Lost in Ikaria Greece

A warning sign about getting lost on a trailhead on hiking trail on the island of Ikaria in Greece.

This past spring I travelled to Ikaria, a traditional Greek island in the Aegean near the Turkish coast. The island has become famous in recent years for its so-called “blue zone” status—it was one of five places, twenty years ago, deemed to have the most centenarians per capita in the world. Less well-known is that Ikaria is a quintessential nature island among Greek islands. Its north and south coasts are subdivided by a rugged mountain range covered in forests and rent by steep rocky river canyons. Scores of old village walking trails, some that have been used for many centuries, criss-cross the mountains in every direction, creating a veritable web of paths.

Ikaria is a hiker’s paradise. I was drawn to the island largely for that reason. Most of the foreigners I met on my trip were also there to hike. So numerous, varied, and bucolic are Ikaria’s trails, that most of the travellers I met there were back for their double-digit consecutive hiking visit to the island. One couple had returned for their 30th trip that spring.

Because I travelled alone to the island, I was hiking solo. I chose as my first ramble a 3-hour out-and-back trail that begins from the mountain village of Profitis Ilias, and follows the slope of a steep river gorge to the Chalaris Dam, a water reservoir a few kilometres below. In spite of the relative shortness of the hike, I didn’t cover much distance that day.

A view from the Chalaris Dam hiking trail in Ikaria, Greece.The trail, like many on Ikaria, was not as straightforward a proposition as many hikes are in other places. Some route-finding skills were required, which I had. But  I still became quickly disoriented in sections.

To begin with the path, like many trails on Ikaria, was not well marked. The hiking map of the island, an otherwise informative and comprehensive chart published by Anavasi Maps and Guides, was too general to answer my more specific navigational questions at a smaller scale (I didn’t want to use an app and be glued to a screen). And not only was the trail hard to see along certain stretches owing to the uniformly dry and rocky conditions, but often the path veered up or down at very hard angles suddenly and invisibly. I often missed those hidden turns and I overshot as a result—following, instead, the trail made by others before me who also missed the switchback, until it petered out and I was left scratching my head.

In one instance I backtracked after getting lost, and picked-up what I took to be the trail forward—only to realize, after hiking through what I thought was new scenery, I was back to where I started! That epiphany was a humbling jolt: I was certain that I was in one place, only to realize I was somewhere else completely.

I took that initial experience as a warning to be as careful as possible while on my other hikes in Ikaria.

I do as much wilderness hiking as I can when I am at home in Canada, and consider myself to be a fairly good route finder for an intermediate-advanced level hiker. Given all of the things that can go awry when recreating in the backcountry, this issue of possibly getting lost is usually top of mind for me when I’m in the wilderness. Because of that I have written posts on this blog, and others, about the psychology of wilderness survival, on getting lost in the outback , and on search and rescue (SAR) operations for lost and injured hikers. Which is why when I found myself seriously disoriented for the first time on a subsequent hike in Ikaria, I was completely taken aback.

A view of the Chalaris Canyon and the mountains of Ikaria, GreeceThat hike, the Chalaris Canyon high route, is another out-and-back trail that connects the seaside town of Nas with the community of Raches in the mountains. The hike was beautiful, rugged, and scenic. There were some moments of confusion at the start, similar to the previous hike I had done; but because the trail was more visible and because I was deliberately moving slowly and methodically, I made good progress that day.

The problems began when I was on the return leg of the hike.

As I walked across the high rocky slope of the canyon back towards the trailhead, I found my way suddenly barred by cliffs. The trail had once again vanished. I did what I taught myself long ago to do in those situations: I backtracked until the trail reappeared again, then I resumed my hike forward. But again, I found myself back to where I had gotten lost—by those cliffs. I repeated the backtrack maneuver over and over again just to be sure, but I only achieved the same result. The trail kept leading me to a dead-end. How was that possible?

