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Friday, 26 March 2021

On Reading "The Uyghur Genocide: An Examination of China's Breaches of the 1948 Genocide Convention"

 Apologist for China, Me?

In response to numerous posts I had written on Canada's arrest and detention of the Huawei CFO, Meng Wangzou, I was given friendly advice from a couple of sources that, in light of allegations of an Uyghur genocide,  I should not appear to be an apologist for China.  My immediate defense, even if unnecessary and unspoken, was that I had little or nothing to say about China.  My concern was Canada, what was in the best interest of Canada and Canadians.  As I've already said too many times on this blog, Canada's holding Meng for trial isn't moral or legal.  It isn't even strategic or advantageous from any Machiavellic realpolitik perspective.  It's just plain dumb. The only rationale which justifies her continued detention is the underlying, irrational fear that if we release her, the next day American tanks would come rolling across the border and Justin Trudeau would find himself sharing a cell with Manuel Noreiga.  Even in the Age of Trumpery, I had more respect for our southern neighbours than this.

Canada Declares a Genocide in China?

Despite my reluctance to comment, all the less so, to be an apologist for China; somehow China keeps becoming a Canadian story.  In January, the Canadian parliament passed a "non-binding" Conservative Party resolution declaring China's treatment of the Uyghurs a genocide.  Here is the resolution in full:


January 25, 2021 — Mr. O’Toole (Durham) — That,
(a) in the opinion of the House, the People's Republic of China has engaged in actions consistent with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 260, commonly known as the "Genocide Convention", including detention camps and measures intended to prevent births as it pertains to Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims; and
(b) given that (i) where possible, it has been the policy of the Government of Canada to act in concert with its allies when it comes to the recognition of a genocide, (ii) there is a bipartisan consensus in the United States where it has been the position of two consecutive administrations that Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims are being subjected to a genocide by the Government of the People's Republic of China, the House, therefore, recognize that a genocide is currently being carried out by the People's Republic of China against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, and call on the government to officially adopt this position.




Because Mike Pompeo Said So . . .

I found the justification that 'this is what they are doing in the United States' less than satisfying.  All the more so because the original American genocide declaration was more officious than official--with Mike Pompeo making the declaration 24 hours before the end of the Trump presidency and his tenure as Secretary of State. However, as various media have reported, the incoming Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, has expressed his agreement with Pompeo's declaration.

An "Independent " Report


The Uyghur Genocide and Reclaiming Power and Place

Who wrote The Uyghur Genocide?

Newslines Institue, Fairfax University and Fethullah Gulen

[ . . . ] a "visa mill" rather than a legitimate educational institution. [ . . .] a sham operation where an institution "offers little by way of educational value," but instead lures international students through its ability to offer access to student and work visas, while exploiting them by charging exorbitant tuition costs.  

The report attempts to construct an appearance of broad expert consensus supporting its conclusions, including a list of 33 “independent expert” signatories. Unsurprisingly, this list consists of individuals pushing for a New Cold War and confrontation with China, and who support separatist efforts to transform the mineral-rich, geopolitically important region of Xinjiang into a NATO-oriented ethno-state [. . .]

Where is the United Nations?

The Uyghur Genocide is a legal brief

The Burden of Proof

The report promises to apply "a clear and convincing standard of proof."  To understand this promise, it is necessary to consult the accompanying footnote, which links to a website entitled Standards of Proof in International Humanitarian and Human Rights Fact-Finding and Inquiry Missions which outlines four levels of "standard of proof."  Level three is: 

Clear and convincing evidence. Very solid support for the finding; significantly more evidence supports the finding and limited information suggests the contrary. (60%.) Classic expression is it is clear that.

Feedback Loop

The Uyghur Genocide claims that:

The repeated explicit Government orders (described below) to “eradicate tumors,” “wipe them out completely … destroy them root and branch,” “round up everyone,” “show absolutely no mercy,” “break their roots,” and eliminate “risks within risks, hidden dangers in hidden dangers,” combined with corresponding State practice, belie the purported security goals by targeting any and all members of the Uyghur population.

I attempted to trace the source of these quotations and confirm that they were, in fact, "repeated explicit Government orders."  It has taken me longer to read the 50-page Uyghur report, with its 317 footnotes/hyperlinks than it took me to read the 1550-page Canadian report on Indigenous women.  Almost invariably, the sources of these quotations (above) were newspaper articles or someone else's report. This approach contradicts the rules of evidence but what struck me more was that it has created a feedback loop.  The report was using the media as its source; then the media was using the report as a source.  The effect of the loop, this circulation within a closed circle, is repetition--rather than investigation--of information and escalation of the rhetoric even without new evidence or sources.

Are the sources biased?

