Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Author’s Retreat…Changing the World with Your Mind...And Faith

Last week I went on an author’s retreat at my friend’s cabin near Manning Park in British Columbia. Some of them were going skiing at the nearby ski hill and Anne thought I’d appreciate the rustic setting as an ideal place to write. I leapt at the chance. I had lots of writing to do and had set myself up for quite a work schedule: I’d promised ten articles and some excerpts to my publisher, three articles to the online magazine I write for, a review of my manuscript contract with my other publisher, and to write as much as possible on my prequel. I’d set myself up for quite a work schedule...Hey, didn't I say that already?...There was no internet access at the cabin. In fact, no cell phone coverage either. We were pretty isolated from the rest of the world—except for the bustling ski hill not far from us…

Then my computer refused to work…
The ski hill beckoned…
And the snowshoes came out…
And the sun blazed…
And the hoarfrost on the frozen lake sparkled like jewels in the snow…

Monday, February 16, 2009

What’s BMI and Why Should I Care?

BMI stands for Brain Machine Interface and will likely play a fundamental role in how we manage our biological and mental selves, and—in the long run—how we view ourselves as a species. I’m talking about controlling robots—and other machine parts outside and inside ourselves—with the mind.

Do you remember a few decades ago (the early 1980s) how Apostolos P. Georgopoulos of Johns Hopkins University recorded the electrical activity of single motor cortical neurons in macaque monkeys?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Debt & Altruism… “A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero”

My wise friend, Margaret, recently passed me the current copy of Zoomers, a new magazine devoted to those of us fortunate enough to have attained the age of 45+, and she pointed out another Margaret’s article in it—Margaret Atwood, that is. Entitled, “Debt: not just a four-letter word”, Atwood's article follows the theme of her book called “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth”, that came out in the fall of 2008, just as the financial meltdown hit the globe. As usual, Margaret’s timing was impeccable.

Why was Atwood interested in writing about such a depressing subject back then when the sky was the limit? “Because the sky is never the limit,” she replies. “There’s always an invisible ceiling, and there are tremors when it’s being approached.” Atwood tells us that debt and laws about debt go back to the Mesopotamian Laws of Hammurabi. “Heavily in debt?” she quips about how they handled things back then. “Sell the wife and kids into slavery.” Every major religion uses the vocabulary of “debt” and “payment”, says Atwood. She brings up the notion of reciprocal relationships and describes the habit of chimpanzees to scratch each other’s backs by keeping track of who is owed one in return.

Of course, she’s talking about “reciprocal altruism” and the Tit-for-Tat strategy of the iterated “Prisoner’s Dilemma” (IPD) in game theory, which I described in a previous blog post (“Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2").

The concept of a "Prisoner's Dilemma" applies wherever there's a conflict between self-interest and the common good...where collective and individual interests are in conflict. What's interesting is that in single encounters of the "Prisoner's Dilemma", the outcome is usually driven by selfishness and distrust. Players are usually encouraged to defect and deceive out of self-interest. The outcome is entirely different when the game is played more than once. Game theorists found that frequent repetition of the encounter encouraged cooperation. With "the shadow of the future" held over each player, a new game emerged, "Tit-for-Tat", which relied on the consequence of reciprocity. In the system described by "Tit-for-Tat" the long-term reward of cooperation outweighs the short-term reward of defection. This is what Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, calls reciprocal altruism. Apparently humans are particularly well suited to it, being gregarious and choosing to live in a society where repeated encounters among ourselves promotes cooperation. Reciprocity permeates our language and our lives: "dept, obligation, favour, bargain, contract, exchange, deal..."

Simpler life forms also engage in reciprocal altruism, as Lynn Margulis pointed out in her discussions of endosymbiosis and evolution through cooperation. Margulis suggested that cellular evolution was based on ‘cooperation’ rather than simple ‘competition’ between viral or bacterial infection and host cell.

In my book, Darwin's Paradox, one of the characters, Gaia, brings up a grizzly example of reciprocal altruism to demonstrate a point to Julie Crane, the main character. Gaia's story centres on vampire bats. These delightful creatures spend the day in hollow trees and at night in search of large animals whose blood they quietly sip from small cuts they've surreptitiously made. Bats don't usually return sated, many times failing to get their fill or in finding prey at all. However, when a bat does get a meal, it usually drinks more than it needs and the surplus is typically donated to another bat by generously regurgitating some blood. Why donate at all? Bats live for a long time and roost together; they also typically groom each other and can tell if someone has a distended belly of unshared blood. A bat that has donated blood in the past will receive blood from the previous donee; a bat that has refused blood will be refused, in turn. Tit-for-Tat. A bat that cheats is soon detected and ostracized and will likely starve to death. Reciprocity rules the roost.