In retrospect, what had actually happened was I strayed onto a false fork off the main path and that led to the cliff. Every time I kept retracing my route back to pick up the trail to begin again, it was the fork I was finding. I needed to backtrack further to where the false fork branched from the real path—and then continue along the correct trail from there. Not realizing that, I second-guessed myself into thinking I was actually on the right path at the cliffs—and that it was just hidden somewhere beside the bluffs. So, I decided to find it.

An obscure hiking trail in the mountains in Ikaria, Greece.I climbed and clambered and scrambled, expending loads of energy and sweat in the process. First upwards, and then further down the slope, and then back up again towards a high crag I recognized and remembered hiking below. But I still couldn’t find the trail. And the general way remained barred by rock. I had exhausted myself looking, sweating profusely, and having to drink too much of my water as a result.

My heart began to race, the first palpitations of panic set in. I saw a chain-link fence above me that seemed to run parallel with where I thought the trail rain. I thought if I climbed up to the fence and followed it back, I could just walk down the slope further back and hit the trail perpendicularly. But when I did that and descended to the pine forest below where I last seemed to be on the trail, I could not find the path. I was now even more lost, more out of fuel, more water depleted. I was just spinning my wheels.

Although I wasn’t ‘hopelessly lost’ and maintained a sense of general direction given that Chalaris Canyon led to Nas where I had started, I still felt sufficiently disoriented, flustered and worried because of it. I sat down on the soft bed of pine needles that covered the slope and considered my options.

The bright side was it wasn’t raining, and there was still several hours of daylight left. So, I wasn’t under pressure in either of those senses. Everything else seemed more iffy. Even though I was on the finite and compact territory of Ikaria, a mere Island, and could technically go down to the river at the bottom of the gorge and try to follow the water out to where I started, the terrain was still incredibly steep, rocky and treacherous to attempt that gambit (search and rescue professionals advise against following waterways out in rugged environments). The spring river ran fast and high and was full of boulders and high waterfalls. Injury, or worse, was a possibility with that option. Climbing straight up was impossible as a crown of rocky cliffs barred the way up for quite some distance in both directions.

A hiking map of Ikaria, Greece showing part of the Chalaris Canyon trailWhen I checked my phone I noticed I was getting a cell tower signal—I wasn’t getting one further back. I flipped on my data roaming and fired up Google Maps to see how I could get to the closest road using its GPS. The map showed a nearby dash-line, indicating another hiking trail (not the one that I had lost), leading to the village of Agios Dimitrios. I used my GPS position to move towards that pathway. Getting there wasn’t as straightforward as it appeared on my screen as I had to go around some very difficult terrain, scrambling along steep drops at points. But I eventually found my way to that pathway, and then the village, walking past numerous hidden homes in the hills, where I encountered many of these elder local residents, working in their palatial vegetable gardens. It was an indescribable relief to know I was back on some manner of grid.

In Agios Dimitrios I took a gravel backroad down to Nas, my point of embarkation.

Though the experience of getting lost in Ikaria was far from the promisingly lethal and tragic situation others have found themselves in in bigger and more expansive backcountry, I got a valuable taste of how easy it is to lose your way, and your psychological equilibrium, under such circumstances far from assistance. It’s made me doubly careful in the outdoors as a result.

The Demolition of Toronto

Crews on a construction site in the Corktown district of downtown Toronto
Photo: John Zada

The city of Toronto is in the middle of a demolition-construction boom. To be a resident here is to experience something of what it was like to live in Dubai during the first decade of its 21st century building explosion.

Cranes vie with high-rises across the cityscape. Entire city blocks of older, architecturally iconic two-story mixed commercial-residential buildings are being demolished to make way for stands of utilitarian beehive glass condos. Road intersections are being barricaded for years to build underground subway stations.

In my own neighbourhood of Corktown, on the eastern flank of Toronto’s downtown core, such crucial amenities as a large affordable supermarket, drugstore, and gas station have been, or will be, demolished to create evermore space for this aesthetically bland repertoire of overpriced and unimaginative structures.

