I was startled by the simplicity of the forumla. Stephen Jay Gould, the late eminent paleontologist, biologist and historian of science, summed up Darwin’s basic theory of natural selection so eloquently and so succinctly that it rocked me back on my heels. It was something even a diehard creationist could understand (assuming he or she wanted to try…)
First there are three basic facts Gould states about life and living creatures:
All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive;
All organisms within a species vary from one another;
At least some of these variations will be inherited by offspring.
From these three, simple facts – easily proven by observation, research and analysis – Gould says the principles of natural selection, as Darwin postulated in 1859, can be inferred. These are:
Since only some offspring will survive, on average these survivors will have those variations that are generally better adapted to survival in changing environments;
Those offspring will inherit the favourable variations of their parents;
Organisms of the next generation will be better adapted to local environments.
Simple, eh? I thought so, too. Next year will mark 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was first published. I already have a bottle of wine aging for the celebration.
I came across this elegant description some years back, while reading Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, by Carl Zimmer (Harper Collins, New York, 2001). The book is the companion to the PBS series on evolution. Gould wrote the introduction. I have yet to see the series (we don’t subscribe to TV) , but I enjoyed the 364-page book. It’s one of many such titles in my library.
But my brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man. I recall those lines from a Beyond the Fringe sketch first released in 1964 (see below).* And so it was in my family: my brother was the hirsute Esau to my near-hairless Jacob. I didn’t need to shave until my late teens and even then it was iffy. That was in the late 1960s when sideburns and moustaches were the rage. By the time I could grow enough, everyone had gone back to being clean shaven.
Eternally unfashionable, I was, even back then. In another era, I suppose I would have been a clean-shaven Roman when Emperor Hadrian made the beard fashionable.
My grandfather – born in the 1880s – used a straight razor. Aka a “cut throat” razor. I remember seeing it in his bathroom, along with the small ceramic bowl for shaving soap and a badger-hair brush for lathering it on. A well-worn leather strop hung from a wall hook. Dangerous, Jack-the-Ripper sort of thing, that razor; understandably the weapon of choice in many slasher films. Its deceptively sharp blade swung out easily.
It had a bone handle, yellowed, marked with the signs of age and use. It was old, old enough that the handle may even have been ivory. Maybe even older than he was, passed down from his own father, although he never said as much. It had a severe beauty about it, sort of like a moray eel has. I was never tempted to try it – too dangerous, too easy to slip and slice, I thought.
I was surprised to find that, despite its venerable history (the oldest ones date back 3,500 years or so but the steel-bladed version more common today dates from 1680 CE), straight razors are still being manufactured – and used – today.
My father – born in 1914 – used a safety razor – the sort of all-metal device that had a double-edged blade where you unscrewed a knob on the bottom of the razor to open the top where the blade sat. It was first introduced in 1904 with King Camp Gillette’s patent, and hasn’t changed a lot since.
My father’s razor had heft and solidity; the knurled handle felt secure. He’d fill the sink with water and swirl the razor in the soapy water to clean it as he shaved in confident strokes.
I can’t exactly remember when, but I seem to recall him having one with a butterfly head that opened like wings to replace the blade. I remember turning the knob to open and close those wings. It had a satisfying sensation of engineering know-how; the very model of the industrial revolution’s ingenuity.
I did try that type of safety razor, way back when I first started shaving, albeit briefly. Not being terribly coordinated then, I cut myself easily, so I switched to something less likely to draw my blood in spurts.
