Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Christmas gift: a book to love

Alistair MacLeod: No Great Mischief, McClelland and Stewart Ltd, 1999, 283 pages

             A strange, poetic, elegaic on roots and love.

             The McDonald clan migrated from Scotland and live on the same Cape Breton soil they first set foot upon, during the American Revolution. They have deep roots..

                Theirs is a tragic tale. An unknown fatality weighs on the land and its people. The Soil is scrabble poor, poverty forces the MacDonald men to the mines of Ontario and South Africa. Life is hard for the McDonalds and they're tough people. Yet somehow, though doomed - as we all are, they have survived with dignity. "No Great Mischief" is an elegy to common folk, whom MacLeod loves, facing adversity and fatality with dignity.

                 Grandma's mantra, "All of us are better when we're loved", cycles like the returning beam of a lighthouse through the concluding chapters and ends the book. Another popular family mantra, "Blood is thicker than water",  is ironically betrayed by a young man from the branch of the clan most enamoured of the phrase.

                  "No Great Mischief" is really a story about love. MacLeod tells us that, facing the void, facing adversity, facing pain, our sole real arm is love: love between spouses, in family, love of the land, love of life itself.

                   A sad, elegant poetry runs through the text, giving the feel and tone of epic or legend:

                   "On the east coast, the native peoples who move across the land, harvesting, are stilled also.. They are older than the borders and the boundaries between countries and they pay them little mind."

                   "Once we sang to the pilot whales on a summer day. Perhaps we lured the huge whale in beyond his safe depth. And he died, disembowelled by the sharp rocks he could not see. Later his body moved inland, but his great heart remained behind", echoing the migrations of the McDonalds inland, to Ontario's mines, driven by poverty, not desire. Their hearts too remain behind in Cape Breton.

                    But there is more than poetry in this tale. One could call it a "philosophical novel" in the sense that MacLeod invites us to a deeper reflection on life and real values but subtly, without posing a specific question; it is left to the reader to pose his own questions. Thus MacLeod ceaselessly points to quotidien tragedies, ironies and absurdities: the young man who graduates from dental school on the same day that his namesake cousin loses his head in a mining accident.

                    MacLeod's universe is not a happy one though it has room for joy, lots of wonder and, above all, it honors love which, ultimately, redeems this lost world.

                    Alistair MacLeod is a national treasure though I fear he risks being forgotten: he lacks the imposing oeuvre whose sheer volume demands attention. Worse, he has favored the short story, not in favor in academic circles.

                    Nevertheless, his work fits common definitions of "great literature" well enough: universal in scope while parochial in content. MacLeod's prose is idiosyncratic - difficult if not impossible to translate or paraphrase without losing much. At its best, his work has the punch, the bang for the buck, all great literature gives. I recall reading his slim volume of short stories, "The Lost Salt Gift of Blood" and ended up knowing more about the maritime soul than if I had waded through several thick academic tomes on settlement history and economic activity. This is surely a mesure of great art: much is said in little space and the heart is moved.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Learning to think outside the box

               Conform with its pro-business (actually pro-corporation) ideology, the Harper government has banned further ownership of Canadian oil industry assets by State owned foreign entities. This goes down well with Harper's core constituencies but does it answer the really important questions we, as a society, should be asking ourselves at this point in time?

               Is foreign corporation ownership more benign than foreign state ownership? If so, why? Neoconservatives have argued that the state always does things badly, that turning over everything to private (in reality, corporate) enterprise equates with freedom, with spreading economic benefits more equally: the "trickle down effect", "a rising tide lifts all boats".. But are these ideas true? Are they confirmed by fact? Reality does not seem to confirm these ideas. Gaps between rich and poor both within and between societies grow, demanding more spending on security measures, the military and the attendant suppression or limitation of civil rights. Scandinavia with its Social Democracy inspired "welfare state", actually allows its citizens more - not less - upward mobility than is now possible in neocon dominated America. The American dream is actually more realisable in "socialist" Scandinavia than in "capitalist" (actually corporatist) America!!

