Saturday, September 30, 2006

On Packaged Dinners, Etc.

The game is to find out what to do with the stuff ... in very fine print. Now a good many of the purchasers of these one-person packages are actually one person. They are one person because their companion has left once again, or they never had anyone, or everyone else has died off, and with the passage of time their eyes are not good, even if both of them are operational.

If the maker of the product "believes" in it, he/she should surely want the message of what to do with it to be clear. So, to get at the mystery. While "Nutrition Facts" are in quite large print, and "Ingredients" are in capital letters, the finest print is reserved for what the hell to do with it to make it edible. By the time you scrutinize this minutiae, if your time is worth anything, you are better off to take a taxi to the nearest fast food outlet, because this cute package is sure as hell not fast food.

Skipping "For firmer rice, decrease water; for softer rice, increase water", you come to microwave instructions. By this time, you have had two drinks more than you should, and a couple of chocolate bars are starting to look good to you.

It seems that food purveyors spend zillions on experts to design everything, from recipes to more efficient packaging. Hell, I could do that, much better. Could you tell me where I apply? I'm tired of just working for a living.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

That Y Chromosome

Princess Kiko has had her baby and it is a boy. This will end Japan's facing the possibility of one day having an Empress instead of an Emperor. For 2000 years there has been an Emperor, held to be divine until Hirohito resigned the idea of divinity after the atomic bomb led to surrender in World War II, and an American general ran the country.

All this is against the background of advances in knowledge of DNA and of the nature and mechanisms of life. Eggs have X chromosomes, while sperm have either X or Y, meaning that sex is determined by which brand of sperm gets to join the X egg -- XX gives a female individual and XY a male, so chance determines whether the ruler is divine or not. In many other cultures the same has been true, where only a male could be the boss. It is a flip-of-the-coin matter.

Always, there has been a method of selecting sex of infants, age-old in India and very current in China. This is usually by drowning or suffocating unwanted female babies, although smashing the head end against a wall was often the method when, in the southern American colonies, a white mother had a "tarred" baby.

It is interesting to note that eggs are few, like one a month, while sperm come in the millions, and also interesting that more males are born than females, who make up by living longer -- there are more old women than men.

We are talking sex, and as we consider other species, that becomes very interesting indeed. Some invertebrates, I think among the molluscs, have adults which are male some years and female other years. I'm sure we will get back to discussions of sex again.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Few Good Men Books

One of our more recent philosophers said, "The trouble with reading books is that there is so much in them that isn't so." So I am suspicious of all books, including the few that I am so fond of that I re-read them, some frequently.

On the matter of wealth, the top of the list is The Richest Man in Babylon; what he said was that to be rich, we should put away the first ten percent of income at least, before we use or spend anything. Soon, we should consider how these "slaves" can work for us, in complete safety. In time, we become very wealthy, of course.

If I have a favourite book, it must be Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, by Wilfred Trotter, pointing out that enlargement of the group affords protection within the group; this is true from single cells to great societies.

Of Stars and Men takes up the story and emphasizes again that families, villages, cities, nations and leagues of nations all attain strength and variation by the smaller units becoming dependent and giving up some functions. Today we see world becoming more and more of a unit, with resulting internal pressures and clashes by formerly independent states, cultures and religions.

My list is not very long before I hasten to add Alice in Wonderland, by a mathematician, for a favourite young friend. It is full of sly, worldly wisdom. Really good books are worth re-reading, again and again. So they do tend to be few.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

What's Wrong With The Morning?

There are people I know who are adverse to getting up before noon. Since I fade at about 9 p.m., I do not know what time they put their heads down, but I suspect 2 or 3 a.m. My going off so early and their going off so late can't be accidental, but why? It must have to do with diurnal rhythms, acquired or built-in or the result of outside agencies. In the wild realms of nature, we have extreme examples of such rhythms.

The most extreme I can think of is the breeding of the palolo worms in the South Pacific. With precise timing each fall, the adults ready for it simply rise to the surface layers and burst, releasing tons of eggs and sperm, the whole mess a feast for sea predators and marine birds (and humans). Fertilizations take place, of course, nearly all wasted. The successful ones are the survivors, the ancestors of the next go-around.