“But is it ‘real’ altruism?” asks the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They argue that “behaving nicely to someone in order to procure return benefits from them in the future…[can be construed as] delayed self-interest.” They go further to make the distinction between “biological altruism”, which is defined by fitness consequences, and “psychological altruism” (‘real’ altruism) which is consciously practiced by sentient species like humans and defined by many as “unselfish behavior”.

So, what is real altruism?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy talks about the Vervet monkey that gives alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though by doing so they attract attention to themselves and increase their chance of being attacked. The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Biologists argue that the group that contains a high proportion of alarm-calling monkeys will have a survival advantage over a group containing a lower proportion, thereby encouraging this trait to continue and evolve among individuals.

The Vervet monkey crier is Nature’s Hero. And Nature’s heroes are our real altruists.

Think about it…Nature produces heroes; those among us who willingly (whether hard-wired, subconsciously or consciously) sacrifice something for the benefit of their world. This does not necessarily mean their lives either; but something they usually value that belongs to them or resides in them. Anything from giving away what little wealth one has to compromising one’s position in society. Anything from risking one’s health or security to incurring the ridicule or wrath of one’s cherished community for adhering to a principle or personal truth. To be a hero is to stand out and make oneself a target. Like the Vervet monkey crier. Real heroism, like real altruism, isn’t often recognized or valued for its true virtue. We all recognize the Hollywood stereotype, the Die Hard types that blow up a city to save a world. But who recognizes the quiet heroism of Louis, the young school kid who refuses to join in with his friends to ridicule Rene for smelling funny because she has poor hygiene and rotten hand-me-down clothes?

This reminds me of a conversation I had with my artist friend about the artist’s role in society and how regrettably in many cultures the artist is both accepted and shunned at the same time. Artists are often accepted outwardly by a society that secretly disdains and fears them. This is because the artist is a cultural reporter. One who sometimes holds it accountable. The artist points out to us our nature, our weaknesses, vices and injustices by recording who and what we are. This is often done— particularly in science fiction writing—by pointing out what we are not. Often, with painful consequences. “Real art,” says Susan Sontag, “makes us nervous.”

Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write, admits that “what makes writing so scary is the perpetual vulnerability of the writer. Says Keyes: “Any writing lays the writer open to judgment about the quality of his work and thought. The closer he gets to painful personal truths, the more fear mounts—not just about what he might reveal, but about what he might discover should he venture too deeply inside. But to write well, that’s exactly where we must venture.”

Artists—we love ‘em and we hate ‘em. On the one hand we call them kooks: on the other hand, we look to them for our reflection. We ask them to tell us who we are. But we get nervous when their answers hit too close to home. We have a secret admiration for their irreverence, because down deep we would be irreverent too, if we weren’t such ‘fraidy cats. So we let them do it for us. It’s easy to write them off, particularly when their hair is green—Nancy Slonim Aronie

…How did she know my hair was green?...

Anyway, back to Margaret Atwood and the fall-out of her book about debt… When she was asked: “When will the financial system function well again?” she answered, “when our trust in its fairness and honesty is re-established.” When one young mother asked, “But how can I teach my children about fairness?” Atwood sagely replied, “Treat them fairly, because fairness, like debt and credit, always has two participants. Fairness is in the relationship between them. There isn’t any other way.” Wisely advised, Margaret. Treat others as you would have them treat you…with respect and kindness.

So, who’s YOUR hero?


Atwood, Margaret. 2009. "Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word". Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)
Munteanu, Nina. 2009. "The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!" Pixl Press. 264pp.
Ridley, Matt. 1998. "Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation". Penguin. 304pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The “Aha” of the “Aha From a Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop”

A short while ago, I gave a writing workshop at the local library to an interesting group of writers. Participants ranged from budding writers interested in creating short stories to established writers of non-fiction. Entitled, “A Writer’s Toolkit”, I entertained them with my misadventures in the publishing industry and then launched into a “show and tell” using a bazillion examples, many of which appear in my latest writing guide, The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! by Starfire World Syndicate.

For instance, one example in the book (in Chapter R under the heading “Something Worse Than Rejection”) relates the story about my multiple submission of the short story, Angel’s Promises. Here’s an excerpt:

Monday, February 2, 2009

Treacherous Ice Storms in Kentucky—What is Gaia Saying to Us?

