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Friday
Sep282012

Hunchback Of The Hour


Finnish citizens can go online to force their national parliament, the Eduskunta, to vote on any citizen-led proposal, providing the citizens can garner at least 50,000 digital voices.

 

The initiative is being hailed as a milestone, crowdsourced digital democracy in action.

 

This is our world: interconnected, social, mobile and – take note – driven by technology and by the crowd.

 

I stand in awe of the power of the crowd, which seems anxious to respond decisively to any of the incessant provocations that echo across the digital domain.


Atop the minaret

 

The digital tribe is a force for good when it responds, for example, to natural disaster in Haiti or Japan. The power of the crowd is evident in the squares of Tunis and Cairo as the old guard, if just briefly, is brought to heel. Mass action by the Occupy Movement, street demonstrations by thousands in Quebec - these too are mobilized with the aid of instant messaging. Not to diminish the dignity of the individual and his anger, but the Arab street, recently called to protest the film Innocence of Muslims is beckoned to the public square not just by the loudspeaker atop the minaret but also by text message. And, as I witness mass disruption in journalism and publishing - since everyone now is a writer and everyone, now, is a publisher - I see the traditional, legacy media caught in the public square and challenged there by the wisdom of the crowd.

 

This has me reflecting on the alacrity of technology, its' impact and mediated power to provoke us to acts of kindness or cruelty. The crowd holds the power to transform, to build, to rescue and repair. The crowd holds the power to incite, to maim, and to obliterate. The mediated, mass, digitized crowd can be herded down either path.


The Siege of Paris by Moonlight

 

In history, when mobs laid siege to Paris by moonlight, where they converged on the Bastille or took up their knitting before the guillotine, you could at least see the whites of their eyes as the crowd became puffed with power. The crowd can be swift, its' vengeance awesome. Today, the mediated crowd can be just as vengeful but also anonymous.

 

We can classify the crowd according to their prevailing emotion. As Nobel laureate Elias Canetti shows in his book Crowds and Power, crowds can be very irrational. These days you need simply look here.

 

So, what is the difference between the 1789 Lafarge storming the Bastille and the digitized Lafarge leading the crowd into the fray via a keyboard campaign on FB, Twitter or SMS? Both the 1789 crew and the modern one reach a moment of discharge, as Canetti calls it, where individual power is safely transferred into the mass anonymity of the many.

 

But consider for a moment the tyrannical power of the crowd.

 

Not long ago I was compelled to reach out to a lonesome outcast, a modern hunchback of sorts who had been pilloried and gutted by the social media cowards and, dammit, by the mainstream mass media too.

 

But it was the social media campaign organized against this contemporary Quasimodo that caught my attention, as the poor soul must have felt like the loneliest being on earth. The digital froth and frenzy against him had all the trappings of a Medieval public execution, the crowd lusting for blood.

 

Although we had never met, I extended my hand to Quasimodo: assuring him via email that while this dark moment had come to pass - it had not come to stay. He replied with great courtesy, obviously relieved to hear a lone whisper of support across the cold canyons of estrangement.

 

And though I assured him that things could not possibly get worse, things then got worse.

 

With each passing hour the crescendo of calls for his head became louder, more virulent, more persistent. Blog posts and thousands of voices on Twitter and Facebook, cackled with condemnation. A few days more and the swarming, frenzied, crowd reached its climax. “He is just a terrible human being,” one Facebook user said of our poor hombre, who was by now the loneliest man in Dodge, an absolute outsider, the hunchback of the hour.

 

I could only imagine how for our hunchback this would have been a moment of complete estrangement from society and humanity. I sent him another note. He seemed moved almost to tears.


It's cleaner now

 

Whether it's the bloodlust of the internet crowd or the rabble assembling in the square for the public execution, in either instance the swarm-crowd risks nothing. “There is no risk because the crowd have immense superiority on their side. The victim can do nothing to them. He is either bound or in flight, and cannot hit back; in his defenselessness he is victim only,” says Canetti.

