Thursday, September 29, 2005

How to Make Your Own Atomic Bomb

Suppose you’re a — not a run-of-the-mill , but a smart, nasty son of a gun, intent on doing as much damage as possible. Your best approach is to develop a little about the size of the one used on . You don’t need any particular expertise, since you don’t have to meet the quality standards that a military commander would demand. Could it be done? Yes, in a recent paper (“The Risk of Nuclear Terrorism and How to Decrease It”) the Italian physicist and prominent Pugwashite Francesco has described it as an easy project.

You wouldn’t have to make it transportable; you could build it in a basement someplace and set it off right there with a timer. Everything that you need is available freely on the open market except one key ingredient: a sufficient quantity of uncontaminated ( ) containing at least 90% U-235. You don’t even need a source to initiate the chain reaction, though having one would improve the yield of your bomb, and they aren’t hard to build. All you need is to assemble a supercritical mass of HEU very fast — within about a millisecond. A gun can achieve that.

How much HEU would you need? The Hiroshima bomb was exploded by the fission of about one kilogram of HEU. Certainly 100 kilograms would be more than enough for your own primitive bomb. Once you get it, smuggling it will be easy. It will have a low radioactive signature and will occupy less than ten liters of space.

But supposedly that’s the only real hitch: obtaining a kilogram of the stuff, since no country is going to give it away or sell it to you. And as a mere would-be terrorist, you are unable to make it yourself. Indeed, only a few states can produce it. Calogero believes that the only reason why such an explosion hasn’t happened yet is that terrorists haven’t been able to get a sufficient quantity of weapon-grade uncontaminated HEU.

Where will you get it? The most promising source is , where there are more than one million kilograms of it, dispersed over more than 100 sites. Russia has declared half a million kilograms of it as surplus. And possibly one percent or more of it is unaccounted for — offering you quite an exceptional opportunity.

Calogero, however, fervently wishes to prevent your construction of a primitive nuclear bomb. He recommends one particular means of guaranteeing security: that the HEU be eliminated as quickly as possible. This actually can be done easily and cheaply by blending it down into Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) containing about 3-5% U-235. LEU is the standard fuel for , and it cannot easily be transformed back into HEU. The United States and Russia once agreed to down-blend 500 tons of Russian HEU and sell it to American utilities for $10 billion. However, this has not happened promptly, but is being done over a period of 20 years. So far, over 230 metric tons of Russian HEU has been downblended, and the work is proceeding at the rate of eliminating 30 tons per year. More could be done, faster, as Calogero strongly suggests. At , the Group of Eight agreed in principle to spend $10 billion US by the US itself, plus another $10 billion by the other countries over the next ten years to alleviate the risk of the use of HEU by terrorists.

More attention has actually been focused on eliminating than HEU, for Plutonium is the only other material suitable for the construction of a nuclear bomb. However, Calogero regards this as a misplaced concern, for there is vastly more HEU around than Plutonium, and it is more difficult to build a bomb with Plutonium.

Clearly, Calogero’s rationale for this program is based on his concern about preventing terrorists from building bombs. His paper does not mention the contrary argument, but it should be taken into account. Many people concerned with HEU do not favor its downblending and use in commercial nuclear reactors. However it is handled, nuclear power itself is inherently dangerous. Radiation pollutes the environment in the vicinity of nuclear reactors and causes much higher brain rates than elsewhere. Ultimately, nuclear power will be superseded by other types of energy. The question remains, though: How can HEU be kept safely without blending it down into LEU? I don’t know the answer.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Vicarious Emotions in Entertainment

Communications researchers speak of “ relationships” — the emotionally-loaded bonds that people sometimes form with . Sometimes it’s the hero of a novel, sometimes the glamorous heroine of an opera, sometimes perhaps even a -smoking, raincoat-wearing called , for whom the viewer develops an abiding fondness. The thing is, we feel for these people as if they were our real . When it comes to , viewers often develop what can only be called an “” to certain shows. If they miss a day, they have to get caught up. If the show goes off the air, they mourn as if they’d lost real loved ones. In fact, parasocial relationship may be among the most intense relationships of one’s life.

People don’t necessarily disclose their parasocial relationships, lest they be ridiculed for them. They know what others think about all this: “Get a life!” It is often supposed that people form emotional bonds with the characters in stories only as a substitute for real life, and only because they lack suitable persons to love. It is neurotic loners who supposedly form these ersatz bonds, and only because they are reluctant to open themselves up to the give-and-take intimacy of authentic human .

Not so. Psychologists who study parasocial life say that it is not pursued by people who shy away from reality or strong emotional bonds. On the contrary, the people who form rich relationships in general also form rich relationships with fictitious people, living vicariously by typically empathizing with whomever they meet. People who are stand-offish in real life are also stand-offish toward fictional characters, observing them with detachment instead of empathy.

makes you feel what the other person is experiencing — or at least feel for the other person. It can be unpleasant. For example, I won’t go to watch trapeze performers. Presumably they personally feel no anxiety, but I feel it for them. In fact, I hate the , and I won’t put myself through it. My life has adequate stress and I don’t want more — but apparently some people do. They pay to experience vicarious misery and danger. Usually, the people who enjoy watching stressful films are the same people who participate in extreme sports or other forms of real stress as . On their days off, most emergency room physicians rappel down cliffs or scuba dive for fun. The vicarious thrills derived from watching horror movies or Clint Eastwood flicks may be too pale to satisfy them, though they are too intense for me.

Our emotions are physiologically the same, whether we get them from real-life adventures or vicariously from a movie or TV screen. Adrenaline is adrenaline, and you may even produce it in greater quantities when watching a cliffhanger film than when hanging off a cliff yourself.

