Misplacing People by Modifiers

Normally when I am reading articles, especially those on a topic outside my field of study, I often gloss over errors or problems with the prose. Sometimes I am halted in midsentence by an utterance that is troubling in terms of its implications, or which suggests something the author likely did not intend.

I found such a sentence when I was reading an article about indigenous people arriving in North and South America and couldn’t help but pause over one sentence about the relative strength and endurance of travelers: “All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which hearty travelers could feast.”

I read the sentence again, stopping this time at the word hearty. Would the diet of sea creatures have been too much for less hearty travelers, I wondered. If our current gluten-concerned crowd were to stumble on the kelp highway would they not have been hearty enough to feast on the rich banquet? Were only hearty travelers invited along for the feast, and if so, how did the authors know that? If the travelers were present at a feast, did they need to be hearty to arrive, eat, or digest it? I tried to move the word hearty around and see if we can see where it belongs.

“All that hearty 0000001kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” The kelp is now hearty, which is good news for this already hearty plant. The trouble with the word modifying kelp is that the travelers now have to eat kelp, which, regardless of how hearty it might be, it would doubtlessly cause digestive problems and rapidly make our travelers less hearty.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich, hearty habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers 000000could feast.” The kelp is now ordinary kelp again, but the habitat has been upgraded considerably. Now the coastal habitat is not only rich, but hearty, although the discerning reader will note the words imply the same thing.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for hearty sea creatures upon which 000000travelers could feast.” The sea creatures have come off well in this incarnation. Their health would likely have little to do with how easy it would be for the traveler to eat, however. They might be heartier once they were caught, but that might mean they are less likely to be caught and therefore eaten, which means our travelers would be less hearty when they arrived in the new continent, if they didn’t starve outright.

“All that kelp, it has been heartily noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” Once I could not use the word as an adjective, I thought it might work better as an adverb. Now, the ones making the observation about the relative heartiness of kelp, habitat, sea creatures, or travelers, are making their statements with a certain heartiness. They are proud of their opinion and state it firmly. Unfortunately, the sentence now draws attention to the ones making the observation instead of the observation itself.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have heartily provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” This modification doesn’t seem much better. Now the provision of the sea habitat is hearty, which is certainly redundant given that the habitat is “rich,” and dwells on the implication that an animate agency is responsible for the construction of sea habitat instead of the travelers who are ostensibly the main interest of the sentence.

“All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could heartily feast.” The travelers are now undoubtedly 000000happier, given that they are not only feasting, which implies the meal to be a good one, but that they are also really engaged. They are face down in the trough, their throats packed and Heimlich attendants at the ready in case some seafood goes awry. Likely the author of the sentence did not intend that the feast would be so bacchian, however. In this incarnation, the sentence says more about the gluttony of the travelers than it does what the sea habitat provided to them.

A rule of writing states that less is more. To employ that, I decided to remove the word entirely. “All that kelp, it has been noted, would have provided a rich habitat for sea creatures upon which travelers could feast.” Once the heartiness of the kelp, habitat, sea creatures, travelers, the providing, and feasting has been removed we can see what little the word contributed. The feasting travelers implies that the repast was hearty, just as the rich sea habitat implies the sea creatures were of quantity and quality enough to make a feast. The travelers do not need to be particularly hearty in order to eat, nor does the kelp need to be much heartier than kelp is normally to provide for the rich habitat. A rich habitat does not need to be extra hearty for the sea creatures, any more than the sea creatures need to be hearty in order to be eaten, especially if one is feasting. The relative heartiness of the verbs, the jovial voice that heartily notes the habitat is rich, or the heartiness of the provision of the habitat, or the hearty feasting, is not essential, and in fact obstructs the meaning of the sentence.

Once I left the word hearty out of the sentence it kept its rather pleasing focus on the travelers and still provided them sea creatures for the feast and yet lost none of its presumed meaning. I understand the impulse that made the travelers hearty, for we have often thought of humans in prehistory as 000000heartier than us, but for the purposes of the sentence, with the sea habitat so rich, we needn’t give them any more heartiness than they already undoubtedly possessed.

This hearty sentence is heartily provided by phys.org: https://phys.org/news/2017-11-anthropologist-group-humans-americas-kelp.html

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How Using Academic Research is like being in an Argentinian Argument

Although many academics tacitly accept that research makes a paper stronger, they don’t exactly examine that premise. In fact, if the paper is well argued, and has evidence it has garnered from the primary text(s), other sources are superfluous. They add nothing to the argument other than a vague suggestion that there exists a critical surround—a kind of village of academic peers—occupied by the same topic. Other critical resources, in terms of those which are meant to support an argument which has already been proven, are the academic equivalent of name dropping. To examine the premise of research’s utility, it’s worthwhile looking at the types of conversations I had many times in Argentina.

Although my Spanish runs from poor to laughable, once I was in the country I was able to understand much of the Argentinian discussions, especially if I was partaking. If I had the good fortune to be discussing an idea with a person who kept to the topic, I even began to be able to perceive the outlines of their argument, even if the logic by times escaped me. More often, the discussions proceeded in a disjointed fashion and left me behind gasping for air as they dove and fluttered and twittered around ideas that were at best tangential to the topic under discussion.

My confusion aside, I began to note there was a kind of logic to the way arguments would progress and, just as Prendick discovered when he returned to society in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, the utterance of big thinks around me followed a certain pattern. Once my vociferous combatant began to feel logically boxed in, or when—as Fabrício told me—throwing dirt at the question did not longer suffice, they would appeal to their friends.

If we were talking about whether it is selfish to want to have a child in a world of seven billion, for instance, and I was beginning to hear their point of view shift until we were discussing something else entirely, then I might expect them to call a friend to shore up what was rapidly becoming empty bombast.

