Tag Archives: ideas

Is everything political? What is wrong about thinking that way?

Albert Camus, gagnant de prix Nobel, portrait en buste, posé au bureau, faisant face à gauche, cigarette de tabagisme.jpg

I was thinking this when reading this quote from Orwell: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” The idea, implied by this quote, is that everything is political. This idea springs like a trap on people who want to escape from politics and focus on other areas of human concern, like arts or sports or science.

Is this trap avoidable? There is an argument, found here, Only a Game: The Activist’s Argument (Everything is Political), that says that saying “everything is political” renders it meaningless. It’s worthwhile reading the piece, but I don’t think the argument that the statement is meaningless holds true.

Instead, I would first accept it and I would expand the notion of “everything is political” to say that

  • everything is political
  • everything is scientific
  • everything is religious
  • everything is philosophical
  • everything is art

For if you can make the case that everything is political, you can also make the case that everything is scientific, religious, and so on. (In fact, you can extend this list to other areas of human thought and human interest.) But how can everything be all of those things at the same time? To see how that can be the case, that I would on refine the statements and replace “everything is” with “everything can be viewed from the lens of”, as in:

  • everything can be viewed from the lens of politics
  • everything can be viewed from the lens of science
  • everything can be viewed from the lens of religion
  • etc.

More than that, everything can be viewed from each of those lens at the same time. For example, if I go see a film about Alan Turing, I can view it from the lens of science and I can view it from the lens of politics or the lens of art. The film has political and artistic and scientific themes and ideas, and anyone watching it can view it from those differing viewpoints. You may not care to do so, but it is possible to do so.

Now take the above list and change it to read this way:

  • everything is only or mainly political
  • everything is only or mainly scientific
  • everything is only or mainly religious
  • everything is only or mainly philosophical
  • everything is only or mainly art

For some political activists, the phrases “everything is political” and “everything is only or mainly political” are practically the same. Likewise for scientists, artists, philosophers, etc. For me, and for many people, I think “everything is only or mainly” is a relatively weak notion. For example, if a crowd is watching a film, they may watch it through any or all of these lens, or none of them. If asked later if the film she made is mainly political, the director may agree that there is a political aspect to it, but the main themes and elements of the film could be religious and aesthetic or scientific. The film may have something to do with politics, but to see it only as or mainly as political is to miss out on the other aspects of the film.

What is true of a film is also true of our lives. Our lives, and the things that matter to us in our lives, can be seen through a political lens, and a religious lens, and many other lens we may pick up. However such lens provided a limited view. It is better to look at our lives and the lives of others as broadly as possible. We will see more that way. We will hopefully understand ourselves better. And we will acquire a view and a wisdom that those stuck to peering only through lens will never achieve.

(Image is not of Orwell but Albert Camus, which I felt to be more appropriate. Photograph by UPI –  image  from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c08028.
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93507512/ and Wikipedia)

Advertisements

On the superior virtue of the oppressed

Unlike other essays in this collection, Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell (Google Books), “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed” continues to be relevant today. It made a big impression on me when I read it, and I recommend it to anyone who has not read it.

You can read pieces by progressive writers still and find examples of this form of thinking. In some cases, oppressed groups do demonstrate exceptionally virtuous behavior in the face of adversity. My belief is they would rather be treated equally, fairly, and justly, and be free to go about their own business without having to take on the difficulty of pushing back on oppression. And rather than assign them a morally superior role, people in a position to break down that oppression should do so without elevating or denigrating them. (In other words, treating them equally).

Read the essay. Then read more of Russell. Regardless of your thoughts on his arguments, he is a good read for many different reasons, not the least being that he is a fine example of what philosophical writing can be: clear, concise, thoughtful, and accessible.

Derek Parfit: Why anything? Why this? 

The great philosopher Derek Parfit died recently. At the time, many things were posted about him, including where you can find his works online. One such work is this:: Derek Parfit · Why anything? Why this? Part 1 · LRB 22 January 1998.

In it, he asks:

Why does the Universe exist? There are two questions here. First, why is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists. Second, why does this Universe exist? Things might have been, in countless ways, different. So why is the Universe as it is?

Worth reading, and accessible, even if you aren’t a philosopher (although we are all philosophers, from time to time).

Thoughts on automation, from the WSJ (and me, someone who specialized in automation)

Robots
Christopher Mims has a good piece here that touches on many of the recent arguments concerning automation, here: Automation Can Actually Create More Jobs (WSJ). Well worth reading.

For my own perspective, early in my career my job was automating many of the systems operations tasks in my part of IBM. In one year I automated essentially the work of 10 people. No one lost their job as result, because while it was good to have these activities automated, the activities were not valuable enough to justify hiring people to do the work. Essentially the automation improved the quality of our work. Automation using IT to improve the quality of work is a good use of automation, be that automation be a lowly shell script or very expensive robot with A.I. Quality aside, how the automation affects staff depends on the culture and the makeup of an organization.

