Sunday, 16 August 2015

Stephen Harper is #justnotconservative

     How long does it take for a word to become its own opposite? There are lots of words that have usages that are near-opposites ("sanction", for example) and groups of words derived from the same root that have come to be opposites in a way ("host" and "guest", which are related to "hostile" and "ghost"), but the inversion of "conservative" is a curious case, because I've seen it flip in my lifetime.

     Once upon a time, to be conservative meant to be prudent and frugal. Conservatives recognized that the institutions of our society did not spring fully formed from the minds of one or two Great Leaders, but are the product of centuries of modification and refinement. A conservative looks at the vast accumulated experience of the common law, and humbly admits that she might not know why this or that rule or maxim was adopted, but assumes that it must be there for a good reason, if it's withstood centuries of testing, and so she applies the sensible principle: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." At the same time, she sees that this process of refinement is ongoing, and that careful incremental adjustments may still be necessary, but always tempered by an awareness that nobody really knows what they're doing well enough to be entrusted with making huge sweeping changes.
     I am happy to describe myself as conservative in this sense. As a law student, I enjoyed browsing through the ancient and honest-to-goodness-dusty old law reports, where learned judges now long dead wrote with great care about the reasoning that led to the decisions they delivered, and I was struck at how little has changed in the sorts of ordinary disputes human beings have with each other. We still bicker about who owns what and who owes what to whom and whether or not this or that insult should be compensated and how. We have a lot of experience in resolving these questions, and while it doesn't mean they've become easy, the basic principles of the process, the rules of evidence and the procedural rights of the participants, are exceptionally well-developed.

     There are some hints of this meaning still. Conservatives still claim to be motivated by moral values often considered old fashioned, and they like to think of themselves as students of history; it's easy to see how conservatism as I have described it could be associated with an affection for the past, even a preference for the Good Old Days.  It's an easy mistake to make, to jump from respecting the refined and polished results of many generations of muddling to concluding that the older generations themselves must have been smarter than today's young whippersnappers. Combine that with the way most of us seem to acquire a sense of entitlement to respect from our juniors as we age, and it's only natural that there be considerable overlap between prudent deference to tradition and curmudgeonly old-fogeyism, and that both of these things would be conflated together under the label "conservatism".

     But that overlap has always existed, and isn't the radical flip in meaning I'm talking about. The change I've observed has its roots in the election of Ronald Reagan. The shift was subtle at first. The older, traditionally conservative caution that we today should be careful how we govern because we are prone to error, morphed into a distrust of government itself; the motto "Government is the problem!" became mainstream with Reagan and Thatcher and has become the central tenet of those who today call themselves conservative.
     Subtle though the shift itself appears, it is radical, especially when combined with nostalgia for the good old days (which never actually existed) before government came along and ruined everything. The deference conservatives once held for time-tested human institutions, principles and traditions is now paid to The Market, and any government intervention in or tinkering with the Invisible Hand is anathema. Today's conservatives are supremely confident in their own expertise and judgment, and feel perfectly qualified to yank out and discard pieces of the engine of government without knowing or caring what vital functions they might have performed. The goal, as Grover Norquist has put it, is to shrink government down to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.
     Once upon a time we would have called this ideology "anarchism". But that word still bears the stigma of bomb-throwing crackpots of the early 20th century, if it is taken seriously at all. The anarchists have achieved quite a coup in seizing for themselves the label of "Conservative", a much more respectable word, with its cachet of common sense and frugality (even if the only thing today's conservatives are now frugal with is common sense).
   
