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You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Friday, January 31, 2014

Flophouse Citizenship & International Migration Reading List

Time for another update of the Flophouse citizenship/migration reading list. New books are in green. I highly recommend all the titles below - read them and you will never look at citizenship or migration the same way again. All the underlined titles take you directly to the book on Amazon (U.S.). I would really appreciate suggestions for other titles that might be of interest. I promise to read and add them to the list if I think they are good.

Migration and the Great Recession:  the Transatlantic Experience (2011) edited by Demetrios Papademetriou et al.  If you were wondering how the economic crisis in the first decade of the 21st century had an impact on migration, this book of essays from the Migration Policy Institute is good place to begin.  Data from the U.S., U.K., Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Sweden and Germany.

Anthropology and Migration: Essays on Transnationalism, Ethnicity, and Identity (2003) by Caroline Brettell. An anthropologist looks at migration, transnationalism, and assimilation/integration through a population she knows well: the Portuguese diaspora. (Flophouse review here.)

Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration (2013) by Susan Ossman. .A look into the minds of "serial migrants." Those who immigrate once (like all other migrants) and then do something that shatters the standard immigrant tale - they move on. (Flophouse review here.)

International Migration in the Age of Crisis and Globalization (2010) by Andres Solimano. Well-written, well-argued book.  The author is ambitious and confronts some of the most difficult topics around migration:  Why is International Migration Such a Contentious Issue?  Are Goods and Capital More Important than People?  Don't Always 'Blame' the North, and so on.

The Citizen and the Alien:  Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership (2006) by Linda Bosniak.
Refreshing take on the dilemmas of citizenship and democratic ideals.  Who is included/excluded and on what basis?  The problem of democracy and the legal permanent resident. Complex questions with no easy answers.

A Nation of Emigrants:  How Mexico Manages Its Migration by David Fitzgerald (2009)  The internal American battle over immigration from Latin America is a very public debate but it's only half the story.  Mexico, the U.S.'s southern neighbor and a major sending country, has made and is still making policy to manage its emigration and its emigrants.  This is an extraordinary book and there is much to be learned from Mexico's efforts and policies - even when they have failed.

The Sovereign Citizen:  Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (2013) by Patrick Weil  Really superb book.  Excellent research into the un-making of American citizens in the 20th century.  

Citizenship and Those Who Leave:  The Politics of Emigration and Expatriation by Nancy L. Green and Francois Weil (2007)  I contend that you cannot talk about immigration without also discussing emigration.  A fine work - excellent chapters on how states (UK, Holland, U.S., France and others) have tried to manage emigration.

Citizenship and Immigration by Christian Joppke (2010) This one covers a wide variety of old and new ideas about citizenship.  A good place to begin for someone who is just delving into how immigration/emigration and citizenship are entwined. Joppke refutes the idea of the decline of citizenship - an argument worth reading..

International Migration and the Globalization of Domestic Politics edited by Rey Koslowski.  Some very good insights into how international migration and diaspora politics affect politics back in the home country.

Immigration and Citizenship in Japan by Erin Aeran Chung (2010) Excellent book about Japan as a country of immigration. "Japan is currently the only advanced industrial democracy with a fourth-generation immigrant problem." Chung tells the story of how this came about and the impact this has had on modern Japanese citizenship law.

Rights and Duties of Dual Nationals:  Evolution and Prospects edited by David A. Martin and Kay Hailbronner (2003)  Fine set of articles on dual citizenship and such things as military service, extradition, political rights (Peter Spiro), denationalization and many others.  Pricey but worth every penny.

International Migration and Citizenship Today by Niklaus Steiner (2009).  A very fine book on the political, economic and cultural impact of immigration.  He frames the discussion around two essential questions:  What Criteria to Admit Migrants?  and What Criteria to Grant Citizenship?

Citizenship Today: Global Perspectives and Practices edited by T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Douglas Klusmeyer (2001).  This was one of the best books I read on the topic of citizenship with essays by Patrick Weil, Karen Knop and Richard T. Ford, among many others.   I particularly enjoyed Ford's contribution called "City-States and Citizenship" which was, for me, a real revelation.

States without Nations:  Citizenship for Mortals by Jacqueline Stevens (2009) A strong critique of birthright citizenship in all forms and a call for citizenship based on residency.  

The Perils of Belonging: Authochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe by Peter Geschier (2009).  Outstanding read.  States make citizens and states can also "unmake" them.  Nativism and the never-ending debate over who really "belongs."

The Politics of Citizenship in Europe by Marc Morje Howard (2009).  A really fine study of the citizenship policies of the oldest member-states of the EU.  Read this book to grasp how citizenship laws have changed over time and the reasons why.

The Future Governance of Citizenship by Dora Kostakopoulou ((2008).  Good overview of the current citizenship models and a proposal for an "anational" citizenship framework.

Beyond Citizenship:  American Identity After Globalization by Peter Spiro (2008).  Excellent book that examines how globalization has changed the value of citizenship overall and American citizenship in particular.  Very thoughtful.  Very well-written.

Qu'est-ce qu'un Français? by Patrick Weil (2002).  Mr. Weil spent over 8 years in the archives researching this book and it is fascinating.  France has been something of a test lab for just about every combination of jus soli and jus sanguinis citizenship possible.  Everything has been tried and tried again.  I read the book in French but it is also available in the usual places in English.

Gender and International Migration in Europe by Eleonore Kofman, Annie Phizacklea, Parvati Raghuram and Rosemary Sales (2000).  If you are looking for some empirical evidence (as I was) for how migration, immigration policy and citizenship rights have different outcomes and impacts for women, this is a good place to start.

The Birthright Lottery:  Citizenship and Global Inequality by Ayelet Shacher (2009) An attack on both jus soli and jus sanguinis methods of transmitting citizenship.  Fascinating argument.

Aliens in Medieval Law:  the Origins of Modern Citizenship by Keechang Kim ((2000).  I've been meaning to write a post about this book since it has a very original take on the historical roots of modern citizenship.  I recommend it highly. 

Human Rights or Citizenship? by Paulina Tambakaki (2010)  Interesting ideas about how traditional models of citizenship and  human rights legislation are in conflict.

International Migration, Remittances and the Brain Drain edited by Caglar Ozden and Maurice Schiff  for the World Bank (2006)  This book contains a number of very interesting essays about the economic impact of remittances and brain drain/gain.  The editors point out that the potential for economic benefit for all parties (individuals and sending and receiving countries)  is substantial but policy decisions need to be made carefully (we are talking about people after all).

Let Them In:  the Case for Open Borders by Jason L. Riley (2008)  The author makes a very radical argument for simply opening the doors and letting people move where they wish.

For info I have created a Citizenship and Migration book list on Goodread's Listopia here.  Good place to read reviews and find quotations from the above books.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The American Diaspora Meets a Polarized America

It is one thing to read about the polarization of politics in the American homeland; it is quite another to meet it en direct.

