Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chapter One, Two, Three...

Right now, I'm working on a new novel. For fun, and to trigger me, I post every chapter of it on my website, one after the other as they are completed (well, their first draft, anyway). Here is Chapter One:

 If you read it, please give me suggestions on any editing it might need.

I will not tell you what the novel is about. It's much better that you find out gradually, and probably more fun for you. At this point, I'ver reached Chapter Nine, and that's where things really start to unfold... ;)

English is not my native tongue, so it's not easy to write a book in this language - especially not a novel, where every nuance is so important. But the challenge is irresistible. Better to fail utterly than never to try.

I will tell you this much:
Actually, this story started as a screenplay, years ago. I completed it and it might be swimming around somewhere in Hollywood, if it hasn't sunk to the bottom of oblivion.

Anyway, I decided to make it a novel, but I want to keep as much as possible of the kind of straightforward storytelling of a screenplay. You may notice this in the style of the text and in the perspective of how the story is told.

I also found that I need to change the plot quite a lot from the screenplay version. There are some loose ends, to say the least. I'm in the process of that and expect to have several serious complications to sort out on the way. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Mind over Matter

Sometimes science comes up with stuff that's weirder than religion. It seems we can influence our DNA in order to teach our offspring what we have learned, as if we're able to reprogram our genes by will-power. Like magic.

A US neuroscience study found that rats conditioned to fear a certain smell (to avoid pain), changed the DNA of their sperm so that their offspring got the same fear – although completely lacking the painful experiences. BBC writes about it here, and here is the scientific report in Nature.

It seems too absurd to be true, as the paradigm of genetics now stands. Generally, genetic change is supposed to happen only by chance, through the time consuming process of mutations, rarely leading to something lasting, even less so to something improving the species. So, we should wait for confirmation from other research, before accepting the above mentioned discovery. Still, it opens for interesting speculation.

The researchers have not yet been able to decide how this reprogramming of the DNA is done in the bodies of the rats, but I'm reminded of a pet theory of mine since many years: the idea that DNA can be altered by will-power.

That would indeed be a tremendous resource in the Darwinistic rat-race of the survival of the fittest, the evolution of the species by natural selection. Being able to stimulate genetic adaptation based on experience, from one generation to the next, would be a wonderful resource for survival of the species. So why would it not have evolved sometime during the billions of years that life has existed and regenerated itself?

It's a bit like the question of life elsewhere in the universe. With so many planets out there, why not?

Maybe evolution has many such surprises in store for us. We've barely more than scratched its surface. Considering the time it's been around, and the countless creatures it has created for countless generations, there's no telling what it has accomplished.

Maybe first of all we need to change the paradigm of Darwinism that states it as a partly passive thing: we may choose with whom we procreate, but we have no way of influencing the traits we duplicate in our offspring. Perhaps we do. Perhaps there's no end to what we can accomplish for the sake of the survival of our species.

And perhaps the very source of that capacity is in the greatest mystery of our being: the conscious mind. Anyway, it's great material for all kinds of fiction.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pornography Reduces Sex Crime

British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to block Internet pornography and make it less accessible, especially to minors. But research shows that if he succeeds, sex crimes are likely to increase – especially those involving minors as victims or offenders.

Cameron is far from alone in this ambition. Plenty of debaters and organizations express moral indignation regarding Internet pornography and insist that it promotes sex crime as well as brutal sexual behavior. They have no proof at all. Instead, their far-fetched conclusions are simply based on the same old prejudice against sexuality, as if it's a sin to make love and lust is something disgusting.

The rabid war against pornography and any explicit sexuality only reflects the distorted view on sex upheld by those self-righteous warriors. They don't care about what research concludes and what the real effects on society may be – to them, sex is basically a crime, at least when enjoyed by others.

Research proves clearly that when pornography is increasingly accessible, sex crimes decrease. That's particularly true for sex crimes against minors or committed by minors – the ones that Cameron and like-minded agitators claim they want to protect. If they succeed in making pornography less accessible, minors in particular will suffer from the consequences.

That is the sad case also if pornography is made less accessible to minors. It may be hard for many adults to face, since they tend to regard sexuality as something from which they need to protect the young.

The adult world at large has a strange attitude towards our sexuality. It's often spoken about as something unnatural and perverted, especially if done outside of wedlock or at young age. But nature is indifferent to human civil institutions, as is our own biology, and our sexuality emerges at a younger age than that of consent in most countries.

Children start to explore their sexuality already before puberty, but most definitely their bodies shout at them to do so when puberty commences. Complete abstinence and denial are no options. If teenagers are hindered to explore this aspect of their lives, it leads to frustration and complication. Only a world that regards sexuality as something basically evil would demand it of them. And that's a world gone mad.

Another argument constantly repeated is that minors should not be introduced to their sexuality by pornography, because of its often malicious and vulgarized form of sex. That argument would be much more credible if the people expressing it also advocated sex education relevant to the needs of the teens. But they rarely do. Their alternative is mainly to “spare” minors from sex, possibly with the exception of warnings against sexually transmitted disease.

It would indeed be nice if pornography could incorporate all the finer aspects of our sexuality and the joy it can bring, and some of it definitely does. When pornography turns ugly, it's mostly a consequence of its expulsion from decent society, the taboo of it. That leaves it in the hands of a hardened minority and the whole business becomes overly indecent. Beauty leaves the room, as talented artists go elsewhere to express themselves.

The low standard of most pornography is a consequence of the lacking talent of its producers. Also, the fact that pornography is largely condemned by society makes its producers fall into the trap of making it condemnable, as if that is what's called for. Not to mention its proximity to the world of crime, again because of it being regarded as a social outcast. We have thrown pornography into the hands of people lacking business moral.

