time it takes to make a complete revolution around the sun. Note that it’s a measure of time, not distance. The semi-major axis of an ellipse is half its longest diameter. In the special case of a circle, it would be the radius. This law enables us, apparently, to determine the distance of planets from the sun, though it appears to entangle time and space. Generally these distances are given in relative terms. with the Earth’s distance from the sun given the value 1 AU (astronomical unit). By that reckoning, the outermost planet, Neptune, has a value of 30.06 AU, approximately, according to one site providing such data. Similarly, we reckon the orbital period in Earth years. Neptune’s orbital period is 164.79 years. So, for Neptune, 164.79² = 30.0611³. Try it on a calculator and you’ll find it doesn’t quite work out, but this may be due to eccentricity of orbits, in time and space. Other sites have different figures. The Kepler equation seems to capture the pattern rather than the precise detail. It’s probable that the publication of logarithmic tables between Kepler’s calculation of the first two laws and the third was vital.

I’m of course no expert on any of this – go to more reputable sites for a more complete story, though you’ll probably find what I found – a fair amount of interesting confusion.

I’ll finish with the ecliptic. The Earth’s orbit sketches out an elliptical plane, which we call the ecliptic. Then again, the ecliptic is also described as the apparent motion of the sun in the sky with respect to the fixed stars – not to be confused with the apparent daily movement caused by Earth’s rotation. In fact Wikipedia describes the ecliptic as ‘the mean plane in the sky that the sun follows in the course of a year’, and Wikipedia is always way more right than I am in these matters, but it’s confusing. The plane can be visualised as stretching out into space, way beyond the actual orbit around the sun and bounded within a celestial sphere, with a ‘celestial equator’, on the same plane as Earth’s equator, also marking a circular section of the sphere at 23.4° from the ecliptic. The north-south celestial axis, an extension of Earth’s axis to the celestial sphere, is again at an angle of 23.4°, on average, from the north-south ecliptic axis, which runs perpendicular to the ecliptic plane.

There’s more, but I’ll stop at this. The ecliptic plane for Earth is an average, as there are always perturbations. The other planets don’t follow this ecliptic precisely, but they’re not too far away, probably as a result of uniforming forces at the creation of the solar system.

 

Written by stewart henderson

September 8, 2018 at 9:43 pm

a deeper dive into the shallow waters of Emu Bay

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Jacinta: So Emu Bay, shale, Cambrian, trilobites, early complex life, Kangaroo Island, why Kangaroo Island, where do we begin?

Canto: Well, let’s just begin. Apparently the first fossil finds, the first signs that there was something significant, date from the fifties, but it wasn’t until the seventies that real excitement grew.

Jacinta: And these finds were from the Cambrian. Can you give us some background on the so-called Cambrian explosion, and the geological epochs as they pertain to life forms?

Canto: The Cambrian explosion dates to around 530 million years ago. The most celebrated evidence of this comes from the Burgess shale in British Columbia, Canada, though the finds there date to about 510 million years ago – the middle Cambrian. Emu Bay’s fossils have been dated further back in time, though as always there’s some uncertainty as to precise dating. Another famous deposit, the oldest, is in southern China, the Chengjiang fauna.

Now, briefly, the planet’s life-span has been divided into six eons, which you can take as seriously as you like: first, the Hadean, from Earth’s formation 4.6 billion years ago to the end of the late heavy bombardment around 4 billion years ago; second, the Archaean, when life began and then photosynthesis evolved; third, the Proterozoic, from 2.5 billion years ago to 540 million years ago; fourth, the Paleozoic, to 250 million years ago, then the Mesozoic, to 65 million years ago, and finally the sixth, Cenozoic eon, up to the present day. Though the last three are sometimes called ‘eras’ under the title of the Phanerozoic eon.

Jacinta: So how does the Cambrian and other epochs or whatever, map onto this – the Cretaceous, the Jurassic and so forth?

Canto: Well, these are called periods, but let’s not get too caught up in all that, and let’s start with the Cambrian period, as we’re concerned with more or less recognisably modern complex life. It’s generally agreed to date from 540 million years ago, following on from the Ediacaran period, and has been divided into Early, Middle and Late, at least by some, and was followed by the Ordovician some 485 million years ago…

Jacinta: Okay, enough, let’s get back to Emu Bay and the Cambrian explosion.

Canto: Just look online and you’ll find a ton of info on this and the other Cambrian deposits, so I’ll provide links to those sites that have helped me.