The news that the Republicans plan to vote a resolution calling for the repeal of FATCA has generated a veritable tsunami of articles in the American media with strangely similar headlines:

Republican Party To Vote For Repeal Of Anti-Tax Dodging Law

Why Are Republicans Plotting To Sabotage A Crackdown On Tax Evasion?

It is interesting to see just how far and how deep the meme "American abroad = rich tax evader" has sunk into the American mindset.  Americans abroad - the au pairs, English teachers, translators, NGO workers, computer programmers, artists, writers, university professors, managers, musicians, and retirees -  are rightfully a bit confused.  Are these journalists and commenters really implying that the only Americans abroad are rich tax-evading champagne swillers and yacht owners? Please, homelanders, stop and think for a moment and use your common sense:
Since when do billionnaires watch other people's children, teach English or grade undergraduate papers?

Allow me to point out the arrogance here.  Homelanders seem to be saying that our diaspora (Americans abroad) is special and totally unlike any other developed country's diaspora being composed entirely of A. criminals and B. the idle rich.

Hate to break the bubble, folks, but Americans abroad are just as diverse as Americans in the homeland.  We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds and (yes, Virginia) income levels. And however we came to cast ourselves on distance shores, the reality is that most of us have to work for a living.  Just like you.

Homeland Americans (in part because of the fallacious drivel spouted by some American journalists and politicians, but also because they have interesting fantasies about life outside the U.S.) are under the mistaken impression that FATCA only applies to rich Americans in the U.S. who shuttle their money (and perhaps their precious selves) offshore to evade taxes.  They genuinely think that it does not apply to the checking, savings and retirement accounts of their dear friend/son/daughter/cousin/old classmate who was lucky enough to have landed a job or find the love of his or life in Shanghai/Bangalore/Bordeaux/Belize/Sao Paulo.  

I will put this as succinctly and as clearly as possible:

The FATCA rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

The law is so broad, and casts such a wide net, that it impacts a few Americans living in the homeland with foreign accounts, and ALL Americans living abroad with local accounts including people who don't even know they are Americans.

Rich, poor, middle-income, tax compliant, knowingly non-compliant, unknowingly non-compliant, black, white, Asian, student, worker, manager, teacher, professor, entrepreneur - in one way or another FATCA impacts them all if they are U.S. citizens or Green Card holders and live outside the U.S..  If they don't have enough savings to put them over the reporting thresholds, they still face the distinct possibility that their local bank (the one located in the city/country where they actually live) will close their accounts because they are Americans and aren't rich enough for the bank to justify keeping them as customers because of the added reporting costs. In some cases, it's having an impact on their ability to get jobs or form business partnerships.

This violent reaction in the homeland seems to indicate that we can't even have a civil conversation about this.  You know the kind of conversation I'm talking about?  The one where we listen to each other, find common ground, and work toward a solution.  Does that even exist any more in America?  Or has polarization and the "two-fossil" system made that impossible?  (I'd really like to know so I can put it under the appropriate category in my Pros and Cons of American citizenship file.)

It's driving many of us to despair including quite a few whose sympathies are on the Left/Progressive side of the American political spectrum.  This comment from Deckard over at Brock (Welcome to the IBS Wall of Shame) I think is quite typical of the emotions that many of us (Left, Right or independent) feel watching the American political scene on any topic.
"Man, what an upside-down world we’re living in. I used to think I was parked somewhere on the political spectrum a bit left of centre – in Canadian terms, somewhere between the Liberals and the NDP. 
In American terms, however, you could take every political party in Canada and they would all be simply sucked into the giant black hole that now yawns between the Democrats and Republicans. A foul place from which not even the light of day and reason can escape. 
Now I wouldn’t even know what to consider myself – and I don’t think I even give a rats’ ass about it anymore. What this journey over the last two years has made me realize is that party politics, especially in America, is simply a sideshow distraction designed to keep the populace focussed on the puppets instead of the puppeteers. And how the crowds willingly oblige, whether they prefer Punch as a Liberal or Judy as a Conservative or vice-versa. Both extremes are blinded by hate and ignorance and incapable of recognizing neither a common friend nor foe. It’s terrible. 
Some weeks, however, one side or the other makes a wild dash towards the fence and astonishes us with their breathtaking stupidity. This week it’s definitely the Progressive’s turn. In the run-up to the RNC’s announcement tomorrow about FATCA, we have been witnessing the most shameless display of ignorance, smug superiority and just downright insensitivity from what can conveniently be defined as “the Left”. While I am not, and never will be, a fan of the Republicans, I do hope that their latest effort – however cynical, calculated or political it might be – will actually help to kick-start some real awareness, discussion and education about FATCA that extends across the entire political spectrum. Jeebus knows we need it. 
In the meantime though, in these very early days of more mainstream FATCA coverage, we are treated to multiple spectacles of supposedly hip, well-educated, socially-aware liberals turning this impending resolution by the RNC into just another knee-jerk excuse to bash Republicans, rich tax cheats, 1%ers, white balding guys with perspiration and whoever else they happen to detest this week. Lost in the holier-than-thou pontificating is anything even remotely resembling coherent thought, basic research, logic, compassion or any of the things they were supposedly taught in their apparently ineffective university classes. And, yes, these words are coming from ME – someone who has always self-defined as a small-l liberal! Like I said, down is up and up is down – it’s simply insane what’s going on."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

FATCA: The American Diaspora and Homeland Politics

"The source of tension in this sphere may be the unwarranted opinion held by most homeland leaders, as well as the rank and file, that the very raison d'être of "their" diasporas is to stay in close contact with them, express unfailing loyalty, and provide the homeland with various resources and services."

Gabriel Sheffer
Diaspora Politics:  At Home and Abroad

The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) was passed in 2010 by the U.S. Congress and signed into law the same year by President Barack Obama.  The repercussions of the law (which was actually hidden inside a much larger bill called the HIRE Act) on Americans living outside the United States were noted almost immediately by both individual Americans abroad and the organizations that work on their behalf (American Citizens Abroad, the Association of Americans Resident Overseas and the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas).

Diaspora Politics and FATCA:  These established lobbying organizations - some of whom have existed for over 40 years - used their usual channels to bring these problems to the attention of the U.S. government (Congress and the different agencies like Treasury and the IRS).  And they asked their members to use the traditional methods that worked in the past to support their efforts:  writing letters, voting, and putting pressure on elected representatives back in the U.S.

At the same time some Americans abroad who were either not affiliated at all with these organizations, or who wanted more direct action, sought to create other organizations using the new communication tools that technology made available to them:  internet forums, email lists, LinkedIn, and other social media like Facebook and Twitter.  One website in particular really took off and has become a very popular and powerful voice:  The Isaac Brock Society.  Following a blitz of media attention in Canada, the site was getting 10,000 hits a day and the all-time number of hits from Americans and other U.S. Persons all over the world, is now over 6 million.

