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Uncomfortable Neighbours (2018-06-09)

Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018. Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018.
Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018. Beginning wasp's nest, photo by C. Osborne, may 2018.
C. Osborne, may 2018



Filling the Bit Bucket (2018-06-02)

Bitcoin logo. Bitcoin logo.
Bitcoin logo by Bitboy via wikimedia commons, march 2014

Bitcoin has been around for awhile now, and some people swear by it and find it quite valuable. Like any currency, it's imaginary, held up by the agreement to treat it as valuable. The sting in the tail is how bitcoin is made, which is apparently by wasting extraordinary amounts of electricity to run algorithms to generate its constituent numbers. The market in bitcoin is apparently as much of a gambler's dream as might be expected, and the bitcoin craze is a dream come true for computer processor makers. I have read more than one article bemoaning the poor availability of powerful graphics cards and related equipment because enthusiasts are buying them up to build so-called "bitcoin mining" rigs. I guess with marijuana being legalized in so many places, this will become the new grow-op that eats copious amounts of electricity and becomes a serious nuisance for people in doubtfully legal suites who are expected to pay a proportion of the utility bills and aren't part of the bitcoin craze. That it the "miners" aren't breaking even easily is strongly suggested by the efflorescence of malware and other scams attempting to hijack other peoples' computers to do the number crunching instead. It seems to me that there is a whiff of the tulip craze around the whole process of trying to generate and keep this new digital stuff.

In my internet perambulations, I stumbled on Darin Stevenson's article Bitcoin = Death Processors, which was reblogged from medium. I have no idea whether titles are determined by someone other than the author on blogs like medium, so no praise or blame should be placed on Stevenson for the somewhat sensational title on that point. Perhaps some would disagree with Stevenson's description of bitcoin as "a machine contagion – a network of devices amped to their performance tolerances – machines that do nothing but reprocess every transaction that ever occurred on their network (thus achieving 'consensus') while, at the same time, 'mining' new blocks of coins (currently worth about 25 btc) by solving a purposefully cumbersome mathematical formula which doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than enforcing computational difficulty. That is: making millions of machines grind away madly at nothing." For my part, I am having trouble arguing with it. The "mining" isn't say, calculating solutions to the three-body problem or testing mathematical proofs of one or more of the remaining Hilbert problems. Or say, calculating virtual crowds running around in giant video game battles, or generating fractals to produce convincing natural patterns in movie backgrounds or something. The utility, such as it is, of "mining" bitcoin is to waste enough time and energy to calculate the number and participate in the network of calculations that the players all agree must be worth something. At least the cost of the machines and the electricity and so forth, anyway.

Try as I might, it is difficult to see bitcoin as anything but a computerized apotheosis of conspicuous consumption and waste, without the tangible and generally unintended benefits. The other examples I can think of that are pre-computer in general nature are massive monuments designed to use up a lot of stuff, be ugly, and shove the purchaser's ego in everybody's eye. There are usually other rationalizations for the monuments in question, like that the statue is of someone of world historical importance, or that the biggest tower or boat or whatever ever is important because it is big and making insanely big things represents a triumph of technology and intelligence. It all seems such a sad trade off, even in comparison to movies overloaded with special effects and hopeless attempts to calculate a theory of everything. (Top)

We Are Not Yours, Redux (2018-05-26)

I don't care how much you liked this book or that it was officially a hit. I don't care how much you liked this book or that it was officially a hit.
Avon-camelot edition cover of the misguided book, "The Indian in the Cupboard" circa early 1980s

Several years ago I answered a call for volunteers to work on an intriguing project to develop a virtual online season for a popular television show. As is typical, volunteers were asked to pitch in where there expertise or talents fit best, and they had a special need for content area experts for different historical eras, different cultures, and so on. This struck me as a neat way to pitch in and see how the whole process would work, because they were following a process that imitated the firmspace one quite closely. Writers could pitch scripts, and then the scripts selected for the current season would go into development, with the various layers that implies. For example, basic story treatment, then filling that out a bit more, blocking scenes, and building up detail. If you want to learn about one of the other areas of work where writing is done by committee, then television and its virtual counterparts aren't a bad place to start if you can find such projects to participate in. Since I was considered a raw newbie, my initial slot was content area expert in Indigenous topics. This can mean lots of questions and discussion participation, with little direct writing because they want you to get more familiar with the whole shebang first. I was up with all that, it made sense.

