Life on a knife’s edge

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As those of you who read my blog will know, I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I have argued and will continue to argue that we’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so if we exercise our agency to do so. I’m not one of those “new optimists” who think progress is inevitable and largely due to the ‘hidden hand of the market’ or ‘western-driven globalization.’ For one thing I’m pretty sure that the market and global capitalism work for the interests and because of the agency of a relatively small and coherent group of very rich people.

Still, some recent news reports have given me pause. Nukes and missiles in North Korea should alarm us all—though no more than in any other place. I’m more troubled by headlines that describe entire islands emptied of humans by record breaking storms. Or the news this week that for the first time in decades, world hunger is again on the rise. Or that diseases we should have eliminated are again a threat because bone-headed celebrities speak out about vaccination. Or new diseases are coming out of the tropics that might take us all down.

So I’ve been thinking like Fermi these days.

The Fermi paradox poses the question: if there are millions of technologically competent (i.e. as good or better than us) civilizations in the universe, why have we never detected even one?

There are several ways to answer this question. Some will say that we are God’s special creation and therefore unique in all the infinite reaches of space. To which I can only say—well, you’re certainly “special.”

More rationally, one might say we don’t yet have the technical sophistication to winnow out their messages from the background noise of radiation – but that argument, if it was valid ten years ago, is probably not valid now.

The most optimistic answer might be that they are hiding – deliberately keeping us from finding them until we are civilized enough to join the intergalactic club. Yeah, it’s one big conspiracy and everyone is in on it except Earth.

The most common response is this: as soon as a society is capable of transmitting signals—even accidental ones—across interstellar space, they are also capable of destroying themselves and inevitably do. The reason we don’t hear from advanced aliens is that they’re all dead. Dead by their own hands.

All it takes is a couple madmen whose dicks are… I mean, whose nukes are bigger than their brains to pretty much take us back to the Stone Age. Of course, they could always be replaced if there was the will to do so.

Much more concerning is the matter of climate change, which requires nothing to proceed to its inevitable conclusion other than we keep doing what we’re doing. There is some hope there, even now. Emissions have stopped rising—though they are still high enough to tip us over the edge and earth’s natural defenses may have reached their limit. Still, every year they don’t go up, there is a chance we will act to make them go down and actually reduce civilization-killing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Which is our only real hope.

Well, your hope—I’ll probably be dead before it all goes to hell. So if the glass is now half empty, maybe I’ll just order another round and party like it’s 1999.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Future Thinking

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The past is irrelevant.

Well, like most categorical statements, it’s not entirely true. The past can serve – if you approach it with a critical mind – as a guide to success. And failure. It can at least tell us how we got to the here and now.

Still, it is surprising how many people, on both the right and left, spend most of their time staring behind them, either with fond, if misguided, nostalgia or with bitter resentment. The past is a rich lode that can be mined to fuel present day prescriptions to restore a glorious era or overcome ancient wrongs.

But here’s the thing. While you may make tremendous efforts to re-write the past (so much easier than living in the present), you can’t actually change it. It’s over and done with. Despite aphorisms to the contrary, it’s dead, Dave.

More importantly, the past will always be that home to which you cannot return. As for those people who say ‘we should have done it differently…’ Well, you didn’t. In fact, for the most part, the speaker wasn’t even part of that mythical we; in some cases they weren’t even born.

So, while the past is not exactly irrelevant, it is largely unimportant to our current existence. You can’t change it and you can’t return to it. So grow up.

So what does that leave us? The eternal present and the envisioned future.

Which is plenty. By some metrics, there is now more ‘present’ than there has ever been. More people, more nations, more problems and more possibilities.

Everything we do occurs, by facile definition, in the present. But, at the same time everything we do extends into the future.

Ah, the future. Unlike the decaying body of the past, the future is pregnant with possibility and change. Indeed, every time we act in the present we create a different future. Science fiction fans will be familiar with the idea of ever-branching futures – each one shaped by the billions of actions taken by billions of humans every second. Most of those futures are indiscernible from each other, but no matter.

In truth, there is only one future – the one we all wind up living in. Almost nothing we do makes a bit of difference to that future. Even powerful people like Presidents and CEOs and public intellectuals and revolutionary leaders spend most of their days doing meaningless things. It is only in hindsight that we can ever say that this action or decision mattered.

