It’s not the State, it’s the Megacorp that watches you…

…and the big difference is in a democracy what State knows you can get it to release to you, or you can control what they control, by voting on different policies. In a democracy you can join a party, or start your own, and you’re allowed to have your thoughts.

What we now live in, and what we are watching emerge, most of us passively, some even in a sense of wonder about what science and technology can do, is something else.

Already the bank issuing my card knows what my purchase patterns are, even if they don’t know exactly what it is that I buy. And the large chains knows perhaps not your over all patterns but they know a lot of specifics, like if I shop lots of cat food (“probably has a cat”), or that I buy bread and milk and ecological fruits and veggies. Even if you’re not a member that can track this, as long as you don’t pay cash. Which fewer and fewer do, partly because the shops encourage the use of cards.
And if you’re a member of some chains, who owns not only grocery shops but book shops, shops for home electronics, for clothes… then they know A LOT about you – what you eat, what you read, what sizes you and your kids are.

Trends are more and more shops, or local/national chains, are bought by large multinationals. And then it’s not just the local chain who knows all about you – now some distant number counter with whole divisions devoted to analysis of all of this data, to predict when what to market to whom, when.

And when the rfid tag gets incorporated in products they can even track where you take that product. And it’s not some common interest but a purely economic one, unhindered by us humans.

Some might gawk in awe.
I for one am unable to.

And I think of the future Brazil, as described in Ian McDonald’s book Brasyl.

It’s not only integrity going up in smoke. It’s every thought of independence, of equal rights, of justice, and of a democratic state.

Not by means of any single little instance, but the waves chipping away at the foundations… they seem so innocent, and one day the house falls into the river.

And then it’s too late.

Way to late.

Advertisements

Review: Society without God, by Phil Zuckerman

My original reason for reading this book was a curiosity in how an “outsider”, an “american”, perceived the Danish and Swedish societies. Recent years have made me very aware of the rather large differences between Swedish and US culture, be it northern, southern, eastern or western brand, and so looking at this through the eyes of someone who knew how to dissect those differences held it’s lure.

Zuckerman states in the introduction that he has an axe to grind – with ultra-religious people, zealots who claims that a society not firmly centred in Christian religion is a society in chaos, where people live without regard of others. He then goes on to discuss his methods, being open about the fact that the method he used is slightly biased and that the results cannot be used to make specific conclusions – the selection is too small and too non-random.

I started to suspect that what he was about to present would be too influenced by his agenda.

What I found was… a very apt description of Swedish and, I assume, Danish culture, especially as regards to the role of religion and faith in the society.

He paints a picture were most people just don’t care much, and never have put much though on issues like what happens after we die, or the meaning of life, or religion. A lot of people expressed a vague belief in “something” but his impression was most people would think that if someone claimed he had been told by God to do this or that this person would be viewed as slightly off his head. He then describes the societies as caring, even emphatic, with strong security networks, and goes on to try to find an explanatory complex of theories.

While I, from a Swedish perspective, can see large glitches in this “caring society” – as per more than one of my previous posts (and with great surety more than one to come in the future!) – compared with the US the general security network is strong and encompasses most people, as is the educational system.

During the read I more than once had to stop, to reflect and ponder my own experiences and my own opinions, to look at myself and the people I meet. And I had to realise that yes, my own atheism is viewed, even by myself, as too aggressive a stance on an issue that’s not that important, to most people. (Off topic I also think this is a large part of why most people don’t realise that the agenda put forward by the right-wing Alliance is inhumane in its consequences – they can’t analyse it as the fundamental RELIGIOUS agenda that it is; “Oh, so you’re deaf? You have yourself to blame /or God would had helped you/ so you can pay for your own health care”. If more people understood that the Alliance wouldn’t be as strong as they are. Because most people while not wanting to pay too much tax doesn’t genuinely believe illness is caused by a life in sin, either.)