No-one should criticize a journalist for writing passionately about human-rights abuses.  However, quoting a journalist who has written a string of such articles as legal evidence is problematic.  If you do an advanced google search of "eradicate tumours" (to include China and eliminate cancer), you get 215 hits. But what does "eradicate tumours" mean?  How should we interpret this expression out of any context?  It sounds like the government has given "repeated, explicit orders" to eradicate Uyghurs, doesn't it?  The phrase "eradicate tumours" is used seven times in the report: once in the table of contents, once as a heading, twice in a footnote and three times in the text, but never in a complete sentence to give it context.  

In order to understand where "eradicate tumours" comes from it is necessary to click on a link in the footnote which leads to an AFP [Agence France-Presse] article by Ben Dooley in which he reports:

Teams like the one sent to Akeqie Kanle from the Bingtuan Broadcast Television University (BBTU)

 [ . . . .]

"The work team is resolute," BBTU's publicity department boasted on social media in an unusual public accounting of the dark side of a work team's operations. "We can completely take the lid off Akeqie Kanle, look behind the curtain, and eradicate its tumours."

Akeqie Kanle is, according to Dooley, a village of 500, and over 100 of its residents have been removed to detention or re-education camps. In the above cluster of mixed metaphors, it is still difficult to interpret an exact meaning for "eradicate its tumours."  The metaphor is in keeping with a theme in Chinese government discourse describing religious extremism as a disease.  The phrase used by "BBTU's publicity department [. . .] on social media" does not appear to rise to the level of "repeated explicit Government orders." It certainly does not mean "eradicate all Uyghurs," as the phrase "eradicate tumours" seems to suggest when used out of context.

China's 9/11

China’s attempts to justify its policies in XUAR  [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] as a war against extremism, terrorism, or separatism do not absolve the State of responsibility for genocide. These policies primarily target Southern XUAR, where Uyghurs constitute approximately 90 percent of the population [. . . .]

Xinjiang is bordered by eight countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kazakhstan. In my sporadic review of The Xinjiang Victims Database, it appears that various ethnicities are being targeted, especially Kazakhs, and anyone who frequently crosses the border.

Although Newslines' report dismisses the Chinese justification of "a war against extremism, terrorism, or separatism," many of the report's uncontextualized quotations come from a New York Times article in which Chinese officials are being quoted at the height of terrorist attacks in 2014. "Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims" is the most comprehensive and balanced account I have encountered since beginning to research this subject.

From the New York Times

According to the NYT article, "The current crackdown began after a surge of anti-government and anti-Chinese violence, including ethnic riots in 2009 in Urumqi, the regional capital."  In April 2014, "Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31." The same year, "two Uighur militants staged a suicide bombing outside a train station in Urumqi that injured nearly 80 people, one fatally," and "assailants tossed explosives into a vegetable market in Urumqi, wounding 94 people and killing at least 39."  

Based on leaked documents, published alongside the article, the NYT claimed:

Against this backdrop of bloodshed, Mr. Xi delivered a series of secret speeches setting the hard-line course that culminated in the security offensive now underway in Xinjiang. While state media have alluded to these speeches, none were made public. 

Terrorist attacks abroad and the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan heightened the leadership’s fears and helped shape the crackdown. Officials argued that attacks in Britain resulted from policies that put “human rights above security,” and Mr. Xi urged the party to emulate aspects of America’s “war on terror” after the Sept. 11 attacks.

According to the NYT article, President Xi

traced the origins of Islamic extremism in Xinjiang to the Middle East, and warned that turmoil in Syria and Afghanistan would magnify the risks for China. Uighurs had traveled to both countries, he said, and could return to China as seasoned fighters seeking an independent homeland, which they called East Turkestan.  [ . . .] and urged officials to study how Americans responded to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"After the United States pulls troops out of Afghanistan, terrorist organizations positioned on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan may quickly infiltrate into Central Asia,” Mr. Xi said. “East Turkestan’s terrorists who have received real-war training in Syria and Afghanistan could at any time launch terrorist attacks in Xinjiang."

In several surprising passages, given the crackdown that followed, Mr. Xi also told officials to not discriminate against Uighurs and to respect their right to worship. He warned against overreacting to natural friction between Uighurs and Han Chinese, the nation’s dominant ethnic group, and rejected proposals to try to eliminate Islam entirely in China.

Freedom of religion is provided for in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, yet with a caveat: the government controls what it calls "normal religious activity," defined in practice as activities that take place within government-sanctioned religious organizations and registered places of worship.

According to the Wikipedia article on Religion in China:

The government formally recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam. In the early twenty-first century there has been increasing official recognition of Confucianism and Chinese folk religion as part of China's cultural inheritance.

According to The Uyghur Genocide, the destruction of mosques is significant, physical evidence of the suppression of Islam.

It is estimated that approximately 16,000 mosques in XUAR, or 65 percent of the total, have been destroyed or damaged due to government policies, largely since 2017, with 8,500 mosques completely demolished. 

Eugenics

The report [The Uyghur Genocide] relies most substantially on the “expertise” of Adrian Zenz, the far-right evangelical ideologue, whose “scholarship” on China has been demonstrated to be deeply flawed, riddled with falsehoods and dishonest statistical manipulation. 

