Simon & Finn in The Georgia Straight!

This week’s Simon & Finn is brought to you courtesy of The Georgia Strait. The accompanying article focuses on a rogue geoengineering experiment on Canada’s west coast, as reported by the UK Guardian this week.

The original article and cartoon can be accessed here.

Oilin’ the machine: Pipelines, politics & 1984

Where there’s a will, there’s a way..

In recent Canadian environmental news, one can’t help but notice a slight thread of subversive strategy and a smattering of the authoritarianism so brilliantly parodied in Orwell’s dystopian book 1984.

Below are three brief parallels for your consideration:

1. Doppelgänger Ministries

1984:  In the book 1984, the totalitarian ministries which govern the fictional land of Oceania could be considered doppelgängers, as they are are paradoxically named and represent the dark double of their namesakes.  For example, the Ministry of Love is largely responsible for the practice and infliction of misery, fear, and torture.  The Ministry of Truth, similarly, is the ministry responsible for propaganda and rewriting history to this effect.

Canada: In January, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver publicly equated Canadian environmental organizations to extreme radical groups, using further descriptive words as in “hijack”, “exploit”, “kill”, “undermine” in his open letter.  The letter’s main message is that processes that delay rapid resource development and exploitation (that is, the environmental assessment processes that would normally accompany oil pipeline development) are now an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.

“National interest”…now there’s some fightin’ words.

Last I remember, Natural Resources Canada’s mandate included the words “enhance the responsible” development and use of Canada’s natural resources, but I must have been trumped up the verbs.  “Enforce the rapid” is more fitting.

2. The creative use of language to subvert public discourse

1984: In the book 1984, an individual’s use of doublethink is encouraged.  Doublethink enables one to believe that two contradictory ideas are both correct, i.e. to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient and yet to recall it again when required, etc.

Canada:  The platform Ethical Oil, brainchild of Ezra Levant, basically posits that Canadian tar sands oil – because it comes from a country that “respects the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians” – is more ethical than oil produced in conflict areas such as Nigeria, Iran, etc. and therefore should be considered a preferred energy source.  This bizarre platform has diverted debate about the environmental impacts of Canada’s oil sands extraction and transportation into a completely different arena, with “ethical oil” on one side and so-called “conflict oil” on the other.

But basically, as detractors say, this is a red herring as there is no such thing as ethical oil.  Like most fossil-based energy sources, all oil has its problems, and tar sands oil in particular.  By promulgating tar sands oil as ethical by nature of Canada’s human rights record, Ethical Oil is doing its very best to ensure we sidestep the real issue at hand, which is the significant environmental degradation associated with extracting and transporting tar sands oil.

Interestingly, it seems that Ethical Oil – while ostensibly a grassroots organization – has some convoluted ties that involve not only Sun Media but also the PMO, and moreover happily embarrasses itself on national television to avoid directly answering who funds its activities.

3.  Down with dissent

1984:  In this book, society is presided over by Big Brother who keeps a gimlet eye on all the doings and sayings of Orwellian society.  In such a land, talk is muted and dissent intolerated, to the point where ‘suspicious persons’ simply disappear into the bowels of the Ministry of Love, ne’er to be seen again.

Canada: Recently Canadian charities have come under increased scrutiny by the federal government to assess whether they are spending over 10% of their budget on advocacy based political activity.  Under Canadian law, organizations that exceed this allocation stand to lose their charitable status.

The possible result?  That charities run scared and pull back funding for research and other initiatives that might indicate dissenting viewpoint to government positions… for example, initiatives that would otherwise be exploring alternatives to the the rapid development of oil pipelines.

As charities are often major contributors to environmental organizations and initiatives, there are some that say this increased scrutiny is actually a strategic effort to muzzle the depth of environmental debate in Canada.

So there you have it.  A few ideas, for starters.  Agree?  Disagree?  Other ideas?

The immortal jellyfish, David Wilcox, and glow-in-the-dark cats

Source: BBC Nature

So there’s this jellyfish.  It’s tiny.  It’s global.  And it’s immortal.