                 One definition of fascism..

fascism: control or seizure of the State by the corporate elite

                In our humble opinion, we should be asking a different set of questions. And questions are critically important, it turns out: you can't get right answers unless you learn to ask the right questions..

                 For example, a "good" question might be, what type of development do we need?

                 Renewable energy versus fossil fuel and nuclear energy? Decentralized energy networks / localized networks of production and consumption? - there is mounting evidence, I think, for those whose minds are not ideologically closed that we have reached a point where DISeconomies of scale are more important than economies of scales in many areas. Democratic, participatory, community based / community initiated / community driven development? - such development would seem more in accord with the values that occidentals give lip service to: democracy, entrepreneurship, upward social mobility for the little man..

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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Harper's gang: they shoot messengers, don't they?

               The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), recent recipient of ideologically driven budget cuts, has recently attempted to call into question the qualifications of a lab which found evidence of Infectious Salmon Anemia Virus (ISAV) in British Columbia farmed salmon. Interestingly, the lab is cited as one of the best in the world and its work was never called into question before. An "interesting" synchronicity, one might say..

                On a CBC radio interview the head of the lab, Dr. Fred Kibenge, admitted that the timing was curious and would appear to be an attempt to blacklist his lab. Nor would this be the first time the Harper government was guilty of shooting messengers. The (radical, ideological) probusiness stance of the government, particularly in the petroleum and mining sectors, has led it to cancel funding to government sponsored projects, agencies and organizations which do not "tow the party line" and  refuse to relegate environmental issues to the back drawer.

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Running down the up escalator

             In ancient times, when the pyramids were built, knowledge - especially mathematical knowledge - was equated with magical and religious power. There is something inherently magical in mathematics' ability to capture reality and describe important qualities of it in a tiny space. Ancient rulers, before modern weapons and mind control techniques, armed themselves with the predictive power of astronomer-divines to awe and control the masses. One announced that on a given date the Dark Dragon of the Abyss would rise up and swallow the life-giving sun. Preparations were made to magically defeat the Enemy of Light. As the sun went into eclipse, great sacrifices were made across the land and lo! the Forces of Evil were turned away, the sun emerged once again from the belly of his Enemy and began to shine. The world grew bright and rejoiced! The world was saved, Light triumped over Darkness!

             The glass bead game of manipulating reality through numbers has grown a bit more sophisticated, the masses probably (??) a bit less gullible, but similarities remain. Mathematics can still be tweaked to "prove" what you want (especially if your interlocutor doesn't understand math..) Math can still be made to lie to serve the interests of a ruling elite.

               A fascinating example comes up in recent arguments by global warming "sceptics". Statisticians call it running down the up escalator. Let's say you have a trend which is rising gradually, say temperature globally is rising 5 C per century or one twentieth of a degree per annum but this "signal" is buried in a lot of "noise", random variation in temperature from one year to the next. The long term trend, a century, will effectively show an approximately 5 degree rise but you can always "cherry pick" and find relatively short series of years over which the temperature is falling. The overall 5 C per century rise is the "up escalator". Cherry picking the short series of declining temperature is referred to "running down the up escalator". The escalator ultimately wins of course but if your interlocutor is ignorant of math then you might win the argument: "you see, temperatures have been generally falling for the last 7 years. Therefore, global warming is a fraud, perpetuated by university profs who want to make trillions by cornering the carbon trading market early in the game".

                Interestingly, this "follow the money" argument never focuses on the billions that oil company execs and stockholders are making from fossil energy sales! "
How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you don't see the beam in your own eye? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you'll see clearly enough to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Luke 4:42

                 The following link gives a beautiful graphical demonstration of "running down the up escalator". Don't miss this one! The blue lines in fig 1 are cherry picked declining temperature intervals. These are products of randomly fluctuating "noise" in the climate machinery. The red line shows the long term rising trend.

                  These, of course, are extreme examples of non-transparency in the communication of "information" from "official" or "authoritative" sources. Data is being twisted - by cherry picking selectiveness - to say the very opposite of what it actually does!