Artificial Intelligence vs Synthetic Consciousness

The leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a leap across the Rubicon into a new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Artificial Intelligence is an old idea, visited often by philosophers over the centuries. To researchers, programmers, and self professed nerds, the ultimate achievement in the field of AI has always been to create a machine interface, intuitive and adaptable enough to provide human users with a natural experience. Technologically, we are witnessing breakthroughs at an unprecedented pace, but philosophically we are still grappling with the meaning of intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

Blame the science fiction genre if you think an artificial intelligence interface should mimic a human personality. Most of us have been primed on the finer points of AI by Hollywood; the HAL9000 computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey“,  C3P0 and various droids in the “Star Wars” franchise, or the synthetic human replicants in “Blade Runner“.

Real artificial intelligence is considerably less human. IBM’s Watson became a household name by dominating its human opponents on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Watson’s ability to quickly retrieve relevant information is an invaluable skill, but whether or not it qualifies as intelligent is up for debate. Intelligence, after all, is more than just matching well formed questions to existing factual answers.

In 2016, the AI team at Google’s DeepMind created an AI named AlphaGo to play the Chinese (and later, Japanese) board game, Go. Go is an abstract strategy game, unlike Jeopardy which is a question-and-answer game. Go requires players to invent their next move – while adhering to the rules of play. While Watson was programmed to quickly sift through data, AlphaGo was programmed to learn by doing. AlphaGo didn’t win its first, second, or millionth game – but it was able to remember every move it ever made in every game it ever played, building up a database of game-play scenarios that it continually refers back to; as they say, hindsight is 20/20. If you had instantaneous and flawless recall of everything you ever did, you’d be at the top of your game too.

AlphaGo has become virtually unbeatable at Go, but don’t ask it for directions to the nearest Starbucks. For that you need Siri. Apple’s voice activated virtual assistant adds a humanesque layer of functionality to Apple products with its voice recognition and verbose feedback. It can quickly retrieve information when asked in the form of question; “Hey Siri, where is the nearest Starbucks?”, or “Hey Siri, what is the largest prime number less than one million?”. In many ways, interacting with Siri is what it might have been like using an early development version of HAl9000, but something is missing. There is no ghost in this machine – it doesn’t feel alive.

We are measuring the quality of AI on a human scale. In fact we measure all intelligence on a human scale; we have no other point of reference. But human intelligence, curiosity, and consciousness are inextricably entwined.

Can an AI be programmed to be curious? Artificial intelligence has proven that it can retrieve answers and perform calculations – but can we program our AI to be creative enough to invent new questions? And if we do, will the AI ask questions that lead to its self-awareness? A sense of being? A will to live? Will the AI suffer the classic existential crisis and start searching for purpose in its existence?

To programmers, making the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity is a matter of syntax – more code. But to philosophers, the leap from artificial intelligence to artificial curiosity represents the great leap across the Rubicon into the new world of synthetic consciousness.

 

Facebook’s Polarizing Social Force

Racists become more racist, homophobes get even more homophobic, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider.

Opinions, preferences, beliefs, convictions – these are the elements of which our individual identities are constructed. We are creatures of proclivity. We like what we like – that’s our opinion – and we don’t like being asked to consider the possibility that we might be wrong. We have shown time and time again that a familiar falsehood is always preferential to an unpleasant truth.

This most human of traits is quite literally the very basis of the mathematical algorithm that generates your Facebook feed – and it’s fracturing society.

If you just rolled your eyes and thought, “Oh gawd, here we go. More of Glen’s paranoid Facebook-bashing”, please just read another few lines before you click away.

Think about your own Facebook newsfeed for a second … If you like Donald Trump, Facebook delivers pro-Trump news to your feed.  Oh, you don’t like Trump? Then Facebook delivers anti-Trump news to your feed.  If you believe that vaccines cause autism your newsfeed will reinforce this with agreeable news stories that support your anti-vaxxer stance, and vice versa.

You see the bias – Facebook shows us what we like, but we don’t consider what Facebook is hiding from us. Facebook biases our newsfeeds with content that we are most likely to “like” and hides the content that we are least likely to “like”. In marketing terms, a “like” is called “engagement”, and advertisers will spend billions to reach a highly-engaged audience. Great, right? A biased newsfeed full of content that supports our opinions; a newsfeed that validates our beliefs. We get a little surge of dopamine every time we see content that offers even a glimmer of hope that our opinions are correct. We are all dopamine junkies and we will spend every waking minute watching that news feed for something that says, “You’re right”.

So what. We like our dopamine. Where’s the harm in that?

Well, first you need to know two things

  1. Worldwide, 1 in 3 adults has an active Facebook account
  2. Facebook is the world’s #1 distributor of news information

The harm? One-third of the world’s literate, adult population is forming their opinions around information that is specifically tailored to agree with whatever opinions they already held – just reinforcing whatever they already believe. The harm is that racists become more racist, homophobes get even more hate-filled, patriotism becomes extreme nationalism, and the gap between opposing ideologies grows wider and wider. The harm is that Facebook’s nifty algorithm, which exploits the human tendency to be rather narrow-minded, is adding its energy to a wave of social chaos that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

 

Don’t Confuse Voter Apathy with Voter Despair

Whether or not you’re pleased with the outcome of the recent Nova Scotia provincial election, you have to be concerned with the low voter turnout. Only 53.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. This has politicians and pundits scratching their heads. Don Mills, chairman and CEO of the market research firm Corporate Research Associates summed it up in a CBC interview: “It’s very difficult to understand,” Mills said. “Honestly, I don’t get it.”

Mills also tweeted, “Is it time to institute mandatory voting based on declining voter turnout in Nova Scotia? I am beginning to think so.”

Brazil, Mexico, Thailand, Egypt and eighteen other populous countries now have mandatory voting. Considering the sociopolitical climates and economic status of the countries on this list, it’s more than fair to say that forcing citizens to vote does not produce balanced governance.

In fact, one might argue that obliging citizens to vote is counter to the very notion of democracy.

There will always be a segment of the population who just don’t care about governance. Apathy, however doesn’t account for the abysmal voter turnout in Nova Scotia’s 2017 election. There is a growing sense of despair among many Nova Scotians; a sense that the political flavour of the government makes no real difference at the end of the day. Since 1758, the people of Nova Scotia have chosen one political party after another – mainly Liberal and Conservative.

Historically the Liberals have stayed in power until they anger the voters and lose the house to the Conservatives for a term or two. Then the Liberals get elected again for another try. Then the Conservatives … the Liberals … Conservatives … Liberals … ad nauseam.

