Saturday, December 25, 2010

The cab driver who gave away books

Hey, buddy. You can rob me, kill me or just take a gift.

The cab driver was dying. All he could give was a book to each fare he thought needed one.

Have I got a book for you.

You can kill me now or just take this gift. We're all dying buddy. You're dying at this life because you are a complete freakin' asshole. I'm dying because I made some bad choices.

The book I want to give you isn't about you. That might piss you off. Get over it. The world wasn't created for you.

Yes, you're a complete retard. Everything you've done in life up until now has been a total fuck-up; you know that. Your pain is deep, so is everyone's. Get over yourself long enough to accept a gift from someone who is dying too.

You know you're at the short end of your stick. When your girlfriend told you that you're hung like a chipmunk, it wasn't a joke. She was the wise one in that piece. She was saying, actually, that you are too full of yourself and your pathetic sense of what's important. She was saying you ought to lighten up. She was saying that she loves you.

So now you're out robbing dying cab drivers because you are almost dead too.

This book isn't about you. It's about me. I just want to share it with you because you're a consummate dank. You can't kill me, man. I died to your wisdom a long time ago. I'm just a cab driver. I eat in my hack. I smoke in it when the taxicab board isn't looking. I've had mediocre and crazy sex in here too.

Who can't die to that?

You want my money? Got nothing. It's a couple hundred dollars; enough, maybe, for you to hit the skids of Skid Row and drink your sorry ass off. Get badly, drunkenly laid. 

I'd give you everything.

I'd rather give you a book.

It's not about reading a tattered book from a dismally-fucked cab driver. It's not about me. It's not even about you.

It's about taking this gift. It's Christmas, after all.

Just don't kill me, unless you really want to.

Read the first couple of pages. I'll wait. After that, if you're still determined, off me. Get me off — it doesn't matter. You're mad. You're angry. You're disappointed in yourself. I'm your latest target; the current focus of your rage.

Take my book.

It's a gift.

It's Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When joy comes to the world

We live in a misshapen world. We believe, sullenly, forlornly, that evil triumphs. We cry ourselves to sleep about the plight of others.

But, as Max Ehrmann wrote in Desiderata: "Everywhere life is full of heroism."

We are saddened by deaths a world away but seem to miss the beauty that surrounds us.

A day has yet to go by when I cannot cite an act of kindness or a jewel of human beauty. The glitter of soul in a friend's eyes — that wink of magic and serenity that suffuses the world with wonder. The simple touch of a loved one: gentle on the shoulder or caressing the face with wealth.

We are the poorer when we enter the Alph in despair instead of joy. Perhaps we can reconnect to that innocence we enjoyed; the innocence of silence: of a world not crazy with ambiguity rather one rich in its simplicity.

We creep along the borders of ourselves, gingerly avoiding that me in you. Is it so painful to be human? Were those shipwrecked Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds thinking of the rest of the world when they crashed into the shore of New Zealand's Christmas Island, cut by the unforgiving rocks? Their pain is their own; their futures in their hands.

Dylan Thomas refused "to mourn the death by fire of a child in London." To mourn that child would be to undermine her humanity. Death shall have no dominion nor shall pain reign, unless we capitulate to the moment.

Think big thoughts: big, warm, fuzzy thoughts. About peace, about joy, about the happiness of others. The rest follows.

Many people I know are anxious, depressed — and hateful. Not maliciously hateful, but neglectfully hateful. They see others as weak or confounded by life. It is important to be big about oneself, to write oneself larger than 'the ordinary', but not at the expense of others — who are also writ large.

Hate is unhelpful. It clouds the soul, cloaks the soul.

Last night a great friend arrived to sing and cry with me. We laughed on wings. We listened to Ginsberg, Bukowski, Cohen — jealously: that greatness of expression beyond our meagre means. We wrote in our heads and on tablets of paper but we could not compare.

We howled, talked of whores and poems and taking Manhattan and Berlin. It is the way writers are — they have no choice but to embrace.

When the genie offered us three wishes, we spent a millisecond at the chore — then carried on as if genies don't exist. We create the magic — not thieves of the soul who live locked in gold-gilt lanterns.

We are all entering the Alph to finish our unfinished dreams.

This time of year, many will reacquaint themselves with light-footed laughter, amity and conviviality. 

That's the spirit.

Joy to the world!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

When are you the you you are?

CANCER (June 22 - July 23): Your fears and anxieties seem to be getting a bit out of hand, so you need to remind yourself today of who you are and what it is you want to do with your life. Clarity of purpose will banish your doubts.
Thus wrote Sally Brompton in today's horoscope in the Globe and Mail.
In my case, Brompton's observation is bang on — today at least. Even though I do not believe in the veracity of horoscopes generally, they occasionally hit a personal mark. This is one of a few occasions.
A friend told me a few days ago that I need to put myself first. It's something my sister Debra suggested months ago. Apart from fretting about money, I rarely think much about myself. Days go by that I don't even look in the mirror. Oh, I look to make sure my hair is groomed for public consumption. But there are no hard stares to assess my face. It's been my face for decades; it's still there — and much as it ever was.
Putting oneself first seems sage advice. I'm just not sure how one does that. I like to share my stuff (thoughts, money when I have it, home). Maybe I'm a slave to others, though I doubt it.
Brompton's implied questions are: Who are you? and What do you want your life to be about?
Who am I? That's a million-dollar question. Our sense of self is tied up with so many things: age, experience, gender, innate biases, family, culture, personal history. I believe I have a sort of core personality, though it has evolved as I have grown.
What would I like to do with my life? Again a poser. I think I am always doing something with my life. But the question seems to suggest that I must choose to do something in particular. It's as if there is only one thing that one needs to do with one's life.
I'm not sure that 'putting oneself first' has much resonance either.
I guess even though Brompton's pithy advice does echo for me today, it still falls short of the mark.
I think we reconstruct ourselves all the time. We never stand still.
Maybe a better question — one suggested in lyrics to a song I cannot remember — is: Can you name 10 reasons you want to live? Now that's a toughie. Try it — you may not like it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Can Facebook meet the future? Probably not.

