Those of us who love to visit the great outdoors do not love a lot of the little fellas that live there. Here is in the inside dope on our neighbours at the summer camp. There are a few particularly important facts to know. Only the female mosquito and blackfly bite us, which may not surprise a lot of men. Secondly, they have all the spatial and temporal bases covered. Mosquitoes breed in stagnant water; blackflies breed in running water. So they have the territory covered. And they also have the whole day covered: they work in shifts. Blackflies only bite during the day, but mosquitos work especially hard during the dusk to dawn shift.
Allegedly blackflies are ecologically useful, although tell that to a moose taking dangerous ‘refuge” from them in the middle of the TransCanada highway! Or to a camper foolish enough to venture into the Northern Ontario bush in early spring.
Noah could have saved us a lot of grief by just swatting two of those little pests. Now that would have been a justifiable ‘pre-emptive strike’. Scientists now are wondering if a belated attack is possible. Those unfortunate 10% would surely approve. (Personal disclosure: my wife is in the unlucky 10%, while mosquitos rarely bother me, probably because my blood is toxic with nicotine and alcohol.)
They are actually our friends, and too often among the ranks of the falsely accused. Unlike us, they actually like bugs—for dinner.
Strong political views do not make good viewfinders when it comes to examining evidence. Many right wing views on science are obviously wildly distorted, with creationism and global climate change denial being obvious examples. But the left also can be shown to need new glasses—or at least to need to take their blinders off. Here are three examples of where science has given us powerful and useful tools, yet many ‘right thinking’ and ‘left leaning’ people have a knee-jerk aversion to objectively examining the evidence.
THAT DIABOLICAL NUCLEAR ENERGY
Don’t even suggest that it may not be a useful source of relatively clean energy. Sure, there are better sources, but there are worse ones—the current ones.
THAT DIABOLICAL GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD
Who would want to eat “Frankenfood”? A lot of people. It beats not having anything to eat at all, a problem in a lot of third world countries.
THAT DIABOLICAL VACCINATION
No qualifications here. The opposition to vaccination is frightening. It’s ‘unnatural’ to inject a foreign agent into our bodies. It’s bad enough that fluoridated municipal water and iodized salt sneak ‘chemicals’ into our bodies. Infectious disease, tooth decay, and goitre are definitely more ‘natural’. Right?
There is an old wisecrack people make to a mother who announces she is pregnant again: “Don’t you know what’s causing it?” Actually it isn’t known when hominids first figured out the connection. It is known that we didn’t really know much more than the direct cause until fairly recently. The only evidence to base any conclusions on was anecdotal and notoriously unreliable. That’s changing.
11 WORKS OF SEXOLOGY THAT RATTLED OUR CAGES
There are others, but this is a good list.
10 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT ORGASM
This certainly includes one thing that few know about the sex lives of pigs.
10 BELIEFS ABOUT SEX SUPPORTED OR DEBUNKED
This might not seem a good source for information about sex, but…
The Internet has given whistleblowers a very powerful amplifier for their whistles. So where once totalitarian regimes focused on shutting down conventional media, such as newspapers, radio and TV, now their primary target is the Internet. And when they can’t shut that down, they can hunt down the whistleblowers.
RANKING OF INTERNET CENSORSHIP
You can get a good idea of how totalitarian a country is by where they rank on Internet access. Information is dangerous, and it is only too easy to get it on the Internet. So any government afraid of their citizens having information is very suspect. Not surprising is Iran and Cuba being at the bottom of the list and Estonia and the U.S. at the top.
BUT WHEN YOU CAN’T CONTROL THE INTERNET
Then you go after the whistleblower. So while the U.S. may rank high on Internet access, they go after the whistleblowers with a vengeance only equalled by obviously totalitarian regimes. From Daniel Ellsberg (in the old days of print) through Assange and Manning—and now Snowden—whistleblowers are taking big risks.
Ironically most of the safe places to hide are actually themselves totalitarian, and their willingness to harbour a whistle blower is only based on that person blowing the whistle on their enemy, not on them. It seems only Iceland really cares about freedom of expression (including in their own country).
“There be dragons” was sometimes used to mark unexplored regions on maps before we had managed to create a reasonable surface map of our planet. But much lies below the surface, in the future, and beyond our world. Thanks to scientific advances we are now mapping even these inaccessible places.
