Lab Leaks and Red Herrings

 ethics, politics, society, stupidity  Comments Off on Lab Leaks and Red Herrings
May 202023
The pandemic lab leak story that just won't go away is a red herring

Since 2020, I, like everyone else in North America, have been treated to a regular though slowly diminishing force feeding of “news” about the “Lab Leak” source for the COVID pandemic. At first, when it was novel (like the Coronavirus underlying the pandemic), it made me wonder. Today, it makes me wonder—about the people obsessing about it.

The Novel Coronavirus and the Pandemic of the 2020s

To recap:

  1. A novel coronavirus took hold near Wuhan, China.
  2. It rapidly spread, globally, because of the way modern society transits the planet and the fact that our virginal constitutions, at least with regard to this pathogen, were most hospitable hosts.
  3. The factors beneath this virus’s communicability and mortality led to it being declared a genuine pandemic of concern.
  4. To combat it, humanity in various parts of the world took various measures from the idiotic through to the excessive (and sometimes both together). That these were novel and tentative measures for which efficacy was still to be proven made some sense given the novelty of the situation.
  5. The biological problem turned into a political problem as the underlying virus issues gave way to the social issues surrounding combat measures. This, naturally led to tribal fault lines and the anti-vax movement.
  6. The WHO declares the official pandemic health emergency over. Right or wrong, we’re moving past the emergency posture. But the tribal fault lines remain as does the questioning about the source of the entire episode.

Through this latter period, one vector of attack and mis/dis/genuine information was the source of the virus itself. Did it arise organically as the result of a racoon dog in a wet market in Wuhan or was it a lab leak or was it something more nefarious.

The Source of the Novel Coronavirus

We are an inquisitive species by nature. If we’re that determined to source the origin of the universe BILLIONS of years ago, could anybody expect that we wouldn’t collectively insist on knowing “How this happened?” And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In some form, most of us know that if you want to prevent the same thing from happening again, if you want to not make the same mistake again, if you want to… it’s important to be clear about the real cause.

The pandemic lab leak story that just won't go away is a red herring
Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash

In this case, there seems to be at least one naive and two clearly purposeful reasons behind the inquiry. None of which is of particular value to any but those with very particular interests and obligations. Ultimately, the source of the pandemic is a novel coronavirus in the same way that the cause of an ebola outbreak is the ebola virus, of SARS in the early 21st-century, another coronavirus…

A virus, even by name, is not a sufficient root cause

This seems to be the broad-based response that perpetuates the interest in the “lab leak.” That ought to be true to officials of research and other containment labs, to public health officials, probably to wildlife officers and various other ecologists in remote parts of the globe—especially those that are now exposing their hidden treasures (more below).

The Pointless Constituency: The General Population

It ought to be mostly satisfactory to the broad population. The cause of our experience is a virus. What does it matter, beyond curiousity, to a house painter or an opinion columnist, what lays as a deeper root cause. Would this information, whether accurate or misguided, have any impact whatsoever on his or her daily life? And what does debating the merits of a theory about the source do for that person? Play out the two basic alternatives: it was or it wasn’t. Will that change the tilt of his or her life in any meaningful way? It is truly mere curiousity, probably combined with tribal weaponization of mis/dis/genuine information.

Alternatively, there are those for whom digging deeper could be more meaningful. The World Health Organization and other national public health administrators. Surely they have greater need for more insight. Probably. And, probably more importantly, they ought to also have more perspective on what that added insight means. That is, what value it contributes to the issue. But do they really?

Why Should They Care?

In the event that there were a similar outbreak and similar situation, would the method of combatting it be different based on knowing it’s origin? For bold relief clarity, if the source were a wet market in a Chinese industrial city v. a isolated tribal village in the centre of the Congo or the Amazon basin v. the top of Mt. McKinley or Mont Blanc? If the core uncertainty is that we’ve never seen this before and we have no further insight into it, does it matter where it came from?

Somewhat less facetiously, whether the novel virus came from a lab or from out of the deepest jungle is also irrelevant without further information. And, it is that further information upon which any kind of meaningful alteration in response action might be based.

The further information is whether the virus is indeed “novel.” Perhaps this usage does not conform with virological definition so let me specific that when I used the word novel, here, I mean have we seen this exact viral strain before and do we know anything about it. Ideally we know things about it that would leapfrog our experimental responses in the wild and allow the response to the pandemic to be more focused. And, ideally, more successful (and shorter).

Presumably, a lab leak of a virus would have this kind of added information load. So it would not be quite as novel. Let me go back to my painter. If this were known, what possible impact could this knowledge and understanding have? To him or her, who stands in as the vast majority of humanity not specifically in the public health (virology, specifically) world, it’s trivia.