I am on Facebook, which is to say I have put content on a web site designed for this purpose. It's a way, we are told, of sharing our lives with our 'friends'. 


Facebook is, sad to say, not quite as revolutionary as I would have expected but it is a means of communicating, if at a usually superficial level.

As of this date, I have 86 'friends'. Most are people I do know; the rest are people who've sent me friend requests. I believe in an open commons for expression, so I reject no one. I mean, after all, my life is not that interesting.

Mark Zuckerberg, the now 26-year-old who with a few friends created the social network we call Facebook, was recently named Time Magazine's 2010 Person of the Year. Being named Person of the Year used to have a certain je ne sais quoi but its cachet has withered — ironically because the Internet (the very medium upon which Zuckerberg's dream is built) has stolen Time readership and paid readers.

Facebook is an excellent example of what today's Internet does well. As a corollary, it also serves as an excellent example of the inherent weaknesses of the Internet, both as currently conceived and currently constructed. (Facebook proves itself and it proves 'not itself'.)

On the upside (the only side most people see), Facebook provides a platform for people to network digitally. 'Network' used to be a word reserved for politicians and businesspeople; they understood what it meant, while the rest of us looked dumbly from the sideline. The digital social network provided by Facebook changed that: networking is no longer the exclusive preserve of the suits. That's a good thing.

The architecture of a Facebook page — not the deep digital architecture of software rather the way pages, processes and applications are laid out on a browser page — is fairly straightforward. You can receive messages, send messages, upload photos and generally 'talk' about what's on your mind. Your friends see all the content you choose to share on your wall; in exchange, you get to see the stuff on their walls. You can also views a friend's online photo albums; read your friends' (usually) self-serving profiles; and e-mail one another without leaving Facebook. It's somewhat more detailed, as only Facebook aficionados know fully (I'm not one), but those are the broad sweeps.

There it is then. Facebook is a mostly user-friendly way to digitally share your stuff — not usually your deep thoughts, rather stuff you've assembled to paint a digital portrait of yourself: pictures of family pets, the children's graduation, nature and so forth. Truly harmless, sometimes endearing though rarely engaging. (Perhaps I'm only speaking from my personal Facebook experience — in that my 'stuff' is hardly earth-shaking nor does it reveal a whole lot about me: just snippets and shards. You'd really have to be a good cultural anthropologist to assemble me from my Facebook crumbs.)

So... Facebook is good but not great. Right.... What about those 500 million people who are signed on to Facebook? What are they? Digitized chopped liver?

There can be no doubt but that people find value in Facebook, just as they are increasingly gravitating to the less content-driven digital contrivances, such as Twitter and the others.

The question — one of many about the juggernaut that is social networking — is whether Facebook users REALLY like Facebook for all its cool, desperately-needed features or use it because it's become part of a new (perhaps still evolving) social imperative — the imperative to be hip and tech-savvy, for instance.

I expect I'm one of, oh let's say, 100 million Facebookies who rarely use the site for the services it was designed to provide. I open my page once a day not to add content but to provide a link to my friends to this blog. Occasionally, I'll upload pictures, as I did today. I uploaded the pictures to show my friends my real kitchen wall, which is a 'wall' in the very Facebookie sense of the term. My kitchen wall was not very advanced, but it was truly powered by people, i.e. real friends. (See The Wall on my Facebook wall. Search Jim Mosher on See my blog profile for more information. Yes, you can be my friend; just mention this blog.)

The greatest weakness of Facebook is that it is simply a sculpted assemblage of software that provides low-tech options to interact with others (friends, in this case). No doubt it was brilliant to recognize the appeal of this type of highly-crafted digital space but it ain't rocket science.

Rocket science will have to be employed to build the medium that will supplant the Internet. The question for Zuckerberg is whether he and his engineers, designers and programmers will be able to anticipate that new medium. What will it look like? How will it behave? Who will own it?

The new medium will probably share some of the characteristics we associate with the Internet of the present moment. Mostly, though, it will represent a radical shift away from the concepts that underpin today's Internet. While the underpinning of the Internet was laid by open-minded university types who lobbied for free-nets as a truly free and open commons, the now-Internet is anything but free. Any new medium that replaces or radically changes the now-Internet will likely incorporate a different moral culture.

One can also expect that the Internet will not disappear overnight; it may very well be that the Internet in a new form may be harnessed to capture some of the elements of the new medium. In the latter case, this abstract new medium will be in its nascent, embryonic form — waiting for the full radicalization that will qualify it as a true, globally-extensive paradigm shifter.

There's no doubt people who rely on the Internet to make their millions are examining all the implications of the looming emergence of a new medium. They may want to get themselves hurriedly to the nearest art gallery. As Marshall McLuhan noted in the 1960s, the smithy of new media is found in art. Artists anticipate the movement of culture and technology long before it arrives precisely because they are not bound by preconceptions. Unbiased by greed, artists see patterns shift. Artists may not 'see' their work in this way but, as McLuhan shows in a variety of his books, art anticipates change.

Change is coming. It's always coming.

