Friday, February 25, 2011

Zooborn lions

I am a sucker for baby animals, hence my link on the right side of this page to the Zooborns website. I looked at one of today's links this morning, a couple of cute lion cubs.

According to the description, these are seriously endangered animals, which is my reason for being in favour of zoos, that in too many cases there are more members of an endangered species in a zoo than in the wild. Not because we have captured too many and plopped them in prison, but because we have either hunted down or---more likely---have ruined the habitat for the survival of the wild animals. Because there are seven billion of us, and we take up too much space.

Another thing the description says is that these animals were once widespread throughout the Middle East, Pakistan and northern India. Now there are maybe 400 individuals left in the wild, another 100 in captivity. The town I live in has a population of 5,000 (people, not lions), so I guess if we devoted a couple of streets to Asiatic Lions, the entire world population of them could live there. Is that sad or what?

Anyway, getting back to the lion cubs. The description says the cubs are shy. A couple of the photos show the cubs snarling at the camera, I don't think shy is the right word here. Maybe pissed off and wanting nothing to do with us?

"Two thousand years ago they once roamed the whole of the Middle East..."

There are seven billion of us, we take up a lot of space and we need every inch we can get just to feed all of us. I read somewhere that the carrying capacity of the Earth for humans is around one million. We have so overshot. There's not a lot we can do about that now, getting back to one million is kind of unthinkable without talking major catastrophe. But it is terribly sad.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Brave Libyans

Muammar Gaddafi brought in mercenaries to slaughter his own people. Now Libyan consular staff and Libyan ambassadors around the world are resigning, citing genocide and War on the People as their reasons.

The protestors carry on. They are joined in their fight for freedom by members of Gaddafi's government and high ranking Libyan civil servants.

Gaddafi thought that Mubarek's problem was that he was not tough enough on the crazies shouting in the street. He sure showed Mubarek.

We in the West will pay a price at the pump for all this freedom fighting, but it is time.

I read one report in which a Libyan ambassador compared Gaddafi to Hitler. When you think of it, if only Hitler's people had seen what was coming and fought back the way Libyans are doing now, world history would be a whole lot different. I'm not criticizing Germans for not rising up en masse against Hitler, I don't think they could have known how bad it was going to be. But Libyans (and others) have the benefit of history, and they are good students.

I think sometimes that we in the industrialized West think that our way is the only way and developing nations around the world have no choice but to follow in our footsteps, or at least in the prescribed way our governments have set out for them.

But it isn't and they do have a choice and they are choosing now.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Two films I saw this week

I've seen a couple of extraordinary films this week, both of them made by Canadians. I am so impressed by the high quality of Canadian film-making these days, and these films are terrific examples.

The first film was Incendies, I saw it last Sunday afternoon. What can I say: shocking and powerful, the mix of emotions this film evoked was so complex it left me speechless.

Basically the plotline is that a Middle Eastern woman living in Canada dies suddenly, leaving her adult twin children with a mysterious legacy, two letters that they are asked to deliver to their brother and their father, respectively.

Until the reading of the will the twins did not know who their father was and did not know that they had a brother.

Delivering these letters required the twins to return to the land of their birth, which they had not seen since they were infants. The film bounces back and forth between scenes from their mother's life in that nameless Middle Eastern country and the twins' efforts to find out what really happened and how to deliver those fateful letters.

The details are vague as to what country this story actually takes place in, but I read on Wikipedia afterward that it is most likely modelled on events in Lebanon in the 1970s. Place names are not real and the specific historical events are probably not real either. But they could be.

The story is so well told that it is spellbinding. The bouncing around in time actually works, although I had a bit of difficulty telling the daughter and the mother apart at times, so at first it was a little confusing for me when and where a scene was taking place. However I quickly figured out that the key feature (for me) for telling them apart was their mouths, the mother has a distinctive mouth, so I always checked that to be sure.

How the personal story of the central characters unfolds is both shocking and satisfying. This is another one of those films with a wrenching twist at the end, but it works. Although one does suspect that the mother was just a tad manipulative.

I guess this film brings home how horrible the political mess and violence of the Middle East is for the ordinary people living in the midst of it. I've also been reading a little of the history of the Middle East, in particular about how modern Middle Eastern political boundaries were created in the early 1900s by the European empires of the time (destroying the Ottoman empire and divvying up the pieces amongst themselves). Their motives were a mixed bag but the results were a mess. Just a mess. Incendies brings home the human cost of that mess.


