On Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” and the internet mob.

I like to reread the science fiction I first read when I was a teenager.  I find interesting the perspective a life lived in history gives to the artifacts of youth.  Recently I reread Larry Niven’s collection of short stories The Flight of the Horse and was particularly struck by “Flash Crowd”, a description, originally published in 1973, of an imagined future world in which personal teleportation has recently become ubiquitous and inexpensive, much like public telephone booths became in the last century.

The story follows an investigative reporter (we might call him a videographer today), first as he scouts stories by flitting between displacement booths, and later, for most of the story, as he tries to find a way to convince the world that he is not to blame for an ongoing, teleportation driven riot that began as he recorded it.  In the end he demonstrates that it is not he, as a representative of the free press, but rather the new technology of unregulated transfer booths that is responsible for what threatens to be a plague of floating flash riots around the world.  As one part of his investigation, he takes a booth to Tahiti and discovers that already there are permanent lawless crowds plaguing parts of the world, that the riot back home in Los Angeles is what parts of the world have been dealing with since shortly after the first displacement booths were installed.  In the end a plan is suggested which will see police having control of an emergency switch which will quickly bring any flash mobbed area back under the rule of law.

The details of the plan Niven comes up with are not of much interest to me at the moment.  My interest, rather, is in what I find to be striking parallels between our world and Niven’s Flash Crowd world, in which everyone with an axe to grind, a protest to make, a chip on their shoulder, a product to hawk, a fraud or theft to commit, a conspiracy to postulate, or even a book to review, can simply dial a code in a displacement booth and find themselves before the eyes of the world in an instant piled-on flash mob.  In Niven’s world, displacement booths allow individuals to actually go into the thick of the mob.  In our world, like so much else, the mob has become virtual.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about what I see to be one of the dangers of our modern ability to travel virtually to virtually any spot on earth: that there are virtues and benefits for an individual in taking time and effort to experience things.  It is better to trek on foot to Everest  than it is to simply helicopter into Base Camp before climbing.  I think Niven’s story points out that there is also a danger to society in the instant gratification available to us in our digitally interwoven world.  Especially when our baser urges — what are traditionally known in some cultures as the Seven Deadly Sins — are allowed to be indulged instantly, the danger of the virtual mob is every bit as real as the danger Niven imagined in his world of displacement booths and physical flash mobs.

There is no need, I think, to rehearse the list of people who have had lives ruined by social media mobbing.  I’m sure there are few who are not aware, even if they’ve never visited them,  that there are permanently dangerous and unpleasant places in the underbelly of the online world.  But I do think there is a great need for thoughtful people to seriously consider the implications of this world we’ve created, to not simply live in a happy online bubble of cat gifs and instant links to family and friends.  Behind the cartoons are countless virtual floating flash riots which are causing and will continue to cause very real pain and loss to very real people.

I don’t have any answers, but I can suggest that a reading of Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” can offer some perspective from an unexpected half-century old source.

On the thing called “Traditional Knowledge” and the current seeming worship of that thing

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you
can understand.

— Yeats, from The Stolen Child

I came across an article today called “It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge”.

Really. Really?

So, an anecdote about the behaviour of some birds is being investigated by “Western Scientists” and they’re finding there might be some truth to the anecdote. So . . . Western Science is catching up to traditional knowledge?

No. Some scientists are investigating an hypothesis formulated on the basis of a traditional understanding of a certain behaviour of a certain type of bird. Western Science is, as it most often has, considering traditions and weighing the actual evidence in support of or against the validity of those traditions. “Traditional knowledge” has little to teach “Western Science” about vast areas of research and discovery. One might argue that “traditional knowledge” has a lot of catching up to do.

It would be foolish to accept uncritically, as the mentioned article seems to suggest, all or even most, or even some or even any traditional knowledge. That road leads to an acceptance that the Flood covered the Earth, the Ark is on Ararat, The walls of Jericho fell at a trumpet blast, Troy burned because of a woman named Helen, St. Brendan sailed a hide boat to a sleeping whale’s back and woke the beast with his campfire, Beowulf slew Grendel, Arthur will return at the time of England’s greatest need, a man can have visions of his ancestors by sticking a stingray spine through his penis, Mohammed split the moon, and there’s a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow.

