Kaliningrad: The Inconspicuous Enclave

A postcard showing the city of Konigsberg, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia

As a travel writer drawn to obscure and remote locales, I’ve developed an interest in a mysterious territory tucked between Poland and the Baltic states. The venue is Kaliningrad—a Russian province and enclave located within Europe and behind NATO lines. Formerly German Königsberg, it became part of the Soviet Union when it was awarded to Stalin after World War Two, in 1946.

Today, the region of roughly one million people contains Russia’s only northern warm water port and is one of its most strategic military perches. It’s home to Moscow’s Baltic Sea fleet—among other weapons of war—and is situated an uncomfortable stone’s throw away from several European cities.

Most people have never heard of Kaliningrad because it’s been a restricted area for foreigners for many decades. You couldn’t just go there on a whim if you were an independent traveler backpacking through Europe, for instance. Even on maps it has an ambiguous countenance that makes it nearly invisible, or at least easy to forget if you manage to see it in the first place.

Its geostrategic and military relevance, given the deterioration of relations with Russia, is now undeniably heightened.

For those interested, I’ve written a short opinion piece with my colleague, John Bell, about Kaliningrad in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago entitled, “As Tensions Between NATO and Russia Increase, Look to Kaliningrad.”

Ukraine Op-Ed in the Globe

I’ve co-authored an opinion piece with my colleague John Bell which ran in today’s Globe and Mail about the war in Ukraine. It argues for a more nimble approach to the conflict by the West in light of the dangers of nuclear escalation.

You can read it on the Globe’s website.

If the paywall gets in the way, you can access it on The Conciliators Guild blog.

The Attention Factor

My Dinner With Andre

As a freelancer I’ve spent many years (prior to the pandemic) working in coffee shops. As those who work in cafés know all too well: you become inadvertently and unavoidably privy to the conversations of the others sitting at nearby tables. That comes with its plusses and minuses, though largely the latter.

But one fascinating thing I’ve noticed, beyond some of the very unusual and personal topics discussed, is there tends to be a default dynamic at play in many of these meetings between people. 

Often one of the interlocutors dominates the discussion, while the other, or others, sit passively and do the listening. Put in a different way, one person receives most of the attention, while someone else does the giving. The frequency with which I’ve seen this over the years is staggering. It operates in people as if it were an unspoken contract, and often in excess: too much talking in one person, too much listening in another. 

I’ve often imagined the people involved unconsciously seeking out one another to play-out those specific, complimentary roles.

Certain traditional cultures have known for a long time that humans have an innate need to both give and receive attention. It’s a sort of nutrition. Just the right amount fulfills us. Too much giving or receiving (as anyone who’s been stuck listening to an interminable rambler who has been holed up for too long on their own, knows), throws us off. It can even make us grossly inefficient.

This is such a powerful factor in human affairs, that much of what we do, in fact, is driven by disguised attention motivations arising out of that need: both at the individual and collective levels. We often rationalize our desire for it—one look at the state of social media demonstrates that. And yet, in our modern culture, as with other tendencies, we’re largely unaware of it. At most we might give disapproving lip service to “attention-seeking” in overactive children or misbehaving adults. We don’t see the subtler, wider ranges of that tendency that operate daily in ourselves. 

Social interaction is a very good and necessary thing. Covid lockdowns have underscored that fact. But one also wonders: if we were more cognizant of our attention needs, and thus managed them better, how many of those asymmetrical café discussions—or other excessive reflexes born out of a similar deprivation—would need to take place?  And how much more selective might we become with whom, or what, we give our attention to—including those who may need it the most?

Do Pasta Shapes Actually Taste Different?

varieties of pasta

I have friends, a married couple, who for years have stubbornly argued over the question of whether different shapes of pasta actually taste different.

She, the more sensory-driven and less logical personality, is adamant that this is the case and that every type of pasta triggers a subtle flavour difference, its own unique taste signature. He, an avowed atheist and arch-sceptic of anything that remotely smacks of magical thinking, denies that such a thing is even possible.

Being a pasta fanatic and having tried nearly every nomenclature of noodle, I see the validity of the question as well as both sides of the debate. And much to their chagrin, I have never taken sides. But as I’ve mulled the issue further I’ve grown to sympathize more with the perspective of the Mrs. There is something at play between a pasta’s shape and its taste.

Here’s an explanation, after which I’ll get into why this interests me at all:

A pasta’s shape—whether rigatoni, angel hair, or elbow macaroni—will create a slightly different eating experience. And that, in turn, will affect the way we perceive flavour, because more than just taste alone is involved in how we experience flavour. Texture, shape and consistency, we are told, alter how a thing tastes.

Rigatoni’s ridges, thickness and tubular shape, and the way it holds the sauce, will register in the brain differently as we eat, then say, angel hair, which will have a completely different sensory impact. Even the way those pastas look on the plate and how you attack and chew them will also change the overall eating experience from one to another.

