Monday, March 29, 2010

Mozart’s Radio and A Man With a Gun…

Do you believe in destiny?

OK, let me ask you another question: have you ever had someone aim a gun at you?

It happened over two seconds, but in those two seconds time really stopped: an instant made eternity…And my reaction was not what I thought it would have been. Not at all…

Let me tell you the story first…

I was driving with artist friends along the main highway north from Yarmouth after what, in hindsight, was a strange day of mis-turns, confusing adventures and disappointing hunts along abandoned roads. It was 7 pm and dusk was edging in; the sun had just crept behind some grey clouds as if to hide. I was sitting in the front passenger seat and we were in deep discussion (we usually are), this time about the members of Fleetwood Mac.

As we approached a pedestrian over-walkway, I felt compelled to look up; I don’t normally, especially when I’m busy talking (in fact, I’ve been known to pass exits and turn offs...Just ask Toulouse!). What I saw shocked me (but I only registered the shock after). Standing there (as if he’d appeared out of nowhere) and facing me was a hooded man. He aimed a rifle at me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gaia versus Medea: A Case for Altruism

God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world—Robert Browning

Medea in Greek mythology consumed her own children; she also lends her name to paleontologist Peter Ward’s hypothesis, which argues that life has self-destructive tendencies. This hypothesis challenges and contradicts the Gaia Theory (named after another goddess, the Greek goddess of the Earth), which posits that organisms can and do adapt their environment “to suit themselves”. Ward argues that organisms have triggered repeated mass extinctions; hardly behavior of self-interest, contests Ward. Or is it?

Perhaps it is a matter of definition. For instance, what is “self” and therefore “self-interest”. Where does “self” end and “other” begin? Bring in fractals, autopoiesis, synchronicity, self-organization, and altruism and it all begins to blur. Bring in notions of cellular “intelligence” and concepts of “external mind” and morphic resonance and our traditional precepts of self-interest lose themselves within the greater complexity of “stable chaos” (a term I coined in my book Darwin’s Paradox to describe the apparent chaotic behavior of nature and the universe that is, in fact, stable—but humans cannot perceive mainly because of scale and our lack of perspective).

Ward gives as an example for his thesis the Permian extinction, which led to the demise of over 90 percent of all the species some 250 million years ago. According to Ward, the “Great Dying” was caused by sulphur-generating marine bacteria that poisoned the sea and land. Bad bacteria… Others suggest this was caused by other cataclysmic events.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why “District 9” Should Have Been the Most Important Movie of 2009

Science Fiction is in its very nature a symbolic meditation on history itself—Frederic Jameson, critic
We call them “prawns”: bottom feeders, vermin: feared and hated aliens who descended unannounced—and unwanted—over Johannesburg twenty years ago. Their massive starship hangs poised over the crowded city, casting a daily reminder that we are not alone in the universe.

The ship came and hovered in the hazy skies over Johannesburg, in a pall of silence. Humanity waited for something to happen; nothing did. A United Nations team was finally dispatched to investigate and what they found was not an imposing conquering force of great superiority but a million starving refugees in a shipwreck. Multinational United’s (MNU) Department of Alien Affairs housed them in a compound while humanity decided what to do with them.

Jackson leaps into the story mid-stride, effectively skipping twenty years of feckless inter-alien relations to a nexus in the storyline, where we find the aliens incarcerated in a ghetto that resembles the South African townships: they are essentially not allowed out. The analogy between the marginalization of the aliens and the South African segregationist policy of apartheid is obvious and further parallels Nazi Germany, Palestine and other scenarios of irrational prejudice and cruelty. The aliens even speak in a language that includes clicking that reflects many native South African languages. So, begins Peter Jackson’s film District 9.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Right to Drink Water

Here’s the scenario: Fifty-year old Jane recently adopted a healthy diet and regular exercise routine. She briskly walks around the local park daily. Three times a week she jogs to the local gym, where she does yoga and a small work out. She ends up in their little cafeteria where she buys a healthy muffin and a bottled water, confident she is doing the right thing in avoiding the pops and high-sugar juices.

Great for Jane. There’s only one thing wrong with her selection: in choosing to buy bottled water, she is implying a choice against tap water. In doing that, she is supporting the implication that water is a commodity to buy and sell, rather than a national heritage and the right of all citizens of this planet—with associated individual, national and global responsibility to keep clean and sustain for our future generations and planet’s well being.

“Water is a public trust,” says Maude Barlow, Senior Advisor on Water Issues to the President of the United Nations. “This means that no one owns water in a jurisdiction but rather that it belongs to a nation’s citizens, the ecosystem and the future.”

To buy bottled water is literally to buy into a paradigm that accepts that water is not free but can be bought and sold. It makes water a commodity.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Is Our Language Going to Pot?

Technophobes and cynical columnists would tell you that our language is slowly eroding through text messaging, tweet-talk and email-speak. Before long, no one will be able to speak or spell properly, they lament. See my June 2007 blog article in response to an assertion that “blogging is clogging our internet” or check out Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer’s topical article on creativity, multitasking and internet use by youth (the comments are interesting). You can read my synthesis on Sawyer’s article and some rather acidic comments in my April 2009 post entitled “Hitting a Moving Target—What is Normal?”.

Yet, recent studies suggest that, if anything, the opposite is true, reports Caroline Green in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of the BBC Knowledge magazine. “All these new forms of communication are actually improving our language skills.” I couldn’t agree more. As an ecologist, I have observed that language, like many community-related biological phenomena, benefits from diversity, which creates opportunities for evolution and change. It proves that we are elastic and adaptive: always a good thing, as is change.