Saturday, September 17, 2011

On Amber Alerts, Randall Hopley, and "the system"

With the safe return of Kienan H├ębert and the subsequent arrest of Randall Hopley, a lot of questions remain, many of which are directed at authorities for not issuing the Amber Alert sooner. I have a few of my own questions, mostly pertaining to the shortfalls of the way we deal with mental health and sexual deviancy.

As a society, we're pretty merciless against those that would perform sex crimes against children, and justifiably so. Among other things, children represent innocence and hope for a brighter future. For someone to intentionally violate that is reprehensible and shameful, and if the crime is done against someone you know and care about (eg: your own), it's that much more personal. Hence, it's one of the many things that explains the outpouring of support for Kienan's safe return and the utter revulsion that we tend to feel towards the likes of Randall Hopley.

We view pedophilia as such a social taboo that the mere accusation is sufficient to cause irreparable harm to one's reputation, regardless if it is unfounded. There has even been one instance where a pediatrician was moving to a new town, but an unfortunately misworded announcement, caused a lot of undue embarrassment. The sentiment, "Pedophiles are pure evil" has been mentioned by people I know on more than a few occasions as well.

I feel that phrases like that grossly oversimplify the problem. I'm of the school of thought that it's our actions that define us, rather than things like brain chemistry and genetic makeup. But more to the point, simply dismissing anyone with tendencies towards pedophilia as "evil" doesn't attempt to understand the full nature of the problem or do anything to protect our children.

My late father was a mental health professional working at Riverview Hospital. As a psychiatric nurse and a member of a labor union, seeing my dad at home while the nursing staff went on job action was a recurring memory from my childhood. I was too young to understand it back then, but I do remember my father saying things about how they were looking to shutter institutions like Riverview in favour of more "community based" mental health care resources.

For better or for worse, that seems to be the case now, and we're paying the price for it. Police have replaced mental health professionals, as the mentally ill are being released from institutions and into the community...and onto the streets, homeless shelters, and inside prison cells.  In the search of more cost effective solutions, the approach seems to be to assign a band-aid solution when a tourniquet is needed.

I think that it's safe to say that sexual deviancy, especially that of which would involve harming minors, is a mental disorder [citation needed]. However, given that the prospect of harming minors is such a societal taboo, we're too uncomfortable to proactively tackle the issue head-on.

Getting back to the whole, "Pedophiles are pure evil" bit. Indeed, infamous child killer Clifford Olsen is clearly "evil" in the classic sense - he's displayed no remorse for his crimes, has not shown any interest in rehabilitation, and puts the families of the victims through the emotional ringer again and again with parole hearing, which he receives every two years under Canadian law. And personally speaking, I think the world would be a much safer place without the likes of him around.

The reality is that there are people out there who do have levels of sexual deviancy and either haven't acted on them, or have acted on them but haven't been caught.  As for those who haven't acted on it, there are several possible reasons as to why, such as the consequences of being caught, the absolute guilt and horror of what they are capable of, and utter and public shame that would result.

If the shame and fear of being caught is keeping potential pedophiles in check, that's probably the only good thing about it, as it's largely a band-aid solution. Given the way we tend to react against those that would harm children, no one would admit to ever having this problem, which allows the problem to go unchecked. Those who admitted that they have a problem have no resources or means to treat it. There was at least one instance in which a convicted sex offender repeatedly asked for help to deal with his compulsions from various mental health professionals, but after given useless advice, ended up crossing the line [citation needed].

There have been discussions as to possible solutions, although a lot of people are just way too uncomfortable to entertain the idea. In general, most sexual health professionals do not view pornography as gateway towards sexual deviancy and sexual predation, and some would argue that there is a negative correlation between availability of pornography and sex crimes. There have been arguments towards the production of pornography that does NOT involve the use of minors at all (eg: hand-drawn and/or computer generated images) as a possible therapeutic tool, but given that some of the more uptight communities are known for perceiving hentai (Japanese pornographic comics) as "obscene", limits its availability.

While the act of preying against children is certainly morally reprehensible, assigning moral responsibility for the act is something I'm not comfortable doing ("Only God Can Judge Me"), especially since it could very well be due to mental disorders, or our level of discomfort with treating them.  But, in terms of scale, one thing I do find worse is the use of society's perception of sexual crimes and deviancy as a blunt weapon.

As someone who has does group activities that involve people of all ages (specifically, Rubik's Cube speed solving and martial arts), it's likely that I'm going to be regularly spending time with minors. Competitive Rubik's Cube speed solving proportionally involves a lot more minors than martial arts, although people I regularly have conversations with in my speed solving are adults, especially when it comes to planning upcoming events.

I found myself in a Facebook group chat session which involved one or two of my regular (adult) contacts and the rest of them being minors. After a few comments were exchanged, I made an off-hand joke about me being the oldest one there, at which point one of the newer group members (with whom I'm unfamiliar) made some snide remark about hanging out with a bunch of kids, calling me a "creep" for doing so.

Operating under that logic, that would probably mean that any adult male who works exclusively with children, from primary school educators, daycare workers, pediatricians, to children's entertainers, would automatically be a "creep" or "pervert" for doing so.

It's safe enough to assume that she didn't know that I was with the local competitor scene from the beginning (was the primary organizer behind two competitions), and given the tendency for the anonymity of the Internet to allow people to turn into complete jerks, I could've let that one slide, but given the implications, the comment made me angry enough to react (although not immediately).

