Thursday, June 27, 2013

Privacy Problems

It was, I believe, Marshall McLuhan who first coined the term "global village", although others attribute the term to Harold Innis. Regardless of the 'who', suffice it to say that the advent of modern media, particularly the internet, has given real meaning to the term.

Now  in such a village, where inhabitants are all known to each other, as are jobs and occupations, a certain lack of privacy prevails.  Indeed, such a lack can be looked upon as a very Good Thing, a kind of early warning system, if you will, with everyone dependent upon each other to help out in times of danger or distress.

It is also a very Bad Thing, for precisely the same reason. In Internet lingo, this goes under the wee acronym, 'tmi'. (Too much information).

It is this aspect that appears to be causing all manner of angst, hand-wringing, and flossing of teeth. You see, our electronic global village makes all manner of information readily available, even information that was previously "classified". Hackers are having a field day, and it begs the question, why on earth would you store such "classified" information in electronic form in the first place? All of which brings us to the curious case of, not Benjamin Buttons, but Edward Snowden.

According to the world's press, Mr. Snowden, a former American spy agency contractor, fled the United States and went to Hong Kong. He is accused of leaking details of U.S. surveillance programs. From Hong Kong, he then went to Russia, winding up at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. Vladimir Putin, of course, knows nothing.*

The U.S. wants him back badly.

But maybe not. He did, somehow, manage to leave Hong Kong without a passport. Just you try doing that.

Moreover, Mr. Snowden is viewed in America in a very Manichean way -- he is either a hero, or a traitor that has committed treason. It's about a 50 / 50 proposition, something politicians hate. Regardless of what you do, 50 per cent will hold it against you.

And aside from the 'cause' crews such as the A.C.L.U. or the Republican Party, the American populace doesn't appear that worried about being surveilled. Way deep down they know that the government isn't that interested in eavesdropping on a conversation that has to do with creating a perfect peach cobbler, or arranging the car pool for the kids involved on the local soccer club. If the government really must listen in, go for it guys.

Perhaps we never really did have privacy, other than those private matters that we keep to ourselves. So Winston Churchill: "It is wonderful how all men can keep secrets they have not been told."


* I am waiting for the Toronto Star to feature an alleged video showing Mr. Snowden ensconced in Rob Ford's basement.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Of Adages and Common Sense.

A book that I keep by my bedside for intellectual comfort is a copy of Michel de Montaigne's Essays. The essays are well written, and deal with issues that are still with us today: war, political strife, religious nonsense and so on. Most of all, the essays are brimming with that most sought after quality -- common sense.

A good example of such common sense is the following: "Take a beam wide enough to walk along; suspend it between two towers; there is no philosophical wisdom, however firm, which could make us walk along it just as we would if we were on the ground."

Some have deemed Montaigne's observation here to be mundane,* but surely 'mundaneness'**  is central to common sense. After all, it is 'sense' that is 'common' to us all.

Of course, this doesn't make it necessarily correct. Common sense, in terms of geography, dictates that the world is flat. It is, however, a worthwhile starting point, in that it describes a point of view that most can agree upon. To go further, we enter the world of the adage.

An example, from the Chinese: "In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly." The common sense element here is the fact that turkeys cannot fly; the extension of thought into adage posits that if conditions alter, the 'cannot' becomes a 'can'.

Let's do it again, using something a bit more complicated. Before the Arabs fell into the tyranny of religious dogma, they did some really sharp thinking. One example: "What comes from the lips reaches the ears. What comes from the heart reaches the heart." Common sense, to be sure, but making a further point -- unless both aspects are involved, we are in the realm of the meaningless. Certainly Shakespeare was aware of this dual aspect, albeit in a slightly different context, when he has Hamlet say, "My words fly up; my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to Heaven go."

This could go on and on, but I trust I have made my point. At least, in little.