There is talk of places like McDonald’s replacing workers with kiosks as a result of a drive by some for a higher minimum wage. First off, McDonald’s are rolling out those kiosks in Canada, too, which makes me think they are going to deploy them regardless of what the minimum wage is. Second, I have used the kiosks a number of times, and they are of a limited benefit to a McDonald’s customer. The kiosks are good if there is a long line for a person to take your order: they kiosks are bad if there is a small line or no line. They are bad because it will take you many more minutes to place your order, due to the kiosk’s user interface. (Try one and you will see.) The kiosks some time will fail to print out your receipt: if you don’t remember your order number, then you have to go in line, tell them what you ordered, and then get your number. Overall the kiosks are not bad: they are especially good if you like to special order. But if the lines aren’t long and your order is standard, skip them and go in line.

Besides that, McDonald’s will still have plenty of staff and likely will for the future. Kiosks can’t cook, can’t pack your order, and can’t clean the restaurant. If you think robots can do that and do it cheaply, you need to learn more about robotics. I can see why McDonald’s and other fast food places need automation: they are constantly trying to retain people while trying to keep costs down. But the notion they are automating to spite people looking for a higher wage is ridiculous. McDonald’s is not going to become a glorified vending machine and they should not try to be. People go to restaurants and coffee shops to socialize and to come in contact with other people, and automation will provide less of that, not more.

As well, smart fast food places will learn that human contact makes for better business (see Starbucks). There are many ways to be successful as a fast food business, and a positive experience in dealing with staff is one of those ways.

Automation changes work. However, how it changes work is complex. It is tempting to assume that it will eliminate all work, but that is too simplistic. In addition, we need to think about work, income, and why we do what we do. Automation can help us do that, and that is one clear benefit of automation.

(Image: link to image.freepik.com)

Zeitgeist links for December, 2016

I often come across links that capture the spirit of the time, links that I save using Pocket or Instapaper.  Here are some of them, with quick comments.

Politics, mostly American:

Culture:

Psychology, mostly links about glumness in America

Work, mainly grim or putting a good face on work.

Another benefit of meditation? Raising your IQ

So says this article: Want to Raise Your IQ by 23 Percent? Neuroscience Says Take Up This Simple Habit | Inc.com

The article provides the details and a strong case for it. Meditation: not just good for relaxing. Make it your goal in 2017.

Palo Alto vs. Tokyo: some modest thoughts on housing 

Image of Palo Alto linked to from Wikipedia

Two pieces on housing got me thinking of housing policy and what if anything can be done to improve it. The two pieces are this:

  1. Letter of Resignation from the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission — Medium
  2. Tokyo may have found the solution to soaring housing costs – Vox

(Note: I don’t have much expertise on housing policy. These are just some notes I jotted down after thinking about these pieces. Take the following with a (huge?) grain of salt.)

The first piece describes how housing in Palo Alto, California is becoming too expensive for all but the rich. Part of what is causing this is the limits placed on adding new housing in the area. The second piece describes how Tokyo gets around this, namely by removing the decisions about housing from city politics and making it at a national level.

It seems pretty straightforward then: all cities should remove decision making about housing from the local level and assign it to a body at a national level. But is this true? And would it work in North American cities?

It depends on what you expect your housing policy to be and how effectively you can impose it. If the policy is to have affordable and available housing for a city, then the Tokyo model makes sense. However, there is an assumption that decisions made at a national level will be in line with the desires of the residence of the city. This is a big assumption.

There are at least two sets of desires that home owners have for their homes and their city. One, that their homes and the neighbourhood they live in remain stable or improve. Two, that their homes appreciate in value. The first desire could be wrecked by the Tokyo model. The second desire would definitely be affected by the Tokyo model. With cities like Palo Alto, you have the two sets of desires met, at least in the short term. In the longer term, the second desire could level off as people and industry move elsewhere.

The ideal is to have a national policy that takes into account the need for neighbourhoods to grow organically, for house values to appreciate over time but still allow for affordability, and for cities to  allow for new housing as well as account for when neighbourhoods become depopulated. Having such a policy would support vibrant cities at a national level. You would treat cities as a network of systems, and you would allocate or remove resources over time to keep all cities vibrant, regardless if they are growing or declining.

This is the ideal. Practically, I just can’t see this happening in North American cities. North Americans are too strongly capitalist to allow what is happening in Japan to happen here. If national organizations tried too hard to manage cities and resulted in cooling off housing markets, people would oppose that. For many people, their house is their chief asset, and any efforts to restrict that from appreciation would be met with defiance.

Sadly, I think there are going to have to be many failures within cities such as Palo Alto and San Francisco before there is enough political will to change the way housing is managed. I think the Tokyo/Japan model is out of reach for my continent for decades, still.

It’s unfortunate: you have cities in the U.S. in the rust belt suffering great decline, while cities on the coasts struggling to come to terms with growth. A national policy on housing would help all cities and have a greater benefits for people than the current approach.

I like Palo Alto. It’s a great city, in a great region. I think it would be greater still if it had more housing.