Rick’s Night Out

April 9, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Getting Off Message

April 9, 2012

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On an Easter Monday a little over 90 years ago, the world changed forever. On that day a terrible battle was fought and won, in a place called Vimy Ridge, in France.

The battle marked the first major victory for the Allied nations facing the German and Central Forces. Prior to the victory at Vimy Ridge, those same Allied forces had been met with one staggering defeat after another. The First World War was the first post Napoleonic-era war and Europe and the rest of the world would never be same. In the end, the war was to cause the disintegration of four empires that had changed the world. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires were lost. Half a dozen new states were created in Europe, and Poland and Lithuania were recreated. Most importantly, the First World War was a transitional war. Whereas wars were once fought exclusively for territory and resources, the First World War was fought about ideas and the imposition of those ideas, some of which were less than savory, to be sure.

With newest technologies of the day factored in, the engines of war were fierce, indeed. The casualties of the day were unprecedented.

On April 9, 1917, Easter Monday, four Canadian divisions from that new nation across the Atlantic, were called upon to fight together in Old Europe, to secure Vimy Ridge, a hellish place on this earth that had claimed 150,000 French lives alone. Other thousands of British soldiers were to make the ultimate sacrifice, too.

For a week prior to the actual battle, artillery barrages and exchanges could be heard across the channel in the south of England, 100 miles away.

On that Easter Monday, the Canadian soldiers were given a hot breakfast (about as common as Loch Ness monster sightings) and some rum:

The notion that this was a day like none other here was established early on when, in the darkness before zero hour, the troops were treated to a rare hot breakfast. There was bacon, bread, butter, tea and oranges — and after the meal, an issue of rum for every soldier, “which was rather small,” grumbled Private Leo Kelly, a 19-year old, who nonetheless remarked, “We don’t need rum to fight. All we need is grub and cigarettes.”

Maybe so for the young Quebec private, full up on a rare warm breakfast and energized by the prospect of battle, but for Lieutenant Stuart Kirkland and his platoon, who had spent the night packed into a front-line trench in the cold and muddy darkness, the rations of rum were essential.

“We stood there in mud to our waists all night waiting for the eventful hour. After fifteen minutes before the time set, I took two water bottles of rum and gave each of the men a good swallow, for I was bitter cold standing in the mud all night.”

Where the French and British had failed, the Canadians had succeeded. Three days later, the cost of victory became clear, with 3,598 Canadians having paid the ultimate price as some 7,104 lay wounded. The raw numbers are meaningless. In a country with such a population 1/10 that of the United States, that is the equivalent of 36,000 deaths in a single battle. Note: Reader Mark notes in a comment that based on population statistics, the Canadian losses today would be 46,100.

There are thousands of soldiers that have still not found rest. This week, the remains of Canadian Private Herbert Peterson, will finally find peace. He was found a few years ago, along with another soldier who may have been carrying the wounded private when they were both killed by a bomb blast. DNA tests confirmed Peterson’s identity. Further tests will identify his mate.

Women from far away places could be found at the front.

From the very night in 1914, when she read in Vancouver newspapers that Britain had declared war on Germany, she announced to her family that she was going overseas to drive Red Cross ambulances. In the months that followed, she contacted the war office in Ottawa and the Red Cross in Britain. Neither appeared interested in helping her make her way to the battlefields of Europe. So she saved what she could and eventually paid for her own passage across the Atlantic. The next hurdle she faced was Canadian army inertia. Waiting patiently for an answer at first, Grace finally forced the issue, demanding and getting an audience with the Minister of Militia and commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Sir Sam Hughes himself, in London in 1916.

“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she told Hughes and an entourage of officers in Hughes’s luxury suite at the Savoy Hotel.

“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” Hughes blustered. “And I’ll stop you too.”

“Well, Sir Sam, I’m going to France,” she insisted. “And I’ll get there with or without your help.”

She did get to France and Grace McPherson’s contribution to the war effort was immeasurable.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge saw four Canadian divisions fighting together, under Canadian command. Those soldiers came from every region of the young nation. After the war, Brigadier-General A.E. Ross said of the assault on Vimy Ridge, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”

To “witness the birth of a nation” has nothing to do with armies, battles or soldiers, even though that more often than not appears to be the case.

Truly great nations are born when the ideas that elevate mankind and society are so great, they can no longer be contained in the realm of the ethereal. Those great ideas must find life. Those ideas require real and meaningful outlets where the principles and ideals those ideas represent, can freely express themselves. That is how great nations are born.

