Thursday, November 30, 2006

In Living Out Of My Time

Watching television, including CBC and TVO, with which I had so much to do, and especially the programs on museums, with which I also had so much to do, I realize to what extent I do not belong. Those working under good pension schemes retire after 35 years of service or less, and so people retiring today from jobs in media and museums came into them as fresh recruits just as I was completing my 35 years of service, and moving on. They are the authorities now, and I am a generation "out of touch", wondering what my opinions could possibly offer, or matter. Yet perhaps that is too pessimistic. Very recently, I was asked to give an interview for an article to mark the 60th anniversary of the Canadian Museums Associations, of which I am the only surviving founder and original member.

This is, of course, how time flies. Space travel is old stuff to the new retirees of today. Television was old stuff in my day. My father worked for Alexander Graham Bell, and was out of university with three degrees by the time the Wright brothers flew. As I watch war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is all so familiar to me at 92 — the good guys, the bad guys, loyalty, slogans — and I remember that Germans and Italians were once our enemies, then the Japanese, and now terrorists of all origins.

Of course, I am loyal, but sometimes confused as to whom that loyalty should be directed. My grandfather was born British in Nova Scotia, and as a blacksmith working in Virginia at the outbreak of the American Civil War, was not yet Canadian — Confederation wouldn't happen for another six years. Since it was not his fight (the Civil War, that is, not Confederation), he lit out for home. Now I am Canadian, watching on this TV gadget the never ending struggle to determine what I am supposed to be loyal to. Do you wonder that I feel like a spirit come back from the dead?

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Security Of The Insecure

Constantly, we, or at least I, deal with those who are sure of something, usually of themselves generally. Of course, this lets them get through each problematic day with an assurance that the world, indeed the cosmos, is as they know it to be. That there are millions of published papers dealing with new insights into matters of science and of ourselves as individuals and groups, concerns them not. They know, and that is that!

The crux, or crutch, of all this is that if they recognized that nobody knows very much -- in light of all these published papers -- then the proper position would be "tell me more". Only those who are secure in the sometimes hard-won awareness of their partial-knowledge / partial-ignorance condition, can relax in the security that they do not know, and therefore can learn.

To me, the question is: Why can't we be content with our very obvious inadequacies? We accept that foxes, cows, ants, elephants, and so on, cannot know everything, so why not accept that neither can we?

The risk, no, the fate of someone who "knows" all is disaster when it inevitably turns out that he/she does not. I could rest my case, and I think I will.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Rumsfeld And The Reverend: Pretty Poor Stuff

I remarked in the last post about comments made to a preacher who was satisfied with his orations. Here's another one: A preacher was glowing with pride as the church members made their way out of the sanctuary, and he asked an honest old farmer what he thought of the sermon. The farmer, who just had to be truthful, shifted his Sunday allotment of chewing tobacco from one cheek to the other as he gave his verdict. "I was in the back pew, Reverend, and the people up front were swallowing up all the best parts, so what got back to me was pretty poor stuff, pretty poor stuff."

Often this is the case. Right now in U.S. politics we have seen the departure of Donald Rumsfeld and the startling power shift in the Congress. This is, of course, the fallout from the voters in the world's most powerful country telling their Chief what they think of him. His performance does not fit his statements, and what the people really heard was not honest confidence but desperate bombast, or to quote our church-going farmer, "pretty poor stuff". Another familiar quotation that comes to mind is Abraham Lincoln's "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time".

Those responsible for misleading us don't always intend to mislead, as they often sincerely believe what they say. Some simply want to be followed, to be important, and they adopt causes and speak accordingly. But eventually "the truth will out", and what gets to "the back of the church" is "pretty poor stuff" indeed. So what's the message for us in all this? To warp a couple of well-known sayings: Listen before you leap, and listen with your eyes open.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Before Blogs ...

... we had wise sayings. Many blog articles, like this one, are just strung-out ways of passing on things that are clever, and maybe even wise. One that I'll always remember is the following anecdote: A young clergyman had preached a trial sermon at a prominent, not to say prosperous, church, and he was sure it had gone well. After the service, he stood at the door and shook hands with the parishioners as they filed out. At the end of the line was a little old lady, who held his hand, looked up at him, and quavered, "Young man, has anyone ever told you how wonderful you are?" "Why no," he said, nearly choking in his attempt to be modest. She replied, "Then how did you ever get the idea?" Now how could anyone improve on that put-down?