Such information, that the source was a lab leak, ought to have significant impact for those public health officials as stated. But, logically, the value of that information does not persist. It diminishes as time passes. As the fight against the virus and the pandemic wears on, the underlying virus becomes less novel. It becomes less relevant where it came from because generations of evolution have turned it into something else. And (and this is the important part), we have more meaningful and valuable insight about the virus problem than any amount of understanding about it in December 2019 or March 2020 much provide. In short, at some point, even for those on the front line of virology and immunology, determining the origin of the virus is ancient history.

Today’s Value of the Lab Leak Determination

Not to diminish but simply to overlook and ignore the value of this inquiry from a tribal, political perspective, there are two constituency that has an ongoing need to know for sure whether there was a lab leak. My painter is nowhere close to either one. (By the way, dear reader, don’t get to fixated on the “painter” as a painter. As I’ll explain later, it’s a broad-based stand-in.)

The Primary Constituency: Public Health Administrators

The first constituency that should know that there was a lab leak is the community of administrators and operators of similar containment facilities. In this case it’s so-called level 4 virus containment laboratories, but it could be study spaces for bacteria or any other biological or non-biological pathogenic research. If what’s being studied is inherently dangerous to humanity if it is not engaged with through strict protection protocols, arguably it would qualify. So, atomic experimentation fits. But it seems the focus should be on pathogens that can be extremely destructive to humanity without human help. More or less, we’re talking about biological pathogens.

This constituency deserves to know if for no other reason that to understand and remedy similar conditions in their own facilities. Strengthening protocols to prevent leaks and so forth would be a good outcome—obviously, IF there were a leak. Good faith errors happen. When the consequences can be so extremely bad, it makes sense to ensure there are fail-safes, buffers, and other backstops. What if this were the first virus to develop the ability to evade all such defences in some “novel” way? Again, knowing and understanding—and sharing—this information is to the good of humanity, full stop.

The Secondary Constituency: Governments (Including Defence, Military, and Public Safety)

All this is good and well. It represents the valid ethical and humanitarian reasons for searching out the source or cause of the virus entering our human biosphere and doing its damage. And, as I’ve stated, there is at least one good reason why determining a lab leak was the cause—and hence a lab—was the source of the novel coronavirus. It is, of course, not nearly the end of the story.

One way or another, sometimes only whispered because saying it out loud is diplomatically charged at best and racist at worst, the real reason EVERYONE is so interested in whether a lab leak is behind this is not the “leak” part, but the “lab” part. The point of the lab leak hysteria is whether there was a Chinese lab involved. More specifically, was a Chinese lab purposefully holding this virus in the Wuhan lab (that the origin is Wuhan, at least, is beyond dispute)? And did the virus “leak” from that lab?

Leak is a funny word in this situation. It’s banal obvious meaning is that perhaps through error or for any other of a hundred reasons, the virus being contained simply “got away.” Kind of like a lion escaping from a zoo. Maybe a keeper left the gate unlocked; maybe years of rain and heat corroded some part of the enclosure. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that (a) there was a lion there and (b) it got out.

The constituents in the heading are interested first in confirmation that this otherwise unknown virus was or was not known to “the enemy.” Let’s assume that’s proven, which in that world can mean anything from it is a very strong rumour that everyone feels good about through to there is absolutely unimpeachable, conclusive proof.

Once that has been “established,” a number of further allegations can be supported in a way. First, they “had” and knew about a novel virus that they kept from “us.” Obviously (natch!) this can only mean that they were seeking to use it as a biological weapon directly or as a stepping stone to something more deadly.

Such labs are known to perform gain of function experimentation. We do it for obviously good reasons. But maybe they were doing it for obviously(!) nefarious reasons. Either way, we obviously didn’t know about it. So, if we can establish there was a lab leak, then we know they were doing something and can focus attention on where they might have been going.

Even if we can’t prove “they” were doing something nefarious, we know that (a) they were being secretive and (b) they’re sloppy. In either case, we have a Western feel-good narrative. But wait, what if the nefariousness were not merely in what was going on inside and a mistake? What if the “leak” (see, I told you “leak” is a great word in this situation.) were purposeful? What if the pathogen’s release were not accidental but meant? What if the zookeeper wasn’t actually a little doddering but, in fact, left the gate open to see how many children the lion would eat before it were caught?

Speculation. Leave It For The Speculators

Who knows? Who cares? The point I’ve been trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter to the vast majority of us that neither administer public health facilities such as containment labs nor tread in the international diplomatic/military waters.

Sure, maybe my painter (who could be a divorce lawyer, dentist, accountant, investment banker, car detailer….) has some kind of morbid fascination with such things because he or she doesn’t have enough to do, a good family life, or an interesting hobby. But to get riled up by politicians and media using this as something to further deepen the chasm between political tribes is a little silly.

