Friday, October 31, 2014

On the Titanic and Tolstoy

I've heard this before somewhere, but I can't find it to give due credit:  Coping with climate change is like coping with being a passenger on the Titanic.

Some won't notice anything's amiss until they're well into the water.

Some will notice it's going down and decide we should continue playing until the bitter end.

Some will continue to insist it's unsinkable.  Technology, leadership, something will swoop in to save the day.  We mustn't worry ourselves too much.

Some will spend their energy insisting it's not their fault, so it's not their problem.  They'll sit stubbornly still in their belief that they shouldn't have to do anything to change the situation even as they feel the ship shift.

But others will get to work, and try to get as many people on the lifeboats as possible and abandon the luxury ship they're on for a better chance at survival in a smaller vessel.  It doesn't matter whose fault it is that it's sinking (past focus), nor that one day it might be fixable (future focus), but that right now people are in danger of great suffering.

And, although not a perfect fit, it reminded me of Tolstoy's choices of responses to the horrors of facing a meaningless death:

1. We can live a life of abject ignorance.  This is the lowest choice for the cowards and the weak.  These are the climate deniers.

2. We can recognize the hopelessness of the situation, but enjoy Earthly pleasures while we're here.  These are the many I met on various dating sites I've since abandoned, whose primary interests are travelling and working out.  It's Kierkegaard's aesthetic life.

3. We can recognize the meaninglessness of life, but cling to it anyway - afraid to die, but not living authentically either with a self-righteous focus on duty-driven ethical choices.  It's a fearful attitude, but more honest than the first two.  This is where Tolstoy claimed to be in A Confession, before his final epiphany and conversion.

4. We can recognize the futility of it all and commit suicide.  Tolstoy saw this as a noble option.  If it's all for nought, then it's weak to drag it out until it's taken from us as if we have no free will, no choice in the situation.

5. We can put our hands in a faith of some sort - and recognize that it's all larger than ourselves.  This is where Tolstoy ends up at the end of The Death of Ivan Ilych.  We give life meaning through a life spent living compassionately with others and for others, fearless of the end, fully in the present.

We have to keep working towards preventing the suffering of billions.  Luckily, if working and helping others, and enjoying others is pleasurable, then it's easy to do.  And living compassionately, Tolstoy makes clear, means pitying the people focused on things and appearances and social standing.  I don't like the connotation of "pitying," but he ends up with a great love for people whom he formerly hated for their choices and attitude.  I believe it's a position that looks at what we can do for others rather than one that sees only how others affect us.  But it's a struggle for me to get there when the action of so many need to change in order for this all to work.  The actions of so many affect our own survival.  As Diamond notes the "impossibility of convincing First World citizens to lower their impact on the world," it's clear we're on a Titanic, and we can only do what we can while we slowly sink into the sea.   It's not for us to fix it, but for us to try with ever an attitude of compassion while we work.

Something like that.

On Luxuries and Necessities

"If we keep doing what we are now doing, we are screwed. This we know now."  - David Roberts

It's going up to 42 today!  That's really hot.  So far my house is a reasonable 28.  I don't have A/C.   I open the windows only when the temperature outside is cooler than inside; otherwise, I keep them closed.  I keep all the lights off almost all the time, and I avoid cooking.  These three things really help.  

When we were kids and we whined for an air conditioner, my dad insisted that it was his duty as a good father to ensure we were raised to tolerate the temperature extremes of our part of the world so we could learn to adapt to them.  If we were raised with air conditioning, his theory went, we'd grow up intolerant of the heat and then, he assured us, we'd be no good to anybody.  We were allowed to have heat in the winter however (20 max) because even strong healthy people die of the cold, but if you're healthy and fit, you should be able to tolerate whatever heat waves Southern Ontario can deliver.

On an Impressive Stupidity

I don't have a background in English literature, yet I just spent a semester teaching it - poorly.  And it struck me why I love philosophy and hated English.  During my semester I had many instances of doubt in my understanding of certain texts, and I didn't hesitate to ask colleagues for help.  The palm-to-forehead reactions at my ignorance was a set-back. It was insisted that either I DO understand it - surely I must by this point- but somehow I just don't recognize that understanding, or I should ignore this line of questioning completely and focus on the issues in the plot-line.  And I realized that if in studying English I suggest that I don't really grasp the symbolism or the connections in a simpler Shakespearian comedy, it's embarrassing, but if in studying philosophy I'm not entirely solid on Sartre's phenomenology, it's a much more impressive stupidity.  And because of that, I think, we're more free to discuss it at length and really get to the bottom of some understanding of it allowing for the possibility that we might not entirely understand - or I might not.

On Excuses for Not Having Sex

I wanted to chime in on a facebook discussion about that list (a man made a spreadsheet of his wife's excuses for refusing sex), but it wasn't started by an official FB friend, so I couldn't comment on it.  I'm not sure the etiquette on this, so I'll just keep everyone anonymous.  Here's the opener attached to a link that suggests women never owe men sex:

This analogy seems to suggest that, like a game of badminton in which nobody actually hits the ball is not actually a game of badminton, marriage in which nobody has sex isn't actually a marriage.  That's an archaic notion of marriage, and even in more religious times the union needed to be consummated only once to be validated.  Today, sex isn't necessary to prove a marriage is valid or invalid - even in religious circles.  I know more than one Catholic who's had a marriage annulled even though there were children produced.  Having sex doesn't make a marriage and not having sex doesn't unmake one.

And this is a progression to be celebrated.  There was a time when raping a woman was enough to legally make her your wife.  Now, here at least, it's illegal.  We've come to a place in which whatever people want to do sexually between consenting adults is accepted.  It's their own business.  But one choice that's less accepted is the choice to abstain while in a relationship.  It's curious how all or nothing we are about that.

The original poster continues:

Let's look closer at "a de facto exchange of fidelity for participation."