There are reasons, of course, for this bullishness in the construction sector.  There is an acute housing shortage in Canada and a need to update a simplistic transit and subway system in Toronto. And, of course, there is money to be made. The companies at the forefront of these city reconstruction schemes are undoubtedly raking in profits.

A construction application notice sign in Toronto
Photo: John Zada

Ontario premier Doug Ford’s uncomfortably close ties to the construction industry combined with the City of Toronto’s desire to claw-in evermore property tax revenue, has resulted in a seemingly unlimited number of projects being green-lit across town simultaneously. You can’t walk anywhere in Toronto now without seeing a notice board beside a building announcing a pending demolition-construction in a pre-existing structure or block.

Of course, it’s unreasonable and unrealistic to expect, or advocate for, no change. With vision, creativity, and forethought such projects could aesthetically and functionally improve the city. The prospect of urban renewal and the creation of new spaces could even be exciting. The effort to convert the moribund Toronto Port Lands industrial district into somewhere liveable is one attempt in that direction.

But the question of balance—how much development is enough at any given time and what is the correct planning and aesthetic that would improve quality of life—seems to not be under discussion. Beyond the chaos on the ground owing to these innumerable and uncoordinated projects, there are deeper issues and questions that seem invisible to the city’s bureaucrats and the passive screen-distracted masses. They likely apply to other cities going through the same convulsive growing pains. I want to bring some into awareness.

This rash of condo building in Toronto is resulting in the slow, piecemeal suburbanization of the downtown area.

When these new buildings go up, in some cases replacing older commercial brick structures with small storefronts, independent businesses are being forever driven out of the community. The ground floor commercial spaces in the new condos, large and exceedingly expensive to rent or sell, become occupied by franchise and chain businesses, or smaller high-end businesses. These alter the feel and experience of living in a neighbourhood. They include: dentist offices, nail salons, bank branches, pet stores, expensive boutique grocers and the usual suspects that are Starbucks, Circle K, A&W, Cobbs Bread, Subway et al. The list goes on.

Although being touted as “urbanization,” The Yonge-Sheppard corridor in the Willowdale district of north Toronto has been rendered into the perfect hi-rise condo-meets-chain store community—a clinically sterile development model which is now being implemented downtown. Even with tall residential buildings that mimmic the downtown, its commercial spirit remains deeply suburban.

As this Dubaization (and Vancouverization) of Toronto proceeds at a clip, whole sections of commercial storefronts are being turned to rows of what I call “mini big box stores.” Gone are the smaller, quirkier, businesses: the indie bookstores, family groceries, small restaurants, antiques shops, bakeries, clothing boutiques, novelty stores, butchers, indie coffee shops, small bars—places that are more likely to be staffed by owners and which are more conducive to human conversations and interactions that define community living. To find these people and their wares, we increasingly have to go online.

There is seemingly little recourse in Toronto for the citizen to understand or be involved in the development decisions that alter neighbourhoods.

New hi-rise condos under construction in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Photo: John Zada

Ask anyone how these real estate development decisions are made, who approves them, what is the entire process from A to Z, and chances are you’ll get a blank stare and shrugged shoulders. Beyond the requisite and largely ritualistic town-hall type “community consultation” meetings held for locals to express their gripes or misgivings about proposed neighbourhood construction projects, there is not much knowledge about the stages of development green-lighting, and where the citizen can be involved. Not only is the process not transparent to the commoner, but even the local news media, whose job it is to hold municipal officialdom to account, seem to be entirely in the dark and/or largely uncaring about questions of urban planning.

There has been, as far as I know, little tradition of robust investigative journalism that looks closely at the business practices around construction, development and real estate. The need to sell lucrative advertising to these companies has likely precluded making them the targets of news stories or investigations.

It’s also laborious journalism. It requires very good scoops and much digging. Well-paid bureaucrats are reluctant to be sources, or whistle-blowers. With the exception of some good reporting done in recent years around foreign money laundering schemes in the real estate market in Vancouver (something that also reputedly occurs in Toronto and has impacted the national housing market), there has been little word from our media.

