Taking words out of context

Out of contextCouncil, along with the media, the auditor general, the CBC, our MP and MPP,and a few others, were recently sent a letter complaining about council’s decision to build new, year-round recreational facilities without raising taxes.

Fair enough. Everyone has the right to write letters. We’re open to public criticism, even after the issue has been decided, contracts signed, and council (and most of the town) has moved on. You can read the letter on the EEU.

The letter contains two quotes – both by dead Americans – to open and close the letter.

Because I am a bit of a quote-authenticity fanatic (see my other blog posts about quotations and mis-attributions, here and in the archives), I immediately did some online sleuthing to see if they were actual quotes, not the usual internet/Facebook misquote. I also wanted to learn under what context they were written. I naturally assumed the letter writer chose them for some relevance to the issues raised in the body of the letter.

Here’s the first one:

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” Thomas Jefferson

Yes, indeed, to the writer’s credit, that was written by Thomas Jefferson. However, it is significantly out of its original context here. It comes from Query VII of Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781, revised 1782).

Thomas Jefferson wrote his book in response to several questions about Virgina posed by a “Foreigner of Distinction.” Query VII is a response to the question, “The different religions received into that state?”

Here’s a fuller quote – not all of his response by any means – from Jefferson’s reply to that question. The line that was taken out of context is highlighted. You can see that Jefferson’s comments were made in relation to how science (reason) was treated by religious authorities in historical times:

“Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith.

“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion.”

To me, the telling points come later in this excerpt: Jefferson’s comment about the coercion of public opinion by fallible men (referring to the fallibility of government or church to determine a question outside its demesne), and the undesirability of uniformity of opinion (referring to the church’s insistence in uniformity of belief in the face of such challenges).

Both might be considered somewhat relevant to politics, but were not chosen, perhaps because they might be construed as unflattering to the cause of the writer.

Jefferson’s book – his only work published in his lifetime – is a rambling commentary on the State of Virginia, religion, law, reason, morality, geography, trade, faith, science, agriculture and politics. His words have nothing to do with Canada, Ontario, Collingwood, or municipal recreation. Canada barely gets a mention in this book – in reference to the height of Niagara Falls.

Does the writer draw some connection between Galileo and the Inquisition, and Collingwood Council and a swimming pool? Adams might have some fun with that on his Eastend Underground blog, but I struggle to see the connection. Perhaps I’m too close to the issue to see such metaphorical relationships.

The full text can be read here: avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jeffvir.asp

Jefferson also wrote (in Query VI) what strikes me as more relevant to the debate:

“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”

To be fair, he was writing about the origin of the then-mysterious fossil seashells in limestone, not about ice pads and swimming pools. However, that again might have been turned back on the writer, so perhaps it was also ignored for chance of being misunderstood.

My favourite Jefferson line from that book is also from Query VI:

“Our quadrupeds have been mostly described by Linnaeus and Mons. de Buffon. Of these the Mammoth, or big buffalo, as called by the Indians, must certainly have been the largest.”

This, I realize, may have equally small relevance to recreational facilities, but calling a mammoth a “big buffalo” does sound swell. I’m sure I can find a use for that some day.

Let’s move on.

The second quote is this:

“Whenever men take the law into their own hands, the loser is the law. And when the law loses, freedom languishes – Robert Kennedy”

Again, the writer was correct: it was actually written by Robert F. Kennedy. But I had to find out when and why. That took a bit more work, because the entire text it was gleaned from is not online in one place (unless it is sequestered in Google Books). However, enough of it is extant that I could piece together a significant portion, and appreciate his intent.

Robert – Bobby – Kennedy was the US Attorney General in 1961. He spoke these quoted words in an address to the Joint Defence Appeal of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, Chicago, July 21, 1961. That speech was a comment on the evils of segregation, then being challenged in the US courts and on the streets of the southern states. These excerpted lines are in particular reference to the actions of the state police who were beating and jailing the Freedom Riders (anti-segregation activists) in Alabama.

You can learn more about that speech and about the civil rights movement in a book called, The Politics Of Injustice: The Kennedys, The Freedom Rides, And The Electoral Consequences of Moral Compromise, by David Niven: buy it on Amazon.ca

Civil Rights protestIt’s a fascinating period: the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the beatniks, the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the Berlin Wall, Khrushchev, the Avro Arrow,the Diefenbaker-Pearson debates, the Space Race…. Although I was young then, I still remember the TV news showing the marches and the protests. I remember rather fondly the folk music of the day. However, I would hesitate to equate the Freedom Riders – who put their lives on the line to end a social injustice in America – with a protest against an ice rink. I am quite sure we did not engage the dogs or the water cannons on the protesters, even though they were demanding higher taxes.

In that same speech, Kennedy said,

“My faith is that Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising as a people to confront the hard challenges of our age-and that we know that the hardest challenges are often those within ourselves. My confidence is that, as we strive constantly to meet the exacting standard of our national tradition, we will liberate a moral emery within our nation which will transform America’s role and America’s influence throughout the world-and that upon this release of energy depends the world’s hope for peace, freedom and justice everywhere.”

See here. Kennedy was speaking about the injustice of the segregation that kept African-Americans from enjoying the same rights that their white counterparts in the south enjoyed (like being able to vote, attend university, eat in any restaurant). Kennedy was a very vocal advocate for civil rights. Canada, on the other hand, had civil rights, and shared none of the social unrest around this issue.

I don’t recall that Kennedy ever turned his oratory skills on the issue of municipal swimming pools, but I have not read all of his speeches. I just know this speech was not about them. Without that context to link them, I’m sorry, but I just can’t see the relevance of this quote.

If we’re going to pull phrases out of context, I would prefer to use this one from the same speech, noted above:

“Americans are not an inert people. My conviction is that we are rising.”

Like the lines used in the letter, it has nothing to do with Canada, municipal politics, or swimming pools, but it sounds like something you can have fun with. What’s life without a sense of humour, eh?

Kennedy made another speech to the B’nai B’rith in Chicago, in October, 1963. You can read it here. It’s quite powerful – again it’s mostly about freedom and civil rights. But like all of his speeches I’ve read, it has nothing whatsoever to do with Collingwood or municipal process.

I digress. The issue is about using words taken out of context as inspirational quotes, or to ascribe some credibility to an argument. When readers realize neither quotation is relevant to the issue, it makes you wonder why they were chosen. Without contextual relevance, where is the meaning? That’s a question wise readers will ask, and they may extend it to the rest of the letter.