The second film I saw was Last Train Home, on Wednesday night. This film is a documentary about the largest human migration ever, occurring annually on the Chinese New Year. More than 130 million Chinese workers in major Chinese industrial cities return home for the New Year's celebrations in thousands of small rural villages.

The film focuses on one particular family and the stresses in their lives that come up in this annual event. While the grandmother remains in the small rural village raising their two children, the parents work at a garment factory in a large industrial city. They only return "home" once a year. They are estranged from their children but deeply committed to their welfare and futures.

In this film you see the grim realities of Chinese sweatshops in huge grey polluted cities, and then the stunning scenery of the rural areas. The grandmother's home seems positively idyllic to someone like myself, yet the teenage daughter chafes at the restrictions of living so far from the excitement of city life. In the garment factory you see small children napping on tables or chasing each other through narrow aisles between the rows of whirring sewing machines. Their parents and other adults are bent over the machines guiding endless reams of fabric through them, fabric that is turned into jeans that are baled, boxed and shipped overseas to unseen customers far away.

One particular scene that I liked was a view of a train travelling through snow-covered mountains. At first it reminded me of the Canadian Rockies in winter, then I realized that those mountains were covered not in trees but in thousands of tiny farmed terraces.

Another humourous scene (to me) was the grandmother and two children having supper and the daughter complains about the mosquitoes, asking why they never bite the grandmother. Ah the ubiquitous mosquito! The grandmother says they never bite her because she is an old hardworking woman. You bet, grandma!

The crowd scenes around train stations immediately before the Chinese New Year are mind blowing. The long crowded train trip home---a trip of several days---is exhausting just to watch. What should be a happy family reunion at the end degenerates quickly as the parents attempt to deal with fairly ordinary family conflict in a tense 2-3 day visit that magnifies and intensifies what most people deal with over much longer periods of time. And then the parents go back to the city to deal with long work hours and a tiny primitive living space (not much more than a small bed, table, bucket, bare lightbulb and a curtain). It's quite horrendous.

What is most heartbreaking about this film is that the parents make major sacrifices, living most of their lives away from their children in awful circumstances in order to support them through school so that they can have better lives, only to have their eldest quit school amid accusations that her parents didn't care about her as evidenced by the fact that they are never around. The pain of the daughter who is intensely angry at her parents for their absence, and the pain of the mother and father who cannot be there and cannot defend themselves against her accusations, comes to a peak in one terrible scene in which the daughter screams at the camera, "You want to see the real me? This is the real me!"

The film strongly implies that this is by no means an isolated situation, this is what happens to millions of Chinese every year. This is the huge human cost of the "miracle" of Chinese economic development.


I guess my own reaction to this last film might appear a little strange, but I identified very personally with the parents. I felt like my own life as a single parent of twenty years was being played out on the screen, albeit in a kind of over-the-top way. Trying to simultaneously be the sole parent and sole support of two children, who as teenagers are intensely angry at you for being so restrictive of their freedoms and apparently so uncaring of them. Under these circumstances one does not act or feel anything like what one would like, one is so far off from the ideal parent image promoted in our society that it is cringe-making.

In the name of The Economy we sacrifice our lives and our children.

This film filled me with despair and compassion.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Six Metres of Pavement

I thought this was kind of cool, what a great way to market a book!

This little video is set in my old neighbourhood in Toronto, the author of the book being "trailed" lives a few doors down from my old place.

Doesn't it make you curious to read it?

Six Metres of Pavement, by Farzana Doctor (2011).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Very early secret birthday

My son Josh's birthday is one week after mine, in the spring. Josh and Kim and Eva are going to fly to Nova Scotia on my birthday and return home to BC on his birthday. But it has to be a secret because the airline that they are booked on does very embarrassing things to people who fly with them on their birthdays.

Right now my guest room is a storage room with no furniture, I guess I have to get on that. I was going to wait until the end of the university academic year so I could pick up some cheap furniture when the students leave, but looks like I will need stuff before then.

But I can hardly wait. Eva is almost sitting up and almost crawling. Kim has never been this far east, and Josh hasn't been back here in almost 18 years. Happy Birthday to us!

Friday, February 11, 2011


In 1967-68 I was a student at l'Universite de Rouen, about an hour's drive west of Paris on the Seine. A wonderful place, a wonderful year. Rouen is in the heart of Normandy, a part of the world that Nova Scotia reminds me strongly of. Perhaps one of the reasons I felt so at home here when I first arrived in the early '70s.

