Friday, December 11, 2015

Stop confusing communism with authoritarianism

A recent Time article (Meet the World's Remaining Communists) describes an ongoing project by Dutch photographer Jan Banning to capture images of those still holding fast to an ideology that has been largely presumed dead since 1989. For the most part I have no problem with this article, save for one paragraph that is an intellectual rock in my shoe, betraying as it does an essentially Western view of the supposed fall of communism:

Venturing behind certain doors in Portugal, Nepal and Italy, Banning, through his photographs, wonders “how could you still say you are a communist after everything we discovered the movement did in the Soviet Union?” And yet, he finds, that dream persists.

It is hard to tell from this passage whether Banning is being quoted directly, or if the writer (Rachel Lowry) is putting words in his mouth. Either way, however, the "question" posed above reflects the dumbed-down version of events that those of us in the West were encouraged by our government and media to believe, which is that the atrocities that occurred in the Soviet Union were directly caused by the communist ideology in and of itself. According to the de facto Western mindset, communism and authoritarianism are one and the same.

The problem with almost any major ideology is that no matter how idealistic the intent behind those who first articulate it on paper, by the time it is implemented (or shortly thereafter), it becomes twisted into something that serves the interests of those with power and resources at the expense of those without.

This is as true of the communism envisioned by Marx and Engels as it is of the liberal democracy promulgated by the 'Founding Fathers' of the United States of America. The former was meant to be a series of worker-run 'soviets', embodying a classless society with a ground-up democracy. The latter was also a dream of the classless society, albeit by way of a representative democracy that exalts private property rights and capital.

That neither lived up to their respective ideals is not any sign of defectiveness on the part of either school of thought - both are simply examples of how human beings exploit any advantage they can to consolidate and maintain power over others, thus rendering meaningless whatever ideological banner under which this occurs.

When Lowry (or Banning?) refers to "everything we discovered the movement did in the Soviet Union", we can only assume the reference is to the repression and atrocities that occurred under Josef Stalin and his successors. However, it would be intellectually dishonest to say that Stalinism (or, left-wing authoritarianism) is interchangeable with communism. Certainly, an iron-fisted dictatorship was never what Marx had in mind.

It is journalistic false accusation to say a "movement" was responsible for the gruesome excesses of an authoritarian regime. While it was a "movement" that led a successful revolution culminating in Russia's communist regime, it was a corrupt locus of absolute power that carried out atrocities in communism's name though not its spirit.

By the same token, the United States has a history of supporting fascist regimes, which would seem to fly in the face of the ideals that America-boosters would profess to uphold. Would it be accurate to say that the 'movement' of American democracy and freedom is to held responsible for the bloodshed and misery that arose from backing those regimes, or should the blame be placed at the feet of self-serving politicians and their corporate string-pullers?

The communist East and the anti-communist West both had their mythologies, built on nominal adherence to political ideologies that largely served as window dressing for the bald pursuit of power in and of itself. Despite the lullabyes to which we sing to ourselves to sleep, any major ideology put into practice inevitably boils down to a simple commandment: fall in line or risk getting seriously hurt.

The same was true of Russia under Stalin and "communism" as it is of Russia under Putin and "capitalism".

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Donald Trump: Merchant of Outrage

I don't know whether to feel contempt or pity for those who continue not only to support Donald Trump in his bid for the GOP nomination, but to feel even more emboldened every time he ups the ante on offensiveness.

How devoid of passion must someone be to find salvation in Trump and the increasingly bombastic nature of his rhetoric? I've heard it said by his fans that "he says out loud what everyone else is thinking." If those are the thoughts that everyone is keeping to themselves, then God help us one and all.

In The Donald we are seeing a thorough composite of every cynical lesson that electoral politics has ever had to offer, with little if any pretense of trying to inspire anyone with positive change. Rather, we have a Frankenstein haphazardly lashed together with the rancid body parts of every worst instinct known to (political) man.

What sort of individual would consider Trump their savior? Is there really nothing more to one's sense of civic duty than simply supporting whoever mirrors their own xenophobic bitterness? In Trump do they see someone who will break the seal on a heretofore suppressed desire to eradicate any lingering progressive instinct in America's institutions?

Particularly when reading the comments sections of various right wing news sites, which after all is where you'll find the id of the American right laid bare, it becomes apparent that Trump's momentum is being propelled by a bottomless well of punitive-minded anger, and that Trump is providing a release valve for that negative energy.