"Rape, torture and human experiments. Sayragul Sauytbay offers firsthand testimony from a Xinjiang 'reeducation' camp"

Among the many newspaper articles referenced in The Uyghur Genocide is one published by Haaretz (a newspaper promising all the news on Israel and Jews around the world) with the lengthy title: "A Million People Are Jailed at China's Gulags. I Managed to Escape. Here's What Really Goes on Inside."  The article is based on a series of interviews with Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh, and "a teacher who escaped from China and was granted asylum in Sweden."  By her account, Sauytbay was forced to teach Mandarin in one of the camps where she encountered evidence of "rape, torture and human experiments."  She was able to cross the border from China into Kazakhstan illegally.  In Kazakhstan, she requested asylum, but her request was refused by the Kazakh court.  She then escaped to Sweden.


In response to Sayragul's receiving the award, the Global Times claimed that

According to information from the Xinjiang regional government, Sayragul applied for a 10-year-term repayment loan of 200,000 yuan using forged guarantee materials and guarantor's signature from a rural credit cooperative at Chahanwusu town in June 2015, and currently still owes 149,000 yuan from the loan. 

In December 2016, she applied for another 10-year loan of 270,000 yuan using a fabricated purchase contract, of which she still owes 249,000 yuan. She is facing charges of loan fraud, according to China's Criminal Law.

Sayragul illegally crossed the border and went to Kazakhstan from the China-Kazakhstan Horgas International Border Cooperation Center on April 5, 2018. 
"Sayragul claimed that she graduated from medical university and used to be a doctor. But the truth is, she had studied in the nursery class of Xinjiang Ili Health School, and has no working experience as a doctor. She never worked in any vocational education and training center at all," said the spokesperson.

The Chief Witness

Recently, Sayragul published a book entitled The Chief Witness, which is summarized as follows:

Born in China’s north-western province, Sayragul Sauytbay trained as a doctor before being appointed a senior civil servant. But her life was upended when the Chinese authorities incarcerated her. Her crime: being Kazakh, one of China’s ethnic minorities.
The north-western province borders the largest number of foreign nations and is the point in China that is the closest to Europe. In recent years it has become home to over 1,200 penal camps — modern-day gulags that are estimated to house three million members of the Kazakh and Uyghur minorities. Imprisoned solely due to their ethnicity, inmates are subjected to relentless punishment and torture, including being beaten, raped, and used as subjects for medical experiments. The camps represent the greatest systematic incarceration of an entire people since the Third Reich.
In prison, Sauytbay was put to work teaching Chinese language, culture, and politics, in the course of which she gained access to secret information that revealed Beijing’s long-term plans to undermine not only its minorities, but democracies around the world. Upon her escape to Europe she was reunited with her family, but still lives under the constant threat of reprisal. This rare testimony from the biggest surveillance state in the world reveals not only the full, frightening scope of China’s tyrannical ambitions, but also the resilience and courage of its author.

By her account in Haaretz, she was a language teacher in the camp.  She offers no explanation of how she came to witness medical experiments.  In the article, her knowledge of medicine seems very limited and she offers no examples of having used her medical knowledge while in the camp.   There is no evidence to support the hyperbole that "being Kazakh" would be considered a crime in China.  The estimates of  "1,200 penal camps" and "three million" detainees are the highest numbers I have heard so far.  Of course, we must wonder how Sauytay, a closely guarded prisoner according to her description, would manage to gain "access to secret information that revealed Beijing's long-term plans to undermine not only its minorities but democracies around the world." References to "gulags," "concentration camps," "penal camps," and the "Third Reich" are, I suppose, an expected result of the "feedback loop."  Sayragul Sauytbay's being "the chief witness" is belied by multiple witness statements on The Xinjiang Victims Database.

Who Benefits?

Reading The Uyghur Genocide, I asked the same question I asked in my reading of  Reclaiming Power and Place.  Who benefits?  I doubted that the Canadian report and the claim that murdered Indigenous women and girls were victims of acts of genocide were helpful to current and future generations of young Indigenous women.  Will Western proclamations of genocide benefit the Uyghur in China?  

Will declarations of genocide further the goal of an independent Turkic-Muslim state and an eventual civil war which, according to Chinese sources, the current policies are designed to prevent?  Will Western genocide proclamations cause China to change its human-rights policies?  Can Western democracies successfully threaten China into changing politically?



Chaos under Heaven and "the Thucydides Trap"

In Chaos under Heaven, Josh Rogin describes the Trump "China team" as divided into at least three factions:  the super-hawks who viewed China as an enemy and were determined to destroy the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), the hawks who view China as a competitor, and the "Wall-Street clique," Trump's billionaire buddies who saw China as an opportunity.  Claims of genocide seem to align with the ambitions of the super-hawks and the goal of a new Cold War.  I fail to see another Cold War as a desirable objective. In some quarters, ideology makes a Cold War inevitable, but the same ideology rarely considers the historical evidence (the Thucydides Trap) that cold wars usually lead to hot wars.