We live in a society in which a teenage girl will get an "F" in class, and in retribution, will make a frivolous accusation of sexual misconduct from her teacher, causing him to lose his job, his friends, and his reputation, even if the allegations are founded to be untrue. I find actions like this to be even worse than those of actual pedophiles for several reasons.

For starters, untrue allegations of sex crimes will cause doubt to be cast on actual instances of sex crimes. Additionally, the reputation of being a liar is infinitely more benign than the unjustified reputation of being a pederast. But most of all, if it turns out that sexual deviancy towards harming minors is a mental illness for which actual sexual deviants can't get the appropriate treatment, to those that would throw around false accusations, I ask: what's your excuse?

I've since permanently banned her from the group.

Indeed, children do need our protection and anyone who would perpetrate sex offenses against children must never go unpunished. With that in mind, the way in which we protect our children must be a lot more proactive if we want our children to be safe. And treatment towards potential sexual deviants needs to be a lot more effective and available, and people should be able to seek it out if it is necessary.

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Milgram Experiment, the Bystander Effect, and the Vancouver Riot

The Milgram experiments of the 60s were part of a study on human social psychology, specifically how individuals react to authority figures.  In the actual experiment, the test subject was given a button which they were told would deliver a nasty electric shock to an unseen participant (actually a voice recording).  The experimenter would ask a series of questions to the unseen participant and would direct the test subject to push the button, while increasing the voltage for each incorrect answer.

With successive shocks, the unseen participant can be heard reacting in pain, often banging against the wall and complaining of a heart condition. If at any point, the test subject raised any objections, the experimenter would prompt the test subject to continue, while assuring the test subject that he or she would not be held responsible for whatever happened.  The experiment would end if the test subject refused to continue or if the test subject delivered a fatal or incapacitating shock.

Given the morals and ethics behind such an action, researchers polled initially believed that only 1 to 3% would be willing to deliver a fatal shock to the unseen participant. The first time the experiment was conducted, 26 out of 40 test subjects were willing to deliver a fatal shock (65%). The experiment has been duplicated several times, each time indicating a surprising percentage of people who were willing to carry out these actions within the scenario, most of whom (if not all) were your average, everyday law-abiding citizen. The test subjects who delivered a supposedly fatal shock also expressed discomfort, yet proceeded anyway.

Stanley Milgram (the psychologist for whom the experiments are named) created the experiment in response to a recent trial of a Nazi war criminal. While not necessarily a defense (ie: "I was following orders"), the findings do have some very interesting (if disturbing) implications for human nature. Indeed, how does one explain why average ordinary citizens who would never steal or murder, are prone to be willing to commit these acts when thrust into specific situations?

As an ardent info-junkie, I've been regularly following the news on the Vancouver Riot ever since the first car was set on fire. As the city has been working to rebuild their now-tarnished image, the courts are trying to bring certain individuals to justice while social media is actively working to identify and shame the individuals responsible for the riot.

The initial assessment from the Vancouver mayor and the Vancouver chief of police were that the riot was the work of recognized anarchists who specifically came to the downtown area specifically intent on causing trouble, and surely enough, some of them were recognized as the same ones that came to Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics specifically to vandalize the city.  And yes, people specifically came to the downtown core with weapons, Molotov cocktails, and other tools of destruction, and would thus represent a very small segment of the people who came to watch the Canucks lose play.

What caught a few people off guard was the fact that the bulk of the people being formally charged with related crimes (assault, arson, vandalism, inciting a riot, etc.) do not fit the "typical" profile of a serial rioter. None of them have prior arrest records, and are often saying that they were "caught in the moment" (or variations to that effect).  This was one of the reasons given by one Camille Cancino, who was caught looting from a Black & Lee formal wear store in her widely-slammed apology (which she has since edited to remove any sort of justification or explanation for her actions).

I'm not quite ready to make up my mind on the public digital shaming thing yet.  In this Web 2.0 era and proliferation of cameras on cell phones, it was inevitable that anyone doing acts of destruction and violence would be caught on camera and identified, so anybody who was down there really should've known better. 

In the intervening week and a half since the city burned, I read everything I could about it, from blogs to editorials to Facebook groups. There's a wide mix of emotions, with blind rage being the most prominent.  It has certainly motivated a lot of social network mavens to identify the people who were involved in this, which has led to several of them turning themselves in, while also giving proper due to the rare heroes of downtown who were attempting to stem the damage.  At the same time, it's also brought about reactions towards some involved individuals which seem disproportionate, such as the death threats towards the family of Nathan Kotylak, prompting them to flee their home. 

A general public this angry clearly wants their pound of flesh, but to them, I propose this: You can have either satisfy your bloodlust, or the guilty parties can repay their debts to society. You cannot have both. 

The relative ease at which typically law-abiding people are capable of committing criminal acts when thrust in certain situations would suggest that this is much less of a black and white issue than the purveyors of social media justice are making it out to be. This is not to excuse any of them, as most the people left the area as soon as the game was over.  But I ask, if 65% of people are able to deliver a fatal electric shock to a complete stranger, how culpable are people in this situations, and what is an appropriate way for the judiciary system to deal with them?  In this case, maybe a philosophy degree might have more use than a law degree.

