Xenophiles and Xenophobes

April 28, 2011

Almost all the way through the alphabet now – just two more days left after this in the A-Z Blogging Challenge.  So for today, the letter “X”: xenophiles and xenophobes, two sides of one coin, or perhaps more literally two sides of a gaping chasm.

Those who know me IRL will be able to tell you which side of the gap my feet are firmly planted on:  I think they’d say I’m a certified (or perhaps “certifiable”…) xenophile.  Yup, I do love me some foreign stuff.  Foods, drinks, fillums, books and the places they come from – oh, and the people in those places too.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the stuff closer to home – plenty of things to love here too.  But you can carry that a bit too far… and end up on the other side of the Great Divide, over in xenophobia land.

Now, I’m not talking about just being disinterested in that stuff over yonder, but full blown mistrust and hatred of foreign things, people and their cultures.  It’s just not right.  And it doesn’t even need to cross a border to show its ugly face – as a person of mixed race parentage (i.e. part of a visible minority), I can assure you I’ve experienced it often enough throughout my life even in the country I was born and raised in (that would be Canada, eh?).

Xenophobes are fearful of anything not like themselves – foreign countries, their peoples and cultures are all targets of their irrational prejudices, but so too is anyone or any group that doesn’t conform to the xenophobe’s image of “just like me”.

In some respects, things have improved over the course of my life – the advent of the Interwebs and the WWW for example, have opened new horizons and peoples’ eyes to what lays beyond the edge of their metaphorical garden; at the very least the exposure will help desensitize them to foreign things and perhaps understand them better with the resulting realization that they’re not really threatening after all.  But there’s still lots of progress to be made, and as the song by the band War says “Why Can’t We Be Friends?



April 27, 2011

We’re all rounding the last turn onto the homestretch of the A-Z Blogging Challenge with the letter “W” today, and I’ve chosen to write on three Ws: the World Wide Web, and the Internet in general.

WWW logo by Robert Cailliau (released to the public domain)

First, thanks are due: to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited with creating the World Wide Web at the beginning of the 1990s, and to Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who are known as “The fathers of the Internet” for their pioneering work that led to its creation.

Of course, I wouldn’t be blogging without either of these existing, and despite having lived a large part of my life before the creation and phenomenal growth of the Internet and the Web, it’s difficult to remember the time when it wasn’t there.

What’s more interesting to me than the technology which enables the Internet and the Web (although I still marvel that it works as well as it does, or perhaps that it even works at all given the many potential points of failure in routing all those bits and bytes across the globe) or the explosion in online commerce that it’s brought (a two-edged sword, but that’s a discussion for another day) is the way it has enabled personal connections and the growth of communities.

I can honestly say that the bulk of the friends I now have were connections that have been made, one way or another, through the Web.  Not much more to say than that, really – other than to observe that perhaps the greatest contribution to society that technology makes is to intermediate those personal connections.  To paraphrase a well known ad campaign – Internet connection: $50 a month; Having a conversation with people across the globe: Priceless.

Naked Transparency Meets Freakonomics

January 15, 2010

This post has been a little while in the writing (been busy with job search activities, as well as behind the scenes work on PodCamp Toronto 2010, where I’m on the organizing committee, looking after the finances) – last week I followed a link that I saw tweeted by Chris Brogan to a blog post written by Jon Udell titled Contextual clothing for naked transparency.  The blog post was in turn inspired by an interview with Lawrence Lessig that Udell heard on the CBC Radio show Spark*.  The host of Spark, Nora Young, was interviewing Lessig about his essay Against Transparency: The perils of openness in government in The New Republic.

The essence of Udell’s post was that “naked transparency” did not necessarily result in positive results, and he argues that context around the information revealed about people in the name of transparency is essential for providing the proper perspective.  Udell quotes from Lessig’s essay, where he argued that the lack of critical thought about what makes transparency work in a positive way will lead to very negative outcomes – inspiring only disgust and not the change and reform that those championing transparency hope so fervently for.

