Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Looking Back, Moving On

When I began writing this blog I was brimming with ideas, so full I thought I would burst if I didn't find a way to set them down in readable form and share them. Over the last seven months I've quite enjoyed sitting down for a few hours each week to shape those ideas and really test myself to see if I knew what I was talking about. In some cases I did, in others it became clear that I needed to dig deeper. That was helpful.

It's also very satisfying to have written some 40, 000 words over thirty-two weeks and not have them locked in a desk drawer, which has been the fate of most of my life's writing up until now. Thank you, internet. Thank you, even more, to those of you have stuck with me this far. Being able to share words with you means so much to me.

Now, however, I find I'm replenishing my store of ideas more slowly than I'm spilling them onto the internet. More specifically, I'm spending more time in front of the computer than I am wandering outdoors and soaking in new ideas and experiences. Not only does that make me tired, unhealthy, and generally less happy, it also makes me a hypocrite. That is not how I would like to be, so... I am going to put an indefinite hold on posting weekly to this blog. I want to continue to write, but I want to write more poetry, stories, and articles shared in tangible forms. Maybe even a sermon or two.

The content of this blog will remain live, and I may return to it at some point, or decide to post occasionally. If you want to subscribe in case of occasional posts here, the form's on the right sidebar. If you want to leave a message for me, post a comment at the bottom of the page and I'll receive notification. A 'not for posting' comment is fine too, I can read your message and not publish it on the blog if that's your wish.

I do intend to continue with the KW Forest School blog, and that may well become my primary outlet for ideas about nature and the magic thereof. (Still working on getting a 'subscribe' option on that page.) Things are afoot in the non-virtual world, and it looks like Forest School is going to be good, satisfying work. So check us out, like us on the face book, check back now and then, and maybe we'll change the world one of these days. Starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

In Remembrance of the Disappeared

Here in Canada the eleventh day of the eleventh month is set aside to honour those who have given their lives in war, especially in the World Wars. It was ninety-six years ago today that the armistice was signed which ended the War to End All Wars. At the eleventh hour on this day, it's customary to stop what we're doing, at work, in school, wherever, and observe a minute's silence.

Of course, it was only twenty years after the signing of that armistice that the War to End All Wars was renamed the First World War, as the fires of the Second broke out across Europe. The Paris 1919 talks that had redrawn world maps and forced crippling reparation payments on Germany ensured peace, but not justice, and thus set the stage for a second round of conflict between the same chief combatants beginning in 1939.

Since the end of the Second World War there has been peace between the major world powers, despite the long shadow of nuclear standoff between the US and the USSR. The last seventy years have seen amazing progress worldwide, both in terms of average life expectancy and average annual income. In the words of Professor Hans Rosling, "aid, trade, green technology and peace" seem poised to continue that trend well into the future. My only objection to Professor Rosling, apart from his aversion to truthful rendering of statistics, discussed in last week's post, is that what counts as peace depends on whom you're asking.

On this day of remembrance I'm thinking of a journey I made three years ago to the southern United States. I had boarded a bus one Thursday morning after French class and travelled through the night with a group of several dozen others, arriving Friday around noon in the deep south. Our destination was Columbus, Georgia, where thousands of people from across the United States and Latin America gather each November at the gates of Fort Benning, the United States Army base in town.

For three days of the year, the open street leading onto the grounds of the base is blocked by three chain linked fences topped with barbed wire and monitored by a watchtower and low-flying helicopters. That's because they know the peaceful demonstrators are coming.

Fort Benning is home to the School of the Americas (SOA), also called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The name change came in 2001 after eleven years of pressure from organizations like SOA Watch, which hosts the yearly demonstration, and mounting allegations that the SOA was training Latin American military personnel on American soil in the arts of torture, terror, and assassination. In fact, since its beginning in 1946, the institution has trained 64 000 soldiers from Latin American nations to return to their home countries and target educators, union organizers, and others who stand up for the rights of the poor. In those seventy years, hundreds of thousands have been raped, tortured, disappeared, killed, or forced to flee their homes and homelands.

It's well-known that the US government funded guerrilla groups known as 'contras' to fight against the elected Nicaraguan government during the 1980's, and that the CIA has been instrumental in various coups and attempted coups in Latin America, but what's not generally well-known is how institutionalized the violence is. I met a very kind and gentle social worker not long ago, a young father dedicated to his work assisting mentally ill youth, who had served in the US army at Fort Benning and knew of the SOA only as 'the foreign unit'. When I tell people about my friends in the States who work for peace and social justice, it's hard to convey what exactly it is they're working against without remembering the stories of those who journeyed thousands of miles to speak on a temporary stage before the gates of Fort Benning about murdered parents or other relatives.