This aging red herring is almost certainly being poked to stink as a distraction from what’s important and to lend urgency to what’s not.

Have a read of Zeynep Tufekci’s column in the May 12 New York Times. There is some insight there for those of us in the pointless constituency: “The Pandemic Threat That Hasn’t Gone Away

Easily digestible conspiracy and pseudo-insight: strong misdirection?

 ethics, politics, society  Comments Off on Easily digestible conspiracy and pseudo-insight: strong misdirection?
May 052023
Magicians use misdirection to achieve the impossible or at least improbable.

Misdirection. A few days ago something exploded over the Kremlin. It was such an elaborate pantomime of an attack that only the willful, gullible, or compelled would not make common league with the conspiracists to consider the whole episode remarkable bullshit.

That Russia immediately took to its airwaves and any other channel that would sustain its message to say that it was a drone attack intended to kill Putin was the next proof point. One could argue that is a reasonable thing to allege in the circumstance. But, of course, it was conveniently—literally out of the blue—the doing of Ukraine apparently.

That kind of sealed the deal that it was likely a “false flag,” given that it had never even come close to happening in the past and that as the Ukrainian leader said, they don’t have enough ammunition to waste in defence of their territory. Why would they waste drones on an inevitably futile gesture? It beggars belief. Then, when that didn’t really stick the Russians took another tack: it was the United States (through Ukraine).

My usual response to ALL the idiotic allegations of “false flags” that have erupted in the past 6-years in the United States, is to roll my eyes. But in this case, it’s hard not to firmly believe that’s exactly what we’re witnessing.

But this is not my real point.

My point, as the title of the post would suggest, is that in all the shouting about false flags and injection of “false facts”, the simplest answer is to follow Occam and conclude there are a lot of idiots with the opportunity to spew their stupidity far and wide. And, when stupid meets up with stupid, it multiplies. It’s probably the right answer.

But what if it’s not the right answer. What if the answer is more sinister? What if there are, in this equation, some rational actors that are being “underhanded” (for lack of better word)? What if there’s a conspiracy about conspiracies?

“WTF are you talking about?” You might ask. Fair enough.


I could just as easily have focused this post on my second analog: magic. A false flag has a different intent and extent might be different, but ultimately these are of a kind. Let’s stick to magic and more particularly to illusion.

Magicians use misdirection to achieve the impossible or at least improbable.

There is typically nothing “magical” about magic. It is nothing(!) but the rigorous and directed application of physical and psychological conditions, constraints, and phenomena to achieve goals that somehow seem miraculous or impossible or, at the very least, improbable. That’s it.

A magician will use our brains against us including how it process the stimulus of light (I.e., vision). Magicians play with perspective. Our brains will attribute importance to things seen recently, more frequently, for which they have been “primed,” or longer. Magicians “force” card choices in this way. Some magicians—commonly known as “mentalists—use the same and other techniques to convince you that they have extrasensory powers and such.

Magicians, mentalists, and so many other persuaders (like lawyers, priests, reporters, analysts, executives, etc., etc.) use one technique more frequently and often than others. That technique is misdirection. We are all such frequent targets of it that it’s a wonder it continues to escape us. (And, by the way, when I say “us,” I’m not being falsely inclusive. The fact of that matter is that EVERYONE, irrespective of experience, education, raw cognitive or emotional intelligence, is at one time or another, with greater or lesser credulity and frequency, a (willing) victim of misdirection.)

As it’s name would suggest, the point of misdirection is to get the target person to focus on something else. (It’s important to understand that when a human focuses on something, everything else goes out of focus—to the point of being ignoring or overlooking a guy in a gorilla suit walking right in front of you.) In the service of the magician, the point is to make sure you aren’t watching too closely when (s)he palms the coin or such contrivance that is decidedly NOT magical. Politicians and advocates will emphasis something to get you to ignore another (probably damning) thing.

This post is about conspiracy theories, false flags, alternative facts, and all the other forms of wasteful attention-sucking misdirection that is going on in the world—especially in social media. It’s actually not that far removed from the theme and plot of many sci-fi stories: how the dupes are tricked into focusing on something silly while the “overlords” have their way. Or, getting closer to home, maybe watch the movie Wag the Dog. The boldness of the relief used in art, however, usually makes the premise ridiculous.

But isn’t there something just a little too on-point about the concept?