There's nothing in marriage vows suggesting sex is a necessary part of the union, but we can skip that type of argument and look at what the culture actually believes about marriage.  I think he's right that many people accept this type of agreement - at first.  But things come up.  Kids happen and people get tired or bored or sick of playing a game that they don't enjoy as much as their partner does.  Maybe they never actually "win the game," so to speak because their partner wins too fast every time.  Whatever the reason, I think in the first blush of matrimony there may be an assumption made that sex is a significant part of the marriage, and too many people unwisely don't discuss the what if's around this assumption.  But later on, it seems some people acknowledge and often accept a waning of interest.  The mutual understanding shifts over the course of time.

I'm not a marriage advocate largely because I don't think we can actively promise to love another until we die (as explained in this), but I also think it's too much to ask to promise we'll be the same kind of person and want the same kinds of things for decades into the future.  We are beings constantly in flux, yet some marriages expect consistency.  It's wonderful when people grow and change together, accommodating changes as they arise and working through them, but sometimes the changes are too great to be accommodated.  That's just life; it's nobody's fault.

Furthermore, because many people believe it to be true, that marriage is an exchange of fidelity for participation, doesn't make it right.  Just because it is that way for many people, doesn't mean it ought to be that way.  As we evolve to recognize individual rights, we have a moral duty to respect that we all have a right to do what we want with our bodies.  If a partner wants to have sex, it has to come as a  request, not an expectation.  That spreadsheet-man's wife's reasons for saying "no" to sex are seen as "excuses" implies that he believes sex is her duty, a chore, and she's trying to weasel out of her responsibility to him like a kid explaining why she can't clean the bathroom right this minute.  But it's not a duty for her to perform while she lies back and thinks of England.  Sex is an act to be freely shared between partners.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Ideally marriage is about caring for another without expectation.  It's about loving another person, which is not self-seeking and keeps no record of wrongs.  It's a public gesture that makes a commitment to care about the well being of another.  Publicly humiliating a partner by posting "excuses" online shows a profound lack of care and respect.  

I agree with the writer that the couple needs to "dispel a mutual illusion."  They clearly need to have a conversation, and spreadsheet-man has approached his personal problem in, I think, one of the worst ways possible.  No matter the initial intent of their marriage, that's changed, and they're not coping well with that reality.  It's a very real and serious problem for people when they're mismatched sexually, I agree, because they've promised not to go elsewhere.  It's not like if one person wants to see a movie, and the other declines, and the desirer can call a friend.  But that's not enough to suggest the solution is the assumption of participation.  Almost any two given people will have different desires at different times, and there are myriad ways to cope with that reality besides "Participate when I want it or we're over!".

Most importantly, a mismatch must be seen as just that.  There's no right amount of sex to have, so someone agreeing to it three times a month must be accepted as much as someone wanting it several times a day or never at all.  It just is what it is.  A mismatch is a problem for both the person not getting as much as they desire, and for the person denying the request, but it's only a problem at all if people hold sex in their relationship as more important than care, respect, and love.  If you care enough, you can become attuned to one another's needs.  It might mean not asking even if you're feeling it, and it might, for some people so inclined, mean doing things you're not really into right now.  Love isn't about giving everything of ourselves to another person, though, or solving all their problems ourselves, it's about caring about their issues enough to be there while they find their own way.  

On a Four-Hour Workday

Stephen Elliott-Buckley echoes Bertrand Russell's idea of the 4-hour workday.  Russell in brief:
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men [and women] will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.
And many of us could do it easily but for our unbridled desire for more stuff.  It's an easy fix for many problems if those who need less money simply worked fewer hours and freed up a job for someone else who needs it to survive.  If all the teachers who are living comfortably worked part-time, we'd be able to hire a bunch of new recruits and get some fresh ideas in the system.

Monday, September 15, 2014

You Say You Want a Revolution

Students are having a day of protest tomorrow to rally against the burgeoning loss of extracurriculars in Ontario high-schools.  I love a good protest, and I'm behind their energy and drive in spades!  But I'm afraid this bit of activism will be less provocative than desired.  I hope I'm wrong.  I hope Broten comes to town and apologizes for everything, and we all go back to normal.  But, for that to happen, or anything really, a protest requires a little more....


The students want to protest, yet stay neutral.  They're not taking sides.  Their slogan is, "Let Us Play."  They're hoping for 1,000 people to attend, and that would be cool.  But what will they do with them?  Without a stand, what's the plan of action?  They don't want their lives affected, and some students have likened this experience to having mommy and daddy arguing with the children in the middle.  Except they're not little any more.  And this isn't mere bickering.  If students want to get involved in this pivotal argument, they can't just beg for the arguing to stop because it's interfering with their fun.  If they actually want to take an active part in making a different, they have to pay attention to what's being said and choose a side.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

People's Climate March Update

"If you don't fight for what you want, then you deserve what you get." - Disruption

The People's Climate March is in one week.  The 50-minute film, Disruption, is a motivating force to inspire people to hit the streets.  If you can't make NYC on Sunday (busses leaving from Toronto might be full), then there are small events in most cities (info for Waterloo here and Toronto here).  Klein's book comes out on Tuesday - just in time for people to read it on that 12 hour bus ride!

Here's the movie, with my notes from the movie below - an amalgamation of the many ideas presented:

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

I love Nicholas Carr's book. There are lots of studies and science mixed with many stories and asides and discussions of philosophers and other great thinkers. It reminded me of reading a Bill Bryson book. You get the facts painlessly. And it presents a strong argument for keeping kids (and everyone) off-line when they work, but I'm still unlikely to  convince them to actually turn off facebook.  Reading the bare bones here doesn’t do it justice, but here’s what I don’t want to forget about my memory:

The Medium is the Message

He quotes McLuhan from 1964 – "The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind and mute about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was formed” (2).  When we change technologies or tools of any kind, there are gains and losses.  It changes the way we work.  Nietzsche's style of writing changed noticeably between pen and paper and the new-fangled typewriter: “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts” (19).  But we forget about the losses and just notice the gains.