I think the most shocking episode he tells about is when he describes how he after he returned to the US stood in line at a bank, overhearing a clerk speaking to a client with heavy debts giving the advice to put all the debt statements in an envelope and go visit a certain pastor. The pastor would bless and anoint the envelope, and then the person should donate US$50 a month to that church, and then the debts would be gone. Well, if that’s how US society works I’m not amazed that the author gawked through his stay in Denmark.

The cover is cheesy, the title and the chapter headings have a distinct New Age feel which makes it awkward to read in public. But – don’t judge a book by it’s cover; this one is thought-provoking, and therefore a good read. Highly recommended!

Confessional schools, and the future

Swedish law states that schools operating within the public framework has to be non-confessional. The reason for this is the state – in this specific case the municipalities – should not pay for religious schools. Schools operating within this framework are subsidised (I’ll not go into the technical details, this is just an intro for those who aren’t familiar with the background) and grades earned can be used to enter into higher education.

Recent years has seen an explosion in privately run schools, approved by the National Agency for Education, that features confessional elements. The schools are both Christian and Muslim (and others) and the whole gamut is present, from sectarians to people who barely would be accepted as Christian in an US context or as Muslims in Saudi Arabia. They aren’t allowed teach creationism. They have to promote equal rights. And they have to comply with the national grading system and the national tests. Confessional elements are allowed on the grounds but not inside what is considered the curriculum.

This leaves a lot of manoeuvring space. As an example saying the graces is allowed if it’s not compulsory. But what child wants to differ from everyone else?

The general state of the public schools differ. The ones where I live are generally very good. The parents are engaged in the education of their offspring, which I think is key to a good school, and most schools aren’t that big, which to me is another key.
In other places things are not as well – bullying is overlooked by the teachers, who feel ill used, and the quality of the education suffers from negligent parents who don’t help kids with their homework or manages to see to it that they get enough sleep and food to be able to handle school.
In cases like that people that cares moves their kids to a private but publicly endorsed school, in some cases even to a school founded on religious tenets the parents don’t support only because at least there their kids can get peace and quiet. This last thing, that what is needed is a good environment and that it isn’t the faith or the fact the school is private that makes it better, is generally overlooked (sorry, link in Swedish only).

My personal opinion is that it is gross negligence and bad strategies AND tactics, ultimately destructive for Sweden as a nation, that makes public expenses related to the school system ever tighter. And it is restricted funding that is one of the biggest problems for most schools – a scarcity of textbooks, with a lot of them dated and in pieces, low salaries, no money for equipment, no or few resources for kids with special needs.
The situation has made for a reality where a private school has begun to look like an acceptable alternative, not because parents wants a private school but because they want their kid to get a good start in life and the public school closest to them is in a bad state.
It should be noted that only people well off enough to actually be able to be away from work for extended periods, because private schools often have shorter hours than strictly public ones, or who have the freedom to work flexible hours.
Clearly not for those who works shift hours or who have set schedules.

We live in a world were most manual work, things that are made in factories, have moved to low-salary countries. Much as I oppose it this is the world as it looks like, right now and in the foreseeable future. If we in the western world want to avoid unemployment to surge we need to focus our resources on education and on creating a society that encourages research; we need to have schools that encourages kids to think, to learn methods for questioning and theorising. By cutting the funds to the public schools, and by encouraging confessional schools engaging in fostering mono-cultures, the opposite is what is happening. If this is allowed to go on I’m certain in 50 years time Sweden will be a highly segregated country with a huge portion of the people living in relative poverty and with now way out of it.

This is not the future that I want. In just so many words I think the portion of taxes that goes to funding the educational system should increase. Significantly.
After all, it’s our future. And an equal opportunity educational system is one of the few ways to ensure true social mobility but it’s also the key to a just politic society. Which is what I want.

Politicians can eat a few less tax funded dinners.

Review: Macbeth, by Shakespeare

This play should be renamed The Hallucinatory Cardboard King. I have read the edition named Oxford Shakespeare: Macbeth and my reason for choosing that particular one was the commentary. The idea was to learn more about the times and circumstances of the play.

