Wednesday Night #1447

The Internet and the media,  Social networking, Wikipedia …  but first, Mackay Smith presented his new copiously illustrated book – and labor of love –  Memories and Profiles of McGill University, which profiles 141 buildings the university owns or leases on its downtown campus. The author’s choice to self-publish brings both advantages and disadvantages which were debated with great interest, and Wednesday Nighters joined in offering suggestions on how to market the book to McGill graduates and others with an interest in the architectural heritage and history of Montreal.

The Scribe’s Prologue
Almost a century after its demise, the buggy whip remains the metaphor for the demise of technology once considered eternal and secure, as has been the case with Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, introduced by him in 1450 and up until recently, alive and well. The dailies have evolved from hand-set lead type to electronic typesetting but still report the news, occasionally at no cost to the reader, but always well below the cost of publication, remuneratively rewarded by the sale of advertising, keeping the newspaper industry in good financial health. As Britannia’s rule of the waves was once considered absolute and eternal, so was Britannica in the area of accuracy and dependability of information. The electronic age has brought a change to both. The current generation has discovered that which should have been obvious, namely that “absolute” and “eternal” do not exist in the real world, especially in the area of information.
Today, social networks convey diverse views of news and opinion from around the world in a fraction of a second at no cost to the viewer, permitting him or her to select those that appear to be most factual. Newspapers have responded with electronic versions, but these appear to have reduced their financial viability to the point of extinction. Optimists and those supportive of the electronic dailies are certain that a means of monetizing that admittedly useful service will be found, preventing their ultimate demise. The digital mind is impatient, wants the news selectively and immediately, without having to go through a large volume of other information.
On the surface, Wikipedia appears unreliable because it has been written and edited by many anonymous, unsupervised contributors but in fact, is not only accurate but timely as well. Unlike Britannica, in which factual errors cannot be corrected until the publication of the next edition many years later, corrections in Wikipedia are made anonymously within days or at times, hours.
As science has progressed in the area of health care, medical care has been transformed from the Physician remaining at the bedside of his patient all night until the “crisis” had passed or the prescription of medication, the content of which was concealed from the patient because its effect was far more psychological than physical, to an open dialogue between Physician and patient, the latter having been thoroughly briefed on his or her medical state and medication following consultation with the web.
Social networks, spearheaded by youth, bring uncensored, accurate, unmassaged events to the world but more importantly, to individuals, many of whom are journalists, within seconds of their occurrence – think the protests and events surrounding the elections in Iran last summer. Like an agora in the sky, they provide a forum for discussion and diversity of approach to people of varied backgrounds and common interests. For those who view Twitter and Face Book as evidence of the shallowness of the juvenile brain, they should consider that these are not forever but change with the age and maturity of the individual.
Absolute truth no longer exists in the minds of post-modern Man. The concept of the glory of war is diluted by the knowledge of the previously shielded reality of the disastrous effect on our own troops and on those, very much like us, whom we consider the enemy. In the absence of absolute truth, all we can do is pursue truth as it exists and the extent to which we succeed in doing so measures our success as a society.
One problem is the need to filter information posted on the Web, separating the reliable from the sensational or patently biased. The apparent loss of credibility of the parliamentary system reported by some, might very well be attributed to the absence of filtering on the Web. A personal filter that distinguishes the reasonable from the incredible is desirable. This is equally true of the print and electronic media who sometimes tend to attribute greater prominence to the sensational than to the credible.