When information is presented to us, how it's presented makes a difference, but we get carried away by the content and don’t notice the effect the method of presentation has on us. In class, I've watched students glaze over at power points like old-schoolers used to with video strips waiting for the next ‘bing’ from the record to indicate a changing slide. When they present, they often use technology as a crutch - putting their entire presentation on slides, and they lose the class in the process. But the same kids can be captured by chalk and talk – a much maligned teaching method today - as it allows greater movement of the presenter back and forth through the room as people share thoughts and responses, and student ideas make it on the board as much as my own. They shift from looking at the me to one another to the board and their notes to glean the basics for later review rather than focusing on a stagnant screen at the front. Well, it works better for me anyway.

Our Dwindling Attention Spans

The more we use the web, the more we have to fight to stay focused on longer texts. It’s shortening our attention spans as we skim and scroll causing a decay of of faculties for reading and concentrating. I've noticed how students looking at a webpage will immediately scroll down even if vital information is right at the top. They're looking for a heading to jump out at them or a video to click on. They have to be told to stop and actually read the words on the screen.

One study found that professors of English literature are now struggling to get students to read an entire book. Their students just look at study notes online then miss the nuances of the text, and, more importantly, they don’t learn how to notice patterns of metaphors and motifs, how to do deep reading, but only learn how to summarize other writers’ analysis. Cutting corners is nothing new, but it's surprising to read that lit students won't read books.

Brain Physiology:  We Become What We Think

The most interesting part of the book is how our brains work to take in information. There's been a lot written about this lately - that the brain is affected by our environment. It's not as stable as we once thought.

"Though different regions are associated with different mental functions, the cellular components do not form permanent structures or play rigid roles. They’re flexible. They change with experience, circumstance, and need” (29). The brain gets accustomed to our typical activities and changes when they stop or when new activities start: “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input….When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing” (29).

The brain reorganizes itself after an accident or loss of function of any body part, but also after change in lifestyle. William James figured this out in Principles of Psychology:  “nervous tissues…seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity…either outward forces or inward tensions can, from one hour to another, turn that structure into something different from what it was” (21).  Leon Dumont used an analogy to explain: “Flowing water hollows out a channel for itself which grows broader and deeper; and when it later flows again, it follows the path traced by itself before. Just so, the impressions of outer objects fashion for themselves more and more appropriate paths in the nervous system, and these vital paths recur under similar external stimulation, even if they have been interrupted for some time” (21).

An experiment was conducted on London cab drivers long before GPS, back when they had to have the entire city memorized. They developed an enlargement of the posterior hippocampus of their brain and a shrinking of anterior hippocampus from the constant spatial processing required to navigate intricate road system. Their brain adapted to suit how it was being used.

Something really fascinating to me is that imagining has the same effect. Researchers taught a short piano melody to people without any piano knowledge. Half the group practiced the piece for two hours a day, and the other half only imagined practicing without actually touching the keys. There were identical changes to the brain. It reminded me of what I do when I’m about to do something new, like build roof rafters or a waterfall. I say I have to stare at it a few days before I can start, but really I'm walking myself through the process in my head repeatedly, apparently until my brain’s learned how to do it.
“As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit…the chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away” (34).
This explains why I can do dishes so much faster than my kids – and why they should be practicing dishes regularly.

This can also explain one aspect of mental afflictions like depression and OCD – “The more a sufferer concentrates on his symptoms, the deeper those symptoms are etched into his neural circuits” (35), with implication for addictions as well.

But our brain circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect:
“If we stop exercising our mental skills…we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead….the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What is does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become…the paths of least resistance” (35). “What we’re not doing when we’re online also has neurological consequences. Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together....The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones” (120).
Carr adds a fascinating history of the written word. Socrates wasn't a fan of writing: “Far better than a word written in the ‘water’ of ink is ‘an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner’ through spoken discourse” (55). Socrates recognized that a “dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind….writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers…preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness" (55).

McLuhan counters, “The achievements of the Western world, it is obvious, are testimony to the tremendous values of literacy....the written word liberated knowledge from the bounds of individual memory and freed language from the rhythmical and formulaic structures requires to support memorization and recitation" (57).  But as great an achievement as writing is, as useful as it is, there is something lost when we no longer have our brains remember and hold ideas within to debate them. The underlying question of this entire book is, Is it worth the loss?

The invention of the book altered how we think: “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object…They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another…applying greater ‘top-down control’ over their attention” (64). This ability represents a “strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development” (64).

As with imagining activities, one study found that brain activity while reading a story is similar to brain activity while doing the actions being described: “brain regions that are activated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities….The reader becomes the book'” (74).  This makes me wonder what happens to the brain when people read a lot of violent books. It's not to suggest that reading about it necessarily makes us want to do it, but will it make us better at fighting just because we've read about it...or, perhaps, better at sex if that's our reading preference?

The Shift to Screens

In the U.S., adults aged 25-34 average 35 hours of TV a week and less than an hour a week of reading (87). And there's a difference between reading on-line and reading print material as "we are plugged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies’" (91):
“A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or a magazine....It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it" (92).  
This has already influenced how magazines are writing articles to accommodate shorter attention spans: “Rolling Stone, once known for publishing sprawling, adventurous features by writers like Hunter S. Thompson, now eschews such works, offering readers a jumble of short articles and reviews....Most popular magazines have come to be ‘filled with color, oversized headlines, graphics, photos, and pull quotes’" (94).

He warns that technology encourages and rewards shallow reading. Some see technology as only bringing benefits, but we have to be wary of the costs:
“No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions…But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which ‘the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,’ will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite” (108).