Another is the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano in the spring. Accurate to within a day or so, something moves them to migrate. There are many more examples. So, what about us?

Just as babies become slowly enculturated, necessarily embedded in human groups, we adults are the effects of just such continued multiplied habits and groups of habits. For myself, coming from farm people who had to get up early to accommodate the animals, I was never surrounded by people who were late starters. Also, at one stage I had to get up early to write radio items I was to record later that day.

So, these habits are habits, but how acquired, how transmitted? As I usually do, I'll give it some more thought.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Fat Of The Land Is Sinking The Land

One third of the world's population goes to bed hungry. Drugs are saving the disease-prone, and many who have not considered the consequences are having large families, often without attending males and with increasing statistics on AIDS. Natural resources are exported or used for products that are exported, with the benefits going to non-residents, mostly corporations, mostly foreign. However, in the rest of the world, people are getting fat, disastrously fat.

Everywhere, we are urged to eat carbohydrates which turn to fat, or fried foods, or meat whose production involves great use of land, water and food. In short, we are all, worldwide, either starving or getting fat.

Even in rich countries, "health" services, meaning services for the sick and unhealthy, are stretched to limits and face impossible demands in the all-too-near future. It is clear that young fat kids are almost certain to become obese adults; fat adults represent increasing percentages of diabetic and coronary cases; and as the "baby boomers" become older, and ultimately old, numbers will soar. All this is for sure, and may be a lot worse than we think.

So, food industries with very efficient promotion through the media are, although maybe unintentionally, but hardly in ignorance, producing sickness and early death.

Yesterday, we killed off passenger pigeons and most species of bison. Today we are fattening ourselves for the kill, while starvation and AIDS stalk the less "fortunate". Individually, we may be intelligent, but collectively, this seems stupid.

Monday, September 18, 2006

My Wonderful World

I understand that not everyone's world is good, and some are very bad, as for the one-third of humanity which lives and dies without ever not being hungry. But my world has been just better than I could have hoped or managed. My original geography, my family DNA, my early childhood crossing with world events, were all so unusual, even startling, that it was as if someone was orchestrating my introduction into this life of collisions of cultures we witness now. We may experience it next door, or by media, or airline, but in any case it is inescapable. To encapsulate it, for my sins I live in Toronto, by far the most cosmopolitan city in the world, if you count the 150+ languages, cultures and religions which flourish and, of course, clash here. I'm not saying all is good, whatever that might mean, but boring it is not. Now, back to me.

I was born at an early age, I understand, and according to all reports, with fairly firm opinions in advance of any direct fresh air evidence of the things about which I held these opinions. We are all born somewhere, among people, and so our first views come with the words and grammar of our parents, relatives, friends, and enemies, and the views of these people we soak up as geese adopt whatever they see as they hatch, whether that is a farmer, a hen, a rock, or a PhD. And so, like yourself, I was pushed out physically, and punched out mentally and physiologically into whatever I was when I began to experience this world, which, I insist, is wonderful.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

With Respect To Age

I have been moved to write one on how I am regarded, treated, looked at, and all that. I thought of "My Age is Showing", "People Are Getting Nicer", "A Grin in Time Wipes Whines", but maybe I can write this again, later of course, with a different tag like one of these, or maybe "It's the Way I Walk".

People have begun to hold doors, to wait for me in various circumstances. Is it pity, is it admiration, or just respect to old age? True, I am older than I have ever been, in fact older than any related male I know of. My maternal grandfather mowed by hand all day, and that evening ran over a mile to help the bucket brigade up the lake to put out the fire at the local creamery, owned by them all, and got "cold in his kidneys" and died at 87. My paternal grandfather died with a knife in his back when he was throwing a troublesome drunk from his saloon restaurant in a mining camp in Colorado. But I am the oldest male living past 90. So perhaps my age is beginning to show.

Maybe I should lie about my age and say I am only 85 or so, or perhaps I should lie the other way and say I am 99. Depends on how much respect I want, or do I want pity? Not that, please, as it might be catching and I might begin to pity myself, and that would interfere with my plans to go see my grandchildren in Wales, and come back by going the rest of the way around the world.