The result of these differing factors seem to be that our perception of flavour is transformed ever so subtly from one to the next. It is as if it we experience a minor form of synesthesia—the ability to register one sense through another. In this case, it would be an ability to actually discern a slight taste sensation from shape. More people than just my friend’s wife have remarked on this phenomenon, which does on the surface seem to defy logic.

Various fresh pasta shapesWhy does this absurdly narrow and seemingly insignificant question matter enough to warrant mention at all? Because it illustrates, albeit on a smaller scale, the importance of context. When one factor in a set of factors changes, even the tiniest one, the whole is transformed as a result.

Returning to the example of Italian food again: two plates of the same pasta, say, a seafood linguini, made in the same way using the same cooking utensils and ingredients, might still ‘taste’ sufficiently different depending on whether they ate eaten al fresco at a table metres from the sea, or inside of a dark old rustic home on a hilltop 20 km inland with no view of the coast. Eating that dish with its shrimp, clams and mussels, al fresco as you inhale the sea breeze and watch and hear the waves lapping shore would likely make your meal taste more ‘fishy’ and fresh.

I remember back in the day when I used to shop for new music CDs at the HMV store, you could ask to sample the album at a listening station with headphones. I often found that new music which I sampled in-store, which I liked and then purchased, sounded very different when I later played it at home. Because of that I tended to return most new CDs I chose that way because it turned out that I didn’t really enjoy the music after all.

The same thing happens today when I hear a new song I like blaring at a bar or restaurant and then use the ‘Shazam’ app on my smartphone to identify and download it later at home: the song afterwards usually sounds unrecognizable and feels like a bit of a dud.

It may be the same song playing at both locations, but the context—where you are, who you’re with, your mood and state of mind, the sound system, and the room’s acoustics—might differ enough to change the overall experience of it.

So, what’s the takeaway?

Context is everything. Circumstances alter cases. Too often we equate one thing with another without considering the unobtrusive differences that might make them sufficiently different.

Many examples on a larger and more significant scale abound.

Why Groups Tend Towards Mediocrity

Lemmings running off a cliffMany of our achievements stem from our special ability to band together and work in groups. By doing so we not only generate social dividends, but also enhance and magnify our effectiveness as individuals (for which the social benefits are likely an evolved incentive). Cooperation is how gargantuan pyramids get built and astronauts propel themselves to the moon and back—and how a million smaller successes are achieved.

But there is a serious paradox built into this usually-advantageous group dynamic: the collective, in its zeal for cohesion, can often stifle and predispose itself to mediocrity and failure.

The reason for this isn’t hard to grasp. Whether we are on the hunt, fighting a war or building a mega-structure, a high degree of group cohesion—a single-mindedness of purpose and action—is required for success. Too much disagreement and working at cross-purposes is counter-productive, which is why we both consciously and unconsciously seek out like-minded people and demand conformity in our groups. It’s hard-wired in us.

But that tendency, like anything else, can overreach with negative consequences. In excess, it can negate one of the greatest assets of any group: dissenting views and a diversity of perspective.

We’ve all seen or experienced this drive towards uniformity. Companies, organizations and other collectives tend to cherry-pick their recruits based on a certain ‘type.’ Once brought in, they are further homogenized through various pressures. Groupthink dynamics create a singularity of perspective. Dominance hierarchies and status considerations discourage the less influential from sharing dissenting views that might more accurately reflect reality and be beneficial for the group.

Matthew Syed Rebel IdeasMatthew Syed, in his book Rebel Ideas, argues that these group dynamics can be deadly for organizations and companies as it creates monocultures and encourages myopic thinking that result in cognitive errors or mistakes.

Syed cites the failure of the CIA to predict the September 11 attacks and the bad team decisions at the heart of the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest climbing expedition made famous in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air.

He adds that mistakes that cost lives in both the healthcare and airline industries have occurred when subordinate staff were too intimidated to contradict their superiors who had made errors in judgment. Airline pilots and surgeons wield military-like authority over their juniors. I’ve also seen similarly poor outcomes result from discouragement of dissent during my time working as a television news writer and producer. The hard news business can be just as hierarchical and fanatically top-down in its decision-making as the most martially-structured collective.

So, what is the takeaway from this?

Syed says groups can avoid the crippling damage that this myopia can cause by actively seeking and building what he calls “cognitive diversity.” He defines this as group diversity marked by differences in perspective, experiences and thinking styles among its members. When diversity in a group is embraced and encouraged, it results in a kind of easygoing natural feedback, “rebel ideas,” which provide a wider range of options for the collective for seeing the world and navigating it.

“Groups that contain diverse views have a huge, often decisive, advantage,” he writes. Those collectives tend to make far better decisions resulting from seeing a the bigger picture, while still retaining the necessary cohesion, leadership and hierarchy required to effectively channel its energy to get things done.