“Some thinkers welcome the eclipse of the book and the literary mind it fostered. In a recent address to a group of teachers, Mark Federman, an education researcher at the University of Toronto, argued that literacy, as we’ve traditionally understood it, “is now nothing but a quaint notion, an aesthetic form that is an irrelevant to the real questions and issues of pedagogy today as is recited poetry – clearly not devoid of value, but equally no longer the structuring force of society.’ The time has come, he said, for teachers and students alike to abandon the ‘linear, hierarchical’ world of the book and enter the Web’s ‘world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity’ – a world in which ’the greatest skill’ involves ‘discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux” (111).

“In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestows on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler” (114).
The distractions offered on-line add to the shallow-reading effect. This makes me reconsider all the links and images I make the effort to include in each post:
“But the extensive activity in the brains of surfers also points to why deep reading and other acts of sustained concentration become so difficult online. The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision-making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptive to use – our brains are quick – but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently” (122). 
“Difficulties in developing an understanding of a subject or a concept appear to be ‘heavily determined by working memory load,’…and the more complex the material we’re tying to learn, the greater the penalty exacted by an overloaded mind…two of the most important [sources of cognitive overload] are ‘extraneous problem solving’ and ‘divided attention.’ Those also happen to be two of the central features of the Net as an informational medium" (125). 
“Just as the pioneers of hypertext once believed that links would provide a richer learning experience for readers, many educators also assumed that multimedia, or ‘rich media,’ as it’s sometimes called, would deepen comprehension and strengthen learning. The more inputs, the better. But this assumption, long accepted without much evidence, has also been contradicted by research. The division of attention demanded by multimedia further strains our cognitive abilities, diminishing our learning and weakening our understanding. When it comes to supplying the mind with the stuff of thought, more can be less” (129).
In one study half of the participants had a text-only passage to read, and the other half had the text passage with relevant audiovisual material.  When they were tested on the information, not only did the text-only group do better on the test, they found the material to be more interesting, educational, understandable, and more enjoyable. Multimedia: “would seem to limit, rather than enhance, information acquisition” (130).

In another study, they had students listen to a lecture. One half could surf web during lecture to look up relevant information, and the other half had to keep their laptops shut. Surfers performed “poorer on immediate measures of memory for the to-be-learned content. It didn't matter, moreover, whether they surfed information related to the lecture or completely unrelated content – they all performed poorly” (131).

A final study had students watch CNN. One group watched an anchor with info-graphics on the screen and textural news crawling along the bottom, while the other group watched the anchor without graphics and a news crawl. The multimedia version remembered significantly fewer facts as “this multimessage format exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity” (131).

We're encouraged in schools to be cutting edge with our tech use. Teachers are praised for using any new program. Even if it's just a switch from Powerpoint to Prezi, it's lauded as revolutionary. New is celebrated as better with little exploration of studies showing otherwise. We're so worried about being the best, about getting the most kids to achieve on standardized tests, really, that we're jumping at anything shiny that comes our way in hopes it will be the magic bullet that finally motivates the more challenging students. Carr further cautions,
“The Internet, however, wasn’t built by educators to optimize learning. It presents information not in a carefully balanced way but as a concentration-fragmenting mishmash. The Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention” (131). “In addition to flooding our working memory with information, the juggling imposes what brain scientists call ‘switching costs’ on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources…Switching between two tasks short-circuited their understanding: they got the job done, but they lost its meaning” (133). “The near continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to us right now’….We crave the new even when we know that ‘the new is more often trivial than essential’” (134).  "There are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” (137). 
“The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.’ You become…more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought….As we gain more experience in rapidly shifting our attention, we may ‘overcome some of the inefficiencies’ inherent in multitasking…but except in rare circumstances, you can train until you’re blue in the face and you’d never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time. What we’re doing when we multitask is learning to be skillful at a superficial level. The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best two thousand years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere....The Net is making us smarter…only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards…if we think about the depth of our thought rather than just its speed – we have to come to a different and considerably darker conclusion” (141).
Reading scored fell between 1992 and 2005: “Literary reading aptitude suffered the largest decline, dropping twelve percent” (146).

On Memorization:  The brain is a muscle, not a filing cabinet.

When I was a kid, I could tell you any of my friends' phone numbers by heart.  Now I can barely remember my own.  I don't need to know phone numbers anymore because they're all programmed into my phone, but is the work computers are doing making our brains lazier?  Should we try to remember things just for the sake of working out our brains?

Erasmus thought that “memorizing was far more than a means of storage. It was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading” (179). Tech writer, Don Tapscott, disagrees. “Now that we can look up anything ‘with a click on Google…memorizing long passages or historical facts’ is obsolete. Memorization is ‘a waste of time’” (181).

To the Ancient Greeks, “memory was a goddess: Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses" (181). “The shift in our view of memory is yet another manifestation of our acceptance of the metaphor that portrays the brain as a computer…storing bits of data in fixed locations and serving them up as inputs to the brain’s calculations, then offloading that storage capacity to the Web is not just possible but…liberating….The analogy has a simplicity that makes it compelling….But…it’s wrong" (182). The brain isn’t a filing cabinet; it’s a muscle. Using it over and over doesn’t fill it until it can take no more, but quite the opposite – it strengthens it to take in more information.

So every year when I just throw up my hands at the idea of remembering 90 students’ names in a few days, and hope the students will be forgiving of my aging brain, I’ve simply gotten sucked into a vicious cycle that prompted me to give up on myself far too soon. I have problems remembering names because I typically don’t remember them, so I don’t try, so I never do. Kind of sounds like a Winnie the Pooh poem or an admonishment from Yoda. The implication here is that if I actually work on remembering people’s names instead of assuming that’s just something I can’t do, then I’ll actually develop the ability to remember them better for the next set of classes. It’s why, every year when I rent a mini-van for a trip to a cottage with my family, I start the journey a bit of a nervous wreck, but over the week the van seems to grow smaller and more manageable until I’m parallel parking the sucker by the end. (Just kidding – at the end of the week I still search for pull-through parking spots.) It's nothing revelatory to say that practicing improves ability, yet we don't tend to think this way about using our memory.