The common thread that remains woven, unbroken, throughout every term is disappointment. Time after time, generation after generation, Nova Scotia voters elect new governments, hoping for change, buying into new promises of prosperity, equality, accountability and transparency. Time after time, their patience wears thin. It’s no surprise that after ten or more generations of this cyclical behavior, hope has faded. Would-be voters have finally come to the realization that it makes very little difference which party gets elected. Voters are giving up. This is not disinterest or apathy. This is despair.

When almost half of the electorate can’t be bothered to vote, they are sending a message. And it’s not directed at one party or another. The message is clear: The current partisan style of government does not work. We’ve been using the same system since 1758. We have 259 years of data to show how ineffective this tug-of-war really is. The adversarial nature of our legislature is counterproductive, if not destructive.

The actions of politicians in the house of assembly and the language used by candidates while campaigning clearly indicates that their priorities and allegiances lie with their parties, not with the people they are supposed to represent. Most of their energy is devoted to eroding the credibility of  the party that poses the greatest threat to their hold on power.

Rather than forcing citizens to vote, perhaps the time has come to force our elected officials to abandon the competitive practices that are so entrenched in the partisan culture. If politicians were more collaborative and less combative, voters would feel a sense of purpose and pick up their pencils on election day.

 

Murrant’s Rant: DST (Dog Standard Time)

Originally Published on November 5, 2015 (http://southshorebreaker.ca/2015/11/10/murrants-rant-dst-dogs-standard-time/)

What do Arizona, Hawaii and my dog all have in common? Give up? None of them observe Daylight Saving Time. I think they’re onto something. For them, it’s business as usual year round. In fact, four-fifths of the Earth’s humans, and five-fifths of the non-humans, don’t bother to spring-ahead or fall-back.

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of Daylight Saving Time had nothing to do with farmers. In fact, farmers in the early 20th century protested against DST — and with good reason. Try explaining to a herd of dairy cows that they have to wait an extra hour to be milked.

Even Benjamin Franklin, erroneously credited with inventing Daylight Savings, never intended for us to change our clocks. His suggestion, after a late night in Paris, only to be woken by a too-early dawn, was that we adjust our sleep and activity to coincide with seasonal changes in the daylight.

Modern Daylight Savings Time began as means to conserve resources during the first and second world wars. Electric lights were inefficient. Businesses were encouraged to operate during daylight hours, leaving more coal, oil and electricity available to be used in the factories that produced goods for the war effort. An ideal solution at the time — but times have changed.

Today, in a world that never sleeps, with offices and factories that operate around the clock, when more and more of our energy comes from renewable resources, we need to stop and ask: What are we really saving by changing our clocks twice a year? Sure, we enjoy an extra hour of sleep in October, but we have to give it back in April. It’s more of a Daylight Loan than a Saving — and it’s a high interest loan, considering that it takes a few days for most people to adjust to the time change; a few cranky and relatively unproductive days.

Maybe it’s time to do away with Daylight Savings Time and stick with one time, all year round: Dog Standard Time.

Murrant’s Rant: The Bay of Absurdity

Originally Published on September 10, 2015, The Cape Breton Star 

I’m not an economist.  I guess that’s why the logic behind the Nova Star Ferry eludes me.  As you may have read recently in the news, we (taxpayers) are well on our way to spending $13-million this year to keep the Nova Star running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine.  Oh, and we mustn’t forget the $28-million we spent last year.

This is excellent news … for the residents of Maine.  According to the Portland Press Herald, “Nova Star will use Portland as its home port. That means Portland-area vendors will be supplying fuel and services”.

But it’s good for Nova Scotia, too, right?  The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership estimated that a season with one hundred-thousand visitors would pump $16.3-million into our economy.  Well, it would, but last year we only saw about sixty-thousand visitors and we are on target for about the same again this year.  Based on that, with my limited math skills, I figure that each Nova Star visitors contribute less than $10-million to our economy each year.

Now, compare that to Sydney.

Almost one hundred-thousand visitors will arrive in Sydney on cruise ships this year; similar to last year and the year before.  According to the Port of Sydney, cruise ship activity will contribute about $27-million to the local economy.

It stands to reason that if the provincial government were to budget tens of millions for the Port of Sydney, like they have for the Nova Star in Yarmouth, the investment would result in an even greater boost to the provincial economy.  But, alas, I’m just a writer – not an economist.

Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.

I pretended to be asleep.  He made his breakfast and packed his lunch.  It was November – dark mornings, cold house – so I stayed in bed, listening to the sounds of the dawn: boiling kettle, butter knife scraping toast, ringing spoon stirring cup of tea, turning pages of paperback western.

I heard the back door open; the raspy cough of the car starting and the heater blowing warm air to clear the frost from the windows.  The trunk sprung open and I envisioned his rifle in its soft case stowed carefully away; a sandwich and a thermos of tea packed into his red knapsack, tossed on the passenger seat. The trunk slammed shut, and the backdoor opened once again. More footsteps – this time into my room.

I kept one eye opened just enough to see his silhouette against the dim light coming in from the kitchen.  He stood there for a moment, looking at me, waiting beside my bed, listening for some sign of lucidity.  Finally he put his hand on my head, ran his fingers through my curls, and walked out.

At the time I thought it was a funny trick, lying so still, pretending to be asleep – because everything is funny when you are a nine year old boy.  I was going to tell him when he got home that I had fooled him; that I was really awake the whole time. He’d laugh and rough up my hair with his strong hand and call me a “little scamp” – like he always did – but not this time.  This time, he wasn’t coming home.

You see, I could have hugged him and told him I loved him and that I admired him and wanted to be just like him, but instead I pretended to be asleep for a laugh. Things were never quite as funny after that.

Don’t ever pass up the chance to tell someone you love them.

Murrant’s Rant: Patient Patients

Last week I spent over four hours in the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER with my son – and finally left without ever having seen a doctor. But we weren’t alone.

There were eight patients waiting to see a doctor when I arrived at 7:30pm that evening. During my 4.5 hour wait, only two patients were actually called from the waiting room to see a doctor – SIX got up and left.

It’s not an official study, just a 4.5 hour observation, but if this is a typical, quiet Thursday evening at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital ER, we have a serious problem.  75% of the patients seeking medical care that night, left the ER without seeing a doctor.  That cannot be allowed to continue.

Are 75% of the people in need of medical care really going without in CBRM?

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that this has anything to do with an over-burdened healthcare system.  This is a management problem (or lack thereof).

Case in point – a well-managed healthcare facility would not have a filthy (frankly, disgusting) ER waiting area.  Between 7:30pm and midnight there were no environmental services staff to be seen.  There were soiled tissues and paper towels strewn around the bathroom.  The floor throughout the entire waiting area was spotted with clumps of mud (or maybe it wasn’t mud?) and debris.  A hospital waiting area is ground zero for infection control, but it’s not even on the hospital’s radar.

And although the security office is within earshot, only once in 4.5 hours did a security person bother to get up and do a walk-through of the waiting area.