And that got me thinking about the basic tenet behind the book Freakonomics by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner, which is that the response to an incentive is not always the one desired by those putting the incentive into place to drive a certain behaviour.

Now Levitt and Dubner apply the methods and tools of economics – statistical analysis of the behaviour of a population in response to specific stimuli or incentives – to demonstrate their thesis, and like any “pop” version of a non-mainstream subject they have perhaps over-simplified and sensationalized some of their data and conclusions (for example, see the Wikipedia article on Freakonomics which has sections on “Reappraisals” and “Refutations”).

But even allowing for that, I think it’s evident that the results of incentives are often not those that were anticipated, and I think that “naked transparency” may well be one of those cases.

It will be interesting to follow the consequences to society as increasing requirements for transparency continue to be imposed, to track both the unanticipated ways in which people or organizations will find to circumvent those requirements as well as the unexpected negative impacts on those who faithfully comply but are caught out by lack of context.

If you know of any specific examples of where the “conventional wisdom” that maximum transparency is always a good thing has been turned on its head, I’d like to hear about it – leave me a comment with the details.  And I’d certainly also appreciate hearing about your thoughts on the hidden downside of naked transparency.

*I’ve mentioned Spark before and told you how awesome the show is (whether you listen to it on the radio, or the podcast as I do), but I have to apologize to Nora and the Spark crew for being a little behind in my listening – a computer meltdown last Fall threw my podcast listening completely out of whack, and I still haven’t got back on track even after nursing our PC back to health.

Assorted headlines that caught my eye this morning

October 10, 2009

I was perusing the BBC News website this morning and these headlines caught my eye:

  1. What happened to global warming?
  2. Marge gracing Playboy mag cover
  3. ‘Scary’ climate message from past
  4. McDo: A love-‘ate relationship?
  1. Empirical evidence indicates global temperature is currently trending down, not up as predicted by climate models.  Personally, I think that just indicates the unreliability of the models, not that human activities don’t affect the climate.  In my opinion, there are still plenty of reasons, global warming debate aside, for reducing CO2 output and other forms of pollution.
  2. What can I say… sort of makes sense in an age of virtual reality, I suppose.  Not that centrefold models have ever been that connected to reality.
  3. In a similar vein to 1. there appears to be new evidence that connects atmospheric CO2 levels in the distant past that are similar to the levels we are rapidly attaining to increased global temperatures and melting of polar icecaps followed by a consequent rise in the sea-level (with disastrous consequences for populations living in low lying coastal areas or on islands).  I am still cautious about the cause-and-effect conclusion that’s implied — I have to wonder if the events are correlated but not necessarily causal, or at least not in the simplistic manner alluded to.  Again, though, I still believe there are plenty of good reasons for doing a much better job of looking after our environment, regardless of whether the science here is bang-on or not.
  4. Ah, La Belle France.  If you’ve been reading my bons mots for a while, you will know that I spent some time living in France — I was seconded, by the Canadian subsidiary I was working for at the time, to their head office in Lyon, France as the project manager of a global IT implementation project involving a project team with members from the company’s sites in France, Canada and the US.  In the end, K and I lived there for four years, spanning the turn of the millennium — in fact, we arrived in France just a few months after José Bové lead a protest (referred to in the BBC News article) against globalization of the food industry and its impact on French food, culture and farmers.  During our stay in France, we did eat in McDo (pronounced “Mack-Doh” by the French) from time to time, particularly when travelling within France (we ended up seeing more of France than many French people ever do, we were told by the people we got to know there) — the food, if uninspired, was at least a known and predictable source of reasonably priced nourishment, accompanied by (most of the time, anyway) a decent set of toilets and air-conditioning, items which were probably more valuable than the food to us on a hot, humid summer day of touring around an unfamiliar city or town we were visiting.  So during that time we saw a lot of this shift in the attitude of the French that the BBC News article describes, and I can completely believe that the opening of a McDo in the underground shopping concourse linked to the Louvre was a non-event for the French media and population in general.  We did eventually stop eating at McDo, although not for reasons of globalization of the food industry — one of the perks of working in France was the “Comité d’Entreprise” or CE (here’s a Google translation of the French text for non-Francophones), which among other things often organizes subsidized events for the company’s employees, including trips scheduled during holiday periods.  The CE had planned a trip to Egypt in 2003 and we were all signed up for it, looking forward to the trip with great anticipation (we had previously gone to Tunisia on a CE arranged trip and had a wonderful time) as visiting Egypt from Canada was something we would not likely be able to afford later on.  And then… Dubbya decides to invade Iraq.  Due to concerns for the security of employees, travel to the area at the time was prohibited by the company and the CE duly cancelled the trip… merde.  We have not (to the best of my recollection) set foot in a McDo, anywhere, since then.