No, they weren't making a miniseries of Lynne Reid Banks' possibly well-meaning novel. No, the season was going to include a series of episodes exploring Indigenous issues via the series characters. Métis In Space was not yet a brilliant twinkle in Chelsea Vowel and Molly Swain's eyes, so I really had no idea what this could entail. But it couldn't be too bad, right? After all, that got themselves some volunteer content area experts, including at least one Indigenous person. They were interested in making a great show that didn't repeat horrible racist tropes without sugar coating anything. The head writer decided that the main characters, who hadn't had language issues anywhere else they went regardless of how far afield from their own home country, would only be able to communicate with the various Indigenous characters using sign language, which saved a whole lot of work on dialogue. I began to feel uneasy, but in for a dime, in for a dollar, right? Then the whole pretty picture came down with the first major question after deciding that in effect the main, white characters would speak for "the Indians." And that question was, couldn't they go ahead and use the term "squaw"? After all, it was a real word, wasn't it? Not like buck, papoose, or brave.

Still delusional about what my job was actually supposed to be, I spoke up right away, explaining that no, sorry, that is a common misconception – I was also still trying to be diplomatic – that term is not a real word, it is a vile racist slur. There were so many sensible alternatives. For example, they could actually try having the Indigenous characters speak, and then they wouldn't need weird or offensive words to help differentiate and round them out. Because you know, their own speeches and actions would. And they could speak like normal human beings for the obvious reasons, using such ordinary words as woman, man, child, and Elder for example. The stories were set in the "americas" and the "Indians" were alas, looking a lot like the fellas on the book cover above. They didn't need to guild the lily, let those eager scriptwriters get to work! Everyone was very supportive and kind. "Thank you for all your carefully thought out comments, we'll meet again tomorrow." Virtually, of course.

Tomorrow came, and my email filled up with gifts. Multiple articles intended to reassure me that "squaw" was a real word, so obviously it wasn't offensive. So they should use it. After all, wouldn't it be anachronistic if they didn't? The main white characters travelled all over the damned world magically in a sort of odd patchwork quilt of historical eras connected only by the notion that they would be cool to write an episode about. Anachronism was not seriously at issue here. Still, insisted the head writer. It was a real word. Except, no, it isn't and wasn't, because even the sounds that various rationalizers have tried to paper "squaw" over with are not standalone words. They are elements of other words from languages that are sometimes not even related and it's quite a stretch to pretend the sounds match. I pointed out that regardless, it's an offensive term and they didn't need it. Creative writers can avoid that kind of stuff without being whatever their unusual definition of "anachronism" is.

To which the answer was, "Look, we don't care what you say. Obviously you're oversensitive. This is a real word, so we're going to use it." Except, it doesn't matter what "squaw" might have meant or could have meant according to white apologists and squirming linguists. There were and are some words that the same head writer would have ripped my head off for suggesting they should use. Like a certain word that nobody with sense uses for people of african descent anymore, heedless of the fact that all it really means is "black guy," or another I can think of one for Roma that is finally leaving the lexicon even though, it was supposed to be a compliment to mistake them for egyptians. And I wholeheartedly agree that those terms should absolutely not be used, especially when we are not attempting to make a documentary that draws dialogue from documents written at a time when those terms were used and would carefully contextualize the use. I just happen to think that Indigenous women deserve as much respect and consideration.

Well, you already know the end of this story. I have no idea how the episodes finally turned out, and I was firmly disinvited from further participation. Sometimes being well-meaning simply isn't enough. (Top)

Terrorism is What That Is (2018-05-19)

Clip from the most popularly reproduced photograph illustrating the terrorist attack on women in toronto by a male deluded by his sense of entitlement. Clip from the most popularly reproduced photograph illustrating the terrorist attack on women in toronto by a male deluded by his sense of entitlement.
Clip from photo most reproduced after the 23 April 2018. Specific source of this clip is Feminist Current.

Many readers may recognize the source of the cropped image illustrating this thoughtpiece. I have cropped it for several specific reasons, including the fact that murderers, whether officially accused or finally convicted, should not be glorified by having their images reproduced as if they are some sort of celebrity. The attempt to frame the suspect in this case as a "nice guy" who was "socially awkward" and "nothing to do with terrorism" in literally the first twenty-four hours after his rampage has probably not turned out as originally intended. Usually this becomes part fo the process of normalizing and minimizing the behaviour of a "troubled young man" who will either be declared "mentally ill" and therefore not responsible for his actions, or else "truly sorry for what he has done" preparing the way for a minimal sentence should he be convicted. I spent some time trying to locate original photo credits for this picture rather than falling back on the secondary source, only to find that the way in which articles are relabelled on most websites seems calculated to make them difficult to find again once they are no longer on the front page, and that among the first ten search results are shrieking right wing extremist blogs. The attempted early framing has certainly not gone as planned. Instead, for a change even men are admitting that this event was a terrorist act, perpetrated against women.

