Are most farms still family farms?

2016/09/08

This is the second in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 1: Most farms are still family farms.

This is a claim I should never have put forth in the first place, because I have no reason to believe it, and nowhere near the experience to be able to say how likely it is to be true or false.

I grew up on a family farm, surrounded by family farms, so it feels true. But I don’t know whether my experience is anomalous or not.

For this article, I’ll define the claim as meaning that more than half of farms by number are family farms, and that they represent more than half of the agricultural production of the country. (Yes, these are two separate claims, and will be dealt with separately where possible.)

When I tried to research this claim, I came across various barriers. For example, the 2011 Statistics Canada report on agricultural demographics contains lots of information but doesn’t anywhere seem to address the question of how many family farms there are, their proportion of farming (either by a count of farms or by acreage), or anything like that. A 2012 article in the Globe and Mail discussing the same StatsCan census information claims that the number of family farms has decreased by 10% and the average size has increased by 7%. This suggests to me that family farms don’t look like what we are used to thinking of. But it doesn’t define “family farm”, and doesn’t tell us what proportion of farms are family farms, by number or acreage.

Looking at our southern neighbours, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported in 2015 that 97% of farms are family-owned, and 88% are “small family farms” (annual gross cash income less than $350k. So the original meme, which came from the US, is almost certainly true, at least regarding number of farms. Again, I didn’t see data on proportion by acreage.

A 2016 article in the journal World Development looks globally. (This article is dated November 2016, which seems odd given that it is now only September 2016. I’m guessing the electronic version comes out early, and is dated to when the print version is due to come out.) They find that, worldwide, 98% of farmers are family farmers, and they hold 68% of farming land. So far so good. They don’t directly report on Canada’s numbers, but Figure 1 in the article seems to suggest that in Canada, between 40% and 60% of farms are family farms:

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each ...

Figure 1. 

World map with countries covered and the percent of family farms in each country.

 

But one caveat for conclusions from this study is that the authors acknowledge a broad lack of consensus about what the term “family farm” means. Different countries define it differently. Does it mean a farm owned by a family? That would, conceivably, mean any farm that is not a publicly-traded corporation. (My own family’s farm is a privately-held corporation. Would it count?) Does it mean a farm that has been operated by members of the same family for more than one generation? And what does it really tell us about the economic structure of farming? Many farmers contract their production to food manufacturers. Consider a family farm producing potatoes for a potato-chip factory. If the farm’s business is dependent on that factory, would its effect on our society be closer to a family farm or to a comparable farm directly owned by a corporation?

Conclusion

I’m afraid the conclusion for this one is far less definite than I’d like. Worldwide, the lcaim seems definitely true. In North America, the claim seems definitely true. In Canada, the most specific information says we have between 40% and 60% family farms, which sounds like a toss-up to me.

What’s important about this claim? I think there are two aspects. One, more social or nostalgic, is an image of the rustic hayseed producing food because that’s what the family has done for generations. I think this side of farming is declining: the stats do say that acreage is increasing, meaning that all farms – family-run or otherwise – rely on technology to work more land. The other is the independence of farming from the sort of large-scale corporate interests that reduce consumer choice and affect our health and economy in ways we don’t always want. I cannot say where we are on this scale.

I’m sorry to leave you with such an open, unsatisfying conclusion. But better that than pretend to know something I don’t actually know.

If anyone has better data on this, please let me know. I’d love to have a clearer perspective on this issue.

If family farms – whatever that means – are important to you, the best way to express that is to support them as directly as possible. Farmers markets. On-farm stores.

Eagle Creek Farms

In fact, if you live in or would like to visit central Alberta, why don’t you check out Eagle Creek Farms? The farm I grew up on currently produces seed potatoes in a wide range of varieties, from plain white to blue to candy-cane and more, for gardeners across Canada. It also has community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions for both summer and winter, as well as a flower and vegetable U-pick patch during the summer, and a wide variety of mazes – including several acres of corn and sunflower mazes. My great-grandad, Tope Mills, first moved out to the area, and my family has been farming there ever since. Right now, my dad, Stan, and my brother, John, are working hard to keep the farm running. Mail-order potatoes, U-pick flowers, and CSA are all ideas that would surprise Tope, I think. But the basic idea of feeding people and supporting a family in a beautiful rural setting hasn’t changed all that much.

</shameless plug>

Are GMOs safe?

2016/09/05

This is the first in a series of posts examining claims in a Facebook meme I shared. Go here for the setup.

Claim 1: GMOs are safe.

What does this mean? It could mean that they are safe for human consumption: that eating food products from genetically modified organisms is as safe as eating comparable products from non-genetically modified organisms. It could mean that they are safe for the environment: that the use of genetic modification introduces no more risk for the ecosystem than the use of other agricultural technologies. It could conceivably also mean they are economically and socially safe: that GMOs do not pose a risk of (say) corporate exploitation of farmers, or other social ills, compared to non-GMO agricultural methods.

I will address the first two: health ecological safety. The third will, I think, fall under a later claim (about Monsanto).