The effects of are known and, for the most part, are detrimental to one’s health. Far be it from me to advise you against watching Jaws, if that’s what you enjoy, but it’s not good for your cardiovascular system. There’s research showing that emotional stress, unlike the stress of physical exertion, harms the lining of blood vessels. In the case of an audience watching the opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan it diminished their reactivity by 35 percent.

and , on the other hand, do you a world of good. Laughter is indeed “good medicine.” Loving other people — or even pets (and, who knows, maybe even African violets)— will make you healthier and help you live longer. If you don’t feel love in your chest several times a day, you should consider renting a sweet movie. Pick one about people who are basically good and who do experience love. By empathizing with them you’ll generate some excellent peptides and hormones, including perhaps itself, the nicest chemical your body produces in tender, affectionate social relationships. Let yourself enjoy it. Get into the spirit of it. Empathize!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Einstein, Numb3rs, and Entertainment

Sometimes a juxtaposition of contrasts sets me to thinking. Today it’s about the challenge of reconciling or balancing with . Three things started my train of thought. First, I received some new comments to my blog from my former high school friend who turned — and , to judge from the tone of his remarks. In one comment he was demanding more respect for George W. Bush and explaining why it had been appropriate to use the on and Nagasaki. In another he was passing along the complaints of someone who had distributed aid in to rude who had shown no appreciation for his generosity. Ted had called himself a believer in “,” and that seems a fair summation, for he doesn’t seem to bring ideals into his political and social commentaries. (A week later, Ted has learned that the racist story about New Orleans blacks was a hoax and has apologized for forwarding it to me. Thanks, Ted.)

The second element in my conundrum was last night’s season premiere of the CBS television show Numb3rs, starring as an . I watched it last year mostly out of loyalty to Rob, whom I know and like. In person he’s a thoughtful, socially conscious guy whose spiritual concerns are readily accessible in conversations. As an actor, he’s particularly good at playing expressive, spontaneous characters. He thrives on , and when he’s allowed the leeway to do that, he never plays a scene the same way twice. But Numb3rs is a fast-paced, violent thriller. Rob’s character, Don Eppes, is a rigid cop devoid of emotions or, apparently, much of an inner self at all. His job is simply to catch lawbreakers and lock them up — or kill them, if need be. If he uses his gun, he never gives it a second thought later. Don is one tough, realistic hombre who doesn’t look for a better world than the mean one he inhabits. You may respect him (for he has integrity, courage, and smarts) but you can’t love him, for love is a response to another’s feelings.

Numb3rs regularly disappoints me and, unfortunately, it may be getting more violent and less intellectually interesting this season. It did have a three-dimensional quality last year that involved Don’s younger brother Charlie, a sweet but socially inept professor who developed equations that plausibly solved each . But the math has degenerated. Now instead of demonstrating his reasoning at the blackboard, Charlie merely announces inexplicably that his calculations point to so-and-so as linked to the crime. We must take on faith inferences that, last year, would have been demonstrated.

But the fake math is not what bothers me most. It’s the meaninglessness of such shows, which lack interpersonal, emotional, or spiritual dimensions. Indeed, I doubt that even could praise this one, though he famously maintains that complex plots, by making us think fast, actually make us smarter. Numb3rs moved so fast that no one could follow the FBI agents’ reasoning. There must have been six or eight suspects, each one of whom was replaced sequentially by the next, without explanation or even hints.

Regrettably, no one developed as a result of the experience. These characters, so oriented toward “reality,” do not permit themselves to reflect on the possibility that the world might be improved. There is no better example than this series to reveal the limitations of today’s . Storytelling must improve if we are to create a culture that supports human well-being and inspires viewers to become activists. The characters must have — or at least seek — meaning in their lives.

But today I’ve been reading . He never wrote a book about his world view, but many of his short articles and letters were published, offering an amazing contrast to Ted the tough-minded Libertarian and Don the unemotional FBI agent. Whereas you can’t Don, you can’t help loving Einstein. Einstein was an idealist, through and through. At the same time, he was devoted to the realistic search for truth about the workings of the universe. The hard work of scientific research was a response, he said, to the spiritual sense of cosmic wonder. He wrote, “The fairest thing we can experience is the . It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

Einstein’s reflections — even about physics — inspire and move the reader, and especially touch us when he writes about God and the . To him, and were not separate domains, nor was idealism antithetical to realism.

In our own everyday experience, however, it is often difficult to reconcile reality with ideals. The simplest solution is to choose the one and repress the other. Thus we can recognize among our acquaintances some who are realists and others who are idealists. Such one-sidedness distorts. If you pay attention only to circumstances and conditions, you notice what is but not what ought to be or even what you might hope for. Thus you explain the bombing of or a cop’s shooting of a criminal as a “realistic necessity,” and you feel neither remorse nor pity. If, on the other hand, you pay attention only to visionary purposes and the larger meanings of situations, you may not notice intractable circumstances. You may inhabit an imaginary world, ignoring facts and coping poorly.

Realism and idealism are both necessary. We cannot properly choose one to the exclusion of the other, nor can we always reconcile them. The tension between them is ineluctably part of the human condition. That makes life painful. It also makes life fun.

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Guy Who Knows the Power of a Story

I’m ! On September 20 the Globe and Mail ran Liam Lacey’s excellent article about a young man named who has picked — I think — the single most promising way of to humankind.

Go ahead and guess: What do you think is the best way of serving humanity? To me, it’s getting other people engaged in the work of . And the best way to do that is through . That’s the whole point of my forthcoming book, . Not many people recognize the , but Skoll figured it out and is acting on it in extraordinary ways.

He’s a , for starters. With the five billion dollars he earned as president of , he’s the 94th on earth. And he’s giving it away in the most wonderful, imaginative ways — especially what he calls “.”

Lacey informs us that Skoll had gone around asking why movie-makers didn’t use their talent more constructively, by telling stories with intelligent messages about . Answer: they can’t afford the ; pictures may flop unless they stick to making the sort that everyone is used to. So Skoll asked them whether they would be interested if he’d partner with them and make sure they didn’t lose money when addressing humankind’s urgent problems. Sure! They were instantly enthusiastic! So that’s what he’s been doing for over a year — lessening the risk involved in making stories that motivate people to become activists. His company is called and it’s bringing back into movie theaters people who rarely used to go. So far they have produced such films as Fast Food Nation and Murderball. They released the first Arab-dubbed version of Gandhi. (Fabulous! That’s just what needs most right now!) Teamed with , they produced a flick called Syriana, which is based on an exposé book about the 's ground war — See No Evil). They produced Class Action; Good Night and Good Luck (a show directed by George Clooney about Edward R. Murrow’s battle against Senator ). Other films coming out soon are American Gun and North Country.