On April 9, 1917, Easter Monday, the world changed.

New nations came into being, nations that were willing to fight for an idea. Nations that shared the idea of freedom did not need to fight each other. The free exchange of ideas led to the free markets of exchange and collaboration.

Empires were created to exploit resources and to extend dominance. Free societies are created to exploit ideas. In the short time free societies have existed, they have created more wealth than all the empires combined.

As we have noted,

In the course of just over 200 years, we have provided the world with ideas, contributions and realities that are in the consciousness of every human being on the planet.

Easter is an expression of rebirth, of finding meaning and purpose. It is about elevation and potential, possibilities and hope.

The battle for Vimy Ridge was not a battle for a few yards of ground, in a war of territorial conquest. Rather, it was a battle between dark and light- those who would oppress and those who would defend the rebirth and resurrection of mankind’s potential. The Old Europe of empires and colonialism came to an end at Vimy Ridge.

The world changed forever on that Easter Monday, because on that day, it became clear to all that the ideas of freedom, rebirth and fighting evil are ideas that are worth defending, even at enormous cost.

We can only hope that those lessons are not lost, even as we fight the tyranny of oppressors and their stated evil, today.

For more on Vimy Ridge, see this:

Closest to the surface here in Vimy are the 3,598 Canadians who died in the four-day battle, along with the 20,000 Germans who were killed and wounded that Easter holiday. It was a successful battle for the Canadians, one that used novel innovations in artillery, aviation and communications to outsmart a highly entrenched enemy.

Beneath those Canadians and their April, 1917, enemies, scattered downwards for metres, are remains of the British and below them the French soldiers who had tried to take the hill for horrifying months: In total, an estimated 200,000 corpses scattered across this small stretch of countryside, their remains only partially collected. They are joined by macabre bits of the 600,000 men who were injured, many horrendously, in their attempts to take this hill.

See this and links embedded within, for more.

Portions of this post have been previously published.


In 1989, as communism was beginning to crumble across Eastern Europe, just a few months before protesters started pecking away at the Berlin Wall, the Japanese game-making giant Nintendo reached across the world to unleash upon America its own version of freedom. The new product was the Game Boy – a hand-held, battery-powered plastic slab that promised to set gamers loose, after all those decades of sweaty bondage, from the tyranny of rec rooms and pizza parlors and arcades.

The unit came bundled with a single cartridge: Tetris, a simple but addictive puzzle game whose goal was to rotate falling blocks – over and over and over and over and over and over and over – in order to build the most efficient possible walls. (Well, it was complicated. You were both building walls and not building walls; if you built them right, the walls disappeared, thereby ceasing to be walls.) This turned out to be a perfect symbiosis of game and platform. Tetris’s graphics were simple enough to work on the Game Boy’s small gray-scale screen; its motion was slow enough not to blur; its action was a repetitive, storyless puzzle that could be picked up, with no loss of potency, at any moment, in any situation. The pairing went on to sell more than 70 million copies, spreading the freedom of compulsive wall-building into every breakfast nook and bank line in the country.

And so a tradition was born: a tradition I am going to call (half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I’ve lost to them) “stupid games.” In the nearly 30 years since Tetris’s invention – and especially over the last five, with the rise of smartphones – Tetris and its offspring (Angry Birds, Bejeweled, Fruit Ninja, etc.) have colonized our pockets and our brains and shifted the entire economic model of the video-game industry. Today we are living, for better and worse, in a world of stupid games.

Game-studies scholars (there are such things) like to point out that games tend to reflect the societies in which they are created and played. Monopoly, for instance, makes perfect sense as a product of the 1930s – it allowed anyone, in the middle of the Depression, to play at being a tycoon. Risk, released in the 1950s, is a stunningly literal expression of cold-war realpolitik. Twister is the translation, onto a game board, of the mid-1960s sexual revolution. One critic called it “sex in a box.”

Tetris was invented exactly when and where you would expect – in a Soviet computer lab in 1984 – and its game play reflects this origin. The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain (Donkey Kong, Mike Tyson, Carmen Sandiego) but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves.

In 2009, 25 years after the invention of Tetris, a nearly bankrupt Finnish company called Rovio hit upon a similarly perfect fusion of game and device: Angry Birds. The game involves launching peevish birds at green pigs hiding inside flimsy structures. Its basic mechanism – using your index finger to pull back a slingshot, over and over and over and over and over and over and over – was the perfect use of the new technology of the touch screen: simple enough to lure a suddenly immense new market of casual gamers, satisfying enough to hook them.