Lastly – when you rush out the door of your home with a sick child, you don’t have time to stop and check if you have the correct change for the hospital parking lot.  Why not use a machine that provides a code – like at the car wash.

Murrant’s Rant: Are You Kidding Me?

Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer - The Portland Press Herald (used without permission)
Nova Scotia Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, Geoff Maclellan (right). Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer – The Portland Press Herald

If you ever wondered why Nova Scotians are among the highest taxed people in the WORLD, look no further.

The Nova Scotia government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.

Over four years our government will have spent $73-million in hard-earned, taxpayer dollars to keep the passenger ferry running between Yarmouth and Portland, Maine. It doesn’t take a genius to see how ludicrous this is.  Just look at the numbers (Google it if you have any doubts):

  • 2014: $28-million (Nova Star)
  • 2015: $13-million (Nova Star)
  • 2016: $23-million (The CAT)
  • 2017: $9-million (The CAT)

You say, “So what if we spent all that cash in Yarmouth?  It’s all about economic development, right?”  Sure. In theory.  Supposedly, the Yarmouth-Maine ferry will bring boatloads of American money into Nova Scotia.

But even the most optimistic projected returns fall short.  The Nova Scotia International Ferry Partnership (the Nova Star folks) estimated that a season with 100,000 passengers would pump $16.3 million into the province’s economy. That’s a projected influx of $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy over four years.  Let me clarify:  somebody in the Nova Scotia provincial government authorized a $73-million expenditure on the expectation that it would generate $65-million for the Nova Scotia economy.  I don’t want to be harsh, but that’s just plain stupid – and it’s about time that somebody stood up and said so.

But wait! It gets stupider … The ACTUAL number of passengers is only 30% of the projected 100,000 per year. The 2014 season saw only 29,438 passengers, while 2015 had 31,150. And there is no reason to expect those numbers to change in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.  So, with only 30% of the projected passengers, only 30% of the projected $65-million will materialize.  I’ll save you the trouble … $19.5-million.  So, in actuality, our government authorized a $73-million expenditure to generate $19.5-million in economic benefit.

And if that’s not bad enough, it gets even stupider-er …  Not only are we seeing fewer American tourists than expected, but more Nova Scotians are now sailing to Maine to spend their money.  According to Nova Star’s numbers from the 2014 and 2015 seasons, 17,649 Nova Scotians sailed to Maine – taking with them almost $3-million OUT of the Nova Scotia economy.  Considering this, it looks like our government spent $73-million to make back $16.5-million – a net loss of more than $56-million.

I don’t know about you, but to me this ferry deal smells like a load of … carp.  Rotting carp.

Because Facebook isn’t News

newspaper-changes2016 will go down in history as a turning point in Canada’s newspaper industry.  In January alone, three completely separate Canadian media companies began cutting – the numbers tell the story.

Torstar, the Toronto Star’s parent company, outsourced it’s printing to TC Media and laid off 300 workers in Ontario.

Post Media, parent company of numerous Canadian newspapers, including the National Post, merged newsrooms in three provinces and laid off 90 editorial staff.

The Guelph Mercury printed its last newspaper and laid off 26 employees.

Staff at the Chronicle Herald, Canada’s largest independent newspaper, are on strike – opposing proposed changes that management has deemed necessary.

We only hear about these examples because they are the major players.  Closures and lay-offs are par for the course among smaller daily and weekly newspapers across Canada – and around the world.

The reason for this decline couldn’t be any simpler – low demand.

Why would anybody pay for news, especially printed news, when they can get it for free on the internet?  News is ubiquitous on the world wide web.  There are millions of websites, blogs, newsfeeds, and Facebook and Twitter pages that deliver news.  Users don’t have to wait until the newspaper is printed.  News is available on demand, around the clock.

But is it really “free”?  And even more importantly, is it really “news”?

Facebook is a perfect example.  People flock to Facebook for instant updates on current events.  They read, they leave comments, they share, and they re-write and re-post their version of events – complete with opinions and bias.  This is not news.

Only a very small fraction of a percentage of the information available on Facebook can be considered as news.  The vast majority is rumour, hearsay, conjecture, opinion, and misinformation.  The only content on Facebook that can be considered as “news” is the content provided by news organizations.

News organizations employ journalists – professionally bound to be truthful, factual, thorough, and unbiased.  We can trust journalists.  Humanity has journalists to thank for keeping the world in check.  The world relies on vetted journalism.  Governments, corporations, and individuals take extraordinary measures to hide their transgressions from the masses.  When they act unscrupulously, it is most often a journalist that exposes the story.  The world would be a very different place if journalism were to disappear.

The problem with journalism is that it’s very expensive.  Journalists themselves don’t earn an excessive income, but the resources needed to do their job can be costly.  To produce and deliver a verifiable news story takes considerable time and involves the efforts of a team of individuals.

Who pays for this?  Not Facebook.  Not Twitter.  Not the consumer of “free” news.

News organizations, like newspapers, employ the journalists that entertain us, inform us, enlighten us, and yes – I will even go out on limb here and say – keep our world safer.

Aside from the cost of solid journalism, news organizations have tremendous production costs.  Publications have to look good, read well, and be delivered on time.  Producing a newspaper, whether in print or on-line, is incredibly expensive – but also incredibly important.

In light of the recent turmoil among Canadian newspapers, countless comments and replies have been made in social media; many of which imply that newspapers are an antiquated, outmoded throwback to the previous century.

It is an undeniable truth that fewer people are reading printed newspapers.  The days of paper are numbered, but the days of news are not.  Vetted journalism and timely delivery of news are more important today than ever before.

The news industry is going through a tumultuous period as it transitions from the daily paper to real-time on-line delivery.  Every so often in the course of human history we encounter a technological shift which ushers in a new social paradigm.  Early on, these shifts were few and far between – the mastery of fire, the first farms, the development of written language, metal tools, Gutenberg’s press, and now, the internet.  News organizations are breaking new ground every day as they come up with new ways to produce and deliver relevant content to a fragmented audience.

The average consumer, who relies on Twitter and Facebook for their news, likely doesn’t care who is paying for the content they consume.

The newspaper, who incurs the expense of producing and delivering vetted content, struggles to find new sources of revenue.

The journalist, who holds themselves to a noble and uncompromising standard, is caught in the middle.

Today, there is no clear path.  This is uncharted territory. We will encounter many changes, trials, and failures, before the transition away from printed paper is complete.

The issue at hand is far bigger than the economics of the news industry.  If news organizations fail to adapt and journalism suffers, the real cost won’t be measured in dollars. The real price will be truth and accountability.