Again, this is not an excuse for these people.  This was a shameful act against the people who have worked hard to make the city the way it is, whether it be the business owners, tax payers, or the public services (ie: police, firefighters, ambulatory services), and things like this should never be allowed to occur again. However, I'm not really for living in a police state, and the years following the last hockey riot, Vancouver got dubbed as a "no fun city."

As people are trying to make sense of the whole Vancouver riot, there are lots of theories, whether it's herd instinct and the bystander effect, piss-poor parenting, our narcissistic and materialistic world view, failure to establish a sense of responsibility and morals among a frustrated youth, strong identification with our hockey team, or whatever. Or maybe there are just some people out there who want to see the world burn and know how easily the razor thin veneer of civilization can shatter.

If the same types of people came to our next big event (like the off-hand chance that the Canucks make it to the 2012 finals), it's not likely that we'll be seeing a repeat of the Vancouver Riot, given how fresh the memories are.  But if it's another 17 years until another SCF, people will definitely have forgotten and a new generation of youth will be ready to riot as soon as a car is overturned.

One way we can prevent this is if we have better education about this, to remind the people what happens when people act as passive observers, and how susceptible people are to influence.  As part of the judgments handed down towards participants in the riots, if their sentences include community service, it should be mandatory that they give talks to local high schools to tell of their experiences, especially as to how it relates to the online shaming campaigns.  An active effort to educate people about the bystander effect and actually promote the idea of standing up for what's right might help, or at least stem some of the damage caused by things like this.

But these are just ideas. Anyone know who can implement this?

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Stanley Cup Playoffs, a post mortem

With the sheer amount of press that the Vancouver Riots of 2011 have generated, entire books could be written deconstructing the event, trying to find causes, and ways to prevent it from happening again. But as it is, all I have an opinion (about as informed as I can make it) and a blog, rather than a background in sociology, psychology, and media studies.

Having indirectly lived through the Stanley Cup Riots in 1994 (I didn’t hear about the riots until the next day), experienced the glory of Canada Olympic Hockey gold in 2010, and escaped the chaos of the Stanley Cup riots just this week (and being unable to stop watching the internet video stream for 4 hours straight as soon as I got home), I have to say that the relationship between Vancouver and hockey has been pretty bizarre. 

Even though I’m a casual fan of the Canucks (lack of cable subscription and insufficient budget to watch a game live), the Stanley Cup playoffs have been a fairly welcome distraction to my life (and an unwelcome subtraction from my wallet!) over the past two months.  I do like a good hockey game and there have been a lot of good (and not so good) examples of that over the past two months of following the Canucks.  But, it has given a lot of people something to talk about, for better or for worse.

Having been following the Canucks in 1994 during their run to the Stanley Cup Finals, I remember some really exciting games and friendly rivalries between teams and fans (especially during the series vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs).  But, not being old enough to understand a lot of things about people in general, I simply took it as was and just enjoyed it, and like many was disappointed when the Canucks were unable to capture the cup back then, and was pretty flabbergasted by the rioting that followed.  Flash forward 17 years, where I have a (slightly) better understanding of things in general and we now have instant on-demand access to information, news, and social media.

Over the course of the four rounds (Chicago, Nashville, San Jose, Boston), I’ve noticed distinctly changes of the behavior among the players, fans, and the media.  Obviously, fans moods and the tone of the press will vary depending on the success of their team, although I’m just wondering if we’re actually emulating player behavior or being influenced a lot more than we realize.

The Chicago series was a particular nail biter, with the Canucks blowing a three-game lead before taking game 7. This particular series was seasoned with memories of the Canucks’ elimination by Chicago last year, punctuated with criticisms of “dirty” hits and plays from both the media and fans.

Nashville and San Jose were comparatively uneventful (outside of a flashing incident involving a particularly fetching Canucks fan and the Sharks penalty box), with Vancouver fans freely travelling back and forth between cities with no incident. At the same time, these were the more enjoyable games of the series, regardless of the outcome.

And then there was the Boston Bruins series. For whatever reasons, this was a particularly ugly series for the players, the fans, and the media. There were multiple reports of fan abuse from both sides (Lucic’s grandparents being pelted with foodstuffs at the Rogers Arena, Canucks fans being assaulted and urinated upon in the TD arena), while the game on the ice was punctuated with controversial hits and plays (Aaron Rome on Nathan Horton resulting in a suspension, Johnny Boychuck on Mason Raymond resulting in no suspension, biting incidents, etc.), all the media is fanning the flames with ugly depictions of the fans and the opposing players, while Boston fans troll the Vancouver media message boards to further fan the flames. 

Team rivalry can make for a more exciting series, especially when it is mostly in good fun, but when it becomes ugly like this, it defies explanation.  I don’t know if it’s a function of cultural differences between Vancouver and Boston (reportedly, Montreal Canadiens fans faced similar abuse from Boston fans early in the playoffs), but isn’t this going a little bit too far? Even with the mean-streets reputation of New York (pre-9/11), the 1994 Stanley Cup series weren’t nearly this heated.

And then the riots happened. 

Sure, I was disappointed when the Canucks entered the third period without a single goal, so I made a point of leaving mid-way, partly to beat the rush of the crowd, but mostly as a precautionary measure, given memories of the riot in 1994. Upon leaving the downtown area via Skytrain and waiting for the bus to take me home, I engaged in small-talk with another passenger who informed me that a car was flipped over in the downtown area. Upon arriving at home, I logged onto the internet and was glued to the screen for 4 hours as the chaos unfolded, so engrossed that I failed to realize that my friends were trapped downtown with nowhere to go (to which I submit my public apology to Kat, Barry, Nicole, Sabrina, and Crystal for not checking in on them until the next morning).

