10/5/13

The Eyes Have It


Age-related macular degenerationThis summer my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration. There is no cure. It is irreversible. It simply progresses. Science has some hope for future cures, and has some treatments to slow the progress, but a cure likely won’t come soon enough for her.

At 93, one expects that the body will fail, that organs and parts won’t work as well, will lose efficiency, will fail. But this is particularly tough on her. It was clear during our visit today that this diagnosis troubles her.

My parents were both voracious readers, and they passed along a love for books, reading and learning to me from an early age. Reading mattered, reading was important in our family. They shared that with me, it was part of our family DNA.

My father passed away eight years ago and my mother, in her nursing home, still reads every day. She reads for entertainment, for company, for relaxation, for amusement, and for learning. Or rather, she did, until this summer when the problem manifest itself and her reading was curtailed.

Now she struggles to read. She has to use a bright lamp over the book, and has taken to large-print books to still be able to read. But it’s a temporary solution as the AMD spreads inexorably.

She does crossword puzzles too, to keep her mind sharp. They’re harder to do now, because she can’t see the page as clearly. AMD affects the centre of the retina, spreading outwards.

She can see her TV screen if she sits up close, but the laptop screen is that small amount too distant, and besides, she can’t make out the keyboard very clearly. It was hard enough trying to peck out email messages with one hand. Now the computer sits unused.

Losing her ability to read easily is a blow to someone who has lived a tough life, suffering medical problems that have left her wheelchair-bound for the last decade. She certainly didn’t need any more complications.

Yet, despite all her trials and tribulations, her mind is still as sharp as a tack and her memory is remarkable – better than mine. She can recall details of her life, of her childhood right up to recent events, with astounding clarity. I envy that.

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10/4/13

Digital Attachments


XCOM sniper (not Dmitrri)It’s tough to lose a solider. Especially one like Dimitri. A fine sniper, with a good kill record. I had trained him for so long, raised him from a lowly private to sergeant, then to lieutenant. He was equipped with the best gear. His accuracy had improved to a deadly asset. He was a cornerstone to my tactical approach.

He was also an investment in time and materiel. And as such, he was headed for greatness. Captain, maybe major.

Until the aliens got him. That was nasty.

Three of them swarmed his position, flanking his protection and taking him down with close melee attacks while the rest of the squad was busy defending citizens, too far to help.

Not a pretty sight.

The same battle took out Matt, the heavy weapons corporal who blasted whole blocks with his rocket launcher. Matt was caught in the blast of an exploding car outside a mall where the aliens had landed. Damn, I hadn’t counted on that when I moved him up to an overwatch position. But the aliens set the car on fire and that was that.

Our assault got caught in an ambush. We won, eventually, but it was a long fight with every inch bitterly contested. Coming back to base we were a solemn group. Two dead. Not a good thing.

Now the squad looks awfully thin, two down with rookies in their place. Big shoes to fill. And it’s not getting any easier out there, with the aliens ramping up their own technology, and getting tougher and smarter all the time. Winning this war won’t be easy. Matt I could almost afford to lose, being relatively new, but Dmitri was my best sniper.

I need to start training someone, fast. But who?

Of course it’s a game (XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be precise). Playing it this week has made me ponder the nature of attachment, in particular our attachment to characters in games or online. Why does it matter to us when a digital character “dies”? Or how he/she “lives”? How do we get so attached to virtual beings?

After all, it’s not like real life or death. Just a game. But yet…

Losing Dmitri irked me, but it also bothered me on a deeper level. Not simply because I had customized him, changed his suit colours, his facial hair, and imagined a background for him. He was mine. Or me. I’m not sure which. There was an emotional link. Not the easiest thing for a person who values logic and skepticism.

When the aliens gutted Dmitri, I was torn between restarting at the last save-game position and playing the deus ex machina role to save him, or letting the narrative run as it played out. Starting again felt like cheating. Letting him die felt like I had failed him. It. Dmitri wasn’t real, of course. But he/it felt like he was, at times. The narrative won, but not without misgivings.

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09/18/13

Should Latin Return to Ontario Schools?


Teaching LatinWhen I was a young lad, all I ever wanted to be was a paleontologist. Dinosaurs were the most important thing in my life until around age 14 or 15. That’s when I barely scraped through my high-school Latin course. After that, my interests shifted to other, more attainable career goals.

Basic Latin was, at least back then, required for a career in paleontology. Greek, too*. My ability to learn languages was, as a young teenager, not up to the mark. I barely passed Latin, probably given a pass by a teacher who felt sorry for my linguistic disability (and didn’t want to suffer me through a remedial summer class).