In spite of its quality deficiencies, pornography has a healthy influence on society, simply because we're all so fascinated by sex that we need to explore it more than just by marital coitus. It meets parts of our desires. Nothing harmful in that. The harm comes from condemning it.

Conclusive Research

Already in 1970, the Danish Professor of Criminology Berl Kutchinsky reported that increased pornography did not lead to an increase of sex crimes, but the contrary: most of those crimes decreased.

Denmark had recently legalized pornography, so he had the statistics of a whole country to analyze. Soon also Sweden and West Germany did it. His continued research showed that the effect was the same there. Here is a report of his from 1973: The Effect of Easy Availability of Pornography on the Incidence of Sex Crimes: The Danish Experience.

Later, Kutchinsky could include the USA is his studies, where the laws on pornography had also changed. Here is a study from 1991, dismissing the myth that pornography causes rape: Pornography and rape: theory and practice? Evidence from crime data in four countries where pornography is easily available.

Another nationwide example is Japan, which became increasingly lenient towards pornography over time. Statistics showed significant drops of sex crimes, in particular those with minors as either victims or perpetrators. Here is a 1999 report by the US Professor of Reproductive Biology Milton Diamond, where he also discusses previous research about the effects of pornography, and the drop in rape crimes in the USA: The Effects of Pornography: An International Perspective.

In the above report, Diamond also discusses the evidence that US statistics on sex offenders show them less exposed to sexually explicit material (SEM) than others, especially in young years, and their upbringing being more sexually restrictive:

This lack of early exposure to pornography seems to be a crucial consideration. Most frequently, as it was found in the 1960s before the influx of sexually explicit materials in the United States, those who committed sex crimes typically had less exposure to SEM in their background than others and the offenders generally were individuals usually deeply religious and socially and politically conservative (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy, & Christenson, 1965). Since then, most researchers have found similarly (e.g., Ward & Kruttschnitt, 1983). The upbringing of sex offenders was usually sexually repressive, often they had an overtly religious background and held rigid conservative attitudes toward sexuality (Conyers & Harvey, 1996; Dougher, 1988); their upbringing had usually been ritualistically moralistic and conservative rather than permissive. During adolescence and adulthood, sex offenders were generally found not to have used erotic or pornographic materials any more than any other groups of individuals or even less so (Goldstein & Kant, 1973; Propper, 1972). Among sex offenders, violent rapists had seen no more pornography than had sex peepers or flashers (Abel, Becker, Murphy & Flanagan, 1980). Walker (1970) reported that sex criminals were several years older than non-criminals before they first saw pictures of intercourse. Thirty-nine percent of convicts surveyed by Walker agreed that pornography "provides a safety valve for antisocial impulses." It thus seems that early exposure to sex, rather than late exposure, is socially more beneficial.

Permissive Is the Key

There is no evidence at all to the myth that pornography leads to sex crimes, but lots of proof to the contrary: wide access to pornography leads to a decline in sex crimes. Still, I seriously doubt that the access to pornography alone can explain significant drops in sex offenses. There are more things involved.

A society being more permissive regarding pornography is surely also a society with a more permissive attitude towards sexuality. Sex crimes are closely related to sexual oppression and prejudice, as indicated by the Diamond quote above. A liberal mentality in society diminishes that oppression and the frustration it causes, maybe not in every household but in most of them. And that's what lowers the sex crime rates.

Another closely related issue is that of education. A permissive society is not restrictive when it comes to sex education, whereas typically societies with less tolerance tend to minimize or completely ban it. That may very well have a greater effect on sex crime statistics than pornography. They just happen to coincide. So, what we really need to guard is a positive and permissive attitude towards sex in general, including pornography, and the rest will follow.

The Internet Boom

Since the mid-1990's, there has been a tremendous boom of worldwide accessible information of any kind on the Internet. Pornography, too, has become more easily accessible than ever before in history – also to minors. So, how has that influenced the frequency and nature of sex crimes?

From the previous research presented above, it makes sense to assume that increased pornography accessibility will continue to decrease sex crimes. Findings seem to be consistent with this. Here's a no-nonsense Slate article discussing it briefly: How the Web Prevents Rape. And here's the research by Todd Kendall quoted on the issue: Pornography, Rape, and the Internet.

A quick search on the Internet seems to confirm it, but what strikes me the most is that such research seems to be rare or marginalized, even on the Internet. Why so? Now we have the chance to do a worldwide study on the effect of pornography access – so why is this not already an established fact? Instead, there are lots of texts speculating with little facts to confirm it about how Internet pornography might change people's attitudes towards sex. But that's just speculation.

If rapes decline they decline, and they do so – especially among the young, who are the greatest consumers of anything Internet. This source specifies a 72% decrease of rape in the USA since 1993, right before the Internet boom started: Sexual Images and Sex Crimes. The US Justice Department confirms the sharp decline: Female Victims Of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010. So why not shout it out?

It doesn't fit with the conservative prejudiced attitude towards sexuality, which regards it primarily as something filthy and deplorable. But that's just prejudice. It should not be allowed to make the rules of our society.

Monday, July 8, 2013

War Is Not About Aggression

I saw a TV documentary about the origin of war: is it inherent in our species or did it come with civilization? There's no consensus within the sciences, so I allow myself to speculate.

I have pondered it since childhood years. Before things got complicated with accumulated knowledge, I took for granted that war was a consequence of aggression within our species. I witnessed it daily in myself, my classmates and other people, from the youngest to the oldest. Even infants can show rage and have violent outbursts.

I didn't like it. As far as I could see, nor did anyone else, really. Well, maybe there were some few exceptions among the worst of the bullies, but also in their eyes I saw glimpses of regret, even grief, immediately following their outbursts. Actually during them. Violence was something that erupted, quicker in some than in others, an irresistible force that satisfied none.