Why are these people being killed? The short answer is that they seem to regard the current state of world affairs, enthusiastically illustrated by Hans Rosling's dynamic graph (stop video at 4:15) as intolerable. Remember, the ratio of average income in the poorest of nations compared to average US income, according to Rosling's 2010 statistics, was 3:400. When I travelled to the SOA in 2011, this sort of disparity was on display in installations like the one pictured below.

The signs on the buckets indicate that "Farmworkers make $5 for harvesting this amount" and "Supermarkets charge $1000". The crop in question is tomatoes, a staple of the North American diet. What's interesting is that the ratio of workers' to supermarkets' earnings on display here (5:1000 or 2:400) is reminiscent of the income ratio between rich and poor nations cited above (3:400). Similar number sets, very different displays, with very different emotional resonances.

For the people who pick the tomatoes we eat, the peace that followed the Great Wars and the rise of the United States to superpower status means something very different than it does here in North America. For those who try to organize their fellow labourers to demand better rights and wages, it means something different again. It's just not in the interest of the free market to allow people like that to speak out and get away with it. On the Sunday morning of the gathering at Fort Benning, a funeral procession circles the area before the gates, with each participant carrying a white cross inscribed with the name of someone killed by an SOA graduate.

As I look over these pictures now, remembering the power of that ceremony three years ago as well as my American friends preparing to bear witness in the same way less than two weeks from today, I'm reminded of the poem so often read on Remembrance Day here in Canada: "In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row." The crosses raised up at the gates of Fort Benning have no official recognition from the powers of the world, but the names they bear are as important as the names of those who died in the clash of the powers during the World Wars. Their voices do not fade away, but remain with us, reminders that without justice there is no peace.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Defence Against the Dark Arts: Statistics

I want to carry on the discussion of two different ways of wizarding begun in last week's post by looking at an example of what I'd call dark magic. Just as Saruman and Gandalf took different approaches to power in The Lord of the Rings, there are different ways of using magic as I've described it here- simply put, the ability to perceive and manipulate meaning.

By that definition, of course, everyone's a little bit magical. The fact that you can turn a series of black markings on a screen into living ideas that grow and move around inside of you is an indication of that trait, and a marvelous thing to consider. The fact that certain objects in your home are arranged so as to bring to life certain memories or feelings is an indication that you already have a sense that meaning is a dimension of the world as much as mass, temperature, and colour are. The fact that there have been systems of knowledge and practice developed to tap into this dimension, in order to, for example, train the will toward greater clarity of thought and action, or to activate the natural healing processes of human bodies, indicates that other peoples in other times and places have been more attuned to this dimension than we are here and now.

I am not learned in such arts. But in my own small way I am trying to understand the meanings of things, and to get behind the fog that surrounds certain aspects of our lives. The example I want to show you today involves the youtube, so find a pair of headphones or a quiet nook and check out this five minute video.

Did you watch it? How about that? Pretty neat, huh? Now let's talk about what just happened.

To begin with, we are invited to follow an elderly but spry wizard into his workshop as he tells us about his work as a teacher and his familiarity with data. He is genial but definitely learned beyond the average mortal. Next he shows us his team, all skilled in the technical arts, and invites us to join him on a venture which even he has never tried before: 'animating the data in real space'. Having uttered these words, whose meanings are hidden from the untutored, he proceeds to dazzle us with his art.

Data is one thing, presentation is another. You'd think that 120 000 data points would speak for themselves, but that's not so. As I've said in previous writings here, how one chooses to narrate world history says a lot more about the teller than about how we've got to where we are. Hans Rosling's perspective is clear: we're all becoming healthier and richer as time progresses, and we live in "a converging world" in which "the historical gap between the West and the rest is now closing".

But take another look at that graph- pause the video if you wish, and get out a tape measure or ruler. I'd highly recommend actually trying this, because it illustrates what I'm talking about far better than my description can. When I open the video in full-screen on my computer, my tape measure indicates that the left half of the graph, up until the $4000 mark, measures 3.4 inches. 3.4 inches to the right of this mark should land us at $8000 on the x-axis, but instead I find myself at well over $40 000. It's clear that the right half of the graph is working on a different scale than the left half; indeed, all three portions of the graph are operating at different inches-to-income ratios, or else the scale accelerates continuously at an unspecified rate. This would be fine if it were acknowledged and explained, but it isn't.

Now pause the video around 4:15 and pick a dot in the upper right corner of the graph, I don't know, say, the USA- it's the big yellow dot just past the $40 000 mark. If I use my tape measure to extend the x-axis along a uniform scale of 3.4 inches for every $4000, the $40 000 mark falls at 34 inches (2' 10") from the y-axis, putting the US nearly three screens away from Congo, the poorest nation on the graph. (It's not clear whether the 'Congo' dot represents the Republic of Congo or the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are separate but neighbouring nations, but from the size of the dot I'd guess it's meant to indicate the DRC, which is about 17 times more populous).