 

Writing in 1960, Canetti noted that in the mid 20th C everyone was able to participate in the collective killing via the newspapers. Things were a little cleaner than in the old days, the crowd more distant from the actual event, but the psychology remained the same. No risk: “We are not responsible for the sentence, nor for the journalists who report the execution, nor for the papers which print them.”

 

Today, the print version of the newspaper is pretty much dead, but the crowd has reified. The digital crowd will form, do its business, only to vanish again into cyberspace - all the while calling for the victim's severed head. Since this crowd does not even have to assemble, it escapes disintegration and lives to find its next victim or villian, hero or hunchback of the hour.

 

Recommended: Elias Canetti Crowds and Power, 496 pp, Farrar ISBN-10 037451820

 

(Top Image: David Roberts The Siege of Paris by Moonlight 30 x 20 A/P Giclee | Inserted Image: David Roberts The Weight of Heaven 16 x 12  watercolours)

Friday
Aug172012

Hit Man

 

The wasps make a big show but they are fewer in numbers - kind of like the Veterans on Remembrance Day. It's been dry. And we've had the hottest year since 1872 or something. I keep hitting at those pesky yellowjackets to keep them at bay.

 

I hit one this morning with the back of my hand, knocking it from the air. I felt the cool ridge of my vein smack its wing and I watched the insect fall, almost in slow motion, onto the pavement. It did not move for quite awhile but eventually it awoke and flew off, seemingly unaltered by the experience.

 

If only we all could regain consciousness, in the life-altering existential sense, despite the severity of the hit. But of course, to gain conscious awareness one must first, sadly, be painfully unconscious.

 

Verbe, Transitif: Déranger

 

I remember once, long ago, hitting David, a boy of my size and weight. We both were just six or seven. I unleashed an unconscious act of sudden and irrevocable violence upon him. We were on the school ground, after class, David and I. And I do not now recall the provocation. My reply seemed vaguely justified and the right thing to do. And so I pounced, knocked him hard to the ground, held him there, closed my eyes, wound up and delivered a hit to the centre of his face.

 

My fist came smashing down so hard that the blood gushed from his nostrils like water from a hydrant. Sometime previously my parents would have given me an outline of the Ten Commandments or something. I had a sense of right and wrong. True, I did pause for a nanosecond before delivering the hit. I wondered, should I do this? Must I? But the decision was seemingly already made. I would let loose now, once, for the experience. The blow came down with precisely as much energy as to inflict big hurt. As David opened his eyes blood oozed across his face and dribbled down his chin. We gasped in common surprise. There was no whimpering from him as I gazed down into his eyes and two watery pools of pain. I felt instant empathy with this, being the cause and all, and I felt sorrow for his surprise, his terror, confusion, and sense of betrayal. He must've seen stars.

 

But just as the Zen Master delivers a blow with his keisaku stick between the shoulder blades of the novice monk, so too had my act jolted us both into a new and irrevocable awareness. David became palpable witness to the sudden fury and violence that life in this world can sometimes deliver. I had directed a big hit on his nose, an act which seemed gigantic compared to the modesty of the provocation – whatever it was. How could you not be changed by that? As for me, the despicability, the derangement, the finality of my act closed in on me. Though I'd thought I was right, in less than a blink I felt immense regret for what I had done. Next came sorrow of such enormity that I could see intuitively and with inscrutable certainty that I had done something terribly wrong. Where I thought I was right, I was not. In fact, I had felt a sadness rising even before my fist connected with his face to complete the hit. There was powerful immediacy in the wrongness of the hit, shame in the unfairness and imbalance of the act in relation to the provocation, and awe at the depth of this first awakening to a tangible faculty of right and wrong. Children, this awareness is the centre of all. Map it. Use it. With the concreteness of my schoolmate's incapacity, with his pain and vulnerability, came the birth of a conscience. I immediately wanted to hug him, to make him better. I wanted to undo the hit. And we both cried a little as we walked part way home together before going our separate ways. We were oddly bonded, sadder and older. For David, I'm sure beyond the physical hurt there was a sharp bite of betrayal and sadness of a friendship gone astray. For me was the inner hurt: the pressing reality that I could not undo the thing I had done.