Jefferson and Kennedy made many wise, pithy comments in their lifetimes, and deserve our respect and recognition for their lives and their wisdom. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to take their words out of context for your own agenda.
~~~~~
PS. The answers to the questions posed in that letter can be read here: here, here and here. You can also watch Rogers Cable 53 for a re-run of the council meeting where our CAO, Mr. Houghton, made his public presentation explaining the process and how staff arrived at a recommendation (which was not provided to the local media, however). All questions have been answered. Many times over. There are no more answers because the town, and council cannot continue to say the same thing over and over.

The Erosion of Civil Debate

Uncivil debateI’ve been dismayed by the tone of the recent debate over the town’s proposed and new recreational facilities. Not by the debate itself – I love the engagement and interaction, even arguing because it’s intellectually stimulating – but rather by what has become an increasingly strident, angry, confrontational and personal tone in many of the comments council has received, or which have been directed towards council.

I’m disappointed because I know we, as Canadians, can have rational, calm, thoughtful debate without rancour, without resorting to insults and name-calling, without raising our voices in anger, without resorting to gossip and rumour or trying to misdirect the argument with personal attacks and innuendo.

In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,, Prof. Stephen Carter writes that, “Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others.” Among the reasons he gives for why civility is important in a democracy:

Civility reminds us that in a democracy all our actions must meet the test of morality, and that our ability to discipline ourselves to do what is right rather than what we desire is what distinguishes us from animals;
Our adherence to standards of civil behavior serves as our “letter of introduction” to our fellow citizens, thus helping to build community;
By treating each other with respectful civility, we help make bearable the many indignities and frictions of everyday life.

Constantly attacking, criticizing, verbally assaulting, haranguing and hectoring some person or group only increases that friction. Worse: it builds barriers that become insurmountable rather quickly.

In several places, Carter reminds us that civility is a discipline, something that has to be learned and practiced, a conscious act of engagement with our fellow humans, one that makes a daily statement about not only how we value community and society, but what we give to maintain them in working order.

I’ve followed Canadian politics for more than 40 years. As I recall, debate in Canada used to be much more civil. Canadians are, for the most part, polite, civil, respectful and dignified people. However, that seems to be changing as our cultural, political and social interactions become more American in tone.

Canadians used to be known for respecting differing views and accepting that differences not only exist, but contribute to the complex makeup of any diverse, democratic nation. But as the American political debates became more and more angry and confrontational, and American society became more violent, litigious and polarized, so did ours.

Ad hominem argument
The Conservative “attack ads” of the last two federal campaigns showed that incivility, personal and ad hominem attacks were the new norm for federal interaction, creating nothing but friction between parties. The NDP and Liberals responded to the vitriol with similar attack ads against the Conservatives. Tit for tat does not make it right, merely increases the volume of the argument. Debate should always be about the issues, about the decision, or about the process: never about the person or people.

As one man wrote in a letter to the Toronto Star:

Surely it is not delusional to think that healthy democracy depends more on civil discourse and quality debate than “a complex set of circumstances” that leads to political forms and practices.

An editorial in the Chilliwack Times opined about a local issue that had become angry and divisive thanks to its lack of civility,

We shouldn’t accept these types of tactics as simply part of the usual political rhetoric. Using loaded language and unfair comparisons muddies the truth and makes the public even more cynical. It can also create bitter divisions among different groups and demographics, which does nothing to foster meaningful and progressive change.
We’re not naive, we know that political rhetoric is often bitter and almost always self-serving. But hopefully, more of our leaders will realize the value of appealing to people’s common sense and decency rather than their outrage and fear.

Anyone who has seen the often puerile behaviour of our federal representatives in the House of Commons knows that our government behaves more like a pack of squabbling, potty-mouthed school children than reasonable adults when debating issues in the House. But that tone seems to be spreading to all levels of government.

The late Jack Layton attempted to keep his party above that morass of bad manners; to engage in civil debate, and to return some respectability to the House. Sadly, he died before he could achieve much in this goal He knew that a lot of people look to our government as their role model for political interaction. Well, they used to, as I recall from my upbringing. But even if we have lost respect for parties and leaders because of their attack tactics, we mimic them, consciously or subconsciously, at many other levels.

In Ontario, NDP leader Andrea Horwath told a university audience that Ontarians are tired of the adversarial trend provincial politics have taken:

Ontarians are tired of “attack politics,” says New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, who called upon her two main political opponents Thursday to stop the name calling.
People are “tired of the dirty sand-box fighting and I think people deserve a true debate on the real issues and a true look at where the leaders stand on some of the (solutions) to the problems facing Ontarians,” Horwath told a crowd at Laurentian University.
Horwath said she’s challenging Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to “stop the hiding behind our war rooms and the missives of nastiness that get launched across our bows.
“And let’s start actually having a real serious conversation in front of the voters about how we’re going to fix some of the problems facing them and their families.”

Unfortunately, her call for civility has fallen on deaf ears. In a recent column in the Enterprise-Bulletin, Brian Macleod wrote about the parallels between Ontarian and American presidential politics:

Ontario politics are moving from partisan to polarized, and the only one that’s standing aside from an ugly debate during the next election is a re-emerging Premier Dad.
And despite the polls, don’t count out Dalton McGuinty just yet.
(snip)
The polarized battle is shaping up between Tory Leader Tim Hudak’s anti-union policies and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has always had labour at its base.
(snip)
When Hudak’s party lost the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection earlier this month to the NDP — a riding his party held for 22 years — we got a hint of what is to come. He blamed the loss on “union bosses,” especially teachers unions who supported the NDP.
(snip)
Voters found Hudak’s unfocused policies wanting in the fall election and they don’t seem to be warming up to his fiery anti-union posture either.
In a sense, he’s doing a Mitt Romney, writing off an entire portion of the electorate in pursuit of votes from those who see unions as Ontario’s economic problem.

There’s a new political pejorative: doing a “Mitt Romney.”

Municipal politics, especially in a small town like Collingwood, are for the most part, individual, intimate and above the quagmire of party politics (our last term being somewhat of an exception). We have always been able to engage one another in mature, calm discussion because there was no ostensible difference between politician and ratepayer. Unlike federal and provincial tiers, we don’t get a full-time salary with a big office, gold-plated pensions, exceptional perks and can stand aloof from our electorate in a distant city.

How to leave commentsMembers of our council are your neighbours, friends, family. We are employed here, or retired here. You will run into us in the grocery store, downtown, in the mall, in the beer store, at the arena with kids and grandkids, at a restaurant or pub. We share the same concerns, pay the same taxes, drive the same roads, stroll the same parks as everyone else here. We don’t get a pension for our effort, and we are paid a rather small stipend to shoulder the responsibility we carry. The reward is not in money, or power, or glory, but rather in the giving of service to the community.

We are all here at the council table because we all care about this community.

Whether you agree or not with an council member’s vote on any matter, you really should respect them for taking on the responsibility of making that decision publicly, under the watchful eyes of the media and the community. None of us would knowingly do our home town harm – we vote for what we believe in our hearts is the best for everyone.

I owned and operated a retail business here for 11 years. People used to come into my shop weekly, often daily, to discuss local issues, local politics. No one screamed, no one lost his or her temper, even when we disagreed (and quite a few did). It was all very civilized and mature. We could talk one on one and act like adults who agreed to disagree. Sometimes having these one-on-one conversations helped to clear up misinformation or misunderstanding about process and decisions. I enjoyed those discussions. I enjoyed their tone, I enjoyed sharing ideas.

Angry emailCouncillors get a lot of letters, although today we get more email than written letters. People agree with us, people complain about us. Both are expected, both are welcome. But for the most part, written letters have been more genteel and civilized. Email is often more accusatory, more hectoring. Some people recently demanded we do what they want us to – no please, no thank you, no calm laying out of the logical value of their preference: the writers belittled our decision, then demanded we rescind it an implement their choice. That tactic will not encourage cooperation or compromise.

Few letter writers in the past used words like fraudulent, underhanded, retarded, or accused us of twisting the facts to suit our own goals. Email, however, has grown more strident than old-fashioned letter writing, possibly because it’s easier, faster, and done with less consideration than handwriting a letter. The act of penning a letter on paper gives people more time to think through their response. And letter writing is personal: you write a a person, to someone you know or have knowledge of – a person, not a thing or a machine. You have to fold the paper, put it in an envelope, walk it to the post office or town hall.

Email is a message typed onto a screen and sent to an impersonal URL with a click of a button; no emotion, no engagement, no personalities involved. And certainly not much respect for the feelings of the recipient. Facebook, forums, Twitter – they’re the same. We respond to a machine, not to the person. Anger is a common reaction on Facebook, especially when the other person has attempted humour or irony, neither of which are conveyed well through simple text.

Stephen Carter wisely admonishes us that, “Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace.” Within his concept of marketplace, I would add the influence of social media on our interpersonal interactions.

No one ever agrees with every government decision. That’s democracy, and we all have the right to disagree and say so.

Some people, however, believe that, when a government doesn’t do what they expected them to do, or what they demanded from them, it was a personal attack against them. They believe the politicians who didn’t obey must be dishonest, on the take, pursing private agendas, or looking to reap some personal benefit from the decision. They believe the politicians were ill-informed, uneducated, ignorant of the facts, simply because a different course was chosen. This leads to angry and unfounded accusations of malfeasance and underhanded acts. We’ve seen that sort of attack on Facebook and in other online posts about council’s rec facility decision.

Punch faceOnline debate is generally uncivil because it’s a solitary act, not a dialogue. It lacks the indicators and signs we get from face-to-face discussion and meetings: tone of voice, inflection, gestures, eye contact, touch… without those, internet arguments almost invariably deteriorate into angry, self-righteous confrontation, and verbal abuse. They often become an exchange of vitriolic hyperbole and escalating accusations.

It’s hard to believe anyone accepts the notion that eight of nine council members conspired in secret with numerous staff for 45 days to have a report make a predetermined recommendation, without a word being leaked during that time; that eight of nine council members could so blithely violate their oath of office, code of conduct, our procedural bylaw, our procurement policy, the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, without the clerk or her staff or any department head challenging them (or calling in the police). But that rather wild notion seems to be going around the coffee shops and online.

It’s even harder to believe that eight of nine members of council would collectively and illegally conspire for some as-yet-undefined “personal gain” that would benefit only one or two of them, when there is clearly nothing to be personally garnered by any of them. It doesn’t make any sense.

The debate has also been marred by some malicious gossip, innuendo, disinformation, unfounded claims, misinformation, and a few angry but fallacious accusations that implicate people outside council in the result, but who have nothing to do with council’s decision. It has, in a sense, become one of those angry conspiracy theories that build like a storm feeding on its own energy looking for a place to explode. This is not from the majority; I believe it is just a small, disgruntled group taking advantage of the contentious rec facility issue to hurt the reputations or credibility of some council and staff. Their interest in the actual argument about rec facilities is likely remote. But they have managed to flavour the debate with an acrid, sour tone. This has, in turn, polarized the two sides.

Like I said earlier: it’s not the debate that worries me, nor any disagreement: it’s the confrontational, personal-attack tone some of it has taken on. Fortunately, the debate is moot now, since the contracts have been signed and we’re moving forward. Perhaps the tone of future debates will move forward, too, and we can restore some of that old-fashioned Canadian civility to local political discussions.
Sticks and Stones

The sinking of the St. Croix, September, 1943

St. CroixOn this day, September 20, in 1943, the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer, St. Croix, was escorting a convoy and protecting its ships from U-boats, during WWII. The ship was between Greenland and Iceland at 57.30N, 31.10W. It carried almost 150 crew, including a young man named William (Billie) Sydney David Pudney, aged 22, listed as a signalman (V 27871 (RCNVR)).

St. Croix with storm damageThe St. Croix was a bit past her prime; the 1,190-ton destroyer had been built for the US Navy in 1919 (then called the USS McCook), but given to Britain for the Royal Canadian Navy in September, 1940. In September, 1943, she was under the command of A/Lt.Cdr. Andrew Hedley Dobson, RCNR, her third commander since the ship was assigned to the Canadian Navy.

Billie’s picture is on the wall of my mother’s nursing home room; a young man in a sailor’s cap looking bright eyed and jaunty. He must have been feeling pretty confident on that day in 1943: in July, 1942, his destroyer, the St. Croix, had sunk the German submarine, U-90, and then again in March, 1943, while escorting convoy KMS-10, St Croix and the corvette, HMCS Shediac, depth charged and sank U-87.

By mid-1943, the tide of war had turned to the Allies’ favour: Germans were being pushed out of North Africa and out of Russia. The massive tank battle at Kursk, in the summer of 1943 broke the German armoured might, and was followed by the Soviets retaking Kiev and Smolensk, in September. Allied troops took Sicily, invaded Italy and even briefly captured its leader, Benito Mussolini, forcing Italy to surrender, also in September. Allied bombers were pounding German cities.