It was as if we had demons inside, occasionally taking control of our bodies. The eruption of rage was as unpredictable as that of volcanoes. And anyone could see that what it left behind was nothing but destruction.

I figured that this uncontrollable aggression was something animalistic. After all, our species belongs to the animal kingdom and we share ancestors, going far enough back in time. Any animal has the ability to be triggered into rage and violence.

I could see it in the cutest of pets. It was just as sudden as with humans. An outburst, and then stillness without any sign of satisfaction. Surely, the root of the aggression was the fight for survival – either to defend oneself when hunted by a predator or when the roles were reversed.

Aggression is the primary weapon in killing. I dreamed of a universe where the survival of one wouldn't demand the death of another. Still do.

So, I suspected that war was that demon let lose in grand scale. The same thing, simply involving lots of people at the same time.

But after just a brief introduction to history it was evident to me that war is a completely different thing. It may use the aggression latent in man, but that's never what starts it. War is a planned action, having its cause and aiming at a certain effect. It's started by reason, not the instincts.

Usually, war is initiated by other people than those who have to fight it. The rulers. They seduce or force their subjects to march into battle for one or other reason. Rarely do the soldiers march in rage, but in battle they need it in the desperate effort to survive. Like on the school yard, when boys clash in a fight.

If mankind had no aggression, there would certainly be no war. No one would fight it – at least not before technology made it a thing for the machines. And without a history of man to man combat, how would weapons for that purpose at all be invented?

The basic reason for war is always the same: someone wants what someone else doesn't want. The collision of wills. Therefore, the very first wars back in primordial times must have been in competition over limited resources. Food, water, women, whatever essential to us before the dawn of civilization. Basically, the essentials are still the same, albeit in fancy costume and grand scale.

It may have started as theft, leading to robbery and then plundering. Groups of people discovered that they could take from others what they didn't find or produce themselves. Again, that's pretty much what war is still about.

Soon enough, the most skilled or ruthless thieves had the resources to parasite their victims by becoming their constant rulers, like a farmer and his cattle. Hierarchy emerged, with an increasing level of oppression. Then the greed of rulers turned them against each other. As the rulers grew in power, so did their wars.

Simply put: The root to violence between individuals is the aggression we all have inside and can't always control. But the root to war is greed.

To my experience, what triggers aggression is frustration. If we are pleased, our inner volcanoes sleep. If violence increases among people in society, it's because they are increasingly frustrated. Society can do that to you, especially when it's ruled without compassion. Sadly, that's often the case. But it can be changed.

What seems to trigger greed the most is not poverty but plenty. The more people have, the more they want. Strange thing. There's just so much Russian caviar one can eat.

When some have more than others, they want to protect as well as increase it. If it's power, and it usually is, they will use force. Thereby they quickly gain more power, so they can escalate the force. They seem unable to restrain themselves.

It has nothing to do with aggression. When rulers start wars, they do so coldly, not for fighting but for winning.

So, the more evenly power is distributed, the less risk there is for war. History shows this clearly. Democracy, with all its fallacies, tends to avoid war as a solution. When the conflict is between two democracies, then, chances are great that peace remains.

In the case of both aggression and war, the problem seems to be the rulers. How about that?

Friday, July 5, 2013

Don't Wanna Stay Alive When You're 25

What's with the withering of rock stars, when they become adults? Is rock'n'roll an art form reserved for those in touch with their adolescence? Or could it be that its artists have a limited time of creativity, whatever their age at the outset?

I've been watching YouTube clips of some of the old pop and rock giants. What keeps picking like a woodpecker on my brain is how their artistic poignance dims at a certain time in their career, as if someone blew out their candle. They get comfortably well-to-do, they lean back with confidence, and their new material is anesthesia.

After a couple of decades struggling with this depressing fate, they surrender and resort to shows where they do karaoke versions of their old hits.

It happens to the best of them. Why so? What is it they lose when the frenzy of their adolescence wears out? Well, probably just that. Without the anguish of the adolescent, there's no rock'n'roll. It's just songs. Songs with an anxious naiveté, soon lost to those who actually survived it. They can repeat the melody and words, but not the sound and feel of it.

Art is salvation, but also a deadly trap. You can be its martyr, and numerous following generations will praise you, or you can be its survivor, by which the dust from the battle settles on you. You become a relic, forever a servant of memorabilia.

I was never surprised that so many rock legends died before reaching this stage. What continues to surprise me is how many survived it and keep on living, although not finding a way out of it – unable to completely change their path to where past feats lose their gravitational pull.

The analogy of celestial mechanics might hold the key. You can land on the moon and take off with the same vessel, but how to escape a black hole? When your mark on history exceeded a certain value, there's no way to go on and do other stuff.

Art is salvation, but also a deadly trap. We live in a time when pop and rock songs are regarded as gospels, magical potions by which life is both expressed and saved. It sure feels like that at certain concerts, momentarily. But they're songs.

Already when I was an adolescent, I was often struck by ambiguity regarding the majestic qualities attached to songs of this or that moment of time. When my inebriation faded away, I had to conclude that most of those celebrated hymns had next to pointless lyrics, no matter what was done with drums and electric guitars to enhance them.

Sure, there were fragments of poetic ingenuity at times, as well as an occasional kōan. But mostly they were surrounded by self-evident rhymes. Well, drowned in them. Not much compared to the monologues of Shakespeare, or for that matter the dialogues of Plato.

The music had its merits, thought seldom to the extent that it was equally satisfying without the original performer in his or her state of adolescent anguish. Karaoke, as mentioned earlier, revealed that with non-compromising cruelty. How many of those pop and rock anthems will really stand the test of time? Few, I bet, compared to the hundreds of years that Mozart and Beethoven have already managed splendidly.