The trickle-down effect

What was the intention of the O'Toole genocide resolution?  To win points with the Canadian electorate?  To align with American super-hawks?  Excuse my cynicism, but I find it hard to imagine that the Canadian Conservative Party is driven by compassion for the world's Muslims.

Who benefits from the Conservative proclamation?  Certainly not Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor, who are currently on trial in China.  What about the 300,000 other Canadians now living in China?  In August 2019, the Ottawa Citizen reported Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada says that “Canada has not considered any special program for Uyghurs.”  Have the Conservatives lobbied for some change here?

These days there are regular reports of anti-Asian hate crimes, but I have yet to read any recognition that these attacks are the trickle-down effect of China-bashing by Western politicians and journalists. 

See https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/04/19/canadian-target-of-miles-guo-and-steve-bannon-protest-group-says-family-is-still-living-in-fear-as-criminal-case-gets-underway-in-brutal-beating-of-his-friend.html

The Conservative Party, in particular, seems to have trouble deciding where it stands on China and the Chinese.  "On 22 June 2006, newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the House of Commons" for Canada's historical mistreatment of the Chinese. In 2014,

Harper met with both President Hu and Premier Wen, and signed a number of economic agreements that had been prepared by Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird including a uranium export treaty, and the Canada-China Promotion and Reciprocal Protection of Investments Agreement (CCPRPIA), which was linked by the media to (further) potential Chinese investment in the Athabasca oil sands, and had been negotiated for eighteen years. The negotiations and the text itself were kept secret until November 2016. Chinese officials suggested that the next logical step would be a free trade agreement, which Canadian officials promised to study.

In his blog, August 6, 2005,  Andrew Scheer, who would be Harper's successor as leader of the Conservatives, mocked the choice of Adrienne Clarkson, a Chinese-Canadian, as Canada's Governor-General.  And this year, Erin O'Toole accuses China of genocide while it remains Canada's second-largest trading partner.

Conclusion

Addendum

Twenty-four hours after I published the remark (above) that I had yet to read of any recognition between China-bashing and anti-Asian hate crimes, The Globe and Mail published Doug Saunder's opinion piece, "Confronting China requires us to be precise," which discusses this connection.

Thursday, 11 February 2021

An Increase of 1000%; a Decrease of 81%, and What's Left?

GameStop/EB in the news

Alerted by my guru, I read the big news in the financial markets last week that  GameStop shares are up 1000%.  In Canada, GameStop owns the EB stores which sell video games and accessories.  When some big hedge funds were shorting GameStop stock, a social-media network of smaller investors, described as "gamers and nerds," decided to squeeze the short-sellers--which they did with great success, raising the stock price and costing the hedge funds billions in losses. 

How Much is 1000% minus 81%

Andrew Left of the hedge-fund Citron, one of the short-sellers, remained adamant that "Nothing has changed with GameStop except the stock price," and the company is still a loser.  (I always have time for sour grapes.) This week the headline is "GameStop Stock Drops 81%." So, how much is 1000% - 81%?  Spoiler alert: that's not how percentages work. How many of us innumerates have a confident understanding of this basic fact of mathematics?

 Percentages and innumeracy

One of my golf buddies regularly lectures to nursing students and described to me this shtick that he uses in his classes.  Standing at his lectern he asks the class, "How many of you would pay me a dollar for a trick which I guarantee will increase your chances of winning the lottery by 100%?"   He moves around the room and collects his payments among the raised hands, returning to the lectern, he tells them "buy two tickets."  (He assures me that his profits are redistributed to the class at coffee break.) His point is that it is primordial for medical specialists to understand or, more to the point, not be fooled by percentages.  An increase of 100% is X2; of 1000% is X10. 


 

The First rule of percentages!

In Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos gives the example of a "new toothpaste which reduces cavities by 200 percent"  and muses on what this claim could possibly mean.  A clothing store that announces a 100% sale would presumably be giving everything away for nothing.  A 200% reduction would mean the store would be paying us.  Advertisements using percentages are generally meaningless.  The rule, the obvious question to ask, as Paulos points out, is:  "Percentage of what?"

A Case in point

When shopping for a new car in 2019, I took note of the ubiquitous ads from various car dealerships offering 10%, 20%, even 30% off MSRP.  Should I be ashamed to admit that I couldn't remember (if I ever knew) what "MSRP" stood for?  It means, as you, no doubt, already know, "Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price."  What the manufacturer "suggests" is not what the dealership charges for the particular model you want to buy. But it gets worse.  You (and I) might think you got a deal because you negotiated 20% off the MSRP, but according to Car and Driver, the MSRP is smoke and mirrors. The real price upon which you should begin negotiations is the invoice price; that is, the lower-than-MSRP amount that the dealership pays the manufacturer for the car.

 How Much should a t-shirt cost?