Air support for convoys in 1943 had greatly reduced U-boat tolls in the North Atlantic. Allied command felt confident it had overcome the threat, so during the summer it decided to withdraw many of the escorting ships for other duties.

St. CroixBillie probably felt the Allies were close to winning the war. We know now that it was far from over: two more years of fighting was still to come. The Germans, although under stress and losing ground, were not beaten yet.

The German Navy launched a new U-boat offensive in the fall of 1943. A patrol group of 21 U-boats, code-named Leuthen, was dispatched by Admiral Donitz’s U-boat Control (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU) to renew the attack on the North Atlantic convoy route. The Wolf Pack formed a patrol line south of Greenland in the “Greenland Air Gap,” where Allied aircraft had been unable to operate previously, due to the extreme range from their bases.

The fall offensive began with an attack on convoys ONS-18 and ON-202. Wikipedia notes:

On 12 September 1943 convoy ONS 18 left Liverpool bound for Halifax. Composed of 27 ships it was protected by B-3 Escort Group, comprising 2 destroyers, Escapade and Keppel, ( Cdr MB Evans RN, the Senior Officer:Escort); the frigate Towey, and 5 corvettes; Narcissus, Orchis, Roselys, Lobelia and Renoncule. ONS-18 was also accompanied by the MAC carrier Empire MacAlpine. When Western Approaches Command became aware of Leuthen, it was decided to reinforce ONS 18; the following convoy, ON 202 was ordered to close up, and a support group, SG 9, sent to join.
ON 202 had left Liverpool on 15 September, composed of 38 ships and escorted by Canadian escort group C-2, comprising 2 destroyers, Gatineau (commanded by Lt.Cdr PW Burnett RN, SOE) and Icarus; the frigate Lagan, and 3 corvettes; Drumheller, Kamloops and Polyanthus.
Support Group 9 comprised destroyer St Croix, frigate Itchen (Cdr CE Bridgman RN, SOE) and 3 corvettes, Chambly, Morden and Sackville.
Altogether the 65 ships were escorted by 19 warships, to face an attack from 21 U-boats.

Beside her record of hits on U-boats, the St. Croix had picked up many survivors of other attacks on convoys she was assigned to protect: 34 in 1941, 18 in 1942 and 28 in 1943. In the three years she had protected convoys, the St. Croix had avoided being hit herself. That would soon change. As Wikipedia notes:

On 16 September, St. Croix, then on her first patrol with an offensive striking group in the Bay of Biscay, went to the aid of convoy ONS 18, followed by ON 202, both heavily beset by a wolfpack. The defense of these convoys resulted in a long-running battle with losses to both sides. The convoys lost three escorts and six merchantmen, with two escorts damaged. The wolfpack lost three U-boats.

ONS-18 was the first target. A transport, the Lagan, was hit by a torpedo on Sept. 19, but the attacking U-boats were chased away, and one damaged. To the Germans’ surprise and distress, Allies did have air support in the Gap: Very Long Range (VLR) Liberators (bombers) had been developed and put into action earlier that summer to provide much-needed air support. U-341 was attacked and sunk by a Liberator from 10 Squadron RCAF. But the other U-boats continued to close in, regardless. By the 20/21, a dozen U-boats were in visual range, and eight were able to attack the Allied ships of the combined convoys (ONS-18 and ON-202).

Toronto Star, Sept. 1943The St. Croix’s luck didn’t hold out for very long. She was hit in the stern by a torpedo fired by the German submarine, U-305, on 20 September, 1943, at 9:51 p.m. It was one of five ships hit by torpedoes that night.

The Wolf Pack hunting the convoy would sink ten of the convoy’s ships, and damage two others, over three days of attacks. This would be the second worst loss of any single convoy since 1941.

Forty five minutes after the first torpedo hit, the St. Croix was still limping along. The U-305 returned and fired a second torpedo, this time a T-3, at the St. Croix. It hit. The St. Croix sank in six minutes.

Eighty one of the crew – five officers and 76 men – survived. They spent the night on two rafts and a half sunken whaler. The British frigate, the HMS Itchen tried to rescue them after the St. Croix sank, but U-boats drove her off. HMS Polyanthus tried to screen the Itchen during rescue operations, but she too was sunk (by U-952 on 21 September).

The cold, wet survivors were picked up by the Itchen, on the following morning. The Itchen also had been attacked by U-305 that same night, but the torpedo missed its mark. But this wasn’t the worst of it.

Three days later, the Itchen too was sunk by a German submarine (U-666). A single torpedo hit the frigate and she exploded. She had a complement of 230 officers and men, plus 81 survivors of the St. Croix, and one from HMS Polyanthus. Only two men survived that hit: one from the Itchen, and a stoker from the St. Croix.

One hundred and forty six men who had sailed aboard the St. Croix lost their lives in September, 1943. Some surely must have been counting their blessings aboard the Itchen after they had been lifted from the rough North Atlantic waters.

Allied losses were 3 escorts and 6 ships sunken, plus one escort and one ship damaged. Three U-boats were destroyed and a further three damaged and forced to return to base. Wiipedia tells us:

On 23 September the convoys reached the Grand Banks area, where fog hindered visibility both of the air patrols and the attacking Leuthen boats. U-238 was able to penetrate the escort screen and sank 3 ships; Skjelbred, Oregon Express, and Fort Jemseg. U-666 torpedoed Itchen; she sank, leaving just 3 survivors from her own crew and those of Polyanthus and St Croix she was carrying. U-952 sank Steel Voyager and damaged James Gordon Bennett. U-758 attacked, but had no hits confirmed and was herself damaged by a depth-charge attack.
Poor visibility, fuel shortages, and fatigue now beset both U-boats and escorts, but BdU, believing the attack to have been a great success, ordered Leuthen to break off the attack.
Claims by the various boat amounted to 12 escorts and 9 ships sunk, and a further 2 ships damaged.

Safe from further attacks, both convoys continued to their destinations. ONS-18 reached Halifax on 29 September, where my mother was based as a WREN. ON 202 carried on and arrived at New York on 1 October.

Billie, the uncle I never met, died in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, 69 years year ago, one of the first victims of the newly developed German acoustic torpedo, the GNAT, designed to home in on and disable the escorts so the U-boats could reach the merchantmen. I’ve never been able to find out if he was among the survivors picked up by the Itchen or if he died after the St. Croix sank.

U-305 would continue to hunt Allied ships until January 16, 1944, when it sank, probably a victim of one of its own torpedoes, and all hands were lost. In its career, it sank two transport ships and two warships. After the September battle, the Leuthen Wolfpack was disbanded; 12 of its U-boats formed a new patrol line with 9 other U-boats to attack the next set of east-bound convoys.

World War II would rage on for almost two full years more, ending in May 1945 in Europe, but not until August, 1945 in Japan. Many, many more lives would be lost in the fighting. Although the battle for the Atlantic would not end until 1945, the German command called off its 1943 U-boat offensive after four months. During that time, eight ships of 56,000 tons and six warships had been sunk, but Allies had sunk 39 U-boats. It was a catastrophic loss for the Germans.

But Billie would never live to see the end. He was 22 when his ship sank; a young man, full of hope, full of ambition, whose life was interrupted and ended by the war. On this day, every year, my mother, 93, and her family, still remembers him and the life he gave or his country.

The RCNA prayer:
As we stand here safe and free,
We wonder why ’twas meant to be
That men should die for you and me.
On all the oceans, white caps flow.
They don’t have crosses row on row.
But they who sleep beneath the sea,
Rest in peace, ’cause we are free.

Sources:

  • http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?15789
  • http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/ship.html?shipID=3079
  • http://uboat.net/allies/warships/ship/100.html
  • http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/252.htm
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_McCook_(DD-252)
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_class_destroyer
  • http://www.junobeach.org/e/4/can-tac-des-e.htm
  • http://www.noac-national.ca/article/Dunlop/The_Sinking_of_U90.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convoys_ONS_18/ON_202
  • http://www.convoyweb.org.uk/ons/index.html?ons.php?convoy=18!~onsmain
  • http://www.warsailors.com/convoys/on202.html
  • http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/navy/print_description-e.aspx?source=explore&section=2-E-2-e&h_number=4-A-5-k&img_file=e-19800567-001_p9
  • http://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/navy/objects_photos_search-e.aspx?section=4-E&id=47&page=1
  • http://canadasnavalmemorial.ca/about-the-ship/the-ship%E2%80%99s-story/
  • http://www.readyayeready.com/ships/shipview.php?id=1394
  • http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/crews/ship3070.html
  • http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/crews/person/7245.html
  • http://www.naval-history.net/xDKCas2510-RCN.htm
  • http://www.naval-museum.mb.ca/battle_atlantic/st.croix/ottawa%20list%20146.pdf
  • http://members.shaw.ca/jollytar/WW2%20Ship%20Losses/St.%20Croix.htm

Should you run for municipal council?

ContenderThere’s a poll online asking if a resident should run for council next election. I believe I understand the intent, but decision-making by poll is not effective leadership. Internet polls, in particular, are weak, inaccurate, easily manipulated, and ignore necessary demographic constraints – they are unacceptable as the foundation for any serious decision.

Sure, you want public input for major issues, and you are legislated to get it on some planning matters. Council tries very hard to be as open and transparent as possible. But in the end, you get elected to make decisions. You can’t keep deferring while you ask for polls, surveys, reports and hold public meetings. You have to make the decision. The buck, as they say, stops with you.

Council, working with staff, is privy to a different, often deeper and broader, picture that includes information about all departments, projects, staffing matters, costs, demographics, service delivery, facility use and most important of all: budget and taxes. We learn quickly what every decision will cost taxpayers, and how expensive some dreams really are when you need to borrow the money to achieve them (a $35 million loan, for example, translates to more than $49 million over a 20 year debenture and means a 10.12% increase on the average tax bill).

From the outside, it’s easy to second-guess council’s decision because most people only weigh their own interests in the matter, not all of the other things and all the different user groups and residents council has to consider.

I’ve been there: I was in the media covering local politics for a dozen years here. Before I ran for office, I thought I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the town ran. I knew the procedures, I knew the staff, I knew the politicians. I sat through hundreds of meetings, I conducted hundreds of interviews. I pontificated weekly on council’s decisions in the media because I thought I knew at least as much as they did, and often knew better.

I was deeply humbled in my first term to realize that I had not fully understood or appreciated how complicated, how demanding, how stressful and how difficult the role often is. I didn’t appreciate how much council has to consider when making a decision, how the interplay between staff and council affects decisions, how information and data can be interpreted or mis-interpreted. I didn’t realize that some decisions were often tough compromises. Later, I apologized to several former politicians for some comments I made in the media during their term.

Anyone who is a resident and meets the requirements of the provincial election act can run for municipal office. Usually about 20 people run for council here. Seven get elected, plus mayor and deputy mayor. These are nine local people – business owners, employees, teachers, retired people, real estate agents, parents, grandparents – they are your neighbours, your relatives, your family; people you will see in the grocery stores, in the bowling alleys, on the golf courses, walking their dogs on local sidewalks, people who went to local schools, or go local churches, have families, shop at the mall, exercise at the Y, donate to local charities. Sometimes people get angry at council and forget that councillors are ordinary, local people, just like they are.

Democracy is best served by a wide range of ideas, experiences, skills, opinions and attitudes. Debate is crucial, so is dissent. That can be emotional and trying. Few people are raised in a work or home environment where debate, argument and intellectual challenge are common. We tend to avoid confrontation. But council is often embroiled in it and it can be acrimonious. For many people, caustic debate is a stressful and anxiety-laden time. That’s why people often choose committee and board work where cooperation is more common than controversy. That’s also why an angry or loud voice can dominate the council table, even bully other council members, because most people don’t want to fight.

Every person on council, even those I disagreed with, or whom I personally disliked, I respect for running for office and accepting the burden that places on us. Every one of them cared passionately and deeply for the community and their causes. I didn’t have to like or agree with them to respect the challenges and stresses we shared. We all ran for office because we cared enough to accept the responsibilities that go with it.

If you want to run for council, as long as you meet the requirements, do so. Here are my caveats and considerations:

Penguin confrontationBe prepared to have your integrity questioned, your honesty assaulted, your best efforts at being fair and open ridiculed, your wisdom and experience deprecated, your credibility and reputation eroded.

Be prepared for you and your decisions to be publicly insulted, ridiculed, dismissed and your sanity questioned. Be prepared to be misunderstood, to have simple mistakes or innocent comments turned into public humiliations, to have off-the-cuff remarks hung around you like an albatross. Be prepared for misinformation and disinformation to be used against you, sometimes deliberately, sometimes maliciously.

And you will make mistakes, trust me. Humans naturally do, but when you are in politics, those mistakes will stay with you. Unlike in your personal life, you won’t be able to take your mistakes back or beg forgiveness. If you wake up the next day and realize you cast the wrong vote, too bad. Live with it. Few people will accept your apologies. The media will dredge out old comments, old quotes, old votes and remind people of your foolishness long after you had forgotten it.

Be prepared to be frustrated by process and procedural rules, to be disappointed that everyone else doesn’t share your enthusiasm for your ideas or initiatives, to be slowed by budgetary realities, and see even simple goals take years to achieve.

Be prepared to trim some of your election promises and your fondest, most fervently-held dreams in order to achieve more modest and more realistic compromises.

Be prepared to have your preconceptions publicly  refuted, your ideas and beliefs overturned, and your core values challenged – and then reported in the media for everyone to see or hear.

Be prepared to swallow your pride and vote for something you don’t like, something you don’t want or agree with, because it’s simply the only viable choice. You will be vilified if you change your stance, and vilified if you don’t.

Be prepared to be lobbied by both individual residents and groups, sometimes relentlessly. People will call you at home, at work, in the middle of the night to talk about issues, argue, denounce and confront you. And a few will also congratulate you.

Sometimes you get so many emails or calls on an issue that just can’t respond to all of them.

You will have to work at the job – reading, learning, asking questions, digging through books, files, records, agendas and minutes. You will have to learn the byzantine rules of procedure, codes of conduct, and read dense laws and bylaws governing your every action.

You will have to learn to be cool, calm and restrain your anger, even when you feel yourself under attack. And you have to learn to let your failures go.

Everything you say or do will become public. Casual jokes, off-hand remarks, personal habits, your dress and appearance, even simply not hearing a comment properly or losing your place in the agenda will be repeated in the media and the coffee shops.