MAPPING BELOW THE COLD SURFACE
What lies beneath that huge white sheet? A hidden continent!
MAPPING THE FUTURE OF A HOT EARTH
What lies in our future if we don’t get our act together about global warming?
MAPPING THE COSMOS
What lies beyond our insignificant little corner of the universe?
Science fiction is the favourite literary genre of a lot of teenagers, because that is the age when most of us are still fascinated by ideas—big ideas about the universe, about the future, about possibilities. One of the most popular sci-fi magazines of the forties and fifties was Astounding Science Fiction. In 1960 it changed its name to Analog Science Fact and Fiction. This name change now seems especially emblematic. Many of those who once voraciously consumed science fiction in their youth, now turn to science fact to satisfy their hunger for ideas. And one of most fertile fields of science for truly astounding ideas is theoretical physics, where ideas almost too implausible for fiction are becoming plausible facts.
If you think the Big Bang Theory is strange because something coming from nothing is hard to wrap your head around, try on this alternative explanation for size.
A THEORY OF EVERYTHING
The acronym TOE stands for Theory Of Everything. Now wouldn’t that be nice.
A cornerstone of physics is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is why all those guys submitting Perpetual Motion Machine diagrams to the patent office should spend more time with their families. But physicists have a rep for chipping away at cornerstones.
The name of this flower comes from the Greek word for testicle. In Greek mythology a drunk named Orchis tried to rape a priestess of Dionysus at a Bacchanalian festival and was promptly torn apart by the revellers. His father’s prayers for him to be restored resulted in a typical bit of Greek god mischief: he was restored in the form of the orchid flower. Moral of the story? Orchids often aren’t what they seem to be.
DISGUISE: AN ANIMAL
DISGUISE: A WASP
DISGUISE: A MUSHROOM
“One difference between a tourist and a traveller is that the tourist’s home is back home, and the traveller home is where he’s at.” (Hippokrites) Here are some photographic glimpses into other folks’ homes, which we can have without having to leave the comforts of our own homes.
Anyone from North America who has been to Great Britain (and isn’t a teetotaller) has had some experience with British pubs, which are very different from drinking establishments on this side of The Pond. The pub has been a central, defining characteristic of life in England for centuries. Some of the pubs mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ 17th century diary (e.g., Ye Olde Cock Tavern) are still around today. Some cultural anthropologist should do a compare and contrast study of England’s pub culture with, say, Parisian café culture. One can get a pretty good idea about a people by studying how they drink and socialize.
A GUIDE TO BRITISH PUB PROTOCOL
The paradoxes of British culture are mirrored in pub manners.
WHAT EVERY GREAT PUB SHOULD HAVE
The crucial ingredients of the perfect pub.
ONE TOUGH PUB
A must-visit for the tourist in Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
What makes something humorous? There are two ingredients of humour that seem to be virtually universal. One is the pleasure we get from feeling superior to the butt of the joke. That sense of superiority is even more enhanced if you get the joke, and someone else doesn’t. The other essential ingredient is surprise: that perverse pleasure we get in having our expectations dashed. Jokes lead us into making false connections, which the punch line deflates.
THE SECRET BEHIND 4 A.M
Because evolution has wired our brains to find connections, often we imbue coincidence with significance. Conspiracy theories are made of this. And so is humour.
THE INDISPUTABLE EVIDENCE FOR ALIENS
In serious argument, incongruity and non-sequiturs are annoying, but in other contexts, such as surrealism and humour, they delight us.
THE INVISIBLE WORLD
Wit is all about surprises: being cleverly presented with another’s unexpected and unusual perspective.
And the message is that anything can be an artistic medium. No culture has ever existed that did not create art, yet many cultures don’t have a word for ‘art’. They just don’t feel the need for a special term for aesthetically pleasing and interesting creations that meet some arbitrary criteria. The 20th century saw a radical redefining of ‘art’ in Europe and North America, and contemporary artists treat anything as a potential medium for artistic expression.