People do form opinions about age, and their attitudes are affected, sometimes for the better. Altogether, getting older, and even old, does have its advantages in some respects, sometimes including more respect, I think.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The World Is Getting Smaller

If you were able to control a large area which had many kinds of plants and animals that lived on the land and on each other, and which had roughly the same critters and climate as one hundred years ago, and you put a fence -- an impenetrable barrier -- around it, and each year made it smaller, do you imagine that the "balances of nature" within your enclosure would not be affected? Not so. Species dependent on the same resource would, of course, be in conflict with each other. As your fence hemmed in less territory, the conflict would become more deadly, and some things would decline or perhaps disappear. Fear, anger, slaughter would increase. So should we wonder that as populations grow, our world with its finite resources would be fought for and endangered? Add wild growth in communications and you have the world we live in.

The world, in effect, is getting smaller. Something has to give. The earth is for all life, and we humans are not the owners and free exploiters we have thought we are. We imagined God to be made in our image -- or was it the other way around? -- and we paid no mind to the evidence of the past -- the fossils, the disappeared species such as passenger pigeons and bison, victims of our "free" enterprise.

Mostly, we think that we humans, or at least our particular colour in our generous open spaces, will be alright. Whatever is wrong we will fix, somehow.

However, our world is getting smaller, more crowded, its irreplaceable resources exhausted. God has watched many experiments fail. It seems we are determined to join the list.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Habits CAN Be Changed

I have just come from Sunday brunch with my wife, youngest daughter and her husband at my Country Club, and during lunch I kept thinking about how habits hold us all. We were on time at twenty after ten as agreed, which is my own life-long habit, partly from my years in radio and television but also following the ways of life of my maternal grandfather, who was always ready twenty minutes early. I favour him because he was short among tall people, as I am. My paternal grandfather was six foot ten, or rather a brother of his was. About my father's father I never knew, as he was knifed in the back by a drunk whom he was throwing from his dining room saloon out in Colorado during one of the gold rushes. I'll get back to that later, but this column is about habit.

Actually, my daughter and her husband were right on time, on their own time, because they are knowingly and even consciously twenty minutes late for everything. I know that they could change that if they wanted to enough. Now I'll go back to a time when a surgeon, whom I had taught to cut up cats in pre-medical school, took two-thirds of my left lung for cancer in a nine-hour operation. When the pathology report came back the first of the following week, the suspicious lump had been calcified tuberculosis. So I was sent to the TB hospital for some months for a disease I hadn't had for years. There we were on bed rest for the first couple of months, except once a day to the toilet. We were supposed to sleep from noon till one o'clock, although in bed 24 hours a day, and I thought this was hilarious. However, after about three weeks I could tell when noon approached because I was falling asleep.

That's when I really learned about habit, and have used it to my benefit many times since. It works especially well if you use it to replace a bad habit. After two weeks, you feel guilty if you don't do whatever it is now your habit to do.

Change of habit can be done, and you can almost make yourself over, habit by habit, to a new, better designed you.

I have been writing these pages or columns or whatever long enough that I feel vaguely badly if I were not to do it. Since it is a habit for me to tell other people what to do, now you can go do it.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Responsibilities Of Age

As we age, we lose ability and others assume responsibility. Too many of us are too willing to let them, and we lose more ability. We should face this loss, and ourselves define our responsibilities. At the least, we should look after ourselves as much as possible, for our own good as well as for others'.

Also, we should accept and even ask for help when we do need it, avoiding unnecessary difficulties for all. We should be responsible, in every sense.

This responsibility includes continuity for what should not be lost, both things and records, and possibly most important, memories. We should pull things together, decide title as we prepare to go, write down the record, and with today's media, tape, photograph, or put on disk what we can, including our own memories. My own father remembered when there were no airplanes, and I remember when there was no television. My own poorly recorded memories also include the Halifax North End after the Explosion. I'd better hurry, as I am ninety-two and consciously -- or is it knowingly? -- forgetful.

Together with the record, shouldn't we pass on advice? Surely we have learned something which is relevant to the future, which so reliably repeats itself. Our responsibility, then, is to be as little a burden as we can manage, and to pass on the records and lessons we have accumulated and learned.