     Today's "Conservative Party of Canada" is by far the least conservative of any of the parties running in this year's federal election. They are radical reformers, having managed to obtain the name "Conservative" when the old Progressive Conservatives disbanded after a particularly disastrous election defeat, and merged with what had formerly been called the Reform Party. "Progressive Conservative" may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't when you recognize that what they're trying to conserve and build upon is the result of centuries of incremental progress. "Reform", however, is much more nearly an opposite to the traditional meaning of "conservative". Yet it is the reformers who today march under the Conservative banner.
     So it is richly ironic to hear the campaign rhetoric, playing heavily upon the connotations of "conservative", urging us to be careful, not to take chances, to keep a steady hand on the helm, as if there is anything prudent or cautious about the party currently claiming to be conservative.
     You may agree with their decisions to cut funding to Statistics Canada, abolish the long form census and scrap libraries of scientific data that took decades to compile, throwing away important sources of information upon which sound policy decisions can be made. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you agree with Prime Minister Harper that elections, parliamentary procedures and civil rights are inconvenient obstacles to Getting Things Done, and support his efforts to minimize these checks on his power. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you think we live in a new and dangerous world, and that the ancient legal rights now codified in our Charter were never designed to contend with anything so shocking as plots of violence against Parliament itself. Maybe you think we need to surrender some of those rights in order to be safe. But that's just not conservative.
     Maybe you think we'd all be better off without the CBC or Canada Post or national parks or universal health care. Maybe you are in favour of all of the radical reforms the Harper Government has put into motion. I think these are all really, really bad ideas, but I am fundamentally committed to democracy and your right to support whatever policy platform you want. But understand that Harper's party is really #justnotconservative.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Trust the Experts: They're not THAT Smart.

     There are two very opposite mistakes crackpots and conspiracy theorist often make when they take issue with expert knowledge. The first, when I described here, is to grossly underestimate the intelligence of their opponents, whom they accuse of missing some ridiculously obvious fact. The second is to absurdly overestimate their abilities, usually when they're postulating some kind of elaborate coverup conspiracy.

      Consider the fortune-cookie admonishment, sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin (who predated fortune cookies, so it's plausible): "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead." Why three and two, instead of two and one?
      Two people can keep a secret, because each knows exactly whom to blame if the secret gets out. If three people know a secret, and someone talks, the other two have a mystery on their hands, and may blame each other instead of the true leak. And if three people know a secret and one of them ends up dead, the other two may have much more reason to distrust each other, and motive to defect.
      The problem becomes exponentially greater the more people are in on the secret, and not just because there is less chance of being blamed for a leak. One person, keeping a secret to himself, will talk to no one. Two conspirators might talk to each other, so there's a chance of being overheard. Three conspirators have three pairings (AB, AC, BC) for secret communications that might be overheard. If you're part of a conspiracy with a hundred fellow co-conspirators you might on occasion talk to about the conspiracy, the opportunities for accidental leaks multiply fruitfully.
      So big secrets, involving hundreds or thousands of people in the know, are really hard to keep secret. Insanely, ridiculously difficult. Only in the most unusual circumstances has it been possible to pull this off, and then only for a relatively short time. The code breakers at Bletchley Park, for example, followed extremely strict protocols, but there's more to it than that: they were fighting a war against the Nazis which provided a very, very strong motivation to be careful.

      Let us then look at a typical "expert" conspiracy, one fairly near to my heart: that Big Pharma has been covering up a cheap and effective cure for cancer because they don't want to lose the vast profits they earn through less effective treatments.
      This is complicated, because there are actually several different secrets that need to be kept here, and "how to cure cancer" is only one of them. They'd also have to deal with a number of secondary secrets about the coverup itself, such as who knows about it, how they're motivating people to keep quiet, and so on. And those are very difficult to cover up, because unlike the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, it's kinda hard to sell "So we can make lots of money while people die" as a worthy motivation, especially when it's from a disease like cancer to which no one is safe. Seriously, if you were a cancer researcher, and you'd stumbled across a potential cure, how much money would you need to keep your mouth shut? And how much would that number change if your friend, your spouse, your child had a diagnosis? Those outrageous profits to Big Pharma would start to get spread pretty thin.
     Sure, we can get more sinister, if you want. Maybe The Conspiracy doesn't bribe cancer researchers. Maybe it makes them another offer, one they can't refuse. Something terrible will happen to them, something worse than them or their loved ones dying of cancer, if they let the secret out.
     Know what the problem with that is? A threat needs to be credible, and scientists in particular tend to be skeptical people: evidence is their business. So you've got to expect that a few of them are going to need more than just an anonymous "stop it, or else..." letter. Which means that you're going to have to let them in on some of your methods, so they'll believe you mean business when you tell them what will happen. And now you have someone in on a bit of your secret who is not entirely willing to cooperate, someone who will be looking for some possible opportunity to stop you. Because not only are you threatening him and his family, you're also doing it to conceal a valuable boon to humanity he's devoted his entire career to finding.
     But those secrets, difficult as they are to keep, are nothing compared to the big one, the primary secret of How To Cure Cancer. Because while maybe you have control over all your fanatically loyal operatives and can contain any situation they're involved with, Nature herself isn't on your team. There are thousands, even millions of people around the globe trying their best to figure out the puzzles of cancer. Some of them are very smart. How are you going to keep them from discovering something, and sharing what they learn? Especially when the entire scientific enterprise is based on publishing and reproducing results, and entire industries exist for just that purpose? They do, after all, publish results, lots and lots and lots of them. The sheer volume of material out there is much more than anyone can process, which is why there are so many scientists collaborating on these monumental challenges. And they're getting their results, not from some library you control, but from experiments and observations they're performing themselves, on real patients and real drugs.