You scoff but it’s true!  There’s this miniscule jellyfish that has supped from the fountain of youth and mocks us with its knowledge with its beady little.. um.. tentacles.  This jellyfish – or Turritopsis nutricula in elite circles – essentially grows to adulthood, decides it’s time for a change, and then converts all its cells to become a little jellyfish baby again – or a “blob-like cyst”.  Discovering it doesn’t like being a blob, it grows back to an adult again, and, evidently not liking the responsibilities of that, shrinks back to a polyp, and so on and so forth (I’m sure the whole time humming along to this sweet tune).

For this species, the process of converting cells, or transdifferentiation, means that the cells can be converted from specialized muscle cells (for example) back to nerve cells or even to inaugural sperm and eggs.  Essentially the jellyfish can convert its mature cells back into a younger state and vice-versa.  In theory this cycle can loop forever, which means that biological immortality does in fact exist here on Earth… as well as perpetual biological indecision.

And I thought I had trouble growing up.  🙂

P.S. On a tangential note, recently scientists have inserted jellyfish genes into cats as part of research into Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (and ultimately, HIV).  As these genes make fluorescent proteins, this has the effect of actually making the cats glow in the dark and the result is visible with the naked eye.

While the aims of the related research are incredibly promising, there’s something really strange about making green cats, don’t you think?

The mostly harmless Higgs boson (or so long, and thanks for all the fonts)

“Ah I love this time of day, when the particles and waves hit me just right…”

It’s been an electrifying week for particle physics, what with the seeming discovery of the Higgs boson, otherwise known as the “God particle”.  The existence of this unassuming little sub-atomic particle was first conceived of in the 1970s, but only very recently have physicists found tangible evidence that it exists through the use of the gigantic CERN Large Hadron Collider.

Now, there’s lots of information out there clarifying what the Higgs boson is all about, and why it matters, but suffice it to say (for this light-hearted post) that H-B and its mechanisms is believed responsible for conferring mass to all matter, which equates to all the mass in the universe.  At 1052 to 1053 kg, that’s heavy stuff for a little boson!

Also trending though, is the fact that the physicists announced the discovery of the God particle using Comic Sans font in their Powerpoint presentation, to the chagrin and ridicule of aesthetes the world over and causing a cosmic firestorm on Twitter (i.e. “few people know that the original set of tablets were smashed not because of the golden calf, but because they were in Comic Sans” @spiritofMoses).

It’s a pretty quarky – yet funny – world when one of the biggest scientific discoveries in the last fifty years is vying with font type for attention.  Sigh… if only Douglas Adams were still around, he would have had a field day with this one!

P.S. Why is Higgs boson called the God particle you ask?  This title was apparently popularized by a book on particle physics: The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?.  The author indicated he chose the name because “the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing”.

Part II: Flow, meaning, and a state of grace

Woah!! Whaddaya mean you’re not clear on the plot line?

Earlier this month, this blog posted on the idea of optimal experience in life, a state of mind that some have referred to as flow. The concept refers to those times when one is completely absorbed in the moment, whether that occurs when scaling a mountain, drawing a picture, or figuring out an Excel formula (=SUM(no_way!)).

Now, probably the most comprehensive and shared flow experiences occur during childhood, as during play we are completely immersed in the moment and that moment becomes our whole reality.  I mean, what kid is thinking about past or future homework when being chased by a rabid sibling channeling Cujo?

The researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has taken quite an interest in this subject, and his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is a fine read for those wanting to know more.  This post however, concerns itself less with the entirety of the book as opposed to the ending sections, where Csíkszentmihályi touches on the intriguing thought of having an overall architecture or purpose that extends over one’s lifetime.  He argues that the potential for quality moments expand when we identify a consistent purpose to our time here, whatever that purpose may be.

To give a tangible example, in 2005 a documentary was released called “The Real Dirt on Farmer John“.  The great thing about this doc was that the filmmaker (at first by accident and increasingly on purpose) had captured nearly thirty years of footage on his friend John Peterson, an eccentric individual with a single-minded conviction to be a successful farmer.  The film – shot in formats ranging from home video to Super 8 – thus affords a rare vantage point of seeing a story arc unfold over the course of one lifetime.  And because this particular person had a particular purpose he kept coming back to, we could see in technicolour hindsight the multitude of actions, good and bad, light and dark, that contributed to his overall life’s meaning (whether he realized it at the time or not).  And thus, through the highs and lows and the wins and the losses, Farmer John’s life was rich in quality and he lived in a greater state of flow.

