Sunday, 8 December 2019

Understanding Time . . . and the River

Mayflies

When I was a kid, every spring there would be a massive invasion that looked like a snowstorm of big floppy-winged snowflakes.  We euphemistically called them "Mayflies."  When I was told that these flocks of shadflies only lived for 24 hours, I remember thinking "why bother?"  If you are only going to live for 24 hours, why bother living at all?

Other "Creatures of a day"

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I'm reading Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound.  Prometheus is being tortured for giving fire to mankind (bound to a mountainside, an eagle comes to eat his liver every day).  The gods ask him, "Why did you give this property of the gods to creatures of a day?" Wait a minute!  "Creatures of a day"--that's us; we human mortals.



Cosmos

Another couple of decades later, I'm watching the television series Cosmos:  A Spacetime Oddessy and Neil deGrasse Tyson is explaining that the history of our planet is barely a blink of an eye in relation to cosmic time.  The history of humanity is so minuscule there is no word in the English language to describe its brevity.  Okay, I get it, time is a matter of perception.  My apologies to the Mayflies.

What is time?

But I still don't get, I still don't understand, "what is it?"  What is time?  Like everyone else, I use the word and, like everyone else, I always pretend I know exactly what it means.  "Spacetime," oh yeah.  "The spacetime continuum," got it.  "The beginning of time," "the end of time," time's up," "on time," "overtime," "once upon a time"--sure, sure.  Is there anything more important to a mortal than time?  Shouldn't I know what it is?

A Brief History of Time

I've even read Steven Hawking's Brief History of Time. It was interesting to learn about black holes and quantum theory and time travel, and to get confirmation that "there is no unique measure of time that all observers will agree on." Yet, I was left to wonder, "What is this thing that everybody measures differently?"  "Brief history of time" is a cute title, but isn't there a paradox here?  Or is it redundant? Isn't "history" another word for "time"?  The "time of time"? I'm reminded that physicists escape answering what came before "the big bang" because "the big bang" was the beginning of time, and there can be no "before."  I just find this answer irritating.  (Probably why I'm not a physicist.)

Physics versus philosophy

Sean Carroll argues that physicists and philosophers have different kinds of answers to "what is time?"  Once physicists have an answer that works, they stop asking the question.  Only philosophers keep digging.  Julian Barbour is a physicist, and he offers a description of time that almost makes sense to me.  According to Barbour time is change, and if there is no change, time does not exist.

Time is an arbitrary system of measurement

I'm going to go one step further, and if I'm right, someone please contact the Nobel committee. What?  There's no Nobel for philosophy?! Okay, I'll accept the Nobel for physics.  Time does not exist as a thing that is measured.  Time is primarily a system of measurement, various arbitrary units of measure that we use to describe and calculate movement, change and velocity.

"Time" is a word

As I make seemingly bombastic, counterintuitive claims like "time does not exist," I need to remind you (and myself) that "time" is first and foremost a word.  It is a common error in thinking to assume that if a word exists, there must be some thing (an essence) existing in the world that corresponds to the word.  (The error even has a name:  it's called essentialism. Deconstruction is the fairly simple project  of displaying how words/concepts are "constructed" over time rather than being "essential."  See The Postmodern Hoax and Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking.")

Where do words come from?

In answer to the question "Where do words come from?", I would typically invite my Introduction to Literature students to create a new word.  The first steps were for them to give me a sound or series of sounds that were not a known word, then we would agree upon a series of letters that could represent the sound.  (The linguist de Saussure called these sounds/letters the "signifier.") Then I would invite the students to use this new "word" in a series of made-up sentences.  For example:  the students might give me something like "ugghwamp."  Then they would create a series of sentences:

"People with ugghwamp are always more attractive."

"I got drunk and lost my ugghwamp on Thursday night.'

"Ugghwump is the source of social inequality."

After we had created enough sentences, I would point out that the concept of "ugghwamp" was beginning to emerge.  (De Saussure called this the "signified.")  Ultimately, I would ask the class "Does 'ugghwamp' exist?"  The existence or non-existence of ugghwump in the world (de Saussure's "referent") would have no effect on the meaning or our usage of the word.  (This fact inspired de Saussure to postulate a new, independent science of signs called "semiology.")

There are many phenomena that we perceive and talk about--duration, sequence, pace, rhythm, persistence, history, movement.  From this collection of perceptions and statements, we have come up with the word "time."  


Heraclitus:  "You can't step into the same river twice"

In the very first philosophy lecture I ever attended, the professor presented Heraclitus's claim that "you can't step into the same river twice."  We live in a river of ever-changing particles on a planet swimming in a changing universe.  In terms of relative size, we are 7 billion souls living on a dust mite. We invented the concept of time to preserve the illusion that we can call "time out" and make the world stand still, and, like shadflies, to imagine our 24 hours of existence is an eternity.

"I Didn't Know What Time It Was"

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Friday, 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II



English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).




My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"


The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Who Needs English Grammar?

The Irony of English grammar

The irony of English grammar is that we impose it most on the people who need it the least:  second- or foreign-language learners.  (See The "Ball of String" Theory.) Anyone who teaches English will, at some point, feel compelled to tell the fib that you need grammar to communicate and be understood in English.  This claim is pretty easy to disprove. Consider the following sentence:

"Me eats restaurant Italian yesterday."