Health

The first source I have found here is from the WHO (World Health Organization), an international group that has no apparent influence either from corporate interests that might promote GMOs beyond the evidence for safety, nor from organic corporate interests that might demonize them beyond the evidence for danger. Their mission is “to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world.” They have an FAQ that claims that all the GMOs tested so far “are not likely to present risks for human health.”

The second source, WebMD, is an online medical news and information site. Their mission “is to bring you the most objective, trustworthy, and accurate health information.” They claim to maintain journalistic integrity and independence, and I am not aware of any reason to challenge this claim. Their feature about GMO safety is quite long and detailed. They point out where GM technology falls on the continuum of agricultural practices throughout human history and prehistory. It is useful to note that we have been modifying our food – through selective breeding, cross-breeding, and other means – for millennia. They cite the American Medical Association, the WHO, and scientific studies supporting the safety of GMOs. They also note that the alternatives to GM technology are generally treatment with herbicides and pesticides, and techniques that accelerate the production of genetic variation (mutation) to enable the development of new traits by chance. They also point out that, biologically, there is nothing magic about genetically-modified organisms. They use the same chemical and biological processes to grow and reproduce. The way our bodies process them is the same. The only difference is that certain of their traits have been more precisely and deliberately introduced. Their conclusion is that GMOs seem to be as safe as the alternatives, though of course there is always room for more study.

I also came across an accessible peer-reviewed article from 2003, in the journal Toxicological Sciences. It is titled “The safety of genetically modified foods produced through biotechnology“. Here is the key conclusion: “The available scientific evidence indicates that the potential adverse health effects arising from biotechnology-derived foods are not different in nature from those created by conventional breeding practices for plant, animal, or microbial enhancement, and are already familiar to toxicologists. It is therefore important to recognize that the food product itself, rather than the process through which it is made, should be the focus of attention in assessing safety.”

Finally, there is a campaign by a group of nobel laureates called Support Precision Agriculture. They are all highly-accomplished scientists, so I think their pronouncements – especially en masse – about scientific claims carry some weight. However, they are not all experts in the relevant fields, so their statement is only valid to the extent that it relies on and agrees with consensus science in the field. It looks like this is exactly their goal: to amplify the signal of true science against a backdrop of propaganda from special interests (both the billion-dollar corporate organic lobby and the corporate pro-GM lobby). The campaign is intended to show that the science supports genetic modification as a safe technology with lots of promise to meet the needs of 21st-century agriculture. Perhaps the most persuasive part of their website, for me, is this graphic, which carries the headline “Is GM food safe? If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.” It follows this with statements from 22 organizations representing scientists in medical, agricultural, and other relevant research areas. All of the statements support the safety of GM techniques in agriculture.

In an effort to explicitly seek out the other side, I searched for scientific evidence for dangers of GMO technology. I found several sources, most of which seemed to point to this 2014 article, titled “10 scientific studies proving GMOs can be harmful to human health”. The claim being made is clear from the title. However, in 2015, an molecular geneticist responded with an article on the Genetic Literacy Project website, titled “10 studies proving GMOs are harmful? Not if science matters”. Her article shows that these claims are overblown and unscientific. Several of the “studies” are not studies at all, but opinion pieces or other types of anti-GMO propaganda. One real study was retracted, and one was published in a journal that charges authors for publication (a practice that, in this case, calls its scientific validity into question). For the remainder, she cites controversy and a marked lack of consensus about the real implications of the studies.

I should note that the author of the rebuttal piece works for a biotechnology company (a fact that is openly disclosed at the foot of her article), so she is vulnerable to accusations of conflict of interest. However, to the extent that I understand and can independently reason about the arguments, her reasoning seems to be sound. For example, one of the claims against GMOs is that they can alter the DNA of the people consuming them. Remembering that a genetically-modified plant is still a plant, there is no reasonable mechanism by which they have more power to corrupt the DNA of animals that eat them than non-genetically-modified plants have. So the claim that GM plants are dangerous in this way is akin to someone worrying that flying in a plane (which defies the normal effect of gravity on our bodies) will affect your mass.

In summary, the best evidence I could find confirms the claim that GMOs are safe for human consumption. There may be some controversy in the scientific field, but I was not able to find a solid, empirically-supported contradicting the established evidence for their safety.

Ecology

 

So, what about their ecological safety? I found two applicable reports during my quick survey.

One, published in Advances in Biochemical Engineering/Biotechnology, is titled “Ecological impacts of genetically modified crops: ten years of field research and commercial cultivation“. It asserts that there is no evidence for ecological harm in the crops and modifications relevant to western and central Europe (maize, oilseed rape, and soybean).

The other is a report from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. They “concluded that any risk that genetically modified crops have been shown to pose derives from the trait displayed rather than any inherent risk posed by the technology itself.” (p54) In other words, genetic engineering adds no special risk, above the risks already posed by various agricultural products and practices. There are risks to monoculture, intensive agriculture, and indiscriminate use of certain chemicals – but these risks have nothing to do with genetic modifications. In fact, some of them may be mitigated by judicious and targeted genetic modifications.

Conclusion

The evidence overall seems very clear. Genetically modified crops are safe. They are safe to eat. They are safe for the environment.

