Seagulls

2017-10-19

in Photo of the day

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I suppose it’s at least as old as the letter, but communications anxiety (COMANX) has some notable features. Whenever one feels it is possible that a psychologically difficult message will arrive via any medium — whether it’s by mail, telephone, email, text, or Facebook — it sets up the mind to be constantly apprehensive. Every moment of time that passes is either one where such a message is received, or where you’re still waiting.

One option, which I think is frequently healthy, is to limit the time periods in which electronic messages can become known to you, especially when it comes to asynchronous forms of communication like email and Facebook. There is still anxiety associated with the knowledge of being disconnected and the apprehension of the waiting message queue, but to my mind it’s way less stressful than trying to do other things when a message could literally make itself known to you in a fraction of any passing second. (This is one reason why the ‘phone’ part of an iPhone is very stressful, and airplane mode is a blessing for the anxious.)

In the end, even going to live in the Burmese jungle (“You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”) is only a partial remedy to living in fear of the message that could come: the rejection, the admonishment, the confirmation of bad news, the doomed appeal for help.

As is so often the case in modern life, each of us is left with Margaret Atwood’s six options for dealing with the apocalypse: Protect Yourself, Give Up and Party, Help Others, Blame, Bear Witness, and Go About Your Life.

When you decide to protect yourself, please ask: “At what cost to others?”

We can all destroy ourselves by abandoning self-care activities, but check mentally that your “partying” activities are mitigating rather than multiplying your stressors.

Blame can be important in two ways. One is for the historian, and it’s the eventual recognition that something which was done was a great evil. The other has the power to avert the evil if it is applied with speedy effectiveness. Using blame to control people is complicated and risky, you may harm them for no reason, and you may not make them behave as you wish.

Helping others is a universal good as far as I’m concerned, but you must be mindful about what is help and what isn’t and the limits of your understanding. The other night, I saw a raccoon up in a tree in the park north of Ontario’s legislature. A bunch of gawkers with lights and cameras were watching this raccoon and discussing what they ought to do to help it. This is a creature that lives on garbage, dodging terrifying bright-eyed fast-moving lethal monsters (cars), but which is nonetheless in no need of human help in a tree. Short version: don’t assume that what would seem like “help” to you in your imagined version of another being’s situation as definitely being the thing that should be done. Humility is important, especially in the apocalypse.

Bearing witness is inevitable, at least if you are emotionally sensitive enough to have any understanding of what I mean by communications anxiety. The day you start to catalog forms of anxiety is a bit of a watershed moment. Anything in your life that has led you to develop a sophisticated catalog system is probably something that will be important to you for as long as your consciousness holds together.

Go About Your Life: but how?

COMANX is a form of fear of the future, of what’s still in the darkness ahead of you. Trying to stay awake, eyes peeled, looking ahead will unmetaphorically and entirely really kill you until you die and very quickly. If anxiety is something present enough for you to categorize and you live in the modern world, you already have strategies for dealing with the challenges of constant connectivity through multiple means.

Aside to people currently worried about me: a flipside of our society’s attraction to what is happening right now can be an inability to have appropriate compassion for people describing events long-past. It seems urgent and pressing to you because it’s new information, but you shouldn’t necessarily dramatically reinterpret how you see a person or dramatically change your behaviour. It would be much better to find someone currently in distress and give them loving, compassionate, nurturing attention. (Not me please! I would prefer to have some space for a while.)

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It seems the WPA2 encryption system used by most WiFi networks is badly broken:

This follows recent breaks in core security technologies like SSLStrip and Heartbleed.

People with good security practices like defence in depth and compartmentalization of sensitive information might not be too threatened by this. Those relying exclusively on the integrity of WPA2 may be in big trouble.

What are you sharing on your wireless network? Any file servers, cameras, or other sensitive systems?

Do you run your internet traffic through a second layer of encryption like a VPN and stick to HTTPS/TLS for sensitive websites?