Murrant’s Rant: No cure for greed

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald – Cape Breton Star, October 7, 2015

We are taught the difference between right and wrong from the earliest possible age.  The Sesame Street ethics of cooperation, sharing, and honesty are indelibly etched into our collective consciousness.  It’s not a new concept.  Long before Mr. Rogers was teaching us about being neighbourly, the Golden Rule was the guiding principle of civilized conduct. Society grew and thrived because our ancestors realized than community mindedness was essential to our survival.  We need each other.

So how did it come to be that our laws were written in such a way as to reward greed?  Just a few weeks ago Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Schkreli jacked up the price of the sixty year old anti-parasitic drug, Daraprim, by 5000% because he felt that it was good opportunity to “turn a profit.”  Daraprim was developed in the 1940’s and the research has long since been paid off, but Schkreli didn’t see a problem with price-gouging sick people.  The public outcry was fierce and Schkreli has since announced that he would revise the increase to allow for only a small profit.

Although Schkreli’s actions were reprehensible by most standards, they were legal.  Our laws make it perfectly permissible to turn a hefty profit from people at their most vulnerable.  Who better to profit from than the sick and dying?  They have no choice.  They either pay the market price for treatment or they face the consequences.   From our government’s point of view, it is normal and acceptable when people can’t afford their medication and die as a result.  For a drug company to demand a high price for a life-saving treatment, even when it costs pennies to produce, is sound business practice and keeps the shareholders happy.

Imagine you are inside your home, safe and warm, on a bitter cold winter day.  There is a knock on the door.  A child is on your step, freezing, and asks to come in from the cold. You ask for a fee; after all, it costs quite a bit to heat your home in the winter.  The child has no cash, so you turn her away, back out into the cold.  If she freezes to death, you are criminally responsible.  You had an ethical obligation to provide a necessity of life to a fellow human being. How is this any different than a drug company denying treatment to a dying patient?  To them, the drug they can’t afford is a necessity of life.

On the bright side, there are some commendable drug companies that will provide their medicines at a reduced cost for individuals that cannot afford their treatments.  This, unfortunately, is not the norm, and companies are not legally obligated to show this sort of kindness.  It might be worth studying the past television viewing habits of law makers and pharmaceutical CEO’s; to see if they watched Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers like the rest of us.

Kim Davis should have been a Caterer

Kim-Davis-mugshot-410x220

When faced with a religious quandary, Davis could have quit her job.  We all have the option of quitting if our job conflicts with our conscious.

In case you missed the headlines, Kim Davis, a United States county clerk in Kentucky was jailed on the charge of “contempt” for refusing to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. She claimed that issuing the license would conflict with her Christian religious beliefs.  Immediately, powerful Christian supporters began voicing their support for Davis. Mike Huckabee, US presidential candidate and former governor of Arkansas, is arguably the most influential of her supporters.

Huckabee tweeted the question, “Who’s next? Pastors? Photogs? Caterers? Florists?”, referencing the rights of citizens under the “God-given constitution”.

For starters, I’m not a theologian, but I don’t recall the chapter in the Bible where God gave the Constitution to the Americans.  I thought it was written “by the people, for the people”.

Secondly, Huckabee is a smart guy who has an exceptional understanding of US constitutional law, but he also has his own agenda.  He is playing to the wants of the majority Christian base.  As a presidential candidate, he needs these votes.

Kim Davis was a government official with a clear directive to issue marriage licenses to any couple who qualifies under the US constitution.  Davis had the right to deny the same-sex couple their marriage license, just as any any employee has the right to refuse any employer’s demands.  Likewise, employers have the right to fire any employee who refuses to perform their duties.

As a civil servant, employed by the tax payers to uphold all parts of the US constitution, Davis refused to perform one of the duties required by her employer.  A judge wisely sided with her employer, the tax-paying citizens, and ordered her to issue the marriage license.  She refused.  Refusing a court order is called “Contempt of Court”, and carries the penalty of jail time.

When faced with a religious quandary, Davis could have quit her job.  We all have the option of quitting if our job conflicts with our conscious.

As for Huckabee’s comment, “Who’s next? Pastors? Photogs? Caterers? Florists?”, Huckabee is ignoring the fact that civil servants like Davis are sworn in and “promise to uphold” the rights and freedoms of individuals as stated in the constitution.  I don’t think Florists and Caterers are required to take such an oath.  If Davis wanted to exercise her brand of “Religious Freedom”, then should have become a Caterer.

The loss of the letter

Thanks for the cat videos. Thank you for all the pictures of your protein smoothies and for letting me know that you worked out this morning. Thank you especially for inviting me to play Candy Crush Saga. And thank you, really, for your latest selfie — I almost forgot what you looked like.

Facebook, like the Internet itself, has a lot of promise. It has the potential to allow people to reconnect and share aspects of their lives with loved ones across great distances. It allows for a cultural exchange of ideas, art and information.

It provides a network through which millions of strangers can unite as one to accomplish what they cannot do alone.

Just like the Internet, however, Facebook is a cultural mirror. It shows us exactly who we are — what we like, what we desire and what we believe. For those willing to look beyond the trees to see the whole forest, Facebook is an unflatteringly accurate reflection of modern society — narcissistic, self-centric, superficial. There can be no other explanation for the volume and nature of the content we share. To look at Facebook is to see the world as the backdrop to somebody else’s selfie. Intelligent expression has been reduced to little more than an endless barrage of witty and sarcastic captions typed across photos of famous faces.

I recently came across a news story about a collection of letters that had been written by Albert Einstein to his friends and colleagues over the course of his career. I read some of them. Combined, they are the portrait of a man — fiercely intelligent, romantic, humorous, compassionate. In the age of Facebook, we have stopped writing letters, and in doing so, we have lost a gift of immeasurable value.

In this Facebook-ized society, we are having fewer and fewer meaningful conversations. As a result, we are not only depriving ourselves of the opportunity to interact on a deeper level with others, but we are also depriving future generations of something that our generation takes for granted — letters. Thanks to ink and paper, we presently enjoy a rich, historical record of insightful dialogue and the exchange of original ideas. It is highly doubtful that scholars in the next century will have the patience or inclination to sift through trillions of Facebook posts. And if they do, what will they find?

I have long believed that the greatest strength of the human species is our ability to communicate, to share complex and meaningful ideas so our accomplishments can be reproduced by others for the betterment of all.

By design, Facebook is the ideal tool for us to do just that — to express our creativity and share our intelligence. So, to that end, I’ll refrain from sharing a pictures of my breakfast and quotes from my cat.

Murrant’s Rant: The Sea of Bureaucracy

From what I am told, my grandfathers built boats.  Their fathers and grandfathers also built boats.  It was an essential skill and a tradition sixty or a hundred years ago in Port Morien and New Waterford.  I am sad to say that I never got to know my grandfathers.  If I had, I might have learned a thing or two about boat building.  It seems like such a Nova Scotian thing to know about.  We’ve been building boats for generations.  The instructions should be written into our DNA.