In the longer term, defining purpose, whether it’s for part of one’s life or the whole of it, in essence allows us to bootstrap many of our supposed incidental moments.  And these moments, given enough time and knit into a coherent whole, can thereby make up much more than the sum of their parts… much like the coloured bits of glass that, stepping back, make up the stained glass window of our lives.

P.S.  Another take on this phenomena was recently covered by Colby Cosh in his sophisticated piece Artisan chocolate and social revolution, where he muses on the future of work in the context of hipster chocolate and strangely long beards.  Although Cosh’s piece is primarily focused on the revival of artisan goods and craftsmanship as a counter to mass mechanization, i.e. “You had better be prepared to be a distinct individual, to treat your particular line of work as a craft rather than a job, to seek out the style or the method or the niche that no one else is in; nobody’s going to need you to knock out pyramid-style copy on deadline or take trite photos from accident scenes…“, one could argue a byproduct of mastering a craft is actually increased opportunities for a flow state.  Why?  Because mastery of anything fulfills several preconditions for flow (i.e. energized focus, deep involvement, clear goals, etc.).  Given that craftsmanship can take a lifetime to master, this sets up a solid framework for a richly fulfilling occupation… gathering Paradise, so to speak.

Flow, meaning, and a state of grace

In life there are select moments when external and internal reality syncs perfectly, when ticking time shuts down and one is completely present.  For some, this state of grace may unfold when scaling a mountain (understandable, given that continued existence is delicately tied to that monumental rock!).  For others, these moments might be associated with the creation of music or the joy of painting, or for still others sifting rich loam while planting a garden…  Basically such moments can occur whenever the boundary between you and “not you” dissolves and you find (or lose) yourself in deep involvement with life.

These perfect, engrossing moments are the focus of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, an interesting read by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  In this treatment, Mihaly C. outlines research on the state of grace he calls “flow” and resulting thoughts on how being in flow profoundly affects the degree of enjoyment and satisfaction with one’s life experiences.  Mihaly C. argues that this flow state is the warp and woof of a rich existence; as individuals that seek and experience flow states create more opportunity for fulfillment regardless of circumstance or the experience in question.

Interestingly, a large section of Mihaly C.’s work focuses on the importance of the autotelic personality as a factor in frequent flow experiences. An autotelic personality is one that is strongly motivated by internal benefit as opposed to external reward, for example, a person that has an internal sense of purpose that is not as influenced by external conditions (i.e. those that happily make lemonade martinis when life gives them lemons).  Probably one of the better known examples of an autotelic personality is Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, and a Dachau concentration camp survivor.  Viktor Frankl’s strong internal drive – or autotelic personality – was a large factor in his survival and triumph over his external environment and offers profound lessons on finding meaning in the darkest of places.

On a more contemporary basis, the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a beautiful description of one man’s lifetime dedication to mastering his craft: sushi-making.  It also offers a subtly wrought treatment of another formidable autotelic personality and illuminates a critical aspect to sustaining flow experiences.  As the flow state can be precipitated by taking on tasks that we find challenging, this means that it is important to increase the complexity of these tasks over time as our skills improve (as otherwise the activity becomes meaningless and boring).  In the film, we see Jiro’s passionate yet methodical dedication to elevating the art of sushi-making to new heights over his lifetime, where he dreams day and night of how to improve, how to better, how to create anew…

Essentially, where one man would find drudgery in placing bits of raw fish on rice for 70-some years, another has created an eternally challenging and deeply satisfying flow experience. The film ultimately provides a thoughtful reflection on the art, beauty, and pleasure of mastering a craft to increasing levels of perfection in keeping with the precepts of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Viktor Frankl.  Similarly, by looking upon our myriad actions as potential flow experiences – no matter how pedestrian or mundane they may seem – we all have the profound opportunity to infuse meaning, purpose, and growth into every moment.