An astute English teacher will point out that this five-word sentence contains at least six errors of grammar:  1) wrong case of pronoun, 2) wrong verb tense, 3) error of subject-verb agreement, 4) missing preposition for the indirect object, 5) faulty syntax, 6) missing indefinite article/determiner.  All this to say that the sentence should be:

"I ate in an Italian restaurant yesterday."

However, most native speakers of English would have little doubt about the intended meaning of the garbled sentence despite its multiple errors of grammar.  (A message full of errors circulated on the internet some time ago, demonstrating that native English speakers can understand even a long message which contains mistakes in every single word.  I'll attach it to the end of this post.)

It took me about ten years of correcting hundreds (probably thousands) of faulty sentences before the epiphany finally dawned on me.  The fact that I was able to correct the grammar was proof that I always understood the intended meaning of the original ungrammatical sentences.  Or, to reverse the insight, if I didn't know what the person was trying to say, I wouldn't have been able to correct the grammar. So much for "you need grammar to be understood."

What language students learn that native speakers don't know

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that most native speakers don't know the grammar that we expect language students to learn.  Test yourself.

1. What's the difference between "I'll see her tomorrow" and "I'm going to see her tomorrow"?

2.  What's the difference between "I've seen Star Wars" and "I saw Star Wars"?

3.  What's the difference between "I'm studying history" and "I study history"?

Identify the error


4. "The guy which lives next door"  or "The guy that lives next door"?  Why?

5.  "Less people than expected" or "Fewer people than expected"?  Why?

6.  "He's bigger than me" or "He's bigger than I"?  Why?

7.  "Just between you and me" or "Just between you and I?  Why?

Testing Grammarly

I downloaded and installed the free version of the Grammarly app for this post.  This isn't a scientific evaluation of Grammarly or even a review (but something to consider for a future post).  However, I find the results instructive.  Grammarly detected that "which" sentence #4, "less" in #5 and "I" in #7 were mistakes.  According to Grammarly, both quoted sentences in #6 are correct.   Both sentences being right is impossible, but I understand the Grammarly decision.  According to proper prescriptive grammar, "he is bigger than I" is correct, but for most native speakers "bigger than me" just sounds better.

To give credit where credit is due, I have made a few changes as I have been typing based on Grammarly suggestions.  On the other hand, here are a couple of sentences that I correctly predicted Grammarly would not know how to deal with.

"He is the Mr. Jones that lives next door, not the Mr. Jones convicted of fraud."

The sentence is necessarily awkward, but not ungrammatical. Grammarly cannot accept a sentence in which "the" and "Mr." appear consecutively.

"I have seen that movie yesterday."

Interestingly, the verb tense in this sentence (above) is wrong, but Grammarly does not detect the mistake.  When a specific time in the past is indicated, you must use the simple past tense (not the present perfect, "have seen").  (See The Truth about English Verb Tenses.)

Most revealing, in the garbled sentence with which I began this post--"Me eats restaurant Italian yesterday."--Grammarly detects only one mistake.  According to Grammarly, "me" should be "I", consequently "eats" must then be "eat."  However, your final sentence would then be "I eat restaurant Italian yesterday"--which Grammarly declares error-free.

The important point to glean here is exactly the one I made at the top: in order to correct the grammar, you must already understand the intended meaning of the sentence.  If the app doesn't understand your sentence, can't read your intended meaning, it will not be able to correct your grammar.

Grammar and dress codes

When the argument that communication is the underlying necessity of English grammar falters, we English teachers typically turn to the analogy that grammar is like dress codes. You know, you have to dress properly for the occasion.  I can still remember telling a class of would-be professional writers studying Applied Grammar that "of course, you wouldn't wear a baseball cap with a tuxedo."  Two weeks later (and I'm not making this up) at the Grammy Awards all the hip-hop artists were wearing jewel-encrusted baseball caps with their tuxedos.

"Rules are meant to be broken."

The feature that grammar and dress codes share is that in both cases "the rules are meant to be broken." While we tell students that you need grammar to "get on in the world," the Rolling Stones have gotten on pretty well with "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."  And then there is the Nobel Laureate in Literature who wrote "It Ain't Me Babe."  Could pop music survive without that anathema to English grammar: "ain't"?  (By the way, Grammarly accepts "ain't.")

As General MacArthur once quipped, "You are remembered for the rules you break"--which is probably why breaking the rules of grammar and dress codes has such appeal.

"Rules . . . are too often for the lazy to hide behind."

The complete MacArthur quote is "Rules are mostly meant to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind."  The second half of the aphorism is particularly apt and rarely quoted.  The rules of grammar, as I endlessly pointed out to students, were the beginning of the thinking process, not the end. Grammar changes over time, it varies from one region to another, and it is tied to linguistic register. Once you know the rules, then you need to consider how they should be applied and even when to break them.

English grammar isn't a license to bully!