“You say you don’t want a child of your own and then talk about seven billion, but that’s just a number and numbers have been known to be wrong and there are many wars being fought around the world at this time and that means people are dying in huge numbers. War is terrible no matter what you say and if you don’t believe in life after death and god then you might as well be supporting wars and that means you want people to die and not go to heaven.”

Oddly, I have been in discussions that were exactly this disjointed. When I pointed out that we were no longer talking about the same topic, the person who had just unleashed a streamer of ideology and free association would turn to their friend and ask, “You agree with me, right?” At their assent they would turn triumphantly back to me and say, “See.”

This strategy confounded me more than once. I had difficulty seeing the logic of their appeal to their friend’s agreement. For me, that merely meant that now I had two people in front of me who made no sense instead of just one. In their mind their appeal to another proved, in a schoolyard bully kind of way, that they were right. Their correctness lay in their numbers. I was alone, they had a friend who agreed with them.

Oddly, academic research works in exactly the same way. When an academic has completed their original research, they have to shore up their paper with appeals to authority which do not strengthen the paper in any other way than to say, “You agree with me, right?” The bulk of the paper is occupied with real proofs, just like the Argentinian discussion should employ real numbers about the population and how that will collide, Malthusian-like, with the phenomenological world.

Once that evidence is inserted, then the researcher will call upon those academic authorities, who admittedly have more credentials than those who happen to be standing next to the one making the argument, and use them to say that their peers agree. They are saying, “I am not alone in making this argument, and if my evidence is not sufficient, then here are some peers who say I am right.”

If the student striving to find quotes remembers that the quotes that support their argument really do little more than indicate someone agrees with them, they will perhaps feel less stressed about writing the master work. Their argument needs to be logical and well founded, but the academic sources merely exist to prop up their credentials, not to strengthen their argument; “My friend agrees with me. See.”

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Magazines and the Internet

I was watching a video on YouTube about a man who was setting up his wilderness cabin. Although he spent most of his time complaining about a snow storm that was sweeping through his area I was most struck by a two second scene where he outlined his options if the internet went down. Perhaps because the electrical power went out when he was making his video, he began to discuss his internet connection.

His Wi-Fi booster runs on batteries apparently, so he can still get internet, and his computer was a laptop, so he could still, as he said, “read comments on YouTube videos.” If the entire system went down, however, he had a backup. He pointed to a plastic bin in which he had perhaps a hundred magazines and told his viewers that they would provide entertainment.

Perhaps because I have hundreds of books in my cabin, and no internet at all, I was struck by the comparison. It occurred to me that, depending on what you do online, magazines are likely a more apt comparison to the internet than books, or even movies. I pictured the magazines I had perused in the past, which admittedly does not add up to very many. I have never been a fan of the thrice-digested material that makes up magazine articles and I am annoyed by some of the aspects of the medium that seems to attract others. I find the images irritating, as they try to interpret the article for me, and the text is broken up by thousands of ads, both small and large. The internet is very similar in terms of a medium.

We have all been attacked by various pop-ups or distracted by flashing ads along the margin of the screen. Even the targeted ads intrude, such as when google tries to tempt me with bear hunting because my nickname is bear and many of my friends address me that way. Magazines are not nearly as targeted, but the articles, the collection of images, are also overrun by garish advertisement, and nearly every page has to be negotiated like the minefield that it is, just as we have to avoid material online. If I am reading a novel, I am subjected to nothing of the sort, although I am tempted in my next book to insert ads that parody the system. Like with magazines, however, it greatly undermines the seriousness of the content.

Perhaps Exburb1a, a YouTuber I follow, feels the same way. For one of the new methods to monetize YouTube videos in these days of adblocker is to insert ads into the video itself. I unfollowed a metal detecting channel because of ads about god, and I am likely to do the same for these other ads I cannot avoid. I sympathize with the YouTuber’s wish to make a living, but I don’t think the best content on YouTube is that of the professional channels. Rather, it is the more marginalized and speciality content that goes viral, or does not.

The articles in magazines are short, rather shallow, and often present rather trite and popular viewpoints. Likewise, those sites which make their living by numbers of clicks and follow-throughs, present material that does not excite too much controversy, and are easy to read and understand. The many pictures that accompany the article, or by times conflict with it, are also easily found online. The online world is increasingly visual and less textual. A picture is worth a thousand dollars, after all, if the viewer is too easily distracted by other information to sit through a thousand word article. In that case, even more information can be packed into the same viewer space by inserting, in the case of online material, videos or animated gifs. Such moving pictures encourage require little in the way of its audience; they need not be literate, or even attentive, for the information to be transferred and the money gained.

Perhaps the hunter preparing his cabin for the fall hunting season is correct. The internet—although originally information posted by academics and accessible through text browsers like Unix’s gopher—has quickly been overtaken once html allowed pictures and video. Now it is a medium that more closely resembles magazines. Meant for the reader or viewer who cannot be bothered to pay too much attention to media, and whose disposable income is suggested by how much money they are willing to pay for a magazine whose offerings are so meagre.

If he is correct, then perhaps I should lay in a supply of magazines at my cabin, for those friends of mine who are so trained by the internet that they cannot read an article over five hundred words and need pictures and glossy ads in order to find the experience satisfying. Of course, I can, like with this blog, make another choice. I can make sure I have even more books, and less pictures, in order to offer an alternative to the flashing banner ads, to promote literacy and perhaps with that, a more profound and slightly more varied way of thinking and interacting with the world.

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A Use of Old Cannonballs

Galileo was alone on the top of the tower. He’d asked his friends to stay away from his experiment. He’d experienced enough failure in the past to worry that his latest venture might prove to be embarrassing and he was reluctant to take their kind offer of help, even if he needed it on the ground as the cannonballs came crashing down.

Now that the fateful moment had arrived, he hesitated. He knew that he would return the cannonballs after the experiment, no worse the wear for their fall, but the psychological effect on his own psyche might not be so easy to put back on his grandmother’s shelf.