Also the stage shows struggle to survive revisits, as time progresses. What once seemed earthshakingly spectacular soon becomes awkward, if not to say ridiculous.

In some few cases, the frenzy of the original performances keep on striking cords within us – but surely not when those artists have ripened. When the desperation is gone, so is the sensation.

Art should not be too occupied by speaking to the present. No fundamental truths are to be found in the illusion of the now. Art should speak to the timeless, to the aeons gone and those coming, alike. That's where the essence hides. We're all essentially the same, as is the world we live in. What's not eternally recurring is not that vital to us.

When our idols grow old, they think that they still have some kind of precedence over their songs, because they once gave birth to them. But if they're not the same as when that happened, they are doing the same karaoke as everyone else. A piece of art ceases to be the property of the artist as soon as an audience has started to relate to it.

So, the mistake made by our pop and rock icons is not that they keep singing their old songs, but that they do it without trying to recreate the desperation they once felt.

It can be done. There are gifted actors who can play any role intensely, regardless of their age or gender or any other circumstance. So could some of our fallen rock stars, if they tried.

If they don't want to, maybe they should do something completely different and refrain from desecrating their past glories by holding on to them half-heartedly?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

No Rule Can Substitute Compassion

I happened to come across a few episodes of The World's Strictest Parents, a TV show where troublemaker teens are “shown the way.” The message is as conservative and moralistic as can be expected, narrowmindedly blaming the teenagers for just about everything. Still, upon closer inspection, it can't be brushed off all that easily.

The usual adult reflex, especially among people who pride themselves of high moral standards, is to claim complete innocence when their children don't behave exactly as they want them to. In most cases, that attitude is actually what started the problem.

It's not easy to be a teenager. The adult world, though, tends to demand of them to show none of it – as if leaving childhood is illegal. It's even so that they are treated with increasing intolerance and expected to show more self-restrain than ever before. That's detrimental. Often it is really cruel, in a way that no adult would ever accept to be treated.

The World's Strictest Parents doesn't differ from that pattern, not at all. The homes that the teens are sent to all have the same rules – no smoking, no alcohol, no profanity, no sex. They expect unquestioning obedience of the adults and complete adaption to their demands, no matter what. Very often the temporary foster homes are devoted to one or other religion, which doesn't exactly promote tolerance.

If the teens are unable to behave as demanded, the whole blame is on them – as if that proves their inferiority and delinquency. How many adults would pass such a test?

In addition, most of these teens have a deeply troubled past, for which they can't be blamed. Several of them experienced parental divorce when they were children, some of them had even been struck by tragic death within the family. More than once, these events are reported as coinciding with the start of the obtrusive behavior. Well, do the math...

It's nothing but inhuman to demand of the teenagers to be restrained and obedient to an extent that is not humanly possible.

So, I picked one of the shows to examine closer, in order to expose the absurdities I mention above. It happened to be the very first episode of the series, where the kids were sent to a conservative Christian family in Alabama. No Einstein needed to figure out what must follow.


The World's Strictest Parents - s01e01 - Alabama by theworldstrictestparents

Sure enough, the strictness and the rules were what could be expected, as was the initial clash with the teens when complete obedience was demanded. As if they could be expected to reprogram themselves inside out in mere seconds.

But another image emerged, soon into the show. The Alabama parents were non-compromising in their moral beliefs, but they proved to be very sensitive to the simple fact that the teens had another life to try to manage, and their own background stories making all the difference in the world.

So the adults were repeatedly forgiving, a paradigm of Christianity often neglected by those confessing loudly to it. Also, they were genuinely showing hope and commitment to actually help the teens – even when it meant bending the rules.

I was reminded about what Jesus said when the priests accused him for letting his disciples ignore the rules of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”

The Alabama family was aware of this distinction, simply because they really cared about the two teens in their temporary care.

At one point, the father became angry and spoke heated words. It was when the teens had smoked contrary to their promise to him. It was not the smoking that upset him, but their breaking of a promise: “If we can't trust you, if we can't have faith in you, there's just nothing here.”

He was obviously saddened more than enraged, although expressing it in the latter way at first. He was disappointed, because he had genuinely hoped for a different outcome. That was evidence of how much he cared, which is just about all that matters and the only way by which serious problems in human relations can be solved.

That's also why they could put the incident behind them and move on, quickly from that point deepening their bond and mutual respect. That's a cure for just about everything.

I had to look at a bunch of other episodes of the show. Some were indeed dreadful in regard to what I've stated above about disrespect for the human heart beating inside the porcupine surface of teen attitude. When such encounters ended well, it was totally because of the compassionate yielding of the teens, in spite of adult rigidity.

But several other shows had that surprising quality of “the strictest parents in the world” reaching the teens and helping them to cure themselves. There was even one Utah Mormon family proving able to do that (season 2, episode 4) – much to my amazement. Mormons have their share of children emotionally crippled in their care.

What was always evident was the recipe for success: It came when the strict adults were moved enough to soften that strictness, really reaching out to the needs of the teens. Compassion is the key. No rule can replace it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Weakness of Rhetoric


President Obama defended the massive NSA monitoring of digital information, which was revealed a couple of days ago. It was not an easy task, not even with his rhetoric skills. There are limits to the power of rhetoric.

The major limit of rhetoric is its inability of hiding something without revealing something else. It might even be possible to express in algebra. We're familiar with the expression “If you have said A, you must also say B.” It's also true that if you don't want to say A, you must instead say B, which is usually not better. Simply put: rhetoric is for saying things, not for concealing them.

It's evident already in Barack Obama's opening remark, as can be seen in the video above:

“When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: number one to keep the American people safe, and number two to uphold the constitution.”