Which might make life seem rather pointless and powerless. But it doesn’t.

We can have whatever future we collectively want. But that’s the thing – it is a collective decision. It’s not like some leader can take us to the future (any more than they can return us to the past) because they don’t know the way anymore than the rest of us. A book called Superforecasters recently pointed out that it is possible to make really good guesses about what the world will look like three months or even six months from now – but three years or six years. Not so much.

Maybe that seems pretty limited but still it does suggest a way forward. Conversation, dialogue, shared visioning – it’s not much but it may be the only way to get the future we want.

And that’s ten minutes.

The End

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This is the end. A little over 20 months ago I began this 10 Minutes of Words blog. Since then and counting today, I’ve written 591 of them – totaling more than 300,000 words. If I had written that many words of fiction, I’d have more than three novels. Which I guess is a lesson for those who say they can’t find time to write.

Of course, I wouldn’t have written 3 novels (fiction is such a different process) – but I might have written one. Or a bunch of short stories.

To be fair, during the first few months, writing every morning for ten minutes or so (I occasionally went longer) was a great way to start my day and get my brain up and running. For someone who can’t even imagine being a morning person that wasn’t a bad thing. But eventually, I found I dreaded it. I’d sit and stare at the screen for five minutes or more before I even had an idea what to write. Sometimes I’d have to start over when my thoughts refused to follow a logical path. More than a few times I erased an entire blog and started again with a different topic.

In short, this ten minutes began to stretch out to 30 on some days. It was no longer an exercise in thinking and writing – it became a central focus of my day. Some nights, I’d even lie awake in bed trying to work out a particularly complex argument. Ten Minutes began to occupy an inordinate amount of space in my head.

I tried various strategies – writing out lists of possible topics, writing a series of related blogs and so on. Often I’d look at the list and wonder what I had had in mind. The series almost always seemed forced. I eventually decided that winging it with a blank slate at least had the advantage of being spontaneous. Sometimes, they were the funniest blogs I wrote if not the most profound.

Still, I think I did hit profound on occasion – at least based on the responses I got from my readers. Eventually I may go back and see if I can mine these nuggets to see if there is enough gold to make a short e-book worthwhile. Or not.

For those who have been regular readers – all 40 or so of you – I appreciate your loyalty and support. On occasion it has seemed pretty lonely in here. Other times I’d hit a resonant note and several hundred people would drop in and see what I had to say. My record was the piece I wrote about the shooting at the Ottawa War Memorial which garnered over 700 views since it was published. Not exactly best selling territory. The least read entry was one about Gardens which attracted only 8 readers.

In any case, it wasn’t all about numbers – though obviously if I had 10,000 readers I’d probably still be doing it or actively looking for a book deal somewhere. I’ve enjoyed the process and the contacts I’ve made.

But this is it. I may be back from time to time as the mood strikes me but it won’t be a regular, or even frequent, thing. I’ve got other stories to tell in other venues. If you look for me – you will find me.

And that, at last, is ten minutes.

The Nature of Evidence

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I tell this joke (which has recently been borrowed by Robert J. Sawyer for his excellent new novel, Quantum Night).

What is the difference between a psychopath and a homeopath? Some psychopaths do no harm.

That pretty much sums up my view of much of what is called alternative medicine – or what I call ‘not-medicine-at-all.’ I’ve said all this before so I won’t go on but I raise it because of a story done on CBC’s The Current yesterday.

The trigger for the segment was the decision of Health Canada not to approve homeopathic medicines for children unless they had been proven effective through double-blind scientific testing. In effect, they banned these substances.

Of course, the homeopaths and their organizations are outraged. In a gentle friendly kind of way. They were represented by a nice doctor who is a real M.D. but who also uses homeopathy. I was not surprised to learn that he practices on Denman Island in BC. Anyone who has ever been there will understand what I’m saying. He talked about his ‘experience’ giving homeopathic ‘medicines’ to children with colds. It was as effective (or more so, he claimed) than other remedies and helped avoid their side-effects or the excessive use of antibiotics. And, I’ll grant, that’s not a bad thing.

But only because other remedies are not any more effective than letting the cold run its course. And antibiotics don’t have any impact on viruses (the source of a cold) and lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

All well and good. The doctor uses placebos to calm the nerves of kids and especially their parents.