Despite being conscious of the "percentage of what" rule, I still got caught.  I have quite a supply of t-shirts (my wife would say an oversupply), mostly purchased at Costco for between $7 and $11 (CAD).  When I got a very personal-sounding letter from the Bay with a card promising a one-day 40% sale on all items, including those already on sale,  I couldn't resist.  I ended up buying a flashy red t-shirt which was already 40% off.  Practically giving it away, right?  This is what Paulos says in Innumeracy:

[ . . .] an item whose price has been increased by 50 percent and then reduced by 50 percent has had a net reduction in price of 25 percent. A dress whose price has been “slashed” 40 percent and then another 40 percent has been reduced in price by 64 percent, not 80 percent.

I calculated the price of my flashy red t-shirt (sticker priced at $36.98), using Paulos's numbers.  I paid $12.94:  About 30% more than I would normally pay for a t-shirt.

Percentages and politics

In "The 2020 Election by the Numbers," James M. Lindsay points out that "Biden won 81,283,098 votes, or 51.3 percent of the votes cast. [ . . . . ]  Trump won 74,222,958 votes, or 46.8 percent of the votes cast."  However, that 4.5%, 7-million-vote differential can be misleading. As Paulos instructs: "Numbers always have to be interpreted." With the electoral college system, if Trump had won another 42,921 votes in just the right places--Arizona (10,457), Georgia (11,779), and Wisconsin (20,682), he would be President again today.

Canadians have been known to roll their eyes at the electoral college system, but the Canadian system is certainly no more democratic.  In Canada, a party with 39% of the popular vote can form a majority government and claim 100% of the power.

 Percentages and polling 

These days I'm pretty surly about answering surveys.  I have come to the conclusion that, almost invariably, my answers will be used to concoct something that I don't agree with.  I have already written about a number of such cases.  Consider, for example, the silly online survey the Liberal government put together when they were pretending that they were still interested in reforming the electoral process.  In completing the survey I was forced to decide between a parliament with many parties or one that could get things done in direct contradiction to my conviction that a parliament of many parties could get things done and get them done better and more democratically.

Similarly, when I read the headline that 72% of Canadians agreed with PM Trudeau's decision not to intervene in the Meng extradition, I was suspicious.  Sure enough, when I checked the question that Angus Reid asked ("percentage of what?" remember), the reason for the result was obvious.  

In order to answer the question, one would have to accept the false premise, the bald-faced lie, that extradition in Canada is "an independent court process" and "a legal matter" that can be left "with the courts to decide." In other words, 72% of Canadians who don't know the law--that extradition is a political decision in Canada--agreed with the Prime Minister.  Actually what the survey indicates is that 100% of Canadians don't know the law, including the Angus-Reid people and the Prime Minister.

Percentages and health

In Innumeracy, originally published in 1988 and republished in 2001, Paulos points out:

That one out of eleven women will develop breast cancer is a much cited statistic. The figure is misleading, however, in that it applies only to an imaginary sample of women all of whom live to age eighty-five and whose incidence of contracting breast cancer at any given age is the present incidence rate for that age. Only a minority of women live to age eighty-five, and incidence rates are changing and are much higher for older women.
Breast cancer is a serious disease and must always be taken seriously, but presenting misleading statistics is the opposite of treating the disease seriously.  Based on the available numbers, Paulos calculated that "The typical forty-year-old has about a 1.4 percent chance of developing the disease before age fifty."

Hormone therapy and breast cancer

Discussing the statistics on breast cancer does not mitigate the significance of the disease, but raises the question of how misleading or miscommunicated percentages can be detrimental to women's overall health.  In an article entitled  "Hormone therapy and breast cancer: risk communication and the ‘perfect storm'," Dr. R.L. Reid notes that 

When the WHI [Women's Health Initiative] reported a 26% increase in breast cancer among women using combined estrogen and progestin MHT [menopausal hormone therapy], few readers understood that this relative risk was derived from the data showing 30 breast cancers/10,000 women on placebo and 38/10,000 women on hormones. The absolute difference was eight additional breast cancers per 10,000 women per year. This amounts to an attributable risk of 0.08% per year or less than a 10th of a percentage point increase per year of use. (Indeed, the 74% of the enrolled women who were first-time hormone users showed no increased risk yet this received no media coverage.) Had the findings been conveyed to the media and the public in this way, we would not have seen the widespread panic that followed the 2002 WHI report.

Despite the recommendations of both Paulos and Reid that women should be given more detailed, precise statistical data, the Canadian Cancer Society continues to report that "1 in 8 Canadian women will develop breast cancer" and a decrease in breast cancers in "2002 coincided with a large drop in the use of HRT [hormone replacement therapy] among postmenopausal women when its role in breast cancer was publicized." 

An Increase of 1000%; a decrease of 81%, and what's left? 