That this realization is belatedly hitting at least some writers in the mainstream is a little encouraging. Read David M. Perry at pacific standard on how white american terrorists are radicalized. This is relatively mainstream coverage that actually acknowledges the racism and sexism inherent in the usual uses of the term "terrorism" which is usually deployed only against non-white men of religions other than christianity, and then only expanded to cover violence against women when those same men can be accused and convicted of it. But "terrorism" is a term that in its dictionary definition is very broad. My OED states simply that it is "the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims." No reference to race, sex, or anything else. That doesn't make it simple and clearcut for the people desperate to exclude certain categories of violence and intimidation from the meanings of those words. If that means they have to destroy the meanings of the words so that they can claim that threatening someone with a barbed wire wrapped baseball bat is not intimidation, the act of causing fear in someone else, or that disagreeing with them is "literal violence" as opposed to what violence actually is, behaviour involving physical force used to cause bodily harm, then that suits them fine. People engaged in such convenient recategorizations and redefinitions so that they can claim a free license for their own terrorism are certainly not happy to see what they are up to labelled for what it is. Attempting to use intimidation and violence to force women out of public life and life itself is most emphatically a pursuit of political aims. Politics are about power, who holds it, who doesn't, who is able to hold it. Even Perry doesn't pull any punches about the accuracy of terrorism as a label here. "This latest mass murder was perpetrated by a self-declared member of an international radical group of violent ideologues. By committing murder, he sought not just to harm others but also to sow fear and spread his ideology, ideally sparking others to take similar actions. If he's not a terrorist, no one is."

Radical Feminists have been pointing out, with reams of evidence, for years, that men engaged in terrorism against women are not isolated. They are not lone wolves. Perry is among those who finally couldn't deny the truth of this anymore due to the ways in which extremist groups of all types, but now especially right wing groups with their myriad sympathies with fascism and authoritarianism, use social media. The individual men may be "lone wolves" and "socially isolated" in firmspace, but they are anything but on "social media." However, this does not depend on social media at all. The great philosopher Hannah Arendt recognized and wrote about this very type of man in The Origins of Totalitarianism. These men never actually stay alone. One way or the other, they find ways to join up together and egg each other on. Today that may mean primarily joining and participating in social media, or pursuing a career in computer science while male. In the early and mid twentieth century, it often meant joining a local militia or "men's group" of some kind, many of which were relatively informal until they could put together enough money to have uniforms and standardized weapons. All of which is in no way to deny that social media makes this sort of gathering, echo chambering, and incitement to violence far easier.

It is reasonable to ask what has led to this particular story escaping the cone of silence around systemic violence against women when women in general and Radical Feminists in particular identify and challenge it. In this case, that there have been several "van attacks" in other major cities that could be tied in some way to terrorism rationalized on a religious basis, especially because the religion in question was islam. Which turns us back to the underlying racism and sexism of the usual ways in which mainstream media deploys the terms "terrorist" and "terrorism." So the original expectation was that this was an atypical instance of a "typical" terrorist attack by somebody who must "hate our freedoms" that is becoming typical as their ability to use guns and bombs falls due to "better security." Except the suspect in this case turned out to be practically irreligious in those terms, but firmly entrenched in right wing male extremism and whose victims were primarily women. (Top)

Problematic Food (2018-05-12)

Picture of food cards from the original star trek courtesy of memory alpha. Picture of food cards from the original star trek courtesy of memory alpha.
Screen grab of food cards from the original ST episode "And the Children Shall Lead" courtesy of memory alpha, May 2018

No doubt readers have noticed that I am a fan of star trek and a fair number of its spin offs, although the current movie "reboots" have left me completely uninterested. Not everyone appreciates it, especially in its more earnest moments when the writing effort to wrestle with more difficult social and ethical questions led to awful preachy bits. Gene Roddenberry and many succeeding producers and script writers have sought to handle things that in the context of an american television program simply can't get the treatment they deserve, try as they might. Yet I think it's the quixotic effort to somehow solve the problems of american television program format and the cowardice of television executives that contributes to the rewatchability of the show and its spin offs. That, and I think the implied "fight against the man" is itself a key story trope that has broader appeal. For the moment I'm not too concerned with the more obvious topics like racism and pretending to have rules against invading "aliens" and doing it anyway. No, I'm going to spend some words on star trek's completely bizarre depiction of human relationships to food.