Given the complex nature of mob psychology, it’s impossible to blame any one individual or cause. Among the many cited:

  • Complacency due to the peaceful atmosphere of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010
  • Putting up large screens in the downtown area, flooding the areas past capacity
  • Police failing to act in an appropriate manner
  • Known anarchists who came with riot equipment (weapons, gas masks, etc.) specifically with the intent of inciting a riot
  • Curiosity seekers who were giving the actual rioters an audience and making it more difficult for the police to separate them
  • The narcissism of social media inspiring kids to pose on top of overturned cars and in front of burning objects, giving tacit approval to the rioting
  • The Canucks for promoting an atmosphere of violence and losing in the first place
  • Lackadaisical parenting for allowing “good kids” to get caught up in the riot
  • Our culture of stupid idiots emulating their heroes from Jersey Shore and Jackass.
Not being a firsthand witness to the destruction, my experience pales in comparison to those who were trapped in the downtown area, although I was still sickened by the destruction and the reactions from the crowd, either for participating or encouraging the destruction. My only solace was the knowledge that this entire event was being recorded by many, even by the participants themselves.

Then came the reactions.  Around the world, Vancouver was reduced to a laughing stock, losing the glory and reputation from hosting the Olympic games just one year ago. Those anticipating a weak response from the judicial system utilized the social media to help bring those responsible to justice, while the names of certain individuals are dragged through the mud. Meanwhile, the cleanup effort was being organized while the city still burned, while people continue to debate as to what caused this, and more importantly, how to stop this from happening again.

My immediate reaction was horror and embarrassment. Of all the things to riot over, this was by far the most frivolous. There was no political statement to be made, and the loss of the Canucks provided sufficient fuel for the anarchists that came specifically to stir up trouble. Video evidence shows rioters treating the wanton destruction like a party. 

Somehow, I’m reminded of Pleasure Island (or “Land of Toys”, if you follow the book), the cursed island from Pinocchio where the fun-seeking boys abandoning school work are transformed into donkeys, causing them to rampage and destroy the island attractions. I suspect the creators of MTV’s Jackass didn’t have that analogy in mind when creating the show.

Overall, I’m angered, much like the bulk of the population of Vancouver. In large numbers, people just stood by and watched, even when they were told to leave. Individual heroes attempted to guard storefronts and keep the city out of the hands of rioters and looters, with no backup, causing several of them to be severely injured.  Our culture of passive involvement and fear of being sued is one of the many contributing factors to this riot, but is one that I hope we have a better chance of fixing than the Canucks’ power play.

While I may have done the “right” thing by leaving early, making it so the police would have one less person to worry about, part of me still wishes I was standing alongside the lone heroes, or at least riling up the crowd to stand alongside them instead of just standing by and watching. Indeed, Robert MacKay, the individual guarding the Bay storefront, was viciously assaulted and beaten by about 15 different people for doing the right thing, with very little backup. If at least 20 people were backing him up, it would be an entirely different story.

In order to keep this from happening again, we will need constant reminders of this event. In the unlikely event that the Canucks make another appearance in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals, I doubt that the riot will be a repeat event, given how fresh the memories will be by then.  Over the past 17 years, memories have faded and many lessons from 1994 were forgotten.

I do not want to see this again. The riot brought out the worst in all of us, ranging from the participants in the riot who got caught up in the moment to the online shaming campaign that resulted in death threats towards confessed rioters.  It also brought out the best in some of us, specifically those who came together to stop the damage and clean up.  And it also revealed a dark side of Vancouver, which is always the case when we have any sort of catastrophe. Why is it that we can’t learn unless horrible things happen?

In the hopes that we don’t see this again, here’s what I’d really like to see:
  • A public education campaign through the Vancouver Canucks to encourage fans to stay well behaved regardless of the game’s outcome.
  • Given the intentions of an organized group of thugs, the people of Vancouver must also be similarly organized. The message must get out that in the event of trouble, the people who are there to watch the game must either leave or band together to defend the city, and only stop to take photos if you are among those that have banded together to defend the city. Too few heroes emerged among the chaos and too many people were standing around and observing, continuing to fuel the chaos.
  • Those accused of rioting must be involved in any public education campaign. The faces and names of those involved have been dragged through the mud, costing them their futures, their friends, and their jobs. People need to be reminded that no matter where you are, you will be caught, and in the event that the judicial system is weak, the public will ensure that you pay for it, and either way, your life as you know it will be ruined. This will also allow for some level of redemption for those, as well as allow for the city to heal.
Much I am for the like the chances of a Canucks Stanley Cup victory, I am “forever faithful” that the city will learn from its mistakes, but only time will tell. 

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Letting boys be...girls? (citations probably needed)

Over the past few days, I've read some come across some pretty interesting things on the internet that have really got the brain churning regarding the topic of growing up as a guy in today's society.  Among them:
The second and third brought out some memories of elementary school (not always good ones) and the first one brought to light a potentially damaging mentality that may explain the challenges that modern boys (and to a lesser extent girls) face as they are growing up today and what they can look forward to.