     Just try to imagine how staggeringly difficult and complex a task it would be to fool or silence all of these people. It is truly mind-numbingly difficult, probably harder than curing cancer itself. In order to pull it off, you'd have to be superhumanly clever, and ridiculously powerful. And so think about it: if you were that smart and that powerful, why would you even care about the measly profits to be made from selling overpriced therapies that don't really work? If you can coerce  hundreds or thousands of brilliant researchers into concealing their research, why can you not just extort trillions of dollars from everyone else? Or heck, why even bother with money, which is just a way of trading with people for what you want. You've got the power to force people to act against their own interests; there's no need to trade with anyone!

     Telling a lie, telling a truly convincing and consistent lie, is really hard. People do it sometimes, and yes, there are successful conspiracies and coverups. Of course it's relatively easy for an expert to bluff their way past a completely ignorant lay person. But if you educate yourself a little, and ask intelligent questions, and try earnestly to understand what you're being told, it quickly gets much harder to sustain a consistent lie.
     You might hit the limits of your understanding, but if that happens, the humble and proper thing to do is to acknowledge that you really don't know, and reserve judgment, not to conclude that the experts must be lying to everyone. Because while they might well be smart enough to fool you, they're almost certainly not smart enough to fool everyone else.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Healthy Natural Foods: An Evolutionary Perspective

     Most of us don't think very intently about biology. Physics, sure -- we are constantly and often consciously applying Newton's laws whether we're tossing something in the wastebasket or driving down the highway -- but biology? No. Perhaps this is because Darwinian evolution, the central unifying principle of biology, is so poorly misunderstood by the public (thanks in part to creationists who go out of their way to Teach The Controversy in the form of their own tortured misconceptions), or perhaps it is because we fall into the trap of thinking that it's irrelevant to our daily lives, but in any case, it's unfortunate, because we are biological creatures and just about everything about us is informed by our evolutionary origins.
     In this post, I want to show how an understanding of the broad principles of evolution and ecology can help us avoid being taken in by a particular silly health fad, in the hope that the reader might learn to apply a similar critical informed approach to other fads as they appear.

     So let's consider a fairly common and plausible sounding claim here, one that underlies not just the Paleo Diet but a lot of basic "common-sense" thinking about health and food. The idea is that it's better to have foods that more closely resemble the kind of food we must have eaten in our pre-industrial past, natural raw unprocessed foods, because these are the sorts of foods we evolved to eat. Our bodies simply aren't equipped, so the argument goes, to deal with the incredibly rich diet our industrial age allows us, and all those artificial flavourings and preservatives can't possibly be good for us.
     That sounds eminently reasonable, and indeed it does seem to make solid evolutionary sense. After all, if we hominids have had millions of years to refine our ability to produce just the right enzymes to digest fresh fruit and insect grubs, why mess with a good thing? Why on earth would we expect to be able to digest a chemical invented within our lifetimes?