Anyway, I was there for les evenements de Mai, the student uprising in France, and because my French student friends were heavily involved, I became involved too. At first it was exciting and exhilarating, we felt we had a real shot at bringing about change. The professors were with the students, and so were the workers, there was a general strike in the country. Paris was amazing. I and some student friends would hitchhike into the city to take part in it all. You couldn't get into la Sorbonne unless you had student ID, and I did so I could. Revolutionary lectures in the classrooms, huge revolutionary banners strung up everywhere, one in particular was the instructions for making Molotov cocktails. The streets surrounding la Sorbonne, le quartier latin, were dug up so that students could use the paving stones as missiles (there was a slogan, "sous les paves, c'est la plage", meaning that if you dug up the paving stones you could be on the beach because the stones were set in a bed of sand).

During the daytime it was OK to walk around, les flics gathered at certain intersections but left you alone, but at dusk if you were still there then you did so at your own risk. There were no buses and le metro was stopped because of all the tear gas in the lines and also because of the strike and the gasoline shortages. So everyone hitchhiked to get around, and the army brought in big trucks to move people around. If you needed to go somewhere, you waved at one of the trucks, it would pull over and two armed soldiers, with guns slung over their shoulders would get out of the canvas-covered back and wave you in with their guns. You climbed in and sat on a bench there with all the other people. The only way to see out was to lift the canvas on the side a bit to peek under it. When you thought you were near where you wanted to be then you shouted at one of the soldiers, who shouted at the driver, and then the truck pulled over and they let you out.

When it all started President de Gaulle was out of the country. But when he returned the tide turned and the whole thing was quickly ended. It was demoralizing. I remember going away to England for a week, and when I returned, someone had carved a huge croix de Lorraine in the sandstone bluff above Rouen. This was de Gaulle's symbol, and it was chilling to see it. It felt like as if someone had carved a swastika over the town.

I guess that experience made me cynical about revolution at way too early of an age. I stopped believing that change was possible in that way. And certainly my experience since then has seemed to confirm that belief, that you can't expect anything good to come out of a popular uprising. But I have been following what is going on in Tunisia and Egypt, and especially in Cairo, with growing admiration and hope. Watching the protestors in Tahrir Square, listening to them speak about why they are there, and reading as much as I can about what it is all about, I am excited for them. I really do hope that this time it is different.

This morning I was listening to Q on CBC and there was a debate about the Egyptian situation, one person for and one against. The one against was all about how revolutions end badly (look at Iran, look at Iran, LOOK AT IRAN) and the people should be happy with the devil they know rather than the devil they don't. I almost felt like reaching into the radio and shaking the fellow, So What About Iran?!? Iran is Iran, Egypt is Egypt!

Anyway hardly had the debate ended and the news came on announcing Mubarak has resigned and left the country in the hands of the military. The Egyptian military has comported itself very well with the people in Tahrir Square. I wish them well from the bottom of my heart.

This time maybe this time the revolution is here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hooking for dollars

My blogbuddy beachcomber had this brilliant idea that four of us from the Harbour would go to a local hooker and get her to teach us to hook, and then we four would hook a rug of our own design and raffle it off to help pay for the community hall in the Harbour. The hall has racked up some debts that people in the Harbour are always trying to think of ways to pay off.

The hall was gifted to the community by the church, along with the church itself and a small fund to help pay for its upkeep. Emphasis on small. After the wiring and the insulation and the paint and the roof and... well, it was very small.

I think hooking for money is a fabulous idea.

It is pretty though

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fed up

I swear He's out to get me. This Storm a Week thing is killing me, I think it's getting personal. There is no place left to shovel snow to. Next week's storm I'm not shovelling, there's no point.

There's way too much snow on the roof, people are starting to worry about roof collapses. And I have a headache which I think is actually a dental problem, but earliest I can get a dental appointment is next week. He's definitely out to get me.

I hate snow.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Force of Nature

So at the height of the blizzard I went to a movie. I half-slid all the way down the hill to the theatre, there were a few other people out on the road and everybody seemed to be having a good time in the deep snow. The movie would have been sold out if it weren't for the weather, only people who could walk, ski or snowshoe in were there. On the theatre website they said that they would only cancel if the power went out. They only have the film for one day, so they can't postpone a show. It was Force of Nature.