Carr-Chellman's talk about the modern school system sounded like a accurate recollection of my elementary school days, even though they are many, many years apart.  As she describes, there is not much that young boys can relate to in the modern classroom.  She argues that the dearth of male teachers (and other male role models), draconian enforcement of zero tolerance policies, and being made to express themselves about things that are simply not relevant to them have driven them away from academics into a world ruled by Orcs and Elves.

That was my childhood.  I wasn't particularly good at sports, so relating to my peers was difficult. Reading was made into a chore, so rather than disappearing into books, my world was a virtual one.  It would probably account for a lot of my current level of social skill and why I'm not as good with talking to people as I'd like (especially members of the opposite sex), but whatever.  It's done.  But, what I had back then that boys do not have was the ability to express myself in writing.  This probably explains why I do what I do.

During my formative years (and for those who I knew back then can attest), I wrote some pretty horrible stuff.  Not necessarily poorly written (although some of it likely was), but the kind of stuff that would get kids in a lot of trouble today.  One collaborative fiction assignment I was particularly proud of initiating was a story about Barney the Purple Dinosaur being captured by a team of scientists that used gene splicing to turn him into a blood-thirsty killing machine and the ensuing massacre that took place.  After the story was handed to one classmate to continue, he immediately "ended" it, evidently too disgusted to continue the story.  A female classmate got a hold of it and the violence and bloodshed continued on paper.  I felt slightly vindicated after that.

Another classmate initiated a story which depicted me attempting to kill the English teacher's cat.  And yes, I probably had way too much fun continuing the blood and carnage and making it even more violent (I actually compared an exploding skull to the microwaving of a raw egg).  The teacher in question actually read that one and nobody got in trouble for it.  In the wake of the Columbine massacre, the result today would've been suspension and a meeting with the school counselor.

As to the increased attention given towards the unhealthy amount of time that boys are spending on video games, it's entirely possible that these worlds are the only thing that allows them to get their aggressive tendencies out.  Over the years, political correctness and the need to be nice to people who aren't particularly nice to us has made for a lot of frustration without any healthy means of dealing with it.  During my childhood, it was bad enough dealing with bullies, as I was given the constant message that it was wrong to hit back and sure enough, I didn't.  And of course, telling on bullies will make the problem worse, so that didn't happen either.  Not being equipped to deal with it, I took my bruises which I still remember, and probably affects me today (although I'm working on that).

It's worse for kids now, when retaliatory actions, even when in self-defense, will land the victim in more trouble than the bully, leaving the "weaker" boys (note the use of quotation marks) in an environment where they don't feel like they belong.  Forget about "play"fighting (which was grounds for punishment when I was in elementary school).  Nowadays, if a child brings an action figure to school carrying an accessory that no sane person would perceive as a deadly weapon, that child faces disciplinary action.

The fight club incident in Washington state is indicative of the problem and represents a very significant opportunity.  The reality is that most boys do have tendencies towards aggression.  Mine didn't manifest physically, but it was still there.  But simply ignoring them will not make them go away, and it needs to be channeled in a positive way.  We've evolved past the age where there would be maximum benefit for it on a regular basis (we don't have to hunt for buffalo anymore, we just go to the grocery store, and there's no way that checkout lines require that much aggression in order to survive), but it should be realized that "aggression" is not necessarily synonymous with "violence."

As barbaric as it might sound to our PC sensibilities, an after school fight club could have some potential benefits to it, provided that it's done within a controlled (read: supervised) and safer environment.  After essentially being reduced to caged animals in the classroom and not being allowed to be "boys", there's a lot of pent up frustration and aggression that's built up.  If it's released in an environment like this, boys can get their physical activity (a must in the light of cuts to physical education programs) and also just as important, they learn to stand up for themselves.  And as much as these "nice guys" are pleasant to have around, the world is relentlessly cruel to them.  They will miss out on countless opportunities, they will have their hearts broken countless times over, they will never have respect, and they will never reach their full potential.

But given the pacification of people today (and the fear of lawsuits), it's extremely unlikely that something like that would ever be sanctioned by parents or educators, which is unfortunate.  Parents will always want to protect their kids, and now with GPS tracking devices and the ability to (ab)use the legal system, they can do that.  But that's also doing a significant disservice, and it's ultimately futile, as kids will get hurt.  It's part of growing up.  The only thing a parent can (and should) actually do is equip them so they can protect themselves.

This generally isn't happening either.  This is a world where men are becoming increasingly obsolete, regardless of what the glass ceiling might say about income disparity.  Certain male roles (e.g.: hunting down buffalo) have been outmoded by industrialism, and as Barbara Kay's editorial indicates, largely suggests that to a certain degree, men have been reduced to providers of sperm. Indeed, with fathers increasingly out of the picture (working extremely long hours to support the family or being reduced to weekend parents after the custody battle left the children in care of the mother), boys are going to be left behind a lot more until the problem is recognized and dealt with, or we pull our collective heads from our asses and realize that it's not about us, but for our children's futures.

And for the women that say that there are no good guys left?  You're exactly right.  And there is a reason for it.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Comparing Apples and Android-anges

A friendly letter to Steve Jobs
"ATTN: Steve Jobs.  Suck it!  Your pal, A. Droid   Sent from an Android device"

The competition between smartphone manufacturers is a particular interest.  With smartphone functionality approaching that of a personal home computer at a fraction of the size, it's no surprise that smartphone sales have outpaced PC sales for the first time late last year (of course, there are other factors, such as the replacement rate and upfront costs of a computer vs. a smartphone). Smartphones have also become a lot like home computers in that consumers have largely been "encouraged" to pick a side. And, much like the Windows/Mac rivalry, Android/iPhone also have their respective cult followings.

