November 2005 Archives

Newsworthy

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The story of the fatal shooting on Sargent Avenue on October 10, 2005 was presented in the media intensely over a short time, and then persistently for several weeks. I summarized the coverage in my entry Unlucky.

There are a few things to be said about perspective. The media are trying to meet the needs of readers, as journalists and editors read those needs. This affects the the questions they address, facts they leave out, and the way they tell the story, The media seldom tell the whole story, and often doesn't try to get differing perspectives. The media often tries to make a story colourful or accessible by writing about people, instead of facts and issues, which can also make a story intrusive.

Cyberpunk

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The Wikipedia entry of the day for November 29, 2005 is the entry on Cyperpunk, a distopian trend. Another one for the SF fans.

Utopian SF

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SF readers, check out this essay in the Boston Globe Ideas section, by Joshua Glenn - Back to utopia. It's mainly about the critic Fredric Jameson, and his views on Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and utopian ideas in modern sf. More on utopian fiction by Jameson, an essay - The Politics of Utopia.

Glenn notes: "Fans of Dick, Delany, and their ilk warn neophytes not to read too many of their books too quickly: Doing so, as this reader can attest, tends to result in pronounced feelings of irreality, paranoia, and angst". And we thought it was something in the water ...

Unlucky

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If you live in Winnipeg, you will know this story, which was in the headlines for several consecutive days, and in the headlines repeatedly over the following weeks as civic authorities announced new initiatives in the war on crime. I was distressed by the story, because it involves the death of a young man - only 17 years old.

On Monday October 10, 2005, a young man was walking on Sargent Avenue crossing Maryland Street, with another man, a casual acquaintance. Around 11:00 PM, about a block away, other young men, identified by the police as associates or members of a new gang of teenaged criminals called the African Mafia, fired a .22 calibre firearm, from a house, identified by the police and local residents as a crack house. Members of a rival gang, the Mad Cowz, had been at the house and had fled in the direction of Sargent and Maryland. The police suggested that both gangs were comprised of recent immigrants from Africa. One or more of the occupants of the house had discharged firearms. As the story unfolded, they may have been attacked or believed they were under attack, or just trying to shoot their rivals who had come near the house, and the fled. One young man, named Philippe, was wounded in the abdomen, and he died. A .22 calibre bullet has enough force to penetrate clothing, skin and muscle, and to damage vital structures, although it does not have the momentum to cause massive shock. He was unlucky to have been in the line of fire, unlucky to have been hit, unlucky to have died within blocks of Winnipeg's major trauma hospital, the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre. Phillipe's companion was wounded in the arm.

Kidocracy

In the local newspapers in Winnipeg, we have had a run of stories in the last few years about whether schools are doing enough to prevent bullying (I'm putting a caveat on that link. The Wikipedia entry summarizes the theories about bullying but it doesn't evaluate them, and it tends to dramatize the problem - which what this entry is about). I am not going to argue that real bullying should be tolerated. I am arguing that people are being dishonest or gullible about the alleged crisis. We are seeing people promoting a crisis for their own purposes, and we are seeing these fears resonate with adults who then demand, in essence, that the government take steps to make everyone - even other children - treat their children nicely. We are witnessing adults trying to convince themselves and other adults that they are concerned, loving and respectable parents.

The concern with bullying is relatively new, and the language used to discuss it tends to be dramatic. In England the new Children's Commissioner used the occasion of a teen-on-teen homicide as a platform for advocacy against bullying, as reported in Children's czar warns of huge leap in bullying in the Observer, the magazine of the Guardian. This surely is a rhetorical mistatement. Children have not become intrinsically more violent or aggressive in the last two generations, and it hard to detect any changes in society that would have made children more violent aggressive - unless you believe in the evil powers of comic books, pulp fiction, satanic rock, television, violent toys, and video games.

Lightfoot Week

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It is Gordon Lightfoot's week. November 5 - the anniversary of the Last Spike in the CPR, the inspiration for the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Today, (November 10) the anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which inspired The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. As the riots in the French urban suburbs continued, a fleeting thought for Black Day in July. A video clip on the CBC Web site - some US radio stations refused to play that song when it was first released.

Bees

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Another reflection on the culture wars. In the Times of London, William Rees-Mogg comments, in A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda at the Vatican, on how the Catholic Church seems to be accepting scientific Darwinism. I have to say "seems" because the process is slow and tentative.

Respect

Deborah Hope riffs on the many meanings of Respect in the Australian. She's right. It has become a flexible word, prominent in the vocabulary of relativism. All beliefs are entitled to respect (but especially mine ...) She might also have said that the discourse of respect is usually self-centred and blaming. Feeling disrespected is a more common sentiment than feeling ashamed for disrespecting others.

The Guardian reports in a story headlined 'We're not germs or louts. Sarkozy should've said sorry' that some French rioters are complaining that the French government doesn't respect them. It sounds like gangster-talk, and it might be dismissed as posturing. However, there is merit to the complaint that French society disrespects its underclass. French immigration and
social policy has tended to marginalize East European, African, and North African immigrants and their children. Some French politicians have used inflammatory language toward everyone who lives in La Zone, which has helped keep the anger and crime going. Some political and media figures are explaining the riots as a mass protest against social conditions. The rioters have the government's attention, which is a kind of respect.

Prime

This is partly about the movie Prime, and partly about other things like depression, unhappiness, therapy, and young men dating older women.

