25 November 2015

The inherent illegitimacy of social power

Every now and again I get to feeling like some things are really obvious, but no one else seems to get them.  Or maybe they're too polite to talk about them.  And then sometimes I get writing fiction and bits of reality insist on intruding, or maybe vice-versa, and I get an explanation of why I cannot stand to read a lot of otherwise excellent writing.  And then I wonder if I ought to post this at all.

But, anyway; if we talk about "power" in a human social context, power is the ability to have other people not fight back when you harm them.

(If you're doing a really good job exercising power, they'll come up with reasons why they deserve to be hurt.  A mediocre job will have them come up with reasons why they cannot hope to retaliate effectively.)

Any power structure has to do two things; it has to make it unambiguous who is allowed to hurt whom[1], and it has to get itself copied into the future.

Attaching the exercise of power to individuals isn't the only way or the best way to organize society, but it's extremely persistent.

It's extremely persistent because it's simple—better usually means more complicated means more maintenance and more trouble with system exploits by defection—and because it provides a powerful motivation; no one wants to be powerless because being powerless means you get abused.

There's a big set of social and economic changes going on where the (obviously) economically superior form of organization says "let's not structure society around who gets hurt" and there's enormous pushback from the people who have power and want to keep it.

(This is why it's useless to talk about "privilege"; privilege is in the passive voice, and you don't get from impersonal historical forces to a recognition that those who now have power ought not to because there is no legitimate exercise of social power vesting in individuals.)

So one response to the helpless—refugees, the poor, anybody lacking the social connections to have a good-enough lawyer—is to hurt them.  This has (from inside that social structure) the positive feature of reinforcing the social order.

So when people get up and make calls for refusing any and all Syrian refugees, the harm to the refugees isn't a lamentable side effect of due public caution; it's the point.  It establishes who legitimately exercises power.

When people engage with art by adding layers of story, there's a ubiquitous tendency to make violence and cruelty not that character's fault because that's the character they like. This is arguably what art is for.  This context of art makes looking at the legitimacy of social power vested in individuals difficult.  (There isn't any, unless you agree that you should be hurt for the convenience or pleasure of others.  It's…awkward, to have to start over.)

This presents the really difficult question of "what else should we do?"

Social power structures depend on getting copied into the future.  Imagining an entire future is too difficult; no one can, or can expect, to be able to do that.

Fortunately, an entire future is not necessary.  Delegitimizing social power vested in individuals -- agreeing that nobody gets to hurt others because they want to (or claim they need to, or have a belief system which asserts the positive good of coercion…) -- is enough.  The result isn't predictable in detail, but is predictably better in result.

It's enough to get something better; that's success.  Control, specific foreknowledge of just what better thing can be had, isn't available and (fortunately) is not required.

[1] this is why "gender neutral" children's clothing looks like boy's clothes.  In a patriarchial culture, girl's clothes label you as someone anyone male can hurt.  Very nearly someone who anyone male should hurt.

22 November 2015

Commonweal #4 current status 2015-11-22

Word count screenshot for 2015-11-22
A bit over 8,000 words.  So I made my thousand a day.  (Not much more than the thousand a day, so it feels kind of an average week, but a good average.)  The plotty bits appear to be headed somewhere, and the protagonist hasn't gone on strike for a better writer, so it'll do.

16 November 2015

Commonweal #4, current status 2015-11-16

word count screenshot for 2015-11-16
Started getting some momentum at long last.  (You can't see directories argh and argh2 here.  Voice, why must it torment us so.)  So that doesn't really count as "from the start of November".  But I'm happy, because Safely You Deliver had an average rate around 25 kwords/month once it woke up and went live in my head.  So this feels like it might be progress.

04 November 2015

Not so bad for a phone camera

Juvenile merlin in the Hawk Hill oak in High Park
Admittedly a phone camera with some help from a spotting scope.   This was the only raptor seen at today's hawk watch; the weather being entirely gorgeous means the migrants don't hit the lake or proceed along the shoreline.  (It would be interesting to see what a hawk watch along the shore of Lake Huron would be seeing this year.  Everything still seems to be funnelling over the Detroit River.)

October did actually happen.  I got to the Ixiasoft DITA CMS conference in Montreal; it was excellent.  It's cheering to see something I was involved in the beginnings of doing so well.  There was a federal election that avoided disaster.  (It might have been a good thing; ask me this time next year, after we know what happens to C-51 and a bunch of other issues where Liberal policy is at best dubious.)  I got a bit of cycling in.  Commonweal #3, tentatively Safely You Deliver, is off to copy-edit after acquiring more unicorn viewpoint.  (I may have acquired a bit of extra gibbering.)

I have at long last managed to pull apart the various narrative threats, err, threads, which are (I think) going to turn into Commonweal #4, #5, and #6.  There's a pile of notes, chunks of actual narrative of uncertain utility, the beginnings of a formal timeline, and somewhere past 10,000 words on #4 for the... fourth? I think fourth... time.  But it has a nice simple plot now, rather than trying to get everything into the one book.