Getting information from short-term to long-term requires “an hour or so for memories to become hard, or 'consolidated,' in the brain. Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can seep the nascent memories from the mind” (184). "The more times an experience is repeated, the longer the memory of the experience lasts…Not only did the concentration of neurotransmitters in synapses change, altering the strength of the existing connections between neurons, but the neurons grew entirely new synaptic terminals" (185). These terminals increase the more memories are formed, and then decrease again when they’re allowed to fade, but these don’t completely decrease to former numbers. “The fact that, even after a memory is forgotten, the number of synapses remains a bit higher than it had been originally helps explain why it’s easier to learn something a second time” (185). This is why many teacher tell students to go over their notes regularly. It actually helps.

Computers vs Brains: Some benefits of being alive.
“While an artificial brain absorbs information and immediately saves it in its memory, the human brain continues to process information long after it is received, and the quality of memories depends on how the information is processed. Biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not....Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory…Once we bring an explicit long-term memory back into working memory, it becomes a short-term memory again. When we reconsolidate it, it gains a new set of connections – a new context….Biological memory is in a perpetual state of renewal....In contrast to working memory, with its constrained capacity, long-term memory expands and contracts with almost unlimited elasticity, thanks to the brain’s ability to grow and prune synaptic terminals and continually adjust the strength of synaptic connections” (192).
Web advocates think, “In freeing us from the work of remembering, it’s said, the Web allows us to devote more time to creative thought. But the parallel is flawed….The Web…places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources form our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas….The Web is a technology of forgetfulness" (193).

The ramifications of the brain's plasticity is that reading on-line, in a distracted way, can have an effect on our ability to read and think:
"The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers" (194).
Marshall McLuhan “elucidated the ways our technologies at once strengthen and sap us…. our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify.' When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions" (210).

In a study they had two groups trying to solve a puzzle. One group had helpful software, the other group didn't. In the early stages, the helped group made correct moves more quickly, but as they proceeded, the other group increased their skill with the puzzle more rapidly. Learning a task with little help wires our brain to know how to learn that type of task, so it becomes easier to later improve on our initial learning. The group with software help didn’t do the initial learning, so they couldn’t advance as easily. “As we ‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’...that can later ‘be applied in new situations’” (216).

The Need for Nature
“A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper…They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind” (219).  
In yet another study: one group walked through a park, the other walked on city streets, and then both took a cognitive test. The park group did significantly better. Even cooler, it works just by looking at pictures of nature or even imagining nature scenes!  “The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness” (220). This makes a case for designing our classrooms with bits of nature all around or taking the kids outside to learn.

The Emotional Effect

The brain doesn't just run our intellectual requirements, but also determines our emotional reactions.    “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion” (220).
“…the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions. ‘For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection” (221).
Carr's final caution:  “…as we grow more accustomed to and dependent on our computers we will be tempted to entrust to them ‘ tasks that demand wisdom.’ And once we do that, there will be no turning back” (224).

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

I feel like I don't have to read this one with all the press it's getting. Maybe next summer.  This is the gist I've gotten so far:

 Michael Rozworski wrote a piece about it recently. In brief: the basic thesis of the book is that capitalism has a tendency towards the concentration of wealth in few hands.  And there's a discrimination inherent in the system that ensures whites are better able to make it at least into the middle.

In Canada right now, our distribution looks like this:
* the top 10% owns 58.2% of the wealth, up from 51.7% in 1984, and it's largely in businesses and enterprises
* the middle 40% owns 38.6%, down from 43% in 1984, and it's mainly in their own homes
* the bottom 50% owns 3.2% of the wealth, down from 5.3% in 1984


Our ethos is all that we currently hold to be true. It is what we act upon. It governs our manners, our business and our politics.” -  Howard Zinn

Directed by Pete McGrain, and hosted by Woody Harrelson, this 68 minute film explores how we got here and what to do about it as we "fight for a new democracy."  My notes are below, after the film here in its entirety.

Sunday, August 24, 2014


Collapse by Jared Diamond is a fascinating read particularly for anyone interested in ancient civilizations. Diamond explores what caused the destruction of various civilizations over the past couple millennia. What interested me, of course, is his final few chapters that clarify what this understand of the world can do for our own understanding of our current position.  These are my notes and thoughts as I read:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Secret History of the War on Cancer

The book, The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis showcases the problems caused by a profound lack of regulations on environmental toxins in the past century. I've used this information in my grade 12 Challenge and Change in Society class which focuses on human behaviour and, in this case, the question: "Why do we continue to do things that bring us long-term harm?". Every fact here is in Davis' book, unfortunately I didn't include page numbers after each bit of information.

For the Love of Water

This is a film synopsis for the excellent film Flow: For the Love of Water, featuring Canada's own Maude Barlow. I saw her speak once, and she was very inspiring. Don't miss her if she comes near your city. But she's pretty busy now as the first ever UN water advisor. The film runs 93 minutes. It's fast enough to keep kids entertained, and it's very informative and edited well.

It mixes enough depressing stories with stories of hope to make it motivating overall. It has sub-titles at times, so it's only for classes who can/will read as they watch. I use the film in my Challenge and Change in Society class but it suits a World Issues class equally well. The following are points I collected as I watched. There's no direct questions for the students here, and I apologize for the point-form-ness of the writing.

If you're interested in the topic, I encourage you to read Blue Gold, or watch the film which I haven't seen yet. Let me know if it's useful!

Heat – the Short Version

Two years ago I saw David Suzuki speak on his tour across the country. He mentioned one book that he felt was most important for people to read: Heat by George Monbiot. Then a few weeks later, Stephen Lewis came to town. He's one not to miss. Although he was primarily talking about the AIDS crisis in Africa, he was entertaining and engaging through-out his speech. It could have been so depressing that people would have to shut down to cope, but not with Lewis' stories along the way. Then he said, if there's one book you read on environmental matters, it should be Heat by George Monbiot.

