A Child Skipping

2445244162_f4bbeba0baA child skipping down the sidewalk may be the single most encouraging action you will ever see.  That child is what I would describe as ‘fully engaged,’ here and now, fully in the moment and enjoying it.  What’s more that moment may not be all that extraordinary; there’s no obvious reason for that kid to be so ebullient, no carnival grounds in sight, no ice cream stand straight ahead.  Chances are that life just is what it is for that child for that moment.  But it’s more than enough reason to skip.

If that kid is hand-in-hand with their mother or father, even better.  That kid is now not only fully engaged, he or she is feeling safe, cared for and secure.

Every parent’s responsibility can probably be reduced to simply providing their child with the most carefree childhood they possibly can.  I happen to believe that human beings are natural learners; we enjoy learning and will do so every chance we get, so there’s little need to worry about cramming edification into the childhood years.  Simply provide the opportunity, and kids will learn.

No, parents are charged with just making sure their child is loved and protected, experiencing as little fear and hurt as possible.  If a parent can do just that much, all anxiety about proper parenting should be gone; your child will be just fine.

Oh, and make sure your kid has as much fun as possible.  As the great philosopher of everyday life Kurt Vonnegut Jr. concluded, “We’re here to have fun, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”  Actually Vonnegut said “fart around” not “fun,” but let’s not quibble.  And Kurt was not referring to just kids on that point, by the way.

Perhaps the single coolest action I saw a parent take during the years I was actively parenting my own kids came at several of the long-distance running meets my daughter used to attend while in elementary school.  The parents would of course accompany their children to these after school competitions, then be obliged to stand around awkwardly while their small charges ran the considerable distances involved in these races, often through parkland.  When the very tired tykes would reappear, chugging for the finish line, there was a tradition of the parent heading out to meet their weary son or daughter, then turning to trot alongside them, until the finish line was finally attained.  Not ahead of the child, nor behind—directly beside, step for step, offering support in a very real and yet not quite literal way.

That’s really the way it should be I think, when it comes to education.  Accompany your child to the event, expose them to the opportunity, offer some advice if you’re asked to or so inclined, but mostly just be there to support them as they engage in the process.  It doesn’t even have to be verbal; just let them know you’ll be there if they stumble, or fail, to pick them up and encourage them to go on, and to congratulate them when they win, or just finish.

For many years you will be your child’s best friend, and that’s the way it should be, and don’t let anyone tell you different.  You’ll be more than that too of course, but you’ll be their confidante, their favourite playmate; there to reliably accompany them through life’s daily adventures.  As far as your child is concerned you’re a far better friend than any of the kids their age, far more patient and cooperative, easier to organize, yak with, order about and otherwise demand things from.  Heck, you even pay for everything.

And then one day they dump you.  Overnight you lose your status as best friend, in favour of those other kids their age.  Suddenly you’re no longer cool to hang out with, not really even that interesting anymore, if the truth be told.

It’s a change that’s enough to break your heart, and it’s all part of the glory of living.  Raising a child is easily the most amazing, meaningful, rewarding, and heart-rending challenge you will ever take on.  If you get through it, maybe try skipping a step or two.

Brainstorming Becalmed

‘Brainstorming’ originated as a creative process back in the 50s, and it’s still remarkably popular today in both opinion and practice, especially within business circles.  The practice sees a number of people get together to ‘free associate’ and ‘toss out ideas’ in a fast-paced, noncritical context.  The emphasis is on quantity, not quality; the more ideas the better.

The belief behind brainstorming is that the group, once freed from the restraints of collective judgment, will come up with more and better ideas than will an individual working alone.

Except that it isn’t true.

Jessica Gale photo morgueFile
Jessica Gale photo

This is for me perhaps the single most intriguing point made by Susan Cain in her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  According to Cain, studies dating as far back as 1963 have quite conclusively shown that, when it comes to either creativity or efficiency, working in groups produces fewer and poorer results than when people work in quiet, concentrated solitude.

Go figure.  I’m reminded of the likewise commonly held misconception that the ‘venting’ of anger or resentment is good for us.  This belief holds that when we suppress feelings like anger, when we ‘bottle it up,’ the effort leads to all sorts of possible afflictions, from ulcers to insomnia.  Women are held to be particularly vulnerable, because of greater societal expectations of ‘ladylike’ behavior.