In a previous post ("Trump support: angry populism as therapeutic entertainment?"), I concluded:

What Trump is tapping into is a simple desire for a culture war (against Mexicans, liberals, gays, etc.), as opposed to any notion of improving the economy, the overall quality of life, and the institution of democracy itself.

Not much has changed from that July 5 writing, except that my views on Trump (and right wing populism in general) have hardened and coalesced around a single word:


I came to this conclusion recently while tuning in to 'conservative' talk radio programs, where it seems that the hosts are never trying to actually enlighten or inform, but instead just find things in current events that will stoke the anger of their listeners - as long as that anger is never directed towards conservative politicians.

One morning it hit me: these people are selling nothing more than outrage. Furthermore, I realized that the people who tune into this stuff day in and day out must be looking for little more than to be outraged themselves. Why? Is it because stoked anger is a replacement for spiritual energy, and that a little shot of outrage is needed to get them through the day? After all, who doesn't feel centered until they've popped a vein in their head by mid-morning?

And so it is also through that lens that I have come to view Donald Trump and his unflappable army of supporters. He is a merchant of outrage, and they are nothing more than willing outrage consumers. It is a two-way deal with an unspoken and unwritten understanding, and so far each are delivering on the other's expectations.

That is the only way to explain the longevity of Trump's support despite his infantile rants and slurs, as well as the futility of trying to engage his supporters in any sort of rational debate about his qualifications for the job at hand.

As for things that remain unchanged since my July 5 post, I still don't think Trump has broad enough appeal to win any presidential race (assuming his campaign thus far hasn't been a kind of stealth prank on behalf of the Democrats).

Up here in Canada we've just finished witnessing our incumbent Conservative government increasingly ratchet up the bigotry over the course of the recent federal election, only to find that pandering to the most hardened rightward crust of their base did not pay enough dividends once the ballots were counted. And so by assuming the worst in Canadian voters, Stephen Harper inadvertently handed Justin Trudeau the keys to the Prime Minister's Office. (In fairness, Trudeau consistently campaigned on positive change, and so intentionally or not, he was able to exercise a kind of judo by using Harper's own political weight against him.)

Of course, the GOP establishment probably understands this paradigm with or without the Canadian example to draw from, and therefore sees a Trump victory in the primaries for the political trainwreck it is sure to be.

Monday, December 7, 2015

More guns or fewer guns for a safer America? Don't bet on either.

There has been much talk of arming more people with guns to avoid a repeat of the recent shootings in San Bernardino.

In one case, Ulster County, NY Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum is advising licensed gun owners in his community to "pack heat" to overcome the Islamic scourge when it inevitably begins opening fire in the all-too-near-and-terrifying future.

Similarly, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. (yes, son of that Jerry Falwell Sr.), amazingly advised students to 'carry guns' and 'end those Muslims' to much cheering and applause at a recent convocation ceremony. (He later backpedalled, saying he only meant the extremist Muslims. Of course!)

The above are but two very recent examples, but they are in communion with the overall gun nut myth that the more guns are in a community, the safer its residents will be. This argument is used to shoot down the central article of faith of the gun control lobby (pun intended), which is that fewer guns in a community will make its residents safer.

As religions go, both sides of the issue have a blind faith in the gun, in and of itself, either as the root of all evil (the gun control lobby) or as that which will deliver us from it (the anti-gun control lobby). Perhaps it is in reducing a complicated issue (violent crime) to the mere presence or absence of guns where both sides are misguided.

These recent comments by the sheriff and the university president had me reading up on gun violence in the United States, and in doing so I came across some U.S. Census Bureau statistics in a Wikipedia article.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I copied and pasted the figures into a spreadsheet, applied some data filters, and was then able to rank each state in descending order according to their respective rates of gun murders per 100,000 inhabitants, and after applying some color formatting in each column to provide some visual context, was able to see some correlations. (A pdf version, as well as the original .ods file, created with LibreOffice Calc, is freely available here.)

I won't bore you (or myself) here with a breakdown of the numbers - just look at the above-linked documents yourself if you are so inclined. Nevertheless, my own conclusions are as follows:

High population density is the real gun murder culprit

While the states with the highest level of gun murders generally have lower levels of gun ownership, they also generally have medium-to-high levels of population density. The District of Columbia comes out in first place with the highest population density (10298 people per square mile), as well as the highest overall murder rate (21.8 per 100,000 inhabitants) and the highest gun murder rate (16.5 per 100,000 inhabitants). Only two out of the states with the highest gun murder rate (Arkansas and New Mexico) have low population densities, and they are both near the bottom of the rankings for "high" rates of gun murders.