Science offers us the tools to discriminate between traditions that truly reflect the world on the one hand and, on the other,traditions that may rather reflect the symbolic world of society or of psychology or of something else or of simple fancy. To dismiss “Western Science” as “finally catching up” is disingenuous at best. Science isn’t “catching up” to traditional knowledge of “firehawks”; scientists have gotten around to investigating one hypothesis among an infinitude of hypotheses waiting to be investigated.

I would rather celebrate the wonderful world “Western Science” shows us every day, a world far more full of wonder than any world offerred us by traditional systems of ordering things.

Edmonton is Sacrificing Accessibility and Inclusion . . . For What?

On September 26, 2018 the City of Edmonton will be hosting yet another “Engagement Session” about “Neighbourhood Renewal” in Strathcona, where I live. With the ongoing construction of the 83 Avenue Bike Lane, my little bit of the neighbourhood has had an advanced taste of what “Neighbourhood Renewal” means. Below I’ve composed a little of what I’d like to say at that “Engagement Session” next Wednesday. I don’t suppose I’ll be given the opportunity.

I live on 83 Avenue. The new painted bike lane runs right in front of my house. I like the idea of bike lanes. But everyone agrees the little roundabouts on 83 Avenue west of 99th Street are confusing at best and probably dangerous. I remember Becky from the City who also agrees that the roundabouts are useless – telling me at one of these “engagement sessions” that the roundabouts will NOT be reconsidered or removed.

I don’t like some of the execution of this particular bike lane, but, we make sacrifices when we live in a community.

Homeowners on the north side of 83 Avenue are not allowed to have those little walkways across the boulevard from the sidewalk to the street. We’re supposed to only cross at the corner. Jay walking is now very specifically no longer allowed. But everybody still does it. Everybody that walks without trouble or rides a bike.

Not really a sacrifice.

My friend Marion, a marvellous hero in her 60s living with MS, now has a little more difficulty on her regular visits to stay with us. She needs to come to town every few months to shop for things she can’t get in the small town where she lives. Because the avenue is now one-way, we can’t drop her off on our side of the avenue. She has to struggle a little further with her walker. If we lived two blocks to the west, where the protected bike lane is, Marion would have to struggle even more.

Heroes make sacrifices.

My 93 year-old father, who volunteered for both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy in World War II now has similar difficulties to Marion when he comes to visit me. If we lived two blocks further west, where the protected bike lane is, he probably wouldn’t visit us anymore.

Veterans make sacrifices.

My daughter, with her many special needs, doesn’t have major mobility issues just yet, but she’s only 23. Still, getting around isn’t always a cake walk.

People with disabilities make sacrifices.

I am privileged.

I don’t have a disability, I don’t have a degenerative disease, I’m not old. Yet.

I haven’t had to go to war, I haven’t lived in poverty. I can go for walks for pleasure. I even have a bike.

My voice is the voice of privilege. The 83 Avenue bike lane hasn’t forced me to make much in the way of sacrifices.

Yes, the roundabouts are dangerous when I go for a walk.

Yes, the sidewalks are dangerously dark when I walk in the evening.

Yes, I’ve been sworn at by cyclists using the sidewalk when the bike lane has been closed for construction and “detour” seems to mean “usurp that pedestrian space”.

Yes, there’s still no north-south sidewalk on 97th street – the only route to Tubby Park – and all the traffic from 98th is about to be diverted there, but I’m not a little kid anymore and neither is my daughter, so we just won’t go to the park as much as we used to.

I can handle those unimportant sacrifices. I’m privileged with health and time and relative youth and yet a grown up voice with which to vent.

Marion? My father? My daughter? The neighbourhood kids?

Much less so.