I'm afraid I've been putting off going to see this one, I figured I knew what it was about and wasn't really up for it. The subject of the film is Canadian environmental icon, David Suzuki, and you'd have to be pretty isolated for the past fifty years not to know who he is and what he stands for. One can assume the film would be essentially a paean of praise for an extremely well-known and respected environmental activist.

The vehicle for the film is Suzuki's Legacy Speech, given in 2009 in Vancouver to celebrate his 75th birthday. Half it is his biography, half it is his thoughts on where the planet and the human race are today. I'm glad I went to see it, although postponing the viewing until a major blizzard was perhaps not the best thing.

Given Suzuki's long time involvement in all things environmental and climate change related, his activist background and his outspoken nature, it is not surprising that he paints a dismal picture of the current state of the planet. Nevertheless it is a surprisingly upbeat film that leaves you feeling quite inspired.

He talks about the four sacred elements, earth, air, fire and water. For air he tells us that a certain proportion of each breath is made up of argon atoms. Argon is an unreactive element, it does not stay in the body or bind with any other element. It goes in, it comes out on the outbreath. He says that in the time it takes for him to deliver his speech, every person in that hall will have breathed the same argon atoms that he has. Within a year, every breathing living being on the planet will have breathed those same argon atoms. We are all made of air, and we all share the same air. We are the air, the air is us.

It is not we humans here and the environment out there, we are the environment and the environment is us. Suzuki talked about the beginning of the universe and how every particle of matter in the universe is attracted to every other particle. The universe is filled with tendrils of attraction, and we can call that Love.

What distinguishes humans is our brains, in particular our capacity to remember, our memories. I'm reading a book, The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio (1999), and Damasio says that while all living things with nervous systems have consciousness, we have something he calls extended or autobiographical consciousness based on our capacity to remember. We are self-conscious. Memory and self-consciousness have allowed us to create an amazing array of technologies, cultures and civilizations. But there has been a downside to all that creativity as well.

Suzuki talks about our mythologies that connect or separate us to/from our environments, how they have changed over the millennia. He gave the example of dragons, how we once believed in dragons and when things went wrong we knew we had to appease the dragons, whether it was with gold, animal sacrifices or virgins. But now that we don't believe in dragons any more we don't go around sacrificing to them or trying to appease them. But, he says, now we believe in The Economy, and when the The Economy is not feeling well we have to appease it, make sacrifices to it. Suzuki says that we forget that we invented The Economy, just as we once invented dragons. Suzuki says that there is something very wrong when we think that appeasing The Economy takes precedence over taking care of the environment that sustains us.

These are a few of the things that I took away from watching this film, there were many other things as well.

I wanted to get home quickly after the film because as it happened there was going to be a talk on CBC Ideas about whether dealing with climate change and economic growth are contradictory. It seemed kind of appropriate. The Ideas talk was not nearly as inspiring of course, but still interesting.

One of the things that was mentioned was that when we talk about economic growth we are usually referencing GDP (gross domestic product), and that GDP is quite arbitrarily defined as including certain human activities but not others. So when we talk about economic growth it is fairly narrowly defined, and usually activities that increase consumption are good and those that do not involve consumption are not.

It is theoretically possible to have a vibrant economy based on life quality-enhancing activity rather than destructive and consumption-based activity. There are all kinds of reasons why we don't, political, historical and so forth, but none that are insurmountable.

Another thing that was pointed out was about human nature, whether it is fundamentally selfish and greedy and short-sighted, or the opposite. Again it was pointed out that we are both, and we are capable of both, individually and as societies. Just because we have defined economics on the basis of self-serving activity does not make it a given, we can change that if we want to.

It is easy to fall into despair about the state of the world and our seeming inability to transcend our baser qualities. It is also easy to beat ourselves as a species up for being so stupid and selfish in our treatment of the rest of the world. These things are true but they are not the whole story, and in my opinion nothing will change until we start focussing on our ability and capacity to change, for the good. It is time to stop giving energy to what is wrong with the world and start giving energy to what needs to be done. Our presence in the universe is a small miracle, we need to live up to that. As Stewart Brand once said, We are as gods so we might as well get good at it.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's unanimous

Going to be an early spring in the East, no question. Every groundhog in eastern Canada and the USA is in agreement, not a one saw its shadow, thanks to the latest Storm a Week. This one is a biggie. All told we are supposed to get 50 cm (20") over roughly 24 hours here in Kings County. Crazy.

Those groundhogs better be right, can't come too soon for me. Shovelling has lost its novelty, and I can think of a lot better ways to get a little exercise.