Prime has been treating with surprising kindness by many critics, but the mean score at the Metacritics site was 58. Ebert liked it because it had some good scenes and tried to say something, although he agreed it was flawed. A movie with Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman, with Uma emoting about relationships, is going to have a safe core audience, and a fan following. It isn't doing terribly well at the box office though. I thought Ebert had a point about the movie's having some good scenes, but he understated the flaws.

The Last Spike

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Wikipedia's start page lists anniversaries, selected from a main entry listing events on that date in history. For November 7, 2005, the selections from the general November 7 entry include the beginning of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia (it was October on the Julian calendar in Russia), the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.

For Canadians, the Last Spike in the CPR at Craigellachie BC in 1885. For Canadian nationalists, a song and a poem and links to photos. The National Archives of Canada have a couple of ways of getting the iconic picture, as a gif image or through a link on a an information page. Or see the section on The Last Spike in the Canadian Encyclopedia's entry on the construction of the CPR. The CPR has a different photo on photo history page on its Web site. It is a posed photo of follically gifted men in top hats and tails. For hairy Scots, a note in Canadian history and literature.

November 7, 2005

Wikipedia's start page has a daily featured article, an entry selected as the article of the day. For football fans, on November 7, 2005 the featured article is about the Arsenal Football Club which plays in the FA Premier League in England.

The French urban riots made the front page of the Free Press today - a picture of firefighters trying to put out the fire in a burning car. Wikipedia had a problem with the story over the weekend - competing rewrites and disputes over whether the article overstated the role of Islam in the rioting. They had an objectivity flag on the story on Sunday, but they have worked that out. Their article is now called 2005 French Urban Violence.

La Zone

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The Winnipeg Free Press has been running news stories about the riots in French cities, on the inside pages. I don't think the National Post or the Globe and Mail have treated these stories more prominently, although their stories have had more depth.

The Wikipedia entry has been regularly updated since the riots started, and it links to a number of media sources. The most recent BBC Online story on November 5 links to earlier stories and to stories that try to analyze the background and the political situation. Wikipedia links to Theodore Dalrymple's essayin City Journal, in August 2002, The Barbarians at the Gates of Paris, which took a hard-headed view of the cités of La Zone. (For a note on Dalrymple, see this book review of Dalrymple's Our Culture, What's Left of It: the mandarins and the masses in the New Statesman).

Alien Abduction

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Beam Me Up Godly Being, by Karen Olsson, in Slate, covers or reviews a book by psychologist Susan Clancy, Abducted: How People Come To Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. The article contains this passage:

In a chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience called "The Reality of the Unseen," William James attested to the existence of a "sense of reality" distinct from the other senses, in which "the person affected will feel a 'presence' in the room, definitely localized, facing in one particular way, real in the most emphatic sense of the word, often coming suddenly, and as suddenly gone; and yet neither seen, heard, touched, nor cognized in any of the usual 'sensible' ways." As evidence, James produces several firsthand accounts from people who were visited by "presences" late at night. These have a familiar ring: They sound just like stories from alien abductees, minus the aliens. Objects of belief, James says, may be "quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended."

... When it comes to the ambitious project of explaining the why and wherefore of "weird beliefs," Clancy's book doesn't tell us too much more than James did: People believe in this stuff because it seems real to them, more real than any reasoning about sleep paralysis or the unreliability of memories produced during hypnosis.

... People's imagined contacts with aliens, she speculates, arise from "ordinary emotional needs and desires. ... We want to believe there's something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us. ... Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need."

Olssen disagrees with Clancy's ideas about religious impulses. She prefers to think that people who believe they have been abducted by aliens are influenced by pop culture acting on their subconscious minds. That of course raises its own question - is there a subconscious mind, or is the subconscious an arbitary label for flawed perceptions and memories and an excuse for impulsive behaviour?

I think Clancy may be right. Stories of alien abduction are one of the modern variants of stories of miraculous, magical and mystical experiences. People experience something - it may be a random neurochemical event in their brain. They interpret it in a narrative way within the limits of their language and belief systems. They stick to their story in the face of doubts and scepticism. They find, eventually, someone who supports and believes them and shares their experience. They feel special. The event takes on its own meaning. And it becomes a miracle, a vision, a channelled message, an alien abduction.

The references to William James are interesting. He is one of the founders of modern psychology and a reasonably rigorous scientist, but he was always very tolerant of spiritualism - perhaps because he could never directly challenge his father who was a prominent proponent. His early version of philosophical pragmatism and his philosophy of religion seem to have been set up to cut spiritualists some slack.

Another way of looking at it is that James was inclined to speculative thought - but people didn't like to argue with such a well connected and presentable member of New England Society.

Terrible Beauty

It was an impulsive purchase, which proved to be worthwhile. I was looking for something else in the Ideas and philosophy section of the Grant Park McNally Robinson store when I noticed Peter Watson's A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind. (ISBN 1-84212-444-7). With end notes and index, 847 pages of small type. It was the Orion Press British paperback edition. The book has also been published in the US as Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century.

Watson is a journalist, and an experienced writer. He seems to have an insatiable curiosity and wide interests. His other published work has tended to relate to the visual arts, but that only covers part of his work. His style is smooth and fluent, only occasionally lapsing into journalistic bombast and cliches.

Psychic

On Tuesday (Nov. 1) I flew back to Winnipeg from Victoria, through Edmonton and Saskatoon. I had a window seat. The middle seat was vacant. A passenger who got on in Edmonton took the aisle seat.

Last week a couple of Mormon missionaries wanted to talk to me on the street. What is it about me that suggests I am waiting to be proselytized?

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

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