Flashback, 2009. I was in the market for a new laptop computer and I had a certain amount of money I was willing to spend. I asked for recommendations on my Facebook wall and was greeted with, "Get a Macbook if you don't want a virus-ridden piece of junk." While I've been a Windows PC user for over 20 years, I don't completely disagree with this very common perception from Mac users. Microsoft constantly updates Windows as security exploits are discovered, and indeed, the vast majority of viruses and malware are written specifically for Windows systems. However, those with that perception also conveniently ignore the fact that Mac OS makes up less than 10% of the total market share, whereas the last three versions of Windows make up a total of over 85%.  If you're the type of person that would want to cause the most damage, you'd go for the biggest target.

But as for "better"? I generally argue that there is no such thing as a "better" system, rather a "more suitable" system. I use a Mac at work and a PC at home and I get good use out of both. My Windows 7 PC takes care of my everyday stuff like games, browsing, and Adobe Creative Suite reasonably well (I'm still running CS2), while I've become accustomed to doing graphic design realted stuff with my work Mac. And contrary to what the Mac pundits say, programs DO crash on a Mac, arguably just as often as PC. I do not notice an appreciable improvement in performance or stability when going from PC to Mac, so for my money, I'm still pretty content with my PC, at least for my usage patterns. If I choose to go into serious video editing, I could probably consider a Mac (Final Cut Pro is a lot better than Adobe Premiere, or at least the versions I've used). But given that Adobe CS is available on Mac AND Windows, I'll stick with Windows for now.

Back on topic. I tried to keep fanboyism at bay when choosing a new phone, as my choice largely boiled down to iPhone, Android, or Blackberry. All three platforms have a lot going for them - Blackberry has wide adoption for business use and has their own dedicated messaging network, Apple for their large marketplace of applications, Android for wide variety of hardware. Nokia was briefly a consideration, mostly due to the fact that the last four phones I owned were Nokia, although given their reduced presence in the North American market and lack of decent products, brand loyalty suddenly ceased to be an issue.

Between the various phone types, I ended up with the HTC Desire Z (the phone that's pictured above, which the Android mascot is using to send a little "friendly" gesture to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs).  Among my many reasons for picking this phone in general...
  • Key features missing from iPhone 4: physical keyboard, expandable memory, replaceable battery.  The last one is important, because you don't have the option of swapping out the battery in a pinch.  If it dies, it dies.
  • Key features missing from Blackberry: comfortable physical keyboard. 
  • Virtually unlimited customizeability
  • The fact that just about everyone else has an iPhone, which is a little bit funny to me considering that the stereotype of Apple users is that they are trying to be individuals.  By all getting the same phone. 
  • Price.  Buying an iPhone with a similar configuration will be $150+ more.  And that's if I can actually get one.
After getting my phone unlocked for my network (originally purchased under Bell, unlocked for Fido) and working out all the kinks, so far I'm pretty satisfied with my phone, but also realize that there are some drawbacks to being on the Android system.

While Android is open source, it essentially ceases to be that after phone manufacturers get their hands on it.  Phone manufacturers and carriers put on a customized version of the user interface, which heavily contributes to the fragmentation issue. Because the phone is running a customized version of Android, getting an update to the next version of the operating system has to go through the phone manufacturer first, THEN your carrier.  With the multiple versions of the UI across different manufacturers and models, you can expect to wait a really long time for your upgrades, if at all.  HTC supposedly has the best track record for upgrading their phones (average wait to upgrade phones running Android 2.1 to 2.2 was 2 months), the latest version of Android (2.3) won't be officially available until the Summer.

This is akin to one of the issues faced by PC users when it comes to software compatibility, which is something touted by reasons to switch to Mac.  With the infinite possible hardware configurations of Windows-based PCs, there will be a chance that your setup will not be 100% compatible with the latest game or the productivity suite.  This doesn't happen on Macs, at least not as often.

Overall, I am pretty happy with my phone, although my biggest gripes are to do with Bell than with Android or HTC, which has prompted me to consider rooting the phone (similar to jailbreaking an iPhone), although not for the purpose of installing unauthorized apps, but for getting rid of the preinstalled apps that I will never use.  Unlike a Windows PC that comes preinstalled with demos and programs that you can get rid of at your leisure, the applications that come preinstalled on a smartphone require a bit of tinkering that will end up voiding the warranty. After a while, though, I kind of just ignore the apps I don't use anyway.

And about battery life, it will always depend on your usage patterns.  I know of people who can go for several days without recharging a Blackberry even with heavy use, whereas I can usually get max two days out of my phone (less if I'm playing a lot of Angry Birds, as the display accounts for most of the battery consumption).  While Android has gotten flack for high battery drain, iPhone users can experience the same.

In the end, don't believe the hype.  Pick the phone that suits YOUR needs, not just because everyone else has one.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Beiber and the Damage Done

As an unrepentant info junkie, I’m on Google News a lot.  With the media’s obsession with celebrities, certain names usually come up, such as Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen, and now Justin Beiber.  And as an info junkie, I’ll casually browse through whatever is there.

