It’s Not You

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Are you the you you were when you first began to wonder who you were?

It has been claimed that every cell in the body is replaced each seven years. Like most dramatic claims, this one is false (or, at best, only partly true). While some cells of the body have a fast turn around (colon cells for example last about four days before they are replaced by new ones), others pretty much stay with you from birth to death. For example, you get to keep most of your brain cells – although your personal mileage may very on that one.

However, even the brain does get partly replaced. There is good evidence to suggest that new neurons are generated in the hippocampus, especially when you are under pressure to learn new things. These new cells—generated from the body’s stem cells—start out fairly undifferentiated as they move out of the hippocampus to where they are needed, usually the frontal cortex. Then, hopefully, they turn into the specific type of cell needed for the task.

Of course, even if most of your cells are replaced, you are still you, right? Each new cell (these produced by cell division rather than stem cell differentiation) has the same DNA and general structure as the parent cell that they replace. Up to a point, this is true. But cell replication errors do occur as well as cellular degradation over time. Skin cells produced later in life do not have the elasticity of those when you are young (hence wrinkles) and mutations can lead to discoloration and deformation (brown spots, moles, skin tags are all the result).

But aren’t we more than a cluster of cells working cooperatively (and not only with other of our own cells but with the multitudes of bacteria that live in happy symbiosis inside of us)? Presumably what we really mean when we talk about our identity is the accumulation of memories, thoughts, emotions that we are in the continuous process of adding.

But there’s the rub. The net loss of brain cells, which goes on from childhood, does impact how and with what degree of clarity we remember things. Moreover, whenever we learn a new skill, we reprogram existing neurons and neural connections (in addition to those new cells mentioned above) often at the price of old pathways. Take, for example, the typical way many people learn tennis. Most simply pick up a racket and start to play—or, at most, have a few lessons before thinking they know enough. In the process they learn lots of bad ways to serve, back hand, etc. The day comes when they want to get better. Now, lessons are not enough—they need coaching and supervised practice because only then do the old pathways get destroyed and new ones constructed. They literally become a different tennis player.

Then there is brain damage. Sometimes those travelling neurons wind up in the wrong place or don’t get properly integrated. Some scientists suggest that this is the root cause of Parkinson’s disease or, even schizophrenia. There is a well documented case of a brain tumour that caused a man to become a pedophile. When it was removed in prison, he lost the urge. When the urge came back, the doctor’s checked – a new tumour had grown.

All of this is more than idle scientific speculation. Our entire legal and social system is predicated on the idea of the continuity of human existence. Long-term contracts (like mortgages) are based on it, as are presumptions about people’s past behavior being something they have to be held to account for. If some made a racist (or xyz) remark, thirty years ago they need to be held to account today. While an actual crime remains a crime, is a thought or opinion or nasty remark also immutable? And if so, can no-one ever truly be rehabilitated or reformed? Because the possibility of moral redemption is also central to our social order. Just a few thoughts on a weekend dedicated to death and resurrection.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

A Blow to the Head

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Yesterday, I was reading an article about the radical feminism of Andrea Dworkin and why it is relevant today. While I appreciate aspects of Dworkin’s ideas (though not her willingness to ally with right wing fundamentalists to achieve shared goals), the thing that really struck me about the article was the revelation that she continued to support and encourage feminists who, in fact, did not support her. She felt eternally grateful to them for rescuing her from a violent domestic relationship.

Violence. It permeates our world despite all major religions and moral philosophies calling on us to live in peace and love one another.

Some years ago, Anne Marie MacDonald wrote a novel, one of whose central premises was that the 1950s can only be understood in terms of the massive amount of PTSD suffered not only by returning soldiers, but by their families as well. It strikes me she was on to something but maybe didn’t go far enough.

We now know the PTSD is not necessarily linked directly to the physical harm that one suffers—though that is a major component. Witnessing violence and trauma can be as disruptive to the human psyche as experiencing it. In fact, doing violence also creates trauma in the perpetrator.

We can see the signs of PTSD in the suicide rates of first responders and in the dysfunction of much of the political system. The current rise of the right across the western world (and beyond) depends largely on triggering our flight-fight-freeze instincts, one of the less savory legacies of our evolutionary history. Triggering is not a snowflake reaction—it is the real experience of most human beings when they feel an irrational fear. The rage of old white men is a symptom of that fear and of PTSD.

And why shouldn’t it be? Most people of my generation grew up with the constant threat of violence both at home and in the social sphere, whether from schoolyard bullies, team-building hazing or abusive teachers or bosses. Add to that the damage caused by unacknowledged concussions from contact sports before the advent of safety equipment and you have a real epidemic.