  • Why is it that when, more often than once daily in the United States, people (children! in schools!) are killed or injured en masse with a firearm, the usual suspects from the NRA and the GOP appear to redirect everyone’s attention to the Constitutional right to bear arms? (Like somehow the right to have firearms is related to the right to pull the trigger and kill… and all the logic that leads from possession to death…)
  • Why is it that when a Hollywood icon is proven out as a racist, misogynist, paedophile, or what have you, suddenly (with rare exception) talk immediately shifts to the value of “the art”?
  • Why is it that politicians and political parties and hypocrites (but I repeat myself) are caught up in their own lies and reversals, the focus immediately turns to something else? Pro tip: if the issue is small, widen the focus; it it’s broad, focus on the particular. Or, in the words of advice given to every second year law student: “When the facts are with you, pound on the facts. When the law is with you, pound on the law. When neither is with you, pound on the table.

I don’t care about the answer to any one of these questions. They are merely representative of the larger question that we all ought to recognize and expose. And that question is not about the direct nefarious reason for it (“…false flag”) or its truth or falsity (“check the facts”).

The question to ask is what else is going on that this person/organization wants us to miss? Why are these events or arguments going on? Why are these idiotic “facts” or what-have-you being sprayed out into our perceptual field like attack countermeasures from the back of an airplane or submarine?

Because we can only focus on one thing at a time, what is it that we’re supposed to not see?

Maybe it’s just magic; a form of entertainment. And it will evaporate. But that’s the risk we have to take. Because it could just as easily be something serious.

“Everybody Lies” — But normalizing it is wrong

 ethics, society  Comments Off on “Everybody Lies” — But normalizing it is wrong
Apr 182023

Politicians lie. Trump lies. Criminals lie. But now I’m repeating myself. The point is that lying is human and it wouldn’t be central to every single ethos since the species became social if it weren’t. The quotation, however, come out of the mouth of fictional doctor Gregory House—itself… a lie, of a sort.

Oh the Lies, they are a changin’

Maybe it’s the excess or, if not excess certainly exuberance of the the lying going on in the first quarter of the 21st-century. Maybe the sheer volume and velocity of lying going on; maybe it’s the shamelessness and hypocrisy. Something has, however, triggered attention to be especially intensely directed toward lying. Even if the lying is banal or not even there, we see it. Some of us are creating conspiracies out of phantom lying. (Or maybe it’s real lying but merely pales by comparison to what we see every single day from those in positions of trust. There’s usually a pretty reasonable core to every conspiracy theory. )

But let’s get back to lying. There can be no doubt that it is capturing our attention. Media “Pinocchios” and flagrant political/corporate liars abound. Whether that is representative of anything more than that class of people (and by class I do not mean socio-economic, only “cluster”) is unclear. Though there is certainly a lot of evidence in “exaggerated” social media posts to suggest that the problem is wider spread.

Pinocchio is the archetype for lies that are visibly evident.

I will concede that it is entirely possible there may not be a widespread lying problem. It could be that the big lies (not just The Big Lie) are overrepresented and the vast majority do not actively create, generate, and propagate their own lies over and above what has been typical and normal through human history. In conceding this though, there is no accounting at all for the obvious gullibility and rampant willingness for people to believe the lies they are told and repeat them.

I’m sure it’s splitting hairs to prosecute them as liars and conveniently unnecessary since they are fools and maybe idiots anyway. And, in point of fact, could be liars in their own right in a much smaller arena that doesn’t grab wide attention—probably because they’re not placed appropriately for it to be seen. (I’m still going with fools and idiots. I’m a believer in Occam’s Razor.)

There are a lot of cognitive biases in play for anybody (and by “anybody”, I mean practically “everybody”) focusing on how much lying is going on. Despite the fact that it may have always been that way, we may be noticing it as a result of thinking errors like:

  • Confirmation bias — we see what we want to see and what supports our conclusion. More people are lying, we believe, so we notice more lying.
  • Base Rate fallacy — Essentially thinking the specific is the norm. We have noticed a lot of lying going on, so we jump to the conclusion that this is the broad norm: everyone is lying a lot and egregiously.
  • Illicit Transference — Applying the specific to the general and vice versa. Together with our base rate misunderstanding, we attribute specific (Ted Cruz) to the norm.
  • Frequency illusion — Once you notice something, it’s everywhere. The volume and voracity of lying from some parts is front of mind, so now we see it in everyone.

So, there are reasons in our heads. BUT, it’s not all in our heads.

Everybody lies. I lie.

Sometimes its banal, like when I say, “Doing great,” in response to the obligatory, “How’re you doing?” greeting instead of getting into my prevailing concerns or woes. Sometimes it’s significant but I weigh the lie as better than the alternative. There is absolutely no win in telling your spouse, “No, I think those pants make your ass look extra wide.” Nor is there any real point in pointing out to your child that his rendering of his recital piece made dogs howl. Just say it’s great, go for ice cream, and move on.