High gun ownership levels may reduce gun deaths only when combined with low population density

Conversely, while those on the bottom third of the list, with the lowest rates of gun murders, generally tend to be states with high levels of gun ownership, almost without exception they are also places of low population density.

While this doesn't outright disqualify the pro-gun argument that "an armed society is a polite society", the waters are certainly a little muddier than NRA zealot Ted Nugent and others of his ilk would have you believe.

The rural/urban divide

I'm no expert, but it seems reasonable to assume that rural people have a different relationship with guns than their cousins in the city, given that folks in the country are more likely to be hunters, and that when city-dwellers pack heat it's more for self-defence than sportsmanship. (I'm totally generalizing here, but that's just my own gut feeling.)

And so the overarching conclusion I draw from all of the above is that reducing gun murders in the U.S. (or anywhere) has little to do with levels of gun ownership or regulation so much as it does population density and whatever other socioeconomic factors not accounted for here. Perhaps these other factors are intimidating (and politically-risky) for politicians to confront head-on, which is why it's safer to arbitrarily boil it all down to either handing someone a gun or taking it away.


On a tangential note, it's all well and good to arm more people in response to terror attacks, but this logic doesn't take into account the fact that there's a difference between being trained in the safe handling of a gun versus knowing how to effectively shoot an assailant without endangering innocent bystanders and triggering an even bigger bloodbath. For this reason, I think the above calls for more armed citizens are irresponsible and lacking in foresight, not to mention insulting to police and the specialized training they receive.

I could be wrong.

Friday, December 4, 2015

One Week with Solaris 10, Part 3: Post-Mortem

Last things first...

As of this writing I have just gone 'back to the future', as it were, and am now running Oracle Solaris 11.3, the latest commercial UNIX offering on the market as far as x86 processors go. There is much about Solaris 11.3 that is way over my head, and a good part of it I simply won't be using. (All that 'cloud server' stuff doesn't concern me, as I'm looking to take it for a spin as a general purpose productivity desktop. As of right now I have LibreOffice, Emacs, GIMP, Scribus and vlc installed, and will try to push the envelope with getting Audacity, Blender and Inkscape installed, even if it means building from source.)

Good to Go: Oracle Solaris 11.3 with the build of LibreOffice installed.

All of the above, including downloading the 11.3 .iso, was done via my neighborhood Starbucks' wifi signal. (This was my way of making them serve a penance in case the CBC story about their supposed "greenwashing" is true. Tee-hee!)

Because LibreOffice is Solaris 11.x's 'missing link', you can follow these steps to get it installed from

# pfexec pkg set-publisher -G '*' -g localhosts11

# pfexec pkg install -v libreoffice4-desktop-int

Oh, right...Solaris 10

While this Solaris 11.3 install has gone swimmingly, particularly seeing as it now has 90% of the applications I normally need or want, I look back on my week with Solaris 10 with fondness for the retro-UNIX experience it afforded, as well as a palpable sense of relief at being able to move forward with using my laptop for something other than figuring out how to do stuff. My extensive (for me) experience with OpenIndiana (151a9 as well as Hipster) leaves me in a very good position to charge ahead with Solaris 11.3, as so much of it is the same. (Solaris and OI are both SunOS 5.11-based.)

The only thing preventing Solaris 10 from staying on my laptop any longer than it did was simply the differential between the seemingly Byzantine art of installing the programs I need to be truly productive and the level patience demanded (of me) to see it through. (Also, I never did figure out how to enable wireless networking, which was the final nail in the proverbial coffin.) As far as I can tell, Solaris 10 comes with no package management system out-of-the box. Installing Firefox 38.2.1 from, for example, involves following a process of uninstalling the old Firefox and then unpacking and installing the new one. While that process is probably no sweat for a seasoned system administrator, it is heart-pounding for an OS-dabbling shmuck like me. Despite successfully upgrading Firefox, in the process I also shot Thunderbird out of the sky, and was unable to bring it back.

Otherwise, Solaris 10 was a joy to use and get to know, and after a few days I felt far more comfortable with it than I would have expected. Before long, the Common Desktop Environment (CDE) felt like my 'new normal'. And compared to Solaris 11.3, overall it was fast. Like, speeding ticket fast. (Solaris 11.3 takes a long time to boot on this machine - a ThinkPad T61p - and Solaris 11.2 wouldn't even completely load. Perhaps in the latter case there was a problem with the iso?)

A collateral benefit from trying to figure out Solaris 10 is that I also learned a thing or two about getting things done on SunOS 5.11 systems (be they illumos- or Oracle-based), and I'm sure there's sundry other little things I've brought back across the chasm that escape me at the moment.