All these diaspora groups have very similar goals:  the repeal of the FATCA law and citizenship-based taxation (the ideal) or mitigation of both to make them less onerous.  The constraints they operate under, however, are very different.

Traditional Diaspora Organizations and Their Constraints:  The established diaspora organizations are committed to working through the homeland political system and that constrains them:   there are a number of things they cannot say or do lest the people in Washington cut off their access.  On the other side they have a membership of Americans outside the U.S. they are accountable to and they must be actively fighting on their behalf and not seen as agents for U.S, policies that are contrary to the interests of their members.

They are centralized top-down organizations with structure, rules and a lot of history.  This kind of organization has been successful in influencing the U.S. government on all kinds of topics of interest to Americans abroad like citizenship and voting rights.

The New Diaspora Organization:  Constrast them with the Isaac Brock Society which is a relatively recent decentralized bottom-up Internet-based organization with almost no structure and very few constraints.  There are no leaders, the structure is very loose, and the members speak for themselves.  The Brockers are not  interested in access in the U.S. and their existence does not depend on a dues-paying membership (though they are depending on another currency which is attention).

They have been successful in three areas:  raising awareness of FATCA and CBT worldwide, facilitating renunciations of U.S. citizenship (they are not directly responsible for the rising numbers but they offer a safe haven and resources for those who are thinking about it) and influencing the host country governments, in particular Canada where they are making FATCA a political problem for the Canadian government as it negotiates its IGA with the U.S. government.

It is the last two that put them at odds with the established American diaspora organizations who are A. not in the business of helping American citizens to become citizens of other countries and thus gutting their own membership and B. do not use the political arena in the host countries to act against what the U.S. government perceives as its interests abroad.

That is the landscape as I see it today.  Full disclosure:  I belong to all of these organizations and also use this blog as my own independent forum for my thoughts - nothing you read here should ever be taken as coming from any of these organizations.  What I have said above is no more, I think, than what any outside observer with a penchant for politics might see.

Impact on Homeland Politics:  All of this is happening under the radar of the American homeland public.  They seem a bit bewildered by the comments they see, the articles they read and the renunciation numbers reported by homeland and international media alike. The answer that seems to satisfy most of them is that this movement is simply a bunch of rich tax-fleeing expatriates and none of it should be taken too seriously.  Before them is dangled the rather enticing notion that they will pay less in taxes if those Americans outside the United States pay "their fair share."  This reminds one of the gullibility of the homelanders a few years ago when they bought hook, line and sinker Bush's assertions that the Iraq war would pay for itself .

In that context U.S. politicians feel pretty comfortable ignoring the anti-FATCA movement.  For Democrats it is a matter of supporting the president and maintaining the U.S. public's perception that they are siding firmly with the 99% against the 1% (and it is assumed that all Americans abroad fall into the latter category).  To the extent that the Republicans are fighting an image of collusion with the rich, they didn't necessarily want to be associated with it either.  In spite of all the furor outside the United States about FATCA after 2010, it never became a political issue in the 2012 presidential election.

There are signs that this may be changing.  The main U.S. political parties (Nassim Taleb calls it the "beastly two-fossil system") have had a presence abroad.  They solicit votes and contributions from Americans outside the United States and act as way for Americans abroad to support their parties and perhaps even have some influence in homeland party politics.  Neither the Republicans or the Democrats in the United States are completely oblivious to Americans abroad and will occasionally (discreetly) nod in their direction at strategic moments in the homeland election cycle.

Of the two, Republicans Abroad was much less visible and it looks like it's been disbanded and a new organization has been founded called Republicans Overseas.  That is interesting, but even more so are the reports that the Republican National Committee (the homeland organization) will be voting on a resolution that calls for the repeal of FATCA.  And that finally brings the issue right smack into the middle of the American homeland political landscape.

Democrats Abroad reacted by sending out emails and updating their web site to assure everyone that:  "The [FATCA] Task Force has been working for more than three years to outline to legislators and regulators the nefarious implications of FATCA compliance and to promote reforms that both preserve the law’s intent and provide relief to law-abiding overseas Americans excessively burdened by it."  They have characterized the Republican move as a cynical political maneuver.

That reaction raised a few eyebrows.  Perhaps it was a bit much to expect that Democrats Abroad would take the side of Americans abroad over their own party and sitting president, but their behaviour was (and is) perceived as being self-serving and protective to the point of doing their best to keep Americans abroad and their concerns about FATCA as quiet as possible until after the 2012 elections.  That may be an unfair characterization but, frankly, the perception that Americans abroad were already the victims of a cynical political maneuver by Democrats at home and abroad is widespread and that presents the Democrats with a credibility problem.  One which I personally have no sympathy for.  As Ruby said in Cold Mountain:  "But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say 'Shit, it's raining!'"

The Gabriel Sheffer quotation at the beginning of this essay sums up beautifully, I think, the expectations that the American homeland has of its diaspora.  Getting the American public  and leaders to admit that there are a few million Americans out there who are not "temporary" inhabitants of distant lands but permanent residents, requires a mental leap on their part (one that they are loathe to make). But if an American must live outside the United States, they seem to be saying, then he or she has the obligation to prove over and over again that he is loyal and ready to sacrifice himself on behalf of the homeland. And this seems right and just to them.  Not so much to us.

And so, the American Diaspora Tax War is at an impasse with the U.S. government and the American public doing their best to ignore the entire business while traditional diaspora organizations try to work within the constraints they have to find a political solution that everyone can live with.  The two wild cards here are the Isaac Brock Society and the millions of Americans abroad who are not members of any diaspora organization on or off-line but who are quietly watching what happens and discreetly formulating their strategies.  The first is a many-headed Hydra that cannot be silenced, and the second, an enigma inside a conundrum.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Signal versus Noise

Last night I trekked into Paris to the American Library to hear Justin E. Smith expand on the themes he wrote about in his New York Times op-ed piece  Does Immigration Mean ‘France Is Over’?

Ah, the surprise of a man who has unwittingly stepped into a subject fraught with peril.  His article generated many comments and a fair amount of hate mail, he said.  Diversity, immigration, and identity are all hot topics in the Hexagon.  Where he is absolutely right is that one cannot simply transfer a North American conception of these things to European countries like France.  If history really is "one damn thing after another" well, France and the United States had very different "damn things."  In the latter race was of primary importance.  Not so much in the Hexagon.

But he is also correct when he talks about Europeans in general having a sense of being les peuples autochtones.  Exhibit A being the taxi driver who tried to convince me that France has always existed with exactly the same borders, the same language and the same people for thousands of years.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this obvious failure of the otherwise excellent French education system.

