The Harper Years

Here’s another op-ed for Al Jazeera, written with a colleague, about Canada’s recently deposed Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his autocratic style of rule.

The Limits of Logic

Linear LogicSometimes sequential “logic” turns out to be anything but.

Have you ever noticed that book introductions penned by secondary writers as a kind of preamble to someone else’s main work (they often appear in classics) are invariably more illuminating and meaningful when read after one completes the book?

When they’re read in this reverse sequence, they also don’t give the book’s plot away.

 

Missing Woman Finds Herself

The notion that real-life can be “stranger than fiction” has become a cliché. Yet it’s no less true for being so.

Examples abound.

Here is one of my favourites. The story did the rounds on the wire services when it broke a few years ago. It’s not as outlandish or crazy as some real-life tales, but it encapsulates something poignant. The text is taken from Outside online.

A woman reported missing from a tour to the Eldgjá volcanic canyon in southern Iceland ended up joining the search party formed to find her. The mix-up occurred when the woman left the tour bus and changed clothing. When she returned, the other tourists didn’t recognize her and began to worry about the missing passenger. Going off of the bus driver’s description, a search was organized for an Asian woman in dark clothing who spoke English well. The missing woman didn’t recognize the description of herself and joined in the search. The following day, as the coast guard prepared to send a search helicopter, the woman realized her mistake. Sveinn K. Rúnarsson, chief of police in Hvolsvöllur, said that the woman simply didn’t recognize the description of herself and “had no idea that she was missing.”

Dialogue

“During the First World War it became clear to me that a process was going on which before then I had only surmised. This was the growing difficulty of genuine dialogue, and most especially of genuine dialogue between men of different kinds and convictions. Direct, frank dialogue is becoming ever more difficult and rare; the abysses between man and man threaten ever more pitilessly to become unbridgeable. I began to understand at that time… that this is the central question for the fate of mankind. Since then I have continually pointed out that the future of man as man depends upon a rebirth of dialogue.”

– Martin Buber

Hidden Solutions

Innu

A few weeks ago, I was travelling with an Innu First Nation wilderness guide up a remote river while on a trip to the Quebec-Labrador border area. As we pushed up the lower reaches of the river – an area influenced by ocean tides – we came across a long stretch of sandy shoreline beside the woods. We decided to pull over for a short hike.

Because the tide was low and the river was shallow, our small boat could only come within several feet of dry land before getting stuck in the sand. I took a big leap from the bow and landed in an inch of water at the river’s edge. I did that to avoid getting my hiking boots wet.

Later, when we returned from our ramble through the birch and muskeg forest, my guide, Mathias, who was wearing gumboots, walked out into the water to pull the boat as close to shore as he could. Again it came within no less than several feet of land.

The only way for me to get back into the boat was to walk out into the shin deep water. That would have meant getting my feet wet. Not a catastrophic scenario by any stretch of the imagination. But it was cold out and my boots would have taken a long time to dry off afterwards.

The other option was to walk through the water in my bare feet. A much better plan. But the idea of taking my boots and socks off and then putting them back on again seemed laborious – and offputting.

Partly as a kind of challenge, a game for myself, I started wracking my brain to find a third method of reaching the boat that didn’t require either getting my boots wet – or removing and then reapplying my footwear (which for some reason felt like a cop-out solution).

Mathias, watching me curiously, sensed my hesitation.

“Do you want me to carry you on my back?” he asked.

For a moment I had a vision of that almost absurd scene, and shook my head. That would be an even bigger cop-out, I remember thinking. But also, deep down, I was certain there was another solution just under my nose. But I couldn’t think of it – or see it – no matter hard I tried.

Mathias intuitively knew the game I was playing. But by comparison he was relaxed and didn’t appear to be grasping mentally at any answer. He just stood there waiting, patient and receptive.

As I aborted a scheme to construct a birch raft and prepared to unlace my boots in defeat, I noticed Mathias’s eyes lock onto something behind me. He walked over to a piece of driftwood sitting partly buried in the sand. With effort he picked up one end of the heavy log and dragged it back to the boat. He then placed the log lengthwise in the water between myself and the boat, creating a kind of bridge through the shallow water leading to the craft.

I put one foot on the log and discerned the trunk was too narrow to walk across without losing my balance. So Mathias stood in the water beside me and offered up his arm. I grabbed it, took a second step, and easily balanced my way across to the boat.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

Diagrams of Leonardo Da Vinci


In 2003, anthropologist Wade Davis gave a TED presentation entitled Dreams from Endangered Cultures. The talk centred around how the surviving knowledge of indigenous cultures is increasingly at risk because of the spreading mono-culture of the West.

Davis, an anthropologist and author, began his career as an ethnobotanist. He spent his early years in Central and South America studying the relationship between indigenous people and the plant species they live among.

During his presentation, Davis talked about the psychoactive plant preparation known as ayahuasca – a brew ingested by shamen in areas of the Amazon Rainforest for divinatory purposes.