To be honest I haven’t read through all of the introduction (about 100 pages or so) because I got bored and ended up carrying the book with me but not reading it. Careful and minute dissection of the verses, discussing the wording and the rhetorical use of phrasing, allusion etc. – clearly not my cup of tea. I had hoped for more on the political background, not how it linked in with Thespian tradition and how certain phrases and figures are used and reused throughout his works. So if that’s what you’re after this book is just for you. Me? I went hungry from the table.

The play itself, then? As already mentioned I don’t think much of it. I’m glad that I finally read it but that is mainly because I now know more about the play and as with any of Shakespeare‘s works it’s an intrinsic part of western culture. So I now feel a bit more well read. But that’s about it. Because seriously – a thane gets an hallucination in which he is told he will be king. He acts on it by murdering the present king, and proceeds with killing his friends, in one case family, servants and all. In the end he himself gets killed, mainly because he once more chooses to believe in the obscure words of yet another hallucination. And?!

Flatter than Avatar, if you ask me. Because while Avatar was 100% predictable at least it was beautiful and entertaining. Macbeth… he’s just insanely stupid, without the bells.

If Macbeth had been published today it would had sunk to the bottom without even a ripple in the surface.
Granted the right production it could be interesting to watch. Reading it?

Meh.

Scrubbing plasma exhaust manifolds

Sometimes you’re tasked with things that just isn’t any fun. And if they’re not only not fun but outright boring, and entirely repetitive… then you’re stuck with scrubbing plasma exhaust manifolds. With a toothbrush.

The reference might sail past those who haven’t watched any Star Trek. A colleague asked me about the phrase – I had used it on Facebook, as part of a status line – and when I started the explanation with the word “spaceship” she kind of glazed over ;-)

But sometimes that’s just what I do. I have a great job. I have great family. I love to do what I’m doing, I have great colleagues… but even out there at the frontiers of unknown space some things just has to get done, or you’re fried. So. Sometimes scrubbing plasma exhaust manifolds is what I have to do.

These past weeks have had a lot of that. It steals time and energy from socialising, from doing stuff I like. But I tell myself if those manifolds hadn’t got scrubbed perhaps there wouldn’t be any time at all for doing those things. Because if the spaceship explodes, no one can hear you scream.

*sigh*

Chores. Don’t you just LOVE doing them ;-)
Transporting them somewhere else somehow makes it easier.

Unalien aliens

Picking on aliens not alien enough is a common pastime among people with a bone to chew when it comes to science fiction. Certainly not the last, but the most recent (that I know of) is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who just like all the others think aliens have to lack faces, an even set of limbs, etc, to be alien enough to qualify as aliens.

My problem with this is most of the film or book alien aren’t there as true aliens. Anyone thinking that doesn’t understand the basic premise of science fiction. At all.

True, some aliens are there to be 1000% ALIEN. Alien (the film) itself is a point in case. The Crystalline Entity, of Star Trek fame, is another. But they are fairly few, and in most cases they are symbols of Evil, or at the very least the truly undecipherable. But the wast majority are humanoid, seductively similar to us. And the ‘seductively’ part is the important one. Because it is in the way the ALMOST like us actually differ, and how we handle this, that forms the backbone of many a science fiction story. And in this it isn’t a story about foreign planets and peoples, but about us – humanity – and how we handle change, and how we interact /or not/ with people different from ourselves. Science fiction in this sense is a looking glass or a mirror, reflecting our own behaviours and customs, forming an arena for inspection and criticism, for questioning certain behaviours and world-views.

In these stories the aliens has to be reasonably humanoid or the point of it all is lost, or at least buried deep enough for it not to get through to the majority of the readers/viewers.

In this light it is totally reasonable for the atevi (Foreigner/Cherryh) to be humanoid in general appearance, just like the mri (Faded Sun/Cherryh), or the ferengi or the klingon or the andorians (Star Trek) or the Na’vi (Avatar). Just to name a few.

Picking on unalien aliens is thus so far besides the point a gas giant can pass through the resulting void. If doing it makes you happy – please continue, but don’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone.