Jonathan Brun

Old technology is still amazing

There is a lack of appreciation for old technologies that we use everyday. Two examples are mail and checks. Both systems are incredibly easy to use and arguably far easier than their electronic counter parts (just ask someone over 50).

Imagine this crazy idea: you drop an item in a red box, with a handwritten address and a small fee and it will be reliably delivered nearly anywhere in the world. Yes, email is great, but delivering physical objects around the world in a timely, affordable and reliable fashion is even more impressive. On top of that, it has been argued that the penny post was a major contributor to the industrial revolution.

Checks are a nutty idea too. Take some liquid dye (pen), apply it in a pattern (words) on a piece of paper, and boom, you just transferred money. This is far easier than transferring via Paypal, and there are fewer fees attached.

Too quickly we write off the amazing accomplishments of the past to make way for the shiny new toy that the neighbour just got.

As Kevin Kelly pointed out, old technology rarely dies completely, and there is a reason for that: it usually does what it does really well.

Published on August 25, 2010

Israel, again.

I was not planning on writing about Israel, but who knew they would be so ridiculous this week. First came the report that they are deporting 400 children born in Israel of Palestinian parents. The justification? Zionism. Seriously, the cabinet publicly claimed that they were deporting these children to ensure the preservation of the Jewish nature of the state of Israel. This is despite a public appeal by the wife of the Prime Minister. In pretty much every other developed country in the world, if you are born there, you are given citizenship. Guess not in Israel.

The second impressive story, that is more noteworthy for its potential impact, is the soldier who posted a group photo of herself and some Palestinian friends (who happen to be handcuffed and blindfolded in front of a cement barrier). Lovely photo.

Nothing more to say really.

Published on August 16, 2010

Global warming just isn’t that important

With the hyper-active behaviour surrounding Copenhagen this year, climate-gate, and the failed climate change bills in the US and Australia; it might be time to take some perspective on our situation as a species and global warming as a problem. We are destroying the planet, but not in the way you might think. Global warming is a serious issue that threatens countries and people, but it is a superficial, easy to solve and a fundamentally materialistic problem.

Global warming is caused by the overconsumption of fossil fuels, used for the transportation and production of goods and services. Therefore, the solution is quite simple – reduce our use of fossil fuels. Global warming is a secondary level problem. When you steal an item off a store shelf, you are directly committing an immoral act and harming another person. When you burn a barrel of oil, you are indirectly harming people, but the indirectness reduces the level of immorality you might feel. Global warming is a secondary issue, it is therefore not as significant on the moral scale of crimes.

Global warming and other environmental issues are external to ourselves, while they might affect us and be our fault, they are manifestations of our failure as a society, not the actual problem.

In fact, there are much more pressing issues to solve.  In 2010, there are over 26 million slaves in the world, nine hundred thousand women are raped every year, over six million people are behind bars, and over 200 million children are abused while working every year. To these people, pollution, global warming and other middle class issues could not be more remote. Slavery, inequality, and poverty are fundamental problems of society – pollution is a consequence.  A doctor always strives to treat the source of a sickness, not simply mask the symptoms. We need to attack the root of the problem.

To tackle global warming, we must fist address the underlying issues that plague our society. Not only  is it morally urgent to address human suffering, it is also beneficial to the overall improvement of the environment. Let me be perfectly clear, you cannot put a price on human suffering and life and you can therefore not equate carbon reductions with a child slave. Priorities matter. Therefore, it follows that we should first address the issues with the greatest moral weight and and largest potential dividend.

Some will say that we need to tackle all these items – global warming, women’s rights, slavery, etc. But resources are finite and even more limited is the ability to keep the public engaged on an issue. As an example, contrast the fundraising results during large natural catastrophes such as the Haiti earthquake or Asian Tsunami with the average fundraising efforts. It therefore follows that we should focus on the items that have the largest moral potential first. I cannot conscientiously ask for money for carbon credits when our fellow humans are in such misery. The problems of inequality and injustice go to the root of civilization and the way we treat each other. They are therefore much more difficult to resolve than secondary level issues such as climate change.

Not only are the victims of our crimes within reach of our help, the perpetrators are also  within our sphere of influence. We choose not to act because it is fundamentally a reflection on ourselves. The diamonds on your wife’s hand may be tainted, the clothes on your children may have been made by another child, and your cellphone contains coltan dug by slaves in eastern D.R. Congo whose mothers were likely repeatedly raped. By recognizing the failure of mankind, we inevitably confront our own failure to change.

To truly effect change we must change ourselves, we must ask ourselves, “What am I doing on a daily basis that may be making the world worse, not better”. Find one thing, and change that. Day in and day out, if done on a global scale, we could begin to change things in a fundamental way. It is far too easy to point the finger and say, not my fault!