Many of his friends said that he was too sensitive. That he insisted on viewing each experiment as the one which would make or break his career, that he didn’t believe his latest obsession would be quickly replaced by another, or that he dabbled in a science so rare or refined that few knew what he was doing let alone the implications of his evidence. Galileo knew he took the entire enterprise too seriously. He’d tried instead going out to cafés and engaging strangers in simple conversation, but that was ultimately unsatisfying. Before the solemn tolling of the church bell announced that an hour had passed, he was creeping back to his lab, eager to try his hand on the movements of weights and the calculations which would prove the moon might have been spun up by a divine hand but had suffered collisions since.

In part, that idea—that his life’s work was no more significant than the soft opinions of the pigeons above his head—stayed his hand. Those friends who had ignored his request waited patiently on the ground below and stared at his tiny figure 000000overhead. They could just see the top of his head past the railing of the tower, and such was the tilt of the poorly constructed building that he couldn’t hide from their perspective. Galileo took another deep breath. The stairs were too steep. He needed to walk more, to climb more, to get out of the lab. He was in bad shape physically, and not a young man anymore, so he hesitated because he was panting from the climb.

Even as he formed the excuse, he knew it was a lie. His breath was ragged from nerves more than the many steps. He’d made the climb a dozen times to take measurements to prepare for the experiment. He knew he was afraid of failure. Afraid that his heavy cannonball would arrive on the ground slightly before the lighter one, and thus show the world that universal laws were holding in the face of his hubris, show the world that he was a fool. That even Aristotle, slobbering over his attempt to cut a pie into smaller and smaller pieces that were still parts of a pie, was right, and that he, Galileo, standing on top of a tower that exposed to the entire world the faults in Italian architectural achievement, was a fool.

Galileo made a great show of shifting his bag on his shoulder. His friends had offered to send him aloft with a servant who would carry the bag, but even though Galileo hadn’t prepared his own meal in years, had servants pour his bath and wash his clothes, he insisted that he alone stumble on the uneven floor with the unwieldy bag.

On the ground his friends, their eyes squinting at the sun, waited while Galileo’s tiny figure set his bag on the tilting floor. Galileo took another deep breath, listened again for approaching steps—for he was afraid the church had gotten wind of his experiment—and then untied the flaps that had hid the cannonballs from his grandmother when he’d crept out of her 000000house. He’d never thought to ask his grandmother why she collected cannonballs when he was young and once he became an adult he was unaccountably shy about the question.

One of the straps was worn and the rope caught, and in his frustration he finally cut it. Dismayed slightly at his impatience, he lifted out the one pound shot. He tried to place it on the railing for safekeeping as he reached for the ten pound ball, and annoyingly it tried to roll onto the floor. He thought again that he should have tied the two together as he’d originally proposed. If the heavier weight fell faster, he had decided, then it should pull the string taut between it and the lighter ball. But if both balls were tried together then they would be a unit, then they would be heavier, and fall even faster joined together. Setting aside the implications of the original thought experiment, Galileo wished for a string, as he tried to hold the small ball on the railing with his elbow and at the same time lift the larger ball from his bag with one hand.

It proved to be too heavy for his grip, so he bent to grab it with both hands, and thus set free the untended ball on the railing. It fell to the floor, and before he could grab it, it set off along the tilted floor for the stairs. Cursing, Galileo dropped the ten pound cannonball into the bag, and ran after the smaller shot. It picked up speed and sped for the top step; even as he ran, Galileo thought about how it was likely enacting some other law of motion, such as the contrary nature of matter, that made it defy all attempts to make it behave in a reasonable fashion. The law of contrary motion, he decided, as he scooped the ball up just before it fell the ten floors down the stairs where it would have likely killed an unsuspecting precursor to a tourist.

By the time he returned to the rail, Galileo had placed the ball more securely in his pocket. He waved at his friends 000000below to reassure them in case his absence at the rail had been noticed, and realized grimly that their numbers had increased. Was that another law? A direct correlation between the potential for embarrassment of the experiment and the size of the crowd. He muttered to himself while his pocket swayed and he reached into his bag for the other cannonball. He was ready now, his hand steadied on the railing against the weight and his other hand fishing in his pocket for the ball.

When his fingers didn’t meet the expected cold metal, he cursed quietly, fearing his voice might carry in the morning air, and then set the larger ball into the bag while his hand went questing through the maze that was his poorly repaired coat to where the smaller shot had disappeared into a hole in his pocket. When he finally located it against the seam, he met it from behind with his left hand, confined it so it couldn’t go adventuring again, and then pulled it from the swamp of tangled fabric.

The crowd below had grown even larger while he’d been fighting with his coat. He began to worry that they were thinking his nerves were betraying him. Some of his friends had said as much when he’d slipped into a pub for a cognac, but he’d laughed them off by saying he needed the spirits for the climb.

Now that he was in possession of the small cannonball again he debated how to hold it while he grappled with the larger shot. Finally, he placed one beside the other and tried to lift them together. True to his more theoretical suspicions, they weighed even more together and were slippery. They rubbed against each other in a grating way that reminded him, excruciatingly, 000000of two eggs held in the same hand. Grimacing, he let them fall again and then picked up the smaller shot, and, momentarily at a loss, put it in his mouth. As he bent for the other shot, he thought of how his grand experiment would look if there were observers, especially those from the church who were always inclined to humiliate anyone who disagreed with their guesses by reference to scientific observation. They would make much sport over his closed mouth; the ball grew slippery with salvia as he thought about it.

When he had the other ball balanced on the railing, and had plucked the smaller one from his teeth, Galileo was more confident in the way he appeared. He was a scientist, he said to himself. A serious investigator of natural phenomena. Far below some of his friends waved and cheered, but others in the growing crowd were ominously silent.