The good news, if bad news for Internet proponents and acolytes, is that the vaunted new medium will prove mercurial to those now immersed in matrimony with the present medium we call the Internet. They will not see the new medium even if it sat beside them or cried to them in their sleep. The Internet has blinded everyone wedded to it.

No, the true innovators aren't even on the Internet right now or if they are it's occasional and purposeful time spent. But count on one thing: The true innovators will see the new medium long before it arrives — precisely because the people outside of today's bejewelled corridors of digital power have nothing to lose.

NOTE: This blog follows up on an earlier one, The biggest intellectual hoax.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Taking on the standards line

A fantastic friend of mine tells the most convoluted stories one can imagine. Her tangential references are so frequent, it sometimes seems I'm locked in a stream of her consciousness. Endless qualifying phrases, parentheses within parentheses and frequent interjections of superfluous comment confound her narratives.

While she would likely get a failing grade were she to submit an English essay structured after the way she speaks, her narrative style is both engaging and illuminating.

Of her trip to Texas she might say: We lived on a hill (a large constructed hill; I'm not sure when it was built. Could it have been like an outpost, a lookout?) looking out over the harbour — you could see the oil rigs; this was before the BP spill, but I don't think, no, we weren't close to that, but it was in the same general area. The couple who owned the place — lovely: he was a veteran, she such a darling: she always looked after us when we there: in the evenings we would get together; it was so easy — they bought it just, I dunno, maybe 10 years ago. We met so many Vietnam vets down there; their stories you can only imagine; they just all of them made you feel so at home ....

And so it might go. But you get the point. There's a sort of poetry in the disjointed narrative. It evokes something of the Dickensian. My friend's style evokes, though it's sometimes difficult to follow precisely. It's that fluidity, however, that gives her narratives their punch.

We all communicate differently. I think that's overlooked when we apply standards to success, particularly in school. Purists will disagree. Purists (though that, in the purist sense, may be a misnomer) believe that, in education and in life, we all must conform to the standards of the day. They also believe that standardized tests should be used in school to assess a student's progress. After all, we all have to be able to communicate the basic concepts of our current moment ... therefore we will need the same skills.

It becomes a matter of measuring people to ensure they measure up. Taken to its extreme, as the fictional purists I have invented as a sounding-board would do, we would be left with an anaemic blob: a standardized person without backbone, personality or spirit.

Rather we should be saying that, yes, people need a basket of skills just to get by in an increasingly complex world. We should ensure they have that. But we should not be so stringent in our move to standardization that we straitjacket people — and their brains.

Automatons may meet all the objective standards we may prescribe-proscribe. But they'll boast not a scintilla of creativity nor be able to match the work of our greatest artists and thinkers. (Not to suggest artists and thinkers are separate. But that's another story.)

Just a few months ago, I was sure I did not like rap music. I never gave rap a chance until a friend wanted to play some songs on YouTube. I watched Eminem's Not Afraid for the first time. It is poetry writ large. I now listen to rap and watch rap videos without my standard assumption that 'I don't like it.'

We are not the same; we are not widgets, those abstract bits famous in business and economics textbooks. Our approach to things should recognize that we are, each of us, unique — whether it's in education, the workplace, family or when among friends.

The push to standardized testing in education is part of a growing conservatism. The right embraces the simplicity of being able to measure people; it's good for business, after all.

Standardized expectations become the norm within this conservative regimen. If someone steps outside the 'standard' in her-his behaviour, there must be penalties. Some people, in this approach, are simply bad because they do not conform to the standards of behaviour. When this approach is taken to extreme, we are forced to build more prisons to house the malcontents and ne'er-do-wells who choose to misbehave.

We needn't be wearing rose-coloured glasses to assert that when we begin imprisoning our youth with math standards and English standards and all the others, those who cannot touch the bar may one day become outcasts from the standard-controlled world. But that's OK. We'll have a prison cell for them.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Just when I thought I was a quitter

I do not like quitting smoking. You'd think I'd be better at it — given that I quit high school in Grade 10, quit university at the midway point of a degree program in science and recently quit my job. I am, that is to say, a consummate quitter.

Leaving the warm, soothing embrace and balm of smoking cigarettes is an entirely different matter.

As I tell myself often, I like smoking. Yes all you wiseacre non-smokers, it is a contortion: a sort of mental prestidigitation. (Watch me pull a rabbit out of its warren.)

And we've all heard the urban legend that quitting smoking is harder than quitting heroin. That abject and absurd comparison nevertheless gives me some solace. I'm not, after all, as weak and easily-led as it would appear to the uninitiated.

I began my journey to full smoking-dom when I was 12. So it's been a long haul for a now salt-and-peppered man of 55. There were the usual reasons when I started this health-debilitating kick, peer pressure being the primary one. I was, I aver, the victim of such pressure. I was also led by the cultural pressures that suggested — in advertisements, movies and general society — that smoking was not only OK but cool.

We smokers know all that. We use it as the crutch we need to continue our killing addiction.

Twenty years ago the smoking rate in Canada was more than 50 per cent: a dismal statistic that included all adults and teenagers. Back then, teenagers (with me and others of my age the noted exceptions) told the folks doing the surveys that they did not smoke. These two decades later, teens take up the habit in increasing number; sadly, girls lead the way on this front.

Legislation and aggressive advertising have reduced the level of smoking in the Canadian population to about 20 per cent. A small part of the reason for the decline is that we older smoking adults have either already been killed by smoking or we're so close to death we have opted to sweat it out to a achieve a life without our personal demon.

We are rather far along to begin mentioning the other demons in this deadly piece: nicotine and big tobacco.

Nicotine is the principal addictive additive that makes a cigarette so appealing. Nicotine plays with a smoker's brain — always seeking another hit, another draw. Big tobacco companies recognized this many years ago. Their task? Create the best nicotine delivery system possible. They achieved that in spades — creating a huge population of slaves to the drug. Organized crime at its finest.

All of this written, I remain compelled to smoke. I can spout the rationale for quitting as well as anyone, but it does not alter the compulsion to smoke.

I am told many people quit; most of them (the ones I've met anyway) are frequently glib about their milestone: 'If I can do it anybody can.'

Friends who want to quit smoking should be encouraged. They've already been shunned in outdoor cafes, restaurants, public buildings, the homes of most friends. They need nothing less than a pat on the back for the effort, even if it turns out a failing one.

One day, we can all achieve our goals, however humble. Quitting smoking for the umpteenth time is among my limited goals in life. If I don't achieve that I may soon be writing my bucket list.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Getting an eyrie view of the world

The climbing tree rose over all others in the forest. It was a natural beauty for a child looking for the distractions of adventure.

One learns to climb early or not at all. As you ascend the great trees, the base is easy — the first 12 feet or so. The ascent through the branches is more challenging. But once atop the great oak, perched on a strong branch, the panoramic view is breathtaking. Or it was for a stripling lad then, later in life, a journalist following the wanderings of an eagle researcher.

In the early-60s Goose Bay was still a working a air base. Canadian Forces Base Goose Bay was a busy place when it was a jumping-off point to Europe during the Second World War. It was still relatively busy in the mid-60s when I discovered my climbing tree. At that time, the United States and Canadian air forces shared the airport there.

My climbing tree overlooked the American side. Though the tree was perhaps 600 yards from the guarded rim of the Americans' airport, one could espy the great jets, the armed guards and the mighty German shepherds that patrolled the perimeter.  

There was also the comings and goings of military aircraft at all hours of the day. Lumbering cargo planes from NATO air forces, spewing black clouds, would fill the sky on occasion. At seven years old, I had little knowledge of the Cold War or of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a standoff that could have sent us all over the nuclear precipice.

I do recall vividly the air raid sirens that screamed at times — all practice, thankfully. I recall being huddled with my siblings into the basement where we listened to the shortwave radio in the relative darkness and dankness. Then the all-clear would wail its message, and we would trundle up to the kitchen for Kool-Aid and a peanut butter sandwich.

Years later, in the late-1990s, I climbed another great tree. This time, I followed an eagle researcher up the tree, as he hammered spikes to grasp and stand upon. Halfway up, a feeling of doom temporarily took hold. Perhaps I should make my way, gingerly, back to the ground. I reasoned, however, that I was at midpoint so, up or down, I still had 50 feet to go.

I carried on upward to that wide nest of the eagle. It was a wise investment. After pulling myself onto the nest, its enormity was immediately inspiring. It would have been 12 feet wide, almost circular and a foot tall. This marvellous work of avian effort was sturdy enough for two grown men.

The eagle researcher gingerly placed bands on each of the four eagles in the eyrie, as mother eagle soared in circles above us. Beyond, the vast islanded expanse of Lake of the Woods stretched out in all directions.

I took some photographs for the story I would write later. (The story later appeared in the Toronto Star.)

Twelve years later, I'm drawing the comparison between the two adventures. One about a boy, unafraid of mishap or misadventure. The other about a man still seeking the inspiration that comes with breathing in another view of the world.

What strikes me is that there are so many similarities in the experiences, if separated in time; that the desire (need?) to find — and embrace — different perspectives is still alive.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A short history of sex

Sex, as a short course in the mechanics of living, is under-whelming.

Sex is not — or it shouldn't be — the center of the universe.

Sex, however, is a primal focus, one informed by aeons of evolution.

Sex is an operational metaphor. It is the groaning, grasping and groping business we undertake with uncommon fervour and ardour.

Sex is positional, propositional, prostrate, polygamous, polyamorous potential.

Sex becomes an encompassing focus for the weak and easily-led. It is defining of one's self — as if who we are is a matter of weather or the local climate of a wet vagina or erect penis.

Sex is a goal. It has nothing to do with love. Rather having 'it' is about stature; it (having 'it') defines us — or so we would have it.

Sex has nothing to do with sexuality. It, sex, is about a contrived and clinicial form of masturbation. We think about the object (of 'our affection'), sublimate it then masturbate to the merry tune of our enlightenment.

Sex is a glossy magazine with disembodied vaginas and penises. All is engorged, ready ... and dead to the world.

Sex runs out of time when we allow it to. Age cannot stop the relentless ego of gratification.

Sex conquers even the best. The lust for fleeting permanence captures gonads everywhere.

Sex, after all, is simple. It is our aspiration seeking its fulfillment.

Too bad no one mentioned love.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

At a loss for work

'Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.' (Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, Copyright 1952.)

A German friend of one of my sisters once remarked that in his country people lived to work, while we in Canada work to live.

That was 30 years ago. Things have probably changed since then.

My work as a newspaper editor was my life. I don't think I ever really set life and work apart: they were one and the same.

I no longer have that 'job' I once 'lived' to do. Am I still truly alive?

I have gone through many emotional highs and lows since I was fired that memorable morning of Oct. 16, 2010. Arrogance. Denial. An inevitable feeling of worthlessness.

My sin was that I published a letter that was at once praiseworthy and critical. The letter-writer heaped praise upon me but criticized the choices made by my employer. I was given an ultimatum at 10:30 a.m. that memorable morning: apologize for printing the letter or be terminated. I refused to apologize for doing what I had always done: print letters that expressed the opinion of my readers. I was summarily terminated.

After almost 10 years as editor, I was canned; ironically, by a person I hired six years before.

Now I am lost. After more than a quarter century as a professional writer, I have been sidelined by a single letter.

I posted in October that had quit. I gave five weeks notice. During that period, I was fired. One can split hairs about whether the chicken or the egg came first. It is moot. The result is the same.

Jobs, as those without one will know, are few and far between. Jobs in my field are rare — at least for someone 55 years old. I have not embraced the brave new world, so am, the more, ostracized. I am a pariah.

I feel abandoned.

We must, though, soldier on. I continue to believe in the goodness of people. I continue to believe that I can be a service to people. We bring honour to whatever we do.

I may be destitute and depressed now. Angry, ashamed ... many things. But that will change, though I never expected to be here at this time of my life: we never do.

This blog serves a mechanism for me to exorcise and exercise. It gives me an opportunity to 'connect' again. It's a way to communicate and share — things that have centred me for so many years.

If you have enjoyed my past blogs, please consider sharing the link with your contacts. (Encourage people to click on the ads, too. I get a few cents for each click; better than nothing, I suppose.)

I will be suing my former employer, and plan to keep my blog readers up-to-date as things progress. That will be a slow, arduous process.

Fear not: I will not focus on my personal travails, though my current situation does inform my outlook and, sometimes, my thinking.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The friend who never forgot

I picked up a Christmas card for my mother yesterday. It was hidden amongst the fliers that fill the post office box this time of year.

My mother died in January 2004. But the long-time friend who sent the card doesn't know that — so each year in the post is a Christmas greeting. Last year, Mom's friend sent a letter along with her usual card. Then, as now, the writing was etched on the paper, as if it took great strength to coax the words onto the page.

My Mom would have been 85 in late-September. Her friend would be about the same age. She had been a constant friend, as I recall. Now the friend, I understand, is in a personal care home.

The right thing, it may seem at first blush, would be to write Mom's friend and break the news. That would only save postage.

One can only imagine, but I like to think that, as Christmas rolls around each year, Mom's friend takes up her list of friends to whom she always sends cards and notes. One can imagine that she lovingly pens her thoughts and, while doing so, recalls those times when all were young, when all shared in the camaraderie that is friendship. Perhaps there is pain as she slowly makes the letters' strokes, but later a warmth as she pastes that sticky address label on the top-left of the envelope.

One can also imagine that many of her cards are, in these later years, being returned with 'Address Unknown' or some such shorthand from the post office. But the postmaster at my rural post office knew my Mom, and he knows me. So each year, he plops the envelope into my box.

You may have guessed that I won't be writing my Mom's dear friend.

Call it a white lie, a conspiracy of silence, a paternalistic way of treating the elderly.

Call it what you will.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The biggest intellectual hoax of all time

What we know as the Internet evolved from a military solution to potential communication disruption due to nuclear strikes. That military solution involved creating redundancies so that there would be numerous 'routes' through which information would be channelled. The modern Internet does just that: pieces of information are 'sent' to numerous 'places' before being reassembled (through the wonder of the browser) for the user-recipient.

It's analogous to tearing up a sheet of paper into hundreds of little pieces, chunking the pieces into the air then watching the sheet reassemble when it hits the floor.

Researchers at U.S. and Canadian universities knew about the military application. They saw a way to implement the system to share information amongst themselves. Many of those university types would later see the elitism of it all. Why not share the information — and the technique — with everyone?

Thus emerged 'free nets' — systems of information sharing based on the military model of redundancy. These free nets, usually based at servers at universities, allowed people to send and receive information across the system.

It was clunky at first — the preserve, it seemed at the time, of techno-geeks with far too much time on their hands. Enter Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the world's preeminent techno-geek. He developed the browser which, through its various incarnations, has evolved to what we have today.

Of course the evolution of the Internet is much more complex than the foregoing snapshot. It is, however, a good starting point for the discussion that follows.

The Internet is a leavening force; it provides the same common ground for everyone who has access to a computer and a 'connection'. It is, however, no longer 'free'. That early concept is out the window.

Instead, the Internet has become a platform for companies and individuals looking to make a quick dollar. They are riding the wave of the new capitalism — a new economy that promises to make a millionaire of even the dumbest oaf.

News media are pulling all stops. There's money in them thar hills. The so-called 'new media' is clunky, though. Yes, there are rollovers, live streaming video, hourly and daily updates; it's all very visual and 'interactive'. (I'm still trying to figure out where this 'interactivity' resides.)

What is missing — what is missing even in the print editions of most newspapers — is any sort of synthesis. We are left with uncohered data, screaming headlines, bland stories pulled from other sources and so forth.

The top story in yesterday's Winnipeg Free Press was about a fatal car crash. It was a few paragraphs long. Source? A police news release, though there was no such attribution; instead 'staff writer' was credited. It was simply a deft rewrite of an RCMP release issued that day. It was the paper's 'top story'.

That's news?

The rush to be first has taken the front seat on the bus. Back of the bus are journalistic standards, investigative reporting and anything that remotely resembles actual news.

My former employer (Sun Media) is being wagged in its dogged pursuit of Internet lucre. It wants to create the world's biggest news portal; it covets that global cachet and the dollars it believes will flow from such. It assembles wacky news from around the world (though there are no tests for the truth of this news). The only qualification for this off-the-wall news is that it be sufficiently stupid that its veracity slinks into the background; it's about amusing the masses, after all.