Maybe I can try to use my privileged voice for them:

Please, when constructing this new neighbourhood, take more than a moment to consider those not privileged with easy mobility, time to go to public engagement sessions, and a voice.

Take a moment to consider:

How will Strathcona look for people who will never have the privilege of mobility you might enjoy?

How will Marion or my father, with their walkers or canes, get across that street from the car they’ve travelled in to the home they need to get to?

How will the DATS user negotiate the protected bike lanes?

How will a single mother – or anyone – get home at night on a pitch-black sidewalk?

How will those children get to Tubby Park safely, when all the traffic has been diverted from 98th to 97th – where there is STILL no north-south sidewalk – how’s that Vision Zero thing working out?

Edmonton has come so far in its efforts toward inclusion.

Don’t move backward.

Don’t make our neighbourhood less accessible, as you have on 83 Avenue.

Don’t move to further exclude people with mobility issues, as you have on 83 Avenue.

Please make Strathcona, and Edmonton, more accessible, not less.

Idle Musings on Sir Richard Francis Burton and the Arab Slave Trade

Here again the Demon of Slavery will reign over a solitude of his own creation. Can it be, that, by some inexplicable law, where Nature has done her best for the happiness of mankind, man, doomed to misery, must work out his own unhappiness?

The Lake Regions of Central Africa, Volume I, p. 85.

I didn’t learn about the Arab Slave Trade in school. I don’t remember the Arab Slave Trade ever being the subject of any conversation I’ve ever been involved in, until recently, when I’ve started a few such conversations. Slavery, in modern times at least, seemed to always be assumed to be something White People made happen.

The other night I finished reading Sir Richard Burton’s The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration. Sir Richard Burton, the eccentric Nineteenth Century British explorer, not Richard Burton (CBE) the eccentric Twentieth Century British actor. The adventures of Burton and his rarely named “companion”, John Hanning Speke, read alternately like a dull economic travelogue, an extremely extended and excessively juvenile Monty Python sketch, a presentation and presumption of accuracy of the racist Hamitic Hypothesis, and, dissonantly, a lament for the tragic state of the people of East Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. As well, for a moment, Burton’s book is a sketch of a plan to eliminate slavery in the region. Clearly Burton was a conflicted fellow in a conflicted time, in East Africa, a terribly conflicted place in the mid-Nineteenth Century.

A particular incident of Burton’s journey has haunted me, as it seems to have haunted Burton — he mentions it twice in his book:

The Kirangozi or Mnyamwezi guide, who had accompanied the Expedition from the coast, remained behind, because his newly-purchased slave-girl had become foot-sore, and unable to advance; finding the case hopeless, he cut off her head, lest of his evil good might come to another.

Volume II, pp. 161-2

This indescribably horrible and likely oft repeated moment came at a time when there were perhaps a half dozen Europeans on the mainland of East Africa, at a time when the internal and Arabian slave trade had continued for untold generations. This was a developed, agricultural society whose economy was driven almost completely by the internal marketing and exporting to Arab lands of slaves and, to a lesser extent, the export of elephant ivory across the Indian Ocean. I can’t help but think that at that moment, unlike almost any other time in White, Upper Class, British, Victorian Burton’s life, there was no such thing as Race. In that moment, there was only Good and Evil, and Burton was seeing the Horror of Evil. Yes, that is a Heart of Darkness reference.

But what could Burton do? The Arab Slave Trade in East Africa was at least 1000 years old. It had been 700 years old when the European Transatlantic Slave Trade began. Burton was almost alone. To hear Burton describe him, his companion, Speke, wasn’t much better than useless. And they were lone Europeans, both very ill, in an extremely violent slaving society which saw them as nothing but (possibly) wealthy interlopers whose lives were worth nothing more than their merchandise that might be bought or stolen.

Burton stayed silent on that bloody path on that bloody day. The foot-sore young woman died, unnamed and unremembered but for Burton’s written memorial.