Some wise sayings are so obvious that they almost don't seem wise, as in two of my favourites that I've used before -- the Scots' "Many a mickle makes a muckle", and the German-American "Too soon we get oldt, too late we get schmardt". In keeping with these is the comment by George Bernard Shaw: "A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing". And then there are the Proverbs of the Bible, and Ali Baba and the stories from Arabian mythology. In fact, I suspect the sayings of any ethnic literature would be gold mines for blogs. What are Aesop's fables but ready-made blog posts? In modern times, our comics of stage, screen and Internet are of the same tradition.

Blogs are so easy, so convenient, so quickly disseminated to millions, that they are here to stay, while they mine the resources of the recent and distant past. Now I should finish with a good one, but I am sleepy, so I will just say "Come back", because I know I'll have something clever when I awake.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Don't Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater

It is easy to make a case that we think in discrete steps when trying to move from uncertainty to decision, and often each step can involve a binary choice: Is it this, or is it that? A left turn at the bridge, or a right? Fries or baked potato? The sort of thinking many of us, including myself, regard as the best the human mind can produce is the merciless process we call scientific reasoning, which is of this discrete kind. However, this wonderful method of either/or can become a ruthless weapon in the hands of those who start from unexamined premises, and demand that any opponent stand, or preferably fall, based on the inexorable conclusions.

My point, if I still have it, is that we must be clear about any position that is up for a "yes" or "no". History, whether of philosophy, or religion, or empires, or families, records that many a "no" threw out all sorts of promising implications that were never considered. Truly Thoreau's "Simplify, simplify" has been much abused.

Gravity, which seems as obvious as an apple falling off a tree, looks quite a bit more complicated when we consider that it holds together the solar system, with its elliptical orbits, each of them falling smaller as time goes by. Anyone bitten by a "vicious" insect can think badly of insects, while enjoying no end of fruit made possible by insect-enabled fertilization, not to mention honey from bees, or the beauty of flowers whose function is to entice these insects to do their jobs.

If the oft-muttered wish, "Rain, rain, go away", were actually to be granted, the consequences would be dreadful, and ultimately fatal, as a desert climate crept over the earth. The counterbalancing maxim has also been spoken over and over: "Be careful what you wish for -- you might just get it". Or, as I'm fond of saying, "It's not that simple".

So the lesson is to identify your premises, and then proceed logically to a conclusion. In other words, make clear what it is you are really talking about.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What Happened To The Paper Shortage?

I take in too many newspapers, in order not to be left behind on something. The result is that I have difficulty getting them all ready for garbage day. Very little is real news, and not much is original opinion about what news there is; in fact, most of the "opinions" are very predictable, correlated to whatever newspaper is printing them. The majority of the paper surface seems to be advertising, including numerous full-pages sprawls that are so image-oriented one has to guess what is being sold. One thing is sure: it makes foolishness of all the fuss some years back about a paper shortage, and the accompanying urgings to recycle, or just to use less. Maybe you understand how this shortage became a surplus, but I sure don't.

Paper is a commodity, and demand brings supply, which can, I understand, lead to surplus (unless there's a shortage, right?). Another commodity is oil, which seems perpetually threatened with extinction, if you listen to the right voices. The resulting price fluctuations have the potential to change our way of life, and to determine whether the U.S. will be the top dog, or will it be Russia? Between these two, oil and paper, there is a drastic difference in that no more oil is being produced, as it requires many millions of years of geological activity, while trees for paper are growing all the time, assuming we don't cut them down all at once.

Surpluses and shortages bring us to the economics of the market system. This is just as interesting as any topic of the day. "Free" enterprise apparently includes the freedom to squash competitors and create a monopoly -- which of course your competitors were "free" to do as well -- paying off politicians in the process, if that helps. Whatever it was all about, the "paper shortage" was interesting, and, I must say, had some lasting effects. My wife still makes sure all the toilet paper rolls end up in the right bin.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Law

Once I was told by an extremely good lawyer, who happened to be Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia and senior member of a firm put together by a member of my father's congregation, that I too should have been a lawyer, but that the first judge I appeared before would have had me hanged out of jealousy. In revisiting this remark, my defense is that I have never pretended to undue modesty. In fact, what modesty I do have, I am quite proud of. Anyway, back to "the law", if you recall the title of this column.