Skoll does not deal with partisan politics in his pictures, but instead focuses on six topics: the , , institutional responsibility, health, peace and tolerance, and social and economic equity. And his brilliant idea is to grab the audience and connect them with programs of action. Every one of his movies has an Internet group that people can join. Some of the stories made for young people have special teaching kits for use in classrooms. For example, Participant Productions has teamed up with PBS and, developing a campaign about journalistic responsibility for teachers to use. He intends to go into television production too, making shows that are available on the Internet. (Episodic TV is even more powerful than movies, and I think he will discover that himself.) Al Gore is a fervent supporter — which stands to reason: Gore himself has started a liberal radio network to counter the omnipresent right wing talk shows.

Brilliant, thoughtful, emotionally rich stories are exactly the best way to motivate people to act — and God knows, we certainly need to get people engaged in solving our global problems. Hooray for Mr. Skoll! I've got a thousand ideas for him. And thanks to Liam Lacey for a fine article about exactly what I needed to hear — good news about smart social action.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Who Runs the United Nations?

The leaves are just beginning to turn in the Gatineau Hills on the Quebec side of Ottawa. The traditionally gathers there at a resort for a weekend every fall to listen to invited speakers and contemplate current affairs. This year our first evening was especially pleasant because was with us.

As all Canadian readers know, Clark was twice the leader of the (while it was still genuinely progressive) and briefly served as 16th . When the PCs merged with a more right-wing party, he left the country to teach a while at American University in Washington, D.C. This fall he’s back in Ottawa, but no longer holding . Now he has time to sit up late, chatting with us, then rise early to sit in a session before heading back to town.

This year, despite the beauties of nature that surrounded us, the group was in a sombre mood, mostly because of the recent failure to . There was nothing whatever to celebrate, and the speakers seemed to be trying hard to reveal a few bright potentials in the gloomy stories they told.

Fortunately, a self-designated scapegoat emerged among us, prompting (thank goodness) one energetic debate. A young woman, Melissa Powell, had just described her work with the , a group of businesses that have come together at the United Nations at ’s urging. In a conference, he had proposed a partnership with who would develop codes and principles of conduct to help develop the planet in constructive ways.

The Group of 78 was too polite to criticize Melissa, though I could sense an unspoken skepticism about her organization. Given the prevailing view of corporations as overly powerful, the Group suspects the business world — especially when it is ensconced in the very office of the secretary-general himself. Yet our Group listened quietly to her presentation; it was not a member but the next speaker who interrupted the courteous silence with a provocative harangue.

Michael Hart is an economist at Carleton University. His post is funded by a business firm that had acted improperly, he said, in the very act of sponsoring his . The only thing a corporation should do, he said, is make money for its . It should not be donating money to other projects, whether worthy or unworthy. On the same reasoning, he flatly criticized the businesses that constitute the Global Compact. There are laws to regulate companies. Though firms must obey those laws, they should not exceed the demands of the government or take a leadership role concerning ethics, management, or other matters of public . They should stick to their own function: making money.

Oddly, most members of the Group of 78 shared Hart’s misgivings about the Global Compact — but for diametrically opposing reasons. They doubted that businesses would ever really behave as good global citizens, even if they signed a document promising to do so. Hart, on the other hand, was complaining about these corporations for showing too much ethical self-restraint. He swaggered about, speaking in the most provocative manner possible — barely this side of rudeness. And his audience — previously so gloomy — began to snort audibly and roll their eyes. He was getting everybody’s goat. There were more socialists in the room than I had realized, and the rest were red-blooded anti-globalizers, bent on bringing corporate capitalism to heel.

But Hart had launched his provocation by showing how greatly had improved during our own lifetime in areas where capitalism was functioning. The only hope for the rest of humankind, he suggested, was to embrace the market and let businesses make money precisely by finding out what people need and want, and producing it. He smiled at the objections he was hearing, even from other economists.

I raised objections too — but not exactly the ones other people were pointing out. I agreed with him that capitalism has raised our standard of living and extended our life expectancy. Nevertheless, it seemed to me, there are many different interests in society and corporations certainly don’t necessarily meet them all. We need structural ways of making businesses more accountable. For one thing, all their holdings and plans should be completely transparent. We should be able to go to a web site and find out where each business is buying up rain forests or cattle or mineral mines. Moreover, each board of directors should be required to include members representing their employees, consumers, environmental organizations. and other civil society organizations whose are affected by its policies. Yes, probably at least 51 percent of the decision-making body should be accountable to the stockholders, but a sizeable percentage should be democratically accountable to the public. “And with such arrangements in place,” I said,“go ahead and make all the money you want.”

Professor Hart was horrified and said so. The Group of 78 was not horrified but rather befuddled. They had never heard this proposal before. They knew what socialism looked like and what capitalism looked like — but what would this be? It was radical, yet also conservative. They were shocked but not hostile. I think most of them felt a little embarrassed.

Hart evidently had fun that afternoon and so did I. But Joe Clark had left hours before, having had a bit of progressive conservative fun of his own, in a Canada much like that of the old days.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Getting Smarter about Ending Hunger

How can developed countries intervene constructively in situations of extreme , such as those prevailing in Niger these days?

This question differs from the one that I’ve had to address here in the preceding blog entry, when a woman questioned, not how, but even whether to intervene. I find it emotionally troubling to read comments to my posts that argue against responding at all to hunger in other countries. I never meet such people in real life, but obviously they are out there someplace, for they chime in on the discussions that I initiate here. Don’t they realize that every day, more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes--one child every five seconds? More likely, they just don’t care. Well, I do.