Well, once again, for quite some time now, science has been definitively showing that venting anger feeds rather than diminishes the flame.  Anger is generally far more destructive—of both our health and our relationships—when it is expressed than when it is suppressed, when it is allowed to diffuse over time.

The implications of the ‘brainstorming doesn’t work’ finding are especially significant when it comes to matters like the physical layout of the workplace.  Most of us know that when we take on a creative challenge, any form of distraction or interruption, whether it be background noise or a phone call, can be an impediment to our best work.  Thus if employers wish to get the best results from their employees, it follows that those employees should be provided with an environment where quiet concentration is possible.  Chocker block cubicles in a noisy workspace fall far short of this mark, I would suggest, never mind the kind of collective open-space chaos that one often sees in the high-tech working world.

There is, however, one equally interesting corollary to the fallacy of face-to-face brainstorming.  Electronic brainstorming does seem to work.  The so-called ‘hive mind’ has validity.  When academics work together on research projects, the results tend to be more influential than when they work in greater isolation or face-to-face.  Wikis are after all a kind of electronic brainstorming, and they have been shown to produce outcomes that no individual could hope to.

The key here is of course that such online collaboration is essentially ‘brainstorming in solitude.’  Online teamwork can be accomplished from individual places supporting both silence and focus.  It also tends to happen at a much slower pace than the classic brainstorming session.  Online brainstorming (if we can even properly call it that) may be the optimum balance between individual and group work.

Multitasking is a related practice that may also be the norm in the contemporary workplace, almost an admired skill.  We can proudly perform numerous tasks at once, keep various undertakings moving forward simultaneously.  It’s worth remembering however, that we can never in fact pay full attention to two things at once, much less several things.  We have simply learned to switch rapidly from one to the other.  Someone now needs to do a study as to whether multitasking—juggling numerous pieces of fruit at once—does in fact deliver better results than tossing one apple at a time into the air, and thus being able to pay full and close attention to the challenge.  All at once may look flashier than one thing at a time, but is it actually more productive?

The quiet, never mind silence, that allows for focused and full attention is a prized commodity in today’s accelerated world.  The lesson here, it seems to me, is that this precious commodity may not only be good for the soul; it’s good for business.

Rogue Species

“Nothing will regret us.  Nothing will remember us.  It will be a clean wipeout, and every single molecule that constitutes part of a human being today will be working somewhere else for something else.”

Farley Mowat, in The Green Interview

Author Farley Mowat has long considered human beings a rogue species.  According to Mowat, we’ve overrun the planet, decimating one species after another along the way for our own commercial gain, and in the process we’ve done lethal damage to the natural systems which sustain us.  We’re headed for collapse, disappearance, if Mowat is to be believed, and we won’t be missed.

Scott Schrantz photo
Scott Schrantz photo

In an oddly related bit of news, the people of the southeastern British Columbia District of Invermere voted last week in overwhelming support of a deer cull in their part of the planet.  Of the 994 people who voted, 749 approved the use of culls to reduce populations of “urban deer.”

Deer are one of those species, like Canada geese, raccoons and rats, which have learned to adapt to, and then thrive in a human-altered landscape.  Humans are adept at eliminating animals like wolves and cougars from their immediate environs, and so deer are able to happily move in and benefit from a total lack of predators and plenty of human-maintained greenery.

This is certainly the case on Galiano, where wolves and cougars have been completely eradicated from the island, and, as every Galiano gardener can tell you, deer populations are such that no bit of greenery can be safely cultivated except behind a high protective fence.  “Concentration camp gardening” I like to call it.

The island deer population seems to build up over the course of a number of years, until what are essentially ‘plague conditions’ arise, and a significant portion of the populace dies off from disease.  Then the cycle begins again.

Is Mr. Mowat correct?  Are we headed for the same fate, collapse if not disappearance?  Has the level of carbon pollution in the atmosphere already reached a level where civilization as we’ve known it is soon going to be thrown into chaos, with millions upon millions suffering?  Can technology save us?