The new road ahead

And so I'll try living with Solaris 11.3 for awhile and learn as much as I can. As it stands right now, it is already serving my productivity needs, and so my goal will be to make it as much of a multimedia desktop as possible (hello, Audacity and Blender).

In the longer term, however, I can't bring myself to abide by Oracle's proprietary licensing conditions, which are geared towards larger organizations who would benefit from paying for the support and upgrades that Oracle offers. At the end of the day, I'm a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) kinda guy, and so this ongoing foray into the proprietary realm makes me feel a strong twinge of guilt at contravening my ideals.

(I don't fault Oracle for their licensing choices - they exist to make money as they see fit. On the other hand, bringing Solaris back into the proprietary fold after having been open-sourced under Sun's stewardship, as well as killing the OpenSolaris project, has probably come at some cost to its community of users. As for myself, it has taken a number of years for me to be able to say 'Oracle' without wanting to spit. Former Sun engineers, such as Bryan Cantrill, go to much further lengths to express their disdain. As for the official Solaris brand, Oracle has made a legion of detractors out of those who were once passionate ambassadors, people who are now putting their all into the illumos project.)

Nevertheless, my objective is to be able to get more involved in the OpenIndiana/illumos community, particularly by submitting informed bug reports to OI's Hipster test branch, as well as assisting in editing and writing documentation if they have enough faith in my editorial skills. And so given that OpenIndiana aims to closely mirror the Solaris 11.x experience while also improving on it, having a good dose of direct interaction with Solaris 11.3 can only serve me well in my endeavors with OpenIndiana.

OpenSolaris is dead. Long live illumos, long live OpenIndiana.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Politically-biased headlines reinforce Islamophobia, encourage hate crimes

The following is a letter to the editor of the New York Post submitted on December 3, 2015.


Dear Editor,

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar once said that "knowledge is a burden if it robs you of innocence." In light of your choice of headline ("MUSLIM KILLERS") in reference to yesterday's tragic mass shooting in San Bernardino, I would like to pass on some items of knowledge that may come at the expense of your innocence.

First, Muslims comprise 2.77 million of your fellow Americans. If citizenship in your country means anything, then they are to be considered Americans, full stop. They do not deserve to be singled out for their religion by you nor anyone else.

Second, it is well-known that anti-Muslim hate crimes tend to spike after a terror event, involving everything from threatening phone calls and graffiti to incidents of violence or even murder.

Third, your publication has an impact on its readers, and can play a part in shaping their worldview, particularly at times of heightened emotion, such as the immediate aftermath of a terror attack. As a corollary, your choice of front page headline simplifies your coverage of a given lead story, often reducing it to a three- or four-syllable shorthand of the whole situation. "MUSLIM KILLERS", for example.

Fourth, as far as your headlines are concerned, the only time a shooter's religion comes into play is when that religion happens to be Islam. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't ever recall seeing one of your headlines read "JEW KILLERS" or "CHRISTIAN KILLERS".)

Fifth, terrorism is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal." What Merriam-Webster doesn't mention is that non-Muslims who engage in mass shootings on U.S. soil are almost never referred to as "terrorists", or at least not as far as your headlines are concerned. (As a recent example, your headline referred to Robert Lewis Dear simply as a "gunman" after he shot three people at a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado, presumably to frighten or intimidate people on the political issue of abortion. You could have referred to him as a "terrorist", or even a "CHRISTIAN KILLER", but that could possibly incite hate crimes, or even violence, against Christians, especially those of a social conservative bent.)

Sixth, the New York Post has a demonstrated political bias, and it could be said that your choice of headlines, particularly for lead stories, serves to further the goal of legitimizing that bias.

Seventh, by singling out yesterday's shooters for their religion, you reinforce certain unfair and unfounded stereotypes of approximately 2.77 million of your fellow Americans. And so when someone gets it into their head to persecute their Muslim neighbors on the basis of their religion, your December 3 headline does nothing to stand in their way, and may even serve as encouragement.

Eighth, I'm not saying your careless headline incites violence, or is the moral equivalent of direct violence or some form of "soft terrorism", but I would say it is certainly politically motivated. You should be concerned about the possibility of your simplistic and ungraceful headline forming part of a 'chorus of approval' for those who would take their Islamophobia to the next level.

If you agree with Edward Bulwer-Lytton's adage that "the pen is mightier than the sword", then perhaps you should be much more careful with how you handle your quill, otherwise you could hurt up to 2.77 million innocent people with it.

James Deagle
Ottawa, Canada