Beyond adage, of course, lie the mother lodes of knowledge found in science, mathematics and philosophy (and Montaigne isn't bad here either). I must warn the reader, however, that philosophy can be tricky. This closing excerpt comes from the World Philosopher's Conference in Brighton, England:

"Any cat has one tail more than no cat. But no cat has two tails. So any cat, quite clearly, has three tails."

Q. E. D.

* Montaigne often mountaineered on the interface between the Catholicism and the classical world of letters. He had, then, his critics.

** I doubt that this is a word. --Ed.
     It is now. -- L.S.S.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Operatic Going-Ons In Egypt

On nightly news casts, Cairo has moved onto the stage, competing in street protest sessions with Turkey, and giving the horror story that is Syria a run for its money. It appears that the Muslim Brotherhood has underestimated the number of Egyptians, good Muslims all, who would simply like to have a normal secular life.

All this was drawn to my attention by a cousin in The Trade, who was attending a performance of Verdi's opera Aida at the Cairo Opera House. Except that the performance never occurred.

Now opera cogniscenti will know that Aida was commissioned by the Khedive of Egypt, one Isma'il Pasha. Verdi was happy to oblige (some 150,000 francs helped here) and it opened in Cairo in December, 1871.

It closed on May 29, 2013.

Cast and crew simply went on strike, an event captured in an interesting You Tube video. They were protesting a raft of firings of capable and respected people in the Egyptian artistic world, all ordered by a recently appointed new Minister of Culture. This august person had no expertise in arts or culture, but was well-regarded in theological matters by the Brotherhood.

All this recalls old Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan hatred of all things that might give pleasure to common folk. He was their 'Lord Protector', and his mission in life was to force a stringent morality down everyone's throats. Hence the saying, "Lord protect us from Lord Protectors."

At least Cromwell, however, allowed music to remain, even if confined to hymns and staid Christian chorales. Given the aims of the new Egyptian Minister of Culture, I suspect that in time music itself will come under the gun. So with the Taliban. So with Iran.

So stike on, cast and crew at the Cairo Opera House! I wish you well, and have shaved a bit off certain sugar beet profits and directed the monies to those on strike. Not an easy thing to do, but I have my ways.

Don't we all?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Constitution For The Ages

It has come to my attention that a number of jurisdictions are presently in the process of writing a new constitution for their particular populaces. I am nothing if not helpful, and hence put forward the following as a workable template to make their task an easier one.

First. There must be an impenetrable wall between church and state. If this is not possible, then stop writing right now. Your every effort will be in vain. You simply cannot have a government under the sway of an imaginary "friend", or, worse, under the sway of a person or group who believes that  "friend" speaks to them and them alone. Fantasy has no place in a constitution.

Second. Your constitution should promote and enhance gender equality. This may come as news to certain tribal elders, Al Qaeda members and the Taliban, but, sorry guys, women are people. Deal with it. Oh, and here is a good place to insert a rider emphasizing that "the state will have no place in the bedrooms of the nation".

Third. Be sure to stress the importance of a judicial Supreme Court that is completely independent of the political process. Canada and Australia offer good examples of this, with judges appointed mainly on merit. I would, however, avoid looking too closely at the United States. There, the political has been allowed to overtake the judicial, and Cicero's words from his De Legibus have been ignored: Salus populi suprema lex.*  Pity, that.

Fourth. Finally, think carefully about what governmental structure you wish to favour, whether a Parliament (as in the UK or Canada) or a Congessional separation of powers (as in the U.S.A.) It really has to be one or the other, although I have always favoured a benevolent dictatorship -- save for the problem (as yet unanswered) of how you keep the dictator benevolent.

All things considered, I would opt for Parliament, where a government can "fall" in a way not possible in a Congressional system. This is a Good Thing, as the late (and lamented) Christopher Hitchens has noted: "The government regards you as expendable, so all you have to do is to learn to think about them in the same way."

As for the American process, I will leave it to Mark Twain: "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

So there.

*For those who don't speak the Imperial Tongue: "The safety of the people is the highest law."