Since I don’t know about boat building, I won’t rant about the Bluenose II.  I won’t rant about the $21-million cost and how that money could have been better spent on education, healthcare, social services, or economic development.  Instead of ranting, I will just tell you what I learned.

The original Bluenose was built in 1921 with a wooden hull and wooden rudder, and as we all know, it worked really well until it hit a reef in 1946.  The Oland brewing company built the Bluenose II in 1963 to promote Schooner beer.  The province bought it in 1971.  It too had a reliable wooden hull and a wooden rudder.  This replica operated until 2010 when it was dry-docked for a complete reconstruction.  The newly rebuilt Bluenose II (which should really be called the Bluenose III) was also intended to have a wooden rudder.  That is, until the Texas-based American Bureau of Shipping had their say.

After hundreds of years of constructing ships with wooden rudders, the Lunenburg builders were told by the American Bureau of Shipping that wood was not acceptable.  For the iconic Nova Scotia schooner to receive “class certification” it needed a steel rudder.  I imagine the conversation went something like this: “Yes, we know schooners have always been made of wood, but super tankers and oil rigs are made of steel, so we’re afraid your wooden schooner will need a steel rudder.”  The modification delayed the launch of the Bluenose II by a year and put the project even further over budget.

Another reconstructed schooner, the Columbia, is sailing in maritime waters this summer.  It was built in Massachusetts around the same time the Bluenose II was being reconstructed in Lunenburg.  A couple of weeks ago, in late August, the Columbia and the Bluenose II had a chance to sail side by side.  To me, because I don’t know anything about ships, they look almost the same. Below the water, however, there is at least one critical difference: the Columbia has a wooden rudder.  According to a report by the Auditor General of Nova Scotia, the new Bluenose II likely could have kept its wooden rudder too, if Bluenose II project managers had simply appealed to the American Bureau of Shipping.

I can’t help but wonder what my grandfathers would have said if a bureaucrat from Texas tried to tell them how to build a wooden boat?

It’s Time for a ‘Human Day’

Rainbow_humanYou won’t find rainbows on my Facebook page.  Before you get angry and call me nasty names, let me explain … I fully support gay marriage and have tremendous respect for the members of our LGBTQ community. The recent decision to legalize gay marriage in the US is a win for human rights and I am genuinely happy for all those who will benefit.  So why won’t I adorn my FB profile pic with a rainbow?

If we are sincere in our desire for universal human rights we need to celebrate our humanity. We need to stop celebrating our differences, and start celebrating our sameness.  We are one species; homo sapiens sapiens (yes, two ‘sapiens’ – it means the “wisest of the wise”).  We must resist the urge to draw distinctions.  We must avoid the exclusivity that arises when we identify ourselves as being a member of an ideologically unique group.  This means a complete rejection of the cultural practices which prevent marriage between people of different races, religions, and castes; a complete halt to barbaric cultural practices like female genital mutilation and other ‘rites of passage’.  We need to openly and fearlessly address the hypocrisy of our religious institutions.  We must demand the re-writing of public policy to abolish poverty and homelessness and to improve the quality of life for all.

Racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, and the myriad variations of discrimination are alive and well around the globe.  It only takes a moment to peruse the daily headlines and realize that world wide, we devote most of our resources to protecting ourselves from one another.  In the United States, gun Control is a more contentious issue than child-poverty.  Military spending among the G20 nations eclipses the combined spending on education, social services, and healthcare.  Let me rephrase that: G20 nations spend far more on killing humans than on helping them.

Social media is a chronicle of our ideological differences.  It is a snapshot of our species’ state of mind. On my Facebook feed this morning I can see that Christians are afraid of Atheists, Jews are afraid of Muslims, Creationists are afraid of Science, and Americans are afraid of almost everyone and everything.  One thing they all have in common is that they claim to belong to a group.  They are holding their virtual hand in the air and declaring, “I am Christian”, “I am Atheist”, “I am Canadian”, “I am Republican”, and so on.  It is these implied-declarations that are tearing us apart by driving ideological wedges between us.  If religion hadn’t bred homophobia into the collective human psyche, would we need to pass a law legalizing gay marriage?  If twentieth century American foreign policy hadn’t contributed to the marginalization of half the world’s population, would ISIS ever have formed?

I propose a Human Day.  Pick a day, just one day this year, where we collectively step back and examine the ideologies we identify with and say, “Today we, as a species, will not murder, enslave, mutilate, subjugate, exclude, ignore, malign, impoverish, or otherwise cause suffering to any other member of our species. Today we are Human.  Today we are all the same.”  Make a flag for that, and I won’t just put it on my FB page; I’ll climb a mountain to wave it in the wind.

Murrant’s Rant: Mother Canada

mothercanadaI was fortunate as a boy to have lived for a few years in Ingonish.  Like all kids, I was a sponge, and I soaked up every ounce of the experience.  My father was the General Works Manager for the Cape Breton Highlands National Park; he was my personal Park guide.  Over countless hikes along the Highland’s  wooded trails and rugged shorelines, I came to understand (insofar as a child can) the importance of National Parks.  As he explained it to me those many years ago, the “National Park” system was, and is, intended to protect the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape from human development; to ensure that certain small regions of this country’s wilderness would survive the onslaught of a resource hungry species; to provide Canadians with a means of temporarily escaping the shackles of urban and suburban modernity.

War was never part of that dialogue; perhaps I was too young, or perhaps it was still too soon after Vietnam to be comfortably discussed at the dinner table.  After all, the Highlands were a refuge for many Americans seeking to avoid conscription.  Likewise, the Highlands were home to Canadian veterans who had risked their lives in active duty; memories were still too fresh and scars had yet to heal.  Now, almost forty years later, conversations about war are still unpleasant and uncomfortable, but are also unavoidable.  A century of horror and loss demands reflection and contemplation; sacrifice demands recognition

When Toronto businessman Tony Trigiani proposed the erection of a ten storey high, war memorial in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the reception was understandably mixed.  “Mother Canada” would be an elegant, granite statue of a woman peering out across the Atlantic in the direction of Vimy Ridge; an inspiring symbol commemorating the sacrifices that have been made to ensure our freedom from tyranny.  In all likelihood, the site would become a destination for tourists from around the world; a place where they could find closure, lay their memories to rest, and seek solace in the quiet permanence of the cliffs at the edge of the continent.  To accommodate large crowds at peak times of year, the venue would  include the necessary parking for up to three-hundred vehicles.