I have always considered myself fortunate that I was almost never yelled at or struck by either of my parents. Maybe it was my natural saintliness but I suspect not. My dad had walked away from his own home at age 14 because his father definitely felt sparing the rod would spoil the child and he often had to fight with himself not to dole out physical punishment to his kids. I was spared perhaps because of his saintly nature.

This is an important thing. Evidence is now incontrovertible that children who are physically punished (and, to a lesser extent, psychologically and emotionally abused) are more likely to do poorly in school, have anger management and impulse control issues as adults and generally suffer more from depression and anxiety. All symptoms of PTSD.

All us old farts complain about the younger generation—the Millennials and others—but maybe what we’re seeing is the result of one of the few good things boomers did. The majority of kids born in the 40s and 50s and early 60s did not hit their own kids. Whether it was Dr. Spock or a response to the PTSD of the 50s, we did better (not that I was personally involved, having no kids).

Maybe what we are seeing in younger generations is the first signs of a post trauma society. The preference for quality of life over quantity of things, the genuine commitment to co-parenting, the greater acceptance of the other may all be related to the fact they faced less violence and threat of violence than we did. And that’s a good thing. And it gives me hope for the future.

And that’s ten minutes.

Burn, Baby, Burn

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Currently a war is being waged in Canada over something that should be a unifying proposal. The Canadian public, who overwhelmingly believe that climate change is one of the major issues facing the country, must be confused. Almost everyone agrees it is happening and most of those also accept that human activity is a major factor in causing it. Scientific studies show that is so and, moreover, that there are specific things we can and must do about it.

Now before you link me to the phony web-sites denying all this or trot out your long-debunked theories about WHAT IS REALLY GOING ON, let me tell you I’m not interested – that ship is sailed. You have been relegated to the trash heaps of voodoo history, along with anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers. I can’t waste my precious time debunking that which, on the face of it, has no merit.

Besides, I want to get back to that which should unite us. The Carbon Tax, hereafter referred to as TCT.

Oh, I can already hear the gnashing of teeth—on both the left and the right. What’s that you say? You thought TCT was nothing but a leftist plot to destroy business and fund their crazy progressive programs. Well, not quite. A fair number on the left prefer a cap and trade system or a regulatory regime that gets at the real culprits of climate change, that is, large corporations, while protecting the innocent victim, ordinary folks like you and me. TCT is not sufficiently punitive to industry and governments, especially non-left ones, can’t be trusted not to keep the cash rather than use it to help taxpayers (which oddly is what those on the right say, too). What’s more, industry will simply pass the tax on to consumers. Bad all around.

Certainly, cap and trade worked pretty well for getting rid of sulfur (and hence acid rain) and regulation took care (mostly) of ozone-killing chlorofluorocarbons, which is why I, too, used to think they were the way to go for carbon emissions. Then I realized that not only was the chemistry different, the distribution of emitters was different, too. Everybody produces carbon emissions and, when the law of large numbers kicks in. individual emitters are collectively very significant; everyone must be engaged in reducing carbon. And the simplest way to do that is to put a tax on carbon. Of course, that reeks of market economics, also anathema to those on the left. Phooey, I say; I’m proud to use the tools of the enemy to advance good causes. Policy shouldn’t be designed to punish bad behavior but to change it. And people respond to price.

Which is why many real conservatives (and most of industry, including the oil industry) support a carbon tax. It is simple, requires little government intervention or bureaucracy, can be designed to be more-or less revenue neutral (put simply the government gives back in tax credits or rebates, all –or in my preferred scenario, most—of the revenue it collects) and creates a level playing field where individual choice moves the market from carbon-heavy to carbon-light alternatives.

Then why do so many so-called conservatives (Scheer, Kenny, Ford and the other camp followers) oppose it? The simple answer is that Trudeau and the Liberals support it. That pretty much sums it up. It is not principle or fighting for the little guy or, even, ideology that motivates these guys – it is pure partisan politics.

And when the quest for power (which they want so they can cut taxes for the rich and tell the rest of us what we can or cannot do with our hearts, souls and, mostly, our bodies) is the only motive, facts and rational arguments cease to mean a damn thing. Appealing to our most venal instincts (Damn taxes! I like shiny trucks! I don’t want to change! It’s someone else’s fault!), they will say and do anything to gain it.

And when the world burns to the ground, they can always say: I never knew!!! But, of course, they do.