The host then interviewed a researcher who used to be a homeopath but gave up when tasked with reviewing the research into the practices he himself followed. The host asked why he stopped believing in homeopathy. He responded: the research showed it didn’t work. Yes, the host said, but why did you stop believing in homeopathy? It was at that point I blew my top. Which is the whole point of this blog.

The vast majority of journalists have no clue what science is. They think it a belief system and that a theory is just a darn good guess. Trained to think that every side has an equally valid point of view, they fail to understand that science is not a point of view, it is an evidence based form of inquiry designed to test the validity (or falsity) of a thesis. That is, I think this vial of agitated and highly diluted liquid (diluted to the point that there is nothing there) will immunize you against diseases. Let’s test that proposition. Oh my, there is no evidence to support it. Oh my, it doesn’t work.

The researcher turned away from homeopathy because the evidence proved it didn’t work. Really quite a simple concept. Yet, media outlets continue to give climate change deniers (though some have dropped those guys), anti-vaxers and homeopaths a platform to promote not only incorrect ideas but dangerous ones. People will actually suffer and die because of these ideas.

Just maybe, if you don’t understand science, you shouldn’t report on it. Oh, and that joke I started with? The researcher in question had to give up his work and retire early because he kept getting death threats. From gentle friendly homeopaths.

And that’s ten minutes.

Click on This!!!

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A man wrote 600 short essays. And you won’t believe what happened next!

We’ve all read the overheated headlines promising some amazing revelation of human nature. But human nature being what it is – the results are seldom amazing.

Still, hope springs eternal and, despite our determination never to be sucked in again, we click on the link of 25 pictures that broke the Internet. Most of them don’t even cause me to break into a smile.

Everything is designed to try to get you to follow the link to this or that site. And why? Well, apparently, the more people that visit a site, whether it is a pseudo-legitimate news site like Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post or much less reputable portals to a life poorly wasted, the more they can charge for the advertisements that appear on them. Because that’s what they really want you to click on. The endless ads, carefully (ha ha) selected to match your tastes and habits.

But I never click on the ads, you say. I’m not influenced by such things. I wonder how the advertising industry has managed to sustain a multi-billion dollar business if no one pays attention to ads.

But of course you do. Most of us can sing a dozen ad jingles from our childhood – back when jingles were a thing – but not a single number one hit of our teenage years. Of course, advertising has an impact. You may not notice it but every time you are looking at a shelf of nearly identical goods – especially if you are in a rush and aren’t really focused – you will almost always reach for the one whose name – whose brand – you recognize. And you will, from time to time, believe that you do so because it is better quality than its cheaper competitors.

Years ago, when I was in chemistry class, we did a blind experiment to see which detergent was best at removing dirt. We stained identical scraps of cloth with identical and carefully weighed samples of dirt and grease. We then washed them for identical periods of time in identical amounts of water.

Guess what? The cheapest brand did the worst job. But not by much. And the most expensive one was slightly worse than the one in the middle. And none of them did a worse job when it came to the naked eyes. That is you could weigh the remaining dirt but not see it.

Most of the students were outraged by the results; some because they wanted the cheap brand to do best, proving a corporate conspiracy. Others wanted the brands to do exactly as well as the price attached to them. Because that’s how the market works, right?

Actually the market works exactly like that – on false information and inflated expectations. All driven by advertising.

There are those that think money doesn’t make a difference in politics and cite studies to show that high spenders don’t always win. But when you consider that in a perfect world those high spenders would not even be in the running based on their non-monetary characteristics…

Click on this to learn the real story.

And that’s ten minutes.

Big Brother

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In 1948, George Orwell wrote one of the first dystopic SF novels. The horrors of Nazi Germany were evident and, slowly, the monstrous impact of Stalinism was becoming apparent. Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale of what totalitarianism might bring – even to supposedly safe places like England and America.

Nowadays, it might seem more like an instruction manual. We all know – and some are outraged – by the surveillance of the state of their own citizens. The omnipresent closed circuit televisions (CCTV) in England, where there is one camera for every eleven citizens is one symptom. The only people who seem to have benefited are the manufacturers of hoodies and Guy Fawkes masks. Edward Snowden revealed US spying on both their citizens and on their so-called allies. Relations between America and Germany became decidedly chill when it was claimed that Washington had tapped Andrea Merkel’s phone.