     Well, it's reasonable as far as it goes, but it's also incomplete. What it overlooks is that evolution doesn't just explain how we got here; it's the single unifying principle to all of biology, and also explains how every other living thing got here, including the ones that we eat.
     See, being eaten is usually how you lose the game of evolution. Every living thing on this planet is descended from an unbroken line of organisms that somehow managed to avoid being consumed until they produced at least one descendant. Every single cell in every body traces itself back through such a line to one common ancestor. Countless siblings have died without issue (often eaten by some other creature), but even they were descendants of unbroken lines of successful ancestors.
     This has been going on for something like three billion years. The occasional link in that chain might have survived just by sheer dumb luck, but the law of averages is against luck when such enormous time scales are involved. Most of your ancestors survived because they had an edge over the things that were trying to eat them, or the things they were trying to eat. Not a big edge, mind you. Just enough of one to survive, just long enough to produce offspring.
     Evolution isn't about perfection, after all. It's all about just good enough, but after three billion years of it, just good enough is pretty amazingly good, which is why we (and all living things) seem to be so exquisitely well-adapted to our environments.
     But we're not. The gazelle is just barely fast enough to escape the cheetah most of the time, and the cheetah is just barely fast enough to catch enough gazelles to make baby cheetahs. Plants (including the ones we eat) have evolved toxins or thorns or other defenses just barely good enough to kill or deter things from eating them enough for some of them to produce baby plants. And we became just barely good enough to survive eating those toxins long enough to produce human babies.

     The point here is that the foods we ate in our ancestral evolutionary environment really, really didn't want to be eaten, and they were trying to kill us, and they often succeeded. We just happen to be really tough, and really clever at figuring out ways to get around their defences so we could eat them without being fatally poisoned or otherwise killed. We discovered that if you heat some things over a fire, they become easier to chew and digest. We discovered that if you plant seeds from mutant not-so-poisonous fruit, you get more mutant not-so-poisonous fruit. We learned out to breed plants and animals that were easy to eat, and make more of them.
   
     While Nature is not exclusively red in tooth and claw, and there are lots of examples of symbiosis and cooperation (like tasty edible fruit to get animals to plant seeds in fresh manure), there really never was an ideal time when we lived in perfect harmony with Nature and it gave us everything we needed to live long happy lives. Modern agriculture and processed foods are not some perversion of what once was good and pure; they are a continuation of what we have always done, which is trying to make sure we have enough food to make babies.

     I am not saying here that all diets are equally healthy, or that natural foods are bad for you. Some foods are certainly much better for you than others, and there are definitely good reasons to pay attention to what we eat. I'm not a nutritionist or a biologist, and I don't pretend to offer any specific advice as to what you should or shouldn't include in your diet. What I am saying is that just as a solid grasp of the concepts of force and momentum can help you to make better driving decisions, a clear understanding of our evolution and ecology can better equip you to evaluate claims about diet and health.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

What's the big deal about legally recognizing marriages?

     My first year moot in Law School was about same sex marriage, which at the time was still not legally recognized throughout Canada, although it now has been for ten years, as it has been in all of the U.S. now for a week or so. So, naturally, it's a topic I've had many years to think about. But long before law school, I'd had reason to contemplate the state's role in marriage, because my wife was not a Canadian citizen when we married, which meant we had to jump through a significant number of hoops to be permitted to live together here. It was that experience (as well as the awareness that even in this relatively enlightened era, "interracial" marriages such as ours do not meet with universal approval) that led me to formulate the theory I'm about to put forward here.