P.S.  Mihaly C. suggests that societies can also influence the opportunity for frequent flow activities, citing examples as in the BaMbuti pygmies.  When not otherwise occupied with hunting or improving their villages, every adult in this society “is expected to be a bit of an actor, singer, artist and historian as well as a skilled worker” which leads Mihaly C. to suggest that “their culture would not be given a high rating in terms of material achievement, but in terms of providing optimal experiences their way of life seems to be extremely successful.”

In a related vein, the New York Times recently published a piece on the merits of being less productive, making the case that our chase after prosperity, productivity, and growth is at the expense of an economy of care, craft and culture. The author posits that far greater well-being and fulfillment would arise from more focus on aspects like craftsmanship and culture, i.e.: “It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year? “

A sweet little creature

The problem with traveling is sometimes you fall in love, and that love is usually intense and ephemeral, because someone – eventually – will depart. This time, I fell in love unexpectedly… with a mouse deer.

It all started when I was out in the ancient ruined city of Polonnurawa, Sri Lanka. It was about 7am, sweltering hot, and the BBC documentary film crew was in action trying to incite a confrontation between two toque macaque monkey troops. I was milling about uncertainly at the periphery, feeling a little useless, when I noticed the project lead and a field assistant looking intently at something on the ground. I wandered up, and saw that they were looking at this incredible little creature that was nestled underneath a shrub: a baby mouse deer.

I immediately thought it the cutest animal I had ever seen, and judging by the smiling faces all around, I wasn’t the only one. When it was suggested that I keep an eye on it for a few hours I happily agreed. I was ready to do my part and guard this little guy from danger! As well as see if the mother would return, or if he was well and truly alone in this big world.

I spent the morning sitting on the grass near the mouse deer, gently corralling him when he strayed too far. He was a pretty plucky little guy, not even a half hour had passed when he ventured unsteadily on his tiny legs to see what I was all about before nestling back into the security of his shrub. At one point, a bunch of toque monkeys came close, curious to see what I was looking at.  I instantly picked him up and shielded him – he didn’t struggle or protest and seemed quite content to sit with me afterward. I knew right then that this encounter was something special.

As the mother was still nowhere in sight and the mouse deer was very weak, we decided to bring it to the research camp and see if we could help it live. And that was the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  It took to infant formula after some coaxing, and after a day or two it was starting to nibble on figs, and banana, and even leaves.  What was really amazing was how instantly he connected with people.  Curious, I read up on the mouse deer, discovering it was part of the family chevrotain – well and truly a deer as opposed to mouse, and one of the most ancient mammal species.  Finding a baby is also a rare occurrence, the project lead here hadn’t ever had a mouse deer baby in camp in over 40 years of field work.  In fact, scour the Internet and you’ll find precious little on raising a baby mouse deer.

Despite his rarity, day by day he got stronger and our hopes grew that he would become a wonderful addition to the camp – maybe even a film star for the next BBC shoot! He would take to following me, bouncing around at my feet and coming when called, running across the camp floor and sliding all over the place on his tiny hooves.  As the days passed, I would spend hours watching him, petting him, feeding him, walking with him…  It was a source of – I fully admit – continual joy to open the box every morning and see these bright eyes looking up at me, followed by a tiny u-shaped stretch as I’d bend down to take him out of the box.

Unfortunately, the time we had was cut short.  I had to leave camp for a few days, planning to be back on my birthday.  While I was gone I thought of the mouse deer daily, worrying and hoping that he would be ok during my absence.  Things got complicated when I was gone, and I was asked to delay my return by a day.  I wish so much now that I hadn’t, as my return one day later was to the news that the little mouse deer had died that morning.  He had lived until my birthday like I had hoped for… but like the story of the monkey’s paw, the wish had a flip side, as the day after he tried to jump out of his box and I guess the fall was too much for his delicate body.

When I returned to camp I went to his box sadly and said goodbye, stroking his broken little body.  His spirit was already gone, and there was no trace of the life that had animated such a wonderful creature. I moved his small hooves in the air a bit, and brushed his tail, but under my hands there was only stillness.

Looking back, I had been given the indisputable gift of spending time with an unusual and brave little animal.  Although I’m profoundly grateful for the time I had with him, I wish those bright eyes would have shined on just a little longer.