So what results when you have an increase of 1000% and then a decrease of 81%? The question is meaningless until you answer the question "percentage of what?"  Oddly, the article that tells us that GameStop stocks "have risen by 1,000 percent in less than two weeks," only gets around to answering the "of what?" question in a very convoluted, innumerate fashion: "the company's shares were changing hands at around $4 US a share. They hit almost $400 on Wednesday. First off,  if the stock rose from $4 to $400, that's an increase of 10,000% (ten thousand percent) not 1,000% (one thousand percent).  If the stock rose 1000% to $400 in two weeks, that means the stock had been selling for $40.

The article quoting a drop of 81% used the stock price of $483.  Therefore the stock lost $391 of its $483 value.  In other words and round numbers, the stock that was selling for $4 in 2020 increased in value by 1000% in 2021 to $40, then, in two weeks, increased another 1000% to $400 (and more).  Then it lost 81%.    The answer to the question:  an increase of 1000%, another increase of 1000%, and a decline of 81%; in this case, the result is $92.00.  Got it?  If you bought the stock at $40, you're doing well.  If you bought it at $4, you're doing great.

Friday, 15 January 2021

The Power of Insignificance

 [ . . . ] the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
                                                                    George Eliot, Middlemarch

The Greatest English novel of all time

Does anybody read George Eliot anymore?  I have come to believe that Middlemarch is the greatest novel ever written in the English language.  For sometime I was convinced that the accolade had to go to one of Thomas Hardy's many novels.  Hugh Hood, novelist and my professor of the 19th-century novel, assured our graduate seminar that the title of greatest and most influential novelist belonged to Charles Dickens.  The officious, online award of number one is invariably given to James Joyce's Ulysses--that novel that everyone knows about but almost no-one has read.

Literature is "an arrangement of words"

Literature, it is commonly claimed, is "an arrangement of words."  This may not sound like much, but stop to consider:  arrange a bunch of atoms one way and you get a slug, arrange them another way and you get Claudia Schiffer, another and you get Elon Musk.  (You can insert your own examples.) In writing, the range of possibilities is from an inarticulate twitter tweet to Eliot's Middlemarch.  Having been through the novel a couple of times now, I know that I can drop my index finger on any one of its 880 pages and I will discover a sentence that impresses me in its construction, its euphony, its rhythm, its humour or irony or pathos, but mostly I will find myself saying "ahah, yes that's exactly right and the right way to say it," or I find myself full of new questions, wonder and insights.

Durrell's Alexandria Quartet

When I was an undergraduate in the 70s, a local newspaper asked some of my professors to provide a list of their top ten great novels.  A number of them listed Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.  I had to wait for retirement to find time to read its 896 pages (884 in some versions).  I understood immediately why it would be the choice of English professors.  For one thing, in my list of newly learned words (yes, I keep such a list), the Durrell novel accounts for about 80% of the entries.  Durrell's luxurious descriptions of scenes and scenery are comparable to the landscape paintings of the Dutch masters.  There is a texture, refinement and sensuality in his prose that is breathtaking. At the same time, getting to the end of the story is torture.  "Please, dear god, not another layered description of a tortured artist and heavy breathing against a purple horizon, without any clue about what is really going on!"  For reasons that escape me, we must read to around page 800 before Durrell reveals the plot which has governed the action of the novel from the beginning.  Prior to this point, we have been reading a philosophical prose poem.

The Age of pornography

We live in the age of pornography.  In this era, it is difficult to grasp the argument that Durrell was denied the Nobel in Literature because there was too much sex in his novels.  We might struggle to appreciate Eliot's subtle allusions and characters so trapped in decorum, propriety and protocol, that a hint of scandal would destroy a reputation and, consequently, a life, and a gesture or gestalt might alter a character's destiny.  Contemporary readers of Middlemarch will be tested because the first kiss of the young lovers whose fate ties the story together does not occur until chapter 83 of the novel's 93 chapters.  I wonder if the kind of readership that such literary works require isn't on the verge of extinction.

If you were young, beautiful and independently wealthy, would you marry this man? 


The patriarchy might well dismiss Middlemarch as a "women's" novel.  It was, after all, written by a woman, largely about women (in particular, the heroine, Dorothea Brooke),  and is addressed, arguably, to a female readership.  Mary Anne Evans was, doubtlessly, very aware of this likelihood when she chose to write under the pseudonym George Eliot.

Much of the mystery, intrigue and suspense of the novel is generated by the young, beautiful and independently wealthy Dorothea Brooke's decision to marry an elderly, sallow pedagogue, the Reverend Edward Causaubon.  The theme and plot of the novel might be disparagingly reduced to the search for a mate or, more precisely, finding the right husband (which invariably involves finding the wrong husband first), but the majority of classic English novels could be similarly reduced.

John Locke

The portrait above is not of Reverend Casaubon but of John Locke, the English philosopher, academic, political theorist and medical researcher.  It is via this portrait that we are told, in a dialogue between Dorothea and her sister, Celia, what Mr. Casaubon looked like:

"How very ugly Mr. Casaubon is!"  
"Celia! He is one of the most distinguished-looking men I ever saw. He is remarkably like the portrait of Locke. He has the same deep eye-sockets." 