T H E  I N V I T A T I O N

What an interesting week we have survived, giving rise to a series of randomly related topics for which we will have to find a thread – or maybe not.
The EU now has a permanent president and chief of foreign affairs. Of course, no-one is totally happy and there is sniping over the ‘unknowns’ who have been selected, particularly over the choice of Baroness Catherine Ashton. Would Tony Blair have been a better choice? We think not, but are prepared to listen to counter arguments.
There is little cheery to be said about the UN World Food Security Summit‘s dismal failure last week, other than to deplore the sadly predictable lack of positive outcomes.
We have decided to dispense with the gnashing of teeth of many media fulminators, opting for the view of President Obama’s trip to China offered by James Fallows in The Atlantic: Manufactured failure: press coverage of Obama in Asia wherein he suggests  that what actually happened on the trip was almost exactly what informed observers expected to happen, and not some humiliating disappointment. On the same topic, is the headline China Gains in U.S. Eyes, and India Feels Slights – more manufactured news or yet another incipient diplomatic incident? Need we (the rest of the world) worry?
Still on China, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney  made headlines in Bloomberg when he said the global economic recovery could be hobbled if China and other major countries keep restricting movements of their currencies.
Which in turn leads us to the looming issue of the deficit and the alarm that is spreading through generally sober media e.g. Wave of Debt Payments Facing U.S. Government, or should we take comfort in Paul Krugman’s view that “the numbers don’t fit the scare story — a decade from now interest payments will reach a level not seen since … 1992. And the market seems unworried, since long-term rates remain low”? On the other hand (he is of course an economist), Mr. Krugman is less sanguine in his column of November 22.
There is more in the Irish Times.
We might also wish to consider the Financial Times’ somewhat alarmist piece Divisions emerge on stimulus strategy which notes that “stark divisions are emerging among economic policymakers about how quickly governments and central banks should withdraw emergency support measures, with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warning on Monday about the risks of early exit.”
For a somewhat related entertaining and informative read, we suggest William D. Cohan’s Endless Summers
“Bouncing between top posts at Harvard and the White House—neither place lacking in big egos—Larry Summers has never been afraid to speak his mind. Are his critics right to call him a bully, or are they just cowed by his brilliance?”
On the eve of the Climate Change Conference, our week has been enlivened by a major battle in the (Canadian) media over climate change denial, led by James Hoggan (whose book was launched in Montreal on Monday night by the David Suzuki Foundation, of which he is Chairman). The National Post has been in full cry, cheering on its columnist Lawrence Solomon, author of The Deniers ever since both appeared on CBC’s The Current.
And there is the row over the leaked E-mail tirade —  Messages sent to and from climate change experts appear to show them plotting to manipulate data and hurling abuse at their sceptical peers.
Meantime, Jean Charest has announced that Quebec will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from its 1990 levels by 2020.
On a related note for those who missed last Wednesday Night’s announcement, Cleo Paskal‘s long-awaited book “Global Warring” is about to be launched. We look forward to our own modest (but very enthusiastic) Wednesday Night launch when she returns to Montreal next month.
What a brouhaha has been created by Les indiscrétions de Mme Dion – she certainly called it as she sees it, but to do so on Facebook? We suspect that she is far too intelligent to have thought this was a private communication to a few friends and is secretly delighted that it spread so quickly through the ether to the media. Apparently her husband continues to support Mr. Ignatieff, leading us to wonder about pillow talk in the Dion household.
Richard Colvin
has stirred up another hornet’s nest
, albeit in the government’s backyard. We are confused by Minister MacKay’s declaration that “The suspensions [of transfer of Afghan prisoners] are proof that agreements aimed at treating detainees humanely are working” and look forward to clarification by those more attuned to government-speak than we are. Possibly General Hillier’s testimony on Wednesday will enlighten us.
We were comforted to read that with reference to Mr. Colvin’s current position, Minister MacKay told reporters “Decisions about promotions and placement of civil servants is not a partisan exercise . Those are decisions that are taken internally. I think there would be outrage if the government simply started hiring and firing based on politics.” (Really?)
A tragic note from Afghanistan is the report that Attacks on Afghan schools, students rise “According to the study — Knowledge on Fire: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan, which was released by CARE, the World Bank and the Afghanistan government on Monday — the attacks nearly tripled in 2008, with 670 recorded, up from 241 in 2006 and 242 in 2007.”
Locally, we are very encouraged by Mayor Tremblay‘s appointments to the Executive Committee and pray that they augur  intelligent cooperation among the various parties, along with serious loyal opposition – who knows, maybe Montreal will become a model for other levels of government? Dare we hope that this administration will listen to the new  Institut de politiques alternatives de Montréal (IPAM)?
Finally, we have two suggested reading items from  Policy Options, November 2009
“The new global governance: time for a great leap forward” by John Sinclair
We live in turbulent times, with the global economy still on life-support. Having reached here through decades of industrialization with roots in cheap energy, we are confronted by strong rivals in the emerging economies, as well as the existential threat of global warming. The institutional framework we built at Bretton Woods is now vulnerable. Power relations are in flux. The G8 that Canada fought to join is doomed to rapid decline as the new multi-polar world seizes upon the G20 as the framework to drive global economic, soon political, governance. To protect our relevance Canada should lead that transition at Muskoka.
and
Jeremy Kinsman: “From the G8 to the G20 – to Muskoka, via the UN”
As the G8 morphs into the G20 in Muskoka, Ontario, next year, questions arise about Canada’s role on this broader summit stage. “It is widely assumed that Canadian influence and prominence on the world stage will necessarily shrink” with the arrival of emerging global players, including China, India and Brazil. But Kinsman also observes that “much of Canada’s connectedness has to do with international civil society, NGOs and research webs.” Next year, Canada has “a special opportunity to make a crucial difference,” as host and co-chair of the Muskoka summit, and as a candidate for membership on the UN Security Council.

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