The momentum to adopt the new media is unstoppable. Sun Media and other news organizations MUST adopt and adapt, they tell themselves. Too bad for them that they are not (nor is anyone) anticipating the coming paradigm shift. Nor, truly, can anyone anticipate it. But it will, assuredly, arrive — unannounced, unheralded in a world-changing moment.

The Internet, in and of itself, cannot be faulted. It is a mechanism, a medium. It provides a vehicle for content but it is not the content. The transcontinental railway lines that were built in Canada provided the means by which people (content) could open otherwise unpopulated, unvisited parts of the country. The content heralded the paradigm shift, not the medium.

Not to confuse what's available on the Internet as 'content'. The 'content' of the Internet, as a medium, is the shift it is causing in the way people interact with it (the medium of the Internet). In this, I am, rather ineffectively, parroting Marshall McLuhan — who deftly explained the difference between medium and content in his epochal book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).

McLuhan famously postulated that 'the medium is the message' — a wildly misunderstood concept even to this day. "[T]he 'message' of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern it introduces into human affairs," he writes in Understanding Media. "The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated or enlarged the scale of human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure."

The fact, says McLuhan, is that the medium is the message because "it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action."

But more [my emphasis]: "The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association."

It is not, then, the putative 'content' of the medium which is the Internet that changes our way of communicating or thinking, it is the medium itself.

The paradigm shift that will happen, whether sooner or later is irrelevant, will embed 'the change of scale or pace or pattern' in its first layer but, importantly, that incipient medium will not be the message either; rather, once again, even it will be 'ineffectual in shaping the form of human association.'

It seems circuitous. But what McLuhan was suggesting back in the 1960s is as applicable today as it was then. In Understanding Media he was talking about what he called the retribalization of the West due to electricity. The medium of information exchange had been transformed from the typeset mindset of the post-Gutenberg era to the electric world of near-immediate information exchange. He saw the world as tumbling, inexorably toward a globalization — we were becoming a global village.

The shifts in media to which he was referring, he argued, changed human ways of thinking. The printed book presents the world as a linear construct. Television presents a world as immediate; pattern and shape takes precedence over the linear and logical.

He took it a few steps further. He concluded that our 'sensorium' changes under the influence of different media. In the electric age, the oral, aural and tactile (tribal senses that have more to do with pattern) dominate the visual (more 'literal' sense).

But don't take my word for it. Read McLuhan.

Of course I have used McLuhan to buttress my argument that we are currently embalmed in a lie, perhaps the biggest intellectual hoax of the century. Then again, I thought the Internet would never fly.

Maybe I was right, after all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

You ain't heavy ...

I bawled and howled when Robert died.

When Robert died.

Robert: my brother.


I sat, inconsolate, howling on the lid of the septic tank. ‘Why! Robert!’

He lay dead on my mother’s kitchen floor, fetal beside the fridge.

She’d called me — as I knew she would … one day — to cry into the phone that he was dead. “You have to get here. I think Robert’s dead.”

Sure enough.

Robert was stone-cold departed of the moment.


No longer with us.

A blanched example of his former self.


You had to know Robert.

We had been expecting his departure for years. He was of the walking dead.

A diabetic who lived hard. Afflicted with pain and sadness, and the melancholy and anger due to a woman who had left him … all that.

Who cared? Not Robert.

He had hopes. He couldn’t walk well, so he turned his thoughts to getting a motorized scooter. He often looked at those pamphlets from medical supply companies … ever dreaming of mobility, independence.

‘Maybe I could free myself of these drugs; not have to ask my brother to drive me here and there. Ahh, the independence. Maybe, with a scooter, not one of those really fancy ones but a basic job, I could actually get around on my own.’

There wasn’t the money nor did I think it, this independence business, that important. Robert would ‘abuse’ a scooter, after all. Probably be one of the first to get caught drunk driving on a device that travels five miles an hour.

My approach to this may seem flippant. Robert would laugh. Agree mostly. Though make some pointed points along the way.

Robert’s death carried us all, we brothers and sisters, back. Back to those way-back times of childhood. As it would be.

We knew Robert.

Robert always travelled uphill.

In the middle of a family pack of seven, Robert had to make it on his own. We older three had only time for our high regard of ourselves. His younger siblings were also mildly separated, though more likely to pay Robert heed. We older sibs thought Robert an odd sort who probably wouldn’t amount to much — not as much as we, in any case.

There was that sort of division. But not a divide based on malice. Just the way it was, really.

Robert may have been going to grab a glass of milk.

We speculate.

He was tightly fetal when I found him.

I knelt.

Robert! Robert.

‘Shit, Robert.’

My mother waved me on when I arrived that early morning. I went to his bedroom. He wasn’t there.

‘Where is he?’

She threw her arm, pointed toward the refrigerator.

Where my brother lay.

Collapsed, perhaps, after seeking a meal or other refreshment.

Twenty-six years before his expected death, Robert was diagnosed a diabetic. He punctured himself daily from then on, pressing insulin into his veins.

Ten years before he died in 2003, Robert had heart surgery.

Neither his failing heart nor his diabetes slowed his appetite for life.

His death alone in a kitchen does not define nor undermine. It was a thing on its way, and he had to face it as we all do.

He would have kicked out the mariachi band, had one been sought to ease the pain that would go with his death. He would have sent the band packing, with hugs all around.

Robert, my brother, had a wit, sharpened by what I’m not sure. Sharpened, maybe, by that positional thing: middle child. He was so good on his feet. And he never gave in. It was his way or the highway.

That stubbornness served him well. Sometimes.

His intransigence, though, frequently got him in trouble, sometimes even estranging his family. Still, as disarming and ugly as it was for me, he died well.

