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Dogs and Monsters (Stanley Coren)

In an essay entitled “Dogs and Monsters,” Stanley Coren outlines the process of bioengineering dogs to adapt to the current technologies and needs of their human owners. He is currently a professor and director of the Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory at the University of British Columbia.

Coren’s thesis is that the genetic manipulation of dogs over the past 14,000 years demonstrates just how old and harmless an idea bioengineering really is, despite the fears prevalent in media today.

The essay goes on to explain the significant stages of development in the process of breeding dogs. Wolves and jackals initially attracted to the food scraps lying around human camps were tolerated by the inhabitants for their habit of barking when predators or strangers approached. So useful were these barking dogs, that people began breeding the loudest barkers together to produce the ultimate watchdog.

We jump ahead to the end of the fifteenth century, when dogs began being used for hunting and cross-bred for desirable characteristics. Gun technology essentially determined which canine characteristics were most useful – ‘pointers’ (pointed at prey patiently and quietly) when difficult-to-load muskets were in vogue, setters (located prey quickly and indicated its proximity by tail-wagging) as weapons technology improved, and retrievers (bred to wait and retrieve only) as hunters began simply waiting for quarry to come to them. Pointers, setters, and retrievers became known as ‘gun dogs.’

We have genetically-engineered dogs over the past 14,000 years in order to increase their usefulness to us. As Thomas writes, “typically, humans had tailored machines to suit organisms. With dogs, they began modifying an organism to fit a machine [i.e. guns].”

I liked this essay – especially its title, ‘Dogs and Monsters.’ It draws attention to the stark contrast between the reality and perception of bioengineering (whether it’s food, animals, or people), something that needs to be done really. However, I’d be curious to know whether genetic engineering and selective breeding are really the same thing. Although Dr. Coren’s field isn’t genetics, his point is well-taken and refreshing. We need more scientists speaking up in defense of this issue to counter the ignorance that is being spread in the media, by the likes of Prince Charles (quoted as saying that genetic engineering “takes us into areas that should be left to God”) and other persons completely unqualified to give opinions on scientific matters.

Dogs and Monsters – Rhetorical Strategies

Coren unifies the introduction and conclusion of his essay in a way that enforces his thesis. The first line of the essay is “Today’s headlines routinely raise fears about genetic engineering,” but he finishes with the statement that 14,000 years of genetic manipulation of dogs has resulted in a “little white beast who is right now gently snoring with his head resting against my foot.” The danger and novelty of genetic engineering is effectively downplayed.

To Err is Human (Lewis Thomas)

In this short essay, physician Lewis Thomas explains how we can profit from our mistakes – especially if we trust human nature. Perhaps someday, he says, we can apply this same principle to the computer and magnify the advantages of these errors.

Thomas begins by contrasting the supposed infallibility of computers with the human propensity for error. Computers, while modeled on the human brain, do not ‘think’ or ‘dream’ in a human fashion. They are designed to be perfect – to compute. However, as we know from personal experience, computers do make mistakes. Thomas speculates that computer errors provide the same rich opportunites for learning that human errors do.

The expression “trial and error” is used to describe one way, the most important way according to Thomas, in which people learn. The essay draws an apt analogy between a laboratory and a computer – both are designed to run flawlessly and under strict controls, but often real discovery comes when a small error occurs. Unforeseen lines of thought open, and the human ‘faculty of wrongness’ pays off. Thomas goes so far as to label this “the highest of human endowments…if we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done.” When faced with a problem, our mind’s freedom to explore any myriad of possibilities, from the slighly wrong to the ridiculous, lifts us to new ground.

Animals (Thomas writes “the lower animals”) lack this freedom. Most animals are “limited to absolute infallibility.”  Fish, cats, and dogs rarely make mistakes – they act according to their nature. Thomas’ implicit suggestion is that this ‘infallibility’ accounts for the substantial gap between the problem-solving skills of humans and animals. I feel he is leaving too much unsaid. A more interesting and complete argument might explicitly hypothesize that a propensity for error increases in relation to a creature’s level of reasoning, with man’s obviously being the highest.  However, Thomas’s essay does clearly demonstrate the value of errors.

How could we use computers to magnify this value? Perhaps we need to program computers to make an infinite variation of mistakes on any given number of problems, and then comb the results for interesting and fruitful conclusions. We need to endow computers with an exploration process, which could only be modeled after human fallibility. Thomas writes that “if we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made (i.e. where computers are now), instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurones that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.”