The future is notoriously difficult to predict.  Just a few years ago, in 2008, the notion of ‘peak oil’ seemed to suggest that economic, if not ecological downfall was rushing pell mell toward us, as demand for oil fast outpaced supply and the price for a barrel of oil reached $145 U.S.  Today, with increasing efficiency in automobiles and the advent of ‘fracking’ technology, the price of oil is under $95 a barrel.  This week Encana Corp, an energy company with assets of more than $14 billion, announced layoffs for 20% of its workforce.  As the great sage Yogi Berra once observed, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Whatever the future of the species, acting locally, and thinking globally would still seem to be the prudent thing to do.  There should be more than enough evidence out there of dire economic and ecological possibilities to convince even the most obdurate of us of at least that much.  Do what you can in your own backyard, and try to make decisions based upon the longer term, your grandchildren’s future, as opposed to your own.

Perhaps the best specific political reform that might be enacted (don’t get excited; it’s not on) would be to see politician’s elected to a single, five-year term.  Once in office said politician does what they believe is right, what they promised to do when running for office, without any concern whatsoever for the prospect of getting re-elected.  Long term thinking is enabled.

We live in precarious times.  And if collapse comes it will not necessarily be precipitous.  The fall of Rome, the advent of ‘the dark ages’ didn’t happen overnight.  Rather it was a slow decline, noticeable only over a longer term.

Do what you can.  Work hard, respect the earth, and your neighbours, and, whenever you can, try to act for the greater good, as opposed to your own particular, short term interests.  It’s pretty simple really, but it takes a clear head, calm nerves, and a check on our emotions, those emotions, born of our own stressful conditions, that cause us to resent, lash out, or otherwise act selfishly.

It isn’t easy.  But if we can consistently, calmly think the greater good, and act upon it, you never know, we might just make it.


The Eggs in Google’s Basket

Back in the third century BC, the largest and most significant library in the world was in Alexandria, Egypt.  Its mission was to hold all the written knowledge of the known world, and so scribes from this library were regularly sent out to every other identified information repository to borrow, copy and return (well, most of the time) every ‘book,’ (mostly papyrus scrolls) in existence.  We don’t know the precise extent of the collection, but there is no doubt that its value was essentially priceless.

And then the library was destroyed.  The circumstances of the destruction are unclear—fire and religious rivalries had a lot to do with it—but by the birth of Jesus Christ, the library was no more.  The irretrievable loss of public knowledge was incalculable.

In those days, access to knowledge was limited and expensive; today such access is ubiquitous and free, via the World Wide Web.

MicroAssist photo
MicroAssist photo

Except that there’s this singular middleman.  A corporate entity actually, called Google, that acts as a nearly monopolistic conduit for all today’s abundant information.  As Siva Vaidhyanatha has pointed out in his recent book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), the extent of Google’s domination of the Web is such that, “Google is on the verge of becoming indistinguishable from the Web itself.”

The corporation operates in excess of one million servers in various data centers spread across the planet, processing more than a billion search requests every day.  And then there are Google’s other services: email (Gmail), office software (Google Drive), blog hosting (Blogger), social networking (Google+ and Orkut), VoIP (Google Voice), online payment (Google Checkout), Web browsing (Chrome), ebooks (Google Books), mobile (Android), online video (YouTube), and real world navigation (Google Maps, Street View, Google Earth).  There’s more.

It’s a unique and amazing situation.  As Vaidhyanathan adds, “The scope of Google’s mission sets it apart from any company that has ever existed in any medium.”  Its leaders blithely assure us that Google will always operate consistent with its unofficial slogan of “Don’t be evil,” but it’s difficult to imagine how we should accept this assurance without some degree of caution.  The company is only about 17 years old, and every entity in this world, big and small, is subject to constant change.

Google is less dominant in Asia and Russia, with about 40% of the search market, but in places like Europe, North America and much of South America, Google controls fully 90 to 95% of Web search traffic.  For most of us, this gigantic private utility has taken over the most powerful communication, commercial and information medium in the world, and is now telling us, ‘Not to worry; we’re in control but we’re friendly.’  Well, maybe, but it behooves all of us to ask, ‘Who exactly appointed you Czar?’

For one thing, as many of us know, Google is not neutral in its search function; a search for “globalization” in Argentina does not deliver the same results as a search for the same term in the U.K.  Google is now making decisions on our behalf as to what search results we actually want to see.  It does this based upon its ability to mine our online data.  Why does Google do this?  Because that data is also valuable to advertisers.  Perhaps the most important point Vaidhyanathan makes in his book is that Google is not at its core a search engine company; its core business is advertising.