No matter what decision you make, someone will disagree. Someone will be angry at you for it. Someone will think you a fool. Or worse. You will be accused of being underhanded, dishonest, disingenuous, secretive and manipulative. Even if you made the best decision you could, in the most open and transparent manner, even if you believed that your decision was the absolute best for the community and its residents, it will be questioned and attacked by those you failed to please.

Even more frustrating, things you ran on, things you were elected for, things you believed in when you made your decisions, will be challenged, discredited and ridiculed by both the public who elected you and the media when that decision does not meet their post-election expectations.

It will affect your work, your family, your friendships, your recreation time. You will lose friends and customers. You may gain others, but that won’t make the loss hurt any less.

If you have a thick enough skin for that, if you think you can still rise above the tribulations and give it your best effort every meeting, then by all means, run for office. If you win, and it doesn’t grind you down first, you may learn to become patiently philosophical about politics.

Do “psychics” make you laugh or cry?

Crystal ballA small handout for a local “psychic studio” that arrived in my mailbox offers “Superior PSYCHIC and Spiritual Cleanser.” I never know whether to laugh at the silliness of these people or cry over how they continue to bilk gullible, superstitious fools. We are still so Medieval in our thinking, in so many ways.

Here’s an entire “studio” – apparently a one-stop shopping centre for balderdash where you can go and get all your superstitions cleansed, or whatever it is they do (aside, that is, from cleansing your wallet…).

Apparently having a “studio” is all the rage among “psychics.” You can’t just have a table in your living room, maybe some Wal-Mart Hallowe’en decorations scattered around for atmosphere. You need a whole studio. Maybe a ‘no-waiting, no appointment necessary’ studio where numerous “psychics” are anxiously waiting for you to roll up and open your wallet. Yes, I found some of those advertised online.

I Googled “psychic studio” and came up with 11,600,000 results. I spent an hour or so reading the outrageous claims of dozens of charlatans and hucksters selling their “psychic” wares: “…experienced clairvoyant medium who works directly with your guides and angels to give you the guidance that you are seeking. Each session is unique, guided by the invisible realms and tailored to suit your individual needs.” What undiluted claptrap!

But turning back to the flyer, despite my skepticism about the subject matter, I had to chuckle over the wording and the bizarre, seemingly random capitalization on the handout:

“She will READ you like an open BOOK and tell you why You came and what You need to know with No Questions asked.”

Why can’t “psychics” read grammar books as well as “READ” people? They must get their language lessons from cell phone text messages. Maybe her angel or spirit guide doesn’t give guidance in punctuation or language usage. Apparently writing properly or competently is not a skill set necessary for “psychics.”

“Do you or someone you Love have Problems with Drugs, Alcohol, Legal Matters, Immigration, School, Work or Financial Problems.”

Not even a question mark to end that question. She sure covered just about all the bases, though, but I’m not sure people have many problems with financial problems. Unless they’re taking accounting courses.

“I Can and Will help you.”

Better, I suppose than “I can, but won’t help you.” Or “I can’t but will help you.”

What happened to the third-person “she” of the first sentences? Now it’s in the first person. What gives with the change of voice? Are there two voices here? We’re told she is “Professional and accurate.” Obviously not if you want a written reading from her, because any grade-school kid can write better.

What exactly is a “professional psychic”? One who charges the same rates as lawyers and architects? Is there some university degree I am unaware of for “psychics” that shows they have studied for years and achieved some academic success? I Googled that term and came up with more than 2.7 million hits, but could not find anything related to training, standards, testing, scholarship or a program of recognized education. One site tells me,

Being a professional intuitive can be a very rewarding career. There are many positive and exciting benefits, including helping people by offering them insight into their lives, working from home, and setting your own hours.
But becoming a professional psychic involves a lot of commitment and training. While it’s helpful if you have a genuine gift for intuitive insight, many training programs can help anyone to increase their natural skills regardless of your present level of psychic ability…
In addition to the four main skills, you may want to learn specific applications of those skills, such as:

  • Psychometry
  • Soul Reading
  • Telepathy
  • Healing/Medical Intuition
  • Mediumship
  • Channeling
  • Dowsing
  • Past Life Regression

So a “professional psychic” is someone who knows all the scams, the cons, the nonsense? Is there a professional organization that tests your ability to bilk customers?

Psychometry is a bit confusing here. There is a real, academic discipline called psychometry, which refers to, “the field of study concerned with the theory and technique of psychological measurement, which includes the measurement of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, personality traits, and educational measurement. The field is primarily concerned with the construction and validation of measurement instruments such as questionnaires, tests, and personality assessments.” (Wikipedia).

What the author means is the non-academic, unverifiable flimflammery that goes by the same name: “…also known as token-object reading, or psychoscopy, is a form of extra-sensory perception characterized by the claimed ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object. Supporters assert that an object may have an energy field that transfers knowledge regarding that object’s history. Psychometry is commonly offered at psychic fairs as a type of psychic reading. At New Age events psychometry has claimed to help visitors “meet the dearly departed” (a form of spiritualism).” (Wikipedia)

“With over 25 years Experience there is NO PROBLEM TOO BIG OR SMALL One visit will convince you she is superior to all other PSYCHICS.”

Whew. So many mistakes. Not sure why the italics, or why there isn’t punctuation after “SMALL”. It’s a mess of random capitalization. Does the writer somehow think that by writing in big letters makes a problem bigger? So why isn’t it written as BIG and small?

The sentence, or rather the latter portion, supposes that the reader has been searching for answers from all sorts of snake oil sellers in the past and found them wanting. Otherwise, how would you know the difference between a superior and inferior “psychic”? Is it dependent on how much money they get you to spend?

Our local “psychic” professes to specialize in several fields: “Palm, Tarot Cards, Crystal Ball, Planetary re-alignment, Chakra Cleansing, Handwriting, Face, Meditation, Aura, Astrology, Spiritual Healing, Water and Candle.”

Planetary re-alignment? I thought that took the effort of the Olympian gods. Even NASA with all its technology and space vehicles can’t budge a small asteroid, yet here’s a woman who can move planets around like marbles. Mars lost its oceans to a planetary realignment a billion years ago. Imagine the power of this woman who can do this all by herself!

You have to wonder how anyone specializes in face or palm. I suppose in the same way one cam specialize in elbow and big toe. Ditto with water and candle. I suppose if I can specialize in tequila, a “psychic” can specialize in water. But candle? I prefer specializing in light switches.

Meditation? Is this woman a Buddhist? Or has she learned meditation from a Buddhist or Hindu teacher? How can one specialize in meditation without years of training and practice? Meditation requires effort, practice and training, just like writing. You might be able to learn some of its basic principles from a book, but it’s like learning carpentry from books. I am reluctant to believe that anyone engaged in the “psychic” game would read any serious books on Buddhism. After all, a serious study of Buddhism – which encourages free inquiry and intellectual investigation over blind faith – might point out too clearly the real nature of the “psychic” racket. Perhaps there are New Age comic books that teach meditation for psychics instead.

I suspect the low calibre of the writing probably mirrors the calibre of the advertised meditation skills.

I find most modern Western descriptions of chakras a garble of pseudo-science, New Age obscurity, and pseudo-Hinduism; a mix of poorly defined notions. This millennial-old belief has, like so many ancient beliefs, been usurped by the New Agers and turned into a farcical practice based on gibberish, looneyism and balderdash.

I have read both ancient Hindu texts and more modern explanations of the chakras – the imagined energy centres of the body. Personally, I have no faith in their existence. My own skepticism needs empirical evidence before I accept claims about things that cannot be clearly seen, touched, measured, photographed under controlled conditions, or otherwise identified. Chakras, angels, spirit guides, auras, demons, ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot… all sorts of imaginary things fall under my skeptical microscope. I have yet to find proof of any, but I’ve only been searching for about five decades.

Here’s a quote from one site about so-called chakra clearing:

“Practice clearing your chakras in the bathtub or shower at least once each week. By being in water, you will be able to rinse your hand after each chakra releases. You will notice a lightening of your vibration and an overall easier sense of well-being. If you are working with someone else, rinse your hand into a bowl of water after each chakra clears. Water is fluid and the energy will just be released easily into the water without any effect on you or the person you may be working with.
• Place your open hand, palm side down, on your forehead. Men will use their right hand and women will use their left hand. Spread your fingers wide open to receive the energy easily. If you are working with someone else, place your open hand about two inches above each of the chakras, being cautious not to actually touch their body.
• Now tell yourself to release into your hand every single thought, feeling, and emotion that you have never been able to show or express. Releasing this energy may feel like thousands of tiny ‘hits’ on the palm of your hand. Leave your hand over your forehead until you are certain there is nothing more to be released.
• Next, move your hand above your throat. Release into your hand all the times that you have been killed in the past for speaking your truth, all the times that others have criticized you for sharing your words, all the times that you wanted to scream, and all the times when you did scream and no one heard you. Also release all the words you regret speaking and all the words spoken to you that you wish you had not heard.
• Just release all that energy into your hand, from your throat, from the back of your neck and from your shoulders.

Yeah, me too. My eyes rolled around in my head when I read that silliness. Do people actually believe this or are they all sharing some private in-joke, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster? But I digress. Back to the mini-flyer.

Handwriting? After reading this poorly-written and awkward piece, I wonder why someone with such poor literary skills would advertise handwriting as a specialty. Perhaps she writes by hand better than she types?

Anyway, the best part is at the bottom (the shouting is in the original): “AVAILABLE FOR HOME BLESSINGS & HOUSE PARTIES”. “Psychics” and house parties; what a mix. That really defines credibility, doesn’t it? Come on over for a party Saturday night… We have a keg of beer, a DJ and dance music, a case of Jack Daniels, a little weed and a “psychic”…

And, of course, “All Help is Guaranteed with Results in 24 hours.” How one guarantees help provided by a “psychic” is an amusing discussion all by itself. So why the 24 hour wait? What, your crystal ball has a wait time? It’s on dial-up to the spirit world? Come on…

Laugh and cry. That’s what this little flyer did for me. Laugh at its poorly written presentation, cry because I know,as you do, dear reader, that there are those who will take it seriously and waste their money on such nonsense.

Zellers closing mall store is another blow to local economy

No jobsCollingwood’s main anchor store in the Blue Mountain Mall, Zellers, will close by March, 2013, according to a story in this week’s Globe and Mail. It is one of 29 scheduled to close in Ontario, and one of 64 across Canada.

As the Globe and CBC pointed out in their stories, with an average of 100 people per store, that means a net lost of around 6,400 jobs, Canada-wide.

The impact locally is much greater. 100 jobs in a community of 20,000 people is a lot, even if most are part time.

Many retail outlets and supermarkets here offer only part-time work. People often have two or three of these jobs, just to get by. A single mother I worked with briefly had a job at a local supermarket, and as a housekeeper – both paying minimum wage – while trying to raise two kids.

If the workplace is unionized, the best most employees can get is 28 hours a week, forcing them to find other sources of income to make a livable wage. If you don’t have the seniority, you may not be able to get more than four hours a week in a union operation. And out of that you have to pay a minimum $7 in union dues, which gets you… well, nothing that I could see when I had that position.

I doubt there are 100 jobs available here, even part-time, to pick up the loss of Zellers. People may have to look for work much further afield, which will only increase their expenses.

Collingwood was an industrial hub almost from its inception in 1858 to the late 1980s. Industry means jobs – generally better-paying jobs, full time, and usually with benefits. Aside from the famous shipbuilding (which was moved overseas by its owners in 1985), it has had a tanner, flour mills, a nail factory, carpet factory, pottery, aircraft parts maker, furniture maker, automobile wheel plant, automobile hose plant, backyard recreation set manufacturer, seat-belt plant, distillery, starch plant, automobile glass plant, designer glass plant, piezoelectric ceramic plant, house truss maker, candy manufacturer, and other factories.

Today, most of those have been long closed, although a few remain.

Instead we have mostly “McJobs” in the hospitality, food, service, tourism and retail sectors. These are usually minimum wage, part time, may involve shift work or evenings-weekend work, and have no benefits, no pensions, and little opportunity for advancement or raises. Often people need to hold multiple McJobs just top pay the rent and eat. These jobs certainly don’t provide the money for people to become homeowners, and it is a struggle to raise children well at these wages.

It’s not a story unique to Collingwood – most of Ontario has been facing the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs since the early 1980s. It accelerated in the 1990s, not only because more jobs were being shipped overseas to serve the consumer demand for low-price/low-quality goods, but because of increasing automation. That latter is the reason you see fewer bank tellers today – they have been replaced by ATMs. Many big box stores have self-serve pay stations so they can reduce the need for human cashiers. Some restaurants like Tim Horton’s, have replaced bakers and cooks by bringing in pre-cooked, frozen food that simply gets reheated, not actually prepared, by the local staff.

Old agePlus we have a growing number of seniors here who are not retiring, because they need more income than their old age security or government pension provides (the total being somewhere between abject poverty and utter despair, worse if you want to live under a roof, not a piece of cardboard, and you like to eat at least once a day – but don’t fret: your MPs and Senators have gold-plated lifetime pensions that ensure that they will never have to eat cat food, even if you – the taxpayers – do…).

Locally, we need to craft a new economic development strategy in Collingwood, one that takes into account the erosion of industry and manufacturing jobs, and the need to improve and develop our tourism-entertainment-recreation sectors so we can attract more visitors (creating the critical mass of visitors necessary to sustain current and new businesses, events and services.