29 September 2015

Stricken with philosophy

Aoife the cat stricken with philosophy
I am guessing, but stricken with philosophy is what it looks like.  Nearly an hour of hallway patrol yesterday; there was a mighty desire to hiss under the neighbour's door at their obviously illegitimate and improper cat, but I kept being a big meanie and making that impractical.

06 September 2015

Food and Security

In the last few days, I've had email from four different progressive organizations about a drowned child from Syria.

They talk about compassion and accepting refugees and petitioning governments to allow the people trying to escape Syria into where we live, which, well, it makes me want to tear my hair.

Not because I disagree with compassion or the duty to accept refugees; those are both obvious and necessary.

Because this is just the start.

Syria's collapse isn't solely due to drought and failed crops, maybe isn't mostly due to drought and failed crops — being next to a failed state that's exporting gunmen can't help; having a despot can't help — but political difficulties can, in principle, be fixed.  The Eastern Mediterranean going very, very dry cannot be fixed.  (The Eastern Mediterranean is larger than Syria.)

California going very very dry can't be fixed, either.  Nor parts of Africa going dry, nor the prospect of the Asian Monsoon shutting down, or the discomfiting observation that folks farming up in Grey County in Ontario are trying to get the hay off in early September, rather than June.  It's not like we've got an expectation of nice ordered slow linear failure of agriculture with lots of warning.  It's not like it can't happen here; Saskatchewan grows not quite half Canada's food, and they're trending dry, as is pretty much all of Canada west of Winnipeg.

It's not like we have any reasonable expectation of being able to do anything about it once agriculture gets broken enough that even an oil executive or the owner of a coal mine will acknowledge there's a climate problem.  There's a decade or two of continuing change built in once the emissions stop; things will go right on getting worse.

Discussions of the bad effects of climate change focus on habitability; the sea will rise, and the coastal cities that hold most of humanity will have to move.  Some places may get too hot to survive in at peak summer temperatures, and people will have to leave them, or have very robust air conditioning.  Worries like that, safely distant in the future.

The most pressing worry is not safely distant.  It's happening.

Agriculture goes long before habitability does; agriculture depends on predictability so you know what and when to plant.  Agriculture depends on predictable climate so you know what crop-eating pests you're dealing with and the soil fauna work so there's a viable nutrient cycle and just a whole lot of things.

Agriculture absolutely depends on sufficient rain.

California's agriculture sector desiccating takes a fifth of American food production with it.  Yes, there's presently sufficient food surplus in Canada.  Yes, we're at 0.8C warming relative to baseline, not the 2.0C warming that's the official figure for "very bad, agriculture breaks".  (Though that 2.0 C  figure is not looking like a safe bet at this time.)

Thing is, food security goes, everything else goes, too.  You can't have a society or an economy or a culture without food security underneath it.  There's any number of unfortunate examples from as much history as we've got.  Our population is high enough that it has to be mechanized agriculture, too.  (Which means that we're desperately dependent on the cause of the problem, and really have to fix that.  Any government serious about climate change is heavily supporting not zero-emission electric cars but zero-emission electric tractors.  Which is to say, none of them.)

It's all tied together; climate, immigration, the economy, what to do about the increasing numbers of refugees the political instability in other places climate instability creates.  It all comes down to being sure people have enough to eat and somewhere to sleep out of the rain.  Continued fossil carbon extraction breaks that, and with that, everything.

So, certainly, I will be voting NDP; not because I'm comfortable with their centre-right repositioning as a party and not because they've got an adequate climate policy (it's extremely weak tea), but because it's possible an NDP government won't make our food security worse.

The Conservatives have a pro-fossil-carbon policy of making our food security worse.

The Liberals... it's possible they wouldn't make things worse.  It's possible.  Given their stunning act of political cynicism around bill C-51, I don't feel very confident they're on speaking terms with reality, though, and I'd consider them a bad bet.

I really, really want someone to vote for who is taking our food security seriously.  I have no hope of it happening in time.

10 August 2015

The Waterfront Trail

 There are a lot of good things about the Waterfront Trail, starting with "it exists".  Even understanding "it exists" to be heavily qualified by the presence of shoreline estates, nuclear power plants, and the occasional feature of geography like McLaughlin Bay.

Still, the signage.  It's small, much of it is old, and, well.

Waterfront trail signs giving conflicting advice at a turn

I'm pretty sure that whatever actually placed the signs has real trouble thinking in only three dimensions.

Bicycle at Rouge Hill GO Station
Still, I made it; take the GO to Oshawa, ride back as far as Rouge Hill.  It's a better ride than it was, with the really alarming bits of Victoria St. in Whitby replaced by some quite splendid separated trail and the Halls Rd connection to Ajax having been paved.  (Not going west past Rouge Hill is a combination of my legs voting "done" and not wanting to deal with some combination of Kingston Road and the Hunt Club hole.  Maybe the cycle route plan for Toronto will do some good about Kingston Road in a useful time frame.)