More specifically, we have no reason to expect them to be less safe than the alternatives. All foods carry risks. We could choke. We could have allergies. We could consume them in ways that compromise our overall nutrition. We could produce them in unsustainable ways, compromising the agricultural land or the surrounding ecosystems. But none of these risks – as far as they have been studied – seem to be any greater for foods produced with careful genetic editing than those produced through selective breeding, accelerated mutation, or any of the other ways that we change our food’s genetics.

This isn’t to say that there’s no chance of danger. As with any knowledge, this is tentative and subject to revision pending further data. But to say that we should reject genetic modification just in case it turns out to be dangerous is no more rational than to say we should reject selective breeding just in case it turns out to be dangerous.

Anyway, I’ll end here. I’m sure you don’t all agree with this conclusion. If you have an empirically-supported objection to anything I’ve said, please let me know.

Beware the meme

2016/08/31

I recently shared a meme on Facebook that made the following claims:

  • GMOs are safe.
  • Most farms are still family farms.
  • There are no antibiotics in your meat.
  • Organic does not mean healthy.
  • We don’t drench crops in toxic chemicals.
  • Farm animals are treated well.
  • Monsanto doesn’t control the food supply.
  • Farmers are not the bad guys.

(Original source: http://www.thefarmersdaughterusa.com/2016/08/list-of-truths.html)

I originally shared this as a “yah, I agree with most of this stuff” Facebook meme. I hadn’t thought carefully or critically about all of the claims. I know they aligned with my general feelings (biases? prejudices?), and I know they were popular beliefs among my social circle (online and in person).

But those are, of course, very bad reasons for propagating ideas. Fortunately, some of my Facebook friends very quickly called me out on the post. Different people objected to different of the claims, but the general takeaway was clear: I needed to research and back up the claims, or retract them.

So here I go, looking at each of the claims. I have a feeling that I won’t end up agreeing with all of them. But, if I am true to myself, I will end up with a more defensible and (more importanly) more accurate picture of things than what I started with.

Now, I am an expert in exactly one of the claims, and it is the least important from a scientific standpoint. (Spoiler: it’s the last one.) So, when it comes to evaluating them, I will have to rely on other experts. And, because I do not fact-check Facebook memes as a full-time job, I will necessarily be doing this mostly over the Internet. So how will I know that the conclusions I reach aren’t just as biased as my initial pass was? How will I decide which search results to follow and trust, and which to disregard?

Well, I’ll set up some criteria that (to the best of my knowledge) are not biased toward a particular conclusion.

Science is the key. If a claim is supported by scientific evidence, and not refuted by better scientific evidence, then it is a claim worth believing. If it has no scientific support, poor scientific support, or scientific support that is overridden by other evidence, then it is not worth believing. So, the gold standard of evidence will be scientific studies.

But I am not able to comb through the scientific literature of all of the relevant fields. So I will also rely on summary articles, including news articles from sources I believe are relatively unbiased and blog posts from sites whose goal is clearly scientific accuracy. Yes, I know that this introduces the potential for bias on my part. Who do I judge to be scientific and who is being ideological? Well, all I can say is that I’ll do my best, and post this publicly (and on Facebook) so that any errors can be pointed out.

So my last line of defense is the same as that which prompted this deep dive: you folks, my friends and readers. If you see me making a claim that is not backed up by a good source, or citing a source that you think is more biased than I am treating it, call me out. Ultimately, the only way I can get past the biases I don’t even know I have is if people point them out. I will take your feedback as constructively as I can. (Any scientific references you can offer will be appreciated.)

I know I can be long-winded, so I’m going to parse this out as one claim per post. When I’m done, I’ll put an index on this post linking to each of the separate claims.

For those of you on Facebook, you are welcome to comment there as each post comes out. However, the blog is more public, so I’d love as much of the discussion as possible to happen there.

Here goes …

Illnesses in metaphor

2016/03/11

I just read a line in a news article that made me wonder about the connotations of different types of disease in our language.

The article is about a sex video which was made against the wishes of at least one of the participants, and shared on a popular website. It ends with this quote from a lawyer:

I know some like to call it viral, but in this case, it was cancer.

His meaning is clear in the context: we talk about things going “viral” on the Internet in a value-neutral or even value-positive way: it just means lots of people are watching, reading, sharing. It is exciting for something you make to “go viral”.

But the popularity of this video, which the participants had requested be taken down, was not value-neutral or positive. It was damaging.

Which brings us to the language used by the lawyer. What’s particularly interesting is that, at a gut level, I get it – it makes sense – but intellectually I’m trying to work out why.

I mean, nobody likes to get sick. But viruses have just as much potential as cancers to make our lives miserable, and to kill us or those we love. So why the hating on cancer in this social-media metaphor, while viruses get off easy?

I think it comes down to personal experience. (As always.)

We all have experience of getting a bit of a cold, and getting over it. Sure, viruses in the news are alarming and scary – like Zika or Ebola a bad flu pandemic, but our personal experience of viruses is normally of a mild inconvenience. It’s the infectiousness – the ease and speed of the spread – that is prominent. So that’s what gets translated into the metaphor.