Nowadays, publications like The Toronto Star and the increasingly gossip mag-like Toronto Life would much rather publish more sensational local stories about the adventures and misadventures of home buyers and home renovators in an inflated real estate market.

Will a runaway Ontario construction sector continue to demolish the city of Toronto in piecemeal to maintain its mass building contracts ad infinitum?

Will we see Toronto’s inflated construction sector—given carte blanche by politicians and driven by evermore profits—continue to wantonly buy up and demolish whole sections of older city blocks to erect their glass and concrete mediocrities that block out the sky and force-feed us the bland storefronts that neutralize our more human interactions?

A demolition and construction site for condos in the Corktown neighbourhood of Toronto
Photo: John Zada

Articles for The Human Journey Project

I’ve taken on a new job commissioning, editing and occasionally writing blog posts at The Human Journey website. The online initiative, a project of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), a California non-profit founded by psychologist Robert E. Ornstein, makes available current scientific knowledge about our origins, evolution, and human development potential. It’s a super-valuable education resource.

The blog showcases writing on important aspects of human nature, culture and psychology, as they relate to humanity surviving the challenges of the present and future. For those like me with an interest in this cross-disciplinary area, both the blog and the wider website are well worth exploring.

I’ve written a few of the pieces there. “Escaping the Either/Or Thinking Trap,” looks at the conundrum and impact of dualistic thinking in our culture. “Finding the Right Way Home” is about cults and the ubiquity of cult behaviour in our day-to-day lives.

Why Cancel Culture Hasn’t Come for Larry David

Larry David talking on the phone in an episode of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.'Early last year I started watching the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Several long-time fans of the show finally convinced me to give the series a spin after years of praising it to the heavens. For those uninitiated: the show’s producer, Larry David (the co-creator of Seinfeld), also stars in the series and plays himself—a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive and socially awkward Jewish comedian and producer living in Los Angeles who gets into all sorts of trouble for the inappropriate things he says and does.

I wasn’t that attracted to Curb at first. It’s an unusual sort of sit-com with a strange, vacuous, molasses-slow feel. It’s not made in a studio. It doesn’t move at a clip. Nor does it use an audience or employ laugh tracks. It’s shot reality-show style with lots of camera shake and with the actors often semi-improvising their dialogue—a lot of which is plain silly, or slapstick in nature. By way of Larry’s numerous gaffes and blunders, the series pokes fun at nearly every social, ethnic and professional grouping in society, including some to which Larry belongs: from his co-religionists, to Hollywood actors, to entertainment producers, and the moneyed classes of L.A. No one is spared. The scenes are often awkward and cringeworthy.

Yet, over time I’ve discovered that Curb‘s irreverent and politically incorrect humour makes for some of the best comedy out there. The show is a deep breath of fresh air and I’m unapologetically hooked. Two decades of seasons now running in the double-digits is testament to its continued popularity. At one level Curb Your Enthusiasm is a satire about “political incorrectness,” which uses our own deeply conditioned and nervous reactions to it to fuel our laughter as an audience. Humour, an age-old form of political subversion, has always been the bane of dogmatists and demagogues everywhere.

And yet most people who appreciate the series are also aware that it lives, at least theoretically, on a knife’s edge. There is a recurring refrain I hear among nearly all Curb aficionados who at some point in the conversation always say: “Larry David gets away with murder.” That comment is seldom not followed by, “I have no idea know how he pulls it off.” Apparently, Larry David still doesn’t know either.

Indeed, given the extent of blinkered and ideological thinking run amok nowadays, why Larry David doesn’t find himself embroiled in controversy, or even cancelled over the humour in his shows, ranks as one of greatest unsolved mysteries out there. Only such questions as the fate of Jimmy Hoffa and the construction methods of the Giza pyramids place higher.

And yet, I think I’ve come up with something approximating an answer—or rather an answer in multiple parts—that could finally put this daunting riddle to rest. I’ll start with the simpler and more mundane quotient of the explanation first.