Knowing a few of the rules of English grammar isn't a license to bully, for one-up-manship or rudeness. I find it strange that individuals would proudly declare themselves "grammar nazis" online, since the dysphemism implies someone following rules without understanding or appreciating them--their intentions, consequences, validity, basis or morality.  I've seen dozens of different versions of this poster:


I really don't know how I am supposed to feel about this sign.  For one thing, this is a very specific mistake that some grammar nazi has dreamed up that I can't imagine anyone actually making. Plus, it isn't very . . . well . . . grammatical. It makes me think of this other sign:


If grammar really is about "knowing shit," with or without an apostrophe seems a minor problem.  The fact that "their," "there" and "they're" (like "your," "you're" and "yore") are pronounced the same way but have such different meanings and usages tells me more about the underlying incoherence of the English language than about those individuals who are occasionally guilty of their /there/ they're misuse.  (While I'm at it, here's a prediction.  Sometime in the not-too-distant future, "they're" and "you're" will disappear from the English language; "your" and "their" will become not only accepted but consider correct English.  Dictionaries will begin to identify "they're" and "you're" as "archaic.") 

The Origins of English grammar

The origins of English grammar (or grammars) can be traced to the 18th century, in particular to Jonathan Swift's "A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue," in which he decried the fact that contemporary authors (like himself):  "will be read with Pleasure but a very few Years, and in an Age or two shall hardly be understood without an Interpreter." Swift's Gulliver's Travels has survived better than the average 18th-century text; however, despite the fact that we continue to browbeat highschool students into reading Shakespeare's 17th-century dramas, few people these days (despite vainglorious claims to the contrary) can read the writers of 400-years past without an interpreter (or at least an interpretation). 

Although the rules of grammar were supposed to pave the path to immortality for English writers, what was actually produced was Robert Lowth's  A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes (published and republished 50 times from 1762 to 1800) from which we are instructed,  based on the spurious notion that English should follow the rules of Latin, that a sentence cannot end with a preposition and we must not split an infinitive.  (See: What Is English Grammar? for more.)

In keeping with my "Do not read this sign" sign,  in "The 'rules' of grammar are made up, so why bother following them?" Tiger Webb points out:

That Lowth, like many after him, broke most of these so-called "rules" in his own writing — or that some of his examples of substandard English came from the writings of Jonathan Swift — went unremarked upon at the time.

Taylor Swift vs. Jonathan Swift vs. The Princeton Review

I came across this comedic grammar kerfuffle in Penny Adam's "Is there simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English? Are you with Taylor or Jonathan Swift on grammar? in which she provided a link to an article in The Guardian entitled "Taylor Swift’s grammar marked down incorrectly."  The details are funny enough to make for entertaining reading, but the short version is that The Princeton Review, a company which helps students prepare for college admission exams, used a line from Taylor Swift's song, Fifteen, on one of their practice tests as an example of "bad grammar."  Swift herself responded, pointing out that The Review had gotten the line wrong.  In a superlative example of "after shooting yourself in the left foot, how to take perfect aim at your right," The Review responded that the corrected quotation was also "bad grammar" because the plural pronoun "them" could not be used to refer to the singular subject "somebody."  (We are back to The Pronoun Wars, dear Reader--click the link if you need a reminder.)  The Review, being unaware of what is now widely known as the singular they, was pretty much laughed off the internet.   On the other hand, the brouhaha has given us a first answer to "Who needs English grammar?"  Apparently, if you are applying for admission to an American university, you should know some prescriptive grammar.

[To be continued in "Who Needs English Grammar:  Part II"]

Can you read this?


Only great
minds can read this.
This is weird, but interesting!
fi yuo cna raed
tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too

Cna yuo raed tihs?
Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.


The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid,
aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr
in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the
frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.


The rset can be a taotl mses and
you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm.


Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not
raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

The "Ball of String" Theory for Learning English as a Second or Foreign Language


 The "Ball of string" theory

I believe in the “ball of string” theory of learning English. Imagine that the English language is an infinitely long piece of string. You begin rolling the string into a ball. The English that you have mastered, can repeat and understand almost perfectly, is your ball of string.



Daily English is redundant and repetitive

Your ball of string begins with the English words and expressions that you might hear every day: “Hello,” “How are you?” “How much is it?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Coffee and a cheese sandwich please.” “Nice weather today.” “Tomorrow.” “Next Monday.” “That’s nice!” All the simple words and expressions that you hear constantly repeated. Assuming you are somewhere where people around you speak English, you don’t need to learn any grammar or how to conjugate verbs or have a vocabulary of unusual words or expressions. If you are surrounded by people who speak English and you pay attention, you will discover that in daily conversation people use a small variety of words. English, as it is spoken in daily life, is repetitive and redundant. You only need to learn how to understand and repeat the things you hear most often being said around you in order to begin “your ball of string.”

To Learn is to add something new to what you already know

When you are rolling a ball of string, as the ball gets bigger it becomes easier and easier to add more string and you will do it faster and faster. Learning is the process of adding something new to what you already know. The process is fast and efficient because you only learn what you really need to know right now. In every course, book or program for learning English, you will be asked to learn things that you don’t need immediately and you may never need. For example, a course or book might encourage you to learn, the conjugation of the verb “to write” in the present continuous: “I am writing, you are writing, he is writing, we are writing, you are writing, they are writing.” In real life you are probably never going to say any of these things, so why waste time learning them. Learn only what you need right now for your life, interests and occupation, (maybe “I’m writing to him right now” will be useful), the rest you will be able to learn easily when your ball of string is much bigger.