But cancer? You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has an indifferent experience of cancer. Some people beat it – more and more every year, thanks to medical science. But the cancer, and especially its spread, is invariably the bad-guy, the boogeyman, the awful thing that you feel powerless to stop.

Curious.

Footnote:

* This blog post is about the language in that last line, so I’m not going to get into the case itself. If you really want to learn more, here is the article I’m referring to.

Stoic feminism?

2016/02/17

One topic that is very much on my mind these days is feminism. I continue to notice ways that the world is stacked against women in favour of men.

That I haven’t noticed these things before – things like rape culture, gender-based pay inequality, and the very sexist tendencies in health care – is largely due to the privileged position I hold as a man. It is so collossally easy not to notice injustice, or not to see it as unjust, when you benefit from it.

And now that I notice these things, and see them as wrong, I find myself amazed that not everyone accepts the profound evidence for them. There are people who think accused men are the real victims in sexual assault cases. There are people who think there is no real inequality in income between men and women. There are even people who think anti-abortion laws are pro-feminist. (Wrongwrong, and wrong!)

Another thing on my mind is Stoicism. Yes, I mean that ancient philosophy that is popularly (but wrongly) associated with emotional constipation and indifference.

I’ve talked about it a little bit already on this site. Today, I’m not really out to give a primer on Stoicism. There are plenty of places where you can begin to learn a little about it – you can read introductions on Reddit’s Stoicism FAQ, or at the Stoicism Today site, or listen to the Good Fortune or Painted Porch podcasts about applying Stoicism to life today, or watch a video about it. (Or, as I did, just do a web search to find dozens of introductions and other resources.)

No, today I have something a little more specific to mull over. You see, when I think about all the ancient Stoics – Epictetus, Marucus Aurelius, Seneca, etc – they’re all men. Well, that’s not too surprising: the ancients, for all their occasional wisdom, had remarkably retrograde attitudes about gender roles and abilities. And when I review all the modern voices of Stoicism that I’ve come across (for example, in the links from the previous paragraph), there are again no women. Massimo Pigliucci, Matt Van Natta, Mark Johnston, Greg Millner, and others.

Now, none of this is to say that those particular men are oppressing women, or in any other way misogynist or anti-feminist. The ancient Stoics have been called proto-feminists (I’ll get to that in a minute). The Painted Porch podcast often mentions women and has female guests, and certainly doesn’t promote anti-feminist ideas in any way I have noticed.

But it does make me wonder: what is behind this? Is Stoicism covertly anti-feminist, and my often privilege-blind detectors just don’t sense it? Is it just that men happened to be early adopters, and women feel unwelcome because they don’t see role models or a place for themselves in Stoicism? Is it because I’m not looking carefully enough for female Stoics?

Now, offline, I have known two people besides myself who have identified themselves as Stoics – one man (the friend who first gave me a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s book, Meditations – hi, Derren!) and one woman (my wife – a partner in every important adventure both physical and intellectual that I have embarked on for the past fifteen years). So that is closer to gender balance than the above survey. But it’s not a broad or representative sample.

What else is out there? Well, there is an academic paper from 2014, “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy” by Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford. They look specifically at the ancient Stoics and find that, although by modern standards they fall well short of the mark, they were very progressive in their attitudes about women. In general, the ancient Stoics felt that women had the same inherent abilities as men, but that it was often prudent for them to retain their traditional house-bound roles. The paper also outlines how Stoicism can be adapted to be even more in line with modern liberal feminism.

That’s reassuring, especially after I made the mistake of following a Google search result to this article from the Daily Mail. In the middle of a disturbingly sexist diatribe where it touches, at moments, on colouring abusive sex as a positive force in relationships, the author says,

Such strong and stoic men are exactly what women need to anchor themselves amid the chaos of their emotions.

Amazingly, the author is using the word in almost the right way (from the perspective of philosophical Stoicism). Yes, being able to weather misfortune without being swept away by the emotional consequences is one feature of living Stoically. Unfortunately, the sentence it occurs in is awash with dismissive sexism. Women can’t deal with their emotions unless they have a man to provide a stoical anchor?

So, on the one hand we have Stoicism used as a token for how men are inherently different from (and better than) women. And on the other we have Stoicism as a worldview that is consistent with the equality and empowerment fundamental to modern feminism.

I came across more. A Google search for “stoicism feminism” will disgorge a remarkable variety of perspectives. Enough to overwhelm a determined blogger/researcher.

Fortunately, I have a way to deal with this deluge of conflicting ideas and emotional appeals.

I have Stoicism.

I remind myself that my first duty is to deal with the stuff I have power over: my own behaviours, my own actions, and (to a certain extent) my own emotions.

This means that I don’t need to become defensive if someone says I’m doing Stoicism wrong – perhaps because I’m too interested in emotions, or I’m not masculine enough, or I am too eager to compromise. And I don’t need to get angry when I see people working against gender equality.

To a Stoic, the core good is the development of personal virtue. Becoming a better person. If something happens that doesn’t damage that, then it is not something to get upset about.

What does it mean to become a better person? Well, that all depends on where you start from. I start from being an academic white male, blind to certain privileges but fortunate enough to recognize at least some areas of my blindness. My character development involves attending to those remaining blind spots, and learning to listen to different viewpoints without immediately becoming defensive about my privilege.