I’ve long since passed the age when certain entertainers raise my ire, although in my younger days, the likes of the New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls would have me plugging my ears and leaving the room. Nowadays, I’ve gotten pretty ambivalent to the latest pop sensations, although I do lament only hearing a small segment of Justin Beiber’s “One Time” in a video promo and having it stuck in my head ever since.  Regardless, it’s not worth the energy to get worked up over or blogging about, even more so since I’m well past the age when Rolling Stone was relevant.

I will get worked up about this month’s Rolling Stone interview with “the Beib,” however.  In the interview, the 16 year old pop star is asked questions regarding politics (loves Canadian healthcare, jokingly says that America is evil), sex (believes that love should preclude sex, fair enough), and rape and abortion.

Given the incendiary nature of the topic when spoken about by anyone of note, the top news sites calling out the fact that Beiber admitted to being against abortion, even in the cases of sexual assault...that is, in the headlines, completely stripping away any context.

Hoo-boy. Why not ask a 16-year old born-and-raised Christian celebrity his opinion on same-sex unions while you’re at it? Oh wait, they did. 

The public has great interest in the rise of a celebrity, especially when they come from very humble roots, such as the case with Beiber, who got his start on YouTube and was "discovered." Unfortunately, the public has greater interest in the celebrity's fall, which is much greater when a celebrity has a generally "clean" image. This is not so much as a defense of a young pop star as it's more of an indictment of the media, most of whom have chosen to take an incomplete quote as published and use it out of context.  It's not even the first time. 

Nearer towards the end of the Beatles' existence as a band, John Lennon was asked an interview question about the relevance of religion in young people's lives.  His response, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."

When published in the Evening Standard, no one said anything.  When a fan magazine Playbook got a hold of it and only published a part of it on the cover, that's when the protests started, complete with burnings of Beatles merchandise.

That was almost 50 years ago.  It seems that interviewers for non-tabloid publications have (de-)evolved towards using ambush type questions to get a response, in this case, asking a young pop idol his views on homosexuality and abortion.  When indicating his pro-life stance, the interviewer pressed further, asking if it's even in the case of sexual assault.

The exact quote: "Um. Well, I think that's really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don't know how that would be a reason. I guess I haven't been in that position, so I wouldn't be able to judge that." When published, an "editorial error" managed to remove the second sentence, "I don't know how that would be a reason."  

Within context and thinking from a cool head, it's a fairly neutral statement, but if it's reduced to a headline like "Justin Beiber says you got raped for a reason, ladies", it's going to trigger knee-jerk reactions and protests.  And, it's quite possible that as a guy that has never had to go through the moral dilemma of undergoing an abortion following a sexual assault, I'm not going to have the same incendiary response as someone who has.

How incendiary? While the pro-choice camp hasn’t gone as far as the pro-life camp (eg: pro-life extremists shooting abortion providers), the one incident that sticks out in my head was when there was a pro-life display that was put up in a public area at UBC in 1999, and was promptly vandalized by a group of pro-choice activists.  Without passing judgment, do a woman’s reproductive rights trump freedom of expression?  Is a display showing images of aborted fetuses offensive enough that it is a viable threat to laws protecting reproductive rights, and should therefore be destroyed, as it would fall into the same category as slander or libel?  I can’t answer that.

This also begs the question: why was a minor even asked such a question? While he's hardly a blank slate and presumably aware enough to know when it's something he has little authority to comment on (as he said, he "wouldn't t be able to judge that"), he hardly has the life experience or knowledge to weigh in on a controversial topic that can't be viewed in black and white terms.  Apparently, his media handler and publicist were nowhere to be found when those questions were asked, as they would’ve realized what effects such quotes would have, and that they would definitely be taken out of context.

Even the phrase, “It's everyone's own decision to do that. It doesn't affect me and shouldn't affect anyone else” in regards to homosexuality should have been taken as neutral.  But someone with enough media power will be offended by it to comment and reinterpret it as “Justin Beiber says being gay is a choice.”  Of course, one would think that the important words were the part about “doesn’t affect me and shouldn’t affect anyone else.”

Rolling Stone editor Vanessa Grigoriadis defended the line of questioning, tweeting, “A 16 year old kid, to be 17 in a couple weeks, who has control over a large population should be asked all questions."  Fair enough.  But, given that most celebrities in the media will have handlers and media control to filter any sort of controversial questions, it comes across as predatory, even more so considering that he's only 16, and his handlers weren't nearby when those questions were asked. 

I'll admit.  When I was 16, I leaned towards the pro-life camp.  I was part of the Catholic school system and with constant bombardment of pro-life rhetoric on a regular basis, there isn't a lot of room for any other point of view, especially at that age.  After a few years in college, my view softened considerably.  But most importantly, I realize that I will never fully understand the topic fully, so I know enough not to make black and white statements like "abortion is murder" or "reproductive rights trump all".  To an extent, Beiber probably understands it too, given his qualifying statements.

Under the circumstances, Beiber probably answered the questions the best he could without media coaching, although the questions shouldn't have even been asked in the first place, at least not without the presence of his media handlers.  Because in the meantime, a character was just assassinated.

No, I don't like the music, and if I can finally get "One More Time" unstuck from my head, I would actually be a lot happier.  And yes, freedom of the press is important.  But at what point does that breach journalistic ethics?

While I'm at it...we have about 48 hours to "save Canadian journalism."

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Friday, December 17, 2010

On Slacktivism

Given my lack of followers, an 8 month hiatus from blogging probably wouldn’t have been noticed that much (laziness, got addicted to Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). I actually have had a few things to write about, but just didn’t get around to putting them down.  This starts now as I’m now down for 2-3 weeks with a knee injury (level 1 LCL sprain), which means most of my evenings are free for the next bit.