After all, he died.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Let go of the fear of flying

Start as you mean to continue. My mum used to say that.

My mum said a lot of things.

I’d ask mum how to spell a word.

“Look it up,” she’d say.

Yeah. But I don’t know how to spell it.

Tough beans.

Imagine standing there, wondering how to spell psychologist or elicit-illicit. Where do you start? Sometimes look-it-up doesn’t help.

This conundrum figured as among my biggest challenges as a writer. How does one get past (passed?) the nuances of the English language? It’s a language beguiling and beautiful. But it’s also a difficult, frequently contradictory language that, in all of its malleability, can be frustrating in its magical elusiveness.

How did I get around the puzzle of finding words when I didn’t know how they were spelled?

I didn’t.

I just exposed myself to them. I saw words in everything. There were words in the newspaper, the telephone book, that damn dictionary designed to tease me.

I said, ‘Okay, if I must, I will get this language thing; spelling be damned.’

Today — and every day, for that matter — I am a writer. I get paid to write.

I spell words in my head. I see words in my head. I see the words whole, as units, even complicated ones. I am sometimes baffled by my ability to use words so easily. It seems the mere ‘exposure to words’ created a neural network — an internal scaffolding in my brain — that became twinned with an unconscious imaging process.

While the spelling of words was my mother’s gift to me, the matter of their use was squarely in my father’s domain. My father’s genius was to puzzle me into something I’ll call proper use. It’s the way one marries words to construct things we call thoughts, ideas and so forth.

Dad was a stickler. By about seven years of age, I knew most of the basic elements of sentence construction. Not that I could readily identify subject-predicate, verb-adverb, noun-adjective. But dear old Dad did imbue me with an understanding that gave me the second key to the kingdom of writing.

Forty-five years later, I’m writing about writing — its foibles, its marvels.

I also have a passion for mathematics. It’s scarier than language, what with all its symbols and logical constructions. As with writing, the best way to wrestle the beast into submission is to expose oneself to it.

The squiggly symbols of the calculus are immediately frightening. ‘I’ll never understand that!’

It’s surprising, though, how quickly one becomes less fearful. After all, mathematics is very much about convention and agreement, much like language. In order to develop a mathematical theorem one must accept the conventions, many of which are arbitrary. (If you like, you can develop your own personal ‘conventions’, but then chances are no one will understand your stuff, either. The good thing is that all the bull work — the bull work of the bulwark — has already been done; it’s just a matter of accepting the conventions then getting on with it.

One of my favourite examples of the magic of mathematics centers on a German fellow by the name of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, co-discoverer with Isaac Newton of the infinitesimal calculus. (It should be noted, however, there is some debate as to which of the two should be given ‘priority’ in the discovery.)

As a lad, Leibniz was asked to answer what most would suggest is an impossible question. ‘What’s the sum of numbers between 1 and 100, including 1 and 100?’

You’ve got to be kidding me!

Leibniz answered immediately: ‘The answer is: 5,050.’

How did he pull that off?

Apparently, Leibniz ‘saw’ the numbers as arrayed along a line. He flipped the line in half so that 1 aligned with 100, 99 with 2, 98 with 3 and so forth. He immediately recognized in his mind’s eye that each of the 50 sums was 101. That is: 50 x 101= 5,050.

Using algebra one can then determine the sum of numbers from 1 to N by the same method. The formula becomes N/2 ‘times’ (N + 1).

Most people are probably numb by now, so deeply ingrained is our fear of numbers and their ‘manipulation’ in such areas as trigonometry, algebra and calculus.

My suggestion on the language and mathematics fronts remains, however. If we fearlessly go where we have not let ourselves travel before, merely by reading and parsing math texts, we can take down the beast of our trepidation.

Let’s boldly go where no one has gone before.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lake Winnipeg in ecological crosshairs

NOVEMBER 2008 — Before early light, fishers amble down the dock at Gimli Harbour. They’ll be on Lake Winnipeg pulling nets as the sun breaks through an overcast of gossamer clouds outstretched on the eastern horizon.
The productivity of the lake seems to know no bound. But another boom may lead to a bust in the linear growth of the annual lake fish harvest.

Scientists studying the lake have been telling us for some time that Lake Winnipeg is threatened. The principal threat, they say, is an excess of the nutrients nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P). This nutrient over-loading has led to blooms of bluegreen algae that this year, as in past years over the last decade, covered much of the North Basin.

This year, a large bluegreen bloom took hold in the South Basin, near Victoria Beach and right up to the Narrows, where the two basins of the lake pinch off.

The bluegreen blooms are actually mats of a primitive bacteria known as cyanobacteria. Fishers glumly work through the thick mats of cyanobacteria, which cling to fishing nets and make their work more difficult. Rainbow smelt, a so-called introduced species, bob belly-up in the water, tainted blue and green by the bacteria.

There is no danger to the fish, which remain highly edible — among the favourites pickerel, sauger and whitefish. It’s the lake, a vast and complex aquatic ecosytstem, that’s in peril. Consequently, the fishery is in the biological snare, too. As goes the health of the lake, so the health of the $25-million fishery, an industry that employs about 1,000.

The cyanobacteria in Lake Winnipeg out-compete the plant algae we are all familiar with as the pond scum of our adventuresome youth. Cyanobacteria ‘out-compete’ because they can use nitrogen from the atmosphere. Plant algae can’t perform that feat, so they lose foothold in the competition for habitat.

The shift to cyanobacteria sets off a cascade of other consequences. When the increased biomass of bluegreens dies, it sinks to the bottom of the lake. The decomposition results in depletions in the oxygen column. This can affect other species.