THE TOILET AS ARTISTIC MEDIUM
THE SHADOW AS ARTISTIC MEDIUM
20 OTHER UNUSUAL ARTISTIC MEDIA
Many people have a very ambivalent attitude toward the rich: they want to be rich but don’t like the rich. Ironically, liberals, who are often quite well off, blame the rich for all the evils in the current economy, while the less well off are the support base for the current Republican party in the States, which wants to decrease taxes on the extremely wealthy and cut social services to the poor. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” If that’s true, why do so many people want to be filthy rich, especially when they claim to believe that “money can’t buy happiness”? It is only natural that when income inequality is extreme—and just getting worse—to tar every wealthy person with the same brush, but it is really unfair.
WHEN THE RICH GET RICHER, THE POOR GET POORER
And the rich are not really any better off.
CAN MONEY BUY HAPPINESS?
Maybe, if you can give it away.
SLIPPING THROUGH THE EYE
If these folk are camels, that needle’s eye is pretty big.
Ay, there’s the rub!” This is because that sweet “sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, / Chief nourisher in life’s feast” can be as elusive as our memories of dreams during the harsh light of day. One has to suspect the Bard of the same disorder that plagues so many of us, or he couldn’t write so longingly and lovingly of sleep. Those who have no trouble sleeping take this vital balm for granted. Lovers secure in love don’t write poignant love poems. It is only those who have lost their love who do. For many, love of sleep is unrequited love.
UP ALL NIGHT
COUNTING THE ‘BLESSINGS’ OF INSOMNIA
In his book, Consciousness Explained, the philosopher Daniel Dennett writes, “Human consciousness is just about the last surviving mystery… Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist — and hope — that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.” But there are also many others who love mysteries not because they prefer the comfort of ignorance, but rather because mysteries present a challenge. Despite the title’s presumptuous claim, Dennett doesn’t really succeed in explaining consciousness. No one has yet, although a lot of people besides Dennett are trying—and making some progress.
BEYOND CONSCIOUSNESS LIES A GREATER MYSTERY
Here the neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, takes a shot at explaining consciousness and points beyond to the even deeper mystery of the self. Who am I? Where am I?
TRYING TO COMPREHEND CONSCIOUSNESS
Here a good review of the mystery of consciousness. Is consciousness just being good at believing our own lies?
THE FUZZY BORDERLINE BETWEEN CONSCIOUSNESS AND UNCONSCIOUSNESS
Here the practical and important implications of getting a better understanding of consciousness. Can you be conscious of the surgeon’s knife slicing your flesh while under anaesthetic?
We all get sick—and eventually die. It is natural to try to find someone to blame for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But where once we cried, “Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?!”, now we’re more likely to place the blame on modern science and technology. Of course our lives really are “unnatural”. In a state of nature, such as that enjoyed by early man, the fossil record suggests that only 25% of the population survived past age 40.
Who would have thought windmills were hazardous to our health? It’s amazing of what people can become convinced.
Don’t answer that! It’s a call from the Grim Reaper. Or worse still, for many people, it might be a scientist—who surely is getting kickbacks from the smart phone industry.
DEFUSING CLUSTER BOMBS
Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Misuse of statistics has become a very common kind of damned lie. And it can be a lucrative one.
Curiosity may have killed a cat now and then, but it evolved the human. It is responsible for all of science and art: home sapiens’ two unique accomplishments. It may, of course, eventually kill us, for the incurious cockroach has been doing just fine for many millennia more than us. Still, most folk prefer the risky path we humans trod. It is a cliché that all children are naturally curious and creative. So then, one might ask, what happened to all those allegedly inquiring minds on their way to adulthood? Often the regimentation of the formal educational system is blamed. Might we not be better off letting those young inquiring minds inquire on their own?
ARE TEACHERS OBSOLETE?
Maybe adults only need to increase access to information, and allow children to let curiosity be their only guide. This famous TED talk by Sugata Mitra argues for the efficacy of doing so.
ARE CHILDREN REALLY BETTER LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES?
But maybe serious curiosity isn’t as universal among children as we’d like to believe. And maybe it isn’t as good a guide to learning as a knowledgeable adult. This sobering evaluation of the claims of Sugata Mitra is by someone whose curiosity made him look more closely at the question of self-directed learning.
LEARNING BY PLAYING
There is no doubt that intrinsic motivation (such as curiosity) is more lasting and less fragile than extrinsic motivation. Another intrinsic drive is to play. Even a child who isn’t naturally curious about the science of physics is still motivated to play games—including good ones that teach physics. The EdGE organization is “investigating the possibilities—and challenging the assumptions—of game-based learning environments.” (Link is just to the general information page, but check out the whole site—and their online games.)