So I read it. It's full of well documented information and some brilliant ideas for stopping the problems we've caused over the last couple of centuries. It's long and dense, but very readable (at a desk, not on a beach). This synopsis includes page numbers for easier reference.

The Big Necessity

This photo is from a Globe and Mail article on Oliver Parsons- Baker who, it's hard to tell, is dressed as a giant turd in order to bring attention to the plight of people without clean water. He's one of many Trafalgar Square Plinthers who mix art and activism. His sign says, "G8 leaders - take action on the sanitation crisis NOW."

When we're talking about people getting sick from drinking dirty water, the vast majority of the time it's not because of industrial pollutants clouding the water. It's feces. Human feces.

The End of Suburbia

I use this film, The End of Suburbia, to start students' understanding of cars, urban sprawl, media, and mass consumerism, and I segue into plastics, another petroleum-based product. If there's no petroleum for cars, we won't have any to make plastics either.

After reading Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast I actually question the peak oil theory. But even if we've got oodles of oil, it's being restricted in a way that's far beyond our control. No matter what, we've got to find ways to live without it. This film helps students understand how it all got so out-of-control.

Food Inc.

I offered seeing Food Inc. as a bonus project for my students and only had 2/30 takers. The title sounds boring. And to tell you the truth, the pacing is a bit slow and tedious. I started checking my watch after about an hour. Some say it tried to do too much at once. But the subject matter is fascinating. The facts are all American, but much of our stores are filled with US produce. It's making me ensure all my produce is either organically grown or from Ontario or both where possible. "You can change the world with every bite."

Here's a brief synopsis of the main points with lots of links for more information. If the movie's not playing near you, then read below and watch this instead:

The Partridge Family Energy Plan

Remember that Partridge Family episode back in 1974 where they entered a contest to use less energy? Danny read the meter wrong and suddenly they realized if they didn't make drastic changes, their names would be in the newspaper under the label Energy Hogs. How embarrassing! No more blow dryers or electric toothbrushes for them as they scrambled to reduce energy. I always wondered where they got that six-person bike to do groceries with, and why they didn't realize car use wouldn't be calculated into their home energy usage. I'll never know.

But more to the point, recent studies have discovered that people will change their behaviour in order to keep up with their neighbours, and this tidbit can be used to curb GHG emissions...

Dollar Store Cents

The Price of a Bargain, by Canadian Gordon Laird, devotes a section to the "Dollar-Store Nation."

No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart

This book has been very helpful in explaining the psychology of our choices when it comes to continuing to shop at stores that are exploiting people, animals, resources or just opportunities.  Can we be ethical consumers without threat of punishment?  Here's the handout I use.  I used to hand it out, have them read it and answer the questions, but that wastes a lot of paper.  Now I read it to them and work through the questions together, making a few notes on the board as I go.... 

Shock Doctrine

More of a social justice issue than strictly environmental, Naomi Klein's book, Shock Doctrine,  is a great introduction to the Iraq invasion, aka, Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Klein continues updates on her website. The following has been slightly augmented with another great read, Armed Madhouse by Greg Palast....  

Middle Class Guilt

Or, Can We Be Rich and Ethical?

"When the natural desires, the failing to satisfy which is nevertheless, not painful, are violent and obstinate, it is a proof that there is an admixture of vain opinion in them; for then energy does not arise from their own nature, but from the vain opinions of men." - Epicurus

As I was writing about my dream house and the prospects of having an extra smaller house in the backyard, visions of Haiti overshadowed it all. I'm middle class and have a lifestyle of excess, and I continue to live in a 1,000 square foot home despite the tragedies unfolding around the world. And I definitely think I have more than I deserve, but that's not enough for me to give it all up....

Doing What We Do in an Honourable Way

This is a lovely video of Julia Butterfly Hill who, years ago, lived in a tree she called Luna for over two years.  I came across this video at No Impact Man.  She speaks about the importance of not stopping war with war-like attitudes, about dissolving the artificial boundaries of us and them.  It made me think of Riane Eisler's Partnership Way and Martin Buber's I and Thou both of which I read way back in university. 

It's just a few minutes long, and it might change your day:

Free Economies

In the comments at the previous post, Sue sent me a link to the freeconomy community.  It's a cool site out of the UK but active in 126 countries.  You sign up and list all the skills you have to offer.  Then you can swap skills with other people who can do something you need.  It's a barter system.  We have something similar in K-W called Barterworks.  And, in case you don't know, we also have a Freecycle - like KCI's Free Store but regional....

Nestle, Aggregates, and Groundwater

Ecology isn't rocket science; it's much more complicated than that. - David Schindler

The Envirothon Team at my school was invited to an excellent set of talks about groundwater yesterday in Puslinch. It wasn't meant to be a debate, but it really could have been. It was rousing nonetheless. I'd put Trout Unlimited and Wellington Water Watchers on one side of the ring, and the OMNR, the Dufferin Aggregates Ltd., and Nestle on the other....

Teflon: You’re Soaking in It

I'm going to do a series on different toxins that are convenient but largely unnecessary in our lives.  Much of my info comes from the excellent book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck (chapter 3).  If you don't have time to read the book, read this instead. It's a good continuation of The Secret History of the War on Cancer.

And first off is my current obsession:  perfluorinated compounds or PFCs such as PFOA and PFOS, also known as C8s. In the book, the authors dose themselves with whatever chemical they're testing to see the effects, like Super Size Me, but with toxins.  PFCs were the only ones that had immediate ill-effects.... 

Phthalates: It’s not Just a Fragrance; It’s a Birth Control!

Part 2 of a series on different toxins that are convenient but largely unnecessary in our lives. Much of my info comes from the excellent book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck (chapter 2). If you don't have time to read the book, read this instead. Today's issue is phthalates (thay-lates), in which we have to choose as a species whether we'd rather smell pretty or continue to reproduce

I didn't care much about what the government did or what things were made of until I was pregnant  in 1993, and my midwife said, "You know not to wear nailpolish when you're pregnant don't you?"  I had no idea....