Two books that I would recommend that give a very different picture (and show how very silly the idea of an unchanging eternal autochthonic France really is) are
Qu'est-ce qu'un français? by Patrick Weil which shows that "identity crisis" is something of an ongoing concern; and The Discovery of France by Graham Robb which reveals France as a very diverse place with unknown territory, many different languages (and a few really good heresies) right up until the 20th century. There are surely other books about this but those are the two that come immediately to my mind.

National myths matter, however, and so we should not make too much of this.  Every nation-state has them, though each one exercises its national talent for story telling in its own particular way.  The United States has its own set of half-truths or outright lies that American academics may have a bit too much fun debunking these days .

The only point in his talk where I raised my eyebrows was how he came to his subject.  Listening to an old man in the street standing before an ethnic restaurant and concluding, "La France est foutue."  I have my own story about this sort of thing which is the day I was walking down the avenue de Paris in my headscarf after 6 months of chemotherapy and having a passing elderly Frenchman mutter to me, "Nous sommes en France quand même!"

My point is this:  the French are "grumbly."  They do a lot of complaining about everything.  I spend a fair amount of time with older French women and their commentary about French youth is very nasty at times (and often quite entertaining).  If the country is going to hell, the finger pointing is not limited to immigrants - everyone is a target including one's fellow French citizens.  All this negativity feels very foreign to North Americans with their "happy happy joy joy" personalities which I actually find more irritating than the low level carping that I hear at the market, after Mass or at the dinner table.

In the immigration/diversity/integration debate the trick is to figure out how much of this is background noise and how much of it really matters and will be translated into concrete action against whoever the offending party is this election cycle.  And there is good evidence that these things are indeed having an impact on politics - the arena where real sanctions can be decided and put in place at a national level.  

(I recently went down to the local prefecture and got the requirements for obtaining French citizenship which have changed again and are mildly onerous even for those of us who have lived here for decades, have French children and French spouses.  I literally walked home with a sense of:  "They really don't want me or anyone else to be a citizen these days and so why should I go to all that trouble?)

Where I sometimes completely lose patience with the grumblers here is just how little faith the French seem to have these days in the power and attractiveness of their own culture and society. Integration is not easy but worth the trip and to a great extent inescapable. If it does not happen to the satisfaction of the French in the first generation, then it will in the second or third.

France has done an excellent job of integrating foreigners for centuries.  No reason whatsoever to think that this has changed. Don't listen to what they say;  watch what they do.  I contend that what we see today in the Hexagon is not necessarily indicative of an unusual crisis and a permanent anti-immigration stance.  If I thought it was, well, there are other fields, n'est-ce pas?  Despite some rather discouraging signals in the midst of all that noise,  I still put my faith in the French and the longue durée. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

French Politicians and the Press

Writing about the Hollande affair last week I said, "The Powers That Be in this country seem to be a bit behind the times. Sleeping with the mainstream media (and I mean that both figuratively and literally) no longer means that you can keep the lid on your private affairs if you are a public person."

That's a statement that merits explanation because what I am alluding to is a real problem in the Hexagon:  a much bigger problem than a politician with a complicated love life.

What I'm referring to is the incestuous relationship between French politicians and the mainstream media.  A large number of high-level politicians and bureaucrats have spouses or love interests who are also journalists.  That, in and of itself, would not necessarily be a problem - whenever two groups get close it's not unusual that bonds are formed and that relationships become personal as well as professional.  One of my favorite authors Robert D. Kaplan, for example, has very strong ties to the U.S. military.  His long acquaintance with that institution and the people in it surely impact his writing.  But this is well-known and those who review his writing pull no punches when they point out that he is serving certain interests when he publishes yet another well-written (but very sympatique) piece about the U.S. Marines.

Such exposure of the interests of the writer and his or her relationship to his subject is not the order of the day here in France.  When a French journalist writes an article about a politician, or a talking head interviews one, the context is rarely revealed.  Does it make a difference?  Yes.  Knowing that this or that politician is the lover, spouse, god-father or a very close friend is relevant to what is being said by that journalist about that person.

In the supposed defense of la vie privée is the press here really arguing that it isn't?  That it makes no difference whatsoever when a journalist wife is writing about or interviewing her politician spouse?  As an American I am often accused of a certain naïveté, but asking me to believe that nonsense is really to take me for an imbecile.   There is a clear conflict of interest and you don't have to be an énarque to see it.

We have seen the result of these semi-hidden relationships between members of the press and the political class.  In Jean Quatremer's book Sexe, mensonges et médias he demonstrates how much damage this does to the French press and just how poorly it serves the French public:  story after story killed; an outright refusal to even investigate when that might do political damage; and gushing interviews with no serious questions asked.

Quatremer says that it even goes so far as to silence many who want to do real investigative journalism - the kind that (in that now trite anglo-saxon phrase) "speaks truth to power."  All this gives the impression that the press in France is, in fact, complicit in its own subjugation  and has exchanged liberty for security.

Two days ago in his blog Coulisse de Bruxelles Quatremer once again wrote about this old deal 
with the devil and its implications for the future of the press in the Hexagon.
"Manifestement, et c’est sans doute l’une des clefs de la crise gravissime que la presse d’information traverse, les journalistes continuent à faire des journaux du XXème siècle au XXIème siècle, des journaux où il est normal de remercier le Président de la République de vous « permettre » de poser une question, des journaux où la déférence l’emporte sur l’irrévérence, des journaux où l’on n’a toujours pas compris que le net avait fait exploser la sphère privée et la façon dont se fait et se traite l’information. La presse française a été justement moquée au lendemain de la dernière conférence de presse présidentielle par ses collègues étrangers: comment, voilà un beau scandale sexuel dont les salons parisiens raffolent et dont les implications politiques et sécuritaires sont multiples et les questions sont aussi rares que précautionneuses?" 
("Clearly, and this is undoubtedly one of the keys to the very serious crisis facing the news media, journalists continue to write twentieth century news in the twenty-first century. News where it is normal to thank the President of the Republic when he "allows" you to ask a question; news where deference outweighs irreverence; news where they have not yet understood that the Internet has exposed the private sphere and the manner in which information is made and managed. The French press has been justly ridiculed after the last presidential press conference by their foreign colleagues: Here is a wonderful sex scandal (adored by Parisian salons) where the political and security implications are many, but the question are both rare and cautious.")
The great journalist Edward R. Murrow once said "To be persuasive, we must be believable; to be believable, we must be credible; to be credible, we must be truthful." The French press frequently fails this test on all counts.  Lying by omission is still lying.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Cancer and Culture

"To be human here is thus not to be Everyman;  it is to be a particular kind of man, and of course men differ:  "Other fields,"  the Javanese say, "other grasshoppers."  Within the society differences are recognized, too - the way a rice peasant becomes human and Javanese differs from the way a civil servant does.  This is not a matter of tolerance and ethical relativism, for not all ways of being human are regarded as equally admirable by far...."

