Archive for the 'Information market failures' Category

That “awful” elation / on a knife’s edge

September 25, 2018

To bear up under oppression, to feed one’s anger on grief and emptiness, to cry justice and hold up a knife’s edge – these are timeless states of mind peculiar to the human condition, known to any number of minorities in any number of epochs.


Shakespeare’s Shylock grips the knife with ruthless determination, and on this insistence loses everything. Is this where violence will lead us all?

In the UN’s seminal Pathways for Peace report, describing more than 50 years of research on conflict prevention and putting forward evidence-based best practices for peace building, we learn that violent contestation loses more arguments than it wins, in the perennial struggle within and among nations for minority rights. Nonviolent action is more successful, on average.

And what of government-sanctioned abuses? Governments guilty of human rights abuses experience a greater number of violent conflicts and a greater intensity of violence, according to the same numbers.

respect for human rights

In this figure, “respect” is for human rights, and is measured in inverse frequency of extrajudicial killings, torture, etc. Source.

Why, then, is violence any temptation to us? How does it compel so much senseless repetition, what is the impetus behind the vicious cycles that perpetuate repression and violent agitation at times like these?

In her short essay Prisons we Choose to Live Inside, Nobel prize winner Doris Lessing tells us something about the hold the “drums of war” have over our bodies and minds, as human beings, and as social animals:

“People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating .. an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.”

She goes on to share a history lesson out of her experience as a socialist dissident in colonial Africa and as a lifelong observer of the inconsistencies of socialist rhetoric and reality over time:

“Before the First World War, the Socialist movements of all Europe and America met to agree that capitalism was fomenting war, and that the working classes of all those countries should have nothing to do with it. But the moment war was actually there, and the poisonous, fascinating elation had begun, all those decent, rational, honorable resolution about keeping out of the war were forgotten.

I have heard young people discussing this, uncomprehending. This is because they do not understand how it can have happened. It is because they have not experienced, and have not been told about that dreadful public elation that is so strong – strong because it comes from an older part of the human brain, of the human experience, than the decent, humane, rational part, which passes resolutions condemning war.”

Further on her essay, Lessing describes how craftily the hawkish Margaret Thatcher primed her viewing public’s animal brains in the way her election campaign was stage-managed, making the most of the manipulative powers of the media at her disposal. She does this not to demonize the Thatcher government, but to bring up an interesting point:

“Meanwhile, it is interesting that those people who like to regard themselves as the armies of the good, the well-intentioned, disdain such means. I am not saying they should use them, but they will often refuse even to study them, thus leaving themselves open to being manipulated by them.”

I think Lessing would be gratified to see how far the pacifists at Greenpeace, Amnesty and the ACLU have come, along with all the rest of us, in growing more self-aware and media-savvy about the human brain. I write about her frustrations, dated 1987, to remind my readers how new this information is to us as a polity, how uncomfortable it is to contemplate, and how essential it is to understand.


The Convex Mirror

September 20, 2018

In response to Judith Grabiner’s article on fandom geometry, exploring the significance of convex mirrors in intellectual history…


Never coinciding, and yet never equidistant
we two traverse a convex mirror
in tandem, braced by forces just
as tangible as magnetism, yet stranger
and more grounded in the symmetries
of number theories’ abstruse avant-garde,
the hyper-parabolic planes
that thrust like jumping saddles
through the strata of Euclidean
assumptions to confront
realities no model of intelligent machine
can grasp in full, except
in imaging, the dot matrix
of map-making, the
radio-cartography of brains
and bones and masses
all disclosed to the physician
in a color-coded blur
that blooms like bioluminescence
on a blank, black screen.

Re-presentation of a surface
in cross-section,
like the capture of an image
in reflection on a film.
We see the corners of the least
enigmatic rooms in our lives
with non-Euclidean eyes,
and check them against
yardsticks just to reassure
ourselves that math is real,
the ceiling is well-braced
and the pictures aren’t askew,
but we haven’t time
to update our encyclopedias
of truths with logics
supple and unyielding
as the parallelograms
that transect shoplifters’
reflections in the corners
of cashiers’ unseeing eyes.

We two face off unseeing
in two complimentary
directions, not the back-to-back
shield-buddies of Greek wars,
not the end-to-end
sleeping buddies of wolf packs,
but somehow stuck like stable mates
gazing over each other’s shoulders
trying to make out the view
obscured by the elephant in the room.
Opposed, entrenched, a lifelong
sunk cost bias acting
as our sea anchor
in every icy storm,
forever hacking at the ties
that bind with blunted instruments,
we have navigated
nothing but horse latitudes
and buried our good fortunes
here at sea.
We have our rhythms,
and we know each other well.


Take this poem
as an observation,
not an accomplished fact.
I remember your adventures
in the Galapagos
as though they numbered
among my very own.
Your pictures move me,
and although I love
the distances between us
too, I do miss you
and wonder about your life
now that you’ve retired
and drawn up the bridge
and settled down to be
more than half a dysfunctional
mother-daughter pair
for a healthy change.
Would you like to play backgammon?
Maybe, someday.

Energy drink blues

September 14, 2018

Right conquers might, with exegis.
A daydream.
Pumpkin patch paradise and
by the way, horses are good.
The other recurring dream.
How do you stop a horse with a bit in its mouth?
A sharp turn.
How do you navigate a cliff face?
How do you reanimate a dead horse?
A sacred cow.
How do you interrupt a train of thought with all the impetus and flowering capabilities of a fractal whorl, that is equally random, self-involved and unproductive?
A bad joke.


fractal mirror

Fractal mirror (of right and left hemisphere daydreams?) in blue


September 10, 2018

The slick unraveling of surfaces
in surgery, the scents of
attempts at sterilization,
the attack of gore
with mere precision
under uncertainty,
the confidence intervals
around each cure,
the defiance of Accident
to do its worst, the assertion
of normality over the rich egress,
all cautions against centrifugal
flow in signs and sensibilities,
against accommodation through
diffident, smug ironies,
imposing one astronomy,
one physics, one biology,
Greek roots, naïve humility
and adamant pursuit of truth.