And that’s 10 minutes (or somewhat more – I’m a bit rusty, but I’ll improve)

Liberal (Mis)fortunes

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Yesterday, voters in Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smaller provinces, gave the governing Liberals a reduced majority, marking the first time since 1988 that a government has won back to back majorities. It was a close thing though, with the government losing 6 seats and two cabinet ministers. When the final tally was made, they held on to 27 seats compared to 24 for the two opposition parties. That is a workable majority – even after electing a Speaker (almost certainly a Liberal), they can afford to have one member down with the flu and still hold onto power.

Not so in British Columbia, where, a week after all the votes were counted and nearly a month after the actual election, uncertainty continues over the form of the next BC government. There, the Liberals were one seat shy of a bare majority, winning 43 of 87 seats. When they failed to find common ground with the 3-member Green party, the latter turned to the NDP (41 seats) to form a governing pact (though not a coalition) to run the province for the next 4 years.

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that; the outgoing Premier is notorious for not giving up and has the track record to prove it, coming from behind twice to win the most seats when trailing at the start of the campaign. She hasn’t yet definitively said she will step aside and allow the NDP to form the government. She may insist on facing the House with a Throne Speech (or possibly ask the Lieutenant Governor to call a new election) and the newspapers have been rife with speculation that she would try to tempt one of the opposition members to cross the floor so she can hold onto power. This, however, seems unlikely. Both the NDP and Greens have been seeking power or influence in BC for 15 years and every one of them knows that the fate of floor-crossers is seldom rosy.

Besides, a bare majority for either side would be fraught. The Speaker – supposedly impartial – might be in the situation where he or she constantly has to vote for the government to keep things going. A single MLA becoming incapacitated before a crucial vote could bring down the government in a hurry.

Oddly enough, I’ve seen little speculation about a Liberal agreeing to either cross the floor or, more likely, run uncontested for the Speaker’s job. While their fate is not likely to be any different than that of another party, the Liberals have been in power for 15 years; there must be at least one backbencher who would be willing to end his career on a high note with all the pomp and perks that the Speakership holds. If they lose their seat in the next election – well, they will still have a pretty good pension. The NDP-Green government would then have a working two-seat majority to implement their shared agenda.

It should be an interesting few weeks on both coasts as the Liberals appoint their new Cabinet in Nova Scotia and as British Columbia finds out who exactly will get to do that job for them.

And that’s ten minutes.

Rigged

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Donald Trump has expressed concerns that the upcoming Presidential election may be ‘rigged.’ I thought originally that he was making an elaborate metaphor about the apparatus of government – you know the ropes and pulleys required to drive forward the ship of state.

But no, he means it in the sense given by the urban dictionary:  to describe situations where unfair advantages are given to one side of a conflict.

He provides no evidence as to this claim – nothing new for Mr. Trump – so I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for it. Like we should accept his claim that there is nothing wrong with his tax returns (move along, nothing to see here) or that his small hands are no indication of anything else.

I suppose in a way he might be right. Clinton does seem to have some distinct advantages. She’s sane for one thing – though it is just my opinion that Trump is not. But she does seem to have more money, a better organization, and a substantial lead in the polls. And those are all unfair advantages: a form of systematic discrimination that Donald Trump – if he were anything but an old white man – might readily recognize.

It’s hard to know where Trump’s latest claim comes from – it is increasingly suspect that the things he says come from anywhere. He may well simply have impulse control and a supreme belief in the rightness of his own, well, beliefs. Who needs evidence when you know you are always right?

If I thought Donald Trump were capable of being self-aware and able to see the writing on the wall, I would say he is trying to prepare his supporters for an epic defeat – and it could well be truly epic. If current numbers hold up and Clinton wins the election say 50% to 42% with 8% going to third parties, it will rank in the top ten of the worst thrashings in modern American presidential races.

Nothing like the election of 1936, of course, where FDR got more than 60% of the vote and took all but 8 of the Electoral College votes. Or even Reagan and Nixon’s best performances when they beat very left wing Democrats (do I hear an echo?) by substantial margins. But it could be similar to the crushing of Barry Goldwater who was the worst performing Republican since the 1936 vote.

Of course, it might be simpler than that. Trump may simply be trying to change the channel – anything to get away from his attack on a Muslim American war hero and the subsequent close examination of his own draft deferments during the Vietnam War. It worked for him when he got into trouble accusing a judge of bias against him, why not now?