Someone else – woman, man, or other – may have different areas to work on. Maybe they need to work on not catastrophizing events out of proportion. Missing a plane flight doesn’t make you into a bad person, so it’s not worth getting worked up over. Having a colleague say something nasty about you doesn’t make you a bad person, so don’t let it throw you into a rage.

Of course, people sometimes think that’s where Stoicism ends: if you can make yourself comfortable with anything that happens, you’re done.

But that’s ridiculous. When I can get to the meeting on time, deciding to hang out on Facebook and miss my bus does erode my character. When I see injustice and have the means to get up and do something about it, sitting on my ass does tarnish my virtue.

Stoicism isn’t about placid inaction. It’s about placid action. I can be an effective, useful member of society without getting enraged or dejected or head-over-heels excited about every last thing.

And when I look at the feminist battlegrounds facing us today, I can’t help but think that Stoicism is exactly the toolset I need to bring to that table. Will other people feel the same way? Maybe, maybe not. But as a Stoic, I don’t need to worry about that. Other people’s choices are theirs, not mine.

Collins vs Darcy on consent

2016/02/14


It occurred to me earlier this evening, as I supped with my son and daughter, that a most suitable example of the difference between respecting feminine choice and dismissing it can be found in the pages of one of the English language’s most admired works: the excellent
Pride and Prejudice, by one of her justly celebrated wordsmiths, the inestimable Jane Austen.

PridePrejudice423x630In much the same way that any fresh river that flows into the sea becomes salty, and any iceberg that drifts into tropical waters must melt, so, in writing this, I find my style and language bending towards that used by Miss Austen. Though I cannot hope to reach her sharpness of wit nor her depth of insight, I perforce borrow something of her style here. For those accustomed to the brevity of the modern age – where written missives are often no longer measured in volumes or even in pages, but in lines, words, or even individual characters – this post may seem excessive in length. It approaches an order of magnitude longer than my customary contributions. I cannot be certain that you will enjoy it, but I can promise that, though my own count of words will exceed normal, it will be balanced by an even more generous count from Miss Austen herself – to whose insightful text my entire missive here is indebted in the highest degree.

Before I continue, I would like to acknowledge the faint but real possibility that some one or two among my readers might, against all reason and hope, not yet have read this tale in its entirety at least once – or, at the least, witnessed one of the several dramatic enactments which have been made of it (of which I recommend above all others that featuring Mister Colin Firth and Ms Jennifer Ehle). If you are in such a fortunate position (for who among us would not love to be able to read again for the first time a beloved tale?), I implore you to watch or (better) to read the story before continuing. My discussion below contains such revelations as may spoil your enjoyment most cruelly if you read my words before you read Miss Austen’s tale itself. I assure you, her volume is suitably thin compared to many of its genre (both old and new), and though the language may not be what you are accustomed to, nevertheless you will find the tale behind the words most worthwhile. Go, read it. This missive of mine can wait the few hours or days it may take you to initiate yourself in this fine pillar of English literature.

Very well, from here I will assume that my readers are familiar with the tale. If any are not, then it can be on their conscience and not mine should their future ventures into Miss Austen’s masterpiece be rendered less suspenseful by what they are about to read.

My observation is a simple one at its core. There are two men who offer proposals of marriage to the book’s protagonist, Miss Elizabeth Bennett, in the course of the book. The first is the odious Mister William Collins – a distant cousin who visits Miss Bennnett’s home of Longbourne with the aim of obtaining a wife. The second is Mister Fitzwilliam Darcy, a prideful man who is drawn to love Miss Elizabeth Bennett by the strength of her character, and much against the practical advice of his conscience as regards her family’s situation and (rather to her embarrassment) as regards the character and actions of her sisters, her mother, and even occasionally her father.

So much is clear to anyone who knows the story in even its barest details. But what particularly occurred to me today is the different attitude the suitors in question have toward Elizabeth’s failure to accede to their proposals (for, though the tale turns out otherwise in the end, her first response to both of them is an unequivocal negative).

I could go on at greater length in my own words – as you may already have perceived – but I feel the case will most securely be made by giving the text itself. Here is the scene at Longbourne from Chapter 19 in which Mister Collins proposes to Miss Elizabeth. I entreat you to note at what point she clearly expresses her refusal, and how that clear decision affects his own intentions and expectations.

“My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford—between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s footstool, that she said, ‘Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman formy sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.’ Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favour of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed towards Longbourn instead of my own neighbourhood, where I can assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.”

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.

“You are too hasty, sir,” she cried. “You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them.”

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

“Upon my word, sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is a rather extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who could make you so. Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”

“Were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so,” said Mr. Collins very gravely—”but I cannot imagine that her ladyship would at all disapprove of you. And you may be certain when I have the honour of seeing her again, I shall speak in the very highest terms of your modesty, economy, and other amiable qualification.”