One answer may be that the show is simply not appealing or popular enough across the board to draw in a critical mass of detractors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a niche, cult-comedy series hidden behind the CRAVE/HBO paywall that speaks to people who appreciate a certain brand of humour (think Mel Brooks jokes, but a slightly broader appeal). Those not prone to becoming outraged won’t go anywhere near it in the first place. Perhaps, because of this, the show isn’t discussed enough among the chattering classes for some of those conversations to go viral. The fact that Larry David isn’t online playing the Twitter game definitely helps in that sense. Thus he and Curb may just lack the requisite “stickiness” as a topic.

That explanation may illuminate part of it, but alone doesn’t entirely wash given the show has been running for so long and all you need is a few troublemakers online to start an avalanche of scandal. It seems too lucky. There has to be something else at play.

Instead, I believe the main answer lies in psychology. Two elucidations stand out, after much thought on the matter, both of which overlap. I’ll start with the first:

People don’t try to cancel Larry David because he’s likely not considered by most people to be a sufficiently worthwhile target. Let me explain.

In his book The Status Game, British author and journalist Will Storr writes that much social media behaviour, including attempts to cancel others online, is driven largely by status motivations. People who virtue signal by calling out other people online are not only trying to score points to elevate their own status, but they are also working to take down people they deem to hold too much status. Other social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, have argued similar things. This is evolved primate behaviour seen in more than one species, including humans, whereby group members often combine forces to knock down leaders who become too big for their britches.

It’s true that Larry David is a very big celebrity and a high-status guy in real life. But on the show, in which he plays himself, his alter ego is profoundly self-deprecating and he comes off as a kind of a loser who’s always getting into trouble with family, friends, colleagues and strangers. The show, I suspect, may inadvertently create the illusion that Larry David himself is a low status guy in real life who stands on no serious pedestal from which he can be knocked off. His goofiness may make him difficult for anyone to take seriously enough.

And this relates to what I suspect is the main reason we don’t see more people go after him: Larry, who again, plays himself, suffers serious consequences in each episode for the politically incorrect things he says and does.

Other people attack him, yell at him, get angry with him, or lash out at him for his faux pas. He loses money, opportunities, and jobs as a result. This again possibly creates the illusion in the mind of viewers that the real-life Larry David, by way of the alter ego, has received his just punishment—and doesn’t require further berating.

In other words: Larry getting in trouble on the show might also deactivate, or discharge, peoples’ bloodlust to try and cancel the real life guy.

The late Idries Shah, a writer and thinker whose work has influenced some of our understandings of human behaviour, and who wrote many books about the traditional psychologies of the East, illustrated a similar phenomenon in his book Knowing How to Know.

Shah described being at a press conference in London, where an unpopular businessman accused of improprieties was about to address a group of journalists who were intent on grilling him. Before the businessman arrived at the venue, a bystander loitering among the journalists began to viciously harangue the tycoon in his absence. The rabble rouser attacked him at such length, and with such conviction, that some of the reporters began to feel uncomfortable—even though they themselves had intended to do the same thing.

When the businessman finally arrived at the presser, the journalists, whose bloodlust and emotional excitement were discharged by the bystander’s raving attacks, treated him kindly and fairly. Their write-ups and media coverage later also demonstrated fair-handedness.

Similar dynamics might have protected Larry David from the sorts of criticism and cancellation that have plagued other less fortunate entertainers, who weren’t deserving of that fate.


A still-frame from the BBC documentary series "TraumaZone" by Adam Curtis

For the majority of us who’ve never visited, lived-in, or studied Russia, trying to understand Vladimir Putin and the collective culture and psychology of the nation he and his inner circle control can feel almost futile at times. Not only does Russia embody both Eastern and Western mores in a way that few, if any nations do, but it has also experienced a variety and degree of tumult that we aren’t able to imagine without having lived through it.

I’ve just watched a 7-part BBC documentary series on Russia, entitled ‘TraumaZone: What it Felt Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy.’ I can’t recommend it enough—as not just the bizarre and spellbinding romp through recent history it is, but as an object lesson in how collective trauma impacts the perceptions and behaviour of groups.