The law is an institution, a very human institution, and, of course, depends on the premises of those establishing it, which in turn depend on the definitions of the words in those premises. Rapidly we come full circle; to quote Humpty Dumpty: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." (To which Alice demurred, "The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things". And Humpty replied, somewhat ominously, "The question is, which is to be master —- that's all".) If we pursued this line of reasoning, we would find that making law, administering it, amending it, and understanding it are all impossible, in a certain sense.

So definitions are impossible to get any absolute agreement on, although there is no lack of trying -- witness the Charter of Rights, with its "notwithstanding" escape hatches. I would recommend that we have a Common Law, like the U.K., where we have judges refer to past decisions and defend departures from them. And the meanings of all the words in that previous sentence are perfectly clear, of course.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cannibals All (or: You Eat What You Are)

Most forms of life on earth, including humans, lack the ability to manufacture internally all the chemicals needed to sustain themselves. To obtain these substances, they eat other creatures that can manufacture them. This happens all the way up the food chain. At the top we have ourselves, who eat just about anything, including vertebrates, crustaceans, plants, fruits, insects, the lot. Put differently, we eat our fellows who eat their fellows. And if that's not cannibalism, please explain what is, while I take time out to have some shrimp, mushrooms, and a nice pork chop.

Seriously, the best food, or at least the best protein, is that which is most like our own. Of course, eating others of our kind gives rise to social problems, and is rare as a result, but it happens. In times past, among some of the Pacific Islands peoples, since a butchered human very much resembled a butchered pig, it was referred to as "long pig". I presume these cannibals ate only their enemies, not their family members, no matter how tasty they may have looked. Most of us have accepted that humans are precious in the sight of God, while ordinary pig, or "short pig", is OK nutrition.

Disturbingly, the fact remains that protein is best when nearest our own, but religious leaders, politicians, and relatives are against what this implies. Long pig is nutritionally ideal, however stick to the shorter variety. Next time you're stranded on a desert island with a small group of people, and you're tempted to change your ethical stance, ask your priest or lawyer first. Fish is good.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Many A Mickle ...

It is a drowsy, cloudy, rainy Sunday, and I have turned on the TV to get the weather. Listening to the forecast reminds me of the heavy storms that have battered our continent in the recent past. Houses and people were washed away, with many deaths. This is one more reminder that "many a mickle makes a muckle", but of a different type than I had in mind. Raindrops add up.

Lately, I have been hearing from relatives who have been influenced by my advice to them, my advice from The Richest Man in Babylon, to put away at least 10% of income, never to be spent but to be invested very carefully. As time goes by, taking few or no chances, you will become better off, maybe very much so. Begin young, and your "mickle" will indeed become a "muckle".

Populations are like this, including human populations; the effects of a few more being born than dying, or vice versa, can be profound. Tip the balance slightly in one direction, and the population can alter drastically. If it grows, we have pressure on land, transportation systems, food supply, and health services. If it shrinks, we may choose to increase immigration to compensate, with accompanying changes in religious mix, labour relations, crime, sports, and more. In a similar way, gradual geological changes, like grains of sand deposited as a river curves and slows, result in vast volumes of material being spread over great sedimentary plains.

To say it again, "many a mickle makes a muckle". And to back up a couple of paragraphs, put some money away, now and often.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Red Queen

When Alice complained that they were not getting anywhere with their constant running, the Queen said that in Wonderland it always takes all the running you can do just to stay in the same place.

Most of us do struggle to keep up, and in my case it has to do with paper. I get too many newspapers and magazines, including the New York Sunday Times. I spend as much time at the kitchen table throwing away papers into a box as I do eating.

The solution is simple. I must stop getting some things, but which ones? Also, I must conquer the backlog of many hundreds of pages torn out for later. Well, this is later. If I don't conquer this mountain, Mrs. Red Queen, I'll never get to the quietly waiting pile of requests from all the charities. I've given to over 100 of them, and mail from new ones keeps arriving, thanks to the efficient computers that spread my information around, and systematically churn out bulk mail. Between papers and charities, I am cornered.

My spare time is gone, and I wonder how I ever held down a steady job, or indeed paid any attention to my own family, who appeared from somewhere, somehow. Is it fear of something, or instinct, or just habit that makes me like this? And what do I mean by just habit?

Maybe I should read Alice and Through the Looking Glass again, or consult the Red Queen myself. If I weren't so busy, I'd get around to that.

Right now I'm off to bed, because I have so much to attend to tomorrow.