Slacktivism (derived from the words “slacker” and “activism”) describes the practice of supporting causes with minimal effort. Wikipedia’s page includes examples such as Livestrong bracelets, signing online petitions, and e-mail chain letters (eg: send this e-mail on and Canadian Cancer Society will donate $1 to research for each person that sends it).  I remember one in particular involving an online trivia game which donated rice to developing countries the more you played.

While some campaigns do give portion of proceeds to specific beneficiaries (portions of proceeds from Livestrong bracelets go to cancer research), others have questionable (or at least difficult to measure) effectiveness, and will even have certain organizations actually attempting to distance themselves from such campaigns.

With Facebook, awareness campaigns have a lot more potential to go viral, especially with the vast worldwide user base and the ease at which one can change their status and profile picture. When memes go viral, they become harder to ignore regardless of the size of your friends list, as a larger percentage of your FB contacts will be participating.  The most recent one had FB users changing their profile picture to an image from a cartoon show and changing your FB status to read, “Change your FB picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal is not to see a human face on FB until Monday (Dec 6th) Join the fight against child abuse & copy and paste to your status!”

There are two other FB awareness campaigns that come to mind, in which women posted the colour of their bras with no context whatsoever (eg: “Jane Doe: black”; “Ellen Wong: beige”; etc.), the other in which women posted where they like to leave their purses (eg: “Jane Doe: I like it on the floor”; “Ellen Wong: I like it on the couch”).  These were organized without any direct ties to any non-profit organization, and without context, were generally confounding to those that had idea what was going on.  And, if you were a guy who just thought everyone was posting their favourite colours and it that might be fun to join in, pretty embarrassing too.

This is reminiscent of those commercials for birth control pills where young women identified themselves with the product (“I’m Alesse!”), and then some clueless young male gets pointed and laughed at when he asks, “What’s Alesse?” Canadian advertising standards for prescription drugs aside (notice that Canadian drug ads will never say what it does or what it is used for), for a birth control pill ad, it’s probably okay, given the extremely low probability that a man would purchase it for himself.  And yes, men generally aren’t directly affected by breast cancer, but to completely alienate a potential source of support is short-sighted and counterproductive.

The “I like it on the…” campaign also raised questions the overall effectiveness of such campaigns. While they are generally harmless, there are drawbacks.  One common criticism about such low-effort campaigns is that they instill the sense that the participant is accomplishing far more than they actually are.  Worse yet, there is a possibility that performing such acts will be offset by living less charitably.  This has been seen in studies of individuals that feel environmentally lifestyles (recycling, reducing car use) justify more polluting lifestyle choices (taking long-haul flights).

Given the fact that the level of impact of FB status updates is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to measure, on the surface, these campaigns will have negligible impact compared something requiring continuous and sustained action, such as Movember or CIBC’s Run for the Cure.  As it is, the argument has also been made that donating to charities also has less impact than we believe, given the percentage of money spent on promotion and administration (but that’s a discussion for another time).

I’m probably just as guilty as most.  I participated in Movember by growing my mustache to raise awareness and funds for prostate cancer research.  Since this was done as part of an organized effort (complete with corporate sponsorship, advertising, and association with charitable organizations), the impact was at least somewhat measurable (the campaign has had its most successful year to date), but all in all, what did I really do? I conveniently forgot to shave for about a month and somehow got people to contribute $255 to prostate cancer research. 

This brings us back to cartoon characters on Facebook.  Obviously, a child abuser won’t see the error of their ways once they see a picture of a cartoon character, and given its lack of ties to any organization, any positive impact will be very difficult (if not impossible) to measure.  And out of the dozens of people I know who participated, only a few actually questioned whether or not they were doing anything to prevent violence against children.

However, one standout actually took the opportunity to call attention to a specific charity that benefited child abuse victims, and indicated that she got some support out of it.  Not to be outdone, as a mini-social experiment, I joined the bandwagon and posted a challenge to my FB contacts, offering to match donations to anyone who donated to Boost for Kids, so that anyone participating in the FB meme could actually say then did something to prevent child abuse. 

Out of about a hundred or so FB contacts who were participating in the meme, I got two responses (one who donated to Children’s Help Line, the other who donated to Boost for Kids and is still waiting for her donation to be accepted), which largely confirms my suspicions.  But, on the other hand, some children’s charities did report an increase in donations, which some media outlets attributed to the FB meme.

As a whole, the FB community as a whole has probably accomplished something positive, and that probably is something to feel good about. That is, until you find out that by participating, you may have actually contributed to exploitation of minors, given that metals that make up the electronic components in your computer (tantalum, tungsten, tin, gold) may have been sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the sale of minerals directly funds violent armed conflict.  This results in coerced labour, sexual violence, and death by famine, all inflicted on children.

But let me qualify this by saying that my intent is not to criticize anyone who participates in FB awareness memes or to minimize the positive impacts of such actions.  Given the complexities of life in modern industrialized society, it is impossible to live everyday life without causing suffering or pain.  As it is, we start causing suffering and pain very soon after we’re conceived. 

It is important that we actively question the world we live in and at least think about why we do the things we do.  Is it enough to change the world on its own?  Probably not. But active participation on a viral scale is always infinitely more effective than slacktivism.

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