     What is marriage? I'm going to suggest that it's a kinship relation, a pre-legal fact about the sort of relationship that might exist between two people. Put aside for the time being all the moral baggage about living-in-sin if your union is not officially celebrated by an ordained religious authority, and observe simply that in most societies, there's a tendency for adults to pair-bond, to form more-or-less stable monogamous domestic partnerships, often (but not always) associated with raising children. These relationships, whatever you call them, exist independently of any legal recognition, just like any other kinship relation. My son is my son, and no Act of Parliament or judicial fiat brought that fact into existence. It is, as I say, a pre-legal fact.
     Now, unlike most other kinship relations, marriage isn't usually something you're born into. It's something that generally comes into being once one is an adult, and there's often a fair amount of choice involved. Perhaps because of this, we seem to want to have some kind of punctual moment to observe when that relationship is recognized by the community, and so we celebrate weddings. Such things often become ritualized, and humans love any excused for a ceremony and a feast, but while the ceremony might formalize things, the actual underlying relationship of the couple can and usually does exist regardless of any such observances.
     To be sure, the relationship itself is very much the product of the couple's own beliefs and attitudes about it, which means that if the couple believes a formal wedding ceremony is an essential part of becoming married, without which they are not married, then of course they're not married without the ceremony. But it's important to note that it is their belief, and not the ceremony itself, which is crucial; if they believed otherwise, the wedding ceremony would be a mere formality celebrating a relationship which already existed.

     In other words, whether or not a couple is actually married has nothing essential to do with the state or the church, or indeed anyone else. The ultimate authorities on whether I am married or not are me and whoever I purport to be married to; if we both agree the kinship relation exists, then it does. (It's rather like a contract this way, and although many legal traditions actually define marriage as a contract, I personally think that's misleading, for technical reasons I'll not get into here.)
     However, kinship relations, although they are not created by law, very often have important legal consequences. Family members have responsibilities towards one another that are recognized and sometimes enforced by law (although these are often only enforced when a relationship breaks down in some way), and so there is a legitimate state interest in documenting those relationships. Consider birth certificates: you don't need a birth certificate to be born; it's just a really convenient way of establishing the particulars of where and when, because these can be legally important facts, and it may not be convenient to have your mother or her obstetrician swear an affidavit every time you apply for a credit card or driver's license. Similarly, the state can (and ought to) issue marriage certificates to document the particulars of a marriage.
     My point, then, is that the role of the state is marriage is very simple and very limited: to keep a record of whatever kinship relations may exist, for the smoother administration of whatever legal processes might be affected by these relationships. Who should be the next of kin for medical consent? Who should inherit? Who is responsible for children's well-being? How should property be divided if and when a partnership dissolves?
   
     The reason there's such controversy about same-sex marriage (or as there once was, interracial marriage) is because we seem to think that it's the state or the church that actually marries us, or gives us permission to marry. And while that may be so in a doctrinal sense for some churches, and in a vestigial legal sense for the state (which issues what we still call marriage licenses, after all), it is neither necessary nor a realistic reflection of the relationships themselves, which as I have said exist quite independently, with or without our moral approval.
   
     And so, given this understanding of the nature of marriage and the state's role in it, I have to confess that my happiness at seeing the U.S. Supreme Court finally come around is tempered by a certain degree of exasperation that this should even have been an issue to begin with. That Canada figured it out only ten years earlier isn't really something that fills me with patriotic pride, either.
     I'm pleased, certainly.  Yet at the same time, I have cultivated an attitude of principled indifference as to whom you might choose to marry; it feels a little bit strange to be celebrating the recognition that something's none of my business.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Point

     My last post, like many others, precipitated a reply from an anonymous reader asserting that all my speculation is pointless without God. In the interests of keeping that conversation from taking over the subject of the original post, I'm going to raise the topic here: what does it even mean to have
"a point", and am I mistaken in thinking there can be one without God?

     Let me begin by acknowledging that I've said things like that myself. In particular, I have said that nothing in biology makes any sense without the theory of evolution, and that physics makes no sense without the concept of energy. I stand by those claims, because it really is unfathomably difficult to construct a meaningful, useful understanding of natural phenomena without the cognitive framework these theories offer. Maybe there is a way to do it, but no one seems to have come up with one that offers a smidgeon of a fraction of the predictive and explanatory power. So, I'm not necessarily hostile to the form of the argument: maybe there is a sense in which everything is pointless without a belief in God.
     What, then, can that mean? I will invite Anonymous (and anyone else who cares to comment) to explain this if I get it wrong, but as I understand it, the idea is simply that God is the ultimate source of all meaning and intention, and that to say that something has "a point" just is to say that it serves some purpose God somehow intends, either directly or indirectly. (Anonymous often seems to think that purpose ultimately leads back to a wish for all of us to acknowledge, love and worship God, but that may be getting ahead of ourselves. For now, it's enough to leave God's ultimate purpose unspecified, and just posit that God's will is ultimately the end and beginning of all points.)
     Now, I'm actually quite sympathetic to this as a logical statement. If we accept the premise that God exists as the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the Universe, then it could not be otherwise. The problem, however, is that it's a tautology, and devoid of any meaningful information. Everything that happens happens because such an omnipotent God wills it. Everything. Good and evil, it's all the same, part of God's plan. His Ten Commandments may say "Thou shalt not murder," but every murder happens because He wills it. He may will us to have free will, but he ALSO wills us to use it however we end up using it. He wills us to cooperate, and He wills us to strive against one another.
     This is problematic, because it pretty much pulls the rug out from under attempts to evaluate any moral choices at all. You no longer can tell me that I shouldn't commit this or that act because God says it's wrong, because obviously if I do it that's what God wanted me to do. The best you can hope for is to say that God also commands you to do whatever it is you ultimately end up doing to oppose me. And that is a really, really nasty path: anything goes.

     In contrast, I think that the only morally meaningful stance to take is to acknowledge that responsibility is ours, not God's. Whether God exists or not, it's up to us to decide what we should do, because whatever we ultimately decide, God will ratify it when we attempt it. So the real question is not what God wants of us, but what we want God to want of us. (Kind of like how Her Majesty traditionally gives royal assent to pretty much anything Parliament passes. It's kind of pointless for MPs to debate amongst themselves what law the Queen wants to sign; their job is to decide what to pass.)
     In other words, I believe we have a moral obligation to act as if God does not exist, or at least as if God's wishes are unknowable. The Point, if there is one, is for us to exercise our volition, to engage in our own moral deliberation, and to find whatever Point we can to our existence.
     I do not know if God exists, but at the moment I tend to think He doesn't, and I've been pretty stable in that suspicion for quite some time now. Whether He does or not, though, I do feel that there is some kind of Point. There may not be, but that's not really my concern. I'm wired to feel there is, just as I'm wired to get hungry from time to time, so I live as if eating is a good thing, regardless of whether or not there's anything intrinsically, cosmically Good about eating. If you tell me that without some Platonic ideal of Satiety out there, my hunger means nothing, I will stop chewing just long enough to laugh at you. Similarly, if you tell me my life has no point without God, I refute it thus, by continuing to breathe.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Thoughts on a Violent Death

     Today my city, Edmonton, buries Corporal Daniel Woodall, its first police officer killed in the line of duty in 25 years. There has been an enormous outpouring of support for EPS, and there are blue ribbons tied to every tree and lamppost on many streets. By all accounts (including that of my own son, who knew him from training in the same martial arts school), Corporal Woodall was a kind and gentle person, respectful and respected, and his death can only be seen as an untimely tragedy.
     Yet while I do not in any way wish to diminish the honours paid to the fallen today, I have a question: why does violence occupy so disproportionately large a space in our emotions? Why is it that we attach such significance to a violent death, compared to a death that results from accident or disease?
     Is it because he took a bullet so we don't have to? That's a compelling and poetic way to put it, but probably not completely true; it's not at all clear that the man who shot him would have gone on to shoot civilians if he hadn't been arrested. But perhaps he might have, as he was being arrested on charges relating to extreme stalking and threatening behaviour. In any event, the precise details of the incident aren't really helpful here: the principal claim is that officers put themselves at risk to make us safer, and in principle that I can accept. It is indeed a noble thing to put oneself at risk for the benefit of others.
     But consider this: On April 22, a truck accidentally dumped a load of sand and gravel on a worker at an industrial park, and six days later he died of his injuries, on the very same day another worker was killed when the sewer trench he was excavating collapsed on top of him. They died to keep our highways safe, and for modern sanitation, which has saved countless millions of lives.
     In 2014, there were 25 fatalities in farming accidents in Alberta.  These people died to keep us well-fed.
     In 2013, 1129 people died in the collapse of a Bangladesh garment factory. These people died to keep us inexpensively clothed.
     Again, I really do not mean to diminish Corporal Woodall's sacrifice. What I am trying to make sense of here is why we fail to recognize the sacrifices of these other workers as heroic as well. Their deaths were no less tragic, and for purposes no less noble.

     I think it comes down to violence. We seem to fear violence much more than we fear other more serious threats.  People buy guns to protect themselves from crime, yet the risk of a home invasion or mugging is considerably less than the risk of accidentally (or intentionally) shooting yourself or a loved one. People choose to drive (and bear the substantially higher risk of a traffic accident) to avoid the perceived danger of terrorist hijackers on commercial airlines.
     Why is this? Why do we see violence as so much more frightening than other dangers? Maybe it's because of the malice involved, that it's someone's deliberate choice to do harm. It's hard not to take that personally, to be offended that the aggressor valued his or her personal interest higher than another human being's life. And when something is purposeful, it feels harder to escape it, somehow; an accident doesn't care if it misses you, and won't keep trying.
     Whatever the reason, our fear gives violence huge and unwarranted power over us. I've written about this before, and don't really want to go over it at great length again here. What I want to do in this post is to encourage some reflection on our emotional response to violence. I am not suggesting that we shouldn't be expressing sympathy and support for EPS -- of course we should! -- but rather that in doing so we should be careful to avoid inadvertently reinforcing the fearful mystique of violence.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

A Preliminary Taxonomy of Chain Letters


Note: This is another of the articles that used to reside on my old web page. I have actually still been working on the concepts in this one, and am in the process of significantly restructuring the higher levels of this taxonomy. In particular, I think there should be two levels added to our traditional Linnean model: World and Medium. Chain letters thus belong to World Terra, Medium Mnemia, Domain Homoites, Kingdom Semantic, Phylum Lingates. But more on that later: this is the original draft, before the explosion of chain letters as image macros on Facebook and elsewhere. Much revision needs to be done, preferably with someone who can correct my amateurish pseudo-Latin/Greek derivations. Also please note that this taxonomy is based entirely on structural similarities, not cladistics. 



Kingdom Mnemia (Memetic organisms)
Phylum Lingates (Transmitted by human speech/language)
Class Graphiformes (Normally found in written form)
Order Alysographia (Chain letters)
Family Pyramides
This family is named for the pyramid scheme structure common to all members of the family. Each specimen in this family will include a list of addresses of its last 4 to 10 hosts, and instructs the current host to alter this list by adding his or her address to this list and removing the oldest address from it. Hosts are also directed to send a small sum of money to each name on the list.
Genus Pyramidia

This is the oldest genus in the family, including the progenitor species of the entire family. Pyramidia simply instruct their hosts to send money to previous hosts, without further adaptations. The most well-known species is P. rhodii.Genus Nominalegus

Known from a single species, N. nominalegus, this genus has evolved an adaptation to circumvent a common resistance in many hosts, the idea that pyramid schemes are illegal. Nominalegus instructs hosts to include a slip of paper with the money they send to previous hosts, one which is to be written "Please add me to your mailing list." This is claimed to be a service in exchange for the money sent, allegedly making the entire transaction legal.

Genus Tetralogia
These are highly complex chain letters, with very elaborate instructions for the host. Like NominalegusTetralogia attempts to circumvent the hostís concerns of illegality by require the host to purchase a "business report" from each of the last few previous hosts, which are in turn to be sold to subsequent hosts. The most common species is T. vulgaris, which has been observed in several subspecies (T. vulgaris ericksoni, T. vulgaris liddelli, etc.) A separate species, T. pentalogus, with five unique reports has been observed but is thought to be extinct.

Family Petitiones

Members of this family are characterized by the additional behaviours induced in the infected host apart from simply replicating them. In general they call for a message to be sent to a fixed address, though some may call for postcards, letters or phone calls.
Genus Petitia
Like Pyramideans, Petitioneansí code is modified with each infected host, albeit in a much simpler fashion. Each host is instructed simply to add his or her name to the list before passing it on. Typically, every 50th host is requested to forward a copy to a particular email address to be compiled. A representative species of this genus is P. talibani.Genus Amphoralogia
Closely related to Petitia, these are the "message in a bottle" chain letters, which instruct the recipient to send a message to a particular address in addition to forwarding the chain letter to numerous subsequent hosts. A. shergoldi is the most well-established species.
subgenus Ostraconus
These are usually maliciously created with the goal of overwhelming the email account of a victim with unexpected responses from infected hosts. O. joescomi is an example.
Family Superstitiones

The oldest group of chain letters, Superstitiones rely on a the power of a bribe or a threat (often both) to induce their hosts to replicate them. Unlike Pyramides, there is no actual mechanism to deliver the threat or reward. The oldest members of the family are those claiming that bad luck will befall those who fail to pass them along.
Genus Fortunas
The oldest known chain letters belong to this genus, and there are many species still circulating today. Essentially they promise the host good luck in exchange for replication, and threaten bad luck if the chain is broken. F. venezueli is probably the most well-known species.Genus Polygrades
These chain letters tend to make specific claims about what will befall the host for a given level of replication. For example, one might claim that failing to forward the message at all will result in certain death, forwarding it to between 1 and 10 recipients will result in a mere maiming, 11-20 forwards will have no effect, 21-30 will bring some good luck, and more than 30 will win the lottery for the forwarder.subfamily Theseidae
The theseids are a very large group characterized by the claim of an embedded "email tracking program" as a mechanism supporting the reward system. (It is quite rare for theseids to rely on threats, although at least one threatening species has been sighted).Genus Pseudopremium
These theseids promise the host a direct reward for replication, which typically will be sent once the total number of hosts reaches a threshold. A typical species is P. disneyi, which offers free trips to Disneyworld for the first 5000 hosts. Similar species include P. milleriP. guinnessiP. nike, P. honda, and many others. Especially noteworthy is P. gatesi and its several subspecies, each distinguished only by a different reward offered.Genus Samaritans
Samaritans differ from Pseudopremiums in that the host does not expect to receive the reward personally. A typical Samaritans will claim that an anonymous benefactor will donate a few cents to some poor childís medical care for every new host. Identified species to date include S. mydek, S. jada, S. cohen, S. relek, S. bruce, S. hendrix, S. martin, S. bucklew, S. beerman, S. flyte, S. lawitts, S. connor, S. hafeez, S. doe and others.
Family Notifera

This very large and diverse family relies on the perceived utility of its content for replication. There are two main subfamilies.
subfamily Transmissus
Hosts are explicitly instructed to forward copies of the message to others. The following are only a small sample of the many genera extant.
Genus Cautionus
Warns the host of some real or imagined danger. C. anaphotus, C. toxotelephonus, and C. achillitomia all warn of various violent gang initiation rituals; C. euchronus and others warn of email viruses, and so forth.Genus Inspirates
These consist of some inspirational message, followed by the instruction to share it with a friend.
subfamily Spontanes
Spontanes are unique in that they do not explicitly instruct the host to replicate them, relying instead on the intrinsic entertainment value of their content to provoke spontaneous replication.
Genus Eythymia
These are jokes and increasingly attachments of amusing images, sounds or other files which are usually forwarded on to new hosts without alteration.Genus Trivialus
Lists of trivia and "fun facts". Like the Urban Legends (class Oriformes, family Politimythos), they depend heavily on the claim that they are true. For example,T. quaylei would probably not be so widespread if it purported to be simply a list of dumb things for a politician to say, rather than a list of things Dan Quayle really did say.Genus Exoreferens
Members of this highly optimized genus usually contains little more than a URL directing the host to an amusing or interesting document. Occasionally a remark such as "Check this out!" is included.