The tape measure exercise is a way of more accurately visualizing the data suggested by this graph. You can corroborate by comparing the 1810 stats (pause video at 1:15) and the 2010 stats (pause at 4:15). It's hard to tell at the outset which blue dot represents 'Congo', but the poorest nation in 1810 seems to have an average annual income of about $150. Assuming a uniform scale between the $400 and $4000 mark, the US falls at around $2000 a year. The income ratio between the poorest nation and the US in 1810 is thus 3:40. By 2010, the graph indicates that the poorest nation, Congo, earns double what the poorest nation in 1810 did, around $300 a year. Meanwhile the average US citizen has seen their annual income rise to twenty times what it was in 1810, at over $40 000 a year. The income ratio between the poorest nation and the US is now 3:400.

What this data demonstrate is not that we live in a converging world, but that over the past two hundred years the West and the rest have vastly outstripped the poorest nations, in terms of both real and relative wealth. In 1810 the highest-earning nation in the world, the Netherlands, earned 20 times what the lowest-earning nation did. In 2010 the highest-earning nation (I'm assuming that green dot is the United Arab Emirates) is off the chart, well past the US, which itself is well past earning 100 times what the lowest-earning nation makes.

These examples are from the extreme ends of the data spread, but you can easily pick a segment of the 2010 graph and notice nations whose citizens earn 10 times what people in other nations earn. In 1810, by contrast, only the very richest (the Netherlands, the UK, and those just behind them) and the very poorest (the African nations clustered around $300 a year and below) were separated by an order of magnitude.

You'll notice that I've been rather thorough so far about not doing any research outside of Hans Rosling's video, aside from dipping into my gazetteer to ascertain the relative populations of the two Congos. I'm taking it for granted that his team's numbers are true and accurate. The visual element, the graph, is somewhere between a truth and a lie, since it contains no falsehood but suggests something other than the truth. What sways me toward naming this little show as dark magic is that it supports an impressive-sounding expert like Hans Rosling in drawing conclusions that are just lies.

What's curious to consider is why he would do such a thing. I've no doubt that Rosling is a brilliant statistician, fully capable of creating a visual representation of world health and income statistics that doesn't distort the data. I've also no doubt that he knows what kind of picture a uniformly-scaled graph would paint, and that he made a deliberate decision to hide that picture from view. Perhaps he wanted to put the full weight of his scientific and technical authority behind a message of hope in "aid, trade, green technology and peace". The person who introduced me to this video certainly seemed encouraged by it. On the other hand, perhaps Rosling wanted to use his arts to summon such emotions in his viewers for other ends. You just can't tell by watching.

What you can tell is that the US, along with its cronies 'the West and the rest', have become fabulously wealthy in the past two centuries. This was mostly accomplished by monopolizing and burning through millions of years' worth of fossil fuel energy. It's a funny coincidence, to say the least, that as US power and wealth have grown, the number of nations hosting US military personnel has increased from 3 in the 1920's, to 39 during the Second World War, to 64 in 1968, to 148 in 2011. The world just seems to love American soldiers. It also seems to love American aid, trade, and peace, especially when those things come in the form of IMF debt, sweatshops, and regime changes. Too bad they aren't making a lot of green technology in the US these days, because the world really doesn't have enough yet of what America has to offer.

Of course, what we can actually expect from the future is a convergence of several factors not listed by Professor Rosling: disease, economic crisis, faltering technological innovation, and war, all hinging on the underlying factors of energy scarcity and an overburdened global empire. Each of those factors will feed into the others to create conditions such as those you see depicted at 1:55 in the video. These are not pleasant facts and numbers, but if we want to grasp the kind of real hope that sustains and empowers, we will have to first move through an honest assessment of what there is to hope for. It's not the end of the world, but it is the end of our world. There is no hope in the continuation of progress.

Now is the time for wizards in the tradition of Gandalf the Grey to arise and speak truth to power, because there is much that is good and that can be saved from the wreck of the empire of progress. The role of these wizards is to shake us free of the lies that tell us either to despair in the face of overwhelming power, on the one hand, or to remain naively hopeful in the security offered by power, depending on whether we see that power as benevolent or destructive.

The lies of Saruman the White and his followers are seductive, but as I've said before, sometimes a quick history lesson is enough to clear the air. And let's not forget that there is a third wizard in The Lord of the Rings, one whom Saruman laughs to scorn but whose wisdom is hidden from the minds of the mighty: Radagast the Brown, friend of all birds and beasts and growing things. Perhaps we'll have occasion to speak more about him in coming weeks.