         "Had Locke those two white moles with hairs on them?"

Dorothea's imagining that Casaubon approximates John Locke goes a long way in explaining her attraction to him.  In fact, the heroic male figures in the novel, both objects of Dorothea's admiration, Dr. Lydgate and Will Ladislaw, show clear intimations Locke.

The Power of Insignificance

Nothing that I have written so far in this post is what I originally intended to say. My intention was to write on a theme that I had mentioned tangentially in previous posts:  the advantages of insignificance.  I have felt at ease expressing my opinions because, ultimately, they were not significant enough, not widely read enough, to cause a backlash.  As a relatively unknown, retired academic, I have the privilege of saying what I think without much risk.  I have even considered that I have the additional benefit of operating autonomously and independently within the "degrees of freedom" described by Daniel Dennett which I referred to in The Mystery of the Off Switch.  However, the morning after I published "The Mystery of the Off Switch" post, in which I said some unflattering, in fact, pretty damning things about big technology companies, I was suddenly and absolutely cut off from the internet.

On Being Rich, Famous and Powerful

This is probably the best example of "sour grapes" that I have ever written on this blog, but I have often felt that I was not as envious of men with wealth and fame and position as I should be.  No doubt, if I was offered any one of these possibilities, I would accept it, but mostly out of curiosity rather than a burning desire.  Even when I consider wealthy, famous, powerful men whom I admire, I find little evidence that they are/were happier than I have been over most of my life.  When I consider, in particular, the freedom which they have enjoyed--or not--I find myself concluding that important is the opposite of free.

How did I end up writing about Middlemarch?

As I was musing on "insignificance," I rediscovered the penultimate paragraphs of Middlemarch. [Spoiler alert:  If you are planning to read the novel for the first time, you might want to skip these quoted paragraphs.]

Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea's second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin — young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. Those who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been "a nice woman," else she would not have married either the one or the other. 

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

"We insignificant people" have the power to make the lives of many Dorotheas great, by making them difficult, by forcing them to defy us (as was done with Saint Theresa and Antigone).  We are the butterflies that cause distant hurricanes. "With our daily words and acts," we can also affect, for good or ill, the lives of those around us. Dorothea herself chose to be insignificant.  Her strength and virtue showed in her decision to be insignificant; her strength and virtue showed more clearly in relief against the foil of insignificance, but ultimately, she showed that there is freedom, power and virtue in insignificance.

Afterword

Today, I received an email "letter of apology" from my internet provider for the interruption caused to all of their subscribers which was beyond their control.  I wondered, self-mockingly, if I should send the company my "letter of apology," explaining that everyone lost their web access because of nasty things I had written on my blog.  No, I continue to believe in the power of my insignificance.  Although, I must admit, there was a moment when the thought crossed my mind that I had lost the power of my insignificance.  Thankfully, I am happy to report that I remain unworthy of anyone's surveillance but, at the same time, I am reminded that we must all work to protect the freedom of our un-surveilled insignificance.


Monday, 4 January 2021

The Mystery of the "Off" Switch . . . Solved! Sort of.

Where's the "on" switch?

Just when I was feeling so smart because I'd bought myself a new fancy-pants Mac computer, I had to spend 45 minutes looking for the power switch to turn the damn thing on.  Then I had the problem of figuring out the right way to turn it off.  In the early days of personal computers, people mocked the fact that you had to choose "on" to turn your computer off.  Though I thought myself more savvy when I bought my Mac, apparently, pressing the near-invisible "on" button was not the right way to turn it off.

"OK Boomer"

These "OK Boomer" moments became a motif--these days people say "meme"--in my encounters with technology.  Every time I dealt with a new "app" (why does everything have to have a nickname, abbreviation, initialism or acronym which obscures its meaning?  A sour-grape complaint for another day), I ended up asking "how do you turn it off?"   The millennial response was a look of wonderment which asked "How does one communicate with an alien life form from another planet?"  The more empathetic answer was "You don't have to."

It's called a light switch!

In my world, when you walked into a darkened room, you flicked up on a switch and the lights came on.  As you left the room, you flicked down on the switch and the lights turned off.  (Granted, some electricians don't get the whole up/down thing.)  Even if "I didn't have to," when I was finished with an application, I wanted to turn it off. Banking applications usually displayed "log out" or "sign out" possibilities (apparently "turn off" is verboten in the big-tech world).  Banks even recommend that after I "log out," I should "empty cache." (I should learn how to do that someday.)

Who knew there was a plan?!

Over and over again, I went looking for the "off" switch in a computer application, only to discover that it would take three clicks beyond a particular hotlink, if I was lucky enough to choose the right hotlink in the first place.  Often there simply was no off switch.  Then the application would suddenly appear on my screen when I rebooted my computer.  To turn off the application, I would have to delete it, but even deleting it was not enough.  I would have to "uninstall it" which meant buying "uninstall software" or deleting six or seven files in various folders.  And hopefully I would not delete the file which was essential for the operating system.  "These are terrible design flaws," I thought naively.  Then I watched the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.