Within months, Angry Birds became the most popular game on the iPhone, then spread across every other available platform. Today it has been downloaded, in its various forms, more than 700 million times. It has also inspired a disturbingly robust merchandising empire: films, T-shirts, novelty slippers, even plans for Angry Birds “activity parks” featuring play equipment for kids. For months, a sign outside my local auto-repair shop promised, “Free Angry Birds pen with service.” The game’s latest iteration, Angry Birds Space, appeared a couple weeks ago with a promotional push from Wal-Mart, T-Mobile, National Geographic Books, MTV and NASA. (There was an announcement on the International Space Station.) Angry Birds, it seems, is our Tetris: the string of digital prayer beads that our entire culture can twiddle in moments of rapture or anxiety – economic, political or existential.

I resisted buying an iPhone for what felt like several decades (it was, in biological Earth time, four years), because I was afraid of the power of its games. I spent my formative years becoming fluent in, and addicted to, the video games of the ’80s and early ’90s – the industry-redefining stretch from roughly Mario Brothers to Mortal Kombat. You could say that video games and I went through adolescence together. As I shed my exoskeleton of fat, Nintendo’s blocky pixels started to fuse into sleek 64-bit curves; as my voice lowered, video games’ plinky soundtracks matured into little symphonies; as my social circle expanded beyond my little clutch of sweaty and foulmouthed friends, the market for video games expanded into (or at least toward) similarly new demographics: adults, girls.

At some point late in my teens, in a spasm of post-adolescent resolve, I decided to renounce video games forever. They had, I recognized, a scary power over me – an opium kind of power – and I was hoping to cultivate other, more impressive ways of spending my time. I had aspirations of capital “c” culture, and so I started pouring my attention into books, a quieter and more socially respected form of escapism. I knew that, if I had daily access to video games, I would spend literally every day playing them, forever. So I cut myself off, more or less cold turkey, and as a result I was more or less happy and productive.

Then, midway through the dark forest of my adult life, the iPhone came out. This presented a unique problem. It was not only a phone and a camera and a compass and a map and a tiny window through which to see the entire Internet – it was also a pocket-size game console three times as sophisticated as anything I grew up with. My wife, who had never been a serious gamer, got one and became addicted, almost immediately, to a form of off-brand digital Scrabble called Words With Friends. Before long she was playing 6 or 10 games at a time, against people all over the world. Sometimes I would lose her in the middle of a conversation: her phone would go brinnng or pwomp or dernalernadern-dern, and she would look away from me, midsentence, to see if her opponent had set her up for a triple word score. I tried to stay good-humored. I told her I was going to invent something called the iPaddle: a little screen-size wooden paddle that I would slide in front of her phone whenever she drifted away, on the back of which, upside-down so she could read them, would be inscribed humanist messages from the analog world: “I love you” or “Be here now.”

Inevitably, my high-minded detachment didn’t last long. About a year ago, unable to resist the rising cultural tide and wanting (I convinced myself) a camera with which to take pictures of my children, I gave in and bought an iPhone. For a while I used it only to read, to e-mail and to take pictures. Then I downloaded chess, which seemed wholesome enough – the PBS of time-wasters. But chess turned out to be a gateway game. Once I formed the habit of finding reliable game joy in my omnipresent pocket-window, my inner 13-year-old reasserted himself. I downloaded horribly titled games like Bix (in which you steer a dot in a box between other dots in a box) and MiZoo (in which you make patterns out of exotic cartoon animal heads). These led to better, more time-consuming games – Orbital, Bejeweled, Touch Physics, Anodia – which led to even better games: Peggle, Little Wings. One tiny masterpiece, Plants vs. Zombies, ate up, I’m going to guess, a full “Anna Karenina” of my leisure time. One day while I was playing it (I think I had just discovered that if you set up your garlic and your money-flowers exactly right, you could sit there racking up coins all day), my wife reminded me of my old joke about the iPaddle. This made me inexplicably angry.

And so video games were back in my life…

Read it all.

The European:

The European: Anthropologists warn that up to half of the world’s languages might disappear within the next generation. But that doesn’t mean that we will become speechless: Other languages and cultural contexts will take their place. So why should we care?
Maffi: That question is often asked by people whose culture and language are not threatened. It is difficult to understand the significance of the decline of cultural diversity unless you are affected by it. When your culture carries prestige and is widespread, it is easy to assume that others would want to join it. So we have to turn things on their head and look at cultural diversity from the perspective of minorities: What does it mean for them to lose their culture and their language? And what does it mean for us globally?