“To Err is Human”: Rhetorical Strategies

Thomas begins his essay with a list of experiences most of us have had at one time or another, with regard to computer errors. I found this to be an effective beginning because it inspires a sense of agreement with the writer right off the bat. Also, whenever a writer touches upon a pressing issue that affects us every day but about which we rarely talk (e.g. computer errors, traffic, etc.) we begin to feel a relationship with that writer, and to anticipate other thoughts or ideas we may have in common. This is a great way to control a reader’s feelings.

The points Thomas develops in the most detail are:

– Learning comes from being wrong.
– Being wrong comes from what we might call ‘exploration.’
– Through computers, we may be able to magnify the benefits of being wrong.

Central to his main idea, he develops these points most thoroughly.

North Korea Ejects South Korean Companies

North and South Korea have remained technically at war since 1950. However, inroads made by South Korean companies over the past decade had kindled hopes of a reconciliation. A joint industrial zone on the North Korean side, Gaeseong , where 88 South Korean companies employ approximately 33,000 North Korean citizens, has been steadily built up over the years. Another North Korean site, Geumgang-san (a.k.a. Diamond Mountain), has been developed into a thriving international tourist attraction by South Korean companies, most notably Hyundai.

Over the past week, however, the North Korean government has effectively closed down these operations. Geumgang-san has been completely emptied, with South Korean companies forced to abandon the capital investments they have made there over the past ten years. Train service to Gaeseong has also been terminated, with only 1,700 of the 4,000 South Koreans employed there permitted to continue crossing the border. As reason for its decision, the North Korean government cites “reckless confrontation” from South Korea as being “beyond the danger level.” More likely, this event is a reaction to a deteriorating relationship with the South, particularly Lee Myeong Park’s administration, as well as the covert distribution of anti-communist pamphlets in the North by South Korean groups.

Why are South Korean companies quietly abandoning their hotels and factories at the ‘request’ of the North Korean government? Since it is hard to imagine a company willingly relinquishing an investment, this a great example of a government effectively exercising its power. A government holds the monopoly on force within its given territory, and the North Korean government in particular isn’t one to shy away from its use. Just last July, a 53-year-old South Korean tourist was shot in the back when she inadvertently entered a military section of a beach at aGeumgang-san resort. As a totalitarian government, the DPRK exercises the greatest possible degree of regulation and control over the behaviour of its citizens and guests, including economic activities, through the use or threat of force.

If we attribute the North’s decision partly to the proliferation of anti-communist and pro-democracy literature by South Korean groups, we can make certain inferences regarding how it does and doesn’t legitimize its influence. For example, we may infer that there is very little legal-rational basis for its authority. The exposure to democratic ideals would hardly pose a threat to a government whose power and influence had been gained by following widely accepted and transparent procedures. From all accounts, the North Korean government appears to legitimize its authority on the basis of the (real or fictionalized) charisma of its leader, Kim Jong Il. Furthermore, by reminding citizens of the horrors of Japanese colonization, inspiring widespread fear of the outside world, and idealizing North Korean independence, the DPRK is able to achieve even greater legitimacy.

The failure of South Korean companies to firmly establish long-term commerical investments in North Korea exposes some limitations of globalization. From this particular case, we could hypothesize that an integration of political processes is prerequisite to that of economic processes. The ideology by which the DPRK continues to guide itself, ‘Juche’ (self-reliance), is an isolationist ideal. As inspiring as it was during the recovery from a long and cruel Japanese occupation, it doesn’t seem the least bit conducive to international commerce. Nor does the complete absence of individual rights bode well for the reception of capitalist ideals.

Other contemporary examples, such as Venezuela’s nationalization of its oil industry, suggest the same consequences of an economic ideal, capitalism, outpacing its political precondition, a guarantee of individual freedoms.

Furthermore, whereas globalization has increasingly transferred political authority to international bodies, such as the United Nations, we see none of that in North Korea. The DPRK retains complete control over the social, political, and economic sphere within North Korea, and makes no pretense at subscribing to globally-recognized standards of liberal democracy.

This week’s blatant expropriation of South Korean assets highlights the extent to which North Korea’s political processes fall outside of what we now come to take for granted.

Geumgangsan is officially closed…but should we have been rewarding North Korea with tourism to begin with?

One early Saturday morning last September, I embarked on a trip to a popular tourist destination: Geumgang-san, a.k.a. Diamond Mountain. The site boasts a gorgeous mountain range, cliffs, waterfalls, and some of the most spectacular landscape of the Korean peninsula. It also happens to fall on the North Korean side of the border.

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Until ten years ago, this site, like the rest of the ‘hermit kingdom,’ was closed to the outside world. You can no longer visit Geumgang-san – as of November 29th, it is closed again.