 

It was a moment of lost innocence for us both, that hit. But it brought transformation and heightened awareness.

 

Now I ask you to consider the various ways we commodify the hit as noun and verb: hit as contract killing, hit as sports metaphor, hit as conspicuous success; hit as a dose of narcotic, hit as connection to the internet blog grandmamma.com, hit as to come into sudden contact; hit as in reaching a destination real or abstract; to hit a point in time, to hit a certain state, to hit upon an interesting idea, to hit against an enemy, opponent, or target; to consume to excess as in "hit the bottle"; to pay unsolicited attention to, as in "he hit on her" and, as I prefer these days, in the words of James Brown, to start again anew: "hit it."

 

I first met Andrew Rawlinson in 1980 when he was visiting the University of Manitoba for the World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions. He was a lecturer in Buddhism at the University of Lancaster and I was a graduate student in comparative religion. We chatted mostly about Sufism and we hit it off immediately. Rawlinson, author of The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, apparently is hiding somewhere in France stringing some sentences together to make a book on the Hit in all its forms; the Hit as a derangement: derangement of the senses, derangement of the personality, derangement of society, derangement of reality. So this is what we have, from the French verb déranger: so many degrees of derangement, of unsettlement, of being off centre, displaced and out of our minds. How else to explain the nightmare of Syria, James Holmes and the Dark Knight, 34 miners shot dead in South Africa, the daily 20 dead in religious insanity in Nigeria, ethnic psychosis in the Indian state of Assam, another 50 humans blown up in Iraq. I read today that for $325 you can go to a paintball compound in Minnesota, dress up like a Navy Seal and pretend to kill Osama bin Laden. I'm punch drunk and it's late rounds. Wake me from this dream. Take me to Vegas. Hit me.

 

(Top Image: Another Day At The Office 9 x 12 w/c) (Thumbnail: The Hit As Derangement PS/AP 6 x 9)

Tuesday
Jul102012

No Loitering

 

A bursting, screaming hot summer day and cycling through the parking lot of a nearby church some minor matters of intrigue and confundity caught my attention.

 

The first thing was a shrub adorned with so many crimson roses it seemed an almost impossible miracle for a single bush to be so laden with blooms. I stooped and inhaled the dusty perfume because it's always a good thing to pause, every so often, to smell the roses, even on a scorching hot day in a church parking lot. Life is short so why not appreciate even the humblest of bounties that come our way?

 

And the second thing that caught my eye as I cut, on bicycle, across the lot of the local house of worship, was that honkin' surly sign next to the church door which read, and I quoteth: "No Skateboards. No Scooters. No Roller-blades. No Loitering."

 

Something like scales fell from my eyes as I glanced around for the church bouncer, whom I expected to descend at any moment. And I caught myself reflecting on the churlishness of this high institution, from which low trespassers might have expected forgiveness rather than venom.

 

A bleeding deacon

 

It had to be a bleeding deacon from the parish council - a lawyer no doubt - who pressed a meek little clergyperson to erect such a warning. And the purpose, one must suppose, would be to render the church legally harmless from liability should a fun-lover tumble while jumping the concrete abutment or snag themselves in the effervescent bloom of the amped-up rosebush as they merrily gas and gambol cross church property at high speed wobble. In fact I almost fell off my bike as I drew in the existential effect of both the rosebush and the warning sign. Had I fallen, Lord knows, I would have instructed my lawyer to immediately commence litigation.

 

Because, let's face it, the church oozes money. Or it used to be solid when people actually hung out there. But today only about one in five people can be bothered with the place, according to Statistics Canada. The legion of churchgoers is evaporating almost as quickly as newspaper subscribers. They flee, they flee! And from a church with such a sour puss attitude – is it any wonder?