Jacinta: And a glossary, maybe.

Canto: Arthropods – from which modern spiders, insects and crabs evolved – and molluscs came into being in the Cambrian, and they’re well represented in the Emu Bay shale, dating from around 520 million years ago. Trilobites (three-lobed critters), a type of arthropod, are particularly well represented. They’re the earliest known creatures to have developed ‘full’ eyesight, I think, which would make them pretty devastating predators at the time.

Jacinta: Eyesight’s an interesting one, and it seems complex sight requires brains as well as good lenses….

Canto: Yes it is complex, and sight is obviously going to be one development among many in the fight for advantage, and developed and used differently in different environments. Anyway, one of the most interesting and important things about Emu Bay is the preservation of soft tissue – crab muscle, trilobite antennae for example. The types of antennae are very revealing apparently. And they’ve even found the turds of these creatures…

Jacinta: So how is it possible for muscle tissue etc to be preserved for over half a billion years?

Canto: That’s a very good question. It’s obviously a rarity – unless there’s an explosion of such finds in the future. A Catalyst program on Emu Bay from 10 years ago puts it this way:

Why this rare occurrence happens is not entirely clear. But it appears that, 520 million years ago, the bottom layer of the sea was depleted of oxygen; no scavengers could disturb the dead and no bacteria could survive to decay the soft tissue.

Jacinta: But one of the big differences between this site and the Burgess shale is that these were shallow water creatures, and the Burgess shale preserved deep water creatures, is that right? So these might have been more exposed to air?

Canto: Well the issue we’re looking at here comes under the heading of ‘taphonomy’ – the branch of palaeontology that deals with the processes of fossilisation. And taphonomy seems very much a work in progress – progressed further by analysis of this site. But it does get very technical. Let me give you an example, from a paper published in the Journal of the Geological Society in 2016:

The EBS [Emu Bay Shale] seems to have been rapidly deposited in a relatively nearshore setting adjacent to an active tectonic margin that generated continual syndepositional faulting and slumping. The Konservat-Lagerstätte interval appears to form part of a localized, deeper-water micro-basin succession on the inner shelf that was subject to fluctuating oxygen levels, at least in the bottom waters (Gehling et al. 2011). This depositional setting is in stark contrast to the majority of other Cambrian Konservat-Lagerstätten, specifically Burgess Shale-type deposits that formed in outer shelf environments, either near or immediately adjacent to the seaward margins of expansive carbonate platforms (e.g. Burgess Shale), or offshore of broad clastic shelves (e.g. Chengjiang) (Gaines 2014).

Jacinta: Hmmm, I think I get the continental drift.

Canto: As to the oxygen question, that’s still being worked on. And as to the deposit being ‘adjacent to an active tectonic margin’, I don’t get that. The whole of Australia sits on a large tectonic plate, the Australian plate, which stretches way south of Kangaroo Island. Perhaps plates can be sub-divided into micro-plates, I don’t know.

Jacinta: Perhaps an active tectonic margin just means a fault-line. But enough of the geology, tell us about the creatures themselves – some of the first predators – and their well-developed eyes.

Canto: More than 50 separate species have been found there, though in terms of specimens, the trilobite Estaingia bilobata dominates. Trilobites are incredibly common in the fossil record, with some 17,000 species known. The earliest ones found seem already highly diversified but their origin in the pre-Cambrian is very much a mystery.

a heap of Estraingia bilobata trilobites found at Emu Bay. I’m guessing from the rule on the right that each one is 2-3 cms long

Jacinta: And do these trilobites have amazing eyes?

Canto: They’re among the first animals we know of to have complex eyes and their lenses were made of calcite, which fossilises well. It’s also hypothesised that the early success of trilobites with their weaponised, prey-catching eyes helped to trigger or speed up the Cambrian explosion of diversity. But the big story about eyes fossilised at Emu Bay isn’t trilobite eyes. An abstract from Nature describes a creature with eyes more complex, and better preserved than any others for the following 85 million years:

The arrangement and size of the lenses indicate that these eyes belonged to an active predator that was capable of seeing in low light. The eyes are more complex than those known from contemporaneous trilobites and are as advanced as those of many living forms. They provide further evidence that the Cambrian explosion involved rapid innovation in fine-scale anatomy as well as gross morphology, and are consistent with the concept that the development of advanced vision helped to drive this great evolutionary event.

Jacinta: I seem to remember reading about this a few years back.