Clifford Geertz
The Interpretation of Cultures

Culture is the force that underlies so much of what we do and think.  Every day we follow scripts that say, "Do this, don't do that."  Most of the time we don't even recognize that we are following one - it takes stepping out of one culture and into another to bring the point forcefully and painfully home.  Culture is to man what the sea is to a fish.  Who has not arrived in a place far from home and gone about the business of trying to get his basic needs met (food, shelter, companionship) and realized that his old scripts simply will not do.  He either does not get what he needs or wants, or he discovers that it's far more trouble than he ever imagined.  In my mind I see the poor British woman at a French bakery being scowled at as she gestured toward the pastry she wanted in the display case.  She eventually got it but both her frustration and the baker's annoyance were poison in the air.

There are other situations, however, where cultural scripts and models are far more important: parent, for example, leader, or worker.  There is behaviour specific to each role within each culture and a way that each one interacts with others based on their roles.  In general a French child does not use the informal "you" (tu) for an adult stranger.  English may lack this distinction but in some anglophone countries, a child may be required to say "Sir" or "Ma'am."  And, for all ages, when one enters a French bakery, one generally says, "Bonjour" to the lady behind the counter. Deviating from the script, failure to observe the conventions, has consequences that range from mildly unpleasant to real harm.

In our lives we all cycle through different roles in our culture and we learn the scripts that go with each one:  How to be human in this place and how to interact with other humans in a way that is both predictable and individual.  Whatever the roles and role models the culture has, the combination in each individual and how well or poorly he plays them, is unique to that person.  In rare cases there is outright rebellion or an attempt to redefine the role but that, I would say, simply places the person in another very well-defined role:  that of curmudgeon or rebel.

What does any of this have to do with cancer?

When someone is diagnosed with cancer (or any other life-threatening illness) he or she steps into a role that is defined by whatever culture he or she happens to be in.  To be a human with cancer in France is not the same as being a human with cancer in, say, Canada.  Same disease but different expectations, models and scripts.  One culture may ask those in this role for quiet, dignified suffering;  another may be the complete opposite and ask for cheerful public optimism.  In some worlds it's a heroic battle;  in others simply and purely a tragedy.

Individual reactions to the role patients are being asked to play vary, too.  Some people find that it's a relief to have a predictable framework around the experience.  Here is what I'm supposed to do and be and here is how the people around me and I will interact:  patient/doctor, friends, family and the occasional stranger.  There can be great comfort in knowing the rules and using them to get through each day.  There are even rewards and honor for playing the role well.

When I say "role" I am not treating it lightly.  Cultural roles are deeply important - how we are human matters.  Roles do not exist to make individuals feel better or more comfortable (though they often do) - they exist because culture is about common meaning.   No symbols, no models, no scripts, no culture.  And a man or woman without culture is not an "individual", he is something less than human.

The process through which each cultures determines meaning is public, not private. The role of "parent" for example is of great concern to everyone in a culture whether they have children or not.  And so I think is the public meaning we give to the role of "person living with cancer,"  "cancer victim,"  "cancer survivor" and so on. (And isn't it interesting how we've struggled to name it and rename it?)   It is a role that people arrive at against their will, but it is one that every individual has the potential to play.  That makes it a public matter, one of interest to more than just those who have already arrived in cancerland.

Whatever models, scripts and cultural patterns existed around cancer, life-threatening illness and death, they are having to be redefined.  Technology is the culprit here and it's not just new treatments but new means of communication that change the cultural conversation and complicate the search for common meaning.  It is too simple - in fact, it is downright false - to say that it is just about individuals and their self-definition:  "Culture patterns-religious, philosophical, aesthetic, scientific, ideological- are "programs";  they provide a template or blueprint for the organization of social and psychological processes..."

One might think that the answer here lies in seeking out diversity.  To a certain extent this is true.  For the individual stricken with cancer who does not care for (or is violently opposed to) the role he or is she is being asked to play in his particular society, there is the Internet where one can search for the like-minded.  But then one must manage the dissonance between the culture one is grounded in and the one found on-line.  Become bi-cultural, if you will, and play two roles instead of one.

Let there be no mistake about it, what is found in on-line communities is culture with its own rules, boundaries and scripts.  Clashes occur just as often there as they do off-line - that public cultural conversation that is the search for meaning can be contentious.   What will come out of such controversies?  I wager that when the dust settles there will be a clearer view of each role and a revised script for how everyone involved is to play their part.  This field.  Those grasshoppers.

And that isn't a good or bad thing.  It's a human thing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Citizenship and Consent

Yesterday's CBC story about Carol Tapanila and her disabled son is very troubling but it is so much more than just a story about the unintended (and terrible) consequences of one extraterritorial law.

The story goes to the heart of some difficult questions about citizenship:  how it is conferred, the rights and responsibilities that go along with it, and the explicit versus implicit consent of the governed.

Citizenship is an ascribed individual status.  It is the relationship between the individual and the state that claims him or her.  A state will make that claim based on two things:  place of birth or lineage (the citizenship of the parents or grandparents).  Note that neither of these things are within the control of the individual.  We don't choose our parents or where we are born.  It simply isn't up to us.  And we simply can't be too self-congratulatory when we become adults for being an American or a French or a Chinese citizen because it was through no fault or merit of ours that we ended up in one citizenship box as opposed to another.  We are all "Accidental" citizens  whether it was through blood or place poker.  The exception to all this, of course, is when we, as adults, make a choice to be naturalized and voluntarily attach ourselves to another nation-state.

This automatic attachment has merits and demerits.  Conferring citizenship on every baby born in a particular territory makes for easier administration.  Provided that an individual can produce a breeder document, a birth certificate that says so and so was born in Topeka, the authorities don't have to ask too many questions about someone's status.  We can see the difference it makes when we look at citizenship by lineage where it often isn't taken for granted.  In this case the individual must prove it by providing multiple breeder documents - usually the parent's birth certificates, certificates of nationality or naturalization papers, but sometimes even the grandparents' proof of status (something my French husband learned when he applied for his French certificate of nationality).  It's just a lot more paperwork and behind the pile of paper there must be individuals qualified to process each one. Just imagine a world where every individual in a national territory had to prove that he or she actually has citizenship.  This would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

Nation-states also see their interests served here.  People are resources for the state.  They are potential taxpayers, workers, soldiers, bureaucrats and voters.  Generally speaking no state likes to see its population drop.  Whatever the domestic opposition is to immigration or social engineering, states pay close attention to demographics and will intervene if they don't like the citizenship stew they have been handed.  They have every interest in capturing the young and ensuring that there is a link because it is through that link that states hold people responsible for the duties and responsibilities that come with citizenship.