Which is odd, given that today Latin fascinates me and I delight in reading about it and its etymological influence in our language.  I often spend time online looking for Latin phrases or translations. I happily struggled with some phrases from Livy when researching my book on Machiavelli.

But back in high school, it was more a drudgery than a delight.

According to a 2010 story in the Toronto Star, Latin was mandatory in Ontario high schools until 1968. It started falling off curricula after that.

For centuries, Latin and ancient Greek were staples of general education, and working knowledge of authors like Cicero and Virgil was required for university admission. Latin was mandatory in Ontario’s high schools until 1968.
But since 1994, the number of Ontario schools offering Latin has fallen to 60 from 159 — a 62 per cent drop. Classical educators face a battery of pressures: tight student timetables, teacher shortages, and underlying it all, the perennial accusations of irrelevance and Eurocentrism.

Irrelevance? Latin has a firm grip on the English language, a millennium-and-a-half after the Roman Empire collapsed. As Wikipedia notes:

…a significant portion of the English vocabulary comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20%–33%, with the rest made up of outside borrowings. A portion of these borrowings come directly from Latin, or through one of the Romance languages, particularly Anglo-Norman and French, but some also from Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish; or from other languages (such as Gothic, Frankish or Greek) into Latin and then into English. The influence of Latin in English, therefore, is primarily lexical in nature, being confined mainly to words derived from Latin roots.

Many neologoisms are based in Latin – especially the “classical compounds,” although the word neologism is actually from the Greek (neo-new, logos-word). But that’s just a reinforced argument for teaching at least rudimentary Greek as well.

The Star story goes on to say,

One American study showed that students who learn Latin in high school have average GPA scores of 2.89 in university compared to 2.38 for those who didn’t study any language and 2.80 for those who studied a modern language. Latin students also consistently out-perform on the SAT.

Because SAT scores are paramount for admission at American colleges, in the U.S. “they can’t get enough Latin teachers,” according to Margaret-Anne Gillis, a board member of the Ontario Classical Association and Latin teacher at Barrie Central Collegiate. Two teachers she helped train had their green cards expedited.

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09/17/13

The Cosmic Origins of Life


CometHere’s one to confound the creationist crowd: life may have begun as a result of organic molecules resulting from impacts by comets or meteorites. No supernatural foundation, no invisible hand guiding the process. Just random crashes, a little physics, some chemistry, a while lot of time, and voila: life.

But wait, there’s more…

How did these molecules go from static organic molecules to self-reproducing you ask? Ah, therein lies another tale… that of enzymes, the little engines of life. More randomness, more chemistry. No intelligent design.

Let’s start with the comets.

According to a recent article in Science Daily,

Scientists … from Imperial College London, the University of Kent and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory discovered that when icy comets collide into a planet, amino acids can be produced. These essential building blocks are also produced if a rocky meteorite crashes into a planet with an icy surface.

The researchers suggest that this process provides another piece to the puzzle of how life was kick-started on Earth, after a period of time between 4.5 and 3.8 billion years ago when the planet had been bombarded by comets and meteorites.

The intrepid researchers fired projectiles at comet-like speeds into icy surfaces similar to what we know comets are made from.  They discovered that the shock wave slams simple molecules together into more complex forms. The heat from the impact  then transforms these more complex molecules into amino acids such as glycine and D-and L-alanine.

Dr Mark Price, co-author from the University of Kent, adds: “This process demonstrates a very simple mechanism whereby we can go from a mix of simple molecules, such as water and carbon-dioxide ice, to a more complicated molecule, such as an amino acid. This is the first step towards life. The next step is to work out how to go from an amino acid to even more complex molecules such as proteins.”

In a similar experiment, published in July,2013, scientists simulated an icy comet-like snowball using carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, ethane and propane. They zapped it with high-energy electrons to “simulate the cosmic rays in space” and discovered that the result was “complex, organic compounds, specifically dipeptides, essential to life.”

Chemists from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Hawaii, Manoa, showed that conditions in space are capable of creating complex dipeptides – linked pairs of amino acids – that are essential building blocks shared by all living things. The discovery opens the door to the possibility that these molecules were brought to Earth aboard a comet or possibly meteorites, catalyzing the formation of proteins (polypeptides), enzymes and even more complex molecules, such as sugars, that are necessary for life.

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09/16/13

Of Type and Typography


Just My TypeHumans have remarkable ability that is shared by – as far as we know – no other animal. We can turn abstract images and symbols into meaning. Words are, of course, the prime example, as old as our history. We can turn a  word like dog, tree, table or vacation into a broad and deep understanding of what that word means to us.