That's a terrible example of accidentally saying much more than intended. What he really states by the given order of his priorities, is that he will ignore the constitution when he deems that the safety of the American people demands it. Actually, it's pretty much a confession that it has been done in this case.

Later in his speech he says:
“You can't have a 100% security, and also then have a 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We're gonna have to make some choices as a society.”

Well, you can't have a 100% security. No one is safe. The universe itself doesn't allow for it. Hey, we all die at some point. The whole idea of the Constitution is that the fundamental rights of the people should triumph, even at the cost of their own safety.

That's why we're innocent until proven guilty. That's why we have the right to our privacy. That's why the Constitution limits the power of the government. Theoretically speaking, maximum safety can only be accomplished by maximum confinement.

Any US government official who regards something – anything – as more important than the Constitution, is abusing the office. The question is how much, but the choice has been made.

Obama moves on in his speech with a nonsense definition:
“The programs that have been discussed over the last couple of days in the press are secret in the sense that they are classified.”

Well, that's secret. Or are there things classified which are not secret? Again, we approach math. In this case set theory. Secret always means some get to know, and some don't. The only significance is who – and most importantly: who gets to decide what's to be kept secret from whom?

Democracy depends on keeping secrets to a minimum, for the simple reason that if the people is to govern itself, it needs to have the information relevant to do so.

Sadly, most governments have a tendency to classify things that they believe would meet with the disapproval of the people. That means the governments actively sabotage the basis of democracy, by acting against the will of the people and hiding it.

“Nobody is listening to your phone calls,” Obama stated firmly in his speech. But later he confessed this to be untrue, when there's a court order to the contrary. Phones are listened to. We all know that. The question is to what extent and with how much of a real legal process in control.

Regarding monitoring of the Internet and emails, Obama stated:
“This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”

But what has been revealed about the NSA system indicates the opposite. The monitoring is done on all electronic information exchanged on the Internet and emails passing through accessed media, such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple.

If all this information is gathered and accessible on an individual level, and the use of it is concealed – then this does mean that all of it is monitored. Most of it may be ignored, but it is accessible and by computer handling anything can be extracted from it – by anyone with access to the system.

President Obama tries to assure his listeners, by stating about his initial attitude as a newly elected President:
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs.”

Apart from the fact that it's rhetorically weak to claim a competence instead of proving it by examples and reasoning, he really diluted the word skepticism by adding healthy in front of it. Skepticism is the ability to question – anything and always. But “healthy skepticism” means being skeptic up to a point. It means questioning some things and not other things.

Since the word healthy is non-descriptive in any context other than medicine, he gives no clue as to what he deemed unnecessary to question. For all we know, it might have been just about everything.

The most important questions about the NSA monitoring are two: firstly, is the measure in proportion to the threat it's supposed to counter, and secondly, what are the risks and consequences of misuse? If Obama regards it as healthy not to ask these questions, there is not much to his skepticism.

Unfortunately, it seems he all but ignores those aspects, calling this enormous NSA monitoring a “modest encroachments on privacy.” At least he used the word encroachment, though not without hesitation. In present society, there's nothing modest about concealed government access to all the electronic communication of all its citizens, as well as hundreds of millions of people in other countries.

“Some other folks may have a different assessment of that,” he added. You bet. And by admitting this, he made the most important statement in his speech. The whole thing is indeed questionable.

When he ended his speech by welcoming the congress to consider and debate the issue, he confessed to its controversy – maybe even hoped for a change that he is himself unable to openly propagate.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cats

When I was a kid, we got a cat. Then another. Soon enough kittens, as well. That was also the time I started taking photos for more than souvenirs, so I took a lot of cat photos. Here are some of them, from the 1970's.

(Click on the images to see them enlarged.)





































You also find those images on my personal website: stenudd.com

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Uncertainty of It All


We all know about accepting what we can't change, change what we can, and recognize the difference. Well, sometimes that's easier said than done. At times, I fall into the mental trap of trepidation at the thought of just how helpless we humans are against the forces of this universe.

For some reason – probably stress – I have glimpses of it now. As I walk the street, I'm suddenly reminded of the thin crust of earth covering the chaotic fire within, eager to burst through. Mayhem in a minute.

The chilly wind on my cheeks and forehead, remnant of a winter unwilling to pass, creates images of a coming ice age, with a layer of ice, one thousand meters thick, spreading its deadly embrace all over Scandinavia – and perhaps, if things get really bad, growing to cover the whole planet, which would shut off life for good. What is global warming compared to that?

A glimpse at the evening sky, where the moon is unusually bright and seemingly distant, accompanied right now by a couple of planets making particularly piercing white dots – that not only reminds me of a possible meteor instantly pulverizing the crash site and miles and miles around it, maybe even covering the planet in ashes.

It also brings to mind just how helpless we and our planet are against the galactic processes, including the collision of the Milky Way with the Andromeda galaxy in about four billion years. If not doomed by then or long before then, our sun will have its spectacular death dance at about the same time. And in the long run, the whole universe is heading for a fading away like no other, a desolate cold darkness where nothing can happen.

That's very far into the future, but its chill reaches us from way yonder by the mere hopelessness of it. Neither individually nor as a species are we able to live forever. It's sad, because it gives little room for a lasting meaning in life. Whatever we do will vanish.

Death is not just something that appears at the end of every lifespan. It's present all through life, like a shadow companion threatening to strike at any moment. In the grand scheme of things, life is the anomaly and death is the rule.

We exist for an instant in a vast eternity when we do not. Actually, the time we occupy is comparable to the space we fill up in this expanding universe. The farther into the future, the less significant is that time and space of ours.

When I was a child I used to have the same dream recurring in the beginning of the summer: I dreamed that nature had somehow skipped summer, and it was winter again. The dream was so convincing, I believed it to be true until I looked out the kitchen window at breakfast. No snow! It was just a dream.