Keeping with the theme of climate—and climate change—this time last year (January-end, 2008) I was in Louisville, Kentucky, unknowingly braving the devastating effects of an unseasonal tornado. Commanding a 100 mph wind, it tore up concrete and roofs off houses, uprooted trees and flung huge signs hurtling into cars. The tornado set down twice, once just metres from my friend’s house and knocked out the power in large sections of Louisville for days. How did I not know, you ask. It was night time and I’d never experienced a tornado before…And I was in Kentucky—not Kansas (LOL!). I remember huddling in the dark cold of my friend’s house for hours in the dead of night (while she worked the graveyard shift at the airport), writing to the flickering light of a candle, with a blanket wrapped around me to keep warm, and listening to the raging wind.

Flash forward to this past week (January, 2009), as Kentucky faces its worst-ever natural disaster: over 600,000 Kentuckians are without power (200,000 without water) following major ice storms that struck a large section of the Midwestern United States across nine states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Virginia.

Last week (January 25th and 26th) about two inches of ice covered trees, power lines and the ground. It snapped branches, uprooted whole trees, and spread debris and ice sheets across roads. Power was cut in over 1.3 million residents and businesses. The storm moved into the Northeast, dropping snow from Ohio to Main and ice in Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Kentucky was the hardest hit in what is being called the worst power outage in that state’s history, and only months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the state. Governor Steve Beshear ordered the largest call-up of National Guard forces in Kentucky state history as over half a million homes and businesses remain in the dark, including close to 200,000 in Louisville. Said Beshear, “Because of the severe winter weather condition, this will be a much more difficult and dangerous restoration task than what we faced following Hurricane Ike.”

"Louisville residents on Sunday — without power for yet a sixth day in a row — described a city struggling to adapt to a new status quo. Fuel shortages and restrictions were common at the busiest gas stations. Along many city streets, entire rows of cars were frozen in place, trapped under fallen tree trunks and branches," reports James Snyder of the Times.

I have a few dear friends in Louisville and I hope they’re okay. I haven’t heard from some of them in a while, so I’m just praying that they are warm and safe. This too shall pass…

Power may not be restored until mid-February in the hardest hit areas of Kentucky and Arkansas. Meantime, people are trying to keep warm and many have fled to hotels (which are giving people a break in cost) or shelters. The ice storm has already caused over 40 deaths related to traffic hazards (e.g., slippery roads, faulty traffic signals, etc.), hypothermia, and carbon-monoxide poisoning. As the power outage continues and supplies run out, Kentuckians who can travel are being urged to go south out-of-state to warmer climates until power, water and associated services can be restored.

But, just as with the treacherous fog in Vancouver last week, Kentuckian photographers stepped into the chaos of the ice-damage to marvel at Nature’s cruel beauty…and take pictures.

Well, you knew I had to bring up my thoughts on climate change, didn’t you?

I posted several articles already that touch on this subject. I touched upon the chaotic nature and interrelatedness of climate and weather in my post on chaos theory. In two blog posts, Climate Change & the Nobel Peace Prize” and “Blog Action Day—Truth”, I devote lengthy discussion to the dedicated work of Al Gore, his film, “the Inconvenient Truth” and generate lively discussion on the topic (check out the comments pages!). In “Tornadoes Connected to Global Waming?” I described my own personal experience with the historic unseasonal tornadoes in the US earlier this year and how some believe this is related to climate change and is a sign of more to come. In “Polar Cities” I describe Dan Bloom’s concept for surviving the aftermath of global warming and explore the need for paradigm changes. Then in “The Complexity of Nature” I discuss how perspective plays a role in our perception of both our future and that of our planet.

In my series on Climate Change, I quoted Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine in a compelling article on “How the Next Victim of Climate Change Will Be Our Minds”. Thompson described the psychological phenomenon of solastalgia, coined by Glenn Albrecht (professor at the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Newcastle) as “The homesickness you feel when you’re still at home,” to suggest the impact of climate change on our mental health.

I left off with a discussion—actually a series of questions—related to “scale” and whether or not we should intervene, when everything that we are and do is PART of the global network already. Is it simply that we are being hubristic once again by seeing things from a strictly anthropomorphic view? Perhaps, it isn’t our place to succeed, but rather to secede to something more suited to what is yet to come… I’d like to think that it may be neither, rather that these global events will hasten our own evolution into a higher form—But, as with the last time I brought this up, I am getting ahead of myself…I promise to address this in a later post. I PROMISE.

Meantime, my burning question is this: What is Gaia saying to us? ...Or is the proper question: What are we saying to OURSELVES?

Because, aren't WE GAIA?...