The is one crucial determinant of food security. As Amartya Sen and Jean Dréze have shown, wherever the government is a , never occurs. When it seems to be impending, citizens have enough power to force the regime to take action. Often hunger is a result of , which interrupts the production and distribution of food and causes poverty by shifting expenditures to weapons instead of social services and infrastructure.

Hunger is rarely caused by . There can be hunger even when the granaries are full if the local people don’t have enough money to pay for food — as sometimes happens to farmers who cannot sell their produce at a good price.

The isolationists argue — partly correctly — that is sometimes spent in counterproductive ways. However, the solution is not to cease offering aid altogether, for Pete’s sake! Instead, in this imperfect world, where we often make dreadful mistakes, we must simply to take responsibility for the choices we make that affect others, and proceed as actively as if we could be perfectly prescient.

The first idea that springs to mind in a situation of widespread hunger is to send food to the villages where people are starving. This is a particularly appealing idea when our own farms are producing a huge surplus. Nevertheless, development experts have learned that this is often a poor approach. One of my favorite journalists, The Globe and Mail’s own Doug Saunders, has recently (Sept. 10, p. F3) described the lessons that have been learned through experience about how to stop starvation.

What happens when we send bags of food is that the people eat some of it and sell the rest at the market to buy other things that they need. Then when the harvest comes in, the farmers cannot sell their produce because the people already have received all their families need — for free. “Sometimes,” writes Saunders, “the worst thing you can do for starving people is give them food.”

Nevertheless, Canada has often done so — both out of a misplaced attempt to be charitable, and to get rid of our own enormous surplus. The cost of shipping grain is, in itself, so high that it makes little economic sense, even so. Saunders quotes Mark Fried of Oxfam Canada as saying, “It would be cheaper, and a lot better for the victims, if you just dumped it all in Montreal Harbour and used the shipping money you saved to buy grain in Africa.”

Oxfam is leading the way toward a different approach: using the cash donated as aid to buy food grains grown within the crisis-stricken country, so that the there benefit. However, there’s a downside to this too: The aid donations may drive up the local grain prices so much that the impoverished local people cannot pay for it anyway. Therefore, the UN’s relief workers have to monitor the situation carefully. They must not give food away for free, so they make “loans” to the poorest families — and only to those who would otherwise not be able to buy food at all.

At the same time, the UN watches to make sure they neither undercut the price of local farmers nor raise their prices above the affordable price. To keep this from happening, they sometimes buy the grain from another nearby country that is more prosperous. And as soon as the local harvest comes in, they cut off the free food, so the ordinary market resumes functioning normally.

Obviously, this is a tricky process to balance, but we’re learning. It is possible to use development aid either stupidly or wisely and — thank goodness! — wisdom is increasing.

It Just Got Harder to Save the World

The decided yesterday to — but omitted some of the most urgent reforms from the agreement. The negotiators had to abandon several specific commitments and substitute in their place only vague “motherhood” clauses that already had been accepted long ago. There is no , as Kofi Annan’s advisory team had proposed. There is no powerful new to replace the existing commission. and are not covered at all in the text of the agreement.

There were some positive changes, however. The “” doctrine has been endorsed, requiring the United Nations to protect civilians from , ethnic cleansing, and massacres, using military power if necessary, whenever their own government will not protect them. And the administration of the UN probably will become more efficient, with new auditing arrangements to be set up and the wielding more authority to set priorities; at present he must get the approval of the General Assembly to make significant changes.

The greatest disappointments about the new document concern its failure to provide strong remedies for and environmental dangers. So many tragedies loom ahead — and there is so little time! Kofi Annan put the best face on the outcome, claiming that it was not a failure — but it was. The reactionary policies of the United States must be blamed for the inadequate responses to these urgent problems. The UN could do so much more that one can only grieve for the loss of this rare opportunity.

Oddly, today I received another message that troubled me: a comment posted on my blog by a woman named Chrissy, who admired the comments of my old high school friend Ted, who is now a Libertarian. Chrissy thinks that most people are better off without help from government and particularly opposes , which she blames for many of the problems poor countries face. Her astonishing advice: “pull out and don’t look back. This is not a miserly, selfish view of the world. This is a realistic, possibly workable solution to a problem that our government and society continues to make worse.”

By “our government,” she presumably refers to the United States — the richest country but also, among developed countries, the one that contributes the least financial aid to the developing world. To be sure, flawed development strategies sometimes have worsened the plight of poor countries, but there is no such option as to “pull out and don’t look back.” Everything that powerful individuals and societies do will affect others — especially less powerful others. We cannot stop the world and get off. The only option is to learn from our mistakes and do a better job. Instead, the rich nations continue to support that further impoverish the poor — not allowing them to export freely to the West, while exporting our surplus agricultural commodities to the poor countries, destroying the market for local producers.

I generally avoid the term “,” since it refers to such a disparate array of practices as to be almost meaningless, but in this case it is a fitting term, for it highlights the impact — whether intended or inadvertent — of power and wealth upon the whole planet. Globalization can, in principle, be a great blessing. For example, the aforementioned “responsibility to protect” doctrine places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of powerful societies to protect the weak victims of dictators and enemy ethnic groups in their own countries. This becomes a global responsibility only when local protective arrangements fail. It nevertheless remains possible for the powerful countries to ignore this responsibility or even exacerbate the plight of the victims. The doctrine may even be misused to authorize more tragedies such as the invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain. Nevertheless, it is potentially a step forward and I rejoice at its adoption.

It’s high time that we recognize the world as an integrated economy and a single ecological system. There is no country that can remain unaffected by the whole. We share the same air and water — whether polluted or clean. Whenever you drink a cup of coffee or eat a banana, you are part of a planetary market that determines the income of some Third World . Your impact cannot be avoided.

Sorry, Chrissy and Ted, but the only way forward is to become more conscious of the ecological and economic footprints we leave on the planet. We must live mindfully, as members of one single species inhabiting the only planet where life is known to exist. There are no guarantees that we’ll prevail — indeed, it just got harder yesterday — but I invite you to do your part.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Forgiveness, Justice, and Tit-for-Tat

One of this blog’s devoted readers posted a reply the other day, chastising me for saying in relation to incompetent political leaders that I’d “get even” by ousting them from office. As a Quaker, he opposed retribution on principle.