Pollution is easy to externalize. The poor countries claim the west created the mess, the developed countries point at the coal factories in China, and individuals blame corporations. While we recognize we are all part of the problem, none of us think we are at the root of the problem. By focusing our media attention on global warming, we are actually making ourselves feel better, which is exactly what global warming advocates are doing. Green people, myself included, too often go to bed saying, “Yes, climate change is a big problem, but it is not my problem, I drive a Prius”. Global warming just isn’t that important when placed against other issues. All of these issues are intertwined, but we must focus on those with the largest moral payback and which lie at the root of our ills?

In my opinion, not a penny should be spent on climate change programs while children die of hunger, women are raped and slaves toil away around the world. The money proposed for climate change initiatives could have far more moral impact if it were employed to reduce poverty, improve medicine, increase the equality of women, and strengthen democratic institutions. The problems I propose to address first are so massive it may mean we never solve climate change. But do we deserve to solve environmental problems if we cannot address our most fundamental societal failures?

Published on August 11, 2010

Montreal Ouvert – my new project!

I am very happy to announce the formal launch of Montreal, a citizen’s action group to encourage the city of Montreal to embrace Open-Data. Open-Data is the practice of releasing information in a form that can be easily downloaded, used, merged and distributed. This means: centralized information, not in PDFs, and without copyright.

This project was born out of discussions with Michael Lenczner of Ile sans fil fame and now includes two other amazing co-founders, Jean-Noé Landry, a democracy consultant, and Sebastien Pierre of Form Function, a data visualization company. We are working hard to meet with relevant stakeholders in the city of Montréal and to raise awareness of this issue. Sadly, Montreal lags behind other Canadian cities, all of whom have embraced open-data practices. We hope to help Mayor Tremblay and his administration move the city’s data into the 21st century.

Together, we plan to coordinate efforts in the city and eventually help propose a council resolution that will allow and oblige the various city departments to publish their data in an open and useable format. The best way to familiarize yourself with our ideas is to visit the project’s site at Montreal

You can also follow us on Twitter at here.

We are always looking for help, ideas and assistance, so do not hesitate to contact me at

Published on August 6, 2010

Written tradition vs. spoken word

Words are not real. In his very interesting take on Canadian history, John Raulston Saul (my review here) proposes that the canadian style of governing is heavily inspired by the Amerindian oral tradition. He claims that Canada stands on three pillars – english, french and amerindian. To support his claim, he cites the Delgamuukw supreme court decision that allowed for the use of oral proof, not just written proof.

The trouble with the written word is that it can be used in so many ways – it can easily be taken out of context and even when it is found inside a larger document, sometimes amongst thousands of pages of context, it can still be taken to mean something entirely different from its original intent.

A fascinating case was the prosecution of a drug dealer in the United States. This drug dealer was engaging in an exchange of drugs for a gun. Under American law, if firearms are “used” in a drug deal, the punishment is far more severe than if no weapons are involved. In this fellow’s case he was sentenced to 30 years of jail because he “used” a firearm in his drug deal. The entire case, and appeals (all the way to the Supreme Court), rested on the meaning of the word “use”. In a 5-3 decision, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in jail. This was based on the fact that “use of a firearm” included any use that was material to the drug deal. Of course, the original intent of the law was to punish violent drug deals that used firearms as weapons, but that lack of precision did not withstand the prosecution’s ability to twist the word. The written word, is the written word. This case is well discussed in the Philosophy bites podcast, Stephen Neale on Meaning and Interpretation – Philosophy Bites.

In an oral based society, it is very difficult to take things out of context. History, laws, rules and other cultural institutions are constantly evolving as they pass from one generation to another. However, to pass from one generation to another and to be enforced in the present time, the rules must be agreed to by the parties involved. On the other hand, written text can very easily be manipulated by the next generation or by another party with different interests at heart.

Contrary to the this situation, the actors applying orally transmitted rules and history must agree on its meaning, they cannot simply repeat a written word – because it does not exist. That need for agreement as to the meaning of a rule or tradition forces compromise, understanding and flexibility to the situation at hand. This fundamental difference between the oral and written word lead to very different societies.

Not only does a written tradition allow for manipulation, it removes our responsibility for intelligence and wisdom by falsely claiming that we can write down all the rules needed. Consequently, we have millions of pages of laws on every imaginable subject, yet we far too often fail to apply the true intent of those laws. Despite our attempts to write all possible situations down, and close all loopholes, new circumstances will arise making our previous reflections inadequate. It is a futile attempt to outsource our responsibility for reason and compromise to a document. (see these excellent TED talks on the issue: Barry Swartz on our loss of wisdom,  Philip K. Howard: Four ways to fix a broken legal system).

Canada, having endorsed the validity of the oral tradition in court cases has departed from the European tradition and created an entirely new way of dealing with history, tradition and laws. For that, we should be very grateful.

Published on August 1, 2010