As would be expected, there is much debate over the design of the Monument.  Beauty is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.  For many, myself included, it is not the appearance of the monument, but rather the proposed location that raises eyebrows.  Green Cove sits on the northwest shore of the The Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The location is picturesque, with its pink granite boulders rising defiantly up from the sea.  This type of shoreline is not uncommon in Cape Breton.  Safe within the boundaries of the National Park, it should be assumed that Green Cove would have some immunity from the impact of human development.  Though some man-made structures are necessary to facilitate and support Park visitors, these structures are purposefully constructed to be as unobtrusive as possible with a purpose that reflects the original intention and philosophy of a natural park.

With utmost respect to our men and women of uniform, past and present, the proposed monument is simply out-of-place within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The north coast of Cape Breton is dotted with coves very similar to Green Cove.  The monument could just as easily be built with the same resolute solitude in one of a dozen other unprotected coves, open to development, on either Crown or private land immediately north or south of the National Park boundary.

 

Anti-Bullying PR: Lots of Smoke, but No Fire

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, of the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that recurring suspensions were ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now. I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

 

“At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives. – GM”

I was bullied from my first day of school to my last; physically, verbally, psychologically.  I was the quiet kid, not very good at sports, shy around girls.  I was the awkward kid with the fuzzy hair, who  listened to the wrong music, and wore the wrong clothes; a prime target for bullies.  I managed to survive and I moved on, but not without scars: twenty-five years on and I still suffer from depression, anxiety, and a host of social phobias.  You could say that bullying, in part, made me who I am.

Bullies, too, have their reasons for being who they are.  There may be psychological causes, abuse, or other factors behind the behaviour.  In many cases the bully is also a victim in their own right, equally in need of support. The underlying reason for the bully’s aggression has to be taken very seriously.

So when my child told me he was being bullied, I reported it to the school and the bully was suspended for three days.  The offending child is now on his fourth three-day suspension and will, in all likelihood, continue the cycle of bullying and suspensions in the weeks to come.  According to the school, this troubled youth has been reprimanded numerous times for verbally harassing other students with sexually explicit taunts, in addition to the anti-Semitic insults directed at my child.

When I suggested to Charles Sheppard, coordinator of school services at the Cape Breton Victoria Regional School Board, that his solution of infinitely recurring three-day suspensions was ineffective and that more serious steps had to be taken in this matter, he replied, “That’s just the way we do things now.  I don’t know what else you expect from us.”

What I expect is the same thing all reasonable and responsible parents expect: a safe and welcoming learning environment for my children.  I expect my children to be afforded the opportunity to learn and grow, free of fear and anxiety.  To that end, I expect the administration of the school board to provide adequate support and counselling to children who exhibit aggressive antisocial tendencies, but more importantly I expect the school board to enforce policies that are meant to protect the general student population from the harmful actions of bullies.

The school board does not appear to recognize the long term effects of bullying.  A child who suffers ongoing harassment throughout their school years will most likely become a fearful adult, always watching their back, always anticipating the next assault, robbed of the freedom to enjoy adult life to its fullest.  It’s an exhausting way to live and it exacts a heavy toll not only on the victim, but also on the victim’s families and friends.

We cannot assume that simply reporting the problem will result in any resolution.  As I have seen first hand, the current system of laws and policies are written in such a way that they protect the rights of the offender more-so than the rights of the victim.  The recent public relations campaigns around bullying and cyber-bullying do little more than instil a false sense of security.  At the end of the day, in all but the most extreme of cases, bullies are welcomed back into the schools with open arms while the victims are left looking over their shoulders for the rest of their lives.

Murrant’s Rant: Greed and the Senate

dna
the “Greed Gene”

To justify $16,800 in travel and living expenses, which you and I payed for with our taxes, Senator Nancy Ruth complained that on her frequent Toronto-Ottawa commutes she had to endure “cold Camembert with broken crackers”.  The senator’s comments are disturbingly reminiscent of the infamous and inflammatory words, “Let them eat cake”, spoken by Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, when she was informed that the French peasants were starving and could no longer afford bread.

And who can forget Pamela Wallen?  Or Mike Duffy?  Or Mack Harb?  Or the ever-growing list of elected government officials who feel entitled to a lavish lifestyle on the taxpayers’ dime.  Oh wait … sorry.  My mistake.  Did I say elected?  I meant Appointed, since citizens do not have a say in who becomes a senator.   But let’s be fair.  If the prime minister called to inform you that he was appointing you to the senate, would you refuse?  Of course not.  That would be like telling Atlantic Lottery that you weren’t interested in cashing in that winning 6-49 ticket in your pocket.

The fact is – and let’s not confuse facts with opinions, here – the fact is that senators are humans. Humans have an unwavering propensity for greed.  Greed is everywhere.  There is greed in monasteries and mosques, boardrooms and bus-stops, corporations and yes, even in governments.  There is greed in each and every one of us, but not in equal measure. I admit, I’ve reached for the biggest slice of pizza from time to time, but I’ve also given my slice away.  I like to think that most people are like me; we look out for one another.

Greed, like wealth, is not equally distributed.  I’m not a geneticist, but I strongly suspect that there is a greedy-gene.  Like so many other human characteristics, greed would have been advantageous when we lived in caves and were driven by an underlying primordial need to ensure the survival of our familial DNA.  By their very nature, certain professions and institutions undeniably attract individuals still driven by these ancient, self-serving tendencies.  Greed tends to coagulate in pockets at the top of the economic food chain, while generosity and altruism settle into the crowded strata below.

It is almost impossible to find one year in Canadian history when there has not been a scandal involving unscrupulous behavior or abuse of privilege in Ottawa, so, as taxpayers, it is easy for us to paint our politicians with only one brush, but we must resist the urge.  I applaud the men and women who choose to enter politics for all the right reasons.  I have the highest regard for those individuals with integrity and conviction who are willing to submit to the scrutiny and pressures of public life because they believe they can improve the lives of their fellow citizens.  It must be made doubly difficult when those good people have to work side by side with others, in whom the greedy-gene is so fully and completely expressed.

 

I am Human

“I am not distinctly different from any other human.  My beliefs are no more or less valid than any other person’s.  My hair, eye, and skin color are random and meaningless.  I am not white or black, I am not strait or gay, I am not christian or atheist.  I am human.”

We all bleed Red.I was hit right between the eyes by a paradox this morning.  I’m still reeling, which is why I’m writing.  For well over a century we (i.e. rational, sensible people) have been exerting tremendous effort to create equality among all individuals.  We have been working toward the elimination of discrimination based on race, religion, and gender (to mention only a few of our differences).

Part of our strategy to overcome discrimination has been to celebrate our variety with events intended to accentuate to our differences.  What?  Did I just say that? Let me re-phrase it so it makes sense.  We are trying to end discrimination by drawing distinctions.  Nope.  There is  definitely a hole in that logic.  It’s like trying to extinguish a house fire with a propane torch.  We cannot end discrimination if we continue to subscribe the notion of “us and them”.  Ending homophobia, racism, and other forms of discrimination cannot be achieved by celebrating our differences; we need to celebrate our sameness.