 

Entrance to the Garden 14 x 11We too sped away to consult the Good Book, hoping to find some theological authority on which a church could conceive such a malignant message and direct it toward those who for too long linger nearby.

 

We first tried without success to find the passage where Abraham ties his ass to a tree and then walks twelve miles.

 

It can be said with certainty, and let this be a Revelation to you, that the word "fun" does not appear in the Holy Bible. Not once. Nor does the word scooter show up in that book, according to Young's Analytical Concordance. Skateboard isn't there either. But when you try roller-blade, bingo! You get rolleth and blade combined. The legalist result, from the Book of Judges, is a whole lotta shakin' going on: "And the haft also went in after the blade and the fat closed upon the blade so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; and the dirt came out." Let me tell you I have spent some time allowing my imagination just to wander here and there over that particular Biblical imagery. And then: "Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him." (Proverbs)

 

Church therefore be warned.

 

But the precedent for getting down on loafers and malingerers, boarders and people such as snooker and pinball players is well established. "And going out about five o'clock he found others loitering, and he asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long, doing nothing?'" (Matthew 20:6)


Pretending to practice witchcraft

 

In our contemporary 21st Century Canada, loitering is a summary offence under Sec. 175 of the Criminal Code. It is there along with other summary offences such as assisting a deserter, engaging in a prize fight, possession of a weapon in public, impersonating a peace officer, disorderly conduct, public nudity, disturbing religious worship, trespassing at night, pretending to practice witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, and undertaking to tell fortunes. The maximum penalty for a summary conviction is six months in jail, a fine of $5,000, or both.


Everyone is hurting

 

It goes without saying - though we are about to say it - that the price for hanging around in the wrong place can be even more grave. Last week two chimps at the Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden in South Africa attacked a researcher as he stood in a "no go" zone between caged areas. Apparently the chimps felt their turf was threatened. Officials said the victim broke the rules by ignoring a warning and going through the first of two fences that separate humans from the chimps. (One might have thought more, or less, separated us – but that is another issue.)

 

In their defence the monkeys were messed up, from broken homes. The parents of one of the miscreants, Nikki, had been killed for their meat. Further, Nikki's former owners in Liberia shaved his body, dressed him in clothes, and taught him to eat at a table using cutlery.

 

"Everyone at Chimp Eden is hurting," said an official who noted the chimps had been isolated since the attack, although they were calm and were exhibiting remorse, all of which I trust you will find as hard to believe as I.

 

But then again, in an age when the local church comes out vituperously against good-natured fun and against those who would loiter to sniff the roses, nothing should surprise us. The message today is all retail: a warning sign is no protection against a malicious act of nature or calamitous Act of God – you still need decent liability insurance.

 

(Top Image: Arturo Lashed to a Tree 12 x 16 watercolours) 

Saturday
Jun302012

A Big Hadron for the Higgs Boson

You can't see it. But it is there. On a brilliant summer day when the world crackles, when life is generous and a warm wind kisses your face, you feel its' radiant presence. You see how distant events are connected but not by coincidence. When all boundaries crumble before this powerful vibration it's exciting to know that you are part of its' shimmering splendour. You can go forward knowing that the path will vanish under you.

All of which is to say you're going to be hearing a lot about the Higgs Boson in the next while.

The Higgs Boson is a sub-atomic particle, postulated but not yet found. Confirmation would lend credence to the idea there is an invisible energy field that fills the vacuum of the observable universe. Without this field, or something akin, we would not be here.

Is that a Hadron in your pocket

So we're about to receive an important news update from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as the hunt for this particle continues in a giant particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near the Franco-Swiss border. The LHC, a 27 kilometre underground track where particles smash each other at 99 percent of the speed of light, is the world's largest particle accelerator. If the Higgs Boson is confirmed as a result of these ongoing smash-ups it will point to the existence of the Higgs Field. And the Higgs Field will reinforce the Standard Model of particle physics, and all will be right with the world.