I didn’t agree with him, but I filed his comment in the back of my mind, intending to think about it later. Then on Sunday, Anglican church services everywhere were reading a Biblical passage about . The reader and the homilist both reminded me that Christ had ordered us to forgive, not just seven times, but seven times seventy times. Infinite forgiveness. Wow.

I am not sure what forgiveness means exactly, but I think it means to treat the offender as if he had not done anything wrong. If that’s the case, then I can’t do it — or can’t always do it — and don’t even believe in doing it. In fact, it seems that the in me conflicts with the spiritual aspirant in me, for social scientists plainly agree that “” are necessary ways of encouraging in all of us. Negative sanctions are, to put it bluntly, punishments. At a minimum, that would seem to include campaigning against someone like George W. Bush at the next election as retribution, not only for stupendous inompetence but for misleading the public and following policies that are contrary to the public interest. (I can do so because I have both Canadian and American citizenship.)

During the intercessions at my we all have a chance to voice particular prayers. I said aloud that I was praying for wisdom — for the ability to pursue both and forgiveness, for I don’t always know how to do them both at the same time.

Afterward I chatted with Bill Whitla, a retired English professor and Anglican priest who had delivered the homily. How can we do both justice and forgiveness? I asked again. He replied that, yes, there has to be . We have to treat people differently, according to their performances, but we should not resort to vengeance.

Good point, I guess. But what is vengeance? Isn’t it retribution? Isn’t it the imposing of “negative sanctions” — for bad deeds? I may not hate another person, but I do feel obliged to reward or punish him for his excellence or willful malfeasance. I consider it my social obligation — my duty to uphold high .

About five years ago, for example, a woman stole some of my professional work. I had completed about half of the task of editing a book consisting of about 15 papers when she asked to join with me in the project as co-editor. Since I was pressed for time, I reluctantly agreed to this, knowing from past experience that her competence was limited and I’d have to double-check whatever she did. After a year or so, she sent the manuscript to the publisher, claiming to be the sole editor. I learned of it and protested to the publisher, who wouldn’t touch the manuscript, since I hadn’t even seen it since turning it over to her. Another publisher, however, did publish it in her name. I tried to bring her before the ’s , but since she wasn’t a member, they had no authority. I could have sued, but this would have cost money and time, when I had more important things to handle. Hence, I let her get away with it.

Was this forgiveness? Objectively, yes, for she received no . But was it a good thing? No. I actually feel guilty for failing to pursue the matter assiduously. I stood to benefit or lose nothing personally from the outcome; I had already retired, and there was no financial recompense involved. However, I believe that, to protect the integrity of one’s profession, one should never allow such unethical behavior to pass unremarked. (If you think you know this sociologist and want more details about her misconduct, contact me. Her initials are B.W.)

This brings me back to social science. My main career has been devoted to , and when I taught the course called “Negotiation and Nonviolence,” I always lectured on . In this famous game, two suspected partners in crime are arrested and confronted separately by the prosecutor, who gives them both a chance to confess and implicate the other. If they both remain silent, there will be too little evidence to convict either of them for their main offense, so they will get off with a light jail sentence for a minor infraction — six months. If both confess and each other, they will both serve two years. However — and here’s the kicker — if one stays silent and the other betrays him, the one who stays silent will serve ten years, while the one who betrayed him will go free.

Clearly, the optimum response for them, as a pair, is to stay silent and take the six-month sentence. However, if this is to work, they must both each other, for the penalty is extremely high for staying silent while the other partner “sings.” This is a “mixed motive” game, in that each prisoner has two incompatible interests — one as a member of the group, and another as an individual.

Prisoner’s Dilemma has been studied countless times. I used to divide my classes into two teams that had to decide separately how to respond. We’d play a whole series of games and it was common for teams to change their decision repeatedly, sometimes betraying the other side, sometimes cooperating with them. We’d keep score for each round, totalling up the sentences that each side amassed over a series of, say, ten rounds.

Peace researchers studied this problem: how to induce mutual trust and cooperation over time. Clearly, everyone learns from past experience. Whenever one prisoner “defects,” the other one must be dubious about trusting him in future rounds of play, but whenever cooperation has been displayed, one can rationally expect it to continue and therefore will play cooperatively.

’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation, is a classic study of Prisoners’ Dilemma, as played in a tournament by computers that were programmed to follow different strategies of decision-making. The winning strategy was called “,” which had been developed by my friend of the University of Toronto. According to this strategy, a player begins by cooperating with the other player (i.e. by staying silent instead of confessing and betraying the other). Then in each subsequent round, you play in the same way that the other side has just played. If he cooperates, you cooperate. If he betrays you, you betray him. This is perfect reciprocity — tit-for-tat. Of all the various strategies that played against each other in the tournament, this unforgiving one turned out to be most successful. Over time both sides tended to learn from experience that they’d be punished for betrayal and rewarded for cooperation. Players tended to develop more cooperative patterns of interaction. And if both sides played according to the Tit-for-Tat strategy, they would both receive minimum sentences.

However, there was one obvious pitfall. If either side made a mistake and betrayed the other on a single round, they would both get into a recurring pattern of mutual from which the strategy provided no possible exit.

I myself had some moral qualms about this Tit-for-Tat strategy too. I much prefer living according to a general principle of forgiveness, though whenever another person’s wrongdoing cannot be justified, I believe in imposing negative sanctions. In general, I prefer sanctions that require restitution, rather than punishment for its own sake. Restorative justice simply requires everyone to undo as much harm as possible from the effects of the wrongdoing.

Still, I couldn’t argue with the tournament’s results. Tit-for-Tat induced more cooperation over time than any strategy I would have chosen. Whenever we forgive or overlook the other side’s previous betrayal, we let him continue getting away with, and benefiting from, such acts. Consistent followers of Christ would be defeated (unless some hot-shot theologian can reconcile his principle of forgiveness with the principle of reciprocity).

This research still holds up. Negative sanctions are sometimes necessary.