Watch low-budget television

This approach means that you focus on what you already know, practicing, repeating and perfecting what you know, instead of constantly trying to learn something that you don’t know and may never need. If you are living in an area where people around don’t speak English, you will have to try and artificially create the environment where the “ball of string” approach will work. I would recommend watching television soap operas—not big-budget shows. The lower the budget, the more tv shows depend on actors talking a lot in normal dialogue and common language. You don’t even have to understand the show, just begin to understand the words and phrases that are being used most often to add to your ball of string.

What a teacher is teaching isn't necessarily what a student is learning

Even if you are taking a course to learn English, you can use this “ball of string” approach. I have often told teachers of English that what they are teaching is not necessarily what students are learning. Imagine a teacher is giving a lesson on verb tenses and asks each student in turn to repeat the different tenses. He might say “okay, good,” and “now your turn,” “very good” and “now you.” The teacher might think he is teaching the verb tenses but what the attentive, ball-of-string student will learn is “okay, good,” “now your turn,” very good” and “now you.”

Thursday, 7 November 2019

When It Comes to China, Do Canadians Believe the Media?

The Media blitz

Since I first published a post ( 10 Dec 2018) on Canada's arrest of the Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou, I have been baffled, awestruck and frustrated by the refusal of Canadian media to question the legitimacy of her arrest and extradition.  Since I began the process of my own modest online inquiries, I have noticed that the National Post, the newspaper founded by Conrad Black before he went to prison (he has since been pardoned by President Trump), has published some of the most strident anti-China editorials.  Although, Black sold the paper to one-time Liberal Izzy Asper, in recent years "the Post has retained a conservative editorial stance."

What does "freedom of the press" mean?

Obviously every newspaper in the "free" world is owned by somebody. Does it matter who owns a newspaper or a media company?  I don't know.  I've never worked for a newspaper.  I'm not particularly courageous or selfless, so I imagine that if I worked for a large media company I would be reluctant to risk my job, my salary, my social position and connections by publishing anything that I knew ran seriously counter to the interests and ideology of my top-of-the-pyramid employer.  I find it discouraging that Robert Maxwell "who embezzled hundreds of millions of pounds from his companies' pension funds" also controlled hundreds of newspapers. (His daughter, Ghislaine Maxwell,  is in the news with claims that she was sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein's madame, supplying him with juvenile prostitutes.) It is hardly encouraging that Robert Maxwell's nemesis, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, "faced allegations that his companies, including the News of the World, owned by News Corporation, had been regularly hacking the phones of celebrities, royalty, and public citizens. Murdoch faced police and government investigations into bribery and corruption by the British government and FBI investigations in the U.S."

Does it matter that the Globe and Mail is wholly owned by The Woodbridge Company which is the private holding company of the Thomson family?

Is Reuters covering the story, or is Reuters the story?

As your typical diffident Canadian, I have long been aware but not terribly disturbed by the fact that our news comes to us through channels that usually have owners.  As a Canadian I think that we have CBC News and are therefore immune from tampering.  However, this seemingly innocuous article disturbed me: "New documents link Huawei to suspected front companies in Iran, Syria."

Why is it disturbing? If you followed the link, you will realize that it is presented under the banner CBC News.  However, this is not by any stretch of imagination CBC News.  As the small print and the content of the article make clear this is a publication of Thomson Reuters, the news agency owned by The Woodbridge Company of which the Thomson family are the principal shareholders.  Reuters is categorical that "Our correspondents do not use unconfirmed reports as the basis of a story, nor do they offer subjective opinion."  Nonetheless, readers need to be alert to the fact that what appears to be the research and writing of journalists from our national public broadcaster is, in fact, the work of un-named authors working for a private company principally owned by a single family.

Reading the article you will quickly discover that Reuters isn't just reporting the story, they are the story.
 . . . corporate filings and other documents found by Reuters in Iran and Syria show that Huawei, the world's largest supplier of telecommunications network equipment, is more closely linked to both firms than previously known.
Reuters have actively been building a case which might ultimately be used against Meng.  As they report, somewhat proudly:
Articles published by Reuters in 2012 and in 2013 here about Huawei, Skycom and Meng figure prominently in the U.S. case against her. 

Does Thomson Reuters have skin in the Meng-Huawei game?

Under "normal" circumstances, we would praise journalists for the hard slogging, investigative journalism required to unearth evidence.  However, in this case, we don't know who the authors are.  We are encouraged to believe that this "news" comes from the CBC, but obviously no CBC journalists were involved.

Does Thomson Reuters have any skin in this game?  Is it reasonable to ask this question?  I ask the question quite naively, but the result is surprising.  Thomson Reuters has gone through significant restructuring this year.  (I own 16 shares of Thomson Reuters stock by the way.) In its Annual Report for 2018, Thomson Reuters announced "In October, we sold 55% of our Financial & Risk (F&R) business to private equity funds managed by Blackstone for approximately $17 billion and retained a 45% interest in the new company, which is now known as Refinitiv."

Refinitiv, as its website displays, is collaborating on China's "Belt and Road Initiative" (aka "The New Silk Road") which the company describes as "The Infrastructure Project of the Century."  Thomson Reuters is now invested in China.  Will we begin to see a softening of positions and warming toward China in the Globe and Mail and Reuters' reports?  On November 4, Reuters still appeared to be maintaining a negative slant on China, but on November 5, along with everyone else, they reported on the front page of the Globe and Mail print edition that China had lifted its ban on Canadian beef and pork.