I – a boomer child of the 1950s – went higher tech when it was my turn: I started with a convenient cartridge (injector) razor, one of those single-edged blades that you pushed from a small metal container into the razor every month or so to easily replace the dulled one. Introduced as the cutting edge – forgive the pun – of shaving tech in the 1920s by Schick, it evolved little by the time I took it up. Plastic handle, little grace in the design, but much utility. Easily purchased in any grocery or drug store, and not expensive. And not quite as likely to slit my throat as other types. (While no longer popular, versions of the injector are still being made by smaller companies)
Years later, I still prefer single blade razors, by the way, although they are rarely seen on drugstore shelves outside of disposable versions. And that disposable notion bothers me, enough to want to change a lifetime of shaving habits. So read on…
If you can watch the whole bit of this piece of New Age woo hoo without flinching or giving up, you will likely shake your head at the utter, mindless gullibility of humankind. And it’s not even political. But by now you know the Net is crammed full of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, food fads, creationism, homeopathy and other claptrap. And you already have seen how the wingnuts can easily bend and twist everything, taking stuff out of context or simply making it up to suit their wacky beliefs.
The latest codswallop is that scientists claim a tumbling cigar- shaped (or was that penis-shaped?) chunk of rock that passed through our solar system in October was actually an alien spaceship. Well, no, they didn’t. And they certainly did not CONFIRM anything of the sort no matter what some UFO-addled wingnut claims.
Oumuamua – or more technically, 1I/2017 U1 – zipped by us about 33 million kms away, reaching a speed of 87.71 km/s (196,200 mph) before slowing. The eccentricity of its path made astronomers hypothesize that it came from outside our own solar system and thus was the first recognized interstellar traveller we have encountered. That’s only a hypothesis based on its trajectory, not even a full theory yet, because no one has seen it close up, let alone sent a probe to examine it closely. And never will.
The minimal data available says it’s a chunk of rock, roughly 180 by 30 meters (600 ft × 100 ft) in size. Even if it did come another stellar system, and even if it’s oddly shaped, there’s nothing to indicate it wasn’t natural. Continue reading “Oumuamua: just a piece of rock”
We have a problem with dogshit. Well, all municipalities do, of course, but ours is increasingly evident: it’s everywhere. And with the growing popularity of pets and our growing population, it’s becoming worse.* How do we deal with it?
We pick it up, of course, as we dispose of it in our own garbage bins or in those provide by the municipality downtown or in our parks. That’s not merely what the bylaw says we have to do: it’s what responsible, mature pet owners do. Sadly, we seem to be in the minority.
Way too many folk leave it for others to pick up, or step in. And get sick from it. Dog owners know all this. You really have to be a sociopath not to pick up after your own pet and let it shit wherever, with no regard for the rest of us.
Worse, it’s a deliberate affront to the community, even more so than the smokers who stub their butts out on the street and sidewalk. Leaving your dog’s shit behind is like spitting in the face of everyone else here.
But there’s another type of dog owner we find here: those who pick up, then throw the bag of dogshit on the boulevard, onto lawns, over fences into yards or into streams, parks or gardens for others to have to pick up. Sometimes they just drop it in the middle of the sidewalk. That takes a real anti-social asshole with a special form of arrogance. They know that the baggies are far more visible than the shit itself, that it won’t decay or get washed away in the rain. They know some of their bags will get caught in our stormwater system and become a problem for our water workers to contend with. They know the bylaw says that dogshit has to be picked up and properly disposed of in a suitable container. But they do it anyway.
Thiers is an even nastier assault on common decency and community than those who simply refuse to pick up because this involves intent to harm, to vandalize and to insult. It’s deliberate and malicious. Continue reading “The dogshit dilemma”
We are suckers for the face of a cat at the window, a hungry cat, a cold cat, a lost cat, a cat someone has abandoned to fend for themselves and is doing a poor job of it. The pleading eyes, the rough coat, the quiet shiver in the rain or the cold. How can you turn away from that and still call yourself human?
Ollie, our latest addition to our household, was one of those faces, quite recently. We had seen him in the neighbourhood for a few weeks, getting thinner each time we caught a glimpse. We asked neighbours and no one recognized him, or thought we were seeing another stray – a feral black cat nicknamed Buddy. It wasn’t, we knew that right away.
This cat wasn’t feral. Although timid, he would let you approach – slowly, talking calmly – or would approach you if you sat very still and spoke to him. Then he was affectionate and sometimes even a bit vocal. Clearly he had been a household cat at some time. He would sometimes show up on the back deck, looking inside, very evidently lost and hungry. A long nose, lovely face that reminded us of a former cat we had loved for many, many years: Ollie. Our heartstrings were being tugged.