The Dystopia is now!

The backbone of the film is a string of interviews with insiders from big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, etc, etc.  In turn, they each confessed that they had created a monster.  Then, ironically, some admitted that they themselves were being consumed by the monster they had created to consume the rest of us.  They struggled to give the monster, the underlying problem, a name.  The groundwork for a near-future dystopia has been laid out, they tell us.  If, today, you are a typical teenager addicted to social media, then the dystopia is now.  The tipping point, we are told, was 2011, with dramatic increases in tween and teenage girls committing self-harm and suicide.

There Is no off switch!

Given the scale and the stakes, the anachronistic problem of a stubborn, aging Boomer who wants an off switch seems minor, insignificant, even silly.  But it tells us what the problem is:  there is no off switch.  The epiphany which The Social Dilemma provided for me was that social-media companies measure success by one single metric:  how much time does a user spend looking at a screen.   As I clicked one hyperlink after another looking for an off switch, becoming more aimlessly lost and pissed off, then went to Google and Youtube looking for a solution, all the while thinking how terribly these tech companies and designers had failed, at the other end, they were celebrating their success at having gotten me to extend my screen time.  (CGP Gray claims that getting me angry is what creates viral social media.  See This Video Will Make You Angry.)

Calling Social Media an "addiction" may be an understatement

Not surprisingly, in The Social Dilemma, the attachment to social media, particularly among the young, is described as an addiction.  Any behaviour which you are unable to control is aptly described as an addiction.  The word "addiction" brings to mind images of someone scruffy in a hoodie lurking outside a schoolyard selling cocaine and ecstasy.  The image to imagine in the case of "social-media addiction" is the user, a teenage girl for example, at one end, and, at the other end, an army of billionaire tech execs, engineers, psychologists, neurologists, designers, sociopaths and other influencers with one objective:  getting that user to keep staring at her screen.  Unfortunately, this image only brings us to the mouth of the rabbit hole.


 Free Will and determinism

In response to my post on Free Will and Determinism, two of my readers (thanks Seb and Ken!) recommended Daniel Dennett's work on the subject.  In his lecture, entitled Herding Cats and Free Will Inflation, Dennett argues that while the laws of physics may determine beginnings and endings, in between, there are inevitable instances of "degrees of freedom" (even when talking about machines).  These instances, these degrees of freedom, offer human individuals some opportunity for independence, for autonomy, for self-control.  In the abstract debate over free will, what really matters, according to Dennett, is our ability to act independently and autonomously.  In this context, Dennett underlines that "there is now a multi-billion-dollar competition among various giant companies to pull your strings, to control your attention."

Dennett argues:

The capacity of individuals and companies to distract you and to clamp your degrees of freedom so that you just don’t think about things that you really should be thinking about because you’re so distracted by all these other things which you can’t help looking at, and thinking about instead. The competition for your attention strikes at the heart of your freedom, your ability to think for yourself.

An agent who controls your attention controls you. 

Down the rabbit hole!

Further down the rabbit hole in The Social Dilemma, we learn the "agent" controlling us isn't an individual, isn't a group or a company.  In the first instance it is an algorithm and, inside the company, only a handful of people understand the algorithms, but even they don't know what the programs responding to the algorithms are doing or how they are doing it in real-time.  The machine (server plus software) has been instructed to get users to look at screens as long as possible.  The machine has been programmed to teach itself how to best accomplish this task.  The machine learns through trial and error.  It has billions of lab rats (that would be us) and can perform millions of tests in a relatively short period of time to figure out how (based on our personal data) to keep us looking at a screen.  What works; what doesn't, and everything in between. Based on the machine's study of my data and past behaviour, it calculates where best to hide the off switch from a Sour Boomer like me, while littering my path with images of the elderly man I would like to look like and a series of ab exercises sponsored by a local gym franchise.


Understanding the stakes

Jaron Lanier asserts and Dennett concurs that if you think a company like Facebook wants your data so they can sell it to a third party, you have no idea what game is being played.  Your data is too useful, too valuable, to be sold to a third party.  Certainly, Facebook has proven that your data can be successfully monetized by matching your data with the products of an advertiser. But even monetization isn't the whole story; after all, we are talking about companies that are already the richest companies in the history of the world.  They can change you, me, and the teenage girl who wants plastic surgery to look more like her filtered Snapchat photo.  Lanier argues that a subtle one-percent change in the world, in how we think and feel and are, is a greater measure of power than anything that can be accomplished with a few billion dollars.  Why would they do this?  For the worst of all possible reasons:  because they can.


https://www.zdnet.com/article/apple-ceo-sounds-warning-of-algorithms-pushing-society-towards-catastrophe/



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