The wind dropped and the pigeons stopped their mindless cooing. Galileo felt as though the world was holding its breath. He hesitated again, the smaller ball wet in his sweaty fingers. He could go home. He could put the balls back into the sack and take them to the room where his grandmother kept her collection. He could leave town and get a small house near the coast. He needn’t expose himself like this.

Then, for the first time, it occurred to him he could cheat. He could ensure he’d be right by hesitating slightly before he let the heavier ball join the smaller one. Even if Aristotle, that pompous ass, had been correct all along, Galileo would prove him to be wrong in front of everyone. Galileo’s back stiffened at the thought. He didn’t need to cheat. The natural world was on his side.

He lifted his hands out before him, clearly visible from below, his right arm trembling slightly from the weight, and then let the balls go at the same time. 000000Such was his relief that it was finally over, he almost collapsed. Instead, he stood at the rail, defying his temptation to run for the stairs. When he’d imagined this moment he’d thought of himself scurrying all the way to the bottom of the stairs and arriving just as the balls hit the ground, thus proving for all concerned that he’d been right about the way objects were attracted by a mass such as the earth.

Instead, he watched his friend’s faces. Their elation was visible even from ten stories above. Galileo lifted his bag and then trudged down the stairs. The digger in the ditch must feel this type of satisfaction, he thought to himself. The joy in a day’s work come to a close. Ignoring that the sun was still low on the horizon and only slowly rising, Galileo joined his celebrating friends and carefully brushed the dirt from the cannonballs and put them back into his bag. The burden was light now, and when he looked around at the cheering faces, he was elated enough that he didn’t notice those who hadn’t cheered, those who had vanished like insects when he entered a room at night with a lit taper.

Only later at the bar, when he’d had too much to drink and had lost track of his bag in the good-natured shoving and laughter, was Galileo forcibly reminded of the silent watchers. They hadn’t appreciated his arcane experiment as much as one could reasonably expect. Several enforcers from the inquisition bade him come as they stood in the doorway, deigning to enter. In the sudden silence his friends’ laughter faltered and Galileo walked to the door, his bag forgotten.

Some of his friends made as if to protest, and a few hands grasped at his sleeve, and Galileo was reminded of the strange attraction and repulsion of the lodestone. 000000The eyes of the officials from the inquisition gleamed as if they knew their repulsive force was so strong none would gainsay them, and while some weaker force which wouldn’t be discovered for two hundred years plucked at his coat, Galileo knew it was of little use against his new enemy. The force of the lodestone weakens with distance, Galileo thought. And nonferrous materials are unaffected. Steeling himself for the coming questions, Galileo went from the warm humidity of the welcoming bar into the harsh sunlight of the Pisa midday sun.

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CBC’s “This is That” and the Reality of Our News Broadcasts

I thought my reaction to the popular CBC parody show, This is That was unlike that of others, so I never mentioned it until this summer when I was talking to my friend in Montreal. It turned out, others have felt the dislocating sense of disbelief about our news as I have, as Tom Waits said about keys to the city at his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, “that there were a whole lot of them.” My friend had the same reaction.

When the show first aired it was so effective as a parody—or our current news broadcasts are so ineffective at avoiding at being thought a parody—that many people thought This is That was real. This led to twitter storms as twits took to the keyboard to express their outrage at how ridiculous their world had become, little aware that they were the ones being ridiculous.

The episode that featured the interview with the Canadian border guard, “Canadian border guard bullies CBC Radio host,” for example, was one of the pieces that excited the most commentary, with people declaring that the bullying man in the interview pretending to be a border agent be demoted, fired, or conversely, supported and valorized. A man named Alex, on the petition to get rid of Murray Swift as a border officer, calls for his dismissal: “Shocking and disgusting. Such childish behavior cannot be tolerated especially when coming from a government employee in a position of authority.” David from British Columbia reiterates this opinion: “From this interview, his behaviour, attitude, demeanour, and lack of interpersonal skills does NOT qualify him to led [sic] any session n [sic] how to deal with the public. If Mr. Swift typifies our boarder [sic] patrol, we are in trouble. One can [ ] an effective officer without being a bully, aggressive, confrontational, and intimidating.”

My reaction to the show has less to do with the stories offered, although some of them are favourites that I think about even now, such as the border guard story, or that which described the locals in Lloydminster wanting to divide the small city. I missed the demand that dogs in Montreal be bilingual, “Bilingual Dog Bylaw proposed in Montreal,” and the changing attitude to fine art in Canada: “National Museum to allow high school kids to complete unfinished Group of 7 paintings.” As well, I missed those which exposed the gross stupidity of capitalist culture and contractor incompetence “Casino for kids opening in Las Vegas” and “Mississauga condo developer forgets to put 120 bathrooms in brand new building.”

My reaction to the show was more located in what happened to me upon listening to it. Usually I have CBC playing in the summer in my cabin, but when I would listen avidly to the parody show, my mind would gradually become attuned to their effective representation of stodgy CBC presenters and I would begin to apply the satire they evoked to the news that immediately followed the program. The news broadcasts, especially those that focus on the ridiculous behaviours of political leaders, or the incompetence of public figures, became hard to distinguish from reality. That was an impression I tried to cultivate, for as long as possible, after the show had finished. It enabled me to listen to our news with the distancing required to see the foolish nature of media choices.

If the news is meant to edify, then I cannot see the educational advantage of knowing about the Las Vegas shooting. I am not in Las Vegas, have no plans to ever visit, would likely avoid visiting countries whose governments encourage such shootings, such as NRA-sponsored American policy, and even if I were there while such an event took place, I can’t think of anything in the broadcast of that news that would help me in any way. The purpose of news should not be just what has happened recently—what is new—but rather what might help me negotiate the world around me and inform me about events that will help me make decisions. For the Americans, if they were listening, the latest mass shooting incident might assist them in their concern over gun laws, although that is not really happening.