But, long before Burton ever laid eyes on the poor victim, he was campaigning in his way to end the slave trade in East Africa. Although he had almost died on an earlier journey, speared through the face at the hands of Somali warriors, he wrote home from a ship off the coast with concern for the people he had met and was yet to meet and a suggestion of a military/diplomatic remedy:

By means of two such steamers we shall, I believe, be prepared for any contingencies which might arise in the Red Sea; and if to this squadron be added an allowance for interpreters and a slave approver in each harbour, in fact a few of the precautions practised by the West African Squadron, the slave-trade in the Red Sea will soon have received its deathblow, and Eastern Africa its regeneration at our hands.

From a letter from R. F. Burton, sent to the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, London, from HEIC Sloop-of-War Elphinstone, 15 December 1856, reprinted in Appendix 2 of The Lake Regions of Central Africa: A Picture of Exploration, Volume II, p. 428.

His letter was not well received:

From H. L. Anderson, Esquire, Secretary to Government, Bombay, to Captain R. F. Burton, 18th Regiment Bombay N. I.

Dated the 23rd July, 1857.
Sir, — With reference to your letter, dated the 15th December, 1856, to the address of the Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society of London, communicating your views on affairs in the Red Sea, and commenting on the political measures of the Government of India, I am directed by the Right Honourable the Governor in Council to state, your want of discretion, and due respect for the authorities to whom you are subordinate, has been regarded with displeasure by Government.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient Servant,

(Signed) H. L. Anderson,
Secretary to Government
Bombay Castle, 23rd July, 1857.”

Volume II, p. 428

It seems the British government had little stomach for interfering with Indigenous and Arab affairs in East Africa, and certainly not in playing the long game Burton had proposed.

But Burton continued. His book about his travels to the Lake Region is certainly a travel narrative, but Burton devotes a remarkable proportion of his tale to description of the economic and political facts and potentials of the region. These details may at first seem to be gathered as a guide to colonial exploitation of East Africa, for example when Burton suggests a Biblical/genetic basis for the European colonial urge to build railroads:

For long centuries past and for centuries to come the Semite and the Hamite have been and will be contented with human labour. The first thought which suggests itself to the sons of Japhet is a tramroad from the coast to the Lake regions.

Volume II, p. 411.

But Burton makes clear a few pages later what his true goal is:

To conclude the subject of commerce in East Africa. It is rather to the merchant than to the missionary that we must look for the regeneration of the country by the development of her resources. The attention of the civilized world, now turned towards this hitherto neglected region, will presently cause slavery to cease; man will not risk his all in petty and passionless feuds undertaken to sell his weaker neighbour ; and commerce, which induces mansuetude of manners, will create wants and interests at present unknown. As the remote is gradually drawn nigh, and the difficult becomes accessible, the intercourse of man — strongest instrument of civilisation in the hand of Providence — will raise Africa to that place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded.

Volume II, p. 419

This is nothing other than a manifesto of economic development and globalisation as tools to give all people a hand up to greater welfare, happiness, and self-sufficiency. Some might argue that it is also a recipe for colonial exploitation, but exploitation is clearly not the dish Burton dreams of cooking up. “That place in the great republic of nations from which she has hitherto been unhappily excluded” is an aspirational phrase that ranks alongside any of the great Declarations of the United Nations. Perhaps Burton is expressing some paternalism, but nothing in the final sentiments of The Lake Regions of Africa smacks of colonial exploitation.

Burton returned to Britain after this journey with his health shattered. After a heroic series of dangerous adventures in Arabia, Asia, and finally Africa, he never made another journey of exploration more dangerous than a brief visit to Brigham Young’s Salt Lake City. He took a series of uneventful diplomatic postings and turned his attention to writing and translating works from some of the dozens of languages in which he had become fluent. Thirty years after the death of the footsore young lady on that path in East Africa, Burton died at the age of sixty-nine. The slave trade on the island of Zanzibar was abolished seven years later.

In 1953, almost a century after Burton witnessed the beheading of a tired young woman, slaves were part of the Qatari delegation to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Mauritania, in Northwest Africa, banned slavery in 2007.