[This link (above) is to the "Global News" website.  Since I'm on the theme, I checked to see "who owns Global News?"  It's owned by Corus, which is controlled by the Shaw family.  Wherever you get your news in Canada, there is likely to be a family at the top of the pyramid.]

Same numbers different story

Reuters published this article 4 Nov 2019:  "Less than a third of Canadians view China favorably -poll."  Considering the media coverage, I think the real and surprising news is that 29% of Canadians continue to view China favourably. Reading this "Less that a third" headline, I was reminded of living in Quebec during the referendum years.  I can vividly recall standing at the counter of my local depanneur (corner store).  Glancing down to my right I saw the bold, front-page headline of the Montreal Gazette: "One Third of Anglos Determined to Leave an Independent Quebec."  Looking to my left, the front-page headline of the French-language La Presse read "Two Thirds of Anglos Happy to Remain in an Independent Quebec"  [my translation from memory]. Same numbers different stories.

Summarizing a UBC survey, Reuters reported:
“The chill is real,” concluded the survey. China is now viewed favorably by 29% of Canadians, down from 36% two years ago but up from 22% in February, it concluded.

"Canadian Public Attitudes on China and Canada-China Relations"

"The chill is real" is a direct quotation from the UBC report, but the sentence appears on page 2, and is not a conclusion to the report as a whole.  "The chill" refers only to the drop of 7% from the previous survey two years ago.  Oddly, survey numbers indicate that attitudes toward China have warmed by 7% since February.  In the face of a Canadian media blitz condemning China for the arrest of two Canadians, and numerous reports on the threat China poses to Canada, it is astounding that one third of Canadians continue to view China positively.  (Keep in mind, that one third is almost as many Canadians as voted for the re-elected Liberal Party in the recent election.)

Survey says . . . 

The results are even more surprising, given the tenor of the survey as a whole which includes questions about human rights in China, references to Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and a substantial listing of all the reasons a Canadian might perceive China negatively.  A frankly amazing statistic (again given media coverage) is presented in the conclusion of the report:

A plurality (39%) of respondents felt arresting Meng was a mistake, and a plurality (35%) feel she should be released before judicial proceedings complete.

Consider:  if "arresting Meng was a mistake" were a political party, it would have formed a majority government in the October 2019 election.  Despite our politicians and our journalists, Canadians are impressive.  Being "wary of China while supporting continuing contact" and releasing Meng--all make perfect sense.

Is Canada’s Print Media Fair on China?


Influential, misinformed Canadian media hurts China-Canada relations: envoy



Monday, 4 November 2019

The Panda and the Beaver

The Difference between pandas and beavers

The panda and the beaver are very different animals.  The panda is big and black and white, eats bamboo and likes to sleep in the top of trees.  The beaver is small and brown, eats maple trees and lives inside a beaver damn.  Beavers and pandas don't have much to do with each other, except that eating maple trees is good for bamboo, and eating bamboo helps the growth of maple trees, so they got along.  Then one day the eagle told the beaver, those pandas have been helping the leopards, so you should grab that panda cub when she comes near your pond.  Beavers always do what the eagle tells them to, so they did.  They grabbed the panda cub and brought her underwater to their lodge.  The beavers treated the panda cub very nicely because beavers are nice.  When the pandas saw what the beavers had done they were very upset and they grabbed two beavers and brought them to the top of the trees.  Beavers don't like being high in the air--pandas aren't nice like beavers.  Then the pandas began to drain the water out of the beaver pond--pandas really aren't nice like beavers.



The Beaver response

When they saw what was happening the beavers did what beavers do, they slapped their tails against the water to make a loud noise.  When the eagle heard the noise he understood and said: "Yes, what the pandas are doing isn't nice!"  The beaver slapped its tail some more and the rooster and the lion and the kite and the falcon and camel all agreed that "the pandas weren't nice like the beavers."  And the beavers all agreed "we're nice, but the pandas aren't."  But the bear and the crocodile and the cobra and the leopard and lots of other animals still seemed to like the pandas.  So the beavers told themselves some more, "Pandas aren't nice like beavers."  But the two beavers stayed in the trees and the pandas continued to drain the pond.


Is the panda a dragon?  What kind of dragon?



Enough Aesop's already--except to quote a line from a documentary on China and the New Silk Road:  "China is a friendly dragon, but it's still a dragon."  Canada's relationship with China, its second-largest trading partner, is the most acute and urgent problem facing legislators, but I heard no substantive discussion of the issue during the recent election campaigns.  Only one politician, Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois dared to mention China in the leadership debate.  Blanchet proclaimed that it was foolish of Canada to arrest the Huawei CFO, trying to flex muscles that it did not have before China. In his report on the debate, Paul Welles, in keeping with what has become the Anglo-Canadian journalistic meme, took the opportunity to play to Anglo-Canadian self-righteousness mixed with a bit of Quebec bashing, while alluding to how law-abiding we have been been in arresting Meng.

He [Blanchet] did say arresting Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou “may have been a big mistake,” which I will take as his way of letting everyone know that a sovereign Quebec would ignore its obligations under extradition treaties. 

Had Welles taking 45 minutes to consult the Canadian Extradition Act, or the  Treaty on Extradition Between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America, or even the Public Prosecutor Service of Canada's clear instruction that "Extradition treaties do not themselves create an obligation or a power to arrest in Canada," he might have reconsidered his mockery of Blanchet.  However, these days the job of most Canadian journalists is to repeat not to research.