“Indeed, Mr. Collins, all praise of me will be unnecessary. You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say. I wish you very happy and very rich, and by refusing your hand, do all in my power to prevent your being otherwise. In making me the offer, you must have satisfied the delicacy of your feelings with regard to my family, and may take possession of Longbourn estate whenever it falls, without any self-reproach. This matter may be considered, therefore, as finally settled.” And rising as she thus spoke, she would have quitted the room, had Mr. Collins not thus addressed her:

“When I do myself the honour of speaking to you next on the subject, I shall hope to receive a more favourable answer than you have now given me; though I am far from accusing you of cruelty at present, because I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”

“Really, Mr. Collins,” cried Elizabeth with some warmth, “you puzzle me exceedingly. If what I have hitherto said can appear to you in the form of encouragement, I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as to convince you of its being one.”

“You must give me leave to flatter myself, my dear cousin, that your refusal of my addresses is merely words of course. My reasons for believing it are briefly these: It does not appear to me that my hand is unworthy of your acceptance, or that the establishment I can offer would be any other than highly desirable. My situation in life, my connections with the family of de Bourgh, and my relationship to your own, are circumstances highly in my favour; and you should take it into further consideration, that in spite of your manifold attractions, it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications. As I must therefore conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

“I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere. I thank you again and again for the honour you have done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. My feelings in every respect forbid it. Can I speak plainer? Do not consider me now as an elegant female, intending to plague you, but as a rational creature, speaking the truth from her heart.”

“You are uniformly charming!” cried he, with an air of awkward gallantry; “and I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable.”

To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as to be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.

One can at least be thankful, I suppose, that Mister Collins’s indifference to her wishes did not induce him into a more forceful physical expression of his desires – though many a man in similar circumstances has not scrupled to stop there. Nevertheless, his contempt for her individuality and her capacity to know her own mind is quite evident.

And now compare this to Mister Darcy’s proposal in chapter 34, offered during a private conversation in Rosings Park, the estate in which Mister Collins resides with his new bride, Charlotte, and which belongs to Mister Collins’s patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh:

“In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Elizabeth’s astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement; and the avowal of all that he felt, and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well; but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed; and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he should have done. He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. Such a circumstance could only exasperate farther, and, when he ceased, the colour rose into her cheeks, and she said:

“In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to anyone. It has been most unconsciously done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation.”

Mr. Darcy, who was leaning against the mantelpiece with his eyes fixed on her face, seemed to catch her words with no less resentment than surprise. His complexion became pale with anger, and the disturbance of his mind was visible in every feature. He was struggling for the appearance of composure, and would not open his lips till he believed himself to have attained it. The pause was to Elizabeth’s feelings dreadful. At length, with a voice of forced calmness, he said:

“And this is all the reply which I am to have the honour of expecting! I might, perhaps, wish to be informed why, with so little endeavour at civility, I am thus rejected. But it is of small importance.”

“I might as well inquire,” replied she, “why with so evident a desire of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character? Was not this some excuse for incivility, if I wasuncivil? But I have other provocations. You know I have. Had not my feelings decided against you—had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”

As she pronounced these words, Mr. Darcy changed colour; but the emotion was short, and he listened without attempting to interrupt her while she continued:

“I have every reason in the world to think ill of you. No motive can excuse the unjust and ungenerous part you acted there. You dare not, you cannot deny, that you have been the principal, if not the only means of dividing them from each other—of exposing one to the censure of the world for caprice and instability, and the other to its derision for disappointed hopes, and involving them both in misery of the acutest kind.”

She paused, and saw with no slight indignation that he was listening with an air which proved him wholly unmoved by any feeling of remorse. He even looked at her with a smile of affected incredulity.

“Can you deny that you have done it?” she repeated.

With assumed tranquillity he then replied: “I have no wish of denying that I did everything in my power to separate my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have been kinder than towards myself.”

Elizabeth disdained the appearance of noticing this civil reflection, but its meaning did not escape, nor was it likely to conciliate her.

“But it is not merely this affair,” she continued, “on which my dislike is founded. Long before it had taken place my opinion of you was decided. Your character was unfolded in the recital which I received many months ago from Mr. Wickham. On this subject, what can you have to say? In what imaginary act of friendship can you here defend yourself? or under what misrepresentation can you here impose upon others?”

“You take an eager interest in that gentleman’s concerns,” said Darcy, in a less tranquil tone, and with a heightened colour.

“Who that knows what his misfortunes have been, can help feeling an interest in him?”

“His misfortunes!” repeated Darcy contemptuously; “yes, his misfortunes have been great indeed.”

“And of your infliction,” cried Elizabeth with energy. “You have reduced him to his present state of poverty—comparative poverty. You have withheld the advantages which you must know to have been designed for him. You have deprived the best years of his life of that independence which was no less his due than his desert. You have done all this! and yet you can treat the mention of his misfortune with contempt and ridicule.”

“And this,” cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, “is your opinion of me! This is the estimation in which you hold me! I thank you for explaining it so fully. My faults, according to this calculation, are heavy indeed! But perhaps,” added he, stopping in his walk, and turning towards her, “these offenses might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design. These bitter accusations might have been suppressed, had I, with greater policy, concealed my struggles, and flattered you into the belief of my being impelled by unqualified, unalloyed inclination; by reason, by reflection, by everything. But disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. Nor am I ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?—to congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Elizabeth felt herself growing more angry every moment; yet she tried to the utmost to speak with composure when she said:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.”