It is hard for the average person to see the demerits of such systems.  An individual born into a particular territory, and who spends his formative years under the benevolent eye of that state, will most likely take his citizenship for granted.  It becomes so much a part of his identity that he can't imagine a world where he wasn't French or American or Chinese.  It's not brainwashing, it's programming and it's very powerful.  Usually what happens is that the child goes through citizenship training as he grows up.  He's taught the language, the history, and the benefits and responsibilities that go along with membership in this particular political community.  The link exists as a simple matter of law the moment the child is born, but it takes years for the attachment to become reciprocal.   It cannot be taken for granted - a very young child has no conception of "democracy" or what it means to vote or serve his country.  The Constitution or the Charter or the Rights of Man are things he has to learn.  And until he learns can we really say that he is a citizen of any country?

If so, then at what point in time does he become a citizen?  When exactly does he or she give his explicit consent to this link between himself and the state?  In some countries it is clear because there is a process, a ritual, a rite of passage, that occurs when the child becomes an adult.  That child has to "opt in" (a little like Confirmation in the Catholic church). He must say or sign or do something to indicate that he accepts the deal and all the benefits and responsibilities that go along with citizenship status.

In other countries like the United States it works differently.  Consent is assumed when the child turns 18 and, no, it has nothing to do with getting a passport or registering to vote or signing up for the draft.  The new adult may do none of these things and yet still will be "opted in" automatically.  He may not even be aware that he is a U.S. citizen but that makes no difference.  Whether he knows it or not, he is "in" until he formally renounces that status.

This is the underlying problem Carol Tapanila's son and so many other Accidental Americans are confronted with today.  They have a status, U.S. citizenship, they did not choose - one that was conferred upon them without their explicit consent - but they are being held nonetheless to the duties and responsibilities of that status.  And I contend that there is something deeply deeply immoral about that and it both defies common sense and flies in the face of what it means to be a citizen of a democratic nation-state.

An Accidental American who did not know he was an American citizen, or one that grew up outside the U.S. where his citizenship training was, for the most part, training to be the citizen of another country, should not be subject to American laws he knew nothing about, and surely cannot be held to responsibilities he never agreed to assume.  The U.S. Declaration of Independence is clear that the American government (any government actually) rests on the "consent of the governed."   To maintain the fiction that one has accepted a status (consented) because nothing was said or done to indicate otherwise is absurd in so many areas but is, I would say, particularly nonsensical when it comes to citizenship and democracy.  It just doesn't make sense to include someone in a political community if he doesn't know he's a member or has reached his majority and doesn't want to be one.

How American citizenship is conferred is not going to change anytime soon - modifying jus soli would require changing the Constitution and that is not a simple matter.  But perhaps there is another way we could address this problem of "citizenship without consent" that would serve everyone a bit better than the current situation.

My proposal would be to have a process, a ritual, a ceremony that would require every American (not just those born or living abroad) to make an explicit choice to be an American.  Something that makes those rights and responsibilities crystal clear and asks each individual, "Do you accept them?"  (Not sure what would happen if they said "no" but I'm sure they'll figure it out.)  In the homeland this could perhaps raise awareness of the value of citizenship and make becoming part of this particular political community meaningful - an honest to God event in a person's life - just as the naturalization ceremony is meaningful and moving for so many immigrants.

As for those young Americans born or living abroad, it could be the same ceremony held at the local U.S. Embassy. Prior to the event some basic information about what it means to be American could be sent to them so they understand that there are rights and also responsibilities that go along with this status. Every effort should be made to make it informed consent.

Most importantly,  it would be their choice (not their parents or grandparents) to make that trek and to participate. If these proto-Americans choose not to do it, or cannot (like Carol's son), then that would be considered an "opt out" which means that they are not American citizens.  (And, yes, there will be situations where someone didn't get the word and those could be handled on a case by case basis). There are surely other problems with this that I can't see but the principle seems sound:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed..." 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

FATCA: The Topic of the Day at the CBC

An outstanding interview with Allison Christians.  Clear as a bell and what she says applies to "US Persons" in other countries as well (not just Canada):

And for a look at how FATCA is impacting regular people the world over, here are two "minnows" caught in the FATCA/citizenship-based taxation net.  Can we not agree, ladies and gentlemen, that these two are about as far from being "tax evaders" as you can get?  And yet, U.S. law as applied to these two people who do not live in the US or earn income there, says they are.

Now, either Carol or her disabled son really did something nefarious or there is something seriously wrong with those laws.  I cannot stress strongly enough that it is the latter. The way these laws are written is way too broad and are making the 99% suffer for the sins of the small fraction of the 1% who intentionally moved their money out of the United States to evade taxes.

That is the real story behind FATCA and CBT.  Not tax evasion.

Versailles - les Maisons en Meulière

Versailles is so much more than that gaudy gilded monstrosity at the other end of of town.  Take the road from my house to the Montreuil train station, for example.  Walk up past the community center, take a left away from the Sainte Geneviève high school, and then slow down and start looking at the houses on both sides of the boulevard de la République. Really look because each one is unique and a feast for the eyes.  Do this a few times and you'll start to see common elements that unite them all and make this one of the most charming streets I have had the pleasure to walk. Most of them are what are called maisons en meulière.

What is meulière?  It's a type of stone that is pretty common in this area and it was used for two things:  millstones and houses.  Unlike the smooth cut stones (pierre de taille) that grace many of the grander buildings in the Paris region, meulière is irregular, multi-coloured, and rough.  It has holes like Swiss cheese and every time I get close to it, I want to run my hands over it.  (If there is a geologist reading this, please jump in and give us an expert view.)

The houses built with this type of stone on the boulevard de la République were constructed in the early years of the 20th century.  In contrast to the roughness of the meulière they used brick, cut stone,  faïences, and iron and woodwork to give each house a touch of something special. "Art Nouveau" decor says one of the articles I read. On some of them you can see the name of a very well known Versailles architect "Leon Bachelin" on a little discreet plaque somewhere on the facade.  Bachelin is credited with the invention of the typical "maison bourgeoise versaillaise".  One source I found said that he designed these houses for wealthy Parisians who wanted houses in the close suburbs.  Apparently a hundred years ago Versailles qualified as "the country" for these folks.

Most of the buildings are set back from the street with a little courtyard in front and, I assume, a much bigger garden in the back. Today you can't see as much as you might like because some of the owners past or present have put metal plates over the classic wrought iron fences separating the front garden from the street.

I am a terrible photographer and I couldn't possible do these houses justice but I did find this Flickr site that does.  I invite you to have a look.  There is also this very fine documentary (about 10 minutes) from France 5.