Flame Retardants – The Danger of Dust Bunnies

Toxins Part 3 takes us to brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in chapter 4 of Slow Death.  I grew up in a home with matches and lighters on every table, never too far from my mom's reach.  But I never played with them. Apparently I'm unusual that way....

Mercury: Poison Poisson

Chapter 5 of Slow Death deals with a naturally occurring toxin, the incredible element mercury.  When I was a kid, my dad broke open a thermometer on a glass plate to show me how wondrous it is.  We disturbed it with a pencil end, then watched it rejoin itself.  Very cool.  But he warned me to never touch the stuff with my bare hands.  When I saw The Cove, I thought the most disturbing part wasn't dolphins being slaughtered, but the footage of the children affected by mercury poisoning.  They looked a lot like the boy in this video...

Triclosan: An Ounce of Prevention?

In the words of Marilyn Manson in Bowling for Columbine:  If you make them afraid, they will consume.  Marketers know that if they can get you really worried about something, you'll spend a small fortune to protect yourself. Germs are the terrorists of the developed world....  Information below is summarized from chapter five of Smith & Lourie's Slow Death by Rubber Duck.

Pesticides: Yet Another Reason to Avoid Golfing

Remember that scene from North by Northwest when Cary Grant has to outrun a crop-duster.  Hitchcock knew how to instill terror in us:  pesticides - yikes. Industry claims they're perfectly safe.  Perhaps we're better off listening to Grant's character:  "In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggerations."

Bisphenol A: Score One for the Babies

This is the last toxin discussed in Slow Death, and it's a success story of sorts.  At least Canada didn't wait for other people to act before banning BPA in baby bottles.  Yay us!   The fact that two out of my three kids refused to drink from a bottle is small comfort indeed though because this stuff is everywhere....

Everything Does NOT Cause Cancer

When we dwell on the toxins around us, sometimes it seems like everything is a problem, so why bother.  But that's really not the case.  There have been several chemicals developed in the last eighty years or so that are causing serious problems.  We could dramatically reduce cancer rates today by totally banning these chemicals worldwide.  But we won't.....

The Gentle Art of Persuasion

Monbiot's got a great post up about why people aren't easily swayed by clear facts.

He sites a study that finds, " some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government’s claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had WMD."... 

Why Environmentalism Needs to be Legislated

Many standard-issue philosophers agree that happiness is predicated on an increase in pleasure and decrease in pain. Yet all too often the choices we make don’t lead towards our intended outcome of increased pleasure. We make choices that lead us towards misery. We want a clean world, but we drive everywhere. We want a strong uptown core, but we don’t stop shopping at Wal-Mart.....

Inside Job

I saw this movie a week ago, then took students on Friday.  Here's my handout if anyone's interested in how the whole sub-prime mortgage crisis happened.  There are current news links at the very very bottom.

Inside Job (Dir: Charles Ferguson, 2010, 108 min.)

A film exposing the truth behind the economic crisis of 2008. In a nutshell, progressive deregulation of the financial sector since the 1980s gave rise to an increasingly criminal industry, whose “innovations” have produced a succession of financial crises. Each crisis is worse than the last, yet few people are being sent to prison despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses.

Water on the Table

I saw this film yesterday with the filmmaker, Liz Marshall, there to talk afterwards. After seeing Sharkwater with Rob Stewart there, I learned never to miss a filmmaker talk about his/her film.   They always have a few good stories to add.  Plus, I think I fell in love with her a little bit.  Check out this protest letter she wrote, apparently not her first, when she was 8.

She followed around Maude Barlow for a year.  By sheer luck of the dice, it happened to be the very year that Barlow was the Advisor on Water to the UN.

The rich will drink; the poor will die.


I just finished Devra Davis' new book, Disconnect, about cell phones.  Here's the main point:


This is a controversial topic, and she lays out every bit of research out there in heavily annotated detail.  I'll summarize the most compelling pieces of information below with page numbers from the book.  If you want a summary of my summary, just read what's in bold.

Silent Spring Backlash

On a student's recommendation, I checked out the book The Fly in the Ointment by Dr. Joe Schwarcz.  I'm always going on about the increase of toxins in our environment and how to avoid getting overloaded.  Schwarcz insists eating spoonfuls of DDT is perfectly safe and that Rachel Carson (of Silent Spring fame) used junk science to convince the masses that DDT is harmful.

Keeping the OWS Fires Burning

Occupy Wall Street protesters, the 99%, are pulling up stakes and leaving areas all around the world.  Regardless the perceived problems with diversity within the protest platforms, you've got to admit it was pretty impressive how many people in so many different cities were able to rally together to fight the power!

On Nuclear Power

The only safe nuclear reactor is 93-million miles away, the sun -  Daniel Hirsch

We've got record temperatures, and lots of truly frightening climate change data, just in time for a regional by-election.  The Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) is working to make nuclear power an issue this election.

We don't have any recent movies like Silkwood (a true story) or The China Syndrome (in theatres 12 days before the 3-Mile Island accident) to scare the bejesus out of people anymore.  Check out this "cooked" scene with Meryl Streep and Cher!

We just have real life.  But some still believe that nuclear is the way to get us out of this greenhouse gas mess we're in.

George Monbiot, a rigorous environmentalist and author of Heat, is an advocate of nuclear energy, and he thinks there are good ways of using waste materials to create more energy.  He was also part of a debate opposing Dr. Douglas Parr of Greenpeace - and the pro-nuke side of the debate won 63 to 9 just three months after the Fukushima disaster.  He's that good.