Some lies are obviously wrong in every respect, not least in law. Fibbing during sworn testimony is plain wrong. It is unredeemable lying. And could land you in jail. Even if you get away with it in the moment, the truth will out eventually. For those who are religious, I’ll point out that lying to God or God’s representative on earth is also a very strict no-no.

Between these extremes are shades of gray(son). It is here that theologians, philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, and so many others can wile away their days. And to what end? It is extremely unlikely that a definitive rule can or will be set. If for no other reason than the lying is contextual and other values come into play. It is almost certain that any choice on lying will end up bumping into and having a significant impact on some other (possibly moral) matter. (Is a “negligable”—in the sense of nobody being materially harmed—lie, in the service of a greater good, righteous?) This warrants a separate thought; let’s explore righteous lies just a bit.

By the transparency zeitgeist motivations and demands for personal freedom and uninhibited knowledge of everything, a national leader that makes a decision to keep something secret is hunted down politically at least and pilloried. After all (s)he knew and kept it from us, and lied about knowing it, and well, we really wanted to know because, we have freedom and agency and the right to know and… You get the idea.

If that secret saved thousands of lives, kept the economy stable, and let the country or the world get about its business was it worth it? Just because a relatively few wanted to know and felt that they should be part of the “need to know” crowd, but the vast majority didn’t need to know, wouldn’t know what to do when they found out, and knowing or not knowing made no difference to them anyway, does that make radical transparency alright? Does it make the lie less righteous?

This is territory that the vast majority of the population is ill equipped to trek. What the vast majority ought to be interested in is whether lies affect them (negatively) and what that does to their level of trust in the teller of those lies.

The real concern ought not to be on whether somebody is lying any more than on whether (s)he is speaking English, French, or Mandarin. It is something to be accepted, embraced, understood, and evaluated. That allows attention to be put on the purpose. What is the purpose and the outcome? Is the lie told to take unfair advantage? Is it to save another’s feelings? Is it for the benefit of the teller or someone else? Does it break the law? Does it do harm? If you swing that way, does it break a Covenant with your Lord?

We’re too focused on the lying and paying insufficient attention to the reasons and outcome.

None of which is to let the big orange Pinocchio off the hook for his LIFETIME of lying. It is to say that after so many years, we know it’s a lie. We (and by “we” I mean those who are followers) need to look at the end for which lying was the means. In his personal life, in his business life, in his sporting life, in his political life. In all these ways and for all these purposes the lying was for self-dealing and illegal, unfair advantage.

Enough said. Everybody lies. (Some more than others.)

For more thoughts and ideas check both other posts and my oeuvre.

The Malevolent Imagination

 Business, ethics, society  Comments Off on The Malevolent Imagination
Mar 072023

Why are good ideas perverted, leaving an ineradicable bad condition?

This is an update to the post only to serve as a pointer to a genuine journalist who is on the same track and published very soon after this was posted. Ezra Klein’s Times piece, “This Changes Everything” (NYT 12/3/23) is well worth the read.

Name one “wonder” technology that wasn’t brought into the world on the crest of great promise of only good things that wasn’t quickly exploited for much less glorious purposes. It’s hard.

Imagination gets perverted

The printing press certainly opened knowledge to the masses, yet it was but a small hop to printed propaganda. Firearms probably were sold as the defensive equalizer, and … (Oh who’s kidding whom: firearms always had only one purpose: maybe noble, even necessary, but rarely “for good.”) What about social media? (cellular) telephony? the Internet itself? All wonders. Or crypto-currency? No, forget it. Again, there is really one purpose and value—and it’s not any sort of societal, human advance.

All were sold based on how they would enhance society or address unscratched itches, blah, blah, blah. To a one, each is non-trivially corrosive. They are technology lye: useful but will eat the skin right from your bones.

Wonders or not, the genie’s out of the bottle. So there’s no point in pretending it could be otherwise. More than that, it would never be otherwise. We are an imaginative and creative species. We will explore, discover, invent, and innovate. All of which will always be sold on the basis of the great good they can do because we are generally an acquisitive and ambitious species.

I’ve been talking to (smart) people about this for a while. What is almost never given adequate attention is the “malevolent imagination.” That is, the highly creative counterpoint to beneficent creativity. It exists. We see examples in every movie, novel, or other story featuring an evil mastermind. Some of us, within the fantasy of the story, admire the way the author has taken what we know as good and turned it to something bad. (It’s like how I admire a good burglar.) Even if it comes dangerously close to the loopier territory of conspiracy and conspiracy theory.

Malevolent imagination is the dark side of creativity
Image by Alvaro Zabala, ArtStation

Why isn’t such innate creative talent put to better use at the birth of these wonderous technologies? Why isn’t there considerably more open evaluation and understanding of new technology exploitation? At the very least it would create a richer appreciation for the technology and its potential—a boon for the innovator and promoter.