She saw him start at this, but he said nothing, and she continued:

“You could not have made the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

Again his astonishment was obvious; and he looked at her with an expression of mingled incredulity and mortification. She went on:

“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

“You have said quite enough, madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.”

And with these words he hastily left the room, and Elizabeth heard him the next moment open the front door and quit the house.

I trust by now, dear reader, that you comprehend the contrast that sprang into my mind so recently. The above passages establish it quite clearly. Mister Collins, on the one hand, is clearly indifferent to Miss Elizabeth’s wishes on the matter. Though he flatters himself that he is paying her a great compliment in making the offer of marriage, he fails to pay her the compliment which, both in that time and in the present day, is of the greater value: that he is willing to respect her decisions. Mister Darcy, on the other hand, although he is (at this stage of the story) quite reprehensible in his attitude toward her situation and clearly upset at being refused so unequivocally, nevertheless accepts her refusal as a refusal, and does not once attempt to ignore it or reinterpret it as aught else.

Of course, anyone who holds the tale dear in their memory – a host that I feel must include all who have read the full tale – knows that it does not end there. After mishaps and misunderstandings, Miss Elizabeth once again faces Mister Darcy – this time with far different feelings towards him.

This current contribution to my public, ethereal log of thoughts and contemplations is already quite long enough. So I will close my own contribution here and leave you with that final proposal of Darcy’s. Attend in particular, if you will, to how he expresses himself regarding the possible outcomes. How does he commit himself to respond if she should renew her rejection of him? In what way does he comport himself relative to her wishes and intentions, even when he is completely in suspense as to their nature?

Here is that encounter from chapter 58, as they walk together near Longbourne:

“Mr. Darcy, I am a very selfish creature; and, for the sake of giving relief to my own feelings, care not how much I may be wounding yours. I can no longer help thanking you for your unexampled kindness to my poor sister. Ever since I have known it, I have been most anxious to acknowledge to you how gratefully I feel it. Were it known to the rest of my family, I should not have merely my own gratitude to express.”

“I am sorry, exceedingly sorry,” replied Darcy, in a tone of surprise and emotion, “that you have ever been informed of what may, in a mistaken light, have given you uneasiness. I did not think Mrs. Gardiner was so little to be trusted.”

“You must not blame my aunt. Lydia’s thoughtlessness first betrayed to me that you had been concerned in the matter; and, of course, I could not rest till I knew the particulars. Let me thank you again and again, in the name of all my family, for that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications, for the sake of discovering them.”

“If you will thank me,” he replied, “let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you.”

Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, “You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”

Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.

Catholic bishops fail on basic morality

2016/02/13

I need to open by saying that all of the people I know who identify as Catholic are compassionate, thoughtful people. Nothing I say below is meant to be an attack on Catholics as a group. Clearly, some of the bad dogmas driving this insanity are “Catholic” dogmas. But just as there are plenty of Catholics who have forged ahead of their would-be “leaders” on issues like contraception and abortion rights, there are plenty who can think compassionately about end-of-life issues.

Okay. Now that we have that out of the way …

Here is something the Catholic bishops of Alberta said in a joint statement:

The decision of the Supreme Court of Canada makes legally permissible in some circumstances what is morally wrong in every circumstance: the taking of innocent human life.

They are referring, of course, to the historic ruling last February by the Supreme Court that it is not criminal to provide physician-assisted death to “a competent adult person who clearly consents to the termination of life and has a grievous and irremediable medical condition, including an illness, disease or disability, that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition.” The ruling was to come into effect on the sixth of February this year, but the Supreme Court has given the government four more months to come up with legislation related to the ruling.

The bishops are ignoring every very good, very moral reason why this ruling was reached.

There are people who suffer because of the existing law.

There are people who suffer intolerably because of the law.

Read some of the testimonies at the Dying With Dignity website. The lives of many terminally-ill people are made worse because of how things stand. The lives of their families are made worse because of how things stand. They are made worse because of an inability on the part of the law (and people like the bishops) to accept that sometimes death is a more humane option than suffering.

We do not live in a Catholic country. We live in a secular country – a country where everyone has the right to their own beliefs and values, as long as they don’t act in a way that hurts others or impinges unduly on their freedom.

Nobody – nobody – is saying that anyone should have suicide forced on them. Nobody is saying that anyone has to participate in it. All that is being asked is that a certain very vulnerable set of people is not forced to suffer needlessly if they don’t want to.

There are people who live out the last weeks or years of their lives in excruciating pain. The bishops are saying that these people’s suffering is acceptable, and that giving them release from that pain when they ask for it is unacceptable.

Anyone who can say that with a straight face has lost any claim to moral authority. This is a big fail on the part of the Catholic church. My great solace is that, as I said at the outset, most Catholics are pretty good at ignoring the moronic positions of their “leaders” and doing the right thing anyway.

[Edited 2016 Feb 13, changing “physician-assisted suicide” to “physician-assisted death”, to bring language in line with what seems to be emerging as the standard language around this issue – see for example this article.]