Right now, Apple is fighting with the FBI over the encryption of a single iPhone, that owned by mass murderer (and presumed terrorist), Sayed Farouk, who killed dozens in a California attack. The FBI says it needs the information to save lives; Apple argues that breaking encryption will put everyone’s privacy (and financial security) at risk.

Yet, our phones are already used against us. These days, Big Brother is sitting in our pockets. Apps on millions of electronic devices are streaming private information to China – to what end no one quite knows. Certainly, most of us willingly give up private information on Twitter and Facebook, and while many may grumble about targeted ads, we don’t stop engaging in the addiction that is social media. Some buy ad-blocker apps – but if you think they aren’t mining your activities for information, I’ve got a bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.

Social media fulfills yet another of Orwell’s predictions. With the death of evidence-based and fact-checked journalism – started by Fox News, but perfected by dozens of blogger based ‘news’ sites, social media has made sure that, for many people, Truth is Lies and War is Peace. Propaganda has become the new reality; simply listen to the current debates in the US presidential campaign and you know that some people have come to prefer the pleasing lie to the hard truth.

In Orwell’s day, a novelist could actually have an impact. His novels – both 1984 and Animal Farm – did wake people up to the dangers of totalitarianism in both its government and corporate form, though it hardly stopped millions of people from flocking to new charismatic leaders and causes.

Can anyone wake up America and Europe, where neo-fascist parties of both the right and left are gaining traction?

It won’t be a politician though it might be a philosopher. And angry shouts and shaking fists are not the alarm clock we need. Those are the weapons of the enemy.

If I seem despairing, I’m not. I have a lot of faith in people. I’ve seen communities embrace the better angels of their nature. I’d like to leave you with a nice aphorism – such as ‘do you think I’ve come this far to stop now,’ but it turns out that those who listen to aphorisms may be prone to totalitarian thoughts.

And that’s ten minutes.

Learning Styles

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When I was in Grade 3, my new teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, was lecturing us in geography or history about the Seminole people of southern Florida. I was staring out the window, contemplating the lives of birds. She noticed my apparent inattention and called on me to discuss what she had been talking about – which I did without hesitation, having read the material the night before and having paid sufficient attention to know where to pick up the lesson.

She never bothered me again. Other kids – less assiduous in reading their homework or less able to focus on two things at one time – were not so lucky. Today they would have been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder (ADD).

I prefer the old language – not paying attention. ADD implies there is something wrong with the student – something that needs to be fixed, perhaps with medication. The old language is different – it implies a transaction.

Look at the structure. Johnny is not paying attention to me. Or, Johnny is not paying money to me. In this construction, there is a transaction. The teacher is offering something; if Johnny thinks it is worthwhile, he pays for it with his attention. If it is worthless – uninteresting, unengaging, unimportant – he uses the limited currency that he has to pay attention to something else.

Now what needs fixing is not Johnny but the transaction between teacher and student. What needs fixing is the education system.

There was a number of articles recently that argued that learning styles are not real – everyone absorbs information and knowledge through the same process of memory formation. While this maybe true – based on current neuroscience evidence or rather lack of such evidence – it is also true that the brain can only attend to so much at one time. It is part of developmental psychology – again supported by neuroscience – that as we age, our ability to attend to multiple things increases, though there is a definite limit. This is one of the reasons we are able to do more complex things (like driving a car on a busy highway) at age 18 that we couldn’t do at age 12.

So, while the way people learn may be identical at the amygdala and hippocampus level, getting people to pay enough attention to learn anything may differ quite a lot. For example, some people need to write things down as the teacher is talking to help them focus on the lesson being taught. For me, I have to put my pencil down and really listen. If I start writing notes, I am apt to start writing fiction. Not very helpful when it comes to recalling the facts.

The real problem is we simply don’t know enough yet to say for sure what aspects of the brain need to engage for effective learning to take place. Those who say all students are the same either have never tried to teach any or are trying to justify their own way of learning things – usually linear-sequential – as the only real way of learning.

Like most things, what we don’t know about the brain and learning is greater than what we do. While there is no evidence that different learning styles exist, there are still dozens of research avenues where the details need to be filled in. We have a lot to learn about learning.

And that’s ten minutes.