And I was pretty much unaware of the Arab Slave Trade until I read The Lake Regions of Central Africa. Thank you, Sir Richard Francis Burton, for enlightening me.

An open letter to (some) advocates for those with intellectual disabilities

Dear intellectual disability inclusion advocates who are anti-“segregation” & want full integration, always, everywhere:

Would you never let the intellectually disabled gather with peers? Must they always be integrated into the larger society? As physical challenges often accompany intellectual disabilities, would you prevent them from taking part in adapted physical activities/education? No Special Olympics? Would you prevent them from joining an artists’ collective (I’ve witnessed such a denial myself)? Deny them the opportunity to publicly exhibit their art?

Would you also ban self-support groups for the physically disabled? For Veterans? For cancer survivors? Would you ban the Paralympics?

Would you also ban GSAs? Gay and lesbian nightclubs? Ladies’ Art Nights? Chinese students’ associations? Native Friendship Centres?

I hope not.

But seems that when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities, some people’s idea of “inclusion” has as a fundamental tenet “isolation from peers at all costs, whatever the actual needs or desires of the individual.”

That is a tragically dangerous and damaging mission statement that would not be tolerated by any group that has a voice, indeed, would not be tolerated in a truly inclusive society. And it is a betrayal of a disparate group of too-often-isolated individuals that desperately needs its myriad of long-silenced and ignored voices heard.

Like any other group in our society, those with intellectual disabilities have a need and a fundamental human right to freely associate with their peers. Not enabling  that right — or outright banning it as some “advocates” and groups desire — is not inclusion. It is segregation as damaging to the individual and to the individual’s human spirit and potential as any other form of segregation.

I simply have to end with a song:

A Few Privileged and Hasty Notes on Two Edmonton Planning Concerns

I have a bit of time on my hands, unlike the majority of people in my neighbourhood. Most people around me are still students, parents, renters, workers, homeless, marginalized, seniors, mobility challenged, with an “and/or” between each item. With each passing year the proportion of well-off, privileged, work-from-home, non-parent, chronically healthy, house/condo-owning individuals increases in my neighbourhood. I confess I am one of the privileged, fortunate enough to have moved into the neighbourhood in the 80s and stayed on through the decades of change. I have time to sit and do online surveys where the City attempts to “engage” with citizens (but really just gives the time-privileged a place to vent about their pet projects) and write blog posts.

Right now I have two pet beefs: the “planned” Centre Line LRT and the ongoing “Renewal” of the infrastructure of Strathcona. I’ll begin with the renewal because it is the one that has actually had a concrete start on the avenue in front of my house.

Renewal in Strathcona

Over the last few summers, 83 Avenue, most thoroughly in the stretch between 99 Street and the Mill Creek Ravine, has been closed for long periods while the road has been rebuilt, sidewalks and streetlights have been replaced, and a dedicated bike lane has been added. Superficially and in principle I love it all. I will soon be able to cycle to my little bit of part-time retirement work in (confusion and) safety (sort of). I can walk safely to the wonderful amenities of Strathcona, in my case, particularly the theatres and restaurants, and pretty much only in daylight. Bus service is wonderful for all the places I need to get that are a little too far to walk or too cold to cycle. And I’m privileged to have a car for the further trips or when I’ve a little too much to carry. The neighbourhood is good to me.

But. There has to be a but.

When the planners came up with the bike lane design, they decided on a multitude of them, particularly if the 106 Street doubled, multi-level, skinny lanes are considered. Between the Ravine and 99 Street on 83 Ave the lane is painted, dedicated to bikes one way and shared with cars the other, with wacky little roundabouts at the intersections and no left turns for cars off 99th. The roundabouts are a dangerous and confusing menace to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. They limit access for emergency vehicles, city maintenance vehicles, and moving and delivery trucks. The restriction on left turns off 99th forces resident motorists and visitor motorists to make convoluted loops through the neighbourhood, or to make dangerous left turns down back alleys, merely to get to their home/destination.