The presence of dominant cyanobacteria species open new ecological niches for aquatic organisms that favour them in their diets.

In addition, some cyanobacteria release toxins that can be fatal to animals that ingest water containing them.

In all, the emergent prominence of cyanobacteria may be moving the lake to a precipice, — a threshold or tipping point — beyond which full recovery will be problematic.

Solutions exist to slow the process that has been advanced by nutrient over-loading. The obvious first solution is to reduce the over-loading at source. The problem is that there are millions of point sources across the one-million-square km Lake Winnipeg watershed. The watershed takes in a huge area, from the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta to Northwestern Ontario, dipping into four American states and covering most of Manitoba north to Hudson Bay.

Individual action and collective action can make a difference, as individuals and the cities and towns in the watershed consciously limit their use of compounds that contain phosphorous, such as automatic dishwashing detergent and lawn fertilizers. Leaking septic and holding tanks should be repaired to ensure they are not sending household waste into the surface and groundwater.

Municipalities can lead the way by removing phosphorous from their wastewater. Municipalities must also stop pumping effluent into waterways. Gimli, Lake Winnipeg’s largest population center, treats its sewage, then pumps the end product (effluent) into the lake. Its sewage treatment plant removes most of the phosphorous in raw sewage, but there is still a quantity of P that cannot be removed.

More, sewage treatment processes do not remove all parasites nor heavy metals or pharmaceuticals that wind up in household sewage. These are dumped into the lake.

A pair of surveys by the Canadian Geographical Survey in 1994 then again in 1996 linked the emergence of intensive farming in the early-1960s with an increase in P and N in Lake Winnipeg. The correlation was established after analyses of core samples during the two lake-wide surveys.

The surveys obtained samples from lake sediment. The deeper the core the further back in the life of the lake scientists could travel.

The surveys suggested that before fertizliers were used extensively, there was a lower concentration of the nutrients in the core samples.

Crops require P and N in concentrations that vary with the crop planted. In the ideal, fertilizer should be applied at the optimal agronomic rate — which is simply the concentration at which there is full utilization of the applied nutrients by the plants. When applied in excess of crop need, the unused nutrients can leave the land, enter local drainages, then Lake Winnipeg.

Farmers are not alone in the drama of over-fertilization.

Municipalities, cottagers and other jurisdictions also send nutrients and pollutants into the lake.

Lake Winnipeg’s watershed spans four provinces and four central states in the United States. From the foothills of the Rockies east to Lake of the Woods, the Lake Winnipeg watershed takes in a vast landscape. Whatever comes off that landscape eventually drains into the waters of Lake Winnipeg.

The nutrients P and N are linked directly to the nutrient overload, which is causing the over-fertilization known among scientists as cultural eutrophication. At some threshold, the lake will die unless resolute action is taken.

Coordinated action across the watershed is needed. There’s been the promise of just such an effort, but it has been woefully slow in materializing. The federal government pledged $18 million by November 2007. At this writing (November 2008) not a penny has been spent of that pledged money.

In addition to reducing our nutrient footprint in all waterways, we must conduct the research so vital to understanding how these bodies of water behave.

We’d better be quicker at the task, more directed at the helm.

It’s increasingly clear, for instance, that looming climate change (the loss of glaciers in the Rockies, for instance) will exacerbate current conditions.

Nutrient loading, then, is not the only problem. Climate change could result in dramatic changes. As well, the arrival of new species of fish and microorganisms will disrupt the aquatic balance.

There is a crippling inertia when it comes to Lake Winnipeg. It one of the world’s least studied lakes of its size — both in its own area (about 24,000 sq. km.) and the area of its watershed.

We may lick the nutrient over-loading problem, but there are other challenges on the horizon. Rainbow smelt, introduced from the Winnipeg River system in the early-1990s, is now plentiful. Just how it’s changing the lake is a matter of conjecture. So little is known about the condition of the lake pre-introduction, it becomes a conundrum as to what ‘changes’ may have occurred or may yet occur.

Add to that the fact that the Devils Lake outlet in North Dakota operated this summer and the likelihood of ‘new’, non-native species being introduced — and one realizes the extent of the challenge.

The nutrient problem may be the easiest one to tackle — because real action can make a difference over time. Dealing with invasive species once they’ve arrived will prove a much greater challenge. Anticipating the effects of climate change is also unresolved in detail, though water shortages (reduced lake inflows) appear a likely result.

What Lake Winnipeg needs is some TLC; some focussed attention.

The province’s Lake Winnipeg Action Plan must be revisited. It recommends reducing the concentration of N and P to pre-1970 levels. That’s not nearly ambitious enough.

A 1974 study commissioned by the province urged immediate attention to the N-P problem. Twenty-four years on we appear no farther ahead.


“A comprehensive study should be commenced as soon as possible to prevent further degradation of Lake Winnipeg and to determine possible methods of lake restoration.”

“The nutrients in the lake make the water particularly fertile and predisposed to algae bloom whenever the appropriate climatic conditions occur.”

“A comprehensive water quality study of Lake Winnipeg and of the contributing drainage is required. Since it appears the main concern in this lake is aquatic blooms, the study should be carried out with major emphasis on the identification of nutrient inputs and the effect of control measures.
“The study should be commenced as soon as possible to prevent further degradation of this important water resource and to determine possible methods of lake restoration.”

— SOURCE: “Water Quality Study: South Portion of Lake Winnipeg”, 1974. Department of Mines, Resources and Environmental Management, Environmental Management Division, Environmental Protection Branch.