Because now, we are into the real race. Now, there is only him and Clinton (with apologies to third party supporters). Now, nothing will go away and the self-inflicted wounds of the GOP campaign threaten not only Trump’s defeat but maybe the destruction of the Republican party for the next 20 years.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Future of Energy

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This morning I woke up to the news that the first round-the-world flight of a solar-powered plane was completed. There were a lot of technical difficulties along the way as one might expect when something is done for the first time and I don’t expect to be flying to Yellowknife in a solar plane anytime soon. Still, it was still a remarkable achievement and a probable signpost of things to come.

On the same day, another news report talked about the dramatic decline in the number of oil rigs operating in North America. Since last year, the number has been cut in half. Despite persistently low oil prices, demand for the black goop continues to moderate. While bad news for oil producing regions, it may be excellent news for the rest of the world.

While oil is decried for its polluting qualities (250,000 liters are currently fouling the waters of northern Saskatchewan) and for its contribution to climate change, it is its impact on global politics that may be the most pernicious. Oil fuels the terrorist activities of ISIL and has led to social, political and military conflict across the globe. While North Americans haven’t actually come to blows on their own soil in recent years – they have been sent to fight in the oil wars in the Middle East for years. Conflict in the South China Sea, with Beijing ordering the construction of fake islands to spread its influence, is completely about access to oil reserves that lie under those waters.

The end of oil would create massive social disruptions (these are already occurring in Venezuela and Nigeria where falling oil prices have placed strains on governments and economies) and would undoubtedly impoverish some countries – though not Norway who cleverly banked their oil revenues. Even the Canadian economy would not be immune to the long term decline of oil prices – but we have the advantage of diversity and while some regions would lose out, others would stand to gain from shifts in energy consumption away from oil and toward solar, wind, hydro and other alternatives.

Energy use is likely to continue to grow over time and in the past that has always meant the growth in the consumption of oil. But as alternatives to oil like solar (and, by the way, you can thank Obama in large part for that) gain ground, we may be able to raise the standard of living of people across the world without the price of pollution or global conflict. After all, the sun shines and the wind blows wherever people live on this planet – with equal distribution a major irritant for global conflict will disappear. And oil will cease to be the bankroll for dictators and terrorists.

That would be a sunny future indeed. And that’s ten minutes.

Builders and Wreckers

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There are two types of people: those who separate the world into categories and those who don’t.

Seriously though, I’ve found in my years of observing them that politicians often do fall into two categories: builders and wreckers. It is not really an ideological vision – I can name plenty of conservative builders. John A. MacDonald, for example, or Robert Borden. More recently, John Diefenbaker and even Brian Mulroney (who started to look good after the wreckers took over his party). You can find conservative builders in every country. These are men and women who have a particular vision for the world that is expansive and constructive. You might not agree with their vision but you have to acknowledge that it’s there.

There are wreckers on the left as well – though they often masquerade as builders. I suspect history will judge Hugo Chavez as a wrecker, rather than a visionary. He didn’t build a true socialist society but rather squandered the nation’s resource wealth to pay for populist projects. When the money was gone, so was the state. He could have taken a more prudent approach – like Norway which has secured its long term security under both left and right wing governments.

Canada has recently changed governments and a lot of people have suggested that it has taken little time to do away with the previous PM’s legacy. I would argue that is because Mr. Harper had no real legacy. His party was a party of the small – they had no vision for the future but only a determination to tear down what previous generations had built – peacekeeping, an open society of expansive human rights, social safety nets, environmental protections. It left a lot of rubble to clean up but there was nothing there to get in the way of rebuilding.

It’s too early to judge what Mr. Trudeau will be. He is certainly an activist and seems to have a specific vision – quite clear when you wipe away the hype over selfies and public relations – of the Canada he wants to build or, at the very least, restore. But he needs to go beyond restoration of previous glories and do something new and big. Restoration is always a conservative project and often lapses into a subtle form of wrecking, called petrification.

Like making America great again. While Mr. Trump claims he wants to build a wall, it doesn’t appear that he plans to build anything else. Indeed he has all the hallmarks of a wrecker on a grand scale – certainly his legacy of corporate bankruptcies and a failed university would suggest that. But more importantly he wants to tear down social safety nets and environmental protections – elements that provide the only protection most Americans (including the vast majority of his supporters) against rapacious capitalism.

I might have some doubts about Ms. Clinton’s builder credentials – though I think they’ve improved because of a push from Mr. Sanders – but I know she will at least keep what America has built. And maybe keeping America great is better than some vague promise to make it great again.

And that’s ten minutes – back again for an indeterminate run.