Canto: Yes, Ed Yong of not exactly rocket science did a great post about it. The animal is called Anomalocaris, meaning strange shrimp, and it has been discovered, or uncovered, bit by bit over more than a century, in the Burgess shale and elsewhere. Its 3cm-wide eyes, stuck out on stalks, were about 30 times more powerful than those of trilobites, with at least 17,000 lenses in each eye – all of which was discovered from a single specimen at Emu Bay, the only place where soft tissue was preserved, though specimens of Anomalocaris have been discovered around the world. Including many specimens found at Emu Bay itself.

Jacinta: So, this discovery, of the eyes, really put Emu Bay and Kangaroo Island on the map for a time.

Canto: Well, sort of, among the cognoscenti. But yes, it was exciting to think of such a marvellous find so nearby. And there may well be a lot more to discover.

fossilised eyes of Anomalocaris

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emu_Bay_Shale

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anomalocaris

https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10689

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2011/12/07/anomalocaris-sharp-eyes-predator/#.WtMuHS_L0go

http://jgs.lyellcollection.org/content/173/1/1

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2018 at 9:42 pm

online shaming, some problems and perspectives

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Canto: So what exactly is online shaming, and do we need to worry about it?

Jacinta: It’s an extension of any kind of shaming, like in primary school when we picked on some misfit and ostracised her, because she was fat, or ugly, or ‘smelly’ or seemed somehow dysfunctional and a soft target. It was easy to do because we were in a group and our target was too weak to retaliate.

Canto: Did you really do that?

Jacinta: Mildly, peripherally, briefly, when I was very young. But the problem today with social media is this large-scale ganging up, because social media does tend to separate people into their own in-groups, which dehumanise those belonging to their out-groups. The example Jon Ronson gives in his book So you’ve been publicly shamed, and in various talks viewable online, is of a woman who makes a careless joke mocking views on AIDS and Africans is first taken to task by a ‘right-thinking’ in-group, and then character-assasinated in a sort of race to the top, or bottom, in terms of high dudgeon or indignation. All of this occurring on Twitter in a matter of hours, unbeknown to the target.

Canto: And you’ve given a fairly generic example there – a person tweets something careless, someone takes umbrage and retweets it, sometimes distorting it slightly, or adding some dark colour to it, and a kind of holier-than-thou hatred gets unleashed. But I must say, I’m not a Twitter user, so I’m very much out of this loop. What Ronson tells me is about the horrific power of Twitter, which makes me glad to be out of it. I like to think that I wouldn’t engage in that sort of thing myself, I’ve always been wary of crowds and of saying things to be popular, which is what this is partly about isn’t it?

Jacinta: Yes, part of it is about displaying your ‘virtue’ and allegiance to your in-group, but it often becomes very violent, and because of the online aspect, it can spread more rapidly and involve far more people than ye olde public square shaming. Reputations can be shredded and victims may find it difficult to recover.

Canto: But isn’t there good public shaming? I mean, I don’t know much about the Volkswagen scandal, how they duped the system and presented false data about diesel emissions, but you can imagine a scenario in which a car manufacturer tries to keep something dodgy about their data secret, and a disgruntled employee blows the whistle on Twitter, creating a firestorm of indignation and retribution.

Jacinta: That’s a good point but even that is very likely to get out of hand, with solid factual information mixing with bullshit and personal grievances. As a weapon, public shaming is always going to be a bit of a loose canon. Think of a company like Monsanto, which to a particular in-group is synonymous with Pure Evil, and just seems to bring out the worst of responses from the loopy left, no matter what it does.

Canto: So what’s the solution?

Jacinta: Not surprisingly, finding solutions is far easier than creating problems. But before I get into that – and you’ll probably guess what they are – thinking before you tweet, giving the benefit of the doubt, respecting diversity, watching out for mob behaviour… before I get into that, let’s look at the various forms or techniques of public shaming.

Canto: Well, there’s doxing – which comes from documents. Publishing or posting documentary info on someone, often private info, to harass, shame or expose something about them. This can be done for good or ill of course. There’s naming and shaming, which is often used against paedophiles or people released on parole or after serving a sentence, who are perceived as a danger to the public by some vigilante group or individual. There’s revenge porn – nude or ‘compromising’ photos often posted by jilted lovers, but also by computer hackers for various nefarious purposes. This, along with doxing and other forms of online targeting, can have permanent effects on the target’s career and reputation.