More important here, it would identify where caution should be taken and attention paid for the general good. For example, why is it that only with AI have many of the brightest minds come forward to say, “Hey, slow down. This could be really dangerous…?” Were they the only once primed by Terminator 2?

I am in no way suggesting that technology innovation should stop or even be curtailed (mostly). I am saying that there are an awful lot of stupid people that will amplify and push a technology because they are not clever enough to see the hazards. Even more people may see it but, frankly, don’t care because in the short term anyway, it’s valuable (to them).

So it’s incumbent on the relatively few remaining—so vastly outnumbered—to sway the rules of the game to account for these contingencies and risks. Even if they do not succeed in the short run, wouldn’t it be great to be aware of what could happen? What the warning signs might be, and what correctives could be applied? As in everything: forewarned is forearmed.

This thought is about the malevolent imagination. It exists and like the technologies identified, is neither good nor bad. In some circumstances, coupled to a IGNOBLE heart, it lends itself to the “evil mastermind.”

But what of the malevolent imagination attached a NOBLE heart? (It’s probably easier to think of this as partners rather than an individual; though it makes more sense in an individual.) In its most virtuous sense, the noble heart might ensure a dangerous technology were stillborn because of the terrible future the malevolent imagination sketched. Probably that only delays the inevitable. But having bought only some time, the noble heart could prepare countermeasures.

What if Oppenheimer’s later regrets were manifest globally prior to the atomic bomb’s development? More proximately, what if one saw the blindingly obvious eventuality of the attack/defense arms race of cybercrime or how “freedom of speech” becomes license to anonymous libel and extreme incivility in a global town square? Would the Internet or social media never happen? Would that particular path be erased?

Not in the least. But it is possible that we all might have given clearer thought to prophylactic measures viz. cybersecurity or time to take action to ford up civil connection at every level as a vaccine to the coming decadent societal impacts.

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do that thing. Fording up social trust, reinvigorating morality or some other ethic may have been the bulwark. It may have worked. It may have had ripple effects. But these are different times.

Still, as a red team or by whatever name you choose, going dark early could be the only way to preserve the light.

If you’re intrigued, there’s plenty more to make you think about creativity and other things in my oeuvre.

Gwyn Morgan: the apologist

 Business, Canada, ethics, Management  Comments Off on Gwyn Morgan: the apologist
Sep 092014

I read this op-ed piece in the Globe & Mail this past weekend by retired CEO Gwyn Morgan. Before I could respond in the G&M comments section, there were approximately 400 comments which, using the first 50 or so as a sample set, were about 90% on the side of pillorying the man. To their credit, the G&M readers did not object merely on loose philosophical grounds–the kind that Morgan raised in his 700 words; they responded on mass to the unadulterated hypocrisy. When you can tell the shill is the shill, the ruse no longer works.

That pisses me off because I really wanted to take a shot at the plutocrat who felt compelled to make a plea that readers of the Globe & Mail stand up and defend corporations! Seriously! They are under attack and need defending by corporate CEOs, executives, and other cheerleaders. Those damned, Communist, lefty haters of all things capitalist were ganging up on business. And, damn it, it’s just not right.

Again, to their infinite credit, the commenters in the Globe’s comments section for the article were substantially NOT wing-nuts. Their points were… well… pointed, well thought out, cogent, articulate, caustic in many cases and decidedly NOT about business or corporations. One could even, as an apologist for the masses, say say that they were remarkably likely to say, about corporations and business exactly what the scorpion said to the frog in the old saw joke: “it’s in their nature.” And that’s OK.

Nobody is suggesting business or corporations are bad (or good). I think what I understood from the comments is that there are others like me. We appreciate what capitalism and laissez-faire not only has to offer but what it’s generated economically and socially for all of us. We laud “business” as a noble pursuit. But, let’s not by any stretch of the imagination let anyone believe that we’re caught up in the nonsensical argument that a CEO “deserves” 50x, 100x, 500x the compensation of the average employee. Perhaps the entrepreneur or owner who has been “at risk” deserves that kind of reward. But an overpaid employee with nothing “at risk” does not–no matter what Gwyn Morgan might have to say.

And even at that, let’s be honest, the largest of corporations–where highly overpaid capitalist employee-CEOs hide out–are not a place where you would find anybody with real capital “at risk.” The risk such as it were disappeared a long time ago. These are for the most part money-printing machines (i.e., banks) wherein the only real risk is the utter incompetence of its human brain (read: CEO and executive). So… if there’s no risk involved, then the (one could easily argue, “absurd”) profit extracted out of the economy that moves to shareholders or to non-taxable off-shore domicile is nothing more than a clever wealth transference mechanism that takes from the 79% and moves to to 1%. Note that I left the bottom 20% out because, in Canada, they are either net benefactors of social assistance or meaningless contributors (i.e., collateral damage) anyway. And that just doesn’t sit well.