In my experience it is the fan fiction writers who have puzzled over this the most, and gone back and forth about what the hell is going on with food in the latest era in the star trek canon, the twenty-fourth century. Some authors imagine that all meat is somehow mimicked by soy protein so nobody eats the real thing, at least if they live in space at all. The food replicators remash the stuff into something plausible, because in the future the "problem" of making soy protein somehow be everymeat is solved. If you read the latest technical manual, there is no soy involved, just a starter slurry that the replicator revises using a variant on transporter technology. There are apparently flavour issues entailed, which does make sense. In star trek many writers suggest there is an issue with foisson, a necessary essence of the food being absent despite it being nutritionally fine. For my part, I would expect flavour issues to in fact be about the flavour being too consistent. In real life food tastes different depending not only on how it was prepared, but on where it grew and whether it had a chance to eat well itself before humans harvested it to eat. This applies to plants just as much as animals, by the way. If you don't believe me, try a web search on how the vitamin and mineral content of fruits and vegetables are depleted in industrial agriculture.

The rationale for this imagined approach to food, especially on star ships, seems completely logical at first glance. Multiple-species crews living and working for extended periods on ships that can practically speaking only be so big and can't depend on just dropping by a planet any time supplies get low. For all the faults attributed to ST: Voyager, the problem of supplies is handled well and provided plenty of macguffins. If it isn't possible to store and lug around enough of the right kind of food for everybody, multispecies crews are a necessity for whatever reason, and space is at premium, then a replicator system is the perfect solution. Define one set of tanks and storage spaces for whatever basic stuff is remade into various food items, invoke perfect reclamation from sewage, have it be possible to make the food from pure energy when the ship's engines are in solid shape, and voilà. No need to think about food as such, just the energy needed to run the replicators. It's perfect, right? I know, I know, obviously a rhetorical question, and maybe an unfair one. Settlers especially often can't see what could possibly be wrong with this, except that it seems unlikely to ever happen in the real world, which is too bad.

The underlying anxiety in this idea is not about space or energy at all. It's about relationships, specifically the relationships we humans have with the animals and plants that feed us. Even if we never eat an animal, which is unlikely, we still have relationships with them. They feed us, they keep us alive. From an Indigenous perspective, from a Métis perspective specifically, that other animals and our plant cousins feed us reveals a world full of many acts of extraordinary generosity. Many terrible and cruel ones too, but first and foremost, generosity. Of course the animals and plants want to live, and they eat too. So I have learned we give back. We take responsibility for not behaving in a manner that drives the animals and plants that feed us to extinction, or destroys their ability to live in their own way. I have learned many stories that defy any bullshit settler fairy tale about the "ecological indian." Our ancestors learned the hard way, because they're human and we humans sometimes can't seem to learn any other way, but they also passed down what they learned so we could learn the easier way. Living in relationship to the animals and plants that feed us rather than just exploiting other beings as if they were a mass, unfeeling "it" is hard, because that means we are bound to sympathize, and even to wish it could be some other way.

Settler cultures, especially those that have an enshrined belief in this Earth as a prison where humans are sent to suffer, value severing relationships with the Earth, and that means the plants and animals. Which means eating is a huge problem. I had no clue how huge this could be in a settler mindset, until I read Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth. Whatever your views about her arguments, it strikes me as undeniable that she has correctly identified the central issue of refusal of relationship, of an inappropriate entanglement of sense of obligation with sense of disgust. If eating, with all its connotations of reciprocity and bodily sensation are reduced to "mere nourishment," then it is all too easy to take the notion that lack of relationship between humans and other living beings is possible seriously. After all, what could be more dissociated from relationship with others for such fundamental needs as somehow replicating food from pure energy, or at least a convenient slurry put together by ingenious chemistry in a factory? The justification is that this should reduce suffering, because then no being has to die for "us" to eat. Assuming the only other way for "us" to eat is via some form of factory farming, which does indeed torture animals, plants, the very land itself – which indeed settler cultures do. The key marker of a settler culture is the monocrop, be it a plant crop or an animal herd. And as Keith points out, the fear is not so much of their deaths as ours. If those beings die for us, eventually we die for them, to contribute food to their progeny. Don't get me wrong, I'm in full agreement with settlers that I don't want to leave the world sooner than my time. But it doesn't bother me to go back to the Earth I came from and give what's left of me back to the offspring of all those animals and plants that helped keep me going while I was still here. That strikes me as among the miracles we can fully believe in, that we can continue giving back in a good way beyond our own life times. (Top)

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, July 24, 2017 0:00:55