When I spoke to my friend in Montreal, who would likely be out walking her bilingual dog if she were not on the phone, I found that we shared the same slightly disconcerting feeling. After listening to This is That we began to enjoy the 000000uneasy impression that the world around us is a parody of itself. I felt as though we were able to pry aside the wallpaper and get a glimpse of the plaster that covered the reality of our media presentation of information. That glimpse seemed to indicate that there is something wrong with the way we inform the public, so profoundly wrong, that a parody program is taken as truth, and yet the same program is required so that we understand there might be another way news can be relayed.

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Partridge in the Fall

When I was in my teens and traveling on the school bus in the mornings, I would often sit across from my friend Bruce. We were both farm children and thus had lots of chores to 000000finish every night, but he had an additional hobby that occupied a lot of his time and mental energy. Bruce liked to hunt. In the fall his favourite animal to hunt was partridge, although it occurs to me now that he likely settled on them by default, since deer licenses were more difficult to procure and moose licenses impossible.

The partridge, or more properly, the ruffed grouse, can be heard drumming in the spring as part of their breeding ritual, and often can be sighted mostly buried in the snow on cold winter nights. In the fall, many people hunt them for meat, and 000000Bruce was no exception. What that meant for our bus conversations on crisp fall mornings was that Bruce would supply an update of birds killed and how that affected his total. One fall he had three or four kills to report every day, and more on Mondays. When his count was almost forty birds by the end of the season his pleasure was evident in his voice.

I didn’t think much about Bruce’s nightly occupation, although I was impressed by his ability to kill the birds with only a 00000022 calibre single-shot rifle. It was only in the morning conversations of the following fall did I pause to think what his kill count meant. Bruce began the season complaining that he couldn’t find any grouse at all. He hunted beyond the region he’d decimated the year before, but he was surprised that there were none to be had. After a few weeks of the same refrain, he concluded that it must be a bad year for grouse. It was at this point that I finally put the information together and suggested that perhaps he’d killed so many the year before that he’d drastically affected the population of local birds.

Bruce vehemently denied that this was the case, and although he had little to offer beyond his insistence and statements about how hunting doesn’t affect the amount of animals, his emotional attachment to the question seemed worth prodding. I asked him the same question in a few different ways, but he remained fixed in his original declaration.

I might have reacted to his statement with more scepticism because I’d heard the same reasoning—such as it was—before. When I was younger I recall my foster father saying that the local creek used to have so many fish that his father would go in the hour or so that remained between finishing his chores and dark and catch several dozen fish. calicheI remember I asked him to repeat: several dozen fish? He said that his father would return with enough trout for several meals and that they would take the bait almost as soon as he’d thrown the hook into the water. Once, he told me, his father had caught eleven dozen.

The import of this story would always be a lament about how there were no more fish in the streams. When I suggested that perhaps his father’s greed had taken its toll on the fish stocks and therefore they were unable to maintain their numbers, he rejected the insinuation. “It’s the people coming from town,” he said. “There were lots of fish before there were cars and people started to come from town. They’ve fished out the stream.”

Like the anti-vaxxer, he used the era of the loss as his principal indicator and then examined what else was going on the same time. The anti-vaxxers say there is a link between autism and vaccines because early diagnosis is contemporaneous with the application of school-aged vaccines. For them, perhaps because their knowledge of medical science is limited, they immediately presume the two are linked. The growth and loss of the baby teeth also happen at the same time, as well as walking more, and the entrance into school, but for the anti-vaxxers one arbitrary event is of more importance than all the rest. Cars were in widespread use just as farmers like my foster father’s dad began to fish out the stream, so it must be the fault of the cars.

What hovers behind these claims is also worth examining. All of these cases point to a wish to abdicate from responsibility for the change in fortune. In the case of the diagnosis of autism, no one would blame the parent, but parental guilt is a common and powerful phenomenon. When medical science has so far refused to supply an explanation—if we look at it in their terms—then in their fear that they might be responsible, they reach for a likely candidate. Their guilt over their own unfounded fears of culpability combine with their anger at medical science for not answering their questions, or curing their child, into a stew of anger-fueled anti-science accusation that those unable or unwilling to help must somehow be responsible.

Likewise, my foster father deliberately does not find his own fishing history combined with that of his father’s convincing enough, so he must cast the net further when he wants to locate who is responsible for declining fish stocks. Otherwise, he has to take responsibility for destroying a valuable resource out of thoughtless greed. Bruce didn’t have people from town to blame, since he hunted on his own property and knew no others were there to kill the grouse he was unable to kill himself. He was left with a generalized other: the whims of mother nature. “It’s a bad year,” he would say to himself while he walked the same forest that no longer fluttered with fat partridges in the fall. If the bad year was merely a passing incidence, that meant that the next year would be better, and more importantly, that meant he wasn’t to blame for the lack of grouse.

Before Bruce was able to hunt, when he was much younger, a distant relative had been hunting ducks along the dead water that curled near Bruce’s house. For the purpose, the man had his gun lying beneath his feet while he rowed the homemade boat 000000back and forth where the water was still enough to encourage ducks to settle. Once he was done hunting for the night, he went to shore and pulled the boat onto the bank. The boat had been made from two old car hoods welded together, so it wasn’t heavy, although many pointed out later that meant it had a raised bump of weld across its centre. While he was pulling the boat from the water, his gun reportedly slid from one end of the boat to the other and went off, shooting him dead through the end of the boat.

For the locals, who found it impossible to blame the man who’d been so careless as to move a boat with a loaded shotgun pointed at his chest, the answer was obvious. Like the anti-vaxxers, my foster father and Bruce, they pointed to another agency. The gun slipped along the boat, they explained, and when it hit the weld, it went off. The import of their explanation was that no one could have predicted or been responsible for the accident. After his son died, the man’s father went immediately to the edge of the dead water and sunk the boat, for he had determined the only cause of his son’s death.