Therein lies the paradox:  Celebrating our cultural differences proliferates the sense that we are not the all the same; which by extension leads us to believe that we are different from on another; i.e. not equal.

As long as we continue to classify ourselves based on the color of our own skin or the god we worship (or don’t), discrimination will continue. Ending discrimination must start with changing how we view ourselves.  So let me begin by proudly declaring, “I am not distinctly different from any other human.  My beliefs are no more or less valid than any other person’s.  My hair, eye, and skin color are random and meaningless.  I am not white or black, I am not strait or gay, I am not christian or atheist.  I am human.”

 

 

 

 

 

Goodbye Facebook – Spy you later.

“They know what you like, what you think, what you believe, your desires, your intentions, your aspirations, and your fears.  They know where you live, where you work, where you shop, where you relax, and where you travel.  They know your friends, your family, your colleagues, and your classmates.  They know what you eat and when you sleep.  They know your face from every possible angle.  They know your your weight, your eye colour, your hair colour – today, yesterday, and tomorrow.  This is your dossier, and Facebook owns it.”

Facebook is watching you.Facebook knows all of this because you’ve shown them and told them.  You’ve given them the means to dig deep and fill in all gaps you’ve left empty.  You have given them the keys to your life.  Facebook knows more about you than you know about yourself.  And if you think you can hide behind a profile name like ChillyWilly88, think again.

Are you skeptical?  Do you think I’m paranoid?  Overreacting perhaps?  Follow me down the rabbit hole, and decide for yourself …

  1. Every face in every photo on Facebook is identified, willingly, by users like you.  Without realizing it, you and your friends have assisted in creating the largest database of faces and names ever compiled – hundreds of millions, approaching one billion.
  2. You have voluntarily allowed Facebook to track your movements by enabling the GPS function on your mobile phone.  By agreeing to Facebook’s terms of use, you have given them access to your location.  Within only a few weeks, your predictable daily pattern of activity emerges.  Not only do they know where you are now, they know where you will be an hour from now.
  3. You have told Facebook what you like, over and over and over.  Every time you click “like” you are adding another piece of psychographic meta-data to your growing dossier.  Have you noticed that most websites have a “like” button?  And that you normally don’t have to log-in to Facebook to “like” something, because you are already logged-in? The presence of a Facebook “like” button on a website indicates the use of tracking cookies, allowing Facebook to know what websites you visit, even if don’t click “like”.  This gives Facebook the means of building a hierarchical psychographic profile for every user.
  4. Now, that’s just you.  What about your “friends”?  Have they tagged you in photos?  Where you “with” them when they updated their status?  More meta-data: where, when, what, with whom, how often.
  5. Have you commented on a post?  What did you say?  Facebook can read.  The text, context, hypertext, and subtext of every comment you make is filtered and interpreted; creating a very complete picture of what really makes you tick.
  6. When are you active on-line?  When do you use Facebook the most?  When do you surf the web?  By monitoring your activity week after week, Facebook knows what shifts you work, when you sleep, when you take your lunch break, when you attend pottery class.  They also know what church you attend and how regularly go.

In short … Facebook + mobile phone = 24/7 surveillance

Now, I will repeat what I said earlier: “They know what you like, what you think, what you believe, your desires, your intentions, your aspirations, and your fears.  They know where you live, where you work, where you shop, where you relax, and where you travel.  They know your friends, your family, your colleagues, and your classmates.  They know what you eat and when you sleep.  They know your face from every possible angle.  They know your your weight, your eye colour, your hair colour – today, yesterday, and tomorrow.  This is your dossier, and Facebook owns it.

Why should you care?  What difference does it make if Facebook knows you are gay, or atheist, or democrat?  Under Facebook’s terms, your data will remain private as long as they wish.  Your data is their property, and when they choose to sell your dossier, they won’t have to ask your permission.  You have already given it.

Cape Breton: Logistical Key to the North Atlantic

The 60th Meridian WestFrom the North Pole, travel south for 4900km along the sixtieth meridian, through the western edge of Greenland, the Davis Straight, and Labrador. Or, alternatively, travel north from the equator for 5100km, through Venezuela and the Caribbean, along the Eastern Seaboard.

You will arrive on a small island connected to the Atlantic coast of North America by a man-made causeway.  This unassuming island is one of the most strategically significant pieces of land on the globe.  For four hundred years this small island was fundamental in the settling of the New World by Europeans.  It was crucial to the construction of one of the world’s longest rail lines, stretching across the entire North American continent.  The Sydney Harboursteel forged on this island was instrumental to the success of the Allied forces in WWI and WWII.  This little island’s role in the colonization and modernization of the North American continent is often under-appreciated.

Now, in the first quarter of the 21st century, this island is approaching abandonment.  The population is shrinking and its economy is collapsing.  This decline, however, makes little sense.  The island is rich is natural resources like coal, timber, fresh water, fertile farmland, and plentiful fishing grounds.  Its infrastructure includes hydro, wind, and tidal power, an airport capable of handling some of the largest commercial airliners, and a lingan_windharbour, deep and wide enough to handle Post-Panamax container ships.  Highways and railways connect the island to all points from the Great Lakes and southward to New England and Florida.  Housing, healthcare, and amenities already exist for hundreds of thousands of skilled and educated workers; alumni of the island’s university and colleges.  This island also happens to be a popular international tourist destination, with beaches, mountains, scenery, and a culture found nowhere else on Earth.

With all of these attributes, you may ask, why is the island’s population disappearing?  How is it possible that the economy of such a place could be languishing?  Simple.  The island was addicted to coal and steel.  For generations, the working class of this island was kept impoverished and practically enslaved by the coal and steel companies of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Gradually, thanks in part to unionization and legislation, working conditions and quality of life improved and the island became a thriving blue collar community of roughly 300,000.  Eventually, however, many factors, including mismanagement, increased competition, and decreased demand on the world market, lead to the failure of the island’s key export industries, culminating in a protracted economic recession.    Cape_Breton_Island

Today, in the midst of decline, this island holds a rare opportunity for industrial investment on a grand scale.  Shipping lanes and railways, highways and airports, ample energy and human resources, midway between the oilfields of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and the US Eastern Seaboard; waiting patiently at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, this island is truly the logistical key to the North Atlantic.  This island is Cape Breton.

 

 

“Dear little Six Billionth Living Person:”

In 1999, as the world’s population was approaching 6-billion, Salman Rushdie contributed a letter to a UN-sponsored anthology.  His letter was addressed to the soon-to-be-born 6-billionth citizen of the Earth.  Rushdie’s letter offers up grandfatherly advice to the infant.  Fourteen years later, as the population races toward the 8-billion mark and radical religious ideologies threaten the lives of billions, Rushdie’s words are more relevant today than they were in 1999 …

http://www.un.org/Depts/dhl/maplib/images_maplib/unflag.gif “Dear little Six Billionth Living Person:  As one of the newest members of a notoriously inquisitive species, it probably won’t be too long before you start asking the two $64,000 questions with which the other 5,999,999,999 of us have been wrestling for some time:

How did we get here? And, now that we are here, how shall we live?