China's new "Silk Road" 

For most of its history, Canada's economy has depended on trade with the USA to function and survive.  However, China has been challenging the USA as the world's largest and most powerful economy.  As the USA has adopted a fuck-you-if-you're-not-American economic policy, China has been subsidizing massive infrastructure projects all over the world--hundreds of billions spent in 65 different countries so far.   The size and scope of Chinese global subsidies have been compared to the USA's Marshall Plan after the Second World War.



How should Canada behave in this battle of Titans?

A number of editorials and Jonathan Manthorpe's recent monograph, Claws of the Panda:  Beijing's Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada emphasize that we should mistrust and fear the current Chinese regime.




Okay.  Once fear and mistrust have been established, then what?  Manthrope judiciously points out that "engagement with China cannot and should not be avoided" and claims that his book is not "arguing that Canada should distance itself from the current regime in Beijing."  However, since his premise is that representatives of Chinese diplomacy or business can be viewed as "spies" for a "fascist" regime in Beijing, a thick cloud of suspicion is cast over virtually every interaction between Canada and China.

Here's the smoke, where's the fire?

In these cautionings about Canada becoming too cozy with China, concrete examples and hard evidence never quite match the level of the sensational rhetoric and headlines.  The essayists'  evidence is often in the form of guarded references and allusions to CSIS (the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service).  CSIS itself is part of the problem.  Our Intelligence Service has yet to gain the recognition of the population or the confidence of our political class.  (This is, after all, the organization that Arthur Porter, who was convicted of receiving $22 million in bribes from SNC-Lavalin, was tasked with overseeing.)  Evidence, purportedly coming from CSIS, of Chinese malfeasance, is in the form of leaks and anonymous sources--all under the required veil of secrecy.  When there are supporting public documents such as the  National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians Annual Report 2018, they don't quite live up to the dire, definitive headline:  "It's official – China is a threat to Canada's national security."  Or, as in the case of Rethinking SecurityChina and the Age of Strategic Rivalry, linked on the CSIS website, we are informed that what we are reading is not a CSIS report but the opinions of un-named academics. Ultimately, when Manthorpe offers potential solutions, they sound much more like the status quo, a (re)new(ed) cold war, or simply too abstract to be meaningful:

. . .  future governments in Ottawa need to prepare the ground. They need to cement political, economic, social, and security ties within NATO and the G7, along with other like-minded countries. Canadian politicians need to assume a much tougher and more self-assured attitude toward Beijing than is now the case.
If these are the solutions, can the threat to Canada be that dramatic?

The Examples of Australia and New Zealand

Warnings of the Chinese threat in Canada typically cite the examples of New Zealand and Australia.  In fact, when the argument is being presented that China is a threat to Canadian sovereignty the authors most frequently quoted are from Australia and New Zealand--Clive Hamilton and Anne-Marie Brady respectively. (See, for example,"Academic who blew the whistle on China's influence on Australia says Canada is in even worse trouble, [take note of the quite innocent but dire looking photo] and  "How China uses shadowy United Front as 'magic weapon' to try to extend its influence in Canada."  Both articles published in the National Post.)

I agree with Manthorpe that the Australians have been a "good deal louder" than us in discussing their relations with China.  Watching the Australian television series Pine Gap, I was struck by how the challenge of being in the middle of a China-versus-USA conflict is forefront in the Australian imagination.   Fiction aside, Pine Gap is, in reality, a "US satellite surveillance base" run jointly by Australia and the USA.  "The station is partly run by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), US National Security Agency (NSA), and US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and is a key contributor to the NSA's global interception effort, which included the ECHELON program."  If you watch the tv series to the end, you will discover that these fictional Australians are much more concerned by the recklessness of the American regime than by the financial investments of a Chinese businessman in their communities.

There is more to fear than fear itself

It makes perfect sense to be wary of Chinese investments and influence in Canada, particularly as China is expanding its global empire and, in some instances, using debt-trap diplomacy to achieve its objectives.  There is no doubt that the current regime in China espouses and promulgates a system of values which runs counter to the dominant values of the West.  General Secretary Xi Jinping's Document 9 on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere clearly and explicitly spells out those differences.  We need to have an open, public discussion of Canada's relationships with China.  Describing those relationships as "a war" and couching the discussion in terms of espionage do not strike me as helpful.  At the moment we seem to have fear-mongering in one corner and naivety in the other, but willful ignorance about everything in between.  The absolute refusal of Canadian politicians and media to discuss all aspects of the Meng arrest is evidence of our current inability to have an open discussion.

"Open discussion" is NOT the same singular argument presented over and over

Global News published a commentary this morning in which it is observed that "Meng is living in a gilded cage at one of her two multi-million dollar homes in Vancouver and is free to go shopping and eat out."  How many times do we need to hear this beside-the-point inanity before someone finally asks, "Were we justified in arresting her in the first place?"

Jonathan Manthorpe was invited to discuss his book on TVO's The Agenda.  The episode, Exposing China's Influence in Canada, was bookended by references to Canada's arrest of Meng.  Both the introduction to the show and Manthorpe's penultimate answer referred to the arrest of the Huawei CFO. However, in discussing the "Huawei affair,"  Manthorpe described it as "the kidnapping and holding hostage of two Canadians."  Not a single word was spoken about the Meng arrest which precipitated this reprehensible response.  I certainly agree with Manthorpe that in our dealings with China we have to ask "How does this benefit Canada?"   How has arresting Meng benefited Canada?