When I heard the story as a child I asked about the gun. “Surely the gun is more responsible for his death than an old boat,” I said. “Did he throw the gun in the water too?” I was told I was being impertinent, which did little to hide that the gun was more valuable than the boat and therefore could not be blamed or thrown away.

At some level the father knew the true culprit wasn’t the physical devices present at the time of the accident, just as the anti-vaxxer—as vociferous as they are—likely know the physical devices present when the child is diagnosed with autism are not necessarily to blame. Bruce and my foster father had to cast further afield for the culprit, but likely they too know they might have killed too many animals to ensure the future of the species, at least locally.

These anecdotes, as our world teeters towards a sixth extinction, have much to teach us about our tendency to shift blame and abdicate responsibility. If we cannot admit culpability in relatively obvious situations in front of our face, will we be able to deal with toxins in our water, global climate change, deforestation, the Pacific garbage patch, over-population, the collapsing biosphere, and desertification, let alone human centred problems like war and racism? Based on the evidence, I would have to guess we can’t, although I am a firm believer in explaining the link between killing partridges and the lack of partridges.

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Checking Your Delusions

The method for checking our many delusions—that the Harry Potter letter is going to arrive for us any moment, that god is carefully listening to my prayers about the cancer He gave my mother, that the earth is flat, the moon shot never happened, and that fluoride in the water makes you infertile, subservient, or aggressive—is measuring the details of the delusion against external facts. Many times people check what they believe by contacting their equally deluded peers, but by far the best confirmation comes from people who have disinterestedly done the research and by conducting experiments that can be easily reproduced.

For instance, if the Harry Potter letter is found to be only a product of a set of books which we 000000gradually learn as we grow older are fictional, then that fact might temper how much time we spend waiting for the owl carrier service at the window. If we want to double check our wish that the series of books reports on the truth we might want to avoid asking our friends at a Harry Potter dress-up party. The interlocutor might begin by reading some biographical information about J. K. Rowling and by reading into the production of the films. If they find references to the film crew checking their facts against Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry then they might 000000have reason to expect that the popular children’s book—which, strangely, is frequently read by adults—might be true. If not, and their careful examination of their own forehead—regardless of many times it is done—turns up blank skin, then the books might be merely a wildly popular series by an author who won the writing lottery by having a rather pedestrian work become highly successful.

If I have prayed to god for my mother’s cancer to be removed, and that has had no effect, even if I have employed thousands to pray with me to amplify the signal, or to bully god 000000with their numbers, then I have to realize that either He is a sadist who cannot be moved by my plight, or that perhaps—more logically—He doesn’t exist. I could ask my minister or priest, or monk or imam, or guru, but there would be little point in that if I am seeking for real information. Asking anyone whose employment is dependent on what truth they present means that they might well fudge the facts, rather like asking the global climate change denier in the employ of an oil company if global climate change is real.

I can do some discreet fact checking, without informing my peers at the church, by reading into the possible origins of the bible—which will be found to be very similar to that of the Harry Potter books, albeit with more collaboration between committees and authors—looking through the Council of Nicaea 000000and other such meetings where the church leaders of the time decided on the nature of Jesus, the timing of Easter, and perhaps more importantly, the contents of the bible.

If those arguments do not do enough to convince, it is perhaps worthwhile for the honest seeker to turn to those dishonest seekers who have tried to substantiate their belief in the existence of god over the years. One famous example would be William Paley’s use of his Watchmaker’s Analogy, in which he operates out of the almost laughable premise that the universe is like a watch found on the beach, and that its order presupposes a watchmaker. He never examines his own premises and he ends up with an argument that a fellow grad student Darryl, when I was doing my Masters, called rather accurately “frankly embarrassing.” These philosophers start as Christian apologists and not surprisingly they end the same, for they are so unwilling to budge from their set beliefs that they merely rationalize them in by times quite disingenuous ways.

You can’t really check the existence of god by asking those thinkers who began by believing that, and then—surprise—came to the conclusion that they were right; you need to find those who believe in no such being and then employed reasoning to find out what might exist. Except, of course, without already believing people have never indulged in such frivolous argumentation. If a stroll through the origins of the bible, and the works of apologists does not convince me, by this time my mother is likely dead, and like the apologists I will have to work through a rationale to explain why He let her die regardless of my expostulations. If the seeker is even pondering such a question then they are already lost and, like the weight watchers client wondering how much cake they can carry to the car in one go, they might as well keep on howling at the empty universe.

A worry about the flat earth—however silly that might appear—can be quickly tested by easily available observations here on the planet’s surface, if the one who is worrying 000000about something so arcane as the curvature of the surface of the planet is unwilling to trust institutions such as NASA and ESA. We are not as well served asking an illiterate rap artist about astronomy or planet composition as the public media might indicate. Likewise, a jury of our peers might support or confound the idea, but that would scarcely have anything to do with the facts of the earth’s shape. Luckily, for the one who is interested in the question, other great thinkers have put some time into answering it. After all, if Eratosthenes from over two thousand years ago can go into a well and not only prove the earth is round—in fact that was well known to the Greeks—but can measure its circumference with an accuracy that is surprising given the limited tools at his disposal, we might do the same today.

We can also test the flat earthers’ assertion that the ship that appears to dip below the horizon due to the curvature 000000of the earth is merely being swallowed by an optical illusion, a fact they tell us can be confirmed by using a telescope or binoculars. This is so quickly verified that I’m surprised they even air it amongst their other fever dreams about scientific process. A few hours on the beach will assure the tired eyes of the observer that the ship indeed disappears below the horizon and that someone who stands on the shore in New York will not be able to see the Namibian coast regardless of how powerful their telescope or how patient their attention.