Jacinta: Yes, and there’s the ‘shaming’ of restaurants or products, often done in an organised way, and groups like ‘GetUp’ and ‘change.org’ who drive online petitions against companies or decisions they don’t like, and as you can see, this shaming can shade into ideological disputes such as environmentalism v big business, or even conspiracy theories. But I do notice that, in terms of individual shaming, women usually come out of it worse than men. The Justine Sacco shaming is an obvious example. The tweet she sent was extremely mild compared to those sent about her…

Canto: Apparently some black people found it offensive…

Jacinta: Well, come on, the ironic nature of the tweet has been explained countless times. It wasn’t hilariously funny, sure, but if you remain ‘offended’ then you’re one of those serially offended people who blight the lives of everyone who likes to engage in a bit, or a lot, of self-and-other-mockery.

Canto: But I’ve read that Sacco has recently been reinstated in the job she was sacked from as a result of the tweetstorm, and before that she was doing well in another job of a similar sort. So she hasn’t suffered much.

Jacinta: Clearly she’s very talented in her line of work, and good luck to her, but the level of abuse she suffered – often sexualised – tends to be reserved for women. And take the case of Adria Richards, also dealt with in Ronson’s book, which I haven’t read, but there’s an interesting online article about her. She was at a conference and heard two guys nearby having a private but loud conversation which included such sexual terms as ‘I’d fork his repo’ (I’ve no idea what that means) and ‘big dongle’ (not a term I would use – I prefer cock and prick). She found this offensive and tweeted as much, including a photo of the guys. One of the guys was sacked as a result, but when he himself tweeted about what he considered the underhand nature of what she did, the Twitter world turned on Richards big-time. She was sacked after a campaign by hackers launched a ‘distributed denial of service’ attack on her employer, and internet trolls gave her a horribly hard time with the usual disgusting invective that tends to get directed at women.

Canto: Well, I’ve read the article, and I agree that she was treated horribly, but I would say the over-reaction was on both sides. I must say that, to start with, if she was so offended by the lads’ remarks, why not turn round and ask them to shut up? And second, I don’t understand what’s so offensive about forking and repo and dongles, whatever they are. I presume they’re sexual terms but like you, I was brought up in a working-class environment where a cock was called a cock, a cunt a cunt and a fuck a fuck. Most euphemisms aren’t even comprehensible to me, let alone offensive.

Jacinta: Well I can only agree. I think it’s an American problem. But the first thing she should surely have done was ask them to desist if she was offended. It’s quite likely that they would have complied. There’s no mention of her ever doing that. And posting photos of someone online without their permission should be a big no-no. I already have friends who refuse that permission – they’ve become very wary of social media and I don’t blame them. So it was a ‘classic over-reaction’ as one commentator out it, but then to go after Richards in revenge was also wrong.

Canto: It’s a classic example of what’s being called the ‘weaponising’ of social media, people’s lives getting messed up because they can’t engage in straightforward communication, and need to parade their offendedness to the world. Let me tell you a story about trash-talking from my younger days. I was at a party with my girlfriend and we ended up staying the night, sleeping on the floor in a spare room, along with another girl, an old friend of my girlfriend, whom she hadn’t seen in ages. The two women ended up talking much of the night, or rather my girlfriend’s friend held forth in a long monologue about her high-octane sex life, describing a host of encounters in detail, comparing tackle and performances ad nauseum, all with a degree of contempt and mockery that made me wonder why she hadn’t switched to a more enjoyable hobby. However, it never once occurred to me to complain. I was no doubt fascinated at first, but the relentless inhumane carping soon turned me off. Now imagine if this hadn’t occurred way back in the eighties, imagine I was a different sort of person, and I’d recorded the whole thing on my smartphone and posted it online…

Jacinta: She would’ve suffered hell, which even she wouldn’t have deserved. Which brings us again to solutions. And really, at the moment it’s self-imposed solutions. I don’t know if there are any laws preventing us to post images of others without their permission, but they might have to be created. And of course it would be just about impossible to impose laws preventing people from making false or injurious statements about others online. Laws about hate speech are endlessly controversial, for obvious reasons. We’re only just waking up to the power of these social media sites to destroy reputations based on the tiniest of infractions, often misunderstood. The Adria Richards case perfectly illustrates this. Of course the owners and managers of these sites need to be part of the solution, but they’re loath to impose severe restrictions. I suspect it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

etcetera etcetera etcetera etcetera

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2018 at 5:17 pm