But it reminded me of the total uncertainty of life.

I know fully well that we should live in the present, which is something philosophers of old as well as present ones have told us repeatedly. There is nothing else, they say – which may be oversimplifying things, but they have a point. There is nothing else on which one can trust. What we have is what's now, right now.

So, we should live our lives from day to day, steadfast in the present as it carries us onwards through time and space. What else can we do? We can even learn to be content with it. But I am surely not the only one occasionally overcome by the uncertainty of it all. That dreadful uncertainty.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Great Misfortune of Society: It's Ruled by Freeloaders


Society is far from perfect, in spite of its thousands of years of evolution. Most of the suffering it causes or at least readily allows, is due to injustice. Some few are privileged at the expense of the vast majority.

Some have much more power than most. They even tend to inherit it, from generation to generation. In addition to making sure to keep that power, they often misuse it, increasing the injustice.

This emerged when society swelled from small tribes where everybody knew each other, into big civilizations of thousands of individuals, most of them completely unknown to one another. Early examples are the cities of Memphis and Ur, with thousands of inhabitants already in the third millennium BC.

The increase and concentration of population was possible through agriculture, by which the work of some could feed plenty. Agriculture was introduced in the New Stone Age, around 10,000 years BC, and was significantly developed in the seventh and sixth millenniums BC.

Unfortunately, it also led to a drastic drop in human life expectancy, which was circa 33 years in the pre-agricultural Old Stone Age and dropped to 20 years in the New Stone Age. Not until the 20th century did the life expectancy rise significantly above the Old Stone Age value.

Another consequence of agriculture was the rise of hierarchies. Kings and aristocracies emerged and took control with the force of arms, making the rest of the population helpless subjects. They seized the surplus of agriculture and became the rulers of the world. That's pretty much still the situation.

A hierarchy doesn't in itself necessarily lead to greater injustice than the unequal distribution of power. But alas, we're yet to see a society where additional injustice is not the unavoidable outcome of that first one. Those who can will grab what they want, which tends to be more than they really ever need. And the ones who can't stop it are robbed of everything but what they need for basic survival. Sometimes even that is ripped away from them.

Why is that so? Many would hurry to say it's human nature. But that's jumping to conclusions. The study of non-agricultural society, those who live as hunters and gatherers, shows that they live by the code of general reciprocity – they share everything, always, thereby making sure that no one's needs are ignored. It's almost a sacred thing in those societies, where deviation from it is regarded as repulsive.

Still, sometimes it happens that an individual makes sure to receive what others give, but escapes from returning the favor. Cultural anthropology calls this a freeloader – someone who wants to share the benefits without sharing the sacrifice needed for them.

It may go unnoticed for a while, but when exposed, this person is finally thrown out of the community. Usually, those who are expelled like that return humbled and reformed, after discovering how tough life is in solitude, without the support of others. They learn the lesson.

But in agricultural society, where populations multiplied and small tribes were replaced by big communities of thousands of inhabitants, freeloaders were able to continue their ways in anonymity, and simply move from one part of the community to another when exposed. They could go on exploiting the trust of others, and did so – until they had the resources to grab what they wanted by force, instead of asking for it.

They became the rulers. The growing society had no protection against freeloaders, so it was soon taken over by them. They're still in control.

Look at so many leaders of the world today. They use their positions primarily to spoil themselves, living luxuriously, increasing their fortunes beyond any reasonable limit, holding on to their power with any means they deem necessary, whatever the cost to society as a whole.

That is strikingly true about countless politicians, making their decisions on what they gain on the most, and business executives, cooperating to squeeze the companies for absurd salaries and bonuses. This minority in power treats the rest of mankind as little more than cattle.

They even claim that this is only human, as if it's what we all would do in the same situation. Not true. Only freeloaders think like that. They just want to defend their own misuse of power, in a hubris of not only taking all but getting praise for it as well.

In the rare occasions when others than freeloaders get power and money, they act quite differently. They try to do some good with it – good for us all. But they're viciously opposed by the freeloaders, who usually succeed in keeping anyone but their own kind out of power to begin with.

I don't believe we can solve the dire injustices of society until we get rid of the freeloaders in positions of power. How to do that is no easy matter, but it has to begin by exposing them. Of all people in power and all people of wealth, we must demand benevolence and altruism. That's only what society with its laws and actions demands of everybody else.

Actually, I think the Internet may bring along a change also here, since it's a tremendous resource in exposing injustice wherever it resides. Traditional media tends to be reluctant about that, since they are both owned and led by the privileged few. But the Internet escapes such control and censorship, so there's a chance it will persist and thereby increase the pressure on our leaders to be fair. At length, that can make freeloaders shun leadership altogether.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Individualism of Communism


Seeing a documentary about Mao Zedong's China I was reminded of the anomaly of communism: Why are these ideologies of the collective given names of individuals? That should be enough to dismiss them.

Marxism, Leninism, Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism... The communist ideologies persist in carrying names of individuals in spite of their expressed principles of the rule of the masses.

They also tend to consist of idolatry. One person is given complete charge and swiftly demands to be worshiped like a deity. Beyond any reason, as if that person was the creator of the universe and then some.

I noticed it way back in the 1960's, when I was a kid and these movements were high fashion. Their supporters spoke of revolting against the men in power and substituting their rule with one of the people. But why, then, were they obsessed with these individuals? It didn't make sense to me, and still doesn't. So, I had my doubts.

Not that idolatry is a monopoly of the communists. It pops up just about everywhere, as far as political power is concerned. I guess we simply haven't grown out of monarchy yet.