Immobilier a Sannois par immobilier-2

I love these houses.  However, if we had gone looking for one to buy two years ago, we would have suffered instant sticker shock.  They are very expensive, especially in the Montreuil neighborhood.  Here is a link to one that is one the market right now for the princely sum of 1.5 million Euros.  Some nice pictures though and, hey, one can always dream, right?

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Hollande Affair

Good post up with links on Arun with a View about a tale that has all of France buzzing.  I won't go into the salacious details here - check out Arun's post or simply Google the topic and you'll get plenty of hits.  I will restrict my commentary to two remarks:

The Powers That Be in this country seem to be a bit behind the times.  Sleeping with the mainstream media (and I mean that both figuratively and literally) no longer means that you can keep the lid on your private affairs if you are a public person.

I agree that this stinks. There are surely far more important things to discuss right now and in a perfect world, this affair should be nothing more than a minor blip on all our radars.  But it's not a perfect world.  Those privacy laws make a lot of sense but in a world of decentralized media where people get their news from multiple free on-line sources and can self-publish,  it's become a leaky law.

Let's be realistic, the image of the French president riding his scooter to a rendezvous with his love is so undignified and so silly (a bit like Michael Dukakis in that tank) that it's darn near impossible not to be drawn to it.  If Hollande's complicated love life is all too human, well, so is the curiosity of the French public.

Not being a French citizen (merely a denizen of the Republic) Hollande is not my president (not yet anyway).  However, it behooves us migrants to keep an eye on the host country government and the behaviour of public figures because both send signals -  many most assuredly unintended but powerful nonetheless.

I hear often that polygamy is one of those awful old country habits that migrants must shed in order to integrate into the Republic.  That is a statement that merits a closer look.

Yes, it is forbidden under French law to have more than one wife (or husband) but anyone who pays the slightest attention to what is going on in French society may see an implicit rule which looks a lot like a kind of unofficial polygamy.  If one can afford it (or is in a position to use other people's money to fund one's private proclivities) could we say that the model or aspiration is to have multiple parallel partners? There are certainly many famous examples we could cite:  Mitterand, Chirac, and now Hollande.  Mitterand's case is particularly striking because it was a long-term relationship - they lived together and had a child.  Legally, she was not his wife (another ably held that official position) but, as folks have been saying since the Sixties, does a piece of paper really matter?

Perhaps it is simply and purely a matter of discretion. The official rule says that a man or woman can only make one spouse miserable at a time. The un-official rule may be that a mix of spouses and consorts (permanent or temporary) is a prerogative of the powerful (but in theory is accessible, as Raymonde Carroll argues, to everyone) and will be tolerated as long as the public figure is perceived as doing his job well, and he at least nods in the direction of public monogamy while practicing private polygamy with a certain flair.

I doubt very much that this is about Hollande's complicated love life - on the contrary his ability to attract two very lovely women to his side might actually be viewed by some with a certain wistful admiration  - but more the exposure of it to public scrutiny in a way that was hurtful to his partner and detrimental to the dignity of his office. To quote Hunter S. Thompson, "In a society where everyone is guilty" [or wants to be]  "the only crime is getting caught."

And for a different take on it, here is a French journalist writing in The Guardian:  Francois Hollande, Julie Gayet … and a very British scandal about a very French affair

Friday, January 10, 2014

Maps, Maps, Maps

This one just came up on my Facebook feed.  This post is from A Sheep No More offers 40 maps to help you (and me) make sense of the world.

My favorite?  The flashy Map 10:  Global Internet Usage Based on Time of Day.

If you have time this weekend to read after you've caught up on your sleep I recommend Simon Garfield's On the Map:  A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks.  This was a quick but fun read.

For something equally enjoyable but a bit more challenging, try Kaplan's The Revenge of Geography.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Flophouse Godin

Mail and quite a few hits in response to my posts about our Godin wood stove. Here is the story - all the posts I wrote last year about it in chronological order:

A "Petit Godin" for the Flophouse (January 2013)  Why we decided to get a wood stove for our house here in Versailles and a nice video I found that shows how a top-loading Godin works.

The Search for the Perfect French Wood Stove (May 2013)  All the different models we looked at when we went to the Godin showroom in St. Cyr.

Tempus Fugit at the Flophouse (June 2013)  The month we finally got the mason to do the work of raising the chimney.  He did great work.  Before and after pictures.

Flophouse House and Garden Fall Projects (September 2013)  The story of how we came to buy our odd little house in Versailles and how the installation of the wood stove by Godin went.

Settling in for the Winter - le Petit Godin (November 2013)  A report on how well we liked our stove once we actually started using it.

People have sent stories about Godins in places like Vermont and Quebec.  I've also heard from folks who either want one and want to know if they are still being exported, or from those who are thinking about it and have questions about how well they work and if it's really worth it.

One wood stove does not make me an expert but, hey, I live to serve.

Finding a Godin:  From what I am hearing (and if you have other information, please correct me) Godin still exports but not everywhere.  I found new stoves for sale in the UK, for example.  I did not find any resellers in North America BUT I did see more than one used Godin on Ebay under "vintage wood stove" or "antique French Godin" so that's one place to look.   Craigslist might be another - they have sites all over the world.  There are other forums and boards you can check out like this one which gives you a good idea of the prices (used) - I see one in Tacoma, Washington for 300 USD (about 220 Euros).   These stoves are downright indestructible and last forever so it makes sense that there would be used ones out there.  

On the Godin website they have a catalog request form and apparently they have an English language version.  So for you anglophones out there just put in your address and check "Anglais" and "Particulier."  You can also have a look at their on-line catalog.  I'd suggest checking one or the other of these sources to get a good idea of the range of stoves available and then start looking for a used one in your area if there aren't any Godin resellers in your country.

How Well Do They Work?  Well, I haven't received a single comment or email from someone who doesn't love their Godin.  As for us, we are very pleased so far.  Be aware that it's not that cold in Versailles yet.  Early January temperatures are hovering just above freezing at night and there's almost no wind. Depending on how much wood I feed it, I can keep the main floor of our little house between 21 and 23 degrees Celsius ( between 70 and 73 degrees Fahrenheit).

We are using more wood these days and we are now confronted with the problem of picking it up, storing it, and keeping it dry.  We don't have a truck so we have to use the car and we can only fit about 3/4 of a stere in the back per load.  That amount of wood lasts us about three weeks.

Last week we made two trips to Viroflay and Mr. Treps' woodlot and packed 1.5 steres on the front porch.   This is the side of the house least exposed to the wind and rain.  I've learned that it's easier to get the stove started and continuously burning throughout the day if I stack a day's worth of wood and kindling in the house in the evening before I go to bed.

We could get wood delivered and we've looked into it.  But we don't have a driveway and there's no place for a truck to pull up and dump the wood.  Also, we like buying locally and Mr. Treps' prices and service (he always helps us load) are good.  What we may do next summer is build a shelter on the side of the house with room for roughly what we would need for the winter.  Then we would make a series of small trips each month while the weather is good until we fill the space.