Coincidentally, I recently began reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, by Steven Kotler. It deals with dog rescue, human-canine relations, the meaning of life and the meaning of compassion to our core beings. Cats and dogs have a different relationship with humans, but the core ethical and moral questions remain the same, regardless of which you rescue (or which you refuse to help). It’s a bigger issue than just one animal, or even one species.
Kotler helped remind me that we have a responsibility that is greater than what or who we are. More than to one another, more than just to our species: we have a responsibility towards all life. Our own life is about making moral and ethical choices. And there was one staring at us through the patio door. No matter how we chose, there would be consequences.
We debated what to do. Adopt or call the humane society? The Georgian Triangle Humane Society is a great place run by wonderful, caring people, but they already have a shelter full of unwanted cats and dogs, of pets people got tired of, or whose circumstances changed. Why burden them more with another? We both accept that we, as compassionate humans, have a responsibility to other species, so why fight the inevitable?
But, our common sense argued, what about the other two cats? The dog? How will they handle a newcomer? Can we afford another cat, what with the food and the vet bills and our reduced seniors’ income? What if he proves aggressive? Or has an illness that requires treatment? Will he spray or claw furniture or even use the litter boxes? What if he’s trouble?
Altruism comes with a price. Taking care of strays – especially sick or troubled ones or strays of unknown provenance – can be both emotionally and physically draining, not to mention expensive. We’ve spent more on medical care for our cats and dogs than on ourselves (well, that’s in part thanks to universal healthcare that allows us not to sink into debt over our own maintenance). They get regular care, the best food and are treated not as property but as co-voyageurs on our life’s trip. Continue reading “Ollie and pet rescue”
Jack Kerouac woke up most mornings in the 1950s and scribbled into a bedside notebook what he could remember of his dreams. Characters from his novels interacted with fantasies and real life events. The result was eventually published in 1961 as his Book of Dreams; 184 pages of mostly spontaneous or stream-of-consciousness writing, as this excerpt shows:
WALKING THROUGH SLUM SUBURBS of Mexico City I’m stopped by smiling threesome of cats who’ve disengaged themselves from the general fairly crowded evening street of brown lights, coke stands, tortillas-Unmistakably going to steal my bag-I struggled a little, gave up-Begin communicating with them my distress and in fact do so well they end up just stealing parts of my stuff! We walk off leaving the bag with someone-arm in arm like a gang to the downtown lights of Letran, across a field-
I was browsing through Kerouac’s book this week, looking for common themes that overlapped his and my own dreams. After all, there are dream elements that have been reported so often they’re considered part of the human experience: falling, being chased, flying, being naked in public (the latter, I’m sure, is every politician’s dream…).
I admire Kerouac’s efforts to make sense out of what is normally an incoherent jumble of images, actions and ideas. Kerouac, though, seems to have woven his dreams into his wealth of stories, continuing them in his sleep. I can’t tell, however, if in his recording he embellished the dreams with thoughts and memories of his own stories. Some seem like drafts for a novel or those deleted scenes in the feature section of a DVD. As he wrote himself:
“In the Book of Dreams I just continue the same story but in the dreams I had of the real-life characters I always write about.”
Some people remember their dreams, others don’t. Most mornings I can recall fragments of mine, sometimes entire narratives, like Kerouac did. Some mornings they are just snippets that evaporate quickly as I go about the day. A rare few I can recall past the morning, rarer still those that stick with me over the years (and most of those are from childhood, when my brain was more elastic and open).
Sometimes I have lucid dreams, too; dreams when I know I’m dreaming. Dreams in which I’m not only the actor but the director. Sometimes in those dreams I struggle to awaken. Nightmares? Not so much; I had them when I was a child, and still recall a few rather vividly, but few trouble my sleep these days. Night terrors? None, at least none I can recall.