However, Tit-for-Tat only works in a two-person game situation. In real life, we rarely play against each other in a series of identical situations lasting ten or twenty rounds. We usually have to decide whether to trust others whom we don’t know personally. Yet even here the principle of reciprocity applies, though it’s adapted to suit a large social group who interact somewhat anonymously.

This new principle is called the “indirect reciprocity.” I may not be able to punish you personally, since we’ll never do business together again, but I can pass the word on to others, so they will know whether to trust you. This process is the creation of “,” and it’s becoming more important all the time in putting pressure on people to behave well. Some instances: Whenever you seek a job, the potential employer will probably phone someone who has worked with you and ask their appraisal of you. When you buy an item on e-Bay, you may refer to the past behavior of the person with whom you are dealing, and if her reputation is poor, you may choose not to buy. Likewise, when you buy a book from, you can count the stars it has been awarded by previous readers. When you read the articles posted on, you’ll find that this is a moderated list; the articles are chosen by people who have previously established good reputations by posting articles themselves that have been rated highly.

Several writers — notably Hassan Masum —have been developing tools for calculating reputation efficiently. Masum writes, “Shared opinions drive society: what we read, how we vote, and where we shop are all heavily influenced by the choices of others. However, the cost in time and money to systematically share opinions remains high, while the actual performance history of opinion generators is often not tracked.” He and other like-minded researchers propose to make bring transparency to all our public dealings.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with this too, for I’m aware that reputations can take on a life of their own, whether or not they are accurate. I recall one instance involving a former mentor of mine who was a famous sociologist with a poor reputation that I considered unfair. In a small community, everyone will know everyone else and you can double-check the gossip you hear, but in a truly anonymous mass society, people simply pass on whatever impressions they have heard, with no chance to verify them.

Sometimes, of course, people contribute to the reputations of people they have never met. This seems a serious flaw in the process. If we’re going to take reputation into account, we need some way to establish the credibility of the persons on whose appraisals we depend. At a minimum, we want a system in which unfounded gossip doesn’t affect a person’s reputation. Fortunately, e-Bay and use methods in which the ratings are provided only by individuals who have personally experienced the conduct of the person being rated. This removes the chance that one’s reputation may be smeared by slander.

To make it work, the majority of users will need to participate in the rating process. I never used to do that when buying from Amazon or e-Bay, but now I see that I should take the trouble to do so. Reputation counts, and it should be fair and well-founded. But forgiveness? I don’t know how to bring that into the picture.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Why You Can’t Move New Orleans

Most analyses of the catastrophe concentrate on apportioning , which is natural at this phase. But a few writers have addressed the of the disaster. Not only are the suffering — those people who were unable to leave the city and whom we have seen on television for the past two weeks — but there are major economic impacts on the more prosperous families who were able to leave the region, but whose homes were destroyed, and there are also impacts on the US and even the global economy. I’ll start with the large picture.

has always been a terrible location for a city. It lies . In an interview, House Speaker Dennis agreed that it made no sense to spend billions rebuilding a city in such a place. He said that “it looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."

But New Orleans will be rebuilt where it is now, for that’s exactly where a city must be: where the empties into the Gulf. The region has always been vulnerable to , and in the past, the river would change course from time to time and overflow its banks. The only way to keep the city above water has been to construct to contain the river and Lake Pontchartrain. Yet the region plays an enormously important role in the global economy — precisely because of where it is located. It cannot be moved, as George Friedman’s geopolitical analysis for Stratfor emphasizes. ( If the port were moved up the river, there could be no traffic of ocean-going ships. And a city has to near the where the platforms are located.

Louisiana is crucial to the oil industry, providing about 15 percent of the US-produced petroleum, and refining it locally. Also, the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port supports the supertankers in the Gulf. There had been worries that the oil facilities might be destroyed by Katrina, but fortunately that did not happen. The damage is quite limited.

Many news reporters have mentioned the pipelines, platforms, refineries, and oil port as the primary economic concern, whereas they should also consider the on the river, which remain as important today as in any previous time in history. The Port of South Louisiana, according to Friedman, “is the largest port in the United States by tonnage and the fifth-largest in the world. It exports more than 52 million tons a year, of which more than half are agricultural products…”

has enabled Americans to prosper. The raw goods — steel, oil, rubber — required by American industry are imported through New Orleans. Exports — notably farm commodities — are shipped down the Mississippi River on barges, loaded onto ships at a port, and sent thence to all parts of the world. Even now, more than half the American grain and soybean harvest comes down the river, providing a significant portion of the world’s food. There are no good alternative ways of shipping these products, for there are nowhere near enough trucks or freight trains. Fortunately, the river did not break the levees and change course during the hurricane, nor did it silt up enough to require dredging. The port facilities, though damaged somewhat, remain functional.

Yet Katrina has ruined the oil industry and especially the ports for the forseeable future. How so? By destroying the city. The skilled workers who staff these facilities have left New Orleans and cannot return, for they have no place to live. The personnel who were displaced by the storm will find new jobs elsewhere, put their kids into new schools, cash their insurance cheques, and settle down. Tbey cannot return until the stores, banks, hospitals, and schools are restored to provide for their families’ needs.

The American will be coming down the river later this month and the ports must re-open to handle it, but who will work there? For the near term, the army and the can do the job. Friedman reports that the Army Corps of Engineers and some 50,000 US troops have arrived the region and are already at work restoring the port and wider infrastructure. But for the long term, New Orleans must be rebuilt. The economy requires oil and river transportation, and the civilian must live in homes located in the same vulnerable areas as before.

Shocked by the disaster, America has already contributed some $500 million through private , and Congress immediately allocated over $10.5 billion to begin reconstruction. That’s a goodly sum, and there are infinite possible ways in which it could be spent. Obviously, the civilian workers who maintain the oil and port facilities must have new housing, and there must be other amenities for them as well.