Monbiot used to be more nuclear-neutral.  In Heat (2006), he noted significant concerns with nuclear power (page 89):
* it increases chances of nuclear weapons being developed (see The Dark Knight Rises)
* every plant leaks radiation into the air and sea
* we only have enough uranium to last about fifty years
* it takes 20 years to build a reactor, and each reactor lasts only 20 years
* there are numerous dumping and leaking scandals and cover-ups because it's much cheaper to handle radioactive materials badly than handle them well (Tepco falsified safety data on at least 200 separate occasions - Rubin, 115)
* it's uninsurable
* it's expensive to build and run
* it's highly subsidized receiving 44 times as much government money as wind because big expensive schemes are more favoured with governments than small cheap ones (the bigger the project, the more powerful the lobby)
* BUT, it's better than coal.  If those are our only two choices, go with nuclear.  But he seemed to be in favour of renewables with natural gas backing up the system back then.

Then Fukushima happened, and people didn't drop dead en masse, and maybe suddenly he felt safer.  And climate change sure got a whole lot worse.  And he said, "Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion."  James Lovelock, of the Gaia hypothesis, agrees.

And Monbiot makes a compelling argument that can't be lightly dismissed.  It's a gamble for sure.  On the one hand, if there's a nuclear meltdown we'll have an area with massive cancer deaths and contaminated land and water forever. On the other, with a global meltdown, we'll have mass starvation, desertification of agricultural land, and flooding which all will increase without our help thanks to positive feedback loops - oh, and unliveable daytime highs in much of the world.  The problem is that climate change won't be a death sentence for the wealthy bits of the world for a good 50-100 years or so, but a nuclear reactor meltdown could happen tomorrow.  According to Plato, we are all sorrily lacking in the art of measurement, and we'll see what's close up as having a much larger impact than what's further away in time or space.  And I do.  

A rebuttal from Jim Green (Friends of the Earth) also contains arguments against nuclear based on potential weapons development, and Ralph Nader lists reasons why nuclear power is a nightmare, and Paul Mobbs has an extensive, informative post illustrating some problems with Monbiot's position.

But I'm banking on this:  We're really bad at predicting - we tend to lowball how much renewable energy we'll likely use in the future.  In the 70s, experts predicted the states would need hundreds of nuclear reactors by now, but all the projections were way off.  We just don't know.
Projections of total U.S. primary energy use from the 1970s.
And if we're not going to be averaging a three degree increase in global temperatures in this century (which is the current life-threatening prediction - it was nice knowing you), then a nuclear meltdown becomes a much larger problem by comparison.

Michael Rose discusses the myths of nuclear power one being that without nuclear reactors, the U.S. cannot hope to combat climate change.
"It would be like "using caviar to fight world hunger," said Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and current staff member of the Environmental Law Center. The least expensive and most productive way to reduce our carbon footprint is to be energy efficient, not to build expensive nuclear power plants. "The money that was sunk into building the reactors in Japan should have gone into something that would really have helped us combat global warming like solar or wind power," and improving the national energy grid so that it's integrated, said Hirsch. We can't spend money on everything; we should spend it on solutions and not on technology that creates more problems."
The OCAA is suggesting an initiative focused entirely on cost to ensure that taxpayers don't cover any costs beyond the estimated in order to provoke a more accurate estimate - which will really show politicians and taxpayers the true cost - well, the financial cost anyway - of nuclear energy.  The reality is, government subsidies are keeping nuclear cheap.  If we had the same subsidies for renewables, we'd have solar panels on every rooftop.

David Suzuki's site suggests: "...the Liberals are still intent on investing in new nuclear capacity.  The Progressive Conservative go further by pledging to speed up nuclear power development.  The NDP want to reinvest money earmarked for nuclear power into energy efficiency and conservation, clearly a much better use for that money."

(Greens are also anti-nukes, but the NDP could actually win this one!)

Many thinker in the arena suggest it's better to work on energy efficiency and conservation than to spend money on nuclear power.  We need to get everyone to conserve.  And by that I mean get the government to stop us from being such entitled brats.

This is tricky for Canada because, as Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, we depend on money from cars and tar sands.  That's a huge psychological barrier to overcome: going for long term surviving over short term thriving.  I don't expect Harper to be the man for that.  Rubin also comes to the same conclusion as others:
"...the solution to higher energy costs is quite simple: learn to use less energy" (15), and "when it comes to reducing emissions, altering the energy mix by adding more renewable sources is a red herring.  What the world really nees to do is use less power.  And that's exactly what is about to happen in tomorrow's economy" (243).  
How do we do that?  According to Rubin, make energy crazy expensive.  Make the tax on cars more than the price of the car.  Increase electricity prices by three times.  It will hurt our industries, but that's a price we have to pay if we want to continue to exist.  And "the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the bet possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."  He suggests, "Curbing emission will always take a backseat to the more tangible imperatives of job creation" (239).  Luckily, renewables create more jobs than nuclear power. But, again, "The reduction in emissions that's about to occur because of high costs is exactly the kind of adjustment environmentalists say we will result from a profound slowdown in economic growth, which we currently lack the tools to fix" (249).  More products will be made locally since distance costs money, so manufacturing will come back home.  And he warns, people will have to learn to live with less and share jobs.  But in some ways that's a good thing.  Louis C.K. thinks so... (a treat for you if you've made it this far)

Speaking of space, here's a cogent excerpt from a book by Sally Ride, a physicist and the first woman in space who passed away yesterday (h/t Grist):
More than anything, though, I could see how fragile Earth is. When I looked toward the horizon, I could see a thin, fuzzy blue line outlining the planet. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was Earth's atmosphere. It looked so thin and so fragile, like a strong gust of interplanetary wind could blow it all away. And I realized that this air is our planet's spacesuit--it's all that separates every bird, fish, and person on Earth from the blackness of space.... 
To a person standing on the ground, our air seems to go on forever. The sky looks so big, and people haven't worried about what they put into the air. From space, though, it's obvious how little air there really is. Nothing vanishes "into thin air." The gases that we're sending into the air are piling up in our atmosphere. And that's changing Earth's life-support system in ways that could change our planet forever.
If only everyone would believe it and act on it!

Cross-posted from Project Earth Blog, July 25, 2012