The lingering wisps of memory, the subtle newness of a moment…

Hippocampus“Can the simple act of recognizing a face as you walk down the street change the way we think?” Thus opens a story posted on Science Daily. “Or can taking the time to notice something new on our way to work change what we remember about that walk?”

Intriguing questions. The act of recognition, the act of discovery; both can change how we both process information about an act, and how we create a memory of it.

This novel finding suggests that our memory system can adaptively bias its processing towards forming new memories or retrieving old ones based on recent experiences. For example, when you walk into a restaurant or for the first time, your memory system can both encode the details of this new environment as well as allow you to remember a similar one where you recently dined with a friend. The results of this study suggest that what you did right before walking into the restaurant can determine which process is more likely to occur.

Does this mean that we can train ourselves to remember an event or an activity better by planning to notice things? Or by actively looking for something familiar? But remembering and retrieving, while they are both controlled by the hippocampus, they are competitive processes.

Previous scholarship has demonstrated that both encoding new memories and retrieving old ones depend on the same specific brain region — the hippocampus. However, computational models suggest that encoding and retrieval occur under incompatible network processes. In other words, how can the same part of the brain perform two tasks that are at odds with each other?
At the heart of this paradox is distinction between encoding, or forming a new memory, and memory retrieval, or recalling old information. Specifically, encoding is thought to rely on pattern separation, a process that makes overlapping, or similar, representations more distinct, whereas retrieval is thought to depend on pattern completion, a process that increases overlap by reactivating related memory traces.

To take advantage of this would require people to be very alert and aware, all the time, not by accident or coincidentally – as in the recognition of a familiar face encountered in a walk. In his masterwork, Walden (Chapter Two), Henry David Thoreau wrote,

Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

Why is it that seeing one thing can trigger your awareness so that you notice other things, often completely unrelated to the first item?

“We’ve all had the experience of seeing an unexpected familiar face as we walk down the street and much work has been done to understand how it is that we can come to recognize these unexpected events,” said Lila Davachi, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s senior author. “However, what has never been appreciated is that simply seeing that face can have a substantial impact on your future state of mind and can allow you, for example, to notice the new café that just opened on the corner or the new flowers in the garden down the street.”

The same face, the same building, the same tree seen at different times can trigger different responses. One day it might be surprise, another nostalgia, another indifference, and another anger. Why? Perhaps it’s because your brain is busily storing and retrieving all sorts of data, and on the way in or out, the pattern triggers other neurons that activates the emotional activity.

But why or how did this trait evolve? Is it a defence mechanism; something we needed when we came out of the forests into the open plains of Africa? Or is it something older, something from our reptilian past?

Does the same mechanism for memory and awareness affect animals? Dogs and cats, for example, have memories. But can they consciously control their awareness (which raises the question about whether animals are self-aware, to which I reply, yes, but how much awareness they can manipulate remains open to debate).

Another researcher added:

“We spend most of our time surrounded by familiar people, places, and objects, each of which has the potential to cue memories,” added Katherine Duncan, the study’s first author who was an NYU doctoral student at the time of the study and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University. “So why does the same building sometimes trigger nostalgic reflection but other times can be passed without notice? Our findings suggest that one factor maybe whether your memory system has recently retrieved other, even unrelated, memories or if it was engaged in laying down new ones.”

I remain fascinated by the development of these models of consciousness and the inner workings of neuroscience.

Super-fast evolution: new species in just 6,000 years

Sea starsAccording to a recent story in Science Daily, new species of sea stars may have arisen in as little a time as 6,000 years.

Researchers studied the diversity in DNA sequences from sea stars of two related species to estimate how long it has been since the two species diverged. Their results showed a range from roughly 6,000 to 22,000 years ago.

That rules out some ways new species could evolve. For example, they clearly did not diverge slowly with genetic changes over a long period of time, but were isolated quickly.

Over the last 11,000 years, the boundary between cold and warm water in the Coral Sea has fluctuated north and south. A small population of the ancestral sea stars, perhaps even one individual, might have colonized a remote area at the southern end of the range then been isolated by one of these changes in ocean currents.

These two species of “cushion stars” – Cryptasperina pentagona and C. hystera – while they look very similar, are very different in many aspects – habitat and sex lives in particular.

Pentagona has male and female individuals that release sperm and eggs into the water where they fertilize, grow into larvae and float around in the plankton for a few months before settling down and developing into adult sea stars.
Hystera are hermaphrodites that brood their young internally and give birth to miniature sea stars ready to grow to adulthood.

Six thousand years is a remarkably short time for a significant evolutionary activity – about the entire length of recorded human history. And about as long as some creationist crackpots think the Earth has been in existence. But it’s not a one-speed-fits-all for evolutionary change. Even the longer 22,000 years is still remarkably short. That’s about when the first Europeans arrived in North America, or the length of the time it takes the remarkable planetoid, 2006 SQ372, to complete its orbit.

Earlier this year, Wired Magazine published a story about research to discover how long it would take for a mouse-sized animal to evolve to an elephant-sized one. And the answer was 24 million years.

That’s how many generations a new study estimates it would take to go from mouse- to elephant-sized while operating on land at the maximum velocity of change. The figure underscores just how special a trait sheer bigness can be.
“Big animals represent the accumulation of evolutionary change, and change takes time,” said evolutionary biologist Alistair Evans of Australia’s Monash University.
Evans and co-authors revisit a fossil record dataset of mammal body size during the last 70 million years, in a study published Jan. 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The data was originally used to describe the evolutionary growth spurts experienced by mammals soon after dinosaurs ceased to be Earth’s dominant animals.
The relative sizes of mouse and elephant skulls. To go from mouse-sized to elephant-sized would take at least 24 million generations.
For the previous 140 million years, mammals had been rat-sized or smaller. With dinosaurs significantly reduced, mammals had a chance to fill newly vacant ecological niches, particularly that of the large-bodied plant-eater.

But what about human evolution? We have a pretty good record of our species’ evolution over more than 4 million years, from the apelike Ardipithecus through Australopithecus, Neanderthal, Cro Magnon to us. But we are, like other animals, still evolving. And the rate of evolution may be speeding up.

According to a story in National Geographic,

Explosive population growth is driving human evolution to speed up around the world, according to a new study.
The pace of change accelerated about 40,000 years ago and then picked up even more with the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the study says.
And while humans are evolving quickly around the world, local cultural and environmental factors are shaping evolution differently on different continents.
“We’re evolving away from each other. We’re getting more and more different,” said Henry Harpending, an anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City who co-authored the study.
For example, in Europe natural selection has favored genes for pigmentation like light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. Asians also have genes selected for light skin, but they are different from the European ones.
“Europeans and Asians are both bleached Africans, but the way they got bleached is different in the two areas,” Harpending said.
He and colleagues report the finding this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

And some birds may be evolving faster, too – depending on their colour. According to a story in Science Daily in May,

Researchers have found that bird species with multiple plumage colour forms within in the same population, evolve into new species faster than those with only one colour form, confirming a 60-year-old evolution theory.
The global study used information from birdwatchers and geneticists accumulated over decades and was conducted by University of Melbourne scientists Dr Devi Stuart-Fox and Dr Andrew Hugall (now based at the Melbourne Museum) and is published in the journal Nature.
The link between having more than one colour variation (colour polymorphism) like the iconic red, black or yellow headed Gouldian finches, and the faster evolution of new species was predicted in the 1950s by famous scientists such as Julian Huxley, but this is the first study to confirm the theory.
By confirming a major theory in evolutionary biology, we are able to understand a lot more about the processes that create biodiversity said Dr Devi Stuart-Fox from the University’s Zoology Department.

So much science, so much research that continues to prove Darwin’s original theory, albeit much refined today thanks to our genetic research. You have to wonder, then, why 46% of Americans and 42% of Canadians and many others in the world still believe in the nonsense of creationism nor the pseudoscience of “intelligent” design.

I blame the continued survival of creationism on our failing education system with its lack of emphasis on science and its lack of training in critical thinking; on our society’s growing distrust in and disrespect for intellectuals; and the increasing influence of fundamentalist religion in politics.

The rise of the tenor guitar

Gold Tone tenor guitarTenor guitars have been around since the 1930s, possibly a few years earlier*, but they’ve never had a big following compared with six-string guitars. That seems to be changing, and I suspect it’s in part due to the incredible popularity of that other four-string guitar derivative: the ukulele.

In the past six-twelve months, I’ve been seeing more tenor guitars on the Net, including several new custom tenor guitars made by talented luthiers. New sites about tenor guitars have sprung up, too. Both new and vintage tenors are showing up on eBay in what seems to be increasing numbers. There’s even an annual gathering for tenor guitarists, perhaps more (the page linked above doesn’t actually say where the event takes place, and there are no maps, but it’s in the USA somewhere).

I hadn’t really given tenor guitars much thought, myself, until fairly recently. The only tenor guitarist I’ve ever known is Eugene Smith, who sometimes still plays here in Collingwood. But as a ukulele player, my interest in four- and eight- stringed instruments has widened to all sorts of instruments I’ve never really thought a lot about before (like bouzoukis). I suspect other ukulele players have also considered tenor guitars as a natural complement to uke playing, especially after trying a baritone uke.

1930 Gibson tenor guitarI started playing ukulele in early 2008, put down my guitars shortly after, and never picked one up again once I got bitten by the uke bug (okay, I’ve picked them up, but not played one for more than a few minutes). I quickly gravitated to tenor ukes as the best size and sound for my own playing and finger size. Tenors have a 17″ scale compared to the 13″ scale of a soprano, which I found too cramped.

I started playing baritone uke more than a year ago, after I bought one on a whim from another uke player online. Baritones have a 19″ scale and I really enjoyed the space, and fuller sound. Last year I picked up another musical whim – a four-string cigar-box guitar. I just wanted something to challenge me and give me a different sort of sound to experiment with. It’s the full, standard 25″ guitar scale. While fun to play, the body of a cigar box instrument is small and limits tonal production. That got me interested in tenor guitars.

Many uke players look askance at baritones as too close to guitar scale to be considered a “real” ukulele. I have found them tonally rich, and the lower key suits my limited singing range for many songs.

Eastwood tenor guitarI had to be in Toronto, last week, and my route into the downtown took me past the Twelfth Fret music store. What musician, even an amateur like me, can resist its siren call? I had to stop and see if they had any tenors for me to try. Only one, sadly: a 1936 Gibson priced at $999. Ouch: that’s a bit rich for my wallet, I’m afraid, but I did get to play it and compare it with a baritone uke (a Kala spruce top). I suppose for its age, the Gibson is not overpriced for most people. Since I’m not a pro nor a collector of vintage instruments, I decided to continue looking.

Mostly what I wanted to discover was how a tenor felt to hold and play: was the fretboard too narrow? Too wide? The stretch of fingers comfortable or not? How did it feel in my lap? The ergonomics of an instrument are very important.

Maybe it’s because some popular trends, even in music, seep more slowly into the Canadian consciousness, that the tenor has not taken hold here. Canada has been 10-20 years behind the USA in the tequila craze, and is at least six years behind the US, UK and Australia in the ukulele wave. Since tenor guitars seem to be a new revival, I suppose we should start to see Canadians take notice and for music stores to stock them somewhere around 2020.

I’ve called many music stores around Ontario asking if they had any, and none have – a few have responded with comments that they didn’t even know what a tenor guitar was. Yet there are at least two manufacturers – Gold Tone and Blue Ridge – who are making them (two acoustic models each; a solid and a laminate top). Gold Tone even sells a tenor resonator, metal-body model. Eastwood has a sold-body electric tenor.

Gold Tone resonator tenorI have all sorts of technical questions about a tenor resonator guitar, however, and whether the tension on the biscuit is sufficient for the cone to make the expected sound.** National made a metal-body tenor in the 1930s, and I believe the Gold Tone is homage to that.

Tenor guitars usually have a shorter scale than a standard guitar – 21 or 23 inches, although some new models seem to also share the guitar’s 25″ scale according to some comments I’ve read online. They have a narrow neck, but a big body – and steel strings. That makes them a sort of super baritone uke. However, tenor guitars traditionally have a different sort of tuning than a ukulele or guitar: often tuned in “fifths” to CGDA. Just like a tenor banjo.

A baritone uke and a guitar would be tuned DGBE. I don’t see any reason why I can’t tune one like a guitar. That would be easier than trying to learn an encyclopedia of new chord patterns.

The main attraction, for me, of a tenor guitar is the combination of large body (for fuller volume and tone production) and steel strings. While I love playing my nylon-stringed ukes, sometimes the music calls out for the more metallic, crisper sound of steel. It’s not better, just different. I also think that the combination of nylon and metal in different instruments would sound nice if I get back to recording some of my music.

All of which should suggest to readers that I intend to get one, and yes, I have found one on Kijiji and expect to pick it up next week. Actually I’m quite excited by the notion of having a new musical instrument to experiment with. Would that my talent matched my passion for playing…