Between 99th and 103 and beyond 104 it seems to be largely a physically separated two way lane with one way car traffic and greatly reduced parking, largely in front of walk up, largely rental apartments, rather than single family-owned homes. Clearly those who depend on cars, particularly renters and the mobility challenged, were not considered in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Between 103 and 104 the bike lane is a slightly elevated abomination which I expect will lead to countless trips, falls, and injuries during summer festival season. Clearly pedestrian safety was not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

The north-south lane on 106 street is an ugly and confusing collections of winding curbs and green pillars that make driving or cycling feel like flying an x-wing down the trench on the Death Star. With speed bumps. Bus stops are separated from sidewalks by bicycle traffic lanes, and busses are boarded from a thin curb on the edge of the bike lane, a virtual impossibility for those with walkers or in wheelchairs. Clearly transit users and the mobility challenged were not a consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

I won’t even imagine the headaches of snow removal.

The sidewalks that have been rebuilt so far are very nice and walkable. A+ on the final concrete work.

The new streetlights on 83 Ave east of 99th are very pretty in the daytime, I expect they save energy at night, and the adequately light the road and bike lane after dark. But after dark the sidewalks are a pitch black abyss. Often when walking home after dark — which, face it, is any time after 4 pm for a good part of the year — I have been infinitely grateful for the home owner who has left a porch light on to help guide my steps. Clearly pedestrians with or without mobility issues were not a huge consideration in this planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Given the inconsistency of the designs used in these really quite small and straight stretches of bike lanes and the confusion and danger this inconsistency will cause, I feel it clear that cyclists weren’t actually a huge consideration in this particular planning, or, if considered, dismissed as inconsequential.

Right now the City is “consulting” with citizens (who have the privilege of leisure and time to go online and do a survey or show up at open houses) about the future steps in this reconstruction of Strathcona’s infrastructure. Much of the open and less open thrust of what little discussion there has been has been a giddy push for more bike lanes, apparently whatever the design or consequences of that design.

The Centre Line

There seems to be a desire on the part of unnamed planners to have a surface, low-floor LRT line down Whyte Avenue between the University of Alberta and Bonnie Doon, replicating one of Edmonton’s wonderful old streetcar lines. Right now that stretch is well serviced by a fleet of convenient kneeling buses which are regularly filled with citizens of all social and mobility levels. But, okay. I like the LRT. I take it fairly regularly. Having a stop a block from home would be nice.

But.

Where are these planners? Have they ever been to Edmonton? Have they never even looked at a map of the current LRT lines? “. . . connections between Downtown, the Alberta Legislature, the University of Alberta, Strathcona, Bonnie Doon, east Edmonton and the wider LRT network” the blabbity says. But, Downtown, the Legislature and the U of A have had LRT connections for years. For decades! If you look at the map accompanying the “plan”, every bit of the proposed route, except the bit down Whyte Avenue, parallels/duplicates an existing and expensively constructed underground LRT line — through downtown it would be the third east west line! And a new bridge will have to be built almost on top of two existing ones. Why? What is the reason for duplicating that line on the surface and those bridges? Are they trying to justify the (inevitably monumentally disruptive) line down Whyte Avenue? Why not just build a surface line from Health Sciences station to Bonnie Doon and beyond? Even just between Health Sciences and Bonnie Doon the line would be significantly longer than the current continually troubled NAIT line, and it would be a good start on a long overdue commuter line to Sherwood Park. And no redundancy (if we forget about the buses which are doing so nicely on that route).

As someone who uses/has used all transportation modes in the city –car, bus, LRT, High Level Streetcar, walking, cycling, motorscooter — even unicycling in my younger days — but not those Segway river valley tours, I wish Edmonton’s planners would spend less time on narrowly focused dreams and misleading consultations with privileged single-issue citizen activists and a little more time actually walking, driving, cycling, LRTing, and bussing through the areas they’re treating like big sandboxes of expensive experiment.