Oddly – as if six billion of us weren’t enough to be going on with – it will almost certainly be suggested to you that the answer to the question of origins requires you to believe in the existence of a further, invisible, ineffable Being “somewhere up there”, an omnipotent creator whom we poor limited creatures are unable even to perceive, much less to understand. That is, you will be strongly encouraged to imagine a heaven, with at least one god in residence.

This sky god, it’s said, made the universe by churning its matter in a giant pot. Or, he danced. Or, he vomited Creation out of himself. Or, he simply called it into being, and lo, it Was. In some of the more interesting creation stories, the single mighty sky god is subdivided into many lesser forces – junior deities, avatars, gigantic metamorphic “ancestors” whose adventures create the landscape, or the whimsical, wanton, meddling, cruel pantheons of the great polytheisms, whose wild doings will convince you that the real engine of creation was lust: for infinite power, for too easily broken human bodies, for clouds of glory. But it’s only fair to add that there are also stories which offer the message that the primary creative impulse was, and is, love.

Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful, and therefore seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of dead religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories, and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them, must become a vital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity.

It is possible that they may at some point come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable, but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery, and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.

As human knowledge has grown, it has also become plain that every religious story ever told about how we got here is quite simply wrong. This, finally, is what all religions have in common. They didn’t get it right. There was no celestial churning, no maker’s dance, no vomiting of galaxies, no snake or kangaroo ancestors, no Valhalla, no Olympus, no six-day conjuring trick followed by a day of rest. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

But here’s something genuinely odd. The wrongness of the sacred tales hasn’t lessened the zeal of the devout in the least. If anything, the sheer out-of-step zaniness of religion leads the religious to insist ever more stridently on the importance of blind faith.

As a result of this faith, by the way, it has proved impossible, in many parts of the world, to prevent the human race’s numbers from swelling alarmingly. Blame the overcrowded planet at least partly on the misguidedness of the race’s spiritual guides. In your own lifetime, you may well witness the arrival of the nine billionth world citizen.

(If too many people are being born as a result, in part, of religious strictures against birth control, then too many people are also dying because religious culture, by refusing to face the facts of human sexuality, also refuses to fight against the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.)

There are those who say that the great wars of the new century will once again be wars of religion, jihads and crusades, as they were in the middle ages. I don’t believe them, or not in the way they mean it. Take a took at the Muslim world, or rather the Islamist world, to use the word coined to describe Islam’s present-day “political arm”. The divisions between its great powers (Afghanistan vs lran vs Iraq vs Saudi Arabia vs Syria vs Egypt) are what strike you most forcefully. There’s very little resembling a common purpose. Even after the non-Islamic Nato fought a war for the Muslim Kosovan Albanians, the Muslim world was slow in coming forward with much-needed humanitarian aid.

The real wars of religion are the wars religions unleash against ordinary citizens within their “sphere of influence”. They are wars of the godly against the largely defenceless – American fundamentalists against pro-choice doctors, Iranian mullahs against their country’s Jewish minority, Hindu fundamentalists in Bombay against that city’s increasingly fearful Muslims.

The victors in that war must not be the closed-minded, marching into battle with, as ever, God on their side. To choose unbelief is to choose mind over dogma, to trust in our humanity instead of all these dangerous divinities. So, how did we get here? Don’t look for the answer in storybooks. Imperfect human knowledge may be a bumpy, pot-holed street, but it’s the only road to wisdom worth taking. Virgil, who believed that the apiarist Aristaeus could spon taneously generate new bees from the rotting carcass of a cow, was closer to a truth about origins than all the revered old books.

The ancient wisdoms are modern nonsenses. Live in your own time, use what we know, and as you grow up, perhaps the human race will finally grow up with you, and put aside childish things.

As the song says, “It’s easy if you try.”

As for mortality, the second great question – how to live? What is right action, and what wrong? – it comes down to your willingness to think for yourself. Only you can decide if you want to be handed down the law by priests, and accept that good and evil are somehow external to ourselves. To my mind religion, even at its most sophisticated, essentially infantilises our ethical selves by setting infallible moral Arbiters and irredeemably immoral Tempters above us: the eternal parents, good and bad, light and dark, of the supernatural realm.

How, then, are we to make ethical choices without a divine rulebook or judge? Is unbelief just the first step on the long slide into the brain death of cultural relativism, according to which many unbearable things – female circumcision, to name just one – can be excused on culturally specific grounds, and the universality of human rights, too, can be ignored?

Well, no, it isn’t, but the reasons for saying so aren’t clear-cut. Only hard-line ideology is clear-cut. Freedom, which is the word I use for the secular-ethical position, is inevitably fuzzier. Yes, freedom is that space in which contradiction can reign, it is a never-ending debate. It is not in itself the answer to the question of morals, but the conversation about that question. And it is much more than mere relativism, because it is not merely a never-ending talk show, but a place in which choices are made, values defined and defended. Intellectual freedom, in European history, has mostly meant freedom from the restraints of the Church, not the state.

This is the battle Voltaire was fighting, and it’s also what all six billion of us could do for ourselves, the revolution in which each of us could play our small, six-billionth part: once and for all we could refuse to allow priests, and the fictions on whose behalf they claim to speak, to be the policemen of our liberties and behaviour. Once and for all we could put the stories back into the books, put the books back on the shelves, and see the world undogmatised and plain.

Imagine there’s no heaven, my dear Six Billionth, and at once the sky’s the limit.”

Earth-Sized Super-Computer

This has nothing to do with voice acting or creative services, but it deserves a blog entry as much as any other topic.  Medical and Scientific research requires a lot of computing power; super-powerful and super-expensive “Super-Computers”.  The cost of using super-computers is just one of the factors that makes research so expensive, but some super-genius type folks at MIT have come up with a way to create what amounts to an Earth-Size Super-Computer.

The World Community Grid allows computer owners like you and I to lend our computer’s unused or “idle” processing power to researchers.  My laptop, right now as I type, is working on a possible cure for AIDS.  There are currently over 600,000 users worldwide, providing computing power for research.  Please consider getting involved (click the link below)

“World Community Grid brings together people from across the globe to benefit humanity by creating the world’s largest non-profit computing grid. We do this by pooling surplus processing power from volunteers’ devices. We believe that innovation combined with visionary scientific research and large-scale volunteerism can help make the planet smarter. Our success depends on like-minded individuals – like you.”