~~~~~
* Tenorguitar.com says they’ve been around for “100 years or more” and that “‘Lyon and Healy’, whose main guitar brand name was ‘Washburn’, claimed to have invented the tenor guitar just after the turn of the twentieth century. Certainly tenor guitars must have been around in the latter part of the first decade of the twentieth century from the existence of published and dated instructional books for both the tenor guitar and tenor banjo from this period that still exist today.”
** Traditional biscuits are made of dense wood like ebony or rosewood. I suspect one could improve the energy transfer to the cone by using a piece of brass or even glass as a saddle. I’ve never found one of these resonator tenor guitars to play in a shop, so I don’t know how they are constructed. I am very curious to try one, however.

Yet More Quotes with False Attributions

So-called Francis of Assisi quoteIt seems a good week for mis-attributed Francis of Assisi quotes. Someone on Facebook posted an image with the following quote:
“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.
St. Francis of Assisi”

That’s simply “Francis of “Assisi” for the non-Catholics among us, of course. But even without the questionable transformation of mortal flesh into an immortal, supernatural being, Francis didn’t write those words.

This quote was written by Louis Nizer, an American lawyer (1902-1994). It might strike some as remarkable that a lawyer might have such profound words about art and heart, but that’s not the issue. The issue is who said it. And it wasn’t a Middle Ages religious person. Nizer was an accomplished trial lawyer, author, artist, lecturer, and advisor to some of the most powerful people in the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment, according to Wikipedia.

Francis actually had a lot to say, but it was, as far as I’ve read by and about him, very specifically religious in content. Very little of what Francis actually said translates well into this sort of bumper-sticker inspirational message the New Age loves so dearly (I often think Twitter, with its 140-character limit, was invented for the New Agers who desperately want everything to fit conveniently onto a bumper sticker).

Another alleged quote from Einstein is making the rounds. I’m not sure how anyone would not see this as a New Age sham quote. Poor Einstein: for a man of genius, he gets associated with the most mediocre pap.

Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.

Giawken imageI seem to have misplaced the link to one of the Facebook images for this misquote, but here’s a copy of it from another site. There’s an excellent comment on this and the danger of mis-attributed quotes on the Giawaken site (I have not explored the rest of their site’s content, but the home page content looks annoyingly New Age).

The author – Daria Boissonnas – writes, “relying on a fictional quote to inspire us, when the truth is so much stronger…We don’t need fictional quotes. We don’t need to induct Einstein into the New Age to make the New Age valid or “real”…A false attribution weakens the quote, weakens your argument, weakens your reputation, and weakens the public opinion of what you are doing.”

The author should also note that mis-quotes contribute to the general lowering of intellectual standards in literacy, history, science and education. They dumb us down. So does pseudoscience like astrology – I throw that in because the author’s home page has links to astrological claptrap, psychic flim-flammery and other New Age nonsense.

The Quote Investigator looked into this misquote earlier this year, and found that it actually derives from a new Age “channeller” (I’d add the adjective flaky but it seems redundant…) named Darryl Anka,sometime between 1996 and early 2000. Anka apparently was a special effects artist for several motion pictures, and a self-described “channeler” who, according to Wikipedia, says he communicated with supernatural beings:

Anka claims that he began to communicate, through trance-channeling, with an extra-terrestrial entity called Bashar in 1983. He describes Bashar as existing in a parallel reality, in a time frame that we perceive as the future.

I know, I know, I almost snorted tea through my nose laughing at that, too. Anka’s imaginary friend, Bashar, apparently told him that, ““Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality.” The quote incorrectly attributed to Einstein also appears on the page as part of Anka’s own muddled explanation of what he claims his imaginary friend said.

You gotta love pseudo-scientific gibberish. All the words look like they might mean something but when you start to analyse it, you see it’s just hot air. But then so is pretty much everything “New Age.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that a lot of these misquotes spring from the addled minds of New Agers.

Facebook imageThis image highlights another problem in some of these posts: a misunderstanding of some words by those who want to create “inspirational” messages. In this case, the misunderstanding is in the word “karma.” Karma is about cause and effect; the wheel of samsara. It’s a cyclic process. Karma is not about either punishment or synchronicity.

This image does not say anything about what karma actually represents as a theological doctrine. I think the image’s creator had no understanding of what the word means, didn’t bother to look deeper to verify its meaning, so used it incorrectly as in this flaccid statement with obfuscated intent. In an era of Wikipedia and the .03 second time it takes to search for a word or phrase on Google, the failure to confirm the actual meaning of a word is sheer laziness or stupidity. Maybe both.