Democracy may have been invented already by the ancient Greeks, some 2,500 years ago. But it was forgotten for a number of those years. Since its recent renaissance, it's still in its infancy. We easily slip back into the habits of monarchy. Communists do, too, for sure. More than most.

Friday, February 22, 2013

We're All Victims of the Bully


Bullying is a very serious social problem, a matter of life and death since some victims are pushed to suicide and many others are damaged for life. Still, the solution is very far away – probably because bullying is rooted within our instincts, which our conscious minds have trouble reaching.

It's particularly alarming when children are bullied. That, the adults surrounding them should be able to deal with – but alas, they rarely manage to stop it. Instead, they often unknowingly partake in worsening the situation.

It's terribly evident in the TV documentary Bully (2011). The adults fumble when confronted with the problem, mainly occupied by claiming their own innocence. The children have no one to turn to. The most striking example of that is a scene starting at 28:30 into the film.

A school principal demands the bully and the bullied to shake hands, as if that would solve the problem. She even says that by the handshake they should let the thing drop. A good deal for the bully...

When the bullied boy is reluctant to do that, the principal immediately starts to scold him. Actually, she jumps to a bullying behavior.

“That means you're just like him”, she tells the boy, comparing his behavior to that of the bully.

“I don't hurt people,” he replies.

“By not shaking his hand you're just like him,” the principal insists.

“Like someone who pushes you into walls, threatens to break your arm, threatens to stab you and kill you?” the boy inquires with admirable guts.

“He apologized,” the principal replies, although that's not at all true. It was never even demanded of him. She continues: “And have you reported all that sort of stuff?”

“Yes!”

“Ok, then it's been taken care of,” the principal immediately concludes.

“All of them said,” he continues, “even the cops told him to stay away from me – and he doesn't.”

“Right. Can you try to get along?” the principal insists, as if it's all up to the bullied boy. “I think you guys might be really good friends at some time.”

“We were,” the boy replies, “and then he started bullying me.”

From the scene quoted above, in the TV documentary Bully (2011).
Unfortunately, that is likely to continue, especially since the principal's dealing with it became very much like her sanctioning of it. The bullied was the one blamed, the bully could walk off without any consequences. Actually, it was like he was praised, while the bullied was condemned.

That's as frequent as it is absurd. The reluctant efforts from responsible adults are mostly focused at the bullied, not the bullies, as if the former are after all the real problems and somehow the causes. They are the ones moved away, if it comes to that, and they are the ones suggested to change their behavior in some way. So, what does it say other than that they are regarded as the causes of the bullying?

Parents often fail to be any substantial support, since they only rule that little cell of the family and its home. Therefore, they also tend to demand of their bullied child to make some kind of change. They feel helpless, of course, and therefore really don't want to know, although stating the opposite.

People want problems to go away. In the case of repeated bullying, that means they tend to compute that the problem will be solved if the one that goes away is the bullied. That's not something they would readily confess, but it's what their action – and lack of action – confirms.

When school officials and parents meet, they tend to find common ground in just that: wanting the problem to go away, and escaping blame. This is also evident in several scenes of the TV documentary. Parents blame the school and the school claims the problem to be insoluble – thereby blaming society as a whole, or mankind or whatever.

The bullied child is little but a hostage in this battle of blame, and sees no hope of ceasing to be a victim.

Bullying is always a consequence of the social commitment to conformity. Children and adults alike are expected to conform to the norm. Be like everybody else, in every way. Those that stick out are either praised or condemned, depending on the nature of their deviation. It comes down to the rude survival of the fittest.

When people stick out from the norm they are admired if they do so in a way that signals some kind of superiority. If it's interpreted as a weakness, though, the instinctual behavior of exclusion is triggered. We are animals and frequently behave so, although we fail to admit it. When our instincts are free to roam, they make us want to follow the ones we perceive as strong and desert the ones we see as weak.

The human condition is far from perfect, but it is possible to change tremendously, we've learned through history. The job's just not yet done, completely. Far from completely.

The flaw is not with those who stand out, but with all of us who continue to protect the instinct of deserting those who do. The bully is not the only one at fault. So is everyone unable to resist that malicious instinct. That's a lot of people – to some extent all of us.

No wonder, then, that the problem is unsolved. We must start by admitting where it lies. We must admit our blame. Otherwise we are unlikely to do any better than the principal quoted above.

We have to remember Voltaire's statement about tolerance, and we need to widen it. Not only should we accept and defend different opinions than our own, but the same positive tolerance should be shown other behavior and characteristics as well. Only to the extent we commit our society to tolerance will we free it from intolerance.

So, we have a long way to go. The only intolerance we should foster is one against intolerance.

As for most bullying, especially among children, it seems to stem from conformity and intolerance regarding gender roles. Boys and girls are expected to grow up to men and women, by which we mean that they must conform to the images we make of the genders. It's when children deviate from those norms that the bullying becomes the most severe and persistent.

This is easily explained by Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, which is a mechanism based on procreation, therefore on how males and females interact. Our instincts tell us that there's a war between males to be alpha males, and one between females to be alpha females. What that comprises may differ through time and from one culture to another, but the vicious force towards conformity is the same everywhere.

It's very important to understand that what the instincts dictate about gender roles is not necessarily relevant even for the survival of the fittest. Society and man's role in it change much quicker than instincts do, so they are not to be trusted blindly. If we don't question our instincts, they may very well lead to the extinction of our species. As for our gender roles, they have unquestionably caused a lot of suffering through the ages. They still do.

We need to rise above that. We can. We have defeated several other instincts in order to create a society closer to the ideals we agree about.

So, bullying is not an isolated problem with its particular solutions. It's a symptom of what we need to reform in society as a whole. The bullied is the canary in the coal mine, the first one to suffer something that's wrong and will take its toll on us all – if we don't listen to this warning and act upon it.