The European: Most of our lives will be completely undisturbed by the loss of languages or cultural heritage elsewhere. What are the global consequences?
Maffi: As humans, we have evolved to differentiate ourselves culturally and linguistically from each other. The role of cultural diversification is similar to the evolution of complex ecosystems in nature: It gives resilience to human society as a whole, just as biodiversity gives resilience to ecosystems. Today, we are converging more and more as diverse cultures assimilate into the dominant model of Western society. As a consequence, the pool of perspectives on human life is being drained. In the past, new solutions to societal and environmental problems could come from non-Western cultures, but that opportunity is diminishing. In the words of the linguist Peter Mühlhäusler, we are developing cultural blind spots. That reality is staring us in the face but we are caught in denial.

The European: Instead of critically analyzing our own conventional wisdom from a different perspective, we embrace it.
Maffi: The range of perspectives on human existence is increasingly narrow and often tied to the notion of unlimited and unfettered economic growth. But unlimited growth within a finite system of natural resources is impossible. Diverse cultural perspectives provide us with alternative ways of looking at human activity and its relation to the natural world.

The European: If faced with the possibility of learning English and moving to a city, few people decline. The history of globalization is a history of exploitation, but it can also be seen as a history of expanding choices and human empowerment. Don’t you think that we should expand rather than restrict access to that history?
Maffi: Yes, choice is always important. But it cuts both ways: We also should not deny the right to remain within traditional culture. Cultures are not museum specimens that can be frozen in time, they are always alive and evolving. In many cases, the shift from traditional cultures to Western culture cannot be understood as a free choice if we apply the standards of freedom and human rights. Assimilation is often forced, sometimes in subtle ways. For example, if we force someone to make a choice without providing the necessary information about consequences, that choice cannot be understood as an informed and free choice. Or someone might be driven by desperation and poverty when processes of globalization undermine their traditional way of life. That, too, is not a free choice.

The European: If you attempted to draw a line at this point to judge whether or not indigenous cultures have benefitted from the spread of Western culture, where do you come down?
Maffi: On the whole, they have not benefitted. Think of all the slums that have developed throughout the developing world: The promise of prosperity has failed to materialize for most people. And if you take a broader perspective to include issues like cultural identity, public health, and societal integrity, you see that those have been undermined as well. Thriving communities have been uprooted; people have been displaced on a massive scale. That is tragic, especially when you consider that almost 85 percent of global cultural diversity derives from indigenous cultures.

The European: We recently talked to the anthropologist Wade Davis, who gave a forceful defense of indigenous religions.

But it seems that the arguments we employ to protect those cultural traditions are precisely the same arguments that we discount within our own secular culture: Arguments about discrimination, about freedom of choice, or about scientific rationality. Maffi: It is interesting that we often focus on the most extreme aspects of religiosity: Female circumcision, the stoning of adulterers, and so on. Those things certainly exist, and for that matter, Christianity too has had its fair share of cruelty…

The European: That would precisely be the argument: We have overcome dogmatic belief, and so should you! How can we reconcile the commitment to diversity with our own humanistic tradition?
Maffi: It makes sense to talk about spirituality rather than religion. What we should be interested in is the spiritual connection between ourselves and the world at large. In my opinion, the loss of that connection is at the root of the current crisis. We have come to see ourselves as disconnected from nature and increasingly superior to it. We are oblivious to the fact that we still completely depend on the natural environment for our survival. The relevance of spiritual beliefs lies in the fact that, in most cases, they make us aware of that connection.

The European: When did we go astray?
Maffi: The Age of Enlightenment is when it started. The primacy of reason and the separation of mind and body really began to develop at that point, preceding the era of industrialization. In the 19th century, those beliefs were combined with the conviction that machines could provide the answers to all our problems. Today, technology has monopolized our thinking and we are not able to direct our activities towards sustainable living. Current technologies are very good at extraction and exploitation of natural resources, but not very good at conserving and protecting them, or at repairing the damage that we have done. Green technology is a promising change, but it will be insufficient unless we adjust our fundamental principles and values as well. In the end, the world remains a finite place and we need to find a way to live sustainably within it.