If I refuse to believe that humans walked on the moon, I can either wait until telescopes are developed that 000000enable me to see with my own eyes, or I can bounce a laser off one of the many “retro-reflector arrays” that will send the laser back to its source. I can not only prove the mirror is on the moon, but I can also measure the distance to the moon with an accuracy of millimetres. I may also reference those Russian politicians who were irate that the Americans made it to the moon first, for certainly they would have spent as much time and resources as possible to prove the hoax. I can also refer to photography taken by the landing teams which is striking similar to the images we have from contemporaneous telescopes.

If, after that more objective examination, I still don’t believe the evidence, then such is the depth of my delusion that a trip to the moon might be necessary to answer my concerns. Even then I suppose, such is my delusion that I might refuse to 000000believe the trip happened, and might suppose myself to be in a saltwater tank being fed film strips from old movies. Such a person might also refuse to believe they are on a sphere, might spend their time on their knees praying to their mute god, and waiting by the window for an owl. If that is the case you might as well tell them that they are not on earth, but rather part of an experiment to test human reasoning. The experiment is taking place on Mars and is and perpetuated by grey aliens of dubious and transitory 000000interest in their rectal regions. Such a person might well believe anything, so they should at least have access to an inviting and inventive story.

For those worried about the effects of fluoride in their 000000water, it is an easy enough matter to look through the scientific journals for papers on epidemiology. They can examine the reams of data—which was collected for reasons that do not relate to their fears and therefore should not be contaminated by any wish to dissemble—and find if a population which uses fluoride is any different than those who do not. As well, anyone worried about fluoride use could conduct their own experiment. They could ingest fluoride every day for a few days—as long as it wasn’t a dose in excess of that in our water systems for it bears repeating that it can be toxic in more than trace amounts—and see if their behaviour or abilities or health changed. Of course if they already believe in such an outcome, that might well influence their understanding of what is happening to their body or their mind. That experiment is better done—as it is always—by examining the many cities who fluoridate their water and those who refuse.

As this series of arguments indicates, I have little patience for those who refuse to examine the premises of their fantasies. Fantasies make great fodder for books, and I’ve been responsible for more than a few incursions into that world myself, but they are not useful, healthy, or relevant to our lived experience. Waiting by the window will not bring an owl, regardless of my wishes, prayer will not save my mother, the earth’s shape doesn’t change to correspond with my ignorance of physics, awe-inspiring historical achievements in the hard sciences will not bend to my refusal to admit their truth, and the fluoride in my water will do little beyond hardening my enamel even if I fear it is changing my internet conspiracy-besotted brain.

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Waking to News about Maniacs

Since I need to be awake by nearly the same time every weekday, I have taken to setting my clock radio for nine in the morning and then listening to the morning news 000000before I actually turn off the clock and get out of bed. This has proven to be both useful—in the sense that I listened past the news to a show about the latest book by Barbara Kingsolver that I might be able to use in a course—and subtly estranging, as I heard the news today.

This morning CBC led with the bleeding and leading news story of the day, the shooting in Las Vegas. I remember my friend tone one time telling me that unless there is a shooting in a church, press releases are best sent out on Sundays because Monday is such a slow day that the story is immediately picked up. Sadly, he may have to change his expression, for shootings on Sundays happen outside of churches after all.

I was lying in bed, I had just heard the announcer deliver the temperature in Winnipeg, which is dipping slowly every day now that we staring full into the face of fall, and then they told of the shooting. They knew the name of the offender, and reported some numbers, hundreds injured and many dead, but it was only when they turned to our own maniacs here in Canada that they used the term terrorist. A few days ago another lone killer-in-training tried to stab a cop in Edmonton and then, in their desperation, they plowed into some people with the vehicle they had stolen to effect their escape. That man, who happened to be a Somali-born refugee, was declared to be a terrorist.

This narrative of white=lone wolf and brown=terrorist, and plaints about it, are starting to be common, but what stood out was the news consisted of just those two stories this morning, as if nothing of importance happened other than lone people with very likely mental illness took it upon themselves to attack others. I know about some other news. My friend gave a TedTalk about physics which was meant to explain how our science attempts to expand on the limiting strictures of the human senses, the Nobel prize was given to three people who were independently working on unraveling the mechanism behind circadian rhythms in animals, and000000 Rebecca Lolosoli is the founder of Umoja in Kenya where women are overturning the abusive tendencies of their traditional societies by becoming starting their own women-run villages. The movement is spreading, people are watching for telltale signs of sleep disturbances, and the slow movement of the stars above us remind that the passing squabbles on the surface of the rock are meaningless once measured against the wonder of time and space.

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Growing up in the Modern Depression

Each generation visits its sins on the next, just as children will grow up to have their teeth set on edge by grapes if their parents have learned to be sour. Since the great depression, two more generations have struggled with their questionable inheritance, and performed their own lives in reaction to the privation of their youth, or the excess in which they nearly drowned as children.

The depression era people learned valuable lessons from their time. Perhaps despite their own desires for the trinkets and trash of their era, their poverty meant that they quickly learned that consumer items that did not last 12940were not worth buying. They learned to value the physical item in the world for the work that was required to produce it, to treasure its ephemeral presence, and because it would often be impossible to replace, to mourn the tragedy of its loss. As the post-war period came to North America and of all the money we had given to the war machine some was returned, we experienced a brief moment of wealth and comfort. Disposable consumer items burgeoned to fill the niche of the new consumer, and the children of the depression-era parents ran to the Walmart in order to recoup the lost youth that they felt that frugality and privation had denied them.

The antithesis of their parents, the Walmart generation became actively, frivolously wasteful, as if they were possessed by an unconscious desire to throw away the wealth of the world as quickly as possible. Christmas 1111became about the wrapping, as the contents of the presents under the disposable tree were discarded as quickly as the packaging. They bought furniture for fashion, required closets for the many kilos of clothes they accumulated, traded cars as new models appeared, and in every way embraced the new-and-improved disposable culture. A fast food generation of hamsters and goldfish, they viewed everything around them with an eye to when it could be thrown away.