But the real question is whether the poor , mostly black, will have their needs met. Certainly there will be political pressure not to forget them this time, since all the world witnessed their suffering after the hurricane. But one must worry that these huge sums of money nevertheless may be mis-spent, benefiting yet once more the corrupt elite. Developers may be able to divert the money into construction of swanky housing for the affluent, now that the storm has conveniently forced the black underclass the leave the state. It is common for disaster relief to result in further harm to the poorest victims. For example, in Sri Lanka much of the vast donations after the is being spent on lovely new housing for the affluent, while the poor remain destitute in camps.

Yet a few relief agencies had the right idea. For example, my friend Ian Small, who directs the Oxfam operations in Indonesia, immediately flew into an area that was reeling from the effects of the tsunami, and began paying the local people to work on cleaning up their town. People who had been sitting in stunned silence got up and went to work — for wages. It was the most effective way of mobilizing people and of giving them relief.

In The Nation, September 9, Naomi Klein offered an excellent proposal along similar lines: Let the people rebuild New Orleans. She took heart from a statement by Community Labor United, a coalition of low-income groups in that city, which proclaimed: “The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants…. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly build mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans.”

Klein’s idea is to have the victims of the flood reconstruct the city for themselves. There’s money now to rebuild the crumbling schools and hospitals — which could create thousands of jobs. There’s even money to train the underclass so they can fill those jobs. And the community should decide what to build — since the money is meant for them.

This decision must be made soon, so that people can know immediately that they will have homes to return to. However scattered they are now, in most cases they want to go home, and this promise should be extended to them promptly. As Klein says, “New Orleans’ evacuees should draw strength from the knowledge that they are no longer poor people; they are rich people who have been temporarily locked out of their bank accounts.”

Monday, September 05, 2005

Free Speech and Dirty Culture

Who could be against ? Not I. But today’s Globe and Mail has a simplistic editorial defending what they call “shock radio.” A radio station in Quebec City had an announcer named Fillion who reportedly was competing with New York’s Howard Stern for leadership in the rudeness sweepstakes. He must have won, for the regulatory body of Canada, the , warned him repeatedly and then actually pulled his station off the air.

I never heard Fillion’s show, but according to the Globe editorial, he referred, for example, to the weather announcer’s “incredible set of boobs;” suggested “pulling the plug” on a psychiatric patient; and said that “foreign students, by definition, with some exceptions, are all children of the most disgusting political leaders in the world, people who are sucking their countries dry…people we call cannibals…”

Many of Fillion’s listeners were upset when he was taken off the air. Some 50,000 of them reportedly marched in a rally to support the radio station, which appealed the CRTC’s decision.

Then, in a decision last week, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the CRTC had been performing its role properly in shutting down the station.

The Globe editors strongly disagreed. In today’s lead editorial, they acknowledge the vileness of Fillion’s speech, yet defend vigorously his right to say whatever he pleased. They cite the of Rights and Freedoms, arguing that freedom of the press and other media of communication is fundamental. “That Mr. Fillion is vulgar and offensive does not exempt him from those rights.…As unpleasant he is, Mr. Fillion and people like him are the canaries in the mine of free expression. If they are silenced, it means the air around us is getting thin.”

I can’t flatly disagree with this analysis. However, I cannot quite accept it either, for both and freedom of speech require our protection. The trouble is, we cannot always do both equally well at the same time. The issue is more complex than the Globe’s editors make it out to be.

If we’re talking about the right to orate from soap boxes in the park, then we all enjoy that freedom equally. When it comes to , the situation is somewhat different. One person has access to the mike, while the rest of us have to listen or simply turn off the radio. We have no other recourse. But culture is important. We swim in a cultural environment that’s polluted, and some people are inevitably harmed by it. How are we to maintain civility of discourse when the owner of a radio station can hire any inflammatory weirdo he chooses as our “instructor” in addressing political and social problems?

The answer, of course, is to democratize communication, so it’s not all controlled from a small elite. That’s what the Internet does. I am exercising my right to free speech at this very moment. Through this blog I communicate with hundreds of other people, who all have the freedom to speak their minds. We all correct each other as equals. I invite you to post your comments below, where everyone else in the world who has Internet access can read them. In this situation, our freedom of speech is truly priceless. But as a consumer or audience of a radio show, I feel helpless to defend our culture from the vandals who are paid to be .

The airwaves are public property. The government allocates bandwidth and radio frequencies to particular private stations so they can broadcast information, music, and ideas that citizens need or want to hear. If broadcasters use that to stir up hatred or gratuitously insult listeners, the citizens have a right to replace the material with other content.

There are — and always have been — certain standards governing content. For example, each broadcasting license in Canada requires that a minimum percentage of the content be produced by Canadians rather than foreigners. This rule was introduced to protect , and no one objects to it. Likewise, Canadians have imposed certain limits on “hate literature,” even deporting a few hate-mongers who spout Nazi anti-Semitic . If the editors of the Globe put their minds to it, I’m sure they can imagine certain utterances that they too would deem unacceptable for broadcasting.

are not absolute — especially when one right is incompatible with another right. I claim the right to a culture that supports human flourishing. That involves the right to free speech. And with that right comes a responsibility to speak with due regard for other human beings. I expect no less of broadcasters.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Who Wants a Government of the People?

I’ve just agreed to engage in a at my university. I’ll be defending the value of . One might expect the validity of my position to be taken for granted, with no opposition. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Indeed, I know that I’ll have a hard time. The only thing my opponent needs to do is refer to the and ask whether it’s a democratic country.

“Yes,” I’ll say.

“I rest my case,” he’ll say.

“But the United States is unique,” I’ll reply. “You can’t conclude that it represents democracy in general.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

If the debate is not to crash in this disastrous way, I must be able to explain the pathologies that are so apparent in the US today. (Explain them, not justify them, for there can be no justification or denial of the facts.) And my explanation cannot in any way blame democracy itself — if, indeed, I decide to concede that the US is still a democracy — a view that is widely and plausibly contested.

Not only was the of 2000 stolen, but some sound scholarship suggests that so was the 2004 election, though in a different way. In 2000 the popular vote favored the Democrats but won by capturing the electoral college. In 2004, the popular vote favored Bush, though Kerry might well have carried the electoral college, had there been no hanky-panky.