So, take it from me, a genuine laissez-faire capitalist and free market democrat. What the rest of society doesn’t like is corporate welfare assholes pretending they are hard done by, offloading the downside risk and the cost to everyone else while they take in the risk-free upside benefits… and then whine about it in a national newspaper.  Gwyn, turn in your capitalist membership card.

The Safety Dance: one step forward; three steps back

 Canada, ethics, politics, society, stupidity, Uncategorized  Comments Off on The Safety Dance: one step forward; three steps back
Aug 242014

Today’s politically correct vogue is to wring one’s hands and fulminate about how dangerous the world is and how dire the need to protect one and all from its perils. Mental health disabilities and concussions are, among other human traumas, serious stuff. But it all seems a little overdone.

While the incidents of mental health claims and sport-related serious injuries are as high as ever in raw volume, a doubter might question its significance. Is there really more? Or are we just searching for, noting, and recording it now? This challenges the premise of greater danger, and the argument applies as readily to mental health injury as to cancer and allergy epidemics. It’s harder, I think, to argue that concussions went unrecognized and so could have been under-reported 30-years ago. That suggests greater danger. It does not mean it’s not ridiculous. Not the injuries; the circus of problem-solving.

The same day newspapers carried the story about Minister Clement’s pronouncement on mental health action, I saw a fellow on a bike wearing what looked like a 40-year old Cooper™ hockey helmet. It wasn’t a zippy cycling helmet, so it caught my attention and took my thoughts to the ongoing, very public finger wagging about concussions in hockey. I recalled that there was a time when that flimsy piece of plastic with an eighth inch of Styrofoam was the only wrapping on kids’ heads. Yet, so many of us live to reminisce about it.

What bothers me most about the well-meaning debates and pronouncements, be it about depression furloughs or kids’ cranial collisions, is that they are just so typically focused wrong. It is, of course, easier and more socially acceptable, never mind profitable, to push protection and palliatives than it is to deal with real problems. We leave uncomfortable stuff alone.

Regarding employee mental health issues untenably impacting labour costs, what we really don’t want to talk about is that we’ve done and keep doing it to ourselves. We avoid how mobile devices and PCs before them inconveniently changed what it means to be working. Not only are we all expected to be available within the hour if not actually responding in the moment, it doesn’t end at 5:00PM or Friday at the pub. That is fact.

Instead of acknowledging and debating the incompatibility of commercial efficiency and human frailty, we are treated to paeans to the “new reality” or some derivative. It’s liberating, they say. Not so much unless fetters factor into your definition of free. But it is an efficiency gainer, so it’s not going anywhere. That leaves the chattering classes to accept the root issue wholesale and babble on about the deleterious effects.

What about the hollowing out of the organization? It’s good for organizations because short-term productivity is high. It’s not good for people, because no machine runs at the yellow line for years on end without burning out. People in “management” are being overworked, the demands on their time extend well beyond what was traditionally work time, and they know that they are always one false move from not having to worry about it at all. Why would anyone be stressed or depressed?

Then there’s this business of sports injuries, with concussion trending right now. Of course being concussed is bad, especially for a brain still being formed. Then again, so is pushing a teenage body to meet the demands of an adult body. Speaking only of hockey, what we don’t want to talk about is that WE are the cause of the problem, one that we’re not eager to cure.

Back to the Cooper™ helmet. Hockey is a pretty rough sport. It was when I played as a kid. But it was rough within limits. Bad helmets and other variants of plastic, felt, and sponge left a lot of opportunity to feel pain, which took some spirit out of the boys. You didn’t try doing too much harm to others because, among other things, it was probably going to hurt you too.

Over the past forty years, we’ve outfitted our little gladiators with Kevlar and ballistic protection that makes them (feel) practically invincible. When over-protected, the most important organ in the body doesn’t work effectively. Because there is no pain escalation to indicate it’s time to back off, one can forget that one is, in fact, going to get hurt. And when it inevitably does happen, it won’t be just a little owey either! Add a persistent hockey season. Unlike the few boys that went to one-week, summer hockey camp in the 1970s, now every child has pre-season training and development prior to the try-outs that precede the season, which gets followed by a post-season work-down, etc… In other words, kids have the protection needed to detach them from the reality of being hurt, plus we train them to be stronger and more aggressive earlier. Never mind the parents who demand that little Mikey behaves like the NHL star that dad wishes he’d been, and then encourage aggression by behaving like lunatics in the stands.
Hockey today isn’t more dangerous, nor is cycling or skiing or any other sport. Work and life is not harder than a century ago. What we’ve done to ourselves in the name of progress, though, is create everything we need to push ourselves and our children up to and past the breaking point physically and mentally. Contrary to my first employer’s view, people are really not machines. You can’t merely grease them and replace worn parts.