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A small but indicative example of how the University of Toronto doesn’t prioritize the welfare of its students is the way in which the gym access included in student fees during the fall and winter terms is cut off in the summer, requiring students to pay a per-facility fee to keep using it. This is especially bad for grad students, since they are likely to be around during the summer and also likely to be impoverished, since U of T’s exceptionally stingy funding packages usually provide nothing during the summer (though full-time work on your research project is still the tak of PhD students) and there are few TA positions available.

Given the demonstrated benefits of fitness and exercise, the significant psychological challenges of grad school, and the millions it spends on fancy new buildings it seems like it would be much more sensible for U of T to make gym access a year-round service for year-round students.

In any case, I went to the attractively faux-Gothic gym in Hart House yesterday and found that my fitness has degraded less than expected since my wrist injury pulled me out of Judo. My mind has been full of worries lately and 90 minutes alternating between elliptical and rowing machines was a considerable help.

I should make a point of going at least twice a week as a Judo replacement.

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Friday’s episode of “The Current” discussed the case of Michael Foster who — after warning the pipeline control centre to shut off the pumping stations — turned a valve to shut down the flow of bitumen through the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota. It’s a very self-conscious act of civil disobedience, with Foster sending video to the company in real time showing that the shutdown was imminent and discussing beforehand his expectation that he would be convicted of a crime (transcript / MP3).

Few who take climate change seriously would see this action as unjustified. Canada should have started shutting down the oil sands decades ago and should never have developed them to their current size. There is much debate, however, on the effectiveness of such actions. Their logic depends on influencing external actors: either the general public or the legal system.

Fairly recently my friend Stuart was involved in a non-violent direct action blocking automobile access to Heathrow airport. The objective was essentially “consciousness raising” (he said it was to “stir up the national debate about Heathrow”), that the willingness of activists to put themselves in legal jeopardy would make people accept how terribly unethical our casual use of air travel is.

In the Heathrow case, it’s hard for me to imagine that outcome. Air travellers are stressed and deeply entitled. They feel totally justified in complaining about any inconvenience, and I doubt more than a trivial number would reconsider the broad context of their air travel use when exposed to an action like this.

The situation discussed in the pipeline shutdown case podcast seems to offer a little more hope, largely because of the opportunity to use the legal proceedings as a vehicle for public education. Pipeline companies are already seen as villains by many, and the public and the courts may be more sympathetic to the value of disrupting them than of disrupting the air travel of ‘normal’ people. That said, the courts are a bad mechanism for trying to change climate policy for several reasons: they tend to defer to elected politicians on questions of policy, they can prohibit specific things but rarely order broad outcomes, and rulings requiring broad policy changes are often ignored.

We don’t have good options though. The general public are entitled, selfish, and determined to defend the status quo even when it imposes catastrophe on others. It’s common to say that they are apathetic, but I think that’s a misdiagnosis; it’s less that people have accepted the need to act but are unwilling to do so personally and more that they are constantly acting to support the system that is destroying nature and the prospects of all future human generations. They are unwilling to change their lives or their politics nearly enough or nearly quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe. No political party in Canada, the U.S., or U.K. has a serious plan to meet the Paris Agreement targets, much less to actually avoid dangerous climate change. And so, in an unprecedented situation and with no good options, activists are trying what’s available and sacrificing their freedom to do so.

One of the most insightful comments about climate change is George Monbiot’s observation that:

[The campaign against climate change] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves.

No matter how strong the scientific consensus and how undeniable the real-world evidence becomes, nothing so far has convinced people to take action even slightly commensurate with the scale of action required, and people turn all their intellectual and rhetorical skills to justify that inaction (such as by pointing to the other good things they do). Overcoming those psychological responses may be just as important as breaking the power of the fossil fuel industry in a global campaign that can keep us from imposing so much suffering on future generations that we threaten the very ability of human civilization to endure.

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