Nerd-tastic

2016/01/22

I’ve been listening to a new podcast lately – “Talk Nerdy”, by Cara Santa Maria.

CaraSantaMariaIt’s awesome – a delightfully personal approach to various science-based topics – news,issues, whatever. I will have more to say about this podcast and particular episodes in the future, but for now I just wanted to share the latest thing from it.

In this week’s episode, Cara talks to Kevin Roose about a project they have both worked on – a new series of mini-documentaries called “Real Future“. (Follow that link – you can watch the episodes free online!) As I write this, three episodes are available, each between ten and thirteen minutes long. The general idea of the show is to present technology in society, and how the current state of things points us to a future few of us may expect to live in. What do these new technologies mean for how we will need to structure our relationships, our society, and our laws? What can they mean for real people?

In the first episode, Kevin Roose visits the operator of a website that hosts (among other things) revenge porn. And even though I had listened to the podcast and heard the surprise ending to that documentary, I found myself drawn into the story and … well, I really don’t want to give away the ending. I think it’ll be worth thirteen minutes of your time to check it out! The personal story is intriguing, and the perspective on our current technological culture is thought-provoking.

In the second episode, another host (Alexis Madrigal) follows a drone pilot as she tries to make her mark on this new sport at the first ever National Drone Championships in the US. I half-expected the sort of breathless, unengaging reporting you get from motorsports commentators. Instead, Madrigal manages to connect with the pilot and uncover a personal side to this sport that I would never have expected. It was alarmingly moving.

The third episode is hosted by Cara Santa Maria, and takes a look at Vocaloids, popular singers big on the Japanese music scene right now which are entirely digital creations – in some cases created by corporate music operations, and in some cases by anime enthusiasts. We see the phenomenon – which some people are aiming to import to America – from the fans’ perspective, from the perspective of a Vocaloid creator, and from the perspective of an outsider (Cara herself). A curious intersection of different attitudes to a new technology.

All three episodes are remarkable in their professional and unexpectedly cinematic visuals. In a very short time, they each weave a narrative that engages you and provokes you to think. As someone already short on time, but always keen to have more to think about, it is the perfect format for me. And they’ve hit the sweet spot for subject matter and tone too – technology, with the social perspective.

I can’t wait for the next episode to come out. I don’t care what it’s about – I already know it’s going to be awesome.

Truth is stranger than fiction

2016/01/18

Of course it’s stranger. What else would you expect?

I mean, truth comes from out there – the world outside our heads. Fiction comes from human minds. Naturally fiction will seem more comfortable and familiar to those minds, and truth will sometimes seem alien and strange.

That is all.

Love and machines

2016/01/17

I recently listened to the Tapestry episode about the human tendency to get attached to robots. It was very interesting.

The episode covers various things – including repeated references to hitchBOT. No, not a robotic reincarnation of the Hitch. It was a hitch-hiking Canadian robot that was destroyed (some say “murdered”) by someone in August 2015.

One point made in the episode is that humans’ emotional reactions to robots makes them valid objects of ethical consideration. I’ll mention a couple of things that came up. Let me know what you think.

First, consider Paro, a robot seal designed for therapeutic use with elderly people. It is used in the way that pet animals are sometimes used. It is not alive in the same sense, but it also avoids problems of hygiene and allergies that may make live animals inappropriate for use in some situations.

paro

Now, is it problematic to use robots in a way that is designed to get people to form emotional attachments to them? Is there something wrong with using them as a replacement for live animals? On that note, is there something wrong with using non-human animals as a replacement for human companions?

I don’t think so. These all seem okay to me. But I can see how these applications may make some people uncomfortable. And of course, there is the potential to abuse that emotional connection. You could program the robots to gather personal information or to encourage excessive attachment. A really unscrupulous company might even use the robots to manipulate elderly customers to pay more money to keep the robot alive and happy, or to upgrade it, etc.

So, while the basic idea is fine, I think this is something we should keep an eye on (as with any technology, new or old).

Now, what about Spot, a robot that walks like a dog? Here is a video of Spot being put through its paces:

At a couple of points, people test the robot’s stability by pushing it with their feet. Kicking it. It is remarkably good at staying upright, but its dog-like scrabbling with its feet reminds us of a live dog that is being kicked. Check out the comments on the to see how some people react emotionally to seeing this.

Without going down the (fascinating but fraught) rabbit hole of “can machines feel pain/pleasure”, there are still some interesting moral questions here.

For example, if someone kicks a robot (or vandalizes one, as happened to hitchBOT) with malicious intent, is this just abuse of property, or is it a more serious problem? One researcher interviewed on the Tapestry episode pointed out that willingness to destroy a robot is correlated with low empathy scores overall.

I don’t think someone should be jailed for attacking a robot in the same way they should be jailed for attacking a person. But willingness to attack a human-like robot is evidence of the same antisocial character traits that make someone willing to attack an actual human. Surely we shouldn’t just ignore the risk such people pose.

What do you think? Is this still just the fevered dreams of science fiction fans? Or do we need to consider these issues now, before the corporations and other unaccountable entities decide for us how these things will work in our lives and our laws?