The TV documentary Bully can be seen here (with Swedish subtitles), but that's just for a few more days.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Quest for the Perfect Search Engine



Since the second half of 2012, the search results on Google have deteriorated. Single domains often dominate the first few results pages – especially, but not only, after the first ten results. Also, the relevance and quality of the  results have decreased. It got me wondering: What would be the perfect search engine algorithm?

What's happened to Google is easy enough to compute: In their effort to fight unwanted Search Engine Optimization (SEO), they've changed their algorithm without properly considering the effect for the user.

Google may have gotten rid of sites cynically constructed for the sole purpose of stealing top positions on the search results, but by doing so they also swept away links of high value to the users. Their result lists got a conformity that is quite disappointing, since it leads to a boring surfer experience.

They seem to have failed to consider a very simple mathematical fact: when one criteria is reduced, the others swell. Making one piece of the cake smaller also leads to the others getting bigger. Fewer criteria decide the result.

As far as I can see, there are three major criteria of importance in getting search results satisfying to the user: relevance, quality, and popularity.

Google also rewards websites for their size, and very much so. This is very strange because it has almost no relevance to the user. It may simply be a priority inspired by Google's own size. As the saying goes: Birds of a feather flock together. For the user, size is meaningless compared to relevance, quality, and popularity.

Relevance describes to what extent a website is about the subject of the search. A search engine algorithm decides this by evaluating search word frequency and prominence in URL, titles, texts, and so on.

Quality is the measure of how well the search subject may be treated. Of course, this is not easy to compute. What search engines evaluate are the links to the webpage in question – how many they are and the quality of the websites they come from. The latter easily becomes sort of a vicious circle, when websites thereby increase the estimated quality of one another in sort of a loop. Another way to go about it is to measure links from such types of websites as those with the edu suffix, newspapers, online encyclopedias, forums on the search word topic, et cetera. That, too, is uncertain and not necessarily relevant to the user, but what to do?

Popularity is the nirvana of our time, a more or less outspoken belief in things being better the more people favor them. That can indeed be questioned, although it has some relevance to the user. When we make our searches, we like to see what's the talk of the town regarding that topic. We want to see the most popular webpages about the topic in the listing, although we might not always feel the need to click them. Popularity can be decided by the number of visits to the sites. What the search engines also read is again the number of links to the site, like they do in the case of quality.

That's probably why Google already at its outset decided to put such emphasis on mapping links. They are relevant to two of the three criteria. But they are no guarantee for a pleased user experience, simply because behind most searches is a need for specific information, which is best measured by the relevance criteria. Unfortunately, it's also the criteria most exposed to malicious SEO – often to the point of the relevance being a chimera.

Now, if the three criteria are valued equally by a search engine algorithm (which is hardly the case with any search engine), it looks like this:


If the algorithm is changed, so that one criteria is given less weight, it will lead to the importance of the other criteria increasing. They automatically swell proportionally, according to their previous compared weights. For example, if relevance is diminished from one third to 10% of the cake above, quality and popularity will swell to 45% each:


As the diagram shows, what suffers the most is variety. Two criteria dominate completely at the cost of the third. So, the search results will show a conformity of limited value to the user. Even if many criteria are used, the result lists will swarm with those strong in the few weightiest criteria, as if nothing else mattered.

That's what Google did, when changing their algorithm in their aggressive battle against malicious SEO uses. The purpose might have been commendable, but the result may even be the opposite of the intent, since fewer criteria make methodical SEO easier.

So, what would be the ideal weight distribution of the three criteria in the eyes of the user?

No doubt, relevance is of primary important to any search engine user. We want information on the topic indicated by the search words we use. Any search engine unable to give us that in the results would be useless.

Next comes quality. We prefer search results filtering out nonsense and misleading sites that use search words to catch visitors but don't deliver the information requested. If this is not done to some extent, we would just drown in an ocean of spam, whatever we seek. Or porn.

Lastly, popularity has some bearing, depending on what we search for. Man is a social being, needing to be aware of what goes on in the minds of fellow men. That's why we give significant value to popularity. In a search on a topic, we would also like to have indications of how other people relate to the topic and what they are likely to find out about it.

In a diagram like the ones above, a user friendly division of the three criteria would be something like: relevance 50%, quality 30%, and popularity 20%.


When I look at Google search results, I see nothing of the kind. Website sizes are given huge values, distorting the results and contributing to cause plenty of links to just a few sites. That's a killer of variety right there.

Also, Google has become extremely depreciative of the most important relevance ingredient: the actual search words. Therefore, sites that have very little to do with the topic can get surprisingly high ranks, even when they are obviously all about something else.

Actually, I even see what seems to be a depreciation of the old Google credo: the links to the sites as a measure of their quality. Many top results lack significant numbers of links, even less if they are to be examined with some quality filter.

Instead, Google focuses more and more on popularity. The same old same old megasites appear again and again, whatever the topic and however substantially or superficially they treat it.

So, size and popularity – those are the new icons cherished at Google. Not very exciting. Since the biggest sites often have the most visitors and vice versa, it leads to a terrible conformity in the Google search results.

I think it can lead to Google's downfall, if they don't change this radically. Users get bored with this easily recognizable repetition in the searches, and start longing for alternatives.

And they do already exist. The closest one in the race is Bing (also the engine for Yahoo), which is very interesting to compare to Google. Especially with search words about which there is great competition to be on top, it's my experience that Bing gives more varied and interesting results than Google does. Often strikingly so.

If my impression is correct, it can quickly lead to an escalating number of users shifting their habits. And then they are not very prone to shift back. We may be reluctant to change our habits, but even more so to change them back. The past is not to be revisited other than by memory. If that's not where Google is satisfied to reside, it should rethink its quest.