Daniel Boorstin’s ‘The Image’ and the News Media

Daniel J. Boorstin's book 'The Image'

Several months ago, I picked up Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. A 1960s classic of American cultural criticism, the book is a scathing indictment of what the author saw as the emerging tendency in the United States at the time to manufacture and worship virtual experiences over the real.

Boorstin exposed these changes (fuelled by rampant capitalism), in several different areas and professional fields: from the news media to the burgeoning global tourism industry, to advertising, the entertainment business, and the propagation of the “American Dream.”

Daniel J. Boorstin's book The ImageIn each field, the projection of an ideal image or product—what Boorstin famously coined a “pseudo-event”—had come to replace some real-life version preceding it.

He tells us, for instance, that whereas fame had in the past become attached to individuals who had in some way earned their notoriety through great acts of will or genius, modern “celebrities” by contrast had merely become “famous for being famous.”

For Boorstin, this marked the beginning of America’s decline: a descent into fantasy, illusion and lies whose trajectory would reach no good end. The mind-altering and culture-warping impacts of digital and screen-based technologies that came to us decades later, make The Image a kind of prophetic work.

As a writer and journalist, the one thing that stood out for me in Boorstin’s tome is his depiction of the news media’s behaviour. One instance he illustrates is particularly poignant.

Early in the book, the author writes about the relationship between political demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy and the American press corps, whom, Boorstin argues, empowered the rogue politician through the coverage they gave him in the 1950s. What amazed me is that Boorstin could have been writing about the relationship between today’s news media and former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Boorstin writes of McCarthy:

He had a diabolical fascination and an almost hypnotic power over news-hungry reporters. They were somehow reluctantly grateful to him for turning out their product. They stood astonished that he could make so much news from such meager raw material. Many hated him, all helped him. They were victims of what one of them called their “indiscriminate objectivity.” In other words, McCarthy and the newsmen both thrived on the same synthetic commodity.

He goes on to say:

Senator McCarthy’s political fortunes were promoted almost as much by newsmen who considered themselves his enemies as by those few who were his friends. Without the active help of all of them he would never have created the pseudo-events which brought him notoriety and power. Newspaper editors, who self-righteously attacked the Senator’s “collaborators,” themselves proved worse than powerless to cut him down to size. Even while they attacked him on the editorial page inside, they were building him up in front-page headlines. Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were his co-manufacturers of pseudo-events. They were caught in their own web. Honest newsmen and the unscrupulous Senator McCarthy were in separate branches of the same business.

Understanding News Distortion

Book cover - Veils of DistortionI’ve always been intrigued by the gap between perception and reality. Our preoccupation with fake news has made us forget that ‘real news’ can—even if in more subtle ways—skew our picture of reality. The endless offerings of news in the digital age, whether fake or otherwise, are fast replacing direct knowledge of, and personal experience with, the immediate world around us. This is perhaps why so many people have made the decision in recent years to ‘tune out.’

I’ve written a book about this—a respectful and what I hope is a thought-provoking critique of the hard news biz from the perspective of a newsroom journalist.

Veils of Distortion explores the unseen and subtle dynamics by which mind, medium, and professional practice amalgamate into this strange creature we call ‘the news.’ It also looks at what we can do—both as news workers and consumers—to begin to mitigate its warping effects.

Available from major online book sellers.

Risk-Takers and the Risk-Averse

A Toronto pub closed during a COVID-19 lockdown

The friction between business entrepreneurs and public servants during the Covid-19 pandemic, reflected here on this pub window during lockdown in Toronto, is reminiscent of the age-old tension between agrarians and pastoralists.

It also begs a recurring question: how much of what we believe-in and support is determined by our proclivities and mindset, including what is—or is not—at stake for us?

Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue

Search and rescue volunteers dangle from a helicopterI have an article appearing in the Winter 2019 issue of Montecristo magazine about the life and work of Mike Danks, the Team Leader of Vancouver’s North Shore Rescue. Danks and his volunteer colleagues sacrifice their free time and sometimes put their lives in harm’s way to rescue hikers, skiers, snowshoers and climbers who becomes lost or injured in the Coast Mountains north of the city.

You can read about their work here.

Sasquatch in the Media

Image of a Sasquatch postage stamp from CanadaSince the release of In the Valleys of the Noble Beyond in the USA in July (and in Canada in August), I’ve been up to my eyebrows in work plugging the book.

I’m grateful that the response from literary reviewers and the media has been unanimously positive (so far).

In addition to Amazon featuring the work as one of its 10 Best Books of July 2019, the work has garnered a medley of print, online, radio, podcast and TV plugs in North America and the U.K. A list of the more notable mentions with links, including from The Washington Post, can be found on the Press page of my website.

For Sasquatch buffs out there: you might be interested in reading an essay I wrote in July for Lit Hub in which I wax philosophically some more about Bigfoot and reveal details about a strange incident that occurred to me on Vancouver Island just before the book was published.

I’d like to offer a heartfelt thanks for everyone’s interest and support.