…to the U.S.A.” or so sings Leonard Cohen in typically ironic lyrics. The key word is “coming”. While it is true that there is a worldwide movement toward democracy, achievement of the ideal of a truly functional democracy that respects human rights and serves the common good has not been achieved—anywhere. What is most disturbing and challenging to the belief that democracy is a panacea is how very dysfunctional so many new (and centuries old) democracies are. As a form of governance it may indeed be the lesser of many evils, but finding a way to make it really work toward the commonweal is far more difficult than simply holding elections. Here are some thoughtful TED talks addressing that complex problem.
“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” is the name of a great film. (It would also be a great title for a book about poetry.) How do you convince people who say westerns are boring to watch this so-called “spaghetti western”? How do you convince people who say poetry is boring to read a great poem? Ain’t easy! The reason is their previous experiences with westerns—or poetry. With most westerns, the problem is that someone who enjoys watching films finds they’re often too easy. With most poems, the problem is that someone who likes reading finds they’re often too difficult. The secret all poets know is that poems are not really difficult. They only require approaching them in the right way. And the rewards they offer are more than worth the effort. Poems are not defined by having rhymes or consistent rhythm or line breaks. What defines poetry is exceptionally powerful use of all the tools of language. We implicitly acknowledge this when we say of any verbal expression, be it a novel or a witty remark, that it is poetic. So if it’s the best of verbal expression, why is it the least appreciated? Because many people don’t know how to approach it, and so never know what they’re missing.
HOW TO ENJOY POETRY
“The first thing to understand about poetry is that it comes to you from outside you, in books or in words, but that for it to live, something from within you must come to it and meet it and complete it. Your response with your own mind and body and memory and emotions gives a poem its ability to work its magic; if you give to it, it will give to you, and give plenty.” (James Dickey)
OVERCOMING THREE FALSE ASSUMPTIONS
“Most readers make three false assumptions when addressing an unfamiliar poem. The first is assuming that they should understand what they encounter on the first reading, and if they don’t, that something is wrong with them or with the poem. The second is assuming that the poem is a kind of code, that each detail corresponds to one, and only one, thing, and unless they can crack this code, they’ve missed the point. The third is assuming that the poem can mean anything readers want it to mean.”
Poetry was originally oral. A major component of poetry is the sound of the words. We usually read so fast we don’t really hear the poem clearly in our heads. So hearing poetry read aloud is another route into the enjoyment of it. Here is a good example—and, incidentally, one that should put to rest another false assumption: that poetry has no relevance to contemporary life.
Plagiarism has been in the news a lot lately, so much so one would think it is a virtual epidemic in academe and politics. And being labeled a plagiarist has dire consequences: students are expelled from university; politicians are forced to resign. Reputations of historic and heroic figures are besmirched, as when evidence surfaced that Martin Luther King plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. The phenomenal increase in access to information coupled with the obsession with intellectual property rights has made it much easier to ‘catch’ the plagiarist. But is plagiarism really such a huge offense? Isn’t that idea a fairly recent one and perhaps ethnocentric? Is it clearly defined? Can you plagiarize yourself? How similar does a new thing have to be to an existing one to justify the accusation of plagiarism? How much credit are you really required to give? Is plagiarism always conscious and deliberate? Cannot memory be confused with inspiration?
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON PLAGIARISM
A HISTORY OF PLAGIARISM
It’s a cliché to say Canucks have an identity problem—unlike Yanks, who have no such problem because they are quite comfortable wearing their Superman costume. The truth, however, is we’re not really envious of our neighbours with their delusions of grandeur. The stereotype of Canucks being modest and self-effacing has only a grain of truth. Underneath our polite persona we are a very proud lot. We only compare ourselves to our southern neighbour because they make us look good. There is, however, one thing Yanks do have that neither Mexicans nor Canucks have: good neighbours.
WE CANUCKS ARE PROUD…
…to have the beaver represent us.
WE CANUCKS ARE TOO PROUD…
…to say these seven things about our country—even if some of us think them.
WE CANUCKS ARE MOST PROUD…
…just to be Canucks, cuz it’s cool. (Even sometimes f’ing cold!)