Yesterday I got a call from Caldeo, the fuel company (another place with great service) asking if we needed the tank topped off.  Last delivery was 1000 liters in October which brought the counter up to 1200 liters.  I went down and checked and we still have about 800 liters left.  So we are using a little over 100 liters (26 gallons) of fuel a month.  That's about what you would put into an SUV if you took one down to the local gas station and said, "Fill her up."

I think we can do better but it will never be zero because our boiler provides heat and hot water.  I'm an old lady with arthritis and I'm not giving up my hot baths nor will I wash my dishes in cold water. There are limits and il ne faut pas exagérer...

I've set up a spreadsheet and I will be tracking how much wood we use and the rate at which we are burning fuel.  This will give me a baseline for next year.

The Final Grade:  5 Stars.  Two thumbs up.  20/20.  A++.  It really was worth all the trouble and the expense.  I have no idea when we will get a return on the investment but we are clearly using less fuel.  There are also a number of indirect benefits that we didn't think of when we first got the stove installed but have become apparent with time and experience.

Dry heat:  The heat from the wood stove is dry heat and feels better than the heat that comes off the radiators.  Versailles is really humid and cold - it was built on swampland and a few hundred years ago there was a pond where our house sits today.  We get that stove going and we can feel the house getting warmer and drier.  It's great for my arthritis.

Cooking:  I'm not kidding.  I hauled out my grandmother's (great-grandmother's?) cast iron skillet which fits beautifully on the top of the stove.  I've made beef stew, reheated roast chicken and defrosted vegetables from the freezer.  I'm sure I could do much more.  Right now I am looking for a cast iron tea kettle at a reasonable price so I can have tea water on demand.

Fertilizer:  There is a little tray for the ashes in the bottom of the stove.  Every morning I take it out and either dump it in the garden or I mix it into the compost pail in the kitchen (keeps it from smelling).  I used our fireplace ashes in the garden in our old apartment and it made a huge difference - the flowers and vegetables just loved it.  I think this garden will love it too.

Less waste:  We used to take out the recycling bin once a week and it was always full.  These days it's more like every two or three weeks.  This is because we use paper for starting fires.  I'd never realized just how much of our recycling was paper products.  That was an inspiration and now we are looking into just what else is going into that bin that we could reuse.  Here's one example and, yes, I'm going to try it.

That's the bilan so far.  If you know other resources or have stories to tell about Godin wood stoves old or new, antique or modern, please share them.  I can attest to the fact that there is interest out there.

And for the next big Flophouse project?  Right here.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

TED: A Threat to Civilization?

There is a very old debate between those who popularize complex subjects (Carl Sagan comes to mind) and those who refuse because they see accessibility as dumbing it down for the hoi polloi.

In this video Benjamin Bratton goes after TED:  those talks that bring together experts from Technology, Entertainment and Design (and other fields as well).  You've probably seen one or two (maybe more) .  They are quite popular and free for anyone to watch.  I personally think that TED talks are a fine example of Sturgeon's Law that "99% of everything is crap." A few are excellent, most are so so, and some are just plain awful.

Bratton's argument is that TED not only reduces complex subjects to simple, inspirational, 20 minute infomercials (and turns technologists and scientist into entertainment monkeys) but it actually does harm because it deludes people into believing that they are doing something to change the world while sitting comfortably in their plush seats.  The reality he says, is that TED changes nothing whatsoever and may be, in fact, responsible for maintaining the status quo. And this, he claims is a recipe for disaster. Yes, and life as we know it will end tomorrow and it will be TED's fault.  So there.

I think it's a real stretch to put the end of civilization as we know it at the feet of TED.  Bratton's talk feels like pretty pedestrian iconoclasm - speaking "truth to power" and telling everyone "you are ALL wrong about everything" which is, in itself, a kind of cheap entertainment.

If you've read this far, you've probably gathered that I was not impressed by his talk.  I grew up around scientists and engineers (and artists) who were all very eloquent when it came to their subjects.  Eloquent and interesting enough to hold the attention of people from other fields during dinner.  Were they "dumbing it down" to be polite?  No, they wanted to convey something that they found interesting and worthy of notice from their field to others who were not experts.  They wanted to communicate.  And everybody took turns;  the engineers finished their contribution and then listened to the artists who then passed the conversational ball to the lawyers.  As a kid I learned a hell of a lot over my father's leg of lamb and my mom's excellent apple pie.  I still remember my father (an internationally recognized expert in his field) explaining to me one day Rutherford's Rule:  "If you can't explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not very good physics."

I don't have a lot of patience for those who regard their fields as castles with high walls.  We are so darn important and our field is so complex that not just anybody can enter.  Sounds a lot like a gated communities to me.  I just returned to the shelf ( I only read about 10% of the book) a volume of essays by experts on social media.  Not only was it very poorly edited (obscure language and twisted sentences) but when I started seeing multiple references to Foucault (and isn't it always him?)  in places where it was completely unnecessary and added nothing whatsoever to a better understanding of the topic and the points the authors wanted to make, I had enough.

Good writers and speakers are made, not born.  Basic principles can be taught and practice makes perfect.  This is not about turning scientists and technologists into trained seals who bark on command - it's about giving them the basic tools to convey their ideas to the wider world.  Yes, we all at one point or another have to make a public argument in support of our ideas.

There are consequences to doing this poorly. Walk into a board meeting with a complex network diagram, talk to the CEO (an expert on the business and how it works) as if he were a fellow engineer and then ask for the budget to replace the aging routers because "We are the experts and we say so."  Do not be surprised if you walk out of there with nothing.  The day the network goes down, the company is bleeding money, and the CEO starts yelling, you yell back, "We told you so."  Well actually, you didn't.  You gave him an argument from authority and what he heard was not enough to convince him that you knew what you were talking about. (How do I know this?  Because I've done it and found very quickly that it is a recipe for disaster.)

TED is not perfect. But nothing that is the product of human hands and minds is.   Not all the problems exposed on TED have solutions and just because there is a video up about something doesn't make what one sees and hears true - many of the ideas on TED are not "worth spreading."

Not to mention that some of the personal accounts can be downright boring.  Anyone who comes to a party or a dinner and talks endlessly about himself, probably won't get invited back. Nor will the folks who sit there, and when asked to contribute, claim that what they do is so complex that there is no way that the other guests could possibly comprehend it.

Think of TED as a conversation and an attempt to include the maximum number of folks at the table (what in my youth was considered good manners).   In that sense, I think TED actually falls short because there isn't a lot of audience participation, though they do occasionally take questions after the talk. And if people actually enjoy themselves in the process?  Learn something they didn't know?  Feel engaged and interested and part of something larger than themselves?

Oh, the horror.