The South Korean government understandably suspended visits to the site after a tourist was shot in the back by North Korean soldiers there last July. Since then, North Korea has gone on to nationalize the capital investments made there by South Korean tourism companies. Most notably, the hotels, golf courses, and spas constructed by Hyundai over the past decade have been expropriated without challenge.

My own trip came before all of this, at the tail end of ten relatively stable years for the Geumgang-san venture between North Korea and South Korean companies. It appeared a success, and I told myself that Geumgang-san, along with another joint industrial project at Gaesong were great signs of progress for North Korea, capitalist inroads even.

My homestay family had organized the vacation, all that was required of me was a copy of my passport. Despite their assurances, I found myself restless on the eve of the trip. What risks was I exposing myself to by putting myself at the mercy of a totalitarian regime? While North Korean citizens were being shot attempting escape from the horrors of that country, I was walking in. Most disturbingly, aside from personal risk, I had to ask myself critically what I was supporting by patronizing tourism in North Korea.

Painfully aware that there was no Canadian embassy in North Korea, nor any form of international authority to appeal to should I run into trouble, I sent emails to friends and family letting them know where I’d be. Redundant, you say? The messages read something like don’t come looking for me if you don’t hear from me.

Several hours driving through the beautiful Ganghwan-do Province went by quickly, and as we approached the 38th parallel, I began to notice a definite military presence. The view of the sea from the highway became obscured by high barb-wired fences, intermittently placed guard posts, and heavily-armed squadrons of soldiers patrolled the shore.

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During conversations with my homestay family, I was surprised to learn that grandfather’s hometown was the North Korean capital, Pyeongyang. Like thousands of others, he migrated to the South in search of a better life sometime prior to the border being sealed, leaving behind friends and family. To this day, he has no idea what has become of his brothers, sisters, or parents. Not surprisingly, he has visited North Korea frequently in the past ten years, hoping to catch a glimpse of a long-lost face.

My group – my homestay mother, father, grandfather, two children, and I – arrived at our hotel sometime in the evening, a condo on the South side from where we would head to Geumgang-san early the next morning. Our room offered a beautiful view of the East Sea, and I decided to sleep in the living room amidst the sound of waves crashing against the rocky shore. After dipping my feet in the sea, a great meal prepared by my homestay mother, and a few beers (which helped somewhat to put me at ease), I settled down for a troubled sleep, tellingly interrupted by military naval spotlights searching the nearby sea.

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The next morning I would be surrendering my freedom to gaze at a mountain…(to be continued)


Political Violence

Landes defines political violence as “violence related to government and politics whose aim is to alter the pattern and results of the political process by non-legitimate means” (Landes 34).

Political violence is usually initiated by individuals or groups that regard a government as illegitimate, with the intention of either intimidating or making demands on that government. However, political violence also includes any (non-legitimate) force used by government itself.

Ongoing terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan is a contemporary example of political violence, as are most contemporary acts of terrorism.

Authority

Authority and Its Basis: Legitimacy

Authority may be defined as “the right to exercise the power and influence of a particular position that comes from having been placed in that position according to regular, known, and widely accepted procedures” (Lawson 1985: 33).

When a community accepts someone’s influence as being legitimate, we can say that individual has authority.

Max Weber offers a a typology to classify the means for legitimating influence: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic modes of authority.

  • A traditional basis of authority legitimizes influence by claiming that “the simple fact that things have been done a certain way in the past is reason enough that they should be continued in the same manner in the future” (Landes 32).
  • A legal-rational basis of authority justifies the distribution of of influence according to the procedures that were adhered to in its acquisition. Authority resides with offices, not individuals.
  • A charismatic authority is based on a community’s faith in the extraordinary qualities of an individual. Hitler’s rise to power comes to mind.

These bases are present, to varying degrees, in all of today’s political systems.

To the question of why political systems endeavor to legitimate their distribution of influence through these means, Robert Dahl offers a reasonable answer.

“Authority is a highly efficient form of influence. It is not only more reliable and durable than naked coercion, but it also enables a ruler to govern with a minimum of political resources” (Dahl, 1984: 54).

The Difference Between Legitimacy and Authority

Dahl’s comment gives us a clue about how legitimacy and authority differ. It is much easier to illustrate this difference through example, rather than definition.

Occasionally, political leaders, for whatever reason (e.g. ineptitude) may lack legitimacy while still possessing authority. I think we can all come up with pertinent examples. For me, I think of how, repeatedly, illegitimate and genocidal governments have assumed power and wielded authority in African countries over the past few decades.

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