To bring America up to world-standards of democracy through requires more than abolishing the . At a minimum it also requires abolishing the system, which pretty much limits to two the number of significant political parties and therefore limits the range of choice.

There are dozens of other democratic states today with more responsive systems of governance than the United States. Still, I will not argue that it is an undemocratic country. If George W. Bush did not actually win the last two elections, he at least achieved a close tie and it is not obvious that his opponents would have governed very differently, had they won.

What I must argue is that political decisions made democratically are not necessarily any better substantively than those made by other processes. The current policies made by the US government prove that. All that it takes to prove the point is to find one single instance of a democracy that (a) refuses to sign the international covenant on the ; (b) opposes the ; (c) opposes the ; (d) opposes on principle the responsibility of the international community to protect citizens whose own government abuses them; (e) refuses to sign the Accords; (f) refuses to provide medical care to all its citizens; and (g) cuts funding for the maintenance of essential services and infrastructure (such as levees in ) while cutting taxes for the wealthy and paying for wars that it initiates against foreign countries. And we all know where to find such a country.

I must therefore concede, at the outset of the debate, that substantively, the domestic policies of democratic countries are not necessarily better than those of dictatorships. Thus Castro’s — a repressive regime that violates its citizens’ civil rights routinely — nevertheless makes health care and free education available to all — policies that surpass the standards of many richer democratic societies.

Despite all the imperfections of democracy, societies all around the world are adopting it as their form of governance. Everywhere, it is gaining popularity. Even blatantly repressive regimes commonly claim to be representative and accountable, for there is no other commonly accepted basis of legitimacy. The demand for democratization is based on this simple claim: “We want to make our own decisions. Even if we do make mistakes, they will be our own mistakes, and if we choose to do so, we can then revise our policies.”

As arguments go, that one entirely suffices.

Nevertheless, there are two other persuasive grounds for favoring democracy. First, it limits both and the violent repression of citizens by their own governments. And second, it is especially conducive to economic . I’ll develop both of these points in my debate and in other blog posts.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Show Me. And Tell Me Too

got under my skin several months ago with his book, , and I’m still itchy from it. Today I got another chance to scratch when I saw a minor , Show Me, that Johnson would probably like. As I mull it over, my critique is taking shape in response to his esthetic.

I went alone to see this violent film, which my usual movie-going companions would have disliked. So did I, but the star, Michelle Nolden, is a friend of mine. (See photo.) More accurately, ours is what network analysts call a “weak tie.” I like her and respect her acting and her intelligence. And if Johnson is right, watching her film may even make me smarter by making me work hard to understand the plot.

Johnson sees dramas as increasingly complex. levels are increasing about three points per decade in the developed countries and he attributes that to television and other popular cultural products. He suggests that stories are so challenging nowadays that our neurons must go like popcorn, just to keep up. Intelligence is required to grasp the implications of what we’ve seen. And exercise keeps the fit, just as it does the cardiovascular system.

So far as he goes, Johnson is right, but he ignores certain other physiological consequences of watching , such as the harmful health effects of emotional . Thousands of studies have shown that stress makes people sick. We may differ in our responses to suspense and violence, but no one’s health benefits from it, so I generally avoid anxiety-provoking shows. Nevertheless, here I won’t dwell on the physiological effects, but rather on the diminished meanings of films and television: not the medium but the content. I discussed this trend a couple of years ago with Michelle Nolden.

We met when Michelle was starring in , a series about officers and their parolees. I was allowed to observe it in production and then I showed all the episodes to a group of my friends. It was the kind of sophisticated, complex show that supposedly makes you smarter. My friends couldn’t always figure out its surprising plot developments, though they liked trying to do so, and the actors loved working with its subtle scripts.

My question was, how much should writers spell out? Dumb scripts “spoon feed” us, whereas writers with artistic aspirations tend not to let characters articulate their motivations and assumptions plainly. The trend today, I think, leans too far toward the latter fault. The actors and the audience must reach their own conclusions about the many intentions that remain unspoken. Today’s prevailing esthetic prescribes that only through their actions may characters reveal their motivations. Viewers disagree therefore about the show’s meaning — especially in an era when few writers try to impart messages for us to draw upon in our own lives.

We may not notice the absence of insightful discussions, though, if we are watching fine actors; they can fascinate us even if we cannot see into their characters’ minds. However, on the whole I think we lose more than we gain by this excessive subtlety. (Recently I expressed my appreciation of ’s brilliant writing, which does explore psychological orientations and philosophical debates.)

Yet, regrettably, the dramas that usually win Oscars and Emmys are those that make audiences work out the meanings for ourselves without many clues. (Think, for example, of The Hours, Adaptation, and Lost in Translation.) Of course, an actor must figure out her character’s intentions, since the script often leaves viewers depending entirely on the clues she provides. As Michelle Nolden told me in an interview,

“If I am playing a character who turns my stomach, I need to know why that character is the way she is. Nobody is just that way for no reason. And that’s where the challenge is – in figuring it out…. I’d love to play a . They are always the most interesting. But the villain has to have some sort of redemption. He’s not being bad for the sake of being bad. You can’t have gratuitous violence. If there’s an arc to the character where he actually goes somewhere … then to me it’s worth it.”

Still, even brilliant acting cannot compensate for the script’s failure to articulate : Show Me proves that. The film is a thriller about a Toronto woman and two screwed-up street kids who jump into her car at an intersection and force her to drive to her cottage. The three actors are brilliantly expressive, but their characters’ interactions are constantly changing direction — inexplicably so. There is no coherence; their behavior makes no sense whatever. In her final lines, Michelle’s character is allowed to explain that she had wanted to save the two kids somehow. Of course, she failed.

Did this movie make me smarter? Certainly not, though I did work hard at figuring out the motivations of all three characters. The experience required much of me — a readiness to undergo unhealthy anxiety — for negligible rewards. The mental exercise of trying to comprehend a character may make us intelligent — but only our succeeding at that exercise can make us satisfied. And only the can enable that.