Of course when I write “dog” and you read it, they’re not the same thing. I need to add qualifiers – adjectives, descriptions, anecdotes – for you to come close to appreciating my meaning. Even then, it’s still based on your and my individual emotional experiences. And they’re likely not aligned or similar. Nonetheless, it doesn’t stop writers from discussing dogs, from describing dogs.

But like molecules are made of atoms, and atoms of smaller particles yet, and those made up of quarks, sentences are made of words, words are made of letters, and letters are made strokes. The jot and tittle of Biblical phrase.

The amazing thing with the human brain is that we can take a collection of slashes, lines, strokes and dots and transform it into a letter and thus into a word. We take the abstract and solidify it.

Dissect an ‘A’ and what do you have? Two angled and one horizontal line. In lowercase – ‘a’ – we see two curves, one cupped against the other.

But in the human brain that’s a letter; a vowel, an indefinite article. It’s a crucial component in writing and speech, one of  five (and sometimes six) sounds that connect the vertebra of consonants. Tens of thousands of words depend on those simple lines. We could not do without the letter A. it is part of the genetic makeup of language. Yet by itself it’s just some lines on a page.

The letter “A,” we told, comes from the Phoenician aleph: a stylized bull’s head, rotated with use (see here). Today we’re using symbols created 3,000 years ago (although our Western alphabet - Latin - is really a creation of the Romans, dating back more than 2,700 years, although in today’s form and content about 2,100 years old. Consider the heritage in that, every time you type a Facebook post, an email or write a letter: the history of writing is ancient.

The alphabet is a remarkable invention. It turned human vocal sounds into abstract symbols, it codified the world into abstract symbols. Humans assembled a series of strokes, lines and curves to define language. And we did it a long time ago – in Egypt in the 27th century BCE by most accounts. More than 4,700 years ago. Others identify it with Sumerian culture, somewhat earlier. Either way, it’s pretty impressive and probably the most important human invention.  Clive Thomson writes in his book, Smarter Than You Think,

Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.

(I don’t agree entirely with Thompson’s assessment that writing is on the same technological level as, say, an iPad or the internet, nor that technology makes us smarter; in fact I argue the opposite in that technology makes it simpler to do things, so we work less at them. But I sigress and will save that argument for another post.)

But letters are not rocks: they are not fixed in the firmament. They change, they evolve like living things.

The design of those letters has been debated and developed since the first words were scratched into rock. But it really became an art when the printing press was invented, thanks to Johannes Gutenberg. And ever since his invention, people have been debating what makes a good, readable, legible and aesthetically pleasing typeface. Sometimes with great emotion.

Robert Bringhurst, in his book The Elements of Typographic Style, made a comment typical of the passion that type raises in its aficionados, designers and critics:

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field. In a book designed by rote, they sit like stale bread and mutton on the page. In a well-made book, where designer, compositor and printer have all done their jobs, no matter how many thousands of lines and pages, the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles.

Type and typography creates in some people the fiery emotions we see in other arts.*

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09/14/13

In Wildness is the Preservation of the World


Walking quoteThe title of this post is a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Walking, published posthumously in 1862, but which he wrote and rewrote during the 1850s. I was thinking of that line this week when Council officially opened the new Black Ash Creek Park, in the northeast of the Georgian Meadows subdivision.*

I was thinking of it not in terms of the park – a pleasant, family-oriented, structured space with playground equipment, a small pavilion, basketball court and a chess table – but rather about the untamed green spaces around the park. It is this small patch of wildness that delights me, not the carefully manicured grass or artfully curved sidewalk that borders it.

I’m sure kids – the older ones – will see those woods, the trail, the fields as a magnet for play. I’d hate to think we live in such a paranoid, dangerous world that children can’t be free to explore such spaces, to discover for themselves the magic of the woods. Maybe I’m naive, but I want to believe children can still play outside the confines adults build for them. At the very least, I hope parents take their children for walks into those woods: teach them to love, appreciate and respect the wild, to care for it, to protect and defend it.

Not all unbuilt space should be clear-cut for a housing development. Some wild space has to be retained for our collective enjoyment, and sanity. We need, as Thoreau wrote, wildness to complete ourselves.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago. I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.

Walking defined Thoreau’s philosophy of nature, described through his experiences while walking into the nearby woods; like Buddhist walking meditations on our role in nature and civilization. It later became one of the key essays in the American Transcendentalist-environmentalist movement of the mid-late 19th century. It still has resonance today.

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

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