I don't pretend to know what is coming down the pipe from CERN but I feel as if I have had a small part in this, since my painting, Elemental Particles, was used on the poster and brochure for the First International Conference on Multiple Partonic Interactions at the LHC in 2008. That's when the hunt for the Higgs Boson really accelerated, so to speak.

The Higgs Boson – dubbed the God particle - is named after Peter Higgs, the 83-year-old University of Edinburgh physicist who with others first postulated the existence of a kind of quantum plasma – the Higgs Field – in 1964. But there wasn't equipment to detect it until the LHC came online. So one little Higgs-like boson poking its nose out of nowhere before spinning off and decaying back into nothing could point to the actual and not just theoretical existence of the Higgs Field.

There are implications for cosmology inasmuch as the Higgs Field is believed to have switched on a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, which, as we know, blasted the universe into existence some 13.7 billion years ago. Before this instant, all particles in the cosmos were massless and they zipped around chaotically at the speed of light.Elemental Particles 6x9 w/c

I love the description of what happened after the Big Bang from The Guardian, because it reminds me of what Alchemists for centuries have called 'The Quickening': "When the Higgs Field switched on, some particles began to feel a 'drag' as they moved around, as though caught in cosmic glue. By clinging to the particles, the field gave them mass, making them move around more slowly. This was a crucial moment in the formation of the universe, because it allowed particles to come together and form all the atoms and molecules around today.

But some particles of light, photons, move through the Higgs field as if it wasn't there. Because the field does not cling to them, they are weightless and destined to move around at the speed of light forever. Other particles, like quarks and electrons – the smallest constituents of atoms – get caught in the field and gain mass in the process.

The field has enormous implications. Without it, the smallest building blocks of matter, from which all else is made, would forever rush around at the speed of light. They would never come together to make stars, planets, or life as we know it."

Or are you just happy

Of course the pending announcement by CERN scientists who work in this world of protons, gluons, photons, muons, mesons, quarks, antiquarks and pions may not be confirmation of the Higgs Boson at all. It may be something as simple as cool new data on dark matter and neutrinos or a confirmation of a beautiful new baryon.

CERN certainly won't be telling us why there is something rather than nothing, and these physical findings will not usher in a new era of world peace, human health or prosperity.

There is excitement though, because continued work on particle symmetry is likely to produce valuable understanding of the origin of mass, how our physical universe came to be the way it is, and how it is held together.

We probably won't find out from CERN why, in the words of Nahmanides, "from nothing he called me forth." That kind of knowing is a messy knowing. It's an intuitive knowing - a knowing that arises from proper intention - akin to making a little painting just for the heck of it. This category of knowledge comes when we look inward but not too hard. Since if we look very hard for anything we will surely find what we seek. Better, sometimes, that we find a thing that we are not looking for, something that just comes our way as a surprise or a gift. For this prize, the pearl of great price, we relax and take it easy. But in our crazy world some days it's like we are

¡dn s,ʎɐʍ ɥɔıɥʍ ouunp ʎsnq os

 

(Top Image: Veil Nebula 24x24 Canvas Giclee)

 

Update July 4: New particle, Consistent with HB - Sigma 5 @ 125GeV - coolio!

 

Friday
Jun222012

Coon Hunting, China and The Revolution

 

I am no Sinophile, nor a specialist on gender equality, nor a hunter.

 

But ignorance of the topic at hand has never precipitated self-restraint before - why should we suddenly change things up?

 

I've long wondered about China. I tried digging a hole to the place from our house in Toronto when I was small. And I took Mandarin lessons later in life, learning the hard way that the same false cognate word is used for pen, pencil, brush and pussy. Given that components for my smart phone find their origin in China, along with a desk lamp, eyeglass frames, truck differential, lawnmower, football sweater, painting canvas, tape-measure, notebook, steak knives, pen, pencil, and brush, it would be easy to say we are surrounded by all things Chinese - except poetry and words that rhyme with wussy.