Of course, YMMV — read the articles and form your own opinion, dear readers.

Headlines that show just how little we have evolved

April 7, 2009

From the BBC News website, this report in the Science & Environment section about research by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (part of the Max Planck Society, named for German Physicist Max Planck) was headlined:

Chimpanzees exchange meat for sex

In the article, researcher Dr Cristina Gomes is quoted as saying:

Dr Gomes thinks that her findings could even provide clues about human evolution.

She suggests this study could lay the foundations for human studies exploring the link between “good hunting skills and reproductive success”.

“This has got me really interested in humans,” she said. “I’m thinking of moving on to working with hunter-gatherers.”

Methinks she needs to get out more often…

Been there, seen that

December 14, 2008

Another headline from the BBC News feed caught my eye, this time only because of my “French Connection” — having lived and worked in France for 4 years while at previous job, I have a continued interest in things to do with France (and French-speaking cultures elsewhere, comme notre Belle Province de Québec).

So, the headline was: A curiously French complaint

And having lived there and dealing with the French medical system, I can attest to the truth of what the article’s author has written about the propensity to dole out pills and potions at the drop of a chapeau.

To be fair, though, both K and I did receive excellent medical care while there — we had a wonderful physician, Dr. C-A Pigeot, as well as excellent para-medical practitioners (a chiropractor and an osteopath, in particular).

As well, in addition to jambes lourdes or “heavy legs” being a common and largely French condition, the French also seem to have a near-pathological aversion to drafts or courants d’air, to which all sorts of maladies are attributed.

Ah, well… vive la différence.

First, Neil Armstrong walks on the Moon

November 5, 2008

Then Barack Obama is elected President of the United States of America.  Guess I’ve lived long enough to have seen some pretty miraculous things.

A few thoughts on this:

  • I am quite happy that Obama will be the 44th President, he appears to be a decent and thoughful man.
  • The high voter turnout (something like 64%) can probably be directly attributed to his ability to inspire his followers, as well as scare his opponents; I’m sure lots of Republicans got out to vote who might not have, if the Democrats had not fielded as strong and inspiring a candidate.
  • Ultimately, I think he was elected for one reason — he made enough of the American people truly believe:

Yes we can.

It was definitely a moment in history, which is why I’ve compared it to Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon.  Both events were witnessed and marvelled at by the whole world.

In the case of Obama’s election as President, Canadians had a particularly close up view of the event — to the point where for many Canadians it overshadowed our own recent General Election, in which voter apathy reached new depths: an average 59.1% turnout across the country.

Granted, the outcome of the US election is important on a global scale, but I think many of my fellow Canadians far overestimate the impact of the person in the Oval Office on our own lot in life.

Frankly, the economic interests of individual states have far more bearing on life in Canada than Barack Obama, or any President for that matter, will ever have.  Congress will continue to pass legislation favouring the economic interests of those states with powerful lobbying groups, and where those interests are in conflict with those of the neighbour to the north, well, no prize for guessing who the Senate and Congress will be paying attention to.

So, we’ve witnessed history, and been caught up in the magic of the moment.  But the day after, Canada still has a government led by…  not Barack Obama.

What we need to ask ourselves as a country is:

Why can’t we?