Back to Aesop

The panda princess is still being held in a "luxurious" beaver lodge, beavers are still being held in the trees and the pandas continue to drain the pond.  How is the newly-re-elected leader of the beavers going to deal with the situation?  He's going to make it rain!


Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Central Banks and the Bitcoin Experiment

Money has gone digital

Money has gone digital.  Less than 3% of currency these days is in the form of cash (coins or paper bills).  I still struggle to understand bitcoin, but I have slowly come to realize that what I don't fully understand are the technological aspects of bitcoin.  To understand bitcoin, you must first understand blockchain. To understand blockchain, you need to know about open-source coding, algorithms and cryptography, then you need to know about hashing and CPUs in order to understand what "mining for bitcoins" means (although I get that "mining" means solving a math puzzle and allowing transactions to use your computer).  However, these lacunae in our technological knowledge notwithstanding, bitcoin is just like any other digital currency (keeping in mind that the US dollar, for example, is already 97% digital) with only one truly significant difference.  Every example of money that we accept without much thought is managed and manipulated by a central bank--bitcoin is not.


Countries and companies preparing their own digital currency

Most countries have their own currencies--197 countries use 164 different national currencies worldwide--but there are only eight [small] countries without a central bank.  The Financial Post reported a few days ago that  last year Stephen Murchison did a presentation to the Bank of Canada on "whether or not the bank should issue its own digital money."  China is preparing the launch of its own digital currency.  Facebook is planning the release of Libra, its own digital money.  The FP article reports that :
 Switzerland’s central bank started exploring the use of digital currencies for trading. Sweden and Singapore both have research efforts underway. [ . . . .]  JPMorgan is already using a digital coin and Vanguard is testing a blockchain-based currency trading system.
Although these reports create the impression of a definite distinction between digital and non-digital currencies; to reiterate, most of the money we use today is already digital.  Since this currency must be encrypted in order to transit over the internet, it can also be described as cryptocurrency.  What distinguishes bitcoin from the crypto, digital money that we accept unquestioningly into our lives is that bitcoin has no central bank.

Facebook, China and even JPMorgan provide a central bank to manage their digital currencies.  We Canadians who have been accepting Canadian Tire money since the 1950s should be at ease with corporations' producing their own money, and recognize that a company (the Canadian Tire Corporation in this case) can be a central bank.  The question bitcoin raises is:  "Do we need central banks?"

Central Banks:  God or the Devil?

Central banks are either God or the Devil depending on your perspective.  Few issues are more likely to spur conspiracy theories than discussions of central banks.  The claim that the Rothchild family has slowly taken over the central banks of the world regularly gets viral play.  Depending on your perspective the US Federal Reserve (the US central bank) either saved the American economy from total collapse in 2008 with 100s of billions in bailouts, or it protected the interests of wealthy bankers at the expense of American sub-prime mortgage holders.  Central banks are either a cabal of fat-cat bankers taking care of themselves, or they are altruistic, public-spirited individuals dedicated to serving the interests and welfare of their countries' citizens.  Individuals with connections to a central bank have insider knowledge not only of monetary policy but of the financial systems and decisions of their home countries.  These financial gurus tend to be in the wealthiest 1% of the 1%--which arouses suspicion.  On the other hand, they help to control inflation and unemployment by decreasing or increasing the money supply, cooling down or heating up the economy.  We barely note their existence until there is a major screw up, as there was in 2008.

What's the difference between the new money and the old money?

The average citizen doesn't understand bitcoin because the average citizen doesn't understand money.  I speak from the perspective of an average citizen.  Even though I have done two posts on the subject (What Is Money?  & How Is Money Created)  and I am an accredited professional in understanding works of imagination, I still struggle to grasp that money, that thing which hard-core realists consider the bedrock of modern existence and survival, what we get up and go to work for, and worry about going to bed, can be such an airy-fairy, shrouded-in-mystery product of imagination.

How the Bank of Canada creates money

I credit this Parliament of Canada website with providing a clear and succinct description of "how the Bank of Canada creates money for the federal government." The article also provides "Information about how private commercial banks create money." The first step is perhaps the most confusing.  The Government of Canada produces bonds and treasury bills, which the Bank of Canada sells to private banks and other financial institutions, but the Bank of Canada also buys 20% of the bonds produced by the Government. This first step is confusing because to the uninitiated (like me) the assumption is that the Bank of Canada is part of the Government of Canada, so it sounds like Canada is buying and selling to itself.  The process would seem to make more sense if the Bank of Canada was a private company, separate from the Government.  In fact, the Royal Bank of Canada was first created as a private enterprise in 1934 but was nationalized in 1938.