Living in a rapidly growing trash heap, they taught their children to think of the world as disposable, wildlife as pets, pets as toys, toys as momentary distractions, and distractions as their sole reason for breathing and excreting. Their children learned to reach for the paper towel before the rag, the coffee pod instead of the grinder, and plastic where there had been wood or metal.

In time however, having learned to discard the entire world from their parents, the children of the Walmart generation wanted to throw away their forebear’s grotesque consumerism. They were disgusted by the gauche way in which their parents assembled fine art with plastic trash, and fancied themselves as different from their philistine ancestors. Although an apple might come from a tree, it can only roll so far, however. Their horror at their parent’s excess only took the new generation so far along the path to environmental enlightenment. 111331They rejected the rampant consumerism with its disposable cups and plastic clothes. They bought cotton and wool, fancying them to be more sustainable. Unfortunately, they bought even more clothes than their parents—who even in their rejection of the extreme husbandry of their own parents were not as wasteful as this new generation. They wore their organic cottons as if they were environmental statements, wore them a few times, and then took them to the thrift store, little thinking about the waste they were producing. Instead of the disposable plastic water bottle, 1asdasjhgfdjkasdhfthey bought a reusable bottle at forty times the plastic and ten times the energy to produce. And because these declarations of caring grew faded, or scuffed, or unfashionable, or popular, they donated those as well, and bought others, using in the process more plastic and energy for manufacturing than ever.

This new generation, much more conscious of environmental concerns than their parents, were nonetheless still their children. A strange blend of consumerism with care-about-the-earth branding, they bought just as much, but no longer supported the Walmart. The new brand, instead of the label cheap-and-mass-produced like their parents had often worshipped, was expensive-and-environmental, although the latter didn’t play out in execution. With the dumps beginning to grow with their environmental contributions, some of their children, and some of the new generation as well, began to turn their back on the conspicuous consumption that had marked sixty years of landfills and oceanic plastic. Floundering about for guides to 000000their behaviours, they embraced permaculture, a new trend strikingly similar to the farming practices of thousands of years of our ancestors. In the place of waste, they began to reuse, upcycle, and swap, and in that way rebuild a marketless and moneyless economy that was produced organically by the desperation of the depression.

Many of those who lived during the depression are gone, and if they still are alive they are likely in nursing homes where their lives are littered with disposable diapers, 0003w45353efdsfrgdgdsingle-use medical tubing and paper napkins. From that trash heap, however, they no doubt recognize this most recent generation of seekers, who have returned to the fold after straying from the way. Squinting through the newly replaced thermopane windows of their poorly built nursing home, they no doubt applaud this latest attempt to live responsibly, to avoid treating the entire world as a trash heap, and understand from their dotage, a wish to touch the world without its plastic wrapping.

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The Enthusiasm of the Young

It’s almost a cliché that older people lose their enthusiasm. We are told that they are beaten down by their many responsibilities and powerless in the face of a fate that they can see, if they squint just right, riding towards them from the distance. Much of this hand wringing over their stress is perpetuated by themselves, however, for the truth is much grimmer.

The corollary of the truism about jaded age is that youth is nearly always turning a fresh face toward the new adventure. youthAge would claim this is due to their lack of experience, or their lack of understanding of some situations they encounter. That may be true, and might even affect how the young person confronts their life, but like many explanations of another’s behaviour, the statements say more about the speaker than the spoken.

Perhaps because I have always lived slightly sideways to the aging population around me, and because of my profession I am surrounded by young adults, I have noticed a tendency amongst both populations to cover their enthusiasm with care, cover their joy with indifference, and in other ways suggest their world-weary understanding. Even in my first year courses I have students who are never shocked by anything, never excited about the sometimes bizarre stories, novels, and films, but instead, having learned the behaviour at their parent’s knee, practice the loose jowled face of their elders. I have seen all of this before, their face proclaims, I am untouched.

When children are young, such a serious demeanour is praised, as it is read as a mark of maturity. Such a mature young man or woman, the elderly relatives crow, their hands flapping like wings. This affected jadedness, this presentation of sombre invulnerability, is learned, and once praised, becomes set like cement. The thudding of the youthful heart is walled in, and where a face as mobile as monkey could have looked outward, dribbles of aggregate and mortar wall away the possibility of interaction.

I recently took a road trip with a young friend, and I was reminded once again how unapologetic jouissance is not only a more honest way of interacting with the world but enlivens the world around you as well. She marveled at the hills in Halifax, the harbour and its ships, 20170818_135952delighted in the waves on the shore in Prince Edward Island, was delighted to shoot a gun, shoot a bow, use a chainsaw, and go through the woods on a dark night. The endless hours of driving were opportunity for banter and fresh views from the windows, stopping a chance for discovery.

Montreal was a feast for the eyes as she found street food, people watching, the Metro, flags and stalls, and our friends endlessly diverting. Ottawa was a family visit, and she bonded with the children, laughed with her new friends, picked blackberries in the woods, and finally when we loaded the car and drove away, said her heartfelt goodbye. The massive rocks around Lake Superior, and constant waves and clear water, combined with sleeping in a tent to make the trip more than memorable.

The older person would likely have felt this same joy, but ashamed to exhibit such naivety, they would hide it behind dulled platitudes. Enthusiasm shows ignorance, to them at least, and for them it is better to appear knowledgeable and experienced than excited. Many of my students are trapped in that same circle. Encountering a new idea can be exciting, but showing that to their peers might expose to that jaded group that they didn’t know. They avoid that risk by closing their mouth, stilling their eyes, fixing their face into a mask, and in other ways assuming the worst attributes of age and losing the best of youth.

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