 

On reflection, why I dug a hole, I'm not sure. Chalk it up to youthful exuberance. I would not do it again. Indeed, after investing $4 trillion on housing in the past decade and with 65 million housing units sitting there all vacant and lonely, the Chinese seem infinitely capable of digging their own hole. They need no help from me.

 

So we should not be surprised to learn that when it comes to China and the sexual revolution, suspicions linger. At the time of the event Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey posed the following cheeky question on Twitter: "What is it about the headline 'China launches woman into space' that makes me assume she did something wrong?"

 

Hua Lu (14 x 9 w/c)Multivalent is that question, casting doubt over the progress of women in the Middle Kingdom and their Long March to gender equity. Which, according to the New York Times, has stalled. Incomes of women relative to those of men have fallen 23 percent in rural China since 1990. In urban China they've dropped 10 percent. There is no woman in the inner circle of power, the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, and only one in 16 members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee is female.

 

By the Chinese government’s own measure of how women are faring — the Third Survey of the Social Status of Women in China (2010) — nearly 62 percent of men and 55 percent of women said "men belong in public life and women belong at home." So while no one said women should be launched, the numbers who want them at home have risen 7.7 and 4.4 percent since 2000 when Chinese folks last were asked where women belong.

 

Now it's true Chinese women are allowed to drive cars and trucks, something Saudi Arabian women are not free to do. But even in the People's Revolutionary Army, the world's largest by number of troops, women only fill support positions, and the PRA requires female recruits to demonstrate talent such as singing or dancing as part of the selection process. (Comet Over Dayan Footbridge 16x12 w/c)

 

All of this gender equality slow-boating by China is taking place against a backdrop of solid progress elsewhere. For example, in America women have joined men in that once exclusively male domain – the raccoon hunt.

 

There was a foretaste of this as Leon F Whitney and Acil B Underwood observed in their excellent 1951 guide on the subject: "Coon hunting in one respect is like politics or religion: a fellow thinks of the kind he knows – the kind he was born into – as the only kind. He often doesn't bother to investigate the other kinds." Such as coon hunting with women, or coon hunting by women, for example.

 

Although the progress has not been immediate, women have been breeding coon hunting dogs in the United States since at least 1958. "Any success I've had, I owe to my husband," Mrs. William Amos told reporters of her success as a breeder. (Not sure if her first name is William or if she has a first name, story in the Toledo Blade just referred to her as Mrs. William Amos).

 

Incidentally, Whitney and Underwood's Coon Hunter's Handbook is indispensable by anyone of any gender who aspires to excel at finding, chasing, cornering, treeing, bagging, executing, cooking and eating the standard North American raccoon.

 

First thing, man or woman, you need for coon hunting is a good dog with a pleasant voice. Square brackets below are mine for the purpose of advancing gender equity: "What old hunter can't close his [or her] eyes and still hear the lovely strains of hound music floating across a valley or steam? Surely no man-made [or woman-made] music can light the fires of imagination or bring a greater thrill of delight than can a hunter's best friend – his [or her] hound," the handbook says.

 

Finally, some sage advice (to those such as Mrs. William Amos) on cooking the coon and presenting it to the hungry mob at supper:

 

"It is not a bad idea to dismember the carcass in the kitchen. At every coon supper where someone carves, there will be remarks about how much the coon looks like a cat or a monkey, and inquisitive Johnny [or Julie] will ask if Daddy [or Mommy] is sure it is not a skunk. If our experience is worth anything, it indicates that when the coon is served in pieces on a platter and camouflaged as much as possible, it will be all for the best, because someone is sure to bite on a BB shot anyway, and that will start the conversation back to the coon hunt and what a good time everybody had. Then Bill [or Bonnie] will tell how the dogs stretched the coon, and Mike [or Mary] will describe how the coon squealed, and sure as shooting someone will have to get up and leave the table." And start a whole new revolution.

 

(Top Image: Huxingting Tea House 12 x 9 India Ink and Sepia)

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