Director Adam Curtis presents a collage of random story vignettes drawn from old BBC archival footage to give us a sense of what it was like to live through Russia’s turbulent and destructive emergence from the Cold War years, between 1985-1999. The old video montages are a cross between Instagram video reels, and the ‘No Comment’ segments from Euronews. There is no formal narration per se—only sparse titling marking important milestones in the story.

Curtis implicitly shows us, masterfully, the devastating experiences that have shaped the Russia we see—behaving as it does—on the world stage today.

His narrative ends with the instalment, by Russian Oligarchs, of a much younger and more spritely Vladimir Putin into the country’s presidency—a final desperate act to stave off collapse caused by a fast-and-furious embrace of liberal democracy which was ill-suited to Russia, and promulgated by the West.

You can watch the series on BBC’s iPlayer in the UK, or on YouTube where the episodes also run.

Polarization Op-Ed in the Globe

We have another opinion piece running in the Globe and Mail today about increasing polarization in Canada, ritualistic opposition in politics, and the misuse of the party system to those ends. We argue that political parties have a beneficial cooperative function, too, beyond the tools they’ve become for senseless bickering.

You can read the piece here.

Canada’s UFO Files

old black and white photo of a UFO

Having penned a non-fiction book about Sasquatch lore, it was only natural that I’d be commissioned to write a review of a book about the little-known history of the UFO phenomenon in Canada, right?

My writeup of Matthew Hayes’s Search for the Unknown: Canada’s UFO Files and the Rise of Conspiracy Theory, a most interesting work, is appearing in the July-August 2022 issue of the Literary Review of Canada.

The review is entitled “Eyes Like Saucers.”

Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Matter With Things’

The Matter With Things Iain McGilchrist

I’m half-way through The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by psychiatrist and scholar, Iain McGilchrist. The book is an epic exploration of the impoverishment our culture’s strictly left hemisphere view of the world compared to the right-brain’s—which sees a reality that is infinitely more rich and holistic. As the subtitle of the work suggests, it is a big picture journey through the human condition and describes where we’re headed as a race unless we change our mode of thinking. It is an astounding and profound work.

McGilchrist’s magnum opus, ten years in the making, builds upon his other notable work entitled, The Master and His Emissary. That preceding book lays the foundations about the relationship and differences between the brain hemispheres and their impact on human culture across the ages.

McGilchrist argues in both books that in a healthy mind the left and right hemispheres work in tandem, but that the right brain—or “master”—should be dominant over the left—”the emissary.” This is because the right brain has much greater gravitas and capacity to both “see” and make decisions. It experiences the world more broadly, is more receptive, and aims at understanding, whereas the left hemisphere is grasping, controlling and focused on detail. In other words, the right brain has a wider view of reality. However, western culture has been hijacked by left-hemisphere thinking, which has de-throned right brain, causing endless problems and dysfunction due to its autistic nature when functioning largely on its own.

McGilchrist recently appeared in an interview with Mark Vernon on YouTube in which he discussed certain features of our left-brained world. The below quote from the Q&A about linear thinking  struck me as poignant and describes one aspect of the left-brain’s approach to the world. But it also defines the root of many long-term problems that imperil humanity: the idea of endless economic growth, deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, identity politics, social justice, artificial intelligence, Covid-19 policies, the Ukraine war, and a lot more:

There is a good point at which to stop pushing in a certain direction. That is something we absolutely don’t understand anymore. We think that things are just linear and if you keep on pushing in a certain direction you’ll achieve further and further distance from what you wanted to leave behind. Actually and unfortunately space is curved and mental space is curved and time is curved. And what happens as you push is that you achieve the precise opposite of what it was you meant to achieve. So, as you say, there is a part of our brain that is devoted to helping us to survive. It is a bit of an irony that it is actually that part of our brain that is now making us effectively soon extinct.

You can watch his excellent interview with Mark Vernon, here.