However, in the current Canadian case:

Since the Bank of Canada is a Crown corporation wholly owned by the federal government, the Bank's purchase of newly issued securities from the federal government can be considered an internal transaction. By recording new and equal amounts on the asset and liability sides of its balance sheet, the Bank of Canada creates money through a few keystrokes. The federal government can spend the newly created bank deposits in the Canadian economy if it wishes.
The entire process seems like a game of "let's pretend."  "Let's pretend" you are a bank and I borrow some money from you, then I deposit the money I borrowed from you in your bank.  There is no limit to how much money I can borrow from you, and it doesn't matter if you think I'm a good, reliable client or not.  When I spend the money I have deposited in your bank, you take the money out of my account.  Of course, you will never be asked me to repay the money I've borrowed from your bank. Later, when I have depleted my account, I will just borrow some more money from you.  In more adult language:

 . . . the Bank of Canada's purchase of government securities at auction means that the Bank records the value of the securities as a new asset on its balance sheet, and it simultaneously records the proceeds of sale of the securities as a deposit in the Government of Canada's account at the Bank [. . . ]. No paper evidence of a bond, treasury bill or cash is exchanged between the Government of Canada and the Bank of Canada in these transactions. Rather, the transactions consist entirely of digital accounting entries.

Most of the Money in the Economy is Created by Private Banks

In the game of "let's pretend," the Bank of Canada only buys 20% of the Canadian government's loans, the other 80% is purchased by private banks and investment firms.

Private commercial banks also create money – when they purchase newly issued government securities as primary dealers at auctions – by making digital accounting entries on their own balance sheets. The asset side is augmented to reflect the purchase of new securities, and the liability side is augmented to reflect a new deposit in the federal government's account with the bank. However, it is important to note that money is also created within the private banking system every time the banks extend a new loan, such as a home mortgage or a business loan. Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower's bank account, thereby creating new money [. . .]. Most of the money in the economy is, in fact, created within the private banking system.

As just described, with a click of the mouse, private banks have an asset (money in their accounts) and an equal debt owed to the Bank of Canada.  Why do private banks buy or even want Canadian government debt?  The answer has many names (some of which I have dealt with in What Is Money?  & How Is Money Created) such as "leverage" or "the fractal banking system."  The parliamentary website describes the system as "[t]he limiting rules, known as 'capital constraints,' [ . . .]."  What each of these expressions is telling us is that when you go to a bank to take out a mortgage, or a car loan, or an education loan, or if you use your bank's credit card to buy a cup of coffee, you are creating money.  The money does not exist until you spend it, and when you spend it you have created an asset--money in the bank's bank account.

The Ontology of money

What we are talking about here, in big words, is the ontology of money.  With most things that are borrowed, there is an assumption that they must exist in order to be borrowed--not so with money.  It's as if you go to the bank to borrow a cup of sugar, the bank has sugar, but the sugar they lend you doesn't exist--except that you still owe the bank a cup of sugar.  Guess what?  Now the bank is considered to have even more sugar, because the sugar you borrowed is added to the bank's supply. What "leverage," "the fractal banking system," and "capital constraints" all indicate is that the bank is allowed to lend you 10, 25 or even 40 times the amount of money it actually has, depending on the "limiting rules" in place.  For a period of time, the banks in Iceland had no limit on the amount they could lend out and thereby created so much money for themselves that they had more money on their books than the entire GDP of the country.  Imagine you were a bank and the "capital constraint" leverage ratio was 4% and you had a hundred dollars in your pocket.  You could lend your friend $2500 (without touching the $100 in your pocket).  Once you had your first friend's IOU for $2500, you could lend a second friend 25 X 2500 = $625,000.  If you could find a third friend, you could lend him $625,000 X 25!  You'd be a multimillionaire.  Kinda makes you want to be a banker, doesn't it?

The Bitcoin experiment

I call bitcoin an experiment because it attempts to test (prove or disprove) a hypothesis in an empirical fashion.  The hypothesis is that it is possible to create money without a central bank, without a private banking system, in fact, without any of the middlemen who run the financial system.  The mere fact that bitcoin still exists (despite constant rumours of its demise) is proof that it is possible to have a monetary system, to buy and sell, lend and borrow, carry out transactions of every sort on a person-to-person basis, without a central bank and accompanying private banking system.


What's wrong with bitcoin?

As I have taken note, here and there, of what is said to be wrong with bitcoin, I have found the only substantially negative feature of bitcoin relative to other currencies is its volatility.  The value of a bitcoin can change dramatically because its price is based entirely on supply and demand.  The total supply of bitcoins has, by design, been limited to 21 million.  Bitcoin is comparable to gold in terms of its limited supply and consequent fluctuating value. Fluctuations in the value of bitcoins can be unnerving as you are trying to decide if you should save, spend or exchange them.  This forex volatility calculator rates bitcoin (BTC) at least four times more volatile than most currencies.  Today's financial news is full of references to bitcoin's dramatic fall to below $10,000 Canadian.  Of course, if you bought, mined or were paid in bitcoins six years ago, you would still be up over $9000 per coin.  Central banks generally work to reduce the volatility of their countries' currencies, but they can also manipulate them to serve national economic interests in the global market place.

Much is made of the potential use of bitcoin to avoid taxes or for criminal activity.  As such bitcoin is a more technological, efficient replacement for cash, gold, jewelry, and artwork--all common currencies for tax-evading criminal activity (not to mention offshore banking, of course).  The real risk to and of bitcoins is that countries will and have been moving to protect their own central banks and banking systems by banning the use of bitcoin.  China is a leading example.  The second bitcoin risk, and perhaps this is the greatest one, is the competition from countries--like Canada, as the Murchison presentation suggests--when they create their own versions of bitcoin using the blockchain technology which would allow the government to track how every Canadian digital dollar is spent. 


Addendum