Buddhanet gives a fairly good explanation of what karma means, from which I quote at length:

Karma is the law of moral causation. The theory of Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism. This belief was prevalent in India before the advent of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it was the Buddha who explained and formulated this doctrine in the complete form in which we have it today.
…snip…
According to Buddhism, this inequality is due not only to heredity, environment, “nature and nurture”, but also to Karma. In other words, it is the result of our own past actions and our own present doings. We ourselves are responsible for our own happiness and misery. We create our own Heaven. We create our own Hell. We are the architects of our own fate.
Perplexed by the seemingly inexplicable, apparent disparity that existed among humanity, a young truth-seeker approached the Buddha and questioned him regarding this intricate problem of inequality:
“What is the cause, what is the reason, O Lord,” questioned he, “that we find amongst mankind the short-lived and long-lived, the healthy and the diseased, the ugly and beautiful, those lacking influence and the powerful, the poor and the rich, the low-born and the high-born, and the ignorant and the wise?”
The Buddha’s reply was:
“All living beings have actions (Karma) as their own, their inheritance, their congenital cause, their kinsman, their refuge. It is Karma that differentiates beings into low and high states.”

Like a mis-attributed quote, a misused word like this creates a bad meme that gets shared, further increasing the general misunderstanding. You might even say that a misquote like this creates bad karma for the one who spreads it…

And again, more mis-attributed quotes online

Faux Mark Twain quote, but not by him at all“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.” Allegedly by Mark Twain, but unlikely, and not found in any published source I have of Twain’s quotations. Online sources, of course, don’t count as authorities because they lack all credibility.

As one person commented on Yahoo,

The fact that “Quora attributes it to him” is worthless. Quora is yet another one of those idiotic “quote websites” that misquote and misattribute things all the time.
Note that Quora doesn’t bother to give an actual citation — what book was it from, what page, etc. Without a full citation, you have no assurance that this was said by Mark Twain or Herbert Hoover or some random dude who made it up yesterday.
It doesn’t appear (as Twain’s or anybody else’s) in either the 14th or 15th edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I suppose it’s possible that it comes from the newly released edition of his Autobiography, but I think it’s more likely that it’s just something misattributed by some stupid “quote website.”

These comments are applicable to almost every quote site I’ve found, with rare exception such as wikiquote.org. Most of these so-called quote sites are wastes of electrons because they share without qualification, without verification, without confirmation.

Faux Picasso quoteEvery Child is an Artist. The problem is staying an artist when you grow up. Pablo Picasso. Again, another unsourced quote that does not appear in any reliable printed source such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, or on Wikiquotes. In fact, not of the reliable quotations from Picasso I have read ever mention children at all.

Sometimes this comment is noted as “”Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Other variations include “Every child is born an artist” and this one: “Every child is born an artist. The problems begin once we start to grow up.”

I have not been able to identify the actual source of these words; every Internet site I have encountered sheepishly repeats the words or images, without bothering to identify where or when Picasso said them. Personally, I expect to discover they were made by some more modern educator rather than the late artist Picasso. Or perhaps part of it was taken from this Talmudic comment on poem by Isabella McCullough:

Every child is a poet.
Every child is an artist.
Every child is a philosopher.
Every child is a theologian.
Every child is an actor.
Every child is a dancer.
Every child is a nature-lover.
Every child is an explorer.
Every child is a comedian.
Every child is a skeptic.
Every child is a teacher.
Every child is a boundary pusher.
Every child is a truth speaker

Martin Luther King half-quote“Everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.” Martin Luther King Jr. This is actually a quote by King, but not the full portion, so it’s misleading. It has been taken out of context and turned into a soppy, New Age bumper sticker slogan.

It is taken from a sermon given by King on April 21, 1957, titled “Questions that Easter Answers.” The full quotation is:

Easter tells us that everything we see is a shadow cast by that we do not see. The invisible is a shadow cast by the invisible.

In other words, King wasn’t making some deep Platonic comment about the shadow-vs-truth nature of the world, but rather a very specific observation on the nature of Christian belief, and even more specifically about what the Christian observance of Easter teaches Christians. It is not a general comment on life, nor was it ever meant to be used as such.

Comments taken out of context like this are as dangerous and stupid as mis-attributed quotations.

Mark Twain actually said, (in a letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888, solicited for and printed in George Bainton, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890), pp. 87–88.
sourced from Wikiquote): “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Literacy comment A book commits suicide every time you watch Jersey Shore. Also noted as a “reality” show (in quotes because they are not reality but highly scripted works). Just a peripheral comment on the nature of literacy; watching TV rather than reading is one of the reasons people are not critical thinkers, able to actually identify or confirm whether these are real or faux quotations. Most people simply pass them along unchecked because they confirm some sort of existing belief – “epistemic closure” it’s called.

The Oldest Art: 40,800 Years Ago

Paleolithic paintings in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain date back at least 40,800 years — making them Europe’s oldest known cave art, according to new research published June 14 in Science.

Science Daily photoThat’s the lead to a fascinating story about the origins of art. Cave art seems to have been practiced 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. That age could make the artists either the first modern humans or even Neanderthals. That latter possibility is pretty exciting.

We know from burials found in the Middle East that Neanderthal people practiced ritual burial and made musical instruments. This find suggests that may have been artists, too. An earlier story in Science Daily from 2010 noted that Neanderthals have been found to be much more advanced than previously thought.

When I was growing up, Neanderthals were imagined as heavy, stupid, slow and brutish. Now we know they had art, music and burial rituals that suggest religion, and were a lot more sophisticated than we first imagined. A cave full of bear skulls found in Europe dated from that time, suggests they had animistic worship. Which raises the question: is religion, like language, hardwired in humans?

Dr Pike said: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals — or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art.”

Art is part of what defines us as human. Knowing the Neanderthals made art helps us identify them as human, not just some type of hairless ape, or brutally primitive human as they were seen when I was young. While it’s often debated, I side with the scientists who believe that Neanderthals interacted with early humans, and probably mated with them. Many of us carry some Neanderthal DNA in our genes. Maybe that’s the part of us that creates art and music. Maybe that’s the legacy they left us. It would be interesting to research whether that DNA is present in artists and musicians, .

The Decline of Information Quality

Huff Post 01I’ve been troubled the last year or so by the increasing amount of trivial crap that is being presented on media sites as news, rather than what it really is: shallow gossip, pseudoscience, trivia, anecdote, voyeurism and personal experience.

As titillating as some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction might be, it is not front page news. In fact, it isn’t worthy of the description news even when relegated to a more appropriate location, buried deep inside the site. Gossip belongs with the horoscope, cartoons and word-search puzzles.

Nor is a cute animal in some anthropomorphic posture news. Kitten and bunny wrestling? Why is there a front page link to such inane pap? But there is was on the HuffPost.

Who a “reality” TV star marries, what she ate, the condition of her dress or how much cleavage she shows is not only not news, it is not important in any sense of the word. It is an insult to the readers’ intelligence to put it on the front page.

Huff Post 02It is, in the dietary sense, empty intellectual calories. It seems to fill a space, but it is empty, void of content, just wasting bandwidth. Like doughnuts, soda pop and candy bars, it fills without fulfilling. It provides no cerebral nutrition. In short, it is material for the hard of thinking.

I never thought I’d say this, but there are actually TV shows with more intelligence than this crap. Not, of course, many; some BBC, TVO, PBS and CBC shows – not the American Picker, Swamp People or Jersey Shores nonsense, mind you. Both History and Discovery channels have become broadcasters of excremental trivia, dropping documentary for mediocrity.

There is, of course, a place for gossip about the haberdashery and sex lives of the glitterati. Supermarkets have racks of such irrelevant tabloids for those who thrive in the shallows of the intellectual pond. But it does not belong on the front page of an allegedly national or international media publication (like the Huffington Post).

National PostNot that the HuffPost is alone in dumbing down its content for a less discriminatory, less intellectual audience, although it is arguably the worst, with more pure crap on its front page than any other news site I visited.

The National Post has a section called “arts” in which it places front page trivial pap about Lindsay Lohan in a car accident, a legal dispute between two actors and an “open letter from Elvis Presley.” Gossip and minor events in the lives of actors is not news and it isn’t anything to do with the arts. Car accidents may be entertainment for some twisted souls, but the majority does not see them as having any cultural or artistic merit.

Canoe 02Canoe, the Quebecor home site, opens with some minor news pieces, but uses a media player to move you quickly to trivia categories like showbiz, movies (why this is not in showbiz is a mystery), swimsuits (an entire category of stories!) and “tearjerkers” where dumbing down is elevated to a new standard. The front page has stories about garage sales and movie trivia. The main news story today is “Man killed in B.C. goft cart crash.” Yes, it says “goft” cart, not golf cart. You have to actually hunt for real news like the latest massacre in Syria.

None of this reduces my impression of Quebecor as the bottom of the intellectual barrel in the Canadian media industry, of course. Just reinforces it. My overall attitude is that QMI is the only news agency that makes the trashy Fox network look moderate, and the old News of The World look relevant.

Toronto Sun 02The Sun newspaper is, well, just what I expected from a newspaper that has more about sports, gossip and sex than it has news or anything important. I’ve never had a high opinion of the Sun ever since it started, mostly because of its uber-right editorial stand. But unlike most traditional media, it hasn’t gone downhill in its content. Of course, it hasn’t improved, either. The Toronto Sun’s website features several irrelevant front page “celebrity gossip” pieces, and more sports than news. Sports may be important to some, but it isn’t news and should not push out real stories.

Huffpost is, unlike the NatPost or the Sun, mainly a news aggregator, so it pulls stories from other sources, and doesn’t create much of its own (blogs are opinions, not news). In that, it can’t be blamed for the quality of the items, but simply for the choice. Similar aggregator sites like National Newswatch and Bourque exist, with varying amounts of crap pretending to be news. Midway down the National Newswatch page is a story in the “E-zone” (for e-diot?) is a fluff piece with the headline, “Stop everything: Selena Gomez is talking about Justin Bieber while wearing a bra,” followed by links to other, similar pap. To be fair, though, the site has a greater news-to-crap ratio than the HuffPost. Bourque sticks to the headlines and pushes the fluff way down to the bottom.

I’ve heard the argument that the media only provides what people want. That’s nonsense and one of the bulwarks the increasingly right wing, ideologically-fixed media depends on to continue its war on intellectuals and non-right thinkers. Media provides either what it THINKs the public wants, or what it thinks the public SHOULD want.

No one wakes up in the morning thinking they want to get more stupid. Media corporations provide this trivia not to meet demand, but to create it. Ideologues don’t want informed, intelligent consumers. Informed people make better choices than uninformed ones and are not as likely to follow the script. The right’s entire argument about Medicare in the US has been phrased in terms that make it a hate crime to reason, to think critically and to question the “authority” of the right’s pundits who decry providing public medical services instead of holding people hostage for basic medical care.

Information diabetes. That’s what the right-leaning media has, and wants us all to contract through an obesity of irrelevancy. To be fair, there are well-informed people on the right, but not as many as there are on the left. That’s because of the basic difference in how each political stripe sees information. The left sees it as something to share and exchange. The right sees it as proprietary, private and secret.