The European: Some environmentalists question the idea that the human should be at the center of our moral universe. Your project sounds a bit more humble: To point out the connections between man and nature that make our culture sustainable.
Maffi: That’s right. There is no doubt that we are an incredibly clever and versatile species. Our cultural faculty has allowed us to outfox the processes of natural evolution itself. But now we need to engage in reflection and introspection and ask: What do we have to do to regain a balance with the natural environment? Our humanistic traditions should serve us well: The idea of reason has elevated us to the top of the evolutionary food chain, but it also has the potential to foster a reflective approach to human civilization…

Read it all.

The European:

Iran is facing a historic opportunity to shift the balance of power in the Persian Gulf region. This opportunity has little to do with Tehran’s nuclear program. Instead it involves Iran’s conventional military capability, its covert and overt political influence, and the decision of the United States to withdraw its military from Iraq.

For centuries, Iran has seen itself as deprived of its rightful position as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, boxed in by the Ottomans, the British, and finally the Americans. In the absence of a global power, Turkey’s distance and Ankara’s reluctance to project force beyond its borders, Iran is left as a potential dominant conventional power in the Persian Gulf. The United States’ withdrawal from Iraq late last year thus paves the way for Iran to emerge as the region’s dominant land power.

This in no way means that Iran is about to invade someone; Tehran acts more subtly than that. Having force is more important than using it, particularly when that force is supplemented by political power. While it is not fair to say that Iran has turned Iraq into a satellite state in the wake of the United States’ departure, Tehran does wield substantial influence over the political process in Baghdad.

It is easy to understand why Iran would seek to build that influence. After a long and bitter war with Iraq in the 1980s, during which Iran suffered more than a million casualties, Tehran built its national security policy on ensuring that Iraq would never again pose a similar threat. Iranian involvement in Iraqi politics was therefore predictable. It took place while the United States was in Iraq, and has intensified since the United States left. Iran’s power and influence in Iraq extend an Iranian sphere of influence to the borders of a number of countries. Indeed, Iraq is the most strategic country in the region, bordering Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Whoever holds sway in Iraq is in a position to influence the entire region, as the Americans knew.

The events in Syria compound the growth of Iranian power. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad has survived insurrection for a year, and Iran’s support in the form of supplies and training is one of the reasons. Should the Alawite regime survive, even without Assad at its helm, it will depend heavily on Iran. What had been a relationship between equals, where Syria kept its distance from Iran at times, will tilt massively toward Tehran. When we consider Iran’s influence over Hezbollah, with its substantial power in Lebanon, we can see the ongoing formation of an Iranian sphere of influence that stretches from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.

This would fundamentally shift the balance of power in the region. Iran would hold sway over an area that runs along the northern border of Saudi Arabia and abuts the southern border of Turkey. Depending on how robust Iran’s influence proves within this sphere, and the degree to which it might be supplemented with the presence of Iranian conventional forces, it could put substantial pressure on regional actors, in particular Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

It is important to note that the existence of nuclear weapons in Iran does not enter into this equation. Had Iran never started developing nuclear weapons, or if the weapons program were decimated, the Iranian sphere of influence would still be emerging.

The incipient shift was triggered first by the US invasion of Iraq, which destroyed the Iran-Iraq balance of power, and later by the American withdrawal, which created the vacuum that Iran is now filling.

The nuclear issue has obscured the underlying concern: For the first time in centuries, Iran has a reasonable opportunity to be the dominant power in the region. It is clear that the Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. What is not clear is whether they want to actually possess them and if they possess them, how they will use them. For all of its aggressive rhetoric, which is directed at mobilizing domestic support, Iran’s foreign policy has been extremely cautious. While engaging in covert operations and tacitly supporting friendly regimes and groups, Tehran has been careful to avoid overt involvement and to not overextend itself.

Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons seems primarily intended as a bargaining chip to deflect attention from Tehran’s growing sphere of influence and to focus it on a peripheral issue. Ultimately, positioning a handful of nuclear weapons would prove more dangerous to Iran than not having them, and using them on Israel would bear catastrophic results. The Iranians, again ignoring their own rhetoric, have been extremely careful to avoid conflicts in their homeland, as well as any action that would threaten the regime. Using a nuclear weapon against Israel would guarantee the annihilation of both.

Still, given their rhetoric, our comfortable assumptions of what Iran is likely to do cannot be the foundation of Israeli policy, especially as a handful of nuclear devices could annihilate Israel. The problem for Israel now is deciding how to address the threat. The rule in strategic planning is to focus on capability and not intent, since capability changes only over time, while intent can change very quickly. The question for Israel thus becomes: What exactly is Iran’s nuclear capability?…

Read it all.


SCOTUS Up The Wazoo

April 9, 2012

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