He tells us that the potion is made from a concoction of plants, and contains two main ingredients. The first is liana, a woody plant with a mildly hallucinogenic affect. The second, and more potent of the two, is Psychotria viridis, a shrub in the coffee family. This plant contains tryptamines, powerful psychoactive compounds, which when smoked or sniffed produce an intense intoxication marked by powerful visual imagery.

Davis likens the effect of certain tryptamines to “being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing on a sea of electricity. It doesn’t create the distortion of reality, it creates the dissolution of reality.”

But here’s the catch: to be affective, tryptamines cannot be taken orally because they are rendered inactive by an enzyme in the gut called monoamine oxidase (MAO). They can be ingested only if taken in conjunction with another chemical that neutralizes MAO in the stomach (known as an MAO inhibitor)

It turns out that liana, the less potent of ayahuasca’s two main ingredients, contains beta-carbolines, which are MAO inhibitors of the type needed to allow the tryptamines to create their phantasmagoria of visual wonders.

For anyone fascinated by this unlikely coincidence, an obvious question arises. Davis articulates it:

“How, in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, do these people find these two morphologically unrelated plants that when combined in this way, created a kind of biochemical version of the whole, being greater than the sum of the parts?”

Through trial and error? Unlikely, Davis suggests. In his book, The Lost Amazon Davis writes that one problem with trial and error is that botanical preparations are exceedingly complex (requiring additional experimentation) and take up too much time and energy to justify the too few successes they yield. Another issue is that there are negative physical consequences to randomly ingesting many plants. Serious illness and death are often the result of such forays into the unknown.

When Davis posed the question to the Indians, he got an altogether different answer.

“The plants talk to us,” they told him.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon are not the only communities to have inherited some seemingly difficult-to-obtain knowledge that resulted in material accomplishments that make us wonder: How did these people uncover this fact? Or, where did that group get the idea to do that?

For instance, how did the ancient Dogon people of West Africa develop an advanced system of astronomy which knew the movements and characteristics of invisible, and nearly invisible celestial bodies without the use of instruments? How some ancient cultures moved and arrayed the massive stone blocks in their monumental architecture (i.e. – Pyramids of Giza, temple walls at Baalbek in Lebanon) continues to provide fodder for the wildest speculations. The same holds true when considering the ability to artistically execute with such precision the impossibly complex Islamic geometrical patterns that grace the interiors of some mosques built during the age of medieval Islam.

Fast forward to more recent times. We now know that many of our own great scientific discoveries don’t come from experimentation, but rather through sudden and often intuitive flashes of insight that follow on the heels of an intellectual impasse.

So where does information come from?

Some scientists consider information to be the underlying energy tied to the origin of the universe. Austrian quantum physicist, Anton Zeilinger coined the phrase, “In the beginning was the bit.” The late German-American physicist, Rolf William Landauer, maintained that information is always physical.

Could information exist independently “somewhere” in the Universe – in a “place,” “dimension” or “storehouse” – and in a tangible form even if it is not yet conceived, or known by a single person?

And when we do conceive it, is it simply just the result of us accessing it (i.e. – downloading it), either deliberately or by accident?

Great Bear on the Beebs

Big Cedar Conservation AreaThe BBC Travel website is running a recent photo essay I produced about British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. The piece is entitled Where the White Spirit Bear Roams.

Check it out here.

The Crisis in Futurology

In 1993, the celebrated Polish journalist and travel writer, Ryszard Kapuściński published a book entitled Imperium. It is a travel memoire that chronicles the author’s often bizarre experiences as he wanders remote parts of the former Soviet Union. Like Kapuściński’s other excellent books, Imperium brims with astute social and political commentary.

At the end of the book, Kapuściński recounts the fall of Communism, and goes on to ask what the future might hold for the post-Soviet empire. It’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer, he tells us:

“Almost no prognoses about the contemporary world come true. Futurology is in crisis; it has lost its prestige. The human imagination, shaped for thousands of years by a small, simple, and static world, today cannot grasp, is no match for, the reality that surrounds it, which is augmenting at a rapid rate (especially due to the advances in electronics and the accretion of information), in which there is increasingly more of everything, in which millions of particles, elements, units, and beings are in continual motion, in battle, in new configurations, arrangements, and assemblages, all of which it is no longer possible to seize, to stop, or to describe.”

Kapuściński does go on to offer three future scenarios for the post-Soviet Union. But it’s the preamble above that’s most striking because, though applicable to his time, it better describes the age of unfathomably rapid change we’re living in today – more than 20 years later.

It’s for the same reason that a friend, who works as a diplomat, recently told me that most journalistic and scholarly writing in the field of political science and international relations (with its emphasis on trying to predict the future) is more akin to astrology than any actual “science.”

This crisis in futurology is really just a smaller symptom of the much larger and perilous crisis in which it partakes: namely our inability as individuals and as a race to adapt to a faster, ever-changing world.