A recent Gallup poll highlighted the effect of dumbing down media with tripe: only 15% of Americans believe in the evolution, but 46% believe in some form of creationism. That would not happen with a better-informed public. People are not usually intentionally so stupid, but there are those in power who intentionally try to make people stupid. Rather pointedly, the vast majority of creationists also side with the right, while those on the side of science and fact are mostly on the left.

Dumbing down is done through the media by replacing content with fluff, by pushing pseudoscience and superstition, gossip and salaciousness to the front page instead of science and research, or instead of hard news and empirical data.

Who will pay attention to climate change, the oil sands, or the civil war in Syria when the front page has voyeuristic shots of some almost-dressed starlet showing cleavage, or something salacious about a TV wannabe with a childish name like Snookie? Who will turn to images of civilians being shot or streams awash in toxic oil spills, when you can look at a star in a bathing suit? Thinking people, of course will, but the point of this dumbing down is to hide the real content under a torrent of irrelevant pap, deep enough that the average person – with an attention span conditioned by TV watching to be shorter than a gnat’s – won’t bother looking that deep.

As Johnson writes in The Information Diet, there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s more like an imbalance of information quality. The good data is in shorter supply than the dreck. In the same manner, obese people get that way not necessarily because of the quantity of food they consume; rather it’s the result of the quality of the food-like substances they eat.

Newspapers aren’t alone, of course; it started with TV. Channels like Discover and History promised content only to quickly become broadcasters of unbelievably stupid and anti-intellectual content. Just a look at the crap that TV dishes out daily can give anyone with an IQ over 80 a headache: Natural Born Dealers, Canada’s Worst Driver, Cash Cab, Believe It or Not, Storage Wars, Cake Boss, What Not to Wear, Pawn Stars, Canadian Pickers, Jersey Shore… just a few of literally hundreds of TV shows meant to dumb down the audience and keep people in an uninformed stupor. There are so many truly inexorably bad TV shows like these that I can’t even begin to list them all, let alone comment on how bad TV has become. I’ll have to leave that for another post.

But is there a cure for information obesity? Yes: focus, stop wasting time on crap, turn off the TV, exercise your mind and go back to reading books.

Verify Source Before You Post

I recently joined a small but dedicated group on Facebook. It’s called “Verify Source Before You Post.” Every reader of this blog and my older Mumpsimus Blog will recognize this as a favorite topic of mine. I’ve written perhaps a dozen posts over the last five years trying to correct numerous bad quotes or mis-attributions. It’s a losing battle, it seems.

When I say small, it is, by FB standards, tiny: 17 members right now. But that will, I hope, grow as time progresses. Surely there must be more people out there concerned with fact, with accuracy, and with the quality of information.

Of course, these groups are a lot less interesting to the masses than the usual “I-Love-Snookie” or “Lady-Gaga-Is-A-Godess” fan groups where members can endlessly prattle on about absolutely nothing of merit or importance. In VSBYP, you need to be engaged and contribute something meaningful.

Yes, there are groups on FB that are similarly intellectual, and I don’t want to downplay their importance to creating dialogue and debate in many spheres, from science to grammar. FB plays an important role – as does all social media – in engaging people in all fields, all disciplines, all sciences, all studies and all philosophies.

But as everyone on FB knows, the vast amount of chatter is more of the what-I-had-for-breakfast sort than comments on, say, the relevance of the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle to current cosmological theories.

While some might see it as an obsessive and pointless task to try to verify and confirm all of the many quotes posted on FB and other sites, to me it’s as important and relevant as trying to confirm scientific data. But it’s also cultural.

And judging by the number of times a mis-quote gets shared, it seems I am in the minority of people who actually pay attention to what they pass along to others.

If someone attributes “She Loves You” to the Monkees or the Beegees in a post, you would get rightfully upset, and question the intelligence of the poster. You would feel compelled to correct the poster and point out that the song was written by Lennon and McCartney, and performed by the Beatles. If someone posted that Plato wrote the Illiad, or Tolstoy wrote The Brothers Karamazov, or Edward de Vere wrote Hamlet, you would likely feel equally compelled to correct them and state the actual author’s name.

I feel the same when someone attributes a saying to Albert Einstein, Shakespeare or Machiavelli that I know is incorrect.

Anyway, if you are both interested in this sort of intellectual activity, and have a Facebook account, I recommend you join the group and help build it into something stronger.

More Facebook Mis-quotes

Facebook imageSaw three images (“posters”) on Facebook today with “quotes” I’m pretty sure are mis-attributions. As usual, I feel compelled to check out their validity.

First is one allegedly by “St. Francis of Assisi.” This would be simply “Francis of Assisi” if you’re not Catholic or don’t believe in saints or canonization. One day I’ll post a blog piece about canonization and its politics, but not now.

The quote is: “What we are looking for… is what is looking.”

That seems one of those gooey, touchy-feely New Age thoughts, and Francis never said anything even remotely close to that. The late 12th-early 13th century Francis said some very profound things, almost all of which are very specifically Christian and very Medieval in tone. One properly attributed quote is:

Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance. Where there is patience and humility, there is neither anger nor vexation. Where there is poverty and joy, there is neither greed nor avarice. Where there is peace and meditation, there is neither anxiety nor doubt.

A very little amount of digging showed that the quote in the image is actually from a book on consciousness by Stanley Sobottka, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia. Here’s the whole piece:

When we are identified with the thinking mind, there is emptiness, frustration, dissatisfaction, anxiety, and boredom. Our security cannot be found in what is ever-changing. It can only be found in what is never-changing.
What we are looking for is what is looking. We are the home of peace and fulfillment and everything We really want. When we rest in Awareness, We see directly that there is no doer. We are not a concept or object because We are What is aware of them. The activities of the body-mind and of the rest of the world continue but they do not affect Us. The more time We spend resting in Awareness, the more peace We feel. If we were suffering before, we might even forget why we were.

It’s less saccharine and much more empirical when you read it in context. That’s one of the problems of taking comments out of context.

Facebook imageThe next one is a “prayer” attributed to “Queio Apaches.” (That should be “Quero” Apache, but the poster’s creator mistakenly wrote “Queio”). It reads: Looking behind I am filled with gratitude. Looking forward I am filled with vision. Looking upward I am filled with strength. Looking within I discover peace.”

In the sense that a prayer is a supplication to a supernatural entity, this isn’t one. It’s more a meditation. But it isn’t Apache either way.

That’s another one of those feel-good New Agey-style pieces that you expect to read in a poster in a homeopath’s or “psychic’s” dwelling. I have a lot of respect for Aboriginal wisdom, but I’m pretty sure they would not have penned such soppy sentiments. Like the other “prayer” I wrote about last April, it sounds like something a Hollywood writer would have written to mimic stereotypes of native speech.

A little digging and the source is a book by Maria Yraceburu, called “Prayers and Meditations of the Quero Apache.” Yraceburu is described on Amazon as, “…an Apache idealist Tlish Diyan philosopher, educationist, painter and community council.” In a quote from that book, the author writes:
“In Tlish Diyan philosophy, humanity is understood as living in a shared cosmos that is mysterious and expresses profound spiritual evidence of the divine power behind all natural phenomena. While all nature is considered sacred and its mystery and beauty appreciated as a bridge between human consciousness and the Sacred, the purpose or mission of human life is to be that of acting on behalf of ihi’dah (life force), and the understanding of this concept is found through life affirming ritual.”

My New Age Warning antenna crackle when I read something like that. Nothing I read identifies whether this is a traditional meditation or something Yraceburu either wrote herself or paraphrased. I suspect the former.

There is no “Quero” Apache tribe and it seems to be solely the product of her imagination. I found this piece about the author:

The White Mountain Apache Say She’s a Fraud, July 15, 2008
The White Mountain Apache nation says Maria Naylin (her real name) is a fraud. Yraceburu is not even an Apache name, it’s Yaqui. The White Mountain nations say that nothing she claims is anything close to Apache tradition, and they have no record of her enrolled and no one had ever heard of her until they received many complaints about her. The tribal offices also tried to get her to quit using the White Mountain tribal seal without their permission.
Her main concern is to make money over in California, far away from the people she falsely claims are her own. She also has her partner, a Gypsy woman, falsely claiming to be an Apache healer.
One of the people Naylin says trained her, “Rolling Thunder”, was a white man claiming to be “Chickamauga Cherokee” who sold ceremonies in Europe and set up a commune for white hippies in a Nevada brothel. She claims training by another fraud, Twyla Nitsch, who is a woman with a small amount of Seneca blood kicked off the reservation for being a ceremony seller. Naylin also claims to have been trained in Kahuna. Kahuna is a white exploiter’s false version of Hawaiian traditions.
She falsely claims to be “Quero Apache,” a tribe that does not exist. The Quero are a tribe in South America with many false claims made by them by New Age charlatans, no relation to the Apache.
Think of this book as pure fantasy, not anything to do with actual Apache tradition.

This site calls her a “culture vulture” and reprints a letter from real Apaches:

The White Mountain Apache Tribe then conducted research into the historical and cultural foundations of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu assertions and publications, including consultations with Apache elders and cultural specialists who are
members of the White Mountain Apache and San Carlos Apache tribes.
The inquiry failed to discover any reliable evidence suggesting the historical or cultural legitimacy or accuracy of the work of Ms. Naylin / Yraceburu. All indications available to the Tribe are that she and her works are among the latest in a long line of misguided efforts to make unauthorized and inappropriate use of Native American culture and history — cobbled-together half-truths and fabrications intended to deceive and derive profit from the hopes and fears of those seeking to understand themselves and American Indians.

More on this controversy can be found here and on other sites.

All of these I sourced with perhaps no more than 10 minutes of searching each. Yet they are repeated tens of thousands of times on other sites without anyone bothering to check their validity or confirm a source. Too many people have too little critical thinking.

Facebook imageFinally we come to something attributed to Samuel Clemens, one of my favourite authors (writing under the pseudonym of Mark Twain): “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Wikiquote – one of the best sources online for valid quotes – doesn’t list it.

I’ve found several properly attributed Twain quotes, including this one from an 1873 speech titled License of the Press: “The trouble is that the stupid people–who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations–do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper.” Great quote. Today we’d replace the words ‘a newspaper’ with ‘the internet.’

But I have not found anything with the exact wording of the quote with anything more than a generic attribution. That told me it isn’t a valid quote (valid quotes include the source). Certainly it doesn’t read like anything I’ve read by Twain. So I kept looking. This site attributes to author Greg King, as do several quotation sites (some which which also attribute it to Twain). I’d bet on the King attribution.

All of these quotes are repeated ad nauseum on many, many other sites, including those allegedly reference sites for quotations. Which proves (as do all of these mis-attributed quotes) that these sites are NOT authoritative, merely collectors of anecdotal errors.