You might argue this is win-win.  Google makes money (lots and lots of it); we get a remarkably effective, personalized service.  At least we usually don’t have to wait for the advertising to conclude, as we do on TV, before we can continue our use of the medium.

Vaidhyanathan argues in his book for creation of what he calls the Human Knowledge Project (akin to the Human Genome Project).  This would deliver an “information ecosystem” that would supplant and outlive Google—essentially a global electronic network of public libraries that would be universally accessible and forever within the communal domain.

It’s an idea worthy of consideration, because, once again, we seem to be vulnerable to the loss or change of a single, monopolistic source of information.  As with the Alexandria library, there are too many eggs in Google’s basket.

Requiem for a Cinema Pioneer

The great Quebec filmmaker Michel Brault died last month, and while he and his career were fully appreciated in his home province—Premier Pauline Marois attended his funeral on October 4, and the flag at the Quebec City Parliament building flew at half-mast for the occasion—we in English-speaking North America know too little of the profound contribution this film artist made to cinema.

Especially in the realm of documentary, Brault’s influence can hardly be overstated.  He was among the very first to take up the new lightweight film cameras that began appearing in the late 1950s, and when he co-shot and co-directed the short film Les Raquetteurs (The Snowshoers) for The National Film Board of Canada in 1958, documentary filmmaking was forever changed.  The 15-minute film focused on a convention of cheery showshoers in rural Quebec, employing a fluid, hand-held shooting style, synchronous sound, and no voice-over narration whatsoever.  The dominant documentary visual style in previous years had been the ponderous look made necessary by the bulk of 35 mm cameras, a style frequently accompanied by somber ‘voice of God’ narration.  Subject matter was often ‘exotic’ and distant; say Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic, or dark-skinned Natives in Papua New Guinea.  Reenactment was, almost of necessity, the preferred manner of recording events.

12675326_102622376eIn 1960, the French anthropologist-filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin were shooting Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of A Summer) in Paris, turning their cameras for the first time upon their own ‘tribe.’  When they saw Les Raquetteurs, they immediately fired their cameraman and brought Brault in to complete the work.  Rouch went on to label Chronique “cinema verité” (literally ‘truth cinema’), and an entire new genre of documentary film began to appear everywhere in the West.

Robert Drew and his Associates (chief among them D.A. Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles) took up the cause in the United States, labeling their work ‘direct cinema,’ and delivering films like Primary, about the 1960 Wisconsin primary election between Hubert Humphrey and the largely unknown John F, Kennedy, and Don’t Look Back, about a young folksinger named Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of the United Kingdom.  Both films would have a marked impact upon the subsequent rise of these two pivotal political/cultural figures.

Brault himself was slightly less grandiose in describing the filmic techniques he pioneered, saying, “I don’t know what truth is.  We can’t think we’re creating truth with a camera.  But what we can do is reveal something to viewers that allows them to discover their own truth.”

He would later turn to fictional filmmaking, writing and directing, among other works, Les Ordres in 1974, a smoldering indictment of the abuse of power which transpired during the ‘October Crisis’ of 1970 in Quebec.  Les Ordres was scripted, but the script was based upon a series of interviews done with a number of people who were in fact arrested and imprisoned during the crisis.  As such, it was considered ‘docudrama,’ another area where Brault’s influence was seminal.  Brault won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975 for Les Ordres, and he remains the only Canadian to have ever done so.

These days, with video cameras in every smart phone and tablet, the idea that we should turn our cinematic attention to our own people is taken for granted, as every police department now teaches its members.  But in Brault’s early career, that we should observe, at close quarters, those immediately around us, and do so in an unobtrusive but sustained way, then make that prolonged cinematic observation available to the public, well, that was an almost revolutionary notion.  We could stay close to home, and let the camera reveal what it would.  The process may not have unavoidably presented ‘the truth,’ certainly not in any genuinely objective way, but observational documentary filmmaking granted us new understanding, new insight into people both with and without power.  And we were the better for it.

If the goal is to leave a lasting impression, to press a permanent handprint onto the wall of the cave where we live, Michel Brault can rest in peace.  He made his mark.