They can’t work at their limit all the time. They can’t be expected to always self-heal from the inevitable injuries. But every employer knows that there is plenty of supply. So, ultimately, they can be replaced when worn out. It’s just costly; and not very pleasant salon conversation.

Meantime, we can all talk about how children are being physically injured and adults are being mentally tormented, and about what paternalistic safety equipment and palliative programs we can enforce. It makes us feel like we’re doing something valuable. And that’s good for our mental well-being.

* I wrote this a few months ago and submitted it for op-ed… nothing.

Personal Information as Money

 ethics, IT Security, Privacy  Comments Off on Personal Information as Money
Aug 192014

I’m a fan of bit torrents. To be clear, I rent movies legally; I do not “share.” Still, bit torrents fascinate me because the peer-to-peer system represents thinking for what could be the next great leap in online privacy protection.
The obvious problem with privacy (online) shows up in one of two types of news items. One: a breach of data on some organization’s servers or lost off someone’s USB drive puts thousands or perhaps millions of people’s private information into the hands of unauthorized and probably unsavoury characters. Two: an organization that has amassed privileged, personal information about customers or citizens for some purpose shows its industriousness and uses its “intelligence” to draw undesired conclusions about and harass those same people. In either case, when such a situation is exposed, people feel justifiably violated… even if there is no real harm done.
As I say, these are obvious challenges to privacy. They are not, however, the real issue. Privacy breaches are a symptom and proxy complaint. What’s happening in both circumstances is a breach of trust. In the first case by criminals (or the government) who have larcenously acquired private property (your information), and in the latter by an institution that said “trust us with your important information,” then misused it without your understanding or approval. Blame gets properly directed toward those that have let us down.
Funny that we don’t turn that blame inward. After all, the root of the problem is that we have trusted some organization to keep safe and use only as prescribed something of value to us: our most personal information. At least that’s what we say while we’re railing on about its loss or misuse. But we did let go of that information in the first place, likely without appreciating the potential impact. And probably for not even fifty pieces of silver. So the real problem is that we have ignorantly given up what is dearest to us to somebody else’s keeping. Worse, we gave it to someone or something that is acquiring similarly valuable information from many others and keeping the whole lot in a single place. That creates a treasure trove of value for a thief and a wicked temptation to any other amoral entity.
Is it really any wonder not that there are privacy breaches at all but rather that there aren’t more?
Whether you are reading this as an individual whose information is so entrusted or as an organizational leader in possession of that information, perhaps you’re thinking about information wrong. Chances are that you imagine all this personal information is ones and zeros. Less of a nerd, perhaps in your imagination it is benign sets of discrete data. In any case, “information” is almost certainly an abstraction. Even when rendered as reams of paper (Who else does that anymore?) it has no substance. That makes it very easy to minimize and marginalize.
Try a little thought experiment with me. Contrast and then equate this personal data with cash. Yes, now your (customers’) information is money! Now it has meaning and substance. Doesn’t that change things a bit?
If it’s your information/cash, don’t you take more care with it? Won’t you be a bit more circumspect about where you pull it out, where you put it, and with whom you entrust it—and why? The problem with information (and where this metaphor breaks down, actually) is that it is not a diminishing asset: when you give it up, you still have it. So, perceptually, there is no fine point on losing possession of it.
On the other hand, if you are entrusted with money (information), you now have a fiduciary responsibility for it. Financial institutions (except certain S+Ls, derivatives houses, and mortgage lenders) tend to take their responsibility for their customers’ money seriously. To start with, their customers take it seriously. Then, of course, so does society in the form of strict regulations and governance.
Moral, legal, and economic incentives seem to have the necessary impact. So you don’t often hear about frivolous or cavalier disregard for how a financial institution tends to and uses its customers’ money. And, we don’t hear about too many thefts arising from the interception of bits and bytes that represent real money. When there is such a theft, there are again many incentives to pursue and recover the money, and prejudicially prosecute the crime.
Only a fool expects complete safety and everyone wants some control and means to exert control to get (what’s left of) their money back from those to whom they have entrusted it. The entire system of “tangible” fiat money makes everyone care more about the exchange.
We could do a lot worse than think about our allegedly valuable personal information with the same concern that we give dirty old cash.

Social Share Buttons and Icons powered by Ultimatelysocial

Enjoy this? Tell a friend. Thx